The Noonday Demon

transferirMay is mental health awareness month, and I thought I’d post something about this book I read a while back, because I think that pointing people to resources is also a way to raise awareness. This is a book about depression, and it covers pretty much everything on the topic you might want to know, find out, debate or are simply curious about.

We’re in 2015 and I still read online people saying you don’t need to take anything for depression because you can manage it naturally. I witnessed my mother going into an almost catatonic state due to depression and I can guarantee there was no herbal tea, meditation or yoga that could have taken her out of it. Continue reading

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Treating Your MS: A User’s Guide to Multiple Sclerosis Medications

Treating your MS HR_book cover jpeg-2I mentioned in my previous post that I wouldn’t be reading non-fiction for a while. However, since I’m in between drugs at the moment and this book came out a little over a month ago, I thought the timing was perfect.

I haven’t been taking anything for MS since February, and right now what I’m going to take next remains a huge question mark. I started on Avonex when I was diagnosed but soon it became clear that interferons are a big no for me due to side effects. I moved to Copaxone but disease progression as seen on MRI made doctors consider other possibilities. Continue reading

Lonely

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~Even with close friends. . . even with people I’ve known for decades, who I still know, it’s just sometimes. . . something’s not there.~

~Harry Stack Sullivan, for instance, one of the leading psychiatrists of the twentieth century, described loneliness as a state of simply not having one’s emotional needs met, of being caught in a situation characterized by the “inadequate discharge of the need for human intimacy.”~

When I started reflecting and writing about my hermit mode, I also searched for what others were saying about loneliness and aloneness. I ended up purchasing this book and when it arrived I couldn’t put it down. What makes it so enjoyable, interesting and easy to read is that Emily White perfectly intertwines research on loneliness with her life story. Up to a certain point I was surprised by how many things I seemed to have in common with her. Divorced parents and a distant father, long periods of solitude during childhood (though for different reasons), a normal social life during high school and college but not really connecting, and finally a job that involves spending long hours alone.

The author makes it a case that chronic loneliness should be considered a mental health issue, much like depression, as there is genetic evidence some people are more prone to it than others. Studies also suggest that chronic loneliness can lead to cognitive and behavioral changes, high blood pressure, early dementia and several other ailments. She also stresses that loneliness and depression don’t necessarily go hand in hand. You can be depressed without feeling lonely, and you can be lonely without being clinically depressed. Either way, there is such a stigma about lonely people (they lack social skills, they are unattractive, they are psychopaths planning their next murder, it’s their fault they’re lonely and so on and so on and so on) that no one talks about it and raises awareness.

Lonely people feel ashamed of their state, and they have reasons for it. And here comes one of my favorite parts of the book. The author criticizes much of the self-help literature out there because it makes the lonely person feel responsible for their pain. Some of it glorify solitude as a chance for self-discovery and self-nurturing, totally missing the point. The other half takes another approach by telling lonely people that “it’s in your hands,” “it’s within your reach” to make yourself feel better, as if you can overcome by yourself things over which you have no control. This is particularly dear to me because I fell in that trap. Thankfully my therapist deconstructed that ingrained belief because I used to feel responsible for everything that happened to me and in my life. I felt responsible for being sick and sometimes I still feel responsible for my MS not listening to me and to how I take so much better care of myself now. (Like “what am I doing wrong?” Answer: nothing.) The truth is unemployment, poverty, illness, and other factors can cage people in, and sometimes there isn’t much they can do.

The book ends on a bittersweet note. Much as I thought would happen with multiple sclerosis, Emily White thought that after reading and researching so much on loneliness she would be able to keep it at bay. But although she overcame the worst of her loneliness, she still feels it lurking, waiting for a moment she looks away to settle in again. And once again she says that maybe, in this case, help can only come from the outside.

 

The Open Focus Brain

wpid-the_open_focus_brain.jpegThe first time I heard about Open Focus I was told it was a little different from meditation. As I started reading though I realized it isn’t all that different, as I already tried some of the concepts during some meditation exercises.

Open Focus is basically a series of self-management exercises designed to train the way we pay attention. According to the author, much of our problems arise or are made worse by our style of attention, which is permanently in narrow-objective focus. Narrow-objective focus is the brain’s emergency mode and produces a lot of tension. Opening our focus and learning how to flexibly switch from one style of attention to the other according to the context will help dissolve physical and emotional pain, anxiety, depression as well as improve athletic and artistic performances.

