Category Archives: Depression

Comfortably Numb

I used to love Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I haven’t listened to it in years, but the title of the book I’m reading, Comfortably Numb, jumped out at me when I was in a bookstore last week because it was a reference to a song from the album and the movie. I still remember the images, although it’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen the movie. An unconscious man lies in a dingy hotel room, surrounded by people furious because he can’t perform on stage. They shoot him up with something, and after a period of semi-consciousness and hallucination, he finds himself in uniform, riding in a car. The video is interwoven with images from the man’s childhood. He finds a sick rat as a small boy and wishes to nurse it. His mother won’t let him, so he takes it to a shed by the river, puts it in a box of hay, and covers it with his vest. When he returns, the rat is dead. These images contrast with war images, images of himself as a child with a fever, and the scene as he returns to consciousness after being shot up with some kind of powerful stimulant and hallucinogen.

I must confess here: I didn’t remember all the images. YouTube is a remarkable resource. I remembered the unconscious man in the dark room (played by my countryman, Bob Geldof), the men trying to slap him into consciousness, the shot, him waking up. I remember the nightmarish quality of the lighting, and the words “Comfortably numb.” The rest returned only when I saw the video on YouTube. What surprised me is how accurate the images I did remember were. I caught snapshots of the video on my brain, and those snapshots retained the mood, the shadows-and-light, the despair, of the original video.

When I saw the book, with its aptly named title, I couldn’t help but buy it, and I’ve been reading it for the past week. (I’m on break! I have time to read!) It describes a nation of malcontents who have bought into the dream of perpetual, instant happiness as a right, and who have fallen under the drug industry’s spell. In their millions, they march into doctors’ offices around the nation to demand whatever drug they’ve seen advertised on TV that week. “Pharmacists say that in the days after a news story or a new DTC [Direct to Consumer] ad for a medication comes out they observe a massive increase in prescriptions for that medicine” (48), writes author Charles Barber.

He validates the horrible experience I had when on antidepressants after my mum died when he writes of the side effects of tardive dyskinesia and akathisia, which he calls, “the worst common side effect, in my observed experience” (88). While his references to these effects are for antipsychotic drugs rather than antidepressants, in some patients — and I was one of them — SSRI medication can cause both akathisia and tardive dyskinesia. In my case the tardive dyskinesia, which often is permanent, was temporary, lasting only two or three weeks.

In addition, he described a Welsh study in which healthy college students were given SSRI medication. No less than 10 percent developed “horribly disturbing suicidal and homicidal tendencies, completely alien to anything they had ever experienced. One person imagined slitting her throat and bleeding to death next to her partner” (58).

I am not alone. I read his words and felt another wave of relief wash over me. While I have no doubts about what happened to me almost four years ago, occasionally my little toad voice will creep in. It was you. No one else would have reacted that way. Look at all the people you know who take antidepressants and are just fine. You imagined it all.

No. I didn’t. And I didn’t imagine that the doctor released me after only two days, and that the insurance company didn’t charge me for the hospital stay, although it should have. Why not? Why did the doctor release me immediately after I told him what had happened? Sometimes, when I see those personal injury solicitation ads like the one I linked to above, I think I should pursue it. I know I have a case. But I’m not going to because it’s not my way. I’m just happy that slowly there’s a growing awareness of how dangerous SSRI’s can be. Maybe, eventually, the medical field or the FDA will restrict prescription rights to psychiatrists who are trained in adverse reactions, contra-indications and other potentially deadly dangers of the brain medication that today doctors hand out with very little prompting.

I’m not saying — and neither is Barber — that antidepressants don’t have their place. But he distinguishes between depression and Depression. We’re all depressed sometimes. Grief can bring on depression, as can divorce, life-threatening illness, and other life challenges, all of which I dealt with within a very short period of time that terrible year. But Depression is different. The only Depression I’ve ever had was caused by the drugs that were supposed to treat it, and I had to get off them to get over it.

My path has swerved, as it so often does, in writing. I thought I would write about a phrase from Barber’s book that I read and that pushed me back into my teen years, another stab at my constantly stalling retrospective. But I found myself considering the phenomenon of antidepressants and the American psyche instead, and remembering my own experience on those drugs. Barber has a solution, about which I’m reading as I probe further into the book, and it involves the Buddhism that saved my mother’s life.

