Category Archives: mental health

four days of unemployment flow state

I’m actually unemployed for the next four days.  I haven’t been out of work since moving to NYC so I’m kind of in shock at this.  This isn’t like taking a vacation because I literally cannot work.  Merkle has cut off my IT access so I can no longer work on anything for them.  I have not yet started at OMD.  There is literally nothing for me to do in terms of actual paying work.

I cannot work, so I have the extreme luxury of spending my week engaged in my own personal projects and self-development.  Which, today, means a Cave Day.  This is enforced focus time, in which phones are confiscated and participants are encouraged to work on singular projects to encourage “deep work”.  I chose instead to work on my backlog of email and Scout related tasks, which doesn’t quiet my monkey mind, but does make me feel like I’m making headway on my always overflowing inbox.  Despite not having sunk completely into the “flow state” that often soothes my brain,  I  was able to action, reply, and file over a hundred emails in a couple hours and identify new projects and opportunities to be of service to the community in the process.  Feeling like I am supporting my people, my community, is valuable, even if I’m doing it one small task at a time.

For this afternoon, I’ve chosen to write blog posts for the sheer experience of being back in a “flow state”.  This means that this isn’t going to be a terribly entertaining post.  (Although, really,  have my posts been that entertaining since I stopped chronicling the Adventures of Being In My Mid-20s In Los Angeles?  PROBABLY NOT.)  It is, however, a chance for me to get my own thoughts under control and to assess my priorities in a slightly more public forum.  When I’m not working an actual paying job, what is it that I choose to do and why?  And what long term effects do I hope to get from only four days of such chosen activities?

Let’s start with the challenge of being in a flow state.  This does require one to focus on a singular project or task.  No checking emails, no checking Facebook, no responding to notifications. However, there is a school of thought that believes that the state of flow is one of the most critical factors to happiness:

https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow

The inverse of flow state is what I have most recently heard referred to as acedia, a state of despair resulting from apathy and a disregard for life.  This term was originally coined to refer to monks who did not pray sufficiently, a condition that later became a sub-category of sloth.  I tend to think of it as inertia, an inability to move forward or to regain the energy for life that keeps me in perpetual motion.  The cause, however, seems to be ultimately a lack of flow state activity.  A brain without flow state activity, be it a monk unable to focus on meditation or prayer, or a secular individual not engaging in deep work, seems to be a disconcerted and unbalanced brain.  Add to this our American Puritan notion of work & the value we place on ourselves as related to our accomplishments, and you have a tremendous recipe for mental illness from both shame and misery.

To combat some of this, I’m focusing more on activities that bring my brain into a flow state.  Blogging is one of those; I spend an average of an hour on a blog post, from concept to writing to editing.  I drop into a flow state sometimes when I’m sketching out concepts for work, drawing out slides for a presentation.  Give me headphones and Excel and I’ll drop into flow state while I tease out data for the story of a presentation. I can spend a half hour drifting along on the piano, noodling on scraps of pop songs.  And when I’m biking in traffic, with my whole brain occupied with movement and not dying, I’m really in a flow state.

Still, writing is the best and most reliable way to enter that brain state, so I am trying to change how I look at it.  Instead of writing for fun as being what I do when I have finished my other work, I am trying to look at it as what I do to train my brain back into being able to do deep work.  Ultimately, by doing so, I’ll also quell my monkey mind, capture a state of deep work and satisfaction, and make my brain a little calmer and happier.

I also want my brain to be practiced in how to do deep work as I transition to a new job.  The value of a knowledge worker like myself is in her ability to do work that no one else can do.  That is deep work, the work I pull out of myself, the observations I create and act on, the goals and vision I work towards.  I will be looked to for my ability to deliver unique work, and only by really focusing and delving deep into my brain will I be able to do so.  I have to practice putting my brain in that state so I can deliver on that promise to my new team, my new agency, my new clients.  Whether it is the distraction-free peer-pressure focus of a Cave Day, or an hour spent framing up a blog post, I must work my brain just like I work my quads and hamstrings in a spin class until I can beat my own time over the Brooklyn Bridge.

