The Next Step On Our Journey

Please join me at my new Beliefnet home, the official Beyond Blue blog page.  Looking forward to continuing our conversation!    

Monday, December 18, 2006   11:30 a.m.

Stay Tuned!

In my first blog post, I described my intention for Beyond Blue: "for it to become a comfortable place where we can pitch the unfair stigma of mental illness, expose our real selves, and lend each other an empathetic ear." I wanted it to become a community, a network to empower depressives to use their illness to evolve into wiser and more spiritual souls. In the last two weeks, we’ve started quite a conversation! I’m ecstatic to see that many are tuning in to tell their stories and sharing all kinds of insights.

I want this all to continue! However, I need to take a brief break while the Beliefnet team resolves some technical issues. We’re unsure about the exact length of the hiatus, but I do hope to be back real soon.

Please stay tuned for more. And tell me via the message board what kinds of topics you want to read more of.

Until then!      

Tuesday, November 7, 2006   10:00 a.m.

Proof for Insurance

Today gave me one more reason to hate health care insurance companies. After completing the 18-page questionnaire required to schedule an appointment with a pediatric behavioral specialist for David, I got to actually talk to someone on the phone.

“Does Dr. K take insurance?” I asked. Her rate is $250 an hour.

“It depends on the diagnosis,” the nurse said. “If it’s a physical condition, most insurance companies will cover it. If it’s mental, they won’t.”

Right. Because mental disorders are like imaginary friends—not real. They happen to people who can’t deal with life’s hard knocks, who are stuck in traumatic childhoods, who are too stupid to know what they want and too cowardly to go after it.

They are part of a make-believe world invented to get attention.

I wasn’t surprised by her answer. Last year when I tried a half dozen sessions of acupuncture, Dr. W asked me in his broken English, “Do you have sore back?” No. “Sore neck?” No. “Tight shoulders, yes?” No.

“Insurance not pay for depression. You have sore back?”

The Catholic in me couldn’t lie, so I forked over the 80 bucks until I got a sore neck thinking about how I was going to pay Dr. W.

It left me thinking: how can we ask people to ditch the stigma of mental illness if insurance companies are telling us otherwise? Granted, an MRI won’t map the destroyed brain tissue that my bipolar has caused. Blood work can’t determine exactly how much Zoloft I need to function.

The day may very well come when I can point to a spot on an x-ray and say to David, “That’s what’s wrong with Mommy.” Evidence is now mounting for declaring the gene complex G72/G30 as the first confirmed gene related to bipolar disorder. There has been remarkable success in locating and identifying genes associated with schizophrenia.

The fact that I read up on this stuff—and that I stay up at night searching for “proof” of my physiological illness—is ridiculous and painful.

Until the day comes that I can pick up an over-the-counter depression test at Rite Aid, I utter this simple prayer when dealing with insurance folk: “Father, forgive these stupid, idiotic, feather-brained morons, for they know not what they do.”     

Friday, November 3, 2006   10:00 a.m.

'I Do Not See the Road Ahead of Me'

Here is the prayer by Thomas Merton I mentioned the other day, the one I pray on my daily run. Because Merton struggled with his own demons, his words speak so directly to depressives:

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always thought I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone." 

Friday, November 3, 2006   10:00 a.m.

Losing Yourself the Right Way

Ghandi once wrote that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” The “happy doctors,” scholars who study the science of optimism rather than mental illness, say that charitable works win you greater self-esteem, and altruism can even increase your immune system.

They make it sound like if you worked for a homeless shelter you wouldn’t need meds. Which is what I thought for two months last fall.

After medication combination #17 didn’t work, I sought a holistic psychiatrist. Our plan was to wean me off my meds (even though I was still suicidal), and pump up my meditation, yoga, vitamins, and service work. Speaking from experience (he had endured a two-year depression that almost cost him his job and his marriage), this doctor claimed that his time at the soup kitchen on Saturday mornings is what ultimately pulled him out of the hole.

