31 May 2011

Blogging for mental health, two weeks late

As a first step in building Blessed Depth's blog roll, I started looking through a long list of mental health blogs and soon realized I had missed the American Psychological Association's Blogging for Mental Health campaign on May 18. So, two weeks late, I hereby respond to the APA's call to write something to help people recognize the importance of good mental health, overcome stigma, and seek out professional mental health services when needed.

Something is making more and more of our brains go on the fritz, and whatever it is — our go-go-go-buy-buy-buy lives, environmental poisons, exhausted soils, lousy diets, Kit Kat bars — no one has pinned it down so far. The fritziness depletes the brain of needed resources, or knocks them out of whack, and what resources are left will always be diverted first to basic functions like running away from a saber-toothed tiger and back to your cave. More amusing brain functions like appreciating music, looking forward to seeing your friends, and all the other things that get those neurons connecting to create the person who is you: Not a Priority. If your mental health ain't good it means your brain can't activate all the traits/potentials/talents that [insert your deity here] saw fit to kit you out with when you were conceived. Which deprives everyone, especially you, of your vital humanness.

On an old PsychCentral post I found this quote by Save Your Sanity's Erica that's the best description I've found of depression as I experienced it. (Here's her original 8/5/07 post.) (I was warned in school about my use of extended quotes, but I just...can't...stop.)

“Being severely depressed is having things in your brain randomly light on fire. If you’re severely depressed, these fires happen so frequently that all you have time to do is run around trying to get the fires to go out. Sometimes you have water for the fires, sometimes all you can do is try to light a backfire. Sometimes nothing works, and you want to die. Sometimes nothing works, and you live. You can’t tell what’s going to happen, but you can’t ignore the fires because they’re FIRES. You have to put them out. Trying to get back to normal is like building a house. To build a house, you need blueprints, materials, labor, and know-how/experience. I have some of these things, but not all at the same time. And all my experience is in putting out fires. Not building.”

Pastor Jayne and I started this blog because we discovered how helpful it was to have someone to talk to who'd been through the same thing. I almost never spoke to anyone about my depression when I had it, because people either tried to cheer me up, which 1) doesn't work and 2) puts the relationship at a weird tilt, or they offered their Puritanical philosophy that depression is a cross to bear and you have to try harder. At my most charitable, I can remind myself that it is a rare bird who can imagine something like depression if they haven't experienced it. But I secretly suspect that in their previous lives the latter group sold lemonade at witch burnings.

I never found it helpful to think of my brain as my enemy. Why on earth would it be my enemy? Who came up with that idea? It's doing the best it can with what it has. If it can't do its job, go find something to help it.

Seeking out treatment can be an exhausting prospect, even if you have the money and the insurance and the time. I picture it as one of those hedge mazes in English gardens (or the one in "The Shining" — your call). You try one direction, hit a dead end, back up and try another path. If one approach isn't working, it isn't that there is no solution, but that you've got a big privet hedge in your way. Since the Powers That Be don't know exactly what is causing the problem, or why the problem is increasing, attempts at fixing the various things that go wrong are a bit scattershot. However, enough approaches exist (see our earlier post on finding a doctor) that if your mind does decide to take a train ride on the 21st-Century Dispirited, you should be able to find something — or more likely, a combination of somethings — that gets you back to normal functioning.

21 May 2011

What comments or assumptions about depression really get your goat?

by Nia, Pastor Jayne, and Soledad

Nia: My list:

  • "Happiness is a choice." Happiness is not the opposite of depression. The opposite of depression is Not. Being. Depressed. You can be non-depressed and still be miserable.

  • "Everyone has bad days." ...Which they know will end tomorrow or next week. Depression doesn't end.

  • "You have to try harder" or "Nothing will be handed to you." I had to work harder than a normal person will in his entire life just to get up in the morning, and I did it for years. We're talking about completely different scales of effort.

  • "Lower your expectations." Because you'll be so much better off when you abandon your goals and accept your fate as a mere onlooker of real life, peasant!

  • "Count your blessings." This doesn't work.

  • "You don't act/look depressed." Acting depressed is not socially rewarded, and social exclusion doesn't help much of anything. And why should I have to act a certain way to meet your expectations? Shall we bring back sumptuary laws, too, so you can tell how much money I make based on the clothes I wear?

  • The assumption by doctors and lay people, even after you've recovered from depression, that your health problems are still due to it. My mood has been relatively fine for years but I am still cursed with insomnia, brain fog, and fatigue, and each time I bring this up with a doctor, I have to go through the same "No, I'm not depressed" spiel.


Pastor Jayne: The most common misconception about blessed depth (which I shared prior to my own bout with it) was that it's simply "the blues." The connotation is therefore that happy thoughts can help you snap out of it. Nice idea...but it didn't work. I'm a naturally upbeat, positive person, but when I sunk into blessed depth I realized how judgmental I had been toward its sufferers. If one could simply think positive thoughts and snap out of it then I wouldn't have spent more than two days with depression. (Seriously, who would choose it for more than two days???) The biochemical component (whatever the trigger) is powerful, and needed to be treated.

This leads me to the second assumption about depression that plagued me: that taking medication and getting therapy for it was somehow a sign of emotional/mental weakness. (I must confess, I was the main one who held this misconception and sat in judgment over myself more than anyone else). I learned that seeking treatment in the form of medication and therapy was actually a sign of strength (for me, spiritual strength). I finally gave myself credit for having the wherewithal to get some help. As the apostle Paul so eloquently stated: "His strength is made perfect in our weakness."


