On Depression

This is not the kind of thing one expects from the kind of person I am. And yet, here we are. The mental breakdown took place on Friday, October 23rd. Darkness had made a habit of showing up every Sunday night and slowly moving out by Wednesday evening. But this time it arrived early and it came with a vengeance.

The darkness had been an unwelcome guest that I helplessly tolerated. But with each visit, the pain of its presence was sharper and deeper. That Friday night, the darkness that had roughed me up pretty good over the past couple of years threw me a knockout punch. I was out, cold. My memory of that weekend is spotty. All I remember is a profound sense of hopelessness, desolation, weeping and vertiginous fits of insomnia.

On the third day I rose. Emily and Christy had been there all along, caring for me, making arrangements, taking precautions. When I came to, I was informed they had made appointments for me to see my general practitioner, a new therapist, and potentially a psychiatrist.

From the new therapist I learned that I was most certainly dealing with depression.

From the blood work ordered by the doctor, I learned that I had “alarmingly low” levels of vitamin D.

From the psychiatrist, I learned that I had Major Depressive Disorder with Suicidal Ideation, Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (not to be confused with OCD).

From my manager, I learned that short-term disability leave had been approved.

The darkness that was gradually taking over me, finally consumed me on October 23rd. Everything has been different since then.

This can’t be happening to me. I am very happily married, I have two amazing children, I’m surrounded by loving friends, I practice (and teach!) meditation, I have a good job, a nice house…in short, I’m the most fortunate person I know. I have every reason to be happy and grateful. This doesn’t happen to people like me, right? Right? Wrong. This can happen to anyone because it is a matter of chemistry, not character. That’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned. And, although I’ve learned a lot, the truth is I still don’t know quite how to talk about this.

There’s the stigma, for starters. We don’t think twice about talking of root canals, filled cavities, pulled wisdom teeth, you know – dental health. We share it on Facebook, we joke about it, we talk. But mental health, that’s a different story. We don’t dare talk about it, we don’t know how to talk about it, we don’t even understand what it is. Why would we not talk about the health of our brain, arguably the most important organ in our bodies?

The therapist and the psychiatrist have helped me understand this is not that different from, say, diabetes. It is a genetic and environmental illness. That is, there are some faulty connections in my brain and certain life situations can aggravate or trigger them. But just as with other health issues, there is treatment and a path to wellness. I’ve been on that path since the first week of November. I started medication – an antidepressant, a sedative, and an industrial strength dose of vitamin D. I started weekly psychotherapy sessions. I started regular visits with the psychiatrist. And, after vacillating between vague Facebook posts and deactivating my account, I decided to reach out to a small group of friends.

As it turns out, it appears I’ve joined the largest secret society. And here I thought I was so special, but I’m only unique, just like everybody else. Messages of support and empathy started pouring in… “I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for the past twenty years,” “I’m a survivor of suicide,” “Everybody is diagnosable,” “It’s not your fault,” “You’re not alone.”

Friends offered to meet for coffee and I was apprehensive at first, perhaps even embarrassed. But right away I realized that talking about it, that thing I still don’t know how to do, was so helpful. Or perhaps it was listening, learning about the struggles my friends and family faced, things I knew nothing about. In the process of talking, and listening, and talking, and listening, I found healing and comfort.

But now I’m tired of talking about it. So what – I have some new, scary-sounding diagnoses. But I also have severely flat feet, and I’ve gained all the weight I lost last year, and I still haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie (or the old ones, for that matter)… so what? I don’t know what. I don’t care. I know this is not my fault, I know I am not my diagnoses. And I know that all I have to work with is this present moment. I can only take this one day at a time, maybe even one hour at a time.

Something that I still can’t describe happened on October 23 that changed everything. Since then I’ve been riddled with panic attacks and sudden episodes of crying in despair. But the medication is starting to work, therapy is helping, and my close friends have become even dearer to me in the process. I’m so grateful for my Sangha, my spiritual community. And I’m especially grateful for Emily and Christy, my saviors. Without them, well, I don’t care to think of what may have been of me without them.

