Tag Archives: depression

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”.

Image result for brain hacking

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.

simulated caffeine withdrawal

Last Friday, I hit a wall.  I ran out of energy.  I thought it was a depressive episode at first, triggered by hormones, a unique facet of depression that only biological females have to contend with.  Then it stretched out for a week of exhaustion, of headaches and dizziness, of a slightly elevated pulse, of a need to constantly nap or rest.  Now I’m not sure what it is, if it’s depression that has extended itself into physical symptoms or a physical condition that’s causing me to be exhausted and subsequently depressed.  Given that cardio – either running or cycling or HIIT – is a key part of my self-care and depression maintenance, it may just be that my inability to muster the energy for exercise is making the mental condition worse, feeding into the cycle.
Whatever it is, I would like it to stop so I can have my life back.  It feels like I’m in caffeine withdrawal, like someone has swapped my two cups of high octane organic coffee with decaf.  It feels like the norepinephrine and dopamine that my antidepressants are supposed to keep in my brain are missing again.  It feels like any and all stimulants, whether from the antidepressants or from caffeine, are simply missing, leaving me in a state of withdrawal and misery and exhaustion.  It feels like my batteries are drained.  Maybe I’m sick, maybe I’m depressed – I have too many x– factors to be able to tell.
I thought it was enough that I already spent hours every week trying to hack my brain and correct the chemical imbalance I was born with.  I have a problem with my brain’s wiring, an inherited depressive condition that causes a complete lack of motivation.  Superficial research indicates that this is a problem with the receptors in my brain: I do not get any sort of positive reward for tasks accomplished or for actions that should give me joy.  Hence, a sort of Eeyore-ish response of “why bother?” to every possible action.  Why accomplish anything?  Why even get out of bed if there are no positive emotions to be had for it?
This is not the best way to live my life right now.  I’d like to have my normal existence back now please.  Perhaps there is a physical reason I feel this way.  I hope it’s something I can figure out, fix, and get back to my normal existence

the 2005 retrospective

Rather than do the meme that sammynella stole from jentwo, I’m going to copy Carly instead, and just review the Events That Shaped My Life In 2005.

1. On the Road To New Orleans
Last trip to New Orleans before Katrina. My last chance to visit the city. I had no idea I wouldn’t get a chance to again in 2005.

2. Regaining Traction at Work
After completely letting my job slide during a particularly terrible depressive period in the late fall of 2004, I pulled my act together and managed to get a grip on my work performance. And, most of the time, it went uphill from the moment I took responsibility for it.

3. Admitting I’m Fucking Depressed, Dammit
Accepting that I couldn’t control my depression issues was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. My pride insisted that if I tried harder, I could get a grip on it, could exercise and diet my way to a normal mental state, instead of sinking into the complete apathy and despair that accompanies bad spells. When I started taking Wellbutrin for it in March, it was the miracle drug. Suddenly, everything was different. I’d had so many tunnel vision issues I didn’t even recognize, and the walls just fell away when I went on the drugs. Antidepressant medication is one of the best things to happen to me in 2005.

4. Crises of Social Conscience
Los Angeles causes a lot of despair in me, because there is so much wrong with it. And much of what is wrong with Los Angeles is a microcosm of what’s wrong with America. Therefore, accepting responsibility for those issues by volunteering in my community helped me to take control of the misery that comes out of just living in a city where capitalism and greed has wrought so much despair. And although my volunteer activity ended up being focused on ending the war – which is a national, not a local issue – it still brought me out more in my own city.

5. Bye Bye Binoculars
I quit the Agency in July and accepted an offer with my new Company. Where I am now an Account Manager, which is a few steps up the ladder in the advertising world from just being a Media Planner. I still plan and execute media, I just get to manage a lot more client interaction in the process. It was exactly what I wanted, to move into the client-facing and campaign management side of my work, and was definitely the best career decision I made since the original Move to L.A.

6. The Escape from Casa Mar Vista
While the negative fallout continued to affect me through November, I had been postponing the notice of move out from my old house for months, in the hopes that it wouldn’t be necessary. It was, for emotional and physical reasons, and now I’m happily ensconced at a home at the beach, closer to the ocean than I’ve been since I grew up in Oak Bay, in my favorite neighborhood of West L.A.

7. I’m Not In Love
Once upon a time, there was a very tall girl who went to DC to protest the War in Iraq, and in the process, met an even taller boy who also wanted to give Bush that pink slip. And who, it turned out, was almost perfect for her. Except that he disappeared two months later for Reasons Suspected But Not Provable. But it taught this particular Canadian expatriate that she is going to continue to find men who she likes that much, and that they do exist beyond her fellow expatriate ex-boyfriend. Which was something that had previously terrified her. Physical chemistry is rare, intellectual chemistry equally rare, and to find a boy with both is improbable – but not impossible.

8. Turn Me Inside Out
In November, thanks to criticism from a few sources, I began to believe the negative PR about me, and had to question everything. Am I a nice person? Am I even a good person? Or am I irrevocably selfish, self-absorbed, self-centered? Do I even deserve to be human? What is wrong with me? Am I likeable? Have I been too selfish to accept anyone else’s perspective on anything? Have I hurt people’s feelings or insulted them without any remorse? And it felt like I had been turned inside out, like all my nerve endings and internal organs were exposed, raw and bleeding. It took weeks of thought, introspection – and a lot of apologies – to even start the healing. And since then, I have been putting more thought into my actions and words, and trying harder to live up to the virtues I wasn’t practicing before.

9. Working Girl
I realize that my current job has more risk – and more potential – than anything I’ve ever worked at before, and that I have not been treating it as such accordingly. It’s time to take ownership and kick some ass. Ditto my work with my freelance poker client: huge potential, but demanding of equal input. to reap rewards.

10. Jillian, Remixed
Emotionally reconnecting with the music I loved as an angst-ridden teenager over the course of Mope-a-palooza 2005 (the Nine Inch Nails show in Oakland, followed by Depeche Mode three days later) was exactly what I needed at the time. And that Depeche Mode show was so good that I was happy for a week after it just remembering it.

And after everything that’s happened this year, I’ve learned a lot:
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parallel processors

There’s a chapter in microserfs where one of the characters explains how his antidepressants affect his productivity. He describes it as upgrading one’s brain to a parallel processor computer. (My copy of microserfs, along with all my Coupland books, is in a box in my parents garage in Victoria, so I can’t quote it here). It allows him better use of his time, to get time in bulk.

That’s kind of how I feel, three weeks into my Wellbutrin experience. Like it’s rewired my brain to work differently. Time goes faster, in a good way – I’ll look up, and realize I’ve been on the elliptical trainer for ten minutes. Spinning class flew by today. Things are getting done. It’s fantastic. I’m in love with this stuff. I’m eating less, too, and have stopped craving even the occasional Marlboro Menthol Light, and have high hopes of getting back on a regular gym schedule again. I’m pretty happy so far with the drug – much more so than I ever was with the Paxil.

Anyone else have comments on the effects of this particular brand of non-SSRI anti-depressant? The only thing I’m NOT happy with is that I absolutely cannot drink on it. I sober up almost immediately, and then just get depressed the next day. Not worth it. Likely better for me, just a lot less fun.