Why are you calling my texting device?

I have massive phone anxiety.

I feel a bit silly saying that, since using a telephone seems like the simplest task possible. But thanks to my brain cranking my anxiety up to 11, a phone call can be pretty daunting. I’ve tried to encourage people in my life not to randomly call me, but most quickly go back to their own telephone habits and my phone is ringing soon enough. They think I’m just part of a younger generation who prefers texting and email, and a little phone call won’t hurt. Part of the problem is this particular anxiety makes me feel fairly pathetic due to how simple and universal the task is, so I’ve never wanted to explain precisely why I’d prefer texts or emails. But I’m trying to be more open about mental illness, including anxiety, so I want to explain exactly why I hate the phone so much.

What my anxiety boils down to is basically this: Social situations terrify me because I’m certain I’ll be rejected or mocked for saying something embarrassing or foolish. I’m overly concerned with how others judge me (thanks childhood bullies and overly demanding adults!). Phone calls are a particular source of anxiety for a couple of reasons:

  • I have a difficult time understanding what someone is saying from their voice alone (which is the same reason why I tend to hate podcasts). I think it’s partially not having the greatest hearing, and partially relying on some lip reading to fully understand people. Add the usual static and terrible reception of my cellphone, and I feel like an idiot. I feel like a burden asking people to constantly repeat themselves, and like a fool when I reply with a non sequitur because I thought someone said something totally different.
  • I prefer written communication because it gives me time to think about what I want to say, and to digest what others are saying. A phone call has the pressure of instantly responding to what you just heard. I can never fully understand and process what I’m hearing, and I’m never eloquent about what I’m saying. It makes me feel ignorant and like I’m bumbling through a conversation. The anxiety is even worse when I’m talking to someone who knows I’m a writer, because all I can do is wonder if they’re thinking “This person is actually a dumbass, maybe they’re a fraud.”
  • When the option of writing is taken away from me, I will try to imagine the conversation ahead of time, scripting out all the potential things that may be said. This is a neurotic waste of energy, since I can rarely predict what will actually be said and will just feel anxious anyway. The only reason I can order take out is because I mentally practice “I would like the carne asada tacos” a dozen times before dialing the number. Most conversations are not so simple. And even with the simple ones, an unexpected “flour or corn tortillas” is enough to fluster me for a moment, and then I’ll hang up stewing over how stupid I sounded stumbling over a simple question.
  • Most people prefer phone calls to discuss more detailed, difficult, or involved topics, but to me that is the very worst time to use the phone. Everything I said about preferring writing is multiplied here: I need time to process and think. I also find it extremely irritating to use for organizational stuff, since then you’re left with no written record of what everyone said and it’s easy for details to fall by the wayside. Board meetings with the SSA were especially stressful for me. A dozen or more voices speaking at the same time is like phone hell, as is the need to vote on stuff that you’ve only had a half hour of phone debate to think about. But the absolute worst situation is when someone wants to call me to aggressively discuss something we disagree about (I’m sure you can imagine how often that happens to this blogger). Putting a hostile situation over my baseline anxiety has literally given me panic attacks and will leave me feeling miserable all day as I wait for the angry call. I don’t feel like I can articulate my views well in a quick, verbal argument, which leaves me feeling totally unable to defend myself.
  • As an anxious introvert (no, that’s not redundant) I usually have to psyche myself up for any sort of social interaction. From going out to dinner with friends to giving a talk where I know I’ll be expected to mingle afterward, it takes mental preparation for me not to totally stress out or feel immediately drained. Getting an unexpected phone call is like someone saying “Drop whatever you’re doing – you must interact with me right now.” I don’t know what that person is about to talk about, and that lack of preparation makes me panic, not answer the phone, and then wait for a voice mail to see what they wanted to talk about. That voice mail has four main options:
    1. Specific message about what they wanted to talk about. Now that I’m prepared for the discussion I’m about to have and I can think ahead about some of the things I will probably say, I call back fairly quickly.
    2. Vague message saying to call them back. It may take me days or a week to psyche myself up enough to call back, or I may forget to do it before I gather the mental energy.
    3. Vague message saying they’ll call me back. I stare at my phone in terror every time they call and wish they would just leave a goddamn message.
    4. No message. I obsessively wonder why they called in the first place if it wasn’t worth leaving a message, and wonder what I have yet again missed out on because of my stupid irrational anxiety.
  • And that’s all talking about phone calls from people I actually know. Unknown number? Yeah, I’m never answering those.

