It is not common for me to start a post by citing the United States Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, but here we are. Assuming I do this right, my choice here will make sense shortly. I hope.
S5.4.2 Each convex mirror shall have permanently and indelibly marked at the lower edge of the mirror’s reflective surface, in letters not less than 4.8 mm nor more than 6.4 mm high the words “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.”
I’m not sure when this was added to these standards. I was going to do a little more research to determine that. Then, I came to several realizations one right after the other:
I don’t give shit.
You don’t give a shit.
Acknowledging when this requirement was added to the standards has no bearing whatsoever on this post.
Given the above realizations, including the enumeration of these realizations here provides no value but I did it anyway.
I can be a real jackass sometimes.
There’s science behind why convex mirrors can give you the impression that whatever you see in the mirror looks further away than it is. You are more than welcome to look that up. But I’m going to continue.
A giant bag of dicks
A few years ago, I was on a leave of absence from my job due to my Depression and Anxiety being a giant bag of dicks. I should share a little background here and since it worked so well above, I’m going to use a List.
Depression is a dick.
Anxiety is a dick.
“Depression and Anxiety” does NOT equal “Depression + Anxiety” in the way that having “two apples and three plums” means you have (2+3=5) five pieces of fruit.
Rather, it is more like Depression to the power of Anxiety (or vice-versa); each one making the other “a lot worse.”
Whenever something is troublesome, having “a giant bag” of that something is “a lot worse.” Since having one hornet nest is bad enough, having a giant bag of hornet nests would be a total shit-show.
Thus, Depression (which is a dick) and Anxiety (which is a dick) yields a “giant bag of dicks” rather than “two dicks.”
My oldest, Paige, had her learner’s permit for driving, meaning she could legally drive with either me or my wife in the car with her. She was playing Cello at the time and took lessons from an amazingly awesome music teacher about ten minutes away. Since the giant bag of dicks (see above) made being around people REALLY HARD and uncomfortable, I went with Paige to her lessons, but instead of going into the teacher’s house with her, I sat in the car trying to read, usually with at least some success (trouble concentrating is a pretty common symptom of giant bags of dicks).
It was lovely weather at the time so I sat in the passenger seat with the windows down. The music teacher lived on a pretty quiet street so it was wonderfully peaceful. I was having trouble reading so I put my tablet down and looked out the window, my eyes drawn to the side-view mirror. I still shudder and get waves of super intense emotion and shock when I recall what I saw in the mirror that day.
As I have shared before (see Trauma, EMDR, and the Kobayashi Maru Test » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com)), my mother suffered from Bipolar Disorder. And she struggled a lot. For decades. And when she was really having a hard time, even when she couldn’t form the words or the noises necessary to scream in aguish and exhaustion and rage and sorrow and defiance and surrender, she had this look in her eyes that I can only describe as screaming. Despite the countless times I saw my mother’s eyes scream, I didn’t realize what it was until a particular day (years after her death) when I was sitting in my car outside a music teacher’s house.
As I looked in that mirror, and saw my eyes, the rest of my face changed to be my mother’s face. But the eyes were identical. It looked just like how you might see a transformation in movie. My face faded out, except my eyes, and suddenly I was looking at my mom. My eyes were screaming in aguish and exhaustion and rage and sorrow and defiance and surrender. No. That’s not right. OUR eyes were screaming in aguish and exhaustion and rage and sorrow and defiance and surrender.
In that profound moment, I realized how much I had in common with my mom in a way I never had before. In that profound moment, I realized how alone my mom had been most of her life. How much pain she was in. How much she needed someone on her side in a way that actually felt helpful to her. In that profound moment, the decades of compassion that my mother desperately needed but was denied descended on me without mercy, pummeling me, like someone was beating me with a… well… a giant bag of dicks.
I wrote a poem. Honest.
A few days after this, I wrote a poem about this experience. I infused it with anguish. I infused it with transformation. I infused it with newfound compassion. I called it Eye Scream. And I lost it. Can’t find it anywhere. As I was writing this post today, I came to several realizations one right after the other:
That poem was actually pretty damned good.
I was proud of it.
I don’t need a poem to share this experience or what I took from it.
I don’t need to enumerate these realizations here but I did it anyway.
I can be a real jackass sometimes.
For so many of us, when we see/hear about/experience something we deem to be “bad” or “suboptimal” or “wrong,” our reaction is to want to find someone or something to blame for it. It has to be somebody’s fault. Often, we end up pinning all this blame on some individual or group of people we seek to marginalize or exclude. There are places to pin some blame for what my mother went through, perhaps, but at the moment I feel like providing a list (lots of lists today, yeah?) of someones and somethings that were decidedly NOT at fault here in any way:
The Infield Fly Rule
People named Chet
My oldest brother’s hamster, Ginger, that I used to throw across our porch
I need to point out here that this was a thing I did several times. I was really little and kept wanting to hold Ginger and SOMEONE kept letting me hold Ginger despite the inevitable throwing of Ginger across the porch when her tiny claws tickled my palm and I was afraid she would bit me. So, there is actually some blame that comes into play here. But not related to my mom.
The Solid Gold Dancers (look it up)
A call to action
I try to focus my posts on my own experiences rather than trying to push anyone to take any particular action. I am going to diverge from that just a little here. I still have such regret that I didn’t give my mom the support she so desperately needed. I don’t blame myself, but I can’t help thinking about the profound impact it could have had for my mom if I had treated her with more empathy. She’s gone. I can’t change that. I found compassion for her in the end. But she wasn’t there to feel it. THIS FEELING SUCKS SO MUCH YOU GUYS.
If there is someone close you that you have trouble finding empathy for, my call to action for you is to take a moment to think about what they may be going through. Try to see the world through their eyes. Try to see what they see when they look in the mirror and how it might be affecting them. After all, as I can tell you from my own experience, you may just realize: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
On May 12th, 2022, I came within a hair’s breadth of committing suicide. On May 14th, I came even closer. In all the years I have been living with Depression and Anxiety, I had never before had strong suicidal ideation. It was an occasional passing idea that was very easy to redirect and/or dismiss. I can’t say that anymore.
OK. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I feel like we should establish some context. This post is going to be a bit longer than my posts have been in the past, so you may want to use the bathroom before we get started.
I love my family. And they love me. Some of this is going to paint portraits of my wife and daughters that is not fair to them. I want stress that I know that this will be the case and that I feel I need to do it anyway in order to capture what it was like to be in my brain during these events. I feel like it is necessary in order to really show what a lying fuck Depression can be.
Content warning (not a joke)
In all seriousness, I feel obligated to put a content warning here. I am going to go into some detail about what I was thinking (as much as I was able to think) and feeling during some periods where I felt suicidal. Some of it will be pretty raw. I am sharing this in the hope that it will help someone. Perhaps you, dear reader, have never dealt with anything like this yourself and have trouble even imaging what it might be like. Or, perhaps what I share here will resonate with some of your own experiences and help you feel less alone.
If you have dealt with suicide and/or find discussion of that topic triggering or overwhelming, I would encourage you to skip this post. If you need to close out of this and go watch some cat videos or something, please feel encouraged to do that.
If you want to read the parts of this post BEFORE I really get into the suicidal aspects, I will place a marker in this post before I get into heavy stuff. If you need to eject, stop reading when you see this further down:
WARNING: HERE THERE BE DRAGONS
Please do not put pets in the microwave
We have four cats. I never had any cats growing up; my dad hated them. We had a few dogs (one at a time), and several hamsters, and some fish. My wife, Trish, is a cat lover and our dog preferences didn’t align, so we ended up with cats. You see, my wife is just a little over five feet tall and tends to shy away from dogs she can’t punt in self-defense. I, on the other hand, don’t want any dog that would fit in a microwave as they tend to be high strung yippers that annoy the shit out of me. Before you freak out, please know that I have never placed a live animal in a microwave and implore you to join me in keeping microwaves “pet-free.”