Some days I just have to give up and hope the next day will be better. And I am having better days. Today was one of them. But, like I said, I’m tired of talking about this. So tired. So this is all I can say about depression, for the time being.

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#MedicatedAndMighty #SortOf

On Extreme Metal

The following exchange happened last year while riding in a car with a few of my fantastic coworkers during a business trip…

“Well, I wouldn’t say I hate it, but I certainly can’t say this is my favorite station.”
“What kind of music do you like?”
“He likes heavy metal!”
“Really? Like Eddie Vedder?”
“No, not like Eddie Vedder. And don’t bother, you’re not gonna find it on the radio.”
“Is it like Metallica?”
“No. And it’s not really heavy metal. It’s more like brutal technical death metal.”
“Oh my gosh, like Marilyn Manson?”
“…”

I love my coworkers, even when they subject me to reggaeton and hip hop while stuck in dreadful LA traffic. And, it’s not their fault they don’t have the faintest idea what extreme metal is, most people don’t.

I am a metalhead. Collecting vinyl, going to shows, and just reading about and listening to metal is one of my favorite pastimes. Some people find this surprising, and I can see why. But the truth is that at the end of a long day, after the housework is done and the kids have gone to bed, few things are as revitalizing and relaxing to me as picking a record from my stack, throwing on my headphones and sitting in my comfy chair while mindboggling guitar riffs, facemeltingly fast blast beats and unintelligible growling vocals pound into my ears.

The visceral, adrenaline rush of extreme metal is exhilarating. But what really gets me excited is its philosophical side. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a good mosh pit as much as any metalhead, but my approach is more academic in nature. In his book, “Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, “Keith Kahn-Harris explains that, “Extreme metal rapidly developed in complexity so that today its apparent unmusicality is the product of carefully made sonic choices and even virtuosity. Far from being a chaotic noise, extreme metal systematically offers transgressive alternatives to the principal elements of western music.” This is the kind of thing that get’s me going; the themes, the sociological implications, the virtuosity, talent, precision and athleticism required to produce this music.

Extreme metal is an umbrella term that covers a multiplicity of subgenres. Black metal, viking metal, death metal, grindcore, doom metal, pagan metal, and symphonic death metal are just a few of the more prevalent ones. I’m very particular about what I consume. Some of these musical forms are infamous for their violent, gory and revolting themes and imagery. I’m not into that, not one bit. If it is disgusting, sexist, or gratuitously violent, it’s not for me. Fortunately, there is a lot of exquisite metal that doesn’t fall under those categories.

Technical (or progressive) death metal is my subgenre of choice, my area of concentration, if you will. It originated in the late 80s and early 90s with bands such as Death, Atheist and Cynic. I like the way Phil Freeman, ex-editor of Metal Edge, describes it as “the hidden side of its genre, having more in common with prog-rock and jazz-fusion than with the mechanistic, Satan-obsessed grinding that’s the music’s dominant public image.”

There are a great number of tech-death bands all over the world, but some of my very favorites (Gorguts, Beyond Creation, Unhuman and Archspire) come from Canada. One of my favorite albums of the past couple of years is “Colored Sands,” by Gorguts. This is a concept album that explores and recounts the plight of the people of Tibet. Visually and lyrically, this album employs Buddhist themes and motifs. Musically, the oppressive and at times desolate tenor of the songs is a perfect palette to paint the story of a people oppressed and subdued. This album is truly a masterpiece and it made all of the top lists for metal releases last year.

What? Buddhism and death metal?! Yes, that is correct. When you read the lyrics (and you’re going to have to, if you want to know what they’re saying), you will find that progressive death metal is not about Satan, drugs and rock’n’roll. Some of the themes these bands write about are mysticism, philosophy, polemology, and science fiction. You may want to have some reference books handy! This is a scene that takes the music seriously. Blood Music, a vinyl club and music label with which I have a membership, describe themselves as, “An organization dedicated to the anthropological and cultural preservation of extreme metal music.”

