Friday, November 12, 2010

Smile, dammit. Friday, November 12, 2010.

"Are you annoyingly happy? Despondex could be right for you." - The Onion

How did it escape my notice? Last fall, Pfizer – the world's largest research-based pharmaceutical company, which brought us Zoloft and Xanax – introduced a new medication to the market: Despondex.

Despondex, a “depressant,” has been shown to be effective in treating excessive “perkiness,” as the TV commercial shows. The advertisement sounds promising: “Are you annoyingly happy? Despondex could be right for you … If you have a persistent positive outlook on life you should ask your doctor about Despondex … Now you too can waste a night sitting on the couch with your friends or family watching a TV show no one enjoys.”

Bwaa-haa! Yes, Despondex is a joke, brought to us by America’s Finest (satiric) News Source, The Onion. But Despondex has taken a life of its own. A Google search on “Despondex” results in 23,400 hits, including references in dozens and dozens of blogs (soon to include my own). You can even buy a Despondex T-shirt or coffee mug!

So why is the idea of Despondex such a hit? Because even though your mother told you no one wants to be around a sourpuss, it’s also hard to be around super-duper happy people – particularly if you’re depressed.

If a friend, co-worker or relative has ever told you to “Smile! You're on Candid Camera!” or “Cheer up!” when you’ve been down, you know that nothing sinks your mood faster. Some people seem to have been birthed by the Good Luck Fairy. These are usually the same people who tell everyone else, “Be happy!”

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with happiness in and of itself. It’s the self-centeredness of the “perpetually perky” that gets to us. Have you noticed that people who are inordinately happy all the time don’t really know what’s going on? Do you think their ignorance protects their mood?

One excessively cheerful acquaintance of mine doesn’t watch television or read newspapers. When discussion touched on the misfortune of a mutual friend who was laid off, he was surprised to hear that we are in a Recession. Something about that doesn’t seem fair. The rest of us have to live in the Real World. Why not him?

The same folks are also unlikely to ask you what is wrong if you’re not smiling enough for them. That’s because, quite frankly, they don’t want your mood to bring theirs down.

And I’m not assuming that you are like Eeyore – with an exhausting, consistently negative attitude and your own brand of self-centeredness. Nope, I’m thinking that you might be feeling down for a legitimate reason. Your father dying of cancer? Your son in trouble with the law? Your job being downsized? Don’t approach one of these people hoping for support. He’ll quickly change the subject to something a little lighter – like his own recent good fortune.

There is a different kind of happy person. This person has a positive outlook on life as well, but she’s been on the other side – and she hasn’t forgotten that. This person is thankful for any good fortune she may experience, but also realizes that many others are not so fortunate. She wants people around her to be happy, and if that means getting her hands a little dirty – providing volunteer help in her community, or a sincerely empathetic ear for someone in pain – she’ll do it.

Has someone ever made you laugh when you were crying? That’s the kind of person I’m talking about. She doesn’t just instruct you to “Be happy!” so that you don’t bum her out. She wants you to be happy because she knows life can be hard, and she sincerely cares for you.

“Despondex” is not for her. She’s the kind of happy friend you want to hang on to.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Justice unserved. Thursday, November 11, 2010.

"My daughter did not get any justice." June Justice, Samantha Kelly’s mom

"I told him, 'You're hurting me. Stop. You're hurting me, and I want to leave.'" Samantha Kelly, age 14, said that she made her wishes clear when 18-year-old Joseph Tarnopolski forced himself on her.

Joseph, a popular senior who shared Samantha’s math class, ignored her pleas and did as HE pleased. So the Detroit-area girl contacted authorities and pressed charges against him: statutory rape.

But the students’ classmates took sides, and they began to taunt Samantha. They taunted her so much she began to miss class. Three weeks ago she OD’d, but survived for still more taunting. So two days ago, Samantha hung herself.

Samantha’s death results in two tragedies: heartbreak for her mother, June Justice, and her other loved ones; and the fact that the Huron Township Police had to drop charges against Joseph.

You see, without a victim, no one can be charged with rape. Those accusations evaporate into thin air. Like they never existed at all.

