Friday, March 31, 2017

Taking Stock of Things, 2017 Edition

I'm revisiting my very first post this week, as a sort of then-and-now comparison piece.

I don't think, when I wrote that post, that I expected to change the world with this blog, which is probably just as well since that hasn't happened yet.  I do hope I've managed to elucidate parts of autism and what it's like to live with it.  That's perhaps a bit more difficult than I'd expected, since I've never not been autistic.

My various experiences with Puzzle Partners (autism social/activity group), Autism Support of Kent County, and Self Advocates of Michigan have taught me a bit more about people, parental experiences, and about developmental disabilities in general.  But I can tell I have much much more to learn.  Even if I had perfect recall for everything I've absorbed in the last three years, things are changing so fast that I'm afraid it wouldn't matter.  The insurance situation alone, for instance, if TrumpCare goes through, is going to be very different than it was 10 years ago.

On to the Quick Facts section!

  • 28 years old, biologically female but identifies as agender
  • graduated with a BA in psychology and a minor in information systems (business crossed with computer science)
  • married a neurotypical man (Chris) last year, and living together in a new apartment complex
  • still driving a minivan, but sadly a different one now, the old one wore out
  • no new diagnoses: still autism, dysthymia, generalized anxiety disorder, and supremely terrible detail vision.  I can now safely add sensory processing disorders, including touch, light, and sound sensitivities.
  • after a stint as a secretary, am self-employed again and doing odd jobs.  9-to-5 jobs appear to not be good for me.
  • volunteering in various autism- and developmental disability-related organizations, everything from humble data entry to board of directors
  • still conditionally vegetarian.  I found more local sources for beef and pork, though, so I can have hamburgers every now and then!

I'm going to include, for future reprises of this entry type, my current therapy regimen.  

  1. LENS- a type of passive neurofeedback, similar to tuning a radio.  Has increased my mood, energy level, and made it possible for me to smile at things, including pictures.  Was very slow to ramp up, but the effects are pretty plain to see if you knew me over that time period.
  2. Supplements- multivitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, GABA (a brain chemical that settles overactive brain processes), timed/sustained release melatonin.  Most of these are because we tested my blood and they were low, but the magnesium and GABA are for calming purposes.  Has improved my sleep, energy level, and mood climate.
  3. Chiropractic Care- my neck was apparently trying to be ramrod straight, and it's supposed to have a curve.  Has all but eliminated my weekly-to-monthly tension headaches.  Hoping that it'll decrease my sensory processing disorders, but that may end up being simply a diet and exercise thing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 3/28/17

Bit of a mixed bag this week, but some cool stuff happened. 

Earlyish last week one of my friends had her birthday party.  Of all the restaurants in the area, she decided she wanted to try the Melting Pot.  That's an expensive fondue restaurant, for anyone that doesn't know.  Emphasis on the expensive.  It's a good time, and fun and tasty, but yeah... you sit there for like 3 hours, if you get the 4 course meal, and the bill definitely reflects that. 

Chris and I winced a bit at the prospect, because we've been there before and know how pricey it gets, but as it turned out, we needn't have worried.  Her husband covered the bill, which I can only imagine was at least $200 for the six attendees.  (We all threw assorted 10s and 20s at him at the end "to cover the tip," though, so hopefully it wasn't quite as bank-breaking because of that.) It was a great time, though.  I'm still not really sure how it works, but some people click better than others on emotional and cognitive levels, and that tends to make them fun to be around.  Chris and I don't quite click the way the other four do, but we don't detract either, so it balanced out.  By the time the night was over, my abs hurt from laughing too much, as did my face from smiling.  That's presumably at least one definition of a fun night. 

I am rather fond of their fondue, though admittedly my own efforts to make fondue have been somewhat lacking by comparison.  It's perhaps a bit unfair to expect better of myself given that I had never before made any kind of fondue, though...  My cheese fondue came out a bit lumpy and thick, and my chocolate fondue too oily.   I'll just have to try again...

This week and last I've been noticing I have achy knees again.  I thought we'd gotten rid of that problem with the iron, but I'm still taking it and the problem is resurfacing, so that's annoying.  I keep forgetting to mention it to the doctor, and I have yet to get my blood tested again to see if my iron levels have come up, so it's a mystery for now.  An annoying mystery.  Grr. 

