The Right Direction?

When I first came to Menninger, I wasn’t sure what I would do there or how I would proceed; I only knew that I had chosen to come to Menninger and that it was, hopefully, the best place for me. After my suicide attempt in January, I treated just about everything around me with a sort of calm acceptance; after all, I had tried to leave the world, and that wad about the worst thing I could do, so what else could really bother me? 

I still felt depressed, of course, but not to the degree I had been when I tried to kill myself. I just felt… numb, I guess. And so coming to Menninger, while frightening, was something I thought was the right move for me. I knew that, when I arrived, one of my biggest challenges would be getting to know the people around me. I had been isolated for so long that I didn’t know where to start, and it took other people approaching me to really get me started. Those were the people I felt closest to, and they are still the people I try to remain close to – perhaps too close.

So, one of the goals of my treatment is to try and learn to get close to other people, to make friends, but not to cross boundaries. It was much easier to do at Menninger, because there were other patients around and it was hard to spend time with just one person. Here at the step-down, it’s harder. I drift towards one or two people constantly, and so I feel closer to them than to others and try to spend more time with them. I realized this might be a problem earlier this week, and started making efforts to reach out to others, but I’m a little slow and awkward at that. I like to think that I can compartmentalize, that I can focus on my friends for part of my time and on myself at other times, but I may just be fooling myself.

One of my other goals of treatment was to try and increase my physical health and lose weight. My self-image has been tied to my self-esteem for a long time, and being overweight has made me feel like I would be unattractive to women – which, in turn, probably shows, and makes people avoid me. I did well with this at Menninger, because, honestly, there wasn’t a lot to do in our free time other than go to the gym and exercise most days. I slacked off on this at the step-down for a while, but have recently been trying to pick up on that. I don’t know how well I’m progressing, and it is slow going. It’s discouraging, but I can’t let that get me down. 

I’m also trying to work on my independence. I’ve been living with my parents for so long, depending on them and seeking their approval, that there are times I don’t know what to do without their input. It’s one of the reasons I think that staying here where I am would be good for me – it would put some space between us, and would let me try and figure out what I should do with myself outside of their influence. For quite a while I’ve been wondering if finishing my PhD would be the best move in my life; I think a large part of why I was doing it was because it was easy to simply keep on the scholastic path, and I thought it would make my parents happy.

Now I’m not so sure it is what I want; I could easily teach high school or community college with the education I have now, and while I do like medieval studies, my real interest in literature is in the more fantastical – fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, horror, things along those lines. I don’t know that those will be accepted in greater academia for a while, but I could probably manage to find a place to teach them in community college. That’s if I want to teach at all.

There are other options, too. Editing is a possibility; I’ve been editing papers for friends and family for years, and I think I could probably easily handle doing it for money. I think the only problem with that is that it would be a relatively isolated job, since it would be mostly online, and I don’t know that it would be enough to support me fully; I’d probably also have to do something else.

Content writer for websites is another one that has come up; I’ve read a lot of websites, and some of them could use a writer’s touch, because they read like they were written by a computer, and not a particularly creative one, at that. It would require some study into what each website is about, of course, but that could be interesting in and of itself. It presents the same problem with isolation, though, and again, I’m not certain it would bring in enough to support me.

My sister mentioned an interesting possibility to me, partially because of this blog – mental health advocate. Because of my experience with mental illness, and my writing ability, she thinks that I might be able to try to explain to the public, or just certain groups, what it is that people with mental illness go through in an articulate and well-reasoned way. I have to admit I find the idea intriguing, and not just because mental illness has been the primary focus of my last several months – most people who have commented here have mentioned that the blog is easy to read, and that they can see and understand the type of things I have been through. I don’t know how well I would do speaking to a crowd, but that is a fear I need to confront, as well, so it might be a good way to move forward with my treatment.

Regardless, I think my independence is important. I don’t know if that means staying here, where I have a support system and probably a lot more in the way of job possibilities, or returning to St. Louis, moving out, and finishing my PhD while trying to build a whole new support system there. What I do know is that I have to make this decision by myself, which is odd for me; I have always relied on the help of others for this kind of thing. I can ask for input, but ultimately it comes down to me and what I think would be best.

I think I am still moving forward in my treatment, and I think writing in this blog is a part of that. It’s part of why I hope for comments and criticism – not so you can change my mind, but so we can start a conversation. Some of my best ideas have come from good conversations. It can be hard to see progress from the outside, and fairly difficult for me to see if I am still going, but I think I am. In any case, I think that’s about all I have to say for now. If you have any thoughts, let me know. 

