It’s been a while

I’m not sure it’s a great sign I’m posting here, but saw that I still get hits and comments so I thought I would. Having logged in after a long time off, I see that I have hit 50,000 reads. That blows me away. Thank you. I hope it has helped someone.

Unfortunately, the emails people sent me got erased so if you never got an answer to some burning question from me, send again. I know I used to get a lot of mails from pre-meds and med students and the like, wanting help on planning their lives with the crazy. I’m totally happy to help, for whatever I can do, but if you wrote me and didn’t get an answer, just write again.

I’m now working in an underserved community, doing womb-to-tomb medicine. It’s as good as it gets in the medical world, I guess, as far as people being a little more right-brained. One of the docs even gave a talk about his own struggles with the crazies, which seem to be much the same flavor as mine. It’s funny, I so admired him for being able to do that, but now every time I see him, all I can think of is that, and I know it’s just not a good idea.

Still doing the 80 hour weeks, though. I moved, and here they have seasons, and their winter was oh so cold. I hate the feeling of layers over all of my body, all the time, and always being cold. The days don’t shorten that much and I did ok, and now the days getting longer have made me a little funny – horny and too loud and overly energetic. I hope it will be just a little funny though. They seem to like me ok here, and I wouldn’t want to blow that by going all nuts. The one thing I am looking forward to at work is that they may let me run a DBT or some other kind of crazy girlz group, though I’m a little hesitant because the way I would approach things (melodramatic legend, myth, and metaphor) seems so far removed from the socioeconomic language of the patients here, and I do enjoy the palliative care stuff. It feels like a kind of holy midwifery to me, though I do hate the power of making people make decisions and messing with the course of their lives.

I still hate delivering babies, though. I can’t remember if I’ve written about that before or not. It always seems like I’m ushering in 80 years of suffering.

Things, on the whole, have stabilized, mostly due to medication, but of course, there is always the price of blunting. And getting fat. One of the meds, the one that makes me nice and cuddly, makes it nearly impossible to concentrate long enough to write. I have to keep away from thinking too much, and I do miss my sense of feeling, but the working so hard and long is good for keeping thoughts and dreams away. The patients I work with have often had such wretched lives that it helps me be grateful for what I have, for the blessing of being able to settle into a boring, mildly dissatisfied middle-class life. And that depth of experience, well, yeah, I do sometimes miss it, and do sometimes know that I’m walking someone else’s path, and have those grave feelings of not doing what I was put on this planet to do, and fear of being sent back next time ’round to do it right. But fortunately, modern pharmaceuticals can mostly keep that away.

So I’ll leave you with this.

for prodigal read generous
–for youth read age–
read for sheer wonder mere surprise
(then turn the page)

contentment read for ecstasy
–for poem prose–
caution for curiosity
(and close your eyes)

Thanks for reading.

“I wept not, so to stone within I grew”

Io non piangea, si` dentro impetrai.
-Inferno, Canto 33

It is 3:40 AM, the witching hour, and my being awake cannot be a good sign.

Of course, I have been awake at this hour every day for quite some time now. Maybe wanting to get up and write is a good sign.

Things here are, well, empty. I suppose it is a depression of sorts, though fortunately like the ones I suffered as a child and teenager, before the “manic” part was added to the title. It is much more bearable, at least on the surface, than the episodes I have suffered in the last few years, because I am just quiet and still and numb. No racing mind or body torturing me with horrible thoughts that come faster than any human was meant to think. If I didn’t have the practicalities of running a life to worry about and could just crawl into bed until it goes away, it wouldn’t be bad at all.

It is strange how it has come full circle, taken me right back to where I started. It does remind me of that time when I was 12 and my mind broke for the first time, for seemingly no reason. It is familiar, if not comfortably so, ha ha. It makes me a little nostalgic for that time, when I thought that the worst that could happen, crazy-wise, was the need to crawl into bed for months. Before I knew what could really happen, all the ways a mind can burn and break that I know now.

It does get better throughout the day, and by evening I am almost normal. Unfortunately, 9 PM is not the best time to apply for jobs or deal with the mundane details of life. Every night I go to bed thinking of what I will do first thing in the morning, the interview I will schedule, the tax papers I have been avoiding (two forms, that’s it, two forms!) for months.

And then morning rolls around at 3:30, and I am numb and frozen and terrified again and nothing gets done.

I have not worked in four months. All solid job offers are shift work, night work, in busy, miserable emergencies for minimal pay. Seeing as that is what made me so crazy over the last few years, I have not accepted any of them. I don’t want the responsibility of not missing a heart attack for $5 of pay. It makes me physically ill to think about going back to medicine.

I wrote before that it wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t trying to keep up with life, but I am not sure that that is entirely accurate. I woke at this atramental hour, and beyond the dampened terror of my bank balance, the horror at the thought of returning to the repugnant job that is the only one I am qualified for, a little voice dared to run through my head and say the one thing that I have not allowed myself to think: “Your hope is all gone,” the voice intonated. “Your mind will not work again. This is what you are now.”

I miss very much the streams of words that used to race through my mind, needing to be caught on paper before they got away. I miss writing, which used to be an automatic and unconscious activity. Whatever force I used to channel, whatever it was in the universe that fed me the words, has left. I have been alone, without even the words that I could always count on to come, unbidden. I try to force myself now to write, but I sit and try to think of words. I have to choose them, and they are never quite as right as the ones that come from without. I never used to “have to” make myself write. The words used to just come, words and phrases and alliterations and allusions would streak through my head, unannounced and at odd times, often surprising me and making me laugh or smile at their unexpectedness. All I ever had to do was appreciate them, and transcribe them, and be thankful for the electricity that ran through me when they were flowing, the sense of pure purpose, that this is what I had been put on this planet to do.

But whatever consciousness it was in the universe must have moved on, found another emissary or oracle.

Not only the words are gone. The more primal, wordless passions, the pathos and exultations of life, are muted into nonexistence. For months now, I have been walking around on the verge of weeping, with tears in my eyes that obstinately refuse to fall. I think that if I could weep, something might shift, maybe for the better, maybe not, but at least there would be motion.