But I digress. Several years ago, we had two black cats, Onyx (who already had this name when we adopted him as a kitten) and Isis (whose name when we adopted her was Holly… but we have a friend named Holly, so rubbing Holly’s tummy and the idea of Holly pissing and shitting in our basement laundry room was just weird AF, so we renamed her Isis). Our thumb-wielding (cats don’t have thumbs… look it up) human friend, Holly, appreciated this. The cat formerly known as Holly didn’t care… she was a cat. All she cared about was sleeping, eating, knocking objects onto the floor, and quietly plotting the downfall of humanity. You know. Cat stuff.
After several years, Isis developed several health conditions with poor prognoses and was clearly in some discomfort, so we had her gently put down at our vet’s office. It was a mixed bag. We were heartbroken that Isis wouldn’t be around anymore, but simultaneously glad she was no longer suffering. Also, given there was one less cat plotting the downfall of humanity, we all became a tiny bit safer. You’re welcome.
We can haz more cats?
When we lost Isis, I made a deal with Trish that we would keep Onyx, but that we wouldn’t get another cat. In the meantime, my wife sent me pictures of cats available for adoption with some frequency. But I stood firm. For a while. Eventually, it made sense to have one more creature plotting the downfall of humanity where I could keep an eye on them. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, and all that. There was a nearby cat shelter that found itself in the care of a litter of newborn black kittens. I agreed with Trish that we could go look at them, knowing full well that my “we’re not getting another cat” stance was in grave jeopardy.
A super sweet woman greeted us at the shelter and led us into a room with several cat toys, cat furniture, some bowls of food and water, and three tiny, but beyond adorable black kittens. As soon as I saw them, I thought of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, The Three Musketeers. Goddammit. At that moment, I knew that the cat-count at our house would be increasing rather dramatically. On the bright side, I felt like I kind of maintained my “we’re not getting another cat” stance since “another” usually implies “one” as opposed to “more than one.” You see, we didn’t get one more cat; we got three. So, yeah. I didn’t cave. Don’t take this away from me.
I don’t know the chemistry behind it, but cat pee is nasty AF. For the past year and a half (at least), one of our thumb-less darlings (again, cats don’t have thumbs… we’ve been over this) has decided that litter boxes are not for him. We are pretty sure that the perpetrator of these crimes is Athos; classic Athos, amirite? I took it upon myself to try different things like putting litter boxes in different rooms throughout the house in the hopes that it would help. The result? The adorable fucking asshole would pee and shit RIGHT NEXT TO the litter box. Seriously. Like inches away, totally close enough to make it clear that it wasn’t accidental spillover but an actual commentary on the powerlessness of the human species: “Who’s got no thumbs and doesn’t give a shit about your thumbs or your stoopid litter boxes? This cat.”
The end of my rope
For about a year, I felt like I was the only one struggling or dealing with this situation. And as time went on, the number of non-litter box locations Athos used throughout the house grew. I would complain about it and entreat my ladies into cleaning it up frequently (my back issues make that really hard for me to do myself).
By November of 2021, I couldn’t take it anymore. The issue kept getting worse and I felt like the only person taking ANY action on it was me. As the person in the house the least attached to the cats (I really enjoy them but, if you recall, cat pee is nasty AF and nothing was getting better), I told them that I can’t keep living in a house the reeked of cat pee. THEY needed to step up and figure it out. MY solution, which promised a 100% chance of success, was to get rid of the cats. If they didn’t like MY solution, then they needed to find another one. There were promises about staying on top of the cleaning and plans they would implement to try to get Athos to start using the litter box again.
The end of the end of my rope
In February or March, I called another family meeting and was much more forceful that things needed to change and that if they didn’t change the cats would have to go. There were promises about staying on top of the cleaning and plans they would implement to try to get Athos to start using the litter box again (sigh).
The end of the end of the end of my rope
Meanwhile, I was sharing these challenges with my therapist, Ashley, and how nothing I was trying was working and I was getting more desperate to make this problem go away and my family still wasn’t helping. Since you follow this blog with rapt joy, you no doubt read in Trauma, EMDR, and the Kobayashi Maru Test » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com) that a theme of a lot of my childhood trauma is being trapped (sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, often both).
At this point, there were only two rooms in my house where I could go that didn’t stink of cat pee: the spare bedroom in the basement I have been sleeping in for more than 2 years (my anxiety makes the proximity of sharing a bed with someone, even my wife, REALLY uncomfortable) and my office where I spend a LOT of time as I work from home and play computer games and write the occasional blog post. And even in my office, sometimes the stench will waft in from under the door as Athos will pee all around the pool table right outside that door. And often there would be several puddles that would sit for days until I can finally get someone to clean it all up. And the pool table that we got, in part, as a useful coping mechanism for me, essentially became a giant fuck you to me because it is pretty much ALWAYS surrounded in cat pee, making me unable to use it. We keep it covered with a tarp whenever we are not actively playing to protect the surface from not just cat pee, but from their claws, etc.
WARNING: HERE THERE BE DRAGONS
Thursday, May 12, 2022
On Thursday, May 12, Trish was 3 hours away at a leadership conference for librarians that she helped organize (she’s good like that) and was scheduled to be home by 6pm the next day. My oldest daughter was at work. My youngest daughter was at school. I was home alone working in my office (which is in the basement). My Depression had been acting up a bit for several days, but I was coping.
After getting to the end of the end of the end of my rope, I finally ran out of rope. The sensation of being trapped descended on me with white hot intensity. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had pleaded TWICE with my ladies to do something about Athos and the cat pee and there was occasional cleanup (which often required badgering from me) but no real progress over a period of months. I felt betrayed and worthless and more alone than I have ever felt in my entire life. I felt profoundly trapped both physically and emotionally.
I was being CRUSHED by a sensory overload that is rather like hearing noise that is so loud your brain cannot process it other than to know it is there and it is way too much to deal with and your whole body just becomes a horrible place to be. I NEEDED that sensation to end. One way or another, I was done.
It took MASSIVE effort for me just to get up out of my chair and leave my office and go stand outside for some air. I was in more danger than I have ever been. I was very much in crisis and calling for help would have been a REALLY good idea. This is REALLY easy to say in hindsight, though. At the time, I was so overwhelmed that my limbic system (pretty much the most basic and primitive part of the brain that can turn off higher reasoning and logic) was in control. I literally COULD NOT call for help. I could not form the thoughts necessary for that to happen.
We keep all of our medicines (my wife and both of my daughters also live with Depression and Anxiety) in a plastic toolbox in a closet on the main floor of the house. For the protection of my daughters, that box has a combination lock on it. A combination that I know since I am the one that refills everyone’s pill packs every Saturday night for the coming week.
There is A LOT of medicine in that box, you guys. I could open it. And I could take all of the medicine and it would be hours before anyone would be home. Or I could sit in the garage with my car running and wait for carbon monoxide to put me to sleep. The only type of reasoning that occurred was a stipulation that, whatever I did, I didn’t want it to make a mess that my family would have to clean up. So, no cutting or anything like that. Thoughtful, yeah?
A little before 1pm, after I had been spending a few hours avoiding the hall closet where the medicine box is as well as the garage where my car is, using coping skills as well as I could, it was getting harder and harder to fight but I was still hanging on.
