New Year, Old Depression

I’m not a big crier. I don’t cry during movies or weddings. I didn’t cry when either of my boys were born. I cry when people I care about die, and I cry when I’m in a deep, overwhelming episode of depression.

The day after Christmas was such an occasion. It had been building up, as it often does for me in December, and I grew more anxious as the holiday neared. It was an odd-numbered year, which meant Jack would be with his dad for the holiday; usually I have no trouble with this arrangement, but this year was different for some unidentifiable reason. I felt desperate to keep my family close to me this year. I wanted so badly to have a real Christmas dinner with loads of my loved ones around, but had no ability to make it happen.

We celebrated Christmas with Jack and Dez on the morning of the 23rd before Jack headed to his dad’s. We made plans to brunch with friends on Christmas day, and that was lovely, but my mood continued to sink.

The day after Christmas, I lost my composure completely. I struggled to get out of bed and by late morning I was a teary mess with a giant weight on my chest. I decided it was prudent to head to the psychiatric clinic at Kaiser.

I knew it could take a while, so David stayed home with Dez and I drove to Oakland. I checked in, filled out an intake form, and then sat down to wait. Or rather, I felt so despondent and terrible at that point that I laid down on the waiting room couch and cried steadily while I waited.

At some point a therapist came out to let me know that I could be waiting there another two hours. Then he looked at my intake paperwork and said he’d see what he could do. Not long after that, another therapist pulled me in to her office to ask me some questions and assess my mental state. I told her about my medication struggles and after I listed off the 5 antidepressants I’ve tried in my life, she replied, “So pretty much all of them.” (Uh, no…) I told her I was thinking I needed a new psychiatrist due to the fact that my psychiatrist didn’t seem to understand my issues (every appointment involves him listing off medications I can try without any recommendation as to a course of action), but I was told that Kaiser has a process for changing psychiatrists and given a phone number to handle that later. She then sent me back to the waiting room until a psychiatrist could meet with me.

There was some confusion about the availability of a psychiatrist and at one point I was told to leave and come back in 2 hours. As I was walking to my car, the therapist came to find me and tell me she was going to try to do one more thing, so I should come back and wait some more. I sat down and cried some more until she came out to tell me that she’d squeezed me in to see my regular psychiatrist.

This wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but I was desperate, so I took the appointment. It went much as all of my appointments with him have; I ended up leaving with the same medication prescription, but at an increased dosage, and a new prescription for ADHD-related issues.

Which brings me to today. The increased medication dosage helped somewhat; I am able to get out of bed and I’m not crying randomly. But things are still not great—I’m struggling with a short fuse, nightmares, and feeling antisocial. And the ADHD medication only served to make me jittery and tense, so I’m feeling rather overwhelmed.

I still need to go through whatever process Kaiser has in place to change psychiatrists, too. I keep forgetting, but with good reason: my back decided to start going into spasms on New Years day, then David went out of town for work for 5 days, and then Jack had his own mental health crisis!

I have all the fun.

So that is what the new year has been like for me. I sure hope it gets better.

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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.

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Searching for the Perfect Antidepressant

Searching for the perfect antidepressant can be such a difficult process. Prozac was my companion for a good 8 years. During that time, I was always aware of and worried about the arrival of the day when I would have to switch. Prozac was never 100% effective (it didn’t do much for my anxiety), but it worked well enough that I was able to manage mild depression and anxiety on my own with self-care while I was on it.

Almost two years ago (November 2015), I started noticing some issues popping up. I wrote a note on my phone to make sure I kept track in case I needed to go back to my psychiatrist. My notes read:

  • Scatterbrained, difficulty focusing in conversations
  • Disproportional anger
  • Increased headaches/migraines, back & neck pain
  • Stress dreams almost every night
  • Decreased interest in doing things I normally enjoy

sleeping woman in bed

It then took me a year of feeling this way before I finally did anything about it. The big reason for my delay was fear. I knew Prozac wasn’t the best medication for me, but it felt good enough when I thought of what I would need to go through to find a new medication. Changing antidepressants is, frankly, horrible. The mood swings are intense, and the withdrawals can be debilitating.

