It’s Mental Health Awareness Week – Here’s my story

Well, dang, people.   I just learned that it is Mental Health Awareness Week.  Which means it wouldn’t be appropriate to write the post I was going to write today, because although it was on the topic of mental health, it was irreverent and ironic and not especially hopeful or enlightening.  (I’ll write that one next week–I promise it’ll be more fun!)


This, from NAMI:


There are not many impersonal “calls to action” that I feel a need to heed.  In fact my knee-jerk reaction to those quasi-political words, in any context, is to “go lie down,” let the activist types take the lead, and to offer assistance only if asked directly (or if told “there will be treats and/or prizes for the volunteers!” )  However, timing is everything, and it seems like a good time to do my part.

My two cents (This turned out to be longer than I thought.  More like a buck fifty’s worth. You’d better go get a beer.  Or come back next week.)


I don’t have a lot to say about depression, because mostly, I don’t understand it.  It’s nothing like you think it is, if you’ve never experienced it.  For me, It is not a mere sad mood (and being the melancholic type to begin with, I will say sadness is not such a terrible thing, in fact, it often feels like it is closer to beauty and to joy than are many of the other “negative”emotions).  Where sadness is an emotion, depression is a loss of all emotional responsiveness.  It is an emptiness, a profound nothingness.  It might sound like a big case of the “blahs,” which we all succumb to from time to time, and that is certainly a component of it, but it is so much more.

Along side of the emptiness is a sharp, painful awareness of the fact (I should say perception, or misperception, but such is the cognitive distortion that it feels like a fact)  that one is cut off from life itself –a life everyone around you seems to effortlessly inhabit.  It is a feeling of such supreme isolation and alienation that being around normal pleasant conversation, innocuous recounts of a typical weekend, or other ordinary exchanges can feel like physical blows, like being deliberately excluded, separated from that which matters most deeply to you.


Notice that I say “being around” these ordinary exchanges rather than “being in” them–and it is that distinction, that separateness, that makes all the difference.  And the inability to be “in” them is not for lack of trying!  Often times, most of the time, a person with depression is trying, has to try, for more hours of the day than not, just to go through the motions.  (It’s exhausting.)

Most of the time, I can hold it together, I can “look” and “act” normal, and can participate quite convincingly in these ordinary exchanges.  A couple of close friends who know my struggles will sometimes say “Well, for what it’s worth, you seem better today.  If I didn’t know, I’d never guess you are depressed.”  And sometimes, ironically, that is the most alienating thing of all to hear.  I am trapped behind a large pane of glass  watching everyone else–I desperately want to rejoin the land of feeling, of living, and being, but I can’t break through.  And nobody even knows I’m gone.(1)

This is the double bind of the isolation of depression–sometimes it is too painful to be around others, to be both unfeeling and unseen, and yet to cut oneself off from others provides little solace, and often worsens the condition.


As Joseph Campbell said, “I don’t believe people are  looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive“–and (my words now) it is this experience, of being alive, that is so profoundly missing in depression. The kindest thing a friend said to me recently was simply, “I give you a lot of credit for just keeping on going.”  He himself has never been depressed, but somehow he just “gets  it”– how hard it is to just keep showing up. (Thanks, Boonie.)

Why Can’t You Just Snap Out Of It?!?

Probably the most damaging part of depression for me, when I’m in the throes of it, is the self-blame.   Other people have bad things happen, very bad, unimaginably hard things, and yet they are not depressed.  Allie Brosh’s tragicomedy “Adventures in Depression,” paints a painfully accurate description of this self-berating.   In essence, “Get over yourself!  Quit your whining!  You are pathetic.”



chocolate milk

She writes “When I couldn’t will myself to not be sad, I became frustrated and angry. In a final, desperate attempt to regain power over myself, I turned to shame as a sort of motivational tool.” (No one would recommend this strategy, by the way.)

(So why can’t you just snap out of it?)

“Why can’t you just snap out of it?” Despite the self-condemning and self-defeating nature of the question, the question remains (and so too the negative spiral downward that so often follows).  Without going into a long medical model diatribe attempting to explain, the short (oversimplified) answer is this:  dysfunction in several regions of the brain that regulate mood.  Real live measurable observable impairment in areas including the pre-frontal cortex that contribute to an inability to “think positively.” (2)

Depression is not a normal behavioral variant or personality style; it is a clear abnormality of brain and behavior.

