Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Beware the mood monster

May has been buried under a very bad mood she can't seem to think her way out of. She is depressed, irritable, extremely self-deprecating, filled with despair, and consumed with negativity.

My heart hurts.

I want to die. Maybe not.

Last night, before falling asleep, I took some time to read the latest issue of O, Oprah Magazine. It's full of self-help advice for those of us who have failed to maintain our bliss. Every article tells me I have the power--I just have to change how I think about circumstances around me. If I can put a positive spin on things, make lemons out of lemonade, my life will come together and I will feel happy. Holy crap, why didn't I think of this?

Those articles had no mention of overriding errant brain chemistry. Maybe that's the point. Chemistry is irrelevant; thinking is everything. My psychiatrist is going to be surprised by that news.

I spent some time on Amazon this morning looking for "better thinking" books. I'll probably get the audio versions since reading books is very difficult for me.

  • The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz
  • The Voice of Knowledge: A Practical Guide to Inner Peace also Ruiz
  • Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar (He teaches this class at Harvard)
Grumpy May. I am sandpaper. A cactus. A rash. Gravel. Teeth and claws.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Making a list, throwing it out

The New Year is just a couple of days off, and I thought I would sit down and make a list of things to accomplish in the New Year. Here is what I would like to do:
  1. Lose 70 pounds
  2. Be a better housekeeper
  3. Don't buy anything unless it's a critical situation
  4. Learn to be sweet.
  5. Exercise every goddam day
  6. Read a book.
  7. Cook more often than not.
  8. Wean off of medication, accept my reality, and learn to live with what I am, the way I was made.
  9. Boldly quit work without having a backup plan
  10. Free myself if I want to. Enough of feeling obligated to stay for the benefit of others. Note to self: Edit this one to give myself permission to give myself permission.
Since I know what I am and am not capable of, maybe I'll skip making a list, after all. Why set myself up for failure? Number eight looks very attractive, though. Might give that a try.

freak-ING unbelievable

One of the last times I saw Laurel in person, I told her that it didn't matter how long a bipolar sufferer had experienced symptoms, the one thing any of them could pinpoint was The Big One. That is, there is that critical incident when the symptoms overpowered any and all attempts to keep them suppressed. For awhile, I was unable to track my own timeline. I had to go backwards and associate linked events. I'm still not sure I have it all straight in my head. Nothing is all that straight in my head.

I've always been very organized and detail oriented, except for when I was in the midst of The Big One. Then I couldn't even remember if it was a workday or a weekend day. The anger and frustration of being so muddled made me determined to not let stupidity run my life.

Sometimes, I regress. I missed a loan payment and found out about it today. Immediately following The Big One, the cost of treatment sent us into very rocky financial territory. Part of that was because we had to change insurance companies three times in one year (not by choice--it was an employer snafu), and that meant shoveling huge sums of cash into the deductible monster.

In order to calm the financial storm, I borrowed against my 401K. I've been at this repayment for well over two years--going on three. I missed a payment once before, and that was in the midst of another Great West billing disaster. Paying bills is something I take very seriously and I do diligently. My many meds have wreaked havoc on my ability to keep details straight, so all of my money happens without me. My pay goes into the bank via direct deposit, and the next day, all of my bills are paid by way of electronic bill pay. It's a near-foolproof system. I only have to check my statements when they come in the mail so that I verify my account is set up to pull the right amount of money for each payment.

Except. The wrinkle in my brow, the fly in the ointment, the pain in my ass. It's name is ING. I cannot use automated bill pay to send $257 each month to ING. My little credit union can handle it no problem. The issue is on the other end. ING, according to their customer service people, "is not set up to take electronic payments." Say what?

Here's what ING has to say about itself: ING provides services to over 85 million private, corporate and institutional clients in more than 50 countries. With a diverse workforce of over 130,000 people... they still can't set up electronic money transfers. I ask every six months. I asked today. This must be a bajillion-trillion dollar company with computers and calculators and email and everything. Apparently not. A customer like me can't even make an online transfer via the ING Website. Nope. Checks only. The phone rep today said that my bank can send them a check, as long as it includes a payment coupon. Gee, I'm sure they'll be happy to take care of that for me every month.

Why does everything have to be so hard? These details, dates, times, appointments, bills, medications, adult life--they just swim in my head and I use carefully constructed scaffolds to keep me functioning like a normal person. BP killed off some brain cells, I think, and then the meds scrambled everything else. People who deal with me on a daily basis have no idea; that means my systems are working well enough that nobody knows I am secretly stupid.

ING is giving me a headache. I have the damn coupons. I write it in my calendar. Argh! The phone girl told me there's no harm done yet, but if I'm late again, they can dump the account and I'll have to pay all of the taxes and penalties on it as if it were a distribution. I told her that if it weren't for this neurological problem, I wouldn't need this loan at all. I said that as long as my brain tumor doesn't grow, I should be able to remember to make the payments. I said that the tumor makes it hard for me to remember things sometimes, and why, exactly, can't ING accept automated payments? She had no answer.

