Anxiety/Depression

Depression, Breathing, and the Path Ahead

When something as significant as depression hits, it ought to be obvious, but frequently it isn’t. Instead I manage to deduce it from outside evidence days or weeks after the mire begins. The trickiest part of mental health is that a flare up actively interferes with my ability to identify and manage the flare up. So it is this morning when I realize it has been four days since I blogged when I blogged almost every day for the month prior. I suppose some of that pause could be the Pandemic settling in and therefore requiring less processing. Yet there are other signs, the day I spent mostly in bed for instance. I am tired. I feel silly for being tired and depressed when my current existence is so close to normal. I have my house. I eat food that is pretty close to what I ate before. I still mail packages when orders come in. The things I can’t do are things which I didn’t do often anyway. Yet the not doing of them seems to accumulate.

Howard’s breathing was bad yesterday. Since his illness in January he’s been on daily asthma medication and taking hits on his inhaler multiple times per day. Some days this regimen puts him in a place where he can do light exercise. Yesterday he got out of breath standing and doing a puzzle. Then sitting and doing a puzzle. We were scheduled for a pulmonary function test in mid March. It got rescheduled for last week. Last week it got rescheduled for June. I know the decision is smart, that we must act as if Howard has not had Covid 19. Because if we stack Covid-19 on top of whatever is going on with his lungs, it would kill him. So taking him to a hospital (which probably has Covid-19 patients in it) for a test is ill-advised. But it means we don’t know what is going on. We have no way to know if it is getting worse or better. We can’t be certain if our treatments are optimal. We can’t even consult with a pulmonologist until May 19. That was the earliest appointment they would give me when I called in early March. I’ve ordered a pulse oxymeter so we can see what his blood oxygen levels are, but that won’t arrive until April 17-29 because Amazon has slowed down deliveries of “non-essentials.” (Or possibly because demand for oxymeters has gone up.) So I stand next to Howard, working on a puzzle together, and I listen when he suddenly takes several extra deep breaths in a row because his body has suddenly realized it needs more air. I wait when he has to pause mid-sentence to breathe and try to remember what he meant to say.

I ran cross country in high school. I was never particularly good at it, but I learned a lot about perseverance from doing it. I learned how to keep going even when I wanted to stop. At the beginning of a race there was something of a rush as people tested their speed and tried to get at the front of the pack. (Or in my case drop to the back.) That first pace was always too fast to maintain over the long run. After the first burst of energy, all the runners would settle in to a slower pace, one that they could keep up for two or three miles. That’s where we are with the pandemic. We’ve had our first month’s sprint where everything is jostling around and shifting. We had to adapt and adapt again to changing circumstances around us. Now events have spread out and it is time to settle into a pace we can maintain over the long haul ahead. The finish line is not even in sight, all we can see is the path ahead. All we can do is take one step after another. I remember settling in at the front end of a long run, feeling my body already start to be tired, yet knowing how much longer I needed to move. It frequently discouraged me to the point where I stopped running and started walking instead. The thing which cross country taught me was how to run when I felt like walking, and how not to defeat myself by letting discouragement win. Time for me to dredge up those lessons again. The path is long and I need to keep moving.

Edited to add: Howard has good breathing days and bad ones. The problem comes and goes. There are still more good days than difficult ones, but we’re tracking it.

Grief as a Creative Process

We are all grieving these days. Not just a singled loss, but a multitude of losses both big and small. We grieve for the fast food we can’t eat right now and the hair cut we wish we could get. We grieve for the graduations canceled and the weddings made small, for trips that are no longer possible. We grieve for the separation from loved ones and separation from the lives we used to have. We grieve the future which has diverted so far from what we expected and is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.

All of these griefs, and more, overlap and collide in my head to the point where I wish my thoughts would hold still just for a moment. Somehow it feels that if they would hold still, I could see all the griefs and work through them efficiently. That isn’t possible of course. Grief by its very nature is slippery and sloppy. It spills out of containment and colors things it wasn’t connected to before the spill.