From comfortably numb to aware. From depressed to awake.

Every day I pray that I shall wake a little more.

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Shout it out

I keep thinking about my daughter’s friend, Dee. She’s funky, dyed red hair and piercings and crazy mismatched clothes: short plaid skirt over black fishnet stockings, tight tweed jacket on top and lace-up boots below. Always odd combinations, purple and red and orange together, brown and yellow, a splash of black. When she shows up in an Abercrombie sweatshirt one day, my daughter, who likes her brand names, is disappointed. “Don’t go preppy on us, Dee,” she says. “I love your outfits.”

We picked Dee up for a VM sleepover on Friday. When we arrived she had finished making dinner for her mother, her stepfather and her baby brother, and had just started in on the dishes. “Come in,” she said. “Want some stir fry?” She served it in plastic bowls, and we sat at the table while Zeke played airplane with the two-year-old’s food and Dee washed the dishes.

“Open up,” Zeke purred. “Down the hatch.” She made airplane noises and waved the spoon around extravagantly in front of the boy’s nose, and he giggled and squealed.

Dee’s mother sat at the computer, her back to us. She didn’t look up when we walked in. When I passed her to go to the bathroom, she looked sideways at me, not meeting my eye. On the way out from the bathroom, I introduced myself.

“Oh yeah,” Dee said. “Zeke’s mom, this is my mom. Mom, this is Zeke’s mom. Isn’t my mom amazing,” she added brightly. Her mother shook my hand when I held offered it, a limp, damp shake. She was a big round woman who balanced on two tiny feet, her legs short and surprisingly thin. I found out later she was pregnant.

We played with the boy some more while Dee finished up. The house was filled with Christmas ornaments on shelves and in various hutches. Oversized photographs of Dee as a child and the little boy hung on the walls.

When we left, I said goodbye to Dee’s mom. She didn’t respond. Her finger clicked on the mouse button, and the computer screen flashed.

Usually Dee can’t hang out much. She spends too much time watching the little boy. He adores her, and she him. When we left he wailed after her, and his mother ignored him.

Dee, Zeke says, sleeps around. She smokes pot and cigarettes. She speaks of herself in the third person, in a high voice. “Dee loves this,” she says, pointing at a Sobee tea when we go grocery shopping. I put it in the cart. “Oh,” she says.”Dee thanks you.”

At home, she practices her part for the Monologues. “Shout it out,” I say. “Sound mad. Sound sorry when the words get softer. Imagine you’re her.”

She doesn’t take much coaching.

Looking for Light

Winter has always been hard for me. I love light, waking at dawn to quiet illumination. I love long golden evenings, the sun setting on the tawny landscape of the valley where I live. The 5:30 a.m. blare of an alarm intruding on sleep-in-darkness irks me. My body resists the call to arise into the chill air of a tired black morning. Driving home in the dark, avoiding ice and snow, is wearing. I want to be up with the sun, whenever the sun arises.

About a year and half ago, I bought myself one of those alarm clocks that simulates dawn. It was a little one, with a clock radio paired with it, a little pricey compared to a plain radio alarm clock, but worth it, I thought, if it made waking easier. It was worthless. The light was too dim to wake me, and the radio quality was so poor it was unusable. After a few weeks of sleeping through the light and waking to static, I gave up and tossed it. In the meantime I’d done a little web research and discovered that others had the same problem as I did with that particular model, but that those others had gone on to purchase a bigger product from a different company, and they were happy with it. So I did the same, ordered my BioBrite dawn simulator and waited for it to arrive. When it did, I set it up, set the alarm, and waited for the next morning. The light came on gradually, and woke me eventually to a room filled with light. A few moments later, after I had showered and was getting dressed, the back-up beep went off, a horrendous sound that would have woken me if the light hadn’t — but in a foul mood. After a few mornings in which I woke unfailingly to the glow of what to my body appeared to be sunrise, I switched off the beep, and for more than a year have enjoyed waking the way my body wants me too. Even when I’m exhausted, the light coaxes me out of sleep, and I find myself wide-eyed at some time between 5:40 and 5:45.

