That Day

Today is the birthday of two good friends of mine. Andrew and Danny, twin brothers. I rarely remember my friend’s birthdays without the assistance of Facebook, but today is special to me for another reason. A year ago today Danny, on his birthday, had lunch with me at a little Mexican restaurant in Central Square, then walked with me to Cambridge Hospital, where I admitted myself to the Emergency Room. He stayed in the waiting area for 3 or 4 hours before I could get a message to him that I was apparently going to be there a lot longer. A few minutes later a nurse let him into my room and he gave me a book to read, even offered to give me his phone as I hadn’t had one for nearly a year at that point.

It’s a beautiful day up here in Vermont. I am sitting at a little cafe in an industrial park near my work. I have a blueberry muffin and an apple juice. The muffin actually didn’t look too great when I ordered it, but it’s amazing. Still hot from the oven. I’m dressed well, and my hair doesn’t look awful either. I’m clean and relaxed and looking forward to work. I am happy. The moment I am in right now is so far from the moment I was in a year ago.

When I was at my worst, I distanced myself from most people, but some of my friends have a particularly amazing quality where they don’t care if I refuse them, avoid their calls, or don’t respond to emails. And ex of mine once complained that now that we were together her friends invited her out less frequently, and implied that she had turned them down too many times. In contrast, my friends would invite me out, and even when I refused them every night, week after week, they’d still ask me to join them the next time.

I have a talent for making friends and building networks, but that doesn’t actually explain some of the friends I’ve ended up with. The majority of people, the larger expanses of my networks are hurt when I don’t communicate with them. Reasonably, they feel slighted when I refuse and rebuff them and yet they can see me quite publicly talking to someone else, while still ignoring them. This is a miserable thing to be in the habit of. It reveals that portion of me that is, in fact, a miserable person. And yet, there are about a dozen people in my life for whom that prejudice does not seem to abide. That they like me is not inexplicable. I am self-aware, but not overly humble. I’m pretty fun to be around! And clever, too. What is hard to explain is why they’ll put up with my selective misanthropy. The cost-benefit analysis of loving me has much thinner margins than just hanging out with me at a conference.

And yet they persist.

In the spring of last year, as my depression skidded along, my disinclination to see other people reached new heights. I would take most of my meals in the middle of the night, so as to avoid the people I lived with. I routinely locked the door to my bedroom while I was inside, though no one had ever tried to open it. I would go thirsty rather than go to the kitchen if I heard anyone out there. And these were people I liked! People I bragged about when I was not with them.

Danny & Andrew would routinely invite me out for coffee or lunch or a drink. I usually refused, but two or three times I forced myself out. Each day with the two of them stretched on endlessly. Once I was with them I felt those miserable places in me fade just enough that I could shout over them. We’d get lunch, be about to part ways and I’d say “Let’s play a board game” or we’d go out for a hot dog and end up making fancy cocktails and sitting on the porch talking and arguing all night. Those days were rare, but precious and so I clung to them.

In the aftermath of the hospital Andrew wrote me, saying he previously thought I was just a messy person, he didn’t realize that I was such a mess. He told me he wanted to help and that I didn’t have to lie to him. In response I told him, in detail, what things had been like on that morning.

“I got to that place where I became completely unfeeling. Just, oblivious to emotion altogether. Incapable of making simple decisions and more and more contained to my own bed… I Just sat with myself one morning, completely confident in the belief that nothing was ever going to get better, that this would be my entire life and that the time had come to take drastic action.”

What I did, though, was reach out Danny. I asked if he was working from home. He was. I wished him a happy birthday, then said “I feel like a dick asking this on your birthday, but do you think you could go to the ER with me in a little bit?” He agreed without question. It took me another hour and a half to compose myself, shower and put some clothes on. He met me at that Mexican place. I ate a burrito and we talked idly. Full, and committed to my course of action, we started the 15 minute walk. I believe it was a hot day in Boston. I think I remember feeling bad I was having Danny walk in that heat, but I don’t really recall now. He told me he had no concept of what was going on with me, and I thought that made him an amazing friend. That entirely devoid of context or empathy, on his birthday, he would, without question, drop everything to walk with me.

