Thursday, December 27, 2012


Late October, 2012.

I’d been spending three days a week sitting in a room with the good mentally ill. I’m the bad mentally ill. Nearly two months earlier I had come back from an internship at an influential think tank in Washington DC in a crisis. My relationship was in shambles, I was uncomfortable in my own apartment, and didn’t know what even the next week would hold for me. I hadn’t landed a job in DC, but also hadn’t really wanted to. There were no jobs on the horizon, and I felt lost on both the professional and personal level. So much of my identity was wrapped up in being an overachiever, yet I’m also an intense introvert and need structure and direction to accomplish anything. This is not amenable to the job search, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I looked around and only saw failure. I was being propelled into fear and depression, and I couldn’t express that to my partner of nine years who had broken up with me while I was in DC, then instead decided to try to work things out.

Our relationship was existing on a trial basis. Some of Colin’s reasons for breaking up with me included no longer being able to deal with my depression, which just wasn’t getting better, and not being able to deal with me coming home feeling like a failure and not finding a job. For a week after first coming back, I tried to be good. I tried to cook or clean every day and tell him about my accomplishments; finding a job to apply to, setting up an informational interview, revising my resume. Then I felt myself slipping away and I just. Couldn’t. Do it. One day he came home and I hadn’t accomplished anything I had intended to.

“I got stuck today,” I informed him, not looking for support. “I’m sorry, but I’m really struggling and there will probably be other days I’ll get stuck.” He sighed and said something along the lines of “I just can’t deal with that right now.” He was having his own struggles.

My therapist is notoriously difficult to schedule with. We were able to maneuver some scheduling magic and I got in maybe a week or two after getting home. I cried big gasping sobs through our entire session, trying to explain how my relationship was uncertain, my housing was uncertain, my ability to pay for basic needs was uncertain and I didn’t know what to do. She tried to work out a crisis plan with me, tried to identify supportive people in my life that I could stay with for a while, but I was stuck. Stuck in Minneapolis, stuck in my apartment with someone who might not love me anymore. Didn’t have a car or money, couldn’t go away to see family for a while. The only local support was my sister, whose not-so-friendly roommates certainly wouldn’t appreciate an unstable vagabond sleeping on their couch. On my way out of the session, my therapist worked some more scheduling magic to get me in the next week, made me assure her that I was safe and did not have plans to harm myself.

The next week with my therapist was the same-- fifty minutes of sobbing through crisis. At this point she told me that she thought I needed a higher level of care. She recommended adult day treatment at a nearby facility. When I heard day treatment, I balked. I knew that the idea behind adult day treatment was basically, instead of spending your days sleeping and being stuck in your brain you show up and participate in enriching, therapeutic activities. Robyn, my sister who lives in Iowa used to go to day treatment. She referred to it as “crazy class”. Robyn is brilliant, but has struggled with various mental illness diagnoses most of her life. As a result she’s never been fully integrated into the realm of social, working adults. She described day treatment as a place where developmentally disabled people as well as the pants-on-the-head-crazy went to play with markers and be congratulated for showing up. Sometimes they would be advised on washing every day and not leaving out perishable food. I told this much to my therapist. That I’ve been to graduate school and held down full-time jobs, this couldn’t be the place for me. She gave me a number and asked me to consider it.

I continued to spend days circling around my thoughts, spiraling downward, downward until I had generated enough disgust with myself for action and did the laundry. On average I accomplished one thing a day, through this same cycle of negative thoughts circling the drain for hours until finally I had berated myself enough to perform a single task. Sometimes that task was taking a shower and getting dressed. And Colin would come home from work and I wouldn’t tell him anything because I knew he couldn’t take it anymore, I had to deal with it myself. Of course he had to know. But if I wasn’t talking about it, maybe it was easier for him to live, focus on his own shit. And with him, every day was different. On some days he was loving, would show ease in his interactions with me, and it would be like before. On others he was distant, cautious, didn’t want to touch me, didn’t want to give me the wrong idea. We were awkward roommates. Every day I tried to be cautious, observing what type of day it was, studious in his interactions and what they might mean in the greater context of us.