So, yeah, I lied and said I have a brain tumor. It sounds better than "BP medication has transformed me into a moron." Pesky tumor. Maybe it will eat my brain once and for all.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

It's called an address book

This morning finds me finally working on holiday cards. There's no mention of Christmas or New Year's on them so they can go out after Christmas but not appear to be late.

It took a long time to get the newsletter finished and the cards organized. Everything takes me a long time. This particular task requires a lot of horizontal space so I can lay out letters, cards, envelopes, address book, and laptop. So far, so good, until my husband decides to vacuum around me. This pisses me off. I want to say, "If you feel an overwhelming compulsion to do housework, Hazel, go wash dishes, clean the bathroom, or do your laundry. There are many hours in the day when you can run the vacuum cleaner away from my concentration-intensive task. I don't understand why you need to do the noisiest housework possible around my head or why it needs to be done right this minute."

This is something that drives me crazy about my husband. If I find a task of my own in the basement, he will come down and start working in the basement. If I go outside to work by myself, he's there within ten minutes, doing some non-essential task that gets in my way. Sometimes I just want to be alone with no noise, no interruption, and no company at all. Argh!

I hate addressing cards. I loathe this task, but since people keep moving, it takes just as long to update a database and print labels. Hand addressing it is. I need to keep track of who moved. I need to remember who gets a card and who couldn't care less. Who will notice, who won't.

I have an address book. It is low-tech, but it works in any setting, it requires no electricity, there is no software involved, and it's easy to update. I do this. I actually update my address book on a regular basis. It is a mystery to me when we get mail sent to our old address. We've lived here for four-and-a-half years. We're in the phone book. Why don't people at least find a logical place to tuck away change-of-address announcements? Why???

This brings me back to my husband. I've been asking for his address book so I can send cards to his siblings. He kept stalling. In frustration, I went online, but there's no way to know if a listing is current. "Husband, does your brother live on Maple Lane or Leafy Elm Court?"
"I'm not sure."
"You were just there six months ago."
"Well, look on Google Street View. That's what I do. I know what the house looks like."
"Are you saying that you've looked up your siblings' addresses repeatedly using the address and Google pictures, but you never bothered to actually record the address anywhere?"
"Well, I know what the house looks like, and it only takes a few minutes to look it up online when I need the information."
"Do you have your family's phone numbers written down anywhere or saved in your cell phone?"
"No. I just look it up online."

What this means. First of all, husband's brother and sister live in rural areas where Google Street View is never going to go. Can he really tell from the satellite picture of a roof in a forest that it's the right address?

Second...I must wait for husband to stop dicking around with unnecessary housework so he can be available to look up his sibling's addresses on the Internet. (He just went outside to play with the dog, BTW.) He will forget to do this until I nag and nag, and then he will profess that he's just not sure.

When we sent out wedding invitations, I had a stack of five for his family that went unmailed until about a week before the event. By then, it was really just a formality since all of the information had been given by telephone. In disgust, I put the invitations on husband's dresser and said, "Here you go. I know your family wants these, but at this point, you'll have to take care of getting them into the mail. I have other things I need to get done." I'm pretty sure that his invitations arrived while his family was boarding a plane at Newark. Of course, by doing it this way with holiday cards every year, I never get the addresses myself, so I can't put them in my address book. When husband's brother moved last year, he emailed the new information to my husband. My husband purges his read email weekly, never thinking he might have information there that he should archive.

Why do people do this? An address book is so simple to use. Even if you're too lazy to write new addresses in the book, take the little return address labels or the paper torn-off of the email and throw them in the book until the day, month, or year comes when there's time to record the information into the book. Or use tape and just tape it in the book.

Here is what will irritate me now: These still unaddressed cards will sit on the kitchen counter until April when I will finally just throw them away.

To review:
My method: Collect new addresses. Put into address book. Keep book updated.
Husband's method: Delete emails, throw out cards that come in the mail. When an address or phone number is needed, turn on computer. Get online. Use an online phone directory to look for everyone in the state who has the same name as the one needed. Narrow it down to most likely listings. Go onto Google Maps. Enter addresses and see if the Street View or satellite pictures look familiar. If not, send email to verify address. Wait days for a reply. When the reply comes, address the envelope, delete the email without printing it out or writing the address and phone so it can all be repeated next time.

Maybe my method is just ridiculously unreasonable.

Yawn? No?

It's 1:35 in the morning: Do you know where your bedroom is?
Apparently not.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry ho ho

Merry Christmas!

Christmas seems subdued this year--not just at my house, but in general. Is no one's heart in it?

