Tuneful Tuesday: Times Like These

One week from today, I will be 41 years old. I have plenty of thoughts on this, but since it doesn’t make much sense to share them a week early, I figured I would just stick to the usual Tuneful Tuesday routine – except I’m going to talk about getting older next week. Makes sense, right?

I had always believed that turning 40 would be a somewhat traumatic experience. I was somewhat surprised last year, then, when my 40th birthday came and went without much of a bump at all. If anything, I felt relieved I had actually managed to live that long, mainly because of some weird belief I used to have that I wouldn’t live to see 40. I have no idea why I thought that. Looking back, it makes even less sense to me now. Nevertheless, I felt a certain kind of joy at having made it that far.

From 40 to 41, though, has been a different sort of beast. I dove headlong into learning all I could about depression, and at times I’ve gotten kind of swallowed up in the pursuit. I’ve gone through strange periods of dullness, where nothing particularly interested me all that much. I’ve experienced extreme sadness and bouts of melancholy. At times, I’ve felt sort of alone, as if I’m on some sort of island. In short, it has been a trying and taxing year.

The thing about it is, though, I’ve been through it all before.

I have no idea if this is correct, but I’m beginning to get the impression that living with dysthymia involves a long series of falling down and getting back up, of learning and re-learning lessons over and over again. The tough seasons and years come, and they do their best to drag you down, but somehow you still find yourself standing and even finding relief for long stretches of time. It may not be ideal, but what about life is ideal anyway?

“It’s times like these, you learn to live again…”

Happy birthday to me.

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Snow Banks & Airplanes

In many areas of the United States, a foot of snow on the ground does not a crisis make. In Kentucky, however, it puts everyone into full-on freak-out mode. Not that long ago, many of us in the western part of the Bluegrass State were shoveling off our driveways and trying to figure out how we were going to get to work (or anywhere) the next day. Once we all made it out of our driveways, we were greeted by some roadways that had been plowed, some that had been sort of plowed, and some that it appeared no one had touched at all.

On the plowed roadways, there were heavy-duty mounds of snow piled up along the shoulders. I’m not sure if they could have actually done any damage to a vehicle if it had struck one of them, but they looked solid enough to possibly cause some harm to not only the vehicle but also the driver behind the wheel.

And, on a particularly down day for me, I had the brief, fleeting desire to drive straight into one of them.

I didn’t, of course. Almost as soon as the thought entered my mind, I recognized it as being insane. I didn’t really want to cause harm to myself or my vehicle that day, but my mood was so low that for a brief second I considered doing something pretty stupid.

Suicidal ideation is an extremely difficult realm to decipher. Many people who have fleeting suicidal thoughts never act on them at all, while the appearance of them in some people can be a red flag for problems to come in the future. It also is not necessarily a byproduct of mental illness. Suicidal thoughts can be brought on by sudden life changes or economic hardship or any number of external factors, so automatically linking them to major depressive disorder or dysthymia or bipolar disorder or any other disruption in the brain can be a mistake.

lubitzI would not say I have reached the point of obsession with the story of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who intentionally crashed a Germanwings plane into a mountain, killing everyone on board, but I have definitely become very interested in it. Despite the fact that no suicide note has been found and that Dusseldorf prosecutor Christoph Kumpa has said all data and documents pertaining to Lubitz’s mental state  “don’t show any hint of being suicidical [sic] or being aggressive towards other people,” media reports still seem determined to link this horrible act specifically to mental illness.

In a Yahoo! News story from today, it was revealed that Lubitz had been treated by a psychotherapist for several years because of previous suicidal tendencies. That information supplied the headline for the story, but Kumpa’s earlier quote and the words of a fellow Germanwings pilot who said, “The impression that I got was that he was a normal guy,” were buried deeper in the story. It’s almost as if in order for people to wrap their minds around this terrible tragedy, they must find some mental disorder to pin it on. To think a normal mind would do something this horrific does not seem to compute.

There also seems to be an undercurrent of blame running throughout these reports. As is always the case in times of senseless tragedy, we look for someone to blame. Now, Lubitz is certainly to blame for this particular act, but since he went down with the plane, that only leaves Germanwings to direct accusations at. Should Lubitz have been grounded? Well, no one exactly knows at this point. Should I be banned from driving a car, though, because I had that thought about the snow bank? I don’t think so. Until the extent of Lubitz’s thoughts become clear, can anyone really fault Germanwings for letting him into the cockpit of a plane? He did have a pilot in there with him, after all.