I signed up to tutor college students in writing. I contributed to food and clothing drives at church. And I lugged David and Katherine around to visit some elderly people in our neighborhood. But it wasn’t enough. I still wanted to die.

One evening Eric walked through the door from work to find me sobbing (no big surprise there), and holding the faucet for balance as my shaking hands tried to load the dishwasher.

“I need to volunteer for the homeless,” I said. “That will help. My problem is that I’m too self-absorbed. If I see people without shoes, I’ll stop shaking.”

“Bull,” he said. “Absorbing the world’s problems isn’t going to cure you. This isn’t about doing more good in the world. This is about an illness for which you need medication.”

“Service work pulled Dr. F out of his depression.”

“He doesn’t have the same chemistry as you.”

I finally gave in, not because I thought serving soup wasn’t beneficial, but because if I was still trembling, I couldn’t hold a ladle. Which is a good lesson for all depressives. Losing yourself in service is a way to find yourself. But make sure you have the balance to hold that ladle, or you won't be of much help to anyone.    

Thursday, November 2, 2006   5:00 p.m.

A Simple but Powerful Prayer

I found a great quote from Mother Teresa that consoles me about not being able to pray when I’m depressed:

“In reality, there is only one true prayer, only one substantial prayer: Christ himself. There is only one voice which rises above the face of the earth: the voice of Christ. Prayer is oneness with Christ.

When times come when we can’t pray, it is very simple: if Jesus is in my heart, let Him pray, let Him talk to His Father in the silence of my heart. Since I cannot speak, He will speak; since I cannot pray, He will pray.”

Here is a prayer by her that I also find especially beautiful:

Our Father, here I am, at your disposal, your child,
To use me to continue your loving world,
By giving Jesus to me and through me,
To each other and to the world.
Let us pray for each other that we allow Jesus to love in us
And through us with the love with which His Father loves him.

St. Augustine meant the same thing when he wrote “True, whole prayer is nothing but love.”    

Thursday, November 2, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Who's to Blame?

Just before her 60th birthday my mom was diagnosed with Blepharospasm, a form of focal dystonia, or a neurological eye disorder that causes involuntary facial movements like blinking. Although she tried any and all kinds of conventional and alternative medicine, she found no solution, and is thus legally blind.

My mom’s entire central nervous system is affected (because it’s neurological). Lately she can’t handle the least bit of stimuli, like my sisters’ visiting her with their kids. That alone exhausted her so much that she spent four days recuperating on the couch. She barely had the energy to get up to go to the bathroom the day I talked to her.

Worried, I phoned my sister.

“How much of mom’s fatigue do you think has to do with her diet and lack of exercise?” she asked me.

Three years earlier, I would have said three quarters of it. I laid into my mom one afternoon on the phone.

“You’re giving into your illness. You’ve resigned. You’re not fighting back hard enough,” I said.

That was back before I knew that a psychiatric disease (and Blepharospasm can be categorized as such) could bring you to your knees. During my golden years, I thought as long as you ate five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, got plenty of rest, and worked out at least five hours a week you stayed healthy.

A year ago a friend of mine gave me the same, exact lecture.

“You’re resigned to your depression. You’re giving in. You could fight harder,” she said.

This woman believed that all psychiatric illness emanates from processed food. If I swapped a bag of organic apples for my box of Cheez-Its, I could walk out of Whole Foods with no need for a prescription.

I absolutely agree with her philosophy that a balanced diet (the more organic the better) contributes to good mental health. But to say that I was to blame for my depression because I occasionally reached for an animal cracker instead of a fig? That hurt.

So who or what is responsible for my depression and for my mom’s Blepharospasm? God? Bad genes? Stress? Unresolved issues? Frosted Flakes? I get tired of asking that question. All I know is that healing has to happen on all levels: mental, physical, and spiritual.   

Wednesday, November 1, 2006   5:00 p.m.

