This is resistance, too

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I bought this book to record fascism

the subtle disintegration of our democracy
dissolving like limestone in water

drip

by

drip

until there are only stalactites of horror
a cathedral cavern hollowed out by hate.

But tonight
I tore out the pages
filled with fascism
so I could fill it with poetry

Do you like poetry?
I asked my love.
More than I like fascism,
he answered.

This is resistance, too.

from April 1, 2017

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This is resistance, too

The Hammer is My Mindfulness

As I said in my first post discussing my experience with depression, as soon as I got over the, “Wait is this what depression is like?” hurdle, I started doing all the things you’re “supposed” to do when treating depression. Exercise, seeing a therapist, eating things, reaching out to people for connection and support, talking to my doctor, yoga, doing things that I know are good for me (like leaving the house to see friends) in spite of my desire to do nothing ever again, etc. etc. etc.

I also, at my therapist’s urging, picked up a mindfulness practice. This was not the first time a therapist had encouraged me to start a mindfulness practice. She was, in fact, the third therapist to do so. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is one of the more common schools of therapeutic practice on the West Coast (it is so deliciously evidence-driven), and mindful awareness plays a big role in DBT skills. I had been introduced to the idea by my first therapist in Portland, but my knowledge of mindfulness practice as a Good Thing had failed to blossom into my own practice. I had recently tried Headspace and failed to stick with it. I liked some components of the Headspace practice progression, but I was utterly turned off by my second ten days of practice, in which we were to focus on how we were practicing mindfulness to help people close to us. (Headspace has since changed significantly, so hopefully the progression of practice has changed as well.)

My new therapist, however, suggested that I start my mindfulness practice with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Body Scan, a half-hour guided meditation. She wanted me to do it every day, just to build some more structure in my life. (One of the hazards of working for myself is that I can do whatever I want whenever I want, which is both great and terrible.) Jon Kabat-Zinn is the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR), and is one of the foremost mindfulness researchers, focused on bringing mindfulness into the scientific and medical mainstream.

I agreed to do the body scan daily, though at the time I was skeptical as to its usefulness. I was not at all clear on why focusing on sensations in different parts of my body was going to make my brain malfunction less. After a week, I asked my therapist why this was an important practice. I have no recollection of the answer, but five months since I started doing it I can say: this body scan bootstrapped my mindfulness practice brilliantly, where nothing else I have tried ever stuck. I did it every day for two months before moving on to seated meditation, and I still revisit it when I am feeling like I haven’t paid enough attention to my body. I have recommended it to at least a dozen people already, and I am recommending it now to you. If you have a human body, this is a great thing to do with it, over and over and over again.

My therapist is full of good mindfulness practices. A few weeks after she recommended the body scan, she suggested switching my focus to my breath and body sensations whenever I noticed I was ruminating (usually, having the same imaginary argument with someone in my head over and over again). This worked dramatically better than my previous approach, which was trying to get my brain to jump to thinking about some other topic every time I noticed the ruminating.

About a month into my newfound mindfulness practice, I had a Very Bad Day. It was one of the worst, darkest, scariest days I have ever experienced, and I was sufficiently freaked out by it that I quit everything. I resigned as manager of the community garden, I resigned as treasurer of Stumptown Syndicate, and I took a leave of absence from work. (My client, bless him, was so kind and understanding that I cried when I read his sweet response to my email about my health crisis.) I offloaded every community responsibility I had taken on and resolved to take no new responsibilities for a year unless they were necessary for my continued ability to survive (ie, job stuff.)

I decided to spend at least 8 weeks off work to focus exclusively on my well-being. During this eight weeks, I went through The Mindful Way Workbook, which is a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy program. The research backing the program was convincing: completing an MCBT program can halve the risk of depression recurring in individuals who have experienced more than one episode of depression. I did NOT want to experience depression like this again, so I dove into both The Mindful Way Through Depression book and the Workbook program in the workbook with great determination.

I cannot say enough good things about The Mindful Way Through Depression. In many ways, it’s a manual for how to be a human with feelings (something I would have been grateful to have as a child). The central concept of The Mindful Way Through Depression is that we have two main ways of relating to existence: Doing and Being. Doing mode is where we spend most of our time. Thinking, planning, analyzing, zipping from one place to another, working working working. Doing mode has served us well, from an evolutionary perspective. Just look at all these cities we’ve built! Think of all the Easy Cheese and Pokemon and roses we’ve created! We’ve got a proper little civilization on our hands, thanks to Doing mode.

