#611 – Crash & Burn/Phoenix

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“Lord of the Dragons” copyright KLab Global Pte Ltd.
Art by Gameco.com

I haven’t written in some time, not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. The subject of this blog post was something I needed to tell family first before putting it out publicly, and now that certain people know, I can write.

Regular readers of this blog know that for the past two and a half years, I’ve been working towards an associate’s degree in diagnostic cardiovascular sonography. There are a lot of pre-requisites and co-requisites needed to apply to the program. One of those requirements is formal patient care education. This can be fulfilled through the college’s continuing education course for certified nurse aides, or by the EMT-Basic program, which would add an extra two points to an application worksheet where the difference between being accepted and not is often measured in hundredths of a point. Last spring, I tried the EMT-Basic program, and I crashed and burned out of it about a third of the way through the class. I had one experience actually out in the field in that class, and I started having panic attacks about the course, so I had to withdraw. This spring, I registered for the CNA program. I made it through the classroom aspect of the course very easily, and a week ago last Thursday we had our clinical orientation. There was some patient contact, but mostly it was a tour and an introduction to policies and procedures. The clinical started in earnest this past Monday.

Monday rolled around and as the start of the clinical drew closer, I became very agitated. I was having another panic attack, this time intense enough to have me vomiting and trembling all over. I got in touch with my instructor and texted her that I wasn’t going to be able to be there that evening. A little while later, she replied saying I should drop the course. (Texas state law requires that the nurse aide candidate complete so many hours of classroom and clinical contact. Since I was missing part of the clinical hours required by the state, I would fail the course if I didn’t drop it.) So I dropped the course. Doing so closed the door to me applying for my degree program this year, as the annual deadline would pass before I could take this course again. In effect, I have most of the next year off from school, since there’s nothing else for me to take but this class.

It was about an hour later that I realized that I had now had two panic attacks when faced with the prospect of direct patient care. If I couldn’t finish the CNA course, I wouldn’t be able to apply to my degree program, much less get in. This presented me with a problem. My degree is being paid for through Texas Workforce Commission as part of a program to retrain disabled people to return to the job market. As a result, the decision to pursue a sonography degree was one that the state and I made together after over a year of going back and forth proposing and rejecting various other career paths. Sonography was their idea, but it was the best option that was made available to me, so I took it. The contract I have with the state is very specific: it covers tuition and required books (used if possible) for core curriculum classes and pre- and co-requisites for the diagnostic cardiovascular sonography, as well as some supplies each semester. Anything outside this description is an expense I am responsible for. If I withdraw from a class due to illness and have to retake it, that is done out of my own pocket (I’ve done this multiple times now). In essence, I have a signed contract to be educated in a field that is giving me panic attacks anytime I am in direct contact with patients.

You see my dilemma. So I can either drop out of school with what I have, say it was a good try, and continue to collect Social Security disability checks each month until I die, or I can change my major and try for a different degree, knowing full well that I will most likely be responsible for all expenses.

My college has recently redone its student-oriented interface for its website, and with those changes have come a few new resources that were previously unavailable. One of these is a degree map which shows what your major is, which classes you have successfully taken, which classes need to be taken, and your progress towards your degree, shown as a percentage. There’s also a selection for “Explore Degrees” which will show you every degree the college offers listed in order of highest percentage of completion, as well as which classes have been completed for this other degree, which classes are outstanding for it and what the estimated tuition will be for these classes, and which classes you’ve already completed that cannot be applied towards the degree in question, and it compares all this information with the same information for your chosen major. Turns out I’m right at halfway through three other degrees, and more than 40% complete for several others, many of which aren’t in the health sciences department. Outstanding tuition for these degrees will run somewhere around $3000-3500.

I had a meeting later in the week with my campus advisor and it was agreed that there are multiple options available to me, and since I was going to have to take a year off anyway, I would spend that year researching a new major in a new field, with a projected return to classes in the fall of next year.

