Monday, October 12, 2009

Procrastination and me: I put off finishing this blog post, too

I love learning. All I do all day is learn, even—especially—on days I don't have class. I'm a knowledge sponge. My tumblr is called information addict for a reason.

But learning and school are not the same thing. I'm great at one, and terrible at the other.

Every semester I've been in grad school so far, the following has happened:
  1. I procrastinate.
  2. I get behind on my work.
  3. I get anxious about being behind on my work.
  4. The anxiety makes me procrastinate more.
  5. I get more behind.
  6. The anxiety becomes paralyzing.
  7. I get depressed.
  8. I fall behind on everything else. I'm late for work. I get yelled at for being late for work. I feel worse. My health gets worse. I'm constantly stressed. I stop doing anything fun. The homework, by now, seems utterly impossible.
Sometimes I manage to pull myself together and do the work, at the last minute possible. But spring semester of this year, there were some external circumstances that caused me to reach the "depression" point much earlier, and worse, than usual. I could barely function for a while. With help, I got an incomplete in both of my classes. I finished one—barely, and inadequately—over the summer. The other is still hanging over my head.

Right now I'm at the point where I wake up in the morning and all I can think about is how much homework I still haven't done, and how hard it's going to be to catch up. It lands on my shoulders as a weight as soon as I'm out of bed, and stays there all day. Of course, this feeling doesn't lend itself well to motivating myself to do homework.

I don't know how to break this cycle.

I'm a procrastinator. I'm not going to suddenly stop procrastinating. My shrink, Dr. M, tends to increase my medication around step 8, but it's becoming apparent that meds only go so far. I'm too old for all-night marathon homework sessions (I just fall asleep). I've tried ADD drugs and they mostly make me more anxious. I've tried time management techniques, and I have no idea how well they work, because I never stick to a schedule.

It sounds so easy when I'm at work, or in class, or doing something else. I can see myself sitting down and doing the work one piece at a time. But when I'm there and I actually have to do the work, I just freeze. I'll do something, anything, to avoid homework. I'll fall asleep. I'll rationalize a million reasons to not get started right now. I'll get started once I take a shower. Once I eat lunch. Once my cat gets off my lap. Once I'm done checking my email. I'll start at nine. At ten. I'll start when I feel more awake. When I have more energy. When I don't feel so anxious.

This usually lasts all day.

In the evening, I am near tears from frustration with myself. I start arguing with the past. Why didn't you start right away? You had all these hours, and you wasted them. Why do you always do this? Why don't you ever do what's best for me? Don't you know there are twenty-four usable hours in every day?

I've struggled with procrastination for as long as I can remember. The cycle has just become more pronounced, more deeply entrenched, over the years. It's not just about the one assignment anymore; it's about every assignment I've ever turned in late, every teacher I've ever disappointed, every frown on my mother's face when she finds my homework undone or my grades slipping. The weight gets a little bit heavier every time.

I hope I can salvage a decent grade from the class I'm behind in, while keeping on top of things for the other class. I might be able to do that, but then I also have to do my incomplete from last semester, and do it well enough to get a B in the class, or it doesn't count towards my degree. This is the point at which I question why I'm in library school at all, and wonder if I'd even be a good librarian, and whether there's something else I could do that wouldn't make me so miserable, and whether dropping out now would just make me feel like a failure forever, not to mention wasting all the money my parents have given me for tuition, etc.

Grad school is stressful, sure. Everyone knows that. I'm just not sure it's worth all the stress, all the weight on my shoulders. These days a degree doesn't guarantee you anything.

But more than just this degree, this assignment, this class, I wish I could break the cycle for myself. Because there are always going to be things I want to get done, and I don't want to waste my life in a state of anxious paralysis. That's no way to live.

Monday, October 5, 2009

IBS and me: a brief history

Just a heart-shaped emptiness where my stomach should be, surrounded by spongy, deteriorating flesh.

That's what I dreamed I saw in the mirror. I stood there, naked, knowing there was no cure, desperately wishing for a miracle drug.

I have irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, also known by the more colorful name of "spastic colon." What this means is my small intestine often rebels against me, causing pain, nausea, and diarrhea or constipation. It's about as fun as it sounds.

You know when people say they have a "sensitive stomach"? Well, people with IBS literally have sensitive stomachs, or rather, sensitive small intestines. You can see the difference for yourself here. The IBS-afflicted intestine looks like it's having a panic attack, which it might well be.

I also have depression and anxiety. These range in severity from crippling to mildly annoying, depending on the day, the season, how much stress I'm under, and how well I've been doing lately. Comorbid anxiety and depression are very common in people with IBS. Did my depression and anxiety cause my stomach to go crazy, or did my stomach going crazy make my anxiety and depression worse? Possibly the former--definitely the latter.

You see, as annoying as it is, IBS was a wake-up call. In the late summer of 2006, I had been coasting along in a state of mild depression for three years, ever since I graduated college. Though I couldn't see it, it was getting gradually worse, and after or during a particularly bad series of days--I don't remember exactly when it started--I suddenly couldn't eat anything without experiencing stomach cramps and diarrhea. My appetite was still there, so I was in tears half the time--my body wanted me to eat, but it was rejecting everything I gave it. I had no idea what was wrong. I spiraled into constant and severe anxiety, which brought its faithful friend, depression.