In my presentation Structuring Life to Support Creativity I have a section where I talk about creative processes. Any creative process you have will impact any other creative process. Raising children is hugely creative work, which is why it can wreak havoc on other creative pursuits A day job which requires creative effort will make maintaining a creative avocation more difficult. Grief is a creative process. It is the means by which we adapt and change ourselves and our lives. It deconstructs what we used to have and gives us pieces to create ourselves anew. The larger the grief, the more transformed we must become in order to pass through it. I can’t curl myself tight and move through quickly or efficiently. Instead I have to be open to the feeling of it. I have to cry and rage and despair. I have to let it permeate who I am and slop over into places I’m not sure it belongs. In this process the grief becomes part of the fabric of who I am and I carry it with me as I move forward.

At the beginning of this year, I found an image to carry with me (or perhaps to carry me.) It was a cloak of peace and joy. Now I think that grief also needs to be woven into this cloak. Thus the cloak becomes a way for me to carry that grief and acknowlege it while still leaving my hands free to do important work. By carrying my grief with intertwined with peace and joy, everything works together to shield me against anxiety and fear while I transform. Over time painful grief becomes wistfulness and remembrance of what might have been. Also I remind myself how all of the hardest parts of last year were directly causative to the brightest joys of the year. This grief-causing difficulty is source for future joy I can’t see yet.

At least that is the story I tell myself this morning as I try to let go of the way life used to be and accept the realities of living in a pandemic. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll need a different image and a different story. That’s okay too.

Befriending Slowness

Of late my days feel long and spacious, almost empty. I sat with that empty feeling yesterday, trying to figure out where it came from, because when I compare today’s To Do list with one from a month or two ago, I have just as many tasks to do, if not more. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, something that used to fill up the spaces around the tasks and make the days run faster. The missing thing is dozens of small urgent deadlines stacked on top of each other. Particularly order-dependent deadlines: must do item A today because I have to start item B tomorrow and both must be complete before C happens next week. I’ve had urgent deadlines filling my brain since last June. I was running fast, working hard, getting things done. The urgency kept me stewing in adrenaline so I could move despite fatigue.

Then mid January, I ran out of small order-dependent tasks. The big event was complete, leaving only large, long-term goals and small daily chores. I spent nearly a week with my executive function almost completely shut down. I couldn’t hold on to thoughts or plan anything. Slowly that came back online, but I’m still not back up to speed. And I shouldn’t be. The pace I was maintaining was a killing pace. It was draining emotional and physiological resources, as evidenced by the week-long collapse. The part of my brain complaining about how everything now feels slow and unexciting needs to learn how to be comfortable with slowness.

One of the big life shifts in the past year was Howard switching medications for his mental health issues. The one he was on shortened his sleep (which he liked) but also drove up his blood pressure (which was scary.) He too is having to come to terms with the fact that he has to slow down. The breakneck pace he maintained for years keeping up with both the daily comic and side projects as well was exhilarating even while being exhausting. There is a high associated with pushing your mind and body to their limits, there is also a cost. And that cost often arrives in a sudden and overwhelming collapse. I could see him pushing himself toward collapse, so we changed the medicines, which forced a (very frustrating) slow down. We believe that, over time, the slow down will result in better health. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

This week I am focusing on the slowness. I am learning to befriend both slowness and a feeling of spaciousness. It is a strange sensation to not have my head filled with anxious planning and deadline tracking. I miss it. I feel alive and capable when adrenaline surges and I can crisis manage lots of organizational details. Just because I miss something, doesn’t mean I should put it back into my life. I’m certain that in the future I will have more moments of adrenaline-driven competence. I will be better at them if I embrace the current period of peace. I’m learning to quiet my anxious thoughts. I’m learning to sit and let my mind wander without media distractions. I’m doing more reading of books rather than websites. I’m recognizing the ways that internet sites and politics thrive on creating urgency and anxiety in people. I’m noticing that despite my days feeling slower and emptier, my house is more in order. I’m finally doing all the non-urgent tasks which were pushed aside and which contribute to happiness and well being. I’m pondering how I can reject imposed urgency when it isn’t necessary. I’m recognizing that frantic urgency didn’t do as much to make my life and home better as this slower care-taking. I’m pondering how these realizations might apply to my citizenship in the larger world and what actions I should be taking to make that world better.

