Living With Me

I realize that I am not always the easiest person to live with. Between my mood swings, my occasional paranoia, my sometimes extreme depression, and my occasional irrational flash-fire anger, companionship with me can be a challenge. I have moved beyond (for the most part; I do still occasionally deal with this) the feelings of being a worthless burden on everyone I know, but I realize that I am still not easy to understand or even to get along with, necessarily. Hell, even I don’t understand my own mind sometimes, and it does scare me, but that’s part of the reason I want to be a clinical psychologist–to better understand my own mind and the minds of others.

I can think of countless times I have snapped at people in my family for no reason, or times when I have been overcome with a delusional paranoia and I accused them of something irrational, ridiculous. And then there’s my moodiness and long periods of silence and suffering and just wanting to be alone. My family tells me that they don’t mind dealing with me, but I can see it: the strain in the corners of their eyes, the tired sigh when they think I’m not listening.

For my part, I am doing the best I can. I truly think I am in a much better place since those few years ago before I got help, when I was floundering in my own feelings, contemplating and sometimes acting on ideas of suicide. I see my psychiatrist and psychologist regularly, and I take my medications faithfully.

I guess the point of this post is pretty much a thank-you to my close friends and family, who know everything, who’ve seen me go through everything, and who have stayed by my side.

I know that they never would, but I’ll say it anyway: don’t give up on me.

I’m trying. Someday I’ll be better. I’ll be used to coping.

And until then, thank you.

The Truth About My Greatest Fear

Since I’m home sick today, I’m left alone with my thoughts, which I think I will post here.

I realized some time ago that I don’t fear death. I certainly used to, nearly obsessively, even to the point of fearing sleep because I could die in my sleep and never wake up again. My atheism surely had a hand in this fear; I was terrified of death if it meant that I might entirely cease to exist. I am still an atheist, but I now retain a hope that perhaps something comes after death, and since this decision, my fear of death subsided altogether.

But there’s an aspect of death I simply can’t come to terms with, and that is being forgotten about. That’s right, I don’t fear the pain and uncertainty of death, but the total fall into obscurity after. Sure, you can argue, my family and friends will remember me, but that’s a very small percentage of the population. Who else will know my name? Not a soul. This fear of being forgotten is why I always read the headstones when I pass a graveyard. I read the names of the forgotten and realize that they were once people, too, living normal lives. But who knows them now? No one, not even me, because I know only a name and not a figure to connect it to.

This, I think, is partly why I am so driven, especially in my academics. I want to be on the path to doing to something great. I want to impact as many people’s lives as possible.

I just want to be remembered.

Escaping Reality

I’m fairly certain that I sleep way more than the average person (and certainly more than the average person my age, who likely gets five hours of sleep at a rare maximum and who ingests more coffee than is likely healthy.) It’s true though; I sleep a lot. Not only do I strive to get a full night’s rest when I can avoid those sleepless nights of essay-writing and other homework, but I frequently take naps when I am home.

I’m not sure how much of my unflagging ability to sleep is due to depression, or medication, or some combination thereof, but one thing is certain: as much sleep as I get, I am still constantly tired and lack energy. It’s frustrating.

The one thing sleep does for me is allow me to escape reality, without succumbing to the aid of illegal psychoactives. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I take a short nap. If I’m feeling incredibly and painfully depressed, I take a short nap. And all my pain (and self-awareness, for that matter) dissipates into a numb dream-state. It’s no certain treatment by any means, but sometimes I do wake up in a better state of mind, more prepared to take on my life. I sort of remind myself of the protagonist of the classic novel, All the King’s Men. Like Jack Burden, I sometimes sleep to escape my problems. Of course, Burden takes it to unacceptable lengths; he takes naps to avoid his wife for years instead doing something final, like a divorce.

Anyway, sleep is my drug, beneficial or not.