But my mental health problems started impacting my relationships and my work. Good enough was no longer cutting it.

I reached out to my friend Chelley and asked her to do me a favor. I asked her to bug the heck out of me until I made an appointment. And she did that for me, sending me a few messages over the course of a week or two, and then I finally went in to see my (new) psychiatrist in November.

To my surprise, my psychiatrist suggested I stick with Prozac. He gave me something called Seroquel to help with anxiety on an as-needed basis. Unfortunately, it put me to sleep when I took even a quarter of a pill. That was not going to help me in the middle of a work day!

It took me until March to go back and see the psychiatrist again. He then suggested I try Wellbutrin with the Prozac. So I started with a low dose of Wellbutrin a couple of days later. At first, I felt pretty good and could deal with the mild side effects (thinking they would dissipate). I was able to concentrate better at work and I wasn’t dreading every single task at home. I was optimistic that this medication would work out.

BUT–of course there is a but–a few days in I started feeling physically unwell after increasing the dose to what was supposed to be a therapeutic level. I got a headache on the right side of my head and around my eye and it wouldn’t respond to pain reliever. Around 3pm each day I started getting nauseated and exhaustion would hit. I thought I was just adjusting to a new medication, but about a week in, I ended up in bed, completely laid out with nausea, headache, exhaustion, sweating and shivering. Plus, it felt like my brain was literally burning.

It was Serotonin Syndrome.

So I went back to the psychiatrist again and we decided to stop the Prozac and Wellbutrin and try something else. Thus began the withdrawal journey!

I won’t bore you with those details, but it wasn’t pleasant. I got off the Prozac and transitioned onto Lexapro in mid-April. I started off small (my psychiatrist is cautious after the burning brain incident), and then increased the dosage when it didn’t seem to be working all that well.

Three and a half months later, it’s still not working well. Sometimes I’m okay and feel like myself, and sometimes I am bawling for no reason or hiding in my bedroom with paralyzing anxiety. My hair is also falling out. (Note: My psychiatrist says, “Hair loss is not a common side effect from Lexapro, so I’m not sure what’s causing this.” My internet search suggests differently, but whatevs. I’ll see if it goes away after I stop the Lexapro.)

I feel bad for those around me. I snap at or start arguments with my husband. I am spacey with my kids. I make stupid mistakes at work. I complain almost constantly on Twitter. And I feel horrible about all of it.

I have an appointment this week to go back in to see my psychiatrist and hear what he suggests trying next. I just want to feel okay again. Why is it so hard?

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Mental Illness, Mass Violence, And A Brick Wall

I’ve written about my brother Daniel previously here and here. Both of those posts are very much worth reading to understand our family’s story.

Here in the US it seems we are dealing with mass shootings on a regular basis now. It may or may not be due to an increase in the actual number of shootings, but for whatever reason we are becoming more aware of and focused on the problem. Some people blame misogyny, others blame gun laws, and still others place the blame on the media for sensationalizing the gunmen. Many (if not most) of us are at a complete loss as to what to do to address – and hopefully prevent – more violence.

By Francois Polito (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Francois Polito (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have a solution to the problem, unfortunately. I wish I did! But I hear people asking why these things happen and I do have some insight to offer in that regard – on the individuals who are violent, mentally ill, and left completely unchecked due to enormous flaws in our legal and mental health systems.

First, let me make a few things clear:

The diagnosis of a mental illness should not be a grounds for denying a person rights by itself.

The vast majority of us living with mental illness are not violent and present no danger to those around us.

The fact that a person suffers from a mental illness does not mean that he/she cannot make good decisions.

With that said, there are those out there that are both violent and mentally ill – and they are not receiving sufficient treatment. Further, there is no recourse for those around them – there is only brick wall after brick wall standing in the way of getting their loved ones help. Family and friends have to sit and watch while the illness continues to eat away at everything that was good about the person.

