Friday, November 26, 2010

Greed Friday. Friday, November 26, 2010.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” –Mahatma Gandhi

Today in the United States, it’s a bizarre “holiday” of sorts – Black Friday. It’s the day after Thanksgiving, the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season, when retailers make their biggest profits of the year and “go into the black.”

Unlike many Americans, I didn’t get to the stores at 3 a.m. with a fistful of shopping circulars, pushing other people down to acquire the top-selling gift this year (whatever that is). Luckily, I have to work today, so maybe I have an excuse not to observe this “holiday” by shopping.

Actually, I made an agreement with my family that this year: we will all purchase second-hand Christmas gifts at the thrift store. That way, we’ll save money during this time of economic uncertainty; the money we do spend will support non-profit organizations; and we won’t be supporting sweatshops in China and India. But in a way, this makes me a bad American. People have bought so little the last couple of years, it’s affected the retail and manufacturing industries, costing many people their jobs.

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” said corrupt billionaire investor Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street.” “Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” But at the end of the film, Gekko goes to prison. It was greed that caused the economic crash at the end of 2007 and the resulting Recession. And strangely, it will be a kind of greed that will promote an economic recovery – people will need to start buying again (hopefully American-made goods) in order for others to go back to work. Thrift is a good thing individually, but a bad thing for society as a whole.

It was the fear of losing my income that triggered a major depressive episode. It’s the ongoing fear of the same that keeps my emotional recovery from being complete. But if anyone thinks I’m materialistic, they’ve got me wrong.

For some people, money represents “stuff.” People who are addicted to consumption soothe their depression by acquiring more and more things. I once had a boss who would come into the office every week with some incredibly expensive article of clothing – a $500 Prada sweater, or a $700 pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes. She eventually ran her business into the ground and lost her “McMansion” as well.

For me, money represents security. I bought a little house so we would have a place to live and as an investment toward retirement, not as a showpiece to brag about. I bought an economy car to get from Point A to Point B. I carry significant credit card debt not because of “stuff” I bought, but because I was forced to use credit to purchase health care coverage when I lost a job six years ago. I’m more worried about money than about anything else, but not because I want a Prada or a pair of Blahniks. It’s because I want a secure place to live, a car that works, and medical care.

I know several people that say they’re not worried about money. Interestingly, they’re pretty well off. Strangely in our society, one must have a certain amount of purchasing power to live “simply.” Several years ago I purchased a book on how to live the simple life. Suggestions included driving a hybrid car, eating organic foods, and using various herbal supplements rather than prescription medications. Frankly, I can’t afford to practice these forms of “simplicity.”

It’s early afternoon, and Reuters has reported that Black Friday shopping has increased from a year ago. I’m relieved about that. Maybe it means things are turning around. Maybe layoffs will continue to slow. Even though I’m not celebrating this “holiday,” I want it to be successful. The security of millions – not just the greedy – depends on it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Attitude of gratitude. Wednesday, November 24, 2010.

“Thanksgiving Day comes, by statute, once a year; to the honest man it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow.” –Edward Sandford Martin

Tomorrow we Americans will celebrate our holiday, Thanksgiving, when we honor that which we believe in (God, the Universe or whatever) and express our appreciation for our families, homes and lives.

It’s part of American lore that the holiday’s origin was in 1600s Plymouth, Massachusetts, when the Pilgrims and their Native American friends shared friendly a meal together. Whether or not that’s true, my extended family – along with millions of Americans nationwide – will be gathering for the traditional turkey dinner and football game.

I can’t pretend it’s not true: this year’s Thanksgiving will be a bittersweet one, with so many Americans tumbling into poverty – many for the first time in their lives – over the past two years.

As I write this, our nation’s official unemployment rate stands stubbornly at 9.6 percent (even though economists say the Recession ended last summer). But the “real” unemployment rate (taking into account people whose unemployment benefits have run out, and those who are working part-time and unable to make ends meet) has been estimated to be as high as 23 percent – as high as it was during the Great Depression.

Today, more than two million homes in the United States are in the foreclosure process. And because health insurance is usually tied to one’s job in America, millions are unable to get the health care they need. But perhaps the worst news is that there is really no end in sight; economists say that it may take 8 to 10 years before things improve, and that’s assuming things go very well.

