Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When I Finally Fell

Nine years ago, on the first day of December, shocked, dazed, and bewildered, I found myself sitting in the "quiet room" off the waiting room of the ER of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. My belongings had been taken away from me and there was a security guard at the door. At one point someone inquired about his whereabouts over the radio and he responded, "I'm sitting on a 64." That was me. A 64. I didn't need a code book to tell me what it meant. A 64 was a psychiatric patient.

It could be said that landing in a psychiatric hospital was my destiny from the moment I was born with a brain that couldn't properly produce and process neurotransmitters the way healthy brains can. It was inevitable that at some point my depression would plunge to depths beyond what I could cope with. Moving to Chicago that August had set in motion the events that would land me in the quiet room.

I graduated from college in May of 2003, spent the summer working at a mortgage company, and then, in August, moved to Chicago to pursue a MFA in Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The only time I'd been to Chicago prior to the move was when I visited in late July to look for an apartment and the only person I knew was one of my best friends from high school.

One of the school buildings on
Michigan Ave.
I loved Chicago from the outset. I loved the old buildings, the big-city energy, and riding on the el. I loved that much of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was housed in skyscrapers; how cool is that? One of those buildings was on Michigan Avenue, across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago (the museum) and there was a cafeteria on the 12th floor with a phenomenal view of the lake and Grant Park. I hadn't expected the waters of Lake Michigan to be so turquoise! It was one of many things about the city that delighted me.

I lived with my friend when I first arrived, having been unable to find a satisfactory apartment during my brief visit the month before. She lived in Roger's Park, at the far north end of the Red Line, when I first moved there, but shortly afterward she relocated to Hyde Park, as she was starting graduate study at the University of Chicago. The trip from Hyde Park to downtown had to be accomplished by bus, a less congenial form of transportation in my view than the el, which spurred my efforts to find my own place. I ended up with a great studio apartment in Logan Square.

My first apartment was on the second floor at the bottom of the "U" of this courtyard building.

It was spacious, as far as $500/month studio apartments go, with a separate kitchen, a walk-in closet, lots of windows, and had recently been refurbished with new kitchen counters and cabinets, a new fridge, a fresh coat of paint, and the floors had been refinished. Shortly after I moved in, the landlords replaced all the windows, too. It was my first place of my very own, and I loved it accordingly, taking great pleasure in cleaning it from top to bottom every week. I liked that the buildings across the alley from my kitchen window had back yards, so I had a view of nature rather than the wall of another building. (I also, at night, had a view of rats swarming the dumpster behind a restaurant, but that, too, had its own charm, since it was part of living in a big city.) I liked that my apartment was just off the far end of the Logan Square Blue Line el stop. I also loved the address of the apartment itself: 2649 ½ N Spaulding. It was the "½" that delighted me: I hadn't known that fractions were permitted in an address!

My little kitchen!
(I took only nine photographs during my time in Chicago--this is one of them.)

I had also, much to my surprise, fallen in love. My high school friend had introduced me to a coworker of hers as a potential roommate and friend. The roommate option ended up not working out, but it had been practically love at first sight for both of us. He lived in Logan Square, too, and I loved walking from my place to his and marveling at the old apartment buildings on Kedzie.

In those first months, Chicago was, for me, the buildings I'd read about during my history of American architecture studies: Burnham and Root's Mondanock Building, walking past Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott Building every day on my way to school, the iconic Sears Tower, and the view north along Michigan Avenue of the Wrigley Building, the "corn cob" buildings, the Tribune Tower, and the John Hancock Building; it was the taste of Indian food on Devon Ave, vegetarian food at the Chicago Diner in Boystown, nachos at the Heartland Cafe just down the block from my friend's Roger's Park apartment, chocolate chip pancakes at the Bongo Room in Wicker Park, the Puerto Rican dishes cooked up and offered for free one night a week for a time by the motherly bartender of the Whirlaway in Logan Square, and last but not least, Pasta "YiaYia" (a divine concoction of feta, cinnamon, brown butter, and garlic) at Logan Square's Lula Cafe; the Picasso statue downtown, the view of Graceland Cemetery from the Red Line, the bizarre (in my opinion) wood fire escapes on the back of every brick and stone apartment building, the black dust in my apartment (no doubt from the coal-fired power plants still burning in Chicago at that time), the unfortunate sewer aroma that emanated from every storm drain, the constant cacophony of horn-honking Chicago drivers, swarms of pigeons with missing toes (frozen off during the frigid winters?) perched on the underside of the elevated line that rose over Wabash Ave outside the building that housed most of my classes, and the pleasure of stumbling upon the vibrant sounds of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, as this was during their early years when they were still playing on the streets of downtown Chicago.

A portrait of the artist as a young graduate student.

Not everything was easy. As part of my financial aid package, I was supposed to get a work-study job at SAIC. Unfortunately, I moved a little too slowly to secure a position, so many filled even as I applied, but I was also hampered by my terrible social anxiety, which made me unable to even enter the offices (or sometimes the buildings) where open positions were available. This inability to get a work-study job weighed heavily on my mind--and was hard on my finances. And while I very much enjoyed my classes, particularly the elective art course I was taking, I had unfortunately been assigned a writing advisor who was a terrible match for me. He was the sort of person who loved critical theory and I was the sort of person who decided not to become a literature major because I loathed that way of thinking about writing. He criticized the first pieces of writing I submitted to him as not being current enough; I protested that I had just moved to the city, I didn't know enough about where I was to even write about it. And then, when I tried, he dismissed my efforts as cliched. At that time, I was so shy and anxious and insecure that I struggled to show anyone my writing at all, sure that it was not worthy of being seen, and his blunt and sardonic remarks confirmed my fears. I swiftly developed a terrible case of writer's block. It's a truly demoralizing thing to have writer's block when you're in a writing program and I was not well enough at the time to advocate for myself. Things were starting to slip out of my control.

