Tag Archive | depression

The Luxury of Late Summer Lassitude

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

For the past few days, I’ve had every intention of writing something meaningful about Labor Day, but I was too busy being lazy. I told myself I had every right to wallow in sloth over the holiday weekend, but it’s three days later and I’m still wallowing. As a long-retired senior citizen, I’ve earned the right to indolence. Doing nothing used to make me anxious and guilt-ridden, but the older I get, the more those negative emotions fade away.

More and more, I find deep contentment in simply being in the moment, and isn’t that what countless self-help gurus say is the ideal state of being? I’m especially happy outside in my garden. Lying on my chaise in dappled shade on a perfect late summer afternoon, reading a book and sipping Pinot Grigio, my dog and my cat lounging in close proximity – life doesn’t get much better than that. I can gaze at a shrub or a single flower for minutes on end. And occasionally I actually get a little gardening done.

Then there’s the lake a few hundred feet from my house. I can walk down the public-access boat ramp and wade right into the water. I’m a slow, lazy swimmer, and I love floating on my back soaking up the sun. Or if I’m feeling especially ambitious, I can take out my spiffy little red kayak.

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Walking my dog Sirius is high on my list of humble pleasures too. He’s so fascinated by the world around him, especially its olfactory aspects, and so polite and friendly to the people we meet, that his positivity is contagious. Unfortunately, when we meet another dog walking its owner on leash, he goes ballistic, becoming instantly airborne, whirling in circles and barking wildly. At just forty pounds, he’s fairly easy to control, unlike some of my former dogs, so his fleeting mania doesn’t pose a major problem. I don’t believe he wants to attack the other dogs; he simply wants to get more intimately acquainted. And when we pass other dogs chained in their yards and barking furiously, he passes them by in quiet dignity with eyes averted, every inch the gentleman.

This immersion in the natural world that surrounds me is probably my most meaningful spiritual practice. Yet when I was in the depths of depression, the kind of despair I described in my post about Robin Williams, I was oblivious to these pleasures. For two years I ignored my garden, letting it go to seed and weed. I didn’t swim in the lake or launch my kayak. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we didn’t have a dog in residence at the time; dogs make marvelous antidepressants.

“Somewhere sunny and seventy-five” – that’s how country singer Joe Nichols describes the

Joe Nichols

Joe Nichols

perfect day and the woman who evokes those summertime feelings in him. Here in upstate New York, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of days like this. I’ve taken full advantage, here at home and with excursions to a few of this area’s many attractions: Tanglewood for classical music, Hunter Mountain for country, Saratoga for Steely Dan and the races, Lake George for the Americade motorcycle rally. I’ve been to two women’s retreats – one at a cabin at a Vermont lake, another for writers in Connecticut.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I’m deeply grateful for my good fortune. Measuring my existence in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m well above the midpoint. All my basic needs are comfortably met, I have a loving family, my self-esteem gets better with age, and I’m somewhere in the lower reaches of the top triangle of self-actualization. I have the luxury of contemplating a variety of choices. Some will bring me present-time pleasure and others will bring me closer to realizing my creative dreams. Should I go out to a movie with my husband or confront the last chapter of my novel? Should I do some gardening or finish this blog post? Maybe I can do a little of everything – but only after I watch this afternoon’s General Hospital. After all, I need to keep my priorities straight.

I’m well aware that billions of people around the world don’t enjoy my level of luxury. I began this blog post intending to discuss the growing division between the haves and the have-nots in this country. Not counting the 1%, there are millions like me who have paid our dues for decades in the educational system and the workplace and can afford to kick back and reap the rewards of our labor. Then there are the millions of others – and their numbers are steadily growing – who are desperately clinging to the bottom rungs of the ladder of Maslow’s pyramid. Those millions will never enjoy the luxury of mulling over the many pleasurable paths to self-actualization.

But forget about gloomy ruminations. Right now it’s time to turn on ABC and see how that kidnapping is coming along, and whether Silas’s evil wife will win out over his true love. After that, I’ll take my dog outside and play in the dirt. Today, while it’s still sunny and seventy-five.

