Monthly Archives: December 2014

The work face

Back in October, I read a Slate article about an amazing photography series called Dualities by Portland-based artist and instructor Liz Obert. The series explores how people with mental illness mask what they’re thinking and feeling from the outside world. To do this, she took two photos of each participant, one of how they present themselves to the world and the other as they are alone when in the throes of their illness. The images depict people in their homes, showing a concept likely very familiar to those with mental illness: our very different private and public personas, or “faces”, as I like to call them. The results are poignant and stunning.

Images of Jason from Liz Obert's series Dualities

Funny, my feline roommates are filthy and unemployed, too.

Obert’s project presents incredible visuals showing the different faces we show the world. In my experience, I have far more than just two faces. Like Obert’s subjects, I have a private face. I also have a social face, a work face, and the face I show only my dearest friends (which is probably the closest anyone will ever see to my private face). If I think about it longer, I could probably come up with even more. I’ve got a whole kabuki drama worth of faces.

My work face is probably the one I wear more than any other than my private face. It is wholly unlike any of the other faces that I wear. The work face is confident, even arrogant. It’s talkative, eager, and full of initiative. With my work face on, I present at conferences, I participate in tongue twister tournaments, and I even get interviewed for local television programs. These are things there’s not a ghost chance in hell you’d catch me doing in any other context. In social situations, I don’t even particularly enjoy being in photographs or hearing the sound of my own voice, let alone getting up in front of other people and doing things.

I’m a classic introvert. My batteries only recharge when I’m alone or with a small group of friends. The work face therefore requires a lot of energy for me to wear, kind of like Ryu’s dragon form in Breath of Fire. (Why yes, I am a nerd. Why do you ask?) This isn’t so much a function of my dysthymia as it my personality.

Everyone, not just those of us with mental illness, has multiple faces they present to the world. If you’ve ever worked a customer service job, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Still, the work face makes me wonder: how can I have exude such confidence and competence in one setting and completely lack them in another? In my worse moments, the very existence of the work face makes me question whether I have a mental illness at all. Part of the perniciousness of mental illness for many is that the illness, combined with the still-present social stigma about mental health, sometimes makes you question whether you’re truly sick. “You’re trying to pass off your deep character flaws as mental illness”, I sometimes think to myself. After all, the very existence of the work face shows that I’m clearly capable of being the things my mind tells me that I’m not. With the work face on, it seems like I can do anything.

To borrow from Dr. Seuss, though, except when I don’t, because sometimes I won’t. When I fall into a major depressive episode as I did recently, even the almighty work face loses its strength. It takes incidents like that to remind me that my different faces are just roles that I play, consuming my stockpiles of introvert energy as I wear them. One of dysthymia’s common symptoms is lack of energy. If I’ve been managing my dysthymia poorly, I lack the energy to do much of anything. When I have limited energy, I end up putting a lot of it into my work because my identity is so tied up in it. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The challenge I’ve set for my treatment is how do I get those faces to converge a bit? How can I get some of that initiative and eagerness when I’m not at work? As an introvert, I realize that my different faces will never completely converge, nor, quite frankly, should they. But some equalization surely would help me both privately and publicly.

Why blog?

Now that I’ve introduced myself, however verbosely, I suppose I should discuss why I’m writing this blog. The honest answer is, I’m not really sure. I don’t know if I’ll ever make this blog public beyond a few friends, although it might be nice. But then, I also have to consider if that would be detrimental to my social and professional lives. It also depends on if I have the steam to keep it going. In the meanwhile, I’m going to write it as if it was a public blog. Sorry, dear hypothetical reader, I won’t be giving you too many of the grisly details.

I’m mostly hoping that the act of writing might be a part of my treatment process. I am seeking treatment beyond just writing this blog, of course. I take the antidepressant bupropion. Sometimes I use trazodone to help me sleep (Insomnia is a common side effect of antidepressants. Trazodone is also an antidepressant, although that’s not why I use it.). I take vitamin D3 supplements (despite being a ginger). I see a therapist. Not always successfully, I try to  watch my diet, exercise, and sleep habits.

Sometimes it seems like treating my dysthymia is like playing whack-a-mole. You feel really good about yourself for all that animal abuse you’ve just inflicted because damnit, you knocked them down! Then, in a moment of weakness or inattention, you let one slip. This gets you down. Then, all those other moles you thought you’d shoved sufficiently back into their holes come rushing back out. Anyway, my analogy is wearing thin. Just think of this blog as one of my mallets.

The inspiration to start this blog actually came from a post from the great Coping with Depression blog by Erin Schulthies and Jennifer Tazzi. The post discusses coping with depression while you’re unemployed. I’m fortunate to have never been unemployed, but the post got me thinking how much I’ve relied on my employment to distract me from my underlying mental illness. I’ll go into that further in a future post, but I thought it might be interesting to start a blog exploring the interaction between dysthymia and employment. My identity is almost inextricably linked to my job in a not terribly healthy way. I’m not sure I fully know who I am independent of the job I’m doing at any particular time. There’s an interplay between my job and my mental illness that I think is worth exploring, and I’d imagine I’m not the only person for whom that’s true.

