Tag Archives: depression

Silver Screen Sentiments

A few years before my Dad died, my sister gave me a rather interesting Christmas gift: a ticket stub scrapbook. I was already well into my habit of seeing movies regularly, but there was something a bit more to the scrapbook than just a place to keep a record of what I’d seen. I put every ticket stub I had into it, which meant we went to see National Treasure 2 that weekend. As time went on, though, I meant to try to keep a perfect record of my cinematic consumption from there on out.

I love movies, but more than just watching them I love going to the movies. A theater is, for me, a place of refuge, where I can set aside the troubles of the real world for a couple of hours and watch someone else’s story unfold before me. There is peace to be found in even the most gleefully violent turn-your-brain-off action cliche heap. And it’s all larger than life, larger than is possible to replicate at home. I won’t ever give up my huge flatscreen, but it’s nothing compared to a glorious DLP IMAX wall of film. So I go to the movies, because some movies just plain deserve to be seen that way.

In Cleveland– actually Macedonia– I would almost like clockwork go to the theater and see one or two movies each Saturday. It was a comfortable and peaceful routine. I kept it up when I moved to Pittsburgh, but as I started to get back to collecting games and anime series for my library, I found myself more and more spending those Saturdays at home, marathonning a game or TV box set. I had almost ended the practice. 

The scrapbook changed that. I started paying attention to release dates; if there was something I wanted to see, I tried to go on opening weekend. Funnily enough this also meant seeing some big-ticket Ghibli films, too, like the theatrical runs for Ponyo and Arietty. And, of course, the Marvel movies were starting up again. It was a good time to go catch some flicks.

And then depression hit. One of the first things that depression does is take things you once loved to do and make you feel bored by them. Actually, you don’t feel bored. You don’t feel enjoyment. You don’t feel pleasure. You just plain don’t feel anything. The technical term for this is anhedonia, from the same Greek root that gives us hedonist. Someone who is anhedonic is literally unable to feel pleasure or happiness. You can tickle them all you like but the laughter will be a mere unconscious physiological response; there will be no sincere mirth in it. Kind of like baking out a tray of cookies, only to open the oven and find absolutely nothing inside, not even the baking sheet the cookies were on. You wanted cookies. You got a puzzlingly intractible nothingness.

Movies, either at home or in a theater, just didn’t do it for me anymore. It baffled me, because while I was in the theater I was laughing along with the punch lines, gasping at the villains, and generally appeared to be enjoying myself. But it never sank in the way it used to. Of all of the things that I could say about depression, that is the most frustrating topic to discuss because there literally is no vocabulary in any language on earth to accurately express the complete and total void within my mind. Even the word void doesn’t cut it: it implies a contrast with non-void. If it had been just a dead chunk of my brain– like I’d had a stroke or something– eventually neurons would reroute themselves within the healthy parts to restore proper order (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Depression isn’t so much having to make detours in your brain’s highway system as it is waking up one morning to discover that every square millimeter of asphalt in said system has spontaneously become molten lava, and your car’s magnesium rims have just exploded, setting your garage on fire, and you have to be at work in ten minutes. Still not accurate. But close. The reality is worse.

The kicker of it is that it’s completely out of one’s conscious control. It’s all to do with neurotransmitter levels in the brain, the internal messaging system that allows four pounds of flesh to safely run the other hundred-odd pounds. The brain, already awash in a faulty mix of those signaling chemicals, overcorrects for their influence. Unfortunately, at this point the damage is done, because the overcorrection becomes the new “how to fix this” procedure. When next the sads hit, the brain goes overboard in the other direction, unbalancing itself unwittingly because it has difficulty telling whether or not a little grief is going to germinate into a full-blown crash.