On one side, my sun-lit street, on the other side, total darkness

I can vividly remember walking down Spaulding Ave one sunny afternoon in early October and having this sense within me that I was teetering on the edge of darkness. I could picture it so clearly in my mind, the razor thin line on which I walked, the bright Chicago sun on one side, the black depths falling away to the other. I didn't know at the time that I was experiencing my seasonal changeover from my summer hypomania--which had given me the energy and enthusiasm to embrace this move to a large, unknown city--to my wintertime depression. But the metaphor of teetering on the edge of darkness was very apt, and around the end of the second week of October, I fell.

My $75 purple comforter was only
marginally effective at keeping me warm 
The weather changed, becoming cold. I had spent the past four years in Florida, so while I was well-equipped to handle the summer heat of Chicago, I was ill-prepared to withstand the chill. After fretting a great deal about the price, I bought an artificial down comforter. (I'm allergic to real down.) I also purchased an extremely unflattering "sleeping bag" coat. At night I would huddle under my new comforter with my heavy coat over me, too chilled to sleep. My apartment was cold because I was too embarrassed to call my landlord to say that the radiator in my main room wasn't turned on. It was my first experience living with radiators and I thought maybe there was a valve you turned, but this radiator didn't have a handle on the valve and I didn't have a wrench large enough to turn the bolt. I was worried that somehow I had missed something that I was supposed to know and therefore couldn't stand the thought of exposing myself to my landlord's ridicule: this is how you think when you have social anxiety. I also couldn't bring myself to ask them to unplug the drain in my bathtub, so every time I took a shower I ended up in nine inches of slowly draining water that served as a mocking reminder of my failure to be a normal, functional human being.

Money was also worrying me a great deal. My parents, before I graduated from college, had told me not to expect them to support me, and I took this to heart. Thus, I felt I couldn't ask them for help as my savings dwindled and I remained unable to get a job. Having failed at getting a work-study job, I tried and tried to bring myself to ask for a retail job, but couldn't ever work up the nerve. The holidays were approaching and the Magnificent Mile was crowded with shoppers as I walked up and down Michigan Avenue and through every floor of the Water Tower mall, trying to will myself to walk into stores and ask for a job. Even when the stores had "help wanted" signs posted, I still couldn't make myself ask for an application. I spent many afternoons this way, feeling more and more like a failure. I hadn't been able to afford to fully furnish my apartment, so the box my eMac came in served as my desk; I ate my meals sitting on an upside-down plastic wastebasket with my plate on my knees.

In addition to my lack of a job, writer's block, and cold apartment, I was also beset with racing thoughts that kept me awake late into the night as I worried and worried and worried and worried. I told some of this to my parents when I called home and they provided coaching and encouragement, but as the weeks passed and I still failed to call my landlords and get a job, I starting avoiding my parents' calls, letting them go to voicemail and only occasionally calling back. I was too ashamed to admit I hadn't made any progress.

My drawings with text explored the
possible nature of God.
The week before Thanksgiving was Critique Week at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There were no classes; each student was assigned a time and a date when he or she would present work from that semester to be critiqued by a committee. This was extremely nerve-wracking for me, as I dreaded being judged, and my critical, sardonic advisor was on my critique committee. My critique wasn't until Friday, so I had all week long to worry about it. The night before my critique, after having dinner with my boyfriend at his place, he dropped me off at my apartment as he headed out of town. The water in my building had been turned off earlier in the day for maintenance and I discovered, when I got home, that the pipes were groaning and howling at high volume. Fortunately, I was able to catch my boyfriend before he left (this was in the days before everyone had cellphones), and he let me stay at his place. I slept better there than I would have with the pipes serenading me at my own, but I was still so nervous that I broke out in hives while taking a shower that morning. The work I was presenting for my critique was a series of drawings with text that I had been working on for my art elective class; I may not have been able to write, but I had been able to get a lot of good artwork done. Still, I was so anxious that I had to sprint for the bathroom, my stomach in revolt, while I waited for the committee to arrive. My critique went well and I did appreciate that my advisor understood it better than the others. Afterword, he told me I could have been bringing my drawings to our meetings, but I hadn't wanted him near them. I was sure that he would ruin them for me with his cold, rational assessments. Later, he sent me a rather condescending email, calling me "kiddo," and told me that maybe I just wasn't mature enough for grad school yet. I may have been the youngest student in the MFA Writing program, the only one who had gone directly from college to grad school, but I knew the problem wasn't one of immaturity. The problem was anxiety. But I didn't know what could be done about it.

The following week was Thanksgiving, which I spent with my boyfriend's family. I had met most of the attendees of the dinner before, but fretted enormously ahead of time over what I should wear and felt, as soon as I was dressed, that I was wearing exactly the wrong thing. I don't imagine anyone else gave it any thought, but I spend the evening feeling awkward and foolish. I was waiting, too, for the imminent onset of my monthly premenstrual migraine.