The difficulty comes when we try to apply the fundamentals of Doing mode to our internal landscapes, specifically: our feelings. When we apply our amazing analytic skills to trying to get ourselves to feel a certain way, or to stop feeling a certain way, we inevitably make ourselves feel worse. Essentially, by treating our feelings as problems to be solved, we make everything dramatically worse than it would have been if we had just acknowledged we were having a feeling, observed it, and let it pass on its own.

Honestly this blew my mind a little. My experience of emotional management evolved from, “I AM A PURELY RATIONAL CREATURE WHO IGNORES MY FEELINGS BECAUSE THEY ARE USELESS” to “FEELINGS MUST HAVE EVOLVED FOR A REASON AND THUS EACH FEELING MUST BE INTERROGATED FOR A USEFUL SIGNAL THAT I CAN TURN INTO AN ACTION PLAN SO I CAN OPTIMIZE MY LIFE FOR HAVING GOOD FEELINGS.”

As you might have guessed, neither of these is a particularly great approach. Turns out, identifying and feeling your feelings is both far easier and far more effective than either ignoring feelings entirely or trying to bludgeon action steps out of every negative feeling you have.

And that, my friends, brings us back to WHY the body scan is useful. Becoming intimately, exquisitely familiar with the sensations of your body helps you identify emotions, while they are still subtle, before they get to the sobbing-uncontrollably-while-peeling-potatoes/SCREAMING-IN-ALL-CAPS point. You can pinpoint your feelings and hold space for them, and that is usually all that needs to be done! It’s a little like magic.

My therapist, on hearing that I was taking time off work to build a mindfulness practice, suggested that I attend a mindfulness retreat. This was not something I had ever envisioned myself considering: days of meditating in silence sounded pretty intense, especially given than my back complained during the short ten minute sits I was doing for The Mindful Way program. But my therapist wrote down the names of retreat centers in the area for me to check out, and I started investigating.

I found a retreat focusing on relational mindfulness at the Land of Medicine Buddha in Santa Cruz that seemed about right: five days, rather than the nine to fourteen day retreats common at Cloud Mountain (the retreat center closer to home). It landed just right on my schedule, too–I would wrap up week 8 of The Mindful Way program and then leave for the retreat. The Mindful Way program works up to 45 minute seated meditations, which makes a retreat seem significantly less impossible.

I had a lot of anxiety about the retreat–would my brain shatter into a thousand shiny pieces, never to reform, after five days of silence? Would I return a crumpled shell of a person, unable to string sentences together? In short, would that much time trapped with myself make me crazier than I already am?

Well, it *did* shatter my brain into a thousand shiny pieces, but I’d make the argument that it reformed into something much more glorious. It was a truly transformative experience (more to come on this later).

In the month since, I have established a daily seated meditation practice–30 minutes of silent meditation every morning. This month, I am adding an evening practice–a “grab bag” practice that is meant to serve a particular purpose (like a forgiveness meditation or a lovingkindness meditation), followed by a plain ol’ “resting in awareness” meditation.

I have also added a specific self-compassion component to my practice. I’m taking an online Mindful Self Compassion course through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, and I have set aside the 29th of every month to devote to mindfulness practices focusing on my relationship with myself. Mindfulness is pretty rad on its own, but combined with self-compassion it’s AMAZING.

So that’s another thing I have been throwing at my depression, and it turns out to be very useful in just about every area of life (It’s also good for treating anxiety! PTSD! Chronic pain!) I haven’t yet found any experience that is not improved by the application of mindfulness skills*. It is my new favorite tool to throw at problems. When mindfulness is your hammer, all of experience becomes a nail! (Or something like that). If you decide you want to start your own practice, I am BEYOND DELIGHTED to share more of what has been helpful to me in my practice. I’ve included a list of resources below to get you started!