I still couldn’t form the thoughts necessary to call for help. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it until my youngest came home from school a little after 3pm. There was just no way. I was slipping away and the terrifying thing is that I wasn’t scared. That’s not good.
Then my phone buzzed, indicating I had a new text message. It was Trish asking me how I was doing. That was the opening I desperately needed. That text was just enough to trigger a little bit of higher brain function, allowing me to tell her I was not doing well. At all. That I didn’t want to be here anymore. That I wanted to stop being. Period. She immediately called and we chatted for a bit, which really helped. It allowed me to release some of the pressure that was building up inside me, pushing me toward the medicine box or the garage.
It is not hyperbole to say that text and the conversation that followed saved my life. I was far from OK, but I was still here.
I implored Trish not to come home early from the conference as it was so important to her and she worked so hard planning and running it. I also asked her not to call the Police for a wellness check on me or anything. I just couldn’t handle the prospect of having to deal with strangers, particularly since the result would certainly land me in the hospital. I had visited my mom several times when she was hospitalized for her depression when I was a kid and I saw how miserable it was for her and I wanted no part of that shit. Win or lose, I would play from home. Not a good choice, but again, thinking clearly was beyond me.
Trish called me a few hours later and we talked some more. I still wasn’t doing well, but I was not in crisis anymore. I felt safe. Ish. We agreed that we would talk more Friday evening when she got home; just the two of us before sharing with our daughters.
Friday, May 13, 2022
As luck would have it, I already had an appointment (via Zoom) with my therapist, Ashley, on Friday morning. I shared everything. It felt really good to release more of that pressure. I was not in crisis at that point and was able to look back at the events of Thursday with some amount of insight and prove to Ashley that I was not in immediate danger. She and I agreed that it would be a good plan to have the hard conversation with Trish on Friday night that the cats would have to go; that it was vital for my safety. Then Ashley made me promise that if I felt any signs that I might be heading in the direction of self-harm that I would call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 911 before my limbic system took control.
Trish and I had that hard conversation Friday night. It didn’t last too long because it was really hard for her to deal with given the strong emotions involved. She said she wouldn’t be able to go through it twice (once alone and then again with our girls), so we stopped.
I felt safer having her home.
Saturday, May 14, 2022
Since my oldest had to work in the late afternoon, I called everyone together for a family meeting in the early afternoon. I couldn’t craft a good way to build up what I needed to say so I just started with saying that I almost committed suicide, adding that I had plans that would have succeeded, without sharing what those plans were. My daughters’ reactions were silent shock. I then reminded them of the “I’m trapped” theme of so much of my childhood trauma and that the situation with the cat pee was triggering that bigtime and the I had tried multiple times to get someone in the house to actually help with the situation and no one would do much no matter what I said or did and that the cats would have to go on June 1st unless there was substantial progress on the situation and that my life was LITERALLY on the line here.
They both started crying as I finished. Intellectually, I KNEW that they were more worried about me than they were about keeping the cats. I KNEW that my saying the cats needed to go was just the final bit of pressure that caused them to give way; to no longer be able to contain the emotions they were trying SO HARD to keep in check. I knew this. I can’t stress this enough.
Depression, though, is a dick. While I KNEW it was not true, I told them how heartbroken I felt that they were more upset at losing the cats than they were of losing me and I stormed down into my basement office and locked the door. I sat at my desk, stunned for a bit, hearing the barely audible hum of conversation taking place upstairs in the living room where my family was reeling from what just happened.
I started opening private browser windows and doing web searches for Drug X overdose amounts, trying to determine how much would be enough. Then the same for Drug Y. And Drug Z. Again, we have A LOT of medication in that locked box. I then remembered that the medicine box is upstairs in the hall closet.
To get to that chemical cornucopia, I would have to leave my office, go upstairs, make it past my entire family, grab the box from the closet, and make it back down to the office with the box so I could take as many pills as I could, and do all of that without any of them noticing and intervening. Calling attention to any of this would result in a trip to the hospital, which, again, I was determined to avoid.
I actually berated myself for not having moved the medicine box ahead of time. This is one instance where my limbic system, inhibiting higher reasoning actually did me a solid. Go figure. I was too emotional and too overwhelmed for the kind of planning (like moving the medicine box beforehand) it would have taken for a successful suicide. And I didn’t want to risk an unsuccessful one. So, I was fucked-saved.
Note: “Fucked-saved” is a really good word for a screw-up that averts disaster. I want nickel every time someone uses it. Thanks.
That emotional pressure still needed a place to go, though. So, I looked to the two paintings my daughters gave me this past Christmas. I keep them on the wall next to my desk. I look at them often every day. But on Saturday, Depression told me these wonderful expressions of love from my children were lies. I took them down from the wall and put them in my trash can.
When Trish came downstairs a few minutes later, she tried to open the door, but found it locked. She asked me to unlock it and I said NO. She told me the girls were heartbroken and blaming themselves for almost losing me. I couldn’t hear it. I was too far gone.
A few minutes later, my youngest knocked on the door and asked to come in. I unlocked it and sat back down. She had clearly been crying and was terrified. Before she could utter a sound, I pointed at the paintings in my trash can and spat out, “Take that back.” She started to speak and I held up my hand, adding more venom to my voice, and said, “TAKE THAT BACK AND GO!” She reached down, grabbed both paintings and fled upstairs.
I have never felt like more of a failure than I did at that moment. Being a good dad is such a huge part of my identity. I have tried so hard for my daughters’ entire lives to be supportive and caring. I have made sure to tell them how much I love them, how proud I am of them, how much I LOVE being their dad and sharing the world with them; the kind of affection I seldom experienced in my own childhood. I felt like I had just thrown all that away… literally.
Not a minute later, Trish came into the office saying that Evie just ran out of the house and asking what had happened. I was stunned again, unable to move. She asked if I was safe and I shook my head NO. Then I left my office and went upstairs. My oldest was crying and immediately came up and gave me a massive hug, telling me she was so sorry and that she loved me so much. This was quite a big deal since she had stopped being a hugger years ago. I told her I loved her too and felt strengthened by the hug I desperately needed.
When she let me go, I walked out of the house to try to find my youngest. It was a warm day, about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 Celsius). I was wearing fleece sweatpants and a fleece sweatshirt. I’ve also been very sedentary for the past few years given the toll Depression and Anxiety have taken on me, meaning I am WAY out of shape. AND I was definitely having a mental health crisis. Nevertheless, I started walking around the neighborhood which, in hindsight, was not a wise thing to do. I spent about a half hour searching, my steps getting harder, shorter, and slower. By the time I made it back home, I was close to passing out from overheating on top of everything else.
I all but collapsed on our sofa. I felt absolutely certain that I had just alienated my youngest. That I had broken her in a way that could never be repaired. That it was one of those moments that divides your life into BEFORE that moment and your life AFTER that moment. I tried to get my emotions in check, distracting myself by trying to find constellations in our popcorn ceiling. That helped. It is a coping skill I had learned in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. By focusing on an object or a task, it can help you shift out of the overload state of an emotional mind into a calmer state, allowing your reasoning/logic centers of your brain to come back online. I don’t know enough constellations to for those efforts to bear the fruit of actual discovery.
My oldest was able to reach her sister via text and learned she was a at a park and safe and just needed to be alone. That helped a lot since my Depression was trying to make me believe she had gone somewhere to hurt herself (or worse). She came home about 20 minutes later and walked past all of us and into her room, closing her door.