I don’t understand where those tears are coming from, why they are so firmly fixed behind my eyes. Maybe when my muse left, someone else’s tragedy mistakenly got into the void left in my eyes, and I, having picked up the narrative in the middle, cannot identify the nature of the misfortune, and thus, cannot weep for it. I have no reason to be sad now (unless I think of the countless broken bodies and broken lives that surrounded me and sometimes touched me over the last years). So I am not sad. Just numb.

The lack of hope – another entity that has left me: something in my head keeps whispering, maybe this is it…this is the best you will ever be. Sometimes I wish that the “maybe” would disappear. If I were to be sure, I could figure out how to arrange some kind of half-existence around what is left. But as long as there is still a memory of how I used to be (abstractly, anyway – I cannot channel how I felt when I was alive and ready to do anything and conquer the world, but I can picture my younger self smiling and full of energy, doing things, doing everything), there is that little last bit that keeps me waiting, as the song says,  busco un mejor momento. In some ways, this keeps me from playing the hand I have been dealt. I am always waiting for the next deal.

For my own record, since I do record this shit, I just saw a new shrink. It was horrific and humiliating, as usual, but no worse than most new shrink appointments. The decision was to raise the bupropion, give that two weeks, and if it isn’t enough, add valproate. I have a hard time seeing much logic in this; it seems to me that the last thing I need now is a drug that will slow me down or make me stupider. But I suppose I have nothing to lose (except my hair and my hormonal balance and my lack of diabetes and any potentially normal fetus I may someday conceive), so I’ll try. Mostly because I don’t want to be that patient on the very first meeting with a new shrink.

And things have undoubtedly improved ever since getting out of the miasma that was the previous shrink. I miss him, maybe, as a person, and on some level I think I like him more than this new one, but I cannot ignore the overwhelming experiential evidence that it was bad for me, and there were too many lapses in professionalism to ignore (see “refusing to release records”).

Sometimes, though, in these tenebrous hours, his words still haunt me: accusations he made, (mis)interpretations of things I did or said that nonetheless were hurtful. The insinuations from someone I trusted that something is so wrong with me that it is a miracle I function, and that I will never be “normal” without serious interventions, which apparently have not yet been invented.

For these reasons, even though it is all I think about almost every day, I am trying to avoid anything psychological or mental health related. When I am away from the whole paradigm, I’m just a flawed person, no more or less than anybody else. When I let them near me, I become an amalgam of pathologies and brokenness. Sometimes I wish I never had gone to any doctor. Then, I would have just been eccentric, or emotional, or melancholic, or even just plain crazy.

I have to remind myself that I don’t even believe in their system of belief, that people lived for thousands of years without shrinks, that 99% of the world’s population has never even heard of their concepts. I try to remember who I was before I ended up so entangled with this bullshit system. I was a person. I wasn’t perfect but I was alive and I did things and knew people and sometimes felt something.

Somehow, all of that has disappeared, and all I can think about are all of the words that have been used by the priests of this odd religion to judge my essential being. I do not believe in their religion, yet somehow, their damnation of my many sins, that they delineate in the clinical terminology of their liturgy (affective instability, noncompliance, Melancholia, Mania, narcissism, Cyparissusism, Axis I, II, III, x, y, z, the asymptote of mood-personality-behavior), haunts me.

I don’t know why I cannot break the hold this farcical cult and its practitioners have on me. I suppose it is my version of the person who doesn’t really believe in God anymore, yet somewhere deep down, is too frightened by the spectacle and rhetoric of the fundamentalist hellfire to actually get up and leave the pew.

And so…back to the title quotation. I feel that underneath the conspicous anodynia, there is a well of misery hiding. Hell, it keeps trying to creep out through my eyes. I can’t help suspecting that the underlying pain is for all that I have seen over the last few years and all the people I have lost. I would drain the well, cry profusely and feel deeply, if I only knew how to reach the stygian waters.

But it is too late. So many years of having wept not, I both created and became the adamantine stone.

On Chronic Depression and Myth

One of the things that occurs a lot in the mentally ill, especially, thought not exclusively, in the mood disordered, is that a mood episode is treated with medication, and the cycling of moods is stopped, yet the person remains miserable, suicidal, even, and suffers a lingering handicap. In the world of psychiatry, this is the stage in which the doctor says, “There are personality factors at work,” which is code for, “This person is nuts and I have no fucking idea what to do.” The patient is then referred for long-term therapy, which rarely helps.

I know because I experienced this recently.  My acute episode ended – the heavy cardinal signs of depression and mania were gone, yet I remained miserable. The same pattern is readily apparent on many of the blogs on my sidebar (Exact Science, Coloured Mind, PWH). The thing that is last to fade, it seems, is the temptation of suicide.

The doctors never seem to understand this. “We fixed the chemical symptoms, why are you still fucked up? Why can’t you just go back to doing whatever it is that you were doing before you flipped out?”

My partner has been traveling to the Far East a lot lately, and has become interested in Buddhism. I got him a copy of Siddhartha, which I only read in high school and remember not liking that much. I thumbed through some of the coffee table books on Buddhism that he brought back, and one detail of the life of the Buddha struck me: that the hardest part of his journey was not leaving home to seek out new knowledge; it was not the reaching Nirvana, complete insight into the order of the universe, and not spreading his teachings to his disciples.

The hardest part was, after reaching Nirvana, reintegrating into the stream of life, caring about other living beings. He was presented the choice, upon seeing Nirvana, to either remain there for eternity, or to stay and spread his teaching on earth. The Brahma itself (God) had to come and convince him to continue on the path.

This struck me as the crux of the matter, as the reason I continued to be suicidal well after the depression had lifted. It is not the descent into symbolic death that is difficult, nor the ascent out of the underworld. Rather, the most painful and difficult part of the narrative journey is the return to the flow of everyday life after the threshold experience.

Myth studies and Jungian psychology are the types that most move me, interpretation through metaphor, myth, and poetry, seeing each individual as a Hero. It gives strength to people to realize that what they are facing is not mundane, not a result of skewed object relations or personality flaws, or dysfunctional families, but rather a part of what humans have faced since the dawn of time, and helps awaken them to the fact that they will have to call on their own mythic strength to prevail.