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Hard Work

I haven’t said a whole lot specifically about my time at Menninger, mostly because it hasn’t been a focus for me in the last month or so. I’ve been trying to focus on moving forwards, not staying in the past. But it has been a very important part of my treatment and recovery – not just for the people I met there, but also for the work I, and other people, did while we were there.

Our days started at 7:30 AM with breakfast. As any of you who know we can imagine, that did a number on me; I am more a night person than a morning person. But I woke up at 7 every morning (except for Saturdays) for 8 weeks. After that, we started groups at 8:30, and were kept busy until 5:25, when we had dinner (there was lunch in there somewhere, too). After dinner, there were typically activities like going to the gym, or arts & crafts, which we were encouraged to go to. 

These groups were on a variety of topics. Twice a week, Monday and Friday, we had Goals Group, where we established some goals for the week, and then talked about whether we had accomplished them and what that meant for our treatment. We had Wellness Planning twice a week as well, because it helped us to work on our Wellness Plans – sort of guides to our recovery once we left Menninger. We worked on them all throughout our stays, and read them to the assembled patients when we were nearing our discharge to see what others had to say.

We also had CBT and DBT, twice a week each. CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, works on a long-term basis; it is, essentially, trying to teach your mind to think in a completely different way. Instead of allowing your thoughts to get stuck in negative cycles, it is meant to help break out of them. DBT, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, is more concerned with handling things in the short term, especially in the moment – it tries to teach you methods to deal with unpleasant situations that you can’t get out of right away so that your brain doesn’t go to bad places. There was also a group for Perfectionism, because many of us struggled with perfectionist impulses, and this group was meant to help us identify them and try to control them.

Twice a week, we split into two groups for group psychotherapy, where we, the patients, got a chance to talk in our groups about anything that was bothering us or was on our minds, or about any feelings we might be having. There were staff present, but only to keep us from going off on tangents; otherwise, we ran the groups. It was part of the group that nothing said inside it would be revealed to people outside the group, so I can’t say anything specific. We also had groups on Power Issues, identifying the imbalance in power in relationships, and Family Issues, helping us to deal with the issues many of us had with our families.

There was also a group called Mentalizing, which involved taking time in our interactions with others to examine the thoughts and feelings of both ourselves and others, and to do so without judgement, but with curiosity. It’s an interesting technique, and can help a lot, though it takes a fair amount of time working on it to make it happen unconsciously. Then there was Yoga, which wasn’t mental, but it was very relaxing; I’m still trying to find a relative beginner’s group on the outside to keep up with it. There were also other groups I didn’t go to, because I didn’t have the background for them: Chemical Dependency/Co-occurring Disorder Education, Trauma Education, !2-Step Recovery, and Values Group. I knew others in these groups, but since I didn’t attend them, I can’t describe them.

They also tried to get us to express ourselves creatively, and to keep our bodies in shape; both going to the gym on the campus and just walking around, to keep us physically active. All our food was prepared for us, and most of it was relatively healthy; I don’t think I’ve eaten food that healthy for that long in my life. Once a week we had a community meeting, where all the staff and patients on the unit got together to discuss issues in the community, and then also a patient government meeting, where we elected patient government officials and decided what outings we would plan fr the weekends.

Weekends were relatively relaxed, and often pretty boring. On Friday night we got an outing from around 6-9 pm, most of the time going to see a movie. On Saturday, we had an outing from 12-3, and that often didn’t actually seem to happen because people would decide at the last minute not to go or have visitors. Sunday, we went necessity shopping, for clothes, snacks, real pillows, and other things for basic living in the unit. Other than that, on Saturday and Sunday we usually only had one or two other activities, like going to the gym, arts & crafts, or just watching movies as a group. The rest of the time was ours to fill, which was hard when so much of the rest of our time was so strictly scheduled.

In addition to all this, during each week we met with our team – our psychiatrist, social worker, and nurse of the day – for rounds, to talk about where we wanted our treatment to go, then with our individual therapist, or IT, to talk privately about issues we felt a need to discuss, and then usually with our social worker to arrange or have calls with family or friends to try and work out various problems we might have. Every day, on each of three shifts, we had to meet with our nurse on each shift to give them an update of what was going on. The staff had to check on the whereabouts of each patient on the unit every half-hour, even at night, so we were constantly monitored, and had very little privacy.

This went on for eight weeks for me; I know people who were at Menninger for as long as 13 or 14 weeks. With all the groups, and all the homework (because several times, we had homework), and all the thinking we did on various things between groups… I won’t lie. It was hard. It was an enormous amount of work. For me, it was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life, and while there are fewer groups now int he step-down, it isn’t much less tiring. It isn’t physical, but mental and emotional, exercising parts of myself that I have ignored and neglected for decades. 