 

Books:

 

Meditations:

 

Apps:

 

Organizations/Classes:

 

Retreat Centers:

 

* Some people have intense and disturbing experiences when they first start a mindfulness meditation practice, usually as a result of previous trauma. If that happens to you, I HIGHLY recommend finding a good mindfulness teacher. Meditation can be a hard thing to navigate alone! Go slowly, and be gentle with yourself. Consider starting with a formal program like The Mindful Way or Mindful Self-Compassion, which have been tested extensively.

The Hammer is My Mindfulness

Deliciously Retro Brain Medicine

One of the first questions I grappled with after accepting that I was suffering from depression was: when do I need to seek medication? I was pretty sure I’d read at least one news article about the research finding that regular, moderate aerobic exercise was as effective as treating mild to moderate depression* as SSRIs. As I had added moderate aerobic exercise to my schedule five days a week shortly after acknowledging my depression, I wondered if medicine would even help.**

Reading the pharmacy materials that came with other people’s anti-depressants did not fill me with confidence. They’re full of medical-speak hedges that translate to, “We don’t know why this works, but it seems to work better than a placebo. Mostly. Unless is makes things suddenly and dramatically worse. Because that happens too. If it happens to you, you should call your doctor right away.”

I talked to my new therapist about when I should seek medication. She suggested I pursue acupuncture treatment, if I was uncomfortable with the idea of anti-depressant medication. Hilariously, acupuncture is another one of those treatments for anxiety and depression that falls into the category of, “This works but we don’t really know why.”

As it turns out, I am way more afraid of needles than I am of psychiatrists, and was desperately tired of nightmares and not eating, so I asked my friend Melissa (who had already graciously put together a list of new therapists that take my insurance) to tell me what steps I needed to take to see a psychiatrist. It ended up being a short list–I just needed to call my primary care physician and get a referral to the adult psychiatry department in the medical center.

My primary care physician, a Nurse Practitioner with a PhD focusing on women’s health, called back to say that adult psychiatry was booked up for many weeks. She wanted me to come in immediately to see her, and honestly that sounded dramatically better than telling my whole story to a stranger so I made an appointment right away.

Before my appointment, Melissa talked me through what to expect and what questions I should be prepared to answer. Has anyone in my family had success with a particular medication for depression? What side effects was I most concerned about? We also talked about how to know if a medicine *wasn’t* working: usually the sudden appearance of troubling new symptoms, like constant crying or sleeping 16 hours a day.

I recruited another friend, Ariel, to accompany me to the appointment. It was an overcast day, gray and heavy. We ate Chinese takeout on my couch and watched Mary Berry dress down Paul Hollywood for being a messy baker, then Ariel drove me to the appointment and waited patiently for me in the lobby.

I approached the appointment with trepidation. I was pretty terrified that my doctor would deem me Not Depressed Enough for Medicine. I was concerned that as I was not suicidal and still mostly managing to feed myself and shower, I would get the “But you seem *fine*” response that is so appallingly common.

It was desperately uncomfortable to go through the story of my symptoms. My doctor wanted to know things like what I considered to be ‘excessive crying’, which I listed as one of my symptoms. I responded, helpfully, by crying. (I think that made my point quite well, really.)

Fortunately, my doctor did nothing so cruel as to tell me there was nothing wrong with me. She gave me the PHQ-9 questionnaire, as well as a questionnaire to assess my anxiety, and concluded that was I pretty depressed but not too anxious (yay?).

As Melissa predicted, my doctor wanted to know if anyone in my family had had success with a particular anti-depressant (alas, no). I was able to tell her about anti-depressants that hadn’t worked for people in my family, though. From that information, my doctor concluded that starting with an old, reliable anti-depressant was the way to go, and wrote me a prescription for Prozac. How deliciously retro.

I explained to her that I was concerned about sexual side effects–my sister described several anti-depressants as having “stolen her orgasms.” My doctor said that it was pretty likely to have some, but that once the medicine reached therapeutic levels in my brain, we could try combining it with something else to address any side effects.

How long should I expect to wait before I start to feel the effects? I asked. She said that I should expect to start feeling a difference in two to three weeks, but that it can take six to eight weeks to reach therapeutic levels.

How would I know if it was not working? I wanted to know. We would have a follow-up appointment in a month, she said, to see if my symptoms had improved. And I should call her immediately if I experience a sudden change in symptoms, suicidal ideation, or other thoughts of self harm.