It is with the end in mind, or rather my mind in mind, that I therefore planned out my “week” of unemployment.  I could have spent a month doing this, easily, and I actually considered taking more time off to do so.  However, I also have to have healthcare benefits for my little family, so four days it is, and I’ll be grateful for the time I do have.  With that said, I’ve chosen to spend today trying more to monotask, at a morning Cave and then spending the afternoon in the same physical space, albeit without the facilitator (meaning I get to keep my phone).   After this, I’ll go to the gym, lift some weights, do a spin class to stay in my bike commute shape, and then go to a GTD meetup so I can revisit my productivity ninja skills before going to a new job.

The rest of the week, I’ve opted to alternate productivity practice with “staycation”.  I plan to spend Tuesday at the spa on 57th, getting a good old fashioned Korean skin scrub to fix my itchy, itchy winter skin and then I intend to loiter extensively in their hot tubs and saunas for the day before going to meet friends for drinks.  Wednesday, I have another morning Cave, followed by the (sigh) next stage of my right side dental implant and then I’ll be home to celebrate my husband’s birthday for the one hour between when he gets home and when he has a co-op shift.  Thursday, I have no agenda, and I may  choose to spend at least part of the day at one of the museums (the Morgan, the Met Bruer) that I really would have liked to have gone to by now .   I’ll also prioritize re-establishing some of the habits I fell out of while in my own state of acedia the last few months that benefit my mental health so much, such as my love of intense cardio (spin classes!), and my piano practice.

Four days isn’t anywhere near enough to engage in the kind of re-development, habit building and brain-training I’d like to be able to engage in but it is something.  It’s like four days of gifts in a row, the free time and ability to refocus my energy on something that isn’t agency work, a license to engage my brain on projects that are easier to launch myself into and stay engaged in.  Of course I will obsessively plan the time five times over and realized I still won’t have time for everything I wanted to do, but that’s also okay.  It’s four days of learning and focus.  It’s four days where my only job is to not have a job.

a meditation on meditation

A few years ago, I somehow “picked up” (read: “it was $0.99 on Kindle Store) 10% Happier, Dan Harris’ tale of “How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.”  That is a lengthy title, but obviously one I can relate to.  (His follow up, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is an even better title.  This man can sell).  I did not take 10% particularly seriously on the first read, as it comes across at the beginning of his story as another dudebro memoir.  I realized later on this was intentional to convey the sense of arrogance the author had at the beginning of his journey, and I’ve attended meditation sessions led by Harris twice now at MoMA Quiet Mornings, so I know he’s not actually coming from a place of arrogance now, it just took a while for me to take the book seriously.

While I struggled initially with 10%, I did, however, like the idea of being 10% happier.  10% is a needle mover, as we say in pitches.  It’s a significant bump in results.  If any client got a 10% lift in conversion rates, they’d be thrilled.  So I read the memoir all the way through, and realized Harris had some  valuable experience to share, on how he conquered his own doubts and engaged on his own path to gain value from his practice.  I downloaded the Headspace app, and started trying to follow my own version of that path.  After all, what did I have to lose?

It took me about a week to start feeling some effects of meditation.  The way it felt when I started, I compare to applying a soothing substance to my inflamed brain.  You know how it feels when you eat too hot a pepper and then drink milk or eat yogurt to try and reduce inflammation caused by the capsaicin?  That’s what it feels like in my brain: like aloe on a sunburn.  Meditation seems to soothe the constant irritation of thoughts on my brain.

WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO BE ZEN BUT YOU'RE METAL AF | image tagged in death meditation | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

There is also a certain amount of self-image to get past in starting a meditation practice.

This was enough to motivate me to look into other meditation practice channels.  I started going to M N D F L, NYC’s super-bougie meditation studio.  I bought my own meditation cushions so I could practice at home using the Insight Timer app (which is $2.99 a month vs. the $15/class at M N D F L or the $10/month for Headspace).  I have kept this non-academic and agnostic and have not sought to go down the meditation study path into Buddhism, as some practitioners do.  I have kept this simply to the minimal level where I get benefits from the practice.

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Meditation cushions on our new matching living room rug.

For a while, I actually had a fairly good habit going.  Then problem is, like all habits, a habit has to be maintained.  It’s too easy to fall off the bandwagon and then allow the “days off” to pile up.    I have a bad mindset around broken habits as well, and I will tell myself those habits don’t matter, that they do not make a difference. The problem is that those habits do matter, they do help my poor brain, and a positive habit like meditation is what helps break that cycle of lassitude and apathy in which I find myself unable to take action on the right priorities.