So, you may ask, what the hell is there to be thankful for this Thanksgiving?

I do fear for the future of my family and my country. It’s easy to tick off all the things that are bad today, and that may be bad in the future.

But my husband once taught me a technique for feeling gratitude when you don’t think you have much to be grateful for. It goes like this: you take a breath, grab on to a tiny detail of your life in that moment, and thank (God, the Universe or whatever). With the next breath, you grab on to another tiny detail.

For example, as I’m writing this right now, I can say “Thank you, God, for this chair.” “Thank you, God, for the lights.” “Thank you, God, for the keyboard.” “Thank you, God, for my fingers to type on the keyboard.” “Thank you, God, for my eyes to see the screen.” “Thank you, God, for this can of Coca-Cola.” “Thank you, God, for the socks on my feet.” And so on. You get the idea.

By doing that, you put yourself into a different frame of mind. Before long, you start seeing the Divine in the details, no matter what your current situation.

Speaking for myself, I’m very fortunate. Today, I have a job. (A year ago, I feared I would not be able to say that. I don’t know if I’ll still have a job a year from now, but at this moment my company is still in business. I’m thankful for that.) I’m thankful that today, we have our home. I’m thankful that today, I have health insurance. I’m taking a Polaroid snapshot of this moment in time, thankful for my life today, this moment.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my husband, my son and my mom, even though it’s been a tough couple of years. I’m thankful for my doctor and my therapist, and for the medications that have helped decrease my anxiety and depression.

And I’m deeply appreciative for all the members of my Suicide Attempt Survivors group on Facebook, so many of whom have written me such encouraging messages over the past several months. Since so few of my “IRL” people know my story, it means the world to me that so many of you have reached out to support me in my journey to wellness. You truly give me something to be thankful for.

I hope that whatever your situation, you can find something to be grateful for this holiday. May God bless you all.



Monday, November 22, 2010

Breathing in time. Monday, November 22, 2010.

“Ouch I have lost myself again / Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found / Yeah I think that I might break / I've lost myself again and I feel unsafe” – Sia, “Breathe Me”

I bought myself a bottle of perfume a few days ago. It was an inexpensive brand, nothing fancy – anyone who knows me knows I like to be beautiful on a budget – but the important thing was that it was a scent I’d never purchased before.

You see, I’d noticed that every morning, as I stood in my bathroom putting on my makeup and cologne, I’d suddenly feel a wave of grief. I finally realized it happened when I was putting on my perfume – a luxurious brand my girlfriend gave me for Christmas two years ago. I’d been wearing the scent during the period of time that I sank into a depression and a mixed state. Given that the sense of smell is the one most closely linked to memory and emotion, I guess it’s not surprising that my perfume was triggering upsetting memories.

When you pause to consider it, a suicide attempt (and the emotional state that precedes it and follows it) is an extremely traumatic event. There may be some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder around it. And although my attempt was in the spring, it was right around this time of year two years ago – Thanksgiving, going into Christmas – that I began my emotional descent.

Situationally, it had been a month since our company’s “restructuring” had begun. We were hemorrhaging staff, causing all of us to wonder if we’d still be employed after Yuletide, and the reality of our uncertainty about the future was sinking in. Medically, my P-Doc was making changes to my prescription regimen, and had taken me off one particular drug that had been extremely helpful for me.

And at home, my husband and I were just finishing the “Six Feet Under” DVD set. We’d gotten the HBO series from the library, and had watched a couple of episodes a night for a number of weeks. I had become alarmingly attached to the show; the characters seemed real to me, like a second family, and the central theme – death – had wedged deeply into my consciousness. The night we watched the final episode, when (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters die, I sobbed for hours. I attributed it to work stress and going through menopause, but it was really the beginning of a bipolar mixed episode.

This morning at work, I popped a random CD into my player. (Quiet music in the background helps me write.) Partway though the morning, I became conscious that tears were rolling down my cheeks. I realized that the song playing was “Breathe Me,” by Sia. This deeply emotionally evocative song – truly, one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard (listen to it if you don’t believe me), was featured in the finale of “Six Feet Under.”

