25 April 2017

Boring Man Goes to New York

There are, it seems, 10,000 blogs in English talking about various mental illnesses. Mine is one of those.

Of course, I want to talk about other things as well, with an emphasis on sharing my experiences in midlife dealing with bipolar2 and anxiety issues.

I don’t think I’ve been doing a very good job of it. I’m not good at self-promoting. I feel I have something to say but, really, are my experiences any better or worse; is my writing better or worse than the other 10,000 bloggists? I read some incredible blogs, some that literally want to make me stand and cheer.

I look at what I write and it seems flat.

I really used to be better than this. I was a columnist for two daily newspapers. I’ve been a journalist most of my life. I used to get a lot of kudos for my columns and it kept me going. I enjoyed writing them. I am acutely aware, right now, that my short sentences must sound like a jackhammer on the brain.

In the last several years, I have forced myself to write through the illness for my own mental health. This does not always produce entertaining or enlightening material. And let’s face it: no one wants to read vanilla blogs.

It is a great sadness to me that writing only comes when it comes. Several days go by and I just can’t do it, even though I have something to say. And when I do, it all seems so flat; sort of the writing equivalent of a flat affect personality.

Is it the medication? I think that plays a part. When I miss the highs and lows I also miss a lot of the creative spark that could send my writing flying in all kinds of exciting (and dangerous) directions.
Am I more afraid? Perhaps, but I’m getting over that. Pretty much everyone who knows me knows what I’m dealing with. There are certain things and people I can’t write about, family being one of them.

I think it is possible that I fear wasting the reader’s time. I’m probably doing that right now.

Author David Foster Wallace worried extensively about his medications hashing his creativity. A switch in medication led him into a downward spiral resulting in his suicide. Considerations of dropping medications for the sake of creativity are not to be taken lightly.

As much as I miss a lot of the old me, I understand why I must stick to my medication. The mania that was so self-destructive is held at bay and the depression, well . . . it’s handled as best as can be expected.

My psychiatrist has suggested subbing Celexa for Lexapro when I get back from New York. I doubt it will make me feel like a ‘new man’ whatever that means, but I’m more willing to experiment (with her supervision) than I would have been two years ago.

The basic problem is I can experience all the lows but the highs bring with them a certain glib silliness without the energy and creativity I would like to experience again.

My psychiatrist said I should mentally prepare myself for our (my wife and I) upcoming trip New York City. I told her that I was doing that by imagining every terrible thing that could happen to us.
Why do I do this? Simple – it’s insurance for the anxiety. If I go through every bad thing that might happen, if it does happen, I’m mentally prepared for it and it’s less of a big deal than being surprised. If nothing happens and I have a good time – it’s a bonus.

This is the typical thinking of people with anxiety issues. It’s why so many of us find it hard to relax and have a good time. Going to New York is me pushing myself far out of my comfort zone on the off chance that I will actually enjoy myself. It beats sitting on the couch wondering: what if?

20 April 2017

My Story in 'My Life and Mental Illness'

Here's the linkhttps://mylifeandmentalillness.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/keiths-story/

Here's the main page: https://mylifeandmentalillness.wordpress.com

I'd like to thank Maria for including my story in her blog. I am one of many people who are telling their stories in the fight against the stigma surrounding mental illness. These stories show that we're your friends, co-workers, family and people you meet everyday.

May, by the way, is Mental Health Month. Follow that link to find out all about what's being done to raise awareness and fight stigma. Also, a major point is that awareness is not enough - services have to be available and affordable or society will continue to pay the price.

I recently found out that in parts of rural America there may be one psychiatrist or psychologist for an area containing 50,000 people? And even if people find a mental health professional nearby, many times they don't have insurance - you know the drill.

In a way, mental illness touches everyone - probably someone you know. Like any other illness, it is treatable and people do recover and are productive members of society.

I am very lucky to have such a supportive wife and Facebook friends that put up with my screeds. Many people don't have such a support system and that's what this month is really all about.

I hope you'll take a few minutes and read these stories and look at some of the materials linked above.

14 April 2017

High Anxiety

The reactions to my Monday therapy experience have not gone away. This morning I was as nervous as I’ve been in many a month.

I don’t get it. Maybe a therapist could tell me. For two weeks, I unpacked some fairly traumatic experiences in my life. The first week was work, the second week was family. This may be because the entire conversation centered on trauma.

