Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Cymbalta Story (or, "How I Learned to Give a Duck About Life Again")

This weekend was rough for two reasons.  The first is depressing and the second is anti-depressing.

See, Andrew’s mother visited, and as usual, it was not a very pleasant time.  I can’t say that it was “bad” per se, since his mother pointedly avoided any eye contact or direct exchange of words with me.  In fact, on both Friday and Saturday night, she only said two things to me: first, that it was bad manners to eat pomegranate seeds with my hands and that I should use a fork, and second, a suggestion that I have adopted too many animals. (“When will it be enough?”)  I guess no one told her that it’s bad manners to comment on other people’s eating habits.  As for when I have enough animals, well, gee, I don’t know.  I guess I keep adopting animals because they don’t judge me and they’re the only real support network I have.  It sure is shitty of me to take in strays off the street.  Next thing you know I’ll be trying to help the homeless and the mentally disabled like some sort of chump. 

One day you're donating to the ASPCA, and next thing you know you're volunteering at soup kitchens and organizing AIDS benefits.  It's a slippery slope.

Anywho, she broke the ice on Sunday and finally talked to me (to tell me to shut up).  We went to a restaurant Jack had picked out that had no vegetarian options, forcing us to go to another restaurant.  This prompted complaints that we’d eaten what we wanted to on Saturday.  (Andrew made a big, homecooked meal that was “lacking in protein” because it didn’t have any meat.) She also complained that it hadn’t been filling.  (Note: there were leftovers.)  

When we sat down at dinner, she snapped at Andrew and I to stop talking because he was asking me how work was going, and according to her, we “spend all of our time together anyway,” and could talk to each other after dinner.  It’s actually a good thing she shut us up because she had some very important things to say, like how windy it was.  Riveting conversation, really.

Both Andrew and I were disappointed because this trip was supposed to be something of a sounding board for our trip to Pittsburgh for the holidays and, in between his sister’s catty judgmentalism (Hi, Lily) and his mother’s coldness, I can’t say I’m at all looking forward to it.  The truth is, the only reason I’m going is because it means a lot to Andy to have the family together, but “the family” is a bunch of people who actively make a point of judging and excluding me, so there you are.

Allow me to lighten the mood by representing the situation using these fluffy little ducklings.

As for the anti-depressing part of the weekend, well, that would be my shiny new antidepressants!  I finally went to a psychiatrist because my depression had become unmanageable and unsustainable.

Much like Andrew’s family dislike for me, my struggle with depression has not been much of a secret.  Depression gets a lot of attention in the news nowadays and it is probably over-diagnosed.  Much like ADD or OCD, there’s a lot of grey areas.  If a person is sad, there’s not an easy way to tell whether they are sad due to a chemical imbalance or an environmental problem or some combination of the two.  

Depression, for me, is best described as treading water in molasses.  It’s exhausting to keep your head up and you don’t go anywhere.  You feel disinterested, emotionally, in things you know you should logically care about.  You feel tired, like giving up, and then you feel guilty for not being able to get it together.  In fact, Hyperbole and a Half had a rather incredible post that summarizes it much better than I ever could, so go read that.

I’ve fought with depression most of my adult life, with three distinctive major depressive “episodes.”  During these episodes, I self-medicated with alcohol and I burned a lot of bridges with my friends.  I lashed out and was self-destructive and generally a very unpleasant person to be around.  Sort of like Andrew’s mother, but more drunk.

"Self-medicated" is a kind way to say "openly addicted."

My most recent depressive episode probably began in May or June.  Like depression itself, “major depressive episodes” are very difficult to define.  They creep up on you and are often only identified in hindsight.  This one was pretty obvious, though.  I felt tired and unmotivated and just generally sad, and forcing myself to do anything was an incredible effort, like climbing a mountain or dealing with Andrew’s mother.  About a month ago (or maybe even more), I told Andrew, “I can’t do this anymore.”  And I really meant it.  The depression had gotten to a point that was just unbearable.  I was on the verge of a true meltdown and I didn’t know how to fix it.

