Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dog Days of Summer

I'm dog-sitting again and it's for a brand new client. The pooch in question is a geriatric German Shepherd. To protect her privacy, I'll refer to her here as "Sweetheart," a moniker that she definitely embodies!

Focused on the task of hunting bees.
When my parents were growing up, German Shepherds were simply known as "police dogs" and people were afraid of them. The military and law enforcement still use German Shepherds for intimidation purposes, but I would say that most people think of them now as intelligent, easily-trainable, highly-focused, hard-working, loyal, and perhaps rather humorless dogs. They're a "working breed," the kind of dog that "needs a job." I have a postive view of German Shepherds, but before looking after Sweetheart, I'd had little actual contact with the breed. 

What a goof!
Now, thanks to Sweetheart, I've had a LOT of contact with a German Shepherd. Much of that contact has been with her tongue. She's the type of dog that, as they say, "has trouble holding her licker!" Any time she's happy to see you, out comes the tongue! And since she's always happy to see you, well, a whole lot of licking goes on! Other adjectives that come to mind when describing Sweetheart are "goofy," "dopey," "playful," "friendly," and "mellow." Sweetheart likes to play ball, hunt bees, gleefully rub her face in the bushes, ride in the car, snooze in the sun, get her belly rubbed, and other typical canine pleasures. She's definitely loyal and she's demonstrated some real smarts in enhancing the fun of a game, but focused, driven, hard-working dog she ain't! Sweetheart has been raised as a family pet since she was a pup, so this surely contributes to her goofy vibe, but she was clearly born with a sweet, friendly, and playful disposition. Remember, folks, never judge a dog based solely on its breed!

A sleeping senior.
Sweetheart is ten years old and it's funny how much "older" she is than Mr. Gorgeous, who is also ten, or Lady, who is thirteen. She's got hip dysplasia, common among German Shepherds, that has gotten worse with age, so her back end is on the feeble side. She needs a boost to get into the car and you can see that her hind leg muscles have started to atrophy. That means Sweetheart has a bit of a wobbly, limping walk and she can no longer play with her ball as much as she wants. Her owners explained that they limit her to ten throws when she plays with her ball at the park because otherwise she'll be in pain later. Sometimes she'll whimper just a bit if I bend a paw in a way that's uncomfortable when I'm wiping off her feet. And you can feel her bones beneath her fur and there's a knobbiness to them that reminds me of how the Ancient Kitty felt when you petted him. Sweetheart's spirit is still very bright, but her body feels old.

She's always ready to play!

However, a loving old dog who shouldn't walk far or fast is a great fit for my needs, so the two of us are having a very nice time. We both sleep a lot and enjoy playing silly games in the living room and I pet her and she licks me. I've brought her along on a couple of errands and then rewarded her with a trip to a new park. She's been eating all of her meals (sometimes she's peckish, I'm told) and she's already figured out that when I pull out my camera, it's a good thing! She's a good girl, would never think of stealing people food or getting up on the furniture, and is, in other words, a real treat to hang out with. Her house is lovely, too, large and quiet with a serene view of a wooded greenbelt. We're enjoying our lazy days together, each pursuing our individual interest in bees (I like to photograph them, she tries to catch them), and taking snoozes. Her family is out of the country, so I've still got a couple weeks yet to enjoy with this senior Sweetheart!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Front and Center

If you're a seller on Etsy, getting an item featured on the front page of the website is considered a real feather in your cap, though your chances are somewhat better than they used to be when front page treasuries were changed less often. How it works is that every hour or so, a new treasury is selected by the powers that be at Etsy to grace the front page. That means that anyone who goes to gets to see twelve of the sixteen items in the treasury and naturally that drives a lot of traffic toward the items displayed. I've had a great luck of being featured on the front page TWICE in the last couple of weeks!

This graph shows the number of times my listings were viewed each day.
Can you guess which days my items were on the front page?

20x30 Gray & White Capiz Shells
In the first instance, I didn't know my gray capiz shell photo had made it onto the front page until I was checking my shop stats at the end of June. That capiz shell photo had been popular all month: it was included in 20 different treasuries in June! But I noticed on June 27th there was a big spike in traffic to my shop and I also noticed that 194 of them had come from the Etsy home page. So I did a bit of sleuthing work and determined that a treasury from a few days before the 27th had made it onto the front page. My photo was in the fourth row, which usually isn't shown unless items in the first twelve slots are sold, so my image may not have been on the front page for the entire time the treasury was up there. Still, it was fun to realize that I had gotten some front page recognition!

