Exams

I don’t know how many times I’ve had this dream, or something like it. It’s 5.30pm on Saturday afternoon. My final Year 12 exam starts in 3 hours and I’m absolutely not ready. Why an exam is scheduled for 8.30pm on a Saturday is never made very clear to me! I don’t have a cheat sheet ready, I haven’t studied all semester, I know nothing and I’m in a despairing panic. Or I’m in the last class of the term doing trial exams and unable to answer a single question. Or I’m studying at home and don’t even know where to start. Or I’m in a group study session and the others know everything and I’m absolutely lost, up the creek without a paddle! The subject of the exam is never one that you can cram overnight like biology or history; it’s always physics, maths, or chemistry where you have to understand the equations and be able to manipulate them in the exam to show your understanding. Or lack thereof in this case. There is no way that I can shove enough knowledge into my brain in time to pull it back out again in time for the exam. In other words, I’m doomed! Can you imagine the panic, stress, anxiety, despair, terror, the feeling of utter failure and of the future being bleak? In the middle of the night in my sleep it’s very real and very upsetting! Wishing I’d done better, afraid of the moment my teachers find out I’ve failed them, fearing my peers finding out I’m dumb and incompetent. Cheery stuff!

The thing is, I passed my Year 12 exams. I received my Victorian Certificate of Education in 2005. I did well in fact. I was in the top 10 of my year level, number 6 I think. I achieved 94.55 out of 99.99. This isn’t a brag. It’s an attempt to make my brain remember that actually I have finished this part of my life, and finished it well. I no longer need to fret, stress, despair, panic, etc about facing exams. I mean for goodness sake, it’s 11 years since Year 12! It’s 7 years since I finished my Bachelor of Pharmacy, a lot less academically brilliantly but still. Those years are done, finished; there’s nothing that can be done to change any of it. I can’t go back and do it again. And after all I did those exams and passed them. But these dreams, largely about Year 12 exams, persist! And it’s tiring to spend so much emotion in my sleep during the night on a situation that would never occur to me to think about during the day. But during the night, my brain can’t rationalise. It’s susceptible to the strangest things. And never more so than since I’ve been on antidepressants. Prior to starting antidepressants in mid 2013 I may have had this dream, but I can’t remember. I never dreamed that much and I remembered even less of what I did dream. I’d wake up and any dream would rapidly fade and become a vague thought, or just drift away. But then.

SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are the first class of antidepressant that you get to know if you experience your own battle with anxiety, or depression. They are the first line of treatment. Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft are some brand names you may have heard of. I prefer the generic names because they never change: escitalopram, fluoxetine, sertraline plus paroxetine, citalopram and fluvoxamine. These medications can have a side effect of strange, or even frightening dreams or nightmares (NPS), otherwise described in some places as vivid dreams. Can, being the operative word. They don’t occur in all people, or all the time. I seem to go through phases then have a break for a while, then another series. I was amused at the beginning. I had these super realistic dreams of utter nonsense that were really quite entertaining. I just wished I could have hit the video button and recorded them; I’m sure my name would have gone down in history along with the famous movie directors. I could never write them down quick enough and in enough detail to really proper capture them; quite a shame. But then I started getting variations on this exam panic and it’s not anywhere near amusing; it’s very stressful and I wake up next morning entirely exhausted, as if I’ve hardly slept! It’s draining. And to what end? My psychiatrist doesn’t believe in finding the meaning in dreams, neither did my psychologist, nor does my GP. Rationally I know that dreams are just my subconscious processing data. But sometimes I’d just like a reason why I’m fighting with these emotions during the night. I mean I know why, in that it’s because of the medication. But why this kind of dream, why this stress about failing?

So. What to do about it? In my case, not a lot right now. I’m on an SSRI plus 3 mood stabilisers. Theoretically for bipolar patients, the antidepressant is no longer necessary once the mood stabilisers are in place. Theoretically. So in order to get rid of the dreams, and the sweating, my psychiatrist started slowly weaning my high dose of antidepressant. We got down to 375mg from 525mg, but when we went to 300mg, things started falling apart. It wasn’t worth it so we went back to the last dose that worked. We might try it again later, especially now that one of my mood stabilisers has been bumped up. But it’s a balancing act. Sometimes you have to accept some side effects for an otherwise good healthy life. That’s just reality.