Now, I do think there are times where a phone call is way more useful than a text or email. Emergencies are obvious exceptions. It’s also way more convenient to call someone when you’re trying to meet them or find them somewhere, but those situations don’t trigger my anxiety because I’m prepared for the brief calls in that context. Surprisingly, I’m slightly less anxious doing interviews, mainly because I know the topic beforehand and the questions are either known to me or highly predictable. At this point I have canned responses for most questions, so there’s no fear in thinking up something on the spot.

I wanted to write about this because I want people to better understand where I’m coming from. This anxiety does interfere with certain aspects of my life, and it’s extra frustrating when alternative tools (text, email) are super common but some people refuse to use them. Ironically, this anxiety is the reason why it took me so long to find a therapist. Most therapists require you to call them as the very first step, which felt like an unconquerable step. The only reason I was able to meet with my current therapist was because he allowed email inquiries. Phone anxiety was also one of the reasons I stepped down from the SSA board: they had a new requirement that all board members would have to call a certain number of donors, and I just couldn’t do it. The board meetings were hard enough. Calling strangers and asking them for money? Even thinking about it made me feel like puking.

I fear that I often come off as unreliable when I’m ignoring or putting off phone calls, but in reality I’m fearful or trying to psyche myself up. I’m worried that my friends think I’m avoidant or just don’t like them when the truth is it’s the phone call I’m scared of. I feel annoying constantly asking for the conversation to be switched to text or email. I wonder how weird people think I am when I reply with a text to a missed call. And then there’s a whole layer of meta-anxiety where I feel bad that I have this problem at all, even though I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of symptoms of mental illness and that I’m probably not the only one with this problem.

I hope writing this will encourage my friends to stop calling my texting device by helping them understand where I’m coming from. And I suspect this will resonate with some of my readers who also deal with anxiety. If you relate, I hope you’ll share your stories in the comments so people can better understand living with anxiety.

Belated raging

Today I found out from my dad that when my mom was in the hospital recovering from a serious surgery to remove the tumors from her ovarian cancer, some evangelical Christians came into her room uninvited during a rare moment when my dad was away to try to convert her and ask if she’s heard the good word about her lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Is there anything more fucking reprehensible than preying on the vulnerable who are recovering from a near death experience and undergoing a battle with stage 4 cancer? It fucking disgusts me.

They should consider themselves damned lucky that my dad and I weren’t there, because we would have NOT been friendly atheists.

Assholes.

No, Rick Warren, we’re not “all mentally ill”

Rick Warren, pastor of the infamous Saddleback Church, recently gave a sermon where he attempted to de-stigmatize mental illness…but did the opposite. Warren, whose son suffered from borderline personality disorder and recently committed suicide, said “We’re all mentally ill” and “You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions…”

Greta Christina has a great response up at Salon:

Mental illness is many things. But there’s one thing it most emphatically is not — and that is everyday fears, worries, doubts, and attractions. (Of the items on Warren’s list, “compulsions” is the only one that belongs.) Seeing mental illness as ordinary emotions is a fundamentally flawed view,  one that harms people actually living with such illness.

It’s common for people with mental illness to have our illnesses treated as just life’s ups and downs. People with clinical depression are seen as just mopey or sad; people with clinical anxiety are seen as just worriers; people with obsessive compulsive disorder are seen as just neat freaks. But these attitudes trivialize mental illness. They frame it as something people should be able to handle on our own — and make any failure to do so seem like a character flaw, a weakness of will.

Read the whole piece here.

I thought everyone could use a little good news for a change

My labwork is finally starting to work after months of troubleshooting and more months of planning! This is the first positive feedback I’ve had in grad school since I passed my general exam a year ago!

