Monthly Archives: July 2014

On writing.

I’ve been working on song lyrics. Otherwise known as “poetry”, I guess, since I don’t have any music written yet. But “song lyrics” sounds cooler. And that’s the ultimate intent.

I had some ideas that I typed out and erased. I should probably just write them in a journal instead. Preferably on a desert island somewhere.

But then I suppose that if I were living on a desert island, I wouldn’t have much to write about.

That’s the irony of artistic expression. I’m just not inspired to write if nothing’s on my mind. And by “nothing” I mean nothing negative, or upsetting. If everything is fine, I’ll just go outside or otherwise live my life. It’s the dark moments that demand a voice.

But I don’t enjoy dark moments. Especially when they extend beyond “moments” and stretch on for months or years. I don’t want to have anything to write about. I’d rather just be happy, and not write anything.

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Music therapy.

Guitar: check. Amp: check. Learning how to play again: check.

My plan is to get back into shape as a guitarist, then start writing stuff again. It’s been a long time since I consciously sat down to write something involving notes and chords. I’m looking forward to it.

Being “over 40” is a funny thing. It’s clarified for me that there are things in life that I still want to do. Priorities that I still want to… well, prioritize. And if any of that is to happen, then it needs to come from me.

I spent much of my last decade being passive about my life. After an abrupt career transition when I was 30, I decided to park it in my new job. My ambition sort of melted away, and as our family kept growing, I rationalized more and more the necessity of my new career—we needed the money, I needed the job, that was basically it. But all of that was a cover for the fact that I had been wounded and didn’t really feel like playing the game anymore.

It’s still an uphill battle for me, finding the motivation to pursue the things I want.

A big part of that is the fact that I have four children, and I’m at home with them all day. This is not to say that I resent them, or the effort it takes to raise them. I often find myself wishing that I could quit my job (I telecommute) and just “parent” all day. As it is, I feel like I’m doing a half-assed job of it. “Not now; daddy has to finish this up.”

But it’s the combination of a full-time job and the emotional requirements of parenting that leave me feeling like my tank is empty at the end of every day. This thing that I’m doing now with music—getting back into practice with guitar playing (and hopefully more)—is an attempt to add something in there that refills the tank a bit.

Do I wish that I didn’t have any family responsibilities at all, so I could devote more time to my own pursuits? I’ve asked myself that question before. But my answer has always been “no, not really.” My life is richer because of my children. Immeasurably so. I couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t have them in it. And I really enjoy them as people.

I think I’m just tired. Like, on an emotional level. What I would love is to have a week to myself alone in the house. No work, no anything. I’ve been able to do that before. And I’ve found that I end up having more energy to do things around the house, and more interest in things in general.

I’ve learned enough by now to understand what that means. Being emotionally overwhelmed is draining. Which is where I live on a daily basis. But in those down times when I haven’t been wiped out from emotional exhaustion, I get to see what I’m really like, or what I could be like. It’s a lot more enjoyable to be that person. The trick for me is to tip the scales a bit more from “stressed out all the time” to something that feels more human.

Because it really does take a toll on me. I can feel it. It’s like the engine is being revved too high, but the car is still in park. I’ve written before about anxiety, and I’m sure that that is a big part of this. And I am trying to take some steps to address that. But I guess I’m still writing about it now because it’s still very much affecting me now.

My hope is that the guitar will help. Not as a therapeutic tool, but because it’s something I love doing. And because “something I love” is the direction I want my life to take. Better to learn this at over-40 than never at all, right?

Music practice.

This past week, I was able to locate a cool guitar amp. It should work well for what I want to do. And now I’m suddenly realizing that I have everything I need to get started. Which feels strange.

For so long, I’d told myself that I “couldn’t” play or write music anymore, because I didn’t have the equipment to do so. I had created a narrative that shifted all responsibility from myself onto the circumstances of my life. It became a kind of perverse comfort to me. I cast myself as the helpless victim, and gave myself license to feel constantly aggrieved.

