Sorry I missed you – I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain

I went to Baja, Mexico, a few weeks ago, to a tiny house and trailer near San Felipe that my parents own. There is no electricity on the property, but my mom’s friend Linda lives nearby in a bigger house with solar and generator power, so we spent most of the time there.

Lately I’ve been hearing about all this disturbing research on how our brains are physiologically changed by computer use. They say it takes about three days of non-use for your brain to slow down and return to normal, so I didn’t look at my computer or iPhone at all for four days, and then I only checked email once a day and for no more than half an hour after that. It was absolutely the right decision, something I recommend everyone do at least every six months.

I want to share a few photos I made while I was in Mexico (with my Contax point-and-shoot film camera) — but that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing it because of what happened when I came back home to San Francisco.

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My first day back in the city I had my first panic attack in almost a year. Maybe being back in the midst of all my responsibilities, the noises of the city, and the over-stimulation of the internet triggered it, but I think it was mostly because I lowered my dosage of Zoloft about a month ago, and my body was going through a readjustment period.

I started taking Zoloft about, not surprisingly, 11 months ago, in part to treat panic attacks. I didn’t have them frequently, but if you’ve ever had one, you know that once in a while is way too much. Zoloft and other SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are generally known as antidepressants, but, as it was explained to me, they just as easily could have been marketed as anti-anxiety medication. I have many hallmarks of the overly anxious — perfectionist, overachiever, stomach problems, trouble relaxing/sleeping, taking everything personally — and I’ve been working for years to mitigate those tendencies through therapy, exercise, diet, and meditation. But when I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and went on the road for five months this summer, I decided I needed some extra help. Now that my life is a little more stable, I’m ready to try it again without the Zoloft.

Maybe it’s weird for me to be talking about this amid posts about my career and the future of photography, but I deeply believe in demystifying things, especially our bodies and the way we treat them. I also believe that we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to connect with and help other people.

I’m also annoyed that psycho-pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy are still relatively taboo (I HATE taboos). I understand why they are, especially since many people still believe that those who take psycho-pharmaceuticals are “weak” and “need” them to be “normal.” As far as I’m concerned, deciding to take an anti-depressant is the same as deciding to take medication to lower your blood pressure. Anyone who takes any action to help themselves feel better is brave; trying something new, especially trying to change yourself for the better, is always harder than going along with things as they are.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been having a rough time the last week or so. The panic attacks I had were accompanied by bouts of depression. I knew they were triggered by the lower Zoloft dose — there was no logical reason for me to lie crying or immobile in my bed every morning — but depression does not listen to logic or reason.

Friends and family kindly suggested things I should do to make myself feel better: ride your bike, paint, cook a new dish. And I would calmly explain that the cruelty of depression is that it destroys your ability to make decisions or take actions that would help you stop being depressed.

Luckily the down periods were intermittent and when I felt up to it, I set up meetings with mentors and therapists. When people asked me in passing how I was, I didn’t lie and say, “Oh, pretty good,” I told them things were rough. I’m sure some people were taken aback, but the vast majority sympathized and have been there for me more than usual while I’ve struggled through.

I don’t want this post to be about depression, either. If you’ve experienced depression yourself, you might agree with me that once you feel like you’re ready to reflect on it, let alone write about it, you know that you’re near the other end of the tunnel. So when I was sitting here a while ago, and suddenly had the urge to write about what I’ve been feeling, I just knew I should honor that urge whether I knew what my point was or not.

I’m definitely not pretending I’m any kind of expert at all this, but I think there is value in sharing my own experiences. Especially because, as several of my friends have said, I don’t seem like the “kind of person” who would “need” to take anxiety medication. Well, then this is yet another instance where looks can be deceiving.

I hope that reading this reminds everyone out there that life’s painful periods pass. Time, it turns out, does heal wounds. That’s hard to remember when you’re at the bottom of the well, and I certainly don’t have any easy answers for how to crawl back into the daylight. But I have learned this: The most important thing you can do is to be really, really, really kind to yourself. This means putting yourself first (even if that seems selfish), forgiving yourself, and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Think seriously about what that means for a moment. It’s much harder than it seems. If you’d like any guidance, I’ve repeatedly found it in The Gifts of Imperfection, If You Want To Write, The Art of Loving and Buddhism Without Beliefs.

As a final thought, I know from writing other posts like this that those of you who read my blog often respond with words of kindness and encouragement. I love this and it’s a huge part of why I have this blog. But this time I’d love for you to take most of that good energy and direct it toward someone you can be with physically — bonus points if that person is yourself. Suddenly today, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by how lucky I am, mostly to have such amazing supportive friends and colleagues who provide me with opportunities to fulfill myself in the deepest ways possible. If you have the opportunity to be that for someone, I hope this will remind you to do it — that’s really why I wrote this post.