Mental illness in its life-threatening forms – suicidality, depression, mania, psychosis – is a liminal experience, one in which, unrequested, people are forced to face the boundaries of normal human experience. Symbolically, suicidal depression is a descent into the underworld, in which all of the trivia of normal life is stripped away.

During my last illness, I considered whether I would live or die, nearly each moment of each day. I made preparations for my death, and saw the world differently, knowing that I might not reside in it much longer. Trivia fell away; the world seemed quieter. Preoccupied with thoughts of high cliffs and nooses, the overwhelming unbearableness of life, other things seemed to fade.

When the episode was treated, under control even, I stayed on the edge of suicidal thoughts. They didn’t go away, even though the misery that had led to them did. And the shrinks never understand why.

But myth does. A classic stage in the monomyth is “the return threshold.” Dying is one threshold, and every hero has to face a symbolic death and descent. The hero is then saved and brought back to life with new understanding, either by his own prescience or a force from without. Though it seems like that should be a central plot moment, it is very short, albeit dramatic.

The true struggle comes after. It is not easy, once one has seen the void and been swallowed by it, to return. Everyday life seems trivial, bland, meaningless. When one has faced the pit, how is one supposed to return to preparing dinner, to cuddling in bed, to laughing? To getting up and going to work, to petting the cat, to doing the million small and seemingly meaningless things that make up life?

The road back is long and not terribly exciting. It is nothing like the symbolic death or the symbolic rebirth. It is arduous, in many ways more painful, and its outcome less certain than the simple death or rebirth. It is natural, easy even, to be faced with this journey and to wish to return to the underworld, where things appeared more certain, if darker, more essential, more stripped down to meaning-and-unmeaning. It may be a horrible place, but it least it is a final one, unlike the slow journey up the mountain to a destination – life – that one hardly remembers, that does not promise to be less frightening than the life that led one to the threshold of death in the first place.

And so we stay suicidal long after the depression has faded. We frustrate our doctors by continuing to talk about death and pain and our wish to be freed long after we have stopped waking up at 3 AM and being restless and wrestling with God.

This part of the journey is much longer and more arduous than crawling out of the grave. We, and our doctors, deceive ourselves by thinking that the gateway out of hell is the end of the struggle, the hardest part, when in fact it is the easiest and shortest part. The only way back, as the Buddha knew, is to immerse oneself in the river of life, and forget the rest, let the questions of life and death fade away, at least until they are back for good.

Enough

I finally wrote what I thought was a reasonable letter to the shrink, since he never seemed to hear what I said…about how I can’t live in the dark about what is wrong with me or how to fix it, that I was deeply hurt and concerned about the borderline thing, etc. I hoped that we could work something out.

But today, we met. True, I knew I was in a bad mood going in. But on the other hand, he claimed I had nothing to be upset about, accused me of splitting between him and the GP (I knew from the minute they started “coordinating care” that sooner or later I would be accused of this and tried to be so careful not to say anything negative about either of them), said he couldn’t understand why I would be upset, that he was so sure I’m just trying to push away. It felt like always – I say and mean one thing, and he sees it through his filter. Refused to tell me why he thought I was borderline (and then later, when I was angry, said, “See – that’s classic borderline. You’re upset, so you’re trying to make me upset.”), what he thought my problems were, or how we planned to work on them together. (“Part of your problem is needing to just trust me.”) In short, it was the classic psychoanalytic bullshit – the shrink is always right and the patient is always crazy.

To top it off, I requested my medical records and was refused.

The whole scene was incredibly upsetting – to be so totally invalidated. But I had spelled out that I just am not interested in paternalistic care, where my problems and how they will be treated are hidden from me. That if this is the care he gives, I’m not interested…not interested in his diagnosis and not interested in buying a treatment that can’t even be explained to me. That I need collaboration, I want to change, but need the direction on how.

No good. “I can’t understand why you are so upset.”

I left, finally. It was sad, and it was scary. I’m now without a safety net and badly medicated, though I did meet a hippie clinical psychologist I sort of liked (woman).

I drove home and cried a little, felt like throwing up. It was so humiliating, invalidating. But – I also drew my lines in the sand. I can’t say I was totally calm; in fact, I was angry. But I spent months examining myself closely to see if what he said could be true, if there was justification in my anger. I decided there was, and that I needed some acknowledgment of that. I really didn’t expect not to get it at all. But I didn’t.

And that’s just not ok with me. No matter how sick I am, how bad I feel, how much I need help…I don’t need it that bad, bad enough to believe that I am so crazy that I am totally out of touch with reality.

So, through my tears on the way home, I reminded myself that I can save myself, that maybe only I can save myself, that I’ve done it before, and that I can do it again. That I’m somehow going to be ok. That I am a decent person, despite how broken I may or may not be.

I might go re-read The Color Purple. I think that is the message that I need to hear – remember Celie? Raped as a child, beaten, cast-away, unloved by anyone, half-literate…she knew somehow that she was a human being of intrinsic worth, one of God’s creations, one of the things that is included in the phrase “God love everything you love–and a mess of stuff you don’t.” That even if she was poor and ugly and a woman…the universe had created her with love. That God loved her, even if nothing and no one else did. That she existed, just as lovely as a wildflower.

I may suck at being happy. At being patient. At controlling my temper. I even may suck at loving the people I love. But I can do some things – I can comfort people and I, on a good day, can write words that mean something, that capture something real that happens to people. I can forgive. On a good day, I can be grateful, and on a great day I can pray, or at least I used to be able to. I can be part of the universe sometimes, and of the human race when I am not sick. I can overcome my fears. I can see the color purple. I can survive the dark night. I am a living, breathing part of the universe, and sometimes, that is enough.

I just need to remember that, to remind myself that during the moments when it seems like everyone is trying to tell me to the contrary.

  • * *

Note to self for next post – remember to post the thoughts about chronic depression, the idea of depression as an addiction, why some people can’t seem to give it up, and the Buddha.

I did not see this coming

The latest in my escapades – no essays or deep thoughts or medical stuff here, just my personal update.

The anxious racing episode, naturally, crashed into a depression that hit hard and fast. Or maybe not so fast, but I didn’t feel it until it was out of control.

