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  • The Biggest Pill

    The pain levels in my face have been raging for the last week or two, and once again, I am overwhelmed. If it were only the pain, and I could still carry on with my life, I might be able to handle it, but it comes with debilitating side effects:  the staggering fatigue that the painkillers cause, the inability to move ahead with dreams and plans, the interruption of creativity and my social life, and, of course, depression.

    But probably what's worst about living with chronic pain is that there's really no happy ending in store when it's all over, because in the world of chronic anything, it's, well, never over. I recently watched the movie "Wild," about the journey of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon), who after the death of her mother decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail as a means of redeeming all of the bad choices she'd made in her life...her promiscuity, which destroyed her loving marriage; her drug abuse, which included shooting heroin; and an unwanted pregnancy, which resulted in an abortion.

    While the movie was wonderfully made, criss-crossing the past and present in Cheryl's mind as she made this ungodly 3,000-mile trek, it clearly was telling yet another incarnation of the hero's journey, where someone heads out into a dangerous world in one state of mind, goes through all kinds of trials and challenges, and at the end is redeemed. That story is as old as writing itself, most likely, and Americans are particularly fond of it, as we love to believe that so much of our destiny is within our reach, if we only have the courage and gumption to go after it. With a can-do attitude and a solid work ethic, we can achieve our dreams, no matter what our past was like, and somehow be made whole again, particularly if we can cleanse our spirits along the way and find communion with whatever higher power works for us.

    It's all such an inspiring notion, unless, of course, you're living in chronic pain. In this kind of life, fairy tales don't apply, nor do bible verses, motivational speakers, or self-help books of any kind. Perhaps one of the most painful emotional aspects of this particular journey is that there are no paths blazed before me to tell me what to do or how to get out of this, or what the goddamned meaning of it all is. As humans, we just love meaning, and when none can be found, the loneliness is unlike any other. When things are going well, we can believe that some greater power is at work for us, but when senseless tragedy or agony occurs, never do we feel more abandoned, or worse, that there was never any greater power there in the first place. The illusion is totally shattered, and the clarity of it is heartbreaking.

    Chronic pain is such an unthinkable turn of events that when the healthy person thinks of it, he or she feels a chill and thoughts quickly turn to something else. I mean, what Greek writer ever penned a heroic tale about being crippled by an unrelenting pain condition for which there is no cure?  What great lessons are there to be learned about feeling tortured every fucking day, from the minute I wake up until the minute I go to bed? If some director were to ever film my life story, there would be no arc. There is no overcoming with chronic pain, no redemption, no beating the odds. Yes, there are days where it eases up, and my mind begins to race with plans as to what I want to accomplish, but inevitably it spikes again, crushing everything in its wake, and I'm once again consumed by disappointment.

    This cycle has played out over and over since 1999, most acutely since 2004, and I sometimes just don't know if I can take it anymore. I've often thought of going off the medication, just to see how much of the pain I could actually handle, as at least the fatigue part of my life would be gone. But to be honest, the pills, while I hate them, are also often a refuge. They don't make me high anymore (unfortunately), but they can create a soft place to crawl into, hateful as it turns out to be as I despise the sleep they induce, which robs so many hours of my life.

    I know that I've been gifted in many ways, and I treasue the many means of self-expression I can use to purge the misery of all this, if only for a few hours. I can get lost in writing a song or painting a picture, or even writing a blog entry, but the beast is there when I finish, and I feel so ruined, so useless and so full of a constant, seething rage that I know most likely makes matters worse, but how can  I undo that feeling? If I were to watch my child being tortured every day, I would be enraged every day. There's no coming to terms with it.

    And that's basically that. I've nowhere to go from here, other than to hope I get lucky and find a cure or to live out the remainder of my days which will all most likely look exactly like this one. There will be no great moment of redemption, no celebration of overcoming, no slaying of the beast, no raising of my arms to the sunrise in victory. I've searched far and wide for answers, have had countless surgeries, have tried every alternative treatment, and so far nothing has helped. Every few years, a discussion board pops up on the web for people similarly afflicted and it will buzz along for a year or two, but it ultimately dies out when everyone realizes there are no fixes for this. We just have to go on the best we can, unless we take our own lives, which I've known some patients on these boards to actually do. I'm at the point now where I realize that the best I can hope for is that I will get lucky and someone out there, finally, will be able to help me.