There are a lot of thoughts to sort through, and I intend to take the time to do that sorting carefully and thoughtfully. Because when life inevitably begins throwing urgent deadlines at me again, I want to be prepared to respond to them in a calmer and less anxious way.

Changing the Words

“I need to point out a language change I’d like you to make.” he said.
I was sitting across from my son’s new therapist. I’d spent the past forty minutes describing my son’s challenges and our current status.
“When you talk about your son’s schooling, you keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ I want you to use ‘you’ and ‘your’ instead. Put the responsibility for his schooling onto him instead of both of you.”

The moment the therapist said it, I could see how such a small-seeming language shift could matter. Every time I said “we need to get that essay done.” I was shouldering part of the burden of the essay, and it is really easy for kids to just let mom carry things for them. They’ve been doing it since they were small for everything from coats, to toys, to expenses.

Since that appointment, I’ve been working to make the shift, and the effort has shown me how often I included myself into my kids’ struggles instead of letting my them own those struggles. I think I began it because I didn’t want them to feel alone against hard things. I also wanted to frame the struggle as “us against the mental health issues” instead of mom vs kid. It is also probable that I was including myself in an un-self-aware attempt to have more control over the situation. I feel pretty sheepish about that last bit, because I’ve been saying for years that I needed my kids to have some life-solutions that didn’t involve me, while I was simultaneously auto-including myself into their every struggle.

I’m only a few weeks into making this language shift and it is still hard because habit is strong. Yet I’m already feeling the differences in how I think about my kids and their challenges. I’m realizing that every time I help my fledgling adults, what I’m actually doing is slowing down their learning process by absorbing some of the blow of natural consequences. Usually I’m helping to appease my own anxiety, so that the terrible stories of possible outcomes don’t come to pass, or so that I don’t have to watch them struggle. It is hard to be able to help and to let someone else struggle anyway. Yet that is exactly what my kids need me to do for their long term good. Helping makes today better, but it prevents the development of resilience that will let them survive their futures.

There is a part of my mind that wants to dwell on the What Ifs around this language shift. What if I’d learned this five years ago? Was I wrong to do so much helping when they were struggling so hard? Can I do it now only because we’re far enough removed from suicide risk? Did my use of inclusive language in their early teens literally save their lives, or is it the reason we’re here with adults who can’t fly on their own yet? I can’t answer any of those questions and dwelling on them doesn’t really help anyone. We are where we are, and the best way forward is to accept where we are and focus on moving forward from here.

And for right now, moving forward requires me to learn how to change the words I use on a daily basis.

A Day of Many Things

I have notes for a blog post on parenting depression with a focus on teenage and newly adult depressed people. Meant to write it up today, instead my dishwasher flooded through the floor into the basement. This required every towel in the house and six buckets to contain the water. Now I have dehumidifiers and fans running in two rooms. Again.

On the up side, we had four functioning adults in the house to rapid manage the flood. Even though my daughter’s fiance was actually supposed to be convalescing on the couch with a head cold. We made him lay back down as soon as the crisis was over.

Also my parents were in town for a visit and we ended up having lunch in my house (instead of meeting at a restaurant) while I talked with the plumber whose error caused the flood (and who will pay for the damage to be repaired) and also the disaster recovery company guy who brought me the fans and will do the repairs. Visiting was squeezed in around signing of contracts and contingency planning. Fortunately my parents already planned to stay at a different house because not only do I not have guest space, I have one of my kids who will have to sleep on the couch for the next five days.

Also I fielded phone calls from my kid who is considering moving back home and shifting his trajectory for the next six months. He needed help possibly applying for a new job and considering his options. My plan had been to invite him to stay home over the weekend and do a test run of living at home, only now his bed has buckets on it catching dripping water. So if he wants to come home, he’ll join his brother in sleeping on a couch.

