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.

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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.

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.

Why I Don’t Fire the Shrink, and follow-up

I’m sorry to drop the last post down because I think it is one of my more important ones and would like it to get as much traffic as possible. Maybe I’ll make it a page or something, but I wanted to write a little more today.

Tony White over at Graffiti left me a beautiful post with a deep answer to a question about what constitutes a “characterological” or “personality” problem. I guess I asked since I have been accused of the same, though I don’t agree.

I have been trying to draft further questions to him but his website isn’t working. He did, however, inadvertently answer sort of what I guess this shrink is trying to get to do with me – make a connection that will be stable and somehow “heal” whatever is fucked up. Whether I believe in this or not – sounds like one step away from alien healing to me, well, that’s another story.

But I thought I’d give some follow-up to the shrink-related part of this post. I thought that if I’m so curious that I’m writing about it in depth, fairly eloquently, I may as well ask him. I did not go and say, “Hey, buddy, aren’t you kind of useless?” Instead, I phrased the question, “Do you think that maybe at this point, the right thing to do would be to stop trying to make me better and shift into working with the condition I’m in and getting me to a point where I can live with this?” After all, I am functional, I’m not in a state where I’m homeless or actively suicidal or beating my partner. It could be worse.

His answer was an emphatic no, that it is definitely doable to get me to better health.

Leaving me to wonder who in the room really has the denial problem.

* * *

I did call in sick, I think maybe for the first time in my life, the day after that post. I really was sick from whatever drug was doing that to me, had been writhing around and vomiting since 3 AM, but I felt incredibly guilty, and am waiting for the universe to punish me. I did make an appointment with the shrink that day, arrived pale and sweating, and he flipped out and tried to send me to the emergency room (shrinks don’t deal well with physical illness). But still, I’m waiting to be punished.

The worst part is, it doesn’t really matter if I’m there or not. The exact same work still gets done. That’s the bind of this job – it is an incredible amount of work with an incredible amount of responsibility, pay below minimum wage, and yet you are utterly expendable. I did call in, but no one even noticed I was gone the day after.

On the up side, I have started investigating other possibilities for employment when I finish. I think this is a positive sign; instead of helplessness and despair at the world of medicine, I’m being proactive and looking for solutions. Not depressive thinking at all.

* * *

I realize I’m down on the shrink a lot and a lot of the things he says are horribly insensitive and sexist, that everyone I know encourages me heartily to fire him. So for anyone who cares, here are the reasons why I haven’t.

1. He is basically a decent person and is trying to help. I realize that this argument could be made for, oh, say, Sarah Palin, but after seeing psychiatrists from the other side in med school, I know that there are some truly Machiavellian types out there. I could do so much worse. He means well, though our views on what is wrong with me, let alone how to fix it, are worlds apart. It is sad that this is an important point, but it really is. At least I can be fairly certain he’s not out there making jokes about me with colleagues.

2. He has seen my episodes on both ends of the spectrum. I can’t say that he really “knows” me, not at all. But I just do not want to have to start the whole history thing over somewhere else. I don’t want to have to go through admitting to manic behavior. And he has seen it, at least glimpses of it, what I don’t manage to hide, so he has a firsthand clinical impression. That counts for something.

3. He is available. He understands the vagaries of a junior doctor’s schedule and is incredibly flexible about seeing me when I can, including sometimes 7 or 8 at night. He can see me on short notice and understands when I disappear for weeks at a time. I know this also sounds like a dumb reason, but I had to quit the counselor I liked best since starting med school (one of those tough, New York feminists) because we simply could never find a time to have an appointment. Others have demanded a set hour every week, which is impossible for me. I also see this as an extension of reason number 1 – he really does care and is trying to help, even at his own inconvenience.

4. He understands the brutality of medical training. This is the first time I’ve had any kind of therapy with an actual psychiatrist, and one thing that is nice is that I don’t have to explain the concepts of on-call, of how it feels after 30 hours, etc.

5. He picked my good meds. This gave me 4 years of normal, good life. I guess in retrospect he fell onto it more out of luck than talent, but still, I am immensely grateful to him for those four years, in which I lived like a normal person and managed to build a decent life for myself, even if it is all going to shit now, and might actually be crueler to have had and lost than never had at all.

6. About anything not related to my mental health, we get along well. Though here it may sound like a lot of angry silences and friction, whenever we are just chatting about something, we mostly get along. We share an unusual hobby and can chat in a friendly way. Just as long as we don’t drift into points where his basically bourgeois or sexist views come out, but mostly they are only a problem when discussing my life and its twists and turns, which he can’t really understand, being from such a middle class boring place. This is a big issue – he misses a lot of what is culturally normal for me and sees it as psychopathology. We come from the same ethnicity, but grew up in different parts of the world – he in a very conformist (though not necessarily right-wing) place and me as a hippie liberal. He’s the kind of man who pays lip service to liberalism but sees marriage and 2.5 kids and a mortgage as normal and anything else as deviant.