I finally got around to working on the stollen in earnest. It's a big recipe that makes two massive loaves. Pounds each. Once I got the dough going, I worked in the drunken fruit and dumped the whole thing out on the counter. As I kneaded a dough ball the size of my head, bits of citron, raisins, and currants flung themselves all about the kitchen, but mostly onto the floor. Our dog, Sparkle, was quick to react. She worked her way between my legs and the dishwasher and licked up everything that fell onto the floor, from flour to fruit bits.

Once the dough was set aside to rise, my husband said, "I seem to remember something from Animal Planet about dogs and raisins." I was skeptical. My husband checked on the Internet and came back with a report: Raisins are toxic.
"How many?"
"I don't know. They're just toxic."
"To all breeds? All sizes?"
"I guess. It's a newly recognized toxin."
"You're kidding."
"No. I'm calling the vet ER."

My husband spent about five minutes on hold--busy day in the ER. Eventually, he got a tech on the phone. All she did was verify that raisins are problematic--one serving being enough for trouble. I had to ask, "How much is one dog serving of raisins?"

He called the vet ER again. This time, after waiting on hold, he came back with a directive to induce vomiting in the dog. I had to ask, "How do you induce vomiting in a dog?" He looked at me and gave a big sigh as he reached for the phone.

A few minutes later, he came and found me and said, "A little bit of hydrogen peroxide squirted in her throat with a turkey baster." I had to ask, "How much peroxide is a little bit?" My husband did not reach for the phone. He said, "I don't know. Let's just put some in a cup and go for it."

We rounded up the dog and loaded the turkey baster. The dog obediently opened her mouth when asked, and my husband took his best shot. The dog took a step back and gagged. She spit out some peroxide, and I hoped it was at least hitting her teeth going in or coming out--they could use a little freshening.

We watched. A little more gagging, but nothing else. The dog grabbed her tennis ball and ran out into the yard to play. My husband called the dog back to the patio and we tried again. More gagging, no vomiting.

My husband dejectedly reached for the phone. He waited on hold again, and while he was doing that, I let the dog back into the house. While my husband chatted with the tech--who said we could bring Sparkle in and they wouldn't charge the ER surcharge--the dog sauntered into the kitchen. She looked up at my husband and puked with gusto all over the kitchen floor. And then she puked some more, and then some more after that. The vet tech cheered on the the other end of the phone.

We convinced the dog to drink some water, and then my husband cooked some plain white rice for Sparkle.

I finished the stollen, put on some makeup, and we headed out to visit friends. Upon our return, the dog met us at the door. The house was fine, the dog was happy, and all is well our world.

Except for the plethora of knick-knacks sent to us by my mother. As expected. For reasons I cannot fathom, she sent me two bath pillows (I don't take baths), an umbrella (very dry climate), and a pink-and-orange striped vinyl, rigid-sided wallet that's about the size of a $3 greeting card. I don't even carry a purse. My current wallet can be slipped into my jeans pocket with room left over for lip balm or keys. What was she thinking? Was she thinking? If not, is it still true that it's the thought that counts?

My husband, on the other hand, gave me something quite special. It's called the Metta Prayer Mobius Bracelet. It looks like this:

The Buddhist prayer is:

May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature.
May all
beings be free.

This meditation encourages us to give metta to ourselves so we may be more able to bestow it upon others. I may need to wear this bracelet a lot.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Twas the night before

(I haven't proofread.Maybe later.)

This is the year we didn't decorate. I'm not sure where things went off track, but the plastic crates full of decorations that are down in the basement remain there. Late this afternoon, I pulled out our "pine" garland and some stems of silver leaves out and decorated the front porch. I put a big velvet bow on the door and a wreath on the front porch post and that was that. I couldn't find the extension cords, so the wreath is not lit up. Better than nothing.

My husband is usually the one who wants to make it look like Christmas. For the two consecutive Christmases when I couldn't function--and didn't really want to--it was my husband who pulled out the decorations. He would ask me where each thing was supposed to go, and he just kept asking until I gave an intelligent answer.

Part of the problem is that the house looks like a bomb hi it. It's hard for me to organize myself to straighten up and put things away. The clutter is ubiquitous. I want to clean it up, but I can't figure out how to sort, organize, prioritize, or otherwise get the job done. It's overwhelming, even when I break it into smaller jobs. I need one of those home shows to send a professional.

And so it is that my husband didn't want one more thing added to the clutter. It's still going to get done. I'm hosting a small party on January 3, and the house must be cleaned, decluttered, and spruced up in a holiday way.

How did it ever come to be that I don't have the mental capacity to organize the solid matter occupying my home? When did I lose interest in picking out the perfect gifts for my family? This year, I spent the money on household items and warm clothing for the refugees here. I started getting ready to bake a stollen, but got hopelessly distracted shortly after putting the fruit ti soak in the brandy. I'll try again in the morning, but by then the fruit will be exceptionally...drunk. It will make for a very cheerful stollen.

