Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Depression: Techniques

I have wanted to tackle the subject of my depression for a long time now.  Maybe ever since I’ve started this blog.  I’m still not sure how I want to do this but several instalments like the “NT:” series might do the trick.  

Depression is an interesting subject inasmuch as so little is known about it in the general populace.  It is subtly different for everyone. It is chemistry, it is hormonal, it is weather, it is personal trials, it is external, it is internal and it is misunderstood. Small wonder.

For me burnout and depression are separate but related things.  A crash and a burnout are also separate but related.  My definitions of each come first:

1) Depression is a state of being, a dark state of mind, soul and body.
2) Burnout is an event of undetermined length culminating, but not exclusively, in physical exhaustion.
3) Crash is a physical and psychological paralysis.

All the above have varying degrees of intensity.  These are by no means scientific definitions they are simply mine to communicate with.

My depression started when I was young.  It may have been due to my baseball tribulations, but I doubt it, and I don’t remember exactly when it all started.  It’s been cyclical ever since, like an old friend it’s been with me on and off for most, if not all, of my life.  

As I said above, it’s a state of being where darkness exists in my mind and soul.  I cannot push it away, or anger it out, or will it to change.  Heaven knows I’ve tried.  

The effect on my mind, as I explained it once to a family member, is akin to seeing nighttime in broad daylight. When night comes, it feels good, like relief.  The darkness of night blends with my own veil in my mind and I cannot see my gloom, it is no longer starkly highlighted against the brightness.  My perception becomes much clearer somehow.

Physically it feels like a 100-pound cape – that’s 62.5kg metric - draped over my body.  It’s not keeping me from moving, but certainly hindering.  Every single movement is effort.  Gliding, floating, effortless, and freedom are not in my vocabulary then.

I’ve tried various techniques, one of which was mind over mood.  This is willing a bad mood away by sheer concentration.  For example, if you are sad, you make an effort to go to the fair and enjoy it!  Needless to say, this didn’t work. Mind you this approach is a problem that we all suffer from in various ways: we power through that which makes us unhappy.  Heck, this very technique is so pervasive we don’t even know we’re doing it. We even have a phrase for it: “you can’t always do what you enjoy”.  

Some of us will immediately start rationalizing this phrase and this is my point exactly.  It shouldn’t be rationalized. It shouldn’t even exist.  The motivational speakers I’ve heard say different, their trick is a positive outlook, their approach quite simple: enjoy everything!  I have tried to enjoy everything, but I guess reality is different for me.  

I was doing the work and putting in the effort, motivation notwithstanding.  Thusly I powered through the second ½ of grade school, 2 first years of high school, the first half of university, all of CEGEP, second half of my time in I.T., ½ of my time as project manager.

On the other hand, I enjoyed my last three years of high school, the Comp-Sci portion of university, my time in CTS, and team leading when I was a manager at Nortel.

And the rest?  That’s the clincher. I didn’t enjoy, nor did I hate, the rest.  But that makes the Enjoy column rather weak, or at least never enough to counterbalance the minus side.  

The more energy I sucked into powering through something I didn’t like, the worse the aftermath.  Ultimately, this is what led to my demise.  I had powered through too much to recover, the effects being cumulative. I was tough, I was smart, I could make it, and that’s what I was expected to do.  I put myself aside for too long and I burned out.

So, contrary to popular belief powering through everything is not the answer.  

There is another technique for semblance of control of depressive state: observation.  This entails paying attention to triggers and sometimes even root cause can be identified.  If nothing else, just searching for the event that started the darkness is enough to satisfy.  It’s like troubleshooting your own emotional state through causality.

This has much better results, but is tiring work, as I need to keep myself in check constantly. The upshot is astoundingly simple: stay the hell away from things that make you depressed.  Chocolate is a huge thing for me.  I love chocolate.  Milk chocolate, to be precise, is my most favourite food after pecan pie.  I can no longer eat pecan pie as I have developed intolerance to nuts in general and pecans in particular.

A chocolate bar will make of me a quivering mess of depression.  Of course it’s a sugar thing, but the result is exactly the same.  I found this trigger by paying attention.  I’ve even run experiments to prove this.  Chocolate is actually the only food I’ve identified as being a trigger.  Chocolate is the only food, but not the only trigger.  This would have been way too simple.   Worse still, often, there are no identifiable triggers at all!

