Catching Up Again

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It’s been a busy couple weeks since I last wrote.

Most notably, our cat has been sick. One of the outdoor cats apparently caught a respiratory infection somewhere, and then passed it to our cat through the open, screened window. (Our cat’s a strictly indoor kitty.) She was in bad shape at the beginning, at one point sitting on my feet, head raised up as though she were looking at me, eyes half lidded, and breathing through her mouth, absolutely motionless for close to a half hour. We got her to the vet (we call it the kitty mechanic just in case she ever learns the word) and was prescribed four different medications to give her – two pills twice a day, an oral liquid once daily, and eye drops three times a day – along with questions about whether we were sure about giving her all this medication. We said we’d give it a try and took her home. During the next 24 hours, we got the eye drops in her twice, and one of the pills down once before realizing that if she was fighting us that much while feeling that bad, she’d be impossible to deal with once she got some strength back. So we crated her back up and boarded her at the vet for a couple days before picking her up again, with the instructions to give her the eye drops only.

I am happy to report that our cat is back to normal – in turns feisty and affectionate, eating and drinking normally again.

As far as my own situation goes, since we last spoke I’ve started doing something that I haven’t done in close to a year – driving the car with my wife in the passenger’s seat. I would drive myself to appointments if necessary, but pretty much didn’t go anywhere else on my own. Now I’ve started driving again in low-traffic conditions and doing fairly well with it.

There were also a couple instances where I managed to use the tools I’ve been given to combat negative and irrational self-talk. On Monday of this week, I went to go find my psych medication manager’s new offices so the appointment I had on Tuesday wouldn’t be tied up with me trying to find the place. My wife drove, and we went late at night, after her work, so there weren’t many lights in the area. I fought down panic about not finding the place on Monday night and continued to fight it down while we drove to the appointment itself on Tuesday. Turns out we found the place just fine, and in fact drove through the building’s parking lot, but the lighting was so bad I couldn’t see the street number and name of the building on the side of it in 12 inch high lettering, despite driving right past it. Then again on Wednesday, I panicked about dinner. I pulled the chicken out of the fridge (it had been thawing there for a couple days) in enough time to prep it and cook it before my wife came home on her mid-shift break, and discovered that it was still partially frozen. I spent a few minutes panicking and then realized that if I gave the chicken a tepid – not cold – water bath it would speed up the thawing without cooking the chicken. Dinner was a few minutes late, but well within her window of being home to eat. Panic once again averted.

Yesterday at my therapist’s we started setting goals for my therapy for the next quarter. I’m to continue driving and getting out of the house and around people, as well as putting more emphasis on my own self-care. We’ve implemented rewards for this. For instance, my daily checklist is organized more or less chronologically throughout the day, so I can’t do anything leisurely until I get everything done that should be done before a certain time on the checklist. The overall reward for sticking to this plan for the first quarter of the year, or what’s left of it, actually, is both a reward and exposure therapy – tickets to go see They Might Be Giants in concert at the end of March.

We’re also planning a bit of exposure therapy a week from Sunday, when we’re going to our favorite restaurant/bar to watch the Super Bowl. We’re going to have a plan B in mind that’s a little quieter, just in case, because for the first time in 12 years, my team’s in the Super Bowl! I’m excited for that, but Denver is going to be a dangerous, dangerous opponent.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on about a lot of things that are on my mind; apologies for the ramble through my thoughts.

On Bowie and Rickman; or, Callahan’s Law

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My social media feeds have exploded with remembrances of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

The parallels between them are notable: both beloved for their extensive bodies of work, both British, both dead at age 69 from cancer within days of one another.

The public was shocked by the news of David Bowie’s passing – no one I know even knew he was sick – and was still adjusting to a world without the Thin White Duke when news about Alan Rickman’s death came and opened that wound anew.

Social media is notorious for its signal-to-noise ratio. Meaningless and sometimes erroneous memes are distributed in a desperate attempt to chase one’s 15 minutes of fame. Clickbait is the new journalism. Don’t read the comments for anything, lest the madness be infectious.

