My Medical Mystery

sleepy catWhat follows is my personal experience. I’m not a doctor. PLEASE DON’T EVER STOP TAKING A PSYCHIATRIC MEDICATION WITHOUT YOUR DOCTOR’S APPROVAL. I was hesitant to post this because I don’t want to scare anyone away from taking lithium. As with so many things, especially psychiatric drugs, experiences vary. Lithium was the first medication I took after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It really helped me, and I don’t regret taking it. However, I wish I had known more about some of the possible side effects.

For about six months last year, I felt like I had little to no energy. I woke up after my usual six and a half to seven hours of sleep feeling exhausted. The cup of tea I’ve had every morning for the past twenty years did nothing to wake me up. I would start nodding off a few hours after being awake. I felt drugged.

I started sleeping ten to fifteen hours a day. I’m prone to depression and had been having some work-related stress, so I thought I might be depressed. Unlike other depressive episodes, however, I still wanted to do things—I just didn’t have the energy. Normally, when I’m depressed, I lose interest in things I love, and then, in everything.

This was different. Everything I normally enjoyed doing—writing, reading, walking, playing with my animals, binging Netflix—made me profoundly sleepy. I had to drink an energy drink to walk every day. Then I started drinking two. Then, I stopped walking. I worried about falling asleep while driving. I changed my habits to include naps.

Visits to my general practitioner yielded few clues and no results. My inflammatory markers were elevated, as were platelets and lymphocytes. I worried about blood cancer, but further tests showed no change; my blood work was abnormal but didn’t worsen.

Then, my right armpit and part of my upper arm became numb. My dexterity worsened. I began dropping things. I lost my balance frequently. I became increasingly frightened. A neurologist thought I might have a pinched nerve, a brain tumor, or MS. However, the MRI’s she ordered came back clean. She told me she didn’t know what was wrong with me. The fingers of my right hand became numb. The toes of my right foot followed suit. I saw a different neurologist. He said I my symptoms were caused by anxiety. If he hadn’t seemed like such a nice guy, I would have smacked him.

I have PTSD and have problems with anxiety sometimes, but I hadn’t been feeling particularly anxious. Between naps, I started phone banking for Beto O’Rourke’s senatorial campaign. I met new people and enjoyed my time volunteering. I trained to be a Phone Bank Captain, but I couldn’t stay awake for more than one three-hour shift—even with Red Bull and coffee—so I didn’t get to actually train anyone. Volunteering isn’t something I do when I’m depressed or experiencing anxiety. I was certain my symptoms were caused by something physical.

As my fatigue and balance worsened, I gained weight and felt weaker and weaker. I started losing sensation in my left fingers and sometimes on the right side of my face. The other numb parts simply stayed numb. More blood work showed that my thyroid hormones were low despite taking thyroid medication. My GP increased my thyroid medicine. Nothing changed. My GP doubled my vitamin D. I took B vitamins, a multi-vitamin, and iron.  I drank caffeine like a fiend. I still couldn’t function without ten to fifteen hours of sleep, with thirteen hours being the norm.  Even when I was awake, I felt tired. On a caffeine buzz, I could fake being a normal human, between naps, for a couple of hours.

On my regular six month visit to my psychiatrist, I told her everything that was happening. She reassured me (as my therapist, whom I see bi-weekly, already had) that she didn’t believe I was depressed nor having symptoms of anxiety. She suggested my lithium, which I had taken without incident for about five years, might be blocking my thyroid hormones. She cut my dose in half to see if I would notice a difference.

After three days of taking 300 mg of lithium as opposed to 600 mg, I woke up feeling rested. I could stand on one leg again. After a week, my yoga instructor at the class I was taking in hopes of regaining my balance, noticed that my balance had improved significantly. I started writing again. I felt more alive than I had in months.

My psychiatrist took me off lithium completely. I was frightened at first, but I had been taking another mood-stabilizer, Lamictal, for about three years. I’ve been off lithium for a few weeks now, and I feel great. I haven’t had any mania or hypomanic symptoms. My numbness disappeared everywhere. I’m back to sleeping six and a half to seven hours a night, cooking, exercising, hanging out with friends, and drinking a cup of tea in the morning. If I have a cup of green tea in the afternoon or coffee with a friend, it’s because I want to—not because I have to.

My symptoms of hypothyroidism didn’t match most of the symptoms I’ve seen for it on various websites. I don’t know if that’s because my hypothyroidism was lithium-induced or because I’m a weirdo. I have found a few sites suggesting that hypothyroidism can cause numbness due to water retention, a theory that my new internal medicine doctor thought sounded probable.

