24 December 2017

The Makings of a Meltdown

I haven't blogged since August's total solar eclipse. To be honest, I forgot I'd even written that entry. I wasn't even sure I'd written anything this entire year. I've had less to say, and less belief that there is any value in anything I have to say. I'm told that there is, though, or at least that I don't get to decide that there isn't, so I thought I'd take a moment to share something from my current experience in case it may be of some use to you, Dear Reader.

In case you're new to my blog, first of all, welcome! Secondly, I want to emphasize that nothing I am about to share is anything I believe to be unique to me. On the contrary, I'm sharing precisely because I know so many others have their own version of my experience. It's that common thread that I wish to address. I hope maybe you'll find something helpful in hearing a different perspective on that shared experience, but if nothing else, maybe you'll take some small comfort just in knowing that someone else shares it with you. And if by chance none of this applies to you, I'm willing to bet it applies to someone you know, and again, I hope you might get something useful out of what I have to share.

Holidays used to be enjoyable for me. Halloween was sort of the prologue, with Thanksgiving the end of Act I, Christmas the end of Act II, and New Year's Eve the finale. My birthday is 1 December, so sometimes it's been lumped in with the Thanksgiving extravaganza and sometimes it's felt like a sort of interlude. There's a certain kind of energy and momentum throughout the months of November and December that I've always felt corresponded to this structure. I used to think it was just something I thought of as a kid because of the school calendar and looking forward to those breaks, but I've found it to be true all the way to the present day.

If anything, that energy and momentum have intensified as I've aged, to the point that I find these entire two months unbearable.

I recently discussed the matter with my therapist, who floated the notion that I may perhaps have Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD"). I allowed that maybe that's true, but that it was worth noting that the things about the holidays that weigh on me most have nothing to do with how much sunlight there is. I could live in Australia, where it's bright and warm this time of year, and still be left with the same things that overwhelm me here. The weather does get to me, certainly; after twelve years of steroids, the cold has become brutal for me, and of course all the airborne maladies that circulate that my worthless immune system can't handle are frustrating and isolating.

But none of that is what weighs heavily on my mind this time of year.
What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?
-Ebeneezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Stave One
I've had suicidal thoughts since I was 9, so clearly my mental illnesses predate having developed Crohn's disease. But it is certainly true that the effects of living with Crohn's have exacerbated my mental illnesses. They used to be there, but I at least felt I had a handle on them most of the time. I was moody, certainly; I'm not trying to downplay anything. But at least I felt more or less in command of myself. I was compelled to enter inpatient treatment for suicidal depression in 2011, and again in 2015. I've only narrowly avoided it again this year, though the year isn't yet over and as I write this, it feels all but certain that I will. At this rate, I'll be hospitalized again in 2018, twice in 2019, quarterly in 2020, and by 2022, I'll be a permanent resident.

That isn't much to look forward to, Dear Reader. It's also not going to happen because there is no way Medicare is going to pay for it, and I am sincerely sorry to you the taxpayer for the financial burden of keeping me alive. It's not an investment that has paid any worthwhile dividends. All I ask is that you be mindful that while this is true of me, it is not true of other benefits recipients, and the lust for cutting those programs and hurting those recipients must be curtailed and stopped because they don't deserve to suffer.

I had one New Year's resolution in 2017, the same that I've had for the last several years, which was to finally get divorced. I won't go into why that hadn't happened yet for a marriage that effectively ended in 2011, but the pertinent part is that it finally happened this November. Holding the paperwork in my hand was largely satisfying and relieving, but there was also a part of me that felt the weight of my failure having become complete. I failed as a husband in several areas, but the underlying problem was that I had become not a provider of security, but a burden and a liability. I couldn't fault her for wanting out of a life under these conditions.

She has since moved on and built a life free from these constraints. I'm sure there are difficulties in that relationship, just as there are in all relationships, but whatever they are, they don't include the things that were imposed on her by being stuck with me. I, however, remain fixed in place (if anything, deteriorating). My prospects for happily ever after require willful self-deception at this point.

I was feeling the severest impact of that finality going into Thanksgiving. I declined all of the invitations that had been graciously extended to me by my friends. I should take a moment to emphasize that "friend" is the only f-word I use sparingly. I have strictly delineated tiers of "acquaintances", "pals", and "friends". And in truth, the friends that I refer to throughout this blog post aren't even friends anymore; they've become my family, dearer to me than most people with whom I share DNA. I make no secret about that.

I canceled on plans to get together with them that weekend. I canceled my birthday plans, which would also have included them. I deactivated my Twitter account. I deleted the Facebook page I'd set up for myself as a "writer". I took sleeping pills as soon as I woke up to knock myself right back out. This went on for about a week. I am told, Dear Reader, that this is not healthy and I advise against it.

My friends, of course, know how unstable I've become, and they became concerned--alarmed, even, and justifiably so, I'm afraid. I didn't reach the point where I no longer trusted myself not to act on the thoughts and impulses to harm myself, but I stayed on that borderline for weeks on end. If you've been there yourself, you know how draining that is. If you haven't, I must ask that you take my word on it that it is exhausting in every sense.

The night of my birthday, one friend texted me to ask if I was up for some company. I thought it would be okay and said so. I knew I needed to finally open up to someone about all this, and she has become one of my closest confidantes. It became immediately apparent, though, that she was not alone. There were four friends in all, bearing no less than two boxes of doughnuts, and a gift (in direct violation of my no-gifts policy). I was touched.

I was also entirely incapable of enjoying the visit.

