Drowning in December: A Depression Story

December feels like drowning. The chill in the air sucks at me, the gloom from a hidden sun suffocates me, and the weight of a million responsibilities pulls me down. I am sinking beneath it all.

I have been fighting this relapse of depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms for about a year as of this month. I’ve gotten to a functional place; I can work and take care of my kids reasonably well. Almost reasonably well. These are the things I’ve prioritized over everything else in my life out of necessity.

I look around at my house and see clutter; we are STILL cleaning up from Thanksgiving, in fact. I look at my backyard with the broken fence and my patio dotted with random pieces of rotting furniture. It’s all a reminder that I’m not keeping up with the day-to-day and it’s been building up and is even less manageable than it used to be. It’s a visual representation of the garbage in my brain that I can’t seem to clear out.

In the middle of my own struggles, Jack has mental health challenges, as well. The fallout from cancer is seemingly neverending. His last successful blood draw was over 6 months ago; he is long overdue. We have (and by that I really mean David has) made four attempts in the last month to get the draw at the lab, but Jack’s fear and panic have won out each time. He has had anxiety and depression, too. And so we are heading back to therapy this week, and adding a psychiatrist to the mix.

He’s 11. This is too much for an 11-year-old. Hell, I’m almost 37 and it’s too much for me.

As for me, there is nothing to be done but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep trying whatever medication cocktail my psychiatrist suggests, and keep focusing on the fact that I’m still IN IT but that I will float back to the top eventually.

Try not to sink. Try to swim. The surface is there; you just have to the find it.

Trying to Figure it Out

Recently my doctor said he thinks I have ADHD. He said I could get a full assessment to be sure, but that the first treatment he would suggest to treat some of the depression and anxiety symptoms I’ve been struggling with would also address ADHD issues.

I was taken by surprise. At this point in my life, I hadn’t expected to add yet another thing to the list of labels and acronyms assigned to my mental health. The implications of this felt a bit overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure what to think about it.

I don’t like surprises.

I did some reading to try to process it all. Processing takes a while for me, even for things that seem simple. I have to gather tons of info, jumble it all around, chew it up, poke at it, and look at it again and again. That’s how I work and at this point in my life I’m mostly used to it. My first answer to a lot of things is often not the true one; it’s the reflexive one. I’m still working on my reflexes. I’m still trying to integrate my emotions and my intellect, two seemingly opposing forces.

The more reading I did, the more it all made sense to me. I reviewed the symptoms of ADHD and wondered how in the world I hadn’t seen it sooner (and why my prior doctors hadn’t suggested it). I talked to a friend who was surprised I hadn’t already been diagnosed – she had assumed I had because it was clear to her.

I have always thought I was a pretty self-aware person but this new information made me doubt that.

As I started looking at my struggles in a new light, I though about Jack and his struggles. And I felt guilt.

I should have found this out earlier. I should have known this about myself. And why didn’t I take it more seriously when Jack was diagnosed? Why didn’t I do more reading then? Why have I let him deal with this all on his own?

Intellectually I know why I didn’t do more reading and why I didn’t take it more seriously when Jack got the diagnosis a year and a half ago. I couldn’t. I was overwhelmed and wrung out after getting him through 3+ years of cancer treatment. Not to mention, I had a newish baby to take care of and was looking for a job. I couldn’t handle another thing at that point in time. I needed to take a breath.

That breath has lasted a lot longer than I anticipated.

As I said, my intellect and my emotions don’t always get along. They seem to each have their own separate timelines. So this may take a bit more time to process, but I will get there…I hope. In the mean time Jack and I will talk about our challenges and our strengths and maybe we’ll figure a few things out together. I’m sure he’ll teach me a few things along the way, as well.

Sometimes the challenges your kid faces are the very things that give you the kick in the pants to get your own shit together.

What the ACA Means to Average Americans

Last week I posted something to Facebook about how upsetting it was that the GOP is taking actions to dismantle the ACA. That post ended up in the trending topics on Facebook, and I had to turn it to friends only as a number of strangers and trolls decided to chime in. I was headed out of the house for the Women’s March and couldn’t address the ugliness entering my feed, so I put it on lock down.