I think I am more and more becoming a burden. I haven’t had many normal conversations with any of my friends lately, it all revolves around my condition. I feel like a burden, and though they’d never say it, we are all doctors in training and under so much pressure that we are very limited in how much we can give to each other. It’s sad, but it is how things are. I also just sort of want everyone to go away and leave me alone, so they won’t see all this, and I can return to my life after I’m better without having done too much damage.

It is very hard for me to accept help, and I just want my partner and everyone else, well, I want them to help me and care for me, but I don’t want them to see me like this.

Since the depression got worse and worse, I went to my GP, who is very sympathetic to these kinds of problems, having had a son commit suicide, so he treats people with mental illness like people, not diseases. Actually, I didn’t want to go, but the psychiatrist wouldn’t treat me further unless I did because he wanted to be sure I wasn’t physically ill. I had attributed a lot of the physical symptoms to medication side effects and the depression effects.

I went to the GP and told him to just sign off, send some basic blood tests etc, and to give the shrink a green light to continue treating me. I told him I was not alright, but I couldn’t tell him about the suicidal thoughts. He knows about the depression, not sure how much about the whole bipolar story. He said I looked bad, and asked if I had ever been this bad before – I had, twice.

He started to do a brief physical exam, like, put a stethoscope on me while I was just sitting in the chair, but once he heard my heart, he told me to get up on the table, and did a full exam. He started yelling at me (well, not “yelling at me” but he got surprised and upset) that I was in horrible physical condition – apparently malnourished and dehydrated almost to the point of shock – racing pulse, minimal blood pressure, gray, the whole textbook version.

I had been feeling dizzy and horrible, but thought it was some central effect of some drug so I didn’t really pay attention. I was surprised because I’d been working as usual. I knew I hadn’t been eating because the depression sort of took away my appetite and one of the medications or another was making me either unable to eat or throw up often. But I didn’t think it was so much. I had been trying to eat a lot of calories in whatever I did eat – adding butter and honey and always juice with lots of sugar. It’s my “depression diet” because I know that sometimes I lose a lot of weight fast when I get like this, so I try to pack as many calories as possible into what I do eat. I guess I didn’t start early enough this time.

He called the psychiatrist from the office right then and there. This felt really bad, like I was this wayward child who needed to be taken care of – all of the sudden I was the ward of these two doctors, playing ping-pong about what to “do with me.” I only heard the GP’s side of the conversation, but he said at the end, “Look, I really think we’re getting to the limits of what can be treated outpatient.” No idea if he was referring to mental or physical state.

He sort of vaguely asked me about suicide, asked if I could or would talk to the psychiatrist about that. I said, “Probably not.” But it got the idea in my mind that maybe I should say something.

I walked out of his office and I remember sitting down at a bus stop just to rest and catch my breath for a few minutes before going to the car. It was freezing. But I was so tired, two hours passed while I sat there, watching people and buses come and go, waiting for the energy to get up and leave.

I did the blood test and the H. pylori test, and then went to meet a close friend (also a doctor), and told him how scary facing hospitalization was (for either the medical or mental stuff, I wasn’t even sure which anymore). He told me, “You look terrible. I’m a friend, not your doctor, so I’m not going to tell you what to do, but maybe you should go to the fucking hospital.”

The next day, I went to the shrink and confessed the suicide stuff, even though it was hard. It seemed like the responsible thing to do. I think I was actually looking a little less depressed by then because going to his office makes me so nervous that it gives me a little energy. He basically didn’t react. Nothing. I asked what to do. Nothing. I felt ridiculous, like some drama queen. He didn’t ask any of the suicide questions that even I know to ask (Do you have a method? Plans? What do you think will happen if you do? What stops you?).

Finally I asked, “Do you think this is some sort of manipulative thing, just to get attention, or something?”

His answer was, “It would only be manipulative if you were doing it consciously.” (I guess that qualifies as a Shrink’s Line of the Day.)

Then he said he wanted to give me Zyprexa “as it recently got approval as a mood stabilizer.” He sounded like a fucking Lilly commercial. I absolutely refused. Then he got angry at me. “You just can’t work with you! You say you want help, but then you refuse the help anyone offers!”

I asked him if he would take a pill of that. He said that that wasn’t a fair question. I said I ask myself that every time I prescribe something for someone (true). At the same time, he told me to stop the antidepressant that he started a week ago – just as I had started to get over the nausea from it, way before anyone has any idea as to if it will work or not.

As usual, I left there feeling worse than when I went in. Maybe he was right, who knows? Maybe not reacting will discourage me from threatening suicide again. He’s a nice guy. He did call today to suggest maybe somehow finding some derm specialist who can solve the side effect problem of the old drug (or possibly that was the subtext for calling to make sure that he didn’t kill me after all), that he had searched around the area and there was some guy a few towns away who specializes in drug reactions in the skin.

I said I was sorry for being such a horrible patient.

The next morning I went back to the GP for the test results and because he had said he wanted to see me again the next day. To make sure I was still alive, I guess. I told him what happened. I asked him if he thought I was being unreasonable to refuse the Zyprexa. He did the screening for psychosis (of which I have never had any symptoms). Then he said that Zyprexa seemed a little excessive (“an atomic bomb drug”), but that he didn’t know why a psychiatrist would suggest that or what psychiatrists consider.

You see so many psych patients who come in with lists of maybe 5 or 7 psych meds, from all different categories, and they look horrible, like zombies, and you have to think that whatever their illness, it can’t be as bad as that, and that there is no rhyme or reason to treatment, they just keep throwing more drugs at them, one on top of the other. That poor girl I wrote about was on something like two antidepressants, and old and a new antipsychotic, a benzo, valproate, and a sleep aid. No wonder she could hardly speak.

I felt like I was slowly turning into that. I was on a lot of peripheral shit at the time. The psychiatrists, including mine, mean well, but it’s such a strange field, no one knows anything, and they just keep throwing more and more drugs on people until they are just shells. I feel bad, so he gives me a med, and I still feel bad, so he gives me another – it’s all well-intentioned, trying to relieve my misery. But I got the feeling that that was what was happening to me – I was being made sicker.