Fortunately my knees don't hurt all the time, because Pokemon GO has an event going on called the Water Festival.  Basically certain types of Pokemon (ones associated with water, so lots of fish, starfish, octopi, tadpoles, etc) are much more available right now.  So since I play, Chris plays, and another friend of ours plays, we all hopped in the car and went downtown, where there's a river, so we could go walking and Pokemon hunting together. 

It turned out to be a very profitable venture!  We happened across two different "nests" or regular spawn points for Pokemon we needed.  These are relatively common in the game, often located in parks, but finding one that matches to a Pokemon you need is a little harder.  So it was kind of awesome, just walking back and forth and catching these normally impossible to find Pokemon everywhere.  We also used a tracking service to locate a really good fish Pokemon we needed, and to finally get me a Loch Ness Monster-like Pokemon I'd tried repeatedly and failed to get. 

I did not, however, manage to do any of the volunteer work I mentioned wanting to do last week, so that's probably going to happen today, all at once.  At this point I really don't have many excuses left, and while the person hasn't said anything, I'm sure she'd be happiest if I did them all ASAP.  Wish me luck!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome

The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, by Tony Attwood

This is, I believe, a copy of the very first book I ever read on autism, and likely the very book that convinced me I was actually on the autism spectrum.  The DSM-IV criteria was not terribly helpful, nor were peoples' telling me I was on it, beyond the psychological testing.  This book is now almost a decade old, so I find myself surprised at how much of it still remains valid and familiar.

The book itself is an exhaustive description of Asperger's Syndrome, from the diagnostic criteria to growing up to common mentalities, features, and pitfalls.  In retrospect, I don't think I've ever come across a better description of the better-blended section of the autism spectrum.  This book would be well worth reading for anyone that needs to understand how we're likely to think and act.

One of the sections of the book I found interesting was the four compensatory/adjustment strategies to being different.  The first strategy, depression, was my strategy (or lack thereof).  I'd sort of figured most autistic people at least dabbled into this particular strategy unless they weren't aware of being so different.  But I've heard of the others from other peoples' stories: escape into imagination, imitation of others/characters, and denial/arrogance.

I once watched a TED talk by someone on the spectrum who had an intensely rich imagination, and one of the previous books I've read also talked about having everything from imaginary friends to imaginary puppies.  And I've heard of people on the spectrum latching onto and mimicking a particular, seemingly successful, friend, to the point of unhealthiness.  I must have managed to avoid the denial/arrogance option for the most part, which is probably just as well because both those traits can be blatantly harmful to everyone involved.  And arrogance, at least, drives me batty.  I tend to avoid people with that personality trait.  Perhaps I missed that path due to that tendency.

Another section that struck a chord with me was the jigsaw puzzle comparison in Chapter 3.  I've talked about how I had to learn social conventions, what to say when, how to make small talk, etc.  But it's kind of hard to convey the difficulty of that learning process.  Professor Attwood compares social rules to a 5,000 piece puzzle.  Neurotypical people have the box to look at, with the complete picture to compare to when needed.  Autistic people lack that extra knowledge, so instead we have to learn each bit piece by piece, matching shapes and colors as best we can.  The difference, I suppose, between the metaphor and the reality, is that nobody yells at you, shuns you, or hurts you if you try the wrong puzzle piece dozens of times.

It wasn't all flawlessly accurate, of course.  The book focuses specifically on visual thinking, influenced heavily, no doubt, by Dr. Temple Grandin's books and other, similar sources.  There are many styles of thought in the autism spectrum, and mine is not particularly visual.   After half a year or so of puzzling about it, I'm finally starting to understand.  Rather than pictures, numbers, or words, I seem to think in patterns.  I'll do a separate entry regarding the specifics of my thought processes, but suffice it to say I was confused given that patterns include sounds, words, colors, pictures, and numbers! 

Also somewhat inaccurate is the "What Causes Asperger's Syndrome?" FAQ in the back.  That's somewhat unavoidable, given the age of the book.  New research keeps coming out and it becomes increasingly impossible to keep books up to date.  Particularly if they're not textbooks and already being re-released every year.

