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State of Mind

April 21, 2014

by Mark Dunning

About a month ago I wrote that I was dealing with depression and anxiety. I wrote at the time that I would share my experiences in the hope that it inspires others to seek help. Well, we’re one month in and a lot has happened. It seemed like the right time to answer the question a good friend asked me: “How’s your brain doing?”

It’s doing better, thank you very much. Some places I have improved:

  1. I find my sense of humor is coming back. I’m not sure how to describe this, but for a time laughing felt inappropriate. All of life was a funeral. When I did joke, the humor was dark and damaging, meant to drive others away rather than bring them closer. It was just another way to be left alone. But things have gotten better. As Julia, Bella, Jack, and I drove home from my mother’s house on Saturday night, we spent twenty minutes laughing about different dog puke disasters. We have three dogs. They are always leaving something unpleasant in the house. A few weeks ago each stain was infuriating. Now I was laughing about it as I always had. That was a nice change. Be even nicer if the dogs stopped puking in the house, but that’s too much to ask.
  2. I’ve started to dabble in hobbies again. I have always enjoyed playing the piano and last October I acquired a baby grand on the cheap. I had always wanted a nice piano and spent hours sitting at it. I hadn’t touched it since Christmas. But now I sit at it for a few minutes at a time, usually after I toss the dogs outside just before bed. And I’m writing again. Well, I’m writing this post at least. Hopefully more will come.
  3. I’m sleeping through the night now (at least those nights when the dogs don’t puke). For a while I wasn’t sleeping more than three or four hours in total and for never more than an hour or two in a row. By the time I had woken up on Easter Sunday I had slept for ten hours. It helped that I had run the day before. That reminds me…
  4. I’m enjoying little things again. I ran ten miles on Saturday mostly because it was a beautiful spring day and I was enjoying the sun, the breeze, the sound of the birds, and the hint of color. I can’t say this happens all the time, but this weekend was a big step forward. I should point out that I am not a big runner. I haven’t run ten miles since last summer. And, yes, my legs are killing me today (but in a good way).

This is a good place to stop and talk about what has helped. 

  1. You. You helped. You helped me most of all. I got dozens of the nicest e-mails and comments and cards imaginable, both from people I have known a long time and from many I had never met. I can’t tell you how much strength it gave me to have so much support. The most heartening thing was the common theme in most of the e-mails. Community. Everyone mentioned the Usher Syndrome Community. They all talked about the need to help each other, to look out for each other, to care for each other. Usher didn’t isolate me and my family. It expanded our family to hundreds and literally to all ends of the earth. Depression makes you feel alone. Historically Usher did the same. But that’s now a hard position to maintain in this Usher Syndrome community. That is a wonderful change from when Bella was first diagnosed. You, this giant extended family of people with Usher, of moms and dads and grandmothers and doctors and researchers, all of you gave me hope and strength. I’d be gone without you. Thank you.
  2. Simplify, simplify or, as my therapist calls it, mindfulness. Basically I try very hard to focus on whatever task is at hand, particularly on each simple step. So when I do the dishes, I don’t think about the laundry or the groceries or the million other things that I need to do. I just do the dishes. I methodically pull them out of the dishwasher and stack them neatly exactly where they go. I rinse off every dish before I reload the dishwasher. I think about the temperature of the water and the feel of the soap. In short, I try to block out everything but whatever I am working on at the moment, whether it’s the dishes or changing a light bulb. When I’m cleaning up dog puke, I still think about a nice day at the beach or something else distracting, but otherwise I try to stay in the moment as much as possible.
  3. Meditation has helped, at least initially. I don’t do it as much now. But when I was really in a bad place, I would sit in a chair and just dwell on rotting thoughts. Meditation was similar but much more positive. I would sit in that same chair and I would still focus on something, but instead of hacking up some unfixable problem, I would focus on my breathing. I bought a couple of iPhone programs from a company called Brainwave. Don’t believe the stuff about altering brainwaves. They are basically just white noise, but they helped distract my mind and let me focus better on breathing and nothing else. That calmed me down and freed my mind for twenty minutes. I read that a hot meal and an hour off the front line could do a world of good for a soldier in war. This was the equivalent for me. I gave my mind a break and then I could fight on.
  4. I am trying to take better care of my body. I am trying to eat healthier and eat regular meals. I am exercising (see the aforementioned ten mile run). And, as I said earlier, I am working on sleeping better. Eating healthy and exercising are pretty self-explanatory, but did you know there is something calledsleep hygiene? Me neither. Basically the idea is to prepare for sleeping an hour or two before you actually go to bed. So I no longer turn off the TV and go to bed. I stop watching TV an hour before I go to bed. Then I spend the hour doing something mindless like the dishes. 
  5. I’m under orders from my therapist to reduce the stressors in my life that I can control. Bella is going to have Usher syndrome. I can’t change that. And I need to shop for groceries and I need work so I can have a roof over my head. But I don’t HAVE to fertilize the lawn. Oh, I can do it if I want something mindless to do but if the lawn goes brown this year or is overrun by crabgrass, so be it. I find this to be a tremendously delicate balance because eventually seeing a crappy lawn is going to stress me out. I can’t let everything go forever but I can in the short term.
  6. Medication has helped. The anti-anxiety stuff has helped me clear my mind in the evening before I go to sleep. It’s part of my sleep hygiene routine. The anti-depressants should start to take effect soon. They say it takes 6-12 weeks before you notice the effects. I know I am starting to feel better, so maybe they are starting to kick in. I’ll write about them a bit more in the next post. My hope is that all those stressors that I put off, like fertilizing the lawn, will be manageable once the medication kicks in.

Some of the big external stressors that pushed me over the edge are starting to resolve themselves. I’ll write more about them in the next post as well. Some of them are resolvable and that has been our focus for now. Reduce the list to just those really big problems. So I ignore some things like the lawn and fix others that can be readily rectified. But there are some big problems that are still out there that are either unresolvable or are going to take decades of effort. You can choose for yourself in to which bucket Usher syndrome falls. Ultimately my goal is devising an approach to dealing with those most difficult issues so they don’t overwhelm me again. Once I have that in place, my brain should be doing quite well.


Thanks again to everyone for your support. You really saved me.

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