But, as I said, if we stay away from that, it’s ok. Light banter is always pleasant.

7. He doesn’t fall for my manipulation. This is also a big one. For whatever historical reasons, I’m a master manipulator of men – by anything from mental gymnastics and rhetoric to sex appeal, I always get my way. I do get furious when I don’t with him, but I think somewhere deep down, it’s good for me.

8. He recognizes that I’m wasting my life and talent. In fact, has made that very comment to me. This is one of the hot spots of what is bothering me. Unfortunately, most counselors I’ve seen see that feeling, the feeling that I am wasting my talents, as pathological, and try to address it, because on paper I look like I’ve done a lot for my age. He once, unprompted, told me I was wasting my life…and I thought it was one of the most insightful things anyone had said – that he sees through my impressive resume to see the dilettantism behind it.

* * *

But the main reason is #1 – I know I could do so much worse. If it’s all bullshit, I may as well stay with someone who means well.

And no, none of this excuses his obvious countertransference-gone-wild issues, the sexism of calling me borderline because I am an angry female, the utter unwillingness to discuss what he sees as the problem and how he plans to therapeutically fix it, the dismissal and blaming of the patient…but still, at least he’s nice. And that means a lot. Do I really want to go find someone with all that same shit, who also is mean or cold?

* * *

Edit: Tony White read this and pointed out a reason number 9, one of which I was not consicouly aware, but of course, he’s right. It made me laugh to realize that I hadn’t realized this, when it was so obvious to someone else.

In which I fall back into my life

I know, I know, terrible to tempt fate. But it seems that the lithium + Wellbutrin combo is working. I’m not 100%, not even 50%. But I am not bat-shit crazy right now, and that brings both tremendous relief and tremendous horror at how I have acted over the past year. All the flying into rages, the inability to sit still, the impatience, the hating everything and everyone – all the stuff the shrink blamed on personality flaws and not mood – it has all just faded away. Now that I am not in the middle of it, I can fully appreciate how awful it was. How awful I was.

And now I have to put my life back together. I missed almost every opportunity this last year to learn something, to enjoy my work, to live my life. I’ve been horrible to everyone who cares about me, either from the irritability or being so sunk in my own misery that I couldn’t extend myself to them at all. By being so irritable and angry and short-fused, I’ve ruined my reputation in almost every department I’ve dealt with. Not the brilliance reputation, which might have even been enhanced (I aced the medical boards while in a similar manic-irritable state – in half the alloted test time), but the idea of being someone that anyone would ever want to work with.

I haven’t been to the shrink in about 3 weeks and honestly, that feels good too. I have a lot of work ahead of me, mending fences or bridges or however that expression goes. I am not sure if I owe him an apology for being so crazy and difficult and aggressive, or if he owes me one for not identifying that more clearly as a fairly severe mood state. Maybe both of us do.

I think I might need slightly more Wellbutrin and soon I need prescriptions for both things (I am still trying to hold fast to the principle of not messing with this stuff myself, getting prescriptions from a treating doc). And the Wellbutrin seems to be making me something of a worrier – every wound I close, I can’t sleep at night wondering if it will open, if it is bleeding inside. This is causing me considerable distress, and maybe I need a whiff of serotonin to tone that down.

I left a message with him last week, never got a call back (he is usually good about calling on the same day) and I’m hesitant to call again because, well, I’m always so ambivalent about dealing with him. In the meantime, I’m assuming he’s out of the country or something, though there is that nagging question about whether he possibly snapped himself and jumped off a roof somewhere. Occupational hazard.

But I don’t really want to go back to any kind of therapy. Not now. Not with him. It has felt good to have that weight and dread of appointments off me during these three weeks. Right now, I need to work on rebuilding my life, making amends, starting to function again. I know how to do that, more or less. Unfortunately, I’ve had to do it many times. A few of them, I’ve picked up and moved and started my life all over, so hard it was to face what I was during the episode, to face the people who saw it.  Sometimes, it’s easier to just start over than to try to fix what is broken.

I think a comment I left over at Secret Life of a Manic Depressive was sort of hurtful, though I didn’t mean it to be. It’s so strange, you learn as a doctor, how sometimes something that you say and mean in a totally different way is interpreted as insulting or hurtful. It’s happened to me. I guess the lesson is, once again, be gentle, for everyone around you is engaged in a great struggle. I’m sorry.

Thank you

To everyone who left a comment and emailed – it means a lot to me, and your generosity of spirit and perspicacity are so much deeper than the supposed professional. I hope that all of this medical training hasn’t beaten out of me the common-sense wisdom and gentleness with which you have responded to me and that I can offer the same to someone else someday. Thank you so much for the reality check, the “you’re crazy, but not that crazy” that I so badly needed to hear.