To Joseph, who admits he had sex with Samantha but claims it was consensual, Samantha’s suicide doesn’t mean much. When interviewed, Jospeh made it pretty clear that he wasn’t too broken up about her death. He refused all but “a little bit” of responsibility for Samantha’s harassment, adding, "If she was getting ridiculed, it's not because of me.”

National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center finds that rape victims are 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to attempt suicide. Clearly, sexual assault in and of itself is a risk factor for rape. But Samantha didn’t hang herself the day after the rape. She hung herself after weeks of teasing by classmates.

After she was assaulted, Samantha did exactly what authorities would have said she should have done – she pressed formal charges. She was strong enough to do that. That took courage. Guts.

But what Samantha couldn’t deal with was the re-victimization from other teens, many of whom had been her friends. If Samantha had hoped her suicide would elicit guilty feelings among her classmates or in Joseph, it didn’t work.

Instead, Joseph wins. He gets to carry on with his life. In a year or two, all but Samantha’s family will have forgotten this situation ever took place.

And if rape is something Joseph happens to enjoy, you can bet he’ll have more opportunities with other girls in the future.

I don’t think Samantha would have wanted that. Do you?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy, happy. Joy, joy. Wednesday, November 10, 2010.

“If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time.” –Edith Wharton

A number of years after Prozac had arrived on the scene, introducing the SSRI and changing the face of psychiatry forever, Peter D. Kramer released the book “Listening to Prozac.” Kramer cited studies showing that even people who weren’t depressed underwent transformations upon taking Prozac. Their self-esteem bloomed and they became more successful. Kramer said that Prozac could make people “better than well.”

I don’t think Kramer’s testimony has stood the test of time. It’s true, I’ve argued that a mega-study purporting to show that antidepressants are no more than expensive placebos has been misinterpreted. I believe strongly that there is a place for pharmaceuticals in the treatment of depression – specifically severe, clinical depression. But the idea that antidepressants are miracle pills that make peoples’ lives euphoric and trouble-free is, well, nuts.

I assume that people have always wanted to be happy. But how have they defined happiness? Until the last century or so, most peoples’ lives were “nasty, brutish and short.” As recently as the early 20th century, life expectancy ranged from 30 to 45. And those 45 years would have been difficult ones indeed.

There were no cures for most sicknesses, women died quite often in childbirth, the death of a child was a common occurrence, and people had to work to support themselves until they died. The technologies that make our lives more convenient – electricity, running water, transportation – didn’t exist.

And yet books and art and poetry depicted not only sorrows but also joys. Dirty and smelly, perhaps sick, often exhausted, people still found a way to be happy. I, for one, wouldn’t have wanted to be alive during Biblical times – what with all those crucifixions and the throwing Christians to the lions and all – but the word “joy” appears in the King James Bible 155 times.

I’m just going to take a wild guess and say that people had a different idea of “happiness” back then. Life was full of suffering, but perhaps they found their joy in the whiff of violets, the brilliant colors of a sunset, the giggle of a child. Perhaps it was enough to have a roof over one’s head, even if that roof was leaky. Perhaps having enough blankets was something to be happy about.

In the United States, a major shift in the idea of “happiness” came in the 1950s, when postwar prosperity ushered in a new age of consumerism and “planned obsolescence” that required houses and cars to grow bigger and fancier. Advertising hit its golden age, seducing the world into seeing America as the place where anyone, if they worked hard enough, could buy anything their hearts desired.

By the 1980s, the idea was entrenched in Madonna’s “Material Girl,” but the means to the end was changing. Two-income households became the norm, the rich got richer, the poor found it harder to get ahead. Today, the American Dream has become a virtual nightmare.

To those who have had and lost, or to those who will never have, “Be Happy!” sounds trite – almost disrespectful. It’s a scary time for many of us. But do we have to give up on happiness? Or can we redefine it again?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Daddy’s little girl. Tuesday, November 9, 2010.

“You must look into other people as well as at them.” –Lord Chesterfield

When I was a little girl, my Dad would tell me fantastic stories using my stuffed animals as actors. He loved cartoon characters and fantastical worlds. I adored him and he adored me. He would brag to everyone about his “Baby-girl” and he kept every single drawing I made for him. He was the perfect father for a 4-year-old. The problem was, 4-year-olds grow up, and my father stayed the same.