I used to wonder why people drink to excess, or use drugs that they know are not good for them, or do other self-destructive things in the name of avoiding feeling bad. I don’t anymore. At a certain point, you become desperate to feel happy again– to feel anything again, even just for a little while. I hit that point. Hard. But I still count myself extremely lucky that I was lucid enough to know  the dangers were far worse than the potential benefits. Not everyone does. Worse, not everyone who hits that point even cares.

But I got help. I am on medicine now– it’s not a cure-all, but I’m not the zombie I feared I would be, either. I’m back in therapy. And, probably most importantly, I’m going to the movies again. Today was a double-feature, Jurassic World and Inside Out. I lost the stub for the first one, which upsets me (but not that much– it was a pretty basic monster movie, saved only by Chris Pratt’s outstanding performance). But the second flick… it felt great to go back into the theater and sit down as the lights dimmed. 

For the first time in a very long time, I found peace in the darkness.

Fight or Flight

Throughout the life of this blog, and its predecessor, anime conventions have been a big part of my social activity. I’m grateful for the time that I spent both participating as a patron of these conventions, and for the effort and work I put in to them as a contributor. I made some very close friends through the time that I was with the local convention, and I had some other people who I was not as close to but was still amicable with for the sake of the show. But today, two years after I was dismissed from the service of that show, I cut off the last and most tenuous of those relationships. It was not out of malice, but rather a realization that, since there was no business connection which mandated me to swallow discomfort at certain behaviors, I had no real reason to continue association with those individuals. Of course, it was sparked by one incident and one individual in particular, but that was (as is usually the case) the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A lot of people don’t know this, but two years ago, I came very close to leaving Pittsburgh and all of my friends behind. I felt as if the world around me had come crashing down; that I had overstayed my welcome in this city, and that I needed to leave in order to be able to move on and recover. If I had done so, I might have managed to join up with another convention, might have made more friends, might have been in a completely different situation. But in truth, I knew deep in my heart that I wouldn’t. I would have left Pittsburgh and recommitted myself to my previous habit of isolation, of coming home night after night to an empty apartment, playing video games alone and never once reaching out to anyone again. After all, I’d been burned so badly once again; the experiment had ended in failure and disproven my tenuous hypothesis that I could be a social creature. Being miserable and alone would have appeared preferable to being happy with others, just long enough for them to leave.

I thought seriously about it. Of course, in the end, I decided to stay. And it has brought me pain nearly every day since then, as the circle of friends I had previously engaged with and found a place in continued to deteriorate. Some friends had their circumstances change; others deliberately cut others off; still others left Pittsburgh themselves. Through it all I tried to remain friends with as many of them as I could, fighting my instinct tooth and nail to keep sight of the fact that I didn’t have to run away again, that I still had people here who I cared about and who reciprocated that affection. Each day that passed when another friend dropped off the radar was another body-blow to that assertion.

It all came to a head about a month ago, when one individual tried to get me to reconnect with the convention organization. The management that had dismissed me was still in charge, and I harbored doubts that I would fare any better under them this time than I had when I still had goodwill and ambition for the convention. I attempted to make it clear that I didn’t want to be part of the organization again, but the end result was that the person who attempted to reach out to me got the wrong impression and, I think, took it personally. The dismissal had been a personal insult to me, but it was not that individual who had done so. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding culminated in a breakdown in communications today, and prompted both of us to mutually terminate relations. That person and I had almost never seen eye to eye, and so I’m sure that neither of us are too terribly broken up about it.

Afterwards, of course, I felt myself wondering what was keeping me in Pittsburgh. Obviously now there is a more urgent force keeping me here, specifically my continuing education, but there was still an extremely strong urge to consider disappearing again. It has been on my mind throughout 2014, especially considering that up until May I had no real attachments keeping me here. I could have left any time I wanted. I chose, however, to stay; to leverage the resources available here to bring myself closer to a greater amount of freedom if and when I choose to leave later on. That choice is still a few years off now, but it has been on my mind today.