The first issue with observation is that it’s easy to slip into navel gazing.  I must be diligent to observe but not get suckered into doing nothing else.  History is important, yet I must not get stuck in the past.  The second issue is this wealth of information can be dangerous in a depressed state, as it gets exponentially harder to let go of past mistakes and regrets.

Sometimes observation is hard to come by.  When hiding in plain sight as it were, a third vehicle can come into play, which I’ve already talked about: writing.  This only takes the edge off, but can be a salvation.

A fourth technique entails wearing the depression, as a greatcoat.   This is a manner in which to live that isn’t as incapacitating.  This is the hardest to describe.  Maybe the end of the movie A Beautiful Mind explains it best.  Our hero, John Nash, still has the three characters haunting his schizophrenic mind.  John knows about them and ignores them as best he can.  

Habit is the final hammer.  And a hammer it is.  When motivation is non-existent and when all others have failed, the only thing left is the habitual actions I have day to day.  Getting out of bed for instance will be accomplished by rolling over until I fall out.  Starting the day begins with a shower to wash up after bio-break, since I’m already in the washroom and partially disrobed.  Getting dressed is a subsequent action to being naked after a shower. And so on.  It’s all automated actions and it’s all habit.  But habit is surviving, it’s not living.

Fortunately, I no longer have to haul out the heavy hammer every day...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Unload... on writing

Yesterday I was angry. Not teeth gritting angry, just a little angry.

Sometimes it happens and I don’t know why. Usually I can identify the source, or the trigger, but not this time. So I thought it best not to write about it on the spot.

These spontaneous write-ups don’t lend themselves well to publishing. It all turns quickly into bitching and then editing takes forever while I weed out the ranting from the genuine emotion, and separate reactions from legitimate thoughts. Writing is a great catharsis but publishing is something else entirely.

Talking about something that affects us emotionally will often exorcise it. Many a great writer have produced works of art based solely on exteriorizing their emotions to paper. This is also a vehicle used often in psychology to get the bad-stuff ™ out of one’s system. It’s a dichotomy really. On one hand good works are created and on the other bad feelings can be put to rest by writing them down.

Maybe there is a connection there. Is it all emotion? Good, bad, one writes from the heart and not the head? I have gotten 2 emails from friends today, one asking for advice on a work issue, the other just wanting to unload. These events got me to thinking, that the action of writing is almost as important as what is written, and then by electronic medium no less. If only Marshall McLuhan could see us now!

Both these friends are smart, savvy, true and complete individuals, and don’t really need my advice for anything! Yet they each chose a writing medium to exteriorize their tribulation. This is significant, inasmuch as they are so very completely diametrically opposed people. I would not have guessed that the common process was writing? It is true they are geographically distant from me so talking in real-time is difficult. Instead an electronic medium got me their words in an instant.

This takes nothing away from the word. Exfoliating the word from our selves is a powerful tool to wield. As with all tools, we have a reticence to use them until we have a comfort level established. However, the Written is among those tools that are 99.9% effective on the first try as a catharsis, as I said earlier.

I’m not saying we should all write a blog or diary, but if we have something weighing on our mind, it may be a good idea to write it down, even if, or maybe especially, if no one else reads it. Seldom have I produced in my little pink book things that I read over. When I did read some passages, later, it was all gibberish.

Firstly, my handwriting is atrocious and in such a small space is worse. But more important, the thoughts were of the moment, in the moment and therefore remain to this day unconnected. But at the time, the soothing that occurred was undeniable. It wasn’t an end nor all encompassing. The truth remains that my depression still occurred and darker times were still ahead.

Second, the thoughts were ill formed and therefore not publishable for future understanding. I went looking for some specific passages and found them, a word here, a thought there, and emotion throughout. This search yielded clarity for my emotions.

I thought: what if I had a baseline to work from? These raw emotions, on paper, were my lines drawn in the sand. What if I had a starting point? These were indicators, flags if you will. What if I had an emotional picture to look at? These were map lines and coordinates. They didn’t really make any sense, but they didn’t have to. Nor did any of these words provide insight to where I was going. Simply put, they just as simply lightened the load.

My premise for writing down these emotions was all wrong. I thought I was producing baggage and tools for myself, where in fact I was unloading (see that word?) Small wonder it was all gibberish! Maybe a better word for it would be rubbish. It had already served its purpose.

