Seriously tho, Is It Just Me?? (A look into the mind of mental illness)

Bleeding Ink is back. Been about a year and a half since the last entry. Various reasons for not writing anything. But ultimately, I can’t not do this. A writer writes. I’ve written since I was just lil Bleeding Ink. It’s how I process things. How I remember things. I write to heal my pain. To rage. To laugh. To cry. To stop crying. To breathe. I write because I have to….

Before I go on, I should probably give a heads-up that this blog includes a picture of a brain surgery scar in the healing process. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

Specifically, the topic that brought me back to the blog was the death of Carrie Fisher. When I read that she had died, I teared up (ok I cried) in a way I hadn’t with other celebrities that passed in 2016.

img_20161227_124252

But it wasn’t because of Star Wars. She readily admitted that she’ll always be known as Princess Leia, but that wasn’t what brought the tears. Nor was it the fact that she was a bad-ass in those movies, whether you thought of her as Princess Leia or as General Organa. Rather, it was her being a bad-ass in real life. It was that she was so open and honest about the fact that she had bipolar disorder. She was an OG advocate for mental illness, talking about it when it was a lot more taboo than it is today. She helped lessen the prejudice people have. I admired the hell outta Carrie Fisher and her bravery and candor.

Kid Cudi was also an inspiration, admitting himself for suicidal thoughts and depression, and causing men, in particular black men, to come together and create #YouGoodMan which trended on twitter for several days. Those two, as well as some fellow mental health fighters (because we do fight. Every day.) pushed me to be brave and put this out there for the world to read.

See kids the thing is, this blog post has been two years in the making. I began it the very day Robin Williams was found dead. August 2014. Started out as a tribute to him and his comedic genius. But then it evolved into talking about mental illness. The entry then sat here for a couple weeks. Unfinished. Then for a month. Then a couple months. Oh I’d come back to it. Add some stuff. Delete some stuff. Re-add the original stuff and add more. Delete it all and start over. You get the idea. But I would never dare publish it.

Oh and I had links too! So many links! Links to studies, links from peer-reviewed papers, links showing physical changes in the brain of people with chronic depression, I even had links with results of Functional MRI (fMRI) that showed what a brain in the midst of a severe depressive episode looks like vs a “normal” brain.

But the funny thing (funny/ironic, not funny/ha-ha) about having anxiety is that you are likely too anxious to write about it! And definitely too anxious to publish it! So I suppose I wanted to find link after link so y’all wouldn’t just think to yourselves, “Oh he’s crazy.” “Depression? Yeah that’s not a real thing. Just be happy.” “Anxiety? Why would you be anxious around us, we’re your friends.” Or the ever popular “Happiness is a choice.”

stay-positive

Not if your brain’s broken

Figured if I had science behind it, you would all be convinced that mental illness isn’t just Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons due to old age. It isn’t just some guy hearing voices because of schizophrenia, telling him to kill people at an airport. Mental illness isn’t just someone talking to herself, convinced the aliens are coming. I suppose I hoped you’d read this entry and if I had enough links to back it up, you wouldn’t think, “Dude. That Bleeding Ink, yeah um, he cray. Wow. Who knew he was that messed up, yikes. Let’s just back away from this friendship.”

they-rule-our-lives

But now I realize I don’t need 9 million links. There are a few in this entry, but ultimately, I can’t change anybody’s mind. And that’s ok. It has to be. I can’t vanish the negative bias people have around it. Not by myself. I’m not a scientist working on the latest research into mental illness. I can’t show you that 40 million of us aren’t “crazy” or “just sad.” You either believe it’s a real thing and that I work my ass off every day to function as a stable human being, or you don’t.

