Saturday, November 22, 2008

The sound of one hand clapping (Part 1)

"Got a head full of echoes
Got a mind full of pills
Do you think you recognize me?
Do you think you ever will?"

— lyrics from the song "One Hand Clapping". Download it here (MP3, 3.1 MB).

I wrote those words in the fall of 1994, shortly after I first started taking psychiatric medication for what I thought was major clinical depression. I was trying to capture what it felt like to feel my life change, to have things that seemed forever broken get fixed. To feel that finally my mind was not my enemy, but my ally.

I was first officially diagnosed with depression when I was 18 years old, even though I'd probably been depressed since the onset of puberty. I also remember a myriad of crying jags, feelings of immense sadness for no reason, and odd behavior as a child. I'd been to a few counselors as a kid as a one-off thing, mainly because I came from a single-parent family and had some self-esteem issues. None of it seemed to satiate the strange, terrible feelings I had, which had little (if anything) to do with my parents' divorce.

When I was 18, I started seeing a pyschologist on a regular basis. Most of the therapy sessions involved me doing "visualizations" of previous traumatic events in my life, only giving them happy endings instead of the bad ones. Needless to say, I thought it was a joke, and didn't take any of it seriously. I just figured that life is miserable, and that's how it's supposed to be. And it was my job to wallow in that miserableness.

I was also just starting college at this time, and socially things seemed to improve a bit. I came out of the shell I'd made in high school, and even became a bit of an extrovert. I went through my glam phase, and started dressing up and wearing eyeliner. I subconsciously cultivated the image of a cynical, dark, mysterious creature who spent his time listening to dark music and chain smoking (oooo scary!).

I was one of a number of guys named Dan on my small college campus, and I soon gained the nickname of "Death Dan" to differentiate me from the others. Even other people saw that I was a bit different, and had a dark attitude. I remember that a woman broke up with me because I told her I thought that people who spent their life trying to be happy were stupid and ignorant, and that life was supposed to be miserable.

Starting in my late teens, it seemed that every autumn, my moods would shift, and my thinking would take on an odd quality. I became even more sarcastic than I normally was. I was angry at everything-- more so than usual. Sometimes, I felt hyper-sexual, and would get involved in relationships I knew were a bad idea, yet still felt compelled to pursue. I would lash out at friends and family, for little more reason than I felt like it. I would also turn more and more often to alcohol, as it was the only thing that seemed to take the edge off the anger, and gave me some relief from the fire in my brain.

Then, like clockwork, I would have an epiphany of sorts, and realize what an ass I was, and crash and burn, and shut myself off for a few days to escape from the mess I'd created. Each year, the sarcasm would get worse, and the corresponding crash would get worse, too. What started out as a few weeks of being an asshole to everyone would turn into a couple months of rage, random outbursts and terrible cases of road rage-- followed by the inevitable retreat to bed, or a walking zombie existence, just barely keeping the tears back.

Eventually, this crash and burn routine got to be too much. I made an appointment with a pyschology clinic. During the initial interview, the social worker diagnosed me as being in a depressive episode. Instead of prescribing more counseling, he made an appointment for me with the pyschiatrist-- a medical doctor.

(To be continued...)

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Beginning/End (Part 2)

(Authors note: the use of the terms "crazies", "nutjobs", etc. is not meant to minimize or demean the suffering of anybody who lives with a brain disease. People who have mental illnesses suffer as much (or even more) pain than those with more visible, physical ailments, and deserve our compassion and respect for living with their frustratingly baffling disorders. I oftentimes use these terms 1) to make a very sad situation easier to deal with by lightening the mood, 2) to destigmatize and "disempower" the word and take it back, much the same way the GLBT community has taken back "queer". As somebody who has a brain disease, I know what it's like to walk around with a mind that doesn't work like everyone else's, and I certainly don't mean to make it any worse for my brothers and sisters who are also touched by this strange affliction.)

Okay, so where was I? That's right, the psych ward.

First, a few words about your typical, modern-day psych ward. Most major hospitals have them these days, and most of them have more than one ward or section. Typically, they separate out the violent, aggressive crazies from the more sedate, mood-disorder-related crazies. As I am non-violent by nature (and tend to be hospitalized when I'm depressed), my stays on the ward have all been in mostly mellow places, with mostly depressives, bipolars who are depressed, and a few delusional/schizophrenics thrown in for color (more about that later).

So, what goes on in your typical psych ward? Well, truthfully, not a whole lot. Most of us there are extremely depressed, many nearly catatonic. You sit around a lot. If you can concentrate, you might read a magazine or a book. Or do puzzles-- jigsaw, crossword, wordfinds, sudoku, whatever's around. Or, if it's allowed, you watch TV. Or sit in a corner, and sob uncontrollably. That's if you're not being dragged off to a session on how to run your life, practicing good leisure activities, or managing your feelings, or some other type of subject that sounds oddly trivial, yet is essential to your daily life. And surprisingly, many people with mental illnesses never learned so many of these essential life skills. All of this while your brain gradually adapts to various medicinal experiments carried out by a trained team of psychiatric professionals.

Also, you don't go to the psych ward to get "cured". You get treated and stabilized so you can go back to the world. Psychiatry is still a relatively young science-- I prefer to call it "shotgun medicine" because it's so inexact. You try one medication, and if that doesn't work, you try another. And another. And probably another, and another, until you hit on a medication (or combination of medications) that works for you. This can take months, even years, to perfect. Hopefully they keep working, and don't crap out after a few years. If they do, it's back to the drawing board. And yes, it is exasperating, which is why so many of us choose to off ourselves instead of go through it over and over and over again.