My education plan includes, as a matter of necessity, an extended period of time spent overseas in order to more fully immerse myself in the language, culture, and idioms of Japan. I love travel, and it would be dishonest to say that I’m not looking forward to the trip. But the reason for the travel is not just for the educational opportunity it provides, and it is also not solely for the entertainment and excitement of international tourism. In a sense, crossing the Pacific Ocean is a real chance for a new start. I’ve said on more than one occasion that once I leave Pittsburgh, the odds are not good that I will return for very long, if at all; most of the work that I would be looking to do is centered on the West Coast, and if that doesn’t work out, I can freelance from pretty much anywhere on the planet. I wouldn’t mind an itinerant lifestyle.

Even with all of this on my mind, I have found myself not wanting to leave. I’m making new friends in my classes, socializing more and forging new connections once again. Each day that passes I find myself more and more unable to make the mental severance that I had throughout my time at Gannon: that the campus was merely a way-station, the origin point of my journey, but never more than first base. The Pitt campus feels more like a home that I will not want to leave. Though I’m only familiar with a few of its buildings right now, each day I learn more places that feel like they are mine now, that I belong here. I am only a visitor here, but I increasingly don’t want to leave.

Last week, I did something uncharacteristic: I went to a Pitt Panthers game. Well, half of one anyway; it was a blowout by the end of the first quarter, and I was in lousy seats in direct sunlight, so I left near the end of the half. Before the game started, though, the Alma Mater was sung, and I was struck by one of the lines in the song: “Over fate and foe victorious”. The past few years have been bad, for me, in the professional sphere and in my personal life. My health had a bad scare, and my mental health hit a breaking point. A lot has happened, enough so that the phrase does little to really encapsulate the breadth of the challenges. But you know what? I’m still here. It hasn’t been easy. It isn’t going to get any easier. But I am still here. I’m here, and there are still people here who want me here. I am where I belong, at least for now.

I can live with that.

Stand Up/The Vanguard

In a few short hours– less than half a day– I’ll be beginning my second college experience, and with it, my second career. Quite a bit has happened in the past ten months, much of which would destroy anyone who had not already endured it, but one thing remains true: I am a survivor. I cannot be broken so long as I can see a way forward. I have clawed my way out of hellish situations in the past, and this one– while still the worst challenge I’ve ever been set against– is no different.

I got to thinking about this a little this afternoon. I remember what I had to my name when I left Cleveland for the last time; I had sold off all but a handful of my most treasured possessions and felt that there could be no recovering from such a disaster. That was the end of 2006, the conclusion of a dark chapter in my life, and the beginning of a rebirth of sorts. 2007 was not easy, but it was better. By 2009 I had considered the Reclamation Project complete, and was looking to improve my situation further than I had been before my retreat. I may have overextended my reach in some cases, but by and large I was on the right track– until I suffered an exceptional advance of my depression in 2012. Life collapsed around me then, and while not all of it can be traced back to the disease which is my daily hell, it certainly didn’t help matters.

Tomorrow, though, starts the rebuilding phase again. It will not be easy. It will not be quick. I will have to sacrifice, to eliminate much from my everyday, in order to recover even the slightest equilibrium, let alone advance. The next three to five years will be a true test of who and what I am. Some people never survive their first trip to college; they drop out, or find they can’t handle the pressure, or discover their true passion and talent elsewhere. This will be my second. And if a third, fourth, or ninth is required, then so be it.

The last week has been one where I have found myself doubting everything that has led me to this point. An unrelated setback also occurred which shook my confidence and left me truly doubtful as to whether or not I could manage any real improvement. I’ll freely admit that there have been nights where I have lain awake and on the verge of tears, wondering if I hadn’t just wasted every breath since last Thanksgiving. Some nights I crossed that border.