People were like, "You need to get your shit together."  
Allow me to lighten the mood by representing the situation using another fluffy little duckling.

The search for medical intervention began!  During this miserable, four-week process, Andrew began cold-calling psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists, with little to no success.  One of the issues we faced was that since I had recently moved jobs, I did not yet have my new insurance card, nor was I aware of what my benefits covered.  Another issue was that many of the psychiatrists proved to be almost impossible to get ahold of; you would get an answering machine or secretary if you were lucky, and rarely any call backs.  Most doctors Andrew spoke with told him they weren’t accepting new patients and referred him to other doctors, most of whom were also either unreachable or not accepting new patients.  Some of the ones who were “accepting new patients” were doing so in two or three months, much longer than I felt I could wait.

One of the perhaps most ironic elements of this process was that no truly depressed person in the world would have been able to run the gauntlet necessary to get a doctor.  Andrew did most of the searching and calling and listing names and then scratching them out.  I laid on the couch and cried a lot.  That’s just how it was.

 As usual, my dog was there for me.  And that's why I keep adopting animals, Andrew's Mom.

Finally, after four weeks, we had some success.  I was able to schedule a visit to both a psychologist (i.e. a therapist) and a psychiatrist.

I talked to the psychologist and then filled out a bunch of forms in triplicate detailing my symptoms. (Feelings of despair: yes.  Feelings of hopelessness: yes.  Exhaustion: yes.  Anxiety in social situations: yes.  Bed-wetting: no.  Left-handedness: no.  Mental retardation: no.  Magical thinking: no.)  (These were all actual items on a list of symptoms.)  

Magical thinking doesn't actually sound so bad.

Next I talked to the psychiatrist, who went over all the symptoms again.  (Excessive worrying: yes.  Feelings of guilt: yes.  Marked lack of interest in daily activities: yes.  Frequent crying spells: yes.  Frequent traffic violations: no.  Compulsive hand washing: no.  Tinnitus: no.)  I was prescribed Cymbalta for depression and clonazepam for anxiety.  Both look like a stock image of medication: one is a cheery yellow tablet and the other is a soothing blue-and-white pill.

My biggest fear was that the drugs would do nothing.  I had really gotten my hopes up at this point.  My depression was so unbearable that the only real solace I had was waiting to get prescribed some medication in the desperate hope it might alleviate my symptoms.  But psychiatric medication is an inexact science, so there was no telling what would happen.

I needn’t have worried.  Upon the very first dose, I felt like a completely different person.  Specifically, a person who had overdosed on Benadryl, because they immediately knocked me out.


Upon waking the next morning, I went to work.  It was sometime in the mid-afternoon that I discovered a rather interesting symptom: short-term memory loss.  I had no memory whatsoever of waking up, doing my morning routine, or getting to work.  I was plating bacteria that day and had to ask my PI three times for instructions because I just couldn’t retain anything.  We had a presentation on qPCR that afternoon, which I fell asleep at.  I woke to discover that the qPCR reps had bought everyone lunch.  I sat hunched over my sandwich, feeling very disoriented and having a lot of strange, paranoid, unsettling thoughts that everyone was watching me, that I was disgusting, and that my sandwich was making loud, squishy, revolting noises.  It was a very strange experience.

Going over my notes later, I discovered that I had developed some sort of weird dyslexia; many of the words were simply missing letters.  My handwriting looked completely different.  Here’s an actual excerpt:  

“Dissocition [dissociation] of melt cure [curve] checks specifty [specificity] of amplicons and quantity of of [sic] CYBR.  As dable-straned [double-stranded] DNA molcules [molecules] breud [break] down and dye breaks off.”

This was moderately frightening, but my psychiatrist had warned me that the first week would be pretty bad and I should stick it out unless I felt like I was in genuine danger.  So I stuck it out.