I hate that I can’t control the ‘willies’ as I like to call them through conventional means. My brain races too fast for mindfulness techniques and Ativan will only take me so far. It’s not good to either drive or try to work popping too much of that drug.

Yesterday in a meeting I got the ‘willies.’ I hoped no one saw me taking the deep breaths in through the nose and slowly out the mouth. That DID buy me time.

This week, routine meetings have become ordeals of nervousness and paranoia. Today I have to attend a noonday awards banquet which I am dreading. At least I get a free meal which is about the best I can say about the experience.

My new therapist promised to teach me some techniques (which I probably already know) for managing these issues. I wanted to unpack some more personal garbage but perhaps I should give my continuing reveal a rest. She’s already diagnosed me as PTSD (and surprised other mental health professional haven’t) and knows enough about me to get to techniques. I suppose the rest of the shit package can be unwrapped later.

The rudimentary Cognitive Behavioral Therapy hasn’t been of much use either. I KNOW I will survive the day. I KNOW I can make it through this awards luncheon. I KNOW I can somehow manage my workload. My rational brain knows these things and keeps telling me I’ll be OK. But all of that knowledge seems to be overridden by – what? I don’t know. Some part of the brain that likes to fuck with me.

It is one of the most frustrating parts of the illness – getting mad at yourself for not being in control, thereby starting a vicious circle.

Yesterday something else happened. I had an eye appointment and went to get glasses. While waiting in the mall for the glasses, I experienced phenomena that comes about every 18 months to two years.
I will write a post in Facebook or Twitter and then come back to that post in 20 minutes and the post will look foreign to me – I didn’t write it that way. I can remember I wrote a post – right there – but not using those words and phrases. It’s like someone, not me, completely rewrote it.

It’s a scary thing. I tend to panic and start looking at other posts and tweets, making sure I haven’t written anything odd or offensive. I used to joke that I think my ghostly rewrites were better than the original text.

So I did post about it, trying to explain that my posts might not be written in my normal style and that if I wrote anything people found odd or offensive to forgive me. I said I’d look at them tomorrow and correct or delete them if so.

Of course, while writing that post, I was fully aware that these words might not look the same to me 20 minutes later. So I stared at the post for about 10 minutes trying to make sure.

When this happens I feel like I’m losing my mind or possibly having some kind of weird stroke. The episode lasts about 6 hours, always comes in the late afternoon or evening and is usually gone after a night’s sleep.

By posting it, I was also hoping someone would recognize the process and maybe help me with some advice. I’ve talked to doctors and the only thing that was ever done was switch me from Xanax to Ativan. It did not help.

But it’s worrisome. The best thing to do is to sign off social media, stop writing anything, and take a walk and connect with the environment around me.

My fear is that one day I’ll get an episode that might not go away.

11 April 2017

Nightmares of my Father and other things

I must write this out because I fear if I don’t this day could be worse than I’d imagined.

I already clawed my way out of bed 10 minutes late, had a cup of coffee and a small bowl of cereal and knew, just knew that I would have to call off sick today.

I didn’t want to. I hate calling off sick. But the overwhelming tiredness, the shaking hands, the seizing feeling in my chest told me I would be a complete, useless mess if I went in to work.

Waking up at 9:45 a.m. confirmed that feeling. I am still feeling out of sorts, tight, nervous, jumpy, etc.

I went to my new psychologist yesterday. It was part two of ‘everything that ever scared the shit out if you – family edition.’ Last week was work and modern times edition.

I should say something about getting a mental health diagnoses. Most of the time, you can only get an ‘official’ diagnosis from a qualified psychiatrist, that is, one with an MD after their names. 

Occasionally a Psy.D (Doctorate in psychology) will do the trick. But getting one from an MSW (Master’s in Social Work) counselor is a bit rare.

Yesterday’s session – ever see those Hitler scenes from the movie ‘Downfall’ or pretty much any movie featuring Hitler and his emotions get the best of him and he rages and gesticulates and such? You know, pretty standard Hitler stuff (note: I hate using Hitler as an analogy but right now the bastard is the best one I can think of)?

That was me. Talking about my family. I was shocked at how worked up I was. I had covered this ground with other shrinks before but I never gotten quite this worked up.