Meds, Meds, and More Meds

In my short lifetime, I’ve already experienced several medications. Medications work differently for everybody, so my psychiatrist and I pretty much kept experimenting with medications until I found a combination that pretty much worked (which I’m still on, so I guess that’s a good sign.) Starting any new medication can be scary, especially with psychiatric drugs, which influence the brain and thus the mind. Luckily, I have an aunt who suffers from major depression as well as chronic fatigue, and she’s been on nearly every med out there, so I was able to discuss with her what effects the drugs had on her as a sort of heads-up for the kinds of side effects I could have to face.

I tried several antidepressants before settling on Zoloft, which has worked well for me, I think. It’s always kind of hard for me to tell what’s working and what isn’t because my moods tend to come in cycles, and so sometimes I think I assume it’s the medicine when really it’s just me. But I can honestly say that since taking Zoloft, my lows have not reached the extremes that I was hitting before I started the med. In addition to my antidepressant, I take an atypical antipsychotic, Abilify, which also happens to be a mood stabilizer. It works well; since starting it my mood swings have not been as violent, and my paranoid thoughts have pretty much subsided. The downside to Abilify is that it makes me terribly, constantly hungry, and I’ve actually gained weight as a result. So, my doctor tried switching me to a different antipsychotic, Saphris, which is a new drug that has only been on the market for two years. It was interesting in that it came in the form of dissolving tablets, which you place under your tongue, and then a few minutes later your tongue goes numb. (I later read that Saphris comes in the form that it does so that patients under observation cannot hide their pills under their tongues and not take them.) But under the new med, my mood swings were coming back fiercely, and it didn’t help moderate my hunger as hoped, so my doctor put me back on Abilify and that, in combination with Zoloft, is where I am at today.

I guess the point I’m trying to get across is that medications have different effects on everybody, and it may take a while to find the right combination. So, if you feel that your meds aren’t helping you, don’t give up hope. Talk to your doctor. He might be able to help.

And if not, there are numerous other therapies available.

My Experience in a Mental Ward

So I changed my blog’s appearance. I kind of like the new look, but I don’t  like how you have to scroll all the way down to see the archives widget and stuff. Maybe I’ll change it back. Or maybe I just need someone else’s opinion on the matter.

Anyway, I thought I would write a little about my experience in a psychiatric ward. I had been having a really low downswing, and during one of my weekly visits with my psychologist, she noticed that I was feeling particularly despondent. She asked whether I had any thoughts of self-harm, and I admitted that I was forming a plan involving my car. My psychologist remained calm the entire time, but she refused to let me drive myself home, and called in my parents, who drove me to the hospital.

The nearby hospital is a very large campus, and very new, having just finished construction the previous year. I was taken through the ER to an emergency psychiatric room, which was very much like a typical hospital room except that save for the bed and equipment it was empty (not even a trash can) and the door had a pane of glass which they could observe me through as well as a lock. The lock, I admit, was intimidating, but they did not feel the need to lock me in. The psychiatric ward of this hospital was full, and after a small wait while the arrangements were made, I was transferred to a hospital two hours away. Throughout this entire process I admit I was reluctant, but I didn’t feel up to fighting, so I just went with it.

I arrived very late at night at the hospital where I was to stay. I filled out some paperwork, and then the security guard took me up to the secure psychiatric ward. I remember that his key was necessary to make the elevator take us there. When I got there, most of the other patients were asleep. I signed some more paperwork, including a form which made me agree not to take out my ear piercings and use them as weapons or else they would be removed. Then I had to change into appropriate clothing (the uniform at the hospital here was simple purple scrubs) and remove my socks and shoes (the laces were potentially dangerous), and in their stead I had to wear these big gray socks. Then I was allowed to go to my room.

Each room had two beds, a simple desk, a metal-bar-reinforced window and a bathroom, with toilets that had a strange flush mechanism and that flushed really loud. The doors to the rooms, to my surprise, could actually be shut, though as I later found out it didn’t matter; people came and went into the rooms often. The doors, of course, could not be locked. I sat down on my bed, the mattress of which was really hard, and fell asleep, just an exhausted and fearful mental patient staring at the ceiling. A few hours later I was awakened by noise entering my room, and being half-asleep I only half-registered that I had gained a roommate.

