Tag Archive: depression


Fall Funk

One of the biggest challenges I face as a man with Bipolar Disorder is that nearly every autumn, I fall into a funk. As the weather gets suddenly colder in the midwest, my mother also battles the same demons, and struggles to get out of bed, sleeping an average of fifteen to seventeen hours a day.

It’s ironic that she and I sleep so much during this time, because there’s even less daylight than usual, but I personally must take even better care of myself during the fall season, lest I start rapidly cycling between mania and despondency. I kind of give myself permission to sleep in on days when nothing is due at school, and I’ve learned to pace myself over time.

Having goals helps immensely. I’m finishing up my final two courses at Northwestern University, getting ready to start my thesis this winter and spring, something that can be done from home, but I’m scared. I’m both scared and excited that I’m drawing near the end of my coursework, getting ready to launch into both the work world and, hopefully, the publishing community. If I didn’t have school to propel me forward, I’d probably watch Judge Judy reruns all day. My father always jokes that when that happens to him, just push him out on the ice floe like the Inuit Eskimos.

The reality is that things are going well, and I’m nervous that the proverbial other shoe is going to drop any day now.

The challenge remains being gentle with myself during challenging times, and keep rising each morning as long as God grants me breath to greet the day.

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Peg Entwistle’s Entropy

There’s something about pursuing a life as an artist that can sometimes lead to acts of self destruction. Whether the writer drinks to excess, the painter cuts off part of his ear, or someone like actor James Dean crashes his sports car and ends his career after only three films. More modern examples abound, including Robin Williams, Amy Whinehouse, and even River Phoenix. I think we expect our artists to be both immortal and indestructible, and the truth is, Philip Seymour Hoffman, after years sober, can suddenly listen to the demons of addiction and overdose, ending one of the most prestigious careers of the modern era.

Still, when I worked in Los Angeles on a little known show called, Mysteries & Scandals, one artist stood out: Peg Entwistle. She had had a fairly successful career on Broadway, and definitely paid her dues, but Hollywood was not so kind to her. Her only supporting role came in a Myrna Loy/Irene Dunne, David O. Selznick vehicle called “Thirteen Women” that was released after her untimely death.

Peg Entwistle went for a walk one night and wound up in the Hollywood Hills with a suicide note in her purse. She claimed the letter H in the sign that then read, Hollywoodland, now just Hollywood.

I don’t know how much depression led to her suicide, how much alcohol contributed, and how much can be attributed simply to the impulse in some artists to self destruct. Robin Williams, one of my heroes for the way he lived life on his terms, unfortunately marred his legacy because of an intractable depression that came out of a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, but word has it he died sober. That saddens me even more. With a clear mind, he took his life, and didn’t in that moment know the amount of joy he had brought to millions.

I suppose none of us are immune to the Black Dog Days that Winston Churchill described as plaguing him at times. The best we can do is go to bed early, take care of ourselves, check in with our friends, and trust that those dark days do indeed pass.

I just wonder a bit about the artistic bent toward self destruction. I recently started reading, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work in an effort to understand how best to channel those creative energies.

That showed a more positive spin on how people organize their days to insure heightened creativity. The key, I think, is what to do to survive fallow periods when you’re not feeling creative. Self preservation is more important than any particular string of well constructed sentences.

Turgid

I’ve heard certain bodies of water, in particular parts of the Mississippi River, described as having turgid waters, meaning distended and overflowing. The primary definition of turgid is in reference to something that is pompous and overcomplicated, but to me, the word has always had a different connotation, as something that is muddied or unclear, but perhaps I’m thinking of the wrong word.

Using the word turgid in the way to which I have become accustomed, I have to say that since my 10 day trip to Ireland in mid to late June, my world has been somewhat, although not altogether, muddied and unclear. At first after I got back, I simply slept, and jet lag, I’ve discovered, is a very real thing. And since I had six sessions of ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy, in October of last year, I’ve put on 35 to 40 lbs, and with the body slowing down, so has the mind. I’ve heard that ECT is supposed to reboot the brain, and that it is quite effective, and may indeed prevent future hospitalizations, but I’ve had to get used to things being different in how I function.