I found these passages so oddly reassuring when I first came upon them, in Peter Kramer’s Against Depression:

“I consider myself reasonably depressive, in terms of my personality style.  I am easily upset.  I brood over failures.  I require solitude.  I have a keen sense of injustice.  In the face of bad fortune, I suspect that I might well succumb to mood disorder.  In medieval or renaissance terms, I am melancholic as regards my preponderant humor, and yet, I have never qualified for a diagnosis of low-level depression [much less major depression.]”

So, yeah.  I have a depressive personality, it’s true.  But experiencing clinical depression is a different beast entirely.  As he puts it, “Depression across a broad spectrum remains a distinct disease, separate from the various personality states it sometimes accompanies.”  For whatever reason, this helped me a lot with the self-blame.  It’s an actual disease of the body. Those of us that are living with depression should all get huge medals for how decently we do function, a lot of the time.

snap out of it

And then the fog lifts. . .

When the depression lifts, which often is surprisingly all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I literally can’t even recall how bad I felt.  When it’s back, I can’t recall what it feels like to feel normal.  There is an amnesia that permeates the entire experience, such that I frequently have to ask my husband, “How long have I been feeling this bad?” (It’s been awhile . . .)  Did I feel like this all last week?  (You had some good stretches in there . . .)  Or, has it really been since January?  Did I have any good weeks?  And so on.

I sometimes look at a photograph and think, wow I look so normal (read: happy) there, but I remember that day vividly, how I was just going through the motions, how I did not feel at all like myself, how I was counting the hours until bedtime, so I could escape into sleep.

Here is an example of one of those photographs. . .

Here is an example of one of those photographs. . .

Or conversely, when the fog lifts, as it has, today, I will think, Wow, I remember saying that I felt worthless, but I cannot even conjure up what that actually even means.  (And hence the difficulty in writing about it at all–even now as I describe it, I think surely I must be exaggerating.  And yet if, when, it returns, I will think:  that doesn’t even begin to touch it.)

Well, I started out by saying I don’t  have a lot to say about depression, which apparently is not the case.  What I should have said is there is not a lot I can say I understand about depression.  How it comes on, or how it lifts.  But just going through the exercise of trying to describe it, my experience of it, makes me feel less alone with it.  More connected to the world.  It’s a first step, and at the same time, a coming full circle, back into myself, back into being, experiencing, connecting, feeling.  Living.

The kindest thing you can do for someone who is suffering is to simply listen, and try to understand.  So thank you.

Footnotes (which you should just skip because, seriously, this isn’t graduate school.  No one will check.)
(1) And since figuring out how to live authentically is a huge driver for me, writing with transparency, and vulnerability, with a desire to connect, to remind myself and others “we’re all in this together,” you can imagine that this is especially painful,  to feel alienated.
(2) Kramer’s conclusions come from ” a wealth of recent research on the disease in the last decade, including work in genetics, biochemistry, brain imaging, the biology of stress, studies of identical twins, etc.  . . . Kramer presents a sustained case that depression essentially pokes holes in the brain, killing neurons and causing key regions of the prefrontal cortex — the advanced part of the brain, located just behind the forehead — to shrink measurably in size.  . . He compares the brain damage from depression with that caused by strokes.  (I did read the entire book, but here I am sort of crappily citing from this NYTimes Book Review)


Please Don’t Eat the Pipe Cleaners

Sometimes when starting a new medication it can be helpful and informative to visit an online discussion forum where other people share their experiences and offer support and reassuring words.

Other times, not helpful.

[–] ticklesmypickle  I heard voices on Wellbutrin and I ate pipe cleaners.

[–] WafflesHansen  Holy shit. That’s terrible.

[–] eat_fish Did the voices tell you to eat the pipe cleaners?

( . . .because if he ate the pipe cleaners on his own volition, that would be so much more disturbing than if the voices told him to do it, right?)



Feeling out of touch with the “younger generation”

I was having an okay morning and then I saw this costume in the Party City ad, and realized I have no idea what a “Teen Partysuit” is, and why this would be a good Halloween costume.

Teen Partysuit

Teen Partysuit

And then I flipped a few more pages and saw that it is also offered in adult sizes, and many different colors.

Many colors to choose from

Many colors to choose from

Somehow this made me feel a little worse.

(I didn’t mean for this to be a depressing post, but now it’s kind of feeling like one.  If anyone would care to make a lighthearted comment about the suits, or about your own Halloween costume plans, or about anything else on your mind, I would be very glad to read it.)



Mindfully watching the toilet overflow

I invite you to read this toilet meditation in a calm, slow, gentle voice, almost as if you were reading a poem. If you are able to, lie down on the floor of your office, allowing your body to completely relax as a friend or co-worker reads it to you aloud.  Think of it as a time for self care.