As I think back on it now, it is obvious that I still have lots of emotion carried from my burnout days. I did dump quite a bit of it, pell-mell though it may have been. I may never get rid of it all, but at least now I can cope, where then I could not.

The darkness comes back to haunt me on a semi-regular basis. I have no control over the onslaught, but I do have some tricks in my bag to deal with it: Writing! The real kicker is to keep it solid and readable.

As one might guess, the dark has been at me for 3 days now. Hmm, maybe I found the trigger for yesterday’s anger.

PS. The pink book was a spiral neat-book purchased at Staples in order to write down affecting thoughts during my dark-time. Pink was chosen, because it was a hopeful colour, and black was just too easy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Service and a letter

Today my wife had to call the hospital to get an appointment for a mammography. This is the second appointment in as many months. We aren’t overly worried yet, but the radiologist who took the first pictures wants another run and an echo (ultra-sound). The appointment for the mammography is in late December, but the ultra-sound will be done sometime in May… yes… May.

Hopefully the x-rays won’t reveal anything substantial to worry about, but this situation isn’t the purpose of the discussion today.

The phone call is.

Last week, my wife attempted to reach the CHG – Centre Hospitalier de Gatineau for this very same prescription. After waiting on voice-mail hold for over ½ hour, she was told to call again next week, as the appointment book was full and the next wasn’t open yet.

“Open for when?” she asked.

“Mid next year” was the curt reply, followed by hang up.

Neither of us was overly surprised, after all, my wife is a nurse, so we know a little about our health system.

This week, she got a wonderful lady on the line, after the mandatory 10 minute wait. Not only does she provide with an appointment, but the system is broken and she proposes to call my wife back for the echo schedule, later in the day.

Both of us are literally floored. Where the hell did this concern for customer service come from? Furthermore, when the nice lady called back some minutes later, my wife thinks to ask for her name. My wife will be writing a letter of thanks and commendation for the excellent service she received this very morning.

There are several issues at work here. The most obvious is that our expectation of service was so low to begin with, given last week’s abject handling and our normal experiences in the health system. The second is that we are both ready to thank someone, in writing no less, for doing her job properly. Finally, what do we put in the letter?

It’s extremely cynical to think that if we thank this person for a call-back, she may actually get reprimanded for going out-of-process. Cynical though it may be, it is nevertheless a very real possibility. I’ve seen, first hand, this kind of behaviour before.

Given this, maybe our low expectation of good service is justified. We have grown accustomed to being treated like dirt. Note that this is design intent by big businesses, in order to provide a cost-effective, read minimal, level of service for volume.

If this lady, did indeed go out of process to provide what we should expect to be an acceptable level of service, our letter will damage her work evaluation and she will be constrained to follow orders from here on out. This will yield an embittered employee who will answer the phones much like that battle-axe last week.

In reality, she was just doing her job correctly, according to us. Maybe not so according to process. If we do nothing, that is if we do not highlight this awesome event, there would be no harm done. Literally!

It was so surprising, and inspiring, that we wish this lady to continue her behaviour. Etiquette and good citizenship dictates that we should make a point of this. So we will send in a letter of thanks for someone doing their job justly. Hopefully this letter will fall upon a desk where the business ethics go beyond the process and the sad service drawn by said process.

It’s really a catch-22 in several ways. If we bitch about the system, no one will listen, or at least claim they’ve heard it all before and nothing can be done without more money. If we acknowledge good, decent, work, it will reflect upon the entire system that all is well, and nothing else need be done. If we do nothing, nothing will change, or maybe the lady on the phone will eventually become dejected through lack of acknowledgement of a job well done. We come full circle.

Where has good, decent, work ethic gone? According to the above, it would have been processed or business-cased out of existence years ago. And we didn’t even see it flee.

Our outrage at lousy service is almost daily occurrence in each our lives. Most of us are not even surprised anymore, and we let it slide, just to buy the peace. Our being surprised at decent service is equally telling. I’ve heard friends be full of praise at what I would consider to be ordinary service. Hell, I’ve done so myself on occasion.

What is so great about ordinary service? Nothing. I think that we see it as extraordinary where we just don’t expect to see it.