Staying in a secure, private compound with prepared food for eight weeks may sound, to some people, like a long-term spa. But some of my fellow patients likened it more to a prison, one that we had voluntarily admitted ourselves to. We had almost no privacy, were constantly working on our minds and emotions, and had little contact with the outside world. While there were four other units at Menninger, we were discouraged from any interaction with the others; it was, essentially, just the patients of our unit (up to 24), the nurses, the MHAs (mental health associates), doctors, and occasional cleaning staff. 

We worked long and hard, and even when we were discharged, there were no guarantees that we would retain what we had gained; that was a large part of the reason I came to this step-down program, to help make the things we had learned at Menninger, and continued at the step-down, habitual while also trying to re-acclimate ourselves to the outside world. Some of us didn’t do so well, and many of us are still working very hard, and often very frustrated at what can seem a terribly slow rate of progress. But despite the setbacks we are facing, we are still trying, still working, still trying to move forward.  It’s the hardest work we may ever do, but it’s worth it.

Patience

Mental illness just sucks. That’s pretty basic, but entirely true. Calling it an illness is kind of a misnomer, because most illnesses have cures, or at least accurate treatments, and mental illnesses really don’t. For depression alone there are dozens of medications, and that doesn’t even cover all the non-medication treatments.

One of the worst part about all these kinds of things is that no treatment works for everyone. I’ve taken over a dozen medications, and tried a number of non-medication treatments, and even a few different therapy techniques (well, more than a few), and most of them have had no real effect. Of the people I know in treatment for depression, none of them are on the same medications. Most of them have also changed medications a number of times. There’s no vaccination for mental illness. I don’t know if there ever will be something like that.

Even our symptoms differ. Isolation is one of my biggest problems. I’ve had to struggle with that a lot since getting to Menninger; I need to make myself go out and be social, even if I’m not actually saying a lot. I just need to be with and around other people. Other people I know, though, actually prefer to isolate themselves when they have problems, and when they’re having difficult time, being around other people actually makes things worse for them. Most people don’t share the same symptoms of depression, or any other mental illness; there are some commonalities, but it is entirely possible for two people who have the same diagnosis to share almost no symptoms. 

I imagine it is confusing for the doctors and psychiatrists who have to try and find treatments for us, but it can also be very difficult for us, too. While we often share a lot of similar experiences, the fact that we have different symptoms often means we can have a lot of very unhelpful advice for each other. I’ve tried to give some friends the same advice that I’ve been given, and it doesn’t help them the same way it helped me. And giving this advice can often make relationships tense, especially when things don’t work out.

It’s something I’ve had problems with, because I often really want to help people out, and so I try to give advice, and it often doesn’t help very much. So I have been working on trying to listen to others. But even that doesn’t work at times, because different people need different things. Even among my friends I have people who react in radically different ways to similar situations, and sometimes trying to figure out what will make people happy or set them off is enough to make someone crazy. Well, crazier. 

I know this is all really vague, and I wish I could go into more detail. Some of this really makes much more sense if you know more of the details. But knowing what medications I’ve been on isn’t really important to this. It’s just important to know that for people with mental illness – any mental illness – there’s no one set of symptoms everyone has. There’s no treatment that works for everyone with the same illness. It is all confusing as hell, for everyone involved. This can drive friends, families, doctors, therapists, and even those of us with mental illnesses up the wall. But we just have to keep trying new treatments and therapies and medications until we find something that works. Patience is a necessary part of treatment, and sometimes there’s just not enough to go around.

Crossing the Line

Today is likely to be a very short entry, mostly because I am not sure there is much I can say. Last night, I managed to overstep my bounds with not one, but two friends. As I have asked for, they both called me on it, and there’s not much more I can say about it while respecting their privacy. I’m feeling kinda lousy today, for a combination of several reasons, but a large part of that is that I feel like I let my friends down through my actions. This is one of the worst parts of knowing you’re overprotective, but never quite knowing exactly where the line is – when you cross it, as you almost certainly will, you feel pretty crappy when you realize it.

As much as I wish I had someone or something else to blame, this one – well, both of them – are all on me. There are things I could have done better, and I know that now. At the moment, though, barring a time machine, all I can do is apologize, hope my apologies are accepted, and try not to make the same mistakes in the future. Not an exceptionally fun moment for me. That’s what’s been on my mind since last night, and I’ve apologized to both of them; now I just have to wait for this really unpleasant feeling to go away. 