I would have sucked at being a parent. I can't even wrap my mind around the kind of stamina, planning, and thought that would go into putting together Christmas for kids. I'd never even make it through the shopping.

There was a time, I did this stuff. I shopped--carefully. I decorated. I baked. I cooked, I made my own wrapping paper, and generally overachieved in a Martha-esque manner in all areas of holiday merry-making. Throw some lithium into the eggnog, and look what happens. Santa can't find his way out of the North Pole.

For years, I had a Christmas Eve ritual that was just for myself. I lived in a town (and then another after that) with many old churches. When the church is full of people in winter clothing, there's usually a need to open the windows. Perfect. Around midnight, I would walk around town and listen. The music was sweet and warm. I heard bits of O, Holy Night, Silent Night, and the Hallelujah Chorus. It always gave me time to myself when I really needed it. I used the time to reflect, but mostly just to listen and enjoy the music and the enthusiasm of the people who had gathered to sing it. Now I live in a residential area where the churches are miles apart, not blocks apart. The cold goes right through me, and since the churches here have modern HVAC systems, I wouldn't hear anything anyway. I did watch The Voices of Christmas tonight on CBS. It wasn't even close to the real thing, but I like the music and singing, just the same.

It's getting late. I should go to bed. I already know what Santa's going to bring, so there's no anticipation keeping me awake. I'm just bored. Is this any way to spend Christmas Eve?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Self, absorbed.

Amber was a therapist who specialized in working with survivors of war-related trauma and torture. During a workshop on secondary trauma--a job hazard for anyone who works with refugees--she talked about her own experiences that left her in need of specialized care.

Amber had run from a car when a rifle-toting military thug in Africa pushed his gun into her face. Although she had missed getting shot, the terror stayed with her for years. It was eventually compounded when she was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left her unable to function in everyday life. These two stories gave Amber's presentation a credibility it otherwise would have lacked for me, especially because I knew Amber to be a credible, genuine person.

Amber and her copresenter, Sissy, talked about somatic memory. I hadn't heard of it before. They showed pictures of brain scans illustrating electrical activity in the brains of people who had endured tremendous trauma and stress. They explained why the psychological component of torture is often more dangerous than the physical abuse. Then they talked about what happens when thoughts, memories, and feelings are buried. Maybe ignored. Possibly rerouted. Thoughts are taken out of the processing loop and pushed into a far corner of the brain where they no longer cause anxiety, sadness, and fear, otherwise lived over and over again.

I still have the handout somewhere. It includes a diagram of the brain, showing which sections control thoughts, memories, emotions, instincts and reflexes. Amber told us that each part of the brain needs to process information in its own way. There was no avoiding it, although delay and reinterpretation were possible.

The presentation fascinated me because it was the first academic explanation I had heard outlining why stressed out people get sick so often. While the brain is busy putting constant--but not conscious--effort into suppressing bad thoughts, it is no longer spending as much effort keeping the body's systems in top working order. It was the first time I heard the term somatoform illness. It was the first time I had an in-depth lesson on PTSD.

Survivors of torture and deep trauma who never effectively process their experience often exhibit somatoform symptoms in addition to the more straightforward evidence of PTSD. Given enough time, the brain will actually rewire itself so the somatoform illness becomes ingrained. The only way to stop the physical symptoms is by reconciling the emotional.

Amber stated that those deeply emotional experiences, when not neutralized, literally take up residence in the tissues of the body. We carry our troubles like a heavy suit that wears us down with each day it is not removed. It can become too physically painful to overcome.

Chronic pain can be both a cause and a form of somatoform illness. Not wanting to miss anything, my doctor is addressing my rapidly worsening problem with medication, physical therapy, nerve manipulation, meditation/visualization, EMDR, and lifestyle. No matter what the source of the pain turns out to be, the goal is to not let it get so far along that my brain starts to register it as a normal condition.

My pain is real. I just hope it isn't rooted in memory--some new and unprovable humiliation spun out of an already deeply defective brain. I can't think of any hidden trauma--physical or emotional that I've forgotten about. I believe that with all of the therapy I've been through, there can't be anything left to tease out of the folds of my brain tissue.

I told my husband that I want to feel better because I cannot survive this level of unrelenting, excruciating pain if there is to be no end in sight. Aside from the pain itself, I'm not sure I can survive the humiliation if this knife in my gut turns out to be nothing but uncollected thoughts seeping into the viscera.

I am not a hypochondriac. How do I prove it given this maddening absence of physical evidence?

I wasn't making it up

Back in July, I wrote a brief post about how, when driving to work one day, I saw the Google camera car. This is the vehicle that takes all of the pictures for the Street View function on Google maps. By the way, as of last week, all of the images for that have been greatly improved with higher resolution. Your house looks really clear now.

