29 September 2016

Nostalgia or Reality? The Travails of Someone Who Remembers Too Much

I wanted to write something light today, maybe a story from my younger years not punctuated by my father's threats of violence or my mother's benign neglect. In short, without the grand hand-wringing mess of angst this blog has, unfortunately, turned into.

It's difficult to write lightly when you're angry and depressed, but here goes.

Nah. I came up with one story just now in my head and it relates to something that happened at work.

The world has changed a lot since I was a kid. People always say that and they're right. Others say you only think things have changed - people, as they will, generally remain the same. There's some truth to that.

In June, I got reported for something I said at an employee luncheon. I was remembering all the stupid dangerous stuff I did as a kid, mostly putting bobby pins in wall outlets (I blew a lot of fuses, much to dad's consternation) and using my sister as an experiment to see what exotic things I could get her to eat, such as deodorant.

I said "between God and my mother, it's a wonder how many times I tried to kill myself as a kid."

Of course, in light of what had gone before the VA Employee Gestapo saw fit to throw that on top of the list of charges brought against me for 'inappropriate behavior.' That was one of the ones that didn't stick.

But as I recall, at the time it was no laughing matter for my mother.

Dennis broke vases, I broke TVs. Hah!
In fact, these incidents raised eyebrows around the neighborhood (it was the mid-1960s and most moms were stay-at-home) and, even worse, among my father's side of the family. They never did like my mother and the feeling from my mother's side of the family toward my father was mutual. It rarely flared, but just simmered under the surface with an occasional cutting remark over gin and tonics on Christmas Eve the worst it generally got.

Dad, to his credit, did most of his fuming in the car. It was the only time I was privy to the juicy gossip of family infighting. Otherwise, family business was treated like the mafia's 'family business' and I was not a part of that family - of sainted adults.

In any case, there was one incident I actually remember that caused mom a lot of grief with dad's relatives for some time, probably because the evidence was captured on Kodachrome.

I don't know why I did it, but one day when mom was enjoying a cigarette, I ran up for a hug and got the lighted end dead center on my forehead. I had a little red dot, like a bidi, for weeks. As it happened right before Christmas, my little red-dotted forehead was captures on still photos and family movies.

Nothing, even my father's ranting against her housework, hurt my mom more than criticism about her parenting. She rarely said anything about it but when she did, I could tell it hurt her terribly. My sister and I, but really mostly me, were a load to handle. I would have and still do, try the patience of a saint.

But no one came to the door with the police for any of that. I wasn't being abused. The kids across the street we played with were being almost ritualistically beaten by their father. They paid for it later when their children cut them out of their lives.

As years went by and stories were told, it did become funny. Well, not the time I destroyed the TV, but that's a story for another day.

Man, I was bad.

When I was around 12 and playing what passed for Little League ball in my hometown, we had a ball diamond next to a railroad overpass. One day, for some reason, our coaches were late so we climbed up on the trestle and looked down at the road the train crossed.

One of us (not me) decided it would be fun to drop pennies on cars below us. A lady called the cops and, sure enough, an officer came and called us down from the trestle.

We got a stern lecture, for sure. The cop knew us, knew we were not bad kids but also knew that if he didn't tell us how dangerous stupid stuff like that could be, we wouldn't learn.

He left and we all swore not to tell the coaches or our parents. And no one did.

Nowadays I wonder if we would have all gone down to the station in handcuffs, been booked on some charge and sent to juvenile court.

I guess that's the world I mourn the most. It had nothing to do with terrorism, politics or social upheaval. There was a unsaid standard that saved legal and extralegal punishments for acts that deserved them instead of the one-size-fits-all type of legalism-cum-fascism we live under today.

It was like comparing the world of Mayberry with East Berlin. Now everyone is watching everyone looking for a 'see something-say something' moment which might get them a hero's badge on TV. Historian William Manchester called the McCarthy era The Age of Suspicion, but I think he'd change his mind if he were alive today.