 

Robin Williams and the Dangers of Depression

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

As one of the millions of people who have suffered from severe clinical depression, I can readily imagine why Robin Williams committed suicide. When you’re in the depths of depression, it sometimes seems as though the darkness will never end, and suicide is the only way out. And when life pelts you with lemons, you can’t muster the strength to turn them into lemonade.

His widow has disclosed that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, although he had not yet gone public with the fact. The diagnosis must have been devastating to a man who built his public persona upon his genius for rapid-fire, manic improvisation. Sooner or later, Parkinson’s would inevitably have eroded those gifts and slowed him down, and perhaps that prospect was more than he could stand.

Michael J. Fox has taken a courageous stand in going public about this devastating illness and appearing on camera with his tics and

Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox

tremors on display. But he’s always been a star with a certain sweetness and vulnerability, so his role as a crusader against Parkinson’s is a perfect fit for his personality. Perhaps in time, Robin Williams could have faced the diagnosis with similar grace, but alas, we’ll never know.

His career may have peaked. His CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones was cancelled this year after one season, and he worried about his finances, especially the alimony to two former wives. His California ranch was on the market, and he felt pressured to take roles he wasn’t enthusiastic about purely for the money. In his final days he spent most of his time lying in a room with blackout curtains, too exhausted to get out of bed.

I know that feeling well. I’m diagnosed bipolar, and within the past decade, I suffered two debilitating depressions, both of them after I had completed and published novels that failed to set the world on fire. Both times I was convinced life was no longer worth living, and I contemplated suicide, but like Dorothy Parker in her famous poem, I found something objectionable about all the possible methods and decided I might as well live.

With help from a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and above all my husband, I eventually climbed back out of depression, although I live with the fear that it may recur. For now, medications keep me on an even keel – Zoloft and Seroquel, to be specific, and Lunesta as needed for sleep. All three are now available in generic versions, so I spend under $20.00 a month for meds – a small price to pay for happiness.

But I may be paying a much higher price. I was diagnosed as bipolar twenty years ago, and I’ve been on psychotropic medications ever since. I’ve accomplished a lot in the past couple of decades, including publishing two novels, but I no longer have the overriding drive and energy that powered me through my earlier years as an artist. Laziness and complacency are ever-present dangers. I’m content just being in the present moment – gardening, walking my dog, reading – though I suffer pangs of guilt over my lessened productivity. Is this a normal product of aging, or a side effect of my medications? Maybe it’s both, but I’ll never know for sure.

When I learned of Robin Williams’s suicide, my first thought, after the shock and grief, was that he too was bipolar. If so, he had never publically disclosed it, but certainly his public persona was over-the-top manic. But as I read more about him and listened to old interviews, it became apparent that his personality when out of the camera’s eye was calmer and more reflective. He readily admitted to substance abuse and periods of deep depression and discussed them candidly, so if he’d been diagnosed as bipolar, he probably would have disclosed that too.

Still, I can’t help thinking he may have been in denial about the nature of his illness. The rapid-fire imagination and creativity so striking to those who knew him well may not have been full-blown mania, but it teetered close to the edge. Perhaps he was afraid that the powerful mood stabilizers and antidepressants of modern medicine would dumb him down intolerably, and perhaps he would have been right.

I don’t know what meds Robin was on or what therapy he was receiving. But it’s extremely common for people diagnosed with a mental illness to refuse or discontinue medication because they don’t want to become comfortably numb. And the inexorable progress of Parkinson’s disease, with its many physical and mental symptoms, including depression, would have taken a terrible toll over time.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Doubtless more details will emerge and more people will conduct psychological post-mortems. But in the meantime, although Robin Williams’s death is a tragic loss, I believe I understand at least part of the rationale for his decision.

 

Anger Management Part I

My cat Lunesta, named for my favorite sleeping pill. She really knows how to chill out.

My cat Lunesta, named for my favorite sleeping pill. She really knows how to chill out.