Toilet Overflow Meditation

Feeling, now, the cold, sweaty steel of the toilet handle . . . the warmth of your index finger, or thumb, or whatever parts of your hand are touching the handle . . . as you press down . . .and at the same time, noticing . . . now, for the first time . . . in this moment. . .that the water was already almost to the top of the bowl . . . even before you flushed.

Seeing now . . . the pale yellow water . . . the loose shreds of white toilet paper swirling about on the surface . . .dancing . . . disintegrating. . .Staying with the breath . . . noticing as the water and the swirls of white rise . . .Rising, rising, slowly . . . steadily . . .  to the top of the bowl.

Just listening and watching the water . . .rising up to meet the rim. . . spilling over the rim. . . and down the sides of the bowl . . .Not a mere trickle, but large cascades, splashing . . . flowing, rushing onto the hardwood floor that was just installed last year.

Just breathing  . . .Noticing how your mind might wander now, to the next door neighbor . . . and their goddamn tree roots . . . that back up your sewer each autumn . . . or perhaps, to your six-year-old . . . and his propensity for using far too much toilet paper . . . most times . . . this time . . . and then flushing . . .sometimes quickly, to get rid of the evidence. . . or sometimes obliviously . . . either way . . . each time . . . denying it . . . Pretending he has no idea what you are talking about . . . when you ask if he did it again.

Just noticing these thoughts, how your mind has  wandered again and then gently, without judgment, bringing awareness  back to this moment . . . now . . . here . . . this water rushing onto the hardwood floor . . . this waterfall . . . not the waterfall your mind remembers from the past, but this water, toilet water . . .here, now, gushing.

Allowing yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. . . . maybe a surge of energy shooting through your body . . . perhaps anger . . . or rage . . . or whatever feeling you are having . . . just noticing . . . Noticing your desire to shout . . . and to scream . . . and to swear . . . and to blame . . . and to cry . . . because you have no towels at hand . . . your hands are empty . . . and there must be two fucking gallons on the floor. . . and the six year old is pretending like nothing is happening . . . and is in fact asking for more toast . . . not asking very nicely . . . Not saying please . . . kind of a whiny voice today . . . in this moment . . .

And again, noticing how the mind has wandered, and bringing your awareness back to the body. . .bringing yourself to this moment . . . this toilet . . . so much water . . .

Imagining now the toilet water’s journey . . . soaking through the hardwood floors . . .behind the radiator, beneath the baseboards . . .flowing into the dark empty space beneath the subfloor. . .into the floor joists . . . beneath the joists. . .into the basement ceiling . . . just following its path. . .

Listening carefully, and now hearing the drip drip drip of water so much like the first drops of rain . . .yet it is not rain. . .it is the sound of the water, the toilet water . . . the pee water . . . that is now dripping into the basement. . .the water has flown through the bathroom floor to the ceiling below . . . is likely pouring from the can lights . . .and now onto the basement floor . . . flowing . . .

Noticing any judgment, perhaps wanting it to be different. . . or wishing you hadn’t so carelessly flushed such a full bowl . . . without realizing what was about to happen . . . and letting go, with kindness, and compassion . . . letting go of your desire to judge or blame yourself . . . or your child. . .or your neighbor. . .and to just accept what is here . . . right now . . . in this moment . . . just being with the toilet . . . and the water dripping . . . and the possibly ruined floor . . . and the continuing requests for more toast . . .

(and so on)

Four spots still remaining.

Four spots still remaining.

Everything is Relative

Update/Clarification: I am not really getting a horse.  But just knowing that there is a horse therapy class out there, that Equine Therapy for mental health and well-being is a real live thing that exists makes me feel more hopeful about my situation.  Sometimes when you have tried a lot of different things to feel like your old self again, and they don’t seem to be working, or maybe they work for only a little while, and then stop working, and you have to start all over again, it’s good to know there are possibilities you have never even thought of.  Okay, so maybe you have had a rough year or two, and you haven’t found the exact right medication, but hey, you’ve still got that therapy horse in your back pocket!

There are many roads to happiness.

There are many roads to happiness.

But back to today’s theme, which is everything is relative.  The kids do really want a dog.  At least one of them does.  (No longer the kindergartner and second grader!  What to call them now?  Elder and Younger?  Hmmm. . .Younger, with his six-year-old need to feel superior to everyone in all matters of grave importance, namely height, weight, age, grade, how-high-can-you-count and Excellence in Underarm-fart Sound Effects, would not be pleased.  I’ll need to give it some more thought.)