The next day, I met with my therapist, who agrees that I am making the right decision, but disagrees with me waiting until fall 2021 to go back to school. She wants me to keep myself in a college frame of mind by taking at least one core class this fall and next spring that would count toward all or at least most degree plans. I’m willing to do this, as this gives me until late August to make research my highest priority and that should be plenty of time to have narrowed down my choices somewhat and figured out what classes would be most universally applicable. The other reason is that my college has over 200 scholarships that are all awarded from a single application and essay. The deadline to apply for 2020-2021 academic year scholarships is April 1st, and with a GPA of 3.914 I should be academically eligible for almost any scholarship.

There’s also another possibility for covering expenses in my new major. My college advisor recommends that I do my due diligence on whatever major and career I choose and then return to the state prepared with facts and numbers and sources to ask if they will allow me to write a new contract. It’s a slim chance, but it’s better than none at all.

This is the end of a four-year journey that has suddenly and unexpectedly taken a fork in the road. But rather than the end of the line, I prefer to see this as the start of a new journey, one where I get to choose the final destination, not the state. (This means that I can and most likely will choose a major that will provide options to transfer to a four-year university and a bachelor’s degree, something that was out of the question going through the state.)

Unfortunately, this is coming during a fairly deep downward spiral. I’m not experiencing any suicidal ideations, I’m not in any danger to myself, but I’m spending whole days locked between the need to accomplish things around the house and the complete apathy of doing anything at all, let alone chores. The end result is that a lot of the time I can’t tell you what I spent any given day doing since most of it was probably either sleeping or scrolling mindless through websites without any real direction. It’s hard not to feel just a little like a failure after putting so much into one degree only to just drop it without preamble. But I have a game plan. I’m going to spend the rest of March working on my scholarship application, then concentrate on turning this depression around in time for the fall semester, all the while researching new possibilities and interests. I will rise from the ash of this dream like a phoenix, with new life and a new direction.

#610 – Burnt Bridges

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Usually around this time of night I feel isolated and alone. Tonight it’s a little worse. I feel like I’ve been burning bridges left and right and that I’m isolated because of my own actions, so I feel like I can’t reach out to anyone because there’s no one left to reach out to. My rational mind is pretty sure this is incorrect, but it has doubts. My irrational mind is likely creating evidence that I really have had ties severed because of something and my rational mind … can’t just dismiss it. The reasons are plausible and that just makes me a little more confused and a lot more scared that there’s no one left for me to talk to, that everyone is sick of my crap and that’s all there is to it.

Part of me wants to stay up all night, if for no other reason that it won’t take as long as it usually does, but I know that will further wreck my already precariously held diurnal cycle. My brain says sit and stew in this – I’m not going to ever get control of my dependent personality disorder if I don’t actively spend time alone.

I’ve got a lot of other doubts going on, but those are for another time. I should get busy doing whatever it is I’m going to for as long as I’m going to do it.

#608 – Relapse

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I haven’t written in my blog for almost 14 months. Life has been just busy enough to sustain me over that time, but as I’m getting closer to applying to my degree program I’m finding myself with more and more free time as the things I can do in preparation become fewer and fewer, and that hasn’t been good for me.

Let me catch you up, in case you’ve never read my blog. I have a handful of mental illnesses that have had me on disability since 2014 and pretty much housebound for a couple of years after that. In 2015 I began the process of working with Texas Workforce Commission to get me retrained and back in the job market and we finally agreed on a plan that would see me earning an associate’s degree in the healthcare field in 2017. Two other things happened that year. I had a major breakthrough in therapy and a tweak in my psych meds that together brought me out of the agoraphobia I’d been experiencing, just in time to start college in the fall of that year. Since that time I’ve been doing exceptionally well in school. After completing 35 credit hours I’ve got a 3.914 GPA. This covers all the prerequisite and co-requisite classes for my degree program, so I can concentrate fully on excelling in those classes. I’ve been socializing, I’ve been driving again, I’ve been shopping, all things that I didn’t do during my agoraphobia.