Also I took my one of my college freshman to find out how to do a medical withdrawal from courses because they haven’t been able to make themselves go to class for about three weeks now. Depression, anxiety, and OCD can be serious hurdles for getting to class. Grades are no longer salvageable and it is time for us to regroup and figure out what comes next. (The answer is likely: take a gap year while they get a handle on self care and basic adulting.)

Tomorrow I have to get up, put on professional clothes and spend the day at a conference giving a presentation. Fortunately it is a presentation I’ve given many times before, so I can use my existing notes.

So that is how I spent my Mental Health Awareness day.

Anxiety Before Traveling

This time next week I’ll be in Houston for the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. We’ll have a few days on land and then we’ll be on a cruise ship for the remainder of the event. I’ve gone on these trips annually for the past four years, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. They aren’t trips we ever would have been able to afford on our own, so we work hard as staff to make the event amazing and thus pay for our tickets with our efforts.

It does mean that I end up spending the week of the trip in something of a liminal space. I’m staff and therefore not able to blend in with the attendees. However I’m not one of the Writing Excuses podcast hosts or an invited guest instructor. I assist with the family programming for non-writers, helping them connect with each other and learn things about supporting their writers. I fit in that role since I am the life partner and enabler of a person with a creative career. However I’m also a writer myself, so I bounce into those spaces as well. Being not exactly one thing or another provides fertile ground for anxieties to grow. So this week I’m spending significant amounts of mental energy weeding anxieties out as soon as they pop up. The minute I realize I’m worried that I’ve disappointed attendees I remind myself that it isn’t possible for people to be disappointed by me when they barely know I exist or haven’t met me yet. When I have thoughts about how I probably shouldn’t speak up in conversations about writing, I remind myself that I have as much right to speak about my writing struggles as anyone else. Anxiety sprouts, I pull it out like a weed. Repeat.

This year I’m going on the trip with a specific writing project and goal. I’m eschewing shore excursions so that I have longer stretches to sit and write. I’m trying to refocus myself as a writer and remember that projects only get complete if I actually put in the time. I’m anxious about all of this as well. Writing is surrounded by a whole garden of anxiety weeds which have barbs like thistles They are thoughts that sting and hurt whenever I bump into them.
What is the point, it’ll never be published anyway.
What do you have to say that hasn’t already been said.
You don’t have the skill to do this.
Who do you think you’re fooling, if you were a real writer you’d… [fill in the blank]

And dozens more related thoughts. I already know the words to counteract these thoughts. I speak them regularly to students and friends. I teach them in classes. I believe them when I say them to others, yet somehow it is harder to accept that they also apply to me. Anxiety is like that. It is a lying liar who lies.
I write the counter argument here to remind myself: creation is always worthwhile even if the only one who is changed by it is the person who creates. I’m very good at nurturing the personal growth of others, and I need to turn some of that effort inward.

Along with the writer anxieties, I’m also dealing with anxieties about the things and people I need to leave behind while I travel. Also dealing with the inherent anxieties around the ways that travel can go wrong. Thus far the all the anxieties (travel, writerly, etc), while abundant, have been low level. More like background noise than something obtrusive. But the volume will increase the closer I get to departure. Writing this post is one of my ways to stare anxiety down and say “I see you. You don’t win.” It may be silly, but it works.

This week I’m at my house looking at damaged flooring, clutter, and bathrooms that need to be cleaned. Next week I’ll have vistas of caribbean water and white sand beaches. Yet I’ll be the same me in both spaces. I’ll carry anxieties with me on the trip and then back again, unless I can figure out how to shed them before I go. And if I want to feel calm, serene, happy I need to not wait until I’m surrounded by loveliness to cultivate those emotions, otherwise when I leave the lovely location I’ll also leave the emotions behind. Travel definitely provides an impetus for me to examine my internal landscape, but it is at home that the real work gets done.