However, today, I sat myself right back down and meditated for ten minutes.  That was it.  I got out my cushions, sat cross-legged for the first time since I tore my ATFL, and put on the Insight Timer with the chirpy birds in the background.  Done.  And, as expected, I feel so much better now.

This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a struggle to return to the habit today.  My brain was ping ponging all over the place.  My internal monologue does not cease just because I have applied the triggers (sound effects, seated pose) to cue up a positive habit.  And regaining a state of quiet in my mind will be a muscle I have to rebuild, just like how I have to re-build all my physical muscles after not going to the gym for months.  I do have a mental trick for this: I visualize an icon for the thought inside a red balloon and let that drift up to the ceiling of my brain.  However, that only works for thoughts that are small and containable.  When I am really out of practice, my mind focuses on thoughts and goes off on tangents, without the discipline to push those thoughts up and out of the way for ten minutes.  So I emerged with a small sense of calm, but also fully thought out plans for multiple Things I Need To Do.

The bright side of all this, is that I came up with this entire blog post, which my brain wrote when it was supposed to be silent and drifting in a state of rest.  I also planned out a picnic for Saturday when my brother and sister in law are here, and remembered to schedule time for piano practice into my daily calendar again.  Unfortunately, none of the development of these thoughts belonged in my meditation practice.  I realize it is fine to have thoughts, that even the most experienced of practitioners will not be able to keep their minds still for meditation sessions.  The challenge and the discipline of the practice is being able to resist following those thoughts and instead putting them up into those imaginary balloons to be collected later.

It is very likely time to revisit some of my original materials: Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness series (including Real Happiness at Work, which I have on loan from BPL right now), the guided meditations in Insight Timer, maybe go back to a class or two at M N D F L just to get back in the habit (I have a free birthday class!  It just requires me to actually go to the studio).  There is no reason to not take 20 minutes a day to soothe my poor beleaguered brain, after all.  It is just a matter of, well, mind over matter sometimes, which is hard.

optimizing my brain

It has become fashionable, the past few years, to attempt to “hack” one’s brain.  This is an attempt to get one’s brain to run better, faster, smarter.  It is also a great way to sell something called “nootropics“, a futuristic, Orphan Black-esque term for a new wave of vitamins (mostly amino acids and vitamin B derivatives) that are supposed to aid with such “hacking”.

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This is your brain…ON THE FUTURE

I believe, to an extent, that there is some brain “hacking” that can be done, although I do not love the term.  To me, it smacks of Silicon Valley bro-ness, the kind of toxic masculinity that has made the tech industry deeply awful for women.  I prefer to think of it as brain optimization, rather than hacking, as optimizing my brain is really about understanding the 2+ pounds of electricity and protein that lives inside my skull, that contains everything I am.  If I can better understand the mechanisms that govern the electrical impulses that make up my thoughts, then can I get a better grip on the efficiency of those thoughts?

I recently read Stealing Fire, a book on the use of substances or other methods of altering one’s brain for extraordinary results.  While it does focus extensively on the use of mind-altering drugs, it counts everyday substances in that category, everything from coffee to prescription medications. We may not all be using ketamine for out of body experiences, but most of us are using some form of chemical to alter our brains.  It was an interesting perspective, much more on the metaphysical plane, putting the quest for brain control and mind altering more into the realm of philosophy (“I think, therefore I am” sort of meta-ness), telling a universal human story rather than limiting the results to th emore prosaic productivity boost that “brain hacking” promises.  “Stealing Fire” was a more grandiose picture of mankind’s ongoing quest to lift up our mental and spiritual energy through physical substance (see also: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas), and it contextualized the “brain hacking” trend as really just being a small corner of that quest.

My own quest falls somewhere in between the metaphysical and the mundane, as it’s directly related to the mental and spiritual effects of having a chronic depressive condition.  For the decade plus that I took Wellbutrin, from 2005 until, well, six weeks ago, I grappled with its effects on my actual being.  Was being on this substance altering who I was, in any way?  My ultimate answer to that question was that not only did that particular non-SSRI antidepressant not change who I was, it actually allowed me to be the person I was meant to be.  It was a substance that unlocked my brain.  The Wellbutrin reduced the paralyzing depression that had previously impacted my ability to live my life on a consistent basis.   Problem solved, I thought, at the time, as I went on to build my life, meeting my husband, building my career, moving to Brooklyn, building the Scout organization, building my friend circle – my life is extensive, expansive, and has few limits on how much I can do in it.