    That's really what it comes down to. Luck. If I've learned nothing else from this experience, it's that luck is a much bigger driving force in what happens to us in this life than we'd like to admit, and that's a scary notion indeed. If the scales have tipped your way, and you're living a robust life filled with health, creativity and love, yes, you can pat yourself on the back to a certain extent for all of your hard work. But don't think for a minute that it all can't change in an instant through no fault of your own and you'll find yourself irrevocably changed. Be grateful and run with it, for when the tables turn, sometimes there really is no way back, and there's just no swallowing that pill. unless it's the kind that takes you out for good.

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  • Understanding Suicide

    Back in April of 2009, I posted the following blog entry about depression, titled "Understanding Suicide," on Salon's blog site. It eliclited a number of responses, mostly positive and compassionate, but there were some that still felt suicide was a "selfish" act, a stance that while understandable, I still find deeply troubling and incredibly frustrating. In the wake of Robin Williams' tragic suicide, I'll once again post this essay, only here on my own site, in the hopes of spreading the word that suicide is the fatal outcome of a disease called depression, not a morally corrupt choice.

    ******************************************************************

    During the past few weeks or so, I've noticed that on some mornings, I've been waking in a state of depression, which is a bit alarming as I know all too well just how devastating a full-blown clinical depression can be. 

    Obviously, I'm struggling deeply with the wear of chronic physical pain, and my brain chemistry is starting to give way, just like it did five years ago when an infection, which I thought had been cured two years earlier after 18 months of agony, took up residency in my jaw and face again (and has been there ever since). 

    As any hope for a cure seemed so hopeless back then, I slowly began to sink into a hole so black, so absolute, that all roads seemed to point to just one solution if I was ever going to get out of pain, and that solution was suicide. This led to a stint in the local hospital's psych ward, and then a few weeks later, admission to a psychiatric hospital.

    With all of the physical complications I've endured as a result of this blood disorder, frequently spending weeks in the hospital at a time, I can say with absolute certainty that nothing--nothing--is as painful as a major clinical depression. And nothing, it seems, is as misunderstood by so many, particularly when it's accompanied by suicidal ideation.

    For most people, suicide is unthinkable, so when a loved one takes his or her own life, we can get lost in a state of confusion and anger. I recall reading a book by a psychiatrist a few years ago who'd lost both of his sons in a 13-month period--one was a six-year-old who'd died of cancer and the other was a teenage boy who'd killed himself. 

    What was shocking, aside from the obvious tragedy of losing two children in such a short amount of time, was that the doctor talked little about his teenager, saying only that suicide was the ultimate "selfish" act, and he chose instead to write about his six-year-old, as the younger boy's ordeal was most likely easier to understand. The boy was, in a sense, an innocent victim of his disease, unlike his "selfish" brother who took his own life. 

    I remember feeling such shock that this esteemed psychiatrist, of all people, didn't understand the fatal power of depression.

    A few years ago, I was hired as a freelance medical editor for a few months, and I was lucky enough to edit tons of the latest materials about depression and suicide. Perhaps what's most misunderstood about clinical depression is that it's not just a state of malaise or of feeling blue; it's a medical disease that if left untreated will only worsen throughout one's lifetime.

    In the same way that Type II diabetics cannot absorb their own insulin, when clinical depression occurs, receptors in the brain close, and a person can no longer absorb their own serotonin, along with some other key chemicals. 

    Why this shutdown happens is still a mystery. Take, for example, a set of twins, both raised by the same parents in the same circumstances. In response to a tragedy, one twin will go through a normal grief period while the other will go into a major depression, and no one knows why. All that's known is that a person simply cannot function without these crucial brain chemicals, and the act of suicide is simply a way to get out of excruciating psychic pain.

    In my own case, before I got depressed, I was going through one of the happiest periods of my life. For years I'd worked to get myself to a place where I'd perfectly balanced my work life (freelance writing and editing) and my creative life (songwriting and painting), and felt more inspired and joyous than I had in years.

    This is what made the sudden return of chronic pain so devastating, and what ultimately made my receptors close to the very chemicals so necessary to live.