So a few days before, I had also stopped taking all kinds of benzos and sedatives and phenergan and shit that the shrink had put me on, and only left the antidepressants, so I think I had a little more affect when I walked in to the GP, looked a little better, even if I didn’t feel better. I wasn’t like the walking dead.

The clinic was very busy so I didn’t want to take up a lot of his time. But it took me a minute or two while I asked him to wait so I could get up the courage to tell him that I had been checking my life insurances, making sure everything was in order. I didn’t tell him the rest. But he took me seriously, told me to go home, go to sleep, and come back in the morning again.

I was supposed to go with my partner to his parents’ for a few days, but when he got home from work it was late, and I had showered for hours and gotten minimally dressed to leave. But I was so weak and lying in bed, thirsty, sort of hungry. I couldn’t move (as had happened most of the week, lying down with no willpower to physically move my muscles). I just couldn’t get up and pack a bag and get in the car. The wind was howling outside, and the bed was warm and soft, and I was so tired, and thought of the uncomfortable bed at his parents’, and their yapping dog and the noise there…when I finally felt sleepy and warm and safe at home. I just told him to leave me a glass of water and go without me.

The prospect of a silent weekend alone was so tempting. I slept. Woke at 3 AM again, but not as restless as usual. Just relaxed in bed and listened to the wind until I fell asleep again at dawn. I got up in the morning at 9. I wanted to go back to sleep, but I figured that since the GP had been so decent, the least I could do was show up. (Friday is a half day for him at that clinic.) So I went in there, and sat down to wait, and started to feel faint so I went and bought some juice. I didn’t want to pass out and make a scene, or worse, be sent to the emergency room of my own hospital.

I told him that I thought all the drugs had really knocked me down and out, taken away the last bit of energy I had to cope with anything, including the depression, that they were slowly working their way out of my system. I kept taking the antidepressants but stopped all the heavy shit. And suddenly I could move again.

He asked me about my plans for the weekend, and I told him honestly…that I just really wanted to be alone at home. He said I deserved some rest. I was glad he didn’t try to insist I be around someone, that my partner be home or that I go with him. I thanked him and apologized for making such a mess and scaring him, and he hugged me and told me to come back sometime next week.

Then I went across the street and bought a newspaper and some bread and light food and went home and, for once, instead of dropping it all on the floor to deal with later, put the things away. I took out the garbage and minimally cleaned the floor. I drank and ate a little bit, then went back to sleep until the afternoon. Then I moved to the sofa and watched bad 80s movies. The quiet day, no one at home but me, the big bed all to myself…the sleep, for God’s sake. It was all so sweet.

I hate to say I’m getting better because every time I say that something horrible happens, but I wish this quiet could never end. I am just going to try to enjoy the rest of the evening, watch bad sitcoms. Try to sleep off the rest of these drugs. Not to worry about all the things that got me to this point or when I will go down again. Not to fantasize about suicide. To eat long enough before taking the meds that I will gain some calories from it. To drink. To try to orally fix the electrolyte mess that came back in the bloodwork.

* * *

I’m not sure if I learned anything from all of this or what the point of writing it down was. No profound insights. I didn’t suddenly find purpose in life, and I don’t know how long I will remain ok. I have to go back to the race shortly and I am terrified and still exhausted. It’s not a big happy ending. I don’t “know that I have more of a safety net than I thought” or that “people really care about me” (they do, but I already knew that and it doesn’t really matter when I’m in that place). And it seems like I have made a real mess of my body that will need some straightening out. I guess that there are probably some readers who read for the personal stuff, the same kind of stories as they go through. So that is why I am trying to be honest here for you.

I may go back and remove or edit this. It feels very raw and exposed. But for now, this is my story.

Crying at the shrink

I did cry at the shrink’s the other day, and that was strange, because I’m usually so hard and in control. But I was so strung out by anxiety and three days of no sleep from the bupropion that it took me a few minutes to even calm down enough to talk (this kind of hysterical shit is very unlike me). In an ominous tone, from him, “You NEED a mood stabilizer.”

He wanted to send me home then and there with an injection of phenergan so that I would sleep a few hours before being on call; I declined. Not a fan of the sleep aids. Last time I took zolpidem, I was fine and awake in the morning, but almost got in a car accident, which had never happened to me before. (And while on call, I saw yet another acute dystonic reaction, so there about the phenergan.)

But at least the massive anxiety from this drug, as well as the calming of the affective storm, for once made me feel both stable enough and uninhibited enough to actually talk to the guy about something that happened in my life that was very meaningful to me, that happened a long time ago, advice that someone gave me that let me move on from grief and heal tremendously from a big wound.

Without going into a long and sort of irrelevant story, the gist of it was that an older woman knew me well, and gave me permission to grieve about something when I was a teenager, to acknowledge a severe loss and hurt. She was one of my mother’s friends, artist-spiritual type, and gave me a concrete ritual to do to give myself permission to grieve, and maybe open doors to a grief I didn’t fully realize I had, or was entitled to. I remember thinking the idea was silly at first, but I went home and tried it (starting by looking at old pictures and just thinking about the people in them), and it unleashed a tremendous flood of tears.

Let me state that the “ritual” she recommended wasn’t an exorcism or supposed to work on some bullshit supernatural plane; I think it was pretty sound psychological advice, if phrased in terms of spirituality. It allowed me to realize a loss I hadn’t acknowledged because it came at such a horrible time in my life anyway, and to free me from the past by letting me discover various feelings of anger, injustice, and ultimately, mourning. It was not “out there” by any means. It wasn’t like she told me to draw a crop circle so aliens could come heal me. It was just something to formally mark a loss, which gave me the opening to feeling it.

And sometimes even today, years later, maybe once every couple of years, I revisit those photos and what she told me, and I cry again, hard. But it is different now, in the way that grief changes. I look at the pictures, and it’s not this raw gaping wound, it’s just sort of a nostalgia, a sense of being sorry that things didn’t go the way that they would have in a perfect world. A love for times and people past, with all the imperfections.

She gave me the gift of being free from something that could have torn me down, destroyed any potential I had to be other than numb or in shock for the rest of my life. She gave me the gift of healing.