But every once in a while, the Internet becomes an online version of Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon.

For those not familiar with this work, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon is a compilation of short stories that revolve around Mike Callahan, his bar, and its regulars. Written in the late 70s and early 80s by Spider Robinson, it tells magnificent science fiction tales full of empathy and acceptance. No one could really tell you where Callahan’s was, but if you needed to find the place, you would. Puns flew like darts (and both are relevant to the story, in their own way), but the overarcing principle of Callahan’s is the Law of Conservation of Pain and Joy, or more simply put, Callahan’s Law.

Callahan’s Law states that “shared pain is lessened shared joy, increased – thus do we refute entropy.” Alternately, it’s worded to say that “Just as there are Laws of Conservation of Matter and Energy, so there are in fact Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy. Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”

Callahan’s is a wonderful, thought-provoking, hilarious read that I would recommend to you – that is, if you can stomach puns. The novel and its sequels are thick with them.

But I would propose that in times like these, whenever we mourn collectively, the Internet becomes our Callahan’s, with the Law firmly in effect.

As I stated earlier, my Facebook feed is almost completely comprised of remembrances of both Bowie and Rickman. There are a lot of my friends, myself included, that have been moved to tears by the two sudden losses. Their deaths are affecting many people that I know and millions that I don’t, and so we’re pausing the usual drivel of social media to make it a forum of substance.

In our stories about how each man touched our lives in their own special way, we are sharing our pain with the legions of followers many of us have on social media. And sharing that pain helps to lessen its impact on us. We’re remembering happy times where Bowie’s music was particularly meaningful or Rickman’s performances made us smile and even laugh. One story details something that triggers another story, and so on, and so the Internet collectively has become the world’s wake for these beloved men. In our sorrow, we remember what it was about them that made us happy, and we’re reminded of those times.

Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.

One more thing about the bar. Drinks carry two prices at Callahan’s. You can either drop a dollar in the cigar box on the bar and pull out two quarters’ change, and drink your drink as you normally would, or you can leave the whole dollar in the box to make a toast. To make a toast at Callahan’s, you need only step up to the line in front of the fireplace, and the whole crowd will quiet down to hear what you have to say. You make your toast, you down your drink, and then you throw the glass into the fireplace as hard as you can. It’s okay, the fireplace is hyperbolically designed to prevent shards from flying back out into the crowd. And often, that one glass is followed in short order from glasses flying into the fireplace from everywhere in the bar. Mike has to make a point of sweeping out the broken glass every night. He doesn’t mind, though, he gets a bulk discount on the glasses.

So, having left my dollar in the cigar box on the counter, I will walk to the line, raise my glass, and simply state in a clear, ringing voice: To Bowie! To Rickman!

And the sound of shattering glass from within this virtual Callahan’s shall be deafening.

The Theory of Everything

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Yes, this post will touch on the phenomenal biopic about Stephen Hawking referenced in the title, but I promise you, this is a very personal essay.

Let me get the cheap plug out of the way. “The Theory of Everything” stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and deals with his personal life as well as his battle with motor neuron disease and his considerable achievements in science. It was an amazing story and Eddie Redmayne was astounding as Dr. Hawking, as evidenced by his sweeping most of the acting awards that season, including the Oscar. I recommend it to you if you haven’t seen it.

Now, the reason that ties in to my personal blog post is because of something that Dr. Hawking said on January 7th, in front of a crowd of 400 people. In the midst of a typical lecture, he provided the following quote.

“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought.

“Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.

This reminded me of a time several years ago when I seemed to have it all together. I was working, my wife was working – a status that, due to our multiple mental illnesses, has been fleetingly rare in our relationship – and we were comfortable. There was no money stress, there was no panic about what would happen if one of us lost our jobs, we were living well. And the longer that state existed, the easier it became for me to fight my personal demons.

