The Monkey Will ALWAYS Be On Your Back

I’m standing at a bar in Boston with my wife and stepmom. They order wine and I order coffee. My stepmom beams and says something about how awesome it is that I beat my demons.

I appreciate the pride and the sentiment. But it’s also dangerous when someone tells a recovering addict that they’ve pulled the monkey off their back for good.

Mood music:

Here’s the thing about that monkey: You can smack him around, bloody him up and knock him out. But that little fucker is like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. He won’t die.

Sometimes you can keep him knocked out for a long time, even years. But he always wakes up, ready to kick your ass right back to the compulsive habits that nearly destroyed you before.

That may sound a little dramatic. But it’s the truth, and recovering addicts can never be reminded of this enough.

Dr. Drew had a good segment on the subject last year, when he interviewed Nikki Sixx:

Sixx talked about his addictions and how he always has to be on guard. Dr. Drew followed that up with a line that rings so true: “Your disease is doing push ups right now.”

So painfully true.

I know that as a binge-eating addict following the 12 Steps of Recovery, I can relapse any second. That’s why I have to work my program every day.

But Sixx makes another point I can relate to: Even though he’s been sober for so many years, he still gets absorbed in addictive behavior all the time. The difference is that he gives in to the addiction of being creative. He’s just released his second book and second album with Sixx A.M. Motley Crue still tours and makes new music. He has four kids, a clothing line and so on. He’s always doing something.

I get the same way with my writing. That’s why I write something every day, whether it’s here or for the day job. I’m like a shark, either swimming or drowning. By extension, though I’ve learned to manage the most destructive elements of my OCD,I still let it run a little hot at times — sometimes on purpose. If it fuels creativity and what I create is useful to a few people, it’s worth it.

The danger is that I’ll slip my foot off the middle speed and let the creative urge overshadow things that are more important. I still fall prey to that habit.

And though it’s been well over three years since my last extended binge, my sobriety and abstinence has not been perfect. There have been times where I’ve gotten sloppy, realized it, and pulled back.

But the occasional sloppiness and full-on relapse will always be separated by a paper-thin wall.

I’ll have to keep aware of that until the day I die.

The monkey isn’t going anywhere. My job is to keep him tame most of the time.

Drawing by JUSTIN MCELROY (imaginarypeople26@yahoo.com). Click the photo to see more of his work.

Depression Takes Another Life: Ronnie Montrose

Depression has claimed another victim. Published reports confirm that legendary guitarist Ronnie Montrose’s March 3 death was a suicide.

Many of you are unfamiliar with him, but his playing left a lasting mark on a lot of mega-star musicians, including Eddie Van Halen, who recorded four studio albums with original Montrose singer Sammy Hagar.

Mood music:

Montrose’s wife, Leighsa Montrose, described how badly he suffered in an interview with Guitar Player magazine:

“Ronnie had a very difficult childhood, which caused him to have extremely deep and damaging feelings of inadequacy,” said Leighsa. “This is why he always drove himself so hard. He never thought he was good enough. He always feared he’d be exposed as a fraud. So he was exacting in his self criticism, and the expectations he put upon himself were tremendous. Now I see that perhaps he didn’t want to carry these burdens for very much longer.”

I’ve been ultra-sensitive on the issue of suicide ever since my best friend took his life 15-plus years ago.

I was angry with him for many years. I thought he was a coward who left behind a mess. My thinking has evolved considerably since then. I now see suicide for what it is: The act of a person so ill with depression that they’ve lost the ability to think clearly. Whenever I hear of a suicide, I feel the need to mention it here because I don’t want anyone else’s name tarnished because that’s how it ended for them.

The topic is a tough one for Catholics like me, because we were always taught that suicide is a ticket straight to Hell. These lines from the Catechism of the Catholic Church show that suicide isn’t the trip to eternal damnation many in the church would have us believe:

“2282 Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. 

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

Nothing is ever as black and white as we’d like to believe. The older I get, the clearer that point becomes.

It used to seem strange to me how depression could snuff out one life while leaving legions more intact. But it’s not so strange, really. Cancer kills a lot of people every day, but many more are left standing.

I’m no stranger to depression. I suffer the bleak feelings of it regularly, though never to the point of suicide. Mine is a brooding, curmudgeonly form of depression that I’ve learned to manage well through therapy and medication.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I suppose. I’ll just be grateful about it and leave it at that.