Read This Book If

You want an owner's manual to Asperger's Syndrome/High Functioning Autism/better-blended autism, or want to know how your kid or acquaintance that fits that category may think and act.  I wouldn't say this book covers the whole of the autism spectrum, because it doesn't.  As soon as you add in communication difficulties, you add in a whole range of reactions and challenges that this book does not cover.  But for what it does cover, it's an excellent and nearly exhaustive resource.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 3/21/17

This last week has been an exercise in stretching myself.  I'm calling it a half success rather than a half-failure, so I can attempt to be more positive. 

Three major things to mention.  First, I'm developing a mighty hatred of meetings.  Ever since I attended an evening session of the Synod, which is the ruling body for a branch of Christianity around here, my tolerance for legalistic proceedings has been shrinking.   I suspect I will eventually foam at the mouth when the word "meeting" is said in my presence.

In the meantime, though, because I was unsatisfied with the quantity and quality of meetings we'd been having for the Self Advocates of Michigan Public Relations committee (part of the board I joined awhile ago), I took over the position of organizer.  This meant a lot of pestering people, which I did, albeit reluctantly.  I was mostly successful, 5/6 attendees showed up in the end, technical and user difficulties aside. 

The meeting went reasonably well, and we set up another meeting before calling it quits, so with one exception, I'm off the hook for badgering people.  Yayyy...

So that was one success.  Which is naturally balanced by a (thus far) failure.  I've been working on my time-management skills, but I had been wanting to add volunteer work for Autism Support of Kent County to my life for awhile, since I believe in putting your time where your mouth is. 

So I succeeded at pestering the person whose job it would be to assign me work, and succeeded in meeting with her and receiving said work, but I have, thus far, failed to manage to find time to do a smidgen of that work.  I'm annoyed with myself, but the problem is that I'm managing my blog, a D&D campaign (more on that below), my therapy, and my overall mental state and health.  You would think the last one would be habit and easy by now, but it is nothing of the kind.  Most of the time last week that I could have spent on the volunteer work was spent on prepping for the D&D campaign, because...

I was horrendously behind (I thought) for prepping the game, which runs every Monday evening.  When I say "prepping," I mean essentially writing out where I think the players are likely to go, what they're likely to do, and how the entire world around them is likely to react.  As well as any other, pre-planned events you might have in the world. 

If that sounds difficult and time-intensive to you, that's because you're a perceptive person.  It is.  Like a huge derp, I keep letting myself run out of material, and wasn't planning far ahead and giving the world a life of its own.  I'm pretty new to DMing (running the game), so it's perhaps understandable to be a huge derp.  But I know I can do better.

So yesterday and a few days before, I've spent hours brainstorming world events and bad guys (team evil, the forces the party is up against).  That's the far future stuff.  I also spent some time building the immediate present stuff, ie: the next dungeon the party is likely to encounter, as well as supporting encounters.

That said, yesterday evening one of the party may have just fast-talked his way around doing that side quest, so I'm still trying to decide if I'll allow it.  Probably not.  As much as I favor player agency (ie: the ability of players to affect the world and change it in meaningful ways), they kind of need the adventuring experience here before they go on to the next thing.  I can, however, flavor that failure in such a way that it incorporates the player's action as a driving force, which still at least acknowledges that the player did something clever.

So if you hadn't guessed, running D&D is a major exercise in creativity, flexibility, and ingenuity.  Because the players are all my friends, I hate disappointing them, and so I prioritized my time that way instead of working ahead on my blog or working on the volunteer job.  But the players didn't get nearly as far as I thought they would yesterday evening, so I now have a bit of work saved up.  Like having a buffer on my blog, except much less predictable. 

Hopefully this week I can do a bit better, now that I'm sure I've prepped far ahead of time, and can focus on other things. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Article: Autism and Social Reciprocity

A fellow adult on the spectrum linked me to this article: Autism and Social Reciprocity

The author doesn't provide an example of the textured glass pictures they so hate, but I've located one so more visual type people can more easily understand.

So the glass, as the author explains, is meant to symbolize autism, with the autistic child being trapped behind it, waiting to be broken free of the "prison."  That's the start and end of that visual metaphor.  Lacking the emotional reaction that most autistic adults have to this particular image type, I'm more inclined to redefine it, rather than reject it out of hand.

The author of this article talks about how their difficulties as an autistic person were always assumed to be their fault.  Because we're the ones acting out, we're the ones attracting the attention, and seeing is believing.  When a kid throws a tantrum in the store, you don't look upwards to see if the lights are flickering or listen intently to hear if there's something setting them off, you look at them and assume it's either their fault for being spoiled or their parents' fault for not disciplining them.  Please note: when it comes to autistic children, that line of thinking is stupid. 

