Category Archives: General

Church, Faith, and Returning to the Fold

I went to church today. The first time since April, and probably the first time in years — and maybe ever — I’ve gone solely for myself. Growing up as the pastor’s kid, church attendance was mandatory. It was the same in college, where church attendance was monitored and enforced. Then I was married, later with kids, and church attendance was simply a part of our lifestyle. But I’m not sure how much of my attendance over all these years was because it was something I wanted and needed so much as it was expected because I called myself a Christian and Christians go to church.

But today I went alone. No wife, no kids, just me. I went because the mental block that has prevented me from embracing my faith for so many years finally came down this last week, and going to church wasn’t just something I realized I needed but that I desired. I saw people I haven’t spoken with in months, had good conversations with many of them, received one or two supportive hugs, sat under teaching from I Samuel and Daniel, made lunch plans, and generally had a good morning. I didn’t pretend that things are all good in my life, and the people I spoke with were gracious enough to be understanding of that and to offer what words of support they could, which I greatly appreciated. I even managed to remain awake and alert throughout the sermon without experiencing a sleep attack, something that would have been remarkable just a few months ago.

There’s still a long road ahead and much work to be done on my part. But for the first time in a very, very long time, I’m living my faith for myself and not because it’s something that’s expected of me. As a result I’m finding it far more fulfilling than at any other time I can remember. Like so many other parts of my life right now, it’s a marathon I’m running and not a sprint. And so it continues to be one foot in front of the other, for as long as it takes to reach the goal. Seems like there’s an apostle who wrote something about that once…

More Than a Figment

There was a time when I thought my anxiety wasn’t real, that it was a figment of my imagination, an emotional ghost conjured by my subconscious to cover up the other mental health issues I deal with on a daily basis. Having a psychology background I have a healthy respect for the way the human brain can deceive itself. My anxiety attacks were infrequent at best and typically over in five minutes or less. They didn’t interfere, so I shrugged them off.

Image by Mariana Zanatta under a Creative Commons license
Image by Mariana Zanatta under a Creative Commons license

Then in April the bottom fell out of my world, and I was hospitalized. Meds were changed. My depression became less severe, almost manageable. One layer of my psyche was pulled back, revealing another layer underneath that I didn’t even know existed. And it was pissed. Boy, was it ever.

Anxiety is new for me. I’ve always been prone to being easily stressed out. But I’ve never been this vulnerable to panic, at least not this way. I view my hospitalization as a pivotal moment in my life. Those four days are when everything changed. It’s like someone flipped a switch in my brain, toggling on a new kind of brain chemistry.

For a while I was still able to pass off my anxiety as circumstantial and irrelevant. I was adapting to sudden and jarring changes in my life situation. I was on new medications that my body needed to get used to. I’d lost my job and was freaking out about not being able to help provide for my kids. I was ‘out’ as an atheist and everyone close to me suddenly knew I’d lost my faith. These are the things I told myself to explain my anxiety and the frequent increases in heart rate and palpitations I felt.

The last couple of days have changed that for me. Life the last month or so has mostly stabilized. I’m getting better sleep now. I’m starting to look for work again. In short, my stress levels as a whole have dropped.

And yet, I step outside into the heat, and my anxiety skyrockets. I worked a baseball game last night for four hours. In a heat index approaching 100 degrees. Over a hot grill. And my heart rate was ridiculously high for most of that four hours. Prompted entirely by physical stress. That was the moment when I realized that my anxiety is a real condition, a real disorder, not just an addendum to a list of other issues I’m living with. There’s a reason why physical activity feels like a kind of living death, why I struggle so much some days to get my body going.

I’ve been afraid for so long that I’ve simply been deceiving myself somehow, that I’ve been subconsciously looking for ways to escape, that I had my brain convinced that it needed to lie for me and to me. I know now that’s not the case. I think this has simply been lying under the surface for a while and dealing, but it was covered up by the severity of my depression. With that better in hand now, it has simply revealed this additional health issue that I didn’t realize existed, let alone needed to be addressed.

