Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

Emotional Well-Being: Mental Health Deserves Equal Footing

Some time ago I wrote about creating a way to measure health. Real health. Health that encompasses every aspect of what it means to be alive and well. As a CrossFitter I definitely included Coach Glassman’s Disease -> Health -> Wellness continuum, and I also acknowledged the critical importance of his concept of “Fitness over Time”. As a classically trained physician/scientist there is clearly a place for more traditional metrics like blood pressure, serum lipids and the like, although they may, indeed, be an variable that is ultimately tied to fitness.

Where my thoughts on defining and measuring health seem to depart from most current trends is in the recognition that mental health–emotional wellbeing—is as much a part of being healthy as any other thing we might examine.

Think about it for just a moment. Most of what we would classify as mental illness has as many outward signs that we can see as diabetes and hypertension. Which is to say, none. Yet we—all of us, not just CrossFitters—see nothing but the good in treating diseases like diabetes openly and aggressively. There is no stigma attached to seeking care for your hypertension or your elevated LDL. To the contrary, if someone who loves you discovers you quit measuring your glucose before you bolus your insulin, they are for sure gonna get in your grill.

For whatever reason, mental illnesses, including addiction, are looked at quite differently. No one is asking the person with chronic depression whether she is taking her life-saving medication, for example. We might notice an insulin pump on a friend or family member, but then it’s quickly forgotten. Everyone seems to be very uncomfortable around the young man who has very obvious hand tremors from the life-saving medication he takes for his Bipolar disease. We all seem to be so much more understanding when we have to wait for a response from someone suffering from Parkinson’s Disease than from the young women who has the same symptoms as a side-effect from the medicine that quiets the dangerous thoughts in her head from Schizophrenia.

It’s not even necessary to look only at these kinds of severe mental illnesses when we are examining the importance of mental or emotional wellbeing as an integral part of being healthy. What good does it do to have a 5:00 mile, a 500 lb. deadlift, and a 1:59 “Fran” if it was self-loathing that drove you in the gym to get there? You may be quite accomplished, the envy of your peers, at the peak of whatever life mountain you wished to climb, and yet you cannot feel joy. How is it possible to be healthy without joy? I look at Usain Bolt and what I see is quite possibly the healthiest man alive. My friend Tim, the writer, tells me that Justin Gatlin has nearly everything that Bolt has—youth, fitness, wealth—but the combination of failure to knock off Bolt, and the public disapproval reigned on him as boos from the Rio stands has left him emotionally broken. It’s subtle, but if you look at his face in the blocks of the 100M Final it’s there.

Our complex and conflicted attitudes and feelings about mental illness are especially evident when the topic of suicide comes up. Just typing the word makes me uncomfortable. Even how we describe suicide is fraught with hidden meaning that reflects our discomfort: someone has “committed suicide”. Right? Someone committed an act that we simply cannot fathom, one that leaves the survivors completely without any understanding whatsoever. How could someone DO that? It’s as if every suicide is the same as the suicide of the crooked prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption when he looks out the window and sees his fate arrive in the front seat of a State Trooper’s car.

In reality most of the time it’s simply not like that at all. Nothing about it is simple at all.

The outer walls at the periphery of my world have been breeched by suicide twice in the last couple of months. One of them actually does feel a bit like that prison warden. Frankly, I am too conflicted, too aware of the external circumstances and not enough aware of the internal life of the deceased to offer much right now. The other one, however, just stopped me in my tracks when I heard. The loss was profound.It has also introduced to me a new vocabulary that I truly believe provides a starting line from which we can change how we think about not only suicide, but all of mental illness. A friendly acquaintance lost his wife when she was killed by suicide.

We don’t need to know all of the details of the story. Suffice it to say that in the face of a child’s illness she suffered quietly. Too quietly to be noticed. Perhaps she didn’t realize how badly she was suffering, or maybe she was like so many of us and couldn’t bring herself to see her illness for the life-threatening entity that it was. No one will ever know. What is clear, though, is that this was not anything about commitment. Kidney failure may be cause of death in a diabetic, but it is diabetes that kills him. There is no difference here. The cause of death was suicide. Her disease, her depression is what killed this young woman.

Each of us has a very few moments in our lifetimes that forever change us. On the second Tuesday of July in 2006, unbeknownst to me, one of those moments was transpiring in a lonely, dark corner. Joyfully, the moment was a beginning, not an ending. Regardless, once learning of the moment I was changed forever. Now I knew. You cannot see any marks from mental illness, no swollen appendage or insulin pump. But it is there all the same, and it must be acknowledged and accorded the same degree of care as any other disease that may take our loved ones from us. Mental illnesses are real, and they can be deadly. There ought not be any conflict or discomfort in treating them.

