Anxiety takes a break

A couple of years ago, I was prescribed hydroxyzine for eczema. In addition to relieving itching, it has a mild anti-anxiety effect and helps you fall asleep. So I took it at bedtime. The first morning after taking it, I was waiting for my morning bus well aware that I felt very different.

I was not worrying about anything. I was aware of the usual things I worry about; but I was not bothering to worry about them. And I thought, “Wow. This must be what it’s like to not have anxiety.”

At the follow-up appointment, I described this to my doctor — and this is when she raised the idea that I might benefit from taking anti-depressants. But I took this medication for almost a year — and the anti-anxiety effect quickly wore off. And I suspect the same thing would happen with anti-depressants. My anxiety is very insistent and seems to quickly override any medication that wants to drive it down.

Something odd has happened to me this week. I am feeling the way I did when I first started taking hydroxyzine. I know I have plenty going on in my life to cause anxiety. None of that has gone away and I am still aware of it all — but it is not making me anxious. This morning, I did not wake up wishing that I had not. And there is a comforting feeling of fullness in the crown of my head.

I do not know what is behind this — but I sure hope it lasts.

Not ending life

Tony Shalhoub was a recent guest. I have never heard of him but his story was intense. His father was born in Mt. Lebanon and was left an orphan from World War I. The grandfather was killed in action in Armenia and the grandmother shortly afterwards. In addition to the destruction and death of war, Mt. Lebanon was also stricken with a locust plague which wiped out a harvest. Tony’s aunt, still a teenager, had to look after the other children. Life was horrifically hard and in a letter to relatives in the USA, she wrote (paraphrased),

“I wish to die. And if you love me, you will pray for me to die too.

A TV show I really enjoy is Finding Your Roots hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. It is one of those shows that researches the family trees of celebrity guests. I enjoy it even when I have no idea who the guests are! I love hearing their reactions to what they learn. And it is amazing to see their faces when they unroll the chart of their family tree at the end. Personally, I have no interest whatsoever in my family history but I enjoy watching other people discover theirs.

It made me think of how I feel every morning when I wake up — that I wish my life would end. And I know it is ridiculous because my life finds me safe and comfortable right now. This is not to say that I think of suicide — wishing for your life to be over is NOT the same thing as ending your life yourself. And it is a good thing Tony’s aunt never took matters into her own hands because, somehow, she and the younger children made it all the way across Europe to France from where they sailed to America and joined relatives in Wisconsin where they went on to lead happy lives.

Sometimes — not always — but sometimes —even the most desperate of situations can turn itself. I guess the challenge is hanging in there in case your situation’s number comes up. But I can fully understand why that is hard to do.

Not going down the rabbit hole…

About twenty years ago, I had a neuropsychological assessment. This was long before I had any idea of autism. The purpose of the assessment was to identify any signs of psychosis. Happily for me, none were found!

However, I scored very, very highly in two areas: honesty and anxiety. In hindsight, that is obviously due to autism. But back then, it was just an interesting outcome. We did not discuss the honesty finding at great length, but I was warned that if I did not do anything to address the anxiety, I would end up making myself very ill. I was encouraged to ask my doctor about antidepressants.

At the time, I did have health insurance, but I knew it was not going to last much longer. And I did not want to end up taking medication that I would come to need on a daily basis only to suddenly find myself unable to pay for it. Besides, I enjoyed having wine every night.

Yes — medicating oneself with alcohol is generally not advised. But there are some definite advantages with it. First, a prescription is not necessary. Second, when money is tight, there are cheap options. But, and I think this is what makes it so handy, you do not need to take it every day in order for it to be effective. In fact, it works better for you if you DO NOT drink it every day — and save it for when you really want it or really need it.

For many years, I had no health insurance and I was very glad I had not got myself into a medication obligation. For the last few years, I have had health insurance again — and am still dodging the medication. When I signed on with a new doctor two years ago, I was asked to complete a form about my mental/emotional health. And I was honest with it! I told the doctor all about waking up each morning wishing I had not; and that I felt as though nothing good would happen ever again. The doctor asked me if I had ever thought about going on antidepressant medication. I said I did not want to become dependent on medication. She said there are antidepressants that are non-addictive. I said I did not want to get comfortable taking medication that I would not be able to afford if I lost my insurance. She said there are affordable options. Then I happened to see some Twitter posts from a comedian I had started to follow when I was listening to a podcast about depression that featured comedians. She was no longer able to pay the $5000/month for the antidepressant medication that she had come to rely on and she was falling apart. I told the doctor I would try therapy instead — and it was a good move, because it led me to my autism assessment!

And then I immediately found myself working from home in Covid-19 lockdown. My anxiety suddenly bothered me a whole lot less — perhaps because I now had something concrete to worry about. Besides, I will bet many people wake up every morning full of dread and feeling like nothing good will every happen again. It no longer seems like a symptom of depression — just an unfortunate assessment of the current reality. That is what I told the doctor when I went back for a physical in the fall — and we left it at that.