Is it just me, or does anger management get easier with age? It’s taken me decades, but everyday aggravations don’t get me nearly as riled up as they used to. Is it simply that my psychotropic meds are working the way they should? Is it because of hormonal and biochemical changes as I creep toward genuine old age? Or is it the cumulative effect of all the years of life experience I’ve racked up?

Maybe it’s all three, but in any case I’m grateful that I’m usually able to follow Bobby McFerrin’s advice – “Don’t worry, be happy.” (That’s when I’m not in a clinical depression, of course. But deep depression is so enervating, it doesn’t leave enough energy for anger.)

Over the past couple of days, though, something’s been making me intensely angry. No need to go public with the details – suffice it to say that it involves a creative group project I’ve been a part of for several years on an annual basis. Over time, the group’s chairperson has become increasingly dictatorial and resistant to anyone else’s ideas, to the point where I decided I could no longer associate myself with this venture, even though it’s something that’s brought me great pleasure over the years. 

In years gone by, I would have fumed and fretted over whether or not to quit. I probably would have done some yelling and screaming, slugged down a couple of glasses of wine, lain awake nights obsessing over the injustice of it all. Today, there was none of that dramatizing. I simply sent the person an e-mail saying I was dropping out. I’ll admit I copied in a couple of relevant people, and there may be some further fallout, but I’m sticking with my decision to distance myself from a situation that’s clearly bringing me uptight and is thus potentially damaging to my mental health.

I’m proud of how I handled this. I did what I had to do, said what I had to say, but now it’s over and done, and I’ve already moved on. I’m feeling calm, and my pulse rate and blood pressure are back down where they should be. Writing this blog post is cathartic as well – how wonderful to be able to channel all that angry energy into writing that all the world can read! 

Katie Couric show on January 14th, the day I visited

Katie Couric show on January 14th, the day I visited

Since my recent visit to Katie Couric’s show, I’ve been watching her more than ever, though I clicked off today because she’s interviewing families with lots of kids, and frankly, I couldn’t care less. But a few programs ago, the show featured a cardiologist who hooked her up to a heart rate monitor, thereby demonstrating that her pulse went up alarmingly when she was caught in midtown Manhattan traffic (even with her own private car and driver!) or before the show when she encountered some fans and wasn’t yet wearing her makeup. Over time, that kind of physiological reaction can do serious damage to a body. Though I’m not a Type A adrenaline junkie, my blood pressure is borderline high, and I believe the ability to chill out at will is a valuable talent worth cultivating.

Buddhist meditation

Author’s note, two days later:

Just as I typed the words “Buddhist meditation,” a friend phoned me. Maybe not coincidentally, she’s extremely involved in Buddhist meditation. Jungian synchronicity, maybe? After that, I had to go to my UU church for choir practice. Then yesterday, we visited my brother in the Bronx, so I haven’t had time to get back to this post until now.

Visiting with my brother Pete Lomoe in his Bronx apartment yesterday. He looks rather like Buddha, doesn't he?

Visiting with my brother Pete Lomoe in his Bronx apartment yesterday. He looks rather like Buddha, doesn’t he?

There’s lots more to say, but I think I’ll save it for my next post. I’ll close with a brief progress note about the situation I described above: writing that e-mail saying Sayonara wrapped up that issue nicely, and though it still comes to mind off and on, I’m still calm and collected about it. Besides, it’s one more responsibility off my plate, giving me that much more time to zero in on my novel.

Does anger play a major role in your life? Any coping strategies you’d care to share? I’d love to hear from you.

Entropy Part II – the lure of laziness

Nia class with Lisa Geddings

It’s high noon, and my Nia* class at the YMCA is just ending. Over a dozen women sit cross-legged on the floor as Richele says a prayer of gratitude. Unfortunately, I’m not there – I’m just getting out of bed.

No, I’m not sick. I’m just lazy. When 10:30 rolled around, time to don my workout clothes and leave for class, I made the conscious decision to stay tucked in bed under a down comforter, sipping coffee and reading the paper. This is by no means the first time I’ve made this choice. My goal is to hit the Y three times a week for Nia class followed by a weight-lifting session on the Fit-Linx circuit. I love the Nia class, and I always feel better afterwards – happier and more energized.