Since the start of winter break in December, I’ve been on more and more of a downswing, which I was hoping was going to turn around once I was back in school last month. I’m instead intimidated by the course I’m in now (it’s not credit towards my degree, but it is required to be completed on the application) and I’ve gotten out of almost everything that could be considered a daily habit. The only thing I am doing is continuing to take my medication almost all the time. Periods of joy are few and far between, I hardly ever have the energy to do much of anything, which means housework is usually waiting until either one of us has energy. (My wife is also dealing with a downswing on top of her narcolepsy, so she is chronically exhausted and out of energy.) Living in a messy apartment just drives my mood further and further down. It’s rare that I can find a distraction strong enough to make me forget everything else for a time.

So I am pretty much wiping the slate clean and starting over. A lot of my habits are gone. It’s going to take a while to get them ingrained again. I’m going to write them all down and then use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to prioritize them all, and start at the bottom of the pyramid, one at a time, and work my way up. In addition, I’m going to start rereading The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, which was a huge part of my turnaround in 2017.

I’m also going to start back with the regular blogging, so there is some accountability during my efforts to reverse the downswing, so you’ll be seeing more from me in this medium.

I am aware that this all looks like the person that tries to help by saying “Have you just tried not being depressed?” I know that I don’t have a large amount of control over my brain chemicals, but I believe that working towards a goal will make it more likely that I reach it. So, I’m doing this.

It’s late, and I’m tired, and I don’t expect many people to read this entry. But it needed to be written. More later.

#607 – Reaching Out

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Regular readers of my blog – well, the ones I had before I took most of last year off – know that I use my blog as a coping mechanism whenever my mental illnesses get rough. I’d guess that most of my posts here for the first year and change I was writing were very much me coping. But since mid-2017, my symptoms have been largely dormant. There have been brief dips in my mood here and there, but the past year and a half, things have been on a pretty even keel. Until recently.

Let me catch you up on the relevant bits of the story. In August 2017, I started taking classes at the local community college. Within a couple days of winter break starting in mid-December, a friend came to stay with us for close to two weeks. A day or two after he left, my wife and I flew to Florida to spend some time with family celebrating a milestone birthday. Once we came back home, we immediately started packing for our most recent move at the end of January. And then classes started the third week of January. The move was scheduled for the weekend of the second week in school, so there was actually some overlap between move and school. Spring semester was 14 credit hours that ended in mid-May 2018. I took one class over the summer, so I pretty much had about ten days to myself before I was right back in school mode. That class ended mid-August 2018, and then two weeks later the fall semester started, and that lasted until the middle of last month. Since then, I’ve pretty much had my time to myself, with the exception of a trip to visit family over Christmas that ended up with my wife and me in quarantine for two days thanks to the flu. So I told you all that to tell you that I’ve had from December 27 to today to myself, with minimal school obligations and not much else from there.

I had gotten used to the school routine over the previous 16 months, and having my time all to myself came as a bit of a shock. I miss the routine of classes and studying. I miss having that structure in my day. And having my day to myself means I’m idle with very little to do. This gives my lying brain ample opportunity to tell me that I have no interest in pretty much anything, and my mood has pretty much tanked in the void. Tonight, I realized that I need some help getting over this, so I’m reaching out to my friends for a bit of a boost.

I know that I’ll be better once I’m back in the routine of school, but it’s still a couple weeks away. Fortunately I have an appointment with my therapist next week, so I’m not too far away there, but I think for the time being I’m going to ask that we meet more regularly (I’d gotten to the point that I was meeting her every six weeks) until I’m sure I’m past this.

If you’re my friend and you’re reading this, I wouldn’t mind if you reached out and checked in from time to time over these next couple weeks. You all make my day better, and I could use the smile.

What’s In My DNA?

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A little while ago, maybe a couple weeks, I honestly don’t remember, I applied to be part of a 23 and Me research study into the genetics of patients with depression and bipolar disorder. In exchange for me participating in several surveys over the coming months, they would send me a complimentary genetics testing kit and put my information in their database for future use.