Seeing them all there so unexpectedly provoked the fear that they were there to stage some kind of depression intervention. It set off the defense mechanism I developed ages ago that I call The Entertainer. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what we talked about for the two hours that they were here. I'm vaguely aware that I did a lot of the talking and that there was a lot of laughing, which is, of course, the entire purpose of The Entertainer. Mentally, though, I wasn't there with them. I wasn't anywhere. I had shut down, and I didn't have conscious thoughts until well after they'd all left. I feel awful that I was so fake with them that night. They certainly deserved better.

There comes a point in every struggle where we reevaluate what we're doing and why we're doing it, and ask whether what we're doing it for is worth what we're having to do for it. I've had to ask myself often whether surviving the latest depressive episode just to return to a status quo existence that I've come to resent is any kind of victory at all. Even on my best days, I am acutely aware that my body may very well turn against me without warning at any moment. I can never feel entirely comfortable or even safe; I live in genuine fear over every bite of food I take, wondering if that will be the one that causes a blockage and sends me into surgery.

Hanging over all of this is the socio-political climate in which Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the executive branch (and effectively, the Supreme Court). One of the central tenets of their entire ideology is the gutting of the very programs that sustain me, and millions like me. To hear Republicans tell it, people like me are living high off the hog at the expense of decent people. There is nothing luxurious about poverty, Dear Reader. Again, you may well know this yourself from your own experiences. How can I believe anyone who tries to disabuse me of my perception of myself as a burden when an entire political party has committed itself to culling our great society of the leeching that I perpetrate on all of you?

So there I am two nights ago at my friends' annual Christmas party. I hadn't given any gifts for Christmas in several years, but I did bring some this time. They were things of my own that I hoped they might like. I struggled with the embarrassment that these were not new gifts. Intellectually, I knew it would not offend anyone, but inwardly I was certain they would all be underwhelmed and disappointed. I grew more self-conscious by the minute, to the point that I sincerely contemplated putting them all back into my backpack since no one had seen me put them under the tree in the first place, so no one knew that I'd even brought most of them. (There were two that did not fit into my backpack; I couldn't do anything to hide or deny those.)

Conversation quickly turned to a string of topics that I knew nothing about. I wasn't going to hijack anyone's discussion because poor little Travis felt left out; that was stupid. I was doing okay for awhile, though, certain that an opening would present itself. It didn't.

Instead, a couple of acquaintances showed up. One of them, I am embarrassed to admit, makes me feel especially inferior and inadequate. It's not his fault; he's never said or done anything to make me feel this way, and I know in the back of my mind that if he knew that I felt this way around him, he would feel terrible about it and want to make me feel better.

He reminds me a lot of what I used to be. He's interesting, he's fun, he's upbeat. I used to be the life of the party, regaling everyone with anecdotes and jokes, trying to direct or redirect the energy of the night, while also making a point to seek out the introverts and make them feel comfortable away from that energy. I'm an amivert, so I can shift between the two extremes of leading the conga line and hiding in a corner. I've done both at the same party.

Having this guy around is like looking at a sort of alternate reality. I still have anecdotes and jokes, but they're ones everyone has heard a thousand times. They don't even need me there to tell them anymore; I'm sure they can hear them all in their heads by rote. When I talk about things, they're things that I used to do. When he talks about things, they're things he's either just done or is about to do. In short, he exposes me for the has-been I've become. (And again, this is not at all his fault!)

I retreated to another room, to try to calm myself with meditation. I can do that in crowded, noisy settings, so it wasn't the fool's errand that it may seem. I couldn't do it this time, though, and instead devolved into a mild meltdown. I tried to text some other friends, hoping that could bring me some focus and help ground myself. Nope. I felt increasingly worse as time passed. According to the time stamps on those messages, I spent more than an hour of the two that I was at the party sitting alone. If anyone took notice of my absence, it didn't prompt them to look for me. And in truth, I don't know that they weren't aware of me and hadn't decided to just give me some space to myself.

I should take a moment to emphasize here for anyone who was present that night that I don't begrudge any of you for enjoying yourselves! I know no one there wanted me to feel the way I did, and I know that this is all on me. I'm the one with the screwed up filter and I'm the one who reacted by hiding instead of making an effort to engage. I haven't shared any of this for the purpose of making anyone feel any kind of guilt.

I have, however, shared all of this for the purpose of illustrating what can go into a meltdown. All of this has swirled around inside me even in the company of people whose devotion to me is beyond reproach. These are people whom I love, and who I know love me; people with whom I feel the safest and most comfortable. And even in their midst, these are the kinds of thoughts and feelings I've had to endure for the last month and a half.

I don't know what you experience in the way of meltdowns, Dear Reader. Maybe you've never had one in your life to this point. Maybe you can scarcely recall a time when you weren't trying to get through one. You're probably somewhere between those two extremes, though. And so, I suspect, are the people around you. People you love, as my friends love me.

This brings us to the Moral of the Story wrap-up. If you identify with what I've shared here, my message to you is to try to be patient with yourself, and to try to trust the relationships that you've built with the people around you. Despite what depression may tell you, they do value you. You're not a holdover from days gone by they've been too polite to ditch.

If, however, you identify less with me and more with my friends, I suppose all I can hope for is that maybe this gives you a little better understanding of what may be going on beneath the surface. They may at times react in ways that look like they don't value your relationship, whether by being superficial or withdrawing entirely. Please try to be patient with them, and trust the relationship that you've built with them. Despite what their outward behavior may tell you, they do value you. You're not trivial to them.