I’m not crazy about the workout on the weight machines, but I like the feedback from the people following me who are amazed at the amount of weight I lift, and I enjoy ogling the men working their muscles with the free weights.

Recently I skipped two full weeks, for the most part with the flimsiest of excuses – for example, the fact that this summer’s purple polish had flaked raggedly off my toenails. I couldn’t find the polish remover, and I was afraid the other women would look at my toes and judge them scruffy (we dance barefoot in class.) Finally back at the Y Monday, I found the class much more strenuously aerobic than it seemed before, and I couldn’t do as many reps on the weight machines as I usually do.

It’s scary how falling out of shape comes so quickly and easily when I cocoon myself in bed instead of making the healthy choice and hauling my tush off that comfy mattress. It reminds me of the description of entropy from my last post: “a measure of the unavailability of energy in a closed system.” Yielding to the lure of lassitude gives entropy a greater hold on our bodies, and there’s strong evidence it shortens our lives.

There’s a saying that Zen monks recite at the close of each day:

Let me respectfully remind you – Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. This moment is an opportunity to awaken. Take heed. Do not squander this moment.*

Biologically, as we age, our bodies yield to entropy. Inevitably, if we live long enough, things begin to break down. Our sight and hearing become less acute, our arteries begin to clog and our cells to break down. By making healthy choices, we can forestall the process to some extent, but in the end, our aging bodies fail us. But do succumbing to inertia and squandering the moment speed the journey toward death? There’s evidence they do. So do genetics, poor choices in diet, and lack of a social support network.

I’m getting a tad gloomy here. That’s one reason I took such a prolonged break from blogging – I didn’t want to play Debbie Downer and depress people with my negative thoughts. But I’ve finally found a way to channel my shadow side: my next novel will feature a character who magnifies the worst features of my depressive side. She’ll wallow in clutter, eat and drink too much and spend most of her waking hours in her Lazy-Boy recliner watching TV – when she’s not playing computer solitaire, that is. On the plus side, she’ll have a wicked sense of humor. I look forward to meeting her when I begin the NaNoWriMo novel-writing challenge next week.

How often do you succumb to lassitude and entropy? Do you have any remedies? I’d love to hear from you.

* Nia’s a movement practice that combines dance, martial arts and healing disciplines. For more information, visit www.nianow.com. In New York’s Albany area, Richele Corbo and Laura Bulatao are the Nia teachers who’ve inspired me over the years. The photo is of a class in Bethesda, led by Lisa Geddings.

**I’m indebted to Reverend Sam Trumbore, minister for the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, for this quote. It’s from a sermon he gave in 2004 titled “Praising Percipiency.” You can find it by going to the FUUSA website and clicking on “sermons,” which are archived by date.

Entropeia – Goddess of Disorder

Kali

I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of entropy, the idea that chaos and disorder tend to increase in a closed system. I’m not talking about the scientific explanations – the second law of thermodynamics and all the inscrutable equations that remind me of why science courses terrified me in college. Rather, I’m using the term the way sociologists do, as a measure of what Merriam-Webster describes as “chaos, disorganization, randomness.”

 As a description of my life, sometimes those words seem all too apt. Another definition I like describes entropy as “a measure of the unavailability of energy in a closed system” – not a bad description of clinical depression, when life closes in claustrophobically and it’s hard even to get out of bed. I’ve only recently emerged from over a year of living in this sorry state, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

A year ago, in the depths of my doldrums, I summoned the energy to write a poem in which entropy takes on the guise of a goddess. Here it is:

Entropeia

I’m Entropeia, Goddess of Disorder

Shape shifter, seductress

Enticing as your cat Lunesta

Purring and writhing on your desk

Unsheathed claws swatting the mouse

Knocking your pens and papers to the floor

Where they remain untouched for days on end

 

Over the years I’ve worn away

The letters at the center of your keyboard

A dozen keys, blank as an erased blackboard

Your fingers blindly grope for vanished symbols

You used to know by heart

 

