Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Ups and Downs of 2014

Ups and downs. Mood cycling. Get it? I can't pass up a pun, even if it's at my own expense. Cheesiness aside, 2014 was filled with a lot of action, and I thought it worth writing about.

If you have read my blog for any length of time, or even if you just know me in general, you probably know there are two things I don't much believe in: major regrets, and New Year's Resolutions. The first is because, quite simply, all of my decisions, both the good and the "how 'bout we not try that again", have lead me to where I am today. And overall, despite all my quirks, my struggles, and at least one or two pretty significant life disappointments, I'm pretty proud of who I am. If I were to know how my life would unfold (i.e. people ask me all the time if I'd have gotten married knowing I'd be divorced three years later), I wouldn't change it. To do so would discount the experiences, and the people, that those parts of my life included, and I refuse to do that. And New Year's resolutions? Well, quite frankly, isn't it better to create life goals, both big and small, and then actually make a plan - which includes things I can do this year, this month, and even this week - to help me get there? At the end of the day, where does "I'm going to lose 10 pounds" or "I'm going to spend less money" really get me, other than the extra expense of a gym membership or some financial self-help books, if I don't have a plan to go along with them?

So I thought that instead, I'd do a year in review.  I think it's important to include big things and less seemingly momentous occasions (life is made up of little moments), lessons learned, and discoveries about myself and life. As usual, my messy brain is putting them in no particular order.

  • I moved out of Philly after four years, and moved into a house (my first in seven years!) with my boyfriend, his son, and our two dogs. It's nice to be able to do home-y, family things, like have a real, full-sized Christmas tree! 
  • I started a permanent part-time position at CHF and remember once more what it's like to have a manager, coworkers, and a schedule that requires you to be at work at a certain time in clothing that doesn't include PJs. I realized how much I was missing the routine and camaraderie of this type of job. I have also realized strengths that I'd forgotten I have (turns out I'm a spreadsheet master and an eagle-eyed proofreader). 
  • We had a Northen family reunion in St. Simon's, Georgia, in which I got to spend a week with my parents, siblings, and all of the nieces and nephews. I have an incredibly close family, and this was one of the highlights of my year. 
  • I started re-learning how to snowboard, and as a result now actually enjoy the winter instead of just counting down the days until the ground thaws. It also afforded me some of the best times of the year with a good friend, and established some new traditions. 
  • Cinn turned 10. I hate that she's getting older, and it made me pretty sad, but she's still running around as much as she did as a pup... though she wasn't a very active pup either. 
  • My condition was more troubling than it has been in years, possibly ever. I felt like I cycled more frequently and more rapidly, and my social anxiety has gotten worse (I didn't really used to have social anxiety until the past few years). This made this year very tough for me, and most likely for those around me. 
  • I cried. A lot. Sometimes for no known reason, or at least no reason I knew consciously. The crying wasn't always because I was sad. Sometimes it was just a tension release, needed to un-muddle my head. 
  • I took a lot of time for self discovery. I needed it, and I think I'll continue to need it. I learned that I haven't been taking as good care of my mental health as I'd like to, and began to do so more. I learned that I need more time to myself than I used to, and that often that time involves reading or writing, as it lets me "escape" the mess of my brain for a while. 
  • Speaking of writing, I started writing my first novel. It's pretty exciting, as I've never written fiction much before and previously thought it something I wasn't much capable of, but it's coming along nicely (I think). 
  • I found some confidence in these last few months. I stopped letting other people's opinions of me dictate how I felt about myself. It's amazing what this will do, and it finally just clicked for me one day. I realized that our lives are dictated by our choices, and by nobody else's. We choose how to act, react, and respond, and once you actually "get" that, it's pretty empowering. 
  • I became a godmother. SO COOL. 
  • I turned 35. I was dreading it, for reasons that I wrote about here. It didn't hit as hard as I thought it would. Perhaps that's due to all of the mental preparation. 
There are entirely too many moments to list. These are just a few that stick out most in my mind. I have no doubt that they will influence my 2015, and that the year to come will have it's own share of important occasions. For the time being, Happy New Year! May your year in review 365 days from now be filled with more happy moments than sad, and if I am a part of them, I hope to be a positive one. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Celebrating A Life

December 17th. Today would have been my Grandma Ventura's 88th birthday. My grandma passed away six years ago, though it feels at times like much longer. It feels like a lifetime since we used to greet her at the airport gate, her bags filled with her trademark zucchini bread and small gifts for us. In a way, it was a lifetime ago - these days, she'd have to make her way through Philadelphia International on her own and meet us at the baggage claim, and they'd probably search her zucchini bread to make sure it wasn't a cover for some sort of hazardous material.

To me, the best way to honor someone is not to mourn their loss, but to celebrate their life. And sometimes, it's the little things, the memories you almost forget until the smell of their favorite cookies permeates the air, the sweater you see in their favorite shade of mauve, or the funny anecdote that is so quintessentially "them". So I thought I'd share some moments that remind me of my grandma so well, as a way to celebrate her life on her birthday. Many of these are from childhood and adolescence, as we spent the majority of our holidays with her during those days, but some are more or less timeless.

  • Pulling up to grandma's house in the middle of the night and her waiting there with zucchini bread and Italian Wedding soup for us (no soup for me, it has meatballs, but it smelled great). I always wondered how someone that "old" could be up that late. In retrospect, she was probably in her 50s. Now that I'm 35 and rarely make it past 10:30 PM, I really wonder how someone in their 50s could be up that late. 
  • Walking with her from our house to the Town House restaurant when she came to visit. She loved taking me and my brother out to eat when we were younger. It was a small thing, but it was "our thing".
  • Her joke book. Grandma loved to tell jokes but wasn't great at them. She'd keep the jokes written in a book, categorized by topic, so that she could reference them when she wanted to use one. Sometimes she didn't get the jokes herself. There was a very inappropriate one about a sheep that she had categorized under "cute animal jokes" (I sincerely hope she never used this at a party). 
  • Her bringing my brother a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle flashlight that was shaped like a gun, and it getting confiscated at the airport as potentially dangerous. This was well before 9/11, which made it all that more ridiculous. 
  • The year she came down for Christmas and we didn't have the heart to tell her we'd stopped going to mass years ago. We drove around for a half hour trying to find the church in our own town, making up excuses as to why we couldn't find it. If she caught on, she never said a word.
  • Me and her singing a duet of "There is a chapel in the town" (not sure of the actual name of the song) for the family talent show on vacation. 
  • Her horrendously grumpy cat, Chuckie. The scary cat meme has nothing on him. How a nice, gentle woman like my grandma bonded with this cat, I'll never know. 
  • Being one of the first ones awake in the morning and going downstairs to her room to see if she was up (we were both morning people). Sometimes, it would be just the two of us up for a while. 
  • Sitting in the green and orange recliners in her living room, listening to Harry Belefante on the record player. 
  • Her bell collection. Especially the dinner bell. No matter where you were in the house, you came running to the table when she rang that bell. Being allowed to ring it for her was a treat.
  • Going to Washington, D.C. with her and attending mass at the National Cathedral. My brother and I got our portrait sketched by a street artist named Thomas Murdock. My parents still have the sketch in their house. 
  • Cuccidatis, guiguilenis, pupa ca lovas, and rock cookies (tiny portions of fruit cake passed off as cookies). I needn't say more, because if you don't have a Sicilian grandma, you have no idea what I'm talking about, and if you do, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Feel free to google them. They're delicious (well, maybe not the fruit cake cookies). 
There's plenty that I'm forgetting. I'd love for my family to add their own memories in the comments. 

Happy Birthday, Grandma. I know that what you would have wanted most of all was to have a happy, healthy family, whose generations carried on the love and closeness that you worked so hard to foster. Looking at your children, and their children, and their children's children, I can honestly say, you would be very happy, and very proud. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thank You For Being A Friend

Friendship is an incredibly important part of my life. Mainly because, in addition to family, it's my lifeline. And really, my best friends are family, if not actually related by blood.  The best therapy and medication couldn't save me if I didn't have my close friends and family. I'm positive about that.

Having a mental health condition adds a very interesting dimension to friendship: what do they know? What do they not know? What do they not want to know or acknowledge? The last one is the most essential. I write a blog, tweet, post, etc about my life with cyclothymia and I'm actually not particularly shy in talking about it, so it's not uncommon for people to know I have a condition. To me, though, the key to someone being a close friend is not them knowing. It's them accepting it, trying to understand, loving me just as much for my differences instead of despite them, and being there when I need them.