I hope Montrose finds the peace he couldn’t find in life.

I Bet Health Insurers Would Gladly Cover Suicide Pills

The Catholic Church is bringing out its heavy artillery to fight a Massachusetts ballot initiative that, if passed, would allow doctors to prescribe lethal pills to terminally-ill patients that want to be put out of their misery.

I’m with the church on this one.

Mood music:

Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh describes this quite nicely:

An initiative petition to legalize physician-assisted suicide has been certified by Attorney General Martha Coakley. If backers collect enough signatures, and the Legislature fails to act, the question will go on the November 2012 ballot.

Modeled on the death-with-dignity law in Washington state, the measure says that if an adult state resident is judged terminally ill with less than six months to live by two physicians, he can get a lethal prescription.

The initial request has to be made in writing. Two people, one of whom is not a family member (and would not share in the estate), have to witness the signing of the request and attest that patient is capable and acting voluntarily. The terminally ill patient has to repeat the request twice verbally, at an interval of at least 15 days. He would be counseled about alternatives like hospice care and pain control. The lethal dose would not be administered by a physician; rather, the patient would swallow it himself.

If the initiative does make the ballot, expect determined opposition. Indeed, Cardinal Sean O’Malley focused on the ballot question during a recent Mass for Bay State lawmakers and jurists, saying he hoped that Massachusetts citizens would not be seduced by language like “dignity,’’ “mercy,’’ and “compassion.’’ Those words, he said, are a “means to disguise the sheer brutality of helping people to kill themselves. A vote for physician-assisted suicide is a vote for suicide.’’

After laying all this out, Lehigh asks:

“If a terminally ill patient wants to end his life a little early, why is that against the good of his person?”

Fair question. Here’s my opinion:

When a person chooses to end their life it’s always tragic. If depression is the cause, the individual has lost all hope and is effectively no longer able to make sand decisions. If a person is terminally ill, they are often in unspeakable pain. On some levels, you can’t blame a person in that situation for wanting to end the pain.

Here’s my problem, though:

Doctors are often wrong. I know of many people who were told they had six months to live and outlasted the grim prognosis by years. Whether you have weeks, months or years to live, there’s a lot of good you can still do with your life. We’ve heard many tales of people who achieved greatness in the face of death, helping their fellow man and living with dignity instead of rolling over and quitting.

When a person is so sick they can’t do those things, they want to relieve loved ones of the burden they feel they’ve become. But to me that’s bullshit. If you spend your life taking care of people, it’s perfectly appropriate for them to take care of you when the time comes. Most people I know want to care for their sick loved ones.

My ultimate attitude is that it’s not over until God says it’s over. Trying to die before it’s really time is cheating. Some will cry bullshit on that point. I don’t really care.

If you want to die with dignity, that’s your business.

I’d rather live with dignity – If for no other reason than to piss off the health insurers who fight tooth and nail not to cover life-saving procedures on a daily basis.

I bet my insurance provider would gladly cover my lethal injection. It’s cheaper than paying for my other procedures.

This could be my way of saying “fuck them.”

The Only Way Out Of The Fog Is Through It

We all go through it: Something upsets us so much that we go into a fog; unable to function when we’re still required to do so. It rises up like a brick wall.

Mood music:

We smash into it a few too many times and go through the rest of the day dazed and confused. It’s a natural reaction to life’s more stressful and traumatic moments.

If a loved one is sick or dead, or you get into a huge fight with your spouse, or you just discover you’ve been robbed, the feeling hits you.

But what do you do when that feeling clings to you every day like a wet, filthy rag?

I’ve been there many times. It used to cripple me every day. It’s no longer a daily thing, but it still gets me on occasion.

Monday was one of those days; let’s just say it was driven by guilt.

But here’s the difference between now and the old days:

It didn’t incapacitate me and leave me lying half dead on the couch like it used to. I didn’t check out of the hotel of reality. I may have wanted to, but I didn’t.

I felt every bad feeling and it did stick in my brain all day like a splinter. But somehow, I was able to make it through the day. I got my work done, I got chores done and I was even able to focus on the not-always-easy task of helping Duncan do his homework.