After about 15 minutes, I went and knocked on her door, getting a barely audible grunt in response. I went in and sat in her desk chair, staying silent for a bout ten minutes, hoping she would talk to me. She didn’t. She just lay on her bed facing away from me, sniffling now and then and ignoring me. I managed a barely audible whisper to tell her that I had been hurting really bad when I did what I did and asking if she would talk to me. She sat up, but still wouldn’t speak. I asked her if she wanted me to leave and she nodded yes.
I went back down to my office, exhausted, hurt, heartbroken, feeling like an utter failure. I knew I needed to give my youngest some time and some space. I knew I needed some time and space. I ended up playing a game with my oldest, lamenting that I felt like I had broken her sister; that I had pushed her away forever. My oldest assured me that wasn’t the case. That here sister just needed some time.
A few hours later, I texted my youngest, asking if I could come talk to her. As soon as she said yes I went up into her room and told her how sorry I was for what I had said and done with the paintings. That I had been hurting so bad and had been in such a dark place that I just lashed out and how ashamed I was for failing her like that.
She told me that she had been trying to stay strong for me when I said I had almost committed suicide, and as I KNEW, my saying the cats had to go was just the straw that broke the camel’s back*. I thanked her for talking to me and went to leave. She, like her older sister, had stopped being a hugger years ago. But as I turned go, she asked if I wanted a hug. All I could say was OH MY GOD YES. It was such a relief. I started to feel like I could be whole again.
* No camels were harmed in the creation of this post.
Around 11:30 pm, my girls asked if I would play Bananagrams (a really fun word game) with them. It was much later than we ever START playing a game. I was exhausted but I felt it was important to go play with them. None of us said it aloud, but it was a clear moment in which we all demonstrated to each other that we were going to be OK. I will never forget it, nor all that led up to it.
By the way, I have a bachelor’s degree in English (and a solid vocabulary) and my oldest daughter graduated from high school last year. My youngest is currently a high school freshman (9th grade). We played two games of Bananagrams that night. My youngest CRUSHED us both times. It was awesome.
My daughters spent all day Sunday and part of the next few evenings doing a massive cleaning up of cat pee from all over the house. The difference it made has been huge. My wife and my daughters started giving Athos some calming medication we got from the vet in the hopes that it might help him stop going outside the litter box. I really do hope it works. Given how he has defeated our previous attempts to get him using the box like his brothers do, I shudder to think what he could accomplish without our watchful eye; humanity would be in peril.
As for me, I’m feeling better. We got a new combo lock for the medication box. My wife has that combination, and I don’t, which makes me feel safer. Sometimes it’s tiny things like that which end up keeping someone around. I am seeing my therapist weekly instead of biweekly for a while. And my psychiatrist increased the dosage on one of my medications to take the edge of stress and help me deal with adversity a little better.
I feel like the idea of using medication as part of treating mental health challenges carries its own stigma on top of the stigma of having mental health challenges in the first place. There are misconceptions on both extremes with some people thinking that medication will solve all your problems and other people maybe seeing medication as way to avoid dealing with your problems. Not everyone gets the same amount of benefit from medications. I know, at least for me, though, the benefit is huge. We all have challenges we deal with. Medications don’t change that, but they do make it a little more fair. If I may liken life to juggling, my medication doesn’t juggle for me; but it does let me use both hands.
My anxiety spiked bigtime last Sunday. But what does that mean? What does that feel like? Thanks for asking. Let’s look at that together. I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. For me, that means I will just suddenly be in a panic, with no warning, about nothing in particular. The panic will have no specific subject for me. I won’t be panicked about something. Just panicked. I have blogged a bit about this before: Meet Dave: My Anxiety Vampire » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com).
In this post, I would like to help educate those who don’t suffer from this type of disorder; hopefully increasing understanding and chipping away at the stigma that surrounds mental disorders in general. In the process, I am also hoping to help those who have dealt with anxiety/panic, beyond what the more neuro-typical members of our species face, to feel less alone.
We all experience anxiety
We have all experienced anxiety in our lives. When you are nervous before a date or a big presentation at work or school? Anxiety. When you are hosting family over the holidays and feel some stress over wanting everything to go well… Anxiety.
Basically, although perhaps a bit over-simplified, when it makes sense that you are nervous or stressed, and these feelings are an annoyance, but you are able to push through them without too much effort, then you are likely having a neuro-typical experience of anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal response to threat, and the discomfort it creates is meant to capture attention and stimulate a protective response.
If your anxiety/panic doesn’t seem to fit your situation, if it is out of proportion, if you cannot make sense of what it’s about, if it creates major obstacles for your daily life or even forces you to make different life choices in order to get around it, then it is likely not a neuro-typical experience of anxiety.
There’s a huge difference between having sweaty palms and an increased heart rate while teaching a room of 100+ people about databases (been there, done that) and pulling out of public speaking altogether because you feel outright terror about just being in a room with even 5 people (been there, done that).
But too often, the anxiety is excessive, or sustained, or inappropriate to what set it off, and it interferes with every-day functioning—or sets in motion maladaptive behaviors, from avoidance of threat-generating situations to substance use, to avoid the discomfort of anxiety.
This is not to say that anyone who experiences a period of intense anxiety has an anxiety disorder. Some of us, though, experience them frequently and sometimes for much longer durations that our more neuro-typical friends.
Anxiety is mental AND physical
Anxiety often involves thoughts or feelings, and even sometimes the lack of one or the other.
Racing thoughts that come fast and fly by too quickly to deal with
A single thought that is just so huge and so insistent that you have no energy of attention for anything else
Catastrophizing (those what-if scenarios of impending doom for you or loved ones or EVERYONE)
The intense desire/need to defend yourself or run away
All of those and more can be mental experiences of anxiety. Sometimes, our brains (without our conscious decision to do so) may just say, NOPE, and shut out everything so we aren’t seeing, hearing, feeling anything around us (dissociation). This is rather like the “burying your head in the sand” analogy, trying to make something go away by removing it from our lived experience.
From a biological perspective, anxiety triggers several physical changes. This includes:
The amygdala perceives a threat sounds the alarm
Adrenal glands flood the body with norepinephrine (adrenaline)
The pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which controls reasoning and decision make, and usually keeps the amygdala in check, is circumvented
[more science stuff]
The body prepares all systems for the fight or flight for very survival
The bypassing of the pre-frontal cortex is HUGE. Your brain actually shuts down your ability to reason, think, make rational decisions. This is why it is useless and just plain cruel to tell someone having an attack or anxiety/panic to “calm down.” It just makes no sense and, beyond providing less than zero help, may make them want to beat the shit out of you on top of everything else. Instead, before doing/saying anything, image that person set you on fire and then expects you to do long division. Then, with that scenario in mind, proceed from a place of empathy/compassion.
What anxiety/panic feels like for me
You’ve been startled before. Probably many times. Do you recall that tingling sensation that spikes just for a split second? That very brief, but very intense FUCK! that your body and mind experience? For me, anxiety/panic is almost identical…. except it can last for an hour or two or three… I don’t wish it on ANYONE.
And that is just DURING the attack. Because of the physical aspects of anxiety above, it leaves me utterly exhausted. My body had readied itself to fight or flight for survival; the fact that it didn’t NEED to do that is irrelevant.
I have never done drugs. So, not THAT acid.
I am a data professional. That means working with databases and tools for helping people make the best use of the information at their disposal. In database systems, there is a concept of a transaction: a collection of steps/tasks that must adhere to certain principals known as ACID in order to guarantee validity, among other things. A full discussion of ACID is beyond my scope here. I will focus just on one:
Atomicity: All the steps, parts of the transaction must either SUCCEED together or FAIL together as a unit.