Aside: The problem with writing about your own life is it makes much less narrative sense than fiction. Even putting aside the fact that there are multiple truths in any situation, to make a cogent narrative you’re pretty much forced to rely on omission of certain events, facts, even important ones, because they might disrupt the flow of the story. Conversely, for the sake of the narrative you might have to fit something in that doesn’t necessarily logically flow. So here it is: I mentioned the slow tumble of thoughts over hours, self-criticism and regrets rolling around like debris until in my head it was a storm. I didn’t mention that I could stop it with alcohol. I was drinking three to four evenings a week, just to make everything stop for a while. I did it because it felt nice when nothing else did. Because it allowed me to smile and laugh and have energy. Now I’m trying to understand how I was able to buy alcohol when I was struggling to buy food. I think I must have been living off my credit card during this time. (Smart, I know.) Who knows, you may die before your creditors find you. .

One evening we had some sort of argument. I fled the apartment, bursting into the hot September streets, knowing there was nowhere I could go, nowhere to get away from this, from me. I longed to be whisked away to an institution, where I could sleep and eat by careful regimentation, attend frequent therapy sessions to work out my brain with no responsibilities other than to better myself. I could exercise, paint and journal in my spare time, and all the staff would marvel about what a good patient I was, how I was making amazing progress and was a role model to the others. I knew this was just fantasy, since only the rich can be secreted away for a mental health vacation. In actuality, in order to get in-patient treatment I would have to have both the intention and the means to kill myself and express this to the proper authorities. Even then I would probably just be put on a twenty-four hour observational hold until I promised not to try to kill myself, at which point I’d be released back into my life. Maybe day treatment was my best option. I called the number my therapist gave me. Explained my situation to the intake person, how I was wondering if day treatment was appropriate for me. She was sympathetic and understanding. Said that many people in day treatment are highly educated or advanced in a profession, but came to a place at which they needed more support. She said it was up to me.

During this same period of time that I was losing my mind and sense of self, I had gone on two interviews: one for a temp agency, the other for a position somewhat related to my field but intended for someone with only a Bachelor’s degree. I was able to seem normal, sane, presentable. At the temp agency I smiled and talked about my experience in customer service and data entry, made eye contact, firm handshake. Right when I decided to spend my days working on my mental health, the temp agency called and offered a full-time, four-month-long assignment doing outbound customer service calls for a medical supplies company for $10 an hour.

With the few short days I had to decide, the ruminations began. Which would be more helpful to my mental health: going to intensive therapy or spending my days working? Both would probably help, but one involves an acceptance and exploration of my mental state, while the other involves a denial of it, or at least a glossing over or stuffing down. This job didn’t sound ideal but surely I was capable of doing it, right? But what if I lose control and my thoughts run away as they did toward the end of my time in DC? What if in taking a full-time job I end up neglecting my mental health completely, which has been a problem for years? Do I even have a choice but take the option that pays me?

I remember discussing my options with Colin matter-of-factly as we stood just outside the kitchen. I intended it as a simple communication of information with a person who shares my household. He was welcome to offer input, but in no way was it expected.

“I don’t want you to make a decision based entirely on money. If it’s about money, I can help. I just want you to do what’s best for you.”

I was as surprised by his sudden show of support as I was of his decision to break up with me just eight weeks prior. With Colin agreeing to continue covering the rent and helping with food, I was stable enough in the base levels of Maslo’s hierarchy of needs that I could finally prioritize my mental health.

The adult day treatment center was located in a wing of the hospital that looked like any other. What initially struck me was how, for the most part, all the patients I saw seemed to look and behave like normal people. Going about their business like they were just at the bank or the grocery store, rather than receiving treatment at a place for people who are in deep mental trouble. On my first day I signed in and was led to my group. Groups were small, no more than eight people, divided loosely by the individuals’ level of functioning. The days went like this: group therapy in one room with the same psychologist, ten minute break then changing to the occupational therapy room, ten minute break then going to a new room for the miscellaneous session that was usually either health/wellness or goal-setting. Each of us had folders containing our schedules, the day treatment policy manual, and whatever handouts they gave us throughout the day. The breaks lined up the same for everyone, so during those ten minutes of “passing time” patients from all groups milled about in the hallways with their folders, waiting for the bathroom, slipping out to smoke. It was like high school.