We may stop losing so many of our loved ones when start to see emotional wellbeing as part of being healthy.

 

Three Friends

Every couple or three years comes a slew of articles on friendship, specifically friendships in adults. Thus it is that I find myself returning to the topic for the first time in awhile, having been bombarded of late with articles, books, and movies on the subject (“Of Mice and Men” is being staged on Broadway, for example). That, and my brother’s rather humorous story of having bumped into a fellow Eph with whom I was friendly in college (more on that in a bit). Much has been written on the subject, almost all of it a re-hash except one little gem, a tiny bit of research that suggests that friendship in mid-life is the strongest predictor of longevity of all.

Weird, huh? And not too positive a finding either, what with my oft-told and hard-earned experiences with how difficult it is for men to create new friendships after the age of 30. The magic number is 3. Three close friends predicts a longer life, especially for men. Sadly this usually does NOT include your wife; the overwhelming percentage of wives drifted AWAY from the men in favor of younger women, usually daughters, as they moved through adulthood. As an aside I’m now desperately hoping that Beth will have some room left over from “Lovely Daughter” Megan. (Actually, getting Beth hooked on CrossFit might be my ace in the hole)

Interesting, huh? Three close friends and you live longer. Very few folks had more than 4 or 5, an incredibly tight range when you think about it.

It’s become a kind of psychological dogma that men and women make friends in very different ways. Women, it is said, make friends through the sharing of feelings. In person two women who are friends are said to be most often facing one another, talking. Maintaining this kind of friendship is structurally rather easy in our modern age of communication. Feelings can be shared in any number of ways that do not require the friends to actually be in the same room together. Phone, text, Facebook and Twitter are but a few of the tactical and mechanical advantages to a friendship built on an exchange of feelings, and the currency required for the ongoing investment is simply time.

Men on the other hand make friendship a much more arduous affair. Many women would opine that this could actually describe many, if not most things that men do, but that’s a topic for a different Sunday. The picture most often used to illustrate men in the company of friends has them standing shoulder to shoulder, in the act of sharing an experience but not necessarily sharing any internal reaction to that experience. It makes me chuckle to think that a video of the same scene would probably also look like a portrait, nothing moving, certainly not their lips. For men the basis of friendship is the experience and the fact that both were physically present for it. Whether sitting at a Bulls game in Row J seats 11 and 12 , or working up a sweat at the Loyola Prep gym playing pick-up hoops, the friendship blooms only from the seed of the experience which is fertilized by proximity. At some point the memories of those experiences, stories re-told dozens, hundreds of times, fail to prompt growth in the friendship without the Miracle-Gro of presence. Eventually even shared “experiences by proxy”, raising similar aged children for example, fails to prevent slack from growing in those friendship ties if you aren’t physically there to tighten them.

In my mind the universe is divided into a very few groups of varying sizes. Think of your life as kind of like a bulls-eye floating through a vast space. The center of that bulls-eye comprises that small group of true friends, men and women who would drop everything should you have need, and for whom you would do the same. Friends are people you miss if you haven’t had contact for a matter of days, people whose company you actively seek. These are people you go out of your way to see and never try to avoid. Man or woman, they know how you feel. Again, an aside, happy is the couple who have overlap in this innermost circle of the bulls-eye.

The next circle is filled with friendly acquaintances, people who make you smile. When you have an opportunity to be with them in person or in spirit it makes you happy. There’s no limit on these, and a reasonably friendly character could have dozens of friendly acquaintances scattered throughout a life. This is the group from which most friends are created, and if you are fortunate someone who is no longer really in that bulls-eye drifts no further out from center than this inner ring. Just outside the circle of friendly acquaintances is the ring containing acquaintances, people you’ve met and remember but either don’t ever really spend time with or never have the chance to explore a move toward the center. My brother met a someone who has always been here, the humor in wistful remembrance notwithstanding. Your circles of friends and acquaintances drifts through a vast space filled with folks yet unmet, a (hopefully) few enemies orbiting in there somewhere as well.

We float through the universe in our circles, people drifting in toward the center (perhaps my Brother’s encounter will drive my acquaintance inward) and sadly on occasion out and away. In CrossFit we know both a definition of fitness and a way to measure it. Indeed, Coach Glassman has opined that not only is fitness the most important part of health, but in his opinion it is a precise measurement of the same. He and I disagree around the margins of that position, at least in part because of friendship and what it does for us. We may not be able to define friendship in quite as absolute terms as those we use for fitness, but I’m reasonably sure we all know what it means to be and to have a real friend. Read or watch “Of Mice and Men” if you are unsure. It’s likely that friendship itself, unlike fitness, does not have a precise metric, a measurement of volume or degree. No “friendship across broad time and modal domains” if you will. Though I continue to hold this truth, that you can never have enough friends, there is apparently a number that does have some significance. Three. Three friends, real friends, lead to a longer life. Side by side or face to face, the tipping point is 3.