    It's hard to describe suicidal depression, but essentially, it's a loss of control over our own emotional state. Ordinarily, when one is down or feeling blue, there are things that can lift the spirit, like inspirational readings, listening to music, and talking with others. But when one is clinically depressed, absolutely nothing works to lift the darkness, and slowly the will to live can begin to erode.
    In the same way one in chronic pain can lose hope that anything will ever change, the depressed patient also loses hope for a cure, and a battle surfaces between our primal will to survive and an aching desire to no longer feel this hell on earth.

    In that sense, the act of suicide is the fatal outcome of a deadly disease, not a moral choice by the patient. Far from being selfish or cowardly, when a depressed patient reaches the decision to end his or her own life, nothing is more harrowing or frightening, because there's the realization that pain has overrode the fundamental desire to live. It's hard to imagine that anything in life could be that painful, but unfortunately, these states exist, and the last thing we should do is judge someone in this unthinkable quandary.

    In my own case, I knew that I'd reached the limits of my endurance five years ago when I awoke one morning and felt no love whatsoever for anyone in my life anymore (even my mom), as every emotion had become eclipsed by pain. I was shocked at this revelation, because I knew the things that had been keeping me alive--namely the desire to not hurt anyone in my family--were no longer operating. I intuitively knew that I had about 24 hours left to live, and so I called a suicide hotline, which in turn called an ambulance for me, even though my local hospital is just two blocks away.

    That's how bad I was; I couldn't even walk this short distance, as every ounce of energy was going into just staying alive and not swallowing the bottle of pills that offered permanent relief.

    In time (four agonizing weeks or so), the antidepressants began to work, but not everyone is so lucky, particularly those who've struggled with depression repeatedly in their lives. Studies have shown that clinical depression actually damages the brain, and if left untreated, the illness only gets worse throughout one's lifetime. As the years roll by, the depressions become more frequent, more severe, and require less stimulus to set them off. That's why intervention with medication as soon as possible is so paramount to healing.

    Studies have also shown that antidepressants can actually have a curative effect, meaning that if the first depression is treated with medication and therapy, the likelihood of it happening again decreases sharply.

    Of course, there are those patients who use a suicide attempt as a cry for help, or as a means to get attention, and some of them do end up dying. But for the patient who is suffering from severe and extended clinical depression, suicide is nothing more than a way out of a type of pain that can never really be put into words.

    I've heard it said that suicide is "a permanent solution to a temporary problem," but this isn't quite accurate, at least in terms of a major clinical depression. For some, the problem is debilitating and lifelong, and for these patients, suicide is the means to finally rest, even at the cost of life itself.

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  • What's It Like to Be Matthew McConaughey?

    Matthew McConaughey is living large these days in terms of critical acclaim. His HBO television series True Detective (which he co-produced with co-star Woody Harrelson), and films The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, are all getting rave reviews, something he says he wasn't necessarily shooting for but nevertheless has been the recipient of after deciding two years ago to forego romantic comedies and head in a more serious direction. He said he knew it would take some time to make the switch in his career, but as he was financially secure and prepared to wait it out, he really wasn't concerned.

    As I watched the supreme confidence with which he carried himself in this Sunday morning TV interview, I couldn't help but wonder what it's like to be Matthew McConaughey. He's obviously a very hard-working guy, and is also very talented, so no one would begrudge him his success. But there was something else going on during this fifteen-minute segment that made me uncomfortable, and it's been hard to put my finger on it.

    I'm wondering...am I simply envious of someone who's had this much luck in his life?

    Yes, I know he's worked tirelessly to get where he is, but I also had to marvel at the astounding amount of good fortune that's been heaped upon him. Here was this extraordinarily handsome man in the prime of his life, who not only is enjoying a critically acclaimed trifecta in his career, but who's also happily married and has three robustly healthy children.

    When he spoke of his decision to no longer do romantic comedies, he said he talked it over with his wife, as they'd have to brace themselves for a few years of him either not working or doing much smaller roles as he began the process of rebranding himself.

    I thought to myself...what's it like to have that be the biggest problem in your life? As he spoke, it was clearly evident that he had no doubt that his plan would work, which was incredible in and of itself, as who deals with decisions even close to that? "Honey, we're going to live on my millions for the next two years during this transition of me becoming a more serious dramatic actor, which I fully expect will happen. Is that okay with you?"