I have high standards of friendship. I know this. Quite honestly, I don't think it should be any other way. I feel that, in part, my condition demands this be the case. While I'm open about my condition, I do have some secrets, believe it or not - or at least things I haven't broadcasted to the world via blog post. If I trust someone with this information, I want to know that it's "safe". By which I mean they won't go telling other people, write some cryptic Facebook post or tweet, use it against me if we argue or ever are less close than we are at the present moment. This is particularly important if the friend is involved with other aspects of my life - part of an industry organization, a coworker, part of a group or club I'm involved in, etc. The bottom line is, there are still a lot of closed minded, ignorant people out there who don't or won't understand the truth about mental health, and I don't need any friends of mine adding fuel to the fire, either intentionally or unintentionally. Luckily, knock on wood, I've yet to encounter this, and I hope it stays that way.

In addition to the ability to trust people with whatever I tell them, I need to be able to trust people to be there for me and to understand. I get socially anxious, depressed, hypomanic, panic attacks, etc. I need friends who get this and the ramifications that go along with it. If I randomly burst into tears, ask me how you can help, and don't judge me. If my anxiety is too much for me to go to that social function, please understand - I am not trying to be dull or ruin your time, to isolate myself or be aloof. I physically am unable to go. Please get that. And maybe, occasionally, say "screw that big gathering" and offer to come over and have a glass of wine with me and talk in the comfort of my own home instead. Understand that I get hypomanic, and while it may draw attention, it's not intended to. I cannot help my energy and all that goes along with it - it is what it is.

So given all of this, what is a friend to me? A friend is someone who will reach out, instead of you having to always make the effort. They'll reach out for good as well as bad... they're not always asking something of you. They'll listen/be there for you when you reach out back. If they're local, they'll invite you to things without your being attached to anyone or anything else. If someone only reaches out in group form, I don't consider them a good friend. EXCEPTION:  People who deal with serious depression and anxiety have a very tough time reaching out. Sometimes, if they get the courage to do it, they reach out to several at people at once because it takes all of their energy and courage to do just that. I get this, and appreciate anything you can muster.

A friend is someone who notices when something's off. It might be the glazed over look in your eye that says "I'm turning inward because the anxiety in this setting is overwhelming". It could be the tone of a post or tweet that just doesn't feel quite right - "she didn't say anything was wrong, but I know her well enough...". A friend is someone who knows the right way to include you. If groups make you anxious, they suggest smaller settings. If they know certain topics are tough, they stay away from them. For me, a big one is including me actively without putting the spotlight on me... you all know by now how being the center of attention makes me feel. But, friends also understand that, because I think and see the world differently, it's very easy for me to feel like an outsider. Friends make sure that I don't, or do their best to.

I do want to be clear on one thing a friend is not:  they do not have to be someone I see in person. In fact, I have a friend that I consider a good friend that I've never actually met. We've gotten to know each other through twitter, FB, mental health groups, blogs, etc, and we now text, via app because we're not in the same country. She's one of the first people I reach out to when my condition gets really bad and I need someone who understands. Yet because of our logistics, we haven't had the chance to meet. To me, that doesn't make a bit of distance, she's still an amazing person and a great friend.

I know I have a lot of requirements for friends. But I think I'm worth it, and I deserve it. In fact, I think everyone deserves it. Life is too short to surround yourself with people who don't understand, support, cherish, and love the real you, and all of you. It's just that simple. I am so very lucky for the friends I have. You keep me going. You're wonderful. I love you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Give Me All Your Money....

Ok, not all. Just a tiny bit.

It's not Giving Tuesday. In fact, it's not Tuesday at all. I totally missed that.... intentionally. I knew there were going to be so many solicitations for donations that I didn't even bother. Besides, this particular cause is one that is often incredibly personal, and people are either going to give to it because it's somehow affected them, do so to support me, or aren't going to at all, regardless of the day. Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against Giving Tuesday. It's head and shoulders above people having to miss their family Thanksgiving so that others can get a good deal on a big TV they don't need. In the grand scheme of Thanksgiving-week promotions, its certainly more noble than most. But I wasn't going to compete against it. I'd be lost in the mix.

If you've been reading my blog, or follow me on any social media, you probably know that this past summer, I completed the Overnight Out of Darkness Walk for suicide prevention. It's a 16-18 mile walk that starts at dusk and goes until whenever you finish 16 to 18 miles. This past year it took me about 5 hours. It was my first time participating in this event, and it was life-changing. Truly. It is the only fundraising/awareness event I've participated in, in which almost every single person is walking for someone that has been lost. Unlike other walks I've done, the opening ceremonies were, while inspirational, very sombre. There was no cheering for survivors, because in suicide, there are no survivors. Period. There are those who people have been "survived by", but that is no more uplifting. What is uplifting if I dare to apply that word anywhere near the topic of suicide, is that there is something that we, and I personally, can do about it.

End of the Philly Overnight, actually around 12:30 or 1 AM.

This year, I'll be walking in Boston. It's not for a while yet, but I want to raise as much as I can for this cause, so I'm starting early. A few weeks back, I posted on Facebook, asking this: if you were thinking of sending me a holiday card, I ask you to please instead donate the dollar or two it would cost you to my fundraising for the Overnight.  Too many people are not here celebrating with their families because they have taken their own lives. Too many families are spending the holidays without a mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, or friend that they've lost to suicide. Suicide does not discriminate between gender, economic class, ethnic background, or job title, which means that nobody is exempt from the possibility of being affected by it. So as much as I love getting cards and family photos at this time of year, giving them up to raise money for prevention and awarenes is the least I can do.

I figure that if all of my Facebook friends and blog readers could donate just a dollar or two, I will make my goal in no time. Here is my personal link. Of course, if you'd like to walk with me, volunteer to help with the event, or participate in any other way, that would be more than welcome as well.

Thank you, in advance, for any way that you can support this incredibly important cause, for me and for the people who are no longer here to support it themselves.

Luminaries, each lit for someone lost to suicide

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

For The Love Of Dog

Today is my Cinn's birthday! She's the big 1-0. Feels like just yesterday that she was an eight week old pup at a shelter dog adoption, wearing a bib that said "maybe your baby". I didn't choose Cinn, she chose me. I went over to the crib where she was laying with her nine brothers and sisters. The rest of the fluff balls dozed, barely glancing of at me as I approached. Not Cinn. She stood up and literally stepped over all of the other dogs to get to the side of the crib where I stood. I said on the spot, "I want that one".  At the time, I thought "she's got spirit, she is courageous and doesn't let anything - like stepping on her siblings - stand in the way!" Ten years later, I realize that I actually got a big baby, a gentle giant who's scared of such things as a strong breeze, plastic bags, and pink mopeds (yes, only the pink ones). I guess she must have just really known that day that I was meant to be her mama.

Cinn has been my constant companion and my best friend. When I got divorced, I asked for (read: demanded) just one thing - Cinn. She saw me restart my life after my marriage. She saw me get engaged a second time, then subsequently un-engaged.  She saw me through as I restarted my life a second time. She's seen me cry more tears than all of the humans in my life put together. She knows when I'm sad or when my depression is bad. She comes over to me, letting me pet her, quietly putting her face up to mine. "Mama, I'm here." She's heard more soliloquies than a Shakespearean theater company. Me practicing an important presentation, me thinking out loud over the day's events, me trying to sort out my ever-muddled brain.

Cinn rarely asks for anything. Often, even if she's hungry or in need of a bathroom break, I don't know... I only find out when I walk to the door or the food bowl and she starts jumping around and I think "oh no, has she not eaten/gone out today? What a terrible mom." Cinn never talks back, gives me a hard time, disagrees with me. She loves me unconditionally. Every single day for ten years, she's run to the door to greet me when I get home, whether I've been gone eight hours or eight minutes. I can't think of a human on earth that would be that happy at my arrival multiple times every day for a decade. This is nothing against the people in my life, but when was the last time a person jumped up and down animatedly, wagging their butt and trying to hug you when you'd just run to Wawa for ten minutes?

Cinn's a great "guard dog." She wouldn't hurt a fly - in fact I think she's afraid of them - but she's big, with a deep bark, and because she's scared of everything, her back hair stands up when she seems something unfamiliar.  She's particularly good for scaring off door to door salesmen and Jehovah's Witnesses ("Hello, I've come to talk to you about... JESUS CHRIST!").