The next morning I woke up to a nurse standing beside me with a needle and calling my name. That, in my opinion, is enough to make anyone wide awake. She explained that she needed blood samples, and after she took them, I fell back asleep. Since I had come in so late, they let me sleep in, something which I was grateful for as I drowsily listened to sound of nurses waking up the other patients for their morning showers. Eventually, I did get up, but my roommate stayed asleep for basically the rest of the day; I didn’t really get to know her until the day after.

I fell into the routine of things pretty quickly. My favorite part of the day was group therapy. I liked listening to others’ problems and helping them talk things over. I was considered a model patient by the psychologists and psychiatrists and nurses; I was not resentful or rebellious as I knew these things would only extend my stay, and I did want out. I liked my roommate and we got along well. She was a few years younger than me, but alas, she was the rebellious type. She was still there, in fact, when I was discharged. I told her goodbye and good luck, and gave her my number.

It was nice being around so many other people who knew what I was going through. There were others there who heard voices or who had nearly committed suicide or had one of several other kinds of mental disorder-related problems. And we all knew this, and we did not regard each other as crazy. I mean, a suicidally depressed guy taught me to play pool in the recreation room. I played chess with a different guy who was there on court-order for bringing a gun to school and intending to use it, and air hockey with a girl who cut herself severely. We all, obviously, had problems to overcome. So in that way it was kind of nice, just being able to be open about my problems.

I still wanted to get out at some point, though. As I mentioned earlier, it was a secure ward, and to go through any of the doors at the ends of the hallways, one had to have a key, so in other words, at any given moment we were locked in. We had to live according to a schedule, and after an hour of television, we had to go to bed fairly early on weeknights (though we were allowed a movie on Fridays and Saturdays) and we had to wake up pretty early. Toward the end of my stay, I actually started to half-seriously form a plan of escape, which involved hiding in the gurney they brought our lunch trays in, waiting until it came to a stop somewhere, likely the kitchen down on the first floor, and climbing out at an opportune moment. Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten very far, not having my car there (“Excuse me, I’m an escaped mental patient, can you give me a ride?”) And also of course, I would never have actually tried to execute this plan. Well, probably never.

Anyway, I was pretty happy when the hospital made its decision to discharge me. In my opinion, though,  my stay there was beneficial, and it really did help me. Even if the other benefits hadn’t been there, it was good to be around people who understood.

Spiders Get Such a Bad Rap

And now for something completely different: this post is about spiders. The title is true: spider phobias are highly prevalent, more so (and I say this without having done any research on the subject, but yet I feel I can say this with certainty) than many other animals. You’ll certainly never see someone run screaming away from a rabbit or a puppy, and (hopefully) you will never see someone yell “Kill it!” and squish its guts out on the floor.

That was probably a more graphic example than I wanted to use, but my point is the same: how come spiders are among the most reviled of animals?

I mean, think about it for a moment. Spiders are incredibly cunning. But wait, you say, spiders’ brains are smaller than my pinky nail. How can they be so smart? Well, for one thing, brain size has no direct correlation to intelligence (dolphins’ brains are even larger than ours, and you don’t see them running the world.) And spiders truly are clever little animals. Some common species of house spider, for example, have learned to play dead in the presence of humans. For another example, the beautiful (and large) golden web spider (or golden web orbweaver) will sever certain support strands of its elaborate golden namesake web when a storm arrives, so that the rainy wind will blow through the web and move it, but not break it. Meanwhile, the orbweaver itself is hiding beneath a cluster of nearby leaves until the rain passes and it is time to repair the web.

But spiders have other virtues as well. They are incredibly patient. A spider will spin its web and wait in total stillness and silence until an unsuspecting insect flies in. Relying on webs for food means going days on end without eating sometimes. Speaking of webs, what other animal uses a device like that to trap a meal? Spiders are pretty darn innovative, when you think about it. And some webs, such as that of the aforementioned golden web orbweaver, are downright beautiful, especially when the geometric designs catch the light the right way.