After each shooting, we are lambasted with details about the shooters and their families. In most of these cases, so many aspects are eerily familiar to me. The recent shooting near Santa Barbara by Elliot Rodger, which was mostly blamed on misogyny, struck a huge chord with me – the big similarity being that my brother has made many of the same statements as Rodger regarding women. Like the shooter, my brother believes that those around him are to blame for his lot in life. If he were to go on a murderous rampage that was aimed at women, a person might say that his misogyny was at the heart of it and they wouldn’t be completely off-base.

But, here is the thing – over the years as Daniel’s illness has gotten progressively worse, he has also made horrible, violent statements about actors, people of color, doctors – even babies. There is no guessing who his derision will be aimed at next. Any violent acts he commits could happen to occur while he is focused on any of these groups of people. This is how his mental illness works.

Remember: not all mental illness works that way and most who suffer from mental illness (or even the specific illness my brother suffers from) are NOT violent. Individuals are different and that means that the ways in which mental illness manifests in each person will be different, even if they have the same diagnosis.

My brother has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and, in his case, he exhibits violent tendencies when he is at a low point (despite the fact that aggression is not listed as a symptom for the disorder – for him, it IS a symptom that his illness is flaring big time). His understanding of his life story differs from the generally accepted reality. His understanding of events and people differs from reality. His understanding of language and the meaning of words differs from what is agreed-upon by society. He lives in an alternate reality, one that is not truly representative of what is actually going on around him.

His behavior is not the result of societal attitudes – his behavior is due to the way his brain processes information. Because of this, he latches onto things that he hears and sees around him that fit into his own twisted view of the world – many of those things happen to deal with racism, sexism, conspiracies, etc. – anything having to do with extreme displays of emotion or radical ideas. If something doesn’t fit into his ideas about the world, he will either dismiss it completely or reframe it to fit into his own way of thinking.

Unlike my brother, most of these shooters haven’t been diagnosed with a mental illness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from mental illness, does it? In the case of Elliot Rodger, he had seen several therapists and his parents had called the police because they were concerned about his behavior. Having no prior knowledge of the weapons he had stored in his home or his many internet rants (which could have provided important information about his mental state), the police walked away when Rodger assured them that he wasn’t going to do anything violent.

We ask why we didn’t this coming, but even if we did – what could be done about it?

I can’t tell you how many specialists my brother has seen over the years who never diagnosed him with Schizoaffective Disorder. (He has diagnosed with ADD at one point as a child, which was clearly a drop-in-the-bucket of what was really going on.) Many of us who suffer with mental illness can tell you that RARELY does anyone hand over a piece of paper with a diagnosis on it, even if they are more than willing to write a prescription to treat symptoms – and it’s extremely common to be mis- or under-diagnosed. Each type of mental illness can manifest in so many different ways and symptoms can change drastically over time. In my brother’s case, the longer he goes untreated, the more his disease seems to progress and take him further from reality.

The presence of mental illness is one piece of the puzzle, but we have to ask whether there are adequate systems in place to address violent mental illness and prevent that violence from being directed outwardly and at the public.

Due to my family’s experience (and the stories of others who have shared their own struggles to get help for ill family members) I can say with 100% confidence that NO, our system is absolutely NOT set up to handle these issues in any sort of helpful manner. And there is very little that is being done about that fact, despite the growing concern over occurrences of public acts of mass violence.

My brother has talked again and again about inflicting violence on others – family, strangers, whatever. He has described in detail what he would do in an attempt to get away with it, stating that he would leave various body parts of his victims in random, separate trash cans. He has spoken positively of concentration camps. He is paranoid, delusional, and has hallucinations. He has made threats directly toward people, destroyed property, and, most recently, he has physically assaulted members of my family. He has published his rants all over the internet – just as Elliot Rodger did, and countless other perpetrators before him – and our family’s attempts to get help for him, to prevent his aggression from escalating violently and publicly, have gone nowhere.

The police have been called many times over the last 6 years or so, but only the most recent incident led to any criminal action – when he punched my mother in the eye, he was finally arrested. My mother moved to an undisclosed location and got an order of protection against her only son, as much as that killed her to do it. My brother was quickly released from jail and assigned a court date. In lieu of more jail time and felony charges, the court ordered him to participate in a “mental health program,” a program that doesn’t require that he take medication, be supervised by anyone, or be admitted for in-patient care. He simply has to attend counseling.

