Positive reinforcement isn’t positive…

plus signI play a game called Redecor on my phone. It’s a fun and relaxing game. They post colourless rooms and you need to “colour them in” with various materials such as fabrics, tiles, and wood. Then everyone is organized into groups of ten, we all can vote for which room we like the best (two at a time), and finally the top three people win prizes and we move onto the next room. Simple right?

Not so simple. I was fine with decorating the rooms and love choosing the colours and the materials (I’m absolutely in love with the Caribbean upholstery and the Peacock sequin cushions). It’s great hanging out in the Facebook groups too. And a friend of mine (the one I sing karaoke with) plays it too so that’s great. No, it was the easy peasy room judging that left me doing my breathing exercises and reassuring myself and I couldn’t figure out why.

First I’ll quickly explain how the judging works. You click on the judging and are shunted into two options. The first has you judge five sets of one current room (10 rooms in all). You see two rooms, no identifying information, and then you choose. Once you choose you see the same rooms but with the people’s screen names, the level they’ve completed this season, and their current score (out of five). The second has you judge ten sets of ten “design duel” rooms (so 20 in all). Everything else is the same except you see their score by percentage. Also, after you vote you get a prize, kind of a “thank you for voting” thing. It’s usually $75 for for first option and $150 for the second but I find you can get quite a bit more between 8 and 9pm. That being said, there’s nothing overtly scary about the judging. No punishments, you can’t vote “wrong”, it’s just a game. And I like flipping through and seeing all the pictures, at least until my chest starts tightening and it gets hard to breathe.

I think I inadvertently loosened something recently. I’m in a Storytelling group run by a mental health organization and, while my story about explaining non binary to Colin was well liked, everyone else dealt with big issues that had big feelings. So I thought that maybe I could talk about my early school years. I don’t know why. I’ve blocked most of those memories away then deadbolted them shut. But I thought… maybe??? And I remembered myself standing on a stout pipe that stuck out of the school, watching all the other kids playing together and wondering how they decided to be friends. Then I picked out one girl who looked friendly and a bit like me and went over to ask her… in front of her friends… and I mentioned that I thought we looked alike. I just remember the stunned disbelief and the laughter. I don’t remember what was said but it was enough to send me slinking back to the pipe. Enough that the next time I made friends with someone at that school, it was a tree.

But that memory was enough. I was sitting at the kitchen table late this morning and flipped the game over to judging. Soon the panic began to build but, this time, I could hear myself instead of just staticky panic.

C’mon Kath, you need to pick right. You need to pick the right one or else they’re going to take your reward away.

And, as soon as the word “reward” hit, I knew exactly what was going on. The reward is why positive reinforcement is supposed to be so good. There’s no punishment, you’re simply rewarding for good behaviour. Really? You ask a child who was promised a chocolate bar if they washed the dishes then missed a dish and didn’t get the chocolate bar if that’s a reward or a punishment. The child knows about the reward, it’s not a magical surprise that happens later, so if they don’t get it they know that too.

I find myself trying to pick the right rooms so I’m voting with everyone else so I don’t get stuck voting the wrong way. There isn’t a right way or wrong way in the game. And I’m often stymied by the lack of rules. People say beige and one pattern is the way to go and then someone will make a room with three bright colours and just as many patterns and get a great score. Then I end up blindly guessing until I recollect myself and assure myself that it’s alright to pick the room I like, that’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

When I was a little girl I had undiagnosed autism, ADD, and dyscalculia. My coordination was horrible. I struggled to hold a pencil. I was also incredibly bright, talkative, and wrote well enough that the teachers were passing my stories around in the lunchroom because they were so cute and enjoyable. Basically I was a mixed bag and needed help. I also needed someone to realize I was trying and not dawdling around and daydreaming on purpose and my numbers didn’t drift because I was lazy. All kids want to do well and please the adults around them, if it’s not happening, we need to sort it out. I don’t know how, I just know that positive reinforcement isn’t the way.