Why so much effort? Why would I try so hard to keep from doing the thing that I loved? Now that I’m moving in that direction again, it’s starting to become clearer: I’m afraid. Music is still, on some level, something that I feel was “taken away from me”. And even though I’m engaged in a deliberate process of reclaiming that—perhaps because I am—these feelings are resurfacing.

The visual that I’m getting (because my brain likes to think in metaphor) is of me stepping out onto the high dive platform at my old school’s swimming pool. I used to jump off that thing all the time, back when I was in seventh grade. But every time that I would do it, part of me would be thinking, “you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

Because it’s true; I didn’t. I suppose that was part of the thrill. I was flinging myself out into space, with no real plan for what I would do between the jump and the water. But I did it often enough that I got used to it. It was fun.

But the specific visual in my head isn’t of that childhood memory. I’m imagining me returning to that high dive now, as an adult. About halfway up the ladder, I would probably start to reconsider the decision. And by the time I reached the top and looked around, I would probably be thinking “fuck fuck fuck”. But then to run and jump off the end of the platform? I don’t even know what I would do.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have a million questions in my head, I’m second-guessing myself, I’m feeling like I’m not up to the task—in short, I’m nervous as hell.

But I have been taking steps toward getting myself back in shape, musically speaking. I practice throughout the day, leaving my guitar slung over my shoulder as I fill out TPS reports for work. I’ve also been using this blog to get back into shape as a songwriter. The way I see it, there’s no point in writing lyrics if I’m not willing to connect to myself and to what I’m really feeling. That’s what I’ve been trying to do here.

I think I’d also like to go out to a record store today. For inspiration, and because it’s fun.

And then, more practice.

Unearthing.

Back in 1995, I had just graduated from college but was still living on campus, auditing a classical Greek course and trying to save money for seminary. I didn’t end up saving a whole lot of money, but I did learn how to read classical Greek pretty well.

I also had a lot more free time than I was used to, despite working a full-time job and having the Greek course to study for. College life had been all-consuming for me, and now most of my friends were gone. And my full-time job was at a Walmart distribution center, where my job consisted of taking merchandise-filled cardboard boxes from pallets, sticking UPC labels on them, and putting them on a conveyor belt.

It wasn’t what you would call a mentally challenging job. I had a lot of time to myself. I had always viewed solitude as a blessing, but things had happened recently which made the prospect of being alone with my thoughts less enjoyable.

Before the distribution center, I had had a part-time job at our college’s campus bookstore. That job had also given me a lot of time to myself—I worked back in the stockroom, which was a one-person job given the size of our college. I must have unpacked and stocked a lot of books, but mostly I remember using a lot of Goo Gone to remove price stickers from books to be returned. It was in the stockroom of that campus bookstore that I first experienced a panic attack.

Prior to that point, I didn’t know what a panic attack really was. I imagined it to be something that would manifest itself externally, like flailing your arms around and generally acting as though you were in a panic. But it wasn’t like that for me.

What I remember is an intense sensation that I could not do whatever it was that I was doing anymore. I had to get away immediately. I was shaking, I was unable to concentrate, and honestly I kind of felt like I was going crazy. After a while, I asked the manager if I could go home, because “I wasn’t feeling well.”

(At around that time, in what I had believed to be an unrelated incident, I had woken up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, and had to be taken to the hospital. I was given a breathing treatment and an albuterol inhaler, and thereafter believed that I had asthma.)

Now I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I do know that by the time I was working at the distribution center, I had decided to seek counseling. Because I knew that something was up. (Back then, the words “panic attack” hadn’t yet formed in my brain to describe what had happened. I Just knew that I wasn’t supposed to experience things like that.)