    When people live with such extraordinary luck, I suppose there's no reason to believe that it won't continue. He sports that slightly cocky confidence because this is what he knows in life; it's the hand he's been dealt. While he was somewhat irritating to watch, I can't hold his confidence against him, as he's no more responsible for his streak of luck than I am for living a life fraught with so many mean twists of fate.

    I suppose at the end of the day, it's what we do with these respective hands we've been dealt that matters, as trite as that may sound. Yes, I was slightly annoyed with him this morning, but I also can't wait to watch tonight's episode of True Detective, nor can I wait to see his films. The guy is gifted, and I respect this decision to take this more serious turn in his career. In fact, I wish he'd done it sooner.

    But I'm also feeling a slight malaise, as well, as so much effort can go into just getting through my day. On a good one, when the pain isn't as bad, I can flex my creativity, too, and ponder which new roads to take. But the bottom line, I think, is that sometimes I'm just profoundly struck by envy. It doesn't happen often, luckily, but there are moments when it comes into high relief just how much time and energy are devoured by the simple act of enduring. I cry easily on days like this, sometimes hard, which purges things, at least for awhile.

    I certainly don't wish Matthew McConaughey's life was any harder, as his gifts are gifts to us all. I just wish mine was easier.

  • Five Ways to Awaken the Muse!

    As far as New Year's goes, I have to admit that as a holiday, it just doesn't hit my radar. Year in and year out, it holds so little interest for me that I don't even tune in to watch the ball drop, not out of some latent anger or cooler-than-thou attitude, but really because I just forget. 

    This year is different, though, not in that I watched the Times Square celebration (I forgot to tune in again, 'natch), but because the marking of time feels significant. So much is going on in my life these days that I feel a bit woozy, particularly when it comes to my art. It turns out that 2013 was a very good year for my Etsy shop and my paintings--a development that caught me completely off guard. The fact that I've actually attained some goals, both artistically and financially, has my head spinning a bit, and I've been asking myself that old Peggy Lee question, which sometimes surfaces when one has achieved a long sought-after dream with such single-minded focus: Is that all there is?

    Ah yes, with amber cocktail in one hand and a bon-bon in the other, I've been lying back on the couch lately pondering my newly won Etsy earnings and asking myself that time-honored query, realizing that I may have lost my way a bit, focusing too much on the business and not enough on the art. Don't get me wrong--A little extra cash does a girl good, and I'm profoundly grateful, but I need to get the artistic fires stoked again, as let's face it...without art, nothing will happen for me AT ALL.

    As I haven't created a painting in a few months, I'm now experiencing the dreaded white canvas anxiety attack...the moment when you've got a pencil in one hand, and a canvas or piece of watercolor paper in the other, and it's time to do something. I've been thinking about my favorite ways to get the creative juices flowing, and thought--what the heck! Let me share them with you, too! So what are some good ways to wake up the muse?

    1.) MAKE A GIFT. There's something about making a gift for someone that completely wipes away my creativity self-consciousness. I suspect it's because my love for the recipient is the driving force behind the act, and I know that regardless of the outcome, this person will be thrilled that I thought to make him or her something handmade. Even though the item might not be a painting, just getting my creative brain rolling again can create the momentum I need to get working on EVERYTHING.

    2.) SEND A CARD, DECORATE THE ENVELOPE. This is similar to number one, only simpler. To bust up a creative logjam, send someone a card or an article you know they'll enjoy, and then go hog wild decorating the envelope. I'll go so nuts at times when I do this that it's hard to even see the address when I'm done! Again, all self-consciousness vanishes in this exercise, and I'm delighted to know that the recipient is smiling as soon as he or she pulls the envelope out of the mailbox. Without fail, the response on the other end is always sheer delight, which invariably makes me want to do MORE.

    3.) GET ORGANIZED. No, this isn't necessarily a creative act, but there's something about organizing my creative space that sets the stage for something wonderful to happen. Placing all my paints, pencils and utensils in their proper place has a very relaxing effect on my brain...almost like I've mowed and weeded the lawn so that the flowers now have room to grow. I just love when I walk into my studio, and everything is clean and organized...mainly because it's license to get in there and mess it up again! Some artists thrive in a messy environment, but not me. When I'm in the middle of working on a painting, not a single thing gets put away at night, lest I destroy my momentum. But when I need to awaken the muse, an organized, clean drawing table simply looks delicious!