The adults around me were trying to teach me but the way they were trying wasn’t working. I wasn’t getting it. That, to them, meant I wasn’t trying hard enough (note they never wondered about their own teaching skills). So, since I must know the subject since I’d been taught it enough, I was given assignments with positive reinforcements to encourage me. And what do you do when you know you have to answer like everyone else but have no idea what to do? When you have to answer no matter what? You guess of course. And I was left panicked because if I didn’t guess correctly I was going to lose my reward, through absolutely no fault of my own, even though I was trying to the best of my ability, because the adults around me couldn’t find a different way to teach me.

Forty-three years later and it’s still strong enough to trigger anxiety attacks. Don’t tell me positive reinforcement is positive.

Love has whiskers…

1st pictureCN: mention of suicidal thoughts

Five years ago this past Saturday, two white kittens were born. I, of course, had no idea of this. I had no intention of getting kittens any time soon. I had bought my wedding dress the day before and plane tickets to visit my fiance in England two weeks earlier. My life was planned out in ways that did not involve kittens in Canada. We’d roughly planned most of our small wedding and ogled wedding rings (he’d urged me to get my finger sized as soon as possible). We even picked out which town to live in. I just needed to save up and stay sane. Unfortunately the latter one was proving to be increasingly difficult.

I admitted that I was suicidal at the beginning of May and he broke up with me two days later. Then I finally went into the hospital a month later and he blocked me everywhere the morning after I was released.

2nd pictureTo say I was devastated would be an understatement. We’d been friends for half a decade and best friends for most of that. I trusted him completely and implicitly. He knew my deepest secrets and I’d felt that he’d always be there for me. Always turned out to be a very short time. Breaking up is horrible at the best of times, breaking up while deeply depressed and suicidal is absolutely horrific. And throwing my best friend into the mix made it even worse. I remember one night, messaging a friend and begging her to please stay online and chat with me. I wanted to die so badly and the urge to jump was so strong. I couldn’t do it while Colin was there but he was at Youth Group for another half an hour. The balcony pulled like a magnet and the thought, “just a moment [in the air] then it’s over” looped on repeat. Thankfully she stayed on messenger and chatted until Colin was home and I felt safe enough. I honestly don’t think I’d be here if she hadn’t. And then I had a dream.

It was one of those dreams that faded almost as soon as I woke up, leaving only the smallest pieces behind. And one of those small pieces was the image of a white cat. It lingered with me all morning right through us heading out, me to the lab for bloodwork and Colin to the pet supply store for, well, pet supplies. I noticed a cat adoption sign outside as I walked past and thought of that white cat then I decided I couldn’t be that lucky. I was unlucky in one way, the lab had stopped serving people who weren’t patients at that clinic, but I was lucky in another. When I asked Colin if there was a white cat up for adoption he informed me the only cats there were two white kittens. We immediately went to take a look.

Of course we held them. Of course we fell in love. And while I was waffling hard about which one to choose, Colin came up with a plan. Why didn’t we each adopt one? And so we did. It wasn’t that simple. They only took cash which necessitated a run to the grocery store and multiple transactions before we had enough paper money to cover both their fees. And we ran into Dollarama to pick up supplies to kitten proof my balcony (it was like the Fort Knox of balconies… I kitten proofed up to 6 feet, you know, in case they could jump really high).

And soon we were home, watching them nose around, sticking closely together. Our other three cats stuck together too and watched those little balls of fluff roam around. Thankfully everyone settled in soon.

For anyone who’s suicidal, I can’t recommend kittens strongly enough. One of them gets lonely… you can get three if you really want to spice things up… but two is perfect. Smudge and Lara were so small when they got here, small enough to crawl under the dresser and bookcase. And both still wanted to nurse. Smudge latched on (literally) to my stuffed lamb Rufus while Lara suckled on a bemused Blackie’s chest fur. Which was cute except they’d forget to go eat real food. Instead their nursing got more and more frantic as their hunger increased. I was already restless and awake multiple times a night but now it was with purpose. I was listening for that frenetic sucking then lifting them over to my side table where I’d placed their kitten food and a little bowl of water. Then I’d wait for them to finish and ferry them back to bed. This happened until dawn, which is damn early in the summer, when they wanted to go outside and play on my balcony. And I’d sit with a mug of hot chocolate and watch the sunrise and enjoy them playing with toys and each other.