I tell Cinn she has to live until she's at least twenty five, but I'm not sure that's something even Cinn's love for me, and mine for her, can make happen. It's sad to see her graying muzzle, how she gets up a bit more slowly, her back starting to sag. I realize that large breed dogs usually have a life span of about 14 to 15 years, and her turning ten is very difficult with me. Wasn't she just a pup? Yet I know life is all too short, for humans and canines alike, and I have to enjoy every minute with her that I have. I can't take her for granted, or think of her as "just a dog". She's my baby, my first "born", and always will be. She's been as good for my mental health as any therapy or medication, and I could never put that gratitude into words. So I'll simply say:  Happy Birthday, my beautiful Cinn, my baby girl. Mama loves you from the bottom of her heart. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

It's Not You, It's Me

I recently read a blog post on entitled "I have Anxiety - I'm Not a Snob", by Gabe Howard. The title drew me in immediately. I could relate to the author before I even read a word - though of course I did read it in full and could relate even further. In his post, Howard describes the disconnect between how those with anxiety (and I'd venture to say many mental health conditions) feel, and what others think they see. This is something that I try to get across to people time and again, and I get so frustrated when I can't. Still, it prompted me to attempt this once more, to explain my feelings and actions for what they are, and not what others may stubbornly insist that they are.

I have social anxiety. In my case, it's not a separately diagnosed condition (though it is in others), but part of my life with cyclothymia. Most people, I'd venture to guess, would be very surprised to hear I am socially anxious. I'm an extrovert, or at least always have been, and once I get going I have a ton of energy and enthusiasm. The thing is, it takes me a lot to get going. The worst are situations in which others know each other quite well and I am only somewhat acquainted with them. However, unless I'm with my closest friends and family, or oddly, sometimes complete strangers who also don't know each other either, the anxiety is quite awful.

For social events, I often have to prepare mentally, emotionally, and physically for several days. By physically prepare, I don't mean spending extra time doing my hair and choosing my outfit.
Rather it's the racing heart, nervous stomach, occasional shortness of breath, headaches or migraines, often the onset of a depressive cycle, which brings extreme fatigue and exhaustion. Then, I have to prepare for how to interact. If I don't know people well, especially if they're close to each other, will they think I'm leeching on if I try to join the conversation? Will they notice my anxiety? My depression? Or worse, as Howard mentioned, will I appear like a disinterested snob? Will they think I'm a drain, no fun, uptight? If I actually gain some confidence and my natural excitable personality surfaces, will I come across as loud, annoying, hyper?

But wait, there's more! Believe it or not, my anxiety isn't the most troubling. There's also the fact that my depressive spells make me completely unable to value my own worth, It appears to me that everyone is better at everything than me - more fun, more likable, more talented, better looking, more successful. As you can imagine, this doesn't make going into a social engagement that you're already nervous about better. A very important note here: this is NOT jealousy. It's not me moping around, thinking negatively, needing an attitude adjustment. It's that my brain is hard-wired to react this way. Plain and simple. Depression seems to siphon out the ability for positive self-thought. So when I'm sad, or aloof, or despondent, or teary-eyed for reasons others can't understand, when I don't want to interact or do something social, it's not that I'm a jealous, high-strung, uninterested grinch who wants to ruin your time.

Finally, there's the hypomania. Oh, my love-hate relationship with hypomania. Occassionally, it does help me to have the confidence of an averagely-confident person which, I'll admit, feels wonderful. And being not depressed, that feels wonderful too. But mostly, as I've described it so many times before, it makes me feel like a drank a whole pot - not cup, pot - of coffee on an empty stomach. I feel even more anxious than usual. I'm jittery, unable to sit still. I babble on, knowing I'll later be horribly embarrassed but feeling like physically I cannot stop. Trust me, as much as it may bother you, it bothers me more. Now, as with depression, let me tell you what hypomania is not. It is NOT attention-seeking activity. As you may have guessed from my description of social anxiety, I hate attention. I actually feel nervous when people, other than very close friends and loved ones, look at me. Yes, just looking at me makes me feel like I'm getting too much attention. I have to fight every instinct to not turn away, embarrassed. Hypomania might bring attention to me, for better or (more often) for worse, but it is not intentional attention-seeking behavior.

So next time you think someone with a mental health condition is snobbish, a stick in the mud, too uptight, too hyper, too jealous, trying to ruin your fun, attention-seeking.... please remember what I've just written above, and consider how much they're going through just to participate in a normal social situation. Perhaps, as Howard suggests in his post, one day I'll be able to say "I'm sorry, my mental health condition is acting up, I apologize for my social awkwardness, please don't take offense." But we are far from that day sadly, so please, try to understand what we might be dealing with.

Now, I bet you all can't wait to invite me to your next party!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Facts of Life

I sometimes worry at times that people think I'm putting on a facade - that I appear to be handling everything well and able to help other because of how well I'm coping, when really I'm one big giant mess. I want to assure people that this is not the case - the facade, that is. The big giant mess part is up for interpretation, I suppose. Therefore, I thought I would muster up every single bit of courage I have, and write a dead-honest blog about myself, including the worst bits of me, without ignoring the positives completely. I never want to be accused of putting on a show, or of people not knowing who I really am. Of course, my view of myself is just that - my view. But I'm going to try to incorporate those things others have observed to me as well, to try to be as completely, brutally honest as I can.

I am not crazy. Sometimes, though, I act crazy. Observers, or even those close to me, might want to label me as such. My condition makes me particularly emotional, meaning small things seem bigger, and meaning that I can spiral out of control. Not like "running down the street in my underwear wielding a machete" out of control. More like 'this should not be a big deal but for me it feels like it's crushing' out of control. I have been known to fall to pieces crying in the corner, to get so angry I punch a pillow (an action advised by therapists for getting anger and hypomanic energy out that in no way indicates violent tendencies in a person), to yell or scream just to feel some sort of release from internal turmoil, to be such a bundle of nerves that I can't think that my situation will get better, to say things in an overly emotional moment that I barely realize I'm saying and later regret, to beg and plead for the forgiveness of all of the above. I often can't let things go and step away, feeling absolutely desperate to resolve things right that minute, despite knowing that just shutting up and walking away is logically best.

In general, I often talk to loud and too much - though this might just be me naturally, and not my condition - and because of this, have be accused of trying to focus attention on myself. In reality, I absolutely hate attention, especially in groups, and have trouble even looking people in the eye if I don't know them really well.

I have depressed days -  days where I don't want to move, where I feel like I'll never amount to anything and that nobody actually loves or likes me other than my closest family. I have, lately, a ton of social anxiety, constantly feeling like people don't actually want me around, are talking about me behind my back, or otherwise wish I wasn't in their company. I often have to emotionally prepare myself well in advance for even the most basic social gathering.

Where relationships are concerned, well...  I'm divorced and un-engaged (two different scenarios). I have, in the past, been abused in numerous ways, and in this respect am quite "damaged", for lack of a better word. I'm not saying this for sympathy, but rather to say, as I phrased it in the beginning, "I can be a big giant mess". I have trust issues, and confidence issues. Major, major confidence issues, as well as self esteem issues. I feel I've often brought out the worst in people, and I feel awful in doing so, but don't know how not to do it. I can be emotionally demanding because, let's face it, people with depression, hypomania, general and social anxiety need a lot of emotional support at times.

I'm not cool. I've written a whole blog about my lack of coolness, in fact. I'm not chill or overly laid back, though I'm not as high strung as I often appear - the fact that I talk loudly, fast, and frequently often makes me appeared worried/anxious/stressed about something when really, I just like to converse. I often do my best thinking out loud, and while I probably sound and look a bit like a Hollywood's version of 'crazy', I'm not talking to any imaginary friends or voices, I'm just sorting out my thoughts. Often, I'm actually reciting parts of my novel to see if they sound as good as I think they do when I write them.  I'll admit, however, that this is unfortunate for others who might be in the room at the time.

I'm not ashamed that I have a condition, because it is a medical condition that I was born with, just like others have heart conditions or respiratory disorders. But I do, at times, do and say plenty that I'm ashamed of when I am no longer hypomanic.

I am, however, not void of virtues and positive attributes. When it comes to loved ones, I'm fiercely loyal. I would literally throw myself in front of a speeding truck in order to save someone I love. I would also defend someone I love to the death, even if I don't necessarily agree with their specific action.  I have a big heart. I focus so much on love, desire and need it so much, that I think I tend to be led by it, and to it, at all costs. I would rather live in a cardboard box with someone I love than a mansion by myself. I admit it makes me emotionally high maintenance, but it's nothing that I'm not ready to give back. I don't think anyone could accuse me of being a materialist person (those five star hotels once in a while don't really count, right? We all have our vices).