All Saints

Throughout my struggle with depression, I’ve looked to the saints many times for wisdom and guidance since so many of them suffered through dark nights of the soul. Because today is the Feast of All Saints, I thought I’d share a passage from "All Saints" by Robert Ellsberg, a friend and colleague of mine:

Despite the supernatural effects that may adorn the saints’ legends, what comes through again and again is their humanity. They experienced doubt, weakness, loneliness, and fear—just like the rest of us. But ultimately their lives were organized around higher principles—the human capacity for love, for sacrifice, and generosity. “Purity of heart,” said Kierkegaard, “is to will one thing.”

They did not apply themselves to being “saints.” If anything they applied themselves seriously to the task of being human, understanding this vocation in the profound sense reflected in the old formulas of the catechism: “Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know, love, and serve him in this world and to be happy with him in the next.”

The saints are not perfect human beings. But in their own individual fashion they became authentic human beings, endowed with the capacity to awaken that vocation in others. To call someone a saint means that his or her life should be taken with the utmost seriousness. It is proof that the gospel can be lived.  

Wednesday, November 1, 2006   5:00 p.m.

If You Compare, You'll Despair

I know better than to compare my insides with someone else’s outsides. But my neighbor Susan was the first person I saw after my three-hour appointment with the endocrinologist., and I couldn't help myself. 

“Your problem [an elevated level of the hormone Prolactin] could be caused by one of three things,” the doctor had informed me.

“One, you could have a hormonal imbalance (permanent PMS on top of manic depression . . . wonderful). Two, you could have a tumor in the pituitary gland in your brain (even better! God must have listened to me four months ago when I begged him to die). Or three, it could be a result of your medication (after trying 23 drug combinations, I’ve found a winner that, unfortunately, makes me lactate like a cow).”

Susan waved an energetic hand as she passed me in her just-detailed Land Rover, a Starbucks coffee cup in her left hand. This perky chick is only two years younger than me but could be mistaken for my teenage daughter, runs on a surplus of serotonin, and probably doesn’t know what cortisol (the stress hormone) is. Her mother and mother-in-law take turns watching their grandson, Christopher, a Gerber babe who sleeps 12 hours a night, takes two three-hour naps, and craps once a month.

Fearing that my days on this earth might be limited, I stopped by Starbucks myself to drink away my sorrows. As I parked my Honda that stinks of spoiled milk, I was trying to figure out when, exactly, I was going to fit in an MRI and additional blood work. My sitter time was already used up for therapy and psych visits. So I'm in the coffee line, having words with God about this new development, when I notice the wide grin on the guy in back of me. He is a midget in a wheelchair.

“Hey, Andy! What’s new?” the barista yells to him.

“Look at this!” Andy says, as he raises his seat and reclines it like a dentist chair. “This baby is snazzy!”

He is excited about his new wheelchair.

Humbled, I remember a quote from Helen Keller, who was not without her own challenges: “Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.”  

Tuesday, October 31, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Our Security Objects

My daughter is dressed up as a fairy for Halloween. Which reminds me that the binky fairy (who was supposed to come and take away her pacifiers) got delayed in her trip here. She met up with the diaper fairy and the twosome decided to hit a few bars before heading to Annapolis.

Katherine’s pediatrician scolded me last week at her three-year checkup. “Pacifiers can lead to orthodontic problems,” she said.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought to myself. And she should sleep at least 10 hours a night in her own bed (without me), and eat five vegetables and five fruits a day.

I don’t think my daughter’s pacifier is the devil. It is her security object, and everyone needs one. I carry in my pocket my medal of St. Therese. I take it out and look at it every time I hear the voice of self-doubt tell me I’m a failure, I’m stupid, and I’ll never amount to everything. I finger it those times I want to cry but can’t because I’m in public, or when shortened breath foreshadows a panic attack.

Granted, my medal isn’t going to cost me thousands of dollars in orthodontic repair. But, like Katherine’s binky, it’s an object that brings me consolation. And that’s not so bad, is it?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Have You Seen "Running with Scissors?"

What does everyone think of the movie "Running with Scissors," based on Augusten Burough's best-selling memoir about growing up with a bipolar and self-centered mother?  I look forward to hearing your reactions, and later I'll share mine.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006   5:00 p.m.