“Breathe Me” makes me want to curl up inside of it, letting its haunting melody surround me. But it also takes me back to that time two years ago when I began to lose myself. When I heard it this morning, it was as if no time had passed. I am sitting here in a fall outfit that I wore two years ago …writing for a publication I worked for two years ago … listening to a song I first heard two years ago.

If I don’t turn and look at my calendar, the only proof that time has passed are the scars on my wrists.

I wiped the tears from my face, and I hit the “repeat” button. I have been listening to “Breathe Me” for three hours now. I love this song, and I want to be immune to its power. I want to hear it so many times it reminds me of today, not two years ago.

At the same time, though, I am breathing in my new perfume. It’s a reminder that while pain has occurred, so has healing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

It’s the stigma, stupid. Sunday, November 21, 2010.

“Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic and so am I.” – Oscar Levant

The problem with Levant’s famous little poem is that schizophrenia and Dissociative Personality Disorder are not the same thing. But most people still believe that people with schizophrenia have “multiple personalities.” We’ve come a long way, but apparently, not far enough.

The first time I was hospitalized for my bipolar was in the early 90s. For a week I’d been suffering from a panic attack that would not go away. My “manias” are atypical – anything but euphoric. I had a feeling of terror, a pounding heart, an inability to eat or sleep, and I knew from experience that this state could last weeks or months. So I admitted myself to the hospital.

The good news is that I had health insurance that covered a two-week stay – enough to be stabilized on meds. I was in a wonderful facility and received excellent care. The bad news was that I had to explain my absence to my boss. I decided to call in and say that my appendix had ruptured.

One of the psych nurses overheard my call. That evening she came into my room with a pile of medical books. “What are those for?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “if you’re going to lie about your reason for being gone, you’d better study up on appendicitis so you can answer any questions.”

In two weeks I returned to work, feeling much better, but still clinging to my appendicitis story. However, I noticed that people were avoiding me, and a few times people would quit talking when I came into the room. After a few days my boss called me into his office. “You should know there’s a rumor going around,” he said. “People are saying that you had a nervous breakdown.”

I finally realized what the nurse had been trying to help me understand. I went back to my desk and typed up a real explanation. I did, in fact, have “a nervous breakdown” (as we called it then). I had an illness called manic-depression (as we called it then). I had been in the hospital to stabilize my medication. I was feeling much better. And if anyone had any questions, they could just ask me. I sent it to everyone in the building.

From that time on, things changed. People came to me, praising my courage and, in a couple of cases, apologizing for having laughed behind my back. They told me about relatives and friends that were suffering from a mental illness. And a few of them shared that they, too, suffered from depression. I went from being a laughingstock to a bit of a hero.

That was my former life. I had no husband, no child. I had an apartment, no mortgage. And my job was secure.

All of those things were different this time around. When I “came out” the first time, I really had nothing to lose. I could bear the threat of the stigma. This time I don’t feel like I can. I have my husband, our church, my son to think about. My current boss and co-workers don’t know my like they did at the place I worked before, and my entire field is in upheaval, with people clinging to their jobs like lifesavers. It’s not about shame; it’s about the mortgage.

I’ve been debating on a Facebook page about whether or not mental “illness” exists. Some people believe that there really is no such thing, and that people who behave dysfunctionally are simply reacting to early childhood abuse. “I find it utterly dehumanizing and actually re-traumatizing to be called biologically, genetically defective,” one woman told me.

For me, it’s just the opposite. Understanding that I have an illness is comforting, freeing. I don’t feel like less of a person for having bipolar any more than I’d feel like less of a person for having diabetes. I’m not apologetic about taking meds either. They work for me, and as long as I’m functional, that’s all I care about.

But, you see, I’m not the one with the problem. Other people are. I have no idea how my current boss would react. I suspect my treatment costs the company money, and wonder if they’d prefer to replace me with someone cheaper. The people in our church are mostly immigrants and are very conservative. Many of them would see my situation not as an illness, but rather as a spiritual failing. My son’s friends might be uncomfortable around his “crazy” mom. And so it goes.

Maybe someday I’ll be ready to send out another message to everyone I know, telling them that I have an illness, that I take meds, that I feel OK, and that they can come to me with any questions. But not today.