When we got to the hospital things started moving fast, but without end. Eventually I was released to Amy’s care, but only for the evening and even that took quite a bit of negotiation. I had been at the hospital for around 9 hours at that point, maybe a little longer. We went directly to meet Andrew and his girlfriend Katie. That morning Katie had invited me out for a birthday drink with Andrew. They very kindly accepted me and my mess of a day into their quiet celebration. The next morning Amy & I returned to the hospital, as we had agreed to, where I was admitted to a Crisis Stabilization Unit.

I saw Andrew and Katie down in Boston a few days ago. They made me delicious food and we laughed and yelled and said how much we missed living near each other. Danny’s out in Austria now, learning German and potentially contributing to the safety and survival of the world. Andrew has been one of the people helping me dig out from the Kickstarter debacle. He has put up his own money, a huge amount of time and a lot of energy keeping me going.

So, today is that day. One year later. And while I am sure I’ll always remember it in the context of my decline, from this point on I will only celebrate it as the birthday of two of my friends.

Happy birthday, Danny. Happy birthday, Andrew. Thank you both, so much.

Michael

During my stay in a crisis stabilization unit (CSU) in Somerville, several people came and went, sometimes arriving or fleeing in the middle of the night. Each day you would wake up to someone new, or have to quietly inquire about someone who was now missing. But Michael was there when I arrived, stayed his full week, and left in the middle of the day, discharged with a handshake and well wishes.

He was homeless, and scared of the shelters. For Michael the CSU was a reprieve. A clean place with one or two person rooms, attentive staff, mandatory appointments with clinicians and administrative support for all the things that are supposed to be simple, like filling out paperwork or making phone calls. All those things that had become inexplicably impossible for each of us. It was warmth, 3 square meals and group therapy. He liked it there. But he couldn’t stay. None of us could.

The Crisis Stabilization Unit is meant to do exactly that. Stabilize you when you are in crisis. You stay about a week, meet with clinicians, participate in group sessions, eat, clean yourself, and start laying the foundations to start life over again. When Michael was nearing the end of his stay, he and the staff began the search for affordable housing, but in the end, while they had provided him plenty of information, and a goal for a next stop-gap place to stay, I can’t say with any certainty where he slept after he left.

We would play chess most days. I’m not particularly good, but I know how to play and enjoy it. I had the distinct impression that Michael used to be very good, but his skill had declined over the years, yet he still loved to play. It left us at a good level. He took the first game handily, I took the second by the skin of my teeth. Then a draw, and it went on like that. By the end of his stay we had played for several days and the final result was dead even. He begged me for one more game, but as much as I had the capacity to observe and love the other patients there, I was still a patient myself, and wasn’t doing all that well. I don’t even remember now what emotion or general anxiety it was that subdued my friendlier self, but I had to get away then. I politely refused, cleaned up the game, and retreated to my room with a book.

He made a phone call, tried to get a bed at a shelter he could tolerate. I don’t know how it resolved, but he was soft-spoken and English was his second language, though he spoke it very well. The other phone calls I had heard his end of sounded defeated. I hope they found a bed for him.

Each day we were given the opportunity to go on a walk, Michael and I were usually the only patients who went. It was summer, and beautiful for days. Michael was from Cuba, and one of our Nurses was from Puerto Rico. When she would take us out they would talk about the cultural and generational differences between them. He knew so much history! Mostly American history, actually. He had been in our country for decades. Lived in Florida, Chicago, and now Boston for many years. Despite his ties here, his only wish was to go home to Cuba, but somewhere along the way, he had lost possession of the only documents that could attest to his citizenship. All he wanted was to return. He told me Cuba had its problems, but he was getting old now, and he wanted to see his family. He wanted to die in his country.

My Father used to tell me “Right or wrong, my Country, my Country, right or wrong.” I had always understood the gist of it, and as I went through more politically aware years I even suspected a certain jingoistic tone to it. However, it came back to me as Michael talked about Cuba. He wanted to die in his country, even though he had left it behind for the dream of a better life so many years ago. It didn’t matter, none of it mattered, he wanted to be back with his people in his country before his life was over.

