Posted in about me, mental health, parenting, vulnerability

The hell of high-functioning depression

If you’ve never experienced this, it’s hard to understand. (I imagine chronic pain is similar. I imagine high-functioning autism is similar as well.)

Everyone (I assume) occasionally doesn’t feel like doing some task. It takes a little get-up-and-go to get it done. The bit of internal oomph that pushes you over the threshold between doing and not doing.

In a bout of high-functioning depression, most of life is like that.

Getting dressed, brushing teeth, making meals, cleaning up meals, drinking enough water, going to work and Doing the Thing, taking care of kids, meal planning, grocery shopping, exercising, reading, cleaning, moving from one space to another, making phone calls, paying bills, etc., etc., etc.

Unlike full-blown depression, these tasks are largely doable. There’s just no juice left at the end of it. Or maybe the light under the butt burns out at the end of what’s necessary but before achieving important-but-not-necessary. Or maybe “necessary” becomes redefined more strictly.

I have struggled with depression off and on since I was at least in high school. 10th grade is the first time I remember feeling suicidal. The rest of it probably goes back farther than that, but I don’t remember specifically. (My mom has told me repeatedly that I’ve been a problem since kindergarten; I remember her talking to my 4th grade teacher, not knowing “what to do with [me]”; I suspect the effects of all of that manifested in less than ten years.)

Being in the depression pit is awful, but I’ve slid down that enough times that, for the most part, I know what the top of the slide looks like and how to keep myself out of it. And there are a few friends who can be helpful with an SOS.

When I’m depressed and barely functioning, I feel like just a shell moving through space. I don’t think anyone would mistake me for happy—especially people who know me pretty well—though most wouldn’t assume the internal mess to be as bad as it is. (Social media has changed whether or not I might be mistaken for happy.)

But that’s not high-functioning depression. (I’m going to call it HFD for the rest of this post, for simplicity, though it’s not something I’ve ever seen with initialism*, so maybe don’t go using it with other people and expecting they’ll know what you’re talking about.)

I was caught up in HFD for years before I moved to Arizona. I was playing in a community band, and I brought a book with me to read at rehearsals during down time. The book was The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon.

Someone else in the band noted it and said something to the effect of, “You can’t be depressed! You’re always smiling!”

That sums it up.

(Honestly, if he had just assumed I was reading it because it was interesting, it would have been better than directly dismissing the possibility that I was depressed.)

In that space, I am struggling. Hard. With making everything in life happen.

Putting on a happy face and powering through has always been a skill of mine.

Letting go of garbage and not forcing life to happen lubricates the downward spiral. Can’t just sit at home and relax. It’s not relaxing—it feeds the demons.

The other piece, at least for me, is that it’s somewhat chronic. I’d optimistically estimate that I have a 50-50 split. Recent years have been harder than average. Even after a lot of therapy, a lot of work on myself, a deep interest in psychology and brain plasticity, and hyper-self-awareness, I’m still triggered fairly easily by people and situations who treat me like my mom did. Which, unfortunately, is a lot of people and situations. And it’s not good.

Friends burn out on being supportive, which I both understand and despair. Another compounding issue? Social isolation is probably my biggest trigger, so there’s a giant looming downward spiral right there, too. I can’t reach out because I can’t hear “no.” Especially if it’s in response to two or three or four or five “help”s in a row.

I saw a meme that resonated with me a while back. “The worst part about being strong is that no one asks if you’re OK.”

I wonder sometimes if no one asks because I’m strong, or if no one asks because they don’t want the answer.

Strong. Resilient. Qualities I’m glad to have but tired of needing.

Exhausted. Lonely. Words that are really pretty scary to put out there to the world. Especially when the world is tired of hearing about it.

(I wrote this about six months ago and was very much not feeling OK when I wrote it. I’m editing and publishing it today, but today, I’m feeling more or less OK. It’s not an all-call. It’s just talking about how life is sometimes.)


*Unrelated, except that I looked it up for this post: initialism is when you make an abbreviation from the first letter of each word in a phrase. An acronym is the same, but you pronounce the subsequent abbreviation as a word. (e.g. FBI vs. NASA)


Posted in connections, differences, mindset, vulnerability

“I don’t understand”

As a person who grew up on the straight and narrow with impressively judgmental parents, there are some things that have taken time for me to stop judging. (There are others I’m still working on…)

Some brilliant advice I read somewhere a long time ago: instead of seeing or hearing about someone/something and saying, “that’s stupid,” approach it with either “I don’t understand” or “tell me more.” Variations on a theme.