When I told the story at work, people were skeptical. Until yesterday. I decided to see if the reglar street view images had been updated lately, and they had. I looked up that intersection from last July, and there it was. Me, I mean. There I was. Here I am:

(If you click on the photo, you can see the blurry shape of my head and my hand on the wheel. Maybe the blur to my left is me waving.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

No longer a Hallmark holiday

I heard this story on NPR this week and it struck a nerve (although which nerve I cannot say, seeings as how they're all confused). I don't need to see the Holy Family on my Christmas cards, but I do miss all of the pretty cards depicting holiday scenes that used to come to my house. They've been replaced with photo-cards, and nobody even signs those.

I'm never sure what to do with these cards. They don't stand up on the bookcase and they don't lean against aything without falling. And after Christmas...Can I just throw them out? I hope so.

In response to this, I've been sending out pictures of my pets now for at least three Christmases. Oddly enough, nobody seems to understand that it's a joke. Which reminds me--I have a holiday letter to write.

While I'm working on that, here is the NPR story. I love it! Jesuits rock.

Printed entirely without any permission whatsoever...

All Things Considered, December 17, 2008 · It's the middle of the day, and I'm opening my Christmas cards. And what do I see when I tear open the envelope? Not Baby Jesus in his manger. Not the Virgin Mary. Not even the Wise Men. No, chances are the card will be a photo of a family on some beach in the Caribbean. Or a picture of somebody's house. Or someone's dog wearing reindeer horns.

These are the new favorite Christmas cards, for even the most pious Christians: the family cards.

Family cards display — on the front — a photo of a happy family, typically wearing red-and-green scarves or red-and-green sweaters. Sometimes the family dog is included, wearing a scarf covered with slobber. Just as often, family cards show the clan on their summer vacation, posing jauntily in bathing suits in the Caribbean. These cards don't say "Merry Christmas" as much as "Look where you didn't go!"

Look, I love family photos during the holidays. Plus, I actually read those annual holiday letters, all of which start with "What a busy year it's been!" Seeing photos of my friends and their families and even enjoying a few sunny beach scenes when it's cold and dark outside is a highlight of December.

But I enjoy the photos more when they're inside the card, not the card itself. Because more and more, even devout Christians have been replacing Jesus, Mary and Joseph with themselves. Doesn't it strike you as weird to set aside the Holy Family in favor of your family? Does a photo of Cabo San Lucas trump the story told by the original San Lucas? Is Christmas really about you?

Still unconvinced? Try a thought experiment. For your next birthday, how would you feel about getting a birthday card with my photo on it? "Happy Birthday! It's a photo of me!" My modest campaign against family cards has less chance of success than another Ralph Nader presidential bid. People will accuse me of being anti-family. But I'm not: I'm more pro-Holy Family. Plus, I'm battling Snapfish, Shutterfly, Kodak and a lot of online card stores that have been promoting this idea with more resources than a poor Jesuit can muster.

So I'll leave you with a simple plea. Place those great photos inside the card. Or how about this: When choosing your Christmas cards this year, think more Jesus and less you. Or, more Virgin Mary, and less Virgin Islands.

The Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of My Life with the Saints.

Nervous. System.

It's been three months since I saw the urologist last. Actually, I see her assistant, a feisty nurse practitioner named Mary. When Mary came into the exam room, she knew immediately something had changed. "What's going on? This isn't the happy face I usually see."

I explained that while I had been making progress with the interstitial cystitis for many months, it all got unraveled in the last six weeks. I explained in detail my issues with stabbing abdominal pain, back pain, nausea, and a litany of other symptoms. I offered that it was probably unrelated and I should just make an appointment with an internist and get a physical while I was at it.

Ha. That it should be so easy.

Mary listened to me and asked questions for 15 minutes. Then she stood up and said, "You need a CT scan. Soon. I have some other thoughts. I'm going to go talk to the doctor and we'll see what she thinks."

It gave me pause. Mary has never called in the doc for as long as I've been going there.

Twenty minutes passed and the doctor came in the room. She was much warmer and friendlier this time. We talked a long time about my physical symptoms, my emotional load, the issues that come with working with survivors of trauma and torture on a daily basis, my shingles and lingering PHN, and my other health concerns, including BP and IBS.

The doc sat back and said, "May, you are on the verge. You are in a precarious situation and you don't even realize it. There is help for you, but I can't do it all and you can't do it alone. You think you can do everything alone, but this time, you're going to have to take a team approach. You have to be on the team. By the way, could you have a more stressful job?"

I asked who else was on the team. Those people include a pain specialist whose work concentrates on conditions related to the nervous system. There's a physiatrist, a psychologist, a therapist who does EMDR, and a physical therapist. I have two books to read, a website to look at, and a CT scan scheduled for next week.

I looked at the list in front of me and asked, "Isn't it possible this is just a flare-up that will go away when whatever irritated me goes away? I mean, yes, this hurts a lot, but it was getting better a few months ago."