I’ve had my first straight week where I’ve felt “okay” instead of the crippling hopelessness, worthlessness, anhedonia and despair of severe depression!

I’m home with my family to celebrate my mom’s birthday and also get to hang out with my best friend that I’ve known since first grade!

But most of all…

My mom’s cancer marker levels are officially in the normal range and she only has three more chemotherapy sessions left!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

This is not an okay way to talk about depression and suicide

Warning – I’m about to break the hive mind and disagree with a fellow blogger.

Chris Clarke has a post up at Pharyngula “On using suicide as a rhetorical strategy.” His post is in response to Hugo Schwyzer admitting that he had just spent a week at a psych ward after he committed himself. Chris refers to this as a “passive aggressive” reference to suicide, and paints Schwyzer as an attention seeking faker. Why?

“And as a consequence, anyone who’s been subject to that kind of emotional abuse is likely to find new examples of rhetorical suicide threats like the one above supremely triggering, even if they’re made in, say, overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” blog posts or what have you.

[...] But if the statements are made where more than one or two people can see them, in a NYMag article or on Facebook or Tumblr or LiveJournal, the safe bet is on “abusive manipulation.

Public suicide threats, whether direct or oblique, should be presumed at first glance to be forms of emotional abuse. If they’re direct threatening statements, the best helpful response, if you can use it safely, is “do you need a ride to the hospital?” If the person’s really suffering — and again, I have personal experience with both sides of this interaction — it may either get them the help they need or put things in perspective.”

As someone who just spent months working up the courage to write what could probably be described as an overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” public blog post about my severe depression, this punched me right in the gut. Who are you to judge how people who are “actually” depressed or suicidal really act? Who are you to judge whose depression or suicidal tendencies are legitimate or fraud? Do you really think you can figure that out through the internet and with no psychological expertise?

I don’t defend Schwyzer’s previous actions. But policing the behavior of depressed people, trollish assholes or not, makes it harder for those with depression to be open about our illness. The stereotype of “depressed people as fakers” is a horrendously common one. No amount of qualifiers about how this doesn’t apply to people who are “actually” depressed helps, because you’re still perpetuating that stereotype.

It’s the reason it took me years to admit my depression to any of my friends, because I was terrified no one would take me seriously and would just think I was an attention whore. And you know why I had that fear? Because some of my “friends” did just that.

It’s the reason it took me another decade to seek professional help from a therapist, because they convinced me I was actually a faker who didn’t need help.

It’s the reason why I didn’t ever talk about my chronic depression when I first started blogging, because I was afraid Christians would use it as a weapon against me.

It’s the reason why it took me months of courage to talk about my depression now, because I feared my internet haters would scour my blog and twitter feed for any comment that could be interpreted as “happy” so they could label me a liar. If Chris had published this post a week ago, I may have never opened up about what has been happening to me out of fear that’s how people would view me. And I would never have experienced the relief I felt from releasing that pent up emotion and hearing all of your wonderful support.

I know Chris has experienced depression himself, but that doesn’t make his comments okay. Even though Schwyzer may be despicable for what he’s done, despicable people can also succumb to depression. Depression is soul sucking, and I wouldn’t wish it on even the worst of my enemies. So when someone admits they just came out of a psych ward – which is reflecting on something that already happened, not making a threat about the future – my instinct is to give them at least a little bit of empathy. Not to question their motives.

Abusers threatening self-harm as manipulation certainly happens, and it’s a serious issue. No one should have to just suck it up when they hear “if you leave me I’ll kill myself” or something similar. I hope someone with more training in that area (Miri?) will comment on how to deal with it, since I do not want to give uneducated advice about it. I want to be able to have that discussion without perpetuating stereotypes. So at the very least, can we not dictate what’s proper social media behavior for those with depression?

No atheists in Intensive Care Units

One week had passed since I flew out to be with my mom. Our spirits were high thanks to recent progress – my mom had woken up, seemed to have all of her mental faculties and remember who we were, and was just getting enough strength to communicate by pointing at letters on a board. The fact that those things sounds so insignificant should tell you just how bad things had been.