Reducing the impact of the biological condition of depression actually brought forth who I am as a person, allowing me to explore my own mental and spiritual state without the intervening detriment of poor mental health.

The problem is that the substance I relied on to make me, well, me, wasn’t consistent.  My depression flare-ups became longer and increased in frequency over time.  When I changed my body’s response to food by switching to a Paleo food lifestyle in 2013 , the condition improved again.  And over time, rather than change my dosage, I began to try to identify more and more ways that weren’t the Wellbutrin that would net similar results to the antidepressant: cardio or HIIT exercise, being in sunlight, not drinking, avoiding grains and dairy, avoiding sugar, getting a good night’s sleep, meditation, journaling, etc.  Some of the tools made more difference than others, but overall, I began to understand what had an impact on my brain, and began to understand the links between the mental, the physical, and the spiritual.

All these physical, mental and spiritual factors are interconnected, and we cannot separate them if we wish to be whole and happy.

And then I finally faced reality.  The antidepressants I had been taking weren’t working.  They likely hadn’t worked for some time.  In fact, in November, my brain wouldn’t recognize the anti-depressants or the caffeine I added to them each day,   I thought I had Lyme disease, I was so exhausted, until I finally cut back on caffeine, added some nootropics, and felt better for a while.  I made it through the winter, and then as soon as we hit the March equinox, I went off the substance I had been using for thirteen years to alter my brain chemistry.

Needless to say, it was unpleasant.  The first few weeks, I could only stay awake until 2pm.  Twenty-five years of caffeine reliance plus thirteen years of using a stimulant as a basic part of my brain chemistry did not allow me to remain at one 8oz cup of coffee per day.  Instead, I felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, drooping and looking for the system that had pulled me through my life.  I started eating for energy, as working from home gives me endless access to snacks, many of them of the higher carbohydrate variety from Ben’s snack assortment.  I could barely drag myself to the gym or through workouts, I was so tired, yet I couldn’t sleep at night. It was a textbook withdrawal.

Two weeks of this and I was almost in tears at the lack of productivity and the lost time.  A month in, and I sprained my ankle and had to weigh in at the doctor on my visit and realize, it wasn’t just that I’d lost time, I’d gained almost ten pounds of weight that would have to come back off if I was to fit in my client visit suit or my tick-proof camp pants ever again.  This isn’t just about vanity or societal pressure, but about not having to replace my utilitarian clothing in a larger size.

So now I have to not only hack my brain to run without antidepressants, but also have to “hack” my own EXTREMELY STUBBORN biology to lose the weight.  Which is a whole other entry as well.

Image result for plump as a partridge lose weight

Yep, this about sums it up.  Thanks @lacomtessejamie

And I have to recognize that despite all this “hacking” or “optimization”, or whatever I wish to call it, there are going to be days when I just…can’t.  Last night, I had a rough day “at” work, in that I made a major misunderstanding on one of my new accounts in how I interpreted an agenda topic as related to the client’s business.  I also failed to move outside the house, choosing instead to rest my ankle.  I was also tired by 4pm as a result, and I just felt hopeless.  How am I supposed to live my life, I thought, if I can’t stay awake until 4pm even with a good night’s sleep, if I have an ankle that will seemingly NEVER HEAL, if I can’t even understand the job I am supposed to be good at

There are always going to be days in which I feel like I can’t.  And it’s going to be hard to change that and say, I can, without having a stimulant to get me all hyped up and enthusiastic.

So now, what I have to work on, is getting up every day and saying, “I can,” and pushing myself through the work that will optimize my brain to replace the load of stimulants that I cranked through it since I was a twentysomething junior digital media buyer living in Venice Beach.  I am a different person now: I acquired several additional layers of person along the way, including a husband and son.  I built a life in which many people rely on me: my friends, my colleagues, my community.  I built that life using a brain I used a commercial antidepressant to optimize.  Now I have to achieve the same results without that medication.

Most of the time, I feel like this is a story where the moral is that the Wellbutrin didn’t actually work, and therefore was really only a “magic rock” kind of thing: I did this all by myself and the antidepressant was believing in myself all along!  And then I’m tired at 4pm or can’t sleep CLOWN’LL EAT ME and think, why did I give up the stimulants that gave me the energy to push through this, even if they weren’t actually fixing the problem I took them to fix?

