/ / /
1 June 2022
On April 11, I started a new life in Pittsfield, MA. That was the first day of my new office job, my first day living in my van again after five weeks staying with family, and my first day living in a new town where I don’t know anyone. (I was born in Pittsfield and consider nearby Lenox my hometown, but I no longer know people in either place.)
As I left work on that first day and got into the driver’s seat of my van, I faced the largest anxiety attack I’ve had in a long time. The trifecta of no home/no friends/office job hit me hard, and within minutes I was in tears. I drove to a nearby marsh that has a walking path. I walked to the end of the boardwalk and watched the geese and ducks as I got my emotions under control. When my heart rate had slowed a bit, I found a bench and meditated.
That was the beginning of two very dark weeks. I burst into tears at some point nearly every day and found myself in thought spirals every night. As the second week dragged on, I started to worry about how long it would be possible to operate at the level of distress I was experiencing.
One complicating factor was that I had stopped taking antidepressants in 2021, working with my nurse practitioner in Vermont to wean myself off them. I’d been fine since then, and in fact I was very much enjoying a renewed sense of connection to my emotions — a connection that had been dulled for the decade or more I’d been on meds.
When this latest dark period struck, the intensity took me totally by surprise. I’d certainly had dark periods before; 2020, for example, saw the end of what I thought would be a lifelong relationship and the start of my life in a van. But this was something different. It was debilitating in a way I hadn’t experienced since the breakdown that put me on meds in the first place.
This period also coincided with National Poetry Writing Month, aka NaPoWriMo. I decided to participate. Over the years I’ve likened poetry and Buddhist practice, in that both help you see the world as it is. That can be great, but when the world is a pile of poop, writing a poem every day is less about observation and more about being slowly buried. Art can amplify the bad as well as the good. Looking back at most of the poems I wrote in April, I can see a terrifying darkness and despair. And I wonder whether writing a poem every day was about wallowing rather than processing.
Somehow, for reasons I can’t even begin to name, that dark blanket lifted after two weeks, and I’m doing much, much better now. I’ve accepted the reality that I’ll have to live in my van until summer, when I can afford to rent an apartment. I’ve begun to adjust to my office job, and even to find comfort in the nice folks with whom I work and the access to a bathroom and a tea kettle and a paycheck. I can look ahead to a time when I’ve got my own place and feel more stable and secure.
This year’s NaPoWriMo gave me a lot to think about concerning the relationship between my writing and my state of mind. I’ll definitely exercise more caution if this happens again, and I’ll try to pay more attention to the interplay between art and emotion.3 Comments
how big a mistake
have I made?
gym shower ruminating
/ / /
24 April 2022
You want to give up, throw in the towel, but you / can’t give up because you’re all you have.
— from the poem “Pain (2)” by Jim Harrison
One of the signs is long exhalations.
Mouth in the shape of an O.
A big, quiet breath in.
An extended, more audible breath out.
Careful not to attract attention.
These outpourings of air happen
with increasing frequency
over the course of the day.
The breath forms a wall
against the approach of tears.
Public crying is considered gauche.
/ / /
22 April 2022
(NaPoWriMo Day 22)Leave a Comment
Recently I’ve discovered an insidious creature who lives inside me. Fighting this beastie has now become a daily habit. No, I’m not talking about demon possession or an alien slowly growing in my chest. I’m talking about the internal critic.
The internal critic is that voice in my head that says, “You’ll never be good enough. You’ll never be loved. You’ll always be abandoned. You’ll never succeed. You’re a failure.”
The critic has been with me nearly my whole life. I think I know why, too, although I’ll save that for some future essay. For now, let me just say that the critic goes hand in hand with a variety of types of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, both of which I’m dealing with.
Recently my life has taken several turns for the better. I have a job I like. I live in a nice apartment. And I’m in a healthy relationship with someone who loves me very much. I’ve noticed, though, that the critic is shouting louder than ever: in moments of silence; in moments when my partner is away or busy or with other people; in moments when I’m alone in my apartment; and in some moments when I’m with the person I love or doing something I enjoy. The critic has no boundaries and no sense of decorum. It attacks with no provocation and gives no quarter.
Ah, but there’s something not quite right about that last sentence. Because the critic does in fact have provocation. My happiness is what most angers the critic. Joy is its kryptonite, and so it must strike against any sign of contentment.
My friend pointed out recently that it’s when I’m at my happiest that the critic is most fearful. Because if it’s true that someone is in love with me, that my friends care about me, that I’m good at my job, that I have a safe place to live – if those things are true than the critic is wrong.
I’m only just beginning to explore the causes of the critic’s existence. I’ve known about my depression for several years, and I’ve been working on it. But this new wrinkle, PTSD, is still mostly unknown to me. I’m learning, though. Soon I’ll have health insurance and will be back in therapy. And I have a good network of friends and family, and a supportive partner who is not afraid to deal with mental health issues.
So watch out, critic. I’m coming for you.
(But in the meantime, thanks to all of you for reminding me each day that the critic is wrong.)Leave a Comment
One thing about depression is that for many people, including me, its intensity varies. In my own case, I’m always experiencing a background radiation of depression, but for months at a time I can control it well with drugs and therapy and meditation. Sometimes, though, it gets worse, and even those techniques can’t keep it at bay.
For the past month or two I’ve noticed more severe symptoms returning. I find it hard to accomplish simple tasks. It’s a chore to be around people. I have a real desire to hide in my apartment. It’s hard to concentrate. And I get anxiety attacks — sweating, shaking, a flight response, fast heartbeat, dizziness. I know intellectually that it’s happening, and I still do my three main things (drugs, therapy, meditation), but I can’t out-think my depression.
One of the most annoying things about depression for me is that it tends to lead to behavior that feeds back into the depression. For example, there are tasks I need to complete for people. I don’t finish them, which leads to guilt and anxiety, which makes the depression worse, which makes me even less able to complete these tasks.
All these years of therapy and meditation mean that I’m less prone to beat up on myself than I used to be. Even if I can’t out-think the beast, I can at least realize it’s there and try to be kind to myself while things are at their worst. And I know that I feel like I do because my brain doesn’t work properly, not because I’m a bad person.
As always, I’m not writing about this so that anyone will treat me differently. This has been happening for many weeks and I’ve been out there in the world, trying to be the best me I can be. Most people don’t even notice.
I’m writing about this because I bet other people I know are dealing with similar mental health situations, and they might find some comfort in having company. If I’d broken my leg or been in an accident or been diagnosed with a physical illness, I’d probably talk about it. I think the same should apply to mental illness, assuming the individual is comfortable being open. Everyone’s level of comfort varies.
Anyway, I’m working through this phase. I finally have health insurance, thanks to a beautiful friend, so I should be able to do more therapy and stay consistent with my medication. And I just completed my 800th consecutive daily meditation last night, and I don’t intend to stop now.
Finally, if you think you might be suffering from depression or another mental illness, talk to someone. Most of the time, you can’t talk your way out of these things, but there are ways to get healthier.7 Comments