Nobody chooses to be behind textured glass.  I wasn't handed a neat little card with checkboxes to indicate that I wanted to be autistic, depressed, anxious, and have sensory issues of various types.  That's how things ended up, and in truth, they make me who I am now, but I certainly had no choice in the matter.  No one does.

So if I may, that textured glass?  If that's autism and other conditions, it's as much muddling up your view of us as it muddles up our views of you.  The research quoted by the author of this article speaks pretty plainly, as does the endless parade of our experiences of rejection.  Sure, we absolutely have problems of various stripes, and that makes it difficult (sometimes impossible) to communicate effectively, but it takes two people to have a conversation.  You have to meet us halfway there, but if that meta-study is to be believed, most people won't.  We're just too different, too strange, too... not-like-you. 

Which is kind of awful, if you think about it, given that a major part of autism is the lack of social skills.  You can learn social skills, but it takes lots of practice.  So all those people that avoid us and people like us?  They're just making the problem worse.  By withholding those crucial opportunities to learn and grow, by alienating us from society further, they're only thickening that textured glass.  They are, effectively, warping our very personhood in the name of their personal biases.

Those pictures with the textured glass and the child trapped behind them miss part of the picture.  The viewer, there behind the fourth wall, can't see the child properly either.

The other point I wanted to mention with this article was the great value of computers and the Internet.  This author was socially unacceptable for most of their formative years.  They were bullied, threatened, alienated, and ostracized.  People were unstintingly cruel and vicious to them.  But still, they wanted to be connected to other people.  Despite all that awfulness, they wanted friends.

Textual communication was the social breakthrough for the author, and the research they linked shows the same thing.  It's only when we write and type what we think and feel that people stop handicapping us.  BBSes, instant messaging, texting, forums, and email are all equal footing for us. 

Is it any wonder then, that I found my first real friend on an IRC channel?

My point is that while there is plenty to be said for the value of face to face interactions and gaining the practice and knowledge needed in that way, it would be foolish to write off the Internet as a valuable tool.  If there was a park within walking distance of your home, where we could go and not feel out of place and excluded, would you blame us for wanting to live there?  We'd have to be insane to not want that chance.

Which isn't to say that it's okay to spend all your waking time in front of the computer, mind.  Just that it is neither surprising nor unhealthy to want to spend some of your free time there, given that freedom and equality. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 3/14/17

Another month has gone by.  Chris and I celebrate each month we've been dating/married with a small something or other.  Sometimes it's just treating ourselves to a dinner out together.  Sometimes we buy each other little presents.  This month I replaced Chris' failing car charger and made him a coupon booklet for things he'd like around the house or in our life in general.  I tried to make them a little more interesting by drawing on them, and he graciously did not comment on the poor quality of the art, which was nice.  He got me a gift card to the app store for my tablet, which he suggested I use on Pokemon GO to enhance my enjoyment of the game by buying various upgrades.   I did, and it was nice. Naturally the game is down right now for some reason, but that annoying fact won't stop it from being useful in the future.

In sleep news, I woke up at 5:15am early last week, wide awake and thoroughly annoyed.  I got up after a bit, dealt with what was bothering me, took GABA like my mother does, and promptly slept for another four hours.  I'm not sure what to make of that, to be perfectly honest.  I tried it again the next day and it didn't work quite as well, but I may also just not have had as bad of a sleep deficit. 

Part of the reason that I'm not sure what to make of it is that my LENS-doctor kind of gave me crap this week about my sleep.  I kind of got the sense that she no longer thought there was anything particular wrong with it beyond the "diet, exercise, sleep hygiene" sphere, and that unless I was prepared to immediately vow to change all that immediately and severely, I was wasting her time.  That's an unusual impression to get from her, so I'm guessing perhaps she was having a really bad day.  Still stung, though, and has me second-guessing my supplements routine and my attempts at a better diet and more exercise. 

In distinctly less fun news, we had a power outage last week that lasted about 36 hours.  There was a really big windstorm, which knocked out power in places all over the state, including my apartment complex.  While most places in the city proper had power back before the end of the day, our particular little area had a small number of people affected, and so was low on the priority list.  As such, I ended up having to sort the refrigerator, tossing out spoiled things, and throwing the rest into the freezer. 