So really, people could learn a lot from the little guys (okay, yes, it’s true that in some species of spider the female eats the male during mating, but what species doesn’t have its flaws?) And think of all the good spiders do us. They are natural, environment-friendly crop protectors. They keep the mosquitos out of your room. And they don’t ask for much, just to be left alone in some quiet corner somewhere.

So the next time you see a spider on your bathroom floor, maybe you’ll think twice about killing it. It has probably already eaten several unwelcome guests in your house.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go feed my tarantula.

Social Stigma and Mental Illness

No one denies the existence of a cancer patient’s illness or makes fun of him/her for it. You won’t likely see someone with a broken arm being avoided. Likewise, a guy who was born without limbs will likely be looked at differently for the rest of his life, but no one will ever deny him a job or deny him the right to own a gun because of his disability.

So what is it about brain disorders that evokes such a different reaction in people?

Well, it all dates back to before we even knew that the mind originates in the brain. Back then, the severely mentally ill were regarded as weak-willed or downright evil people who had given in to demonic possession. People were horrified, and chained, beat, and frequently castrated sufferers of mental illness. Another old theory has to do with the moon. The weak-minded were said to be susceptible to the same hold the moon has over tides, and so on full moons especially, so the proponents of this theory argued, the moon’s pull caused their behavior to be erratic. This is the origin of the word “lunatic.”

Flash-forward a few centuries. We are learning about the brain now more than ever, and thus, we are able to learn more about mental disorders. Powerful imaging techniques allow us to see areas of the brain that might play roles in different disorders; in the near-future, we may identify the genes that cause people to be at risk for mental disorders (which I’m not so sure is a good thing, but I’ll save that for a different post.) The only thing outdated about mental disorders today is people’s attitude toward them.

The media, I hate to say, does not help. In truth, only a very small percentage of the mentally ill population will ever be violent, but this tiny group is overly represented on the television and films. You’re very unlikely to see a non-violent mentally ill person on a show like CSI or Criminal Minds. Many horror films are also at fault. Even a film I very much enjoy, “Silence of the Lambs,” equates terrifying-ness with mental illness. The thing is, these shows wouldn’t be an issue if they weren’t the only view of mental illness that the “normal” population is exposed to.

I don’t understand why the mentally ill are still acceptable targets for poking fun. Major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia… these things (and others) are debilitating.

And here’s something I will admit: in some ways, I am a coward. I would like to be a more vocal advocate of reducing the stigma around mental illness. I would like to be more open about my own mental illness. Imagine having a terrible burden that you can’t reveal to other people. I would like to do these things, but the fact is, the social stigma is still very heavy and I just don’t want to deal with it ruining the life I have pieced together in-between struggles with mental illness.

Anyway, that was my rant about stigma and mental illness. Maybe it will catch someone’s eye and help him/her to better understand the social pressures against the mentally ill.

Arkham Asylum

So let me preface this by saying that I am a huge Batman fan and he is my absolute favorite comic book character. I love the grittiness, anti-hero-ness and general badassery that surrounds the character in (almost) every incarnation (and I love Christopher Nolan’s adaptation.) So naturally, back when the game Arkham Asylum came out, I was incredibly stoked.

Then I played it, and became caught in a dilemma.

Yes, the game had excellent graphics, excellent gameplay, everything that was to be hoped for and more. But I quickly found that the game’s portrayal of the mentally ill does nothing to help with stigma. If nothing else, it seems to imply that most, if not all of its patients, are beyond helping (and the only good way to deal with them is to beat them senseless.)

