Question of the Day: Do you follow the news?

At different times in my life, I’ve taken a sabbatical from the news.  I don’t listen to NPR; I don’t watch any news shows, including the “comedy” ones like the Daily Show; I’ve even been known to take lengthy breaks from facebook.  As someone vulnerable to depression, there are times I honestly can’t take it – I feel too vulnerable to the bad news bombarding us, and I feel too helpless to do anything that will make a difference, and I feel as a person of faith I should care, but I just don’t have it in me.  But then comes the pressure of obligation, especially as a pastor:  Shouldn’t I know what’s going on in the world?  Even if most of it is bad?  But then, didn’t Jesus just deal with what was right in front of him?

I heard this podcast from Freakonomics:

And I realized it’s a really good question:  Why do we follow the news?

Here are my questions:

  1. Do you follow the news?
  2. If you don’t, why don’t you?  Did you make a conscious decision not to, or does it not interest you?
  3. How do you feel about NOT following the news, if you don’t?
  4. If you do follow the news, have you wondered why?
  5. What would you say you get out of the news?
  6. What do you do with the news you hear?

I’m very curious about what you will say!

Next post:  What Margaret Heffernan, author of “Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril,” has to say about our limited brains, and how that might affect our interactions with the news.

It’s time to give up the shame

Okay, everyone who takes anti-depressants, raise your hand.

If you don’t take meds, do you feel a bit smug?  If you do, are you glad no one can see whether you raised your hand or not?

I started anti-depressants more than 10 years ago.  It speaks volumes about the effect depression has on memory that I cannot tell you exactly when, let alone the year, I finally gave up my resistance to meds.  I just know I reached a point of crazy-thoughts that I knew could not go on.  It also speaks volumes about the stigma of depression and treatment to imply I gave up resisting medication once and for all, like being “born again.”  No, sadly, that war waged in my brain for years, as I went back and forth with my demon-possessed and impaired brain debating whether or not I really NEEDED medication.  Did I really need that much?  And,  so, unsupervised of course, I would cut my pills in half.   And then I would crash and burn and fight – mostly successfully – not to cry my way through work, and wonder what the hell was happening to me before I remembered, sometimes after weeks of misery – O, yeah, maybe I really do need that much.  Or I would finally give in and check in with my psychopharmacologist – A brilliant man who has helped me figure out the difference between spiritual crises and a broken brain – and he would convince me I was not weak, or a failure, but I did need to up my dose.  Or add another medication.  And then up that dose.  

None of this was – or is – fun.  All of it felt horribly shameful.  The stigma was made worse because it was a secret.  I didn’t even tell my parents for years – Yes, years.  Add to this that I am a professional person of faith – Shouldn’t I just pray my way out of this?  What would the people who listen to me preach and pray think if they knew?  And the horror of church members thinking they had to take care of me, or protect me – I knew that I wasn’t ready to trust them to trust me to take care of myself.  (Every church member reading this now:  I’m over that worry!)  But during this time I had more than one person confess to me that they were struggling, but they “hadn’t had to resort to medication!”  And there I sat, wondering, just how bad does it have to be before we decide we are really ill and need treatment?   

Well, it’s a different time, and the stigma is falling away as we discover more and more about how our brains work.  There is something very real, very chemical, and a slew of mis-firing funky neurotransmitters happening inside those three pounds of tofu I call my brain.  And yet, we struggle with the shame of – What, exactly?  Of not managing this life?  

There is the shame that comes when “they” – those uninformed anonymous people suggest we are all taking “happy pills.”  Let me tell you – If only.  Everyone, let’s cut everyone some slack here.  This is a hard world we live in.  Yes, we live in the richest country in the world.  (And if you are like me, as a very comfortably middle class person with health insurance, it adds to your guilt that you struggle to manage.)  BUT:  there is also something toxic about this place and time.  One woman told her doctor she knew if she moved back to her small village in India, she would have less, but she wouldn’t need these meds.  Our brains just cannot keep up with the pace of life.  My daughter’s fingers fly as she texts; mine are clumsy and slow and make lots of errors.  But as a metaphor, without meds, I would not even be able to hold the phone.  I would simply not be capable.