The Moment My Husband "Got It"

It took Eric a little while to catch on that my depression was more serious than a common cold.

I remember the afternoon of my first severe panic attack 18 months ago, following six months of uncontrollable crying spells and a diminished passion for anything in my life. My son David was pretending to play hockey, wearing a pair of my high heels as skates, using a plastic bat as his stick, and the cap of a peanut jar for the puck. One-year-old Katherine was, of course, naked, chasing him around. I suddenly felt dizzy and grabbed a chair to sit down. My heart started pounding, and I began to shake. I couldn’t breathe, as if I were trekking up Mt. Hood with a serious buzz. Afraid of suffocating, I grabbed for oxygen like David searched for his hockey puck.

I’m going to die! I thought to myself. I’m having a heart attack! I’m going crazy!

“Inhale . . . one, two, three, four. Exhale . . . one, two, three, four,” I repeated until I caught my breath about fifteen minutes later. I still felt like I was in a fishbowl, separated from the outer world by a layer of glass. I am alive, right? I pinched my hand to make sure.

I phoned Eric at work and asked him to come home.

By the time he arrived I had resumed a normal breathing pace, but I was still sweating and shaking. He immediately picked up the newspaper and began scanning the headlines while he asked me what was wrong.

I took the newspaper out of his hand, threw it on the counter behind us, and turned his face with my hands.

“Eric,” I said in my Sunday school teacher voice, “I’m sick. I’m not well.”

“What do you mean?” he asked me. “You look okay.”

I explained the panic attack, how I felt like I was suffocating or having a heart attack, that I wasn’t in control, not in the least bit, and that I was afraid to be with our kids when I felt this way.

It took a few things—like dropping me off twice at the hospital and listening in on several sessions with psychiatrists, hearing my friends tell him that the last person they saw that depressed is dead, and seeing the look of terror on my face during an anxiety attack—to convince him that depression is as life-threatening as cancer. But boy did he get it. And he's been my best support ever since. 

Monday, October 30, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Eggs, Butterflies, and Zoloft

I love the old Zoloft commercial where the egg chases the butterfly once he feels good. Maybe it sticks with me because Eric categorizes my mood for the day as “happy egg” or “sad egg.” But mostly I like the butterfly in that ad.

Butterflies have always been symbolic to my faith, and to my recovery. When I was preparing for my first reconciliation in second grade, Fr. Jim told us that we go into the confessional as caterpillars, and we leave as butterflies. God’s grace provides the chrysalis, the cocoon for the metamorphosis.

Later I learned that a butterfly must struggle to emerge from the small hole of the cocoon in order for the liquids inside her body cavity to be pushed into the tiny capillaries in the wings, where they harden so that she can fly. Should you try to help a butterfly by tearing open the cocoon, the poor thing won’t sprout wings, or if she does, they won’t be strong enough to fly.

Without the struggle, there are no wings. What an appropriate ad for a depression medication. 

Monday, October 30, 2006   4:30 p.m.

More Butterflies

Here’s an excerpt on butterflies from "Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis:

"I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the back of a tree just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain.

It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the external rhythm."  

Monday, October 30, 2006   4:00 p.m.

How to Pray When Depressed

When I was in the eye of depression's storm, I couldn't pray. I would go into my bedroom closet, shut the door, and light a candle in the dark. I stared into its flame, wanting so badly to feel at peace.

But I didn't. Instead, I trembled with anxiety, barely able to hold my rosary made of rose petals. I pleaded with God to send me a minute of consolation, to show me that He was there. I got nada.

''Be persistent,'' a Buddhist friend told me. ''Meditation takes patience and discipline. When the distracting thoughts come, acknowledge them and then let them go. If you do this over and over again, you will begin to transcend.''

But it never happened. So on top of my depression and anxiety, I felt like a prayer loser.

Maybe I was relying too heavily on my patron saint as a spiritual guide, because St. Therese of Lisieux used to fall asleep during prayer, and she grew distracted from her prayers all the time. She rarely received consolation. ''Saying the rosary takes it out of me more than any hair-shirt would,'' she wrote. ''I do say it so badly! Try as I will to put force on myself, I can't meditate on the mysteries of the rosary; I just can't fix my mind on them.''