If you’re a friend and you feel like I have overstepped a boundary or crossed the line with you in the past, or am doing so now, I want you to tell me. I can’t easily see where that line is, which is a crap excuse but a true one, and if you don’t tell me, I can’t work to not do that again. It may make me feel lousy for a bit, but I would prefer that to once day having a friend tell me they can’t be around me because I keep crossing a line.

Father-Son Camp

It probably comes as no surprise that I have had difficulties with my family. My parents, while very supportive in many ways, have had areas where we did not see eye to eye, which is probably putting it mildly. When it came to teenage rebellion, I, the bookish, introverted nerd, was the rebel in the family – I had difficulties in high school and I had a goth phase (and no, you still can’t see the pictures), while my sister did well all through high school, became co-captain of her school’s cheerleaders, and even dated (and, many years later, married) her high school football team’s captain.

Primarily, my issues seem to be with my father. There are definitely reasons to why I say this, from the fact that two of my three non-psychological fears, sharks and aliens, are a result of being made to watch Jaws and Aliens when I was 9, to the fact that my father is a high-powered businessman, while I am an English student aspiring to be a teacher or writer. There are parts of our personalities that just don’t mesh very well, and it has caused a lot of friction over the years.

Some of it is just that we don’t have very similar interests. I like to read fantasy and science fiction, whereas he prefers crime and thriller novels like those by James Patterson and Vince Flynn. I like to play video games and RPGs, while my father prefers to sit on the beach, go find a good place to eat, or occasionally play Tetris or Dr. Mario. He is a little less picky about his choice in movies,and while I like the occasional good drama, he tends to avoid them. During my teen years, when I was very into being a Boy Scout, my father was one of the few fathers who had absolutely no interest in being out camping. Our chief areas of corresponding interest seem to be action movies and football – though even there can be tricky, since my father liked The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, while I thought it was a crime against film.

On a more personal level, we also don’t have a lot in common. My father works in business, primarily marketing, and has for most of my life. He is very interested in concrete details, numbers and progress he can see, and being in charge. He likes lists and charts and hard data, even if he does still write things out longhand before getting someone to type them out. I, on the other hand, am a classic liberal arts person; I like to think in abstract concepts and metaphorical terms. I read and write long papers on ideas, not facts, and opinions are the rule of the day in my field. I avoid being in charge like any such position would give me the plague, and I am OK without having all available data on a subject.

It has been pointed out to me that my aversion to positions of authority is likely rooted in a desire to not be like my father – which was a false aversion, since regardless of whether or not I held a title or official position of power, I still had power and influence over the lives of those who cared about me, especially when I do something like try to commit suicide. Even after that was pointed out to me, though, it was only with a great deal of anxiety that I took a position in patient government at Menninger. Maybe that’s a trend that will continue, though I think I am happy not always being in charge.

On an emotional level, my father and I were alike for a long time – both seeming very out of touch with an emotional side. My father has said that for him, it is because showing most kinds of emotion was regarded as weakness in business, and I can imagine that is true. But it was also a model for me, because I never saw much in the way of emotion from my father, and so I had difficulty with my own until I essentially just ignored them and pushed them aside – which, as you might guess, had unpleasant consequences for me. Now that I have been to Menninger, it has been a lot of work to realize that emotions are necessary, and they can’t just be shoved aside and forgotten. They need to be dealt with, and felt, if you want to get through them.

There were things that my father never told me that probably could have been very helpful earlier in life – the fact that he used to be shy, for instance. I’ve been painfully shy for a long time, and all my life I have thought of my father as the high-power businessman who has no problems in social situations, but after hearing this, it kind of made sense, because I rarely see my father interacting with someone he doesn’t already know. But never knowing he felt shy too made him seem like an intimidatingly social figure. Knowing that he had had problems in school as well might have also helped, because then I would have felt more comfortable talking to him about it. But those are issues that are in the past, and I can’t change the past.

On the other hand, my father has been incredibly supportive in some ways. He was willing to financially support me through the years I worked on my MA, and while I’ve worked on my PhD, even if he doesn’t always understand what I’m doing. He made a real effort – a successful one – to help me get into the PhD program when I had initially been rejected. He even supported my coming to Menninger, which, no matter how long it took, was a big step. Despite the many disappointing things that have happened in my life over the years, he has never disowned me or thrown me out, though I often feared he would. 

Right now, I’m just trying to work on understanding my father, and trying to show him who I am in a more honest way so he can understand who I am. It’s not an easy process, since this is pretty far out of either of our comfort zones. We both find it tough to try to explain to each other how we feel about things, and so sometimes we rely on my mother and my sister to try and help us out. I know it is difficult for him to talk about, and read about, things like this; I can’t say that I wouldn’t feel the same if my (hypothetical) son were to start a blog along these lines. Our relationship is a work in progress, and while I’m not quite sure where it will end up, I think it will be in a better place.