I can point to a lot of things that make the difference today:

Medication to control my OCD, ADD and the depression that comes with it;

–Regular visits to the therapist to get things off my chest; and

–An eating program devoid of flour and sugar. When I’m not sinking under the weight of a food binge, my thinking is clearer.

I don’t think it’s possible to avoid the fog altogether. Life is too unpredictable and dramatic for that. Sometimes the stresses get the better of you and you lose sight of everything around you. It’s a very shitty place to be.

But there is a positive in this: If you never felt the fog, it would mean you didn’t care about anything or anyone.

You would see clearly and keep walking, but the destination would always be some selfish pursuit.

Some of this may sound a bit hyperbolic. I use some fancy language along the way to explain it.

But that’s how my brain rolls this morning.

The Wellbutrin Experiment: Day 8

As I mentioned earlier, I’m taking Wellbutrin to combat a tougher-than-usual bout of winter depression. Here’s where I stand eight days in.

Mood music:

I think I’m starting to feel it, though it’s hard to know for sure this soon. The nurse told me it could take several weeks before I’d feel the full effect, since Wellbutrin slowly accumulates. I have noticed a few things, though:

–I’m a little more focused than I’ve been in several weeks.

–I’m not feeling like I’m in a fog as much as I had been.

–I haven’t been feeling down like I was a week ago.

Whether it’s the Wellbutrin kicking in or not, I’m just glad to be feeling better.

Note: Four hours after writing the part you just read, I came down with vicious mood swings. As I write this, my skin doesn’t fit right, I’m itchy all over (yes, I showered today) and I’m agitated as hell. The good news is that I have gone through the same exact thing whenever my Prozac dose has been adjusted. It lasts a few hours, and then everything evens out. It’s usually the point I reach when the medication is about to kick in.

For those wondering what this experiment is all about, let’s review:

I started taking Wellbutrin because it’s supposed to shore up depleted brain chemistry that the Prozac isn’t designed to fix.

The Prozac increases the amount of serotonin, a natural substance in the brain that helps maintain mental balance. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a substance that helps transmit messages from one nerve cell to another. In other words, it keeps traffic in the brain moving normally.

It has served me well, but this winter the blue moods have been tougher to shake. Enter the Wellbutrin, a drug used to treat major depression and seasonal affective disorder. It’s also used to help people quit smoking because it squashes cravings.

While the Prozac raises Serotonin levels, Wellbutrin shores up another neurotransmitter called Dopamine.

If this all sounds confusing, think of the brain as a car engine. To run properly, the engine needs the right amount of fluids, including brake fluid, transmission fluid and oil. Run low on any one of these and you got problems.

It’s amusing for me considering my efforts to kick some addictions in recent years. Despite my sobriety and abstinence, here I am, finding that there’s better living through chemistry after all.

Cheers.

OCD On My Left, ADD On My Right

It’s been an interesting month in mental disorder awareness. In taking steps to nip wintertime depression in the bud, I’ve learned that OCD isn’t my only mental defect.

Mood music:

It appears that as OCD messes with one side of my brain, Attention Deficit Disorder is toying with the other side. This little epiphany happened when I visited the nurse who helps me manage my regimen of medication.

She asked a lot of questions she usually doesn’t ask about my focus of late. I noted that while I still have frequent OCD moments — particularly if I’m knee-deep in a work project or tackling a list of chores at home — I also seem to be having trouble concentrating a lot. One recent day in work, for example, it took all the strength I had to focus on the work at hand.

That almost never happens. But this time, doing the work was painful. It gave me a migraine. If I hated what I do that would be normal. But I love what I do. Meanwhile, at home, I’d stand in the kitchen, oblivious to the fact that I was standing right where Erin was working on dinner. I would try to give her a hug or shoulder rub while she was in the middle of a task — almost as if I had one foot in this dimension and another foot in some other world.

There’s more to it, but those are a couple good examples.

Looking back on my life, it all makes sense. The OCD-ADD push and pull has always been there to some degree. As a kid I would go into OCD mode, organizing my Hot Wheels and Star Wars action figures just so. Then I’d go the other way and have a hell of a time trying to focus on simple homework assignments or chores around the house.

