Depression and Your Brain

This is what it’s like, when you have depression. You go through your life and you’re doing ok, and then depression sneaks up on you. It’s like when you watch nature shows and the lion takes out the gazelle.

I do not like being a gazelle in this situation.

What I’m having as an issue right now, though, is the mental paralysis.

You know when you’re smushed up against the side of the car because there’s too many people in it? Or when you’re sitting between two big people on an airplane? And you can’t move properly and you feel trapped?

That’s what my brain is doing.

Think about how hard it is to open your airline snacks when you’re trapped like that, and that’s how hard thinking has been for me this past week or so. It’s like I have to focus and work hard to complete a single thought of any value.

It’s exhausting.

And it’s frustrating, too.

Everything is much harder in this situation. Planning is hard. Talking is hard. Decision making is very hard. It’s all tricky.

The good news is that I have found a new therapist (the old one is not covered by this year’s insurance) and I start on Friday. I hope to have some better thought processes sometime soon.




Breaking the Phone Addiction

I got an app called “Moment” back in November and let it run in the background all this time, never opening it. It monitors your cell phone usage, how many hours a day you use your phone, how often you pick it up, and so on.

Last week, I thought, hmmm, what is the story on that? And I opened the app. It’s not good. Most days I was using my phone in the neighborhood of 9 hours. To be fair, much of that was not during times that I was doing baby care–my ongoing insomnia means that I read on my phone for several hours many many nights–but STILL. It’s a terrible situation.

I immediately scaled back. I would get rid of the phone–put it in a drawer all day, anyway–if it wasn’t how I took pictures of the baby (which I do approximately a dozen times a day) but since I do need to have it in my hand for pictures, even in the house I can’t shut it away.

Instead, I scaled it back. I told the phone to stop tracking me between 10pm and 8am, when the baby is almost certainly asleep and that way I’m not getting dinged by my insomniac issues.

I then set a limit on the phone usage, of 5 hours a day. This should be easy to meet, and actually, for most of last week it was easy to meet it. The exception: the day where I was driving most of the day (to the school, to therapy, back to school, to school, to an away track meet, back to the school, home) and I had the phone up for GPS purposes and I also had it running podcasts the entire time.

The other issue is on the weekends when the husband is doing baby care, which is a good time for me to catch up on my reading, which pushes my cell phone use up as well.

I can set the app to exclude the time I spend in specific apps–I would certainly exclude podcasts, because I’m not actively on my phone while they run, either in the house or in the car–but I’d rather bring it back under the time without carving out exceptions.

Every morning I take a screenshot of my battery screen, showing how many minutes I spent in each app the previous day, and the app shows me what I’m doing so I can fix it. It also shows me how often I pick it up: how long between pick ups, how many total times I picked it up, how long I was holding it on average, how many times I was on it for more than 15 minutes, and so on.

It’s hard. I want to pick it up ALL the time. But it’s not insurmountable. I will be more present without my phone addiction and so I’m dedicated to fixing this.


Dissociation and Flashbacks

I’ve been having a bad period here in terms of the anxiety. There’s increased activity with the ex, and signs of impending renewed legal activity (my least favorite thing ever) and it’s been ratcheting up my anxiety symptoms.

One of the things that is so frustrating about being a survivor of domestic violence is that even now there’s so little attention given to the mental issues it produces. The new DSM does include “complex PTSD” as a diagnosis, which is a relief to me and to others, as that is definitely the correct diagnosis for me, the previous ones were cobbled together to fit the options available in the DSM IV. But the criteria in the DSM V is still a little wonky. More work, more refinement is needed.

And still, people assume PTSD is only something that soldiers get. Or–and I think this is much, much worse–people think that what soldiers get is a worse version than anyone else.

I hate that.

I do not deny the horrors of war. My sister was just in the Coast Guard–no front lines for her–but she saw people decapitated and fished bodies out of the ocean and I don’t even know what else. I shudder to think what it is like to be in battle proper.

But the horrors of being in a domestic violence situation are also extreme.

I was afraid for my life. Every day, for eight years. For four of those years, I was also afraid for my children’s lives. Fear that was justified–my oldest was hospitalized twice in her first 3 months of life. I BEGGED the social workers for help, and they insisted that they come speak to her father, too, before getting me any assistance. I have no family here. I had no friends, we’d just moved to the city. I was trapped.