My shrink was concerned and told me we needed to get off the topic because she wanted me to leave in a settled state of mind. I understood this as Turnpike driving is bad enough without me processing another beating from my father.

She wanted me to look her in the eyes. I had not been doing that the entire session or the one before. Because what I was telling her embarrassed and ashamed me.

“There is no doubt in my mind that I can diagnose you with PTSD,” she said. I questioned, she was firm. I asked her to talk to my psychiatrist since Dr. H-S is protective and cautious of her diagnoses.
My shrink would. But she held firm. It was that obvious after two sessions? Yes, she said, and, really, nobody has ever broached PTSD with you before? No, I replied, no one had.

And so, I went home and everything seemed OK. I had dinner, did a little Internet surfing, watched Jeopardy, talked about it with my wife, all the usual.

Then I went to bed and the gates of Hell opened.

Not even here, not even now or maybe even later, will I recount the dream that woke me, finally at 3:15 a.m. It was one of those dreams that you clutch the covers and look around a darkened room convincing yourself that this is the real world, not the one you just left.

I clawed my way backwards out of bed, trying not to wake up my wife, downed an Ativan and went to the bathroom to try to get my shit together.

I will tell you the dream was about my father and a cat my mother had. It involved a weapon. And that’s as far as I will go.

It was, without a doubt, the worst dream of my life. And, it had seemed to go on for hours. In dreams, it may have indeed lasted that long.

I must have sat there for 20 minutes at least – shaking, breathing hard, trying to concentrate. Our cat came and sat next to me. Our cat seems to know when we need some company, so I was not surprised. She did not nuzzle me and jump up and demand petting as she normally would. It’s like she knew I didn’t want to be touched but just to have someone there.

The other thought I had is, it’s interesting that my father, dead since 1983, could transcend the decades to reach out and touch me again and make me hate him all the more. Some shrinks talk about giving someone space in your head. I guess he never left or something else is going on I’d rather not believe. Because this is not the first time I’ve had a nightmare about him – just by far the worst.

I managed to go back to sleep with more Z-Quil, a half Ativan and some meditation music. I knew that if I stayed up from that point I would just be re-living this dream over and over.

It didn’t work. I woke up less than two hours later and knew I had a problem. But I did my best to get up and try to shake it off and go to work.

So here I am. I have a day to try to work my way out of this, forget the feels as best I can, and not fear sleep tonight although I think that’s a given.

So, I understand my shrink’s concern about covering certain subject matter. Yesterday’s session must have somehow planted a ticking time bomb in my subconscious that went off in my sleep. 

Recounting the subject matter covered in the session and in my dream, I think it’s a good bet.
Why this reaction now when previous re-tellings didn’t spawn this reaction? All I could think of is the cumulative aspects of the last 10 years – taking care of my infirm mother, watching her slowly die while trying to protect her estate from a sister whose boyfriend threated to kill me (in front of my mother). Also: my job, the SWAT team raid on the house and then the 18-month inquisition at work that followed – all of it, wrapped up in one awful package.

Here on the couch, in a darkened living room, trying to write it out, am I. It looks like rain. The cat has left me and I just had a piece of raisin bread and a cup of tea. I don’t know how to process the rest of the day. I don’t know what my co-workers are thinking of me having taken the balance of the afternoon yesterday to attend this session with an eye appointment looming Thursday.

Yes, I always worry what they think. Because one time what they thought about me almost got me killed in front of my wife. A ‘mistake’ the current director refused to apologize for since wasn’t in charge then. I thought I’d forgiven that; I guess I haven’t.

I know when I come in tomorrow, I will work twice as hard, twice as fast, to make up for it – out of fear, no more, no less. I can’t escape the place, I told my shrink, so I will have to deal with it or lose everything.

I remember years ago, the Most Giant Asshole Rush Limbaugh pontificating that “fear is a great motivator.” It was, as he admitted, easy for him to say. Decades later, that fear would produce Trump. Fear is never a great motivator. If you rely on fear to motivate other or yourself, eventually, you’ll break down your people or yourself. Perhaps some thrive off it, I don’t know. The Limbaugh legions (who have now moved on to the even more execrable Bannon bastards), would probably attribute it to being a ‘snowflake.’

The personal is the political indeed.

