Monthly Archives: February 2015

About this blog

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Hi, my name is Buzzy, and I have a mental illness. Specifically, I have dysthymia, a chronic depressive disorder. If my initial declaration sounds a bit like I’m at an AA meeting, that’s on purpose. Despite increased understanding and realization of the extent of mental illness, there’s still a lot of shame in declaring that you have one. I hope that this blog is a small step in helping dissolve a bit of that stigma, somewhat for others but mostly for myself and the shame that has lived in my heart for so many years.

This blog explores the intersection among myself, my life, my work, and my illness. It particularly looks at how my screwy brain chemistry and addled thoughts affect how I interact with the world personally and professionally. If you want to get a better sense for what it’s all about, I recommend checking out my first two posts:

Hopefully you find this blog useful, interesting, amusing, or otherwise fulfilling for whatever reason you chose to read it. I will try to update it regularly, if not necessarily on a regular schedule. Please check back regularly! And please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions or just want to chat a bit more. Happy reading (pun intended)!

The Thought

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing really well these past few months. I’ve had the most emotionally vibrant period I think that I’ve ever had in my life. However, the other day, I got an abrupt reality check.

I’d had a fantastic weekend before I experienced what I’ve come to refer to as “The Thought”. Valentine’s Day was probably the best I’d ever had. My partner and I had an amazing time going out to dinner and a show, and the next day I spent some time away from home with her and her family. Life was good. Great, actually.

Then, early on Tuesday morning, I was driving home when a thought crossed my mind. “I want to swerve this car into a rock and crash. I want it all to end.” This thought seemed to come from nowhere. The weekend had been truly excellent. Then, I want to kill myself. What gives?

While the thought itself came out of the blue, it was not without warning signs. I mentioned once that trying to keep my dysthymia at bay is a little like playing Whack-A-Mole. Treating myself is like smacking a bunch of moles with mallets to keep them in their tunnels. Those moles are my dysthymia, and I keep smacking them down to keep the disease under control. Each of the moles comes out of a specific tunnel, representing the things I need to avoid to keep dysthymia at bay. Poor nutrition. Lack of exercise. Not enough “me” time. Whatever the hell’s going on chemically in my brain that requires a mallet laced with bupropion. Obviously the chemical issue has been a huge problem for me in the past, but my drugs, together with my other measures, seem pretty good at keeping that tunnel mole-free.

My ongoing nemesis throughout my life, and the tunnel from which I have the hardest time preventing moles from pouring forth, has been insomnia. I’ve never slept well in my adult life. Ever. Usually this manifested as difficulty falling asleep and inability to stay asleep once I finally did. When I did sleep through the entire night, it was not a restful sleep. I’d awaken feeling like I’d hardly slept at all.

So lately, moles have been streaming from the insomnia tunnel, although perhaps I didn’t recognize them for what they were. My sleep had been very poor the week and and half preceding the Thought. Those nights, I was getting maybe four hours of uninterrupted sleep, and then my body would wake up. The best I’d get after awaking would be intermittent snoozing. I often simply gave up at about five in the morning and got up to start my day. The night before The Thought, I was up at 3.00a in a state of panic over my lack of sleep, wondering how I was going to make it through my very busy upcoming three months. In other words, I was exhausted. Still kind of am, actually, though I’ve been catching up. I haven’t yet ascertained the reason for my lack of sleep, although I hope that my upcoming doctor appointment can help me figure it out.

Despite the lack of sleep, I still had energy. Large amounts of it, at least to me. Even with sleep deprivation, being on bupropion and treating myself correctly has given me far more energy than I had when my dysthymia acts up. So I hadn’t noticed the lack of sleep affecting me overly much.

Obviously it did, though. I wasn’t prepared for this fleeting suicidal thought; it hit me like a semi. If I’m feeling generally down, I can steel myself for the inevitable deluge of morbidity. But I wasn’t prepared this time. That short moment scared the shit out of me. I didn’t see the warning signs. Aside from my early morning fretting, I still don’t know what the warning signs were, if there were any to see at all. And that scares the shit out of me even more.

Perhaps, by allowing it to scare me as it has, I give The Thought too much power, though. Lately I’ve been listening to National Public Radio‘s fantastic new podcast Invisibilia, about the crazy parts of our brains that govern so much of what we do and who we are. In their inaugural episode, hosts Lulu Miller and Alex Spiegel use the dark thoughts that sometimes pop into our heads as a way to explore the history of psychotherapy.

The main frame of the show is a man who keeps having thoughts of wanting to violently kill his wife. That thought is used to explain how different therapy approaches try to handle the issue. Do you logically challenge the thought? Confront it directly? Push it aside as a random firing of synapses? The way the show explained these different approaches fascinated me. I’d used each of those strategies before to deal with my own dark thoughts. I’d challenge them. I’d confront them. I’d push them aside. But just like those moles, they kept popping back up.