The biggest part was that they needed me. I was lost. I couldn’t find myself. I wasn’t sure I was even worth finding. They didn’t care. They loved me and trusted me implicitly. I remember waking up once as Smudge, who was rolling around on her back, rolled right off the edge of the bed. And I caught her. It was one of those “I can’t believe I managed that” moments. Then I looked into her eyes and all I saw was trust. She had complete faith in me that I’d always catch her… that I’d always be there for her. It was definitely a moment for me, a realization that I couldn’t just off and kill myself. I could make excuses for family and friends that they have other people around… people with stronger connections… but that trusting innocence? She would never understand why I was gone and why I never returned – and no one could explain it to her.

I’ve got friends and family who love me dearly but, honestly, it’s not the same. Love often comes with strings attached, like guilt or embarrassment. Animals just give you love. They loved me for me. Not who I should be, not who someone thinks I am, not who I was ten or twenty or thirty years ago. Me. Right here, right now. They’re the glue that’s been slowly help stick this heart back together again, one piece at a time.

3rd pictureLara is the clown of the two. She’s chubbier and the one people see the most as she runs for the door as if it’s for her. She also likes to check in on zoom calls. I often have scratch marks on my arms and legs as she pats me for attention and doesn’t always remember to retract her claws. And she’s also the sweetheart of the group. If one cat’s going to be snuggling with another, you can be sure Lara was the instigator and often the one grooming too (as you can see in their birthday photo).

Smudge is the quiet introvert. She sleeps on my swing chair or perches on the table above everyone. She’s the only one who does either and I’ve long since given up on the table as she jumps back up the second I put her down (over and over). When she gets tired of the world, she retreats to a box in my closet, which she lies on. I’ve padded it with a soft dog blanket now to make it comfy. She play fights with Lara and gets along with the others but otherwise stays alone. Except for me. Every time I sit in the swing chair she lies on my chest, purrs in my ear, drools into my hair, and waits for a belly rub. She does this so often that one side of her is faintly blue from rubbing against my hair.

Smudge and Lara were born on the Vernal Equinox, the time when day and night are equal. A time of promise for more light and hope ahead. For two cats who spread joy to everyone who meets them, I can’t imagine a day more suited for their birth.

Happy 5th birthday! You two are the best kittens ever and deserve all the skritches and all the treaty-treaties and all the crinkle balls and plastic springs. I wish you many more happy years and I’m looking forward to spending them with you.

Self help coming out my ears…

The first time I saw a therapist was in college. She was a nice lady and I felt so bad for her because all I did was sob through each session, I couldn’t manage to say anything. She suggested Prozac, in fact she might have been qualified enough to prescribe it, it’s been a long time since I saw her. But my Mom worked at the drug store and the pharmacist terrified her with the side effects. It was another decade before I took that medication.

Years later my marriage was rapidly dissolving. My ex haughtily informed me that I was being too hasty and he wanted to try counselling. Except he didn’t want to look and he’d only go if it was free. So I asked my doctor about that and about counselling for myself only to be told that both were expensive and free would be years… probably close to a decade. I left feeling defeated about the counselling for me and relieved I could guilt-free yeet my husband out of the apartment. No way was I putting up with ten more years of his bullshit!

It was again another decade before I found out about free therapy in my neighbourhood and I called immediately. I went on my own then I went jointly with my daughter and then Colin went on his own. Sadly there was a cap on the number of sessions we could take but it was definitely a help. Since then I’ve had another short term therapist who was really kind and friendly. Unfortunately he wanted me to carry a clipboard with me everywhere I went and fill out an 8.5×11 inch chart during every anxiety and panic attack. Because there’s nothing I want to do more when I feel like I’m going to die than fill out a chart! Needless to say my clipboard stays at home. Then I got a therapist, a friendly elderly man who immediately became severely ill and is on indefinite sick leave.

This would have ordinarily left me at loose ends but, thanks to covid (and I’m floored to say that), I’m doing fine. Because of covid there are zoom classes available from every organization and I signed up to every single one I could find. Which means that I joined four 1 1/2 hour long self-help classes this fall. This is on top of the three zoom exercises classes a week I’m already taking. And all the self-help classes had reading and homework.