As with suicidal ideation, it is nearly impossible to look at a situation such as this and make a definitive conclusion until every piece of information is uncovered. That could take months or even years, and we want it to all happen in the span of a few days. There is no way I could defend what Lubitz did that day. I’m not even saying he was a decent guy. I don’t know anything about him. I just believe that immediately going after mental illness as a cause for his actions could not only be incorrect, but could also create more of a stigma for those who suffer from it. Not all of us are going to fly planes into mountainsides … or crash cars into piles of snow.

What It Looks Like

Normally, I become very annoyed with social content websites. It seems as if every time I click on one of their links (which I usually see on Facebook), I am disappointed by the results. I either get a slideshow or a link to some other site or God knows what else. Still, I continue to visit these sites, with the hope that perhaps one day they will deliver what they promise.

Yesterday, I noticed a Buzzfeed link in my Facebook news feed with a title that caught my attention: “This Is What Depression Really Looks Like.” Against my better judgement, I clicked on the link, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Time to Change (http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) has launched a campaign called “Get the Picture.” The aim of the campaign is to break the myth of the image of the “headclutcher.”  What that means is this: That image of a person with their head in their hands that is always used for depression? Guess what? It doesn’t always look like that.

I applaud Time to Change for their efforts, as many of the people I have known who have suffered from depression were masters of hiding it. Check out this link from Buzzfeed to see what I’m talking about. And keep your eyes open. It doesn’t always look like you think it will

Taking Them With You

It just doesn’t make any sense.

Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of the Germanwings flight which crashed into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board, allegedly locked the pilot of said flight out of the cockpit and intentionally grounded the plane. During the plane’s descent, Lubitz did not utter a word. He was completely silent as he led both himself and everyone else on that flight to their doom.

This was definitely a suicide. But why?

According to an article The Telegraph, Lubitz took time off from his commercial pilot’s training one year after it began. A lubitzschoolmate’s mother told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that he had told her daughter the break was because he was suffering from depression. Upon returning to school, however, Lubitz passed all the necessary psychological tests required to pilot a plane.

No one else quoted in The Telegraph article seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary in Lubitz’s psyche or behavior. They seemed genuinely stunned that he would commit such an act. Klaus Radker, chairman of the Luftorts Club Westerwald, where Lubitz took flying lessons in his teens, said, “I find it hard to believe that Andreas, who dreamt of flying and of being a pilot, would deliberately fly his plane into a mountain and kill all those people.”

But, according to a French prosecutor, he did.

An investigation into the possible reason Lubitz would have deliberately caused the deaths of both himself and 149 other people is ongoing, so no sure motive can be ascertained as of yet. If his death was simply a suicide, however, it was the worst kind. He not only took his own life, but decided to take the lives of people who had absolutely nothing to do with his current state of mind down with him.

Even at my lowest point, I never thought of taking anyone down with me.

It just doesn’t make any sense.

What’s On Your Playlist?

“Don’t you like anything happy?”

I remember having that question posed to me several years ago regarding my music collection. This was before the days of mp3 players, so all I could really do to figure out an answer was to look at my collection of CD’s. Now, though, all I have to do is plug in my iPod and peruse the list of songs that pops up before me.

Apple_MC293LL_A_650131This will sound sort of silly, but getting a 160GB iPod for Christmas a few years ago pretty much changed how I collect songs these days. Whereas I was once miserly with the 16GB of memory on my previous iPod, I suddenly realized one day that I would have to just go completely crazy to fill up 160GB of memory. As a result, I began grabbing any song that was even remotely appealing to me and adding them to my collection.

As evidenced by the “Tuneful Tuesday” posts I write here, my collection of somewhat morose music is still quite impressive. Let me just hit a few of the highlights right now…

– Johnny Cash, “Hurt”

– King’s X, “Dogman”

– Duran Duran, “Ordinary World”

– Echosmith, “Cool Kids”

– Elvis Costello, “All This Useless Beauty”

– Eminem (featuring Rihanna), “The Monster”

– Eric Clapton, “Tears In Heaven”

– Hootie & the Blowfish, “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”

– John Hiatt, “Crossing Muddy Waters”

– Kansas, “Dust In The Wind”

– The Gaslight Anthem, “Break Your Heart”

I could go on and on, but you get the point. There’s a lot of less-than-happy stuff on there. As someone who has struggled with depression, however, I think I almost felt like that was the kind of music I should be drawn to. If I’m in a down mood, I should listen to down songs, right? At least, that was my reasoning.

Without realizing what I was doing, though, I gradually began to debunk that theory. Sure, there are certainly times when I just want to listen to something I can wallow in, but for the most part, I’m beginning to find that songs that are more upbeat in nature have a tendency to make me more upbeat as well. (I’m sure about half of you just smacked your foreheads and said “Duh” to that last statement.)