I don’t know if this means that I’ll also get a complimentary overview of my ancestral makeup, but at least my DNA will be on file should I choose to purchase that package in the future.

This is particularly interesting to me because I don’t know a quarter of my genetic makeup. My biological maternal grandfather was apparently a one night stand during a time when such things were downright scandalous, as was having a child out of wedlock. My mother was adopted by her great aunt and uncle, and that is the couple that I recognize as my maternal grandparents.

As a result of this missing information, I’ve never attempted to try and chase down my ancestry. I’ve always been curious about it, but to be honest I’m not sure how a situation like this would be handled in genealogy circles. I know there has to be a protocol, but I don’t know what it is and honestly am not THAT curious to track down a definitive answer.

What I AM curious about is where my bloodline originated from. I’ve never had an answer to that question, and I’ve always felt a tiny pang of jealousy of those people that can accurately identify their national ancestry. That would be a question that this testing kit may be able to answer for me.

I do know that I will receive a more medically-oriented report on my DNA, so I’ll know if there’s something that I need to be on the lookout for in the future. That’s worth participating in the research program all on its own. But if I get an ancestral report to boot? That would be ideal.

Interestingly enough, the kit is coming from a town about an hour and fifteen minutes away from where I was born and raised. Not sure if I’d call that a sign, but it’s a neat little factoid that probably interests only me.

I’ll let you know what I find out when the test results come back, probably in two or three months.

I’m Concerned for the Future

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I alluded to this in my post on the 18th, but I figured that it was important enough to warrant its own post to delve further into my concerns.

The good thing about my checklist/vitals notebook is that I can monitor trends over both the short term and longer term. For instance, I can note that for a period of about three weeks back in August and September of 2015 I only took my morning vitals, and completely forgot to take my afternoon and evening blood pressure readings during that time. I can also note that very slowly, my fasting blood sugar has crept up from 90-110 to 125-140, something that is going to warrant a little more attention in my diet. I can also note trends when I’ve been too depressed to record anything in my checklists, or periods when there has been little to no effort to maintain certain items in my checklist. (Up until just a few days ago, there were five items out of my nineteen that were consistently being ignored – I’ve recently refocused on that, and am now sporting a three-day streak of full marks on my checklists, and a fourth day was missed by one item.)

Since these checklists go back to October 2014, I can start to see annual trends occurring in my behaviors. And there’s one trend that concerns me, because I’m facing it head-on next month.

In 2015, I took a break from my checklists from February 9 to April 5. I remember being particularly depressed during that time, and the last thing I wanted to do was be accountable for my daily actions – I was content to just wallow in the pain and isolation of depression and basically let life roll over my back for a while.

In 2016, there was a remarkably similar break – from February 10 to April 23. Once again, I was in a persistent downswing and it showed in my lack of productivity.

Now, it is important to note that during both breaks from the checklists, I was still taking my medication religiously, and still more or less keeping up with my vitals. To be fair, it’s unfortunately not uncommon for me to miss one of my daily readings, and rarely I’ll miss two of three, but I’ve been pretty consistent with my vitals – over the last year, I’ve missed on average fewer than one reading per week, and I haven’t missed a complete day at all in that period of time.

I’m not sure what it is about this time of year that triggers the disengagement from my daily checklists. There’s no loss or tragedy during this time of year that would foreshadow a period of inactivity. I don’t just decide “it’s that time of year, the hell with everything for a couple months.” I genuinely don’t know why for the last two years, I’ve detached myself from my daily activity list on almost exactly the same day and re-engaged after a couple months (a little longer in the case of 2016). But I’m concerned for this year, since there’s a potential trigger.

I am not a fan or supporter of our new president, and based on things that he and his party have said they plan to accomplish over the next four years I am very concerned for the well-being and safety of both myself and a large number of my friends and family, and I can see that greatly affecting my mood over the next several weeks as events unfold. (NOTE: This is not a political post, and political comments on any social media platform will be deleted, regardless of the position of the comment. It is only relevant to this post because of it being a potential trigger for another downswing and nothing more.) So this year, with a potential societal trigger looming overhead, I am very concerned that I will once again lapse into inactivity.