Then, a week or so ago, the light didn’t come on. I didn’t wake till almost time to be in class, and I thought I’d slept through it. I was horrified, especially since Zeke’s friend was staying with us and I had to apologize for almost getting her late to class. The next morning I set the backup radio, and it woke me. The light hadn’t come on on my BioBrite. Assuming the bulb was out, I emailed the company and discovered that I could replace it with a common candalabra bulb. I did, and nothing worked. Now I’m waiting to hear back from the company. I ordered a floor lamp from them just a few days ago, and I’m ready to cancel the order if they don’t help me out. If they tell me the $130 light is out of warranty and unfixable, I’m going to be furious. (See The Story of Stuff for why, apart from the sheer cost in dollars to me.) But the email the guy sent about replacing the light bulb was friendly and funny — even if it did take him two days to respond, and I hope the company is a good one, one that I can endorse. The product is great, but only if it lasts longer than just over a year!

In the meantime, I’m back to waking to an angry alarm clock, hauling my grumpy self out of bed, and cursing the winter. Gads, life can be so frustrating sometimes. (I’ll update you re the company response, if you’re interested.)

Protected: On Depression and Coping

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Black and white

The light spreads its warmth across my neck, presses gentle fingers into my nape. I look up, at the water stain on the white paper taped to the ceiling, then down to my red-painted toenails, the paint chipped, a legacy from an evening in the Azores when Zeke and I ate alone together in our hotel room and she painted my nails to comfort me.

“Turn to the left a little,” R.C. says. “That’s right. Beautiful.” The flash snaps, shadows scramble into different corners for a moment, then settle back into their quiet place. “Good,” R.C. mutters, playing with the light settings on his camera. “You’re beautiful.”

I don’t feel beautiful. I feel fat and ugly. I feel lumpy and riven. Gravity pulls down on the fat I gained on those antidepressants three years ago, weight which I just can’t seem to lose. My skin dries, grows flaky and inelastic. When I squat, it bunches behind my knees. “Stretch out that leg,” R.C. says. I stretch it, and the stretching pulls my skin taut. Perhaps this photo will be beautiful.

I first became his model in 1999, eight years ago. A couple of black-and-white prints of me hang on the wall in his studio. One is a full body shot of me with one breast, taken three days before my second mastectomy. The shadows obscure the spot of my mastectomy scar. My right breast stands up pert and tight, hard nippled. The other is a shot of me on my back, no head, no lower legs, just the “landscape” of my body, the swell and dip of my belly, and the straight clear lines of my mastectomy scars.

R.C. is a professional photographer. For years he took pictures of weddings and cute little girls and horses and dog shows. Now he teaches photography at a local college and sells the occasional photograph from the occasional showing he does in various local galleries. He’s sold a few pictures of me, I know, hopefully to homes that will appreciate that a mastectomy doesn’t mean destruction of beauty or loss of femininity. My feminist colleagues mutter words like “cutting off the head objectifies the model,” but for me having the photos taken was a healing act, one in which I recognized that I could still be attractive even after an operation that too often was labeled as “maiming.”

R.C. has been at me to model for him again recently. It’s been a couple of years. The last set of pictures were fine, but I can’t shake the image of myself as fat and covered in lumps in the wrong places. “You’re beautiful,” R.C. says. “Let me show you what I have in mind.” He’s downloaded some images from the internet, abstract pieces that are pure light and shadow, where images of human bodies are mere suggestion, often genderlesss. In others the human body becomes a backdrop for patterns of light and dark. I think of the landscape pictures he takes: sweeping, swirling lines of wheat fields, some places fallow, some stubble, some ploughed, some still alive with heavy-nodding wheat heads bending before wind. They are the land as art, as a place for light to pool and in which shadows linger. His abstract nudes are similar.

“I want real women,” he said when I first arrived this morning. “Not Playboy models.”

I shook my head. “I can’t do it,” I said. We started talking. He’s a friend too, someone who’s known me for nigh on 20 years.