A common way of learning about transactions is by thinking of a banking transaction. Suppose you want to transfer $100 from your Savings account to your Checking account. There are two pieces to this process:
Withdrawing $100 from Savings
Depositing $100 into Checking
It is really important for BOTH of these steps to occur. If the first step happens, but the second step does not, ACID properties of the transaction, as implemented by your bank, will put the $100 back into your savings. You lose nothing.
Anxiety doesn’t give a fuck about ACID properties of transactions. So, when it readies your body and mind for action, withdrawing that $100 from Savings, it doesn’t matter if you end up using that readiness to actually fight/flight for your life or not. It’s gone. You can recover over time, depositing other money into your savings account, but that $100 is lost.
When my anxiety spiked last Sunday, even though I had my medication and coping skills to help, it kicked my ass. I ended up missing work on Monday. And I didn’t feel a whole lot better until Thursday. It is THAT profoundly draining. That’s it. I hope someone finds this helpful. And if not, I won’t worry about it… maybe.
Given today is September 11th, and it is 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, I figured it is as good a day as any to blog about trauma. This post is not about 9/11. Or where I was or what I did or some romanticized version of my experiences or actions on this day in 2001. My personal experience is not very important here. But 9/11, as the overall events as a whole have come to be called, was for MANY, including me, a traumatic event. Given that, I think it will be helpful to discuss trauma and it’s effects in a context that many people can relate to.
What is Trauma, anyway?
There are a number of ways that various organizations define trauma. In this case, I am not referring to the physical sense of trauma like a wound or injury. But rather, the trauma I’m talking about is more of an emotional wound or injury.
Trauma: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset; an agent, force, or mechanism that causes trauma
The very succinct, but inclusive definition from Lexico above captures it best in my opinion. The key being that trauma is “deeply” distressing or disturbing. So, getting pickles on your hamburger when you asked for no pickles is not a traumatic event. But terrorists taking over commercial airliners to crash them into buildings most definitely is. Those events created a massive amount of distress, even for people like me who were very far removed from the events and had no particular personal connection to anyone involved. I’m confident that a lot of you out there who would say the same.
The 9/11 attacks are a great example of a point in time trauma. An event. A “flash-in-the-pan” if you will. This is similar to an assault, a car crash, or some other moment that happens relatively quickly, but then has lingering effects on you. Let’s call this BANG Trauma.
Some trauma takes place over a course of time and is more environmental, but still has the nature of being deeply distressing or disturbing. A great example of this would be the COVID-19 global pandemic. While this may encompass individual BANG Trauma events for people, like the loss of a loved one, getting laid off from your job, or some imbecile trying to give you horse medicine (WTF?), it also created an environment that was quite distressing over many months and is still going. Let’s call this WOOSH Trauma.
Honor Thy Mother and Father
It is pretty common that the impact our parents have on us is not all positive. Whether through their actions or inactions, their words or their silences, their presence or absence, we’re all going to have some shit to deal with that traces back to Mom and/or Dad.
The majority of my trauma comes from my parents. This is not uncommon. The cliché of going to a psychiatrist or therapist to “talk about your mother” is alive in well in popular culture, movies, TV, etc. But it got to be a cliché for a reason. Our parents can have an incredible impact on us. In fact, I would argue, that having an incredible impact on us is their job. Just like it is my job to have an incredible impact on my children. It’s just that this impact isn’t always positive.
My mom, Florence, suffered from Bipolar Disorder back when it was referred to as Manic Depression. People who live with this can have their mood swing profoundly between deep depression and the more high-energy, excited “manic” state. My mom had a pretty hard go of it with a husband who didn’t necessarily understand or support her, but was quite willing to put her in the hospital when it became too hard to “manage” her. Sometimes, during these manic periods, she would decided to stop taking her medication (lithium) because she didn’t want to go back to that more subdued state that the Lithium help put her in.
These experiences, in which my mom’s showing emotion tended to land her in the hospital, laid the foundation for the wall I ended up erecting between me and my own emotions. Except anger, that is. More on that in a future post.
When I was in my early to mid teens, I don’t recall specifically, my mom had a major manic episode in and around accidentally inhaling some chemicals at work. Looking back, that was around the time we lost Florence. I lost my mom. In her stead, we got Flo who took over Florence’s body. Unlike Florence, Flo was a woman who gave no fucks and was irreverent and sometimes really fun and funny.
At this time, my dad was not living with us (BANG and WOOSH; more on this in a later post, perhaps). My older brothers (Gerry and Ray) were long out of the house, Gerry in Minnesota and Ray in Massachusetts. So, it was just Flo and me. We had lost the house I grew up in to foreclosure (BANG and some WOOSH) and were living in an Section 8 (low income rental assistance) apartment as Flo was no longer able to work.
BANGs and WOOSHes Galore
Flo had her good side. We made a game of finding new and creative ways to give each other the middle finger, which was often pretty funny. The first time one of my friends saw me give my mother the finger, they were shocked, “Did you seriously just flip off your mom?!” “Of course,” I said. “Why didn’t you?” From that point on my friends were in on the game, too.
But, Flo wasn’t always fun. Sometimes, she would decide to “cope” with her own pain by causing pain for others. Not in a physical sense. But in terms of manipulation or “causing a scene” or getting someone else to have to drop everything they wanted to do to deal with Flo. Since it was just me and Flo, the most common target for this was me (plenty of BANG and WOOSH and more WOOSH).
How Do You DO This?
My oldest brother, Gerry, and I were pall bearers for my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We needed to go a bit early. The plan was for my other brother, Ray, to bring Flo and meet us there. They never showed up. When Gerry and I got back to the apartment after the funeral, Ray was huddled in corner in utter anguish (BANG). Flo was sitting at the kitchen table with a air of profound satisfaction at what she had been able to do (BANG and some WOOSH). She had taken this man who was fun and funny and always had a smile or a joke or a positive thing to say, and turned him into a pile of goo. She had broken her son. And she LOVED it. (BANG much?)
As soon as he saw me, Ray just asked, “How do you DO this?” I didn’t have an answer for him at the time. One possibility can be found in A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Paladin » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com). Flo was able to wreck Ray in a few hours. The fact that I spent years as her only target and am still here is pretty miraculous. Please understand that this is not about Ray being weak. He is one of the strongest people I have ever met. Nor is it about me being some sort of exceptional person. I’m really not.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment for trauma-related disorders like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In times of great stress or danger, our Amygdala, which controls our Fight/Flight/Freeze processing in our brains, can activate our OH SHIT! system. When that happens, our logical processing centers of the brain get shut out. A traumatic event which triggers this OH SHIT! system can cause our Amygdala to ring the OH SHIT! bell whenever it perceives a situation to be like the original event. For example, combat veterans suffering from PTSD can have their OH SHIT! processing triggered by a loud noise that has nothing to do with combat.
During the Fight/Flight/Freeze process, our body chemistry is altered to enable us to have the burst of energy we need to survive a deadly situation. After that burst, we can get super fatigued as that burst of energy comes at a cost. Having our OH SHIT! system activate a lot means we get that burst of energy a lot which means we have to pay that cost a lot. It’s brutally draining.
The goal of EMDR is to try to get our Amygdala to form a new pathway in place of the OH SHIT! one in response to events it perceives as similar to the original trauma. That is the Reprocessing. It is trying to train your brain to stop triggering the Fight/Flight/Freeze response in mundane situations where we really don’t need our OH SHIT! system activated.
To start the process, I spent several sessions with my therapist, Ashley, taking an inventory of the trauma I could remember and identify. Yes. It took several sessions to get through it all. We then worked to identify a theme, a feeling that formed the core experience with each BANG and WOOSH. I landed on “I’m trapped.” That is the one sentiment that fit perfectly in all the BANGs and all the WOOSHes. So much of my trauma involved events or situations in which I felt like I had no way out. I had no way to win. I just kept finding myself taking the fucking Kobayashi Maru test. Over and over.
Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru Test
The Kobayashi Maru Test first appeared in the 1982 film Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. It also features in the 2009 reboot film, Star Trek. The test involves a distress signal from a civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that has become stranded in the Neutral Zone, a region of space between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. Starfleet cadets taking the test must choose whether to help rescue the Kobayashi Maru, and risk major diplomatic incident and attack by Klingons, or leave the civilian ship, and its crew, to fairly certain destruction. Any cadets that attempt rescue end up facing a battle with Klingons that is designed to be completely unwinnable. Starfleet uses this test to measure the character of cadets and assess how they will function in the highly stressful environment of a “no-win scenario.”
The goal with my course of EMDR was to reprocess these I’m Trapped situations into something more positive. Something that would not trigger my OH SHIT! system. Ray’s question, “How do you DO this?” inspired the more positive theme: “I’m strong.” We then had our course of action for my EMDR. We would reprocess “I’m Trapped” into “I’m Strong” and I’d be good to go. Simple. (sigh)
Physically, the process can involve actually moving your gaze side while doing this emotional work (hence the “Eye Movement” part). But that made me dizzy AF. So, we used little hand-held fobs that gently vibrate on and off and in alternating pattern.
Oh my god, you guys. EMDR is the most grueling thing I have ever done. By a lot. It is such hard, draining work to jump back into trauma (on purpose) with both feet in order build a new path out of it and make your brain choose this new path over the familiar one. I was on medical leave at the time and I can’t see how I could have worked and done EMDR at the same time. There’s just no way. Each one-hour session took 3-4 days to recover from. I was very fortunate to have a friend that would drive me to and from these appointments. Thank you, Megan.
While the “during” for EMDR suuuuuuuuucked, I have to say that the results, at least for me, were MAGICAL. I can’t promise the same for anyone else. Mental health, in general, doesn’t work that way. But this childhood trauma I had been carrying around my whole life got so much easier to carry, thanks to EMDR.
To Boldly Go…
James T Kirk is fabled to be the only Starfleet cadet ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test. He did so by changing the simulation to make it possible to both rescue the Kobayashi Maru crew and defeat the Klingon attack. Kirk took an unwinnable situation and reprocessed it into a win. But he needed to cheat to do it.
Trauma can seem like a no-win scenario. It can seem like we are trapped. That there’s no way out. But there can be. It can take work, to be sure. But it can be done. I’ve done it. And I didn’t cheat once. Take that, Jim.
I am a member of a Customer Advisory Team (CAT) at Microsoft. CATs at Microsoft are branches of product engineering teams that focus on making sure large enterprises can achieve their goals using the product we focus on. We also help to make sure our colleagues who work directly on the product itself understand the goals and priorities of these large enterprise customers. Basically, think of some of the largest companies in the world… yeah. We help them.
How I tend to do it
The quality of my work tends to be high. Even just in the past few weeks, I have received four emails in which someone was praising the quality of my work and the leadership I show while getting that work done. People who shirk responsibilities and perform poorly don’t get to where I am. I say this not to put myself on a pedestal, but rather, so that when I tell you my brain decided on Friday that I was on the verge of being fired, you will understand my full meaning.
[Morgan Freeman narrator voiceover]: Mark was not on the verge of being fired. Not even close.
Not this time
On Friday, I received some negative feedback on my performance of one of the projects I was working on. Basically, I did not do a great job in confirming my understanding of the scope of the project. The result is that the work I have already done falls short of what was expected. And this will cause delay in my being able to deliver the output.
With my new understanding of the scope, there is no way to get it done on the original timeline my manager and I agreed upon. My manager had checked in with me several times offering clarity, etc., and each time I was so certain I knew what needed to be done I always said No Thanks. In short, I had several chances to proactively prevent this delay and didn’t take advantage of them. Instead, I let my assumptions wear the disguise of certainty instead of actually seeking that certainty.
Enter Impostor Syndrome
This is when my Depression decided to call its cousin, Impostor Syndrome, to come and kick me in the junk. The fact that my work is consistently excellent didn’t matter. All that mattered was that one negative bit of feedback and the knowledge that I had let my manager down by failing to properly communicate. I had failed. And I was going to be fired because my manager would finally see through my disguise and learn the awful truth that I didn’t belong on the team… and never did. Impostor Syndrome was right all along.
[Morgan Freeman narrator voiceover]: The Impostor Syndrome was not right. Mark just had a great learning experience.
What I really want to share with this post is how I dealt with this bout of Impostor Syndrome. And it is only because of the therapy “work” I have done in the past few years that I was able to deal with it so effectively. I’m not saying it was easy, but it was feasible. The much healthier relationship I have with emotion (more on that in a future post) was essential in my rising to the challenge.
Friday evening, I worked late trying to do at least a part of this project in the way that my manager had originally expected. But I was still feeling the panic of the Impostor Syndrome telling me I had to make sure to get it right or I was going to have to sell a kidney to pay the mortgage. What do kidneys go for nowadays? The quality of my work was still not where it needed to be. So, I stopped working on it.
I decided that I would give my Impostor Syndrome some time to do its thing. It was like it had created a surge of energy, and that energy had to go somewhere. I could work really hard to suppress it, possibly causing a nice ulcer or something, or I could let it vent. I went with option B: letting it vent. It is similar to elementary school children needing recess.
I gave Impostor Syndrome Saturday. On Saturday, I did no work on this at all. I just let my Impostor Syndrome run free for a bit. I ran some errands, watched some TV with my wife and otherwise relaxed. I had decided that I would start in on Sunday to have my plan for how I would move forward with the project with the appropriate expectations on mind. I gave it one day. Then I would take the feedback as a learning experience: Own it. Learn from it. Move on.
It is Sunday afternoon as I write this. This morning, I did just as I said I would. I put Impostor Syndrome away and got some quality work done on this project that I am happy to show my manager tomorrow. I am in a much better place with all of this and excited to keep working on this project with this fresh clarity of what is expected. And my manager’s vision for this project is so much cooler than the one I was executing on.
I want to close that I am super fortunate to have a manager that was able to clearly communicate how I had fallen short of expectations. And, in good faith, gave me time to come up with the plan for getting it right. Sure. I will need to set a new deadline, but my manager approached this situation more as a mentor. And that was huge.
Impostor Syndrome is not easy to deal with. But at least for me, particularly in this one experience, giving into it a little bit, throwing it a bone, really help me to overcome it. While this means of overcoming Impostor Syndrome when I screw up is still hard, it is not complicated: Own it. Learn from it. Move on.
I have found great value in personifying and externalizing my mental illnesses and other aspects of the wild ride my brain treats me to. But what the hell does this even mean? Well, dear reader, I shall explain using some very concise and easy definitions adapted from Reid Wilson, Ph.D., Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, NC, and contributor to Psychology Today. He is also that author of several books, including Stopping the Noise in Your Head.
Personification is the attribution of human-like identity to something, the subject, that is not a human. It is related to anthropomorphism in that it allows for treating the subject as a person you can address directly.
Externalization is perceiving of a part of yourself as being outside of yourself instead. Rather than being a part of you, it is something in a relationship with you.
Since my Anxiety burst through the wall of my mind like the Kool-Aid Man a few years ago, I have been personifying and externalizing it in an effort to make it a bit easier to deal with. For me, my anxiety is a ferocious vampire (no stupid sparkling; #TeamAlice) named Dave that stands about 1 inch behind me almost all the time. Because he is so close, if he decides to get me, there is no possible way I would be able to prevent it. I am completely at his mercy.