Basically, instead of taking one small detail and pretending to see the whole picture (or as much of “the whole” as we ever see), acknowledge ignorance.

That said, there have been plenty of times when I’ve looked for more and not gotten more (just got the same thing over and over), so trying to learn doesn’t guarantee learning … or the type of learning we’re talking about here. And sometimes what you learn confirms that the person/thing was exactly what you thought. Rarely, but sometimes.

Regardless of the potential failures, attempting to learn more does sometimes lead to interesting and thought-provoking conversations. And those are a nice gift.

Posted in about me, differences, ebb & flow, vulnerability

Life from the left side (not politics)

Setting: a Sunday afternoon in early October in New Jersey. Small college library music room.

A week before my 20th birthday, I was a junior in college, studying to be a music teacher. I was sitting in the music room in the campus library, working on a massive score project, when my right ear started to ring. Annoying, but not necessarily noteworthy.

Except it didn’t stop.

Later in the day, the pitch changed (as any decent music major would notice, though without perfect pitch, I can’t tell you from what to what).

As the day progressed, I also slowly lost hearing in that ear (except for the ringing), and by evening—six or so hours after the ringing started—I was dizzy and nauseated.

Sunday nights, the campus health services was closed. I went to bed and made it over to health services first thing in the morning, when I was diagnosed with an ear infection, given a prescription, and sent on my way.

I filled the prescription and took it as directed.

The nausea went away. The dizziness went away. The meds ran out. I still couldn’t hear, and my ear was still ringing.

My mom took me to an ENT where I learned that the meds prescribed were for vertigo, not for infection. They gave me a hearing test and put me on steroids for a week.

At the end of the week, I had regained a tiny bit of hearing, so they repeated the process. And then repeated it again.

After three weeks, there was no improvement, and that’s where it’s been ever since. I have about 10% of my hearing in my right ear, and it’s been ringing for over 20 years. No longer a single pitch (I don’t remember when that changed) but more like static, if static was made up of a hundred tiny glass wind chimes.

Sometimes, I’d just like it to be quiet. (Especially after a day of teaching beginning band.)

So what’s it like only being able to hear things from the left side?

Occasionally handy. Most of the time not good at all.

First, I learned to scope out quickly where I need to sit at a table in a restaurant if I want to have any hope of conversing. And often, only one of those seats will also let me hear the waiter.

If walking and talking, or out on a run with a buddy, or in public transportation, I’m always on your right.

(A “gentleman” doesn’t walk on the curb side of the sidewalk; he walks on my left.)

If I’m driving, please speak up. If I’m driving and the windows are down, let’s just enjoy the ride.

In really quiet places it doesn’t matter so much, as long as who I’m talking to isn’t mumbling or a low talker.

In really noisy places, it doesn’t matter so much because I can’t hear a damned thing anyway.

Of course, at the time this all happened, I was in the midst of music school. Hearing in an ensemble became troublesome and contributed to my performance anxiety until I stopped playing in an ensemble. (It didn’t create that anxiety, just enhanced it.)

Let me tell you, though. I was already socially anxious when I was able to hear what everyone was saying. Not being able to hear—needing to ask people to repeat themselves over and over—didn’t help. At all.

At this point, I’m comfortable enough to just tell people who I meet in noisy places that I’m deaf in that ear so they don’t think I’m ignoring them. But it’s really hard for me to try to engage; my tendency is to check out.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that diction is heard more in the right ear than the left, which explains a little bit some of my struggles.

Trying to understand people speaking in foreign languages is harder than perhaps it might be. (Hard tellin’. It’s been a long time since I did that with two good ears.)

On a lighter note, surround sound doesn’t exist. Which isn’t a problem except for the rare tune that “moves” between earbuds.

With really loud sounds, it still physically hurts, though the volume needs to be higher for that one than the other before I feel pain. And after being in a loud place for a while (like a concert, for example), the ringing is really loud for several hours.

So what are the benefits?

When The Kid was a baby and was screaming his head off, I always held him on my right shoulder … and wondered how people with two good ears managed that situation.

I’m a beginning band teacher and am not “out” to my students regarding my disability. So when it’s loud or bad (or both), I can plug my left ear and they don’t know that I’m holding my ears.

And when I sleep good side down, it’s rare for noise to bother me.

Overall, I don’t recommend it. 2/10 stars.

