I’ve Never Heard You Laugh Before

I still don’t understand how I missed it.  It’s plain that everyone around me knew; it was obvious.  People kept asking me, and I kept shaking my head saying, “No.  No.  I would know.  I’ve been there before.  I know what it feels like, what it looks like.  I’m just tired, overworked.  I just need to stay positive.”

Then, on St. Patty’s Day, a friendly acquaintance of two years remarked, “Hey, I’ve never heard you laugh before,” and finally, the denial was washed away.

I’d forgotten that depression took many forms, that knowing it once, even presumably conquering and surviving it, even a library worth of material on the subject and a degree in psychology did not make me immune or an expert.  My first depression was a soggy, tear-soaked affair that started at the age of 4 and lasted until I was about 16, followed by recurrent aftershocks for the next few years and drenched, much of the time, by an obsession with suicide.  I’d mistakenly decided that depression, for me, meant having an inflated appetite, a love affair with self-harm, and a daily bawl-out.  Not once in those years did I lose interest in, or the ability to do, the things I cared about.

Today is different.  Today I can say I’ve barely cried in years, that the world is covered in a gray, numb pall, tinged with occasional irritation and outbursts of hostility.  The interests I once sought refuge in are all but forsaken.  I can’t remark on the last time I played an instrument, or wrote, painted, or drew regularly.  Video games have all but fallen by the wayside; the sewing projects in my closet have been neglected for nearly a decade.  I don’t know when I last went on a walk, took a hike, went sledding, ice-skating, or swimming, or felt joy over scenery or delight in a pet or other animal’s company.  It is obvious even to the occasional check-out clerk that I’ve become flaky and distracted, incapable of concentrating.  Food is an abhorrent entity; sleep is a blessing I cannot give myself permission to indulge in for long.  Yet I have never, in all the time of the great second depression, thought of harming or killing myself.

Worry not, dear readers, for there is a silver lining to this otherwise, um, depressing story.

I was laughing that day because I had allowed myself the relief of knowing that I am going to quit my job someday soon.  I am going to quit no matter how much I like my coworkers, or how much I love the adrenaline rush of a job well-accomplished under what feels near impossible circumstances, or even how much I feel I need that extra $2-$3 per hour.

It’s not worth it.  I made myself a promise many years ago when the clouds lifted at last that I would never put myself repeatedly in an otherwise avoidable situation that made it difficult to be happy.  Happiness was my first priority, and remains so to this day.  I will not let that change, and I won’t let even a sign of improvement in my workplace erode my resolve.  I will take my time to insure that I’ve found a new, stable place of employment that is right for me.  I will dig out, brush up on, and utilize every one of the techniques that helped me overcome my depression in the past.  I’ll find more if I have to, because I want, and believe I deserve, happiness.

So, stay with me, fellow bloggers, and be assured that I will soon be unveiling a better, happier me.  If you, too, are feeling a little down in the dumps (or stranded down a well somewhere), perhaps we can learn from each other.  I’m confident that together we can and will conquer our depression.

Up In Smoke, Part 2: Assessing the Severity of Addiction

There’s no such thing as a wasted attempt to quit smoking, although in the past I’ve certainly felt ashamed, even humiliated, by my failure to maintain smoking cessation.  The longest I’ve ever managed to quit smoking?  Three weeks.  Still, it is a fact that the vast majority of would be quitters fail in their first attempt to quit smoking, even, alas, their next several attempts.  To some, trying to quit and failing may seem pointless.  At its rosiest, trying to quit and failing is often seen as little better than a few days or cigarettes of less lung damage.  I’d argue that attempts to quit, and the following failures, are necessary for the final achievement.