With ECT is expected some short term memory loss, and indeed, much of October and November of last year are a haze, but I’ve had some difficulty retrieving older memories as well, and I even developed a bit of a stammer, a kind of stuttering that comes out when I’m overtired, overstressed, nervous, or just overwhelmed. They just don’t tell you these things when you sign on to have an electrical current passed through your brain, that after you’ve had six carefully controlled induced seizures there might be serious side effects in how you think and process information. I do, however, remember them bringing me upstairs just as soon as the anesthesia had worn off, and having them get me to practice writing my name. For someone who hopes to be a published author someday, this activity has stuck out in my brain as being especially relevant.

The good news is that I’m once again hopeful about my future, hopeful that with effort and determination, I can achieve my goals, graduate from Northwestern with an MFA in creative writing, and indeed finish and publish a novel. At that time I had lost that faith in my abilities and had become overwhelmed by trying to care for my older, handicapped cousin who is wheelchair bound and morbidly obese, unable to take care of those activities of daily living that you and I take for granted. The phrase, “Physician, heal thyself,” has seemed especially pertinent, and I’ve realized that if I don’t manage my own health and well being, I won’t be able to be there for someone else. Fueling the fog of my thought process was my feeling that I just couldn’t cope with the responsibilities of being able to care for my cousin who had become reliant on my for her well being.

I’ve slowly crawled out of the turgid waters of my brain, and resumed my place among students, hoping that I can regain my abilities to think my way through a plot, even if it’s only to plot my own trajectory through life.

Weighing Me Down

Over the course of the last five months or so, I’ve somehow put on 25 to 30 lbs, and trust me, not all of it has been muscle, so it begs the question, what exactly is going on? I’m convinced that stress, both good stress and bad stress, can pack on the pounds.

Of course I’m responsible for what I eat, and probably having that pint of ice cream late at night isn’t helping, but one pint doesn’t translate into thirty lbs, and, as my friends know, I’m a pretty active guy. I workout at the gym a minimum of two times a week, and I walk my two dogs at least one to two miles each and every day. Basically, I try to lead a really active lifestyle, but I think, if I’m being honest, that having gone through a major depression this past year really set me back. It’s almost as though my body is reacting six months after the fact. I’m no longer depressed, and in fact feel pretty darn great, but having struggled mightily in October, November and December, my body simply said, enough is enough, you’re shutting down. You’ve been severely depressed, and now your body is going to reflect that fact back to the world.

I’m listening to Nina Simone singing the song, “Feeling Good,” right now, and she cries out, “Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.”

Making matters worse in here in Chicago is that we’ve had one of our worse winters on record. So many grey, gloomy days, so many snowstorms, so many bitter cold afternoons and evenings that even turning on the TV felt like a chore. The good news is that we have a beautiful spring and summer on deck with lovely summer weather, and the opportunity for lots of outdoor activities.

The frustration is this weight problem didn’t happen overnight, and can’t be solved overnight. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s a Day at a Time program, and I get the opportunity to make better choices a day at a time. The key, however, is, to the best of my ability, to be happy where I’m at, because, after all, that’s is where I’m at.

Who Wants Responsibility?

I’m a caregiver for my mother’s cousin, and she’s been admitted to a nursing home for rehab, the second time in six months. Last time, she was “incarcerated” for six weeks, and this time around it looks to be the same.

You would think that I would be able to really relax and enjoy my free time, time without responsibilities or accountability to anyone or anything, but that’s not been the case. In truth, I’ve been in a kind of funk. I think I miss the companionship and the need to get up and care for someone other than myself. Two days ago I went to bed at 10:30pm and finally got up at 4pm the next afternoon. Last night was a bit better: I went to bed at 8:30pm, woke up just in time to see the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup at 10pm, stayed up watching the second Sherlock Holmes movie, woke again at 5am, but decided it was far too early to greet the day, and finally got up and started my day around noon. I can, perhaps, blame a bit of my depression on the weather. In the Chicagoland area we’ve had a slew gloomy days in a row recently, and even had a severe storm with a tornado warning blow through here yesterday. Still, not everything can be chalked up to bad weather.