It’s almost a relief, really, even in spite of the fact that it’s physically uncomfortable. I know I can push through it, and I do. Frequently. I know it’s not something I can control. It’s not my fault. I certainly didn’t ask for this. And if I could make it go away, instantly, I would. So it’s something to be managed. I’m already learning how to do that. I have good doctors who can help. I have good friends who support me and to whom I can talk when I need it.

Baby steps, people. My mantra. My philosophy for recovery.

Daily Routine – Grinding for XP

I got up this morning, took my meds like I’m supposed to, ate breakfast because my meds require it, started a load of laundry since it’s that time in the week again. It’s been a week since I started sleep treatments with my CPAP, and it’s clear they have made a significant difference. I sleep through the night now with minimal disruptions. My body is starting to feel better rested, even if I still feel tired much of the time. It’s a different sort of tiredness, though, less bone-weary and more “oh, I’m just in the middle of recuperating from some major illness.” It’s a process, albeit a frustratingly slow one.

My depression and anxiety have been constant companions this entire week. The depression itself has been relatively mild. Instead of crippling, it has presented itself more as a lingering melancholy and physical fatigue. The anxiety has actually been the more onerous condition, what with the random heart palpitations that sometimes make it hard to breathe for several seconds at a time. I see my psychiatrist again next week, and this is something that is definitely going to get addressed.

I’m finally trawling for work. I’ve had to lower my expectations somewhat. Every day is an unpredictable set of variables that make it impossible to know ahead of time what level of functionality I’m going to be at. Some days I can glide through with ease. Others require several hours to get started. Applying for the same kind of white-collar jobs I used to be able to do simply isn’t practical right now. So I’m looking for employment that allows me some flexibility while still providing a steady income stream. I have clocks ticking against me, and I’m beginning to feel a sense of cloying panic creep up that’s stifling.

But I’m making progress. Every day of this journey is new and different. I have had to learn patience and self-forgiveness. I have good people near me who support me and prop me up when I need propping. I take large steps when I can and little steps when I have to.

I’m grinding for XP. Maybe sometime soon I might even level up.

 If I Can Do This

There are days when you wake up with your brain already lying to you, when the regret and the pain and the hurt pile up on you so badly that you find it hard to draw breath, when every bit of your energy and attention is devoted exclusively to counteracting the power of those lies, when you want to just give up — on everything — and go back to bed, when the mantra running constantly through your head is “I can’t do this,” followed closely by “Yes, you can. And you will. Because you have to.”

Today is one of those days.

I still have some fight left in me, but I won’t lie and say I’m not stretched a little thin at the moment, because I am. And I have to go work in just about an hour, and I don’t feel like I can do this. But I will. Because I have to, and because I’m stronger than this.

Here I Sit, Me In My Little Hidey-Hole

It’s 9:30AM, and the day has started without me. I’m ok with this. I woke this morning feeling lonely and alone, as I often do, after another long night of dreams that refuse to allow me to get any kind of proper rest. I grudgingly ate breakfast, not because I was hungry or because the cereal tasted particularly good but because my body still requires calories to function. And I really am trying to function. Or at least to not give in to the urge to give up. Because this is one of those days where that little voice in my head is nagging at me that I can’t do this, that it’s all pointless anyway. It’s not, and I keep shooting back at that voice to this effect. But the argument persists. That voice is an asshole, and it doesn’t know when to shut the fuck up.

I haven’t opened the front blinds yet. I’m not ready to let the rest of the world in. So I sit here on the couch, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood around me — the traffic going by on the street, the workmen in the yard installing the new gas lines, the occasional loud voice of the morning drunk on his way from wherever he was to wherever he’s going. I listen and wish I was well enough to be ready to be out there with everyone else.