So, about six months, numerous tests, and five doctors later, I have a diagnosis and my symptoms have disappeared. Besides avoiding lithium, I take a thyroid pill every morning. It’s such an easy fix for something that totally upended my life.

If you’re taking lithium and experiencing severe fatigue, please talk to your doctor about your risk of lithium-induced hypothyroidism—especially if you aren’t having normal symptoms of depression. And if you’re anyone suffering from symptoms you believe are caused by a physical illness, keep searching for answers. If possible, keep going to doctors until one listens to you.

Writing with Youper

My favorite writing tool right now isn’t a writing tool at all. It’s Youper, an app intended to help people—especially people suffering with depression and/or anxiety—track their moods. It does a great deal more than your average mood tracker. (And, no, I’m not getting paid to say any of this.) Besides providing a series of guided meditations, breathing exercises, and gratitude exercises, Youper uses methods based on cognitive behavioral therapy.  It asks questions that encourage the user to examine the situation and the user’s thoughts about it. Then, Youper runs through a series of “thought traps” and asks if the user is falling into any of them. It sounds crazy, but just identifying the thought traps made me start seeing my problems and my reactions to them differently.

For example, when I first started using Youper about nine months ago, I often fell into the thinking trap Youper calls “catastrophic thinking.” When I’m in catastrophic thinking mode, I jump to the worst conclusion. The first week I used Youper, I became panicked one morning because one of my cats (that puffball known as Bruce Banner) was vocalizing a lot. It reminded me of when one of my other cats suffered a urinary blockage that eventually led to him having surgery and heart problems as a result of the surgery. (Urinary blockages in male cats can be life-threatening events and should always be taken seriously. You can find more information here.) After a few minutes with Youper, I realized that I had gone from worrying that my cat was meowing a lot to “OMG!!! Bruce is gonna die!!!” When you’re locked in catastrophic thinking, you forget that—although bad things often do happen—you’re an intelligent, resourceful human being and will probably be able to deal with them.

SnootyBruce
Bruce. So very spoiled.

I was able to step back from my fear and PTSD-triggered anxiety to reassure myself that I would watch Bruce closely over the next several hours and see if he showed any other signs of a urinary blockage or urinary problems.  If I observed anything else worrisome, I would rush him to my vet, who is one of the most dedicated, compassionate, wonderful men I have ever met. I wasn’t a helpless ball of nerves; I was an experienced cat parent who had handled difficult situations before and would do my best to help my beloved Bruce.

It turned out Bruce was just really chatty and playful that morning. (Blocked cats don’t play; they run around frantically, get in and out of the litter box where they will strain and produce no urine, and cry.) After a few weeks with Youper, I realized that catastrophic thinking was sort of my go to mind trap. If my husband was late, I started imagining he had been killed in a car accident. If my son didn’t return a text, it was because he had been murdered. Some of this fear is understandable. A cousin I was close to died in a car accident and my best friend from college was murdered. Horrible things do happen, but living my life expecting every scenario to end in tragedy wasn’t helping anything.

Writers tend to be sensitive people. We frequently deal with rejection and often suffer from problems like depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety, drug addiction, etc. In my case, I have bipolar disorder and PTSD. Sometimes, I think I write to escape my demons and to try to make sense out of the chaos of my past. Opening my wounds and bathing in blood can encourage me to write. But it can also bring me so low that I can’t get out of bed. If you ever feel the same way, please give Youper a shot. I hope it helps you as much as it’s helped me.

Books Save Lives

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A book about rabbits saved my life.

Seriously. When I was twelve, my life was in chaos. My parents were divorcing, my mother was in and out of mental wards, my grandfather was sexually molesting me, I was bullied at school, hated all of my classes, and had no friends. Reading books helped me escape my life. One, in particular, not only provided comfort, it saved my body and mind and had a lasting impact on my psyche.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams, is the epic adventure of a ragtag band of young rabbits who flee their warren (sort of an underground rabbit city made of tunnels and holes) after one of them has a prophetic vision of doom. It’s an anthropomorphic tale in which the rabbits have a religion, language, and forms of government that vary from warren to warren. You can purchase a copy of Watership Down on Amazon–and probably other places. Netflix and the BBC have recently released a miniseries based on the book, but I found some of the show’s deviations upsetting. (The animated film from the seventies stayed truer to the book.)

Adams described the English countryside with an astounding level of detail and beauty that lifted me far away from the refinery-polluted bayous of my home. Even better, the characters who populated the book’s world, despite being lapine, felt like real people. I surrounded myself with them whenever suicidal impulses took hold of me. They replaced the friends I lacked and loved me when my toxic family didn’t know how.