Much as I hate to admit it, I think I rely as much on my cousin as she relies on me. Though I’m in grad school, it is she who gives my day focus. My school schedule doesn’t require that I get up early–so I’ve had no compelling reason to get out of bed. I was thinking as I walked the dogs today that very few people at the end of their life will say they haven’t slept enough. Okay, maybe there are a few hearty souls out there who could use more sleep, but I don’t particularly like them anyway. I first heard the saying, “I can sleep when I’m dead,” when I lived in LA and worked in TV. Despite its laissez faire reputation, people in LA, at least those in the entertainment industry, work really hard, and scrimp on sleep.

I guess this blog is just me musing on what it’s going to take to motivate myself to get out of bed and start my day, my effort to find a reason for being outside of being a caregiver for someone else. When, for that matter, did the term caregiver even evolve? My solution, I suppose, is to ride out the proverbial storm, and create reasons to start my day.

My philosophy is to aim high. You may not hit the bull’s-eye, but you’ll have a better chance of hitting the target. In terms of my religion, I try to be faithful, but as a gay man, it can be a challenge. Today, when it came time for the announcement of what the faithful should pray for, we were instructed to pray for the preservation of family values and the definition of marriage as between a man and woman. For this very reason, I consider myself a freelance Catholic, what some would term “a cafeteria Catholic.” These kinds of prayers and admonitions tend to leave me feeling left out, and I am considered by those in the Church to be saddled with a special burden to bear in reconciling my sexuality with my religion. No wonder Reform Judaism seems especially appealing!

I am a hypocrite in the sense that as I sat through Mass, and said the revised version of the Mass (which if you’re Catholic and haven’t been to Church for a while–Church with a capital “C”–you will notice things have changed, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically), I kept thinking, “Well at least I know the new liturgy,” unlike my neighbor sitting next to me. I took special pride in speaking out all the new parts, secretly gloating while trying to keep my face pious.

In many ways Catholicism is more than a religion. It is almost an ethnicity, something so indoctrinated in your soul as to become a very part of your Being, much like Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity. It would be hard for me to leave my religion behind for this very reason. It’s a part of who I am, for better or worse.

Speaking of shooting for the stars, and aiming high, I strive to be the best person I can, yet one particular moral failing haunts me. I fear the future, in particular I fear poverty. My very own financial cliff. At one time I was on disability, Medicare, and Social Security, and lived in what could be politely termed a hovel with a man who has both cerebral palsy as well as a mental illness. I hid my impoverishment from friends, didn’t dare date, and grew ashamed of my life circumstances.

Later, my mother’s cousin moved to the area and helped me rebuild my life. I have even gone back to school, grad school at Northwestern for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing, but somehow, in some ways, have continued to resent my past. I still take Eric, the man I lived with, out to see movies, but sometimes his behavior embarrasses me, especially when he starts talking to himself, often quite vocally (it’s a part of his mental illness). I even, at times, grow embarrassed by my mother’s cousin’s condition. She’s practically incapacitated, and can no longer walk on her own. I take her to church, out to eat, and to movies in her wheelchair, and I love her greatly, yet at times I find myself praying selfishly, “Please let her live until I graduate,” since I could not afford school on my own. Fear of financial insecurity and impoverishment rules my very being.

