#602 – Goodbye 2017!

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This will be my last post this year. I am packing for a flight to Orlando to spend some time with my wife’s family for a few days. We leave very, very early in the morning so tonight’s post is going to be short, but important.

One of my first posts of 2017 was on January 21, where I talked a bit about what everyday life was like for me. I was barely being social, I was pretty much a shut-in, I was only driving if it was absolutely necessary, and I was very prone to anxiety attacks at the drop of a hat. I was still pretty early in The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Sixth Edition, and my meds were keeping my mood low but stable.

Fast forward to today. I’ve completed the Workbook and had my meds tweaked to a super effective combination, and together they’ve allowed me to make progress that I could never have foreseen in January. I’ve recently completed my first semester in college, with both classes being taught in the classroom and not online. I started driving pretty much anywhere and going to stores on my own. My confidence started to come back, although it still has a ways to go. I have far more good days than bad. My mood is usually fairly medium but it’s easy for it to spike and rare for it to plummet even for a brief time.

This has been nothing short of a transformative year for me, and I’m hoping that 2018 is going to be more of the same. I’ve got a hell of a workload in the spring semester that starts next month, and just at the beginning of it I’m moving, but if I can get through that with mostly A’s and the occasional B, then I’ll consider myself very prepared for anything else that college – and life – can throw my way.

I want to thank you for following me through this banner year. Your words of encouragement and wisdom mean the world to me, and I appreciate every one of you for taking time out of your day to read my (sometimes nonsensical) musings about my life.

See you folks next year. Enjoy the turn of the calendar and all the promise and hope it brings.

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Remission

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Regular readers of this blog know that I suffer from PTSD, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 15 – that was 33 years ago. The anxiety diagnosis is somewhat more recent, and the PTSD is the most recently diagnosed, but its onset actually predates the bipolar disorder. My point here is that I’ve been dealing with these illnesses for a long time, and I’ve been in therapy to deal with them for years on end.

My therapy has been successful to varying degrees through the years. My current therapist and I have been working together every other week for a little less than three years, and she’s seen me through a lot.

She’s helped me discover tools that mitigate the rough spots when they occur, and talked me through some dark times. Over the last year or so, I’ve been steadily improving, and over the last six months or so I’ve improved so much it’s been like someone flipped a switch. This most recent change I attribute to a change in medication, but my therapist is quick to downplay the effect the meds have had on me, and just as fast to remind me that an awful lot of my improvement has been through my own education and efforts.

Today we met and discussed the trip to California. I told her about all that I saw and did, and then concentrated on three aspects of the trip – the party on Saturday night, the driving I did on Sunday morning, and the traffic that we encountered in San Francisco on Sunday afternoon. Each of these instances were a prime opportunity for my anxiety to open the floodgates to a bad downswing. Dealing with strangers in a social setting is something that I’ve avoided for as long as I can remember, yet on Saturday night I was practically a social butterfly. It wasn’t very long ago that I was only driving if it was absolutely necessary, and even then on familiar surface roads, and on Sunday morning I was excited to be out driving highways I was barely familiar with. While I wasn’t driving, the traffic in San Francisco was the worst gridlock I’ve ever experienced, and bad traffic is usually a trigger for my anxiety regardless of where I’m sitting in the car – but I handled it like it was nothing.

In short, it’s the most “normal” I’ve felt in a very long time.

My therapist was very pleased to hear how well the trip went, and how well classes are going as well, and she made a point of telling me what a long way I’ve come since I started seeing her. At the end of the session, we discussed my options for a follow-up appointment, and we agreed that we can start seeing each other on a monthly basis rather than biweekly.

I have never before been on a monthly schedule with any therapist.

Like so many other diseases, my illnesses are lifelong, and can be managed with medication and psychotherapy, but not truly cured. Being a once-monthly client is an acknowledgment that my symptoms are well under control at the present time. It’s about as close to remission as mental illnesses get. It’s an odd feeling, but not in a bad way at all. I’m not apprehensive about cutting back to once a month, something I’d have been terrified to do as recent as the start of 2017.

My follow-up is October 26, and we agreed that if something should go wrong in the meantime that I’m always free to call and schedule an interim appointment. We also agreed that if something happened that was particularly good I could text her to fill her in on the news.

It’s a really good feeling.


Oh, for those who have been following my activities of the week in my classes, tonight was my first closed-book algebra test. I think I did fairly well on it. There was one question that I’m pretty sure I got wrong, and a couple more I think I figured out, but other than that I’m comfortable with my performance. Of course, we’ll see how that goes once the grades come back.

