Sunday, December 16, 2012

Missing Philadelphia

Recently, I started watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Although I think this show is hilarious, it makes me realize how much I miss Philadelphia. I lived there for the better part of three and a half years while I was in art school. They were probably the most interesting and exciting years in my life, but I am very cautious not to over-romanticize the experience of living there. 

Philly is (or at least can be) very dirty. There were sections between 11th and 13th Street that would be literally covered with dog shit all the time (imagine how that smelled in the scorching summer heat). Everything was more expensive there twelve years ago than where I am living now. It was a difficult place to make ends meet after I dropped out of school. And, perhaps worst of all, living in a relatively large city is particularly lonely and depressing if you are as bad at making interpersonal connections as I am. Being out and about was a constant reminder of how many more attractive and interesting people were in the area that I couldn't possibly bond with in a meaningful way.

And yet, despite all that, I miss living in a city like Philadelphia. Living there made me feel like I was somewhere important, even if I wasn't doing anything important. There was a real cultural presence there, unlike the handful of galleries and theaters in Berkshire County that get blown way out of proportion in terms of importance. North Adams (where I currently live) has its advantages, but it gets presented as much more of a cultural mecca than it really is. I suppose that's good for tourism in the summer.

Philly seemed to have many more interesting, smart, creative people living there compared to North Adams, but I may be somewhat biased since I was enrolled in art school most of the time I lived in Philly, plus it has a greater volume of people period, regardless of how they might be categorized. I probably interact with other people in North Adams as often as I did when I lived in my last apartment in Philly, which is to say I don't go out often at all.

What I probably miss the most about Philly is being twelve years younger. I don't think I ever truly enjoyed my younger days since it's always been difficult for me to let go and have fun. Of course I can't go back and do it over, but I wish that I had lived more during my twenties. I regret that I didn't try to date more (especially since I may have been more appealing to women my age back then). Nowadays, it feels like I'm at a dead end with little hope of building the happy, engaging life that I've always craved.

Nevertheless, I still think living in a major city would possibly make me feel more alive than I do right now. I would like to go out more and date women, and I think it would be easier in a more populous area, perhaps. Maybe I'd want to try a different one than Philly if I move away from North Adams in the future, who knows?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Listening to Your Dreams

It's no secret that our subconscious desires are often revealed by dreams, although they may appear in some unrecognizable form which may be difficult to interpret. For quite a while (at least several months), I haven't remembered very many dreams. Until recently, that is.

Over the past few days, I have had three very vivid "art dreams" (meaning these dreams were about working on musical and visual art projects). I do not recall the nature of the projects themselves because the dreams focused on the process and preparation necessary to complete recording or painting projects.

Unlike the vague dreams referred to earlier, the message in my recent dreams is clear: I need to make some music, paintings, or both. This desire has occupied much of my time awake but I've been feeling creatively stuck during most of this current depressive period, so I haven't completed any projects in a long time.

In the past, being involved with art or music has helped me cope with depression, so I know how important it is that I get my brain unstuck, but somehow that pressure may make it more difficult to get ideas flowing again. The key may be figuring out a way to reconnect with my somewhat impaired sense of play. My recent dreams have reminded me that I've been avoiding the work necessary to create again, as well as using my overly critical nature as an excuse to be uninvolved with art. Brushing my creative wishes under the carpet certainly isn't resolving anything.

I would encourage others to pay attention if your dreams seem to reveal your own strong desires, especially if you are not feeling very healthy emotionally. Upon careful reflection, you may be able to create a plan to change your circumstances for the better. Hopefully, I can as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012

An Opportunity in Disguise

Earlier today, my therapist informed me that she is leaving the clinic where we currently meet at the end of this month. While I do feel a bit disappointed, I am trying to look at the situation logically. I'll have to wear a brave face if I want to consider my options fairly.

I have several treatment options, but they basically boil down into two categories: continuing treatment at the clinic where I receive services (either in town or in a nearby city), or getting treated outside of my current mental health services provider.

If I leave my current provider, it may be more difficult for me to get medication issues resolved, especially in the midst of a crisis. Leaving would mean that I could keep working with my current therapist, but her private practice cannot give the same level of support as the clinic. Staying with this clinic will mean that I have to break in a new therapist, and I will probably have to travel more for my sessions (only one other clinician is accepted by my insurance at the current location, and I already had a poor experience with this man before I was transferred to my current therapist).