Now do you remember? That's Ralph on the left. 
How many people remember a cartoon called Wait 'Til Your Father Gets Home, (1972-74) where Ralph, the neighbor (voiced by Jack Burns) snooped around the neighborhood looking for a Commie behind every bush?

He was a punchline. Now he's a Real American.

Yeah, it wasn't all sunshine and roses, I'll be the first to admit. I remember the Vietnam protests and Kent State. And I can't blame it all on the hysteria following 9-11; this had been brewing for some time. The change came in a way that it was almost imperceptible unless you had a memory for time.

Our society not only became more legalistic, it also became more unforgiving and less trusting. Technology brought us not only paranoia but the ability to more easily separate ourselves into warring tribles. We lost the glue that held us together as a rational people.

And once lost, we can't get it back.

28 September 2016

Solitary Amusement or What Next?

My little corner of the universe
It is Wednesday and I am again in my office with silence, my old friend, punctuated occasionally by the sound of my typing.

Yesterday I spent the entire day like this. I saw no one and no one saw me.

Today is much the same. There is no communication, except by email (rare) and telephone (even rarer).

I could walk down the hall but I have nothing to say to them and, in fact, I am doing my best not to say anything at all unless it is work-related. I’m not sure they want to say much to me either. I’m saving us both the embarrassment of making useless small talk.

I should not be surprised that no one has come down to knock on my door. Since the reprimand came down on Wednesday, coupled with my email to my supervisor saying I would, at the advice of my union representative, attend no more employee social functions, the word has apparently got around: he has isolated himself from us.

People I see, weary of me
Showing my good side
I can see how people look down
I'm on the outside

This was not my choice but my idea, enthusiastically pushed by my union rep. I felt I had no other choice.

An email needed to be re-sent for some information I need for a report. The original email, to a former co-worker, had been sent five days ago. She responded back to day, curtly, with one sentence and no greeting.

Previously, I had requested leave from my supervisor and had to remind her five days later for approval.

I listened in on the staff meeting held yesterday by phone conference. My supervisor recalled none of my projects including one very important one that necessitated her meeting with the Director. That was a week ago and she said she would get back to me. I’m still waiting.

I could have jumped in to the phone conference and reminded her but I wanted to see if my work was important enough to be remembered. It was not.

Crazy I know, places I go
Make me feel so tired
I can see how people look down
I'm on the outside

She is at the other campus, perhaps for the entire week.

It has been five working days since the reprimand was proposed. After five days, unless a response for appeal is made, the reprimand becomes official and is placed in my personnel file for three years. I did the paperwork with the union rep last Wednesday. I have heard nothing. I sent her an email this morning asking where we stand. I am still waiting.

I am a natural paranoiac, but I sense that something is up. Either that, or I have, again, been ‘rubber-roomed.’ I’m left to figure it out for myself.

Yesterday, I called the number for the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I did not want to do it but I figured it was free and added a layer, however thin, of protection for me. Since I was no longer seeing a counselor, there was no real issue in having two.

I was treated politely and put through to an intake counselor to whom I apologized for telling such a long story. I had to repeat myself several times since she kept getting the sequence of events out of order, even after I had specifically told her the dates and times.

She then found a local psychologist and connected me with her office voice mail, which I left my name, phone number and intake number, provided by EAP so the counselor would know who would be paying her.

It wasn’t until I got home that I had the chance to look her up. After checking, I was very surprised this person was an EAP counselor and equally sure she would not call me. She’s a media darling, a book author and a marketer of . . .well, herself. I left a message at 5 p.m. and. . . I’m still waiting.

(PS: Oh EAP called - I didn't hear the phone but I got an email. Wanted to know how things were going with my appointed shrink. I emailed back and said 'I don't think she'll be calling little old me' and attached one of the Star Shrink's webpage URLs. Suggested we wait 24 and then try someone else. I got a response back just now (430) that went like this: I'm sorry I'm not permitted to consult further via email, but I know that we can offer other options if you would like to call back to the XXXXXX number.

Ah, there's help out there. All you have to do is pick up the phone. . . 