At that time I was getting a three-day migraine every month. They were quite severe: I'd spend those three days in a shadowy underworld of pain. I was used to having a mood drop with my migraines, especially as they abated, but this time, the drop was unusually severe. I found myself unable to sleep on the night of the 29th of that month, feeling more and more agitated as I was beset by a frightening desire to hurt myself. I'd had some thoughts of harming myself in the past, but I had made it very clear to myself that this was a line that was never to be crossed: it might be contemplated, but never, ever acted upon. For the first time, I found myself very much in doubt of my ability to resist the urge. Every time I tried to block the idea from my mind, it would think of a new way I could injure myself. Walls suddenly seemed like places to bang my head, windows were things to be smashed and jumped through, every corner of every shelf and desk and table presented itself as an instrument for pain, the razors in the bathroom cried out to be used, the knives and utensils and the blue flames on the stove in the kitchen started singing a siren song, and the urge to run out into the traffic on the busy boulevard was powerfully strong. I sat in bed, I dared not move, as my world morphed into a horror movie. I knew it wasn't right, I knew I should wake my boyfriend, I knew I should ask for help, but I couldn't bring myself to express my horror. I clawed at my forearms with my fingernails, hoping it would suffice, that it would ease my desire to inflict pain upon myself with more dangerous objects. Eventually, I slept. I have no particular memories of the next day, which I likely spent in a migraine daze, trying to shut out the need for injury that had woken in the night. But again, late that night, the desire rose to a level of torment. I was shocked, appalled, flabbergasted, bewildered, utterly opposed to the idea of hurting myself, yet I seemed to be drawn toward it as powerless as an iron filling drawn toward a magnet. I didn't know what to do. I knew full well that I wasn't in my right mind, that things had gone terribly wrong and beyond where I'd ever been before, but I had no idea what one did in such a situation.

Finally, on Monday, December 1st, 2003, I realized that, as a student at SAIC, there must be a student health center I could go to. I was able to get an appointment with the doctor that morning and I presented the problem to her as an unusually severe episode of my typical postdrome migraine depression. After voicing dismay over the general severity of my migraines, she sent me to see the counselor to discuss the self-injury urges. When the counselor heard what I had to say, she cancelled the rest of her morning appointments, hailed a cab, and took me to the hospital.

The counselor spoke to the triage nurse in the emergency department on my behalf. It was 12:05 in the afternoon. According to my records, security searched me at 12:10 and I was placed in the quiet room. And there I waited. I had nothing to do. There was a TV with the volume turned down and poor reception on the wall, but I had no interest in the daytime talk shows being aired even if I could have followed their progress. At one point I was escorted to the bathroom to provide a urine sample; later, the security guard outside the door arranged for some lunch to be brought to me. It was a turkey sandwich. I am a vegetarian, so I had to make due with eating the roll. At 2:00, I saw the intake psychiatrist. She decided that I needed to be admitted. At 4:15 I was moved to a small bay on the edge of the ER to wait for my medical exam. A new security guard watched me from across the hall. I began to cry and quickly overwhelmed the meager supply of tissues I had on me. There were no others to be had in the little room and I was having to wipe my streaming nose and eyes on my hands. That was the lowest point, crying under the impassive gaze of the security guard with snot all over my hands, not knowing what was in store for me, feeling frightened and alone. After what seemed like an age, the security guard left her post and came back with a box of tissues. When a nurse came in to get my vital signs, she was very kind. "You're doing the right thing," she said. They let me call to leave a message for my boyfriend. "I'm at the hospital," I told him, but I was too confused and overwhelmed to remember to tell him which one. At length, I was medically cleared for admission to the psychiatric unit. That meant I was transferred to what, I discovered in my hospital notes, is called the psychiatric emergency department. It was now 5:50 in the evening. In the psych ED, I was placed in another small room, this one with a bed, a small table, and two chairs. All of the furniture was bolted to the ground. There was a door communicating to an office where psych nurses were doing paperwork, I presume, and a one-way window through which they could watch me. I was told to change into two hospital gowns, one with the opening in the back, the other opening in the front, and was given footies, the hospital socks with rubber treads. They interviewed me again, I believe, going over the information I'd given to the admitting psychiatrist and other details. But mostly I sat there on the bench-like bed, cold, hungry, and forlorn in my hospital gown. I'd been clinging to keep control over my depression and anxiety over the years, clenching tighter and tighter in recent weeks, digging in with everything I had, and now I'd let go, had signed over my authority of my own sanity to the professionals at the hospital, and was plunging, numbly, toward I knew not what. At long last, a bed opened up for me in the psych unit. I was placed in a wheelchair with my belongings in various bags on my lap, and an orderly and a guard took me via skybridge to the building where the Stone Institute of Psychiatry was then housed. At shortly after 8:30 in the evening, I was admitted to the locked 8 West psychiatric unit where I would remain until the evening of December 12th.

The hardest phone call I've ever had to make was the one I made the next morning when I called my father to tell him I was in a psychiatric hospital.

A description of day-to-day life in a psychiatric unit deserves its own post, though I will say that it was much more mundane and certainly more well-lit than the psychiatric wards of pop culture's imagination, but the reality of being in close quarters with some of the low-functioning patients, especially when you were a nice, very anxious girl from the suburbs like me, was not always easy. One of the notes in my chart mentions I was upset about an incident the day before when another patient became "agitated," a term that does not adequately convey the experience of seeing a belligerent schizophrenic patient tackled and sedated by the nice nurses and mental health workers. But in all of the days I spent in psych units over the next two years, I only saw that happen twice, and while it was extremely unsettling and the possibility that such a thing might occur kept me on edge much of the time, the truth is that I met many very nice, very normal people in the hospital and the vast majority of the low-functioning patients were completely harmless.

Patients tended to self-segregate according to diagnosis, so I spent most of my time with the three other patients who were being treated for depression. One of the other patients was a girl, L., one year my junior, and we got along very well together. It helped immensely to have this other "normal" person my age to talk to! Every time I left the hospital, it was with numerous email addresses of other patients and promises to keep in touch, but once outside the hospital, the desire to remain close usually fell away. I am rather sorry I didn't keep in touch with this girl; I would have, but I lost her email address and didn't find it until nearly two years later. I decided it was unlikely at that point in time she would wish to resume the intimacy that was so helpful for both of us in December of 2003. If L. should happen to read this and recognize herself, I'd like to say that I've thought of you often over the years and wished you well!