Naturally, I wasn't home when the power came back on, which meant my herbs froze solid.  About a quarter of them were still usable, which was barely enough for dinner, albeit a lesser version I don't like as much. 

Finally, the weekend was dominated by a baby shower for a friend of mine.  She lives across the state, sadly, which meant we spent a lot of the day driving.  I think that was technically the very first baby shower I've been to.  It was... um... loud.  There were three babies in attendance, never mind the adult attendees.  I did get to catch up with a few friends I don't see often, which was nice.  But it ended up being 4+ hours of driving for a 3 hour party.  It could have been longer, but my head and anxiety couldn't stand the thought of being near any more noise and people.  I missed out on a gaming-and-friend-time afterparty, I think.  I felt lame ducking out, but a person needs to know their limitations. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: Developing Talents

Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism by Temple Grandin and Kate Duffy.

I recently visited my parents' home, and they kindly provided me with a couple more books to review before I brave the library again.  This book, to my befuddlement, has an enormous signature across it and a dedication to myself and my mother.  I can't make out the signature in its entirity, but the first letter is definitely T, which suggests Dr. Grandin herself signed this copy at some point.  I have yet to meet the good doctor in person, so I'm slightly jealous. 

Anyway, this is effectively a guidebook for autistic job-seekers.  Common challenges in finding and keeping a job are discussed, from sensory processing issues to etiquette requirements.  There's the mandatory section on how to sell yourself, which is somewhat different for autistic people than for neurotypical people since people skills aren't our forte.  That's all pretty standard material for this type of book.

What was unusual was that there were specific jobs and job-types called out as good career paths for people on the spectrum, with stories of people that had chosen those paths, and how to get into the field, what things you should know, what skills and education you might need, etc.  And there aren't just a couple of these to give you an idea of how to do it, there are more than a dozen different professions with their own sections. 

There's also a section on figuring out what you'd like to do with your life.  This isn't to say "what career should I pursue," which I've heard plenty about already, but rather, "What kind of work environment would I thrive in?  What kind of work (routine, constantly changing, predictable or not) do I want to have?  What are my strengths?"  Once you have a general description of what type of work you're looking for, you can then take your interests and work out a way to put them together.

This updated and expanded edition also has a specific section for starting and managing your own business, which is a major subject for people on the spectrum.  It's probably just as well that I own this book, because I and several of my friends are likely to benefit from the advice therein...

As is fairly standard for books related to autism and jobs, the authors suggest taking your special interest and finding a way to make it marketable.  This can involve some associational stretching, since a person fixated on NASCAR probably won't become, say, a driver for NASCAR, but might have better luck becoming a car mechanic or an accountant for a track.

This "apply your special interest and go" approach is fantastic for a lot of people on the spectrum, but not all.  Most notably to me, well, me.  This doesn't render the rest of the book useless, and in truth, doesn't even render that entire section useless, since I still have interests.  I just lack the basic autistic ability to focus on a single subject for literal hours at a time, I guess.  Given all the emphasis on this facet of autism, I'm starting to feel like I'm defective or something. 

Speaking of being defective, Dr. Grandin is negative about exactly one interest: video games.  She has no use for them whatsoever, and makes this very clear in the book.  I am saddened by this, though I understand her reasoning.  Video game addiction, where people do nothing but play games for hours on end, is, like other addictions, unhelpful to having a productive, healthy life.  And people on the autism spectrum can be particularly difficult to shake off of that particular addiction, because of that intensive focus mentioned earlier.

The issue is, of course, that it's very easy to take a concern about addiction and transform it into "video games are all bad, nothing good comes out of them, and everyone should avoid them!" which is kind of the sense I'm getting from Dr. Grandin.  Like most extremist viewpoints, it's wrong.  Video games help develop hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, problem-solving skills, and even social skills when playing with others.  In some cases, an interest in video games can be turned to careers, such as graphic design, programming, or even various areas of art.

I will certainly not argue that video games should be one's only form of entertainment, and one's sole activity in life, but to my mind, in the end, they are simply another form of interest, and one that can be channeled into a career, the same as any other.  To their credit, the authors do mention that exact thing, so at least it's not an unending parade of negativity about video games.