I can’t stress enough how quiet it is in this otherwise deserted wing of our office floor. Occasionally the silence is punctuated by someone going down the stairs, a scrap or two of conversation, but otherwise the only noise is the quiet hum of the air circulation system.

It is the kind of quiet in which all kinds of thoughts present themselves. It may sound pretentious, but I think to myself that I have lost all usefulness not only to this office, but in general. I had a good run, but it ends here, again, not with a bang but a whimper. I did things in my career I had dreamed of as a child but I always had this nagging feeling that after some close calls, my need for security and mental quirkiness would box me in somewhere where I would sit in silence and contemplate what was and what might have been.

I dealt with my issues as best I could, fighting an enemy I didn’t understand. Perhaps making it this far was an accomplishment.

Most of the time I am tired, I think probably because this whole 18 month ordeal has worn me down.
It’s funny, if I ever meet Robert DeNiro, I could tell him that mimicking his quote from The Untouchables was the final stupid thing I said that led to the deluge.

But the only thing I ever really wanted to say
Was wrong, was wrong, was wrong

All I ever wanted was to be relevant in some way to some greater cause. And to have real friends I could trust that I could be myself around. And because of my illness, I could and did have those things, but only for a short time.

I don’t want to believe this is the end of my usefulness.

But in the silence, I can’t help but think that perhaps I have played my last hand.

It's that little souvenir of a colorful year
Which makes me smile inside
So I cynically, cynically say the world is that way
Surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise

Lyrics: ‘Here’s Where the Story Ends,’ by The Sundays (1990)

Mental Illness in Middle Age Must Be Addressed

There’s something that just keeps bugging me so I’ve decided to write a post about it.

I sign up for all these depression/bipolar/anxiety sites and without fail, every one of them features writers, editors and commenters who skew heavily (1) young (under 30 in most cases) and female (I’d say the ratio is about 3-1).

For one example of what I'm talking about, see the bottom of this story.

Now these sites can do what they want. Bandwidth isn’t free and the ever-present need to market targets the most valuable money demo. But while I get some insight from these stories, they really don't speak to me and my life's experiences.

And, honestly, young people, younger everyday (like 10) are committing suicide or facing mental health issues that could lead them to kill themselves.

And I’m not minimizing the trials and travails of the Millennials. They’re not stupid. They know they world they’ve been brought into is crumbling. All they have are the stories they’ll inevitably hear from their parents and grandparents about how things used to be. So they dive into online gaming and technology fetish to ease the pain.

Hell, this society could drive anyone up a wall, not counting organic examples of mental illness or exacerbations of same.

Just look at last night’s debate. I remember Carter-Ford. Sure, I was a kid and was kind of bored but at least it didn’t make me scared, disgusted and despairing of the future of this county and the world.

But while we’re obsessed with youth in all respects, the thing I’m bothered about is the virtual silence on the mental health needs of people over 40 and their rising suicide rates.

I just get the impression that, from the ‘helping professions’ to the government, we’re pretty much on our own.

This blog is an attempt to not only write stories from my past that might give the reader a hint into how I got to be the way I am, but to advocate, in my own small way, for more attention to be paid to middle aged and elderly people who are struggling, most often in silence, with mental illness.

Do we care as much about the people who kill themselves at 60 as those at 16? We should.

It’s not like the media doesn’t run stories about people who have worked their entire life, get thrown out of their jobs (they’re ‘redundant’) in their 50s and can’t find another job? What happens to these people when they disappear from Labor Department unemployment statistics when they can’t find jobs?

Here are some background articles:

Financial Despair, Addiction, and the Rise of Suicide in White America

The 56-year-old former salesman’s struggle with chronic pain is bound up with an array of other issues – medical debts, impoverishment and the prospect of a bleak retirement – contributing to growing numbers of suicides in the US and helping drive a sharp and unusual increase in the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans in recent years alongside premature deaths from alcohol and drugs.

The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by 63 percent over the period of the study, while it rose by 43 percent for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males of any age. The overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which released the study on Friday.

