I went back to work last week. I had been off several weeks after a tough, two-week, out-of-town assignment that brought me to my knees on the edge of my black hole.
In all, I was gone five weeks – some pre-planned vacation and some comp time. Still, when you’re out of the office for that long, for any reason, people are going to wonder why you have been gone so long.
If you don’t have a mental illness – whether it’s depression or alcoholism or an anxiety disorder – you’ve probably never been confronted with these questions: How do you call in sick when your mental illness prevents you from work? What do you say when you go back to work after an extended absence because of your mental illness?
When you have to answer these questions, you realize how much stigma there is about mental illness.
If you had to take off a couple of weeks because you had pneumonia, you would simply tell your boss that you could not work because you had pneumonia. But what do you say when your depression prevents you from working? How do you call in sick with depression?
Every now and then I get a glimpse of what my mental illnesses look like.
It’s been a long time. I have taken my medications without fail for years. I exercise, eat healthy foods, get as much sleep as I can, visit my psych-nurse practitioner every three months and I get on my knees every night and thank God for my sobriety. In other word, I do what I am told – an unnatural act for me.
As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I am accustomed to stress. For nearly 30 years I have lived with a deadline hanging over my head. I took six weeks off to have a baby, 8 weeks for my last major depression but other than the one- or two-week vacations, I have had a deadline over my head.
Recently, I accepted an assignment which today I realize I should not have done. I agreed to leave my home and my dog, suspend my exercise routine and healthy eating habits and forego nights of 8-hours of sleep to cover the Florida legislature’s last two-weeks in session.
I did this once before, nearly 30 years ago when reporters were only expected to write a story for the newspaper. Now, we must also Tweet, blog and make videos. Despite my degree in political science, after 30+ years in journalism, I’m kinda disallusioned with politics.
I was stunned.
My mother had rarely spoken about her childhood. She grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. They did not have hot water and she and her three sisters and two brothers took baths one-by-one in a tub in water that had been warmed on a stove. You wanted to be the first in line to get the cleanest, warmest water, she used to tell me. They didn’t have much money. They worked hard. They churned their own butter.
I could not recall her ever speaking about her father – my grandfather, who died when I was very young. About all I knew was that he drank a lot. So I asked. She rattled off stories – none of them happy or funny. He took all six kids to school in the morning and then started drinking. She had seen him drunk, sitting on a curb. She was so embarrassed that if she needed to go past his watering hole she would take a different route to avoid seeing him.
He took the money she had saved to buy herself a car. When she announced she was going to college – the only one of the four girls in the family who did – he kicked her out. Women didn’t need a college education, she recalled him saying. She went on to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.
I am totally into preventive health care – especially mental health care.
I practice preventive mental health care. It’s a program I came up with on my own based on a bunch of stuff I’ve read and been told by people I trust. It’s based on this simple premise: my brain is constantly producing or not producing chemicals and hormones. If there is too much of one chemical and not enough of another, I can sink into a black hole or leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The single, most powerful preventive tool in my little toolbox is exercise. Exercise prevents both depression and mania. It releases endorphins, hormones that activate my opiate receptors. As for my mania, exercise is like a fire extinguisher, snuffing out that burning desire to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
There was a time when I wanted a really big house. A two-story house with big bedrooms and bathrooms with his and her’s sinks – even though there is no “his.”
My siblings have huge houses on big chunks of land. BIG – as in having an intercom so the kids can ask mom to bring some snacks down to the basement, where they have gym, pool table, bar and movie room. You can put a 20-foot Christmas tree in their living rooms and it won’t hit the ceiling.
My house is 1,332 square feet on .17 acres. No basement. No upstairs. Right now, I absolutely love it. I have the windows open and it is raining. When you live in a very small house and you open the windows during a rain, it sounds like you are actually outside, in the rain. Surround-sound rain but you are cozy and dry.
In the words of the philosopher Crow: It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.
This is gratitude and it is an entirely impossible state of mind when you have depression. If you want to get a taste of what depression feels like, it is the complete absence of gratitude. It is compounded by friends and family trying to cram gratitude down your throat…”You have so much to live for…”
For those of you with depression who live in areas that are expecting life-threatening cold weather this week, I am not going to say “I feel your pain.” I don’t and I won’t insult you by saying it.
Although I have felt your pain in my lifetime, I do not feel your pain now because I live in Florida. I also won’t insult you by telling you what the weather is like in West Palm Beach right now.