Plans Thwarted

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This afternoon we went to a barbecue put on by some friends of ours. We saw a few mutual friends that we already knew, a few that we hadn’t met yet, and one that we haven’t seen in years and years. The food was great – pulled pork and coleslaw bagel sliders, pork ribs, sausages, a phenomenal corn dish made with corn, cream cheese, and garlic, and other assorted munchies. The food was fantastic and the company was awesome. The plan was to eat and then throw water balloons at one another and then retire inside for a game or three of Cards Against Humanity. We carried our new, improved Bigger Blacker Box that contains about 90% of the entire CAH line.

Things started coming undone when the bottom fell out and made the water balloons superfluous. All we needed to do to get a proper drenching was just go stand outside for a few seconds, and we’d be soaked to the bone. It was mentioned that of course it rained now that water balloons were purchased for the occasion.

The other thing that affected me and my wife is the bad headache that I started coming down with shortly after we started eating. I tried to tough it out as best as I could, but it just wasn’t having any of my socialization nonsense, despite taking something to combat it. So we said our farewells, left the Bigger Blacker Box for them to enjoy, and headed home.

I hate that we had to leave early. I was enjoying myself and feeling very comfortable being social, which my regular readers know is a recent thing. Just two months ago I would have hidden in the house and done anything I could to keep from being social. My therapy is really producing results, and they are assisted by finally getting me on an effective medication regimen. The capstone on the recovery is the stuff that I’m learning in The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Sixth Edition by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD. While I’m in the process of giving the whole book a once-through read before really starting to get in-depth with the recommended exercises, even this first reading is revealing a lot of new techniques and mindsets that are helping me a great deal.

It was mentioned to me recently by a friend that my normal seems pretty normal these days, and I’d have to agree. I haven’t had a bad day in a couple months, perhaps even longer. I hope this trend continues. I could really get used to a more normal normal.

Steady As She Goes

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I had my first follow-up appointment with my new psychiatrist this afternoon. He asked how things were going, and I told him about the event on Saturday – how I didn’t have panic attacks beforehand like I’ve been doing recently, and how I handled the minor panic attack at the event. He said that it sounds like the Zoloft is working as expected to control my anxiety, perhaps even a little bit better than expected, and he said that he was going to keep my meds where they were. He wanted to know if I felt myself wanting to do things that I had been avoiding and I told him that the event on Saturday was my return to an aspect of the SCA that I hadn’t felt up to pursuing in years, so he was pleased to hear that. He inquired about side effects and I told him that I haven’t seen anything. I was honest – not every day is rosy, but very few days are truly down right now, and he commented on how things seem to have turned around for me pretty notably in a short period of time. He advised that the Zoloft still hasn’t reached maximum efficacy, so I might see that similar attacks like the one I had on Saturday are even easier to deal with in another month or two. He asked if there was anything on the horizon that might test the Zoloft at full strength and I told him that I was returning to school in the fall, and that the plan was for me to be working again about this time next year. He was happy to hear that I’m looking forward to school and to getting back to work. He wants to see me again in August, just to follow-up around the time that the Zoloft has well and truly kicked in. All in all, it was a very good appointment.

A Short, Sharp Shock to the Brain and a Year-Long Commitment

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WARNING: brief language.

I’ve been contemplating how to best sit down and write this blog post, how I want to approach it. I finally decided that wading in and going full stream of consciousness is the way to go. This may not flow well, but at least it will get my thoughts down on paper.

Some of you may remember Cracked magazine. It was a humor magazine, very much in the line of Mad magazine and, to a lesser extent, National Lampoon, the people that brought you the Vacation movies and Animal House. Cracked stopped publication in 2007 but lives on in the form of a website, where humor is delivered list style (for example, “6 Lost Works of Genius [Found in the Dumbest Place Possible]” is what’s currently headlining the website). I love lists and Cracked’s style of writing, often NSFW, is satirical and spot on. It’s also a fun way to learn trivia, which I hoard like survivalists hang onto canned food and ammo.

The other day, I was browsing through the website and ran across an article entitled “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” written by Cracked’s executive editor David Wong. I expected humor, which I kinda sorta got. What I mostly got was a short, sharp shock to the brain in the form of one of the best written motivational articles I’ve ever come across.

I highly recommend that you go read the article yourself, especially because there are three videos linked there that are important to the overall message that Wong is conveying, and his writing is absolutely top-notch to boot. To try and summarize what he’s saying wouldn’t do the article justice, but I’m at least going to give you his bullet points so you catch the gist of what he’s talking about. (But seriously, take the time to go read the article. The explanations of the bullet points are so very much more fulfilling and satisfying than just reading the Cliff notes version.)

