Swimming

A few weeks ago was the birthday of a friend of mine who passed way too young. I have also had a number of conversations with people who are struggling this month, so when my Facebook feed showed that I had posted the blog entry below, I felt like I needed to follow up on it. Go ahead and click on that first.

https://theaccidentalselfie.com/2016/04/03/one-year-crazy/

Basically, two years ago I wrote about my decision to take medication to help control anxiety issues and depression issues. That blog was largely about that decision and the positive effects.

Where am I at?

Two months after posting that blog, I felt like I had figured things out and stopped taking the medication.  I continued to see a counselor for another year after discontinuing the medication because I wanted to make sure I really did have my stuff together.  Last summer, I told him “Have you noticed that what we have talking about for the last year is not even close to the reasons I came in here two years ago? I think I’m done.” Basically, I took Lexapro for a little over a year, but have not touched one of those pills in over two years.  I’m fine.

What’s different?

I am better at distancing myself from work. I’m a school psychologist. Most people find it hard to believe, but the job is mentally brutal. The average career of a school psych is extremely short. Do not quote me, but I believe it was around 3-5 years the last time I checked. We turn over psychs at an alarming rate and the number of school psychs on anti-anxiety medications is staggering.  Basically, it is not me. It’s a mentally damaging job filled with conflict, isolation and frustration that breaks many many people at some time.

Here are three quotes said to me this year that would have crushed me in the past. “You made that call?  F**K you, man!”  “I just want you to know that I think you f*****g suck,” and finally, “Don’t as Erik. He’s just collecting a paycheck.”  Sadly, those came from staff with whom I work. Imagine what I get from parents and students. In the past, I would have lost sleep or tried to find ways to reconcile the problem or frankly, get the person to like me.  Now, I go home and go on with my day. I am actually really good at my job. I know that. People get mad, people get angry. Whatever.  Maybe they really do think I suck. Maybe they were frustrated and blowing off steam. I do my best and move on. Of course, I do collect a paycheck as well, so that kinda helps. A nice big fat public-school employee paycheck.

I have really learned who I can depend on and it is the people who were there for me when I was a mess and when things are great. When I posted that blog I got bombarded with “What’s the matter?” “We should get together and you can fill me in,” “I am always here, what do you need?”  I struggled because when I posted it, I was through everything. I did not need anything anymore. I wanted to yell, “I’m fine. Where was this twelve months ago when I needed it?”  In fairness, most of them had no clue. Some I had flat-out lied to. Perhaps others, I wasn’t direct enough with when I tried to reach them. I am certainly not blameless but what I have learned is that people love riding the big red fire truck with sirens blaring to spray water on the inferno, but fewer people like to spend time quietly checking smoke alarms.  Those are the people I can depend on and I have them in my life. You know who you are and I love you.

Chicken or Egg?

In my professional life, and in my person life, I see countless people basically say, “I need to find out what I have so that I understand why I think/act like this.”  When I started in therapy one of the first things I said was, “I do not believe there is anything wrong with me. I think I am depressed and anxious because I think certain ways and have certain patterns that I need to break.  I do not think I ‘have something’ that is beyond my control and causes me to do this.”   Some people have genuine disorders that they can not help. That is a fact and I am not discrediting that at all.  For me, that was going to be my last resort, not a starting point. I wanted to change everything I could before saying, “I have X.”  It may seem minor, but I do believe that if I had walked in and relinquished that locus of control I would not have been as successful.

People will still occasionally make a comment about by “mental illness.”  Initially, it infuriated me.  Not because there is anything wrong with mental illness, but because I do not consider myself mentally ill.  I had a tough spell, took some pretty serious steps to correct it and feel like I am back on track.  If I blew out my ACL, had surgery and went through a year of rehab, I doubt people would refer to me as “physically disabled” three years later when I was walking and running around. Again, something that I would have stewed on years ago, but now am much better about letting it slide.  Who knows, maybe someday I will have another “mental-injury.” It is possible, but I am not overly concerned about it right now.