Doc looked at me with a sad smile and said, "May, your body is on the verge of a nervous system short-circuit. All you've been through this past year was the start of it, and if you don't take this seriously now, the results could be disastrous. Your nervous system is on overdrive. It is sending out massive waves of signals that are so misinterpreted, they will cause permanent nerve damage if not corrected. The problem is escalating and you need to accept that it's time for a multi-disciplinary approach. There is no waiting."

This really isn't how I hoped to start 2009. I thought bizarre medical conditions would be put to rest in time for the start of the New Year.

So, once again I end the year wanting a whole new brain, but I'd also like to add all new wiring, as well. And a better metabolism.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

One more week 'til we feel the Love

I'm not much for holiday traditions, but there is one thing that puts the cherry on my fruitcake. On the Tuesday before Christmas, Darlene Love belts out her version of Christmas cheer on Letterman. I was feeling pretty low last December as it was, and then with the writer's strike, my mood sank even lower into the snowdrifts--Ms. Love was silent for the first time in over 20 years. It was just plain wrong.

Count down the days with me, won't you? To help you get in the spirit, here's Darlene Love bringin' it for the 2006 Letterman performance.

(My husband suggested I explain why I feel so strongly about Darlene Love's Letterman appearance. OK. Back in the mid 1980s, I thought I was going to be married fairly soon. That was the plan, anyway. In October of said year, I found myself quite unexpectedly alone. A few weeks later, I lost my job. A couple of weeks after that, both of my roommates moved out, leaving me more alone and empty than I had ever been in my life. As Christmas approached, I felt as if everything inside had been hollowed out as if I were a chocolate Santa. One night, I was sitting at home and I heard Elvis singing Blue Christmas on the radio. I called my ex and left a rambling phone message. He responded by letting me know that although it had been less than 90 days since our breakup, he was freshly engaged. I got drunk and turned on the TV later that night. Letterman was wrapping up, and there was Darlene Love. I'm sure I had seen her do the Christmas show before, but it han't meant anything. I listened to the song and Darlene was singing everything I felt about my ex at that moment .

I thought that breakup would kill me. So did my family. It didn't. Now I watch Darlene sing
Christmas: Baby, Please Come Home every year as a reminder that I have been through some pretty crappy holidays and survived--despite my own doubts.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I thought I left this back East

I thought this was bad...

Until I woke up this morning to see that it was NEGATIVE 15 degrees. That's just not right. I froze my toes and my nose.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Who came up with this holiday nonsense? It makes people mean. Not me--other people. Driving and shopping are getting to be acts of courage.

I am willing to do some holiday decorating--something I ceased to do entirely after 2004. We don't get a tree because the house is too small and the cats and dog find that sort of thing far too intriguing. If we had decided to put up a tree, I had a great idea for unbreakable decorations. I have a big pile of empty pillbottles from all of my prescriptions. I was going to attach ribbons to them and to the lids, and then hang them on the tree, along with a garland paper chain made from all of last year's insurance statements that turned out to be wrong (not in my favor). It would be my most personal tree ever.

I told my family that my husband and I had no interest in exchanging gifts with anyone (meaning them). Everyone was OK with it except for my mother, who will surely shower us with the usual array of cheap and useless Chinese-produced crap. Feeling obligated given her response to our original announcement, we're buying her Omaha steaks and chardonnay. If I could, I would hire a wait staff to cook it and serve it to her. Of course, then she would complain that I should be there to do that for her.

I have no idea what my husband wants. He won't say. It's not that he wants me to guess; I think he feels guilty for asking anyone to spend money on him.

People become so weird and complicated this time of year.

I had some money to spend, so I bought some things for me. I found a fabulous, $6 pair of pink gloves with black fur trim that match the Barbie coat exactly. I found some really lovely things at some of the alternative gift markets I happened upon this season. Mostly, though, I bought things to donate to the refugees I know. I bought things like fluffy towels, nice dishtowels, candles, matched sets of glasses, fancy shower gel with those nylon pouf thingies, gloves, hats, scarves, notebooks, office/school supplies, and all kinds of things pretty, practical, and personal. These gifts may not be extravagant or all that imaginative, but I know they will bring a moment of happiness to the people who receive them. And isn't that the point?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sad validation

(EDIT: I wrote this last night and accidentally hit "Publish" before I finished writing. Decided to get some sleep and finish this morning.)

What is the best way to gauge how people see us and whether or not our existence has value? How do you know? Is the value we assign to ourselves enough evidence that the daily effort of being is worthwhile?

I make no secret of the fact that I live in a paradoxical state of conflict: I no longer trust myself to make the right decisions about being involved with people beyond the most superficial relationships. I am lonely. I don't want to let anyone near. But I'm still lonely.

For this reason, I depend on professional relationships to keep me connected to the bigger world outside of my head. It's how I remember how to talk to people and to understand what is relevant in the world. If it weren't for this, I would get lost in my own head.