The answer is, because those antidepressants, while they worked great to correct my perception of my condition, weren’t fixing the actual problem that causes my depression.  I have a genetic biological condition that alters my brain chemistry enough to impact my mental state.  The NRI was just pushing me through that condition by effectively overriding it.  The most recent research on depression suggests it is more akin to a flare up of a biological condition than just a matter of “being sad”.  Taking a stimulant every single day may have forced my brain to remain in an upbeat state by altering my brain chemistry and increasing the amount of norepinephrine floating around in it, but it doesn’t fix the underlying physical flare-up that caused that mental state to occur in the first place.

And that physical aspect of the condition – that I can optimize.  For that, I can take physical, real-space actions to reduce the impact on my mental health.  That’s where all this brain “hacking”, optimization, whatever one wants to call it – that’s where it comes in.  It’s a quest for the “true self” on a higher level, but on a day to day basis, it’s “what actions can I take to keep my brain in a healthy state where it will crank out client presentations and not sink into a state of despair?

And that – that is another entry, for another day.  Probably tomorrow.  Because one of the bright sides to being benched with the ankle this week, is that I have extra commute time to re-invest in writing blog posts – one of the other many things I’ve identified that makes my brain a little happier.  A few days of writing, a return to a solid meditation practice, it’ll all help optimize my brain.

an attitude of gratitude

I have so much to be grateful for today, not least of which are these guys:

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I’m actually in Toronto right now so I have a lot to be grateful for.  My family are here.  My sister has made a beautiful home away from home for us, literally considering my family’s comfort and wellbeing in building her own family’s house.  We’re grateful to be made to feel so at loved & at home here every time we visit.

I’m also here to visit and cheer up my mother, who has been trapped inside with hew own injury, a broken lower leg, since February.  I’m grateful to have my mother still with us, and grateful to have a strong bond with her.  My sister and I are both close with our mom, another relationship we’re lucky to have.

I’m also grateful for the family I have here to visit: my sister and I have a good relationship as adults, and I adore her daughters, my nieces, who are like little sisters to Ben (grateful for that, too).  They’re beautiful, brilliant, strong, free creatures, each of whom displays emotions and intelligence in equally high amounts.  My brother-in-law is a wonderful guy who is just fun to hang out with, as well as a great husband and father.  My sister has a beautiful family, inside and out, and I’m so grateful to be only two hours away.

I’m listing out all this gratitude right now because it’s just hard to feel grateful for all these blessings when my foot looks like it lost a bar fight to someone a lot meaner:

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From last night: my foot looks like a bloated drunk who got severely beaten up

I’m really trying for gratitude here, in the form of, “I’m grateful I’ve never had an injury worse than this”, but it hurts today after all the activity and exertion yesterday and I can’t go down stairs properly and anything that isn’t being trapped in bed with my foot up causes the fluids to rush back in a very painful way.

Still, the practice of gratitude does make me feel slightly better.  Over the past year, I started using the Best SELF Journal: a daily entry in which I start and finish my day by listing 3 things I’m grateful for.  Sounds like something out of an archived Well and Good article (“The Buzzy Reason These wellness Gurus Start Their Day with Gratitude – And How You Can Too”).  It is, however, a legitimately proven tactic to improve mental wellbeing, so I have added it to my mental toolkit to deal with my depression.

Gratitude may not make up for missing out on physical activity, which is on the list of the Big Things That REALLY Help With Depression.  Walking or running outside are big needle movers for mental wellbeing.  It’s therefore extremely tempting not to be grateful for anything when I’m on Day 5 of hobbling about and don’t know how long this is going to take because I can run again without fear of messing my foot back up.  The challenge is pushing past that self-pity and finding ways to be grateful that are not depending on my physical status.

 

eeyore syndrome

And good morning everyone!

Image result for eeyore why bother

I’m up and moving this morning, after a LOT of sleep.  It’s been a challenging few days, sleep wise.  It started on Sunday when I had a wonderful time at a friend’s dinner potluck, but a wonderful time that went on too late.  Then on Monday, I had a client dinner, resulting another late evening.  Both nights involved alcohol, both nights were spent someplace that was Not the Gym.  Both nights were absolutely the right decisions to make, but due to alcohol, sugar and lack of exercise, each night’s activity resulted in less sleep, and cost me quite a bit of quality sleep.  By last night, Tuesday, I was dozing sitting up at 7pm, and then, after a dose of Doc Parsley’s Sleep Remedy, slept for almost ten hours from 9pm to 7am.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t been on plan enough the last few days to keep me from being under a little black raincloud this morning.  I have to manage my brain like a finely tuned machine or else I’m prone to what I call “cartoon Eeyore syndrome”:

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That cloud makes it difficult to respond appropriately to external input.  Missing email replies go directly to IRRATIONAL RAGE.  Changes in plans go directly to NOT GOING EITHER.  Inability to get to the gym results in WHY BOTHER ANYWAYS.