When he found out I was from Vermont he told me all the wonderful things he had heard about it. I confirmed most of them. I didn’t realize at that time that I would be back here so soon. He said he’d like to live in Vermont. He thought the people would be nicer than in Boston, and had heard how beautiful it is. I told him I’d try to find out about support services for homeless in Vermont. See if there was some sort of housing provider. I remember I wrote something down for him. But, it may have just been the name of the town I thought he should aim for. I don’t remember now. He had me write things down for him, his memory wasn’t very good.

I actually spoke to one of the nurses about his memory. I had seen him in group, and was near a few one-on-one interactions he had with people who treated him as though he couldn’t understand English. He rarely spoke to anyone, but on those walks, the sun was shining, and he would smile and talk endlessly. He would talk while we played chess, but didn’t interact well with a lot of other people. He seemed embarrassed, and when he told me about his memory problems, it sounded like a confession. I asked one of the nurses to consider that he actually spoke and understood English very well, but he had a bad memory, and just needed things written down to help him remember. She thanked me for speaking up. But I didn’t do it until he was already discharged.

Michael didn’t actually need me for anything but company, but I felt like I was failing him. I was having a hard enough time navigating my own situation. I understand that now, and can forgive myself, but it still makes me sad.

Two weeks ago I was back in Boston for the Source and BeaCon conferences, giving talks at both. I felt great. It felt like a return to form. On my last day in the city, riding the T with my fiance, Amy, I saw Michael.

I refused to believe it at first, but I watched him for minutes. The half smile that only lifted his cheeks and jaw, but never seemed to reach his eyes. I could see his weathered skin and the small nods he made as he listened to someone talk. His whole manner and appearance. It was plainly Michael. I was dumbstruck.

We got off at the same stop, and I shuffled through people getting on and off. I didn’t tell Amy what I was thinking, though I mentioned I had seen him. On the platform I started in one direction, then finally decided to speak to him. Too late. There were so many people, and I had waited too long. I couldn’t get a glimpse of him anywhere. I gave up and continued on with Amy.

Now, here I am, back in Vermont. It is beautiful. The people are kind. This place has been a salve to me. And Michael is still in Boston, where he is afraid of the shelters, his memory is fading, and no one is there to play one more game of chess with him.

I forgive myself for not being his friend in our time of mutual need. But I still long for a memory that isn’t there. One where I reached out with steady hands and helped him up. I forgive myself, but it still makes me sad.

“You never have to lie to me”

People told me a lot both during my MDE and as I was slowly digging out. It ranged from the accusation that I was using mental illness as a smokescreen for fraud, to heartfelt offers of help. I heard all of them, I ignored almost all of them, regardless of intent. The first couple months out of the hospital were an emotionally deadened time for me. Whether vitriolic or compassionate, not much made it through to me. One friend, though, just told me that I never had to lie to him. And when I didn’t hear it the first time, he told me again. And when I’m distant, he reminds me. And so I tell him the truth.

I keep trying to write more about this, to imbue this idea with more meaning, but there just isn’t anything more to it. It’s as simple as that. When you have spent so much time hiding yourself and your illness from everyone, it is incredibly powerful to have someone not just offer, but insist, that you never have to lie to them. It doesn’t mean you won’t argue, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to change anything in your world, but it’s enough just to have someone who has promised to listen to the truth.

New context

Aaron’s death threw me. I liked Aaron. I can’t claim the sorts of friendships that many other people in my life had with him, but we saw each other somewhat regularly when we both lived in Cambridge and were connected by friends that were dear to both of us. I own his old dishes.I always liked them, and was happy to assume custody when he left his Cambridge apartment, but now they seem pregnant with deeper significance.

I always thought Aaron was a good guy, but never knew how he felt about me. I found out after his death that, though we hadn’t spoken in many months, he apparently had cared enough to reach out to a friend of mine when I was going through my own turmoil.

For months I’ve been on a solid upswing. Aaron’s suicide hit hard. In particular, I felt guilty. I said on twitter that I felt “inexplicably” guilty, but I’ve known the explanation from the start. I feel guilty that I did not kill myself. I feel guilty that some of the same people who tried to keep him going, managed to keep me going. I feel guilty that I am ok.