    4.) TAKE A CLASS. There are SO many wonderful online classes these days! Just scour Etsy alone and you'll find dozens. There are even plenty of FREE classes on YouTube! Without fail, whenever I take an online class, the muse gets busy again as she begins to play with all these new, wonderful techniques. (I like mixed media courses in particular.) And almost always, whenever I sit down to do an exercise, I get a full-on painting out of it.  Right now, I'm taking a class that's a year long, where a new lesson comes in every Monday morning. I'm having so much fun with Week One (the class is already on Week Three) that I've yet to move past it, having created TWO new images from it instead of one. (See the "work in progress" on this page.) Even though the teacher is online and in a video, trust me, you'll get inspired. It's well worth a few bucks to have someone hold your hand and show you some new ropes.

    5.) VISIT AN ART OR CRAFTS STORE. Oh, the fun of shopping in an art store! My favorite art store at the moment is Jerry's in West Orange, NJ (it's close to where my parents live, so I go there when I visit), and as soon as I walk in, I become intoxicated. I grab my basket and simply start walking the aisles, seeing what jumps out at me. My most recent exciting purchase? Ink pencils!!! Yes, that's right. INK PENCILS. Oh, and are they wonderful. They're sort of a cross between watercolor pencils and watercolor crayons (my previous exciting purchase)...a little looser than the former but less liquid than the latter. Make your lines, activate them with water, then watch the magic! Yep, a visit to the art store will get you working on something as soon as you get home, GUARANTEED.

    Have any creative tips of your own? Please let me know! I'm all ears. :)

  • "Am I Good Enough?": Cracking the Creative Block

    I’ve been feeling so burnt out lately, so naturally I’ve been telling myself that I need a vacation, along with the usual chestnuts like “I’m working too hard,” “my efforts are outweighing my returns,” “I’m just not good enough at this”—this being my art, my business acumen, my general ability at simply living. Ah yes, it’s been a few weeks of this, which coupled with my increasing chronic jaw pain, has made for a bit of a rough start to summer. 

    But in slowing my brain down a bit, I think the truest bell ringing is in that last comment…”I’m just not good enough at this.” It became apparent when I sat down recently to do some new works and experienced the horror that strikes fear in the hearts of writers and artists everywhere...the monstrous blank page, and not a single inspired idea to fill it.

    I was actually surprised that this was occurring, as I'd been feeling just so READY to start painting again, after months of working on my shop to the exclusion of just about everything else.

    As I was feeling such left-brain burnout, I thought for sure the watercolors would come flowing out of me, so I sharpened the pencils, opened the paints, opened the watercolor tablet, and then…nothing. Oh, dear. No matter how many times I began a drawing, I just felt so dead inside.  I wasn’t inspired, I began to feel weary, and then the dreaded, “I’m not good enough” surfaced, bringing with it a detailed list of all my limitations, failures and insecurities. 

    But something just occurred to me in the past hour or so, which is that when I began painting in 1999, I could have cared less if my paintings were “good enough.” I’d look into my heart at what I was feeling, and I’d just let it come out through the brush. And that’s all there was to it. I was so excited by the discovery of this new art form—after so many years of making music—that this brush in my hand made a childlike glee burst forth from within. Even though the paintings were crudely done and technically inept, they resonated for people, and they actually sold, not because they were “good enough,” but because they were awkwardly honest, just like so many of the art lovers looking at them. 

    So here I am today, in terrible pain, feeling weary and so very insecure. Instead of beating myself up over it, why don’t I just paint it? Why does one have to feel happy or confident to begin a work of art? The other day I painted some cheerful birds, and they’re certainly cute, but they didn’t come from my core. They were more an exercise in color, which is certainly valid, but the real joy of painting comes from my communication of an experience. 

    Is this what’s at the heart of the matter today? I won’t know until I try, right? It’s time to do a drawing… 

    (P.S.  A second look at the “cute birds” painting, above, just moments ago made me smile, not because they’re cute, but because of what they unintentionally reveal.  They’re sitting on their respective branches with eyes closed, looking shut down, and it’s raining. So much for cheerfulness. The subconscious is always at work.)

     

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