The only way I have been able to pray for longer than 45 seconds is to converse with God as I run my five-mile route around the Naval Academy.

I first pray a novena to St. Therese: ''St. Therese, the Little Flower, please pick me a rose from the heavenly garden and send it to me with a message of love. Ask God to grant me the favor I thee implore (my intention is to find peace), and tell Him I will love Him more and more.'' I follow that prayer with five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys, and five Glory Be's. Then I say the prayer of St. Francis: ''Lord, make me an instrument of your peace….'' And if I haven't run out of oxygen yet, I'll finish my aerobic/spiritual workout with a favorite prayer from Thomas Merton and the Memorare, an intercessory prayer to Mary.

By the time my sweaty body makes it back home, my soul has worked out too, so I only need to go into my closet for a pair of jeans.

Friday, October 27, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Are Depressives More Spiritual?

I am what you might call a "depression snob." I have a rather high opinion of people who suffer from depression and anxiety. I assume that if you carry bottles of Zoloft, Prozac, or Xanax in your purse, you are a deep feeler, brilliant thinker, compassionate healer, and funny joke-teller. My stereotypes haven’t failed me yet.

Don't get me wrong—I don’t seek out for depressives. They find me. Or we sort of migrate toward each other. They laugh at my jokes and see the bizarre connection I make between Thing One and Thing Two. They don’t fault me for viewing the world through the impractical lens of a poet, for judging “not as a judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing,” as Walt Whitman wrote.

Depressives are complex, interesting people because they can’t stay still for long. The voices of self-doubt will catch up to them and shout lies in their ears if they do. They are spiritual because some days their faith in God is the only thing that keeps them alive. This sensitive bunch uses their suffering to evolve into better people: Emily Dickinson transcribed her pain into the 1,775 poems and fragments found at her death. Teresa of Avila emerged from her dark night to found the Discalced Carmelites and become the first woman Doctor of the Church. Dorothy Day transcended her tumultuous past to co-found with Peter Maurin the Catholic Worker Movement, a community of lay people working on behalf of the poor.

I agree with Kay Redfield Jamison, author of "An Unquiet Mind," that “intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do . . . and that those who have particularly passionate temperaments and questioning minds leave the world a different place for their having been there.”  

Friday, October 27, 2006   4:30 p.m.

Bedtime Therapy, I Mean Stories

My daughter's bedtime stories, like everything else in my life, have become part of my own therapy.

Here's this week's collection:

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper: "Puff, puff, chug, chug, went the Little Blue Engine. 'I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can . . .'"

I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont: "I like myself! I'm glad I'm me. There's no one else I'd rather be."

Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss: "You'll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life's a Great Balancing Act."

And All the Way to God by Kate and Michael Giuliano: "That's as far as love can go!"

Thursday, October 26, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Reader Mail: Which Massage is Best?

Thanks to reader "survive5" for writing about her recent struggle with depression on learning about her daughter's anorexia and possible breast cancer. She wanted to try a massage and wondered if I had any suggestions.

Massage is helpful because, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, it produces endorphins that can fight depression, and can (with other relaxation techniques) alter brain patterns and produce nitric oxide, the molecule that fights cortisol and other stress hormones.

I've tried several types of massage—from deep tissue massage to cranial sacral therapy—as well as other forms of alternative medicine: acupuncture, homeopathic remedies, Chinese herbs, light therapy, yoga, and exercise. I also take, on my doctor's advice, a healthy dose of Omega-3 fish oil capsules (a brand that contains more EPA than DHA) because studies have shown it can treat depression, and bipolar disorder in particular.

Massage (deep tissue) did help me relax (when the masseuse didn't judge me for being medicated), and yoga was beneficial. But though I do feel better after a massage, I don't rely heavily on it (I can only afford to dish out $80 for an hour once or twice a year!)