In the long-run, I’m not sure how beneficial day treatment was. I felt as uneasy sharing in front of strangers as I did hearing contextless details about their lives. In occupational therapy I had to immediately commit to an art project without understanding the benefit of doing so. The miscellaneous sessions were hit or miss, with some putting me to sleep like the thirty minute discussion of the benefits of fiber. The two ways in which it did help: It got me out of bed at 7:30 every morning and put me in a mindset of working on myself.

There were big hints that my alcohol use would not be kosher within this program. The intake specialist had reprimanded me for it in my interview, but still let me join even though I told her I didn’t really want to quit. The policy manual said that we were to use no drugs or alcohol during the program, but it also listed a bunch of other rules we didn’t abide by. It wasn’t until one of the clinicians launched a tirade against a woman who admitted to using marijuana to fall asleep one night that I knew my alcohol use would be a problem. All the patients were shaken up by the clinician’s attack, but I must have appeared more so than the others. After the session the clinician reached out to me directly about what was bothering me, and I told her about my drinking. She likely realized her misstep with the previous patient, and was fairly conciliatory with me. Said that we would discuss it with the treatment team and work something out.

Two more days in treatment passed and I expected to be pulled into the principal’s office at any minute. Instead, we went about the sessions as normal. I made it through two weeks of treatment. The following Monday at 7:30, I was tired. I wasn’t just physically tired, I was tired of them, their occupational therapy, their cheerleading statements, their fiber and wrinkled-brow concern. So I went back to sleep. A while later I remembered that since I had completed two weeks, I was due to meet with the team of three clinicians about my treatment plan. An obligation to people other than myself. This got me out of bed. I called the number for the secretary, told her that I had overslept but would make it to my treatment meeting on time.

Sitting at the table opposite the three women I had known from the sessions, the atmosphere felt surprisingly confrontational.

“Are you getting value out of day treatment?”

“I don’t know yet, but I know it’s helping me feel productive. It helps me get out of bed, feel like I’m actually doing something.”

“Well, it’s supposed to be more helpful than that.”

Then these women, each old and judgmental enough to be my mother, started pressing me about my alcohol use. They asked me how much I’d drank in the past week. I told them I’d had a beer on Friday and had gone to a party on Saturday at which I’d drank heavily, I didn’t know how much. It had been Halloween weekend and I’d found myself dressed as a TV character hardly anyone had heard of at a party where I knew hardly anyone. I was anxious and I had tried to drink that anxiety away. I never said my relationship with alcohol wasn’t problematic.

“How much did you drink yesterday?” one asked.

“I didn’t,” I replied, and I was taken aback to read on their faces that they didn’t believe me. In therapy as well as all other medical situations, as a general rule I give the most thorough, complete information possible in order to receive the most appropriate treatment. This included being honest. I was used to therapists delighting in my being so forthcoming and open to treatment. Now I had three women sitting across from me who seemed to be treating me as their adversary. They had constructed a narrative in which I was the reason their treatment wasn’t working. I had been showing up every morning, participating in group, filling out their worksheets and doing their “string art” in occupational therapy, and the only reason I was still depressed was that my mind was in a chemical haze of residual alcohol consumption. I was noncompliant. If only I reserved my system for prescribed mood-altering chemicals, my mind would be available for treatment. According to them, I probably had missed the session that day not because of disillusionment with the program but because of a raging hangover. Seeing their pursed lips and their skepticism, I got the sense that these women didn’t like me, thought I was rogue and a pain in the ass. I knew whether they liked me shouldn’t matter too much for treatment, but I was used to being a therapy golden child. And their not trusting me bothered me.

We never got to my treatment plan that day. We only got to tense negotiations about my drinking in which they demanded I sign an abstinence contract and I resisted, not wanting to be told what to do and not wanting to agree to something with which I might not follow through, didn’t even necessarily want to follow through.

“What are you afraid of?” they asked.