It definitely wasn’t easy. My memory is awful so I’d forget which instructor said what plus three of the four classes were very similar, two of them even had “self compassion” in the name. I have noticed a difference in how I treat myself though. I treat myself kinder, forgive myself easier. I try to grant myself patience, especially during those times when I’m in a whirlwind of panic, positive I’ve screwed up everything… even though absolutely. nothing. is. going. on.

Would I ever do it again? I’d say no, it was too busy except… I saw the information for the winter groups and quite a few of them sound interesting. I’m going to have to take a closer look and make a few calls on Monday.

so many groups

Is it a good fit?

Back in June I asked my psychiatrist if I could have a referral to a therapist and he immediately obliged. Thankfully the therapist took on my case and we had our first phone appointment in early July, a case history. He set the next appointment for exactly a month away and then I was left hanging with nothing to work on.

The month went by and I finally had my next appointment. The therapist was all set to work on my agoraphobia and anxiety until I told him that I’d come to the realization that I hate myself and he focused on that instead. I figured he’d want to try and figure out where the hatred was coming from and work on getting me to think more positively about myself. But no. Instead he wants me to make a whole new self, one that I’ll like, built on the carcass of the old me. I’m still not wrapping my head around this.

He continued on by telling me I should have no close friends at all, that ideally I should aim for 14 or 15 superficial friends. That people prefer pleasure and push away pain and, when you have close friends you talk about deep subjects that can make people uncomfortable… which makes them push you away. But with superficial friends you only talk about light things, like the weather, so the topic never gets deep or painful.

My whole being shudders away from this. I don’t mention it often but I’m demi romantic, closer to aromantic than asexual. I crave deep friendships and I can’t have a romantic relationship without having a deep relationship first. No deep friendships means no relationships ever.

And then he gave me an appointment two months away with nothing to work on except to write and make superficial friends. What am I supposed to do? Chat up the cashier? So I’ve got until the end of September to figure out what to say to him. Hopefully we can figure something out that will work better for me.

smudge2

My cat Smudge being cute and nibbling on my sunflowers

Just what I needed… another diagnosis…

me1-filteredI talked to my psychiatrist this week and he agrees with my therapist that I have ADD. This is something I’ve wondered for a while, something I brought up with my family doctor well over a decade ago, but nothing was ever done about it. Now something has. I’ve been placed on Adderall with an increase next week and it’s making a world of difference. Suddenly I can organize. My thoughts don’t fly around like frightened birds. And it’s helping my depression too, apparently it can do that… work alongside antidepressants to make things better.

That being said, I have so many diagnoses already. I’ve been diagnosed with:

major depressive disorder
severe anxiety
agoraphobia
autism
and now ADD

The list seems to just keep growing. The good news is my psychiatrist has emphatically said I don’t have a personality disorder which scratches sociopath, borderline personality disorder, and narcissist personality disorder off the list entirely. And hopefully I won’t gain any more.

I find some people get upset about labels, even if they’re on someone else. I, for one, find them a help. They help explain some of the quirks I’m dealing with and lead me to people who are dealing with similar quirks. Sometimes they offer solutions for the more annoying ones.

I didn’t really need another label but at least it was one I was already expecting. And that helps.

A tiny bit of an update…

I try to write at least once a week but just haven’t been up to it lately, this along with everything else. I figured I’d pop in for a quick update. I’m still here and still depressed. Sometimes I wonder if I irritate people by mentioning it over and over, I’ve been almost constantly depressed for four years now. But, honestly, it’s worse on this side.

I had my psychiatrist’s appointment today and it went well. He brought up having me admitted but I didn’t want to go. Going meant being away from the cats and my home. No Doctor Who. No listening to music. I’m second and third guessing myself now but it’s done and I’m in my pjs. I don’t particularly feel like doing myself in at the moment. I’m currently seeing (by phone) my psychiatrist every two weeks and my Canadian Mental Health Care workers twice a day (once a day on weekends). Sometimes I think it’s overkill then sometimes I start making plans. I’ve got my cats and my family though, I can’t leave them.