Instead, aerobic exercise won the holistic health blue ribbon in this body. The most helpful practice for me has been running and swimming. Without a regular workout, my serotonin starts getting restless. If I go three days without getting my heart rate up, it splits altogether.

Thursday, October 26, 2006   4:30 p.m.

How a New Friend Became My Guardian Angel

I met my guardian angel on a train from New York City to Baltimore, a train I had to sneak onto because of an Amtrak strike.

With people standing in the bathroom, in the café car, and in the aisles, I searched for some open space. A woman in her 50s with platinum hair and a gentle face moved her bags from the seat next to her and said to me, "You can sit here."

It was the first chance to think about my manic day: throwing 25 book ideas at my agent, telling inappropriate jokes to a colleague, and scribbling furious notes about random thoughts. Suddenly, a gorgeous woman seated in front of me got up to leave. She didn't look a day older than 25, so when I heard her mention her adult children living in New York, I said to my train partner, "Genes. Some people get all the good ones."

"Ha," she replied, "And I got mental illness."

"Me too," I said.

"I'm manic depressive," she said.

"Me too," I responded.

We spent the entire three hours taking about diagnoses, medications, psychiatrists, and therapists. I told her that although I had been recently diagnosed as bipolar I didn’t like the idea of taking a mood stabilizer.

It turned out Angel Ann was the first sane, articulate bipolar person I'd met. But I forgot to get her number.

Life is mysterious, though, because don't you know that in my rush to get off the train, I left my cell phone on my seat. When I realized I had lost it, I used our home phone to dial its number. My angel answered, and she gave me her phone number.

As my depression worsened, I carried her number in my pocket everywhere I went. Sometimes I phoned her daily to hear a nugget of wisdom. "It won't always be like this," she said, and I believed her because, unlike other friends, she had been there. A woman of strength and determination, she stuck her tongue out at her diagnosis, and went on living her life. I wanted to be like that. Like my angel. I still do.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Reader Mail: When a Loved One is Depressed

Thanks to reader "bird" for writing that it is very difficult for people who aren’t depressed to understand how the illness affects loved ones. Bird's depressed mother complains about everything, and nothing anyone does to help is ever good enough.

I’ve sat in both bird's and her mom's seats, and neither is a comfortable chair. Recently I became very resentful of a depressed family member who refuses treatment. Then I remembered the friend who once told me that I was partly to blame for my depression because I didn’t eat all organic food. Remembering how upset I'd been after that experience, I coached myself to be patient with my depressed family member. She is ill and she is suffering. Even though it's hard, I want to err on the side of compassion.

My feeling is that if you respond lovingly, giving the depressed person in your life what you can and leaving the rest to God, you will find your peace.  

Thanks to all who are posting on the mini-board, please keep your comments coming!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006   5:00 p.m.

My Little Monkey

I'm curious to know how God determines who gets the good brains, which contain a surplus of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and the other neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of well-being. Does the Creator keep a master list like Santa, doling out lots of serotonin only to nice kids? In my angrier moments, I wonder what crime I committed in a former life to deserve such a chemically wacked-out brain, one that I'm fairly certain I have passed on to my son David.

Yesterday my five-year-old boy was dressed up as a monkey for a kids' Halloween ballet special at Maryland Hall in Annapolis. I wasn't at all surprised when he leaped into my lap as all the other kids paraded across the stage for the costume contest. I was merely hoping to exit the theatre and its parking lot without a major meltdown.

But when monkey boy hopped into the car after the event, his left foot (or claw) got caught in the seatbelt, igniting 20 minutes of wailing, thrashing, head slamming, and total desperation as if he were drowning in the Indian Sea. Next to our car, a new acquaintance who I was trying to recruit for more play dates, strapped her two angels into her minivan and looked at me as if I should call 911.

"Is he okay?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah, he's fine," I responded coyly, acting as if this sort of explosion happens all the time. Because it does.

Like mine, David's anxiety has been there from before he was yanked out of my uterus in an emergency C-section. First it was colic and gas. I couldn't calm the wee baby down. Then chronic ear and sinus infections had him crying out in pain every two hours through the night. Then we got to the night terrors, which were a true joy. Presently we vacillate between those and leg cramps at night. During the day, his regular half-hour made-for-television tantrums are set off by a drop of water spilled on his sleeve or a match-box car that's a hair out of place.