It’s depression so bad that some days you can’t even find the energy to go outside. It’s when you develop such awful anxiety after having 2 back-to-back emergency shunt surgeries that you lose 28 lbs in a couple months because you stop eating, because your stomach hurts all the time. Meanwhile, you do that thing people do on social media where you may not flat-out lie in a post, but certainly you are giving just the “highlight reel” of your life. You only post the good stuff. So friends had no idea what you’re dealing with, and so they compliment you on your weight loss. Yo, you look fantastic, how are you staying so slim??”

shunt surgery

I’m “staying so slim” because even tho I had 18 surgeries before this happened, having this particular (unexpected) surgery done twice in 6 weeks raised my anxiety level through the roof!

Anxiety so bad that you have thoughts that you know, you KNOW, are not logical. But you have them anyway. You have thoughts that you can’t explain to anybody because as soon as you try, it doesn’t make any sense even to you coming out of your own mouth.

“Oh um, you’re wondering whyyyyyyyyy I drove around and around your house, too anxious to stop and knock on the door even tho you’re my metaphorical sisters that I’ve known for years? Oh. Well. See. The thing is….”

And it doesn’t matter what the thing is. Because the “thing” is that unless you’ve experienced this yourself, you’ll never know. And you may have compassion for it, and you may believe mental illness is real. You may know that science says it’s complicated; that environment and your experiences both play roles. A myriad of reasons, not yet fully understood, keep you in that dark place. But you won’t know what it actually feels like. Because your brain’s not broken. So you can empathize, but never really know.

facebook_-1911611503

Flip-side of empathy means you’ll never know because you don’t believe it. Your emotions get the better of you and you can’t imagine how your friend, your “brother”, could suddenly create all these scenarios in his head that paralyze him from calling you, or make him drive around and around your house and not pull over and go say hi. And I can understand how it doesn’t help convince you that mental illness is real, whenever you get on social media and see a post or a picture where the person with anxiety somehow has the courage to attend a show with the spouse, or an award ceremony for a relative, but can’t go visit you in the hospital after you had your first child. You see that and hey, what else are you supposed to think?? You get angry. And I don’t blame you. It’s hard to understand what happens in a mind filled with anxiety.

img_20140813_130056

Even Twitter God knows it’s legit

For many people, including this writer, anxiety and depression can be a lifelong companion. Triggered by abuse of some kind, or sudden disability, by the loss of a child, too many trips to the ER due to chronic condition, or by nothing at all. And it more than likely comes and goes. Ebbing and flowing, sometimes kept at bay, completely asymptomatic. Sometimes overwhelming.

And it can be a lonely existence. People won’t understand you. People will think that you’re simply unmotivated or a homebody, when you’re really in the throes of another depressive episode. Or they might see you as irresponsible when actually you’re having a panic attack. Rather than in class where you’re supposed to be, you might be hiding in some corner of a building someplace, unable to breathe, freaking out about something that in all likelihood is not happening and won’t happen.

It sucks.

And whereas anxiety will tell you everyone is pointing and laughing at you, secretly talking about you behind your back, depression will tell you there’s no point in doing anything about it. #DepressionLies and tells you no one wants to hear you. It convinces you that even your best friend will get tired of you if you complain too much. Mental illness convinces you not to go outside and get some fresh air, not to reach out to people, don’t make that phone call. The very things you need to do to help yourself are the very things mental illness says you shouldn’t do. *That’s* irony! (And not the Alanis kind.)

08c1d86c982627b167c534038a621365Anxiety tells you that if you do make that phone call, you’ll say something completely ridiculous and look like a huge idiot. It whispers no, it screams! in your ear, “Say something. Don’t just sit there silent. Oh my god so awkward, you’re such a loser, just hang up.” Your humble writer was so thankful when texting became a thing. Still, I learned at 12 years old it’s difficult to keep friends when you don’t actually call them every once in a while.

So to those that have stayed, thank you. My loving wife, who knows it’s real, who has literally helped me breathe on the really bad days, thank you. My family. The friends that check in when they notice that I’m isolating again. Thank you. Thank you for staying.