Even though the premises (the author throws in research on brain waves and bio and neurofeedback) and exercises are interesting and compelling, I found the book itself repetitive. It could easily be cut by half its length without losing essential content. The exercises are a lot easier to follow with the audio provided on the website. However, I found the price of the mp3 way too high for the audio quality. Anyway, if you wish to learn more about it, you will find lots of resources on the website http://www.openfocus.com.

Scared Sick – The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease

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I must confess I struggled to finish this book. It is filled with numbers and statistics that, while informative, do not account for the human side of each story and the countless variables that may contribute to the development of disease. It is also very gloomy – according to the authors, no matter what you do you will end up scarring your children for life. If like me you haven’t had children yet, you’ll be left with the feeling that you won’t be up to the task. And if like me you have one or more chronic illnesses, you’ll be told it’s all your mother’s fault. I know there were specific events in my life right after I was born that may have contributed to trauma and chronic stress and anxiety, which in turn may have turned my immune system against myself, but that’s likely just half the story. The way trauma, disease, abuse, attachment and relationships are depicted here is just bleak. There is not much room for successful interventions and outcomes.

The most interesting sections I found in this book was one on epigenetics, which led me to search for more on this topic (I purchase more books than I have time to read), and another one on EMDR. I did a session of EMDR at the beginning of the year and this was the first time I read about it in a book as one of the therapies for trauma. Still, this being the second of two books I purchased on PTSD, trauma and disease, I recommend the first one I read, The Body Remembers, as a much better option to understand the neurobiology of trauma and how trauma can be overcome.

The Body Remembers – The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment

51Iz1JHskkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When my therapist said most of my symptoms were consistent with PTSD, off I went on a shopping spree trying to understand everything I could about it. I ended up only purchasing two books (so much for the shopping spree) and chose to pick up this one first because one of the things my therapist keeps telling me is that trauma is always in the body. It is felt, processed, stored and remembered in the body.

This book didn’t disappoint in explaining how. The first part provides a useful introduction to the mechanisms underlying the experiences of trauma. Being the geek that I am when it comes to all things science-related, I enjoyed learning about the role of brain regions such as the amygdala and the hippocampus in processing information, stimuli, emotions, etc, in regulating the body’s response to them, and their connection to memory, learning and language. 

The second part is aimed at providing therapists and their clients with techniques to alleviate and treat trauma symptoms using body awareness. The idea that the body is an endless resource for healing is certainly one that appeals to me. I’ve been learning for the past years how to pay more attention to what my body is telling me through yoga, contemporary dance and meditation. Now I intend to follow some of the suggestions in this book as well. I actually had the opportunity to try them today when I woke up startled at 5.30 am due to a nightmare. I didn’t think I could go back to sleep, but I remembered some of the exercises in the book and managed to get some sleep before the alarm went off.

Overall I think this book helped me getting more acquainted with what PTSD is about. It offers a nice balance between psychology and neuroscience, theory and practice. I hope the next one on my reading list will provide me with as much insight.

The Year of Magical Thinking

 

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I came across this book on the internet and became immediately interested in the concept of magical thinking, in which you attribute meaning and cause-effect patterns to things for which there is no explanation, or for which sometimes, due to circumstances, the explanation is beyond your grasp. Like children, you feel responsible for things you can’t be held responsible for, such as divorce, loss or death.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by writer Joan Didion, is a beautifully written memoir that focuses on the year after she lost her husband to a heart attack and saw her only daughter fighting for her life as a pneumonia evolved to a complete sceptic shock.

Although I never lost someone so close to me, I was able to relate to Joan’s experiences throughout the book, as she describes trying to make sense of the world and maintaining a sense of control while being totally submerged in grief. I could relate to the heavy sense that things can change irrevocably in a matter of seconds (“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.“) as I’ve had that experience for three times in my life. I could relate to being perceived as someone who is dealing very well with everything while being completely torn to pieces inside, alienated, running on autopilot. I could relate to the burden that memory becomes after loss – memory, so crucial for understanding who we are and yet dragging us down like stones around our neck every time it forces us to relive moments at inappropriate times. I could relate to how the fear of more loss and the desperation to understand what went wrong makes us go through every little mistake we might have made and what we could have done to prevent it – and makes us feel superstitious, trying to read meaning where there’s none. I could relate to the fear of having no one there should something happen to me. I could relate to the cognitive deficits that come with stress or grief. And I could relate to her complaint that nowadays we are so much surrounded by information that we’re constantly reminded we can avert death and if we can’t we only have ourselves to blame.