Tonight will not be one of those nights. I’m going to bed and I expect that I will sleep peacefully, confident that everything will be okay for once. I am, for a change, aware that this is within my power, not just to influence, but to control. That’s the key, for me, and what’s been a major point of my emotional crashes: that what happens to me is not what happens because of me. There’s going to be a lot of unforeseen problems from here on out. Some of them are going to wreck my shit completely. But what I need to keep within me is this feeling– right now– that says that all of that would happen even if I did see it coming and simply couldn’t avoid it. I can let the world go to hell. As long as I keep doing my part to prevent it– by studying, and dedicating myself to the ideal that communications is the answer– then none can judge me unworthy.

If my life is too big to fix on my own, then the reverse is true as well: I’m not wholly responsible for it falling apart, either, and I don’t deserve to stay so low.

I believe that luck is cyclical. I had a bunch of good years in the beginning, and then fourteen bad ones. The wheel has to come back around sometime.

Good night, folks.

Faulty Motivator

To say that the last two months have been hectic and busy would be a gross understatement, the likes of which are unheard of from my usual idiom of communication. It’s taken this long for me to get back to something approaching a normal schedule, and despite the fact that I start classes this coming Monday, I’m still not entirely at 100%. But, like I said, I have less than a week to go: the time to slack is running out.

I’ve spoken at length about depression here, and in other places, and it’s because of that fact that I feel like I really shouldn’t be relying on it as an excuse for why I have tended to nap for hours during the day and have been almost completely inactive on the weekends. But, like it or not, I still have depression, and like it or not, that still means I get wiped out a lot easier than healthy people do. It’s not so much an excuse as it is a challenge, and it’s one I’m going to have to overcome relatively quickly if I’m to solve the majority of my problems.

Part of this is that I do need to muster up motivation to do something extracurricular that poses an actual mental challenge. An acquaintance started translating old NES games for what I can only assume to be fun, and I’m thinking it might not be a bad idea to at least do the script work for some older titles as well. This is all predicate on me keeping up my studies; I refuse to accept anything less than a 3.0 from my report card, with a 3.5 being my ultimate goal. I will not fail, I will not falter.

I should probably also mention that I am getting very excited to get back into studying. I picked up the majority of my textbooks last week, and it’s been a bit of a struggle to prevent myself from reading through the novels assigned for one of the classes ahead of time. I’ve also flipped through my language books, and at that first glance they’re set up in a very interesting and different way from almost every other tutorial text I’ve seen on the language. It’s not about rote memorization of the kana, but very contextual; this echoes some of what I discovered about my own osmosis of the language through countless years of games and anime. It’s an extremely natural way to learn, and one which I’m sure will work for me.

As an aside, I tried taking the advice of several friends who told me to plow through a kanji dictionary a handful of pages at a time over the summer. I just couldn’t do it. I am fairly certain I need the interaction with other learners and actual speakers of the language in order to connect the mental dots. Which, coincidentally, brings me to my next point.

For me, college (the first time around) was as much about learning how to do certain things as it was learning how I learn. Endless calculus drills and derivations have left me all but unable to balance my checkbook, let alone determine the volume of an irregular solid in fifth-dimensional space. Reading through white papers and experiment results were excellent ways to put me to sleep. I literally could not endure another mumbled lecture on how multiple inheritance works in C++. But put a task in front of me, and I learned everything I needed to. Have me write about what I got out of a reading assignment and I could go to town on it. Ask me, and let me ask, and you’ll find that I get it a lot more easily than one might think. I learn by doing, by putting principles into action and experimenting with what I know (or think I know).

A few days ago, a friend posted a bunch of haiku to her blog, in written Japanese. I didn’t ask for a translation; I want to work it out for myself, and I know I will in time. But it’s that sense of going the extra mile, of wanting to fight through an assignment that piques my interest that has me more excited than the prospect of ten-minute rampages across campus to get to class on time, or lectures that warp the fabric of reality and become inescapable temporal anomalies. It’s not about learning to do. It’s about what I can do with what I learn.

And that is plenty motivation enough for me.

To Faraway Times

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.