Last modified 12 March 2016 by Michael Dahl

about me

I am a lucky guy.   I have a wonderful life.  I am joyfully married.  And I have a spunky pup named Luca.

I am an active person who works out regularly.  I love to grow heirloom vegetables and flowers in my beautiful garden.  And I am passionate about working on issues to achieve social justice.

My predisposition is to be hopeful about the world and its future.

I am also engaged in chronic struggle to keep Anxiety and Depression at bay.

Welcome to my blog, “Prone to Hope.”

Regarding that Anxiety and Depression, the deck was stacked against me.  As a child I had several knocks to my noggin … a couple pretty severe.  I grew up poor with my brain seeped in the chemicals of toxic stress that often accompany poverty.  And (most-telling) my DNA included one (possibly two) family lines that gave me a predisposition for a potpourri of mental health difficulties.

I’ve not kept my mental health struggles a secret.  I was diagnosed with the mood disorders in 2003 — although as you’ll soon read, I likely suffered from both at least since my early teen years.  Anyhow, after my psychiatrist helped me realize what was going on with me, I decided I shouldn’t hide it.  I figured it was best for the people around me to know that there were significant times when my agitation, anger, low-lows, isolation, and / or despondence had nothing to do with them.

My brain just doesn’t work optimally sometimes.

Here’s a bit more about my struggle with mental illness:

I can say with certainty that as a teen I suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But my first good psychiatrist noted that it’s quite possible I was already suffering from Depression and more variants of Anxiety.

I constantly checked doors to see if they were locked or the dials on the stove to make sure the gas was off were significant parts of my daily existence. Going to bed was hellish. I would spend at least 30 minutes each night — sometimes longer — checking the alarm clock to make sure I would be woken up the next day. By the end of the nightly ordeal I would have a deep imprint on my thumb marking where the switch on the clock resisted my constant attempts to push it further. The ritual involved me placing my face about a foot from the digital reading making sure that I had set the alarm and that “AM” (not “PM) was indicated as the wake-up time. I chanted “in the morning, after midnight, AH-larm, AH-men, in the morning, after midnight, AH-larm, AH-men” over and over again.

My OCD would definitely ramp up during times of high stress.  My family never sought treatment for this ailment because OCD was kind of just seen as an odd family trait, not a health problem.

I think I was around age 21 or 22, checking the stove dials on a cold Friday night when I figured out that, while I always had OCD, things were markedly worse in the winter. And, the obsessing was partnered by prolonged down moods.

I had heard about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) from several news reports. It pegged me.

I went to a psychiatrist to ask about SAD.  He laughed at me.  (Obviously, my attempt at finding a first mind-doc was a bad one.)

It would take several more years before I would regain the hope / belief that talk-therapy could help my situation.

By my early 30’s negative thoughts ruled nearly all my days no matter what time of the year. While I can’t recall the date, I remember thinking “I am a reaction.” I decided to try a psychiatrist again.

My first (good) talk-therapy visits were very helpful in getting me to process my life, why I thought of it the way I did, and how to change that. My psychiatrist helped me arrive at the conclusion that I suffered from a chronic condition that would probably require long-term management. He let me arrive at asking for medications a few visits in rather than pushing it on me.

I’ve shared before:  there are still days (sometime weeks) when air is cement, voices are wailing sirens, and I am little more than a reaction.

When the air is cement, I am depressed.  I find it hard to do anything.  I find it hard to move.  My reaction to stimuli is slowed.

When any sound is amplified, I am anxious.  It is as if my nerves are guitar strings plucked vigorously to vibrate violently under my skin at any peep or squeak.

And I am a reaction.  I feel as if I can control nothing.

A medication cocktail keeps my normal close to what I assume is everyone else’s normal.  Coping mechanisms my psychiatrist taught me often help me through short-term bouts with Depression and Anxiety.  But when things get really bad, I go in for professional help.

Addendum:  The following is my most recent story of dealing with chronic Depression and Anxiety (August – September 2014 and March 2015 – November 2016):

In August and September of 2014 I fell into a temporary Depression. I can’t remember exactly when It started. But I remember the Depression being strong at the time of Robin Williams’ suicide in mid-August … something that hit me harder than I expected, as I was never a huge fan of his comedy.

I also remember major happy and powerful experiences surrounding me, and yet I could not feel joy. In fact, when the happy and powerful experiences passed, I felt an extreme sadness that could only be described as Depression. I could do nothing to simply snap out of the negative places my brain was going to and staying.

My current med doctor said it was quite likely the medications I was taking at that point had just stopped working for me — something that is not an uncommon experience for those who take drugs to address Depression and Anxiety.   (In fact, I had a good spell with the drugs I was taking then — six years of mental health.)

By mid-September I could no longer deny I needed professional help. However, when I made the call to my psychiatrist, I learned that he had recently retired. For a couple of days this hit me pretty hard. But by the time I resolved to find a new psychiatrist, my Depression receded.

Regrettably, that stopped my search for a new doctor and psychiatrist.