When you life in that kind of heightened alertness state for that long, it destroys you.

When I see him, even now, when we’ve been apart longer than we were together, my heart rate skyrockets, I feel dizzy and lightheaded, and the flashbacks come back. The memories come back, and I start to dissociate.

The good news is, after all these years, I’ve got a very stable grounding practice and can spot the dissociation when it starts and try to head it off at the pass. Now, when a dissociative episode happens, it mostly takes the form of feeling hazy, like I’m in a daydream, and I have trouble processing words and talking. I can’t form coherent sentences, I can’t really understand what other people are saying to me. These periods are brief, usually, and do not really impair my daily life. I can continue to cook or clean or diaper a baby feeling like a dream, because I know that it is a false sensation and life is really happening around me.

The memories are a bigger problem than the flashbacks, because they are more frequent and pervasive. I’ll have a memory stuck in my head for days at a time and my thoughts keep coming back to it like it’s being pulled by a magnet. This week I keep thinking of the time I called the police for help after he (yet again) squeezed my windpipe shut until I passed out. I woke up, agreed to spend a week at his parent’s house as he wanted (those people are just as awful as he is…) and then stumbled into the bedroom and called 911. The police came, the cops asked me what happened, and I told them. They asked him and he denied it, and then he told them I was crazy. He asked them to put me in the hospital for a psych eval. They refused. But when I asked them to arrest him or to get me and the kids out of there, they also refused. They said that their departmental policy was that if there was no third party witness, and no need for medical care or visible injuries, they did not intervene in domestic disputes.

After they left, he took my phone and locked me in the closet. He put something in front of it so I couldn’t get out, and that’s where I spent the night. In the morning, I could hear the baby crying before he let me out. I can still see him, silhouetted against the morning light in the bathroom, with his “stern daddy” look on his face, as he said, “Did you learn your lesson? Can I trust you to be out of this closet and take care of the kids?”

When I said yes, he walked away, and before I even got out of the closet I heard the front door closing behind him. My cell phone was gone, my laptop was gone, the house phones were all gone, my car keys were gone, and my wallet was gone. The kids’ carseats were not in my car, either. That’s how I lived for several weeks, a prisoner in my own home, until he was sure he could trust me again.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be free of the memories, if the flashbacks will ever stop completely, if the dissociation will ever go away. I think not. I think this is the permanent reminder that I will carry with me of the time I spent in that hell. At least now it is manageable.


Boats Against the Current

The final line of The Great Gatsby is one of the most beautiful sentences in American literature (in my humble opinion, anyway) and it frequently quoted for that reason. Here it is:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It’s evocative, of course, because it’s so true and so sad. We’re all a product of our pasts and there’s only so much we can do to outrun it.

I was thinking about this last night. Not this exact thing, but a similar thing. I was fretting about summer camps–my oldest got invited to an exclusive “leadership camp” but it’s a THOUSAND DOLLARS for a week long trip, and she wants to go–and I felt so helpless. All the money we have now has to go to the next legal battle, or to bills, or to things we need that we don’t have, like, I don’t know, enough dining room chairs to allow us to sit around the table at the same time. But if I can get those things, it’s another thing behind it, it’s summer camp. Or it’s braces. Or it’s something else.

I got this vision in my head of the ocean. I was swimming towards a diving platform in the ocean, and once I got there I could rest. But as soon as I got close enough to touch it, the current shifted and pulled it out of my hand and I had to start swimming again.


It’s not just the money, it’s like each area of my life is a different ocean, and I’m switching back and forth between them, swimming against the current, trying to keep my head above water long enough to keep swimming, fighting as hard as I can to reach the diving platform so I can rest.

Some of these fights are harder than others, some waves are stronger, and each ebbs and flows, but it’s always a fight.

I’m fighting hard on the money front.

I’m fighting hard for each of children too. The oldest one has that camp situation, needs more enrichment, is having depression and anxiety issues. The middle one lacks the work ethic she needs to optimize her skills and talents, and shares her father’s unpleasant sense of entitlement and lack of empathy. The baby is small for his age because he was early, and is behind on some of his milestones, so I’m terrified and fighting on that too, all the time.