When I think about it…no, that’s not right, when I feel it, really let myself remember and feel, I can’t help but cry. And that’s what happened at the shrink. It wasn’t like I was sobbing hysterically and out of control. It’s just that the story opens in me some very bittersweet emotions – of the loss, of the gratitude of being able to let go, of the magic of healing, and of a million other things, too.

I noticed also that for the first time with the shrink, I was talking in terms of how I really think, how I used to be, because it took me back to so long ago, to a time when I was in my core state, when I was really ok. I spoke in terms of ritual and feelings and symbols, which is a reflection of how I see the world, how I grew up, in a world of artists.

I think I concluded the story by saying something like, “That’s what I think I need now…a priestess. An older woman who knows what happens to women, how they get so hard and cold, the way I’ve gotten to be. I wasn’t like this then. I was warm, and loved everyone, and was so idealistic and compassionate and forgiving. I wasn’t ice like I am now. I need someone who understands how that happens to women’s spirits, how they get lost in the woods and meet so many monsters that they start building up armor, and how to set me free again.”

I’ve said to the shrink many times, “We don’t speak the same language.” I don’t think he ever quite got what I meant. It became clear to me. I have always spoken to him in medical language, the language I’ve learned, the language of pathology and death. But that isn’t my real language. I think that I had forgotten my real language a bit, and speaking in it, of ritual, magic, symbols and signs.

After I said all this, the contempt was all over his face. Then he said, “Sure, she just gave you a magic solution.” Obviously he also wanted to say that he thought that she had probably done me psychological harm. But it wasn’t a “magical solution” and it didn’t solve anything overnight.

He thinks that at the core, there is something wrong with me that it will take expert reparenting or whatever (naturally, by my submission to his worldview and acceptance of it, by letting him be daddy). I think that at the core, I am actually healthy, and just need to be freed from a lot of things that happened to me along the way. I need to find my way again.

And that is what became so clear to me sitting in front of him. For once, I didn’t give a shit that he was so dismissive, so utterly un-understanding, because I know what is wrong now. I need my language back, my self back. I need to get rid of the chains that medicine has wrapped around my soul and return to the path. I don’t need to fix what is broken; I need to find what is whole.

Suddenly I could see a chain of events, a period of time, in which I became hard, and cold, and unrelenting, began to speak in a foreign and cruel tongue.

I saw that he didn’t get it. So I started to say something like, I just think I need to see a woman…because I just hate men too much. It was my way of letting him off the hook. It isn’t his fault he’s a man. It’s easier and kinder to say that than to say that it is his fault that he hasn’t seen me, not really, not once, in all these years. That managed to set off a huge argument over whether it is normal or not to hate men. Which was missing the point, but that’s ok. I finally see it: he’s just not going to get the point.

But I do. And that’s a start.

* * *

When I asked her what I/we could/should do, she took up her walking stick and walked expressively and purposefully across the room. Dipping a bit from side to side.

She said: Live by the Word and keep walking.

– Alice Walker

The Rest of My Life

I’ve been writing kind of heavy stuff lately, and I think it has skewed what this started out to be, which was a chronicle of how people who are crazy live in the normal world, how we are mostly invisible to everyone. Lately, you’d think that all I ever am is crazy.

Which is understandable. This last year my mental health has been perhaps the worst in my life (or second worst). And the Wellbutrin is making me anxious which makes me write. (Student loan panic set in tonight, which is always a symptom.) And I have been thinking a lot about my mental health, which I don’t usually do when I am well. It is the main thing on my mind, sad to say. I’m afraid many more important things have been forgotten in the mess, like the people I love.

So I thought I’d put in some balance of the perspective. Despite having an awful morning due to various symptoms, I pulled it together and worked a night shift last night that was perfectly fine. While working, or writing, or engaged in conversation, I am able to selectively ignore a lot of symptoms, just feel them less. I think it’s like sometimes when you have a flu or something, you really do feel better when you are up and moving around rather than lying around thinking about what hurts.

I thought I’d make a scattery list of things that happen in my average life, which are far underrepresented here.

1. I usually meet friends a few times a day. Having stayed more or less in the same medical system where I went to medical school, there is no shortage of acquantances and a few very close friends around all the time. Sometimes when it is very hard for me to go to work, knowing that they are there helps a lot.

My best friend is a friend from medical school who also stayed on at the hospital. We can often catch a few minutes to chat outside the building while he smokes. He’s tried SO hard to quit, and even tried taking the bupropion for that, but guess what – it gave him panic attacks and made him paranoid! He can’t believe I’m sticking with it. It does give me panic attacks (witness yesterday morning) but I find them infinitely preferable to depression.

He has a new baby and is utterly in love with her and shows me pictures on his cell phone. I haven’t been good about going to see her; haven’t given her the baby gift (partly because I can never find anything quite special enough). I am happy that he is so happy.

I’m afraid I haven’t been a very good friend lately, since all I can think or worry about is how crazy I am…and no one wants to hear about someone’s mental health, shrink problems, med problems etc forever. He has been very good about always coming to talk if I need to, though. And sometimes we just talk about normal stuff, laugh at ridiculous senior doctors, the fucked-up system we are in, and so on. If another friend joins us, it’s better sometimes because I can’t talk about crazy and it just rolls over into small talk.

2. My partner and I spend domestic time together, which is very quiet and pleasant. I tend to be something of a homebody, and he humors me. We spend a lot of nights watching DVDs of comedies (I can’t stand to watch anything sad or serious on TV. If I wanted reality, I could go to work.) We laugh a lot. We curl up and read. We are both nerds. Sometimes we talk about physics or other science topics one of us has read about. We had this weird discussion of Descartes and Maxwell after something he read a few days ago, lasted late into the night. We got into this discussion about whether mathematics is something that exists intrinsically, or something we made up.

3. I love my house. It isn’t anything fancy, and is really a rented apartment, and nothing in it is expensive, but it has my things in it, and I have set it up to be a shelter for me, a quiet place with warm colors. I think that sometimes this isn’t so good because I don’t invite people over much. But sometimes I curl up on the sofa with a book or a blanket and feel overwhelmingly content. I am surprised at how nice this feels. I guess when you grow up in a stormy, violent place, the thought of home is a strange pleasure. I’m surprised to have found one. I am overwhelmingly grateful to live so comfortably, to be safe and warm and sheltered.