One of the commonalities of most mental illnesses is the concept of cognitive distortions. These are types of thinking that lead to negativity and self-doubt. I’ve listed them before some time ago on this blog, so regular readers who don’t suffer from mental illness have some idea of what these are. The usual technique for dealing with cognitive distortions is to refute and replace the “stinking thinking,” a process commonly called reframing. For instance, if you happen to make a mistake with something you’re doing, and your brain reflexively thinks “I’m a total screwup, I can’t do anything right,” your reaction should be to think to yourself something like “actually, no I’m not; I’m capable of doing many things well and without mistakes – and besides, mistakes are one way to learn to grow.” In the midst of a deep depression, it is extremely difficult to reframe, because in that moment, you can’t believe the positive replacement that you should be using. Oftentimes, you never even get so far as to think to reframe; you just go along with the crap that your brain is telling you, and that drives you even more down.

During that time when we were both working, however, the lack of money stress helped to put me in a better frame of mind, and it was a little easier to start reframing with a good deal of effort. After a few months, I realized that reframing was happening automatically, and the self-thoughts I was experiencing were almost all positive. It was a very good time. Then I lost my job, and she lost her job, and life came crashing down around us. Financially, we’ve never completely recovered, although we make enough to be self-sufficient with the basics.

I used to think that my self-worth came from the things that I was doing with my life outside of the workplace, in an attempt to avoid my father’s trap of almost obsessing about work all of the time. (Case in point: Shortly after his first triple bypass, while he was still in intensive care, he had his briefcase and a phone installed in the suite so that he could continue working.) I resolved not to get my sense of self from the workplace.

Now in my mid-40s, I can see the effects of not prioritizing work life. I’ve struggled to keep a job most of my adult life, in large part due to the difficulty I have with my mental illnesses, and the lack of professional direction throughout my life has pained me. I realize now I do best when I’m working, especially if it’s a permanent job. (My employment history is littered with temp assignments, so many that I couldn’t possibly remember them all.)

Now, I’m not saying that I’m not going to get better until I get a job, because right now it’s beyond my capability to even go to the store on my own, much less hold down a full-time job. But that needs to be the overall goal, because it will do wonders for helping keep my symptoms at bay – so long as I’m doing well on the job and not making a lot of mistakes, something I’ve unfortunately got a history of doing due to stress.

Being on disability helps financially for now, but the boredom of sitting at home is stifling. I’ve gotta start making progress or I’m going to lose my mind.

As Dr. Hawking so eloquently put it, “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.”

Transmission Trouble

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Recently I’ve been kinda coasting. I make these grandiose plans that in reality aren’t so grandiose at all, and then wind up not doing anything about them.

It’s kinda like my gears are grinding, and power isn’t making it from the engine to the wheels. I’ve got a lot of great intentions, but I’m not getting far with them.

Just last week I professed that I was re-engaging the use of my checklist, my little black book of survival, to help right what’s wrong. I was very energetic about getting everything done and starting a new streak of completion days.

That burst of energy lasted all of a day before I came crashing down to earth.

To be fair, I’m doing better than I have been in the past when in similar situations. There was a time not long ago that whenever I would have an off day, I’d be longing for a pain-free way to just slip away, and lamenting the fact that ending it would require one more burst of suffering, and even then success wasn’t guaranteed. Lately the suicidal ideations have been replaced with an extreme malaise and a sense of just going through the motions to get through the day. Used to be when I was really down, I’d often forget my medications – not on purpose, I just wouldn’t have the follow-through mentally to remember to take them, even with an alarm set. Now I can’t remember the last time I missed a dose – October, maybe; maybe earlier? – and it’s so hardwired in me now that it would likely throw me off for days, not because of the missing chemicals in my system, but because the status quo had been that deeply upset.

So, once more, I find myself explaining my recent shortcomings and recommitting to doing better.

This time, though, I’m not starting with a grand scheme to make TODAY the day I turn my life around and improve everything that’s wrong with my life. I think that I’m not at a point where I can realistically look to the future and see a lot of progress. I just need to make it through today. And that’s my goal. I’m going to see today through. I’m going to do my level best to complete my checklist today, without concern about making it into the beginning of a streak or the start of the next era of greatness in my life.

I’m just going to try and make it through today.