I thought I would take the time here on my blog to post in more detail, though, and address some of the rhetoric I’m hearing out there. I can offer some additional insight into the issues since I’ve worked in the healthcare field (to be specific, I worked in the Administration and Finance department dealing with contracts, physician payments, and Board meetings). Others in the healthcare may have a different take, I suppose, but here is mine.

First, a note: There has been a lot of spin about what the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) is and why people want it. Republicans have lobbied hard against the ACA for years. Many people have forgotten that the original iteration of the ACA was torn apart by Republicans and what we were left with is just a shadow of what President Obama intended–literally, the bare minimum he could get through Congress. There are a lot of things wrong with the ACA, of course, and that is in large part because of the refusal of Republican lawmakers to work with Democrats during that time (and since). Some states were able to develop their own ACA-related programs to address the holes in the law, and some were not. So in many areas around the country, insurance companies have hiked rates because there is little or no consequence to them.

Ewokmama.com: Why we Need the ACA

Logistics of implementation aside, I want to make it clear that my support of the ACA is not about wanting free healthcare for my family. In fact, we don’t have insurance through the ACA programs. We have an employer-sponsored plan because we are lucky enough to be in good health and able to work. The unemployment rate is pretty low at the moment and my husband and I have pretty secure jobs (as secure as any job is these days).

With that said, the tenants of the ACA impact ALL healthcare plans. See this article for more on that.

When I use my family as an example of why we need the ACA, it’s because my family is pretty typical. Our circumstances are subject to change at any time, just as most Americans who don’t have a hoard of cash as a safety net. We are living paycheck to paycheck and have credit card debt and have experienced lay offs in the past. We have a house and cars, but those things could easily be taken from us if we hit hard times–just like so many other Americans.

There are many, many Americans who do not have employer-sponsored plans. Some are unable to work, perhaps due to illness or because they are caregivers. Some are self-employed or work with small companies that do not offer healthcare. Some have lost their jobs–most people I know have experienced a lay off at some point in their lives! The ACA is meant to help all of these people and prevent them from going into catastrophic debt from which they can never recover.

You can easily google “how much does cancer cost” and find out just how financially catastrophic that diagnosis can be.

And then there are those pre-existing conditions clauses. These do directly impact my family. My older son, a cancer survivor, is considered to have a pre-existing condition. That will never go away. He cannot hide it because he will need monitoring for the rest of his life to catch any other issues that cancer treatment causes. I have mild asthma and a history of mental health issues. My younger son has Reactive Airway Disease, which is often a precursor to asthma; he is only two–who knows what else will come up for him.

Prior to the ACA, even employer-sponsored healthcare plans could exclude us from coverage for periods of time. Prior to the ACA, and before I had employer-sponsored healthcare, I was denied private healthcare insurance due to a history of mild asthma and depression. I could not afford to pay for the medications to treat these health issues out of my pocket, so they went untreated.

When people cannot afford to take care of their health, that impacts their ability to work and be fully functioning members of society. Their health problems do not magically go away during that time!

Now let’s talk about hospitals. Did you know that if someone shows up in an Emergency Room, the hospital cannot deny them care even if they can’t pay? Some uninsured patients that show up in ERs are able to qualify for Medicaid (which, I might add, also doesn’t reimburse the hospital 100% for cost of care), but some are not. So many hospitals are taking on the cost of caring for uninsured or “under-insured” patients. If there is a large number of these people who need health services and cannot afford to pay for them, the hospital accrues large amounts of debt. The hospital has to then raise their rates for the rest of us to make up for the gap in operating costs.

And what happens if we refuse to pay those higher hospital bills? Well, in many cases those hospitals get shut down. This was a major issue for the Catholic hospital where I worked in rural northern California. It nearly shut down. Hundreds of people were laid off to keep it operating!

These issues snowball. Rural hospitals and facilities in debt have trouble hiring quality medical staff. The quality of care goes down. More mistakes are made and more lawsuits happen. People die, and costs continue to skyrocket.