I was born and raised in northwest Wisconsin and southwest Michigan. Phrases like “wind chill,” “lake effect,” “black ice” and “sub-zero” were part of my daily vocabulary for about five months of the year.
The only thing worse than the temperature was the sky – so uniformally gray that it looked like someone had painted it one solid color. There were no clouds per se – just one massive, flat gray cloud that covered the entire sky for as far as you could see. Nine hours separated sunrise and sunset but it would be months before you would ever see the sun again so it didn’t really matter if it was day or night.
I don’t do resolutions but apparently a lot of people do because the gym was packed this morning.
If something needs to change, I change it. Relying on a number on a calender has never worked for me. Trust me. I’ve tried it. You can ask any alcoholic and they will tell you they have set deadlines and then either missed them or got sober for a few weeks and then they’re back at it.
It’s the same with dieting. If you can go ON a diet, you can go OFF a diet. You want to lose weight or quit smoking or drinking, you just do it – not because it’s a certain day of the year. Because it needs to be done and every cell in your body is convinced of that truth. In the words of the philosophers at Nike: Just do it.
Of course if you are as hard headed as I am, it may take some time to convince yourself that you really need to make a change. In fact, I brain has concocted truly ridiculous arguments to prove to myself that I didn’t need to quit drinking, take antidepressants or see a therapist.
Two down. One to go.
Yes, we made it through Thanksgiving, rounded second base, aka Christmas, and are headed to third: New Years Eve.
At this point in the holiday season many of us with mental illnesses are merely “coping.” We are coping with the in-laws. We are coping with children in the throes of sugar detox. We are coping with long lines, stolen parking spots and endless renditions of the same Christmas carols. Seriously, how many different ways can you sing Santa Baby?
1. Thou shalt not drink.
2. Thou shalt not drink.
3. Thou shalt not drink.
4 .Thou shalt not drink.
5. Thou shalt not drink.
6. Thou shalt not drink.
7. Thou shalt not drink.
8. Thou shalt not drink.
9. Thou shalt not drink.
10. Thou shalt not drink.
Sounds a little harsh, but it’s not bad once you get the hang of it and understand why abstinence is so important for the mentally ill during the holidays. Alcohol is a depressant.
Every year I’m struck by the same thought during the holidays: why are all the holiday movie classics about people with mental illnesses who are wonderfully restored to good health by a Christmas miracle?
George Bailey jumped off a bridge on Christmas Eve and miraculously snaps out of his depression with the help of a bumbling angel named Clarence. Natalie Wood, the clearly depressed mom in Miracle on 34th Street, is made happy and healthy by a department store Santa who ended up in Bellevue.
Scrooge’s depression is lifted when the grim reaper comes knocking. Linus’ rendition of the nativity seems to alleviate Charlie Brown’s perennial dysthymia.
Folks, I’m here to tell you it ain’t that easy. You’re not going to get an angel like Clarence to show you what life would be like without you and the grim reaper – hopefully – won’t come visit. We’re on our own.
Frankly, for many of us the holidays suck. We’re supposed to be happy, happy, happy! And nothing sucks more than trying to force yourself to be happy, happy, happy and being around people who ARE happy, happy, happy because it’s the holiday season.
And I shall go forth into another holiday season with this mantra: Expectations are premeditated disappointments.
I shall also turn the frickin’ channel when a jewelry commercial comes on the television or that chipper song Feliz Navidad plays on the radio. I will do my damndest to avoid sugar, especially M&Ms. I will avoid the mall and its DMV-ish lines and battles for parking spots.
I’m not doing this because I am a bah-humbug kind of girl. I’m doing this because I know that my depression is smack in the middle of the bullseye this time of year. After umpteen years of therapy and medications, I know that my expectations about Christmas – fueled by the American advertising industry – can push me over the edge.
So, I’m working on having a Charlie Brown kind of Christmas this year. I’m going to focus on putting a single bulb on a pathetic little tree – metaphorically speaking – and remember the nativity. I was raised Catholic, which likely explains a lot of other issues that we’re not going to go into right now, and taught that Christmas is about Christ’s birth.
Santa is supposed to be a side-dish, not the main course. I am going to focus instead on the lessons of the nativity, namely humility and giving.
And in that spirit, I give you this: a simple reminder of the simplicity of Christmas.
Pathetic Christmas tree image available from Shutterstock.