Hope and Being Better

About two years ago I stopped participating in mental health themed panels at conventions. The last one I was on, was focused on helping writers understand details of what it is like to live with depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, etc so that they could portray the conditions well in their writing. The audience was great, my co-panelists were great, I was just so raw and worn out from living with the difficulties that the conversation sent me sideways. I was sitting in front of a room of people, filled with anxiety. Every time I spoke up, I was flooded with doubt that my contribution was useful and a simultaneous fear that I’d said too much, that I’d exposed my life and my loved ones to scrutiny in ways I should not have. And then, from the shape of the conversations it was clear that some of the audience was also seeking affirmation, validation, or hope along with writerly education. That was what stabbed me to my core, because I wanted to say “yes this is hard, but it gets better.” Only I couldn’t. Me and my family were still in the middle of hard and better wasn’t even a glimpse on the horizon. It was too hard to sit there describing the hard without having hope. So I stopped volunteering for those panels.

Today I had a contrasting experience. A friend of a friend called me because they are seeking help for their son and they wondered about a program that my son has participated in. As I listened to her, I knew exactly the emotional path she is traveling. I was able to validate and sympathize. And as I spoke describing where my son is now in comparison to where he was, I saw so clearly that “better” is all around me.

I’m still not certain I’m ready to start volunteering to talk about mental health on panels again. In part that is because I’m going through a period of self doubt in relation to teaching at conventions and events. But it is also because I’m braced for “better” to vanish again. It was so hard for so long. And every advance seemed to be followed by a disastrous crash. So part of me expects everything to fall apart again, reverting to what the emotional / mental health chaos that was our normal for six years.

Except I don’t think things can revert. We’ve all changed shape so that we can’t fit back into the old patterns. Things could fall apart in new and exciting ways, but I don’t think we get to go back. For which I am exceedingly grateful. I’m also truly grateful that this time when I was giving someone useful information, I was also able to heap on a serving of hope to go along with it.

Anxiety Shows Up

Yesterday anxiety and depression were eating me alive. It is strange how they seep in and take over all my reactions without me noticing what is happening. It’s like being busy with a project and suddenly noticing I’m hip deep in flood water. That has alligators in it. I haven’t been an effective worker most of the week. I’ve been wading through sadness and foggy thinking. Then last night I got hit with a series of micro panic attacks triggered by the tiniest of things.

Laundry needs to be switched = jolt of adrenaline and huge spike of crushing guilt because obviously I am failing at adulting in that spells doom for my entire future.

Daughter shows me piece of art = jolt of adrenaline and surge of worry because what if the client (who is my friend) doesn’t like it, and what if they get so angry that it destroys the friendship, and then that leads to a huge rift in the social circle which spells doom for my entire future.

You get the idea. Small event = my entire future is doomed. After half dozen or more of these, I finally paused long enough to think “hey, maybe this isn’t normal.” And then I remember that this is exactly what one of my medicines is for. It is a short-acting “rescue” medicine whose job is to cut through anxiety and help my brain re-set so it can remember that we don’t have to react to everything as if it is a life threatening emergency which potentially leads to permanent doom. So I took my medicine, and I slept it off. Then today was, by far, the most effective day I’ve had all week.

I know exactly why the anxiety and depression showed up this week. Kids have stuff going on that is legitimate cause for grief and emotional processing on my part. My job in both cases has been to let go and get out of the way so that the kids can handle their own things. I have to let go of things I pictured for their future because their futures need to be what they imagine.

Sadly, knowing the causes of the anxiety doesn’t actually prevent it. But I can re-set, recalibrate, and not let the anxiety win.

Small Triumphs and Sadnesses Swirled Together

Our shirt Kickstarter closed yesterday. It did better than I’d expected, which helps plug a financial gap between the last book release and the next one. The vast majority of the money will go straight into printing shirts and shipping them. However the sliver that is left will pay our bills for a month or two, so that’s significant.

My 20yo has settled into his school and last night he figured out how to order pizza using his own money and have it delivered to him. It seems like a small thing, but it is hugely empowering to him to have an income and to be able to summon food that he likes instead of being at the complete whim of the cafeteria.