This was happening in rural areas all over the country before the ACA. And these rural hospitals are still struggling due to key provisions missing from the ACA.

But if the ACA is repealed, it doesn’t fix any of these problems. We just go back to large numbers of people being uninsured or under-insured!

We need to fix the ACA. We need healthcare reform to hold insurance companies accountable–not a big gaping hole.

Please, call your representatives and demand they either KEEP THE ACA or develop SOME sort of bandaid in the mean time!

Why I Marched on Oakland

On January 21st, I marched in Oakland as part of the Women’s March on Washington. I know there are some out there who don’t understand what marching accomplishes. I don’t always know the answer to that, but sometimes you feel strongly about things going on in the world and you can’t sit there anymore and do nothing. Sometimes, marching just feels right.

It was a diverse group that marched in Oakland. It wasn’t only women; there were people of every color, size, shape, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and flavor. The reasons why participants marched were many and varied.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Here are the many reasons that I marched (with my son Jack) yesterday:

  • To show that I will not be a silent victim of Trump’s fascist agenda and toxicity.
  • Because every person who marches builds up a critical mass that results in 2.5 million people, which shows that we are not a small minority of people who are concerned with the dangers of a Trump administration.
  • To show support to every person who will be targeted and harmed by Trump’s agenda and toxic atmosphere for simply trying to live their life:
    • people of color
    • LGBTQIA people
    • women
    • immigrants
    • those in need of affordable healthcare and protections against pre-existing conditions clauses
    • children who deserve to go to school without worrying about gun violence
  • To feel solidarity with my fellow citizens who also want to build a better America–an America that is constantly improving and not trying to return to the past.
  • To be part of a movement so big that it cannot be ignored.
  • To show my children what freedom means.

I will keep marching because it means something to me and reminds me what it means to be an American.

Sharing Our Story About Pediatric Cancer

Saturday we attended the Grand Finale event for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man & Woman of the Year campaign (Bay Area Chapter). Jack and Celia, the Boy and Girl of the Year, handed out the awards to the participants and the winners were announced. The grand total for the campaign was also announced – 10 weeks of fundraising resulted in $804,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Candidates who raised over $50,000 are able to directly choose a research grant to fund with that money. Pretty awesome!

I am hopeful that after my talks with some of the candidates, they are aware of the issues in childhood cancer treatment and will direct their funds toward those research grants.

Jack Boy of the Year

At dinner during the event, I sat next to the President & CEO of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Dr. DeGennaro. He is a very nice man and it was clear he cares deeply about what the organization does. I took the opportunity to let him know what it meant to us to be part of the Man & Woman of the Year campaign, and also to emphasize that we need more focus on new, better treatments for kids (an area that is consistently underfunded). He said it’s one of the issues at the forefront in his mind (as well as prevention!), and that one of the challenges with getting new treatments for kids is that many in the medical community see the high survival rates (over 90% for ALL, for instance) and think their work is done.

Researchers, physicians, and advocates…we are nowhere near done. Cancer treatment for kids takes YEARS and it’s incredibly hard on the whole family. While the treatments usually work, they are not great – they cause secondary cancers, organ damage, learning problems, and other terrible (and sometimes deadly) side effects. Most of the time during Jack’s treatment, I didn’t worry about the cancer killing him – I worried about infection, which was statistically more likely to be a problem.

Friends, this is my challenge to you – please share our family’s story whenever you can. My wish is to spread awareness and hopefully get more funding diverted to childhood cancer research – for reference, only 4% of federal funding is devoted to childhood cancer through the National Cancer Institute. This is despite the fact that cancer is the #1 disease killing children.

Here is our family’s interview video that was made as part of this campaign. Please feel free to share it far and wide.

Note: I’ve read that if you donate to LLS, you can earmark the funds for pediatric cancer research by making a note in the memo section that states: RESTRICTED TO PEDIATRIC BLOOD CANCER RESEARCH. Additionally, for those who are donating at least $10,000 LLS says you can tie your donation to a specific research portfolio.