I thought of my sister, who was just passed over for partner at her law firm, due largely to them penalizing her for taking maternity leave last year. She’s been working for pay since she was 14 years old, including work study in college and law school, and she’s getting tired. It’s been more than have her life now that she wakes up every morning and busts her ass, and she was due that payoff this year and had it snatched away from her. She’s swimming against the current, too.

I wish I had an upbeat way to end this, but I don’t. I’m sad and beaten down today. I’m tired–my body still won’t sleep, still won’t give me the rest that I need–and I’m frustrated with myself, because I’m not doing as well with these fights as I’d like.

Anyone with ideas on how to do better with this fight, please let me know. I’m so tired.


Finding Joy

I’ve been reading a book called “Every Day, Holy Day.” (That’s not an affiliate link or anything–I’m not set up for that here.) It’s a devotional that brings the Jewish practice of Mussar into your daily life.

Mussar is a form of spiritual discipline. Mussar actually translates to moral conduct or moral discipline. From the Mussar Institute:

Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.

In “Every Day, Holy Day” this takes the form of 26 qualities, which are focused on for a week each, and then they repeat. Each day you get a very short paragraph with a thought on that week’s area of focus, a mantra to repeat, and a space for you to write something about that day’s lesson.

These are mostly what you’d think and the have a minimal impact on my day to day life, which is also what you would expect. But last week there was a reading on “joy” that made a big big impact on me and changed the way I think of things.

This is the reading for that day:

One day, people noticed Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, enjoying a private banquet. What was the occasion? He had been told that a man in a far-off land–whom he did not know–had won a great prize. So the Alter was full of joy for him. And so he made himself a party. 

It really made me think. We feel besieged right now. Well, not just right now, we’ve been feeling besieged as a people as the omnipresence of the news grows. It used to be murder in the next town barely got onto our radar unless there was something scandalous about it. Now, the famine in the South Sudan is right in front of our eyes. The bombings in Syria are, too. Pictures of dead babies trying to escape Syria are everywhere. It’s terrible. We’re not any more in danger than we were before (despite some current rhetoric, the statistics are clear that violent crime is and has been decreasing) but it FEELS like we’re in more danger than we were before. That’s a direct result of constant news coverage, instant Twitter updates from people everywhere and so on and so on.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing–I think it’s good that we know what’s happening. Those of us who are mostly in a safe place are in a position to use our voices and our resources to help those who are not, and knowledge of the problems is the first step towards solving the problems.

But that reading made me realize, it goes the other way, too. We internalize the danger and the trauma, but we can also internalize the joy. There are still joyous things happening. Like the Rabbi in the story, we can celebrate people who win awards. We can celebrate small successes–one of my friends recently performed a solo in her choir, and that’s joyous, too–and we can turn little things into celebrations. I have a friend who put cupcake stickers on daily pill box, so every morning when she takes her meds for her chronic illness she has a little feeling of happiness because she loves cupcakes.

We can feel vicarious joy ALL the time. Even when we can’t find something joyous in our own lives, we can find something joyous in the world to celebrate. People damaging Jewish cemeteries is terrible, but the Muslim community raising money to repair it and community members volunteering to clean it up is joyous. So often we focus on the sadness we see in our much more globalized world, but there’s nothing stopping us from focusing on the joy we can find in those connections.

Choose joy.

Minimalism Maintenance

A few years ago I got this crazy frustration with the STUFF in our house and went on a massive purging project that lasted most of the year. That involved going through everything, purging what I could, and boxing up what I couldn’t purge so there was more space.

For example, I had a substantial book collection. This is not a joke, the previous purge when I moved out of my house and into the divorce involved giving away enough books to fill the entire back of a friend’s suburban. And there were still literally hundreds of books here. I purged a few more of those, but most of the books I was willing to part with had already been purged at that point. So instead we put the books in file boxes and used a software program to index and sort them, so I can put my hand on any book in less than 5 minutes, but the boxes are in the storage shed now.

However, it’s been a few years and the hidden story of minimalism in your home is that basically it’s a diet for your living space. You have to maintain ruthless vigilance.

We have not been sufficiently vigilant.

Result: I can’t deal with the random crap around the house. I’m boxing up knickknacks this week, and going through boxes of random stuff that has been accumulated in the last couple of years.