But somewhere, deep down inside, a little growing voice tells me I am stronger than I know. To have gone through all of this and not jumped into a homemade noose is a good thing – taking nothing away from the poor souls to whom the pain was too great. We live in a society where the suicidal are hounded into their grave as a kind of sport. But my heart aches for each misguided soul to whom the pressures of the world and the fight against their illness, have become too great to bear. They have my sympathy – not my condemnation.

I feel battered this morning. But for some weird reason, I will get up and go back there tomorrow – a place that pains me every time I step on its grounds. I will fight the fear, not only of that, but of crowds, traffic, cops, my own government, and, most of all, the demons of the past. There’s still something in me that wants to fight – that insists I fight.

But today, I must get my shit together.

08 April 2017

I Am (not) A Rock

Part of the life of most bipolar people is regretting not living the life they could have lived. In most respects this is caused by the illness – the inability to make a keep friends, jobs, other social contacts.

But environment plays a part too. If one has strong ties to neighborhoods, friends, parent’s friends and school mates, that can go a long way towards ameliorating the effects of bipolar behavior. In short – they already know you’re kinda weird and they accept the good with the bad.

I recently felt this little sting of regret when I saw a reunion of the eighth-grade class of one of the Catholic schools that fed into Lake Catholic where I went to high school.

They aren’t the only Catholic grade school to hold such reunions. There were a lot of Catholic grade schools in the 70s that had large classes (it was the height of the enrollment boom) that sent the majority of their students on to Lake. Now, many of them are struggling to hold on and some have had to close.

My elementary school I attended beginning in November of my kindergarten year, still exists. It grew a little and became more exclusive and expensive than it was. The nuns have pretty much disappeared, giving way to lay teachers. It is in many way, a shadow of its former self. Which is a good thing.

About six miles to the north is St. Mary’s Chardon where most of the people I rode the buses with went to school. It was a bus transfer point for Notre Dame’s students. It was also my family’s parish where we went to church.

But my mother (who was the sole decision maker here – the only time in our family she was allowed to make unilateral decisions, perhaps because she was a cradle Catholic and my dad was not) refused to send me there. Her story, passed down through the years, was that a teacher at St. Mary’s told her that if she wanted the better Catholic education available, to send me to Notre Dame.

But Notre Dame has the beginnings of what would become a long waiting list to get in, as the entire school from K-8 had room for less than 400 students. So, I went to a public school, Park Elementary (strangely enough with some kids that would transfer later to St. Mary’s) until November of my kindergarten year when I was unceremoniously yanked out of what I thought was a fun school and delivered to the tender mercies of the Sisters of Notre Dame.

To say this was a shock to my system was putting it mildly. I will skip details; I’ve discussed some of them earlier in this blog.

But the real mistake was probably made earlier when my parents decided to move from Mayfield Heights to Chardon. I was on the verge of kindergarten when they moved (August 1968) and was set to go to my neighborhood public school in the Mayfield system, one of the better and later, best in Ohio.

It was also the system where my mother taught second grade – not in the school I would have gone to, mind you. But there would have been some familial clout later when she because the teacher’s union president.

I often stare at the ceiling at 3 a.m. and wonder what my life would have been like to go to school with the kids I knew in my neighborhood, without ever having to be subjected to the ritualistic humiliation suffered at the hands of the nuns, largely for two reasons – my parents weren’t rich and I was a willful and smart kid who didn’t want to hide it.

Even though my mother would never admit, I was in the worst possible situation I could have been placed in. Even she would later admit that I learned almost nothing in school relative to what I taught myself by reading. Several years into my 8 ½ year sentence, even my father was making the case to my mother that perhaps I should transfer to St. Mary’s. If you knew my father, or have read about him here, you know that his objections were significant. Usually he didn’t care if I was suffering if it would ‘toughen me up.’ But he had seen enough of the nuns’ behavior and what went on in the halls that even he was disturbed.

I got off easy. We literally drove some kids right out of that school through bullying – kids that entered in the fourth and fifth grade. And yes, I participated lest they pick on me. And I was picked on enough being a fat kid with a funny last name, a geeky intelligence and a family nowhere near the economic level of the most popular kids. And there was nowhere to escape when you spend almost nine years with the same 26 kids (more or less) in the same room.