I love to laugh. I have a somewhat dry sense of humor, and friendly banter is one of my favorite forms of communication. I can be silly, though I usually have to know you well to feel comfortable doing so. I have trucker's mouth, but it's all in good fun - I'm not so rough around the edges as I might sound when I'm frustrated or just can't find another word to say. I love to sing and dance, and if anyone ever secretly filmed me, they'd probably catch me embarrassingly singing to my dog and substituting words to make the song appropriate to her.

I am, at the core, a good person. I do not believe, even at my lowest, when I am in a horrible depression with no confidence at all, that anyone could truly convince me otherwise. I'm in no way perfect, not at all. But in my heart, I am a good person. It is the thing I hold onto most when I feel I have nothing else.

So there you have it. This is me, the best way I can describe myself honestly. I'm not trying to be negative, nor am I trying to say "yes, there's bad, but look how much more good." I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything.  I'm simply trying to say that I know who I am, for better or worse, and I never want to be accused otherwise. I've pretty much been the same for the past thirty five years, and probably be the same for the next thirty five. I don't hide who I am behind some facade or fake persona. This is me. I'm not an easy person, and some people might think I'm worth the effort, while others may not. Such is life, and I cannot deny it. If you are one of those people who does feel I'm worth it then, well, I think you're worth it too. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Things You Want To Know About Mental Health But Are Afraid To Ask

When I tell people that I have cyclothymia and/or that I write a blog that focuses on mental health, I get a wide variety of reactions. Many people tell me that I'm courageous for being open and honest about my condition. Others just kind of nod and make some comment about how their best friend's cousin had depression, or how they tried to write a blog about xyz but couldn't get into it. A few awkwardly look at me and are probably calculating whether or not they think I'm "crazy" (society's term, not mine).  For the record, I'm not. Overall, though, I think there are a lot of questions that people have about mental health but are afraid to ask. Whether they are dealing with a condition themselves, or think they may be, or they have a friend or loved one that's been diagnosed, or they're just downright curious, mental health can be a daunting subject to many. I totally understand. It's been too taboo of a subject for entirely too long, and it's tough to get away from that, even with the best of intentions. So I thought I'd write a blog of things that people may want to know but are afraid to ask. As usual, these are in no order, other than the ones which they came into my brain.

1. Do you ever feel "crazy"?/Do you ever feel "normal"? Yes, to both. Well, let me rephrase. I don't really know what either feels like per se, because really both terms are in the eye of the beholder. But do I ever feel like I want to make my brain work one way but have a hard time doing so, even with meds? Yes, I do. It sucks. It sucks even more because I'm aware of it when it's happening, but feel helpless. Do I ever not feel cyclothymic (i.e. depressed or hypomanic)? Yes, surprisingly more than one might think. I'm not always up or down. I'm often somewhere in the middle. I guess you'd call that normal.

2. How did you feel when you were diagnosed? Relieved, scared, worried, sad, curious, slightly peaceful and hopeful. It was a complete mix of just about every emotion one can feel at once. A lot of people think being diagnosed is awful. In reality, it allows you to finally focus on what's going on, create a treatment plan, and get to it. It's way better than doctors randomly throwing inappropriate meds your way and having uninformed people tell you that if you just smile and have a positive attitude, you'll feel better.

3. Is having cyclothymia (insert condition) tough? Can you still live a normal life? I'm not going to lie, it's rough. Some days, it's downright awful. But please, stop using the word "normal". It's a setting on the dryer, nothing else. We are all unique creatures. My unique makeup happens to include this condition. I've had it since birth. I managed to get through college and grad school with 3.8+ GPAs; I run my own company and work a part time job at a conference center; I am a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor; I have a good group of friends and a close family; I'm a published author and now working on my first novel. If you call that normal, then I suppose that answer is yes.

4. Can mental health conditions be cured? There's debate on this, both among mental health professionals and those diagnosed. In my opinion and my experience, no. Conditions can be better or worse; they can be managed successfully and you can live a successful, fulfilling life, but it doesn't go away. It might go into remission, but it doesn't disappear forever. That said, I'm not a mental health professional and I suggest everyone ask their treating professionals about their own condition. But personally, I was born with my condition and will die with it, and that's that. It's tough to come to terms with, but once you do, the pressure of "curing yourself" is off, and honestly, that's kind of a relief.

5. Does mental health impact your relationships?  Absolutely. I relate to the world differently. I often don't understand others and they don't understand me. They don't know what it feels like, and I can't put it into words at times. It's frustrating as hell, both to me, and to them. I honestly think anyone who said that it doesn't affect their relationships in some way or another would be lying. But it's completely possible to have a successful and happy relationship with someone with a mental health condition. Anyone who said that it's not would also be lying.

6. Does mental health affect the.... "romantic"... part of your relationships? (Earmuffs/blindfolds, family/colleagues/anyone who doesn't want to read the answer to this). Personally, no. Generally, it could. First off, depression makes you not interested in anything. Anything. That includes whatever goes on behind closed doors. It makes you want to lie in bed, and only lie in bed, until it passes. Also, certain meds can "decrease libido," to use the official phrase. Not all meds, just some. This is very personal to each individual, and if you ask ten people you'll probably get ten different answers. If it's a concern (and I'm guessing it probably is to most people), talk to your prescribing doctor about choosing meds without this side effect, or at least combating it. It may not be possible, but it's worth a try.

7. Do meds make you gain weight? Again, they can, but don't necessarily. If you are concerned about this, let your doctor know. I told my doctor I didn't want a med that caused weight gain and we worked around it. Hopefully, it's possible for you to do also.

8. Do you ever do things when in a rough state that you are later embarrassed/ashamed/frustrated with/mad at yourself about? If I got a nickel every time this happened, I could retire tomorrow (and I'm 35). Just remember, everyone does this from time to time. People do things when they're mad, tired, drunk, had a bad day at work, etc. Nobody's perfect. You are not your condition. You have a condition. Expect to have  "oh crap why did I say/do that" episodes, and possibly more than those without conditions, but don't let others make you a scapegoat for everything, and don't take all the blame. I find it helpful to give people a heads up that I'm having a "rough day". This tends to soften anything you might say/do that you later wish you hadn't, both to others and to yourself. When it does happen, acknowledge it, apologize if necessary, and move on.

9. Do you ever want to give up? Yes, but don't do it. It's as simple, and as complicated, as that. Take it hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, if you have to. But please, don't give up. People think mental health can't be fatal. They're wrong. Some days, every second is an internal struggle. Keep plugging along.

Have other questions? Feel free to ask me personally, if you don't want to ask them in the comments. Of course, comments are always welcome too.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Rhythm of the Rain

Wow, it's really been several weeks since I've written. I was on such a roll, but maybe I expended all of my blog writing energy in the end of September. Actually, I've been ridiculously busy with work - both my company and at the museum - which I say in the best possible way. I am one of those people who loves to be busy, and it makes my down time feel that much sweeter.

It's Saturday morning and I'm enjoying one of those much relished down times. Everyone else in the house is asleep, and I'm sitting at the dining room table writing and listening to the rain. It's incredibly peaceful, and it in fact is what inspired me to write.

I'm traditionally a sun worshipper. I love all things warm and sunny, and particularly dislike cold, dreary days. I assume I'm not alone in this. However, as I've gotten older, and perhaps as cyclothymia has played more of a role in my every day life, I have noticed a few shifts in myself. I certainly still mind the rain if it's going to ruin outdoor plans (or my daily commute), or if it continues for days on end and I start getting cabin fever, get the urge to build an arc, etc. But on most other occasions, I've lately enjoyed the rain. There's something melodic about hearing it beat on the windows and the roof. It draws me in, as if it's a meditation metronome, forcing me to just focus on the sound and quiet my brain. Maybe it's relaxing in that it provides the perfect excuse for not doing much. If it's warm and sunny, I feel lazy if I sit around in my pajamas writing, reading and drinking coffee. If it's raining and dreary, it seems perfectly ok to say "well, what else could I do really? Guess I'll just relax". Why work on the computer isn't possible in the rain, I don't know, but somehow, it seems an excuse for pushing even that aside.