So, back to our story. I finally made it onto the ward some time after dinner. I ate, alone, and joined the rest of the crazies in the day room. I was surprised that, when I came onto the ward, they let me keep my personal jewelry, including my watch and my rings (and earrings too, for that matter).

For evening session, we all introduced ourselves, and I related my tale. Surprisingly, I didn't break down. I didn't even cry. I didn't shed one tear about what was the most tragic event of my life. But I was done crying. And surprisingly, it felt alright...

Everybody on the ward was sympathetic, and offered a lot of support. I was safe-- and even if I wasn't among friends, at least I was among people who cared.

That night, before I went to bed, I took off my wedding ring. I wrapped it in tissue, and put it in the drawer of the nightstand next to my hospital bed. I never wore it again.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Beginning/End (part 1)

I suppose if I'd been in my right mind and not so far into my weirdness I would have seen it coming.

G. and I had been married for almost nine years. I had proposed to her ten years earlier, after one whirlwind drunken evening. Lately, things had been a little cool between us. I knew she was irritated for me, but it was for the usual reasons: I'm a slob, I can't manage my money, I drive like an asshole (six tickets in as many months, and the consequent suspension of my license), I don't do anything besides go to work, come home, sit on the couch, drink a lot of wine, and pass out/go to bed. The usual minor crimes and trespasses in our comfy little home.

It started on Friday, May 6, 2005. It was the day after Cinco de Mayo. G. had a bunch of her gal pals over for drinks before they went out. As it was near Cinco, I volunteered to make margaritas (I made killer margaritas-- even professional bartenders would beg me for my recipe). I had recently gotten into top-shelf tequilas, and needed a good excuse to try them out, too.

After a few pitchers, we were all well on our way. I provided some low-key entertainment with my flamenco guitar (very amateurish, but sounding like Paco de Luca to drunk people who don't know what it's supposed to sound like). I remember seeing them off, and then went into my office for awhile. That's where my memory goes blank for several hours.

G. and her pals came home several hours later, and found me, passed out in the bathtub, with vomit on my t-shirt. Once again, I had embarrassed G. For the one millionth-plus time in our marriage.

The next day, we were going down to visit my mother for Mother's Day. Needless to say, I was hung over to hell, and G. drove the 90 miles to Rochester. I felt awful the whole weekend, although I never let on it was because of a hangover.

The following Monday night, G. went out with her best gal friend. She got home late (around midnight), and insisted on sleeping on the couch. Not unusual, as I had a tendency to snore and she was a light sleeper. On Tuesday, she didn't come home at all, and stayed over at her best friends' house. This was getting strange. And I was getting anxious. When I get anxious, I retreat to some place safe. In this case, it was back down to my mom's in Rochester. I drove down that night, missing a concert by the reunited Gang of Four, one of my favorite bands, which I had been planning to see for months.

G. had been planning to start couples counseling again, and had our first appointment in a couple weeks. I called and had it changed to that Thursday morning. Between Tuesday night I spent my time on my mom's couch, staring at the TV, scared, unable to do anything, even cry.

Thursday morning comes around, and my mom drives me to the therapy appointment. G. is there, and is decidedly detached-- cold, even, in her black suit. We sit near each other (not next to each other), wordless, in the waiting room. After waiting for what seems like an eternity, we're called in to see the therapist.

I took a seat on a couch, G. sat down on a chair next to it. The therapist introduced herself, and asked us to do the same, and describe why we were here.

I told her I knew that we had some problems. I knew I was hard to live with. I knew I was emotional, and sometimes that was scary. But I also knew that I loved G. more than anyone, and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, and was willing to work on our relationship.

Then she spoke. She said that she didn't love me anymore, and hadn't loved me for years, and had been living a lie. She said the marriage was over, and didn't see the point in working on it. She wanted a divorce, now.

I was crushed. As a child of divorce, I'd always told myself that when I got married, that would be it-- forever. I even naively thought that because my marriage lasted longer than my parents', that I was in the clear. After all, people tend to get divorced after a few years, not nine years. By then, you've pretty much got it sussed, right?

I was crying, and had an overwhelming desire to kill myself-- more so than usual. The therapist knew I was in trouble, especially after I had described how I'd been the past few months. She called over to Regions Hospital, and got me a bed in their acute psych ward.

I'd had several significant mental breakdowns in the past, but I'd never been hospitalized. I'd have episodes that would leave me unable to work for a month or two, but I'd never been to the hospital. THAT place was for wackos, not for people like me who had a little problem with depression once in awhile. What the hell was I supposed to do at the hospital?

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. My mom took me to the hospital, and I sat in the emergency room for eight hours, curled up on an examination table, feeling numb. I didn't cry much after the initial revelation-- I think I was in shock.

Finally I was admitted. They took inventory of all the meds I was taking, took away my belt and shoelaces (ain't nobody gonna hang himself in OUR nutjob ward, amigo), got me some pajamas, and sent me into the dayroom with the rest of the crazies...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coming soon; or, I'm working on it

Sorry there hasn't been an update. I'm in the middle of writing some new songs, as I'm anticipating that the band will return to gigging early in the new year. I'm working on the rest of the "Weirdo" thingy, plus I'm working on an entry tentatively titled "The Beginning", which will be about the events that led to my first stay in a psych ward, and what happened afterward.

Stay tuned-- I promise it will be worth it. :-)