Words become maddeningly elusive

Refuse to reveal themselves

Hide in the plaques and tangles

Of your aging brain

I wield Time’s Arrow

Wound you with panicked fear

Of irreversible dementia

 

I lure you with endless hours

Of Spider solitaire

Clawed hand cramping the mouse

You bargain with time for one more game

And throw away another day

Blundering on with stinging eyes

Till darkness falls

 

Nature tends from order to disorder

In isolated systems

That’s the entropic law that guides my every move

Your every lonely act or lazy lack of action

Under my ruthless reign

You fall apart

 

Athena

I’m delighted to report I no longer feel I’m falling apart, and I’ve managed to transcend my writer’s block and fear of dementia. But the other manifestations of disorder and chaos remain major issues. Lunesta still writhes around on my desk and tries to swat the mouse to the floor, and yes, she’s named for the sleeping pill I still take every night.

And I’m still using the same keyboard with the rubbed-away letters. The year of nonproductivity impacted on my touch typing ability, and I make more typos than I used to. Still, on the whole, life is good.

 

 

 

 

Giving up my Spider addiction cold turkey

It’s been barely an hour, and I’m already in the throes of withdrawal. My body’s tense, my muscles jumpy. My heart is racing, and I’m finding it hard to catch my breath. I’m feeling wired, with an unaccustomed energy that threatens to morph into a panic attack.

What’s the addiction I’m fighting? Is it booze, cigarettes? Maybe drugs, prescription or otherwise? No, it’s Spider solitaire. The spell it’s cast over me is relentless, and I’ve finally come to admit I’m powerless to resist. Just one game, I tell myself, or maybe twenty minutes. But inevitably, those minutes morph into hours – how many, I’m ashamed to admit. I could probably have cranked out a novel during the countless hours I’ve wasted on Spider in recent months. My blog has been one of the casualties; so has my housework, which is dubious at the best of times.

This toxic addiction mushroomed along with my depression, beginning last summer, and by now it’s hard to sort out cause and effect. Do I play too much Spider because I’m depressed, or am I depressed because I play too much Spider? Probably both. But when I’m playing, all sense of time fades away. I lapse into a state of suspended animation, on autopilot. As Pink Floyd would put it, I become comfortably numb – neither happy nor depressed, just vaguely anaesthetized. I’m capable of playing right through meal times, ignoring hunger, thirst, and urgent promptings from my bladder.

What’s going on here? In an effort to find out, I Googled “computer solitaire spider addiction” and came up with 864,000 hits. I was delighted to learn my blog post “Addicted to Spider solitaire?” from September 5, 2009 was fourth on the list. It contains my poem “Skinner’s Last Laugh” and you can find it in my archives.

Countless folks share my addiction. I read accounts by people with problems far worse than mine, some who played up to ten hours straight, who missed work because they’d been playing till five a.m., or who played on the job till they were fired. All agreed that Spider is powerfully addictive, perhaps more so than any other computer game, but for the most part, they couldn’t explain why. One woman had a valid excuse for guilt-free playing – she’s 74 years old, immobilized and housebound, on oxygen 24/7. For her, the game may be a godsend. For the rest of us, not so much – one writer calls it “Satan’s spider game of death.”

Some say the neurotransmitter dopamine, which controls craving and anxiety, is the culprit. Joss Earl writes, “Some theories suggest that dopamine developed as a survival technique for siege-like situations. If a monkey is sitting in a tree with a lion prowling around below, then being patient is essential for survival. Dopamine calms down the monkey and allows him to outwait the lion. . . . almost by definition, addictive drugs are ones that raise dopamine levels.” Research has shown that computer games raise dopamine as well. Certainly Spider alleviates my own anxiety, but it damps down my motivation and enthusiasm as well, and I can no longer tolerate the waste.

So I’m going cold turkey, effective today. Since clicking on the Spider icon has become my automatic response as soon as I log onto the computer, and since I’ve proven time and again that there’s no such thing as “just one game,” I asked my husband to hide Spider deep within the innards of my computer so that I can’t find it. He’s not deleting it entirely – not yet – but he swears he’ll do so when and if I relapse.