My childhood anxiety exhibited itself in religious scrupulosity: if I didn't say three rosaries a day and go to daily Mass I was going to burn in hell. My nighttime prayers took longer than a week's homework. By second grade I had finished the Bible and
had written my first book, "How to Get to Heaven," the standard manual for all Catholics suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I'll be okay. I've learned how to manage with a less-than-perfect brain. It's the little monkey I'm worked about.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006   5:00 p.m.

Massage v. Meds

I thought that the whole point of a massage was to relax.

But on page eight of the questionnaire, I was to list all "current medications." Here we go again, I thought to myself. And when my massage therapist, an aging hippie, got to the words Zoloft, Lithium, and Nortriptyline (and their decent doses), he looked up, smiled as if had just invented penicillin, and said, "I can decrease your need for those."

I processed that comment for a few minutes, until, with all my clothes off, I fired away.

"Why do you say you can decrease my need for meds?"

"Massage gets blood flowing to your brain. Like exercise, it produces endorphins that can fight depression and anxiety," he explained.

I wanted to say, "Listen, buddy, you don't think I know that? I only run five miles a day, soak in the sun as much as the cancer experts will let me, meditate, and do yoga to try to coax every single neurotransmitter in my brain into action."

I'm up on the research, which says massage therapy and other relaxation techniques can alter brain patterns. Just as stress can kill—raising blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and breathing rate—relaxation can save by producing nitric oxide, the molecule that fights cortisol and other stress hormones.

I wanted to tell him that, although I adopt any and every alternative method to treat my depression, the massages, acupuncture sessions, magnets on the ear lobes, herbal remedies, and light lamps simply weren't enough for me. I wished to grab his peace-loving shoulders and shake him, saying, "Medication saved my life." I wanted to fill him in on my trips to the psych ward, and explain that my meds weren't like cigarettes, a habit to give up next New Year's.

But I didn't. Instead, I closed my eyes and tried to relax, to heal…and get my money's worth.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006   5:00 p.m.

'Coming Out' As A Depressive

I haven't always been so candid about my depression and anxiety. A year ago, while in the eye of the storm, I bailed on delivering the keynote address to a large Catholic convention. My hands were trembling so badly, I was having difficulty getting a spoonful of Cheerios to my mouth. Holding a microphone would have been problematic, not to mention inspiring the masses.

"I'm sorry," I explained, "I'm having some health problems."

I stayed vague because I was afraid that the event coordinator wouldn't understand. So few people had.

Many months later the topic of depression made front-page news in Annapolis with the suicide of Phil Merrill, a renowned publisher, entrepreneur and diplomat in the Washington area. Eleven days later Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan withdrew his candidacy for governor of Maryland because of his struggle with depression.

Articles cited all the people that had come out as depressives, past and present: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Kay Redfield Jamison, Archbishop Raymond Roussin, Mike Wallace, William Styron, Art Buchwald, Robin Williams, Patty Duke, and Brooke Shields. Their reputations were still in tact, so maybe depression wouldn't be the end of mine.

These people "came out" to help others. Abraham Lincoln wanted people to know that his melancholy was a "misfortune, not a fault," and that his humor, his jokes, were the "vents of [his] moods and gloom." Surely Lincoln's heightened sensitivity, made him the empathetic leader he was.

British Prime Minster Winston Churchill referred to his deep melancholy as his "black dog." It was his teacher of perseverance. "Every day you may make progress," he wrote. "Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb."

Without Lincoln and Churchill and the others, then I'd think I really was going crazy. They were missionaries of truth about mental illness, which is what I want to be.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006   4:00 p.m.

Why This Blog?  