I was afraid of losing what, at the time, was one of the few pleasures and comforts I had left. I wanted to learn new coping mechanisms before they took away the only one I had. I couldn’t articulate this at that time, and instead said, “I don’t know,” and “I just want you to meet me where I am.”

On the bus ride home, I thought about the other patients who’d been in treatment with me. They had been doing it right, and I was the bad one. I was the one in trouble. We all had skewed thinking, self-destructive tendencies, and behaviors that reflected the chaos in our brains, but theirs was pure, uncut craziness while I had resorted to substances. I couldn’t even make it being a proper crazy person. And there I was, crying on the bus again. Back at the apartment I curled up on my bed and lost the day.

Stubborn and spiteful, I didn’t end up going back to day treatment. I switched to another therapy method that I’m having my doubts about. I don’t know if I made the right decision, but according to the methodology of my current therapy, when those feelings of regret and shame rise up, notice it and let it go.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Titular Post

Late April, 2012.

Oh, hi, writing. I haven’t seen you in the past two years unless it’s been in the form of a policy memo, brief, concise, and heavily cited. Before then we hung out when I was listing all my dead cats and being offensive to Japan. Things have changed since we’ve spoken last. I’m finishing up a Master’s degree in do-goodery and heading into unemployment where I’ll do no good at all.

Well, you certainly don’t have to do good with a degree in public policy. When I signed up I guess I thought that an MPP was the generic degree you get when you want to work for social justice, advance the common good and all that and your bachelor’s degree isn’t cutting it. Really, it’s more for people who want to be social science researchers, budget/financial wonks, or work in politics. Many of them will work for social justice and the common good, but they’ll do it in a quantitative-heavy, highly technical kind of way. I learned enough to do well in my classes, but me running regressions is like a fish climbing a tree. I’m good at school, not regression, and nobody hires you for being good at school.

I think I made the wrong decision.

I had been unemployed or underemployed for nearly a year before entering school, and I hadn’t been aiming high. The only job I arguably turned down was as a parking garage attendant, and that was really just me not following up after a request for more information. You see, I got that e-mail the same day I was accepted to law school, and I guess I was feeling a little too fancy to work in a parking garage. I didn’t find any other work for months after that, so I ended up kicking myself for not following up about the parking garage. Anyway, I had decided a few months into unemployment that I needed to go to grad school as soon as possible to get the hell out of the labor market. It was before I even had sufficient work experience to know what I wanted to do, only what I didn’t. I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher (been there, done that), but I wanted to use whatever skills I had to work for the common good. I’d applied to tons of AmeriCorps positions that year and only got one interview.

At this point I feel that I should clarify, for what it’s worth, I’m not a total failure of a human. I’m smart, went to a good college, and know how to work hard. I have a decent resume with cool internships and some paying stuff too. It’s just been exponentially more difficult to get hired for the paying stuff. Even when you’re only being paid an $11,000 a year “living allowance” for full-time hours.

So I didn’t have the luxury of an AmeriCorps stipend and a place in a nonprofit to figure out what I want to do with my life. I had to just blindly pick, and I ended up with policy school or law school. As an insecure overachiever, I was the key demographic for law school. But luckily, several lawyers talked me out of going. Dodged a bullet there. Am left with this knife wound of policy school. Not quite as much debt as law school, more versatile of degree, but still job prospects aren’t great. And the biggest problem is me. I’m the problem. My quant skills suck, I didn’t specialize enough in anything to be impressive, and I can’t network my way out of a paper bag. Increasingly, I think the only way people get jobs is through networking, and that’s a world that’s just unavailable to me. I’m smart and a good employee, I swear! I just can’t chitchat with strangers without a script.

I decided to write this while tearing up on the bus, shortly after having been rejected from a job that only required an associate’s degree, thinking about what a mistake my education has been. In just three weeks, I’ll have the degree in my hand and it will be worth nothing. But when asked where I’d be if it weren’t for grad school, the answer, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, is probably dead. Now that it’s almost over and in a few weeks I’ll be newly credentialed, I don’t know where I’ll be.

At least I didn’t go to law school.