(late March – April 2015) Months passed and Depression stayed away from me. However, I was becoming more and more anxious. I started to write about my Anxiety quite often in my journal.  On one particularly bad day I wrote about running out of my workplace as a panic attack completely took control of me.

More panic attacks happened, but it seemed I was also permanently stuck in a state of Anxiety. Within a couple of weeks, I again decided I needed professional help.

I found a clinic that had both med doctors and psychiatrists ready to help me find my way out of the mess I was in.

(May – July 2015) I remember fidgeting on my current med doctor’s couch. Stilted words and a jittery voice, describing my life’s history of mental illness: OCD, the winter blues, and deep Depression and a near lifetime battle with Anxiety.

My doctor, seeing the mess I was, said quite frankly that my current meds were not working. I needed to taper off them ASAP while tapering on a new drug that might help.

Unfortunately, our first try at a medication did not work, and I descended even further into Depression and a higher level of Anxiety. When I wasn’t working, I was in bed. For a few really bad weeks I was sleeping at least 16 hours a day.

Eventually we found some new meds that would deal at least with the Depression, I was still in bed for long periods of the day. In fact, for a few more weeks I would get myself to work for a handful of hours, but then be worn out. So I’d head home, get in bed, and try to put in a few hours more hours of work there as well.

Slowly, my energy levels returned as the Depression lessened.

As luck would have it, my Depression disappeared just as my wife and I embarked on a trip to Maui in late June / early July of 2015. That meant my energy levels were returning, and I could take part in hiking and kayaking, and day trips to parts of the island that would have been impossible only a couple of weeks earlier. I even had the energy to hike one mile down Haleakalā Crater and back up again. I felt a huge sense of achievement then and for the next several weeks as my energy levels continued to rise.

(October – November 2016) Much of the early posts of this blog have been devoted to trying meds and med mixtures in an effort to get my Anxiety to an acceptable place. And I’ve reported on therapy visits that brought me to tears as I learned why I was likely experiencing elevated levels of Anxiety and tactics to help me address the tense states I frequently found myself in.

The struggle with Anxiety … the slow work of getting it to a manageable place has taken much longer than I expected … 20 months! Twenty months of med doctor and talk therapy visits — each for the better, but until recently, not quite there.  Thankfully, I stuck with it, as I am currently at the best place I have ever … EVER … been.

That does not mean everything is ponies and rainbows. Certain types of tense situations can still bring on Anxiety. And my last major panic attack happened only a few months ago.  Also — and this has been one of he hardest things to get used to — this major bout has created a new me.  I am not the same person I was before this all started.

Things that used to scare me before no longer do and visa versa.  Meanwhile, my strengths and weaknesses have changed somewhat, making navigation in this new self surprising and difficult.  Also, the type of Anxiety I experience is completely different from the type I had before.  It’s all very strange.

I have learned how to take my meds so I no longer have two hours of hell each morning — something I experienced regularly until just a few weeks ago.  Also, while I still suck at dealing with Anxiety once It hits, It sticks around for shorter periods of time, and  have stopped beating myself up so much after the Anxiety has passed.  I am also getting a little better at mastering the sometimes effective tactics to outwit Anxiety.

Lastly — and this is the most important one — I have returned to experiencing joy.  The Depression is gone.  The Anxiety no longer has such a hard grip on me.  And the normal life activities that should make me joyful have begun to have the effect.  In other words, Anxiety no longer haunts me the way it once did.  Only a couple of weeks ago — before the last (and very successful) med tweak by my med doctor — I always knew that Anxiety could steal away my joyful moments, so my brain wouldn’t let me experience what would obviously be temporary happiness.

Now, I control my emotions much more than my emotions controlling me.  And because none of life is all ponies and rainbows, isn’t that all we can ask for:  emotions that match the situation you are in?

(January 2017). 

My mental health is basically in a good, but nuanced place. I am not fully relieved of my Anxiety (although I am of my Depression). But I am so, so much better than I had been before.

Truth is, a little of the Anxiety I used to experience in the morning has returned. Not much. Just about 45 minutes to an hour of nervousness and self-doubt has crept back. It usually passes naturally, making the rest of my day just fine.

Would I like not to experience anxiousness almost daily? Would I prefer to not beat myself up on many mornings? Sure.

But it’s all part of a cost-benefit analysis. My current meds make me better most of the time. And so, I get to ask myself and my doctor if we should try to tweak things so I am better all the time. However, I fear doing so would come at an unacceptable expense.

You see, my current meds make me tired almost all the time. And I fall asleep very early almost every night. I fear that amping up my drugs just a little bit would skew me towards an even earlier bedtime and saddle my days with even more tiredness.

Just to be clear, I fall asleep at around 8:15 pm each night. And, I wake at 4 am nearly every morning. That’s annoying. It’s also annoying to be tired as much as I am.

But I can do my job. I can spend a little time with my wife and pup every night. And, despite the tiredness, I can still get myself to the gym (or exercise at home) a number of times each week to keep myself in good physical health.

So is this the new normal? I am prepared (and basically happy) for this to be the case.