My dad and I were going through our new routine – sitting next to my mom in the ICU while she slept. We kept pretty quiet to try to not to disturb her, since good sleep in the ICU was rare. This unit was grandfathered in, which meant there were no walls between patients despite that being the new regulation. And I can see why that regulation passed. Machines beeped and droned constantly. Visitors yacked loudly on cellphones making personal calls (against a rule that apparently no one would enforce). But the worst was when something was going wrong. One patient tried to tear out all of his tubes while swearing up a storm and thrashing around the unit. Even more disturbing was when nurses would swarm a patient when something was going terribly wrong.

It wasn’t a good place for the kind of peaceful rest you need after you almost died.

But since my dad and I were trying not to make my mom’s space any noisier than it already was, we mostly sat and listened. And I’ll always remember one of the conversations we silently listened to, only communicating with each other through mutual eye rolls.

A man had been admitted in the bed next to my mom for triple bypass surgery (yes, you hear that much detail and more – if I had been taking notes I could have told you his whole medical history and current medications…so much for medical privacy). It seemed to have been pretty routine and uncomplicated – he had been wheeled out and back and was pretty much instantly looking back to normal. He was immediately eating solid food while resting in his lazy boy. To put things into perspective, my mom had just been given her first nutrient IV bag after almost a week of no food at all, and still couldn’t stand.

The man called a nurse and she promptly came to help him with what he needed. He said to her, “My brother says if you thank nurses, you get better service. So I guess I should say thank you.”

The nurse looked at him incredulously for one moment before squeezing a “you’re welcome” through gritted teeth.

I was kind of stunned. Who thinks that way? You think the only reason you should be polite and thank someone is because you selfishly want better service? You know, not because that nurse was part of a team that saved your life? More so, who says that out loud without realizing how incredibly rude it is?

It irritated me, but I tried to ignore it. Maybe he was hopped up on drugs or something. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever. I didn’t need to worry about him because I was just happy my mom was alive. (And to illustrate one of the reasons I love my mom: After she was able to communicate clearly through writing, she overheard the nurses placing an order for their dinners over the phone, and she tried to insist that we pay for her nurse’s meal since she had been taking such good care of her all week. The nurse politely declined, but that’s the kind of lady my mom is – even in sickness she’s thinking about others.)

Pretty soon his family filed in to visit. My irritation returned because the conversation for the next couple hours can be summarized as “Praise Jesus and the power of prayer for this successful surgery.”

Excuse me? Praise Jesus? Praise prayer? This coming from the same guy who only thanked his nurse because he wanted better service? Yes, let’s snub the human being who was instrumental in your medical care and instead pat ourselves on the back for clasping our hands together and wishing things go well. Let’s thank Jesus but not the doctors and nurses who have devoted their lives toward training to do this. And definitely not the scientists and engineers who developed the methods for your survival. Thank Jesus.

The arrogance of it drove me mad. They probably found their religious beliefs comforting, and never considered what this may sound like to people around them, since in Indiana it’s pretty much assumed you’re a Christian. It’s not just the snubbing of science that irritated me. It made me think, “Why do you think your God saved your husband, but put my mom through so much pain? Why is he worth saving but she’s made to suffer through all of this? What kind, just God would do that?”

That’s when I was glad I was an atheist in that ICU. While my Greek Orthodox grandparents were weeping and distraught, asking me desperately why God would punish my mother like this, I understood that nothing divine decided this.  It did not reflect a flaw in my mother’s character or some sin that god was punishing. It did not reflect the frequency of prayers from all the church lists she had been added to, nor was it punishment for having rabid atheists for a husband and daughter. It was bad luck, a random mutation in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

I was distraught enough over my mother’s well-being – I’m glad I didn’t have to be distraught over god’s will as well.

Sometimes, life gets hard

First off – yes, I’m alive.

Even though my blogging frequency has been pretty pathetic recently, I still get a steady trickle of emails from concerned readers who miss me. It’s an odd feeling knowing total strangers want to make sure I’m okay and miss my writing, but I do sincerely appreciate it (even if I don’t reply, sorry). It also makes me realize that not everyone follows my twitter feed, so many of you have no idea what has been going on in my life.