The inhabitants of A. A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood are, after all, meant to be tropes: they are representatives of aspects of everyone’s personality, avatars for us to map our own traits and emotions onto.  Piglet is Fear, Kanga is Maternal, Rabbit is Anxiety-through-Activity, Owl is Arrogance in Knowledge.  They seem to represent an ideal of the blank mind culminating in Winnie the Pooh.  This concept is built out in The Tao of Pooh, a book that I own and highly recommend.  Looking at that aspect of the children’s stories, I have a toolkit to identify unbalanced behavior and reactions to external causes and realize I’m skewing too far to the Eeyore instead of my normal frenetic Tigger. (BOUNCE)

So there’s a couple of ways to deal with this:

  1. Re-schedule my day so I am prioritizing the things that help my brain.  These include regular exercise, avoiding sugar/alcohol, meditation and engaging in creative activities like writing and music.  Maybe I will go for a walk!
  2. Drink more coffee…oh wait, I can’t just do that anymore because I went and cut back on coffee last year.  I can’t fix gloominess with caffeine induced cheer, and can’t caffeinate my way back into being Tigger.
  3. Once my brain has come out from under the little black rain cloud, address the things that are actually bothering me calmly and with mindfulness and intent.  Lack of email response?  Move to text or phone.  People can’t make it to an event as planned?  Breathe a few times, accept that it isn’t personal, and plan to go anyways.  Not getting to the gym?  Schedule it in and make it non-negotiable, a promise to myself.

That last one has been the biggest challenge and source of stress lately: I’m participating in a Nerd Fitness training program with a virtual trainer that I’m investing a lot of money and time into.  If I don’t follow the plan, then I’m not reaping the benefits of it, yet when it comes time to actually do an activity or make an effort, I am all like, “why bother?” and settle in to ignore it.

And even if I am being Eeyore, I still should focus on the originally concepted version of Eeyore, not the Disney movie version.  As it’s written in this blog post, Eeyore in the books is actually quite patient, self-actualized and has a great sense of humor and perspective despite the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood flaking on him:

Image is from Anna Ruth Campbell’s blog, where she breaks down and puts back together a deeper and more accurate perception of Eeyore

Like Eeyore, I will be grumpy but ultimately forgiving of everyone who ignores and forgets me by NOT REPLYING to my emails, and I will remain in my Gloomy Place as needed until I can restore balance enough to my brain to come out.  And I’ll go drink some decaf coffee anyways as a placebo, just to bring out my inner Tigger.

 

passiviTV

I have been watching more TV lately.  This started when I realized how much content I could download to my phone or Kindle to watch while in transit on the subway.  This was initially great!  I could immerse myself in television programming any day of the week, not just the one or two days when a favorite show came online.  I started picking entire series to watch, starting with Parks and Rec and adding Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  I watched a huge chunk of the first season of Outlander while traveling to and from Toronto.  And I could keep watching all the weekly shows that come up in “real time” like Divorce, so long as I watched them on the above ground bus to work in NJ.

Then the TV watching time began to creep up.  I started watching episodes of TV at home, on an actual TV.  I would watch two or three episodes at a time.  Suddenly, entire hours were disappearing.  I would look up and realize I was looking at a screen still at 11pm or midnight, throwing off my sleep schedule and my body’s ability to stay asleep due to the light suppressing the melatonin production I need for a good night’s rest.  I’d make up for that with a melatonin pill, and then I’d wake up groggy and start compensating for that with caffeine.  Which, as I learned last fall, I can only consume in moderation as well.  TV is both a bad influence and a bad habit.

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It isn’t as if I’m watching crappy TV even!  I’m watching a lot of consistently smart, female led, well reviewed content.  CexG , for example, is an extremely smart show, digging into its characters motivations and human frailty and mental health and changing sense of identity with a great sense of compassion and insight, sometimes expressed through musical numbers.  Parks and Rec is one of the best comedies ever, mostly based on the strength of its ensemble.  Neither show relies on gender tropes to build their characters.  Neither is based on laughing at its characters, as some sitcoms consistently do.  They are both well written, compassionate programs.  But they’re also passive content, and as long as I’m sitting there consuming the content, I’m not engaging in anything else.

