Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Hopeful Misanthrope

Despite a diagnosis of bi-polar in 2008 and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2011, I feel more hopeful than I ever have. I have always been very private about my health, or lack thereof, and yet recent discussions in the media about depression and struggles with disease has led me to speak openly for the first time about my own plight. I was afraid that people would judge, see me as damaged, or worse—pity me. Over the past couple of years I have told a few people, and been pleasantly surprised by their understanding and compassion. A friend of mine, who had breast cancer, told me that she felt compelled to tell everyone about defeating her disease because she was proud of herself. It makes sense, really, to want to share such achievement. But I have never felt pride or accomplishment. Mostly, I feel a reprieve.
In my mid-twenties it must have seemed as though I had a good life. Fresh out of university with a Master’s Degree—I started my own publishing company, pursuing my passion, while also having a paying job, a husband that loved me, and a charming split-level ranch in a quiet neighbourhood. What was there to be sad about? Logically— nothing. And yet I felt this overwhelming despair, that at times, bordered on panic. The kind that grips you so hard that you struggle to breathe. It is difficult to explain what sent me spiralling down—perhaps it was smaller episodes that had a cascading effect, perhaps it was my sometimes sullen personality breaking through—there have, in fact, been many episodes in my life that afterwards have left me thinking, “what just happened?” In retrospect, some of them are comical, but others decidedly dangerous. Perhaps one day I will explore these more and write about them as I can. But for whatever reason, in the summer of 2002, I quite my job and, for a while, I checked out of living. I no longer did the simplest of things, like changing my clothes or brushing my hair. I slept most of the day. I would drag myself out of bed around six o’clock, and say hello to my husband who would make some sarcastic remark about how easy my life was after noticing I failed to make dinner yet again. Then I’d go back to bed. All I wanted to do was sleep. Then five months later, I came out of it as miraculously as I went in. I have no clear idea what sunk me or what pulled me out. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a terrible state I had been in: insomnia, migraines, loss of appetite, migrating aches and pains, hopelessness, confusion, and a fatigue like I have never felt before. And yet, after my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, I felt sorry for myself for a few days and then I was fine. It wasn’t denial. I understood what I had. There was a point where I could barely walk, my leg kept giving out from under me, both my legs and up into my pelvis were tingling with pins and needles, and my arms and hands were completely numb. For days, I would jab a fork into my forearm, scared yet fascinated by the fact that I felt absolutely nothing. The symptoms would go away, sometimes for months, but they always came back, again and again. And then finally…after years, finally I had answers. Now I knew. I knew that any given day I could wake up blind or unable to walk, and there was nothing I could do about it. There is no point stressing about things that I have no control over, which has been the most challenging part, that life will happen to me and I have to accept it. There is a feeling of sadness and loss that comes with that acceptance, and yet I know I can manage this sadness. I instead focus on what is still in my control: I exercise when I don’t feel like it, take my dogs for walks, chug down kale smoothies, take vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids, and see my therapist on a regular basis. Perhaps because I have felt the weight of depression, the loneliness and futility of day-to-day living, I fear that downward spiral more than anything else.
That is the thing with depression—the disease has nothing to do with circumstance. We are meant to feel grief when tragic losses happen, but in 2002 I had every reason to be happy, or in the very least content, and yet I was consumed with an intense darkness. And now, in 2014, after a diagnosis of MS, I have as good a reason as any to feel hopeless. And yet, despite a lack of order and control, I feel fulfillment. I am aware of my limitations, that if I walk too much or push my body too hard I can have set backs, that my leg will temporarily give me grief, that sometimes I twitch and limp and stumble. I know that I cannot do what I use to do with any amount of ease. And those limitations have necessitated change—moving to a single level ranch and selling my publishing business—but by reducing stress, and demands on my time, I have been able to prioritize experience. I fulfilled a life-long goal of getting my SCUBA certification, swimming with sharks in Florida. I also published my first poetry collection, travelling with my family on a mini book tour, which jointly served as a whale-watching trip to British Columbia. I have many reasons to be grateful, to feel hopeful, and yet am keenly aware that it may go away at any moment. That our time is brief, good health ephemeral. And for a reclusive introvert, I have begrudgingly realized that relationship to others may be the key to ensuring I stay healthy longer while keeping depression at bay. I have forgiven for its own sake, learned to be more tolerate, and at the same time, I am acquiring the skills to be my own champion, to better express my needs. I have tried to open myself to opportunity, and for someone crippled by anxiety, this has been no small feat. I take my successes as they come—whether that is navigating public transit or introducing myself to a stranger—things that I find both difficult and exhausting. I doubt I will ever be “good” at social interaction—people can overwhelm me, I say the wrong things at the wrong times, I am easily wounded, and drink when I feel anxiety. I also know there is a family history of mental illness. I am adopted, but found out that many of my biological relations suffer from depression and bi-polar, my maternal grandmother having committed suicide. Yet, despite my genetics and sullen disposition, I have a support system and a will to stay healthy. I keep to myself and the idea of being dependent on others is terrifying. Over the past couple of years, however, I had no choice but to rely on people. Learning how to trust is something I am still working on—to trust doctors to have my best interests in mind, trust family and friends not to judge me, and trust strangers to treat me with respect. I’ll never be that person who goes to weekly meetings or talks on the phone for hours, crying to a friend, but I now value, more than ever, the relationships I have. If my struggles have taught me anything, it is that I need to be more open. Writing this is a step forward.