At least in my case, I didn’t realize the extent of my addiction until I tried to quit.  At any point in the daily cigarette routine, the gentle pull of addiction, the feeling that says “Go out and have another cigarette; wouldn’t that be a nice way to top off that cup of coffee?” feels more like a want than a need, something I could willingly disregard at any time. The first two hours after a cigarette, before the half-life of the chemical expires, where the smoker can still feel the nicotine’s effects to some extent, often go by without a thought.  When a smoker is sick, sleeping, or temporarily engrossed in another activity, they can spend several hours without a cigarette with barely a second thought.  Such moments, unfortunately, are more rare than they might seem.  I find smoking has taken up an almost ritualistic niche in my life, demanding that I pay more service to it than any other activity, no matter how well loved those other activities used to be.  In my first year of smoking, I thought that, come winter, the negative temperatures and howling snowstorms would overcome my desire to smoke.  Instead I began exposing myself to -40 below wind chill and blizzards ten times a day for ten minutes at a time.  I was no longer able to pretend that smoking was a pleasurable diversion, or that I had the sort of control I thought I had.

Conscientious efforts to quit revealed a still bleaker picture.  What felt like a gentle pull after an hour or two, or at first waking, developed into a ravenous hunger, then an all-consuming obsession.  I was not prepared for the pathetic, quibbling excuses my mind concocted to defray my willpower’s rapidly crumbling defenses, or the onslaught of the actual effects of withdrawal.  I’d done my homework first, and laughed at the withdrawal symptoms.  They didn’t seem so bad!

Depending on the type of cigarettes, how many cigarettes one smokes a day, the addicted person’s genetics, and their habits, it’s likely some would-be quitters have it easier than others.  My first attempt, at only five normal cigarettes a day, had manageable withdrawal symptoms.  It wasn’t pleasant, but I could tough it out.  The only problem with the ease with which I quit at that point was the illusion that quitting smoking was easy; I could do this again later any time I wanted, and hey, I kind of wanted a cigarette now.  I relapsed, and at present, I now not only smoke somewhere between 10-14 cigarettes a day, but each cigarette contains 75% more tobacco than the cigarettes I smoked when I started.  In translation, withdrawal symptoms from a ¼ pack are a cakewalk compared to what essentially amounts, with the added tobacco content of my new brand, to an entire pack of cigarettes a day.

I did, however, learn something from my first attempt to quit smoking, and the dozen(s?) of attempts thereafter.  In my latest attempts to quit I’ve barely lasted a day, and at best a few before the withdrawals are too severe to stand.  I could, of course, go out for nicotine replacement theory, because it seems to work so well for some of the other people I know, but quitting smoking seems to be an individual thing, and so far cold turkey seems to be the most effective for me.  I still know that I would require more willpower than I know I have currently to overcome a brain used to a pack of cigarettes a day screaming at me to smoke.

Right now I’m withdrawing.  My brain, used to the fuel of at least ten of my current brand of cigarettes, is being forced to make do with two and a half, in half cigarette increments instead of full cigarettes at a time.  While I wish that I’d managed to make it through today without a single cigarette, I know that my throbbing headache would be a migraine.  My stuffy nose, sore throat, and hacking cough would be the worst cold I’d ever had.  I would not be able to see my screen to type this.  I shouldn’t have driven anywhere today as is, because my vision is quite fuzzy enough.  My lungs feel as if they’ve been stuffed with rocks.  I’m sore all over, cranky, irritable, and if I didn’t know it was withdrawals, I’d be certain I’m coming down with the flu.  All that, and all I had to do was cut a cigarette a day.

As much as I whine about the withdrawals, I’m mostly shocked that I’m having them at all, and disturbed by just how dependent on stable, high levels of nicotine my body really is.

And yet…

Suddenly, I can taste my cigarettes again, and they taste terrible, of course.  I haven’t enjoyed a single drag, and I’m smoking comparatively little enough that there isn’t a positive abatement in the withdrawal symptoms when I do.  Every foray outside (I refuse to smoke inside or in a vehicle) is unpleasant.  I expected to have to fight to reduce my cigarette consumption, but instead the very act of reducing the number of cigarettes I smoke is sensitizing me to just how abhorrent they really are.  I’m finally washing the jacket I always smoke in because I can no longer stand the smell.  It’s progress.