Read This Book If:

You're on the spectrum or care for someone on the spectrum, and starting (or restarting) a job search.  You can start planning for stuff like this at a fairly young age, since interests develop as we grow, so if you're a parent with a relatively young kid, this is still a good read.  It's a pretty comprehensive guide on why, how, when, where, and what for finding and keeping a job.  I can't actually think of any way to improve it.  It's a relatively short read, at less than 200 pages, and if you added more sections for specific jobs, it would quickly become arduous to read, as well as needing to be updated every couple years.  Give it a read!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Legwork and Life, week of 3/7/17

The toys I mentioned last week are working out pretty well so far.  Since my data finally reset, I've been able to make use of the GO Plus and the end result has been much accelerated egg hatching and walking.  I am most pleased.

But more relevant to my goals for this year, the Fitbit.  It's taken some getting used to, but I can, at this point, try to get in the 250 steps per hour during normal work hours.  In some cases that's less walking and more seated dancing, or stationary flailing, but it's still exercise of a sort.  Other activities have included playing Dance Dance Revolution, walking in a circle, climbing the stairs in my apartment complex, and general arrthymic dance-flailing.  I can't dance.  I'm badly uncoordinated for new activites, and I've never particularly had classes that mattered.  (The middle school mandatory "this is how you slow dance" class didn't count.  Also ugh.)  Since my wedding itself didn't even have dancing, I have no real interest in learning.   I don't think being occasionally mortified by my extreme lack of coordination while spazzing alone is sufficient motivation.

I find myself feeling rather tired lately.  My Fitbit (and probably my bed) say I'm only managing about 7 hours of sleep per night, which is not enough.  I think I meant to bring it up with my LENS-doctor last time, but I must have forgotten.  I wake up earlier than I should and then can't get back to sleep.  Think I know why now, though.  My brain turns on and won't shut off, but more specifically, my anxiety turns on as well.

I'm... not really sure what to do with that.  My mother takes GABA in the middle of the night to sleep through the night, but I don't usually wake up at 4am or something that's more... middle-of-the-night-ish.  It's more like 6am, maybe 7, at which point it seems kind of pointless to take GABA.  Or maybe that's my anxiety talking?  Dunno.  In any case, I'm already taking anti-anxiety stuff at bedtime, including GABA.  Hopefully the doctor will have some kind of idea, even if that idea is just, "take it when you wake up in the morning, you dummy."

Other things... I'm still working on reading the same dratted book.  It's not even that long of a book, less than 400 pages.  It's just so dense, or something.  It's bumming me out, though, with how long it's taking to read.  I was up to a buffer of 3, and it could be more if I could just get this silly thing read and reviewed.  I've been referring to it as the "4 Week Monstrosity" but now it's the "5 Week Monstrosity."  It started as the "2 Week Monstrosity."  But please note, the book is good.  That's why I'm still trying to read it rather than diving into my library books.  It'll be worth the wait.

My glasses are still broken.  I did get my eyes checked, but my 20s are still holding strong; the prescription is basically the same.  I showed the office my predicament, and the sales specialist took a look at it and said, "I'll have them put a rush on your order, shall I?"  So they'll do that, basically as soon as insurance confirms it'll pay for them.  At this point, that'll likely be tomorrow, after which point it'll still take a day or two to make the glasses.  Thankfully, I haven't managed to slam into a wall or anything else, thus entirely breaking my glasses.  It has made doing any bouncy kinds of exercise rather frustrating, but I'm almost used to my vision being askew now.  Almost. 

Lastly, Chris is sick with some kind of cold, and my original suspicion of being allergic to cats has been amended with a suspicion that I'm also fighting off said cold.  I'm taking elderberry/zinc every now and then to give my immune system a boost.  Here's hoping it'll keep it from rampaging through my system and I'll be better before I run into anyone with a weak immune system. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Boomerang Memories: Artifacts of Depression

The vast majority of my life, thus far, has been dogged by the frustrating ailment we call depression.  I have what psychology calls "dysthymia" or basically, low grade, long-lasting depression.  Unlike major depression, which usually only lasts weeks to a year or two, dysthymia can be with you for your whole life.  Sort of like having chronic pain, it won't ruin your life or make you wish you were dead, but it'll sure put a damper on basically everything you do. 

So in the process of living this particular difficulty, and learning about it and other conditions in psychology, I've become rather analytical about the whole thing, and I thought I'd share a particular feature of depression that's been making my life more difficult in the last few weeks. 