I haven't decided what to do yet; maybe I will take a break from therapy after this month to give all the possible options due consideration. At least I will be able to meet with my therapist for a few more sessions to help work through this transitional phase. If anything, I may be able to find a therapist who specializes in working with ACOAs and retain their services.

Change is typically a source of high anxiety for me, perhaps because change in my life has usually been the result of decisions made my others, not me. I seldom actively seek change for my own life. Maybe I can use this transition as an opportunity to work on my objectivity and change the thought patterns that often equate change with irrational fears.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Recommended Reading

A little over a week ago, my therapist suggested I look into The Complete ACOA Sourcebook by Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D. for additional assistance with some of my emotional problems. Eager to try anything at this point, I ordered it and received it two days ago.

I haven't been able to put it down since. I certainly haven't changed any negative self-beliefs or habits in that time, but it has given me hope by showing me that I am not the only one coming from an alcoholic/dysfunctional family that feels the way I do.

In the past, I have had encounters with personnel representing either AA or Al-Anon when I have been been in treatment on psychiatric wards, but I sometimes had trouble relating to those groups because I strongly felt that my story was not of the same extreme variety as the stories these representatives told on these occasions. I realize it is not helpful to compare the validity or severity of experiences in a healing context; still, I inevitably made those comparisons and would usually determine that my background had been too good to warrant any involvement with AA or Al-Anon. (I myself have had problems drinking in the past, but it has been over a year since I stopped buying hard liquor and keeping it at home. Since then, I have honestly only had maybe five glasses of beer on five separate occasions while having dinner out with a friend.)

In any event, if you have read my previous post and can identify, you may want to consider reading The Complete ACOA Sourcebook, or some of the other volumes written by Dr. Woititz, especially if you believe your childhood was unique or cannot be understood by anyone else. This book certainly is not a cure all, but reading it has given me some hope that I can identify problems and make positive changes. And I haven't felt hopeful in a long, long time.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Am I Broken? If So, Why?

All my life, I have asked myself that question. Because this year has been more difficult than other recent years in terms of my depression, I have probably asked myself that question more often than not. Although my therapist and literature I have read emphatically state I am not in fact broken, I can't make the same assertion with any confidence. As a result, I tend to blame myself for feeling like garbage, which in turn just feeds back into my depression.

Perhaps just as frustrating as not knowing whether I am damaged or not is the fact that I can't determine exactly why I have these emotional problems. Through self-reflection and therapy, I have identified at least two possible contributing factors from my life. 

First, I was born with birthmarks (or congenital nevi for you doctors out there) over most of my skin. In and of itself, that may not be a big deal, but there was one nevus that extended from the back of my scalp (at ear level) down to about two-thirds of back. This birthmark also covered my shoulders and part of my chest. When I was three years old (I think), this abnormally large birthmark was removed and a skin graft taken from my belly was attached in its place. Most of this scar tissue could be hidden from view under most shirts but it was always obvious that something was wrong (at least cosmetically) with my neck. Later, there were at least one hundred birthmarks removed from my legs, leaving additional obvious scars (at least when I was wearing shorts).

I remember vividly being teased about my birthmarks and questioned somewhat callously about my scars. Sometimes I still wish that I had "plain" or "normal" skin (maybe a dozen birthmarks, not hundreds). Given the skin I'm in, it probably makes sense that I don't appreciate tattoos very much. When I see some that are especially large or ugly, I can't help wondering why that person couldn't have just been happy with their nice, consistent skin. (There's probably a lesson in happiness for me in that statement somewhere.)

At this point, being asked about my scars does not bother me for the most part, but I am far from being happy with my natural appearance. In particular, there is a rather large mole on the tip of my nose that makes me still feel rather freakish. Aside from that, I think I have accepted the way I was born. Even so, it only seems logical that these struggles with body image may have left lasting psychological wounds which I am still trying to heal.

The second major factor contributing to my depression (at least in terms of life experience) was my parents' dysfunctional, codependent relationship. More specifically, my father was an alcoholic, my mother was neurotic, and together they argued incessantly. I never had much of a conversation with my father until I was 18, because when he was drunk, he was usually yelling or sullenly silent. On the occasions when he was sober, like when he'd take me on errands with him, he'd buy several cans of beer for the road and we'd usually stop in some bar for a few hours before heading home.

By the way, my parents ran a bar together. They bought it when I was eight. I don't know if my father was an alcoholic before he owned his own business, but I am aware that he did drink. The steady stream of beer from their bar, combined with the stress of working twelve or fourteen hour days to keep their business afloat, made my father extremely belligerent. But here's where my mother comes in. Generally, my father could keep his mean streak in check (burying emotions runs in the family) except when my mother was nagging him. Which happened constantly.