With that in mind, here are some of the more unexpected songs that have their way onto my iPod recently and managed to bring a smile to my face…

– DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, “Boom! Shake The Room”

– Katy Perry, “Roar”

– Mark Ronson (featuring Bruno Mars), “Uptown Funk”

– Asia, “Days Like These”

– Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right To Party”

– Blackalicious, “Alphabet Aerobics”

– Bobby Brown, “My Prerogative”

– Carbon Leaf, “Life Less Ordinary”

– Georgia Satellites, “Keep Your Hands To Yourself”

– Jet, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”

– MC Hammer, “U Can’t Touch This”

You’re probably getting the picture by now. One, my musical tastes are extremely eclectic. Two, for some reason, rap and hip-hop songs seem to be amusing to me. And, three, I probably have too much time on my hands. Nevertheless, not counting several Hozier songs I downloaded recently, I have noticed at least a slight uptick in the number of more lighthearted songs on my iPod.

Now, do I think a person’s playlist defines who they are? Certainly not. Some of the happiest people I know enjoy some of the saddest songs ever written. If you’re noticing a distinct lack of levity on your mp3 player, though, you might want to consider freshening up your library a bit. Music is there to help us grieve, but it is also there to help us celebrate. Like all things in life, striking the right balance is the key.

Tuneful Tuesday: New Sensation

I had an interesting discussion with someone today about self-confidence, specifically regarding singing ability. I was trying to convince this person that her singing voice was fine, but she didn’t quite believe me. This led to a conversation about accepting compliments, which dovetailed into some theorizing as to whether people are actually honest when they praise your singing voice.

“You told me the other day that you would rather someone just tell you that you suck, instead of pretending to compliment you,” I said. “If that’s your philosophy, though, how will you be able to believe anyone when they tell you you’re doing a good job?”

“No one will ever tell you that you suck,” she said.

She does have a point there. I’ve heard some pretty bad singers in my day. Actually, let me amend that last statement: I heard some really bad singers in my day. People who have actually paid for studio time and hired promoters to send their music to radio stations. People who should probably have been sat down at some point in their lives and been told, “Hey, um, maybe singing is not really your thing…”

I wondered today if maybe this isn’t why shows like “American Idol” and “X Factor” are so popular. They allow people to watch someone essentially say “You suck” to someone who, well, sucks at singing. It is an extremely difficult thing to say to someone, which is why, as my friend pointed out, it hardly ever happens. Unfortunately, this unwillingness to hurt feelings can actually undermine a person’s confidence, as they are constantly left to wonder, “Well, if everyone says I’m good, how can I know who is actually telling me the truth?”.

I was reminded today of an old episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” on the band INXS. As one would expect, the program focused almost entirely on the late Michael Hutchence, who committed suicide in a hotel room in 1997. One of the more surprising comments mentioned on the program (and I believe it was Hutchence’s close personal friend Bono who said it) was that Hutchence constantly doubted the quality of his singing voice.

How in the world could this be? Michael Hutchence had a voice I would sell my soul to have. It was almost like a musical weapon. Just listen to a song like “New Sensation.” Somehow, though, Hutchence got the idea that it didn’t quite measure up. Maybe he was like my friend; maybe he was waiting for some to say “You suck,” even though he really didn’t.

I would not recommend that we all begin going around doling out harsh critiques of everyone’s singing abilities. Maybe, though, we could offer some pointers here and there. On the flip side, maybe the singers could trust the compliments a little more. Somehow, there has to be a way we can all feel okay. Right?

Read More, Pray Harder

“As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off the balance? Some minds appear to have a gloomy tinge essential to their very individuality; of them it may be said, ‘Melancholy marked them for her own;’ fine minds withal, and ruled by noblest principles, but yet most prone to forget the silver lining, and to remember only the cloud.”

To many people of faith, the preceding paragraph may border on heresy to their sensibilities. That “gloomy tinge” should not exist in a mind set on the joy and peace of Jesus Christ. Remembering “only the cloud” runs counter to admonitions to command your downcast soul to praise the Lord at all times. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” Right?

What heretic uttered these blasphemous words? None other than Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers.” spurgeon_chairSpurgeon did not just have his down days; he suffered from bouts of full-blown depression. “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for,” he once said. He described his depression as his “worst feature” and spoke of how he was “heartily ashamed” of it. He also firmly believed, though, that “there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.”

To be a Christian with depression is often an uphill climb, not only because of the sometimes debilitating effects of the illness itself, but also because it seems almost offensive to other believers. There is frequently a sort of unspoken vibe that maybe that depressed person is not really doing enough to deal with their mood. Maybe they’re not reading their Bible enough. Maybe their prayer life is lacking. Maybe they don’t really know God that well. Maybe they’re not saved at all.