He did the dastardly deed while I was watching the soap opera “One Life to Live,” another of my addictions. True, it consumes less than an hour a day, but it falls mid-afternoon during what would otherwise be my prime writing time, and I’m too technologically challenged to tape it. Soon I’ll be deprived of that guilty pleasure as well – ABC has announced plans to cancel the series in January, replacing it with a life-styles reality show. Sorry, but I’ll boycott the new show – my life’s too full of reality already.

So, assuming I don’t freak out, what will I do with all my newfound time and energy? Maybe I’ll finally get around to cleaning up last year’s dead detritus from my garden. And maybe I’ll even get back to writing.

 

 

Summer was a bummer, but I’m back

It’s the first full day of autumn, an auspicious day for new beginnings, and for better or worse, I’m back on my blog, after a leave of absence that lasted virtually all summer. I’ve been mired in a deep depression that stole over me last May, robbing me of my motivation and self-confidence, convincing me that I no longer had anything worth writing about, much less anything people would care about enough to read. But with the coming of fall, I’ve resolved to write myself out of my doldrums.

Writing is an integral part of my identity, and the notion that my writing years might be behind me severely deepened my depression. I spent far too many beautiful summer days ensconced in my old Lazy Boy recliner, endlessly reading other authors’ novels. For the first time in ages, I bypassed the races at Saratoga.

The sorry state of my parched and weed-infested garden all too accurately mirrors my state of mind. Upstate New York’s been unusually dry this summer, with only half its normal rainfall over the past two months, and my imagination has been suffering a similar drought. In May and June, my posts grew less frequent, more downbeat. Afraid of becoming a Debbie Downer like the Saturday Night Live character, I made a deliberate decision to stop blogging, possibly forever.

I made a mistake. I missed the creative excitement that came with crafting a new post, the cameraderie of the online community, and I came to feel increasingly like a nebbishy nonentity. So I’m jumping back in, hoping it’s not too late.

Charles Burchfield

What brought on this dark night of the soul? Probably a combination of biochemical and psychosocial factors. I’ve written before about my bipolar diagnosis, but it’s been well controlled with medication, and over the past few years, my mood has been amazingly upbeat and sunny. Back in May, in the post titled “Depression – cloudy, cool and drizzly,” I said, “I’m a firm believer in the biochemical nature of manic depression, as some still prefer to call bipolar disorder, and I know medications work.” I had faith in my shrink’s ability to tweak my medications enough to banish my increasingly bleak moods, but I’ve undergone lots of tweaking in the months since then, and nothing seems to work.

What triggered my depression, I’ve come to believe, is an old-fashioned identity crisis. For years I’ve identified myself as a mystery writer, but the success I’ve dreamed of has eluded me. I’m proud of my two self-published novels, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders and Eldercide, but the sales have been less than stellar. I’d hoped that building an online identity through my blog would boost my readership, but I came to realize that impressive blog stats don’t necessarily mean lots of people will buy my books, and my track record isn’t likely to inspire an agent or editor to beat down my door any time soon.   

Even so, I enjoy online schmoozing far more than marketing my books in person. My depression descended soon after a signing at a local independent book store. It was my first straight solo signing ever, with no talk, panel discussion or party to drum up interest. True, I sold a few books, but each sale took painstaking effort in teasing out the themes that would appeal to each reader. For some it was the regional locale, for others an interest in bipolar disorder or end-of-life issues, for still others an interest in mysteries pure and simple. I’m basically an introvert, and the expenditure of energy left me drained and exhausted, with the realization that I’m just not cut out to be a demon marketer. Never was, never will be.

But am I still a mystery writer? At the very least, I’m a woman who has written four mystery novels and published two of them, and that’s something to be proud of, or so I try to convince myself. Will I write another? The verdict’s still out on that one. But one thing’s for sure – I’m still a writer, and I need to write. My life literally depends on it.

Can I write my way out of this depression? Stay tuned to find out. Never fear, I’ll cover other subjects as well, but I plan to post at least twice a week. And if you’ve read this far, please leave a comment – I know my readership has dwindled during this hiatus, but I need to know you’re out there.