No, it’s not just grad school that’s been keeping me busy. These have been the hardest months of my life.

On March 15th, my mom called me. My family knows I hate talking on the phone, so when my phone is ringing and it’s not a holiday, I assume something is wrong. Usually that’s just my irrational anxiety talking, but unfortunately this time it was right. It was news I never wanted to hear – my mom had cancer again.

She had been cancer free for 8 years, after winning her battle against breast cancer during my senior year of high school. I hate to say this, but I had never been truly worried during that time. Part of it was knowing they caught it soon and that she had wonderful doctors, but part of it was definitely being a naive 17 year old. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my parents had painted a rosy picture of the situation to keep me from worrying. What I remember is my mom scheduling her chemo appointments around my high school golf matches, because she didn’t want to miss them for the world. The worst of it was kept behind the scenes.

But now I was a little bit older and wiser. In this case, being a geneticist was not very comforting. I was more aware of the realities of a cancer diagnosis, especially when cancer had come back. But I tried to stay cautiously optimistic, since there was still no official diagnosis.

A week later one morning, I was laying awake in bed worrying about my mom. My phone rang, and this time it was my dad. Getting a phone call in the morning is even more terrifying, and I knew instantly from his voice that something was horribly wrong.

He told me my mom was going to die within hours.

Hearing that out of nowhere, while stuck thousands of miles away across the country, was… I don’t even have an adjective that can describe that. Horrifying? Devastating? I was literally in hysterics, sobbing and shaking for hours. It felt like a nightmare come true. I’m so glad my boyfriend had been there, because I don’t know what I would have done without his immediate support. In the span of a week my mom had gone from perfectly healthy, living the stereotypical retired life golfing in Florida, to “going to die.”

A couple of days earlier, my mom had fluid (caused by the cancer) removed from her abdomen, and that change in pressure had caused massive blood clots to move from her legs to her lungs. “Why didn’t the doctors check for that ahead of time?” I asked myself. She couldn’t breathe. She had a 10% chance of making it, but thankfully our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation and had a cardiologist present that specialized in dealing with this problem. Also thankfully this happened at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the emergency room was empty. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been the only patient there.

She survived. I flew out the next day to be with her.

Even though the clots had been removed, there was little emotional relief. When I got there, we were bluntly told that she may never wake up from sedation at all, or if she did she could be a vegetable. The first thing I saw when I arrived was that her tongue had swollen to grotesque proportions, filling her whole mouth and spilling out. The doctors still have no idea what was going on there and originally blamed the tape holding her breathing tube in, though my dad and I suspect they accidentally gave her antibiotics that she’s allergic to and wouldn’t admit it. When I noticed her face was starting to swell as well, they ignored me…until we had come back from lunch and her whole head had swollen up. It was devastating seeing her like that – seeing someone you love and thinking “that can’t be my mother.” Once her whole head was ballooning up, they finally admitted I had been right, and maybe they should start trying to reduce the swelling. Yeah, you’d think.

(I wish the tongue thing was the only time we dealt with incompetence from doctors and nurses… They constantly ignored call buttons for 30 minutes to an hour and I had to go run and find nurses in emergencies, they tried to give her medicine for other patients which thankfully my dad caught, they tried to give medicine in her left arm despite signs everywhere saying not to do so, some wouldn’t use gloves and were obviously not using sterile technique, doctors fought in front of her which destroyed her confidence in them… Yes, they saved her life, but at the same time my faith in doctors has definitely been shaken.)

Thankfully again, my mom beat the odds. After a couple of days she woke up. We talked by her first pointing to letters on a sheet, then by her writing, and after weeks she was able to barely speak. I can now say that months later, she can talk fairly normally and has all of her mental faculties. I feel like I can’t even thank science or medicine here – she got lucky.