Then tomorrow, I’ll see how I feel about making it through tomorrow. And so on.

It’s a little humbling to know that I can’t look beyond today to make plans or goals. My last post was all about being ready to seriously look into returning to the workforce part-time by the end of the year. I still intend to do that, but that doesn’t mean that I need to figure out that plan by the time I go to bed today. I just need to get through today, and worry about today, and today only.

I can handle a day at a time. And really, when you think about it, that’s about all any of us can do. I’m no different than anyone else in that respect. The difference comes in what I can put into a day. Right now, that’s not very much, and I need to acknowledge that I’m not going to be able to do as much with my day as most other people, and I need to be okay with that. But I’m doing the best that I can, even when that’s just going through the motions long enough for it to be an acceptable time to go to bed. And my best is all I can do. Today, the goal is to be better than yesterday. (With the news of David Bowie’s death yesterday, surely today has got to be better. I’ll write more about my thoughts about the Thin White Duke in a subsequent post.)

One day at a time. And today, I can handle today.

Climbing the Mountain

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I know that I reiterated that I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions last time I wrote. But I do have a goal.

As many of you know, I’m currently on disability for several concurrent mental illnesses. Today, just remembering to brush my teeth can be a struggle on a bad day. I have a long way to go. The end goal is to get me back out into the workforce full-time and off disability. With a physical injury, that can be an easily workable goal. It’s not so easy for those with mental illnesses to bounce back. What we have doesn’t go away, and it never truly goes into what most might call remission – we just are better aware of the coping mechanisms that we have at our disposal most days, and rough days are more manageable and easier to get through.

Social Security allows for certain situations where a recipient of benefits can work on a limited basis in order to test their readiness to return to the workforce full-time. I can earn up to a certain amount every month for up to nine months in order to gauge my preparation to go back to work. My goal is to be actively looking for a place to test the waters by the end of the year.

That’s a tall order, but I have a long time to work on it. If I make it, that’s great, but if I don’t, I’m not going to be kicking myself that I didn’t meet a deadline. This isn’t a hard and fast thing for me, I just would like to be at that point in my recovery to be considering a partial return to the workforce.

We’ll see what happens as the months progress. As for today, however, my anxiety is a little higher than usual, and so I’m going to work on getting that under control.

Back to Basics

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After I posted my most recent post, which was over two weeks ago, I subconsciously decided that I was going to take the holidays off and enjoy myself. There were some rough times, especially on Christmas Day, and some anxious times, most notably the day after Christmas, but I managed to get through without too much conflict in the house.

Now that the holidays are behind us, it’s time to take a look at what direction my life is going.

Physically, my health is deteriorating very, very slowly. My fasting blood sugars are as high as 148, my blood pressure is randomly creeping northwards of 170/105, and I weigh more now than I ever have. I can’t blame that on the holidays, though, this has been a trend over the past several weeks. The blame rests squarely on my diet and lack of exercise. I haven’t eaten like I should, partially because we’ve been very lean in the budget and eating well is more expensive than eating poorly. We’re taking steps to fix that, however, and now that we’re caught back up on the bills we should have slightly more wiggle room from week to week. I’ve resolved to get back out there and exercise more than I have been, and to remember to be easy on myself – it’s been months since I was walking regularly.

I’ve removed two items from my checklist that don’t have to be done every day, getting it back to the version that I’ve been most successful at adhering to. And with the holidays behind us, and Monday starting a new week, it’s as good a time as any to recommit to taking care of myself rather than just coasting through life like I have been of late.

So, expect to see more of my ramblings as 2016 progresses. Here’s to improvement this year over last.

Note: regular readers of this blog will note that I posted something last year eschewing New Year’s resolutions, and may conclude that this recommitment of mine passes for a resolution. I wouldn’t say that since I’m not declaring any specific goals – I just plan on 2016 being better than 2015 was, and at the end of the year I want there to be some notable headway in improving my life and my situation. There’s still time to figure out what I want to do in the months ahead. But getting back on my checklist will likely be the starting point for it all, so that’s where I’m starting.