8x10 Chess Pieces
Then, on July 9th, I went to check out how things were going in my shop, starting on the home page, as I usually do. It took a second to register, but there was my chess pieces photo in the treasury on the front page! I'd seen the treasury a few days before when it was first made and had liked it, but suddenly the fact that my photo was in the number one spot (the top left) mattered a lot! I was so pleased that I took a screen capture of the front page with my photo on it and I was rather giddy for the rest of the afternoon. It was quite fun to have seen it there on the front page myself, rather finding out about it later. Either because of being in the number one spot or simply the strength of the photo itself, 368 people clicked on it when it was on the front page. In the case of both photos, people who visited my front page photo then viewed about a hundred other listings or looked at my shop overall.

Being on the front page didn't end up creating any sales for me, but it was great free advertising! Five hundred and sixty-two people who may never have seen my work otherwise clicked on one of my photos and then many of them took a look at other items in my shop. While the chess pieces photo was up on the front page, five people added my shop to their favorites and 94 listings were added as favorites. That means my shop and my listings will always be in there in their "Favorites" section for them and other people to see! I haven't been investing much energy in my shop lately, so it was great to have this boost of attention at no expense--monetarily or in terms of energy--to myself!

Also, here are the listings I've put up since my last overview:

8x10 Flower with Raindrops

8x10 Pink Columbine Flowers

5x5 Rotary Dial Phone

Friday, July 6, 2012

Concussed: One Year Later

The point that laid me low.
It's hard to believe it, but a full year has passed since I dropped a bag of beads on the stairs, painstakingly picked up all five hundred of them, and then jumped up from my kneeling position, smashing the crown of my head against the pointed corner of the handrail directly above me. Twelve months later, I have yet to fully heal from the resulting concussion.

An explanation as to why a minor concussion could have such a profound effect on my brain.

Abbey was a big help.
I've come a long way from those first awful weeks where I was confined to my parents' darkened bedroom, unable to tolerate any light, and so nauseated I could barely stand drinking tiny sips of water through a straw. The concussion caused migraines that felt like a roaring chainsaw was being pressed into my brain. My heart raced and I was badly overheated all the time. The slightest noise was agonizing. I was terribly fatigued, but had difficulty sleeping because of my heart rate and the pain. My nausea limited me to a diet that consisted mostly of fruit juice popsicles, a few peanuts for protein, dried apricots for potassium (otherwise I got nasty muscle spasms), and the occasional bland cracker, and my weight started to drop. My one comfort was the company of my loyal dog.

Five Weeks Out: Before and After

Stormy winter weather
caused fatigue and pain.
Eventually, I got well enough to sit up in bed and read, then to spend fifteen minutes at a time on the computer if I wore my darkest glasses. I gradually progressed to watching ocean documentaries because I was able to tolerate the blue underwater scenes. I had a hypomanic burst of energy in August that I used to open my second Etsy store, but most of the time, I found it difficult to think clearly and difficult to concentrate. I was exhausted all the time and had to spend most of my days in bed. My eyes were more light sensitive than they had been before and I suffered as the angle of the sunlight changed with the coming of winter. My migraines were more painful than they were before. I found I was more susceptible to changes in the weather, too.

Eight Weeks Out: Where I'm At

The effort it took for me to take
this photo proved costly.
As the weeks went by, I improved enough to get back to my photography work and watching TV shows on the internet and spending time with my family. I was able to be present, at least for the meal, at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although they wore me out, I was able to take some dog-sitting gigs. But after three months, my recovery stalled at about 80%.

Three Months

Hanging out with horses
has been very helpful!
I celebrated my birthday a couple of weeks ago, which seemed very strange, since I could have sworn that I'd just HAD my birthday a few months before. In many ways, that was true. July through February had more-or-less vanished into a gulf of concussion recovery; life did not truly resume until eight months later, in March, when I started getting involved with horses. Since then, I've had more strength, energy, and stamina, I've been better able to drive again, and I'm much more likely to leave the house for fun or to ride along on errands and not just for medical appointments.

The beads that caused it all.
But if you compare where I was last year at this time to where I am this year, it's clear that my recovery is still not complete. Last year, I was wrapping up the prep-work for a children's ABC book. To get the necessary props to photograph, I went on many errands and was capable of making three different stops, including at visually chaotic places like thrift and party supply stores, before getting a migraine. I had built up enough strength to occasionally walk the dog. I was taking tons of photographs. My life was, by necessity, very small in scope, but I had sufficient energy to enjoy it and get quite a bit of work done, especially when the weather was nice.