When I look back at my childhood, and really throughout my entire life, I can see that Dave has been with me almost since day 1. I have always been leery and uncomfortable with my back to open doorways, darkness, or any other place where Dave or other creatures could be laying in wait for me.
What are you afraid of?
I was actually afraid A LOT as a kid. My parents even tried the practice of checking my room for monsters when they put me to bed. But, it didn’t work. You see, MY monsters were wily, persistent little shits; they would just come back as soon as my parents left the room or turned off the light. Nightlights were a huge deal for me; although I never had a blue canary nightlight until adulthood.
To this day, I seldom enjoy horror movies and tend to avoid them altogether. It still takes some effort, sometimes, to walk through a dark room in my house. Being outside alone after dark, even just to bring the trash and recycling bins to the curb, is often a nerve-wracking experience for me. I am able to push through and do what I need to do, but it takes more effort than it does for most people, I think.
Anxiety is not my enemy
As humans evolved over the millennia, we developed fear and anxiety. These feelings helped to inspire caution, and ultimately helped us to survive as a species. It is easy for us to understand, today, that walking up a mountain lion and kicking it in the junk is not a scenario that is likely to end in our favor. But on a more primitive level, before we developed the brains we have today, it was the fear and caution that would have urged early humans to avoid junk-kicking exploits like this. Junk-kickers, those that didn’t exercise this caution, were less likely to be around long enough to procreate, making the junk-kicking trait less likely to pass on to future generations.
Thus, Anxiety, in a very real sense, was a vital asset to our success as a species. It exists as a means of trying to keep us safe. I find it helpful to keep this in mind and take it even a step further: Anxiety is not my enemy. It is a healthy part of me. It is not the fact that I experience anxiety that is a problem; it is the fact that I have an anxiety disorder that is the problem. My brain triggers anxiety far more frequently and forcefully than it needs to in its attempts to keep me safe. It sees more danger in more places or even just DANGER in all the places. Which brings us back to Dave.
Dave is my hero
Dave, as the personification and externalization of my anxiety, just wants to ensure my safety. He wants to keep me from being eaten. So, rather than standing 1 inch behind me to try and get me, he stands there to guard me. He has my back. My Generalized Anxiety Disorder makes Dave way more active than he needs to be. He needs to spend less time crying wolf and more time sitting in a corner with his coloring books and crayons. But he’s on my team (#TeamDave). He, like my Paladin, is my hero.
Back in 2017, I posted on my professional blog about my oldest daughter, Paige, and some of her experiences with depression. That post is entitled A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Daughter. While it focused mostly on her, it was also the first time I shared publicly that I had lived with depression as well. This post here is a direct reference to that one from 2017 and builds on some of those themes.
Before going much further here, I would recommend reading that post. I believe it will be worth your time; and it will make your reading of this one even more transcendent.
A Brief History of Mental Illness
OK. Now that we’re on the same page (this was not a planned play on words, but I like it)….
I dealt with depression a tiny bit in high school and had another obvious, but relatively brief, bout of it about ten years ago or so. But Depression was not really something that was clearly a chronic condition for me; I never had medication and only had very brief experiences with therapy until the past few years. I dealt with two different therapists/psychologists in my teen years. Both experiences were terrible.
My first psychologist experience was when I was in 7th or 8th grade. She was not my therapist, but I was required to see her. This is related to stuff/trauma I do not plan to share, so hopefully you can keep going without more detail. If not, then perhaps a nice cat video would be better for you.
This psychologist was adamant that I was supposed to be angry with a particular person in my life. She could not let herself consider that I was not. Nothing I said or did could convince her otherwise. Since her textbook said I should be angry, and I said I was not, the ONLY possibility was that I was lying to her.
I was not angry with the person she insisted I should have been angry with, but she herself inspired plenty of anger. Fuck off, lady.
My second experience was someone I went to see in high school a few times during my first diagnosed bout of Depression. He didn’t think I was really depressed so he treated me like I was just an ass hole wasting his time. You, sir, can also fuck right off.
My Bully: Depression
In 2018, or so, my Depression stopped fucking around. Paige was seeing an awesome young therapist named Corrin. She is bright, perceptive, and super helpful. I would bring Paige to her weekly sessions with Corrin, and would join them for the final few minutes. I was open about my history with Depression in the hopes it might help Corrin help Paige.
When I was starting to have trouble focusing, having bouts of crying completely out of nowhere, I thought it may be depression knocking on the door again. I shared my terrible experiences with psychologists in the past with Corrin and asked her if she would see me for 1 session, just so I could perhaps learn a coping skill or two. She agreed.
For that one session with Corrin, I spent most of the time sharing my background, my family history with depression (my mom was Bipolar and she had suspected her father was as well) and childhood experiences. Plenty of my trauma stems from my mom; I will have posts on that in the future. As I shared all this, Corrin’s face got steadily more and more astounded and concerned.
When I was done, she closed here eyes, took a few breaths, then delivered a couple bombshells for me. What follows is somewhat paraphrased, but is pretty close to what Corrin actually said.
First, it sounds to me like you have been living with depression for decades and doing it without any type of support at all. I have no idea how you have been able to accomplish that, but stop it.
Second, I would strongly recommend you see a therapist that specializes in trauma. You have a massive amount of trauma to deal with and a generalist like me may not have the tools to give you the help you need.
That first point hit me really hard for a moment. But then when I looked back at everything I had shared with Corrin for 40 minutes of near constant talking, it made perfect sense. I had been living with depression all this time. There were some periods when I handled this better than other periods. But there were clear times when my cup runneth over and it kicked my ass. I was not getting any kind of help for it. None. It was pretty clear that my solo career was coming to an end.
Corrin’s second point had even more impact. I had not heard the term “trauma” applied to my experiences before. I had only ever heard it on medical shows and war movies related to physical injury, etc. None of my “traumatic” experiences really related to physical harm to my body.
But some events we experience, like a car accident, an assault, combat, will trigger our fight or flight response. Then, later, events or even the perception of events that may remind us of that initial trauma, even in tiny ways, can trigger that fight or flight all over again. Which SUPER sucks.
You can read more here about the most common form of this, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). My traumas were a combination of several point-in-time events as well as environmental stressors over the course of years. Fun. Again, more on that in later posts.
What Is Your Quest?
I took Corrin’s advice and started seeing a therapist she had recommend, named Ashley. I also went to my primary care provider to see if medication would be a good idea. It was. I plan to write at least one post on medication, so I won’t go into it very much here.
In my first session with Ashley, I went through my background, etc, just like I had with Corrin. Ashley’s responses were much like Corrin’s, with the exception of being a good fit to help me. I will cover more of my experiences with Ashley, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, discussed on the NAMI page I linked above) in future posts. I need to bring this post on home and I haven’t mentioned any paladins, yet.
My Hero: My Paladin
You can find paladins in the realms of Fantasy, like Dungeons & Dragons and other members of that sword and sorcery genre. A Paladin is a holy warrior, using the blessings and abilities granted them by their deity to fight for those who cannot and to smite evil wherever it may be found. Think of your ultimate “knight in shining armor” trope and add in a generous helping of faith and zeal. In a very real sense, a paladin’s powers and abilities are earned through their actions, boons granted by a proud god/goddess in appreciation for their efforts.
Ashley and I talked for a few minutes about my unexplained, decades-long, experience of keeping Depression at bay with no outside intervention (divine of otherwise) at all. “What do you think it was?” she asked. I had already been picturing a sea of pitch darkness with one tiny globe of light in the center, like a single spotlight on a massive, but otherwise empty stage. Moving closer to that globe, with some encouragement from Ashley, I could see, at its center, was a champion, fending of attack after attack from the darkness and all it contained.