6. The world only cares about what it can get from you.

5. The hippies were wrong. (For this bullet point alone, you need to go read the article to get the full message. The point is so much more than simply “the hippies were wrong” and the accompanying video is vital to making this point.)

4. What you produce does not have to make money, but it does have to benefit people.

3. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything.

2. What you are inside only matters because of what it makes you do.

1. Everything inside you will fight improvement.

Again, I stress to you – go read the article. I’ll be here when you get back.

You’re back, good. Now here’s where I diverge from this line of thinking.

This article is fantastic from the standpoint of someone that doesn’t actually suffer from mental illness, because the article very much engenders a “get shit done” attitude. Some days, my mental illness won’t even let me get out of bed. In fact, that was the case two weeks ago. If I had read this article then, I think I would have just thrown my hands in the air and given up. Like I keep saying, it’s HARSH.

But the principles that Wong lays out can be tempered somewhat for someone with mental illness or any other limitation (chronic pain, etc.).

Some years ago, Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a bestseller called The Four Agreements. It’s a good book and a short read, and I recommend that you hunt it down, especially if you like me suffer from a limitation because of one passage that I’m going to get to in a moment. To oversimplify Ruiz’s book, here are the Four Agreements.

1. Be impeccable with your word.

2. Don’t take anything personally.

3. Don’t make assumptions.

4. Always do your best.

That’s it. That’s the meat of the book right there. But I want to talk about these four bullet points as they relate to Wong’s article.

The first bullet point, be impeccable with your word, fits in with Wong’s #2, what you are only matters because of what it makes you do. In the article, he discusses the plight of someone who thinks “she/he would love me if she/he only knew what an interesting person I am.” Being an interesting person is all fine and good, but how does that manifest in the outside world? What do you DO that’s interesting? Wong explains it as if there were a camera following you around all day. It can only see what you do. Well, being impeccable with your word not only means saying what you mean and meaning what you say, it means acting on the words that come out of your mouth. When you tell someone you’re going to do something, then commit to doing it. Make your word impeccable by having your actions match.

The second bullet point is imperative. Wong’s article outlines again and again that it’s a harsh world out there, and taking anything anyone says or does personally is a great way to build a shell around yourself to keep out the world. Trust me, I know for a fact. I’ve taken things people have said to me personally and it’s taken me years to get over it. I’m the king of taking it personally. But the point is, if you take everything personally, it will seriously stunt your ability to improve yourself. Again, I’m living proof.

The third bullet point, don’t make assumptions, asks you to find the courage to ask questions and say what you really want. And Wong’s article can be summed up very succinctly by asking yourself what you really, REALLY want and how do you plan to make that happen. Assumptions and taking things personally tend to go hand in hand, so if you can stop making assumptions, it’ll be that much easier not to take anything personally, because you’re not wasting brain space on the what-ifs that come with assumptions and that lead to personalizing.

It’s the fourth bullet point that I want to spend the most time with, though. Always do your best. Ruiz explains thusly: “Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.”

The emphasis above is mine, and it is the point I’ve been getting to.

At its conclusion, Wong’s article asks you to take a year and “pledge to do fucking anything — add any skill, any improvement to your human tool set, and get good enough at it to impress people.” But, he goes on to say, “I want you to purely focus on giving yourself a skill that would make you ever so slightly more interesting and valuable to other people.

Wong’s article is a masterpiece of motivational writing, and at its heart its purpose is to improve the person that you are in the eyes of others. But as he explains in another masterful article (that you should also go read) entitled “5 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Own Life (Without Knowing It),” part of knowing what you want to improve about your life is knowing what you’re willing to give up to improve. We’ve only got 24 hours a day, and you can’t just arbitrarily add a new commitment to your life without making time for it, which means something you’re currently doing is going to have to fall by the wayside to make room for the thing you want to do to improve yourself. It’s a necessary attribute of the “get shit done” attitude that Wong espouses.

But getting shit done is not always possible for those with mental illnesses or other limitations.

And that’s where Ruiz’s fourth agreement comes in to temper this gung-ho attitude with the reminder that some days are not going to be gung-ho. Headaches happen, depression sets in, and there’s nothing you can do about it except treat the condition however best you can. On those days, making room for improvement has to be set aside in favor of getting through the day.

BUT!

If you are always doing your best, being impeccable with your word about what your best is, then you’ll be able to face the challenge of improving yourself head on, knowing that you’re making progress when you can and healing when you must.

And THAT, my friends, is my big takeaway from Wong’s and Ruiz’s writing.