I've previously said that, conversely enough, needing to be hospitalized for psychiatric reasons is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I cannot possibly underscore deeply enough what a relief it was for me to discover that my inability to respond to the world like I thought I ought to was not because I was a profoundly flawed human being, but because I suffered from a brain chemistry imbalance. It was also heartening for me to learn that I not only suffered from a brain chemistry imbalance, but a very severe one. I'd suspected as much, in a way, that what I felt was beyond the norm for depression, but it was an affirmation of sorts to be so sick as to impress an inpatient psychiatrist, who dealt with the sickest of the mentally ill on a daily basis. Quite frankly, the doctors and mental health workers who treated me were amazed that I'd coped as well as I had for as long as I had for how very, very sick I was. Suddenly, I went, in my understanding, from a person who was terrible at coping with life's challenges to someone who had been doing an amazing job of coping! It was SUCH a relief. I can't emphasize it enough. And thus I was able to forgive myself for years of not being able to feel happier or less anxious.

What happened next is apparently fairly common for people who have been holding themselves so tight for a long time to keep themselves together: I sloooooooowed down. My thoughts slowed, my speech slowed, my gait slowed. The slightest distraction could interrupt my train of thought. I felt loose and limp and sometimes loopy. I laughed for no reason. A little bit of this could be attributed to the medications my psychiatrist had put me on, but part of it was the reaction of a mind that had finally, at last, been allowed to let go.

By the 12th of December, my mood and my new medication had stabilized to the degree that my psychiatrist was willing to discharge me, but she did so with reservations. I was still very sick. But my insurance coverage had run out: it had a limit of ten days per year for inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. So back out into the world I went, heartened by my new diagnosis and not realizing exactly how unwell I still was or how long it would take to achieve balance. But I had never been well. I thought it was rather funny, when I read over my chart notes recently, to see that I reported having experienced episodes of "mild" depression over the years; now I know that I had been suffering near-continuous depression, with some very severe episodes, since I was ten years old. At the time, though, depression was my norm. I had no idea what true happiness felt like. It wasn't until years later, after I'd been diagnosed as bipolar II, put on lithium, undergone extensive Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and gotten most of the drug Geodon out of my system, that I would experience happiness untainted by depression or anxiety.

It would have been lovely if I'd been able to find out I was bipolar II and had been put on the right medication without having to go through the trauma of getting so off-balance and such a danger to myself that I required inpatient psychiatric care, but I consider myself lucky that I was only 22 when it all began. Had I stayed slightly less off-balance, I might have continued on, deeply unhappy, anxious, hating myself, and just barely coping for years. Instead, it worked out that my last inpatient stay was in February of 2005 and by the time I was 26, life was on a steady, upward trajectory and I was experiencing joy on a daily basis. So yes, I was lucky to be hospitalized.

Inpatient treatment also gave me a chance to see others with mental illnesses up close. I now have far more compassion and understanding for low-functioning individuals whose traitorous brains leave them only tenuously connected to reality and are unlikely to ever be well. As uncomfortable as they may make us, they deserve the best possible care. I fervently hope that psychiatric medicine will continue to improve and more and more individuals will be able to break free from the tyranny of a dysfunctional brain and know the relief that I've felt.

It was a cold night when I left the hospital in the company of my boyfriend; I remember that they offered me a warm coat from supplies for needy patients they kept on hand, but since I had several warmer coats waiting for me in my cold apartment, I declined. I was done with the hospital. My problem was diagnosed, they'd found a medication I could tolerate, and I was sure everything was just going to get better from there on out. I didn't know that within a month I would be back in 8 West. But I DID get better, even though it took longer than I thought it would, and I got much better than I ever dreamed I could possibly be. So I will declare the 12th of December to be a day of awakening, a day of finally moving forward, a day of hope.

And if you happen to suffer from a psychiatric condition, or suspect maybe you do, and things start getting really scary and you feel like you're not sure you can control yourself anymore, go to the hospital. They know what to do. Ideally, it's better to get treatment before you get to the point where you need to head to the ER, but psychiatric disorders have a way of making you act against your own best interests, so if it comes down to needing to be protected from yourself, call 911 or have something take you to the hospital or take yourself. An inpatient psychiatric stay might be the best thing that ever happened to you; it was for me. Finding the right treatment can take time and it can be so hard, but getting your psychiatric condition under control is SO worth it! Feeling good, feeling balanced, feeling normal, being able to respond to the world in a normal way: it's an amazing feeling. Don't let any of the stigma attached to mental illnesses dissuade you from seeking the treatment that you need because there's no reason to be ashamed of having some issues with the way your neurotransmitters are functioning. Get help. It's worth it.

My life has never been the same since the December 1, 2003. But that's a good thing. Being in a psychiatric hospital may sound terrible, but it was far more terrible to feel the way I did for years prior to the hospitalization. I may have been in a locked unit, but it was there that I was first able to begin the process of finally breaking free.

You can read about my second hospitalization here and my third hospitalization here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I have been very quiet as of late because I have been in bed for the last four weeks with an unknown ailment.

I'd originally thought it was some sort of virus that I was having a hard time shaking off. I had a low fever and severe chills, was fatigued, and didn't have much appetite. Twice it happened that I felt better for a few days and declared myself well, only to lapse back into fever and chills. The second time that happened, nausea and upper abdominal pain was added to the list of symptoms. Since viruses don't tend to get worse after several weeks, I finally went to the doctor. 