Of course, because I am crazy, this can lead to worry that it will all be taken away from me somehow. But I know I can survive that too. I have been in very bad places, poor places, alone in life, and that taught me that really a human being needs very little to survive. You don’t need a bed, or a roof, or a change of clothes, or internet. You need food, and that is about it. I can be thankful for what I have now while still knowing that I could survive without it, have survived in scarcity, in violence, not knowing where I would lay my head. I love what I have and would hate to give it up, but I wouldn’t die from that.

4. Though it stretches my budget immensely, is my single biggest expense after rent, I can pay for my mental health care, for what I need to keep a job, to avoid the “bottom of the barrel” public mental health system. This makes me luckier than people thrown at the mercy of the public system. Unfortunately, this is also self-perpetuating: I am able to work because I can afford at least partial medical treatment for my condition, which is not covered by insurance. People who can’t will never get the quality of care they need to get better.

5. When I work in the emergency room, I sometimes pass through the pediatric ER just to see what is going on. Pediatricians are the nicest people in the world and I’m always able to say hi and smile. There are sometimes funny kids in there too, and they make me smile too, even though kids aren’t my thing. The best break room in the whole ER complex is in the pediatric ER and when I eat I go in there and make tea (they have the water cooler) and see nurses and staff I haven’t seen since I stopped working there. The hardest work I did was there, but also the nicest environment. And everyone there always says hello to me and smiles.

For someone as shy and introverted as I am, it is wonderful to know I have a place like that, a place where “everybody knows my name.” And not in the way the internal med docs or ER docs do – as the freak one who always was in a rage and never got along (last time I worked with them I was in a very bad state). The pediatricians know I didn’t like pediatrics and didn’t like working there much, but they like me anyway. For someone like me, it is very nice to have people who are happy to see me. Especially after this bad year, when I ruined so many working relationships.

6. Since I’ve lived in the same place since med school, the local businesses know me. I can walk in to grab quick take-out food, and see familiar faces. The nearest neighborhood with amenities is of a lower middle class to working poor area, and people haven’t gotten into the ideas of having cars for everything, so they walk and use local business. There is a sense of community that people don’t have in wealthier areas. And they know me by sight when I walk in, too.

7. I always can call someone on the phone from my cave. (Not that I usually would, but that’s a different issue altogether.) Somehow, I don’t know how it happened, I ended up having friends. I’m afraid I haven’t been as good a friend as I should always, but I am fortunate to say that I’ve never felt truly lonely. Alone, certainly, but I have received far more love in this life than I ever deserved. We don’t get together that often, but we chat, we see each other at work. Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m sick, sometimes I can’t love them back as well as I’d like. But I know that for a lot of the mentally ill, they drift out of society into increasing isolation and that loneliness is a huge factor in suicide. I think that I may have spread a lot of pain amongst the people who have loved me, but I never meant it, and I was never really left alone.

Last time I was really depressed, it was last spring. One friend, I didn’t tell him details at the time, just that I was not feeling well. Despite having a house full of kids and being a busy doctor too, he called me at least every other day to see if I was ok, and let me vent without asking for details. Since at the time I was pretty much confined to the sofa, those phone calls were incredibly meaningful to me.

He always invited me to a weekend dinner with his family and I always declined, but once when I started to feel a little better, I went. Of course, I was nearly non-reactive, and when I did speak it was a huge faux-pas with his mother-in-law. But no one ever made me feel strange about anything. Even though it wasn’t a particularly memorable evening, it marked a lot of coming back to life for me. I felt horrible, was minimally groomed, but I was out of the house and back among the living.

This incredibly kind gesture, those daily calls, which must have been miserable, for no reason, was something that stays with me until today.

And I know that if I ever really flip out and end up in a hospital, I wouldn’t languish there at the mercy of some fucked up psychiatrists. A few close friends with connections in the med world would come to my aid and beat them down from over-drugging me. I’d die of embarrassment and probably try to keep them from even knowing, but I wouldn’t be alone at the mercy of the system.

8. I read a lot, though since these episodes have been so out of control, it has been a lot harder to focus. But this month I finished two books. Not my normal rate, but better than before. It used to be a big part of my day, especially when I was a kid. It is probably some escapist coping mechanism that isn’t so healthy, but I enjoy it. In my bedroom, on my side of the bed, I have a big pile of books and note papers. My partner calls it “my world.” Whatever I’m reading, which is usually one or two new books, and a lot of old favorites for when the mood strikes, are there. There are lots of books on the edges of the sofas too, and all over the house.

9. Food: not much of a cook, when I do cook, it is healthy fare, or something that goes together quickly. A grain and a legume. I don’t cook with much that “you can’t tell where it came from.”  Often, as I said, it is takeout from a local place. There is only one that is close by. Too much fried shit, but it is quick and good. On call, I eat at one of the many coffee shops in the adjacent shopping center – salad or pasta, usually. Usually I go with whoever I happen to be working with that day, but not always.

I hate all this Atkins shit. I love carbs – pasta and potatoes and bananas and grains. I’d rather give up fat than my carbs.

I can’t cook that well, but I’m a really good baker. I make all kinds of wonderful cookies and cakes. Nothing flashy or pretty, but the kind of thing you just can’t stop eating, out of simple ingredients. I haven’t in a while because of being busy and also not wanting to eat a whole batch, but it’s my secret skill.

10. I have a ton of makeup. Nothing expensive, but I used to be a sort of punk ass kid and I still have a lot of stuff left over from high school. I don’t get to wear it anymore much, but when I’m off work, I do. I wear my long hippie dresses, my slightly gothic looking black velvet stuff, my Wuthering Heights collar jacket. I guess some of it could pass at the hospital, especially if I wore just one piece, mixed with mostly business looks. But I hate having the clothes I like “contaminated” by work. The problem is that I don’t go out a lot to other places where I can wear them.

One of the books I’m reading is a pop culture version of a book on Schema Therapy – basically cognitive therapy that people with deep problems have them from deep assumptions rooted in childhood about themselves and the world. The pop culture book tells you all these signs of which false beliefs you might have. One of them was “Dressing more conservatively than you would like.” I think that was supposed to point at an “outsider” belief: that you feel like you don’t fit it, are somehow different. This can be a “defective” belief; you feel that you are somehow basically flawed, and damn well better hide it.