I think my mother herself suffered from depression and anxiety, and there was a hint of panic always hiding just below the surface (sort of the way I feel nowadays). But her real problem (and mine too, for it contributed to the unpredictable quality of our home life) was her lack of common sense. My mother wanted to discuss legitimate, worthwhile concerns with my father, but instead of broaching a topic when he was sober and capable of intelligent conversation, she would needle him after he was well past the point of intoxication. In her defense, he was only sober in the morning while having coffee. 

I could never understand why she had such poor judgment when beginning serious talks with him. After I turned 18, I worked as a bartender for my father (at this point my mother was not very involved with their bar). There were many nights when my father and I came home after 2 AM, and my mother would insist on starting some big discussion when he was exhausted and may have still had a decent buzz. This may not have been an issue for me if we lived in a normal house since these late night talks did not typically result in an argument (unlike the rest of the time). Unfortunately, we lived in a slightly modified summer cottage, and the wall separating my parents' bedroom from mine stopped about two inches from the ceiling, so I had to listen whatever bullshit she was spewing when I was trying desperately to fall asleep.

My mother's nagging and poor timing made for a volatile mix when added to my father's lack of communication skills and drunkenness (and he was a mean drunk). The resulting screaming matches often extended to include my sister and I. Any additional stress on our family dynamic, like holidays, would make matters worse. To this day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas bring with them the memories of many special occasions that should have been joyful but were instead ruined by vicious verbal fights.

The two worst memories I have of my parents' marriage are the night my mother jumped out of the car while my father was driving (luckily she didn't have any severe injuries) and being told by a few regular patrons of my parents' bar that my father once pulled a gun (his .357 Magnum) on my mother during the course of an argument. Who knows if he really would have shot her? It may have just been a desperate attempt to shut her up. What's the point of owning a bunch of firearms if you don't use them for anything? (Kidding.)

The upshot of all this is that my parents' behavior and my physical abnormality probably combined to establish and reinforce the insidious idea I have that I am worthless, a failure, a loser, etc. Struggle with this negative self-concept is ongoing, and seldom easy. Part of me knows that my parents tried to do the best they could and they did have my best interests in mind much of the time. They couldn't change the way I was born. The surgeries I had prevented me from looking like an even bigger freak in some ways and may have helped prevent some of my birthmarks from developing into malignant skin cancer. But another part of me knows that on several levels, my parents failed in a grand fashion. Maybe one day I can forgive them and forgive myself for being born.

I know this must read like a description of any other cliched, dysfunctional family. These aspects of my life have certainly contributed to my mental illness, but what is so confounding for me is that I didn't grow up in a terribly extreme environment, yet I'm still struggling with the "trauma" of these experiences from my childhood. No, my parents never beat me. No, I was never sexually abused. Yes, I was often neglected, given all the hours my parents worked during my youth. 

Still, I was born with all my fingers and toes. I'm not crippled. My five senses all seem to work (to varying degrees). I've been lucky enough to have shelter, clothing, and food available throughout my life. So why can't I just be happy and shut up? It's likely there's some neurochemical imbalance in my brain, but it's difficult to pinpoint as my unpredictable, inconsistent experiences with various medications will confirm. Until I can make some worthwhile progress, I keep reminding myself that there are positive things about my life and the world around me. (Some days it's harder than others to accept this statement.) 

And when that fails, I can always rely on good, old schadenfreude for a pick-me-up.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Reason for Writing

About eleven years ago (or so), I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Although I struggled with depression even as a child (I was frequently pulled aside to talk to school counselors), it wasn't until after attempting suicide the first time that any labels were attached to my emotional problems. 

To those who know me, even in passing, it probably comes as no surprise that I suffer from MDD. More often than not, my outlook is rather pessimistic (but realistic, I might say) and I have certainly driven some valued friendships to an early grave with my whining, complaining, and general neediness. After years of feeling confused by what I believed were contradictory messages from my friends, I finally realize that "normal" or "functional" people don't want to hear about misery and depression. 

Unfortunately, in my case anyway, feeling deeply depressed and anxious makes me want to discuss those feelings. Therefore, I decided to start a new blog featuring depression and anxiety as the central topics so that there would be a forum for those thoughts and feelings so I desperately need to express. Hopefully, some of the posts I write here will be helpful to others with similar problems. Additionally, I believe this blog may buttress my struggle by giving me an ongoing project (which will help prolong the fight, I expect).