For a lot of my life, I haven’t seen the point in even trying because I’m always comparing myself to others, taking their successes personally. Wong says, “I was the world’s shittiest writer when I was an infant. I was only slightly better at 25. But while I was failing miserably at my career, I wrote in my spare time for eight straight years, an article a week, before I ever made real money off it. It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking.” But then he goes on to say this: “People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result.”

Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s time to improve myself, and I’m going to do it on Wong’s terms.

Today is May 9th. I could choose to make my deadline a year from today, but I suck at remembering arbitrary dates like this (though I can tell you the day that my wife and I met, the day we started dating, and even remember our wedding anniversary). I have a nice, convenient, memorable day next week, and I’m going to use that instead.

So, starting on May 14th, my mumbledy-mumbleth birthday, I am going to develop the skills to write a 50,000 word novel and have it ready for publication by my mumbledy-mumbleth-plus-one birthday next year. I have the concept in mind, and thanks to a friend of mine have worked out the kinks I had in researching my storyline. I’m ready to bring this story to life.

I would appreciate encouragement and feedback along the way.

… It’s Been HOW LONG??!?

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“I’m just rambling and no one wants to hear the lamentations of the mentally ill, so I’ll just shut up” were the last words written in this blog.

Well, it certainly wasn’t my intent to shut up for damn near three months.

When last I wrote, things were not doing so well for me. And then things got a lot worse. My wife lost her job. We lost our health benefits. And gradually, every single medication that I take ran out.

And things got a LOT worse.

My symptoms were constantly fighting my wife’s symptoms and we were caught in a loop of irrationality, of arguments, of conflict against ourselves outwardly manifested as anger toward our partners. It was a tough time.

And for the first time in memory, I took to sleeping most of the day away.

I’d wake up whenever I wanted, then go back to bed after a cup of coffee. I’d wake up to use the restroom, then go back to bed. I’d eat lunch, then back to bed. Restroom, bed, repeat for dinner, then MAYBE try to stay awake for a few hours in the evening to pretend that I had some passing interest in anything, which was false, then back to bed for the night.

My nights were restless as well. My back had started seizing up midway through the night, so I’d have to get up, set up the heating pad in the rocking chair, sit down, prop my feet up on the footstool, toss a blanket over me, and settle back down to sleep once the heat started loosening my back up. On occasion, my neck would get stiff too, and I’d have dual heating pads working on me to try and get me back off to sleep.

I can’t remember a time in my life that I’ve been that down, that dejected, that isolated, and that depressed. I’ve been suicidal before, but every one of those episodes was an exercise in frantic agitation rather than utter despondency and hopelessness.

I stopped checking my vital signs for my diabetes and blood pressure long ago, and after a bit of a spell best described as “I don’t feel right” I pricked my finger and gave blood to the blood god.

The meter read 281. Normal is around 100. Hospitalization takes place at 400. I was, to say the least, alarmed.

I decided at that moment that I needed to do something, anything, to get my blood sugar under control, and very quickly thereafter my psychological condition. I reached out to very generous friends who were able to help me get the diabetes medication that I needed. I found a doc in the box that was willing to extend emergency prescriptions for most of my medication regimen. The only setbacks were that my psych meds weren’t applicable, and we were still working off a disability check and an unemployment check, and not quite squeaking by with all of our bills.

It’s around this time that my wife redoubled her efforts to find work, and within just a few days had secured a temp-to-possibly-hire-we’ll-have-to-see position that was enough to cover our expenses. Things were looking up.

It’s also around that time that I started looking at alternate Medicare plans that provided Part D, the prescription coverage. I got a plan that looked to be a good one, for not much more than I was already paying Medicare for Parts A and B, and signed up.

That coverage kicked in May 1st.

On May 3rd, I was back on my psych meds.

Today, I woke up and made the determination that I was going to stick to my little black book as closely as possible, something I hadn’t even looked at in a month.

And now, as I write this, I’m looking forward to my first appointments with my new primary care physician and my therapist next week.

Things are still very tight – the position that my wife picked up pays notably less than her last job – but at least there’s the hope that we can still squeak by month to month til she gets something better.

I’m emotionally much better today than I was a week ago. It’s like the fog has lifted and I can see the light of day again. I missed that light. I missed having something to do with my day instead of just moping in front of Facebook obsessively refreshing it, watching everyone else I know live their lives while I was stuck at home afraid to get off the couch.

And more changes are coming. I don’t want to talk about them yet, cause I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I’ve got some things percolating in the back of my mind to help get me off my ass and back to living life again, something I haven’t done fully in over three years.