Psychiatry is not the most confidence-inspiring branch of medicine, really.

My doctor didn’t want to discuss only medication, though. She wanted to know what else was on my treatment plan. Was I seeing a therapist? (I had just engaged a new one). Was I getting the kind of support I needed from my partner and community? (My friend was waiting for me in the lobby.) How was work? (Stressful.) What was I doing for myself? (Daily exercise, weekly yoga, seeing friends regularly.) I appreciated her holistic approach.

She sent a prescription to my pharmacy and instructed me to schedule a follow-up, and sent me on my way. All in all, it was a much less terrible experience than I was concerned it would be.

That night, I started a spreadsheet based on the PHQ-9 questionnaire to track my symptoms. Then, I stopped all the things I was doing to manage my symptoms–no more weed and antihistamines to sleep–so that I would be able to tell whether this medicine was working for me or not.

What was amazing is what happened next: two days after starting the anti-depressant, I WANTED TO EAT SOMETHING ENOUGH THAT I COOKED IT FOR MYSELF. Given that I’d been living on depression burritos, frozen pizzas, and oatmeal, wanting to make and eat strawberry shortcake felt like a goddamn miracle. Zack observed that he actually heard me laugh while I was on the phone with my sister.  He hadn’t heard me laugh like that in months, he said. I was surprised to feel so much better so soon, given that I was expecting it to take several weeks to feel any effects.

Alas, the “holy cow I feel almost normal again” effect of the first few days on the medicine didn’t last, but it did provide a much needed breath of hope as I waited for the medicine to reach therapeutic levels. But even the bad days got a lot better. The excessive crying vanished almost immediately. There were more days when I felt pretty good. The nightmares decreased in intensity and frequency. Food started to hold some appeal again.

Now, five months into being on this anti-depressant, I feel pretty damn good. There are still shadows of the exhaustion that plagued me, but I now am much better at identifying my need for rest before I collapse into a heap and require weeks of recovery. There are side-effects (primarily: orgasms take more effort), but on the whole, I feel remarkably less like I am hovering at death’s door while crying excessively. A++, would anti-depressant again.

*Now that I have the benefit of the perspective that comes from no longer being horrifically depressed, I’m going to say that the depression I was experiencing should not have been described as “mild to moderate”.

**Medicine definitely helped.

Deliciously Retro Brain Medicine

What If I Am Crazy? A Conversation with Myself

Shortly after figuring out that I was depressed, I was lying in bed one night, trying desperately to go to sleep, when this conversation happened in my head.

Me: OH MY GOD WHAT IF I AM ACTUALLY CRAZY?

Observer Mind: Well, leaving aside the issue of the ableism in that concern, what would it mean for you if you were crazy?

Me: It means that I can’t trust my brain! I wouldn’t know if what I was experiencing was really an accurate reflection of reality!

Observer Mind: Hmm, I can see why that would be concerning. What would you have to do if you couldn’t trust your brain?

Me: I’d have to assume that my brain was presenting an untrustworthy account in every situation and triangulate reality by gathering additional evidence and investigating things from other perspectives!

Observer Mind: Don’t you give an entire talk on how everyone is blinded by the limitations of our own perspectives and how we have to gather information from many viewpoints different than are own in order to come to robust conclusions?

Me: … oh yeah, I guess I do.

Observer Mind: So, I think you’re saying that if you’re crazy, you’ll have to practice the kind of interrogative thinking that you loudly, publicly insist is the best practice for everyone?

Me: … yeah.

Observer Mind: That doesn’t seem so bad then.

Me: … I guess not.

Observer Mind: So maybe you should stop worrying about being crazy and go to sleep.

Me: … fine. But I’m going to be cranky about how reasonable you sound right now.

What If I Am Crazy? A Conversation with Myself

In Which Depression is Unexpectedly Sneaky

It wasn’t until the bottom dropped out that I realized what was going on. It crept up on me, so stealthy, that in spite of my extensive experience with depression in friends and family members, I didn’t recognize it until the day that I could. not. stop. crying–and even then I didn’t believe that depression was what I was experiencing.

Because on the one hand, uncontrollable crying seems like a completely reasonable response to current events.