“What happened to you?” he asked. “I’ve been trying to figure it out. You used to have so much confidence. Even after losing your breasts you had confidence. And now….”

And it’s true. The divorce, my painful, difficult relationship with Nada, the destruction in my family as my mother was dying, all of these have shredded me. Every day is a fight to lift my head and feel that I have the right to be alive and to live with joy. And Nada, Nada of my heart and of the night, is at the center.

Yesterday I broke it off with him. I want more than friendship with benefits (on his terms), which is all he is willing to promise. I want love. I want a future. So I called it quits. Now I need to focus on loving Zeke and repairing the damage I’ve done in letting Nada hurt her (there’s a story there, an argument, a pitting of daughter against daughter, that maybe I’ll tell one day, maybe not. But it was enough, along with the ambivalence of his love, for me to see the way clear to walking away). Now I need to find my way back to the peace I know hovers before me. Maybe R.C.’s black-and-white pictures will help, the sweeping light caressing curves that are little more than suggestions, capturing the stillness of shadow, the quiet of waiting.

Synchronicity and no reason to whine

I got a surprise email today, from StellaPlainAndTall, asking for access to the private area of the Blog-City blog that I abandoned when it wouldn’t accept comments or let me give people permission to access the members-only area. I had just discovered her blog about two weeks ago, through another blogger on whose site I sometimes lurk, and I admire her for her grace in hard times — a kind of grace I wish I could emulate. And then, bingo, there she is (well, symbolically, OK, all you literalists) in my email, asking for permission to read my blog. I directed her here — Hi Stella — and then got all shivery about writing again. I’ve been so sporadic, so disinterested, though I still read my favorite blogs most days. I wonder sometimes why I quit something I really enjoyed. Lack of time, lack of cohesion in my mind, desire to read. These things all. Yes.

Also the opiate of happiness at times, and in contrast, the despair that still threatens — though never as destructively as two years ago during the antidepressant fiasco. Still, I don’t wish to depress people. When darkness looms, I dive into books, escaping through the words of others. Why are my whinings worthy of airing in an open forum?

There are decisions I must make. I line up the pros and cons and move them around constantly. Next week I have an appointment with a genetics counselor in Big City. I saw her with my mother eight years ago. At the time she said, “Don’t ignore any symptoms.” What she meant was, “You’re primed for cancer. Catch it early.” When I didn’t ignore symptoms, my primary doctor became frustrated and stopped responding. Now I have a new doctor, not senile, and much nicer. (No, he isn’t the type to prescribe strong anti-psychotic antidepressants for a 13-year-old with headaches, which is what my former doctor tried to do!)

I’ve been to the doctor only twice in the past two years (odd for someone on cancer watch for the past 11 years of her life, used to blood tests and chest x-rays and ultrasounds etc at regular intervals). The last time I went only because I needed asthma medication for the Azores. The time before because I hadn’t had a pap smear in three years.

These days I do my best to ignore all symptoms. When I have a smokers’-cough coughing, wheezing asthma attack and people say “Can’t the doctors do something about that?” I tell them “no” and change the subject. I’ve never smoked, but sometimes I sound like I’ve smoked two packs a day for a lifetime. And there’s really nothing the doctors can do. “You have asthma and bronchitis,” they say. “Use your inhaler.”

But still, last month, when I went in for asthma medicine, my new physician suggested the genetics counselor. It’s almost time for me to consider an oopherectomy. I had melanoma at 31, breast cancer at 34. My female relatives have a discouraging habit of dying relatively young of breast and ovarian cancer (at least my mother was reborn as a heron!). So the genetics counselor thinks I ought to have my ovaries out. (Or so she suggested eight years ago.) And now I have to decide. But god, no ovaries, and no HRT either — unless they have some alternative? How can I face precipitous menopause when I’m such a whiny bitch anyway? Wouldn’t it be better to risk dying of ovarian cancer?