So, to recap, we are talking about an adult male with a diagnosed mental illness that he refuses to treat (or even acknowledge), numerous violent outbursts that have required police intervention, jail time, and restraining orders, plus detailed plans for other acts of violence against the public. Is counseling going to cut it?

My brother can easily obtain a gun or guns LEGALLY. After all, he has no felonies on his record and has never been held as an in-patient at a mental facility (my mother tried to have him admitted – they wouldn’t take him because they didn’t have enough beds, he didn’t appear out of control, and he is over 18 and didn’t want to be admitted) – which in California is grounds for denying the purchase of a gun. Apparently his therapist has insufficient evidence to show he is a threat toward anyone – his sense of self-preservation is still strong and he tends to not mention his violent thoughts to those with authority. My mother has done everything she could think of to give the therapist, the police, and the court the information they need to address my brother’s problems, but there is only so much she can do while also keeping herself safe from him.

My family members and I can tell you that my brother wouldn’t think twice about going on a shooting spree. He doesn’t really understand the emotions of others, and in fact seems to enjoy seeing emotions played out in extreme ways. It clearly doesn’t matter what his family members say, though – we’ve exhausted the system.

At this point it seems that his case is a lost cause and he is a ticking time bomb. And when it goes off, the police and even his therapists will probably say there was no warning or that the evidence was insufficient to do anything to prevent his acts of violence.

But clearly there is evidence…there is just no solution to this glaring problem.

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I Can’t Write About Spain

I want to write about how amazing last week’s trip to Spain was. Because truly, it was wonderful. I needed that change of scenery. I needed to get away from the stress of day-to-day life. David and I badly needed that time together to be a couple and not caregivers. We got that in Spain and it was lovely. It was so very worth it!

Some day, we’ll go back.

We had a whole week abroad free of worry (for the most part). And I wish I could say that I feel refreshed after that change of scenery, but I don’t. I know I should feel happy – my soul renewed and inspired – and I should be ready to tackle everything all over again. I feel conflicted instead of happy. Less than a day back and the blanket of depression I’d tried to leave behind me when I got on the plane to Madrid enveloped me all over again. Every time I’m asked how Spain was, I say, “it was…good.”

Spain was awesome.

On the other hand, I was not awesome; therefore Spain was…a mixed bag.

I just want to forget the less wonderful things, but I can’t. I’m stuck.

I spent a lot of the week battling a nasty cold that seems to have turned into a sinus infection. I dealt with insomnia (which hit at different times than my husband’s insomnia). Half the time I longed for the comfort of my own bed and an ability to recover from my cold without missing out on a whole world outside the hotel. I was so overwhelmed by many of the wondrous things we saw and yet I lacked interest in other things that I usually would enjoy. I had very little appetite to take full advantage of the foods and wines I had been looking forward to trying. I was so out of it by the end of the trip that I accidentally forgot a painting we had bought in Seville in the hotel lobby before we left on a train back to Madrid. Then on our last night in Spain, David and I argued, my debit card was eaten by an ATM, and I woke up in the middle of the night with a debilitating migraine that had David looking up the cost of medical care for tourists.

There was a lot of bad. It wasn’t all bad and in fact I felt mostly relaxed while in Spain, but there was enough bad to reinforce the feeling that the universe continues to punish me for something that I’m not even aware of doing.

That’s ridiculous, I know. This is life and there are good things and bad things and if I could just remember to think more about those good things than the bad things, I could be a much happier person.

I want to focus on the good. I want to write pages and pages about the magical town of Sevilla and the sheer awesomeness of the architectural details we saw everywhere in Spain. I want to offer recommendations for places to try for tapas and let you know that Spanish in Spain is different than Mexican Spanish. I have lists to share – of American things we’d miss if we ever moved to Spain and things that Spain does better than America. I have nearly four hundred pictures to show off, many of which only offer hints of how mind-blowing everything was and really need some narration!

But I’m depressed. I’m still sick and I had another migraine last night. And it’s December, which has traditionally been a terribly hard month for me anyway.

So instead of writing about Spain, I wrote this.

I’m sorry.

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