Some people are born with smooth lines; others have jagged edges. Some find contentment in a cup of tea, others stay restless their entire lives. Guess which one I am? “We would never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world,” Hellen Keller said. Not that I wouldn’t exchange my anxiety and depression for a calm disposition in a heartbeat. But I realize that although my “colorful” nature was conceived and matured in pain, it taught me to rely on faith, friendship, and humor to get me through those dark nights of the soul. All of those things are what I hope to share in this blog.

I am alive today because of words spoken or written to me by fellow depressives: “This will pass;” “One hour at a time;” “One foot in front of another.” These weren't Hallmark card slogans, they were simple directions from a life-saving network that continues to empower me today. I hope this blog will be a comfortable place where we can pitch the unfair stigma of mental illness, expose our real selves, and lend each other an empathetic ear. As a card-carrying depressive, I invite you to come take a seat in this healing circle of colorful folks who have grown to love and accept their jagged edges.

As Frank Costanza famously said on Seinfeld, "Serenity now!"

Monday, October 23, 2006 10:30 a.m.

My Story (So Far)

Although I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety from the moment I was induced from my mother’s womb, I officially joined the elite club in 1989, my freshman year at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, when I went by the Counseling and Career Development Center to inquire about local support groups (I was a just few months sober). One of the therapists politely invited me back.

A few months later she rattled off a few diagnoses: obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression. She strongly suggested antidepressants, but I resisted.

“They are happy pills that will compromise your sobriety,” some hard-core 12-steppers said. “The world needs God, not Valium,” preached a priest in his homily. Meds were the easy way out. And at the time, I was all about feeling the pain so that I could transform into a more spiritual person.

“Life doesn’t have to be this hard,” my counselor told me and gave me a copy of Colette Dowling’s book, "You Mean I Don’t Have to Feel This Way?" A year and a half later, when I was experiencing suicidal thoughts, I finally cried uncle, clinging to the lifeboat (or prescription) God sent me. After a few trial and error experiments, my doctor and I stumbled on the combination of Prozac and Zoloft, which allowed me to concentrate enough to study and pray, yet relax enough to tell a joke here and there.

Then I got married, in 1996, and had kids (David and Katherine are 5 and 3 now).  After I had them, though, my hormones huddled together to ask each other what the heck they were supposed to be doing now that no baby was in the womb or at the breast. My neurotransmitters (responsible for feelings of well-being) scattered for good, and I had an honest-to-goodness mental breakdown. I lost twenty pounds because I had no appetite, I contracted one urinary tract infection after another because my immune system was breaking down, I breathed into a paper bag every morning during a panic attack, and I trembled and flailed like Linda Blair in the “Exorcist” because my anxiety was so acute. Oh, and let's not forget the endless sobbing: at the grocery, at my son’s soccer practice, at preschool fieldtrips, in church, and everywhere else.

It took two trips to the psych ward, six different psychiatrists, and 23 different medication combinations over a year and a half’s time to get me well again. In other words, I upgraded to the platinum membership in Club D. As an authentic manic-depressive with Bipolar II disorder, I graduated beyond the my-primary-care-physician-can-give-me-my-meds, to the regular check-ins with doctors specializing in mental health.

Although I have many times cussed out God and asked what he was thinking when he designed my brain, I agree with Kay Redfield Jamison, author of "An Unquiet Mind," that “tumultuousness, if coupled with discipline and a cool mind, is not such a bad sort of thing. In other words, unless one wants to live a stunningly boring life, one ought to be on good terms with one's darker side and one's darker energies.”

My real faith, the engine that propels me to love better and be better, was born in my dark night. Blindfolded, I felt my way through the woods to the campfire, where a crowd of fellow depressives welcomed me. They taught me which voices to listen to (Go for it!), which to ignore (You’re a failure.), and how to get out of bed the days your sickness has attacked every muscle in your body.

A friend and fellow depressive once told me that illness and anxiety are helping hands to help people tell their stories. I guess that’s what I hope to do here.

Monday, October 23, 2006 11:00 a.m.

Saved by My Patron Saint

Recently I wrote an essay for Beliefnet about how St. Therese of Lisieux literally saved me from suicidal depression. Click here to read it.

Monday, October 23, 2006     11:15 a.m.

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