Really, we need to clean out the shelves in the closet, where we had placed boxes of stuff we weren’t ready to purge during the last purge. We should also make another run at the storage shed, which requires regular purging to keep it from getting stuffed full.

I really believe that the less stuff in your space the calmer you are. Clutter begets clutter. A cluttered mind and spirit leads to clutter in your home, and clutter in your home makes you feel blocked and generally stuck.

I did a massive brain dump yesterday because I was feeling frazzled and scattered mentally. I think that helped a lot, because it is the same for mental clutter and the ability to be functional. I had too many open loops in my head, and I couldn’t focus on anything for any length of time. This, too, is the goal of meditation, to help keep your head clear and allow you to focus more easily.

My therapist wants me to be meditating far more than I am. I’m working on trying to get a single meditation session in every single day. My therapist thinks the only way to really get a handle on the ongoing anxiety issues is to do 5-10 minutes of meditation 3-5 times a day, at a minimum.

The issue with that, of course, is that I have a baby I’m caring for, and you can’t really meditate with a baby. Therefore I have to wait until he’s asleep, and that means that during his brief nap periods, I have to add meditation to the list of everything else that I’m doing. Anything that isn’t directly focused on him, or that I can’t do easily with him in the room, I have to do during his naps. What that means is that although some chores (dishes, laundry) can be done with him awake, most of them can’t be done unless he’s asleep. Neither can I get any writing work done while he’s awake, of course.

The restriction on my free time is why I have started to pare down on my daily list of things to do. My habitica dailies got up to about 35 tasks per day, and I’ve eliminated a bunch of them. I’m down to about 20 tasks per day but even that is difficult and I might have to purge even more.

Minimalism is, at heart, simplicity. The less stuff you have, the simpler your house, the simpler your life. Minimalism means a less mental clutter, more mindfulness, more being present in the moment. But it’s not a destination. You can’t purge all your stuff and be finished with the work of minimalism. Minimalism is an ongoing way of living, a deliberate turning towards less, a refusal of complications in your life.

You can’t avoid life complications altogether, of course. But by deliberate avoiding it as much as possible, you keep that emotional and mental bandwidth available for when it hits you unexpectedly.



Stomach Flu or the Carb Revenge?

Despite my vow last week not to go off the wagon because it made me feel gross, I went DRAMATICALLY off my plan this past weekend.

In my defense, I was home alone all week with the baby because the husband was out of town for work and he was having some sleep issues, so I was TIRED, and then on top of that, I had a lot of stress from the kid’s schools and their schedules and everything was crazy. On Thursday, when I had the older kids, the baby’s sleep schedule was completely off, but I still had to go to the school early because there was a book fair situation in play and then I had two hours to kill before I could get the other child because she has a club meeting on Thursdays and so I took that time to go to the grocery store, and then I picked up a pizza for the kids to eat and I had some too.

And that, tragically, opened the floodgates.

Friday was a half day and I had to do a conference with the teacher I hate and then get the other one and then we had to stop at the Walmart to get shoes because they both have outgrown their dress shoes and they both have events coming up that will require dress shoes. And while I was there I lost my mind and got yet more pizza (frozen this time) and cookies, and wine.

And then on Saturday was the big science fair, and the little one had qualified, so that was our entire day. Plus, there’s a long standing tradition in this house that if you qualify for the big science fair you get to go out to lunch between judging and awards, and so she picked her lunch place: a pizza buffet.

I tried to get myself together, but then the in-laws came by on Sunday and we went out to lunch with them….at a breakfast place.

All of which is to say, when I woke up on Monday feeling awful, I figured it was the carb disaster. But it got worse. I was up all night Monday night with nausea and diarrhea. Yesterday wasn’t much better. I’m trying to eat some food, but legal stuff–fruit, nuts, whatever–and it’s hard.

But then this morning the husband woke up with my same symptoms. This suggests that it isn’t the carbs after all, but rather an actual stomach flu.

I haven’t weighed myself since Thursday morning because I’ve been afraid of the carb related weight gain, but on Thursday I hit the pre-surgical binge eating weight, which is a huge victory. 12 pounds in 6 weeks, that’s worth celebrating.

I hope I feel better soon, because this is really unpleasant all around.