My boxes of ABC props
have been put away.
This year? The ABC book has been shelved (quite literally, in the hall closet) indefinitely. I just can't see having the energy to take on a project of that size any time soon. While I have started driving to visit the horses, I'm most definitely not running multiple errands in an outing. I've taken myself to the dentist and the bank in recent months, but I avoid going in stores, which are just too loud and busy. I ride along on fewer errands with my family than I used to; too often the visual chaos of the outside world speeding by is too much for me. I've found there are movies that I used to be able to watch that I can no longer view because the quick and jagged editing style gives me a migraine after just a minute or two. Sometimes I'll go for a walk around the block with the dog, but any further than that and I risk getting a headache from too much exertion. I'm still more noise sensitive, especially to music, than I was before the concussion. It's really just in the last couple of months that I've been able to resume reading at the my pre-concussion level and sometimes my brain and my eyes are still too tired to handle small print and complex sentence structures. I spent so many days this winter incapacitated by the weather that I actually brought up the possibility of moving to California. It's depressing to spend so much time feeling wiped out and unable to think clearly, but I don't think I'm well enough to live on my own, whereas before the head injury, if I set things up properly, it might have been possible. I also have this ongoing sense of nearly always being stretched too thin, trying to do too much. I feel like I have no reserve whatsoever. I'm very driven by my creativity and my general inclination toward hard work, so it's not easy to scale back to the minimal level of activity my brain demands. I still take lots of photographs, but I've slowed the expansion of my photography as a business. Also, before the concussion, I used to make an Etsy treasury every single week. I seldom have the ability to look at the computer screen for the amount of time it takes to make one (and if I am having a day where I'm able to look at the screen for extended periods, I'm probably busy doing something more immediately relevant to making Etsy listings, like editing photos in Photoshop), so I've created only a dozen or so in the last year. I've also noticed that I watch far fewer movies than I used to; they sometimes seem just too long and demanding. I've been saying for several months now that when the weather finally gets nice, I'll know for sure how far my concussion recovery has come because a) I always do better when the sun is out and b) it had been very sunny prior to my head injury, but I know that even with the sun shining, I'm not up for making extensive alphabet lists and driving from store to store in search of props like I was before.

Photographing things like shrew-
moles keeps my spirits up!
I'd say that I hover around 90-95% of a full recovery one year later. It's a real shame that this happened to me, since the last thing my inflamed migraine brain needed was more inflammation and nerve damage, but what can you do? As I discussed in this post, none of the decisions I made that led to me to get this concussion were decisions I would want to take back. It was simply really bad luck, an accident. Life is full of accidents. I can't take this concussion and its lingering impact away. Sure, it would be lovely to be doing better than I am, but I'll be damned if I waste any of my precious energy on useless regrets. So I do what I always do: take photos, pet the dog, read when I can, watch nature documentaries when I can't, write blogs and listings when I'm able, crochet baby blankets when I'm not, spend time with my family, spend time with the horses. In time, my brain may heal completely. Or maybe it won't. Either way, I'll just keep doing as much as I can with the amount of energy and wellness I've been granted for the day, which, when you get down to it, is as much as any of us can do and a reasonable recipe for satisfaction.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The 5th of July and the Executioner Within

From time to time in this blog, I take on some heavy topics and this is one of the heaviest.


I've mentioned before that we each carry a private calendar in our heads where we have recorded the anniversaries of losses and that most of mine have to do with major mental health crises. July 5th is one of them.

A little background: I went home for a couple of months after my second psychiatric hospitalization in January of 2004, but returned to Chicago in the spring, determined to get my life back on track, resume grad school in the fall, and in the meantime, look for work. Looking for work was always very hard for me because it forced me to do the kinds of things that my social anxiety made the hardest to do, like make phone calls and approach people and ask them for favors (like giving me a job). I tried to force myself to do at least one job search activity each day, but it was very hard and my inability to make myself do these things made me feel really bad about myself. I spent most of my time at my boyfriend's apartment because I couldn't face being alone with my depression in my nice little studio apartment with no internet, no TV, no movies, or other distractions. He often worked swing shift, not arriving home until 10:30 at night, so rather than leave his place and not being able to come back until he got home after dark, I simply didn't leave at all. Finally, I managed to get a full-time job through a temp agency. I was so quick to pick up the skills required that within two weeks of starting, my supervisor was having ME train the next round of incoming temps. It was also a swing shift job, at a busy office in one of downtown Chicago's skyscrapers, so from 2:00 to 10:00, I worked on projects like putting weekly drugstore ad circulars on the web. I befriended one of my coworkers who also lived on the Blue Line so I didn't have to walk alone through the dark and eerie streets of downtown to get to the el station and I was doing well enough (and was tired enough!) that I could once again stay in my studio apartment. I still wasn't doing great--my medication doctor was concerned about my overall lack of progress--but I was doing so much better than I had been in previous months that it looked like my life was getting back on track.