I’m trying to refocus my efforts on completing my checklists now, so that in a few days when the window for a relapse opens it’ll be a well re-established habit to hit all or most items each day. That’s the best I can do, that and being accountable to you, my friends and readers, about what I’m spending my day doing. I may only write about what I did the previous day and call that a blog post, I don’t know. But I plan on keeping on keeping on.

None of us is certain what the future may bring. But hopefully it won’t bring a third straight year of me hanging it up for a while, regardless of the reason.

Long-Term Lethargy

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My wife mentioned something to me the other day that I’ve been mulling over ever since. I mentioned that I was lethargic again and she pointed out that I’ve more or less been that way for about six months.

I honestly had no idea that it’s been going on that long, but I’ve pretty much established a pattern of waking with (or before) my alarm, doing at least part of my morning routine, and then becoming just too tired to keep my head up anymore, and so I go back to sleep for a nap. I usually repeat that process at least once or twice during the day – get up, get little things done, and then go back to bed. Yesterday I didn’t get out of bed for good until the early evening, although to be fair, I spent a couple of hours in bed watching a movie on my phone, and wasn’t sleeping. Today I managed to stay awake long enough to get my entire morning routine done, but I was back in bed within an hour.

So the question is: what to do about this? It’s not a pressing matter yet, but sometime next year I’m going to be re-evaluated for my disability and if they deem me prepared to go back to work, then I’m not going to have a choice. I also don’t want this to be that long-term of a problem.

I’m starting to stress about the excess sleepiness.

Often I will consciously think to myself “I have nothing else to do, I should just probably go back to bed” and then do so. I’m skipping out on things that I would normally be doing with my day. Even though they aren’t much, they still keep me going and keep me entertained, and when I can’t even be bothered to goof off and watch a movie or play a game, then there’s likely something else at work here besides “I’m just tired all the time.”

And the extra sleep is affecting my mood. At the end of the day I have a mood tracking app that I use and looking back through that, the days where I write something reflecting staying in bed for portions of the day tend to coincide with days that my mood isn’t as good as it could be, usually falling on a 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. Days that I feel productive and don’t spend as much time in bed and I actually find time to fill my hours, without otherwise having an emotional incident, are usually a 4. (In the five weeks or so that I’ve been doing this log, I’ve never had a 5 day. Nor, for that matter, have I had a 1 yet either. I’ve been kinda down or kinda up or just meh but not fantastically so in either case.)

Even now, as I begin to wrap this up, my brain is thinking that I don’t have anything else on my daily checklist to do until lunch, and that’s not until 3, so what am I going to do with that three-plus hours between me publishing this post and me eating lunch? My brain is already starting in: “Might as well sleep it off.”

Well, since I don’t have anything better to do …

The Insidious Power of Music

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I was having an okay day this morning. I got up with the alarm, I did my vitals and my meds and my breakfast, and I went back to sleep for a short little nap. Got up, dinked around on the computer, then went to go lie back down. The second nap was thanks to lack of something to do.

While poking around on the computer I managed to uncover a YouTube video of the extra tracks CD from the Genesis: 1976-1982 box set. This featured a lot of songs that I hadn’t heard before as we as some that I knew about and had heard before. So after my wife went to work, I cued it up.

I forgot one detail – this period of time includes music that Phil wrote about the breakup of his first marriage, and a lot of the songs that I was familiar with evoked feelings of loss, depression, desolation, and pain. Naturally, those were the songs that stuck in my head because of my familiarity with them.

My mood took a nosedive after that. I was sure that I was in everyone’s way, that I was a bother, that I should just keep to myself and stay quiet today while I silently suffered.

It wasn’t long that, against my better judgment, I reached out to a couple friends of mine and started to turn myself around. I’m better now – a bit lonely, perhaps, but I have a movie on (Guardians of the Galaxy for the umpteenth time) and I’m starting to come about and be productive with my day.