And to the ones that have left, I don’t blame you. Really.

(cont’d on page 2)

Posted in My Life (or "More About Me Than You Ever Wanted to Know") | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Soundtrack of my Life

Someone please read this to me in case I ever get Alzheimer’s, so I remember who the hell I am, a la “The Notebook” 😉

Also, here’s a tip. There are a lot…..a lot, of links in this entry, mostly on page 3. (Page numbers at the bottom. 🙂 ) And if you’re curious to know what the song is, but don’t want to click on every link, simply hover over the link and the artist and title will appear. 🙂

“My first music memory.”
I’m 8 years old. Saturday morning. Watching videos on TV with my big brother. (That was back when MTV actually played videos!) Some guy sitting on a chair in what looks like a gym. Glasses. Awful looking “salt and pepper” dye job with the grey hair. A janitor sweeps up papers and confetti, balloons and streamers, as the guy sits there looking at posters on the wall while he whistles a tune unfamiliar to my young ears. “Most likely to succeed.” “Most popular.” “Best athlete,” the posters read. I knew enough to know that was a high school reunion, tho it would be 20 years before I’d be invited to one of my own.

Suddenly, people start singing. No instruments. Just their voices. And snapping to a beat. “whoooooa oh oh oh, for the longest, for the longest time. Whoa oh oh….” It was so cool! Hearing what I later would learn is called a capella music. It was awesome! You could dance to it, you could sing along, you’d sing the various parts, from the words to the background music the guys were making using only their voices. It’s my first memory of listening to music, really listening, and to this day I absolutely am captivated by groups like Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix.

(And I still know all the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Piano Man” too 🙂  )

“Thank you for writing the longest song ever, Don Mclean”
I’m 9 years old. Dad’s pissed off, yelling in the living room. I head to my room and close the door. Scared. I mean what the hell do I know, I’m 9 and he’s raging about car insurance. I nervously pace back and forth. I try to read a book. Take a nap. Plug my ears. Nothing helps. Then I start to sing. It’s 8 1/2 minutes long. And I knew all the words. (I still do.) “A long, long time ago. I could still remember how that music used to make me smile.” I get to the chorus. “Bye bye Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry….” Over and over I sing that 8 1/2 minute song for what seemed like forever. Until the raging went away. 

(Sidenote: It’s been 30 years, he’s since mellowed, I went to therapy. We ku. 🙂 )

“Metallica understands. I’m not alone.”
I’m 15 years old. Just went through a third shunt revision for the hydrocephalus I was born with. Seems this one has plugged up with scar tissue from the last two surgeries. I’m so isolated. Sad. Scared. Not going to school because of all these surgeries and recoveries. Don’t really see my friends. I’d always been an emotional, sensitive young man. (Hell, I’m an emotional, sensitive adult!) And this, these surgeries, this pain both physical and emotional, the loneliness…..it was just more than I could handle. More than a 15-year-old kid should handle. Yeah “it could always be worse” but it still sucks. I should be starting junior year. Hanging out with friends. Getting ready to turn 16 and get a license. I shouldn’t be recovering from surgery after surgery, coming to school with a hat on my half-shaved head. That is, hat on my head on the rare occasion I came to school!

So I’d find solace in music. In my favorite band. They had pissed off, angry music. And that’s how I felt a lot of the time. Pissed off. Angry. Resentful. Wondering why God was letting this happen to me. But they also had one song that wasn’t so angry. Actually, quite the opposite. It was filled with melancholy. Sadness. Regret even. It had the lines, “I have lost the will to live, simply nothing more to give. There is nothing more for me, need the end to set me free” and “Death greets me warm, now I will just say goodbye”……but I never looked at it as permission/condoning suicide. Instead I felt comfort. I felt like someone, this amazing band, understood. They got it. The feelings of fear and loneliness, sadness and giving up on life. And I found that comforting. I wasn’t alone. Metallica understood my pain.