Of course, as in Spurgeon’s case, those doubts could not be further from the truth. In many instances, depressed people are turning to the Bible more and praying more than most of their fellow congregants. For the severely depressed who have reached the end of their ropes, their cries to God are probably more fervent than any jubilant saint. Too often, though, the advice given to Christians in this predicament is almost offensively simple: “You need to read your Bible more and pray harder.”

It has been a struggle in my own life to not harbor resentment toward fellow Christians who did not understand not being able to fully grasp piece of mind. After many years, however, I realized anger was a wasted emotion in this instance. Some people, I finally concluded, just don’t understand depression because they’ve never experienced it. They may have had “the blues” from time to time, but never wrestled with days of utter hopelessness. While their advice may have been misguided, it was not malicious. They just wanted to point me to what worked for them, and that’s fine.

Spurgeon was correct in his assessment that a holy faith in God can lift a soul from the depths of depression. Just as he never stopped battling his own hopelessness, however, sadness in a fellow Christian is not an indicator that they have given up the fight. They may be chasing God with all their heart and soul. The good news is, if they are, He will be found.

The Saboteur

You find yourself in a deep, dark hole, with only yourself. You know full well how you got there. And you have only yourself to blame.

You’ve been here before, but each time you return the darkness feels more suffocating, the weight of guilt and shame heavier. Your first inclination is to lie down and accept it, to let it all just smother you. At least that way it would end. Something inside you, though, keeps telling you to get up. You’re not exactly sure what that something is. Your best hope is that it is the will to live. Your worst fear is that you are too selfish to give up on the awful creation you have turned out to be.

You fumble through the space around you until you find something you can touch, and then you begin the slow, arduous climb out. You’re not exactly sure how deep the pit is or if there is even a top to it, but you continue to dig your nails into the walls and make your way up, up, up. Occasionally, you imagine you hear a voice or two encouraging you, telling you that you can make it if you just keep trying. These voices are faint, however, and you don’t trust your senses enough to believe they are real, so you brush them aside and continue your ascent.

sabotageEventually, you see a light. At first, you don’t believe it is real. As it becomes sharper and more intense, you begin to move faster toward it, desperate to feel its warmth and heat. Suddenly, it is real before you. It moves from the world of abstraction to become an oasis in your desert, a shelter from the wind and rain that has pounded you senseless for so long. It illuminates you, so much so that the voices you thought you heard earlier become real as well. You begin to shine yourself, thanks to this amazing, saving grace.

As wonderful and light as you suddenly feel, however, you still feel the weight of your worst fears like an albatross draped around your neck. You know the terrible darkness which resides in your soul, and you know somewhere deep inside you that you are not good enough for this moment. You are not capable enough, smart enough, attractive enough, skilled enough, mature enough to maintain it. The light burns as brightly as it ever did, and it continues to reach out to you and beckon you, but in your mind you are convinced it will see you through you one day and withdraw itself.

You begin to try to secure it, to make sure it cannot abandon you. You begin to form constructs around it, essentially boxing it in and dulling its luminescence. You know you are effectively contaminating the purity of what exists, but your fear blinds you to all logical thought. You realize you need the light to survive, but you are convinced it will not choose you to receive its blessing, so you begin to crave it as an addict would crave a needle in his arm. You are fully aware of your selfishness, and you resolve to do better a thousand times, but each time you look at it you are overridden by one horrible, terrible thought: It will leave me if I grant it freedom.

Then, one day, you are confronted with the truth you knew all along. You really are selfish. You really did destroy the beauty that was before you. You really can’t change what you have done. Your heart begins to race, your thoughts begin to scramble, and you begin to admit your every sin and flaw. You are devastated when the light suddenly speaks to you and says, “You foolish, foolish man. I chose you all along, but you could not receive what I offered you.” You feel your grip loosen and the air begin to rush past your ears as you begin to fall, down, down, down. The light becomes more distant. In fact, you even notice it beginning to turn away, slowly, reluctantly. It wanted you, but you could never believe it.

Your fall is swift, much more rapid than your ascent, and it is not straight. You bump against walls that once seemed smooth, but now seem to be jagged and rocky, puncturing you as collide with them. You recall that you have felt pain like this before, but it seems more intense this time, as it does each time you fall. You wish at times that the fatal blow could be delivered, but it never comes, and you chide yourself because there is still that part of you that is selfish enough to want to cling to life with all you are worth. Then you feel the dull thud of yourself hitting the bottom. The light is gone. You are alone.

