Sunday, January 22, 2012


Last week, two days before my paper critique presentation (the last step in the comprehensive exam process), I lost it.

I could feel it coming on - the exhaustion, the muddled thinking, the panic, the inability to get to sleep or stay asleep, the obsessive studying and note-taking (did I really need to write and re-write and re-write the four characteristics of a geographic information system?) - and I knew there would be consequences, but I kept thinking that I just needed to shove all that aside, pull myself together, and get through the presentation. And I almost made it. I almost managed to plow through before I lost my mental cookies.

And then Tuesday came along, and someone said just the wrong thing, and I came to a screeching halt. I felt so low, so depressed, so anxious, and so very out of it. I can't really explain it - I felt utterly detached from reality and unable to ground myself. Everything seemed so loud and looked so dim. I came home from school that day and went straight to bed, where I cried for three hours. Then I wrote to my advisor and said that I was struggling. Then I proceeded to not fall asleep for a while, and then I woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. All the while knowing that I needed to have a polished written critique submitted to my committee by 5 p.m. Wednesday, and a polished 20-minute presentation ready to deliver by 1 p.m. on Thursday.

On Wednesday morning, I dragged myself to my old therapist's office. I had bags under my eyes and I wasn't thinking clearly. I was dizzy. I kept spacing out; he kept asking me how present I was and reminding me to stay with him. I told him that I felt like I was really, truly on the verge of a breakdown and that the thought of continuing to live with these mood swings - as I have for most of my life so far - was unbearable. I told him that sometimes the thought of death was so nice. Not that I would ever do anything to myself - I wouldn't, because I wouldn't do that to my son; I wouldn't ruin his life - but for as long as I can remember, when things get bad it's comforting to think of not being here. I remember being 13 years old and obsessively planning my funeral, just because it helped calm me down. But this time I was scared, because I was so very out of it and I had such a tenuous handle on... everything.

When the hour was up he did the typical "Well, it looks like we're out of time" therapist thing, but when I stood up to leave and fumbled through my wallet for the check, he hesitated and said we had a couple more minutes. I sat down again, and he gave me some suggestions - one of which was to go to the student counseling center and talk to them about medication. I have tried hard to avoid medication for reasons I don't totally understand. Perhaps it's a control thing. Perhaps it's a fear that the medicine won't work, and then what will I do? What will my options be? Perhaps it's the worry that the medicine will work for a while, and then it will stop.

But this time I think I'm ready to try it. What happened last week truly terrified me. It's not like comprehensive exams were the scariest thing in the world, nor should they have been as stressful as I managed to make them. I think they were just the straw that broke the camel's back... Between that, and my mom getting sick, and traveling last month, and having this cold that won't go away, plus all of the other things that are always running obsessively through my head anyway, plus what just may be chemical issues in my brain that I can't control, I shut down. I broke.

So in two weeks I have an appointment with a psychiatrist. I know that by then I may be feeling fine. I may have forgotten what I felt like a few days ago (and what I still feel like, a little - these episodes leave an emotional residue). But regardless, I'm doing it anyway, and I'm going to make sure the doctor understands that despite my placid and friendly-looking exterior, I need some help.

One of my friends sent me a link to a blog entry about a guy who was afraid to go on medication but found that it made a real difference for him. It's a Christian blog, and I'm not a Christian, but it was moving and helpful and comforting anyway:

I especially relate to this - this feeling that I can't rest, I can't make my mind stop, I'm a failure, life is rushing by and I can never quite catch it: "My life had been wasted. I'd accomplished nothing, and the sorrow of it all was descending on me. The vanished years! I've done nothing! Where did the time go? Life is too fast, rushing by like a freight train, and I couldn't get on it... I'd previously lie there and think about how I blew it on the air this morning; how I never should have quit talk radio; how I shouldn't have said that one awkward thing five, 10, or 25 years ago;  how I'd wasted whatever I'd been given; how I'd failed to provide a yard for my kids to play in; how the years were slipping by, and, though my wife said differently, I just knew I wasn't doing enough as a dad or a husband or a child of God."

In the two years that I have known my therapist, he has never recommended medication. I'm not sure that's really his thing. He has recommended talking, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and rest. He has recommended opening up to other people and taking some risks in order to develop friendships. He has recommended relying on my family when things get tough. He has recommended that I call him if I need to, even if it is 11 p.m. on a Saturday night (he doesn't mind and he will call me back, he says). But the other day, I think he could see that I have kind of hit my limit. I think he could see how scared I was and how tired I was - of myself.

I did get through the critique, by the way. After my therapy session I came home and slept for two hours. Then I hauled myself out of bed, somehow wrote something that my advisor said was thoughtful and comprehensive, and put together a presentation that, while not an oratory masterpiece, served its purpose. In all honesty, I have no idea how I did it. I really don't. I'm just glad it's over.

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