Perhaps some of it is nostalgia. Rain in the car, especially at night (and especially when I'm not the one driving) reminds me of childhood trips to Buffalo to see my grandmother. We always left after work and drove through the night, arriving around 2 AM. It seemed no trip was complete without hearing rain on car windows and the sound of the tires rolling through water left on the roads.  I have a flashback to those trips, us pulling off at some local exit, probably in Cortland, Binghamton, Syracuse, to grab fast food at 11 PM because it was the only thing open. Riding in the car in the rain at night immediately makes me want to curl up in the back seat with my blanket and pillow and play the license plate game until I fall asleep. I usually don't do this at the request of my fellow travel companion(s), and these days I get queasy in the back seat, but if I could, I probably would.

I've noticed this same shift lately in my appreciation of the countryside and nature in general. Lately, I've longed to be outside hiking, or kayaking, or just listening to the sounds of the birds and the crickets (but not the bears). I've loved being away from technology, in places where I can't even get a phone signal - albeit for a limited time of a day or two. Don't get me wrong, I still love the hustle and bustle of the city. But escaping to places where you feel like you can't help but unwind, put down your electronics, and actually relax and communicate with each other in person, is something I've been enjoying more and more.

I wonder if much of this shift has to do with all of the nonsense that goes on in my brain daily. And by nonsense, I mean cycling. Perhaps the inability to escape constant stimulation internally makes me desire it that much more externally. My brain actually feels quieter when I'm sitting here writing with the rain rapping on the windows, or when I'm hiking with only the sounds of nature and the voices of the people I'm with. Maybe it's simply age that helps me appreciate the ability to slow down. Whatever it is, I need to follow it. It makes me calmer, more peaceful, and miraculously almost makes me feel like a normal human being. If you've ever felt hypomanic, you know how amazing it feels not to be - and not only to eliminate hypomania for a few moments, but to do so by being peaceful, rather than by being depressed.

So I think I'll sign off and enjoy this rainy contemplation while I can. I'm looking forward to plans with friends a little later, but for now, I'll let myself sip coffee in my pajamas and detach.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Birthday Lovin'

I have been a blog posting MACHINE this past week and a half. Are you proud of me? Because I am. I'm kidding, of course. I post simply to get thoughts "out there", and occasionally to inspire/motivate/make people laugh/laugh at myself because sometimes the option is to laugh or cry, and the former is more fun.  I am glad, though, that I'm posting more and that it's coming completely naturally.

Before I continue, let me say, that the title of this blog is meant in the most generic sense, as in "thanks for the birthday acknowledgements/wishes/serenades/etc". So if you were worried it would be about something more... um... intimate...I promise it's not (this is where you breathe a sigh of relief and decide to you don't need to close your eyes and quickly click the little 'x' in the corner of the screen). Also, I know I said no more birthday posts, but I so love birthdays.... just one more.

My birthday was awesome. I felt so loved and appreciated. As I mentioned in the previous post or several, I have trouble with attention focused on me. But I was, for the most part, rather comfortable with it yesterday. Perhaps this is because no wait staff came up to me at a restaurant doing some sort of odd rain-dance-looking maneuver, clapping their hands, and singing a non-trademarked version of Happy Birthday - that surely would have made me want to crawl under the table (thank you, loved ones, for not subjecting me to this). Other things, however, did make a huge impact. I got cards, and texts, and Facebook posts of birthday wishes. And yes, I do count Facebook posts in this instance, especially since so many of my FB friends are located outside of the US and it's therefore the easiest means of free communication. One of my best, best girl friends sent me flowers at work, which I'm still enjoying today. My team at work had a mini apple-tart type of dessert made for me and surprised me with it at the end of my shift, singing happy birthday (the real version, no rain dance involved), candle and all. I went out to dinner at a surprise location, which happened to be a place I've really been wanting to try, and had a delicious meal.

And so, I have to say that my first 24 hours or so of being thirty five have been quite enjoyable. Just 364 more to go until I can call it an unexpected success! In all seriousness, as I've now gotten past the dreaded deadline, I do feel a bit more calm and peaceful about this upcoming year. I think it will be a  year of action and changes - hopefully ones that put me in the direction that I want to be headed.

So thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all of the birthday lovin'. And thank you, to all of those who thought I was turning twenty five rather than thirty five. You are particularly awesome. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

You Say It's Your Birthday....

Sick of hearing about my birthday yet? Of course not! But just in case you are, since today is the big day, I promise you won't have to hear about it much for the next 300 plus after this. I'm not officially thirty five until 1:20 PM, but who's counting, besides me? I thought that with all the retrospection I've been doing about this occasion that's momentous for me and probably monotonous for everyone else, I'd do something fun today, and provide a few interesting/little known facts about my birthday/day of my actual birth. (And no, I'm not sure if retrospection is a word, but f*^& it, it's my birthday and I can make shit up). Obviously, some of these facts have been related to me years later because, as good of a memory as I have, I don't particularly recall making my way through the birth canal and the days immediately following, so I'm getting as close to as accurate as I can here. These are in no particular order, except for that in which they come into my brain. Which of course means it's completely random.

1. It was approximately 110 degrees (Fahrenheit, obviously) the day that I was born.

2. While I'm a jersey girl at heart, I was actually born in Indio, California (that's Indio, with an "o", part of the United States. It's amazing when I tell people that, how many people think I was born in the country of India.)

3. In the hospital, I was given a blue blanket, bracelet, etc and labeled "baby boy Northen" by mistake. Things clearly weren't quite as regimented back then.

4. Fittingly, I was born during (or immediately following) a Buffalo Bills vs. BOSTON Patriots game. My mom was determined not to give birth until the game was over. I believe that the Bills won. I have literally been a Bills fan since birth.

5. I had no middle name when I was born. My parents allowed me to choose my middle name when I was four, and I then chose Allanah. (I changed the spelling once or twice until it was official). I assume my parents policed this and wouldn't have allowed me to choose a name like 'sandwich' or something equally as rough.

6. Because I initially had no middle name, my official documents all said "N.M.I." for No Middle Initial. People continually thought my middle name was "nimi" (pronounced ni-mee). 'Sandwich' might have been an improvement.

7. My birthday falls on day in which both the astrological signs and the seasons transition from one to the next - first day of Libra, and the autumn equinox - which means that the universe is more or less in a giant identity crisis this day. This probably explains my restless spirit and wandering soul.

8. My great grandmother wanted to name me Trixie. I am thankful every day to my parents for having more common sense.

9. I share a birthday with Bruce Springsteen and Kublai Khan. I find the fact that people say "oh Bruce Springsteen! But who the heck is Kublai Khan?" a testament to the fantastic world history curriculum offered here in the U.S.

10. The number one billboard song on the day I was born was My Sharona, by The Knack. I had to google this, but I thought it was a fun way to round out the list,

That's all I have! So, happy birthday to me. And to Bruce Springsteen. Not so sure about Kublai Khan - seems he wasn't the nicest fella. And happy autumn equinox to everyone!

Monday, September 22, 2014

In My Next Thirty (Five) Years

My last post was downright depressing. I totally get that. I don't regret it, because I think it's important for people to understand what goes on inside the head of depression exactly when it's happening. Not later, after perspective and analysis, but right then. Still, I'm going to try to keep from posting that way on a regular basis because, let's face it, nobody wants to experience that on a regular basis, whether it's going through it or reading about going through it. 

Tomorrow is THE day. The dreaded 3-5 that I've been thinking about for, oh, the last 5 years or so. For a bit of a laugh, I googled "great things about being 35". Inevitably, I got numerous lists of "35 great/weird/fun/insert adjective things about being 35." As I read through the lists, I found myself laughing and nodding more often than saying "oh crap", which I take as a pretty good sign. Things like 'hearing your favorite songs from childhood being referred to as classics'. Most of what these lists touched on is this, though: 35 is that great age where you can still be 'young and fun', but are also old enough to legitimately think, ahh those young kids, with their noses buried their phones all the time, wearing clothes that barely cover the things that should always be cover in public. Basically, you have the best of both worlds. At 35, I can be young when I want to be young, and use the "I'm old, I have to go to bed by 10 PM" card to get out of a social engagement that you really don't want to be at.  I never looked at it this way before but really, it's ideal. 