On the other hand, uncontrollable crying makes it really difficult to continue going about your daily business like eating and working.

While sobbing I thought, “Hey, maybe my brain is a little broken right now.”

As my therapist listed the symptoms of depression for me later that day, it occurred to me that my brain had been getting progressively more broken and I hadn’t even noticed, because I was looking for the wrong symptoms. This is my first personal experience with major depression–previously, I had only observed it in other people. My conception of depression was thus based on the symptoms that are easiest to see as an observer. I was looking for anhedonia, for the loss of interest in activities that I had previously loved, for social isolation, for self-harm. I was looking for can’t-get-out-of-bed-stopped-showering-never-smiles depression. Turns out, there are a *lot* of other symptoms of depression, and the whole thing doesn’t necessarily start with anhedonia, and you can remain reasonably functional and still be *really* depressed.

Google helpfully provides this list of symptoms of depression, gleaned from the Mayo Clinic and other reputable sources:

People may experience:

Mood: anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, or sadness

Sleep: early awakening, excess sleepiness, insomnia, or restless sleep

Whole body: excessive hunger, fatigue, loss of appetite, or restlessness

Behavioral: agitation, excessive crying, irritability, or social isolation

Cognitive: lack of concentration, slowness in activity, or thoughts of suicide

Weight: weight gain or weight loss

Also common: poor appetite or repeatedly going over thoughts

For me, I don’t know exactly when it started, because who can even say how these things start? But I can say that I started noticing symptoms in November-December of last year.

That was when the nightmares set in.

At the time, I chalked it up to stress: my partner was on a project that was causing him massive anxiety, we’d just elected a fascist as president, and suddenly there were neo-nazis coming out of the goddamn woodwork. It made sense to me that I’d be having night after night of nightmares about fascists coming for the people I love.

I assumed the accompanying insomnia and inability to stay asleep was a side effect of the nightmares.

Around the same time, I started having a lot of reflux–most intensely in the morning right after waking. This, too, I assumed was a side effect of the nightmares. My doctor agreed that it was probably stress related. I completely lost my desire to eat things. A long course of omeprazole cleared up the reflux, but my appetite never returned.

When I was in Manhattan for work in December, most mornings I sat in the hotel room for an embarrassingly long time, trying to cajole myself into eating a bowl of oatmeal. In goddamn Manhattan, I could find nothing that I wanted to eat. Even the thought of food made me feel queasy.

This was a little unusual for me, but my body can be really particular about food periodically, so I waved it away as an annoying combination of anxiety and seasonal change. (The hardest time for me to plan and make food is at the end of a season, before the next season’s produce has hit the market.) I figured it would go away eventually.

Friends, let me tell you that it did not go away.

I started trying to manage my sleeping difficulty with a combination of weed and old-school antihistamines. Smoking weed before bed helped me fall asleep and dialed down the nightmares, but also made it hard to stay asleep for more than six or seven hours. My body is happiest with 8.5 hours, so weed alone left me constantly sleep deprived. The antihistamines helped me stay asleep, but by themselves that was just trapping myself in the nightmares for longer. Probably, if I had mentioned to anyone that I was only sleeping through a combination of weed and antihistamines someone would have said, “HEY MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO A DOCTOR HERE LET ME HELP YOU MAKE THAT APPOINTMENT”

But I didn’t mention it to anyone because I figured it would go away.

Friends, the fact that we are currently having this discussion should lead you to conclude that it did not just go away.

Over the course of the spring, everything started feeling so much harder. A cloud of exhaustion descended. Every action took dramatically more energy and effort. This seemed like a natural side effect of the trouble I was having with sleeping and eating. I considered murdering all my houseplants because watering them felt impossibly difficult.

I attributed all the crying to sleep deprivation, too. Zack started asking pointedly, “Is everything okay?” I kept telling him it was because, fresh horrors of American governance and white supremacy aside, I couldn’t actually figure out what was wrong.

Even on the day that I couldn’t stop crying, when my therapist was like, “Have we talked about depression at all?” I was skeptical. Sure, I couldn’t stop crying, and eating and sleeping were a struggle that left me constantly exhausted, but there were still things I enjoyed! I had not abandoned my beautiful garden! I laughed with my friends! Occasionally I managed to get work done, and I was still regularly showering and leaving the house! So yeah my brain was definitely broken at the moment but surely it’s not depression, right? Sometimes I still experienced happiness!