Is this post long enough? It’ll have to be long enough because I can’t write more. I’ll add a photo too. Oh and my psychiatrist is putting me on Adderall because my memory sucks and I’ve got the attention span of a squirrel on crack. Picture. Must add picture.

me with balloons

Hopefully me once the Adderall starts working

That dark little rain cloud…

That cloud just keeps hovering overhead no matter what’s done to try and stop it. Last month my psychiatrist swapped most of my medications for new meds in an attempt to make an improvement. I’m now on ten medications (18 pills) a day. My parents worry about me. They say I look drugged, that my pupils are small. That I zone out constantly. From my side I feel exhausted. It’s less zoning out and more nodding off.

I could deal with the side effects if the medications were working but they aren’t. I had another panic attack last night as I climbed into bed. It came out of nowhere, knocking the air out of me, making me feel like I couldn’t breathe. My chest hurt. What if something was seriously wrong? What if I was having a heart attack? I knew I couldn’t stay in bed at that point. I downed a 1mg of Ativan and curled up in my swing chair. No screens, just quiet and a chance to work on my breathing. And it slowly helped. But it wasn’t a one off.

Going out on my own makes me feel naked and exposed. I try different coping strategies but nothing beats the relief of getting back in my door. I’m better out with people but I can’t handle too many activities or stores. Two or three is the most for me. Even writing about going outside is making me nervous and I’m sitting safely in my own bedroom with the front door locked. I’m not going anywhere and yet that fear remains.

And the depression. My whole body feels leaden while everything takes more energy… more effort. Even getting up from the table requires thought and effort. My thoughts are heavy and run slowly. I make more mistakes, typing the wrong letters, using the wrong words. It all seems pointless… futile. What difference is my life going to make anyway? I’ve been trying the whole “fake it ’til you make it” idea but so far it’s not working. And then comes the fear of what if nothing works and I just keep feeling like this forever? I don’t know what I’d do if that were the case. And, for total irony, I got this with my dinner tonight…

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Something has to change…

20200510_075631_hdrPicture it.

It’s night and you’re alone at home. You’ve just finished watching a really good suspense movie. Suddenly the floor creaks in another room and you hear the distinct sound of a door. There’s no one there. Who (or what) could it be? That level of panic is how I feel every single day. I took 1mg of Lorazepam almost an hour ago and I might as well have taken a Skittle judging by the reaction.

My psychiatrist recommended a website to me in order to help manage my anxiety and depression. The site has a questionnaire to gauge what level of help you need. I showed up as having severe anxiety and severe depression. Basically, despite all my medications… all the walks… all the breathing exercises… the groups and listening to music, nothing’s changed in four years. Well other than I’m really not suicidal anymore… at least not usually.

It’s a daily struggle to do my chores. I keep reminding myself that I won’t want to do double the chores tomorrow and that works. It also helps that my apartment’s so small and it’s just the cats and I. Having a messy apartment would make me feel worse, I just wish having a clean apartment would make me feel better.

My psychiatrist is changing all my medications on me. Increasing my clonazepam because there are so many days I’m literally scared to walk out the front door. Swapping my current antidepressants for new ones. I start them on Wednesday and think the following two weeks are going to be one hell of a ride. Hopefully I’ll get used to the new meds and doses soon. I’ll just need to remember I’m needed, especially by my cats. And that jumping from the second floor is pretty much pointless.

I’m not supposed to but I’m going to take a nap and see if that resets my anxiety and then I’ll watch another episode of Doctor Who. Meanwhile I rock constantly and try my hardest to breathe rhythmically. And I wait for Wednesday. And I wait for change.

sand

A poem I wrote four years ago today

Slogging through solitude…

Can Covid-19 pack it’s bags and go home now? I’ve whizzed through the whole series of Good Omens (and could really use a second season). Now I’ve started on the book. Colin’s lent me his DVD collection of Doctor Who and I’m up to The Library episode now. I’ll be sad when the 10th Doctor is gone. I like the 11th Doctor but the 10th holds a special place in my heart (up in the right ventricle). I’m playing Scrabble on Facebook and a quiz game. I’m also playing a word connect game on my phone. I go for several walks each week and bounce on my mini trampoline for 20 minutes at a time. Plus phone calls to friends and family. Rinse and repeat. It’s a lot but I want to do something new. I want to window shop… go on walks with my Mom… sing karaoke with my friends… have lunch in a little restaurant and try something new. I want Sunday family dinners. I want to get my eyes examined and go back to the gym again.