I have to work at it. I have to make sure I don't devolve into being completely socially retarded. Still, I am pleasant and funny and conscientious and aware. That does not mean I am liked. I am sure, in fact, that there are very few people who like me to the point of wanting anything more than those surface encounters.

I've never been popular. I don't have the looks for it, for sure, but I just don't have the personality for it, either. I think too much and say too many dorky things. I have, over the course of my life, proven to be highly...forgettable. I'm not the kind of person that people care about. My value to the world is in what I contribute, what I do for other people, what service or knowledge I can provide. Beyond that, though, I'm mostly under the radar. Unless someone wants something from me, it is quite evident that my presence or lack thereof would go unnoticed.

I try not to dwell. I tell myself I have what I need and it's a neat package inside of my head. There is my friend, Jolie, who may be a thousand miles away, but she's just a phone call away. That's it, though--she's a thousand miles away. Our phone calls are usually quite short and I come away wondering if I'm bothering her.

Joanna. We used to be close, but now she pops her head in only every three or four months or so, no matter how many messages I generate.

For someone who used to talk so much, I never thought I would see the day when the only conversation partner I would have would be binary code rolling off into Cyberspace. I'm not sure if that's a commentary on me and my place in the world, or just a cultural shift in general.

If I stop working, would I cease to exist, or, left with no one to chat with, would I finally shut the fuck up? Hmm.

What prompted today's musing? The realization that when I tried an experiment--to not call anyone, indefinitely, the only phone calls I received in six weeks were related to the nonprofit or to other business. No personal calls. People I call don't call me back. I can live with this invisibility, but it doesn't feel good. My husband tries to console me again and again with the same sentence: "People are busy and involved with their own lives, May; they have important things going on." So, I am not valued.

Not feeling sorry for myself. Just realizing that my worth in the world outside of my home is strictly utilitarian. Chairman Mao said that being useful was the most honorable aspect of life. Still processing that.

Safety cloak

(Edit: I felt compelled to write this post as I was rearranging a closet. I had my hand on my gorgeous, size 10, plum-colored, cashmere-blend coat that likely will never fit me again in this lifetime. Still, I can't bear to give it away. I love that coat and it makes me resent the replacement.)

Last year, I needed to buy a coat. It wasn't a pleasant task since the reason for my quest was my ever-expanding ass. Coats that fit in the chest and shoulders had no interest in meeting around my hips.

I went to Ross. It's my favorite store and where I do 90% of my shopping. They had lots of really ugly coats that fit. I wasn't going to pay $80-$90 for something hideous. Instead, I found something outrageous for only $30. I call it The Plus-Size Barbie special. The weird thing is, as much as I detest this coat, I get a lot of compliments on it.

The coat is bright pink, like Dubble-Bubble. It has big, black buttons, cuffed sleeves, a modified empire waist, and a bit of a swing cut (hence the ability to fit around my hips and actually button closed). It's a Liz Claiborne, but I'm sure that Liz didn't design it with my body shape in mind. I hate this coat. I suppose that if I had bought it under different circumstances, it might not irritate me so much, but for now it's a very pink reminder of my failure to actually look like Barbie. I'll bet that this coat is adorable on a size 6 woman.

The upside of this coat is that it offers a degree of protection in an urban environment. Every day, I have to cross one of the busiest streets in the city. Drivers routinely ignore the "No Right On Red" signs, and the "Yield to Pedestrians in Crosswalk" sign is, apparently, invisible. I figure that when I get run over, the driver responsible for my demise will be laughed at as he is led away by the police when he says, "I just didn't see the XXL pink overcoat in the crosswalk." Please.

Mousse me, baby

Good hair. I have a good haircut. Finally. I have never received so many compliments on a haircut.

My faith in cosmetology has been restored.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Just one thing at a time

On Monday I woke up five minutes before the alarm, seven minutes before the SAD wake-up light. I was full-on awake, too, not the usual foggy, groggy, reluctant half-awake that starts most mornings.

My stomach lurched and a sense of dread took over, covering me just as effectively as the fuzzy blanket touching my cheek. I couldn't quite catch my breath and my stomach clenched. Anxiety. I was being squeezed in the tight grip of anxiety. Not a great way to start a Monday morning.

I fought back tears and tried to identify the source of my misery. The wake-up light switched on and the cat, who had been gently licking my hand, walked on my head, abandoning me for the wave of photons pouring out of the light. She's in love with that thing. The light only made me more irritable because now that I could see, I couldn't concentrate on finding the reason anxiety had slapped me awake at 5:55 A.M.

Breathing was a challenge, but I realized it had nothing to do with anxiety. Lately I've felt like my lungs have been pricked full of pinholes, so air goes in but doesn't build up any satisfying, chest-expanding pressure, nor does it seem to stay in my lungs. My most recent inhale generated a loud creaking noise that sounded more like a tired sofa than like a gentle breath.