But I’m not. Not yet. I don’t know when I will be, and I’m impatient for that moment to arrive. I’m tired of the fight, the struggle, the relentless anchor of my mind holding me back. I know I can be better, do better. I know my own potential, and I’m anxious to live up to it. I was reminded at support group last night that it’s ok to give myself permission to not be ok yet. Recovery takes times, especially when you’ve been living in the kind of personal hell I have been for the last several years. I know life can be better. I just want it to be better right now, damn it! Like I said, I’m impatient.

It’s funny. We who struggle with mental illness have to remind those who don’t that, just because you can’t see our disease doesn’t mean we don’t have one. What we sometimes forget is that we frequently have to remind ourselves, too.

So here I sit, me in my little hidey-hole, listening to the world move about around me. I promise I’ll come out and join you here in a bit, but for the moment I need a little space to gather myself up and assemble the fractured pieces of me into something presentable. It’s just going to take a few minutes.

On Healing, Dreams, and Emotions

I am struggling today. I woke this morning from a dream I can’t remember still somehow feeling sad and melancholy about it. This has been happening to me a lot lately. One of the side effects of the sleep medication I take (a must, if I hope to actually get a restful night’s sleep) is that I very rarely ever remember the dreams I have — which is a pity, because as a creative type I’ve been known to have some truly remarkable dreams. Unfortunately, said medication does not prevent me from experiencing the emotions that remain once the last tatters of the dream are blown away.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve dreamed. A lot. And vividly. Dreams that inspire rich, soul-quaking emotion. But always, almost without exception, the memories of those dreams flee the moment I open my eyes, leaving only the ghosts of their emotions to linger in my heart and mind a while longer. I’m nearly certain that most of these dreams are attempts of my sleeping mind to process the pain of my daily, waking life. Sometimes I’m able to conjure an image here, an impression there that give context to the emotions I’m experiencing. But as often as not, all I’m left with is pain without cause, loss without substance.

I hope as time passes, as my new medication becomes suffused throughout my system, as my therapy and support group sessions become more regular, that my wistful dreaming will become less frequent. I’m working hard at developing a new mental image of myself and who I am — and I feel like I’ve made some small amount of progress in that regard already this past week. I hope new understanding will begin to supplant the uncertainty and fear and despair I have felt for so long.

I have more hope now than I’ve had in quite some time and an awareness of a much broader and more diverse support network than I ever knew was available. Thank you, so much, to all of you who have lit candles and come alongside to help me through the dark. It means so much more to me than I can ever say with words.

Four Days in a Psych Ward

Just a few days ago, I was released from the hospital after a four-day treatment program for severe depression and suicidal ideation. This was my first inpatient hospital stay of any kind, and while I wouldn’t exactly describe it as being fun, it was extremely helpful and beneficial. Without it I’m not sure I’d even be alive right now to write about it.

Depression

I’ve battled depression for years. I’ve chronicled some of my experiences here and on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not a condition I’ve ever been particularly shy or embarrassed about. I’m a firm believer that we need a more open and honest discourse about mental health because so many people wrestle with it on a daily basis.

Over the past few years, my mental health has experienced a steady decline. My depression has become more persistent and acute, and anxiety has joined with it to make my life a daily living hell. These conditions have challenged my life, which I nearly took, and my faith, which I gave up. It has put significant pressure on my family and my work life, as well. This is not uncommon for people who have dealt with prolonged mental illness.

Had it not been for the intervention of a friend who grew concerned about me, who called me at the end of a weekend where I’d been trapped in my own bed and urged me to get help, who made all the arrangements for me to get into a hospital to get the treatment I needed, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. She literally saved my life, so close was I to making a terrible and irreversible decision.

And I didn’t want to go. All I wanted was to die, to relieve myself and my family of the burden that was my psychosis. At least then I could have peace, knowing that my family could actually move on and have a better life without me dragging them down. In my mind freeing them from the cancer of myself would greatly outweigh the horror of losing me to suicide.