A week later I am happy to report that most of the drowsiness and loopiness has leveled off, and although I’m generally a bit sleepy, I am also no longer feeling depressed.  My memory has gotten moderately better, although it’s definitely not what it once was, and I have to write everything down.  My writing is back to normal.  Most of the typical symptoms of Cymbalta, like nausea and insomnia, never affected me at all.  In fact, I’ve slept better than ever before.  It’s probably due in a very large part to the drugs that I was able to handle Andrew’s mother’s visit so effectively.  My interest in work and my hobbies has returned, although mustering the energy to pursue them is a little difficult due to the medication’s sedative effect.  But generally I feel much better and very hopeful for the future.

 Sometimes, you have to stand strong even when the odds are against you. 
Credit to this guy for the amazing comic.

To summarize, I put off getting antidepressants because I thought I could shrug off my depression and that I didn’t need them.  I was worried about the cost, and worried about the stigma, and also just didn’t have the energy to go get them.  But now that I’ve tried them, I cannot recommend them enough.  Even with the side effects, the improvement is so beneficial, and I wish I’d pursued this sooner.  I’m aware not everyone will have as positive an experience as I did, but if you’re reading this and you’re experiencing depression and you are actively avoiding medication, do yourself and favor and give it a go.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Hi, Lily: An Essay on Why Being Offended Isn't Worth It

I have two goals for keeping a blog.  One is to maintain a record as my evolution as a person.  I moved to Los Angeles and began my true adult life, and I like watching the environment shape me.  By having a hard record I can go back and see how I've improved, how far I've come, and areas where I still need growth.  But my other goal is to be sincerely honest about my perceptions, experiences, and feelings.  I won't censor myself and I will present an accurate picture of myself to the world, for better or for worse.  In the process I hope to be continuously improving myself.  In a sense, this blog is an exercise in introspection.

Winston Churchill once said that if you're making enemies, you're doing something right, because it means you've stood up for something in your life.

Well, I certainly seem to have made an enemy.  Hi, Lily.  Yes, I know you read my blog, since you've taken such terrible offense to it.

To my readers who are not Lily, let me back up and explain.

I've made posts in the past about some drama between myself and Andrew's family.  His family has never especially liked me, which isn't really a problem, because I myself don't especially like chocolate, and yet I've never considered chocolate my enemy.  The problem with Andrew's family is that they have a tendency to gossip about me and bar me from family functions, which is pretty hurtful.  You can dislike something without being mean to it.  For example, I've never kicked chocolate out of my house, except for that one Mars bar.  (It knows what it did.)

So Andrew and I were planning a trip to his childhood home in Pittsburgh for Hannukah, and he called his mother and his sister to find out whether or not they were planning to make it awful.  His mom, who has chilled out considerably, expressed general neutrality toward my existence, although she admitted that she'd overheard my saying some less-than-flattering things about her on the phone when Andrew accidentally dialed her back in the spring.  (It's almost as if eavesdropping is something you oughtn't do!)

 There's no possible way this could ever backfire!

Nonetheless, Gail and I have one thing in common, which is that we love Andrew and can put aside our differences to try to make him happy, even though neither of us really like each other.  This is largely because of a difference in personalities, which at the end of the day isn't such a big deal.  There's certainly things I can find in Gail that I like, and hopefully there are things she can find in me that she likes, as well.

His sister, though.  (Hi, Lily.)  His sister had a pre-meltdown and said she thinks I'm a manipulative, bad influence.  (On one hand, I do ride a motorcycle, but on the other, I have no idea what I'm influencing or manipulating Andrew, a grown-ass man, to do, exactly.  Or why it's any of her business, for that matter.)

She said she was very offended by the things I said about her mother in my blog.  I think it's creepy that she's stalking me via my blog.  Also, I haven't said anything bad about the twins' mother since April, when I believe she attacked my personally held dietary beliefs.  Before that, it was November 2014.  That's... a long way back.  And the things I said were that she was paranoid and cruel, which she was, because she accused me of faking pneumonia while I was in the hospital hooked up to oxygen tanks.  I mean, definitionally, I think that's pretty cruel.