In Conclusion 

I am as happy as I have been in a long time. In a weird way, I am almost glad I had that bad stretch.  I feel more insightful, resilient, and content. Mostly, I feel more grateful. I just felt like I needed to give some closure to what I put out there a couple years ago.  Two final things.

First, take care of your friends and family.  Check in on them. Say something if you notice them struggling. Listen to them. Check their smoke alarms. Do not wait until it becomes a blazing fire and then try to throw buckets of water on it. Stuff is already burning at that point. You will never regret touching base or checking in.  Even if you meet resistance, or even lies, your gesture will be appreciated on some level.

Finally, if you are struggling. Get some help. If your loved ones say you are struggling,  you are struggling. Get some help. It does not mean there is anything wrong with you and any help does not need to be permanent.  I will close with this analogy.  It was like I was spending my life slogging on the ocean floor and drowning.  On the good days, I could swim twenty or thirty feet above the floor and say, “Look at this. This is not bad. I am well above the floor. I’m swimming”  However, after spending so much time on the floor, I’d lost perspective and did not even realize that even though I was twenty or thirty feet off the floor, I was still 100 feet below the surface and drowning.  Getting counseling and meds was like tying a life jacket on me and shooting me to the surface.  Once my head got above water, I thought “Wow, I had forgotten this is where I am supposed to be. I need to relearn to swim.” As I swam stronger, I untied the life jackets.

As of today, I don’t even know where my life jackets are anymore.

 

 

Dragons

Every  night the dragon came and every night Keri fought it.  At first, it was a minor nuisance.  A small little lizard that appeared at sunset, scratched at her window and was easily chased away.  But in the past months, it had grown. Not only was the dragon larger and more fierce, but it was fighting longer and longer. Still, it was always beaten back by sunrise.

Keri continued to deliver wood to the villagers. A few of them whispered of seeing strange lights and noises coming from Keri’s land at night, but few thought much of it. Keri continued to bring wood and what business of theirs was it? After all, nobody really believed in dragons.

The monster continued to grow and Keri’s battles now stretched throughout the night.  While once, she had been simply able to chase the dragon away, she now spent the evenings fending off its attacks.  She no longer troubled herself with trying to beat the dragon back but simply tried to survive until the dragon grew bored and fled.  Worse yet, the dragon now brazenly stayed until the first rays of sun stretched over Keri’s land.

Keri began having difficulty making her deliveries on time. Most of the villagers quickly forgave her, but whispers began.  Some wondered why Keri continued to wear long tunics in the heat, but others caught glimpses of the bruises or the long, bloody claw marks that ran the length of Keri’s arms from where the dragon had raked her.  While Keri’s deliveries had once been a source of peace, she now caught glimpses of the dragon stalking her.  Even during the day.  A tail disappearing beneath the underbrush beside the road.  A curl of smoke coming from behind a pile of rock.  Always there. Always waiting for sunset.

At the town festival, a battered Keri was approached by the Men in Orange.  Her head swam from her drink, but she eventually told them that she was fighting a dragon. To  her surprise, they did not mock her. They believed her. They slammed their steins on the table and swore their allegiance. The Men in Orange told her to light a signal fire when the dragon next attacked. They would come riding and together they would kill the dragon.

For weeks, Keri lit a fire every night that the dragon arrived.  As the dragon pummeled her, she stared down the road desperately searching for a sign of orange. It never came and she stopped lighting fires. Occasionally, a neighbor would wander by and throw rocks at the dragon, but it had grown far too powerful to be repelled by stones.  Finally, at dawn, the dragon pinned her to the ground. The morning sun hit its face and it was unfazed. It leaned forward and hissed into Keri’s ear, “This is the last time I leave. You will never be rid of me” and flew off.

Keri delivered wood and feared the coming night.  She did not know if the dragon’s threat was a promise to torment her forever or if it intended to carry her away.  Her last stop was a reclusive old man. He noticed Keri’s bruises and told her that he had seen the dragon following Keri. He pitied her and produced a sword that he claimed had killed dragons for generations.  Keri skeptically took it and and returned home.