Posted in connections, gifts, vulnerability

Advantages to living out loud

The Climbing Daddy needed a run. I wanted to take pictures of some of the fantastic thunderheads we had that day. We went to a local park with small mountains/big rocks where he ran, I photographed, and we were both happy.

(Thunderheads are big, puffy clouds that are common during monsoon season here.)

I got a few good shots—mostly of cactus and trees, though one or two of clouds—and posted them on Facebook. (I’ll share them here on Sunday in my weekly photos post.)

The next day, I got the text in the above image.

Dear Heat’s Camera,

Are you seeing the clouds right now?!

-[friend’s name] eyes

If I wasn’t an “oversharer” on Facebook, I wouldn’t have gotten the tip to head outside.

(I did go out, and the clouds were amazing—added bonus for heat lightning!—but there wasn’t anywhere good to shoot from at home. We need to build a crow’s nest for just such occasions!)

This lesson has been a long time comin’. I’ve always been socially anxious and also introverted. (You can be introverted without being socially anxious; I’m not.) I’ve spent decades working on being more comfortable talking to people, and while I’m still not good at cold-starting conversations, I can hold up my end most of the time. (If I’m comfortable with you, I can and often will talk quite a bit.)

I’ve learned that in being somewhat transparent about my experiences with depression, I’ve given others someone to whom they can say, “Me, too.” That point of connection, especially in darkness, is priceless. (Every post on this topic, whether here or on Facebook, elicits at least one person reaching out.)

I’ve learned that in being open about my experience with cancer, friends who know someone diagnosed will ask me for advice in how to help them navigate their new minefield. (Unfortunately, this happens at least once or twice a year.)

I’ve learned that in talking about health- and wellness-related topics, people are more often comfortable asking me questions… which helps them on their path.

And, as in the example above, I’ve learned that if I’m just open about things I’m trying, places I’m going, things I’m thinking, sometimes someone else will have a tip for me.

I know I’ve done that as well—saw something and thought, “Oh, This Friend is into That Thing. I wonder if they know about This Thing that I just saw!” And I’ll let them know about it.

Sure, sometimes there are duplicates, but rarely are there so many that I feel anything negative about it. How lovely that people see something that reminds them of me and they take time to tell me! And, fortunately, all of the “somethings” so far have been positive.

Every now and then, it even leads to a tangible gift: a kitchen tool or a yard tool or a book or some other small miscellaneous thing that is perfect for whatever random project I’ve dreamed up.

It works in reverse as well. I had a new friend who posted on Facebook that they were looking for a roof shingle or two at the same time that we were getting our roof replaced. Perfect! If she hadn’t said anything, I never would have known.

So hobbies and stories and struggles and dreams and new pursuits and ditched pursuits will all still be shared, because I know that some of it reaches people who need to be reached … and sometimes that someone is me.

Posted in ebb & flow, education, mental health, mindset, parenting, vulnerability

Take what you need

After going through a handful of ideas, I put up the display shown in the picture in both of my classrooms.

In case you can’t see the photo, there’s a poster in the middle that says “take what you need,” surrounded by sticky-notes with messages.

You got this!

I can do it!

Mistakes are opportunities

I am a problem solver

You are a problem solver

I’m going to be OK





I am in control

It’s hard but it’s worth it

I belong here

You belong here

Better than yesterday

I have grit

Each one is written once on each of five colors of paper and stuck randomly around the center poster.

I introduced this to my students–5th and 6th graders–on Monday at one school and on Thursday at my other school.

They seemed interested. Monday, a few kids grabbed one.

Thursday, most of the kids grabbed one. I didn’t see what everyone took (that wasn’t what we were working on!), but I did go look after they left to see what needed to be replenished. (Eyeball estimate–with random placement, I’m not going to count every single one of those to keep the counts even.)

One or two of many were missing: I’m a problem solver, I can do it, You got this, Breathe (though I think their intention is a reminder to take a good breath when they play).

But this is what struck me (and why I’m writing about it).

Every “I’m going to be OK” was taken.

It gave me pause.

Many of those kids are dealing with problems that I certainly didn’t deal with as a kid. (Some of them have problems I can relate to.) But most of them, I don’t really know their story.

I’m going to be OK.

I made more and stuck them up there. I may start circulating to see who is taking those, if it’s consistently the same kids, and check in, either with them directly or with their homeroom teacher or the counselor.

If that’s what they needed, I’m glad it was there.