In the meantime, my energy is going to trying to wake myself up out of these dreams and remind myself that although I did have some close calls with studying at the last minute during my university years, that’s long gone! It’s in the past and it needn’t bother me anymore. What’s weird is that it was my years at uni when I was less studious, but the dreams are always about high school. I guess that’s just proof that this is an irrational thing, and to just let it go as much as possible, let it pass, let it slide. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4, out, 2, 3, 4. Ahhh.

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Rainy Days and Mondays

Have you heard that song?? Olivia Newton-John sings it beautifully with her haunting, husky voice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWwVN2HiWyg

“Hanging around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down”.

Not very inspiring, but it’s a song that resonates with me. As it has done for many years. As a teenager my parent’s concession to music in the car was not the top 40 station in our town. If there was going to be music, it would be Mum’s pick of classic FM or Dad’s pick of Olivia Newton-John or various country singers. And I got to love Olivia’s Indigo Women of Song album; I would pick it out to play just for myself, not just listening because someone else was choosing the music.

Probably the indigo theme and the songs resonated with me so much that first summer that I heard them because I was in a depression. I didn’t know that’s what it was. All I knew is that we were on holidays at the beach, my favourite place in all the world and everyone around me was happy. But I wasn’t happy. I was sad, I felt worthless, I felt that I was separated from all the fun, unable to engage, unmotivated, tired. I faked it, and I don’t think anyone around me knew just how terrible I was feeling. I felt like the earth was going to end. I felt like I couldn’t survive. I couldn’t sleep – I would toss and turn with my thoughts all night long, getting maybe a few fitful hours in the early morning. I felt like all these awful thoughts that were running circles in my brain were haunting me!! I couldn’t get away from them! My then-boyfriend, now amazing husband doesn’t remember me being depressed. But he remembers how many fights we had that holiday. I don’t remember any fights, all I remember is feeling so so bad and not knowing why or how to fix it.

I look back on the happy snaps, and I see the smiles into the camera and they don’t look fake. There are some real “I’m happy to be here” smiles. Was I that good at faking, or were there some great moments amongst the crippling darkness that I just didn’t notice? Were they the moments when I was able to shut my mind to the black and despairing thoughts? And truly be happy? I don’t know. It was a long time ago. I do remember good parts of that holidays to Robe, SA. Discovering the ‘Coconut Robe’ and playing chess together while eating icecream. Going for drives exploring the surrounding countryside and boogy boarding down sand dunes. Stopping off half way to check out some cool waterfalls.

There were good moments. A lesson I’ve learned this year is that even the worst days have good moments. It’s a cliche, but it really is true. So now I try to look for those moments. It takes practice, it requires you to put in an effort, and there are days when it’s so hard it seems impossible. But it’s worth it if you get there. IF.

So that was my summer of 2007. I had completed one year of uni studying pharmacy, and one year of living in the big smoke. I was going on holidays with my family of 6 and my boyfriend of 4 years. We were going somewhere new, a big occasion because every year except one we had always gone to the same beach location in NSW.

I was 19 years old. I was depressed. I did nothing about it. I thought it was some kind of punishment, or that the thoughts in my head were some kind of trial that I had to get through. I didn’t understand it was a chemical imbalance that could only be corrected by replacing the chemicals. I didn’t think to go to a doctor, a counsellor or to tell anybody. I thought it was something I had to deal with on my own. So I did. And it eventually got less and less and it did subside. It took months. MONTHS. All the while I was desperately trying to fill in my life with distractions: TV series, chocolate/chips/lollies/takeaway food, going out with friends, staying out late, listening to music loudly to block out the sound of my thoughts, taking up new hobbies etc. All the while tackling a second year of uni and life in the big smoke and expecting big achievements from myself, as always.

I was diagnosed with depression in December 2013. Nearly 6 years later. Finally a label. Finally a treatment plan. Finally someone validating the awfulness, the fear, the guilt, the terrible circulating thoughts, the exhaustion, the lack of enjoyment and motivation.

There is nothing that feels so awful as being sad in the middle of the perfect life!