The Prozac nurse tells me it’s actually typical for someone to go back and forth with these disorders. OCD and ADD operate on the same mental plain. Both spark anxiety (I used to be crippled by anxiety, but that’s not an issue today) and mood swings. Both are effected by the time of year, amount of daylight vs. darkness, etc.

The image that comes to mind is two-face, that villain in Batman with the split personality.

So now I have Wellbutrin to go with the Prozac to balance things out.

Funny how life works. You learn something new about yourself, and then discover it’s not really new at all.

God clearly has a sense of humor.

Serotonin, Dopamine And Two Blue Pills

As the reader knows, I’ve had a persistent bout of winter depression. Not the “I’m sad and want to hurt myself” type, but the ho-hum, grumpy old man variety.

Mood music:

This afternoon I visited the nurse who manages my Prozac intake and walked out with a new drug: Wellbutrin.

I’ll be taking it in addition to the 60 MG of Prozac I’ve been taking for a few years now. The Prozac increases the amount of serotonin, a natural substance in the brain that helps maintain mental balance. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a substance that helps transmit messages from one nerve cell to another. In other words, it keeps traffic in the brain moving normally.

It has served me well, but this winter the blue moods have been tougher to shake. Enter the Wellbutrin, a drug used to treat major depression and seasonal affective disorder. It’s also used to help people quit smoking because it squashes cravings.

While the Prozac raises Serotonin levels, Wellbutrin shores up another neurotransmitter called Dopamine.

If this all sounds confusing, think of the brain as a car engine. To run properly, the engine needs the right amount of fluids, including brake fluid, transmission fluid and oil. Run low on any one of these and you got problems.

I just started taking the Wellbutrin this afternoon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Traci Foust Talks OCD on NPR

Erin is playing me an NPR broadcast about OCD. I went looking for the link to include here and tripped over another good NPR segment. This one is an interview with Traci Foust, author of “Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD.”Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD

I recently connected with Traci on Facebook and she’s a great resource for understanding the disorder.

Do yourself a favor and listen to it HERE.

While we’re on the topic, it’s also worth checking out “A Life Lived Ridiculously” by Annabelle R. Charbit, about a girl with obsessive compulsive disorder who makes the mistake of falling in love with a sociopath.

Both writings work so well because of how the authors use humor. Of course, my humor falls on the dark side, so take that comment with a grain of salt.

Annabelle RcAs for that other OCD segment on NPR, here it is. It’s about how art can be used to raise a person’s understanding of the disorder.

Enjoy, and be better for it.

My Happy Lamp Isn’t Working As I’d Hoped

Me and the happy lamp Erin bought me to combat winter depression aren’t seeing eye to eye. Everyone I talk to who uses one says it works. But here’s my problem…

Mood music:

As I stare at the florescent glow that’s supposed to simulate sunlight, a nagging thought dogs me: “It’s just not the same as real sunlight,” I keep telling myself.

There’s something about genuine sunlight — how it bounces off trees and houses, how it shoots through windows and lights a room — that you just can’t capture in a box.

When the happy lamp is on, it just seems like I have my face extremely close to one of those florescent ceiling lights.

I’m not blind to the fact that part of the problem is me. Knowing that it’s not the same as real sunlight, I have a hard time giving it a chance. That’s really not fair to those who have to live in the same house with me, I realize.

As I said a couple days ago, I’m going to give it another go and work hard to be disciplined about it.

I bring all this up because I suspect I’m not the only one whose skepticism — or is it cynicism — gets in the way of the scientific benefits of light therapy.

I found a write-up from the Mayo Clinic that explains the science pretty well:

Light therapy is a way to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) by exposure to artificial light. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs at a certain time each year, usually in the fall or winter.

During light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and some other conditions. Light therapy is also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy.

Reading further, I can see how I haven’t exactly been doing it right. I turn on the box and don’t keep track of time. I’m inconsistent about the time of day I use it. My mind gets caught on visuals: what I want the light to look like vs. the scientific effect. Here’s how the Mayo Clinic says to do it:

Three key elements for effective light therapy
Light therapy is most effective when you have the proper combination of duration, timing and light intensity:

  • Duration. When you first start light therapy, your doctor may recommend treatment for shorter blocks of time, such as 15 minutes. You gradually work up to longer periods. Eventually, light therapy typically involves daily sessions ranging from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on your light box’s intensity.
  • Timing. For most people, light therapy is most effective when it’s done early in the morning, after you first wake up. Doing light therapy at night can disrupt your sleep. Because light therapy seems to work best in the early morning, you may need to wake up earlier than you normally would to get the most benefit from treatment. Your doctor can help you find the light therapy schedule that works best.
  • Intensity. The intensity of the light box is recorded in lux, which is a measure of the amount of light you receive at a specific distance from a light source. Light boxes for light therapy usually produce between 2,500 lux and 10,000 lux. The intensity of your light box affect how far you sit from it and the length of time you need to use it. The 10,000 lux light boxes usually require 30-minute sessions, while the 2,500 lux light boxes may require 2-hour sessions.