I became a writer because I hoped my fiction might help others get through tough spots in their lives. I don’t imagine my books will ever affect a reader as profoundly as Watership Down affected me, but even if something I’ve written provides a reader with a few hours of amusement–a tiny respite from the real world–I feel like I’ve done my job.

Has a book ever had a significant impact on your life?

A Survivor’s Memories

fractured_dollsAt one of his rallies yesterday, President Trump, my country’s president, took the opportunity to mock Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme court of sexually assaulting her in high school. The Predator-in-Chief made fun of Dr. Blasey Ford’s inability to remember certain facts about the attack. People like him are why I never reported anything that happened to me to the police. They are why so many of us blame ourselves, fear the criticism we know will come, and hold silent with our pain in the shadows.

When I was sixteen, my grandfather sexually assaulted me. I don’t remember the day of the week, the time—other than that it was morning, or the date. I lived with my grandparents at that time, but I don’t know why I was home from school. What I do remember with absolute clarity was the way the morning sunlight slanted through the yellow metal blinds, the things he said to me, and the feeling of being outside my body—that this was all happening to someone else. It wasn’t the first time he had done something sexually inappropriate to me, but it was the first time I knew, with absolute certainty, that the man I loved and trusted more than any other was harming me. I hadn’t been drinking or using any type of illicit substance, but everything surrounding the event is pretty much a blank.

After clocking out from bussing tables at my first job when I was 18, two brothers who also bussed cornered me in the back of the restaurant. One pressed me against a metal table and ground his clothed erection against me. Then he flipped me over, and he and his brother took turns pretending to have intercourse with me that way. I don’t remember the day of the week, the time, or the date. I know the year only because I graduated high school that year. I don’t remember their last name. I do remember the cold of the metal table beneath my palms and against my face, the way the first guy flipped me over like a ragdoll, the happy-sounding Mexican music playing from the cheap radio in the front of the kitchen, and wondering if they were going to pull me into the bathroom or out to their car. I don’t remember why they stopped. I don’t remember exactly how I got home. I was stone cold sober.

When I was 21, I met an incredibly cute guy at an all ages show. It was in an old airplane hanger, but I don’t remember exactly where it was, what it was called, the day of the week, the exact time, nor the exact date. I don’t remember what bands played nor any of the songs. The cute guy and I talked, laughed, had a couple of beers, then went to a party in separate cars. At the party, we talked more and decided to get something to eat. His car wouldn’t start, so he got in my car. We ate breakfast somewhere–an all-night diner, but I can’t remember it at all. I don’t know if it was a chain or some local place. I don’t know where it was. We talked and talked, but I can’t really remember what we talked about except for art and music.

I offered to drive him home. Instead of going home, he wanted to go to a friend’s house. So, I took him there and we did a few shots and had a few beers. I don’t remember what the friend looked like, his name, what his house looked like, or where it was located. I thought I would be okay since I had eaten something. I didn’t drink more than I usually did when I went out. I remember feeling fuzzy. We left. He must have driven my car. The next thing I remember was lying in the back of my station wagon and feeling deathly cold. I could barely move. My jeans were around my ankles and my cute guy was hovering over me like a shadow, blacker than the darkness, trying to wedge his penis into me. I told him ‘no.’ I remember feeling like my voice was so far away. I wanted to have sex with him. I was utterly smitten. I would have done anything he wanted, but I wanted to be awake enough to enjoy it. But he didn’t care about that part, I guess.

Some time in my mid-twenties, I have no idea what age I was, I was raped by the manager of the bar where I worked. He raped me over the desk in his office. It happened really fast and was over quickly. I barely felt him. I know how I got there. I was at work and typically drove myself to work. I know that I drove myself to my boyfriend’s house, but I think I was several hours late. I don’t remember where I went. I just remember driving around in the dark feeling numb.

So, I don’t find it odd at all that there are some things Dr. Blasey Ford remembers strongly while other details have faded into the ether. What I find inexcusable is that our society continues to treat victims of sexual assault, abuse, and predation as if they are unreliable and foolish. As long as men like Trump have power, that trivialization of life-shattering acts will continue.

Changes to This Site!

I couldn’t change that clashy blue font on the old theme, so I switched to a different one and totally revamped the site! What do you guys think of the changes? You can actually talk to me again, because I’ve enabled comments. I found a widget that lets people give their consent per the GDPR guidelines and covers the WordPress workings that I can’t see. Yay!