I spent most of today my now 80-something father, working to get him secured in his assisted living situation, which has become necessary due to his physical disability and worsening dementia that is complicated by Asperger’s Syndrome. Although, like most adults on the autistic spectrum, my father has never been diagnosed, my discovery of the syndrome in a book in the early 90s kept me from losing my own mind. At last, there was an explanation for his behavior (much of which I mirrored as a child and wrote about recently).

By the age of 5, I recognized that things weren’t quite right with Dad, and I was already trying to protect him from things that would scare him or change his rigid routine. By the age of 9, I was pleading with him to stop speaking to me in “baby talk.”

At 12, I was deeply ashamed when he demanded to hold my hand at a carnival in front of my friends; when I whispered I was too old, he began to sob. At 16, I was humiliated when my father – wearing only pajamas and socks – ran after the schoolbus one frigid morning, crying “Baby-girl! Baby-girl! You forgot to kiss your daddy goodbye!”

By the time my parents divorced when I was 16, a part of me truly hated him. On the one hand, he doted on me. I was, he told me so often, his “entire world.” He had worked hard and made a beautiful home for his Baby-girl, filled with toy horses and trips to Disneyland. He never once disciplined me (he didn’t really have to). He gushed over my art and writing projects, certain that I was brilliant and talented and very, very special.

On the other hand, he never looked into my eyes. We never had a reciprocal conversation; he would simply monologue in a flat tone, about camera parts or film animation – reciting the same facts for hours, month after month, year after year. His hug was bony and awkward and didn’t give me any feeling of security or safety.

He made jokes about my nose, my weight, my hair and my scoliosis, using words like “cripple” and becoming genuinely confused when that made me cry. He taught me that the world was a chaotic and dangerous place, where airplanes fall out of the sky and cars crash more often than not. He was filled with anxiety if I got home past dark, and once when I was 17, he threatened suicide because I refused to put on a raincoat. “You’ll catch pneumonia and die,” he said, “and without my Baby-girl I would have no reason to live.”

Strange body posture. Narrow, obsessive interests. No understanding of emotional or physical boundaries. Difficulty in making conversation. High levels of anxiety. Lack of empathy. Confusion about age-appropriate language and behavior. Inability to tolerate certain fabrics, lights or noises. “At least MY dad’s an alcoholic,” said my best friend in high school. “He has as reason to be weird. Your dad’s just weird. It sucks.”

Then I stumbled upon “Shadow Syndromes” in the bookstore. It was as if someone turned on a bright light. It wasn’t all in my head. My dad wasn’t a bad person, and his behavior wasn’t my fault – or my mom’s. I Xeroxed the chapter on Asperger’s and mailed it to my mother. She called me the night she read it, crying. “Thank God,” she said. “Thank God someone understands. Thank God there is a reason.”

Today my father is an old man, and he seems to be fading fast. I don’t think he’ll be around much longer. But after spending hours with him today, I’m reminded of how far I have to go. You see, I had soaked up his dysfunctional ways of dealing with the world like a sponge. I “took after Dad,” and have spent decades trying to unlearn those behaviors. When I hate myself, I hate him. When I hate him, I hate myself.

I know he has a neurological disorder that prevents him from experiencing the world as “NTs” (neuro-typicals) do. I’m in an online support group for people raised by parents on the autistic spectrum. I see that every day there are more groups and websites dedicated to people like me.

My father lives in a small room now, and among his few belongings are all the drawings I gave him as a child. He’s never thrown one away. Every time I visit, he beams, “Remember when my Baby-girl made these for me?” But his Baby-girl grew up, and for Dad, that was a betrayal.

I know it's not his fault. And I know that in his way, he loves me. But I’m angry. I’m angry I have an autistic parent; I’m angry that I once idolized him and now can’t stand to be with him, I'm angry at myself for being angry at him, I'm angry that I have never been able to have a true conversation with him and that he knows virtually nothing about my life.

And I’m angry my own father has never looked into my eyes.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Picky, picky, picky. Monday, November 8, 2010.

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” –Charles C. Noble

I have always found it very therapeutic to manicure my nails, which naturally grow long and strong. Choosing the color to match an outfit, taking off the old polish, shaping the nails and brushing on a pretty new color gives me a lift.

Actually, I had started wearing polish when I was in middle school in order to quit chewing my nails, and it worked quite nicely. Unfortunately, my nail-chewing habit morphed into something new – compulsive skin-picking, or dermatillomania, around my cuticles.