And damn if I don’t feel that way in medicine a lot. Most docs come from a very different background than I do, with very different social rules. Very upper middle class and conformist. I always feel like I’m trying to ape a look that they have…and I hate myself for sticking out because I don’t ever quite like them, and I also hate myself for trying so hard.

I remember in med school, there was this one girl from a very affluent city. She was a bitch, shallow, mean, basically obnoxious. Spoiled brat, rich parents who divorced and just threw money at her. She sort of pretended to be my friend, but always with an air of, I don’t know, like she would be my social guide. I didn’t really like her, but she terrified me because she was so mean. She always criticized my makeup, my clothes, whatever. One day I was wearing fishnet stockings (probably with Doc Martens but I don’t remember; certainly not with fuck-me-pumps or anything) and she came up and rolled her eyes so hard, and said to me with a snort, “God, don’t ever wear those again.”

This girl was a caricature; she was ridiculous, and no one else ever took her seriously. But she was from “the right side of the tracks” and this rich town and seemed to know the rules that I didn’t. And every time I let her do that to me. In high school, I would have gotten into a fistfight with someone like that. And I would have taken her down.

And I never wore fishnets to med school again.

Somehow I think that story is symbolic of what med school and the doctor world has sucked out of me.

And once again, I digress into psychological topics.

But I guess I can tie that in to this post, because it is something that, apart from my crazy, is prominent in my inner world lately. I am slowly coming to the realization of just how much I have let medical school and being a doctor kill my soul. How different I am from when I started. And I think back to all the times I should have said, “No. This far, and no further.” Years ago, in maybe the second year of medical school, with the animal experiments. And a million other examples. Right now, I am working very hard to recover my soul, my woman’s wild soul, from inside the soulless monstrosity that is modern medicine.

A funny thing happened lately…I have been so depressed off and on that I finally let my meticulous makeup go and have been going to work without it, with just a little bit. And looking generally disheveled, hair uncombed, because I just can’t deal with it. (I have finally grown a half-meter of hair, which I love, but it’s just so hard to wash it all after 30 hours on my feet, and I know I’ll probably cut it, but still, I worked so hard to grow it out.)

And I’m not sure, maybe I’m just imagining it, but it seems like I’m getting less disbelief when I walk in and say I’m a doctor. Most of the girl doctors look like that.

I’m not sure what bothers me more, that I am letting myself go like that, or that no one can imagine a doctor who doesn’t look like C. Everett Koop (and even he had some goofy facial hair going on).

I also hate how many comments I’ve gotten about how I look so much more “professional” without the makeup. (One from that attending who tore me down.) Even the shrink said I was “prettier bare,” that I didn’t need to “hide behind all that.” (Was that a borderline inappropriate comment? I’m never sure.)

If I want to wear it, none of their fucking business. Women have played with masks and veils since the beginning of time. Why can’t I?

At home, though, I immediately change into sweats, warm, cozy things that I’ve had forever.

But – I love playing with makeup and looking slightly like I stepped out of the wrong time century. Even if now I just do it in the bathroom alone before I get into the shower.

11. Other things in my life every day: sometimes I promise myself a good cup of coffee on the way into the hospital and that is the thought that keeps me going as I get out of bed, get dressed in the cold bathroom, sitting on the bath mat as I brush teeth because I’m too tired and down to get up. I feel like a little kid, bribed with candy. But sometimes, that’s a big part of my day.

12. I worry about money a lot. Not paying the rent and bills and all that; and I never run up the credit card. I’ve always managed to live within my means, which at times were ridiculously meager…except for one thing: my massive student loan debt. I have no idea how I will ever pay this off. Or even make payments that make a dent in it. Once the deferments and all that are up, the payment alone will not leave me enough for rent. Hoping for a miracle. I guess I’m just like everybody else in this. I obsessively read the “get out of debt” stories, and “America’s Cheapest Family” and all that. But the thing is, there’s not much more I can cut. I don’t buy clothes, I don’t go out to bars or to eat much (the takeaway is cheaper than buying enough basic stuff to cook for me), really the only thing I do buy is books, and even most of them are used. I would try to cut back, but part of the problem with libraries is that what I read is always too obscure, or in the wrong language. No one ever thinks, when they move to another country, how much they will want to read in their native language – and how expensive it might be to find imported books.

My credit card statement is funny – it breaks the charges down by categories. All I ever have are groceries, gas, insurance payments, pharmacies, and books. Every time I open it in front of someone, they just laugh.

I guess I could go carless. I don’t really need one. Local mom and pop grocers deliver, and, while it does cost money, it’s less than a car. But after my contract is up, I don’t know where I’ll be working, and then I might need one, so I don’t want to get rid of one just yet.

13. I always keep a bus pass in my wallet, and sometimes I take the bus to the hospital. The walk to the stop is nice, and it is quicker than having to park there. The hospital is toward the end of the line, so the bus by then is usually full and I stand up. It is nice not to drive and worry about when my car is going to die.

14. I take something to write with everywhere. Often I get writing ideas that fly through my head, and if I don’t get them down immediately, they’ll go away, be forgotten. My life is full of the backs of receipts, of ticket stubs, of gum wrappers, on which are written things like the perfect end to my novel. My close friends laugh at me because they can see when I zone out into an idea, and sometimes laugh or am otherwise altered by the words that run through my head, how my attention is both in the conversation and far gone. People like that girl above think I’m weird. But the people who love me think it is just another part of me, a quirk.

* * *

I think I wanted this post to be even more about minutiae, things not concerned with my mind or medicine. I’ll try to let some more ideas come to me as I go about my day over the next few days. Maybe if I ride a bus.

* * *

Next time: remind me tomorrow to write about how I cried at the shrink’s a few days ago. I didn’t think I had tears left, I thought I was too cold. I think he kind of had contempt for what I cried over…but that’s ok, it reminded me of something important, pointed the way to me to the things I need to be able to cry about again, the things that I can’t, ever since becoming a doctor.