Joan Didion’s writing is clear and stripped of artifice, and yet surprisingly eloquent, poetic, and poignant. This is a book that definitely made sense to me at this point in my life and I’m so glad I read about it and decided to pick it up.

 

The power of negative thinking

I stole the title of this post from one of the chapters in the book When the Body Says No, by Dr Gabor Mate, because it said a lot of interesting things about positive and negative attitudes towards chronic illness, which is what I want to rant about.

After a while of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, when trying to keep my head above the water became less strenuous, I started trying to connect with other people like me. I found a lot of communities. Some of them were filled with people struggling with a lot of challenges and difficulties, and as much as I wanted to help and give my support, it became really depressing to visit those communities every day and read all those complaints and think that those things can happen to me someday,

And then I found other communities that were the exact opposite. At first, I wanted to jump on the positive wagon. I mean, who doesn’t want to be surrounded by positivity, right? But then again… I changed my mind. Some of the people who are members of these communities are bloggers and guest bloggers that go around the internet giving you tips and recipes to manage your day, your symptoms and your well-being. But some of them, if you follow them on Twitter, spend their days complaining about how their legs gave in, they couldn’t leave the house, they were in such pain, etc. And it gets depressing. More depressing than the depressing communities. Because these people sound like – and here comes an ugly word – hypocrites. There, I said it.

Another thing that’s bothering me is their advice. This week I clicked on a link to a blog post with tips to managing brain fog. I suffer a lot from brain fog so I was interested. And then I was disappointed. The tips included “Take naps along the day” which I would love to but I’m working 9 to 5 and I can’t really nap in the office, “Drink lots of water” which is lovely but I’m already drinking 2 liters a day, should I really drink more and become a swimming pool?, and “Cut on caffeine”, another great tip since I only drink one coffee a day. There’s probably a chance these tips are going to help someone, but to me they just felt unrealistic, childish and indulgent.

But that’s not the biggest problem I have with all this positivity. Today I watched an interview on a news channel with a fellow MSer about my age that really pissed me off. Among other things, she said that if you believed in your dreams you could make them come true. I may be a little skeptical and sound a little mean here, but I’ve lived enough to know that’s not true when you have such a debilitating condition like multiple sclerosis. I don’t believe in unicorns. I believe that if you’re strong-willed, if you have supportive people around you, a great team of healthcare providers and – let’s not kid ourselves – some money, you can make things happen, yes.

Statements like “Just believe you can” are not only misleading but they can be offensive too. I’ve read stories that made me feel like I’m not a worthy MSer just because I can’t run the marathon or climb the Everest. I could barely run 4 miles after 4 months of training, before I gave up because of the winter. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that I’m the only MSer who isn’t bothered by the heat, it’s the cold that gets to me, so I guess that’s another reason I’m probably not a worthy member of the family. I could write a great post with tips for all of you to survive the summer (try being born in a Mediterranean country, you’ll grow up used to really hot and really long summers) but I don’t pretend to know what works best for you and preach about it. Everyone is different. And no, it’s not great to have a chronic illness and have to deal with things most people don’t even dream of, so don’t make it sound like it is. Yes, there are good days too, and humor in many situations, but you can feel it when it’s authentic and when it’s not.

“Compulsive optimism is one of the ways we bind our anxiety to avoid confronting it. […] The onset of symptoms or the diagnosis of a disease should prompt a two-pronged inquiry: what is this illness saying about the past and present, and what will help in the future? Many approaches focus only on the second half of that healing dyad without considering fully what led to the manifestation of illness in the first place. Such ‘positive’ methods fill the bookshelves and the airwaves.
In order to heal, it is essential to gather the strength to think negatively. Negative thinking is not a doleful, pessimistic view that masquerades as ‘realism.’ Rather, it is a willingness to consider what is not working. What is not in balance? What have I ignored? What is my body saying no to? Without these questions, the stresses responsible for our lack of balance will remain hidden.”