My blood tests came back normal, with everything in the usual range, including white blood cells. An ultrasound was ordered to see if my gallbladder was causing problems, but it, along with my liver, pancreas, spleen, and kidneys, were all normal. A urine cultural ruled out a kidney infection, too. It seems that the next step is to send me to the GI doctor to get my stomach scoped. It is incredibly hard to be sick for a long time without some kind of diagnosis--it wears on you nearly as much as the symptoms themselves--so I'm hoping I have an answer soon.

I've felt too sick to do much of anything besides read in bed, which is rather discouraging, especially since the holiday season is upon us. I didn't mind so much that I was far too nauseated to participate in Thanksgiving--I'm a vegetarian--but I have minded that I haven't felt well enough to prepare my Etsy stores for Christmas. I had intended to have all of my Mouse items moved to my macro shop and all of my items titles rewritten by the end of this month, but that project has stalled. I also haven't felt up to offering Christmas cards as I usually do (I typically have several friends and family members who order cards from me) and I haven't been well enough to put together a calendar, either. My store isn't my main source of income, thankfully, but it's a bummer not to have it functioning at its best during the holiday season.

I've also been frustrated because I haven't felt well enough to write. I have a massive blogpost that is just a few short paragraphs and a revision away from completion that my mind has been nowhere near agile enough to finish and I'm not going to be well enough to write a mental health post I had planned for this week, either. The other day I read through some of my older work with the thought of submitting one of the pieces to a writing contest, but I haven't had the energy to follow up with that and it made me feel kind of down, too, to see what a talented writer I used to be. I know people feel this blog is well-written and I take pleasure in making it so, but as I've mentioned before, this sort of writing is, for me, just an extension of thinking. The kind of writing I used to do was an art form. Now, thanks to migraines and migraine medication, my mind is smaller, slower, duller. I can get away from feeling that way about it when I'm well enough to immerse myself in my photography, but when I don't even have the energy to watch movies or shows and must take all my solace from books, my mind is vulnerable to feelings of loss.

As I write this, I am wearing a long-sleeve shirt, a thick sweatshirt with the hood up, a scarf, and a long, warm bathrobe despite my fever. It will be a relief to get back in bed in a moment with its three blankets and the warm presence of my cuddling dog. My food intake for today has amounted to one cracker and a small handful of tortilla chips. Lunch, should I ever feel hungry for it, will likely be rice and Jell-O. Not surprisingly, I've lost weight. I'm feeling heartily sorry for myself and with good reason. I'm hoping that in the next week or so I'll have a diagnosis AND a treatment and am trying to banish the ghastly possibility of still being sick at Christmas.

I've adapted to the constraints imposed by my migraines, but to be sick AND disabled? I'm finding it to be a hard slog.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

October in Pictures

October is a grand month for taking photographs. Here's what it looked like in my neck of the woods.

An early frost had killed off most of the vegetation at our community garden patch...

...but one stand of sunflowers survived.

Poppy pods.

We grew all of these buttercup and acorn squashes in our community garden plot. We also grew the tomatoes in the background, but not the bananas!

The funny spiky fruit of a dogwood tree.

Because summer heat and dryness lasted into the second week of October, many of the usual indicators of autumn were late in coming. These shrubs were some of the first to turn.

This maple in an exposed spot also provided some early color.

When the rains finally came, the mushrooms soon followed!

The katsura leaves change early every year, so they had all already fallen off the trees when the long dry spell ended.

The arrival of autumn painted the hydrangeas in colors of great complexity.

This creek runs behind the stable where I ride horses. It was there where, for the first time, despite spending 26 autumns in the Pacific Northwest, I saw the salmon returning to spawn for the first time.

Sockeye salmon turn red and green during spawning season.

The photos don't do any justice to the experience of actually seeing them in the flesh.

It was amazing to see these big, bright fish swimming in the creek and to know that they'd survived years in the ocean before returning right here, the place where they were born!

Fallen leaves give this bench a desolate air.

I've been grooming Drifter on the weekends while building strength to start riding again. The other day Syd seemed very sleepy--and was sporting some nice braids!

I discovered the reason for his fatigue attached to his stall door: he had been busy winning ribbons in jumping events the day before!

I got to spend a four-day weekend with my collie friend, Mr. Gorgeous!

His winter coat hasn't grown all the way in yet, but his summer haircut has grown out enough that he looks very handsome once again!

He spent some of his time keeping an eye on the squirrels...

...but he spent most of it sleeping. Mr. Gorgeous has developed some arthritis and it was bothering him during our inclement weather. He prefers to laze away the days now.

We HAVE had quite a bit of rain.
Nary a drop fell prior to the 11th, but it rained enough over the next 20 days to qualify as the 10th wettest October on record.

And wind, too, though this stiff breeze brought sunny skies with it.

As late October set in, leaves rapidly changed color everywhere, including the leaves of this ivy...

...the ones that fell into this pond...

...and leaves of this smokebush plant.

And October was ushered out at last with this gruesome grinner!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Three-Year Migraine Anniversary

It was three years ago today that I sat down to do some reading after wrapping up a busy week of projects for my graphic design classes and 35 hours of work at the flower shop and was overwhelmed by a massive let-down migraine. That headache set off a cycle of migraine sensitivity that has remained unbroken, banishing the future that had seemed so tangible in the previous weeks, one of happiness, independence, and creative challenges, and replacing it with a life of pain, seclusion, and dependence.

Bummer, as they say.