Then there’s the internal shaming and chastising that goes on.  But here’s the thing:  If you broke your arm, you would not chastise yourself for not getting out there and practicing your tennis swing.  You would not berate yourself for your imperfect serve.  You would go to the doctor and you would NOT question that you needed a cast.  And pain management.  You would give tennis a rest and give your arm time to heal and you would expect nothing less.   Or let’s talk eye glasses – I am so thankful I live in an era when corrective lenses are the norm; otherwise in my legally blind state, I would have starved and been abandoned long ago, a victim to survival of the fittest (and death to the rest of the herd.)   But nowadays, if you choose to not have glasses and you bump around clumsily, you are considered a fool.

But when it’s our brains?  Well, we forget that they are the problem.  My brain insisted I could just will my way through these episodes, I was tough, I could hide it, I could cope, I was not going to let this get the better of me (and I did all that, until I was basically as sick as someone walking around with untreated double pneumonia, strep, and double ear infection, trying to pretend everything was hunky-dory.)  And my brain was wrong, and not to be trusted, a definite “frenemy” and I could not tell the difference between when it was my friend and when it was my enemy – BECAUSE MY BRAIN WAS BROKEN.   Those brains of ours are desperate to protect us, and we do not want to appear weak because we do not want to be abandoned, or shunned, or shamed.  Deep in our wiring, we know our very survival depends on our connections with others, and it feels terrifying to risk that.  Even though reaching out and finding support is one of the most important ways we heal from depressive episodes, and protect ourselves from the next.

I promise you – those people who think less of you because you are on anti-depressants?  They don’t need to be in your herd; there are plenty of other people out there who know how hard it can be.  And you don’t need them adding to your own internal dialogue of shame.  Those internal shaming demons are symptoms of a broken brain; they are not telling the truth, and they don’t need a back up choir of other people making you feel bad.  If you have just started taking anti-depressants or feel ambivalent about taking them, chances are you feel bad enough all by yourself.  

There are plenty of people out there who will see you as courageous, and strong.  These people will not judge you or abandon you; instead, you may just find your admission of being on anti-depressants gives you something to bond over.   And that bonding through honesty is not only good for the soul; it can provide a protective layer for your brain and your soul the next time around.

And besides, here’s at least one person who knows what living through a bad episode is like – And that there is life on the other side.  Drop me a line – I know you are brave, and courageous, and strong.  



Miserable in San Francisco

ImageHave you ever been to San Francisco?  Have you ever been to San Francisco when you realize that the supposedly comparable generic anti-depressant you’ve just switched to because your insurance company is charging you $100 a month for name brand isn’t cutting it at all?  

It should have been a great trip.  I had joined my husband as he worked a conference for the ideal combination of alone time and time with him.  He left to go staff the booth for the morning.  I tried to figure out what to do with myself.  You would think, So many great options!  But my brain went something like this:  Why don’t you rent a bike?  O, I couldn’t do that – It’s too much money, and you just did that yesterday with Paul.  Why don’t you go for a run?  But I’ve seen the Wharf area already and it would be a waste to go do something I’ve already done.  How about you get an all-day tourist bus pass and check out the Botanical Gardens and go running there?  O but that is too much money just to go to that one place.  But you could ride across the Golden Gate bridge and go running along that coastline.  No, I can’t do that.  That’s too far, and I heard there’s no easy way to get down to the water.  Fine, why don’t you just lay here.  I can’t do that!  What a waste!  How lazy!  Go to a coffee shop and read a book?  NO!  That’s not taking advantage of being in this great city able to do anything I want!!!

Yes, my husband received one of “those” calls, with me in an absolute panic because I could not figure out what to do and every single thing was stupid and I was ridiculous for even thinking it and I was wasting my time and I couldn’t stop spinning my wheels and now I’m crying.  I’m afraid just reading all that doesn’t give you a good enough feel for how painful depression can be.  How much it hurts.  How the demons beat you up for just breathing.  How dare you.  How each thought brings forth a cascade of punishment and humiliation that feel like ice picks being driven into your brain.  And they won’t stop.  Ever.  Yeah.  Maybe that’s a clearer picture.