If not, I can always drag him back to camp.

Feedback

This is me, speaking directly to the people who read this blog. I am writing this because it is largely easier for me to communicate in writing than it is verbally. But I am also writing this blog to get feedback. Most of these topics are things I could easily discuss in the groups I’m in, but I choose to put a lot of them here because of the extra feedback I can get from people outside the groups here in the step-down. 

But there’s been a severe paucity of feedback regarding this blog. I’ve had people contact me privately, which is fine; there are some people who want to keep their anonymity, even though there is no restriction on using an assumed name or pseudonym in the comments section. But Part of getting feedback is the back-and-forth, which doesn’t happen with private feedback. I admit that I haven’t been very active in responding to the comments, and I apologize for that; I’ll try to do better.

What I’m saying, though, is that unless I get some feedback – and I would prefer it to be here, rather than private comments outside – that there is no real reason to continue this blog. I’m laying everything inside my head out here, but it feels kinda futile when nobody has anything to say about it. I don’t care if you’re a friend, stranger, therapist, or amateur; I want to hear other people’s thoughts on what I’m saying. I want to be called out on things if it sounds like I am full of crap, and I want advice if you have any to give.

Otherwise I’m just a voice in the wilderness, apparently talking to nobody, and I don’t see a point to that.

Over-Protectiveness

I’ve commented here a lot about how close I am with my friends, and that there is very little I would not do for them. It’s true, which is why I keep saying it, but sometimes my feelings for my friends can get a little annoying. Thus the title of this entry. I have also mentioned how protective I am of my friends; in some cases I am literally acting like a bodyguard, even when I have no good reason to think they need one and they never asked for it. This is the story of how I take that too far.

Recently I have mentioned that I have a friend who has been contemplating suicide. I have mentioned that it makes me feel powerless, but I also have been trying to talk to her every day just to make sure she’s still around. The degree to which I have thrown myself into this in an attempt, however futile from this far away, to keep her around has been noted by several people around me – like my therapist and one of my close friends. She has taken it upon herself (my friend, not my therapist) to try to act as a reality check to keep me from getting so involved in my other friend’s life that if she goes, I go too. Now, I haven’t contemplated suicide since January, but I can see why people would be concerned.

I also tend to get very worried when my friends are clearly upset and yet don’t feel like talking. Now, I know that I can’t make my friends talk to me; even as close as we are, sometimes people just want to digest things by themselves and not have to share. But when I know a friend is upset, my protective impulses kick in and I start trying to imagine what is wrong and how I can fix it. At least now I’ve become a little better at noticing it, so when a friend does decide to come to me and talk to me, I can think to myself “Dammit, you idiot, your friend wants you to listen, not try to fix things! If they want you to try to fix things, they’ll ask! Shut that crap down, tell them you understand, and just listen!”

This goes into overdrive when I haven’t talked to a friend in a while and I can’t figure out how to reach them. I start wondering if something has gone wrong, I check newspapers online for mentions of their name, and start trying to figure out how I can get to where they are to see if they need help. Crazy, right? I have a friend who I met at Menninger; she got there only a few weeks before I left, but we became good friends. She’s out now, and though I’ve tried to get in touch with her, I haven’t been able to get her to respond to me. Part of me is screaming that I need to go see if she’s alright, while the rest of me is yelling back that if I do that, I stop being a friend and start being a stalker. Not like John Cusack in Say Anything, either, just the regular old creepy kind of stalker.

I think a lot of this is that I am just terrified to face the possibility of people who are such an important part of my life leaving. So, in a frantic effort to keep them from having to have anything happen which might make them leave me, I try to do anything for them that I can; my therapist actually said to me earlier that when he looks at me, knowing how I feel about my friends, he says “Man, he would carry them through life if he could.” That’s probably not far from the truth. Obviously, there’s a large potential for this behavior to backfire, because even if I could carry my friends through life, I can’t be everywhere for everyone, and protecting friends from things they can handle themselves, rather than just helping them work through it without standing in the way of the metaphorical bullet, is bad for both them and me. It takes a lot of effort for me to back off from those impulses, and I know I probably don’t do as well as I should. It’s a work in progress. 

To those of my friends who are reading this, you’ve probably noticed this; I am more than willing to throw myself into harm’s way for a friend, metaphorical or not. If you think I’m going overboard, let me know. I am trying to notice when it happens, but I am far from perfect, and my self-awareness only goes so far. I don’t want to get in the way of you living your life, but however well-meaning I am, this behavior will probably end up with everyone being hurt. I’m making an effort, but I could use your help.