That night, the dragon came and Keri killed it. There was no battle. The dragon approached and the sword easily pierced its scales.  Keri looked at the dead dragon in disbelief. Its body began to shrivel and shrink before her. She quickly cut off its head and hid it away.

Every night, Keri slept beside her sword but no dragons came.  With the dragon gone, smaller monsters that troubled all of the villagers began to occasionally approach Keri’s land. Goblins, spiders, and trolls were quickly disposed of. What chance do they stand against a sword that kills dragons? Eventually, even they stayed away from Keri and nothing bothered her.

A year later, Keri no longer slept by her sword and had it safely hidden underneath her floor boards.  The village prepared for its annual festival.  As the people danced in the commons, Keri rode into town and mounted the dragon’s head on a stake in the village square. The crowd momentarily hushed before everyone began talking at once. The children ran to the head in order to see a monster.  Some sat in silent disbelief as they had never believed in dragons.  Others murmured that they had thought they had seen dragons around.  Neighbors apologized for not having better weapons than stones. The Men in Orange swung their swords in the air and roared that they would stand beside anyone to kill dragons if they would only light a signal fire.  Some claimed to have killed dragons themselves.

The festival wore on for days and the dragon became less of an oddity. Merchants traded goods.  People gamed. The Men in Orange filled their cups and danced.  Someone produced a chicken with two heads. Children flocked to see a dancing bear.  Keri removed the dragon’s head and threw it in the lake.

Keri lives quietly on her land now.  She delivers wood to the village. Time has passed and she barely remembers the dragon.  Occasionally, she is startled from her sleep by a scratching noise at her window but it is always a branch from a tree.  A shadow falling over her causes her to flinch but she knows the shadow is only a hawk and not dragon wings. Still, she watches.

The village exists. Its wheels turn. They still gather every day to work, talk, and play before returning to their own lands and whatever waits for them there.  Keri believes there may still be dragons out there but does not believe they will bother her again.   She delivers her wood with a smile and confidently walks through her lands unarmed.

One Year Crazy

One year ago I sat in my doctor’s office speaking very slowly so I would not cry. I was supposedly there because I had been experiencing nervous tics for months.  My right shoulder spasm forward and my head would jerk right. I could suppress them with effort but they were getting worse.  My kids would occasionally yell, “Let’s be dad!” and would flop their shoulders around.  The previous night I had run an IEP meeting with eight people and had jerked so hard that I smacked the table and everyone looked at me. I spent the next hour running the meeting in a cold sweat with my left arm under the table gripping my right sleeve so I could not tic again.

My doctor said, “You’re a psychologist. You know this is stress related and there is nothing neurologically to treat this, so I need you to tell me why you came in.”  I finally quit, said “I need help” and she wrote the script for an anti-anxiety/antidepressant.

The Background

Everyone has reasons. I had taken the fall for a seriously messed up situation at work. It was humiliating. After a year of thinking, I could have done a few things different, but the truth is, I was the fall-guy.  Additional work changes followed that left people saying “Why are they doing this to you?” I had lost a couple friends and had a lot of personal things going on.  What they were is not important. Do I wish a few breaks had fallen another way? Yup.  Do I wish some people would have done some things differently? Absolutely. Do I blame any of them?  Nope.  This is on me. Everyone has reasons.

The point is, I became depressed, frustrated and anxious.  Every day became something to get through. Even with sleep medications, my insomnia raged. Several days, I was in my buildings at 5:30 AM when my report time was 8:40. Not because I was so far behind, but because I was not sleeping anyway and I thought I’d put the time to use.  Plus it gave me a refuge. Alone, I was able to take a break from forcing the smile and going through the act for my kids, my family, and my co-workers.  There was a constant tightness in my chest, constant exhaustion and an overwhelming feeling of being completely and totally alone.