But I need to remember how much those particular Genesis songs affect me and have a ready counter to the mood they inspire whenever listening to them again. And I should likely be ready to reach out to others tonight as it gets later. I have a feeling that the evening might be a little rough on me.

The Long and Winding Road

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I went to see my therapist today.

We talked at length about my feelings of shame, and she gave me a little homework – think of a time (several, if possible) that I made a mistake, dropped the ball or otherwise just flat screwed something up and DIDN’T feel shame. We also identified some possible triggers for my shame and some ways of countering it when it first arises.

We also talked briefly about the sudden downward spiral of Saturday night and made a little progress in resolving that situation. As before when it first arose, I’m keeping the details of that conversation to myself.

The bottom line is that we’re starting to make progress on getting me back in the workplace, which has been the end goal this whole time.

Sorry today isn’t really longer, but today’s therapy session was largely for me and me alone. But I promised an update, and now you have one.

Who Am I?

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Last night my wife introduced me to a meme based off a Tumblr post and its response. The original post was “I don’t think people realise how hard it is to re-discover the person you were before depression or even try to remember your own personality.” The response was “And if you’ve had depression since early childhood you don’t even know if you have your own personality. You didn’t have time to be a person before depression, and it’s scary having no idea who you are.”

I thought about this and then realized how much it fit my own life. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 15, but my journey began when I was six, after I threw a plate of spaghetti into a fellow student’s parent’s face. My parents thought I had a problem at that point, if nothing else an anger problem, and so I went to see my first psychologist. (I didn’t learn the reason for my first visit until this morning, incidentally.) I remember after the first few visits telling my mother that I wanted to go see someone that knew what they were doing – because I’d read the words “practicing psychologist” on his office door. I remember very little about those early visits. If we had what my doctor called a “good session,” we would play chess or he would allow me to play the very basic little Star Trek game on his TRS-80 computer for a few minutes after the session was over. I never did understand what made a “good session,” though, and to this day I remember little beyond the chess and the computer. (It’s those sessions with Star Trek that fueled my lifelong love of computers, something that I never quite managed to convert into a career, sad to say.)

There was another psychologist that I saw between the first one and the diagnosis. Again, there wasn’t really much that I remember about this guy, other than it was fairly common for me to come in, fall asleep, and have him wake me up to tell me the session was over. In retrospect, I don’t think the guy was a good psychologist, since I kept going and falling asleep, and he evidently never told my parents about it, because I’m sure they would have been appalled to hear that they were paying for me to take a nap. I only saw him for a couple years, though, and still at the time had no idea why I was going to see anybody.

The point is that I had six years of my life to define who I was before my symptoms started manifesting to the point that I went to seek help, and that’s not much time at all to determine who you are. So I very much sympathize with the response to the original Tumblr post that opened this entry: It’s scary having no idea who you are.

For a brief period of about a year, I knew who I was and was confident in that knowledge, even though I was still suffering through some of the worst times my symptoms ever handed me. Then I moved out of state and I quickly lost all confidence in who I’d worked hard to become. I regained a modicum of that person a few years later when I became fairly symptom free, able to easily counter the nagging self-doubt that I was experiencing, but that vanished after a period of several months. I haven’t ever been both sure of who I was and able to combat my symptoms, and that is eventually the goal.

The good thing is that between those two experiences flirting with self-knowledge and self-confidence I know who I want to be. But that’s going to take a lot of work to get to that point, since it’s going to require me returning to the workforce for that to happen, and I’m just not there yet. That’s the end goal, however, and it’s time I stopped dealing with the here and now and started delving into the deeper issues that are holding me back.

The questions for now are: Do I need to figure out who I am before I can become who I want to be? Is it important to know who I am in the interim? Should I focus on being before becoming?

I have a therapist’s appointment tomorrow. I can’t think of a better time to kick off this new focus. I’m sure I’ll be writing about that in tomorrow’s installment. Stay tuned …