This is not to say that I disapprove of medication. I know it can make a colossal difference — like night versus day — when someone is prescribed a medication that works well for them. And if you access to sane healthcare where prescriptions do not cost an arm and a leg, then it is probably worth exploring. But in the United States, I think it can take you down a rabbit hole.

Today was very busy and frustrating with work. But I stuffed myself with a really good and healthy dinner. And I will find myself something good to watch on TV until bedtime, when I will curl up in bed with a few episodes of M*A*S*H. And then tomorrow, I will wake up wishing I had not — but by the time I am logged in a work and answering my first annoying email over my first cup of coffee, I am pretty sure I will be feeling a whole lot better.

Toxic Mauve

The Solar Eclipse of 2017 is a somewhat sorrowful event to look back on. I viewed it from Seattle, where it was not quite total. I took the day off work so that I could make an occasion of it anyway. I live down at sea level and woke to a thick fog. But I had time to walk uphill and inland to get above it. I enjoyed the spooky light and all the crescent-shaped shadows cast by tree foliage. When it was over, I went to my favorite pub where I watched news coverage of the eclipse as the area of totality drifted eastward. It was a wonderful day.

I think it was perhaps the last day I woke up not feeling dark and depressed.

A few days after the eclipse, I dreamed I was waiting for the bus to go to work. It was not a lucid dream, but I think the fact that I was dreaming about waiting for the bus just a couple of hours before I actually would be made it seem very real.

It was a calm morning and I enjoyed looking out across Puget Sound. It was foggy on the other side — but that is normal. But then the fog seemed to take on a life of its own. It started to advance quickly towards me — not the way fog usual creeps in — but more like a vapor cloud released in an explosion. It was a rather sinister mauve color (pinkish-purple) — and I had the impression it was highly toxic and would kill anyone in its path.

I heard the sound of the bus coming and was suddenly frantic that it might arrive ahead of the fog — so that I might be safe inside the bus. But when the bus rounded the corner, it went straight on down into the water. I tore across the street to investigate — but the bus was already almost submerged. Only the rear-right corner of the roof was above the water. A search-and-rescue team was already at work and divers were surrounding the bus. Someone told me there was nothing I could do to help. I realized the mauve fog was gone. And someone told me that it had not been coming for me.

Ever since, I have really felt that nothing good will ever happen again — to anyone. And most mornings, I wake up wishing I had not — although the feeling does pass if I do not succumb to it. I was feeling this way long before the Covid-19 pandemic began.

A couple of nights ago, I dreamed I was looking out across the water. And I saw the mauve fog out there in the distance. But it stayed where it was.

Writing my way back to happiness

This week, the world overwhelmed me (and I am sure I am not the only one.) By the time I closed my work laptop at around 4:30pm yesterday, I was utterly despondent. If I did not live a 45-minute walk from the nearest grocery store, I might have gone to buy a bottle of wine. I actually thought about it a few times, because even though it was getting dark, the weather was rather nice. But I did not go.

I had to turn off the BBC World Service and find something else to listen to. Lately I have been enjoying the Cleops channel on YouTube which has a large collection of British TV shows going back decades, including some documentaries of the history of TV. I found something called Children’s TV on Trial and played the episodes about the 1950s and 1960s.

I had no idea of anything to write about here. So I went into a story I started writing several weeks ago. After watching a Ken Burns documentary about the life of Mark Twain, I had been inspired to write again. One of my favorite of his books is Letters From The Earth. I just love how comfortable he was writing about God. (And I suspect it was God’s idea to humor Sam Clemens by having him die the night of the return of Haley’s Comet, given that Sam Clemens had been born under Haley’s Comet on its previous visit.) Anyway, it was exactly the tone I needed to strike with my story. Well, it is not really a story — more like God going on a series of rants.

After just a few minutes I was feeling so much happier, writing about baby turtles making a mad dash down the beach to hopefully make it to the water before being eaten by something — with audio of clips from Andy Pandy and Camberwick Green for company. I took a break to watch a clip from The Clangers — and I almost fancied that God was rather tickled by its charm. Perhaps there is a life form like a clanger somewhere out there in the universe.

I wrote for a couple of hours. This is a story that I doubt I will ever share with anyone, let alone try to publish. It is more about writing my way back to happiness.

Waiting for God

The community news blog I read is operated by two professional journalists with decades of experience in radio, TV and newspapers — so it goes far beyond just being a forum for local gossip, articles for sale, obituaries and lost pets. It’s a serious news service. Emergency responses are covered in full detail — unless a suicide is involved. In the event of a suicide, no names and no details are provided, but a web link is provided to resources that are available for anyone contemplating suicide.

A few years ago, I overhead a conversation at work. I work at a nonprofit that provides various social services to vulnerable populations — so we have social workers on the staff. The conversation concerned suicide — and concluded with one person saying, “No one had better ever attempt suicide while I’m around.” The remark bothered me, because it was delivered in a rather glib tone, as though suicide is something that people just do without any consideration or forethought — not what I would expect from a social worker — but that might have just been my own personal reaction.

My family has its own history of suicide and failed attempts — so I have seen the pain that family members go through and and I understand why my local news blog follows the policy of giving no details. But I do wish there was a space to talk honestly about the idea of wanting life to end — outside of the usual suicide prevention initiatives.