It wasn’t until years and years later that I found out the inspiration for the song was the fact that their equipment had been stolen! Still, it helped get me through a horrible time when I needed it and they remain to this day the greatest band ever!

“She made me feel normal”
17 years old. Still having surgeries. Mostly shunt revisions with some other ones thrown in, also SB related, because screw you why not?! Really no social life to speak of. I had friends. People who were always happy to see me when I’d actually show up at school. I even had a girlfriend. God bless her, sticking by me through all this. But we never went anywhere, never did anything. I was too sick. Or had headaches, or recovering from something. Or having panic attacks that I didn’t actually know were panic attacks until more than a decade later, when anxiety and panic attacks became as much a part of my official diagnosis as SB and hydro were.

But there was one friend, a really nice lady, who truly cared. And she always went the extra mile. I’ve written about her in other entries on this site, and she’ll turn up again in this entry. She was simply a wonderful woman who appreciated her friends, and I was blessed enough to call her my friend.

And she invited me to a pool hall! Are you kidding me?! Nobody invited me anywhere! But she did. She showed up to my parents house that evening and I still remember exactly what she was wearing. Short black boots. Black jeans. A purple top. And a black denim jacket, all of which highlighted her long blond hair and the most beautiful blue eyes ever. We get to the pool hall and start playing. I suck at pool! Still do. My “strategy” is to hit the ball as hard as I can! Maybe it’ll ricochet and end up hitting something 🙂 This song comes on over the speakers. She starts lightly headbangin’. Singing along. “Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me, cannot stop the battery!” Then she grabs me and swings me around.  “Cannot kill the family, battery is found in me!” So fun! Such a good night. Yeah I ended up with a headache, something about staples in my head or something, but that….such a beautiful memory. My friend helped me feel normal. For one night, Crystal made me feel just like any other 17-year-old kid. I will never ever forget that.

It’s been since 2008 that they’ve come to town. Looking forward to the day thousands of fans will once again go crazy the moment they hear this song begin!!!  \m/(- -)\m/

“Really, radio station that’s trying to figure out its format…..really???”
I’m 18 years old. By some miracle I graduated. The district had let the elective credits slide and I only needed to do the core class stuff. So I got to walk with my class at graduation. Later that summer, August, my aforementioned girlfriend and I were heading off to different colleges. Still in-state for both, but far enough away that I couldn’t just drive up to see her. She had stuck by me through all the medical drama. Sure it was more than any kid should go through for me, but it was also a lot more than any girlfriend should have to watch. But god love her, she stuck it out.

She came over a few days before she was scheduled to head for school. We hung out that day, that evening, into the next day. Laughing a lot. Just having a great time. It was fun. No tears. Um, until the following morning. She was getting ready to head out. Then we got to talking. “I’m gonna miss you.” “I’ll miss you. But you won’t even notice I’m gone. You’ll be busy too, going to college, making new friends. It’ll be ok.” In the background, this new radio station, Alice 105.9, is playing. They were still trying to figure out their format. It had literally just been created a week earlier. Playing everything from pop to rock to 70’s, figuring themselves out. We’re saying our goodbyes, trying to have “a moment” while Ace of Base plays in the background. Already we can sense what’s going to happen here. Little did we know what was coming, but this song was already emotional enough. “It’s tearing me apart that you’re leaving, I’m letting you go. But I won’t let you know.” It’s getting more and more difficult to ignore what’s happening in the background. “Don’t turn around, I don’t want you seeing me cry.” A single solitary tear drop falls from her face. More for me. (Toldja I’m a wimp.)

BUT THEN…..while that song fades out, keep in mind this station is still looking for an identity so this makes sense…..we hear the first few notes of the next song. And boy oh boy, do the tears start flowing! We sorta just lose it. No self-control. Just bawling. (I’m pretty sure she actually said, “Really, radio station?! Really?!”)