The 4th of July was on a Sunday that year and my boyfriend and I spent it with a longtime friend of mine who was also a former coworker of his; she'd been the one who introduced us. I'd lived with her before I found my own apartment, but hadn't seen her since September because she was down in Hyde Park going to school at the University of Chicago and Hyde Park might as well have been on the moon because there's no good way to get there by public transit that is both safe and convenient. But on the 4th of July, my boyfriend and I drove down there and spent the day with her and her fun roommates and a few other friends. The evening culminated with eating pizza while watching "The Omen" and being very silly. It had been a good day and I was feeling happy as we drove up Lake Shore Drive on our way back to Logan Square. I remember that the windows on the Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower, overlooking the north end of Grant Park, were lit to spell out the word "Taste," as in "Taste of Chicago." My boyfriend and I had gone the day before and eaten all manner of fried things as well as an excellent matar paneer from an Indian restaurant we planned to visit soon. Life seemed to be looking up.

And then the next morning, on Monday, July 5th, 2004, I woke suicidal.

It was a complete and utter shock. It was also wholly unlike how I'd imagined being suicidal would feel. I'd always thought suicidal feelings would be something that would creep and grow over time, that there would be a downward spiral over days or weeks, that it would center around a belief that life wasn't worth living. That was not my experience at all. I didn't WANT to kill myself. I felt like I HAD to.

It was a terrifying experience. It caught me completely off-guard. In some ways it paralleled my experience with urges to harm myself, which had always manifested in a frightening need versus a deliberate desire. But to have your own mind want to murder your body without any "I want this" feelings attached? It was horrifying and appalling. I was too shocked to even tell my boyfriend what I was going through, even though he'd already seen me through two psychiatric hospitalizations. I did the only thing I could think of to keep myself alive: I lay in bed and didn't move. Well, I think I got up to use the bathroom once. But I didn't eat, didn't speak, just lay as flat as I possibly could and tried to outlast this treacherous urge. I had a nasty headache, but I didn't dare get up to take any Advil because I knew I'd be unable to stop myself from taking the whole bottle.

So throughout that long day I wrestled with the part of my mind that wanted to exterminate me. I reminded it of all the people who loved me and who I loved in return, my talents and potential, my recent progress, things I loved about living. In return, that terrible part of my mind responded by making a plan. I'd been warned that if I was ever experiencing suicidal ideation and came up with a plan for carrying out those thoughts, it was time to get help IMMEDIATELY. I tried my utmost to shut that plan out of my mind. The terrible part of my mind responded by telling me that if the Talking Heads song "Heaven," containing the lyrics "Heaven is a place/Where nothing ever happens," came on (my boyfriend was listening to the Talking Heads while he worked at his computer within sight of the open bedroom door), I was to carry out the plan immediately. I was starting to doubt my ability to resist that order.

A good friend of my boyfriend's was in town and that evening, my boyfriend, who'd been unable to get me to tell him what was wrong and who had been watching me with worried eyes all day, stood in the bedroom door and asked if I would mind if he and his friend went over to the neighborhood bar for a little while. I thought it over. By this point, I knew, without a doubt, that it I were left alone, I would try to kill myself. My plan was well-rehearsed: all it required was for me to be left alone for a while. I'd spent all day giving myself reasons for living and had every single one crumble against the cruel iron will of the suicidal part of my brain. But as I gazed at my boyfriend standing in the bedroom door, looking helpless and worried, I realized that I could live for him. I could easily imagine how devastating it would be for him to return to the apartment to find that I'd attempted to kill myself in his absence. He'd stuck by me and tried so hard to do everything he could for me while I'd been so sick despite struggling with some fairly substantial depression himself. It was so tempting to succumb to the urge to kill myself. But, for him, I made myself say, "I think you'd better stay here."

And so I lived.