There are many other musical genres I rather enjoy, jazz and sacred music, for instance. But no other music affects me as deeply, on an emotional and visceral level. And these are some of my thoughts on extreme metal for the time being.

Left: My happy place. Right: With Luc Lemay of Gorguts.

Left: My happy place. // Right: With Luc Lemay of Gorguts.

On Work

The saying goes, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I used to believe this could be true, but I can’t say that I do today. For a good eleven or so years I’ve had a very happy and fulfilling job. For the most part I’ve been fortunate to have coworkers whose company I enjoy, and some of them I consider good friends. The work is oftentimes rewarding and frequently inspiring. The benefits are quite comfortable and the atmosphere relatively accommodating. In short, it’s a job many would love to have. But it’s still work. It’s still work and every Sunday night I lament the fact that the weekend is over.

I think the idea behind that saying is that if you love your job, it doesn’t really feel like a job in the end. I’m sure there are people who can say they get paid for doing something they love doing, something they might be doing anyway, for free even. That appears to not be the case with me at all. Last year I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to devote the entirety of my work hours to a project I absolutely loved. For six months I was immersed in activities, research, interviews, travel and events of my own choosing, on a topic and subject matter I love. And it still felt like work. Really hard work, actually. Yes, my deadlines and objectives were self-imposed, but they were still deadlines and I had to make them. Of course, I’d much rather still be working on that project and managing my own time. But that doesn’t change the fact that there were many times when what would have otherwise felt like a fun pastime ended up feeling like an arduous chore.

Even writing this entry is something I’ve been putting off for a few hours. Why? I love the idea of writing a short blog post every Sunday night. I actually look forward to it every week. But then, when the time comes and I’m up against my (self-imposed) deadline, I start to dread it and it turns into work. I don’t even have to do this, the two people following this blog won’t call me up tomorrow and ask why I didn’t write. I’m writing because I’m convinced I enjoy it and because I believe that although I may not enjoy the process, I will enjoy having done it.

Maybe that’s the difference…there are things I do that I don’t like doing, but then I’m happy I did them anyway. Going to the gym is one of those. As I think of it, I wonder if that happens with work, too. I am often able to say I’m proud of my work and I’ve done a good job, even when I don’t enjoy doing it. But then I don’t really get the feeling that I’m happy to have done it. It’s more like, “Yep. I did it and it’s good. But, given the chance, I’d rather have done something else with that time. Or perhaps I’d rather have done nothing at all.”

That’s another thing about work. It seems so much value and worth is attached to work. When we talk about someone in a flattering way, it is common to say things such as, “she’s a hardworking, productive, upstanding citizen who contributes to society.” We place so much value on producing, on working, on contributing. In fact, the only time we say someone doesn’t produce, or doesn’t contribute to society, it is meant as criticism and not flattery. So, it turns out that we place value on doing, on making. And that poses a problem for someone who’d rather be than do. Could it be any other way?

This is something I don’t talk about much, mostly because I feel so misunderstood. “What you need is to win the lottery.” Well, yeah, who wouldn’t like to win the lottery? But that’s not it. What I want is to not work. I want to not have the feeling that I’m working. “You’re just being lazy.” I don’t see the connection between not wanting to work and being lazy. Not wanting to get out of bed…that’s lazy. Not wanting to feel obligated to pay to live…what does that have to do with being lazy? I remain optimistic, perhaps something will make me change my mind about this. But that’s how I feel about work for the time being.

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On Religious Literacy

As a religious person and as one who has a deep respect and appreciation for world religions, I always enjoy the opportunity to learn something new not only about my tradition but about those of others. The religious path I follow makes my life richer and happier, and it helps me to understand myself and my place in the world. I am religious, without a doubt. But I don’t expect anyone else to be. In fact, I am of the conviction that while religion is absolutely wonderful, it is not absolutely necessary. Countless people lead meaningful, productive, happy lives without adhering to any particular religion or spiritual path.

Today, however, I want to reflect on the importance of religious literacy. In the United States of America, a nation that too many are only too eager to call a Christian nation, most people can’t name even one of the four Gospels. If we venture out of Christianity and start asking questions about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or any of the other major world religions, the dearth of knowledge is beyond shocking. It is no surprise, then, that religion becomes such a sensitive topic, such a trigger for conflict and misunderstanding…it boils down to the fact that most of the time we don’t even know what we’re talking about. And what’s worse, we don’t care to know.

I contend that if we wish to be happy and responsible members of society today, it is important that we have at least a very basic understanding of religious traditions other than our own. Why? Well, for starters, the religious landscape has shifted and diversified drastically and will only continue to do so. This means that more often than not, we will find ourselves living, working, playing and collaborating with and among people of many different faiths. How can we relate to each other, how can we understand where we are coming from, how can we connect, if we don’t even know what gives meaning, purpose and context to the lives of those around us?

A basic knowledge of religious traditions is an invaluable asset even for people of no faith (to whom researchers have taken to labeling “nones”). Religious thought, language and aesthetics have permeated history, art, culture, literature and even science through the ages. Without a basic religious understanding, major works and human achievements lack context. This is true of Renaissance painters and Romantic period composers. But it is also true for popular culture. Even Star Wars, as I learned from Joseph Campbell, owes a great debt to religious archetypes and narratives of antiquity.

Of course I don’t think everyone should be a walking encyclopedia of world religions. But there are basic things we should know. We should know, for instance, how it is that the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) are related to each other. We should know that Paganism and the many earth-based religions classified under that umbrella have nothing to do with Satanism. We should know that it is possible to have religious conversations with people of other faiths without feeling compelled to debate with or convert them. And for goodness sake, we should know that the jolly, fat statue we see at Chinese restaurants is not the Buddha. And that’s what I think about religious literacy, for the time being.

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On Feminism

When a man says he is a feminist, chances are he will be perceived to be progressive, sensitive, and maybe just a touch provocative. When a woman says she’s a feminist, chances are she’ll be perceived to be confused, disgruntled and maybe just a bit of a man-hater. This has at least been my experience and it is one of many reasons why I believe we need feminism today as much as ever.

It is easy for me to say I am a feminist; I enjoy male privilege. I am painfully aware of that. So it is with trepidation that I identify as a feminist. My definition of a feminist is very simple, and because Gloria Steinem has put it in such a simple and elegant way, I use her definition, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”

Thanks to the work and sacrifice of so many feminists through time, we live in a world that is a little bit better, a little bit fairer. But the truth is we still have a very long way to go. We still need feminism. I realize this when I notice that the qualities that cause a man to be seen as confident, authoritative and strong are the same qualities that cause a woman to be seen as full of herself, bossy and dictatorial. I realize it when I’m told I should keep trying for a boy, even though I can’t imagine a boy could make me any happier, prouder or more grateful than my two amazing girls. I realize we need feminism when I’m asked whether my partner is a stay-at-home mom or a working mom (as though there’s such a thing as a non-working mom). I realize we need feminism when our nation, the beacon of freedom and democracy, has had forty-three presidents and not one of them has been a woman. I realize it when a friend asks on Facebook whether her friends identify as feminists and every other answer is something along the lines of, “well, the original meaning of feminism but not the man-hating it has turned into.”

Man-hating is a real thing and there is a word for it. The word is misandry, not feminism. Feminism has nothing to do with hating men. Feminism is good for women and for men. And yes, it is absolutely reasonable to wish for the destruction of the patriarchy while respecting and embracing the importance and equality of men in our societies. Why? Because working toward the abolishment of the patriarchy is not misandry, it’s equality. The patriarchy is as outdated and oppressive as the monarchy. Down with both of them.

My partner’s idea of feminism contends that men and women are more alike than we are different. She believes that our goal should be to focus less on our differences. I used to agree with that, but I don’t anymore. There was a time when I thought men and women were basically the same and that was my rationale for why we should be treated the same. It was simple, we’re the same, so we should be treated the same. However, that’s a bit of a fallacy. Being the same shouldn’t be a requirement for being treated the same. People, regardless of sex, gender, race, and religion, should be treated the same, no matter how different they may be. I’m interested in equality, not sameness. I don’t need to believe that men and women are generally the same, and in fact, in the past few years I’ve come to believe we are quite different.

It is my dream that my children, or perhaps my grandchildren will one day live in a world that doesn’t need feminism. Until then, however, I will continue to be a feminist. And that’s what I have to say about feminism, for the time being.

Taken from Rebecca Cohen's Tumblr.

On Winter

We’ve had an unusual winter this year. Some days are so unseasonably warm that I forget to take a coat with me when leaving the house, and a couple of days after Christmas my dad and I raked leaves as though it were October. I found myself asking the other day, “where’s our bleak midwinter?” And, I almost can’t believe it myself, but I’m rather missing the snow and bitter cold this year.

Mexico City has a relatively temperate climate. Growing up we knew it was winter because we had to put a sweater on and close the window. We knew it was summer because we could open the window again. And that was about it…no winter snows, no sweltering summer heat. I had no idea how easy I had it.

The Winter of 1997 was one of the coldest Oklahoma City had had in many years. That January, I transferred for college and I almost didn’t make it. I felt like I had to summon the spirit of Sir Edmund Hillary to complete the expedition from my dormitory room to class. I couldn’t believe such cold was possible. I had an on-campus job with the grounds crew soon after arriving and they had us shoveling snow and doing general clean up. Sweat would run from under my stocking hat, past my ear muffs, turning my (then) long hair into brittle locks of frozen hair. It was then that my hate-hate relationship with the winter began. I wouldn’t feel that cold again until the morning of January 20, 2009 when I stood for hours on end at the Washington D.C. National Mall for the inauguration of President Obama.

I was not meant to be in cold climates, but here I am nonetheless. Living in Kansas City for the past twelve years I’ve made it through my fair share of snowmaggedons and subzero temperatures. I know this is nothing compared to Michigan, but I don’t care, it’s been pretty damned bad. For many years, we could tell how cold of a winter we would have by how mopey the change in seasons made me. I’ve never been diagnosed, but Emily is convinced I have seasonal affective disorder. I wouldn’t be surprised: the shorter days, the feeling that I should be hibernating rather than going on with work and routine as though we weren’t living in a godforsaken tundra…it gets to me.

Or, it used to get to me, I should say. Five or six years ago I decided I was done with this whole I-hate-winter business. It was pretty certain I was staying in Kansas City for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t just mope my way through the cold months. So I bought a new overcoat, the kind that is made from some magical material that is incredibly thermal while being impossibly thin. I bought a new pair of gloves and a hat, and I decided to put the notion of mind over matter to the test. I tackled each day with a winning attitude and my new winter accoutrements, and it worked. It really did!

It isn’t often that one can share a success story as successful as this, so I’m rather proud of this change. Whereas I once despised any season that was not the Spring, I now enjoy the fact that we have four distinct seasons. I suppose if I were pressed, I’d say the Fall is my favorite, but I’m not really sure. A couple of years ago we bought a house and for the first time in my life I found myself having to shovel my driveway and sidewalk. I thought for sure that would bring back old Scroogio. But it didn’t. Yes, it was hard work and I was sore for days, but I actually felt happy and accomplished after a good few snow-shoveling hours. So far this winter I’ve had to use the snow shovel for a total of about two minutes, and I feel robbed. Seriously, where is my bleak midwinter?

It’s good to have seasons. It’s good to be reminded that there is a time for everything. Winter is for stillness and dormancy, for thinking long and heavy thoughts. Winter is for hot soup and good books. But without any snow days in sight, how can we have any of that? They tell me not to worry, that snow is for sure coming. I hope they’re right. And that’s what I have to say about the winter, for the time being.