There are so many good depression blogs out there. The aforementioned Coping with Depression. Erin Schulthies’ other blog Daises and Bruises. Douglas Cootey’s A Splintered Mind about overcoming depression and ADHD. The sadly silent-of-late Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh. Many more that I’m failing to mention. Hopefully, I can contribute a few new ideas to the mix, or at least think through some ideas for my own treatment process. In future posts, I hope to explore a lot of things: the work versus home persona, jobs and identity, who and how to tell about your illness, the dangers of “natural” remedies, the interplay of depression and atheism, how workplace leave and health insurance policies affect mental health treatment, and more. We’ll see how far I get.

Who is the dysthymic librarian?

There are a lot of things I could say to describe myself. As you might surmise from this blog title, I’m a librarian. There are many other superficial descriptions I could give you (not necessarily in order of importance): male, thirtysomething, white, Oregonian, childless, atheist, cynic, ginger. The list goes on. But I’ll try to get on to the more interesting stuff. I work for a small public library district in northern Oregon in the lovely Columbia River Gorge. My photography skills are seriously lacking, so I can’t really do justice to the Gorge or the main library at which I work. Fortunately, Blaine Franger of Beautiful Hood River has done it far better than I ever could.

Hood River Library at night, copyright Blaine Franger

The cool kids sometimes call it Hogwarts.

Being a librarian is a pretty great job. I actually direct the library, which is kind of like combining a stressful customer service job with a Kafkaesque government bureaucrat position. Really, it’s more fun than I make it sound. Trust me. I’m sure I’ll write about my job more in the future.

In addition to being a librarian, I also have dysthymia. No, it’s not an STI, even though it kind of sounds like one. Dysthymia is actually a somewhat common but not particularly well-known mental disorder. You can read more about it on the Mayo Clinic‘s great dysthymia page. And, since I’m a librarian, you can bet that I’ve vetted my sources! Need the TL;DR version? Dysthymia is a low-level but chronic depression that lasts for at least two years. For many people, dysthymia can last the entirety of their adult lives. While I was only diagnosed in 2012, I’ve had it for over two decades.

I find “depression” to be a frustrating word; it’s just so … squishy. Some might just think of “depression” as a simple emotion that’s just a worse type of sadness. Some might think of it as a severe mental illness associated with suicide and an inability to feel joy. Still others might just think of “depression” as a concoction of the modern medical and pharmaceutical industries to make money. I have a lot to say on that, as a dedicated (if not card-carrying) woo fighter, but that’s perhaps for another time. And oh yeah, my public policy peeps would probably be annoyed if I didn’t note that “depression” is an economic term, too.

These definitions are all to say that a dysthymia-like condition is not necessarily the first thing that people think when they hear “depression”. Someone you know might even have dysthymia and you don’t know it. Dysthymic people can be outwardly quite gregarious, or they could just be a bit laconic and dark. They could also be somewhere in between.

Every dysthymic person is different. For me, dysthymia manifests as a general dullness. It’s like I feel the world in greyscale. I’m usually not actually really sad, as “depression” would imply. But I’m also almost never really happy. Or really mad. Or really excited. Or really much of anything. I’m just … meh. Emotions are like the colors through which we experience the world, and my color receptors are broken.

This probably doesn’t sound that terrible. I mean, it’s not like bipolar, schizophrenia, or other “serious” mental disorders. But imagine not really feeling any strong emotion for years on end. You aren’t ecstatic when you get a fantastic new job. You can’t feel empathetic sadness when your friend tells you she was raped. You don’t get excited to watch your nephews unwrap their Christmas presents. You don’t get angry when you find out that someone directly lied to you at work. I’ve experienced all of these things. Or, more accurately, I didn’t experience them, because my emotional world is in shades of grey, and not the fun Fifty Shades variety.

Such lack of feeling can get even the strongest person down, of which I do not rank myself as one. Not surprisingly, dysthymia can have deep impacts on your life and work. I’ve lost romantic relationships due to my illness, dropped the ball at work innumerable times, and neglected my home and family. It can also easily develop into major depression and suicidal tendencies because the weight of not feeling is so brutal. I’m (hopefully) recovering from an acute suicidal episode as I write this post. I’ve had several throughout my life.

Dysthymia is challenging. It’s challenging to have, obviously, but I’d also imagine quite difficult to diagnose and treat (disclosure: not a doctor here). As noted, I wasn’t actually diagnosed for nearly two decades after the disease’s initial onset for me. I would like to think that I’ve been remarkably good at hiding my illness. Others would have to be the judges on that point, I suppose. But I’m tired of hiding how dysthymia affects my life, especially of hiding it from myself. I’m tired of thinking of it as a personality trait, even though it’s been with me so long that it effectively is. Maybe starting this blog is the first step to admitting the extent of my problem.