I'm calling them boomerang memories, but I'm sure there's a technical term for it: when your brain reaches back into the past and drags forth an embarrassing, saddening, or hurtful memory.  So if you, like many people, have had dozens of embarrassing moments in your lifetime, you can expect to review the worst of them, regularly.  Tripped over a flat surface in the lunchroom and everyone laughed at you?  Definitely seeing that again, as clearly as if it had just happened again.  Your crush in middle school turned you down?  Going to be reliving that again, without the benefit of the years to soften the emotional blow.  Said something obviously stupid when you were talking to a someone whose opinion you value?  Hope you don't mind wincing about that again.  Like a toy boomerang, these unpleasant memories come back, but unlike the boomerang, the memories always hit you in the face. 

Taken one at a time, and infrequently, these sorts of memories are the kind of thing you'd shrug off.  They're downers, they're bad for your self-esteem, but they're probably not going to ruin your whole day.  Everyone remembers bad things sometimes.  The thing with depression is that these things don't politely visit you once a week and then stay away.  Instead, they may opt to visit you every hour.  Or every 15 minutes. 

You'll be thinking about what to have for dinner today, or what task you should focus on next, and suddenly you'll be remembering a joke you told that not only fell flat, but actually hurt someone you were trying to entertain.  BAM, your train of thought is derailed, and now you're sad or frustrated or angry. 

Now, at this point, normal people just wince, shrug, and reroute their train of thoughts back to dinner or work.  You wasted a few seconds remembering this unpleasant thing, but now you're back to the matter at hand.  Unfortunately, depression doesn't work like that.  Depression, instead, makes that thought process sticky.  Like bugs on flypaper, your brain gets trapped and then stuck on that bad memory.  You live it several times instead of once, and think about what things you should have done instead.  Psychology calls this "perseverating."

Shaking yourself loose from this stickiness is an effort for people that are depressed.  I, personally, have to tell myself, "You know what, this is a thing that happened, and that's okay.  It is long past, and no longer matters.  Let's get back to what we were doing."   Unfortunately, that is not a magical chant, and does not always work.  Several repetitions or interruptions to the sticky train of thought can be necessary, and this can waste a lot of time and energy. 

It's kind of like having your own personal deconstructive critic inside your skull.  No one else can fight it for you, or tell it to buzz off.  Your personal anti-cheerleader has full audio-video access to your brain.  And unfortunately, you have no power to permanently drive off or otherwise silence it.  You can only shoo it away for a time, knowing it will be back.

All of what I've said so far is, as I see it, solid reliable fact.  What I'm going to say next is not, but merely personal musings, so please consider them or pooh-pooh them away as you please. 

The origin of this personal anti-cheerleader is up for debate, so far as I can tell.  As a person raised in a rationalist, scientific culture, I'm inclined to think of depression and this particular facet of it as an artifact of a malfunctioning brain.  That's what medical science has, thus far, told us.  Depression is caused by problems with brain chemicals and the brain's use thereof, and is therefore an internal problem. 

But my description, "personal anti-cheerleader" also reminds me of C. S. Lewis' writings on devils (see The Screwtape Letters).  The popular image of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, both whispering what someone should do, would almost apply here, minus the angel.  Boomerang memories would then be the devil's purview, brought up again and again to wear you down, make you sad and crabby, and overall distracted from your life and what you should be doing with it.

It would make sense to me if the old descriptions of mental illness, ie: demon possession, had some basis in the truth.  The fault of every age and every era is assuming they know best, and that the previous generations knew nothing of value.  Certainly, we know more today than ever before, but much of it, we'll find in 20 years, is wrong.  I don't particularly think my autism can be attributed to demons, but my anxiety and depression?  Maybe partly.  I'll have to reread that book and some of the others that C. S. Lewis wrote. 

That said, medical science has apparently discovered the physical location of depression in the brain as of late last year, so perhaps, soon, our methods of treating depression will be less, ah... shots in the dark.  And perhaps my musing on demons and depression are entirely inaccurate.  Which is fine, I'm certainly no brilliant religious scholar, philosopher, or world-mover. 

In any case, I hope this explains boomerang memories a bit better for those of you that have them, and those that don't.  It's hard to get a good understanding of depression when you don't have it, or so I'm told, and those of us that do have depression benefit from the understanding.