Ashley, well versed in Fantasy and general nerdery (we had geeked out on Diablo more than once) gave a laugh of absolute delight, “I LOVE it!” She totally got it. More on that in a moment.
Seal of Approval
These experiences with Corrin and Ashley provide two fantastic examples of good therapists, and two points that I want to close with.
A good therapist knows when they are not the best therapist for YOU and is honest about it.
Finding a therapist who understands the context you come with, the point of view from which you perceive the world, etc, is immensely important.
Corrin was able to determine from that one session that she was not in the best position to provide me the kind of support and help that I needed. She was up-front about it and pointed me to someone who would be a better fit. It is not hyperbole to say that 1 hour with Corrin changed my life. It serves as a boundary between epochs of my timeline: before Corrin and after Corrin are two very different lives.
My experience with Ashley highlights the importance of finding the right therapist; someone who will “get” you. Having the added burden of having to explain references to your therapist just makes the work of therapy that much harder. When I told Ashley that the thing that kept me safe against Depression for all those years was a paladin, I knew I didn’t have to explain what a paladin was. I knew she would instantly understand. Our shared understanding felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders.
I Cannot Be Your Paladin
I have learned that this need for finding the right therapist is often an especially challenging one for people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. There are a lot of straight, white folks who are therapists. But someone who is Caucasian cannot fully grasp the lived experience of being a person of color. Someone who is heterosexual cannot fully grasp the lived experience of NOT being heterosexual. Someone with what we might call a binary (Male or Female) gender identity cannot fully grasp the lived experience of NOT having a binary gender identity. No amount of education can change any of these.
I feel strongly that it is crucial that I acknowledge the advantages I was born with. My life is not made harder by the color of my skin. My life is not made harder by who I love. My life is not made harder by who I pray to (or not). My life is not made harder by my socio-economic status. My life is not made harder by the country I was born in.
But I Can Let You Use Mine
My life is most definitely made harder by mental illness. I have that lived experience. I work hard to be the kind of person that can brighten someone’s day. Or help them carry their burden (as long as it isn’t too heavy; I have back issues). While I cannot fully understand lived experiences that are different from my own, I move through live with a decent amount of empathy. I sincerely hope that my blog can help anyone who chooses to read it.
When I was thinking about starting a personal blog about my experiences with mental illness, namely, Depression and Anxiety, I wracked my brain for something interesting to call it. I wanted it to be memorable. I wanted it to be short. I wanted it to imply that there would be some humor thrown in. And I wanted it to have some meaning for me, preferably on more than one level. I’m pretty happy with where this landed. “Cant’ Juggle” accomplishes every one of those goals. Besides, Hippopotamus was taken. In this inaugural post, I will share the story behind the title; and hopefully give you a preview of the content you will find here if you choose to stick around.
Years ago, when I started working as a data professional, I got to attend a lot of conferences. Almost always, I was a speaker as well. I loved standing on a stage and teaching people about various tools and technologies and making them laugh while I did it. Some of these events would have community zone areas for just hanging out that were strewn with beanbag chairs. It was a great place to spend time between sessions, on meal brakes, etc. I met great people here and made friends.
At one particular event, I was in a community zone with several other folks, but it was largely empty. Many of the beanbag chairs were unoccupied. I decided to see if I could juggle them. Why? Was anyone else juggling these vacant beanbag chairs? Of course not. What moron would even think of such a thing? It certainly wasn’t because I could juggle. I could not. Maybe I figured the attempt would be fun and might even garner a few laughs.
So I thought, fuck it. Without a word, I walked over to a group of chairs, grabbed three, and moved to an open area away from anyone. Then I went for it, trying to figure out the mechanics of juggling as I went. The first bag I threw sailed about twelve feet away and hit the ground. I went and grabbed it and tried again. And again. And again.
Wow! Mark’s an AMAZING juggler! Just top notch! ~ No one. Ever.
It was hysterically bad. I never even came close. I spent far more time wandering about picking up the chairs I threw beyond my reach than anything else. But it was indeed fun and it did indeed garner some laughs, including from me. Then it became a mission. Whenever I was not in a session or when the community zone was sparsely populated (so my colossal failures didn’t hurt anyone), I could be found tossing beanbag chairs around like an imbecile.
Nothing personal, but…. Fuck this guy and his stoopid juggling.
Then it happened. With two chairs in my left hand, I threw one up. While it was coming down, I threw up the one in my right hand just before catching the chair that was already airborne. Then I did the same with my left hand and so on. Once. One full revolution, before it all went to shit. A few seconds of outright victory that tasted so sweet. Kind of like Fortune Bubble Gum from the 1980s. Wonderful for a few seconds and then death. I wasn’t aware of how racist the packaging, etc., was at the time. I was just a kid. But since I do now, I chose to just link to it instead of putting an image in here. Growth.
Did I stop there, having conquered a small corner of the beanbag chair juggling world? Did I end on a high note like when John Elway won the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos in 1999 and then retired? Of course not. I kept at it. In all my attempts at subsequent conferences, I never succeeded again. I never successfully juggled anything else either.
This is not a cautionary tale about juggling beanbags or any other barely jugglable objects. This is not really a cautionary tale at all. But it does establish the kind of outgoing, fun-loving person that I was. I loved making people laugh. And sometimes I would try ridiculous things to make people laugh. And I loved it. I was presenting at conferences, and emceeing company meetings at the consulting firm I worked for, and being told (more than once) that I should hire myself out just to attend parties and functions because I brought so much energy and fun and humor with me wherever I went.
So, when I tell you that I have spent a substantial portion of the past 3 years afraid to leave my house; afraid to leave my basement office; afraid to be near people; near ANYONE; I want you to understand my full meaning.
I started having such soul-crushing fatigue from Depression that I actually didn’t know if I could keep breathing; actually despairing, “FUCK. I have to breath again in a few seconds…. How am I going to do that?”; or being perfectly still and getting so exhausted from it that I thought if I could just lay down, it would be better, only to realize I was already laying down; I was already doing NOTHING and it was too much (by a LOT). I was too exhausted to move, just from EXISTING. Too terrified of EVERYTHING to be near my family. From Can’t Juggle But Did It Anyway to just Can’t.
Where do we go from here?
In subsequent posts, I will walk through this descent in more detail, including some of the childhood trauma that had a major impact on me, even if it took a while to bubble over. I will also share how I came back from the mouth of the abyss. I’m back to work now, and have been for quite a while. I still have bad days, but fewer of them, and the ones I have are less bad.
I think that’s enough for this first post. I dug the foundation that future posts will be based on. Gave an inkling of the kinds of experiences I plan to share. I hope you will stick around for it. I’ll keep writing anyway. But if I can have this energy expenditure pay off by helping people, then so much the better.
One last thing. I have never heard of anyone else ever juggling beanbag chairs. So, I have to entertain the possibility that I may be the greatest beanbag chair juggler of all time. Just… you know. Just saying.
My good friend, Doug Lane (blog|twitter) not only witnessed many of my beanbag chair juggling exploits, but even recorded some back in November of 2012 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, WA. You can now see videos of my beanbag chair juggling, including my one an only success on my new page The Tiniest Bit of Juggling.
Free, confidential help is available 24/7/365 in the United States
Make It OK is a campaign to reduce stigma and increase understanding about mental illnesses
The Depresh Mode podcast from NPR-alum John Moe is wonderful in all ways. I highly recommend it.