This year has not been without positive developments, such a gradual recovery from last summer's unlucky head injury, new dog-sitting clients, my growing involvement with horses, and my recent trip across the country. But it hasn't been an easy one, either. Our long, wet, gloomy spring made me feel too sick and dull to invest effort in my photo shop (or much of anything else, either) and led me to the tearful conclusion that I couldn't bear to spend another winter in Seattle. As the wet and gloomy weather continued into summer, I was discouraged by my lingering fatigue and cognitive dullness, which made living independently impossible. It looked like moving to a sunnier clime was out of the question, at least until my parents retired, something they don't intend to do for another eight years.

Once the sun came out in August, however, I made considerable gains, maintaining energy and good spirits despite my foot injury, and it was sunshine that helped me power through the rigors of my cross-country trip and its social demands. Seeing how much better I did when the sun was shining has reopened discussion on moving me to southern California in the near(ish) future. It seems senseless to keep me in Seattle, where rain is the norm and sunshine the exception (Seattle averages 226 cloudy days per year, and rain falls on 155 of them), when I might be able to function much better and with less pain somewhere else (Los Angeles averages 35 days per year with measurable precipitation).

The trip did catch up to me, it should be noted, and I spent five days in bed last week. The dry spell that extended into October has come to a wet and blustery end, and I find my life once again dictated by the state of the weather: my activity inside is determined by what is happening outside. Thus, when the wind blows and rain falls, you can find me slumped in my armchair, listlessly watching undemanding shows (I've been viewing a lot of "How It's Made") or retiring to bed with a book and the dog. When the weather is fine, my mental functioning is restored and at least for a few hours before fatigue sets in, I can take photographs, write blogs, make decisions, and draw enjoyment from my life despite its restrictions.

Things happen slowly for me, of course, and something so drastic as a move to another state will take time. I do, however, think that is where my future ultimately lies. We've decided that at the very least that my mom and I will take a trip to southern California (my parents grew up in the Los Angeles area and much of my extended family resides in Orange County; prior to the migraines, I spent a portion of my summer vacations there every year) in February, giving me something to look forward to as the days get shorter, darker, and wetter.

Maybe one day the migraines will stop. It's not out of the question. But it's also not to be expected; it's the kind of thing I can't hope for. I must live my life as it is and that means catering to every whim of my hypersensitive system. It gets me down from time to time; a few weeks back I spent several hours sobbing out some of my keenest feelings of loss. But having acknowledged that grief, I'm back to my day-to-day acceptance. I do what I can to treat and reduce the headaches--medication, acupuncture, physical therapy and massage, diet, special glasses, sensory interventions, trigger avoidance--and otherwise seek to fill my hours with photography and animals and other things that give me pleasure. I devote much more time to feeling grateful for what I have than bemoaning what I do not.

If you'd asked me, on October 19, 2009, prior to 5:00 in the evening, what I thought my life would look like three years later, this certainly isn't what I might have imagined. But then again, I've always had an almost superstitious aversion to predicting my own future, something that has spared me the pain of not having to compare where I am to where I had hoped to be. Also, I don't have time for regrets. I can't waste any of my energy on wishing things hadn't happened the way they did. My decision to start studying graphic design was a good one, even though the intense visual, creative, and intellectual involvement it required may have been a precipitating factor. And I absolutely refuse to wish that I was born with a different brain. Yeah, its inability to properly produce and process neurotransmitters the way most brains do has resulted in my bipolar II disorder, my sensory sensitivity disorder, and my chronic migraines, but it also has a lot to do with my intelligence and creativity, my wit and wisdom, my empathy and understanding, my writing ability and artist's eye, and my unique and invaluable way of looking at the world. On the days when the weather is fine, I still have access to all of that (though not to the part of my brain that handles creative writing; most writing I do for this blog is but a faint reflection of my talent at its fullest, and I do miss my ability to write at my best) and I would rather have migraines than sacrifice what is great about my brain. Also, changing my brain is not an option, even if I wished to. Thus, this migraine choir is mine whether I want to hear it or not, so I might as well spend my time on cultivating gratitude and pleasure. It's a highly rewarding way of spending one's time and I recommend it to everyone.

So, yeah, I have a disability. But it has forced me to live in the moment, which turns out to really be the best possible place to live. It has freed me from clocks and calendars, from the artificial stresses we place upon ourselves in our society to achieve things by a certain date or time in our lives. It has reinforced the value of simple pleasures. I have a roof over my head, good medical care, a family that loves me, a dog for company, internet access to the outside world, and deeply satisfying creative work. When the wind isn't blowing, I tend to feel lucky and I often feel happy. While I wouldn't wish my life on anyone, I get by okay.

Last year I chose, on this day, to write about what I've lost, and it's all still valid. But this year, despite being forced to spend most of last week in bed and being able to detect, yesterday evening, the falling of the barometer by my rising headache even before the storm hit, I'm feeling fairly positive. Perhaps it's because I see sunshine in my future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gotcha!: Celebrating Eight Years of Abbey

Last Wednesday, I sat down to begin work on a blogpost that I intended to make public on the 12th. I was only able to get the following amount of work done before I had to stop because I was finally experiencing the backlash of my exertions of my Florida trip:

The little whippersnapper back in 2004, two months after we brought her home.

Today is Abbey's "Gotcha! Day," her "adoptiversary." It's hard to believe it, but eight years ago on a sunny Tuesday, my mother and I showed up at the Seattle Animal Shelter before it opened to make sure we'd be first in line in order to adopt a sweet brindle stray we'd looked at over the weekend. Her shelter name was Keta; we'd already settled on calling her Abbey. We didn't bring her home until the 13th because she had to be spayed, but today's the day when she became ours. Or, more specifically, she became mine and I became hers.

She has brought us so much joy over these last eight years.