I struggled to keep it together in front of my kids.  I lied about having after school meetings to buy time before I had to go home and put on a show.  Some nights I would say that I was going out with friends but since I really had no options, I would just go sit somewhere. Maybe a bar. A coffee shop.  Mostly a lot of parking lots. Maybe buy a beer at a gas station so I would have the smell on me when I came home.  Mostly I’d sit in my chair.

I felt a failure as a professional, a husband, a father, and a friend. I felt like everything I touched at work, at home, and with friends crumbled.

I tried to keep the act up at work but was failing. Make a joke, move to the next thing, fake a smile, keep moving.  Staff with whom I have no personal relationship began coming to my office for the sole purpose of seeing if I was OK. I was only at my new school a month  when a staff member said, “I know we don’t know you but do you always look this sad? You always seem so lonely.”  The statement that hit hardest, and for which I’m most grateful, was “Erik, I love working with you. You are great at your job and you are one of the kindest, most caring and incredible people I know, but I hope you do not come back next year. Whatever is happening to you is too hard to watch and I hate seeing it.”

And I ticked.  And I was not fooling anyone. And I quit. And I got the pills.

The Bad

I hate looking in the mirror and knowing I need to take those damn things. I hate that I could not beat it.  I definitely have a genetic predisposition toward this type of thing but I always believed myself stronger .  I hate that stupid orange bottle.

I hate that the price of my life insurance went up.  I hate checking new boxes on health forms.  Yup.  Got that.  I hate that my kids now get a little something to write about when they get older and are asked, “Do you, or any member of your immediate family have issues with depression or anxiety?”

I hate that when something does not bother me or if I handle something differently, people joke about, “Meds help!” or “That’s the meds.” Yeah, they help but I am fixing how I see things. All the positive changers are not because of the stupid little white pill.

I can not stop eating. My will power with food is shot and those meds make me very hungry. I am twelve pounds heavier than I was last March and that is with busting my butt with running.  I am not overweight but I hate the fact that I have to really work at controlling my food.

I miss my drive and competitiveness.  My running has suffered some because I do not quite have the drive to fight through things anymore.  True, I do not have the obsessiveness with improvement, but I am also much more likely to skip a run or say, “Wow, I am freaking tired. Screw this, I’m taking a break.”

The Good

Almost everything.  Things slide off my back much easier.  I do not replay scenarios in my head and wonder how I could have handled it better. I’m generally  less nervous about work and personal issues but I am far from zombified or affectively flat. I doubt most people notice much of a change.

I look forward to things. I am excited to go places and to do things.  I’m not getting through things on my calendar. I am more grateful of what I have and less resentful for what I am lacking.

I feel like I am back.  I feel like I used to feel.  I feel like myself, if that makes any sense at all.

I sleep.

This will sound crazy, but I swear the world is brighter. About three weeks after making my decision, I had to literally stop on one of my runs because I could not believe how bright green the leaves were.  I stood there looking around at the flowers, stream, and trees and marveled about how brilliantly colored everything was.  How had the world looked so dull? Smiling like an idiot,  I knew I had made the right decision. I had let myself slip so much that, for about eight months,  I had become unable to even see the world correctly.

The only reason I am writing this (besides to fulfill this resolution) is that I am embarrassed and I think the only way to get over that embarrassment is just to put it out there.  I am guessing some people will look at me different now.  I’m guessing that when I have a bad day the “Is he taking his meds?” question will be thought.  Whatever. This is me. I do not have some imbalance or disorder that I can not help. I have some thought patterns that get me in trouble.  That is on me and I can, and will, fix them.  Apparently, I just need some short-term help. I just needed to break the cloud of emotions to be able to clearly see what thoughts and behaviors were getting me in trouble. I know what they are. Now I can fix them. Then  I will get off the med. Soon enough. Just not now.

Hey, thank you to those who stuck by me. Thank you to those of you who made time to listen. Thanks to those who took notice and said something.  Thank you to my since-retired office mate who  spent the school year gently checking in on me and listening.  Thanks to the person who told me I had become a self-absorbed asshole who does not know how to treat people.  Thanks to those who had the courage to tell me they were concerned. Thanks to those who love me.

This is me.

I’m Erik.

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