Of course, the battle was not over yet. The next day, terrified by what I'd gone through, I called up the useless therapist I'd recently fired and explained what had happened and he gave me a brilliantly useless answer. ("Eat some ice cream!") The day after that, because, unlike the suicidal urges, that nasty headache still hadn't gone away, I called up my medication doctor and explained my situation to him. "Go to the ER. NOW!" he said. So my boyfriend took me to the ER and they gave me Demerol in an IV for the migraine because it WAS a migraine, even though I'd never had one that felt like that before and I hadn't had any since I'd started taking Wellbutrin in January. (It would go on to be my first "transformed" migraine, lasting two weeks, eventually broken when I was given anti-inflammatory injections every six hours for two days.) When I woke up from the blissful, narcotics-induced sleep, they admitted me to the psych unit once again because, as the intake doctor said, my case had red flags all over it. I would spend twenty-six days in the hospital that time and was only discharged because my parents insisted on it and swore they'd look after me. My doctors had been planning to send me to the county psychiatric hospital (I learned later); I'd had two more episodes of suicidal urges while I was in the hospital, including one just two days before I was discharged into my father's care, who'd flown out to Chicago to bring me home.

(It was very strange to feel suicidal in the hospital where there was nothing that could be done about it. It was a very strict psych unit, much stricter than the one in the hospital near my home I went to once, and I appreciated that. No one was allowed to wear a belt or even shoelaces, the utensils were plastic, the windows were unbreakable, there were no razors or scissors, and the staff was extremely alert and watchful. Patients who were considered immediate risks for self harm were placed under 24 hour observation, but they kept an eye on everyone. If they hadn't seen you for a few minutes because you were in the shower, say, they'd knock on the door to check. I believed that I couldn't harm myself there, so it was a strange feeling to have those urges, sort of like floating.)

When I came home from the hospital in August of 2004, I was capable of sitting, sleeping, and crying, but not much else. My parents were true to their promise to the hospital doctors and kept me safe. I was never left alone, all the sharp items and medications in the house were kept under lock and key, they ferried me to numerous appointments, and spent thousands of dollars on the medications and therapy not covered by my insurance. I have absolutely no doubt that if I hadn't had this intensive and extensive care, I would be dead by now. Sooner or later, the side of my brain that was bent on my destruction would have triumphed.

My scary experience with suicidal urges that came more-or-less out of nowhere helped me understand, at last, that with my bipolar II disorder, I wasn't facing a minor medical inconvenience that was a small pothole in the road of life. I am, in fact, living with a medical condition that is potentially fatal if not properly treated. I have to say, it was years, long after I'd stopped having any thoughts or urges, before I was able to trust myself enough to allow my parents to permanently remove the kitchen knives, the household item that worried me most, from their locked box. I now have faith that my treatment will hold and I won't be blindsided by a sudden need to kill myself, but the experience I had a couple months ago, when a different brand of lithium proved ineffective, showed how quickly things can disintegrate. Within three days, the destructive part of my mind had returned and was already starting to think about self-harm. It took all of my coping skills just to tread water until I could get my regular brand again. In other words, time and therapy have not eradicated the lethal aspect of my disease; it is merely kept at bay by a cocktail of chemicals that I must ingest daily.

The good news: if I do take my medication, I'm fine. More than fine, in fact: I thrive. I'm able to cope cheerfully enough with having a disability because that chemical cocktail is so effective. I'm able to fully enjoy all those good reasons for living that weren't enough to save me on July 5th, 2004. If you met me, you'd never guess that I have a mental illness, much less a killer slumbering in my brain.

I still don't know if my experience with suicidal ideation is anything like what others go through. I've read that most suicide attempts are impulsive acts, so maybe the notion of the downward spiral of gloom leading to suicidal despair is mostly fiction. What I DO know is that without treatment, I would be dead. The part of the brain that urges self-destruction is incredibly persuasive, seductive, and very, very powerful. Altering the brain's chemistry is the only way to effectively silence it. It's one reason why access to affordable and effective treatment is so important for individuals with a mental illness. (I also find it essential to have a dog because I know that if for some reason I were to feel suicidal again, needing to care for the dog would be my reason for living and enable me to ask for help.)

It's been eight years now since I was betrayed by my own brain and had to plead for my life with an executioner that dwelt within. I'm so thankful that I survived the 5th of July and the subsequent rocky weeks and months and have been well long enough and have enough confidence in my treatment that I can trust that I will not be ambushed by terrifying urges to end my life. And please, if you are ever find yourself thinking about suicide or planning a suicide or are beset, like I was, by a sudden urge to end your life, tell someone. Tell a friend, a family member, a doctor, a therapist. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Call 911. Go to the ER. And if someone you know mentions suicide, take it seriously. You can find information on what to do and what to watch for here. No one should have to die because they feel like they are out of options or because, like me, they suffer from warped thinking caused by a biological illness. If you or someone you love ever is overwhelmed by the desire to die, I fervently hope that you, like I did, survive your own 5th of July.

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