With this new found perspective, perhaps 35 won't be all that bad. Perhaps, it'll be good, or even (gasp) great. Of course, I'll still deal with all of the ups and downs, including the depression and over-analysis of life, that come with my condition. That, I'll most likely never be free of, no matter what age. And yes, there are some places in life that I had hoped to reach by the age of 35 that I won't be reaching. But maybe, just maybe, there will be some other cool ones I will reach that I never thought of - and yes, one of the advantages of 35 is I'm still young enough to use the word cool without sounding like someone's great-grandmother trying too hard to fit in.  

So as the countdown to 35 chips away over the next twenty four hours, with my mental image of the new years eve ball dropping ever so slowly until 1:20 PM tomorrow, I'm feeling calmer and slightly more at peace. And because I LOVE birthdays, regardless of the age, I'm still going to relish the actual day just as much as I would any other year. While I traditionally hate attention all focused on me, for one day a year, and one day only, I actually enjoy it.  That, dreaded thirty five and all, I refuse to change. As the song goes, perhaps I'll do it (even) better in my next thirty (five) years. 

Me, in those years in which birthdays were an excuse for party and cake. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Life Through A Fish Eye Lens

It's been a couple of weeks since I last wrote. Maybe my busy weeks are catching up to me, or maybe I'm going senile at my old age of mid-30s and forgetting what day/week it is. Anyway, it's been a rough couple. There's been lots of topsy turvy, up and down action in my life and my brain, in which I seem to be cycling more rapidly than usual. I also seem to be dealing with more depressive episodes than usual and let me tell you, I don't like it one bit. For all of you who battle long depressive episodes or major depression and manage to continue to function as a normal human being, you have my utmost respect. And those of you who cycle from full mania to full blow depression (as opposed to my hypomania and less intense depressive episodes)... well, you guys must be superheroes humbly dressed as every day people.

I've been going through one of those phases in which I completely question almost everything about myself. Ever have those times? It feels like I'm on the outside looking in, examining myself as if I were a potential friend or dating partner or something. When I try to create a mental picture of what I'm going seeing, I imagine the view through a fish-eye lens, in which things are most likely distorted, by you can't entirely tell what, and by how much. In addition to subjecting myself to brutal honesty, it is a bit paranoia-inducing in that it causes me to question my own perspective - am I actually seeing/hearing/experiencing this right, or is it skewed because of my cyclothymia? From this bizarre perspective, my level of excitability, which I always thought endeared me to people, looks annoyingly hyper instead of charmingly, if perhaps a bit awkwardly, energetic. From this vantage point, my being happy, lively, and a bit quirky looks like I'm trying to call attention to myself instead of just BE myself (the latter which may cause attention, positive or negative, but is not aimed at doing so). My voice sounds too loud. My conversations sound too self-focused. From this perspective, every loud word or laugh, every talkative conversation, every time talk at all about myself, feels like it's happening at rapid fire and in slow motion at the same time. That's confusing, I know - it is to me too. It feels like it happens so fast I can't stop it, and then it replays over and over again in slow motion to ensure substantial regret and kicking myself for not being able to shut up.

The result? I'm becoming closed up. I'm drawing into myself. I still have bursts of energy because it still comes naturally and, let's face it, I have hypomania. But I'm becoming afraid and, if it's possible, more socially awkward. Now more than ever, I have trouble looking people (who I'm not very close with) in the eye, because I feel so awkward, nervous to have any attention on me, even if just through simple one on one conversation. Now I'm concerned that all this time, I haven't accurately been perceiving myself, my personality, and my actions. Now more than ever I'm worried that most people merely tolerate me and don't really want me around because I'm annoying/loud/embarrassing/fill in the adjective. In short, my view of the happy, sweetly energetic, humble woman who brightened a room with her smile and laugh, who disliked the spotlight, who loved to focus on others but not herself, has been destroyed - or at best, seriously put into question -  and I'm left wondering who I am.

I'm not sure of the solution. I don't know how to tell what people really think, and what is just based on my anxiety. I'm don't know if I should trust my own judgement, that of others, or some combination. If I believe in the person I thought I was, and others' positive opinions of me, am I in denial of who I really am? If I don't, am I giving in to some cyclothymia-induced brain warp and trying to be someone I'm not? Is there another solution that I'm completely missing?

I realize I've just talked about how I am trying to stop talking about myself and don't want attention on me, and now I've just written all of this about myself. But this blog, and this alone, is my turf. This is the one place I know I'm safe to say what I need. If you think I'm writing any of this for self-pity or using my condition as a crutch - and yes, I've been accused of both by those who have never had this condition - let me tell you that in this and this alone my perspective is crystal clear. You're wrong. I have never used the "I can't do this I have cyclothymia" excuse. I've never once said "screw it I'll just give up on myself I can't ever change". I've never asked for people to feel sorry for me (to clarify, asking for support and asking for people to feel sorry for you are NOT the same thing).

Take what you will from this post. I'm sure that it's not going to win me any popularity contests, but as I've never been a contender for the popular crowd, that's ok. I simply wrote this to get it out of my head and into space. I so often write to inspire that I feel sometimes I need to share the difficult moments as I'm in them. As always, if you ever are going through something similar and need a thought, a vent, or a virtual hug, please feel free to reach out. I undoubtedly can't solve what you're battling, but I'm happy to listen and offer support as best I can. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Staring Down The Barrel At Year 35

In less than a month I’ll be 35 years old (it’s Sept 23rd, if you’d like to write it down, text me, send me a gift, serenade me). Thirty five is a really tough birthday for me, and I don’t say that about a lot of birthdays. I’ve always felt like an old soul, so the fact that I annually move closer to the age that I actually feel doesn’t tend to affect me too badly. But thirty five is rough. To explain, I have to dig down deep and talk about a subject that, for purposes of my blog, I’ve put a complete taboo on up until this point - my former marriage.

I always said that if I had a family, I’d be done by 35. When I got married over ten years ago, this seemed like a very reasonable and feasible goal. We had a five-year plan. As in, we’d start trying to have a family in five years, figured two kids not super far apart, and within seven to eight years - putting me at 31 or 32 - we’d be a happy family of four. Well, six if you counted the furballs. But things changed.

First of all, marriage was both everything and nothing like I expected. I suspect a lot of people feel that way. I tried to be pragmatic, forcing myself to believe that long term relationships must be more slow, steady, and consistent than fiery and emotional and passionate, the latter being my natural tendency toward just about every aspect of life. I tried and I tried to adjust, but deep down inside I couldn’t reconcile that way of thinking with what actually made me happy. It was one hundred percent my fault. Nobody who ever met my ex-husband would say that he was ever a super fiery, emotional person, and in fact, his stability and grounded ways are what drew me to him in the first place. But thinking you know what’s best for you, and living with that day in and day out for the rest of your life, are two completely different things.

As our marriage passed the one year mark, my then-husband decided he wanted children sooner than four years from then. He broached the subject increasingly. Meanwhile, I was twenty five, unhappy, blaming myself for it, and petrified of bringing another life into the world, particularly in the current situation. The more he suggested starting a family sooner, the more I freaked out. There’s no other word for it. I completely freaked out. And eventually, I ran. I ran from him, and I ran from my marriage. The thought of us starting a family opened the virtual floodgates, and I finally couldn’t hold back my emotions. Everything that had been making me miserable came to the forefront. While our divorce was mutual, and as friendly as a divorce can be, I knew it was more or less one-sided. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t perfect, and there was plenty wrong between us without the family issue, but he would have stayed in the marriage out of love for me and desire to have the settled life he'd always wanted. I couldn’t. My ex-husband is a good person, and I have always felt guilt about the entire marriage. I believe he’s remarried now, and I truly wish him happiness. I hope he ends up with the family that he so wanted.

After my marriage, the idea of children continued to freak me out. I liked my “single” life - not always single, but not tied down to a house and children. I was traveling a lot, and enjoying the freedom that I’d never found in my twenties, having been settled down by the ripe old age of 23. As the years went on and I got engaged again, I reconsidered perhaps having a family once married. I was 30, and getting past what had happened in my marriage. For reasons that don’t need to be blogged about here, my engagement didn’t last. Time ticked away.

About a year ago, I started to realize that I’d been wrong. All those years ago, I’d given up potentially being a parent. I’d allowed that mindset to sink in, and it became part of my identity. Everyone knew I liked kids if I could hand them back to their rightful parents. Everyone knew I was the free-spirited one who wouldn't be tied down to family. It had practically become a joke amongst those who knew me well. But suddenly, it wasn’t me anymore. I desperately wanted children. I knew what a wonderful parent I’d be. Except that now I have discovered that I have this genetic condition that would most likely be passed on to my children. Now, I’m on medication that I’d have to stop if I were pregnant, and that, combined with pregnancy hormones, could be disastrous. Now, I’m going to be 35, and my womb feels like a ticking time bomb. Now, I cry about this on a weekly basis. I know I should get over it. I can’t. It feels like the worse form of karma.