I made it through the morning routine, but I was slow--so damn slow my husband had to get my breakfast ready. On the way to work, the anxiety almost choked me and I started to cry. There's a huge, perpetual construction project along the creek that I knew I couldn't cry through--it required my complete attention.

Throughout the week, the anxiety showed up several more times, but it was overshadowed by something much more acute. For the past month, a pain has been growing in my lower abdomen. I have IBS and the devil's constellation of symptoms related to interstitial cystitis. One more abdominal pain doesn't usually get my attention, but this one has steadily worsened to the point of being debilitating. I'm not bleeding from any part of my anatomy, so it's not cancer. I can't even identify its origination point. I have something akin to cramps, but much worse. It feels like I am being scraped and poked from the inside out by a thousand jagged pins. Using the toilet has become agony as any function there results in not relief, but almost immediate gut-tearing pain that takes my pinhole-fragile breath away. When I walk, it feel like my bladder is bouncing hard on a rickety suspension system. I can't pull in my gut--the pressure is too uncomfortable and I am chronically bloated. This pain is bad. Really bad.

Fatigue. I went from being a person who couldn't sleep to one who can't stay awake. I'm exhausted half-way through my work day. When I come home, I fall asleep on the couch by 7:30 and don't wake up until 10:00. This is no winter malaise, despite the cold. Sometimes I get so cold, my feet hurt from the sensation. My body is wracked with chills that come in great spasms. The only relief is to wear pajamas, socks, and a fleece, and then get into bed under lots of covers with an oversized heating pad to warm my core.

I don't know if this is urinary, intestinal, or gynecological. This is exactly where I started two years ago and a succession of blood tests, ultrasounds, and digital exams revealed nothing. I have no interest in going through that again.

My body's pain mechanisms haven't worked right since I had shingles. It's bad enough I have chronic breast pain (harmless--it's referred pain from the shingles nerve damage).

I'm worried about the nonprofit. I'm concerned about my lackluster job performance lately. I'm obsessed with the thoughts surrounding my health. For whatever reason, I am petrified my BP drugs are going to fail. What will I do if and when that happens?

Anxiety. It's never just one thing. It's not the fear the drugs will fail; it's a gut-wrenching fear that my BP will overpower them and I will break apart into a shattered mess of irrational, rude, hyper-kinetic, labile mood, socially inappropriate unpleasantness. Why can't hypomania be unipolar the way depression is?

Coping would be much easier if these things would visit one at a time.

I am not afraid to die, but the thought of chronic suffering has me sliding into that dark place where anxiety finds a fertile environment that throws me even more off-kilter.

If I could just sleep a little bit more, maybe someone could wake me when it's over.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Semantics, implications and inference

First comes the agonizing confusion, gut-wrenching erratic feelings, and anxiety. Next comes the diagnosis and medical treatment, supplemented by self-education and the eventual realization that not all illnesses are perceived equally. Some are serious but not taken seriously. Some are grave and if the patient decides to go for treatment, he or she is considered to be "brave." And then there is an entire class of illness that, because the word "mental" is tacked on before the word "illness," well, the patient is in for a fight, but will never be considered courageous.

Somewhere near the beginning of this blog, someone wrote that instead of calling it by any euphemism, this class of malady should be called, simply, illness. I agree. Why do we differentiate? My illness is biological, it is unpredictable, I did nothing to bring it on, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do to cure it. A cure is exactly what I want, though.

If you have diabetes or if you survive cancer, you can still run for political office, open a daycare center, and buy a gun. If you go on Oprah, it will be as a role model, not as a worst-case scenario.
I once posed a question on a bipolar forum, "If it's neurological in nature, why is it considered a mental illness?" Nobody was able to give me a satisfactory answer. One person said, "It's because this illness affects the mind and behavior." Well, so do other illnesses. The thing is, the term "mental illness" tells very little about the illnesses themselves. The implications, however, are unmistakable.

We live in a culture of insidious implications. To say someone is ill is meant to imply that it is a physical problem, and probably one that couldn't have been avoided. It is forgiveable. When you say mental illness, though, only those who have intimate knowledge of what those illnesses bring with them can really understand why any and all illness is illness. Everyone else infers the following:
  • It's not real.
  • It has no tangible etiology.
  • It's willful.
  • You could change it if you wanted to.
  • You brought it on yourself.
  • You're weak.
  • You're trying to get attention/avoid responsibility/be hurtful/get out of something.
  • It's because you lack maturity.

The term mental illness robs us of credibility just as it is used to explain away inexplicable actions. It is a catch-all, get-out-of-jail-free card for criminals, celebrities, and politicians.

It tells nothing, but implies far too much.

Friday, December 5, 2008

I gained five pounds in two weeks for no apparent reason, and it's definitely not water weight. I am too traumatized to write.