No amount of time spent or distance traveled is too much for them.

 

 

 

 

Shades of Grey

It’s still winter here in northeast Ohio, regardless of what the calendar may be saying. We don’t have weather right now, we just have shades of grey. My son, Randy: “I don’t know, Dad, seems like every day is either light grey or dark grey right now.”

I find it harder, and longer, and more of a conscious struggle to soldier on in the face of the obstacles and set-backs of daily life at this time of year. Tiny, insignificant inconveniences take on a wholly unreasonable level of importance (a series of dropped cell calls yesterday, for instance), making whatever shade of grey at least momentarily darker. The medical term for this is “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, and man, I’ve got it in spades. The effect is different on any affect I’m sure, but it makes me dark and edgy, on the verge of eruption, the trigger hair and phasers set on annihilate.

And yet, while my challenges and obstacles may or may not subside as grey FINALLY slides into Spring, I know that for me this is just a seasonal effect, born of geography, and borne as a consequence of geographical choice. With some 5 major moves behind me I have managed to land each time at the same latitude, plus or minus the same relative number of cloud-covered days, covered in mud and shivering.

There live among us souls for whom grey is not a seasonal phenomenon, who struggle each and every day to lighten the internal weather as they soldier on. For them even the lightest days are dark, and the best days are those that have the least pain. The darkest days are down right frightening, unknown and unknowable to the rest of us, where there may be only a speck of light somewhere on the far horizon, with consequences and choices that are more frightening, still. These individuals live in a world not of their choosing, shades of grey surrounding them always and everywhere.

Depression, real depression that descends upon a person and declines to leave of its own accord, is fundamentally different from sadness, from unhappiness. It is organic. It comes from within. While one may be able to pinpoint an event or time that might be a trigger, depression once it sets in is not reactive to any one aspect of a life. It is not present in response to something or someone bad. True depression, as well as its close cousin anxiety, gurgles and bubbles and flows from a toxic well within, a cold weather front that arrives and stays.

We live, or fancy that we live, in a country with “up by your bootstrap” values. “Come ON…get OVER it” is a mantra ingrained in our national psyche. Frankly, that actually works very well, eventually, for the sadness or unhappiness one feels in reaction to unpleasantness. Depression, however, is as unresponsive to platitude as this Cleveland season of Grey, and depression has no calendar to eventually force away the Grey.

People who inhabit this world in which shades of grey are all that exist have a problem which is as serious and life-threatening as any other “invisible” problem. Think diabetes: there is no outward manifestation of diabetes, no stigmata to alert the observer to its presence, and yet without insulin the diabetic will die. So, too, the soul afflicted with depression must be treated for what is organic and internal. Voluminous research has shown that a combination of “Talk Therapy” and medicine is necessary, and that for most it is necessary for the better part of a lifetime. Without this lives are lost. We’d not deprive the diabetic of insulin, would we? And yet…

Various medicines for “depression” are rampantly prescribed for varying degrees of sadness, unhappiness, even ennui. I confess to being conflicted about this. Who am I to deprive anyone of additional happiness, or less sadness, or even less time in the middle of life’s  great Bell Curve of emotion. But these medicines are expensive, and the “market” effects of their broader use affects the conversation about treating organic depression as the medical entity that it is. This is a hard conversation; where is the line?

Smarter people than I have failed to find a bright dividing line, to be sure, but there IS a difference. We lose people we love who live only in a world with shades of grey. At some point, for some, only the grey remains. No light is visible, and only one question exists in that world of grey. Do I live with the pain, or is today the day the pain ends? Grey descends into dark. The weather becomes deadly.

Every now and then, through any number or routes, a light begins to glow in one of these people. Nurtured, caressed, husbanded and encouraged, it grows steadily and slowly. To be sure, it waxes and it wanes; there are setbacks wherein the light may be rendered not more than a tiny ember. But in these fortunate ones it never goes out; it continues to grow, bringing light as surely as Spring lights the grey.

To witness this can be as thrilling and monumental as a sunrise in the mountains, or as subtle and delicate as the opening of an orchid. But oh ho, to be there to SEE this, to be a spectator to this, to see light where there was only dark, brilliant color where there was only grey. One night, in a darkened car on a grey, starless night, I drove home bathed in this light emanating from the back seat, so long in coming but now so bright and so strong. The obstacles and the challenges remain, as they always will, but they will seem so much smaller and more manageable in this light. It was hard to drive, so brilliant was that light as it shone through my tears.

So brilliant is that light as it awakens me each morning, still the father of not two, but three children.