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: the only show to compare our mammary glands to the density of white dwarf stars.

It’s addicting to consume passive content.  It’s addicting to have an entire entertainment feed directly into my brain.  I have always read so much that I’m used to what Jasper Fforde called the “imaginotransference” process in the Thursday Next books.  To have multiple senses provided for me, without having to use any imagination myself, is fantastic.  It is so much richer an experience to see each nuance of a character’s facial expression, to see their setting, to hear their voice. This is why we all universally love television and movies, after all: they are a full display of storytelling that shows us a full, exacting vision, without relying on our brains to place the information in context or create our own visuals.

So as much as I try to justify my consumption of television, I also know I’m being lazy when I watch.  And I also know that as long as I”m watching, I’m not creating anything of my own.  I’m not blogging or writing.  I’m not practicing piano.  I’m consuming someone else’s creation, and as smart as that creation may be, the only good it does me is to be entertained by it.  I’m not thinking my own thoughts when I’m consuming passive content.  Sometimes, that’s OK, because I need a break and it’s nice to be entertained and heartwarmed by someone else’s vision of, say, Pawnee, IN: a place full of hope and positivity.  Other times, it’s just consumption, and it’s just taking up my time…and, to an extent, my energy.

Am I judging passive content?  No.  I’m judging how easy it is to be passive when consuming media.  With the infinite access to entertainment that is Netflix and its counterparts, one can access the cream of the art form of TV, the best comedies that are out there.  Even those of us with very specific comedic preferences (“Female Driven Sitcoms With Women Who Swear A Lot“) can find hundreds of hours of our preferred content on these platforms and watch those hours all at once.  Yes, I’m sure passive TV watching happened before this, but it didn’t happen to me.

I have to figure out more balance in this area.  Still, I enjoy watching these shows.  I’ve rarely watched much TV.  Doing so now opens up my ability to participate in more conversations around what makes a good vs. bad piece of video content.   And it’s also given me a whole new respect for the writers who make their visions happen in the long run.

Image result for parks and rec meme

 

cutting back on caffeine IS KILLING ME

A few weeks ago, my brain hit a wall.  That is the best metaphor I can come up with,  not just because I hit a limit, but because that’s what it felt like. It felt like my brain was actually damaged. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t process information or  communicate normally.  There were times when I struggled to string words together, much less manage to go into Marketer Speak Mode, in which I use buzzwords on autopilot to sound authoratative in meetings. (“What we need is a closed digital tracking ecosystem that mirrors the customer journey,” is the kind of phrase I throw out in that mode).

This isn’t an entirely new state for my brain. I am used to a fairly bad depressive jag around November, when the days get shorter and the time change happens. Layering seasonal affective on top of existing clinical depression creates an annual drop in dopamine and serotonin that I can’t keep in check with the same practices that work the rest of the time.

This jag, however, was worse than any other year in that it was not only mentally worse,  but that it brought a whole new set of physical symptoms. I get a slight vertigo when I am in a depressive state, a light dizziness combined with a sense that the world is on a 15 degree angle.  In addition to that, I had a permanent headache that Advil couldn’t fix. And I was completely exhausted,  lethargic in a way beyond my usual seasonal affective disorder. It was bad in that it actually kept me from doing stuff.  I went so far as to be tested for Lyme, and the doctor threw a thyroid test in to boot, but no conventional test could explain the problems I was experiencing.

After ten days of this, I was also running out of hope to get through it. What if I had done something to my brain?  What if I had actually broken it and my usual methods wouldn’t work ever again?  I am used to being able to control my depression with a regime I’ve spent the past five years working on, a base of medication that covers about half the problem, and then a series of lifestyle changes that cover most of the remainder.  But with the extreme lethargy and the headaches, I wasn’t able to get enough exercise, and exercise is a huge part of my mental health regime.  What if I never got past this?

I was complaining about this to a friend, about how I felt.  I told her the physical symptoms reminded me of the times I’ve gone off caffeine suddenly, like I’d been given decaf.  I couldn’t feel the impact of the coffee I was drinking, so I kept slugging back more of it.  Similarly, I couldn’t feel the effects of my antidepressant medication.  Her response was that maybe coffee was actually the problem.  Maybe coffee was over-stressing my brain.  Maybe that was causing part of the issue?