And you find yourself in a deep, dark hole, with only yourself. You know full well how you got there. And you have only yourself to blame.

The Numbness And The Intensity

Despite my suspicions concerning its effectiveness, I refilled my prescription for Lexapro today, which meant a trip to the local pharmacy I use. As I walked in, I could hear a television broadcasting some kind of sporting event. I then glanced upward and spotted an NCAA Tournament basketball game being played.

I had forgotten the games started today.

One might read that last sentence and give me the benefit of the doubt, pointing to a busy schedule and a million
NCAA Middle Tennessee Basketballdifferent things on my mind this week. In reality, though, it is a giant red flag. I never forget the day the NCAA Tournament begins. I don’t recall that ever happening to me before. This was tantamount to Popeye forgetting to eat his spinach or Batman forgetting his utility belt.

It should have concerned me.

It didn’t.

I’ve been feeling a strange sort of numbness these days. It feels as if I am walking around in a thick fog or wrapped in some heavy blanket. The sharp edges of experience seem dulled. The snow has finally melted, and the early signs of spring are starting to show. I stand at my window and think of the grass that will soon need to be mowed and the bicycle that has lingered in storage since last summer. Both thoughts should bring me joy. Instead, I feel nothing.

Such a numbness would logically indicate a lack of ability to feel emotions. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Every emotion which does manage to crack the shell I feel around myself right now is multiplied a hundredfold. I laugh louder than I should. My anger goes from a simmer to a boil in seconds. Every perceived slight drives tiny pins into my soul. My sadness descends to frightening depths, with tears sometimes following on the way down.

The language in the previous two paragraphs may have veered too heavily into melodrama, but I wanted to point out the strange contradictions that a life with depression can present. It can jump randomly from not being able to feel anything at all to suddenly experiencing the weight of every feeling in the known universe. Such acceleration and stopping would drop the transmission out of a car, and it drains the energy out of a human being. It is like a constant tugging from the time a person wakes up until they close their eyes to go to sleep.

How is this possible? How can a person be caught between such extremes? Well, my answer is, “I don’t know.” Perhaps it comes from a person’s body adjusting to taking an antidepressant, with the old self and the new drug-altered one constantly at war with one another. Perhaps it is caused by the simple ups and downs of everyday life. Maybe a person’s spiritual state of mind can influence it, with the flesh and the spirit locked in eternal conflict. Maybe it is a slow descent into hell, and we just don’t realize it.

I am sitting on my couch right now watching basketball. My hands are typing on a keyboard. A book is lying next to me. I feel right for the first time all day. The numbness I felt earlier today as I stared blankly at that TV screen seems to have dissipated for the moment. It’s a place I want to stay, but I can feel the pull of the abyss behind me. To be able to feel anything, though, should be counted as a blessing. The alternative can be even worse.

Tuneful Tuesday: Long Day

Being self-analytical is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, it is a very useful trait to possess. It keeps you very attuned to what is going on inside yourself, so when something is not quite right, you are the first to know it. With that recognition comes the opportunity to course correct and right the ship, so to speak. In some instances, it can even give you empathy for others, as you can spot behaviors in others that you have recognized in yourself countless times.

On the other hand, it can be somewhat akin to a prison cell. You desperately want to be a considerate person to the rest of the world, but 90 percent of your thoughts are consumed with yourself. You obsess over every little tic you may have, which often just serves to enslave you to them even more. You become so engulfed in your thought processes that you lose connection with the world around you.

I’ve been told more than once what a good idea it is to “step outside yourself.” The only problem with telling that to a self-analytical person is that they immediately begin to try to figure out how they can make that happen, so the whole exercise turns inward again. See, the problem with a self-analytical person is that they can’t turn themselves off. They know they can be selfish and self-centered, but they can’t away from themselves long enough to do anything about it.

Before they started turning out poppier fare, Matchbox Twenty produced one of my favorite albums on the 1990s with Yourself Or Someone Like You. It didn’t really dawn on me until recently how much frustration and aggression that project contained, and I’m not just referring to a song like “Push,” which obviously was written by someone with some, uh, issues. The album’s first single, “Long Day,” contains a couple of lines that any self-analytical person could identify with:

“And I’m so terrified of no one else but me. I’m here all the time. I won’t go away.”

That is what it can feel like for a self-analytical person. That sensation that you’re not getting things right. That nagging feeling that it’s your fault things are going so poorly. That knowledge that if you could only remove yourself from the equation, things would become clearer. And, finally, that realization that you don’t know how to do that.

Then again, I guess being self-analytical can make one a better blogger. Theoretically speaking, of course…