People disappear all the time in America because they are no longer of any use in making money or generating tax revenue. Their lives also matter. The difference between wrecked boomers and millennials is that the boomers (who are not all wealthy and smug by any means and my ‘in-between’ generation, are despondent that we’re seen as disposable. The millennials come into the game knowing they are cogs. I think most of them can deal with it better than my generation.

The questions for many of us are  simple: where do you go work when you have nowhere else to work? What do you do when you've done all you can do? And where will the money come from? 

For people in my generation who are already dealing with lifelong mental illness (and came from a society in which we were still told to keep quiet about it), this makes our situations even more difficult.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have believed the lies. Perhaps we shouldn’t have believed the promises of our employers, government and advertisers. We never imagined that we’d have to be this resilient. Blame us all you want but we were the twilight generation of American prosperity. We never believed the ride would end. So we were suckers. 

But again, I don’t want to confuse organic mental illness with event-generated disillusionment. The latter just exacerbates the former. But it’s a powerful and deadly mix that feeds the statistics quoted in the stories above. We shouldn't be regulated to being statistics. We are living, breathing human beings who have a problem but want to be useful and appreciated. 

In addition to the struggles of the mind, we’re at the time where our bodies are beginning to betray us and the dreams we had about what kind of life we were going to lead are receding in our rear-view mirror.

We have to deal, true. But every mental health site out there talks about not having to walk the walk alone. But so many of us in this age group do because we’re still seeing people being fired and shunned for talking about it and many of us fear we won’t be believed anyway.

And as I grew older and my therapists grew younger, I noticed the experience and cultural gulf between us growing. I got more quizzical stares and blank looks as time went by. They don't know; they didn't live through the times we did. 

We have no support groups dedicated to the middle aged and seniors. There’s no ‘walks’ for us, very little money, time and care.

I don't know what the solution is. I know we have a problem that is not being addressed and we, as a nation and a people, are poorer for it.

As promised above, here's one day of The Mighty's email digest of stories picked especially for me:

Things I Don't Want to Hear as Someone With Anxiety and Depression

People with mental health problems have probably heard it all. “Just smile.” “Just stop thinking about it.” “Just go to bed early.” Here’s a little list of ... read more »

5 Tips for Coping With Changing Seasons When You Have Bipolar Disorder

When the seasons change, what do I do as a person with bipolar disorder? Seasons changing can be a dangerous thing when you live with a mood disorder. When the weather get... read more »

When You Can’t Do What You Want to Do Because of Your Anxiety

Today, I’d like to talk about something that means a great deal to me. When I was younger and didn’t deal with anxiety as much, I loved going places. I loved shopping, ... read more »

On Days When Depression Is 'Winning'

Today was sh*tty. Yesterday was especially awful so I went to sleep feeling hopeful that today was going to be better. Nope. Today I feel physically ill. I’m clammy, naus... read more »

What I Want My Loved Ones to Know When My Depression Makes Me 'Disappear'

I know my depression has returned full-force when I start to triage my life. The simplest tasks overwhelm me, so I begin to make silent, irrational deals with myself. “... read more »

The Colors of a Manic Episode

Mania can be hard to understand. This poem aims to bring to life some of the images I associate with my own experiences of being manic, as well as my feelings towards bein... read more »

The Power of Crying During Depression

I sat on the bed and cried. Tears fell down my face and onto the crisp white sheets, leaving a stain. I tried to wipe them away, but they kept falling. I was having a power... read more »

The Problem With Referring to Depression as the 'Common Cold' of Mental Illness

Depression occurs so frequently within our population that it is often referred to as the “common cold” of mental illness. Everyone may at some point be affected by de... read more »

When 'Better' Feels Like a Mocking Mirage

Robin Williams’ death from suicide hit me hard. Like most, I was stunned and confused as to how he could’ve gotten to that point in his life, even though I have sp... read more »

A Weekday With Anxiety

I’ve been struggling with anxiety for quite some time now, and I’ve noticed how many people don’t understand why I get so panicky and stressed out all the time. So to... read more »