There are good reasons why these strategies don’t always work for me. First off, depression isn’t logical. Challenging the thoughts certainly is useful, but I’m not really in a logical state of mind when having them. The asshole is too loud, too imposing. Confronting my suicidal thoughts also is of limited use in the moment. Death isn’t something I’m fearing, it’s something I’m welcoming. What use is confronting it?

My chosen method is usually pushing aside the thoughts. Ignore them. Bury them. Distract my mind so much that it doesn’t have the opportunity to wallow in darkness. That’s where working has helped. Work has helped keep me from following through on suicide in a few ways, one of which is that it distracts me. Rather than focusing on the train wreck of my life and the morass of my mind, I focused on work. There, I had some control. There, unlike my life, I could improve things. There, I could make others happy, even if I couldn’t do so for myself. Work was my escape from The Nothing.

My reaction to The Thought was similar, although I was far more cognizant of what I was doing. The Thought was fleeting, but my fear of and focus on it was not going away. Was all that work I’ve been doing over the past several months for naught? Before I went into work, I stopped by my partner’s house. She was a rock, someone dear on whom I could focus, to remind me of the happiness of which I was capable of feeling. But we both had to go into work, so I once again forced my mind into work. I had a particularly interesting challenge on which to focus at work, a complex, fascinating one involving our Code of Conduct and a future ordinance and public forums. I threw myself into it with gusto. And it worked. The Thought fell by the wayside.

After work, I was still rattled by this minor relapse. It wasn’t something that would have phased me much before, as it was fairly common. Despite my newfound happiness and positivity, I thought I was still abundantly aware that I have an illness that likely will never go away. The Thought showed me that I must not have really believed it. Now I do. I have The Thought to thank for that. I still don’t know where The Thought came from. Perhaps it was just my dysthymia saying, “Hey, remember me? I’m still here. I can still fuck with you.” And yeah, now I know it’s going to continue fucking with me. But I’ll be ready for the little bastard next time.

Will the real Buzzy Nielsen please stand up?

For pretty much all of my post-undergraduate life, my identity has always been tied inextricably to my job. “Hi, I’m Buzzy, and I’m a librarian”, or something along those lines. This connection has been enhanced due to the circumstances of my current job, as it’s high profile in both my community and the Oregon library profession. I’m “the library director” or “the librarian that reopened that library”. It’s flattering, certainly, as people seem to respect me for my work, but it has also become fundamental to my public identity.

Identifying closely with your profession certainly isn’t something specific to dysthymia. While I don’t really have statistics on it (how would you even collect them?), the topic is at least common enough to be covered by the Wall Street Journal, among others. Work is such a significant part of what we do as adults that it’s only natural that we become associated with it, both to ourselves and others. I’d imagine this is especially common among childless adults like myself.

Despite its frequency among  many people, I feel that my dysthymia has contributed to the overzealous job identity in my own life. Let me say that I’d likely be susceptible to this phenomenon even without a mental illness. But said illness likely contributes in a couple of ways. First, I invest a lot of energy into my work face. I realize that kind of sounds like begging the question, but consider this. I’m inclined to identify strongly with my job anyway. Because of that, I’m also inclined to invest a disproportionate amount of my limited energy resources into that job, and therefore into the mask I wear to do it. It creates a circular relationship: as I invest more of my meager reserves into my job, I become yet more identified with that job, which makes me want to invest even more energy into it. And on and on and on. A vicious cycle, surely.

The second way dysthymia relates, though, is the way it infests your personality and makes you think you are it and vice versa. As Robert M. Miller says,

“Dysthymia is also an interesting disorder from the neurobiological perspective because it is often difficult to discern from other personality disorders, such as a depressed or gloomy personality.” (source)

For most of my life, I assumed that being an emotional eunuch was just who I was. The times that I saw some passion, some emotion, some small degree of color, were not terribly promising. In other words, the potential “real me” scared the shit out of me: an angry, bitter, guilt-ridden, dejected shell of a man. Why would I ever want to learn more about that part of my identity? And in some twisted confirmation bias, I conveniently ignored the few good, emotion-rich years I’d had when I was married, where the actual real me probably flourished. So I thought my dysthymia was my personality, was my personal identity, was … me. Rather than exploring that reject who I seemed to be, I retreated into my job, where I seemed to have some success and respect; that guy I was while at work actually seemed like a decent human being.

So who I was increasingly became identified with what I did. I was a librarian first and foremost. That was how I related to the outside world. That’s still a large part of how I relate to the outside world. It probably always will be a significant part of how I relate to the world. But in contrast to needing to converge my many masks, I need to diverge my identities. I am not my job. I also am not my dysthymia. I’m not precisely sure who I am, but my treatment is helping me investigate. And discovering who that person is will help me not only be better at my job, as I’ll be more balanced, but more importantly it will help me be, well, me, and the best me I can be at that. So slowly I’m divesting some identity currently tied up in my job and am reclaiming it in the personal sphere. I’ll let you know how things go.