The other problem with depression?  I lose total sight that it’s depression, and not that I am a worthless stupid waste of a person.  My husband has experience with this, so he said to me, “Amy, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  If you are this miserable trying to figure out what to do and you feel like every option is bad, I’m guessing that generic drug isn’t working.”

My response?  “Really?  You think that’s all it is?  And once we get home I can get the right drug?”   You know they are charging us $100 for it, right?”  “Amy, $100 a month is a pittance compared with your sanity.  It’s totally worth it.  In the meantime, go outside.  Go for a walk.  And when I get back, we’ll figure out what would be fun to do.”

The neuro-scientific research into depression reveals an incredibly complex picture of interacting genes, hormones, synapses, neuro-chemicals.  One branch of research is showing how the neuro-chemicals that keeps our emotions regulated get out of whack, so what should feel good – Like a trip to San Francisco – doesn’t.  But it’s no accident that calling my husband helped me calm down.  Social support is key to triggering the release of “feel good” chemicals.   Jaak Panskepp’s book “The Archeology of the Mind: Neuro-evolutionary Origins of Human Emotions” suggests “the possibility that depression is largely due to deficits of pleasure chemicals in the brain, particularly those that support the security of social bonds.”  It isn’t all that simple, but I’m fortunate to have people in my life who love me; people I trust more than the demons in my head.   Whew!  


My neighbor’s close call

I didn’t drink at all in high school or college, and I don’t drink much now.  I laugh and say it’s because I’m too much of a control-freak – which is part of the truth.  But the larger truth is that my prefrontal cortex has enough challenges without me intentionally hampering its effectiveness.  Our prefrontal cortex is the newest-evolved, top-most layer of our brain, and in many ways it is what makes us most “human.”  It’s where we can think about our thoughts, our responses, our knee-jerk reactions. It’s the place of our “mind,” where we can be in control, versus our “brain.”  It’s where compassion begins, along with judgement, rational thought, organization, and a whole host of “high-level functions” of our brain.  I figure, between brain hemorrhages and depression and the constant juggling act of this 21st century life, I’m better off not adding a whole lot of alcohol to the mix.

But when I ran into my neighbor Luisa after dropping my 5 year old niece at the bus stop a couple of weeks ago, I had to wonder if my prefrontal cortex was still recovering from my brain hemorrhage.  Anatomically, this makes no sense:  My brain bleeds in the most primitive brain stem, deep within my skull, miles away from my frontal lobes.  But when I saw Luisa, I realized just in the nick of time, I was about to exhibit some behaviors we normally associate with “sloppy drunks.”  I had the urge to throw my arms around her, and sob into her shoulder, “We never see each other!  We should be better friends!  I miss being your friend!  We definitely, definitely need to get together.  Why don’t we ever get together?  O, I am a horrible friend and neighbor.”  Get the picture?    Not pretty.  Pretty embarrassing.

This is a perfect example of emotional lability that comes with strokes, alcohol and drug use, brain injuries, and apparently for me, brain hemorrhages.  Thankfully, my prefrontal cortex was on-line enough that I stopped myself in time before making a fool of myself.  Can you say, “Inappropriate?”  My “filter” was not up to the task of a maintaining a socially appropriate simple neighborly interaction.  I knew I wasn’t ready for work right then, because if ever there is a job that requires some emotional regulation, it’s pastoring.  

That experience left me wondering how does alcohol impair our social judgment?  Why do stroke survivors and people with tbi (traumatic brain injury) exhibit such out of control emotions?  What is going on when we are hyper-stressed and our judgment isn’t always what it should be?  Is it as simple as there isn’t enough blood flow to go around, and so the prefrontal cortex gets short-changed?  I’m still digging into the research, but when we catch ourselves overly emotional, it’s probably good to take a step back, and ask, “What is going on here?” before we embarrass ourselves by unintentionally and inappropriately sobbing on an acquaintance’s shoulder for no apparent reason.  Thankfully, our prefrontal cortex will show up to help us out; but sometimes we have to walk away to a quiet place, and remind it to get to work.  That’s called mindfulness.