The problem was, you know, my mom still had cancer. And the equivalent of a massive heart attack followed by aggressive weekly chemotherapy is not exactly a good situation. She was getting chemo even when she was still bedridden and unable to walk. She was in the hospital for 90 days, but thankfully has been home for about a month now (and is still getting chemo). Just imagine not being able to leave a hospital room for three months – no sunshine, no idea if it’s day or night, no food (thanks to the swollen tongue)… You don’t even realize the little things you take for granted, like being able to cuddle with your pet or wear your own pajamas.

As for the cancer, the chemo does seem to be working very well, which makes me rejoice. We were glad to find out it wasn’t breast cancer again, because that would have been the worst prognosis. Unfortunately, it was ovarian cancer, which is scary in its own right. We have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but having both occur independently in the same individual is a huge red flag that the cancer may be heritable – that is, that her genome has some mutation that predisposes her to that type of cancer. If correct, that means I would have a 50% chance of having that same mutation.

My mom could honestly care less what her genome is, since it wouldn’t really change her treatment (“Yep, you still need chemo”). But she wanted to get genetic testing for my sake. Thankfully her results said she has normal copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two main breast cancer genes. Having a mutant copy of one of those greatly increases your odds of getting cancer, so hearing that news was a relief. But to a geneticist, it was a minor relief. I knew there were dozens of genes that could contribute to cancer, and dozens more that we probably haven’t even figured out yet. This just ruled out the common problems.

After my parents told her genetic counselor that I was getting my PhD in genomics, the counselor decided she would just rather talk to me directly. We chatted on the phone and she discussed how she wanted to test a larger number of genes, especially since gastrointestinal cancer runs in my mom’s family and may be related to her case. She told me her current problem – getting my mom’s insurance company to okay the test. She explained how insurance companies don’t like tests that utilize modern technology like next generation sequencing, because they rather have you pay a deductible on each individual gene than have one test that covers the whole genome.

(Yeah, they rather squeeze more money out of their dying cancer patients than do an efficient test. I never had any faith in the insurance industry to be able to say I lost it, but let’s just say my rage against them has grown. At least my parents have insurance, because after a month of treatment alone the bill was at one MILLION dollars. It’s horrible enough worrying about my mom’s health; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about their sudden bankruptcy as well.)

But I knew something this genetic counselor did not. I told her that Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 & BRCA2, worked in my department and did a cancer gene panel that was twice as large as the one the counselor was considering. After the counselor got done fangirling and squeeing over Mary-Claire (no, really, nerd glee), she asked if I could try to get my mom enrolled in MCK’s study. All it took was one email, and minutes later MCK had said yes. My mom no longer had to worry about insurance, she would learn more about her genome than from some company’s test, and she’d contribute to a growing body of knowledge about cancer genetics.

While I’m relieved to know I’ll have this information, it has been an emotional process. Part of me is terrified for myself. I’ve seen how cancer has affected my mom. The physical weakness, the loss of hair (which can really hurt a woman’s self-esteem), the inability to eat (how I wish Indiana had medical marijuana, or that I could smuggle some from Seattle). Not to mention the giant cloud of doom reminding you that, yeah, you may die from this. It really scares me wondering if I’ll have to go through the same thing when I’m her age, or if I’ll get unlucky and it’ll strike me sooner.

And at the same time, I feel guilty for worrying about myself at all. I feel selfish worrying about what might happen to me in 30 years, compared to what’s happening to my mother right now. I feel guilty that I can only visit her a little bit before I have to come back to work, even though she’s told me that me finishing my PhD is the most important thing to her. I feel guilty that my dad has to be her full-time caretaker and home nurse now, while I get to go “back to normal.” I feel guilty every time I have a moment of happiness when I’m back in Seattle, because I feel like I should always be worrying about her.

I’ve never been good at prioritizing taking care of myself, but now it feels damn near impossible.