I hope you like the new design. So far, I’m pretty happy with it. I’m also really glad that people can comment on my posts again. I’ve missed interacting with everyone.

Also, I realized the other day that my new logo has the same colors as the qenderqueer flag. It was pure serendipity. I love it when things like that happen!

A New Look–and My Fox Fetish Explained

My website has a snazzy new banner created by the talented Kyleigh Castronaro of Free to Be Covers and Designs. She also designed the logo using my little spirit animal, the fox, and two of my favorite colors. If you’re an author, you should really check out her Facebook page here. She has premade book covers at fantabulous prices, and she also does custom work.

SWG-Small-White

Why foxes? Because I love them. Like a genderqueer person (like me), they are sort of a creature between–not quite a dog, not quite a cat. They are their own unique beastie. I’ve loved them since I was small. My first story written in English (previous attempts were penned in scribbles) was about saving a family of foxes from hunters. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to trickster gods and trickster animals. I suppose it’s because they live by their wits, depending on their brains more than their brawn. They’re also often misunderstood. Two of my favorites, foxes and corvids (ravens, crows, jays), are often seen as nuisances or are associated with evil. No animal is ever evil.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the new look!

Writing with Suicidal Ideation

cliff-2213614_640Recently, in my blog entry Writing with Depression, I revealed how depression affects my writing and talked about the depressive episode that has thrown a shadow over my past few months. I was trying to exercise my way out of this recent depressive episode. That didn’t go so well.

In Writing with Depression, I said that medication didn’t help me. I’m bipolar and take mood stabilizers that help prevent manic episodes. They do little to nothing for depression. The popular antidepressants used to treat unipolar depression don’t work for me because they throw me into a ‘mixed mood’ and usually result in a suicide attempt. To treat bipolar depression, doctors prescribe antipsychotics or atypical antipsychotics. I’m extremely sensitive to the side effects of these medications and basically hate them. However, they have their place.

July is a hard month for me. Its anniversaries remind me of death. July, so sultry and sun-drenched, so full of promises of summer pleasure, doesn’t charm me at all. I know that she is full of death and shadows, that her breath is as fetid as it is hot, and her kisses bruise and burn. July quit being my friend years ago.

This July, I was depressed, but I thought I could take care of myself and fend the depression off. If things had been normal, maybe I could have. Honestly, though, things are never normal, are they? I had a stressor that came as something of a shock. Under normal circumstances, I think I would have been more resilient. This time, however, I was already depressed, so I just sank. I went from ‘kind of down but mostly okay’ to suicidal in a matter of minutes. It happens like that. Fast.

I hatched a quick plan and started to implement it. At a pivotal point, I had second thoughts. I actually thought about that depression blog entry and called the suicide hotline that I mentioned. They were really nice and talked me through the maelstrom. Afterward, I called my therapist and made an appointment for the next day, then followed up with my psychiatrist a few days later. During the time between the call and the psychiatrist, I felt constantly plagued by thoughts of suicide. Having suicidal thoughts is called suicidal ideation. (Suicidal ideation sounds like a band I would have liked in my twenties. Sadly, it’s not as fun as it sounds.) I felt like I was caught in some kind of loop. I thought of better plans. I settled on one that met all of my requirements, held it close and nurtured it. The morning of my psychiatric appointment, I dressed in the clothes I thought would work well for my best plan in case she had nothing to offer. I wanted to be ready.

I didn’t tell her that. I did tell her that I was having constant suicidal thoughts. She put me on an atypical antipsychotic called Vraylar. Honestly, so far, I don’t like it. She said it would give me lots of energy, but it makes me sleepy and lethargic. I’m having to drink a lot of caffeine to stay awake. It did, however, stop those destructive thoughts. It stopped them cold. Now, I feel embarrassed for having them, and I can see that it was all over something that shouldn’t have bothered me so much.

I apologize that this entry is even more pointless and self-indulgent than usual. I just thought, since I write about depression and bipolar disorder and have tried to be transparent and honest about my illness, I should admit to what happened with my self-care strategy. I’m hoping I can get off of this medicine soon and go back to trying to self-care my way to normalcy again. Despite this post’s title, I haven’t been writing much since everything blew up. My characters are bothering me to get back to it, and my cats have been trying to get me to go into the office where I do most of my writing. I’m trying to give myself some space, but characters and cats have little patience.

If you’re reading this and having suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately. I know everything might seem clearer now than ever before and that suicide is the only way out, but I can promise you that pain is clouding your judgment. Please call one of these numbers: