Monday, 27 November 2017

The unreasonable effectiveness of tabasco shots

A few years back a therapist of mine came with a suggestion that sounds weird: to break out of the more debilitating anxiety attacks — drink a spoonful of tabasco.
She had been using this with self-harm patients, as a way to get the release that comes with cutting, without actually causing yourself harm.

Since then, I have been drinking tabasco whenever my mood crashes out too hard to handle. And it is effective.

Surprisingly effective.

Bizarrely effective.

Exemplia gratia: yesterday, after a full but very pleasant day, a bunch of things conspired against me. A panhandler intimidated me. Then various things kept my edge high, and eventually S brought up a high priority family task and suggested I do it today. I teach all day today, and don't have much in the way of slack, and ended up working up a real panic about how to fit this additional thing in, and about whether delaying until Tuesday would work.

All in all, as I went to brush my teeth, I went from quiet, sad, upset, on the verge of crashing to sitting on the bathroom floor, rocking and crying quietly. Once I finished brushing, I asked S (I had to try twice for her to hear me, each time taking a real effort to get any sound out at all) to fetch me some tabasco.

To really, really show how effective it was, let me paint the scene before and after in even more detail:

Before: I'm sitting on the bathroom floor. Rocking back and forth. Crying. Not able to get any words out. Standing up is completely out of the question. I panic, hard, when S tries to ask me which of our hot sauces I want. It's an effort to even reach up and accept the spoon S has filled with hot sauce.

After: I have barely even swallowed the spoonful of tabasco when my crying stops, a wry smile slowly creeps in. I stand right up, step over to the sink and rinse out my toothbrush, then go to bed.

It doesn't even take a second, but swallowing a spoonful of tabasco will stop — dead in its tracks — my ongoing paralyzing anxiety attacks, return me back to a reasonably good humor and quite capable of taking care of myself and functioning in my surroundings. I have yet to find anything, at all, that is quite as effective at managing my moods: the one obstacle I face is to remember that this is in my toolbox when I need it.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Suspended in Air

This is another guest post by Dorothy Donald.

Imipramine
I was twelve years old. Dr B said she didn’t like to prescribe antidepressants for someone so young, but I was such a classic case that she felt she had to. My mother kept my meds in a high cupboard so that I couldn’t… you know. I didn’t get better.
Fluoxetine
I was a teenager. It made me feel like I was looking at the world from the bottom of a swimming pool. I did things without deciding to do them. I had never harmed myself before…
Citalopram
Early 20s. I just didn’t think it was helping. I thought I was just getting worse. I wanted to know if there was an alternative. Dr R wrote ‘patient refused to continue treatment’ on my medical notes and dismissed me from his office.
Sertraline
I didn’t want another SSRI. I remember citing some meta-analysis or another on the success rate of SSRIs. I remember saying that I’d tried them before. I remember saying I was not in the least convinced that they would do me any good. Dr S gently asked if maybe doing something that might work was preferable to doing nothing. What did I have to lose, from where I was?
I agreed to give the damn pills a try. I agreed to stick out the first few weeks of dizziness, nausea, acid reflux, and general big weird feelings. I even agreed to up my dosage last summer when I had ‘a bit of a wobble’. Since then I’ve been different.
I still get low mood, but it kicks around for a day or so, rather than weeks or months.
I still have times when I struggle to get out of bed, but the thought process goes “oh, I need more sleep” rather than “I am useless”.
I still think about offing myself, but it’s a thought that drifts into my head and then just drifts right out again, rather than some abominable earworm.
I’m not happy all the time – that would be odd. I get grumpy, furious, sad, excited, tired, TIRED, lost in the flow state, bored, amused, content… all the stuff.
I just looked through my diary for 2017. It shows a bereavement, a house move, a couple of other fairly serious upheavals, and only one thing that felt like a depressive episode. Which seems to have lasted only three or four weeks. I think this is pretty good going, considering.
It would be premature to conclude anything about the efficacy of these tablets (my memory is not infallible and I’m not good enough a girl to keep a really comprehensive diary). It would be unwise to draw comparisons with the other drugs (oh, the confounding variables!).

18 months and counting.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Suggestions on supporting postdocs

At Academia Obscura, they have a post with explicit suggestions for how we could reform academia to better protect and support our postdoctoral scholars -- specifically with a view to how to prevent mental health tragedies among postdocs.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Inside Higher Ed and The Professor Is In on academic life with mental illness

The Facebook page for The Professor Is In links to an article in Inside Higher Ed on mental illness, starting from the recent suicide of an autistic Arizona State political scientist. Reading the article I realize I saw friends from the hacker community tweet about this when it happens — I recognize the start of his suicide note.

We are starting to talk about these issues in academia.
We are starting to lift visibility and getting a conversation going about how to do better by our friends and colleagues.

Even so, I find the comments in the Facebook thread disheartening. There is a cut-throat tone in a lot of academia: people in the thread talk about being told that their openness about their mental health is harming their employment searches; are advised not to treat colleagues as friends and to stay quiet in their departments.

I don't want this for us.
We should be able to do better.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Adriana Salerno at the AMS blog on depression

This was a good read -- A different kind of problem, Adriana Salerno blogs about her experiences as a professional mathematician dealing with depression.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Just The Same But Brand New

This is another guest post by Dorothy Donald.
In 2016 ... 
Despite several goes at it, I never quite made the transition from ‘shortlisted’ to ‘given the damn job’. I’ve sobbed long and loud over this. I’m still trying.
I noticed that people are asking me for help and advice more and more. And half the time I don’t even panic before I respond. They even seem to find it helpful quite a lot of the time.
I spent a whole weekend with my mother for the first time in I don’t even know how many years. We actually both enjoyed it.
I published N papers (where N is a number I’d describe as ‘impressive’ if I were talking about anyone other than me), and I can tell you in a heartbeat how each and every one of those ‘doesn’t really count’. They’re still there on my CV, though.
My friends - the new ones, the old ones, and the re-discovered ones – just kept making my heart swell with love.
I noticed that, when someone treats me like I’m an idiot, I now tend to feel angry instead of assuming I must actually be stupid or wrong. I’ve even started arguing my case from time to time. (See also: when people assume I’m not busy.)
I had a couple of flings. They were fun. They ended with no hard feelings.
My doctor handed me a prescription for Sertraline on a Friday. He then asked if I’d be at home alone all weekend, looked worried until I assured him I’d see at least one friend, and instructed me to make an appointment for the following Monday before leaving the surgery.
My anxiety dreams remained really fucking weird.
I had a holiday. A real one. Not a few days tagged onto a conference. I didn’t check my email once. I know, right?
I had kind colleagues who supported me.
Something happened to me at a conference. When I described it to someone else later, they said “But isn’t that assault? Was anyone else there? Did anyone do anything about it?” Yes, yes, and no.
My physiotherapist did very painful things to my upper back and told me I work too much.
I took up a new hobby. It tires me out physically and makes it impossible to think about work for a while. Also, I’m getting better at it already.
I told a few people something that’s quite important to me about my sexuality. Only one of them was an arsehole about it.
I felt joyful and content and furious and terrified and proud and despairing and tired and sad and anxious and excited and this was, for the most part, OK.
I am in a much better state than I would usually be this close to Christmas.
I am making tremendous progress.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Well that was an effective hour.

I had a free hour and I want to chip away on a paper I have been working on for two years. I've just started writing an introduction. If I keep chipping away at it I might finish it.

I spent an hour and all I did was edit two sentences and add five references after the second.

For the first sentence I couldn't find a paper I wanted to check something about. This was particularly frustrating because I was looking at it on this exact same computer two days ago. It's like not being able to find your keys even though you know they are on your bed.

Anyway the point of this is that maybe this was an effective hour working on a paper. Or maybe it wasn't. I really don't know.

Since I had my nervous breakdown two years ago I really have felt that I am very ineffective at work, not being as productive as I feel I should be. But I really have no idea if that is imposter syndrome or if I really have been less effective than I used to be.