Almost two years have passed since I last posted to this site. As I made clear in the final post, that was intentional; I was entering a downward spiral that was to be one of the darkest times in my life. What only a few of you know is that, if things had continued the way that they had been going, this post would never have materialized. I had expected, in all brutal honesty, to be dead before I’d start writing here again.
Last month, however, that changed. But I’ll get to that in a little bit.
What most people fail to recognize about depression– real, clinical depression– is that it not only saps your mood, but also your ambition. There’s been some amount of research, of both credible and dubious rubric, that links the neurochemistry of mood to that of energy levels. If you’re sad, it can be hard to get moving again, and you sometimes need a push from others to get you on the path back to happiness. In a healthy brain, this imbalance quickly corrects itself.
Depression sufferers do not have healthy brains. That is the number one thing that people not suffering from the affliction do not talk about: that it is a chemical imbalance, like diabetes mellitus or ketoacidosis. When someone is depressed, the brain simply cannot restore the chemical balance needed to end the “sad” mood. It’s actually closer to use the analogy of a phantom limb (the phenomenon noted when amputee victims claim to feel their missing body parts): intellectually, the brain knows it needs to turn on the happy juices, but biologically it can’t.
What’s worse, depression is insidiously degenerative: as time goes by and the brain is continually kept in an imbalanced state, it becomes harder and harder to restore balance and/or teach the brain how to do so. In event-driven depression– such as after a traumatic event– simple talk therapy, over days, weeks, or even years, can be perfectly effective in preventing the disease from taking permanent hold. But if depression is left untreated for too long, the body’s immune response takes a nosedive, and the brain goes into a sort of drunken high-wire act to try to overcompensate. At this stage, the only solution is medication, and it is likely a long-term unto lifetime solution due to the mysteries of neurochemistry.
Fortunately, medication has come a long way from the days of its dawn, when you’d see zombies shuffling through their lives, oblivious to all but the most powerful emotions, good or bad. Unfortunately, that zombie metaphor is exactly what people still think of when they hear the phrase “mental health medicine”. This means people are extremely reluctant to seek out treatment, believing that they’d be surrendering themselves to the pills, when in truth a proper dosage of the right medicines can set them free of their disease, for a while.
I know it sounds like I’m advocating “drugging the problem away”, but the truth of the matter is it took me months to realize that I did need to seek out a solution that might have included medicine. And while the dose I’m on is comparatively little to some of the dosages I’ve seen mentioned on mental health forums, believe me when I say that it has been one of the biggest contributors to the successes I’ve had in the last year. Which, given the last six months, isn’t saying much– but I’m getting to that. Now, actually.
So in May of 2013 I went back into talk therapy to try to get things sorted out. I was suffering from severe burnout as a programmer– in fact, one of the things I need to remember to do is to take down the programming projects I’m still advertising on this site– and was facing a major crisis at work. I’d already resorted to taking “mental health days”; the first of these was actually back in 2011, when I drove myself all the way to the office in the North Hills just to stop at Target and call in sick, too dismotivated to actually go in and trudge through the next eight hours of silence. By 2013 I was documenting what I’d call “crashes”: days where I simply couldn’t focus on work long enough to get through the day without crying in the bathroom. These stretched out in length and frequency as they went on, first only a couple of days at a time in January, until most of May was “crashed”. I sought out help.
By August, I was prescribed an extremely low dosage of sertraline, more commonly known as Zoloft. I hid my anxiety well at the prospect of trying medications, which is to say I had an epic-level freak-out. For two days before I started the regimen, I was alternating between despondent and terrified. I still remember the Saturday morning that I took that half-pill: I had locked myself in my apartment to ensure that if the drug did have any side effects, I wouldn’t come to any undue harm from them.
By Monday I was astonished that I had feared it at all.
Let me make this clear: I still have bad stretches. I still have crashes, though I am now capable of muddling through them and focusing on my tasks in order to end them more quickly. Sertraline is not a miracle drug. It can only do so much, can only keep me from drowning (so to speak): I still have to keep myself afloat. And while I’ve long suspected that I need to have the dosage adjusted, particularly recently, I would never and will never take my experience with the drug as license to adjust that dosage on my own recognizance: I consented to trying the medication only because I was going to be closely monitored by professionals, both medical and psychological. While that all should be obvious, it bears explicit mention due to the massive misconceptions people have about medication.
Anyway. So by September I had managed to get back on my feet mentally and intellectually, and things were going good. But at the same time, I was starting to realize that the high-stress world of being a programmer simply wasn’t doing me any favors, and that my current job was on a declining path. I was being placed in more and more undue pressure than was strictly necessary, and I was being told one thing to my face but expected to do something entirely different once there was an e-mail server between myself and my supervisor. It all came to a head on Thanksgiving, the first chance I’d had to relax in a long time, when my boss sent me an e-mail at 10a– during the Macy’s Parade!– after he had told me the day before “wasn’t going to make anyone work over the holiday”. The issue was minor, and certainly could have waited, but it was clear in the e-mail that delay was unacceptable. I took my boss at his initial word and waited; the following Monday, I was out of work.
In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Over the last six months I’ve been forced to re-evaluate a lot of my life choices thus far. Some I’ve been validated in, some I’ve needed to re-think. One in particular, however, struck me as being a bit prescient: while I’ve always been a bit pessimistic, I clearly remember telling my mother that she shouldn’t get too excited by the dot-com bubble of the 2000s because by the time I was out of school and ready to participate, it would be over. I can’t tell you how I was able to foresee the rise and fall of digital empires over those turbulent years, but in the end I had turned out to be correct; the tech job market in 2002 was a shadow of what it had been in 2000. I decided to stick it out, to try to make my way in the world, but I always seemed to come up short.
When I lost my job last year, I resolved that I was done with being a programmer in a professional capacity. I tried to make headway in some creative projects, but ultimately a prolonged crash took most of my momentum away from me. It wasn’t until April that I started to realize the gravity of everything that was happening. I was so locked into one particular viewpoint of myself that I had failed to recall the very trait that had got me so many tech jobs in the first place: my adaptability. I had been thinking of myself as “a programmer” for so long that I couldn’t see myself as anything else, when in fact “anything else” was exactly the road I needed to take.
So, as April ended, I made up my mind to try a daring and somewhat risky plan. Framing it as “all-or-nothing” helped me muster the motivation I needed to put the plan into motion, but I am fairly certain that I’ll have two or three more chances if this should somehow fail (note: it won’t). On my birthday, three weeks ago, I submitted my application to the University of Pittsburgh to restart school, this time to learn Japanese.
I got the acceptance letter today.
So, folks, it’s my genuine pleasure to announce not just my return to school, but also my return to blogging. After two years of silence, I finally feel like I have something to say about every day that I live from here on out. I am restarting my daily posting goal as well, meaning that you are going to be reading quite a lot more of me in the future. Seven days a week, without fail. And once I’m proficient enough in the language, those daily posts are going to be bilingual– English and Japanese.
In the meantime, I have a lot of work to do before I start classes in late August: I have to find an apartment closer to campus and move there, I have to resolve some ongoing car trouble, and I also have to balance all this work with some leisure activities to make sure I don’t enter the halls of academia on that promised day a burned-out, exhausted wreck.
But for now? Now I’m going to go take a shower and get myself a nice dinner. I think, after the last two years, I’ve earned it.
Later, folks. But sooner than you think.