Truth is I’ve been in a study for the past eight years for women at high risk for ovarian cancer. Ultrasound every year. Blood draw every three or four months. (Cough cough, the last blood draw was over a year ago and my CA125 markers were elevated and I was supposed to go in again for another blood draw to eliminate ovarian cancer and did I? No siree.) The study nurse is on my case. I want to go. But driving three hours and working and being a single parent to a teenager and trying to care for my dad long-distance now that my sister is mother to a newborn… well. It does wear one down. Some days I can hardly move. Yesterday, when breathing was a challenge because of the cruddy air, and I was tired, and I had to advise at work and film Zeke diving so her coach could point out her good dives, and my dog had to go to the vet for cheet grass in her ear and I had to get an affidavit notarized at the bank because someone charged two airline tickets to Dubai on my credit card and now the card is canceled and Citibank is investigating fraud, and then I lost the affidavit (before eventually finding it again) and Nada is stressing stressing stressing over not having a job… and I was just tired. Wanted it all to stop. And I’m not even working officially yet. Yep. How is there time for being pre-emptive about health, I want to know? How?

OK, you got it. The whine. Fecking whinging, as the Irish would say. I’m a whinger. Oh, and did I tell you the love lease on my horse didn’t work out and I had to quick-quick find him another home and that — God knows — was stressful, because I prefer to pretend he doesn’t exist. Thinking about him brings a veritable fountains of salty water to my environs. How did it come to this?

So there you have it. Total lack of grace. A blubbering whingeing whiner. And in the midst of all the whining, yet still that marvellous trip to the Azores. Who gets to experience something like that? And in doing so, who has the right to whine?

So I haven’t written much. Things are either too easy, or too dang hard. Nothing in between. And I know I lack grace. So I just swallow the dark-cloud words, take the dogs for a walk, and read the blogs of people like Stella, who give me something to aim for. Thank you, Stella. And please don’t stop writing!

Antidepressants — again

My friend Diana sent me a link to a site that reveals that Cho Seung Hui, the boy responsible for the Virginia Tech massacres, was on antidepressants. Given my experience with those deadly drugs, I believe it. If I’d had a gun during those times, it would have been hard for me to resist the siren call of those images of me dead that followed me everywhere, and the blind rage that fueled me might have exploded into something deadly.

When will the stranglehold that the drug companies have on the American medical system be broken? How many more tragedies of this sort must occur before family doctors stop prescribing antidepressants as though they are cough drops. They should be prescribed only by psychiatric experts with NO ties to drug companies, only under close supervision, and only as a last resort, when all other natural means have been exhausted.

The doctor who was my family physician for 15 years tried to prescribe antidepressants for my daughter’s headache diagnosis before Christmas. She didn’t tell us what the prescription was, or what to watch out for. She didn’t warn us of the increased suicide risk for adolescents. When I Googled the vaguely familiar name I saw the enormous red-flag warning box that showed up on the screen: “Warning: Do NOT prescribe to minors unless all other options have been ruled out.” Something like that. Needless to say, my daughter’s father and I didn’t fill the prescription, and that doctor is no longer either mine nor my daughter’s health care provider. My daughter is taking a naturopathic substance for her headaches, and is doing much better. She had ALLERGIES, for Christ’s sake. Was my ex-doctor senile, insane or just being paid off by the drug companies?

Something has changed in me, though. I used to get so angry about everything that was falling apart in the world around us. News stories of disappearing bees — with all the horrifying implications contained therein — would have shrouded me in gloom, in memories of my mother’s beekeeping, in what we will miss when we cannot taste heather honey anymore, in how that tiny loss presages much darker times. The endless reports of carnage in Iraq, paired with images of a genial president claiming, “We’re making progress,” would have filled me with dread and a sense of helpless anger. The tidal wave of junk food that one day could claim my daughter’s health, and my growing inability to help guide her to healthy food choices would have weighted me into despair.

Oddly enough, I recognize something now that before I didn’t. I really am helpless. And it’s OK. I do the little things I can do here at home, like recycle and keep fruit and vegetables available, and buy whole grain and organic. And I accept that I have no control over anything beyond my own small world. And even in that, my control is limited, no more than a convenient illusion. This handing over of my life, my control, to something other than myself has lightened me. If I can find three things to be joyful about, that is enough:

  • Sun and cherry blossoms and silence
  • My dogs waiting eager-eyed for their walk
  • Zeke’s kindness, which I see in her interactions with her friends, with me