This was the first time that I had ever seen a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. I quickly learned the salient difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, however: psychiatrists can write prescriptions. So I got one, for Paxil. I was determined to be suffering from depression, and the medication was meant to help alleviate symptoms. I only took it for a short time, however, because the side effects (common to anyone familiar with SSRIs) were startling and seemed counter-productive.

What I know now is that the side effects of antidepressants typically kick in immediately, whereas the therapeutic benefits usually don’t appear for a few weeks. But at the time, I was only feeling nervous and jittery, which was the opposite of what I wanted. I discontinued the medication shortly thereafter, and didn’t ask for another one. I also decided that I didn’t much like my counselor anymore, because I was looking for explicitly Christian answers to my problems, which he was not able to offer me.

That was the beginning of my experience with the world of mood disorders and their treatment. For about the next five years, I didn’t seek out any counseling (or medication), believing that God was going to heal me of my depression. (I had even told my pastor and his wife that I had been healed of it, in the midst of a discussion about a relative of theirs who was struggling with depression. I had wanted that to be true, and I felt that I could will it to be true by proclaiming it to be so.)

Eventually, however, I went back to a doctor (not a psychiatrist) for a prescription for Zoloft, because I had been feeling the depression come back again. Zoloft was similar to Paxil, but this time I decided to stick with it. I skipped the counseling part of the equation because my time in the evangelical Christian subculture (as well as my previous experience) had fostered in me a suspicion of psychologists. Nevertheless, I still ended up discontinuing the medication because I didn’t like the way it flat-lined me emotionally.

This cycle continued for some time: going to a doctor for a new antidepressant, trying it for a while, then discontinuing it. I went through Wellbutrin and Celexa and others that I don’t remember anymore. Finally, last year I got a prescription for Remeron from a bona fide psychiatrist—because I had been admitted to a partial hospitalization program for depression.

One of the most valuable things I learned there was to pay attention to myself. To identify my in-the-moment thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and to trace them back to their possible causes. It’s been a learned skill which I still have to practice, but it led to an epiphany which you can guess yourself, as you read this. My problem wasn’t depression; it was anxiety.

Now, I do need to clarify that all mood disorders generally exist in the same space, and it’s often difficult to tease them out in that sort of concrete, categorical way. “I have depression.” “I have anxiety.” It’s usually a little of both. But what I realized was that for me, anxiety was the antecedent. It was the root cause.

What triggered this realization was a recent visit to my doctor. I came in complaining of possible allergies, and to get a refill on my albuterol inhaler, because I was feeling short of breath all the time. (I had been, on and off, ever since that night I was taken to the hospital 20 years ago.) When examined, the doctor could find nothing physically wrong with me, but gave me the names of a couple of specialists anyway.

Reflecting upon this later, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have asthma (or allergies) at all. The chronic shortness of breath that I had had for decades? That sounded familiar. It was, in fact, symptomatic of anxiety, which I had learned at my treatment center. I also started to notice that whenever I would feel short of breath, I would also feel like my pulse was racing, and that there was an undefined something that I had to do.

I started to think back through my past depressive episodes, and was startled to realize that in many cases, what had preceded the depression was a defensive anger, which was a sort of shield against the vulnerability I felt when I would become anxious about something. Eventually the shield would become too heavy, and I would collapse into depression.

But what lay behind the anxiety? This was the tough one. Not tough to figure out, but tough to admit and confront. What lay behind the anxiety was shame. I felt ashamed of myself, and wanted to get away from everyone, myself included. Oftentimes I couldn’t retreat, so up would go the shield. Then I would tire of that, and the depression would take over.

I’ve also learned that these cycles are learned behaviors. Eventually they can become templates that we use to deal with emotional situations. And that’s the work that lies ahead for me. Dismantling all of this stuff, and learning new ways to handle things.

To that end, I’ve decided to start seeing a counselor again—with a new sense of clarity about exactly what the hell is going on with me. Which may not sound like much fun, but I’m actually looking forward to it. It’s a lot better than the alternative.