My immediate response when someone suggests I cut back on coffee is OVER MY DEAD BODY.  I’ve been drinking coffee since I was twelve.  I asked my mom if I could start drinking it, and her response was, “It will stunt your…..oh, have a mug.”  At twelve, I wasn’t freakishly tall, but it was obvious stunting my growth would Not Be A Problem, that I was trending after my namesake, “Big Jill”, my 5’11 aunt.  My entire adult brain has therefore been formed around caffeine.  I have a long history of it that I documented twelve years ago when I tried to quit the first time.  I’ve tried quitting in the past, and found that my personality doesn’t function the same way.  Gone is my innate Canadian Tigger-ness.  Instead, I’m much more like a Kanga, a risk-averse milquetoast mom.  (Obviously the last time I did this, I had a toddler.)

However, after ten days of my brain feeling like it was alternately too big for my skull, or missing entirely, I was willing to consider options.  So I did some research.  Turns out coffee can actually damage serotonin receptors over time! It turns out it can also wear out norepinephrine receptors.  I take Burproprion, the generic Wellbutrin, which is a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (different than most antidepressants, which are serotonin reuptake inhibitors).  This keeps extra norepinephrine in my brain, which seems to be the missing chemical link in allowing me to function like a normal human most of the time.  Maybe by damaging the receptors with caffeine, I had actually canceled out the effects of the NRI?  Or I had made it difficult for my brain to process serotonin, eliminating a set of positive emotions entirely?  Or I had produced too much cortisol and was exaggerating the effects with coffee?  All the theories sounded like caffeine could be a factor.  Therefore, I decided to cut caffeine back and see what happened.

Ten days ago, I stopped drinking my afternoon pick me up cup of coffee.  And I itched for that coffee.  I would droop at my desk in the overheated client office around 2pm, and long to be able to go down and get an almond milk latte from the in-house coffee bar.  I still need a ten minute nap at 3pm because I can’t just slug back more caffeine like I have trained myself to do so I can push through. (Note that I do not always get said ten minute nap because work).

Last week, I cut from two 12oz cups in the morning to just one 12oz cup.  This would be fine at the time, but then I’d be sleepy mid-afternoon again, and be unable to go get a pick me up cup at 2pm.  On some days, the half-life would wear off as early as 11am and I’d be sleepy before it was even lunchtime.

This week, I’m down to one 8oz cup.  One normal cup.  Granted, I went through 3 cups of organic instant decaf yesterday (partly because I was mixing MCT oil in for a snack) but I’m down to less coffee than I’ve had in twenty-five years.   This isn’t easy for me.  I’m used to combating any fatigue with coffee.    I’m used to caffeine being what powers me through my day.  Now, I’m drinking organic decaf as a placebo, which is useless.  My brain is not fooled, and it wants that steady drip of something that fights off sleepiness through its entire day.

And it may be that the coffee was the problem because I feel better.  Actually, not just better, I feel joyful.  I feel like everything in my world is fantastic (true, my life is awesome) and each and every day will be a wonderful set of experiences.  Most of all, I believe that I will have the energy and the physical ability to actually go and engage with that world instead of being physically and mentally exhausted.  It’s a night and day change from the state I was in ten days ago, where I felt like the world around me would go by and I would just count down time in it, unable to rouse myself to move, and unable to feel anything positive even if I did.

Is this all due to the caffeine cutback?  Maybe.  It could also be the L-tyrosine I started taking.  It could be that this episode just ran its course and my brain healed itself.  I know part of the headache was actually allergies – after re-visiting my morning Zyrtec, those went away almost entirely as well.  But i’m still working on cutting back caffeine just in case that’s the dominating factor.  I’ll cut down that 8oz of caffeinated coffee to decaf on Thursday…and over Thanksgiving weekend, I will actually try to go without coffee.  (This is also why I’m staying home over Thanksgiving to detox and sleep)

Still, I’m just not willing to risk resuming that old habit just yet.  I’d like to see how much better my brain gets, how much I can heal myself.  I’m not ever going to not have to deal with depression, but at least I have done the work to alleviate the symptoms most of the time, and reduced a chronic condition down to an occasional flare-up.  Cutting back on caffeine may be part of that self-care regimen that I have to accept in future.