And that’s partly why I’ve been so depressed the last couple of months. Worrying about my mom, worrying about myself, feeling guilty about worrying about myself… I wish those were the only things stressing me out, because I could barely handle those. My boyfriend is graduating with his PhD this year (yay!) but that means we’re worried that he won’t be able to find a job in Seattle and will have to move far away (not yay). Grad school has been rough (which is a redundant statement, right?). I’ve been feeling very lost and without guidance for a while now, since my project is very unique and I’ve basically created it from the ground up (or as another grad student told me, I went straight from undergrad to a postdoc). My current experiments aren’t working, and even though troubleshooting lab work is totally normal, it can be crushing when you’re already down. It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school. My lab is also having some funding woes, so I feel a lot of pressure not to screw anything up or waste supplies because we may not have the money for a round two. The cherry on top is that the two other grad students in my lab are graduating in the next month, so I will be the only graduate student left. I already felt lost and alone, but now it’s just going to be me, my adviser, and our research scientist.

The problem with depression is that even if you have understandable reasons to be depressed, it can make you unreasonable about everything else. I have particularly bad anhedonia – nothing really give me any pleasure. When asked to list my hobbies, I list things I used to enjoy. I have no motivation to do anything, even “fun” things.  Getting out of bed in the morning is a chore. I haven’t had an appetite in weeks, but I just keep feeding myself because I know I have to. I had convinced myself I had no friends who actually cared about me or wanted to hang out with me, which turned me into an even more lonely hermit. I’ve lost all of my goals and dreams, and when I think about the future I just despair. Every news article or opinion piece I read just makes me think how fucked and unfixable the world is, and I feel hopeless to do anything to make the world better.

And the fucked up thing about depression is that it convinces you that all of this is true, and you are the problem. Depression is like having sunglasses glued to your head and insisting the world is dark, even when you rationally know its bright. I was literally convinced for months that there was no hope in the future and that I would never feel happy again. Right now I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had a small moment of clarity when I realized that my brain was lying to me. Not only that my brain was lying to me, but that I had gone through this exact thing before! There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt this way, but happiness and motivation and normalcy always came back eventually. I need to remind myself that this too shall pass.

I’m attempting therapy again (thank you, Secular Therapist Project). At least this time I’m pretty sure they won’t suggest Buddhism and spirituality as the solution (no thank you, University of Washington mental health services). Unfortunately the health insurance they give us grad students is kind of crap, so it looks like I’ll be paying mostly out of pocket for it. But thankfully I have a good amount of savings and just got a raise (thank you, National Science Foundation) so it won’t be a huge issue, and I’m trying to start viewing my mental health as something worth investing in. This isn’t a pity call for money – if you feel the urge to donate, pick your favorite cancer research charity and that will make me happy.

I don’t really have a take home message or wrap up for this post. I simply realized that writing has always been therapeutic for me, and when I quit blogging I threw away that therapy along with a social support network (you guys!). I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest, so here it is.

Dear life: Please stop sucking soon.

kthx,

Jen

Bloom

In my dermatillomania post, a commenter linked to this art installation that I just had to share:

In 2003 a building housing the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC) was slated for demolition to make way for updated facilities. The closure was a time for reflection and remembrance as the MMHC had been in operation for over 9 decades and had touched countless thousands of patients and employees alike, and the pending demolition presented a unique problem. How does one memorialize a building impossibly rich with a history of both hope and sadness, and do it in a way that reflects not only the past but also the future? And could this memorial be open to the public, not as a speech, or series of informational plaques, but as an experience worthy of they building’s unique story?

To answer that question artist Anna Schuleit was commissioned to do the impossible. After an initial tour of the facility she was struck not with what she saw but with what she didn’t see: the presence of life and color. While historically a place of healing, the drab interior, worn hallways, and dull paint needed a respectful infusion of hope. With a limited budget and only three months of planning Schuleit and an enormous team of volunteers executed a massive public art installation called Bloom. The concept was simple but absolutely immense in scale. Nearly 28,000 potted flowers would fill almost every square foot of the MMHC including corridors, stairwells, offices and even a swimming pool, all of it brought to life with a sea of blooms. The public was then invited for a limited 4-day viewing as a time for needed reflection and rebirth.