In these last few months, the first gray hairs have appeared in Abbey's eyebrows.

Since she was brought into the shelter as a stray, no one knew anything about her, including her age. The best guess that anyone could give was that she was 1.5-2 years old. That means she's somewhere in the vicinity of ten years old now and her age is beginning to show. Her eyes have acquired the bluish cast caused by lenticular sclerosis as her aging lenses densify. She's developed a couple of fatty tumors and I've found several sebaceous adenomas--benign fleshy tumors of oil glands in the skin often referred to as "old dog warts"--around her face. During her last physical, the vet noticed that she's displaying symptoms of sciatica in one of her back paws; just like her owner, she's not getting full information from her nerves in one of her feet! And that darling little Border Collie muzzle of hers has suddenly gotten quite gray. I've even spotted a few gray hairs in her eyebrows, evidence that a full "sugar face" (my favorite term for an elderly dog displaying a lot of gray/white facial hair) is on its way. She lost a tooth earlier this year and she no longer wants as long of a game. I've also had to reduce her food to not quite half of what it was in her prime because her metabolism has slowed down so much. As hard as it is to believe, my girl is getting old.

Her muzzle in 2008...
...and her muzzle in 2012.


My Abbey-just-planted-a-kiss face
So after writing those paragraphs, I decided to lie down and read for a while and Abbey, of course, was delighted that I was in bed because that meant we could have a nice cuddle together. Jumping up on the bed at my invitation, she came over to lick my face. That's when I smelled ammonia on her breath.

I'd noticed the day before that her breath had been unusually rank and had made a mental note that I really needed to recommit to brushing her teeth, but the ammonia odor took the concept of halitosis to a whole new level of ghastly. It also just didn't seem RIGHT. So I got out of bed again and did a Google search on "dog breath ammonia" and learned that it could be the sign of kidney trouble.

I have to say, I was rattled. I'd noticed, over the last couple of weeks, that sometimes the inside of her mouth and her tongue seemed a bit pale. Pale mucus membranes in a dog are never a very good thing, so when combined with the observation that she'd been drinking just a bit more water (I was refilling her bowl more often during the day), that her poop had looked slightly different recently, and then that awful breath, I was worried that she might be showing the first signs of some kind of serious health problem involving her organs. I wasn't able to get her into see the vet until the 12th, so Abbey spent her "Gotcha Day" being a good girl, first in the waiting room for half an hour, and then for another twenty minutes or so while the vet did a thorough exam that turned up nothing (and of course her gums were as pink as pink can be), and then while getting her blood drawn. Both of us were pretty tired by the time we got home. And then we had to wait all weekend for the lab results.

Pensive girl.

The vet called me Monday with the very good news that all of her blood work came back looking great. Her organs, her thyroid, her blood count, and everything else looked perfect. Why her gums are still occasionally pale remains a mystery, but I was very relieved to hear that her organs are all okay! The vet and I agreed to simply watch and wait. If she exhibits any other changes in health or behavior, we'll reevaluate, but as long as she is acting like her normal self, life can go back to normal.

This photo gives you a sense of Abbey's imperfect mutt proportions: long for her height and with very small head! She looks particularly silly in this picture because she's gotten distracted and forgotten to put her hind paw--the one that's exhibiting signs of sciatica--down.

This was my first major scare with Abbey. I hadn't been worried at all about the mast cell tumor that was removed from her flank last year, to the point that I was taken by surprise when it turned out to be cancerous. I've been sure to regularly remind myself over these last eight years that Abbey is mortal, that she will die, and that it's going to hurt when it happens, but it will also be okay. It's such a different thing to THINK something than to FEEL it, though, and the idea that something might be terribly wrong inside my dog was a horrible feeling. She's not my "fur baby," I don't equate her with a child or think of myself as her "mom," but I do take care of her, look after her welfare, spend most of my time with her, and love her deeply, so it was a new (and difficult) feeling to look at this vulnerable creature that I love so much and to know she might be sick. It made me realize, too, that one of the things that scares me about her death is not that it WILL happen, but I don't know HOW it will happen. I hope I'll be given enough time given enough time, when the end draws near, to see it approaching.

But the end is not yet here.

(Abbey is barking in her sleep as I write this. The sound of a dog barking in its sleep is one of the cutest sounds known to man, in my opinion!)

My mellow pup in her typical one-paw-up lounging pose.

And thus we can resume our routine of mutual pleasure. Abbey has slept in my room since my concussion last summer and for a while, due to her concern for my welfare and an unwillingness to be separated from me, managed to undo seven and a half years of perfect crate-training. I'm pleased to report with intensive training and the use of the Holy Grail of treats, peanut butter, she is back to submitting without argument to being crated while we are gone, snoozing in her downstairs crate when she's looking for a cozy retreat while I'm reading on the couch, and voluntarily sleeping in her crate at night, preferring it, in fact, to sleeping on my bed. We'd never given her many treats in the past, since she has a sensitive stomach, but she's demonstrated that she's highly food-motivated, and perhaps because she hasn't had many treats, she views individual pieces of cereal, like Cheerios, to be a powerful incentive! I've harnessed that willingness to work for paltry snacks into teaching her a new command, "Look," as well as upping the stakes on previously learned commands, like asking her to remain in a down-stay while I leave the room and walk around the house. She's a pretty smart cookie, that Abbey! The treat motivation has also worked really well in neutralizing that bad habit she'd developed of barking ferociously at people and dogs outside the car. I mention in this blogpost from a few weeks ago the intensive training session I did while we were waiting for a ferry and I'm pleased to report that it's practically cured her already! So don't listen to that old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!"

"I can has peanut butter?"