Then a few days later, I stopped being able to watch television. Six television shows started and rejected within the first fifteen minutes. Several beloved movies started and then abandoned. When I stopped being able to read–four books started and discarded within a week–I began to consider that maybe, just maybe, I was, in fact, depressed. I *love* to read. Losing the ability to focus on and enjoy a book finally, FINALLY ticked the box on the symptom I associated with depression.

In a lot of ways, it’s pretty comforting to realize that I am actually *sick*, and that this isn’t just the way life is going to be from now on. It’s nice to have an explanation for the strange and unexpected things my brain is doing. I like to think that someday, maybe, I will stop fucking crying. (Though to be honest I will absolutely take the crying over the days when my brain just WILL NOT commit to focusing on anything and I am left in horrible, unending, crushing boredom.)

It does, however, suck a lot right now. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to do to treat depression, but I am getting the impression it is not one of those things that goes away overnight.

In the meantime, I’m eating a lot of bean burritos, which are more nutritious than your average milkshake but almost as easy to eat. (My sister said, “The depression burrito is a real thing.”) It’s a step up from instant oatmeal, anyway. I am trying not to be too frustrated by how utterly uncooperative my brain is being–trying to keep my self-talk more gentle and less exasperated. I am spending a lot of time with my friends, and a lot of time appreciating my garden. In other words, I persist.

I persist.

In Which Depression is Unexpectedly Sneaky

Script for Calling Your Representative about Maxine Waters’ Bill to Investigate Trump’s Ties To Russia

Representative Maxine Waters is introducing legislation to being an independent investigation into Donald Trump’s extensive ties to Russia. Here’s a script to call your representative and ask them to support Representative Waters’ bill.

“Hi, I am (name) from (zipcode). I am calling to ask (representative) to support Maxine Waters’ bill to launch an independent investigation into Donald Trump’s extensive ties to Russia. It is vitally important that Russia, an authoritarian ethnonationalist state, not have undue influence in the White House. A thorough, independent investigation is necessary to ensure that it does not. We can’t afford to have a puppet of Putin running our country. Thanks!”

Script for Calling Your Representative about Maxine Waters’ Bill to Investigate Trump’s Ties To Russia

Script for Calling Your Representatives about the Anti-Union Bill

Every worker protection we have in the United States is a result of the hard work of unions. Unions gave us weekends. Unions gave us a minimum wage. Unions gave us workplace safety regulations. Unions ended child labor. Unions built the middle class. Every victory for labor was won by organized labor unions, often at great personal expense–unionizers and strikers were routinely targeted for violence by both the government and the robber barons of the early industrial period. Many hundreds were killed. Their deaths paid for our worker protections.

The GOP has had it out for unions for decades, passing so called “right-to-work” legislation in states around the country. Slowly, persistently, they have rolled back worker protections and degraded our quality of life. The decades-long attack on unions has resulted in dramatic income inequality in spite of increasing productivity and longer and longer working hours.

Now, the GOP wants to do nationally what it has done at the state level. They must be stopped. Here’s a script for calling your representative.

“Hi, I am (name) from (zipcode). I am calling to ask (representative) to vote no on the anti-union bill being introduced by Reps. Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Steve King of Iowa. Unions are vital for a healthy middle class. The organized labor movement gave us weekends, a minimum wage, the end of child labor, workplace safety regulations, and many many other gains that are necessary to protect workers. Those gains were purchased with the blood of early labor organizers, who were violently attacked by both the US government and the robber barons of the early industrial period. As unions have been eroded at the state level, income inequality has skyrocketed and worker protections have nearly vanished.

If (representative) votes yes on the anti-union bill introduced by Reps Wilson and King, they will be voting to place the short-term profits of companies ahead of the long-term health of the American economy. They will be voting, in essence, to speed the US towards economic collapse and the pitchfork revolution that is likely to follow. Please tell (representative) to vote no on this bill and any others that will weaken labor’s ability to organize in the United States.”

Script for Calling Your Representatives about the Anti-Union Bill