And I’m rational about this. I know that there is no good reason to feel that way. At the same time I know that this feeling is probably so common as to be called cliche. And it isn’t triggering a backslide, though I think I should probably acknowledge that for the first time since my Major Depressive Episode (MDE) ended, I have had visions of self-harm. They have been fleeting, and I am fine. But, I’ve also been quiet for months. And 4 paragraphs in, I think that’s actually what I want to talk about here.

I started this blog as a mechanism for my own recovery. I just wanted to try out some radical and very public honesty about what was going on in my life and in my head. The goal was to make it impossible for me to lie to the people in my life as freely as I had up to that point. It was characterized in a lot of ways. I was told it was a dumb idea because that sort of honesty would make me unemployable, I was told it was brave to be so up front about it, and all sorts of in between. But it was just me fighting dirty with my brain. Screaming to the world about what was happening to undercut my natural capacity for deception. That’s it. So, when a few people reached out to say “Hey, I decided to seek help, and your public downfall/recovery is part of what made that happen.” I basically responded with “Cool, good luck” and ignored them. This blog was a purely selfish project.

But now Aaron is dead. And I’m not. And I’m stable enough to think about all of this in a longer form than I was before. There were many things that kept me going when I wanted to stop going. My research, a few friends, and that several people in my life had said “Go to the ER.” In various contexts, casually, insistently and begging for a promise. “Go to the ER” “When the time comes, go to the ER.” It was brought up enough, and by the right people, and with enough confidence and caring that when I decided the day had come to take extreme action, I had a friend walk me to the ER.

I think maybe I’m ready to tell other people to go to the ER. To tell other people what happened, what is still happening. To share some of the private communication I had at the time. I think maybe I’m ready to talk to people about what happened to me with the intent of, if not directly helping anyone else, at least making myself, and my own experiences, available to other people who might be finding themselves in a similar situation.

I’ll write more, but for now, let me say this: When the time comes, go to the ER.

Small Steps

My bathroom is clean.

I have taken my medication on schedule, with food, every day for 10 days.

I made an appointment with my doctor.

I began looking for jobs and getting my design portfolio back together.

There are other things, too. Some much more mundane, some more private. I’m trying to be wary, though. I don’t often have major mood swings and I’m not prone to mania, but I remain trepidatious about the pace of my recovery. I got caught in the updraft after a crisis once before, and the crash was tremendous. Continue reading

Purpose

As Martin McKeay said on twitter, regarding this blog: “just as long as you’re doing it for your health, not for our entertainment.” I’m not posting about my road to recovery because I think it will amuse, or because I think it will help other people. I am doing it because by speaking publicly about what is going on in my life, it will make it much harder to lie to friends, family and myself. That is the whole purpose to this blog.

What’s Next

I spent a day in the ER and 4 days in a crisis stabilization center. After 5 days of active care I had managed to make progress on a few things, but there is more to do now. I have to follow up on the insurance forms that the staff helped me file and schedule appointments with psychiatrists and other doctors. However, while medication continues and I wait for health insurance to come through, there are some things I can do to actively participate in my own well being.

The first is to clean my room. I know that may sound simple, but here are some pictures I just took to give you an idea of how I’ve been living.

There is a tire in here. I haven’t owned a car in almost a year. The last time I was able to have my girlfriend spend the night was sometime late last year. There is food, broken glass, and…a lot of locks.

I want to live in a safe, clean environment. Sheets, pillows, and nothing else on my bed. So, until it is livable, the only thing I am focusing on is cleaning my room. Then, this weekend, I am going to start applying for jobs, as I’d like to re-enter the workforce, get some stability going.

Detailed explanation of what’s been going on

Last Thursday, after more than 9 months of declining mental health, I made the decision to walk to the Emergency room. At that time I genuinely felt that I was getting out ahead of the problem, so I was fairly shocked when they told me they’d like to hang onto me for a few days. If you, or someone you are close to have dealt with mental disorders, you may be aware of how difficult self-assessment can be in that situation. I was asked, over and over again, throughout 4 or 5 interviews in the ER, why I hadn’t come in months ago. I don’t really have a TL;DR for this next bit. It’s a long, complex situation and I’m going to go into some detail, but I guess the short version is that I genuinely believe I can get better now. Continue reading