17 thoughts on “Sorry I missed you – I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain

  1. Miki,Thanks for this. Somehow reading about depression, when it's described aptly, is refreshing and empowering–I think in part because as you mention, we're so uncomfortable talking about it. I know I am. Sometimes even with therapists: I'm a pleaser, don't want to admit how bad I feel. I've wrestled with depression and anxiety throughout my life, but I'm just on the other side of the hardest bout I've experienced (I think you're right. The urge to reflect on it is a really good sign). The feeling that it will never end, that you will wake up every morning and move through every day feeling depressed is, without a doubt, the scariest thing for me. As soon as I start believing in the possibility of feeling different, I start feeling better. I also wanted to mention that as I recover from my recent episode of depression, I've learned that coming out of it usually happens gradually. You get a bit stronger every day (been listening to Buddy Holly!). I think it's important not to expect to wake up the morning after a really dark day and feel like the sun is smiling all over you/you're bathing in serotonin/gee what was all that silly sadness about anyhoo? It takes work being kind to and taking care of yourself. It takes trust that you can feel a lot better, and patience because it could take a while. And it definitely takes support and love from friends and family–I'm right there with you feeling overwhelmed at how lucky I am. Now, onward with the good energy direction!

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    • Thanks Sarah 🙂 For someone who doesn't like talking about these things, you write about it beautifully. I definitely agree about everything not being immediately better, and not expecting that. Taking care of ourselves is definitely work — all of us pleasers need to figure out how to put as much energy in pleasing ourselves as pleasing other people.

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  2. Your story is my story — but with different situations and details. The last two years have been the worst years of my life. My business began to decline, I went into debt to cover marketing costs. I lost my photo studio. To save my home I took a job at Sears. And then my mom got sick and died. My home is now in foreclosure.I took other odd jobs while still trying to be a photographer, but because of the economy, all of the people who previously hired me had been either laid off or put into another non-photo-buying position. Cheaper photographers were hired. My biggest client, a multi-national corporation, demanded that I cut my rates by 77%. I couldn't. I filed for bankruptcy. My dad announced that he had Stage IV lung Cancer.I had gone to the doctor for some Xanax to help with the anxiety. I didn't want to be fully medicated, I just wanted temporary breaks from my issues. I was denied medication. Cheap vodka costs less than a co-pay. I started drinking every night.During the bankruptcy, my attorney said that I needed to take down my Web site so there would be less chance of the Trustee taking my photography. I had been blogging about my situation (to help me deal with all that was going on), but again my attorney had me take that down too. I was a once fun and vibrant person, but I had become invisible.On the day my bankruptcy was discharged, my dad died.As the Executor of my parents' Will I had to quit my day job so I could close out their life. I spent two months in Las Vegas (where they lived). I was able to obtain a handfull of pills that allowed me to sleep for a just few hours each night. Vodka extended my sleep time – but there was never any rest.I mention all of this because I want you to know that I understand and agree with you. Life's painful episodes do pass.Since returning home from my parents', I've lost 47 lbs., I rarely drink. I'm funny. My friends tell me how good and healthy I look. My photography is awesome and I'm working on a long-term project. And deep down, I'm happy.What helped me is that I had to learn how to “Let Go.” The things I once thought were important, aren't. I'll be able to rebuild my credit, my client list and find a new home. They can take my photography, but nobody can take my skill. I've let go of a lot more than I can articulate, and because of it, I'm free.I wish you peace

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    • Wow Tony. Thank you for sharing. That sounds like a harrowing experience. I'm so glad to hear you have learned to let go and are feeling better. I know that learning to let go, especially of anger, and of accepting the way life is rather than wishing for it to be different (what Buddhism says is the root of all suffering) have been hugely helpful to me. I'm particularly sad to read that you had to stop blogging in the middle of all that…I know that writing and sharing with the world what's going on with me keeps me sane. In particular when I get heartfelt responses from people, like this 🙂

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  3. I was ashamed of my anxiety for years… too proud to let anyone into my personal prison cell. This is definitely not the way to break free from symptoms. You are wise to share your struggles and reflect on the good things that life has brought you. In the end, these are the things that will help you overcome your anxieties.

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  4. Nice use of the color blue in your photos. Blue is always funny because of how it comes up in language as well… “are you feeling blue?” “that's a blue joke”… I think there's a nice relationship between your pictures and the rest of the blog postAndy

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    • Wow, Andy. I hadn't even really noticed that or thought about it. What a great relationship you point out. The palette in Mexico definitely has this cool purple/blue hue and of course, lots of ocean and blue sky, but you're right that it is the prominent definer in most of my photos. Thank you for pointing that out…and reading 🙂 Hope you're doing well.

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  5. Pingback: What did you do this year? | HEY MIKI

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