It took doctors the better part of six months to diagnose me. I spent those six months living at my parents' house, my childhood home, the only place I felt safe. I had CT scans, ultrasounds, enemas, a colonoscopy, an endoscopy, stool sample tests, blood tests. I had to drink a gallon of laxative-spiked gatorade*, drink a bunch of water and then not pee for several hours, collect my shit in a plastic bowl, and other indignities. My diet shrank to rice, lentil soup, herbal tea, dry cereal, and white-meat chicken. I lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 pounds. My clothes hung off me. Twice, I didn't make it to the bathroom in time, and had accidents usually only associated with small children and the very old. And the whole time, I was trying out different medications for anxiety and depression, all of which came with their own side effects, some related to digestion, some not.

*I am never drinking gatorade again as long as I live.

Eventually, I was prescribed a medication (amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant) that calmed down my stomach enough that eating was no longer excruciating, and I didn't have to run to the bathroom as frequently. Eventually, my anxiety lessened. Eventually, with the help of medications and therapy, I pulled myself out of the depths of depression. So sometimes I'm grateful for IBS, because without it, I don't know how long it would have been before I realized I needed help.

Today, IBS is something I live with. I've slowly added most foods back into my diet, although I still avoid dairy products--not easy in America's Dairyland--and high-fat foods like peanut butter. I gained the weight back. I've added a medication to my regimen that slows my digestion even more, although it wasn't prescribed for that purpose. I have some kind of abdominal pain every couple of days, and it gets worse when I'm stressed, but severe attacks are few and far between.

These days it's a reminder: not all illnesses are visible. Anyone you encounter could be dealing with chronic pain, mental illness, an invisible disability. There are things people don't talk about, because they fear stigma, or they think they'll be branded a whiner because their illness or disability isn't immediately apparent (or not as severe as others), or people will tell them it's all in their head. But these things exist, and they're real. And millions of people deal with them every day.

Maybe if my stomach was being visibly eaten away from some kind of wasting disease, like I saw in my dream, I wouldn't feel so self-conscious every time I ask someone to cover the front desk at my job so I can run to the bathroom. Maybe I wouldn't feel embarrassed about staying in the bathroom so long. Maybe I wouldn't feel so isolated every time people offer me pizza or ice cream, or every time every item on the restaurant menu has cheese in it. Maybe I wouldn't feel so lazy when I get tired more easily than other people, or when the pain of an attack leaves me exhausted for the rest of the day, or when my medication makes me sleepy and lethargic.

But at least IBS is physical. It's something I can tell people about, even if they don't want to know the details. Mental illness is much harder to mention casually in conversation.

More on that tomorrow someday.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Introductory Post

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

     - Rumi

"You just shook your head! That doesn't make you happy?"

     - Fezzik, The Princess Bride

This blog was originally meant to replace my book tumblr. It was going to be mostly Young Adult book reviews, with other posts related to reading, writing, libraries, and library school.

I love YA lit, and it's a large part of the reason I'm in library school. But there are already a lot of great YA book blogs out there, doing great work. If I'm honest with myself, reviewing isn't my favorite thing to do.

So I'm going to talk about myself. Which is, in fact, my favorite thing to do (writing-wise, that is; I'm not Gilderoy Lockhart). Specifically, I'm going to write about my experiences living with various mental and physical illnesses, none of which are severe enough to land me in a hospital, but all of which impact my life, every day.

I am inspired by others who write about their experiences with mental illness, physical illness, and disability with honesty, humor, and eloquence. Some of the best of these are: amandaw at three rivers fog, Kameron Hurley at Brutal Women, abbyjean at think on this., and Cleolinda at Occupation: Girl. The writers at Shapely Prose and Feministe also inspire me to share my own perspective.

I'll almost certainly write about other things as time goes on. My interests are subject to change, but a random smattering of them can always be found at my tumblr. If you'd like to read some of what I wrote about my life before I started this blog, check out my LiveJournal.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Imaginary Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Don't you have an online journal and a tumblelog already? Why another blog?
A: Because I feel like it, and LiveJournal is not what it used to be.

Q: Wait, what's a tumblelog?
A: It's an online scrapbook of anything you find on the internet--quotes, photos, videos, mp3s, links, etc. I find a ton of stuff online that I like, but don't feel like writing a full blog post about. Lolcats, for example. But I also use it as a gathering place for anything I think is important and worth reading.

Q: So what's at your LiveJournal?
A: My LiveJournal stretches back eight years. The vast majority of that is locked, but I have left some posts public. Right now, the public content is mostly an archive of my struggle with depression, anxiety, and IBS, starting about three years ago when I had a breakdown of sorts. Some of it is intensely personal, but I would rather people see what I've gone through, and maybe take solace that they're not alone, than keep everything hidden for my own protection. Mental illness is too often swept under the rug out of fear or shame.

Q: So... you're all better now?
A: Nope. I wage daily battles with depression, struggle often with anxiety, and I haven't had ice cream in three years (sigh). But I am doing much better than I used to be, thanks to a combination of therapy, drugs, mindfulness practice, dietary changes, and support from my friends and especially my family.

Q: Why do you have ads on your blog? Sellout.
A: Ah, but see, you can't sell out if you never sold in.

Q: That doesn't make any sense.
A: So's your face.