I spent a few minutes talking to one of my nephews who is the same age as my 15yo and who will be attending the same high school next year. My nephew energetically described his class schedule for next year, which he picked so he could be with his friends. It is full of honors classes, AP classes, and probable after school activities. Planning my son’s schedule was all about managing stresses and trying to tune things so he could function without being overwhelmed. The contrast was stark and I’ve cried a bit about the life limitations my son has to deal with.

My 17yo is far more stable than she was last year at this time, but there have still been absences for mental health days. I looked at her grades and realized that the absences have spawned missed assignments and tests. There are a couple of grades to rescue, and the thought makes me tired. We are always rescuing grades either for this kid or for the 15yo. It makes me weary.

Weather has warmed up and we’re starting to have spring flowers. I love spring flowers, they make me happy.

On Monday I had an enormous and multi-faceted To Do list. I plowed through almost everything on it. Yesterday was less effective, but already this morning I’ve gone through several tasks. The difference is in part because I’ve semi-abandoned the task app on my phone because it simply wasn’t helping me organize and plan in ways that work for my brain. I’ve reverted to hand-written task lists in my notebook. Amazing how much productivity goes up when I stop trying to use a broken tool.

Last night Howard and I had a deadline readjustment conversation. As self employed people we are somewhat in charge of setting our own deadlines. There is always the external deadline of “let’s not run out of money” but meeting that requirement can be done in numerous different ways. Sometimes we make a plan, but then need to shift the plan based on progress and realistic assessments of work yet to be done. The next two Schlock books will now be released after GenCon instead of before. Also Howard loosened his own deadline for wrapping up the current Schlock book because he realized that he needs to give the story the space it needs instead of trying to finish it on a specific (and unnecessary) schedule. The result of this conversation is shifting some priorities on the task list, also feeling less stress in the immediate future.

I’ve been making small adjustments in my days in keeping with my January resolution to build a life that is less driven by anxiety. If I want my life to be different, then my days need to be different. So I’ve been including more reading, more handicrafts, more shared experiences like games or movies on our big screen, less Netflix on a small screen with ear buds. I do better some days than others, but small changes make a significant course correction over time.

And now it is time to get to work doing all the things.

Welcomed Back

I had a moment of quiet delight when I opened my laptop to enter the Wifi password and I discovered that my computer (Calcifer) had already connected. Calcifer remembers this place. So do I. This is my third visit to Woodthrush Woods. Even on my first visit the house felt welcoming and familiar, as if I’d been here before and only forgotten. The exact quote from a blog post I wrote at the time was:

I used to dream about my grandma’s tiny house. In the dreams I went upstairs and through a door to discover that her house had extra rooms and floors. Stepping into Woodthrush Woods was like stepping into one of those dreams, my grandma’s house–only different and bigger.

This visit there is actual familiarity along with that welcoming feeling. My first visit to this house is chronicled in a series of posts starting here. And my second visit starting here. That first visit was five years ago, time slipped past while I was not measuring. The switch over to cruises for the Writing Excuses retreats was the right choice for everyone concerned, but it did mean there were fewer events to draw me to visit this house.

Reading back over the posts I wrote five years ago, during that first retreat, I can see how far I have come. Back then I barely even had the word Anxiety to describe what I was wrestling with. It is so obvious now that anxiety was the issue, but in 2012 I didn’t know that. That trip was six months before the kids began hitting mental health crises. It was before all the diagnoses, tears, grief, and depression. It was back when my whole life was shaped by my anxieties and I couldn’t even see it. That trip dragged it out into the light and demonstrated why it was a problem. Since that trip I’ve traveled a long and winding emotional road. Coming back into this place shows me how far I have come. I am stronger and more fully myself that I was five years ago. My family has a nuanced lexicon of ways to self-assess and manage the now-acknowledged mental health issues that each of us deals with daily.

Pausing to acknowledge the road I’ve traveled these past five years is apparently the first work of this writer’s retreat morning. Time for the next thing.