I would pick constantly. I was able to pick while driving, while working on the computer, while reading a book. Much of the time, I didn’t even know I was picking. Sometimes it was painful, sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes I picked when I was feeling anxious or depressed; often, it didn’t seem to matter what mood I was in, although I did notice it felt calming.

A couple of years ago I discovered there was actually a name for my habit, and that I was not alone. Dermatillomania is an “impulse control disorder” and is often considered a form of self-injury, like “cutting.”

It had gotten to the point where I was wearing Band-Aids on eight of my fingers. I was desperate to stop. I was already in therapy for anxiety and depression, but now I decided to make my “picking” a priority.

The assumption was that my skin-picking was due to stress. I underwent six sessions of hypnotherapy, and listened to the CDs faithfully every night. I wore a rubber band to snap when I felt the urge. I journaled about what I’d been feeling when I began picking. I wore gloves while relaxing at home or driving. I worked with a specialist regarding any anger issues that might be causing me to pick.

Nothing worked. I don’t care what the experts say SHOULD have worked. It didn’t!

One day when I was at the drug store, I stopped in the cosmetics section and looked at the artificial nails. What would happen if I cut my real nails short, and put these on? I decided to give it a try. Sure enough, with the acrylic extensions, I couldn’t get enough “torque” to pick.

I remembered something about a habit taking 21 days to break. I decided to double or triple that for good measure. I wore lovely, fancy, dermatillomania-preventing artificial nails for three months, when the damage to my own nails became too severe to keep using them.

A miracle happened. I had stopped picking! My brain had been re-wired. And I discovered what I’d suspected all along – that I had an anxiety problem, but the dermatillomania had little to do with it. In fact, during the period of time when I suffered my acute dysphoric mania, attempted to take my life, and recovered from the attempt, I didn’t pick at all.

So why am I writing this today? Because over the last few days, I started noticing that I was picking again. I’m not sure if there is a particular reason, but it doesn’t matter. I’m nipping it in the bud. I bought several boxes of artificial nails yesterday at the store, and I stuck a set on last night. I’m frustrated about having to go through it all again, but at least now, I have a remedy that works for me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sleep, glorious sleep. Sunday, November 7, 2010.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.” ~Irish Proverb

Is there an invention more wonderful than sleep?

I like to sleep as much as I possibly can. I work a lot during the week; Friday I put in a 13-hour day at my job. But I make sleep a priority. I slept most of the day on Saturday, but after Friday, I feel like I had it coming.

Truth be told, I still feel sleep-deprived after my mixed mania episode a year and a half ago. One of the worst things about it was the relentless insomnia. Unlike “typical” bipolars in a “typical” manic state, I did not feel euphoria, I did not feel creative, and I did not WANT to be awake. Instead I lay in bed in a horrible state of anxiety, heart pounding, flying out of my skin due to the slightest noise. For months I eked out about four hours of sleep a night, and I don’t think it was deep sleep as I don’t remember dreaming during that time.

Even after I was put on the correct meds, it was a long time before I got back to “my” normal. I no longer view the bed (or the couch) as my enemy. I look forward to laying down, letting my body relax, and letting my mind tell me bizarre stories called dreams.

I’m lucky in that I don’t have a great many nightmares. My dreams are pretty neutral. Once in a while I’m being chased, and I’ll have to force myself to wake up. Occasionally someone has died, and I grieve not only in the dream but upon awakening.

In fact, I’ve noticed that often, the dream I’m having when my alarm goes off will set my emotional course for the rest of the day. Sometimes I don’t even remember the content, but I’ll wake up feeling confused or serene or angry or giggly or regretful, and I know it was my emotion in a dream – but I’ll still feel that emotion hours later. Does that happen to you?

Sleeping and dreaming are the subjects of study by many disciplines. No one seems to know exactly why we sleep, and even less why we dream. Theories abound, but the only thing everyone can agree on is that both are necessary physically and mentally. For the bipolar patient, sleep is extremely important because it wards off mania.

I took a nap this afternoon when we got home from church, and I relish the time because I don’t get to nap during the work week. When I was sick, I couldn’t nap – my body and mind were far too stirred up. So I’m incredibly thankful to be able to catch a few winks.