We broke up less than a month later. “It’s not you, it’s me” and “finding ourselves” and all that. We’d met at 12 years old and had been through so much. That one stung a while.

…………CONTINUED ON PAGE 2

Posted in My Life (or "More About Me Than You Ever Wanted to Know") | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Spina Bifida FAQ’s: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About SB (updated 10/23/14)

October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month. For those that don’t know, Spina Bifida is the #1 permanently disabling birth defect in the United States. More people are affected by it than muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis *combined*. I was born with it. And so in honor of awareness month, here is a list of SB related facts. Some were posted on my FB last year, some are brand new. Lengthy as this entry is, it is by no means a complete list and if anyone would like me to add anything, please feel free to leave it in the comments section and I will fact-check it then add it. Still, it’s a pretty comprehensive list. Maybe bookmark it and come back and finish the 3 pages later. 😉 As for my credentials to be saying all these things, I’m not a doctor. But I am an almost 40 year old man who has SB, and hydrocephalus and Chiari II among other secondary conditions that accompany SB. And I paid attention to doctors when they said things at the National SB conferences I attended for 9 years in a row. These are nationally renowned experts, in some cases world renowned experts, in SB. For some, their entire careers have been learning more about SB. So as far as I know from personal experience and from all those doctors saying all those things, every SB fact below is valid.
Don’t forget to click on the pictures to enlarge them. And all the links to learn more. As well as reblog, share, reTweet, repost on various social media and get the word out about this post. Let’s spread the word about Spina Bifida!! Pay close attention to #7 on page two. (Keep scrolling until you see the numbered pages, some people have missed that, and thought I only had 6 facts. I’m wordier than that) 😉 So #7 is full of great information for new parents and for anybody who wants to know what the day-to-day is really like for us. Please click on all the links in #7 as well. And #8 is also pretty important in terms of educating able-bodied folks on something that is key when thinking of the way you see/interact with people with disabilities. Please click those important links also. And #21. Stop sharing that meme. Pretty please 🙂

Happy reading 🙂

Hi Milo! :)

Hi Milo! 🙂

1. Spina Bifida (which means “split spine” in Latin) is a developmental birth defect often referred to as a “neural tube” defect. The neural tube is what eventually becomes the spine and brain. This defect, which usually happens in the first 30 days of pregnancy, before a woman even knows she is pregnant, entails the incomplete closure of the embryonic neural tube. What results at birth is that some vertebrae overlying the spinal cord are not fully formed and remain open. In the most common form of Spina Bifida called myelomeningocele -pronounced (no really) Milo My Ninja Seal- the baby is born with a sac on his back, filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and spinal nerves. The doctor will then place the nerves back into the baby’s spinal column and close up his back. The damage however, is done. This is not a “cure”. It simply stops the nerve damage where it’s at and closes up the back.

sb2. Spina Bifida is accompanied by a condition called hydrocephalus in 80%-85% of cases.

Hydrocephalus: “A chronic neurological condition characterized by an increased volume of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) within the spaces of the brain called ventricles.”

Cerebrospinal fluid is produced by the choroid plexus, in the ventricles of the brain. This fluid then travels all around your brain and spine and serves to, among other things, protect and cushion those structures. Hydrocephalus is when that fluid doesn’t reabsorb into the body, at which point it would then get reproduced, then reabsorbs, and so on. This cycle should happen 4x a day. With hydrocephalus, it gets produced as it should, but then just stays there in the ventricles. In younger infants, all that CSF can cause increased head circumference due to the skull not yet being one solid, hard piece. (Along with other serious complications including death. The bigger head is just the most obvious outward sign when you’re a baby.) In older kids and adults, the intracranial pressure placed on the brain from all that CSF can cause headaches, blurred vision, decreased mental capacity and other cognitive changes including a change in personality or demeanor, nausea, vomiting, fever, infection, and if not treated with a shunt, can cause death. I have what is called a VPL (ventriculo-pleural) shunt which is a catheter that is placed within one of the ventricles, connects to a one-way valve, and runs down my neck, resting above my lung, in the lining between my right lung and my ribcage, where CSF is drained and then absorbed by my body. Sometimes, these shunts break. Or get infected, or the holes meant to drain CSF get plugged up. That causes the shunt to fail. Then a shunt revision becomes necessary. The picture below shows a ventriculo-peritoneal (VP) shunt, which is a more common place for the shunt to drain. VP shunt