All of us venturing out for a walk in the snow, something we haven't gotten to do this year.

Out for a walk in the snow last year. Not this year, last year.

On Savings

There are a lot of things my parents did right when raising me, but teaching me to save money was not one of them. I don’t fault them for this because the truth is I have a great deal more for which to thank them and, well, nobody’s perfect. I think they tried, I remember having a little combination safe into which I was meant to deposit a good portion of my weekly allowance. But the weekly allowance ebbed after a few weeks and so did my interest in the safe. It’s not that we were poor, we actually were quite comfortable and I had more toys than I needed. It’s just that for some reason it didn’t seem to be a priority to instill in us kids the importance of saving money. As I think about it, I believe the fact that my parents were (and are) both self-employed had a lot to do with it. Saving money is easier to do when you have a steady, predictable income.

I lived a very austere college life, having a full class schedule and an assortment of menial, on-campus jobs. One summer I toured Europe playing bass with the school’s jazz band. I set out to conquer Germany, Belgium, Holland and England with a little bit of cash and a debit card. I was well aware of how little money I had in the bank and I figured at some point the ATMs would deny my withdrawals, but they didn’t. In my willing suspension of disbelief I chalked up the unexpected surplus to the exchange rate. I came back to a mailbox full of overdrawn notices from the bank. On top of owing the money I had withdrawn, I owed $20 for every overdrawn transaction. I owed a lot of money and I couldn’t find a job that would hire me for the remainder of the summer. The only reason I made it through those last four or six weeks of summer was that Emily’s aunt and uncle had given me a case of Ramen noodles left over from their Y2K preparations. And because I sold plasma three times a week. It was, as Emily and I have come to refer to it, the summer from hell. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I discovered credit cards. I was determined to get out of this hole on my own and in my vulnerable state, credit cards seemed like a life saver. But of course, I ended up digging myself into a deeper hole.

The truth is that on a personal level, this is still a big struggle for me. As a parent, however, I have decided to do everything I can to instill in my children the importance of money management. I don’t want them to be obsessed with or attached to money. And I certainly want them to be generous and charitable with others. But I also want them to understand that we can’t give what we don’t have and that we are happier when we live within our means. So, to this end, I have implemented a weekly savings challenge. Every Sunday night, as part of their bedtime routine, we gather our dollar bills and ritually put them into their piggy bank. We are using the incremental savings challenge in which the first week you put away one dollar, the second week you put away two, and so on. At two and four years old, they’re too young to fully grasp what we’re trying to do by cultivating this habit. But that’s sort of the point. I want them to associate the end or beginning of a week with putting money away. I want them to understand at some primal level that we have to save money before we can use it. Tonight was our third week and they seem interested enough to fold their dollar bills and tuck them through the piggy bank’s slot. I try to remind them each week that we are putting this money away for the rest of the year and I don’t think they get that yet, but perhaps in time they will.

Having married someone who has a much better grasp on money management has been my salvation. I remember the day that, thanks to Emily, we made the last payment on my pre-marital credit card debt. It was a feeling of great relief, to feel that I was no longer shackled to these credit card companies to whom I had sold my soul when I was so desperate and vulnerable. I had felt so ashamed of this for so long, and then, after a year of tight budgeting and hefty payments, I was free. Immediately after that, we started saving money to buy a car. It took us several years, but we accumulated enough to go to the dealership one day and pretty much say, “this is how much cash we have and we’re ready to buy that car with not a penny more.” I never imagined I would ever buy a brand new car and pay for it in cash. For the most part, talking about money makes me feel tacky. But the world we live in is uncertain and expensive, and if I want to raise smart, independent daughters, I’m going to have to be a bit more intentional about this. So that’s what I have to say about savings, for the time being.

“Money, it's a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” - Money by Pink Floyd

“Money, it’s a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” – Money by Pink Floyd