But that was depression’s voice talking in my head, lying to me, convincing me of my worthlessness, reminding me of all the poor coping methods I’d chosen and bad decisions I’d made. Depression is a disease of the brain that alters the way you think, the way you see the world, the way you see yourself. It twists and distorts things so that you can’t determine fact from fiction. Reality loses purchase, and what seeps in instead is a view of life that holds no hope because it is full of unending pain and misery and despair.

I’m thankful for the voice of my friend, who was able to cut through the din long enough to get me out of bed and into a hospital, where I could get the help I really needed. It took four days, including several hours of talking with therapists, and a fairly significant change in medications to help me get to a better place mentally and emotionally. I still have a long road ahead, and pieces of my life that need to be picked up and reassembled as best as possible. But I actually feel stronger now and up to the challenge before me.

I know this won’t be the last time I face depression head-on like this and look down into its great, black belly. But I hope that when that happens, I’ll remember that I’m really not alone in this, that there are others out there willing and able to come alongside and help me.

Happiness, That Strangest of Strangers

I felt happy today. So of course it took me a while to recognize it for what it was. I noticed the extra energy first, the increased sense of motivation, the additional drive. My pain levels were the lowest they’ve been in months. The first half of my morning just melted away effortlessly. I was as productive as I’ve ever been and more focused than usual.

It didn’t occur to me until I was working on a couple of Grid Diary entries a few minutes before my counseling appointment that I recognized my positive mental state was something more than ordinary, that it was more than just the bump in my Wellbutrin prescription from a couple of weeks ago finally coming to bear on my brain chemistry. It was here, when I tapped the tile to log my mood as ‘Happy,’ that I realized the feeling as genuine.

This is what happens when true joy and contentment are experienced only rarely. When the sun burns away the clouds, it’s almost blinding. It took my weary eyes a while to see true.

The difference between happiness and depression, that gap, it’s so wide that the happiness itself almost feels like a mental disorder, like mania. On the inside I was bouncing off walls. My mind, my heart, they were ping pong balls, launched at high velocity to bounce wildly off the walls of my soul. It was its own kind of madness, but it was also euphoria.

And almost — almost — that understanding doomed my joy to die. You see, depression has been such a lifelong companion that it has become entrenched. It has dug into my heart and soul and mind, and it is incredibly adept at sabotage. Here, in this moment, I wanted nothing more than to ride this wave of exaltation, and my enemy wanted to tear the wave out from under me. The lies it whispered in my ear were the same insidious lies it has whispered to me for years.

“You may as well stop enjoying this. You know it can’t last.”
“This is frivolity. Happiness is an illusion. Life is not joy. It is pain and suffering.”

But for a wonder, depression held little power over me today. Its lies were weak and ineffective.

So, today has been one of the most pleasant days I’ve had in a good, long while. I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

Happiness, don’t be a stranger. You are welcome here anytime.

I Feel Like a Sociopath (The Trouble Is All These Damned Feelings)

There was a time in my life once where I was exceptionally introspective and self-aware. I analyzed my every thought and intention through a microscope and made adjustments as needed to correct faulty thinking. I had a firm faith then, a guide that gave me direction and established a ruler by which I could measure my progress. I was also younger and more idealistic. Depression was a situational condition, not a clinical one, a normal part the turbulence of growing up and learning what it means to become an adult.

Fast-forward almost twenty years to the present me that has wrestled with clinical depression for the better part of a decade. The idealism and optimism of my youth that was convinced I could learn how to be a better person is all but gone. What’s left is a dry husk of a creature that barely manages to get through a day in one piece. No longer is there any hope for betterment and progress. That space is filled now with despair, despondency, anxiety, anger, and fear.