I’ve made this apartment a home with pictures, word art, and plenty of cats but sometimes it feels more like a cage. There’s so much I want to do. Meanwhile a microscopic virus is hemming us all in. So I wear a strawberry covered cloth mask and slap on hand sanitizer which shows me where every cut is. I follow taped arrows down store aisles and step on the grass to let strangers by on the sidewalk. I talk to my psychiatrist and case manager by phone instead of in person and try to ignore the fact that two buses will get me to my parents’ house. I can’t take those two buses there because social distancing.

And I practice my breathing and listen to music and watch hypnotic animations and go on websites with information that’s supposed to help anxiety and depression and I take my medication. And hopefully someday this will be over. I’m tired of being alone.

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Me and my strawberry mask

Four years…

I deserve better blank

My eyes are so swollen from crying for two days

CN: frank discussion of suicidal thoughts

My heart felt like it had stopped. I couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t happening. Lenny had broken up with me and I felt like I’d lost the last support I had. I’d been plummeting into depression for months; all that kept me going was the promise of moving to England and making a fresh start with Lenny. It was going to be my biggest adventure and then it was gone with no way of getting it back.

Four years ago today, the day after my break up, I sat down at my computer desk and wrote a suicide note. I didn’t bill it as such, in fact I lied and said I had no plans of killing myself. That wasn’t true. I had a plan and now I had my note. I also had the courage or desperation to climb over the railing and jump. The only thing holding me back was the fear it wasn’t high enough. What if I didn’t die? What if I ended up as a quadriplegic, unable to try again. Meanwhile I pictured jumping over and over; the flight, the wind, and then nothing. I didn’t think of the people I’d leave behind except fleetingly, assuming they’d quickly get over me. Goodness knows I wasn’t worth caring about.

Then my sister called and asked if she could take me to the hospital. It wasn’t like I had anything pressing to do other than dying so I told her I would. She coached me while in the car to exaggerate a little so they’d take me seriously. I didn’t think that would be an issue.

Going to the hospital for mental health issues takes so long. There’s the initial waiting room and then triage and then the nurses station and then the waiting room. Then, after an hour or so, there’s a trip to the back part of the ER and a meeting with a doctor. Then it’s back to the waiting room for another hour or two… or three before finally meeting the psychiatrist. It’s almost a day long event; it’s worth packing snacks and a book (if you can concentrate).

Finally we sat in a quiet room with a couch, a couple of chairs, and dim lamps. I sat on the couch silently crying while my Mom perched uncomfortably on a chair. My sister had long since needed to go home to get her kids from school. The psychiatrist explained that I could be admitted but, if I was serious about suicide I could always find a way. There was no guarantee I’d be safe. Or I could go home with my Mom. I ended up staying almost two weeks with my parents before going home again and, over the course of the next few years, got admitted around four times. I had my first admission that June and got blocked by Lenny the morning after I got home. I haven’t heard from him since. I have no idea how he’s doing but I wish him well. He was struggling with his own demons.

My life has changed so much since then. I’m no longer able to work so groups took over as a way to interact with people (at least until covid-19 struck). I’m on a handful of meds a day, carefully balanced to keep me balanced. I adopted two kittens to go with the three senior cats I already had and they keep me busy and loved. No matter what’s going on in the world, they need me and that matters. I got involved with the Canadian Mental Health Association and I got a subsidized apartment. This is the first time I’ve lived on my own and the first time I’ve lived outside of Oshawa and Whitby (two cities just outside Toronto).

If you are suicidal I want you to know that you have value and meaning. You are worthwhile no matter how you feel (or how you’ve been made to feel). And life changes. What’s happening now is no indication of what your life is going to be like in a year or four. My resources page has a bunch of phone numbers and websites for help and I can be reached on my blog’s Facebook page or email address (both are on my about page). You are not alone.

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