Make sure to check out the rest of the photos and the interview with the artist here. I’m absolutely in love with it. Mental health problems have so much stigma attached to them. It’s wonderful to reframe the issue as being about rebirth, growth, and brightness instead of something bleak, deranged, and evil. I think this reaction from someone who visited the exhibit summarizes it perfectly:

“I walked through Bloom with a close friend of mine who has spent a great deal of time inside similar hospitals. He was close to tears and repeated said he felt the desire to jump into the flowers, sum bold for the freedom and the celebration of his own growth and healing. We recognized that Bloom brought beauty and wonder to what has always been an inherently taboo subject matter.”

This is post 33 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Dermatillomania therapies

In my previous post about dermatillomania, Robert B asks:

“Do you mind sharing what kind of therapies were tried?”

Sure! When I first met with my therapist, I made sure that she used cognitive behavioral therapy, since that’s one of the approaches most supported by scientific evidence. I also made it clear that I was an atheist to make sure she was okay with that (PS – check out the Secular Therapist Project if you’re looking for a secular therapist or want you current therapist to sign up).

The main therapy we did was “mindfulness,” which is pretty much how it sounds. She encouraged me to pay close attention to when I started to pick. For the first couple of weeks I wrote down every time I started picking and what was going on around me. This was partially to see if any specific events triggered the picking, though that wasn’t too enlightening to me. I already knew I picked when I was either very stressed out or very bored, and that’s about what I found.

But it did help me realize how much I picked. And since paying attention to my picking was on my mind, I was much less likely to start absent-mindedly picking during a lecture or a movie. Or if I did start picking, I would realize what I was doing and try my hardest to stop. It didn’t totally solve the problem, but I did pick less. And since I picked less, I had less scraggly skin available to pick, which in turn made me want to pick even less.

The problem was it was really easy to fuck up once, and that derailed the whole process. If I happened to go crazy picking while spaced out and watching a movie, or if an exam was coming up and I went to town, I basically had to start the process all over again. mindfulness worked for a couple of months until it…well, just wasn’t on my mind anymore. It’s hard to constantly think about.

The other thing that was suggested to me was just finding a hobby that could keep my hands busy instead of picking each other. I’ve found random twitchy iPhone games to be great for making me not pick while riding the bus, and that still works reasonably well. The main problem is idle work situations, like sitting in a lecture. She suggested I take up knitting since that’s fairly socially acceptable to do in a lecture hall, but I just never got around to it.

But overall, the treatment for dermatillomania isn’t really well understood. There are a number of proposed drugs that may help (including SSRIs), but we never discussed that option.

This is post 32 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

A dermatillomania update

Last year I wrote about my experience with dermatillomania, also known as compulsive skin picking. It’s part of the OCD spectrum of behaviors, where I have the compulsion to pick at the skin on my fingertips and lips, often until they’re bleeding or scarred. It’s worse when I’m nervous or stressed because I oddly find it soothing, but I’ll also do it absent-mindedly. If you want to learn more, check out my original post.

So why am I talking about it again? Well for one thing, people often ask me about it. I’ve had so many people coming out of the woodwork saying “Holy crap, I do that too!” Mental illness has so much stigma that it helps to remind people that “Hey, I’m not totally right in the head…but that’s perfectly fine.”

But I also want to mention it because someone (who also suffers from dermatillomania) knew I was seeking treatment, and they asked me if it was effective. Honestly…not really. That doesn’t mean no treatment for dermatillomania is effective. I was going to my university health center, which doesn’t specialize in this particular disorder. I really liked the therapist I ended up meeting with over the summer, but she had never tried to treat someone with my condition before. I’d likely have better luck controlling my compulsion if I went to a specialist, but honestly my problem isn’t bad enough to shell out the money.

Talking to a therapist about my dermatillomania did help me out in one important way: I no longer feel guilty about what I do. And the guilt was one of the worst things about it. I felt terrible trying to explain my scarred fingertips to someone who happened to see. I felt ugly and unattractive after chewing on my lips too much. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t control my own behavior.

But talking to a therapist reminded me that it was okay to not be in control sometimes. People with cystic fibrosis or nearsightedness don’t get told that they should just control themselves better. We accept that they have health problems that they didn’t choose to have. I’ve now accepted that I didn’t choose this mental health disorder, and it’s okay if I have a hard time dealing with it.

This is post 26 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.