And this is my head after my last shunt revision in August 2013.

shunt surgery

Hardcore, right? \m/(- -)\m/

3. Another condition that often accompanies Spina Bifida is called Arnold Chiari Malformation, or Chiari II. There are four different types of Chiari but if you are born with SB and also have Chiari, then you always have Chiari II. Part of the clinical definition is “consists of a downward displacement of the cerebellar tonsils through the foramen magnum (the opening at the base of the skull)”. Basically part of your cerebellum goes down into the top of your spinal column where it’s not supposed to be. Among other things, this stops CSF from flowing freely. Also, your cerebellum controls autonomic functions, which are things you can’t control consciously, such as breathing and swallowing and regulating body temperature. These autonomic functions are affected when you have Chiari II. Some symptoms are more severe than others. While some people end up with nothing more than a pretty bad gag reflex, for others it can be more serious and cause choking or severe breathing problems, sleep apnea or other sleeping disorders.
Here we have a typical brain and a Chiari brain. Note the herniated cerebellum, lower than it should be.

chiari and syrinxConveniently, what this picture also shows is a syrinx in the spinal column:

4. Syringomyelia. Or a syrinx. A syrinx is a fluid (CSF) filled bubble that forms in your spinal column. As previously mentioned, the spinal column has CSF running all through it. But within that, a cyst can also form, also filled with CSF. And it can be small or it can run the whole length of your spine. The length matters less than the width. If it’s too wide, it can crush spinal nerves and cause even more damage. In those cases, the neurosurgeon can try to drain it, although it may return, or she may place a shunt in your spine which should do the same thing it does in your brain; ie, continually drain CSF.

My syrinx is small, only at c7, and not obstructing CSF flow around it or crushing nerves. It was that size at an MRI in 1992 and that size at the MRI in 2013 and hopefully it will never get bigger.

5. Children with SB are often referred to as “million dollar babies” because of the estimated healthcare costs over a lifetime of care. (This source is calculated in 1980’s money, so it’s actually quite a bit more!)

sb baby6. Spina Bifida is the #1 permanently disabling birth defect in the United States. More people are affected by it (or would be….more on that in #7) than muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis *combined*. It’s also the most complex birth defect you could have and still survive. This is because it affects almost every part of your body and organs, either from the SB itself or from secondary or tertiary conditions. For example, one way your brain is affected is from the hydrocephalus, yes, but it can also be affected from the shunt surgeries that are meant to correct the hydrocephalus. Too many shunt surgeries can cause scarring on your brain which can lead to seizures. 40% of people with SB have some form of epilepsy. SB affects kidneys and can also have an effect on other internal organs for various reasons, including the fact that some of us have curvature of the spine, which can cause our lungs to not have enough room to adequately expand in our rib cages. So fact #6…..SB is not only the most common permanently disabling birth defect but is also the most complex in terms of body systems affected.

But if we are in fact #1, then how many of us are there? Well, rough estimates from various sources say there are currently 166,000 people in the US living with SB. I know what you’re thinking….”But wait….shouldn’t that number be higher?! If it affects more people than CF, MS and MD combined, shouldn’t there be more?!” Yep. Which brings me to SB Fact #7 and an explanation for why there aren’t more of us if we are ahead of those other more well-known conditions:

 CONTINUE TO PAGE 2

Posted in Disability Advocacy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 48 Comments