Soledad: When people assume that depression is a character flaw, I get really upset. I have an old colleague who basically felt that if you are depressed, too bad, you are damaged and there is no help for you. He felt a depressed person is an irreparably damaged drag on society. He definitely didn't see depression as an illness that could be treated, or helped by different ways of working with that person. If you were dealing with depression, he thought you should be fired. He didn't believe in teaching people to work with others based on what works best for them. He was old school, and very narrow in his view. Unfortunately most people are ignorant about depression, and this is how they think. The person must not have any redeeming value, and they are permanently "screwed up," as my mother, who ironically also suffers from depression, would say.

Depression has a long way to go before people see it as something a person has little say in. They deal with it the best way they can. And often others will avoid them because of it. It's a sad state of affairs that causes lots of broken relationships, lost productivity, and unnecessary suffering. But for now at least, it's how most people think. Really what it comes down to is -- if you are depressed, you are on your own to figure out the best way to deal with it. Because others are going to consider it your problem, not theirs.


Image: photo detail, "Wm. Lee's School, Georgetown, D.C.," between 1910 and 1920, National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress). No known restrictions on publication.

14 May 2011

Three surprising things that mess up my mood

by Nia

After spending two hours in a seminar last week trying to get the techie speaker on the right to come into focus, I was distracted and cranky and angry at myself for putting off my eye exam for so long. Which reminded me of all the unexpected things that can still make my mood take a nosedive.

The wrong contact lens prescription. I once spent about a week in lenses that were, say, five percent too weak and became increasingly unsettled until one night at a pub I discovered I was almost despairing at not being able to see the other pub-goers' faces clearly.

I've met plenty of people whose eyesight, corrected or not, is worse than mine, so maybe it's not the exact 20/20 that's important but that the prescription is what you're accustomed to.

Watching television. I stopped watching TV in college, because most of it sucked and the moronic commercials drove me nuts. Fifteen years later, I turned the TV on out of boredom while housesitting and felt miserable the next day. Further experiments indicated that content or time of day were not factors, and that the effect was noticeable after about 25 minutes of watching. A poll of my friends revealed two people who had similar reactions, although they reported anxiety, jitteriness and spaciness, not low mood.

Weirdly, watching the same content on DVD, even for six hours at a time, had no effect. From this I logically concluded that either the commercials themselves, or broadcast television's specific wavelengths, inject some sort of mind-control energy into our brains, which would jibe with my theories about Disney movies and Kit Kat bars. Eventually I did some more formal research, but the studies I found linking TV watching and depression focused on program content, physical inactivity, or the disruption of our circadian rhythms from the bright screen as causes. That didn't explain my DVD immunity.

I had more luck finding corroborating studies when I looked at it as a multi-tasking issue, and the commercials as repeated distractions. Perhaps my brain can only be interrupted so many times.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It took me a while to figure this out because in high school in the Midwest my mood was such a constant disaster that I couldn't discern any patterns in it -- like sticking your head in a tornado funnel that's just sucked up your subdivision and trying to spot your house -- and after graduation I went straight to Southern California. Back in the Midwest years later, I thought I'd ironed out the whole depression thing, but the first winter knocked my mood back about 50%. I also ate everything in sight, lay awake all night, and was a zombie all day. I got myself a lightbox, which back then looked like a piece of airport runway equipment, and after a week was back to normal.

A few years ago, winter here lasted about four weeks longer than usual and while the entire city went insane, I remained unaffected. And yes, I gloated.

06 May 2011

What negative emotions do you NOT experience when depressed?

by Nia, Pastor Jayne and Soledad

Nia: I was never afraid that I was going insane, which I have heard some people experience. And I realized in junior high that I am never particularly bothered by guilt. I mentioned this to my mother soon after this revelation and she said, "We noticed."

Now I think it is more accurate to say that I have no tolerance for it, or the energy to rationalize it away. So I make amends in the best way I can, or I do a trick my friend taught me about 20 years ago where you sit in front of an empty chair and talk to the imaginary offended party. Then I don't worry about it. I think my brain calculated early on that it had too much other shit to deal with and cut this out of the emotional budget.


Pastor Jayne: This question is easy. I never felt anger. Depression took the edge off all of my emotions so I didn't feel high-highs or low-lows anymore. This is why I think anger disappeared — because it's a high-high AND a low-low simultaneously. When I began to titrate off the medication after three years, it was actually refreshing to feel a bit of anger again. And since I got off the meds once we'd moved to sunny southern California, this means I got to feel that anger right where most southern Californians experience it: on the I-5 freeway.


Soledad: That question is super interesting but also super hard because I am not sure there are any I don't feel. I guess the best thing that I can reach for is I don't think of other depressed people with contempt, even if the triggers for their depression, or their reactions to it, are different from mine. I already know that my depression has different triggers and manifestations than yours does. And that, I'm learning, does happen. There is variation.

I guess I never really felt the need to hurt others when I'm depressed. You read about people who kill others (like that woman who drowned her sons so that she could leave her husband for the rich boyfriend who didn't like kids). I have sabotaged myself plenty, but never at the expense of someone else. I never feel rage against others just because they don't understand depression (although I've had my moments, especially with family members who poo-poo depression and think you should just "get over it").

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, "Self-portrait Open-mouthed," "Self-portrait with Wide-open Eyes," "Self-portrait with Knitted Brows," all 1630. {{PD-art}}.