Finding time for light therapy
Light therapy requires time and consistency. You may be tempted to skip sessions or quit altogether because you don’t want to spend time sitting by a light box. But light therapy doesn’t have to be boring. It can be time well spent.

You can set your light box on a table or desk in your home or in your office. That enables you to read, use a computer, write, watch television, talk on the phone or eat while undergoing light therapy. Some light boxes are even available as visors that you can wear, although their effectiveness isn’t proven.

Getting the most out of light therapy
Light therapy isn’t effective for everyone. But you can take steps to get the most out of your light therapy and help make it a success, including:

  • Be consistent. Sticking to a daily routine of light therapy sessions can help ensure that you maintain improvements over time. If you simply can’t do light therapy every day, take a day or two off, but monitor your mood and other symptoms — you may have to find a way to fit in light therapy every day.
  • Time it right. If you interrupt light therapy during the winter months or stop too soon in the spring when you think you’re improving, your symptoms could return.
  • Get the right light box. Do some research and talk to your doctor before purchasing a light therapy box. That way you can be sure your light box is safe, the right brightness and that its style and features make it convenient to use.
  • Include other treatment. If your symptoms don’t improve enough with light therapy, you may need additional treatment. Talk to your doctor about other treatment options, such as psychotherapy or antidepressants.

OK, then. I’m going to give this another try.

Prozac Winter Has Set In

I’ve had some sharp mood swings in recent days. Now that it seems to be leveling off, I can write about it.

Mood music:

I made it through the usual Christmas blues in one piece and even enjoyed the holiday once it arrived. A week of vacation followed, and we Brenners did something we rarely do: Sit around like slugs. We needed it. We must have needed it really bad, in fact, because God sent the whole family a stomach bug to force a couple days of inactivity. I escaped the bug myself, but pretty much stayed under the quilts anyway.

The mood swings started around Thursday. I’d feel happy and at peace for a couple hours, then miserable, angry and agitated for a few hours, then back and forth. I didn’t mention it to my family, though I’m sure it was obvious. New Year’s Eve was especially brutal. I walked around in a fog all day, even as we did stuff as a family. We enjoyed a trip to the Museum of Science but much of the time my head was someplace else — someplace darker.

I carried on that way into the evening, feeling deep sadness over things I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, as we got further into the evening, my spirits lifted. After Duncan and my niece went to bed, Erin, Sean and I watched TV and Sean and I played a game of Battleship. It felt good.

Yesterday was a good day overall. I had enough energy to go on a housecleaning spree before church. In the afternoon Duncan and I worked on a craft involving Plaster of Paris and, while the plaster dried, we watched some Harry Potter.

I ended the day dozing off in my favorite living room chair next to the Christmas tree lights, and was feeling content about it.

A couple items worth noting:

–The worst of my mood swings coincided with some dreary weather outside. No snow, but lots of clouds and a fair amount of rain. That kind of weather always tampers with my mood.

–Yesterday, New Years Day, the sun lit up the day brilliantly. I always do better when the sun shines.

The weather is always a factor for those who are prone to depression this time of year, when the days are short and the trees are bare.

I’m feeling good this morning. All in all, it was a good, restful vacation but I’m ready to get back to the work I love. I used to dread the end of vacation, so that’s a big plus.

I cherished the time I spent with family, even if my flawed side sometimes surfaced to make a mess of things.

I’ve learned to expect this stuff at the beginning of winter. That means I’m able to recover more quickly.

Thank God for that, because nothing sucks more than a slow, downward spiral you can’t pull yourself out of.

"Darkness and Light" -- check out the "Four Lease Ranch" blog where I found this. Good stuff.