An aside: I often wonder if it ever occurred to her when she sent me to my first shrink between seventh and eighth grade, that my school environment would have had something to do with it?
But mom held fast. First, as I said, it was the only decision she had ever been allowed to make unilaterally in our family and second, she was one of these people who believed that once you committed to something, you should stick it out no matter what the damage or regret. After all, she didn’t have to be exposed to the nuns on a daily basis, she didn’t have to stand in a lonely outfield on a hot day waiting for the occasional fly ball that I would inevitably drop.

She also didn’t have to attend the Cub Scout pack comprised of people from the local elementary schools I didn’t go to when the majority of my Notre Dame classmates were part of the pack at. . .yep. . . St. Mary’s.

I KNOW this sounds like whining and I get that. But she couldn’t have devised a childhood to fuck me up more. I was surrounded by people I couldn’t bind with. And my insecurity as I got older just got worse as the mental issues took hold. Chicken or the egg? Causation or correlation? I’ll never know.

When I was paroled from Notre Dame and went to Lake Catholic I was very intimidated at first. But the people I met were not like the kids at Notre Dame. They seemed far more accepting. There were more people like me. And a lot less snootiness. After about a month, I was in smoothly and greatly relieved.

It wasn’t perfect but for me, no environment is ever perfect. But, although it isn’t the same most people, high school, looking back, was some of the best years of my life, especially after what I had gone through.

The years immediately after high school were full of effort on my part, to retain those friendships and connections. Eventually, slowly and sometime painfully, eventually, we all drifted apart.

I guess that’s why I was so jazzed about my class reunion last year – our 35th. Of all the friends I had known, these were the people I had gotten closest to. I was very curious whether I could make friends again and possibly keep some.

The reunion went very well. I thoroughly enjoyed it and re-connected with some people. Unfortunately, for some of these folks, my own posting about religion and Trump have undone some of these connections. To their credit, most of my classmates are still nominally Catholic, many seriously so. Catholicism and I parted company some time ago. I do miss the feeling of belonging to a community, having something in common with people and the strangely comforting rituals of the Mass. But for many, many reasons, I simply can’t go back. They have their rules and I respect them but I don’t think it can ever be again.

As for politics, the heartbreaking thing is in another time, this would not have been an issue. Unfortunately, we only had a small grace period before the election would tear some of those bounds asunder.

If we can’t find a way to get beyond it, and we probably can’t, I probably won’t go to the 40th reunion. I still have Facebook friends that I am trying not to lose or push away for various reasons. I hope they understand that I was always just a little – maladjusted. But I mean well.

When the elementary school classes of 77, whether they be St. Justin Martyr or St. Mary’s Mentor get together, I feel that tinge of what might have been. Although I recognize many of them who went on to Lake Catholic from the Facebook photos, I know that is not my tribe. I had four years with them – they had 12 and many grew up just streets away from each other, attended the same sports and social leagues and hung out at each other’s homes.

There were only four of us from Notre Dame that went to Lake, absorbed into a freshman class of 375 students – all boys, no girls.

And many of them still have friends and family in Northeastern Ohio. I’m two hours away in Pittsburgh so I can get up there if I want, but it’s not the same. I only really interact on Facebook.
Strangely, one of the guys I went to school with at both Notre Dame and Lake Catholic lives here in Pittsburgh. We used to be thick as thieves at Notre Dame. He won’t respond to my friend requests yet he is friends with some of our mutual friends at Lake Catholic. I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt just a little.

I realize that a set of circumstances led me to where I am today – some I had control over, some I didn’t. I love Pittsburgh. I love my wife. But one should have friends outside of their spouse. My wife does – she’s tight with both her former classmates and all the friends she’s met in her knitting hobby.
My effort to do the same at work, at the Mustang club, at the local NAMI branch, at the improv school all have ended in either regret on my part or simply not being a good fit with others. But I have tried.

It’s difficult to talk about being lonely when part of the fault is mine. Most people who know me online don’t know how hard it is for me to go to work every day and when the day is over, I’m all out of spoons and find it difficult to leave the house for socialization. In fact, on my days off, I find I almost always have to work up the nerve to leave the house at all.

I try to be someone I’m not to make friends because I’m always worried that people won’t like the real me. And to those who always say, ‘be yourself’ I can go over my track record where that has lost me enough people in my life. And besides, this three-page whine has gone on far too long.

It just hurts.