Now, yes, it’s true that the only patients we actually see in the game are the violent ones (and that one guy still locked in his cell who paces back and forth in a truly disturbing way.) But still, its portrayal of what a mental hospital is like is very dehumanizing. The people who work there apparently mistreat their patients (electrical weapons for making them “compliant”, anyone?) and they are shown to be the relative “good” guys, the ones you’re rescuing. So basically, the game injects the mainstream world with the ideas that “crazy” people are always violent and that mental wards are dark, creepy, terrible places to be. And if that doesn’t take us a step back in de-stigmatizing mental illness, I don’t know what does.

I am well aware that the game heavily incorporated elements from a graphic novel by the same name. I’ve read it. I own a copy. It’s an amazing piece of work. It was the first comic to incorporate serious psychological elements, and the first to effectively explore Batman’s own sanity. And it does a really good job of doing these things, as well as providing the backstory of the asylum, all in a dream-like, eerie way (really, if you want a taste of what the disjointed thinking of psychosis feels like, read the graphic novel. I read somewhere that the author approximated that kind of thinking by depriving himself of sleep in order to write it.) It delves into the idea of madness, but it’s not offensive. So, no problems with the graphic novel the game was based on.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just seeing the game in the wrong light. As I mentioned, you do only see the violent patients, and I think it’s completely justifiable to fight back someone who is trying to kill you.

I haven’t played the sequel yet, but I intend to. Until then, I’ll just remain stuck with my feelings on the first, torn between loving the game for being, well, a great game, and disliking it for being so stigmatizing.

Irrational Behavior (Other Than Depression)

When my mind’s not busy being depressed, I sometimes have other irrational behaviors. I become hyper-productive, which is kind of a good thing, actually, because it lets me get ahead on classwork. Not just schoolwork, though–in moods like this, I often find myself painting, drawing, or writing. The only bad thing, and I didn’t even notice this, it was pointed out to me by my stepdad, is that I tend to take on a lot of projects at once when I’m like this, and then when I fall back into depression–which inevitably happens, weeks, maybe days later–I abandon them all. It drives the people I know who firmly believe that you should always finish what you start crazy.

And then there’s the bizarre, flash-fire anger, which I discussed in a separate post already.

Then there are the truly erratic behaviors I’ve exhibited in the past. Sometimes I get these feelings that nothing bad could possibly happen, which is totally different from normal paranoid, careful self. A clear illustration of this that I can think of is the time I pulled a 90 degree turn while driving at near-60 miles per hour without braking. Needless to say, I didn’t flip the car, but I could have, easily, especially in a minivan, and the fact that I even pulled a stunt like that bothers me. So much so that no one knows about it other than my sister and cousin (and, of course, other than any reader of this blog.) But what scare me even more are the bouts I’ve had with what I psychiatrist at the hospital informed me are called psychosis.

The definition of psychosis is pretty much any break with reality, whether it be visual hallucinations, audio hallucinations, delusions, etc. The doctor (who kindly answered every question I had) also informed me that there are even tactile delusions, which I am very glad I have never had, because the thought of it creeps me out immensely. What I have had, however, are delusions, and very, very brief voice-hearing. The voices I have heard only twice, once just a senseless, focus-less babble which was a lot like overhearing someone’s conversation from the next room but not focusing on it; the other time was simply a male voice saying, “Yes,” several times. Strange, right? But the delusions were far scarier. Usually they manifest in the form of intense (but thankfully, fairly brief) and irrational paranoia, such as the time I once become truly convinced for no reason at all that everyone I knew was in on a massive plot against me, that for every time they had been nice to me they laughed behind my back, even my parents and closest friends, and the delusion (which I “knew” was true as surely as I knew the sky is blue) brought me to verge of tears. Another time, I had a bag of crickets, which I was about to feed to my pet tarantula, sitting on my floor. I suddenly was seized with the firm conviction that the crickets knew something I didn’t, that they were in on some kind of conspiracy against me. It was so strong and so terrifying that I took the bag of crickets, hid it under my shirt, and ran downstairs and out the door. I put the bag in the trash can outside of my house, but that wasn’t good enough; I had to be certain they would die. So I picked up a cinder block and dropped it in after them. Satisfied, I walked back in the house, and eventually the bizarre thoughts passed, leaving me plenty of time to sit around wondering what the hell I had just done. Something I didn’t mention: it was the middle of summer, at least 98 degrees outside, and I had walked out in bare feet on the black pavement. I didn’t feel the pain on the bottoms of feet until after the delusion had passed, something I find interesting.

