Saturday, September 10, 2016

big picture thinking: depression, reality, or both? (Long)

So in learning to live with clinical depression, one of the things I've struggled up and down with is the cyclical thinking that many with depression go through.
As a friend of mine whose sister struggle with depression [and, sadly, lost] commented: Depression can tell you lies.True enough. And part of my ongoing treatment/sekf-care involves discerning the difference between what's a byproduct of my depression, and what's a real thing in the world.

(I promise there will be bicycle content soon. Hang in there.)

For most of my life, many of my choices revolved around bicycles: riding them, repairing them, eschewing other forms of transportation. The lack of an available adult with a car compelled me, back in fifth grade, to choose a musical instrument that I could carry in my backpack or in a bicycle basket (sorry, cello).  If I wanted to sing in my high school's jazz choir that met at 6:45 am, I had to get to school on my own, since my father worked till 2am and the city bus didn't start running in time to get me there. When I realized that I could no longer afford the cost of automobile ownership, OR a monthly bus pass, I had to choose to ride into downtown on my bicycle. That was in 1990 and I have not looked back.

But more recently, things have been changing. And it feels like my job is to discern what's merely the depression talking and what is a reflection of the reality happening all around -- and inside -- me.

I'm fifty-three. I don't try to hide my age.
I have Crohn's disease. I no longer try to hide that, either (though in my earlier adulthood I did try to hide it because of employment worries. Now that I'm a freelancer, I can fire myself).
And I don't own a car.
For many years that has been totally fine. I rode my bike everywhere, every day, for decades.

About four years ago, things began to change inside and out.
Mood swings.
Less physical activity.
More fatigue.

It would take more than two full years to figure out there was something going on, and another year and a half to figure out what was going on. I had almost no support, and no mentorship professionally or otherwise, which meant I had to struggle and sort it out on my own. After a disastrous emotional breakdown and an eventual departure from an employer, I had come to understand, with medical help, that I was dealing with depression, chemically-based and highly likely coinciding with the onset of perimenopause. I was entering my fifties and after examining all the symptoms and struggling with talk therapy alone, I made the agonizing decision to begin taking anti-depressant medication under my doctor's care. It has helped a lot, along with ongoing mindfulness practice (difficult, since I have trouble focusing) and physical activity.
I rode my bicycle whenever I could, even though now I had nowhere to really go. Without the demands of a daily commute to an outside job, I had to make up errands just to go for rides.
And since the life of a freelancer with a wacky schedule can also be lonely, I ended up riding alone nearly all the time.

But over the last year, my symptoms changed again.  The fatigue increased, my appetite fell off, and I seldom wanted to leave the house last winter. Even on dry days I simply did not feel like getting dressed or riding my bicycle. I knew depression had something to do with it but I was treating that. My GI doctor suggested tests. He told me that my Crohn's had worsened and that I was also showing signs of IBS (Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome, slightly different from Crohn's but related). IBS, he explained can be exacerbated physically by the effects of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.
By then, the seasons had turned and the days were growing longer again. I forced myself to get out and ride my bike, even when every fiber of my being would prefer to lie in bed. I wasn't always successful, but when I did get out I was usually glad for it afterwards.

Since then, I have gained weight, and am now experiencing joint trouble that could be related to the advancement of the Crohn's (possible issues have included arthritis and fibromyalgia, both of which have auto-immune components).

In short, my body continues to change, and I continue to be challenged by a lack of desire to ride my bicycle, especially as the days grow shorter again. I still ride alone most of the time -- too many bathroom stops along the way make it difficult to invite folks to come along and I am dreadfully slow. But every now and then I can feel a return, if not to speed, then at least to my former pedaling form -- smooth, easy -- and I can enjoy the breeze on my cheeks.

New challenges continue to affect my riding. Seeing at night, even with ambient street lighting, has grown more difficult; and while the new meds have helped some, they haven't brought about anything resembling remission, so I still have to dash for the bathroom with little notice (just not as often as before). And I still struggle with depression.

Which leads to sifting through what's real and what's not.

The news of the world comes across our newsfeeds every morning now; unless you eschew social media it's impossible to avoid. And amidst the bad news, there are more and more headlines screaming about how, socially, politically, economically and environmentally, we are all going to hell in a handbasket. Back in the day, I thought my choices about how I lived could make a difference, albeit a small one. Today, I am plagued by the sinking feel that choosing to ride a bicycle or use public transportation doesn't make a dent as long as so many other people drive cars and we insist on shipping freight by truck instead of rail.

It has gotten harder, scarier, to ride a bicycle in Portland, as more motorists move here and drive everywhere and crowd the roads. Incidents of road rage are on the rise, and more people die in bicycle-auto collisions now then just five years ago. I no longer trust bike lanes, and instead look for quieter residential side streets on which to ride. It takes me longer to get there but aI end up feeling less frazzled.
I feel older, and not at all like some kind of bicycle "warrior". These days, I'm just a middle-aged woman riding at a snail's pace and trying to stay out of everyone's way. It makes riding less fun.

My air travel, greatly increased since I changed careers four years ago, is adding to the carbon footprint that is contributing to climate change. (Friends tell me that thanks to all the years I didn't fly or drive, I've got some "points" to spare; but I am not convinced by that argument and I continue to agonize every time I must board a plane for work.)
Choosing not to shop but to instead wear clothes until they wear out, and looking for replacements in "Free" boxes isn't putting a dent in the amount of shopping going on in malls across the country.
This year, the two major political parties, corporations and the mass media have bent over backwards to help insure that the vote I cast has as little effect on the outcome of the Presidential election as possible.

So what am I left with?

I don't know.

Riding my bicycle and living more lightly and staying mindful will likely not change the world one bit.
So I either have to give up, or find other reasons for continuing to live as I do.
Besides keeping myself a little closer to sane, I'm not sure what's left.
The hard part about this is that these days bicycle riding feels less like a pleasure and more like medicine, an obligation. That really bothers me, and I don't know what to do about when my body isn't cooperating.
I've spent a lot of time agonizing, asking myself the chicken-and-egg question: Did I slow down because I changed careers, or did I change careers because I was sensing that I was slowing down? Maybe it's both. I don't know.
But I do know that I miss the way I used to feel -- physically stronger, emotionally and mentally bolder.
I don't know how to get any of that back. And that is what makes it so hard for me to know how much of my malaise is rooted in depression, and how much is rooted in the reality all around and within me.

I'd like to go for a ride, but my stomach hurts and I know I'll be spending more time in the bathroom this afternoon. And then, getting out and putting the physical effort into riding seems like a bother, pointless. So it's highly likely I won't ride today.

If you do NOT live with diagnosed depression, PLEASE do not write to me and suggest that I snap out of it. I have learned that depression does not work like that.

If you DO live with depression, feel free to contact me with coping strategies that have worked for you, to get you outside and moving even a little bit more.

Cheers and happy riding.

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