Last year, my doctor had me complete a short assessment. One of the questions was, “Do you ever have thoughts about ending your life?”It was a multiple-choice question, with answers like, “Never”, “Sometimes”, “Daily” — something like that.

I paused a while on this question. For the last few years, every morning when I wake up, I wish that I had not. I wrote about this in a recent post. My first thought is I wish my life would end. My second thought is how ridiculous that first thought is given that my life is rather good right now compared with what so many other people are going through. But wishing my life could just end is a thought I have many times a day.

However, that is NOT the same as having thoughts about ending my life! But if I were to tell someone I wish my life could end, they might be alarmed and fear that I am contemplating suicide.

I did talk about this in counseling at the start of this year. My therapist incorporates personal belief systems in her work, and knowing that I believe in reincarnation, she suggested that perhaps I felt I had run out of steam with this life — and would prefer to be allowed to move on to the next one. This idea has been helpful in managing my feelings.

Admittedly, I am not at all hopeful for my future. I am doing OK now, but I am only 58. Given the hopelessness and despair I see all around me, I do not see how this could be anything other than my own future. My “retirement planning” actually assumes that I will eventually be homeless. And I think that is why I would prefer to make an early exit.

I am not religious, but I do believe in God. (When you believe in reincarnation you kinda have to believe in God…if you think about it…) I think that is why my second thought on waking up is about how ridiculous that first thought is. God probably pokes me in the ear. Believe me, I am very thankful for the life I have had so far — but I am not sure I can face the prospect of perhaps as much as twenty years as a homeless old lady, especially in a world that may never recover from the disruption of Covid-19. I am not sure what would be the purpose of going through this, unless it would be preparation for something I will have to contend with in a future life — in which case, taking matters into my hands via suicide would be counterproductive. God would probably insist on sending me right back to here to experience what I had tried to weasel out of. Or God might send me somewhere to experience something far more horrible.

My sister-in-law did Death With Dignity a few years ago. Her breast cancer had metastasized and she was in a lot of pain. My ex-husband was with her when she drank the cocktail. It was a painful story to hear — but it was well timed, because this happened shortly after I had started waking up wishing my life would end. I tried to imagine myself about to drink down a cocktail that would be guaranteed to end my life within a few hours. And I realized I would not be able to do it. I would want to put if off — at least to the next day. I do that Death Cocktail mind experiment quite often — and I still can not imagine myself drinking it.

This morning, I have been reading news articles about families facing a bleak and uncertain Christmas with the threat of eviction hanging over them. Many people have had no income since last March. Food banks are overwhelmed. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Suicide rates are up — and that is hardly surprising.

But I suspect a lot of us are waking up to a passing thought of wishing life could just end. Hopefully, for most of us, this remains nothing more than a passing thought. I do not think you even need to suffer from depression or anxiety to feel this way. It strikes me as a rather rational way to feel right now.

Fear of the unknown

Starting in the fall of 2017, I began waking up full of dread. I literally felt as though nothing good was ever going to happen in the world again — that we were all collectively doomed. That is when my morning routine, which has always been important to me anyway, became critical. I will spare you the “ball-by-ball” details of my routine. What matters about it is that each step of the routine did seem to have the effect of diminishing that dread just a little — so that by the time I was up and out and waiting for the bus, I was feeling relatively OK. And even if I was not, the sight of the bus coming around the corner comforted me some; and then I would take my seat and cue up a podcast — and by then I was generally feeling ready to face the day. I supplemented the comforting effect of the morning routine with a “Reminder” on my iPhone that sent me a “Please stop worrying!” notification at 6am, just as I was heading out to the bus stop. On the weekends I had a different version of this routine that started later. For some reason, the Sunday angst was the worst, but I cannot figure out why.

In the summer of 2019, I was prescribed some oral medication for atopic dermatitis. In addition to relieving itching, the medication also has a mild anti-anxiety effect — and I was rather amazed at how I felt the first morning after taking it. I got to know what it feels like to not be actively worrying about anything. I mentioned it to my doctor, and she suggested I might benefit from taking anti-depressants. But I did not want to go down that road without first exploring alternatives, so I agreed to a course of talk therapy. And that was a good move, because it ultimately led to my autism diagnosis in March of 2020. The week after my diagnosis, the governor of Washington State issued the stay-at-home order — and then the whole world started to unravel.

Oddly enough, I have been feeling a lot better since then. The atopic dermatitis has subsided to a level that can be managed without medication. And although I still wake up feeling fearful, it makes sense now. The world is in crisis. The pandemic has upended the world for just about everyone and there is no end in sight. The United States appears to be on the brink of a civil war and large parts of western states are on fire. And in many parts of the world, things are even more desperate.

I have never considered myself to be psychic, with the ability to see into the future. But I can not help wondering if I was having some subconscious premonition of what was to come to pass in the year 2020 — something that manifest as I was sleeping and lingered into my waking state. And now that the waiting is over, the fear is of something real that affects all of us, as opposed to a fear of the unknown, which I was carrying alone.