When I go to Subway’s I expect whoever is behind the counter to have, at the very least, a pleasant disposition, but oddly, when I phone the hospital or my local clinic, I expect the battle-axe and am usually not disappointed, nor surprised, in either regard.

It seems to me that some places are better than others. Notably, the places where they really want your money… but then only if it’ll cost them big if they don’t get your patronage.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My Jeep is in the Shop

So the insurance company is clueless.  Not an earth-shattering discovery by any stretch. Being clueless gives them a distinct advantage to screw you over, since anything you say will fall on deaf, or worse, stupid ears.

I was in a car accident a few weeks ago, and my file is still not resolved.  Immediately I think to myself: it must be my fault, I must have done something wrong, I must be wanting too much.

The first estimate that I got for my Jeep’s damage was in the 4000$ range.  That’s quite a bit of money, but considering the impacted sheet metal, it’s not all that bad, it’s just expensive.  This is from the insurance-company appointed shop no less.

First feedback I got was this amount is more than the Jeep is worth. - “Houston, we have a problem.”

I bide my time and remain relatively quiet, as we are so early in the game, anything can still change.  The insurance company decides to get a second evaluation from one of their other estimator shops.  Comes out to 2500$.

That’s a 1500$ difference.  I check again… yep, 1500$.  That’s not even close!  Oh, and by the way, I have to pay for devaluation, in the amount of 491.64$ and have a 500$ deductible to pay.

My time stops biding. I started raising some ruckus.  I can understand being off by 10% or 20% but this is damned near 40%, even 50% if I count the 491.64$ that I’d have to fork out.  This simply will not do.

I called my insurance adjuster, collected the phone number for the estimator and start talking with people.  Even this early in the game, the second estimator is out to lunch and I’m already convinced he’s forgotten a mess of things.  I asked him specifically about the drive train and steering components.  He claimed nothing was off.  Keep in mind, this guy came to glare at my truck, in my driveway, nothing but a flashlight and his so-called experience to establish how badly I’m going to get screwed.

Back to the adjuster, I asked him what this devaluation was all about, and he answered, cocky and sure as can be, this is what it is and that I can check with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.  I told him to check with his own superiors and by the way, I wasn’t paying any deductible on an accident where I was clearly not at fault.  The deductible was waived.

Devaluation is a tab they stick you with, if you have an older car and they can’t find used parts for it.  In other words, you are paying extra for their incompetence of being unable to properly source parts for your vehicle.  In my innocence, I thought that’s what insurance premiums were adjusted for.  

I got back to my first estimator - the 4000$ guy - and asked him what he thought of all this.  Being a consummate customer service rep, he remained non-committal but assured me he was going to look into this 1500$ difference.  He’ll be the one doing the work, so it’s in his best interest to charge proper amounts.

Nevertheless, I called my insurance broker and brought her up to date on what I thought was going on.  My unhappiness is evident, especially with regards to the devaluation.  I used the analogy: “you’ve won an all expenses-paid trip to the Caribbean for 2 weeks!  But you have to pay for your own airplane ticket.”  Fuck that!  I ain’t going.  I’ll drive to New Jersey and go camping for less, out of my pocket.

A few days went by and then a few more.  I didn’t really care at this point, since I’ve got a 2005 Grand Cherokee as a loaner, a really nice truck.   Of course, this is part of my insurance premium as well, that I should get a loaner in case of accidents.

Eventually I got fed up and started making some calls again.  I spoke with the insurance company again.  A sweet young thing named Corinne in Montreal tells me that there is no devaluation to be had!  Eventually I spoke again with my own adjuster, while not apologizing, he at least admitted there was no devaluation, as Corinne had said, and as I had suspected all along.

My proposal was to bring the truck in for service, but to start with the damaged springs and an alignment to prove that no further mechanical damage was present.  These 4x4 trucks have very complex machinery operating underneath and anything out of alignment will cause massive and expensive damage.  The proposal was accepted and finally, after almost 4 weeks, the Jeep was finally in the shop.

My 4000$-friend at the shop told me to get in touch with the insurance company again, to make a final call as to scrapping the truck or to fix it.  The final evaluation was set at 3400$ for damages, a damned sight better than 2500$, but the Jeep’s worth is apparently still set between 3000$ and 4000$.