Elder wants a dog, or a cat, and I want a dog and don’t want a cat, and after contemplating getting a horse yesterday, now all of a sudden getting a dog, even a Great Dane, seems like no big deal.  This is a bad sign when I find myself mentally rehearsing my defense.  Calm down!  It’s not like I brought home a horse or something!   It’s more like I brought home a goldfish, relatively speaking

Horse : Great Dane = Great Dane : goldfish.

On a related/unrelated note, I went to this morning, as I am known to do when I should really be cleaning the house I already own, to sort of psych myself up to start picking up (I don’t recommend this strategy) and somehow the price and zip code search filters defaulted to no filter and so the first thing that pops up is a house for Twenty Four Million Dollars.  So naturally a few minutes later it didn’t seem unreasonable at all that I was looking at a house for sale on Lake Harriet Parkway for “only” 1.5 million dollars thinking We just might be able to swing that. . .  Ha.

Takeaway for today (which I realize may not be exactly jumping out at you, because I have invited myself to post stuff that feels less than stellar/not very good at all rather than polish to perfection until I regain my full faculties because frankly depression causes considerable cognitive distortion such that I can’t tell the difference anyway) is that you will be no more or no less happy whether you are living in your current house with no pet, or in a mansion with a large fun animal, or any combination thereof.  Also you should be glad you have any house at all, because many people do not, even if they sometimes do still have a dog, like that one guy with the sign at the 35W onramp. ( I’m sorry.  That was inappropriate.  But my need to be funny sometimes overpowers my appropriateness.  It’s the depression talking.)   Just a reminder.  But doesn’t just reading “large fun animal” kind of lift your spirits?)


This photo kind of ruins the whole mathematical analogy thing.

I’m getting a horse!

I know!  You can hardly believe it either, right?

But there I was this morning, just like an hour ago, when it all happened.  I jumped online for a quick sec to check a class offering through the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing, and it was like a horse just fell into my lap.  (I know!!)

The course offering I was supposed to be signing up for was CSPH 5541, Emotional Healing and Happiness: Eastern and Western Approaches to Transforming the Mind.  Which sounded pretty awesome and life transforming and was in fact going to change my life, but then, I saw–crap!– that class goes until 4:30 pm and I have to pick up the kids by 3:20 pm, and it was going to be so perfect and now it won’t work and I’m never going to find anything else and I’m never going to get better, and then–wait!!–thanks to a hugely serendipitous moment, this popped up, front and center under “Featured Courses”:

CSPH 5000-004: Horse as Teacher

Mostly online, 3 credits

By including horses in our daily practice of cultivating balance, we are provided with a unique role model – another conscious being who demonstrates with wisdom and peace how to be in the present, how to let go of attachment and accept life as it is. This course includes an intensive, in-person weekend workshop Nov. 15-17 at the University of Minnesota Nutrena Conference Center. Read More

It’s almost like we’re getting a dog, but a hassle-free dog, who is also really wise and at peace with himself, that we can also ride.   AND, because it is a horse, we will have lots of help taking care of it, which is a definite must, given the current state of my mental health.  I have always loved Great Danes.  This is going to be like getting the Dali Lama and a Great Dane all rolled into one.  But without the poop-sacks! ( Yay!)  Like a Great Dane that comes with his own butler and maid.  I feel like Richie Rich.

I might call him Dali.

This is someone else’s therapy horse, but mine will look similar.  I might call him Dali.

P.S. I have to just double check to make sure my mental and behavioral health benefits covers the purchase of the horse as teacher, boarding costs, stable fees and all that, but once I have clearance, I’ll post some pics of my new pony.

P.P.S. The kids are going to be so thrilled!!!  This so beats getting a hamster.

P.P.P.S.  If for some reason the Therapy Horse isn’t covered under BlueCross BlueShield, I’m going to try for CSPH 5341, Overview of indigenous Hawaiian Healing, which takes place on the Big Island.  In January.  Four seats still open.

healing in hawaii

CSPH 5341 Overview of Indigenous Hawaiian Healing

Click to register for this class 31844 -001 LEC , Tu,W,Th (01/06/2014 – 01/08/2014) , OFFCAMPUS , Kreitzer,MaryJo , instruction mode: Classroom/Onsite , 2 credits , This course takes place on the Big Island of Hawaii. Call 612-624-5166 for course fee information.
Seats Open  4 of 10 seats open