I’m having a hard time today. I mentioned it on Twitter but that seems too transient a platform to rely on for helping others feel less alone when they need it. So, this very brief post will just have a list of thoughts going through my head right now.
It is not a character flaw to be unable to function due to a mental illness/disorder, to “can’t” as I sometimes refer to this.
It is OK to can’t.
There are probably people you care about that are can’ting right now.
I am can’ting right now.
Despite how it may feel, can’ters are not alone.
I am safe.
If you can’t, please know that you are still worthy of love and compassion and that the world is better with you in it.
I am on medical leave from my dream job at Microsoft for a while. My Depression and Anxiety have been acting up for months and I burned through my paid-time-off with little to show for it. The whole grin and bear it thing, even it if helps, just doesn’t lead to long term stability. I am super fortunate to have medical leave via Short Term Disability as an option along with a manager and team at work, and a family at home that care about me.
Concentrating and focusing are both really hard right now. And I find blogging about my experiences helpful, not just for myself, but for the possibility of making someone else’s experience even a little bit easier. With that in mind, I have decided to share some of what I do for my own Self-Care. I’m not up for tackling anything heavy, so I figure this is a win all around.
There are some ground rules and expectations I want to set before I go any further.
That fact that these things help me DOES NOT mean they are going to help you.
I have ZERO desire to become some sort of social media Wellness Influencer.
I will not be asking you to buy any tonic, tincture, salve, balm, or poultice.
Anyone that claims to have a “sure-fire” cure for ANYTHING when it comes to mental health is almost certainly trying to take advantage of you.
Since my mental health challenges include quite a bit of social anxiety, I am going to focus on self-care I use that does not require direct interaction with other humans.
Han shot first.
I have a long history of playing video games, all the way back to the Atari 2600. As far as console games, I later moved on to Nintendo, Sega Genesis, PlayStation, and XBOX. The first computer game I played/loved was Wizard’s Crown which was a fantasy role-playing game (RPG) for the Commodore 64. That got me hooked on RPGs. I love the process of turning a powerless character into a hero across a compelling story line. In recent years, I have focused mostly on playing games on computer rather than a console.
Here are computer games I really enjoy and find helpful when it comes to self-care:
Activision Blizzard, the creator of the Diablo series has been in the news for the past year or so regarding sexual harassment and a toxic work environment for female employees and their response so far has been a shit-show. I had pre-ordered this game, an updated version of my favorite game of all time, before I learned about any of that. Since playing this game does not involve any additional money to play beyond that original purchase of the game I had already doled out, I still play it.
I was a long-time fan of World of Warcraft (WoW), another Activision Blizzard game, as well, which requires an ongoing subscription to play. As soon as I learned of the terrible circumstances described above, I cancelled my WoW subscription and uninstalled the game. Activision/Blizzard as it exists today will not get another dime from me.
Microsoft is in the process of acquiring Activision Blizzard, which gives me hope for the future. Perhaps, once this is finalized, and if I see real, profound proof that working conditions have improved for ALL Activision Blizzard employees and the management and other personnel that perpetrated/allowed the behavior/discrimination are out the door, I may consider WoW again.
I don’t really have a note that I wanted to put here, but the other games have one so I didn’t want Neverwinter Nights to feel left out.
I find playing these games both relaxing and fun. They offer a valuable distraction and diversion that helps me set aside my Depression and Anxiety for a while. None of these games require ongoing demands for fast fingers and reaction times. My ability to take out a Zombie in the games above is more about my character’s skills rather than my own. When I am struggling with Depression and/or Anxiety, and energy is hard to come by, this aspect makes playing these games a viable option more often than not.
I’ve only gotten into listening to Podcasts in the past year or so. While I listen to several podcasts, this post will highlight the ones that I consider part of my self-care. All of them provide me with a great balance of teaching me something new and making me laugh. To avoid pushing these podcasters toward jousting for my affection, I have listed them in alphabetical order.
Honest, humane conversations with top artists, entertainers, and experts about what it’s like to live with an interesting mind. No shame, no stigma, and more laughs than you might expect from a mental health podcast.
You’re Wrong About is an American history and pop culture podcast created by journalist Michael Hobbes and writer Sarah Marshall. It has been hosted by Marshall since its inception; Hobbes also hosted until 2021. Launched in May 2018, the show explores misunderstood media events by interrogating why and how the public got things wrong.
I find that taking time for myself is a vital part of my mental health. I understand that I am saying this as a straight, white, male living well above the poverty line, allowing me to benefit from large servings the privilege our modern society (at least in the United States) can give out. Not everyone has the means, time, opportunity to avail themselves of all the same things I have access to. I long for a world where EVERYONE has access to the resources they need, be that medical care, education, adequate food, a safe place to call home, and even just a damn hug (if they want one) once in a while.
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 a 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 about 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.