In my counseling session today, I described myself as feeling numb. It was the best descriptor I could think of at the time for the way I feel – or rather, the way I don’t feel. There is a noticeable absence of joy, happiness, hope, peace, and sympathy in my emotional spectrum. So it’s not that I feel numb, exactly. That would imply an absence of all feelings. Rather, what I seem to lack are positive, healthy emotions – those feelings that enable me to relate and connect to other human beings. 

Don’t get me wrong. I care about my family and close friends’ health and well-being. I care that they’re safe and have all their basic needs met. But after that, it’s like I slam into an emotional wall. I know I should care about my relationships. I know I should be investing in those around me, especially my immediate family. But it’s like that part of my heart has been excised, torn out of my chest and replaced with a bundle of pain and emptiness. What’s worse, I miss that part of me that’s missing, but I don’t care enough to find it again.

I’m scraped thin, stretched to my breaking point. There’s only so much of me to go around. I’m barely getting by on the day-to-day, barely surviving. Every minute of every day I have to make the decision to keep breathing. As a result I feel like a sociopath, knowing I should care more about the needs of the people I love but finding myself unable to. I feel like a paper mask, a lie constructed of tissue paper that can be destroyed with only the slightest pressure.

I often wonder what happened to that young idealist. Is he still around somewhere? Does he still exist? If I went looking, would I find him, lost perhaps beneath a seat cushion of my heart or locked away in a hidden vault of my mind? Or would he turn up as a skeleton in a closet, having long ago decayed into bone and dust?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know that I feel cold and indifferent, not only to the cares of those nearest to me but to myself, as well. What hope can there be for others when you have lost all hope for yourself?

Morning Routine

The alarm goes off for… what? The fifth time? Sixth? I’ve lost track, partly because I have a tendency to sleep through alarms. I can recall at least two before this, though, so I’m sure there are a couple I “missed.” Without opening my eyes, I reach over and hit the volume button on my phone, silencing the alarm for another snooze cycle. I don’t intend to let it yell at me again, but still it takes a moment to get my brain prepared for the day and to get my body moving.

First thought: Well, I actually slept through the night.

Second thought: And yup, my head still feels weird. Definitely still some Wellbutrin in my system.

I half-open my eyes to look at the digital display of the “normal” alarm clock I keep on the dresser next to my bed, the one that exists solely so I don’t have to actually move when I need to see the time in the middle of the night.

Third thought: Guh. It’s 6:00. My alarm is always set for 5:15 so I have time to get up and feed animals before getting the rest of the household moving. Snooze lasts nine minutes each time, so that makes it… I groan as I force myself partway out of bed. I rub my eyes, trying to force the sleep out of them. Crap. It’s too early in the morning to be doing math.

I slip out of bed and grab the pills off my dresser I’d set out the night before, downing them with a quick swallow of water. The first two of my daily medications. The first two of my wards against insanity.

I grab my clothes in the dark and slip out of the room as quietly as I can so as not to wake either my wife or my son, whose room is right next to ours. Athena pads out of the bedroom next to me, her claws clicking on the wooden floor. The house feels chillier than normal this morning, despite the fact that the furnace is running, so I realize it must be colder outside than it has been since that cold snap we had a couple of weeks back.

I get dressed in the bathroom, Athena watching me patiently by the door. “I know,” I mumble to her. “You’re up next.” We walk through the kitchen together, and I unlock the door. Athena slips past me quickly, off to do her business. She’ll have food waiting for her when she comes back in, and that’s when I’ll slip outside and get the farm animals fed. I grab my morning tab of Wellbutrin from the counter while I wait.

My head is starting to feel a little better now, which is good. I’ve been worried that the Wellbutrin would have me crawling out of my skin again, but it looks like my body might acclimate to it alright for now. I’m hoping to get ahold of the clinic today and get my first appointments set up.

Athena appears on the other side of the storm door, and I let her in. She goes straight to her food bowl and starts chowing down. I leave her to it, grab my coat and flashlight — ’tis the season, I think — and step outside into the brisk morning air. It’s time to get this day started.