I pray in the year to come for greater faith, to accept whatever comes my way. This is not an easy prayer, even for someone who went to a small, liberal arts Catholic school as an undergrad. To whom much is given, much is required (this is not something which I naturally consider). I also pray not to resent those around me or the services I perform for them. For the last six years, I have changed my cousin’s bandages, and I hope to be more like Jesus in washing others’ feet, without expecting accolades for my service. I also pray not to be embarrassed by my circumstances, by the fragility of the life I have constructed. Anne Lamott has written a new book: “Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” She comes from a place of gratitude, but doesn’t whitewash her struggles, most especially her struggle to be grateful.

Please, Lord, make me more grateful this coming year, and maybe just a little neater and organized, and maybe more creative as well, but if you can only make me grateful for my blessings, so be it.

Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s somewhat rare for a novelist to direct and bring his novel to the screen, but with the film “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Stephen Chbosky does both, and succeeds brilliantly. I’ve just ordered the book; it’s that great a story. The main character Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, is an outcast as he tries, sometimes better, sometimes worse, to manage his mental illness. Charlie makes friends with his English teacher who gives him seminal works of fiction to read and discuss, but Charlie is not happy with his one friend, simply because his only friend is a teacher and not a fellow student. Charlie is slow in learning the lingo that would help him fit in, but two seniors, Sam and Patrick, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, befriend him, and his world opens up quite suddenly and dramatically. It is a story jam-packed with teen angst and crushes, yet the movie is careful not to wallow in a mode of alienation. Charlie’s life becomes a lot more complicated with his new friends, but he finally finds happiness of a sort. One of the characters at one point says directly, “Don’t make yourself small.” The message: we accept the love we think we deserve.

The characters attempt to navigate and float above the murky waters of adolescence. Patrick gets into a gay relationship with the captain of the football team, and things start to go badly because their two worlds are so far apart. In frustration, Patrick announces, “My life is officially an after-school special.” Basically, the movie reinforces the notion that we all just want to be loved. The implicit thought asks the question as to why we pick people who treat us as if we don’t matter.

“Perks of Being a Wallflower” proves that we cannot choose where we come from, but we can choose where we go from there.

The Hurt of Depression

With fall and winter coming on, people are more prone to depression. Every year on average, nineteen million Americans suffer some form of depression. One in four adults will experience depression sometime during their life. An interested fact from Katie Couric’s new online talk show stated that people born after 1950 are ten times as likely to be depressed. Why this is I don’t know.

Three hormones in the body are believed to regulate mood: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When these hormones get out-of-whack, trouble ensues. According to Dr. Ellen McGrath who was interviewed by Katie Couric, there are three main types of depression: situational, seasonal (as in Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD), and a chemical imbalance in the brain. Couric admitted to severe situational depression after her husband died, but the more common form of depression, chemical, can be treated with prescription drugs.

Part of the problem in treating depression is the embarrassment of admitting that you are indeed depressed. People sometimes joke about mood disorders, as in, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.” Really? Does that mean you need to be hospitalized, or is this something you can handle on your own? A true nervous breakdown would most assuredly require a hospital visit.

We still don’t know what triggers a mood disorder episode, but the three factors believed to be involved include biological, psychological, and social components. To be diagnosed with depression, a person must experience symptoms for more than two weeks. Many people try to “wait it out,” rather than seek professional help. This adds to the feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I have learned, slowly perhaps, that exercise is a great way to combat depression. Exercise has been found to increase the body’s own natural antidepressants, called endorphins. The difficulty is getting out of bed and forcing yourself to start your day, but physical activity is definitely a great way to raise your mood.

Sometimes all you can do is hang in there, believing that even regarding moods and feelings, “This too shall pass.” A close friend of mine in despair committed suicide, not seeing the possibility of change. To me, suicide is the ultimate “screw you” to the universe. What suicidal people seem incapable of figuring out is how those closest to the individual, those left behind, will be affected permanently by the loss of someone they love. Our lives here on earth are so short; why rush toward the darkness? We can hope for life in the world to come, but there are no guarantees. As so eloquently stated in the film “Won’t Back Down,” just out in theaters, “What are you going to do with your one and only life?” Make your life matter. Are you going to trust your eyes, or are you going to trust your heart?