The good thing is that my psychotic episodes are not exactly common, at least not as common as my mood changes. That’s something else about myself that I find inexplicable: how I can be utterly depressed one day and happy as a lark the next, with no reason for either my depression or my happiness. I mean, it would be one thing if something had changed in between them, but no, it’s the exact conditions of yesterday, with the only thing different being my state of mind. It’s hard to cope with, and I know that my friends who I am not as close with and so don’t know what I’m going through find me very difficult.

I wish I could explain everything to them and be more open about my mental illness in general, but who wants to be labelled “crazy”?

2001: Still a Great Film, 44 Years Later

So pretty much everyone knows the film’s main theme song, even if they can’t necessarily name where it came from. And sci-fi buffs nearly always name it either the top or second-top science fiction film of all time. Why? Because even today, even with an outdated title, and even with films like Avatar setting the standard for special effects, it’s still a really good movie. In fact, it’s one of my favorite films.

So why has it been considered a masterpiece since 1968? What’s so great about it? Well, for one thing, it attempts to explain the evolution of man, attempts to show the creation of the universe (via the single most trippy sequence in the history of movies) as well as attempting to show a scientifically accurate depiction of the future, which is an endeavor in itself. And, I would argue, it does all of those things successfully, except for the last part–alas, it’s 2012 and we still don’t have true Artificial Intelligence. (Though for those who agree with Fodor’s Robot Argument, we’ve still got a chance there.)

I admit, it’s a film you’ve got to have patience for. There are long sequences of spacecraft drifting through space to classical music, and other sequences involving some of the characters which are just as lengthy, with the only sounds being the soft beeping of the control panels and the character’s breath. While some would argue that these scenes could have had entire minutes trimmed with the resulting movie unchanged, I disagree. These sequences help us to understand the total silence of space (sorry, fellow fans of Trek or Wars–there really isn’t sound in space) and its utter solitude. They help to put viewers right in there with characters; it makes it so realistic you really start to understand what it’s like out in space, and the attention to detail–the scene where one of the characters is watching a video recording of his family comes to mind–is incredible.

The film also contains one of my favorite characters, HAL 9000. The sentient onboard computer of the ship is absolutely fascinating. For those somehow unfamiliar with HAL, he is one of an advanced kind of intelligent computer, and he maintains the ship and all its functions. He begins to act erratically, however, and it eventually comes down to just Dave versus HAL. The nature of the character brings up an interesting analogy–if a sentient computer malfunctions, the result is similar to a human brain malfunctioning, in other words, mental illness. I found HAL’s “death” scene to be incredibly eerie and sad. HAL, in his ever-calm monotone, the only voice form he has, pleads with Dave to stop as Dave pulls out his memory modules one-by-one, culminating in the ever-famous “Daisy Bell” song (random fact–“Daisy Bell” was chosen as the song HAL sings because it was the first song ever “sung” by a computer–an IBM machine back in the 60s, if I remember right.) HAL’s calm voice only makes the scene more haunting, because one imagines the pleading tone HAL would be using if he were capable. And I, at least, feel bad for him by the end.

The film is definitely a cerebral one, with the main theme being the curiosity of humans. It’s kind of a tribute to all that we are capable of, while simultaneously being a tribute to all that we don’t (and may never) understand. And that’s what makes it still relevant today. That, and its bold attempt to capture the future, with the interesting aspects of spaceflight and general technology.

So for anyone who has never seen it, my advice is to find a copy (DVDs are cheap these days, with the advent of Blu-Ray) and watch it. You’ll either be bored and poking fun at everything in the movie that we didn’t have by 2001.

Or, if you have any imagination at all, you’ll see why it really is one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.