Technically, I could adopt. Except that a non-married woman who barely makes ends meet and has a mental health disorder isn’t exactly the prime candidate for adoption. I could foster, but there are the same issues, and besides, fostering isn’t actually my child. I want my child. I realize it's selfish, but it's true. I want to be a permanent mom, not a temporary one. I do have a lot of other people's children in my life, and I feel incredibly fortunate for them. I know it could be worse. I know people who cannot physically have children and have tried for years. I know people have lost babies in miscarriage, or possibly even worse, lost them once they were born. I cannot imagine going through that. My childlessness was, and to some extent still is, my choice, even though at times it doesn’t feel like it. At times, it feels like a big old “F.U., you made your bed, now lie in it” from whatever powers that may be.

One of my favorite pieces of inspiration, the anonymous poem “Don’t Quit” says: “life is queer with its twists and turns, as every one of us sometimes learns.” You never know what to expect, and which direction your decisions will take you. I fully understand that it’s my choices that have brought me to where I am, and I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made, as much as they’ve caused me pain. At the times, they were the right ones to make, given my situation, and I have to imagine I’d make the same ones again, knowing what I know now. Perhaps thirty five will surprise me. Perhaps as my birthday passes, as that self-imposed deadline comes and goes, I’ll be able to make peace with it. It will be behind me, instead of looming down on me. In the mean time, I’ll enjoy those that I am lucky enough to have in my life, and be thankful that I have been gifted with them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

One Pill, Two Pill, Red Pill, Blue Pill

I don’t write about medication much. Okay, ever. It’s a controversial topic (not that this has ever stopped me), that people in mental health, and in society in general, tend to feel strongly about. Oddly, despite the fact that I’m generally quite an opinionated person, my thoughts on this topic aren’t so steadfast, at least when it comes to the topic overall. I do, however, have a strong belief about my own treatment, and that includes medication. I also feel strongly that medication shouldn’t be a taboo and isn’t something to be ashamed of, and that’s why I decided to finally write about it.

First, a little background on my own treatment. I was diagnosed because of medication. The wrong medication. I had been given anti-depressants by my GP, and these were increased when I went to the ER several months later with what I thought were panic attacks. I stayed in the hospital for two days, with doctors insisting that I needed to increase my meds to help calm my depression, and me insisting that it wasn't depression and that I didn't need more meds because they actually made me feel worse. After two days the doctors felt proud of themselves that they'd "helped me with my depression" and sent me on my way, taking twice the amount of antidepressants than I'd come in with. I still insisted they were wrong. Turns out, I was right. What I was experiencing were actually undiagnosed hypomanic episodes. The severity of them - noticeable enough to send me to the ER - was due to my anti-depressants. See antidepressants, in the vaguest of terms, elevate your mood. In hypomanic episodes, your mood is already elevated. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to put two and two together - elevated moods plus a medication designed to elevate your mood equals excessively-elevated moods. The key word here is excessively. As in unhealthy. I started going back to my therapist, and it was she who finally figured out what was going on. She diagnosed me with rapid-cycling cyclothymia, slowly brought me down off of the antidepressants completely, and began the correct treatment.

Now a little about my meds. (For the record, they’re yellow and off-whitish, as opposed to red and blue, but that didn’t rhyme so well). They’re actually anti-seizure meds. So if you’d like to think of my condition in simple terms, think of it as frequent seizures with an internal manifestation instead of an external one.  They work by limiting sodium release, which is needed for certain nerve cells to fire. As sodium release is more tightly controlled, so is the nerve cell firing in the brain, and that helps control my cycling. This is obviously a lay person's description, not the official medical terms. My meds are used only to prevent or limit hypomanic episodes. They generally don’t do so enough to bring me into depressive ones, which is lucky. I can’t be on antidepressants because I cycle too quickly, so by the time they’d take effect, I could be hypomanic again, and I’ve just described how that goes.

I know that there are people out there who don’t believe in using meds for mental health, or anything, for that matter. There are people who think that all mental health conditions can be treated "naturally"- either by diet and exercise, positive thinking, or even just with therapy without meds. Perhaps that’s true for some people, and I truly am happy that they can do that. But I am not one of them. My meds have saved my life. Let me repeat that: my meds have saved my life. They’ve brought back the sense of “normalcy,” for lack of a better word. As in, I don’t feel like my life is one continuous panic attack with an occasional bout of “I can’t get out of bed, my life is useless” thrown in for good measure.

Oh, there are side effects. Not terrible, as far as side effects go. There’s the usual dizziness, disorientation, nausea, along with the possibility of hyponatremia (low sodium levels) and seizures. I occasionally can’t feel my tongue and lips or get tingling in my fingers for a bit after taking my meds. I get nightmares and bad/intense dreams much more often, and I wake up looking like I just went for a swim, which is always super sexy. There’s even the rather rare possibility of developing a life-threatening skin disease called Stevens-Johnson syndrome. But I don’t have the more common side effects found in some meds, like uncontrolled weight gain or horrible dry mouth or stomach issues (I have stomach issues anyways, but it’s unrelated to my meds). I don’t feel dull or emotionless or like I’ve lost my creativity and inspiration, like I’ve heard some people say about being on meds. I also was lucky in that I found a med that worked for me on the first try. That’s very unusual in mental health medication treatment, and I feel very fortunate, overall.

I’m not writing this to convince anyone to take the meds I’m on, or to take meds at all. It’s not a rally against the “nobody needs meds” people. But I know plenty of people who feel that meds would help, except they are not quite ready to take the plunge into medication. For many people, I think it feels like the point of no return. I think, in a way, starting medication makes you admit to yourself that you really do have this condition, and that’s a tough step to take. Even with a diagnosis, it's not all that difficult to think to yourself "if I try hard enough I can make this go away." But taking meds makes it more "real" somehow. People feel they should be able to battle their condition on their own, and that something’s wrong with them that they can’t. They think that perhaps if they get a different perspective, think more positively, eat differently….  

But if you had diabetes that required insulin or asthma that required an inhaler, would you feel ashamed? Would you try to just fix it on your own? Yes, perhaps there are things that you could do in your day to day life that would help you feel better. But at the end of the day, you may need some medication to help straighten out your blood sugar or your breathing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some medical conditions, because of their nature, require treatment that may include medication. Mine is one of those. I’m not ashamed; I’m grateful. I’m grateful that there is a medication out there that can help, and that my therapist suggested it to me. Do I believe that we should all have a spare bottle of Xanax lying around for every time we feel the slightest bit nervous? Not at all. But I do believe that taking the prescribed medication, at the prescribed intervals, in the prescribed amount, can be incredibly beneficial for some people, including me.

I’m happy to talk about medications more privately if anyone would like. I can only offer my opinion and my experiences. I’m in no way a medical doctor, and can’t advise on specific medications or anything of the like. However, I am happy to listen and to share my stories, in hopes that they may somehow help others.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I'll Dump Ice On My Head... I'm Not Forcing You To

My grandfather died of ALS.

He was 54. He’d had a really shitty upbringing and life handed him a death sentence at the age of 52. And it was painful, horrible death sentence. He wasn’t out having a great day one day and suddenly got hit by a bus and killed instantly. His body deteriorated until he could barely speak, could barely move. He wasted away in front of his family. He knew he was wasting away, he knew he was dying, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. When diagnosed, he was given two years to live. He died almost exactly two years to the day. On his son’s birthday. My mom lost her father at the age of 24. Her youngest sibling was in her teens. My grandmother was a widow in her early 50s. Only three of us grandchildren had ever met him when we were very young (I was 10 months old), and none of us remember him at all. All of us grandchildren grew up without a grandfather on that side of the family. We celebrated every holiday I can remember for the first 16 years of my life at my grandmother’s house… without him. I think I’ve painted the picture well enough, so let me continue.

I have been challenged to do the ice bucket in the name of ALS, and I’m excited to embarrass myself on video in the name of this cause. I’ve already given my donation that goes along with it (see point number 1 below). I’m waiting to do the ice bucket because my uncle is visiting this weekend and I thought I’d give him and my mom the honor of dumping the ice on my head, since it was their father that passed from ALS. I’ll add that humorous video when I do it.