As for Lily (Hi, Lily), I've only ever mentioned her once, back in September:  "The twins' older sister got married Saturday, and the twins had planned to leave Wednesday. But with me in the hospital, Andrew decided to take a later flight (Thursday night). He called to let his sister know first, and she said, “Don't even bother coming.” But she's pretty emotional and it's her wedding so I can sort of understand where she's coming from."

Yeah, that was real shitty of me to say. I sure am causing a lot of drama, aren't I?

I will also take this opportunity to say that it is common knowledge that Lily has said some absolutely dreadful things to her mother herself, which I won't repeat but were attacks on her character that I did not feel were at all deserved.  My complaints have largely revolved around being treated like human garbage, which I don't feel I deserve. His family is welcome to their opinion but I don't believe they need to constantly provoke me (or throw me out of their houses with lots of yelling, or call my dogs "dirty," or accuse me of faking sick while I'm in the goddamn hospital.)

But back to my blog and attitudes.  It's true that I have decided in the last two years not to take any more bullying and that I won't tolerate actions from either Gail or anyone else in Andrew's cripplingly judgmental family that hurt my peace of mind.  But I had hoped, really and truly hoped, that we could put aside our wariness toward each other for the holidays.  To me, the winter holidays are a sacred time of coming togetherness and love and forgiveness, and people should get their emotional shit together for that.

It is very important to Andrew to visit his family and he wants me to come, and I told him I would.  I don't want to take back my word because that's not the kind of person I am, and I recognize that this visit means a lot to him.  So I'm disappointed that his sister (Hi, Lily) would rather make this whole thing a total shitstorm than just fake nice for a couple of lousy days. If not for me, than for her brother.

Also, good job, Lily.  You combed through my whole blog and you found a couple of passages made over a year ago that bothered you.  You ignored the charity work, the animal adoptions, the work ethic, the love between Andrew and I, and the persistent push to improvement myself.  Ultimately, if you want to find a reason to hate a person, you almost always can.  But why live your life that way?  That sounds very lonely and stressful.  In the last year, I've quit drinking, I've gotten an incredible new job, and I've worked harder than ever to solidify my life into an admirable one.  I have nothing to apologize for; if I had never talked about Andrew's mother and how mean she's been to me, then Lily would have found something else to focus on.  Why?  Because haters gonna hate.

But what am I talking about her for, anyway?  My life has lots of great stuff going on it in right now.  You can't control other people's actions, only your own; you also can't control what people think about you, only how you present yourself.  So enough about that nonsense, and onto the highlights of this month of November!

Last week I went to the AALAS national convention in Phoenix.

And the truth is, I was completely overwhelmed and had a bit of a breakdown, but I came back from it and managed to get a fair bit of work done.

(Also, I stayed at the Hotel San Carlos, the third most haunted hotel in America.  I don't know how you measure how haunted something is, since I don't believe in ghosts, but I certainly found the weakness of the WiFi spooky, and the tepid shower water eerie.)


Naw, seriously, I found some creepy stuff in the basement.

And at work, earlier this week, I cultured some bacteria on plates, and I made the media for those plates myself.  Yesterday, I ran my first ever PCR and gel electrophoresis.  I'm feeling less and less lost, professionally.  And I recently got on antidepressants and I'm feeling hopeful that the worst of the bad parts of my life are behind me.  

Also, I adopted a kitten.

So, long story short, I've decided that I'm not going to let one or two people ruin Andrew's trip.  My goal is to live a sincere, transparent, and charitable life, and I have always felt I was working closer and closer to that goal.  Andrew's been looking forward to this trip for ages and I can't control other people who want to sabotage it, but I'm going to make a commitment here and now to be as accommodating as possible because of my respect for Andrew, which far outweighs any irritation I feel about yet more bullshit from his family.

As Anne Sullivan said, "Duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it; for every obstacle we overcome, every success we achieve tends to bring man closer to God."