But most of our days are oriented toward leisure over labor. I invite her up on my bed in the morning for a couple of hours of snuggling and snoozing, then, when I repair to my study, she either joins me, and sleeps on her pillow, or remains on my bed and sleeps there. She takes an interest in my various comings and goings, though sometimes only by opening her eyes and wagging the tip of her tail, but always offers some kind of response when I talk to her (and I talk to her a great deal). She comes alive in the evenings when my parents come home, yodeling with joy as they arrive and thumping the kitchen cabinets with her wagging tail. After dinner she likes to play a jolly game and then it's back upstairs to snooze on the pillow in my study until it's time to go to bed.

She takes an active interest in everything I do. In this photo, she's watching me photograph crocuses by our front door. 

There's nothing more special than being greeted with a yodel! Abbey is singing out her delight in my return with a happy "woo-woo-woo!"

It's a very simple life, interrupted by occasional variations in routine such as car rides and, when I'm well enough, short walks, but the wonderful thing about living with a dog is that you learn to recognize that simple pleasures are enough. From her perspective, she gets a selection of wonderful cozy places to sleep, she gets to spend nearly all of her days with the most precious object in the world (me) and have frequent affectionate exchanges with me throughout the day, she has a larger pack that she loves that reunites each evening, she gets dinner (hurrah!), and a game, and then she can fall asleep each night in the vicinity of her beloved. Why on earth would anyone or anything want more than that?

So Abbey's a great example of living in the moment and finding tremendous pleasure in simple things, but she also makes my family laugh. We love her exuberance while playing games, the way she snuggles with her rope bones but will not not chew them, her eagerness to perform tricks in return for a measly Cheerio, her spins of delight on hearing that a car ride is in the offing, and her funny habit of hanging her tail--or her whole rear end--outside of her bed while chewing on her weekly rawhide stick.

She may not need as long of a game as she gets older, but this playful gal still loves her toys!

Abbey's "Booda Bank," her collection of rope bones that she considers too precious to chew on. "Did you grow up during the Depression, Abbey?" we tease her. "Was there a shortage of Boodas?"

Look at that silly mutt hanging her rump outside her bed while working on a stick!

And why be dignified when you can get belly rubs?

We love her expressiveness, too, the attentive way she listens, moving her eyes and ears and wagging her tail every time you speak or even look at her. It's so gratifying that we are in the habit of jokingly including her in conversations, pausing in discussions on topics such as current events, say, to ask, "So, Ab, are you running for office?" We like how she can use those eyes and ears and that tail to communicate with us, how she can clearly say, "Follow me!" by looking over her shoulder or request a tricks-for-treats session by looking meaningfully at my mother (Abbey regards my mother as the distributor of treats even though I do much of the training), perhaps poking her with her nose, and pricking her ears in a certain way. I love the way that she'll sometimes check in with me by gently bumping my leg with her nose, the way she'll lick my toes with delight when I get up in the morning, and how she'll quietly line herself up beside me as I prepare to transition to a different place, waiting for me to make my move. Our whole family loves to look at her and admire her brindle stripes ("Hey, Abbey, are you a tiger?") and her beautiful brown eyes. We like the way she lines herself up parallel to the carpet in the family room ("So, Ab, are you a mathematician? Do you study geometry?") or how she'll lie down with all her legs and her tail tucked completely out of sight beneath her. ("Hey, Ab, are you a seal?") And of course, we love to pet her, to stroke her wonderfully soft, thick, odorless fur and fondle her exquisitely velvety little ears. Without a doubt, Abbey makes our lives better.

Abbey patiently waits at my side in her "where to next?" position.

Her warm brown eyes are both beautiful and expressive.

Our beloved brindle animal on the move in our backyard jungle!

No words can properly describe the extraordinary softness of her darling ears!

It's hard to believe, in many ways, that eight years have passed (that's enough time for a child to be born and enter the third grade!) since Abbey came to live with us. They've been incredibly tough years for me as I struggled to gain control of my bipolar disorder, went through years of terrible withdrawal thanks to a problematic medication, and then was laid low by the disabling migraines. But every step of the way, Abbey has proved to be exactly the dog I've needed. She made me feel urgently essential to her existance when I was at my sickest, which helped me conquer my fears of being overcome by suicidal thoughts and allowed me to start getting better. Becoming a better pack leader for her so she wouldn't have to be so stressed out about trying to take care of me was instrumental in helping me uncover a confident and assertive side I never knew I had. She offered quiet comfort and companionship when I felt wretchedly nauseated or in pain during the withdrawal years and was my eager sidekick on walks when I finally was able to start regaining my strength. And her presence has proved invaluable once again as I've had to retreat from the world due to the demands of my migraines. I never feel lonely because she makes an amiable companion, happy to communicate with me and partake in my pleasures while making nary a sound. She likes nothing better than cuddling up against me if I'm too sick to get out of bed and that becomes a source of happiness for me on days when otherwise it would be easy to feel down. When Abbey is around, I never feel lonely. The way her eyes light up and her tail wags when I look at her is enough to brighten my days. Her love--pure, unswerving, instinctual, and total--has carried me through eight years of hard times. I will have many dogs in my life, but I have been so fortunate to have stumbled upon, in Abbey--who was chosen largely because of the patient way she was waiting in her kennel at the shelter--exactly the dog I've needed.

I am hers and she is mine.

I love the photograph below because Abbey is gazing at me a soft look of love in her eyes. She is waiting for me to follow her up the stairs and is holding still because I've pointed my camera at her. It sums up so much of what is wonderful about the two of us together.

It's been a joy to have you at my side these past eight years, sweetie. I hope we have many, many more.