I had to get upset again.  This model-year & mileage Jeep is worth more like 7000$.  Again, I could accept a 10% to 20% difference, given the rust and so forth, but 50%?  These people are either stupid, or ignorant, or playing the screw-you game.  I’m not sure which is the worse option.
I must admit, however, that I have collected all the Jeep ads in the Auto-Trader since I got rammed.  So I wasn’t entirely surprised by the approach, I did see this argument coming since day one.  As it is, there are no 1995 Jeep YJ with 100K km for under 7000$. Most are at 5000$ to 6000$ with but with well over 150K.

The decision was easy to make, they could scrap the truck if they wanted, but I wasn’t intent on taking less than 5500$.  Anything below this, they could bloody-well fix.  So the Jeep is presently in the shop, and I’m holding my breath waiting for the next catastrophe.  This isn’t over yet.

Depending how this finally turns out, I may have to take a trip to Costco and get a jar of Vaseline, and as a Christmas gift, send it to my adjuster.

PS.  I have not divulged the name of the insurance company, nor the adjuster, nor the estimators.  I don’t want to run the risk of negatively influencing my settlement.  Email me if you really want to know who is involved.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Stuck... on writing

Once again, I have been remiss in producing a blog entry in a timely manner.

I could go into all sorts of excuses, but this would be quite unlike me.  Instead, I choose what I perceive to be the “truth”:  I was feeling inadequate.

How’s that from someone who is, shall we say, opinionated?

I went to a wonderful writer’s workshop back in October, seems like years ago now.  This workshop was geared towards writing a novel, as opposed to blogs, and it was extremely instructional.  Little did I know that I would revisit some of my own writings afterwards and find them wanting.

This is not surprising in itself, as we are often our own worse critics.  What I did not expect was to lock myself up.   A few days after the workshop I polished some of the work I had done and published it here: the Halloween poem and the book review of Isaac’s Storm.  Shortly thereafter, I was simply unable to move ahead with my next subject matter, which was about statistics and lies, if I remember correctly.

Not that the subject wasn’t of interest to me, quite the opposite, I was itching to wax pejorative about the low unemployment rate bullshit.  I may yet publish on this, as I have a place-marker in my blogger dashboard.  I even found good slamming fodder in the recent news on TV and the Ottawa Citizen.  But none of these events sparked enough juice to get me writing.

I had to turn to my motivation again.  This is something that I have yet to expound on, but is a recurring theme in my life.  I want to treat this subject with the importance it deserves, so I won’t do so here, it’ll have it’s very own space.  

My research into not writing, yet wanting to, yielded fear as a by-product of incompetence.  Upon revisiting my work, as I mentioned earlier, I was hit with how much improvement it could stand. Not that I didn’t put in my best effort in first publishing here, au contraire, but looking back at what I learned, it seemed that all could stand more editing.  This is normal. The more often work is revisited, the better one can perfect it.  

But then fear started creeping in, and what-if started rearing its ugly head.  I can produce some thoughts to paper or computer screen.  I can edit to a degree of understanding.  I can publish these thoughts in blog-form.  But what-if: I don’t have any subject to write about any more?  What-if, editing takes 5, or 10, or 20 days?  What if I’m not satisfied with the result, and not want to publish it?  What if …

So I had to read my own blog-entry on fear again, just to shake me out of it! Then I found much editing to be done even on that blog entry!  Arrgh!

What-ifs can paralyse, as fear, but they can also be an indicator or even a trigger.  The strange truth is that if we lock up on something, being stuck in psycho-parlance, it inevitably means that we have something to address before moving on.  This is my philosophy anyway, after years of therapy:  there is no “stuck”.  Stuck is a state of being that signifies one is not addressing something by ordinary methods.  Being truly stuck means we’ve had a go at resolving the conflict but have failed to find a way about.  It also means that we may need new tools, or a new outlook, or a new set of parameters to tackle this newly found problem.

So to me “stuck” is simply an indicator that requires me to change my thinking.  Note that there is nothing simple about changing ones thinking.  I tend to analyse the shit out of everything, this is my natural way of tackling things.  So when I am setting out to change my thinking I have to, at the least, limit analysis and use something else.  For us control freaks, this is very challenging.

I declared that I was locking myself up, and I have analysed this in the past few weeks and have not found a solution.  Hence I now declare the trigger pulled and the hammer down: Thinking about it will not help.

Low and behold, writing about it… just might!  

So I did.