Ok, so let’s move on to why I’m frustrated to the various negativity towards the challenge:

1. To those who say “donate instead”: Please understand the challenge correctly. You’re supposed to donate either way. If you do the ice bucket, it’s $10. If you don’t, it’s $100. There are several reasons many people do choose bucket option. A lot of people don’t have an extra $100 lying around for a charity they’d never thought of before. But a lot of people have $10 and ice lying around. Also, the ice bucket is fun and something people will post to let others know about the charity, so it gets others to donate that might normally not. And if you say that people might have planned to give more but now they only think they have to give $10 with the ice bucket….No.  They’re not going to say “well I was going to be super generous and give $100, but now I’m just going to dump ice on my head and give $10.” If they’re giving that much, it’s a charity they really want to support monetarily, probably because it’s affected them personally in some way. The ice bucket won’t change that.

2. To the “you’re wasting water!” people: I don’t put ice in my drinks because I hate super cold drinks. So all that ice I could put in my soda, water, adult beverage…. mine was just used for charity. Also, did you see those videos of Detroit underwater last week? That storm that came this way.. it rained for several days straight. It’s hurricane season here on the east coast. Do you know what hurricanes mean? Rain! Water! We on the east coast, and much of the country, have no shortage of water at the moment. If you’re in a drought state fighting forest fires, I’m ok with this objection. If you donate every month to Charity Water, I’m ok with this objection. If you opt not to take that extra shower before you go out with your girlfriends/buddies/date to look nicer because saving water is so important to you, I’m ok with this objection. If you have a rain bucket in your backyard and use that water for your food/drinks/teeth brushing, bathing… I’m ok with this objection. But if you’re sitting here watching the forecast that says 60% chance of rain at the end of the week, drinking ice in your drinks, not scrambling through a shower to use less water, not donating to water charities, then I have trouble with this objection.

3. The “it’s attention seeking” objection: I can’t even put my pisssed-offness into words about this. See, I really mean it… I had to just make up the word pissed-offness. I have actually seen people say that they think the ice bucket is attention seeking and in the same post where they put a screenshot of their donation amount and say “instead I just donated xyz amount!” So let me get this straight… you think doing something fun/silly to grab people’s attention and spread the word (while also donating) is attention seeking, but saying “look how much I donated!” and posting a picture of it isn’t? You’ve got to be kidding me! (For the record, I’m not judging either action, I’m just appreciative you did something, but if you’re calling one attention seeking, so is the other).

4. The “It’s not actually teaching people about ALS, just raising money” objection: In a way, these people are right - perhaps not everyone who does this is actually reading the information on the website. In fact, a lot of people probably aren’t. But guess what - same is true for people who just fill in a credit card form online or buy cookies at your fundraising bake sale. You can’t force people to be aware. You can do things to bring attention to the cause, and go from there. And if you raise a ton of money along the way, isn’t that what fundraising is? So if you’re objecting to the specific wording of “it raises awareness of ALS” you might be right that people may not be learning a ton more about the disease itself. But it certainly raises awareness of the foundation and the cause. I’ve never, in almost 35 years, seen so many people talking about ALS, and from what I’ve read, the foundation has never seen such an increase in donations.

5. The “some people don’t donate and just do the bucket” objection: So freaking what? The people who don’t donate most likely weren’t going to do anything at all for ALS. Now at least they’re doing something to make people aware of the challenge and suggest a donation, even if they don’t have the means to donate themselves. As I said in point one, they aren’t people who were going to donate a ton and then say “you know, instead I’ll just dump ice on my head.” But maybe they’ll pass it along to someone who will donate.

I want to be one hundred percent clear that I am not expecting every human to dump ice on their heads in the name of ALS.  If you don’t want to pour the ice over your head, or you don’t get the point of it, if you’d rather just donate without the ice bucket, or if you say “instead of the ice bucket I’m going to dress up in a chicken costume and dance around on video in the name of ALS”, I’m perfectly ok with that. I’m thankful that people are doing anything to raise awareness and/or funds about ALS. I don’t even mind if you post your donation amount (or your chicken costume video or whatever you decide to do). I don’t think it’s attention-seeking, I think it spreads the word. But please stop with all the hate posts and negativity about the people doing the ice bucket. It’s fun, at least to them, it’s for charity, and it’s helped the foundation raise a ton of money in the short time it’s been going on.

I’m sure there are people who I’m going to upset with this post. It’s not directed at any one person. I tried to sit quietly and let the negativity die down, but it’s just increasing. If you’ve posted an anti-ice-bucket meme/post/tweet, it’s nothing personal against you. I still like you as a person and hopefully you still like me. But I had to write about it. People aren’t killing or burning down buildings in the name of their cause. They’re dumping ice. On their own heads. Not yours. They’re not forcing you to participate, they’re doing so themselves. So please, let the ice-bucketers raise awareness and funds in the way they’d like, and you do so in the way you’d like. I’m grateful for all of it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem

Last week I went on vacation with my entire immediate family to St. Simon's Island. By "entire immediate family", I mean my parents, all five of us siblings, all of our significant others, and each family's kids. As we don't all live in close proximity, it's not often that we manage to get the whole crew together - probably every couple of years or so.

St. Simons Island, if you're not familiar with it, is a small island off the coast of Georgia that's rather historic and, while it offers beach rentals, is not built up like many other beach rental destinations. Sure, there are a few cheap beach shops and kayak rental places, but the majority of the island seems to actually live there, at least part of the year. It has a more "off the grid" kind of feel.

As you may know, I often times have a tough time unwinding. I can get lost in a good book for hours, or spend some time in quiet contemplation writing or meditating, but "chilling out" isn't really my thing. Partly, I think it's my general type A personality. Partly, it's my cyclothymia. My brain is always going. I mean always. Reading works because it gives my brain a story to get enraptured with. The same with writing. Meditation works because, quite frankly, I don't do it for all that long, and even then, I'm much better with guided meditation which allows me to focus on a story, than I am just sitting there quietly. In day to day life, I'm the queen of sticky notes, calendar reminders, and"to do list" alerts on my phone. I have numerous methods of jotting down notes, thoughts, or things I must remember at any given time. My phone, computer, and ipad are never far from my sight, lest I miss an email, text, or push notification. I am made instantly aware of the Facebook comments on the comment to my comment - and get an email about it in case I miss the push notification. When I put it in writing, I have to admit, it sounds a bit over the top.

So two Fridays ago, when we left on our drive to Georgia, I did something remarkable: I ensured that my Out of Office messages were enabled, shut down my computer, and turned off almost all of my push and email notifications, including those for social media. As I got into the swing of the week, surrounded by loved ones, the sun, the sand, and the casual way of life on the island, I left all of my electronics for hours at a time. A couple of days into the trip, I all but abandoned shoes, and barely wore anything except my bathing suit during the day and pjs at night. I relished coming downstairs in the mornings to the chatter of my family - usually my parents and a couple of the kids who arose earliest - and the smell of coffee brewing. I began to let myself be free of the "rules" I somehow managed to create for myself about constantly being in contact with everyone and having to constantly be working on something. I didn't worry about the workouts I was missing or the extra few calories I was eating, because I knew it was temporary. Eventually, I'd have to get back to "real life". Without realizing it, I was absolutely "working" on something - my peace of mind.

I was incredibly sad to leave the island, and the family. Being with people who love all of me, including my condition, as opposed to despite it, was incredibly healing. I felt free to completely be myself for the first time in ages. Upon returning, I chose to keep a large number of my push and email notifications turned off.  Oddly, the decision wasn't as difficult as I thought it might be. Yes, I now have to check for work and client emails more frequently. Yes, I have to watch a bit more carefully what I eat, and include a bit more activity in my daily routine. But I'm forcing myself to re-examine the rules I've set for myself and ask myself why they are there in the first place. Are they really helping me? Now? In the long run? I'm also trying to retain a bit of that sense of love, acceptance, and self-freedom that I acquired there. It's tough for someone like me who's never had a whole lot of self love and confidence to begin with, but I'm trying.

I realize I can't be on vacation every day, and that we must, of course, earn the money to take those kinds of vacations in the first place. I'm back to work at my part time job and back to running my company. I haven't completely abandoned my computer or my phone.  But perhaps now, when I do pick up my phone, I'll be more likely to choose my meditation app, or my skyguide app that allows me to find all of the constellations in their current locations, instead of replying to that Facebook comment on a comment of a comment.

The beach on St. Simons Island on an overcast day.