I had wondered. I had thought out the fors and againsts. I’m a health professional. I know the diagnostic criteria. But of course, with the unrelenting high standards that I hold myself to, I didn’t think I was “that bad”. I had even gotten to thinking maybe I should go to a doctor and ask. But I didn’t, I said to myself “you’re just being lazy and slack, pull yourself together and stop looking for excuses”.

I look back over my life and draw a lifeline. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, looking back. From 12 years old to today. I draw in events: starting high school, getting a boyfriend, a traumatic relationship, Mum getting cancer, a terrible job, friend dying. Everyone has their own lifeline and events are more or less severe. Lots of things happen in life. But with the knowledge and experience of this beast I now see my life differently.

I see that summer when I thought I was going to have to go to high school with the bullies from primary school and I see now that I was withdrawn, awfulising (my GP’s word), ruminating, I lacked interest in events around me, I couldn’t enjoy the holidays. I was depressed. This wasn’t just a fear that is logical. This was obsessing day and night, can’t sleep, expecting the worst, sure that life is going to be terrible.

This is not normal. I have to keep this thought in the front of my mind now. I have lived with this monster for so long, and thought it was just a part of life for so long that I expect so much of myself in very adverse circumstances.

I see the winter of 2004 when I was dating my then-boyfriend-now-husband but was obsessed with thoughts of the past, felt worthless, undeserving of him, unmotivated and like nobody could love me. I was depressed.

This is not normal. Starting to date someone should be a time filled with happiness, enjoyment of life, fun and games. Which is what I was on the surface but underneath I was tortured. I thought I should tell him I can’t keep dating you because I am so unworthy, so damaged, so broken. Not normal.

The song calls them rainy days. Today is a rainy day. Not literally, although it’s meant to rain and hail later in the afternoon. I actually woke up to bright sunshine shining on the eucalypt trees outside my window. No sunshine comes into my bedroom in the morning. There are no rays of light shining onto my floor, my bed, my face. I wake up, and then look out to see what kind of day it is. I would like it so much more if I had an east-facing bedroom window, so that the sunshine could come right in and shine on my face to wake to me. But it is what it is.

“What I’ve got, they used to call the blues, nothing is really wrong, feeling like I don’t belong, walking around, some kind of lonely clown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down”.

The blues. Sounds lovely to me, determined as I am to avoid the blacks, the midnight navy, the deep greys and even the light greys. Colours are a great representation but I think that label “the blues” trivialises the condition that is depression.

There is a deep dark difference between having the blues, feeling blue, feeling down, having a rough day, and being depressed. Not to make light of anyone who feels down, it’s never nice, but “the blues” and depression are not interchangeable describing words.

So a rainy day. This isn’t a day of depression as such, it’s a day of in-between. Not feeling good, not feeling great, just not feeling too much. A ‘meh’ or ‘blergh’ or ‘ish’ day. Unmotivated, energy-poor, wanting to stay in bed all day, not bothered to do too much, can’t see the point in much. Leaking tears every now and then, otherwise just going “okay”. Kind of sitting on the brink of okay and not okay. Nothing really wrong, just not where I want to be over there with everyone else enjoying their day.

“What I feel has come and gone before, no need to talk it out, we know what it’s all about…”

It’s just one of those days. I’ve had them before, I guess I’ll have them again. Nothing tragic has happened, but the world is just tinged blueish. I know it’s just a result of the chemistry being not quite right. Partly my fault. I’m taking a regime of antidepressants where I have one at 7am, one at 11am and one at 2pm. Not the easier to remember so I have my life set to alarms to help me remember. However I went into the city at 10am yesterday and forgot all about taking the tablets with me. So I missed 11am, then I missed 2pm then by the time I got home at 3.30pm I wasn’t sure whether to take them so I didn’t. Not a great move, by 6pm I was a dreary little raincloud sitting around the house waiting for something to go wrong, and waiting to rain. Which I did. So then I figured I didn’t care if I didn’t sleep, I would take one late anyway. And it helped.

The fact that missing a tablet or taking a tablet can change my day shows how fragile the balance of chemistry still is. I’m a ways off being stable. But patience, patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day, etc. I just want to rush the process of getting stable. 9 weeks off work, sitting around the house all day – sounds like fun to someone working full time but I am not finding it fun anymore. It’s more tedious than fun.

But, still I have to try to find the fun, find the benefits, find the happiness in each day. Every day is a gift, whether it feels like it or not. It’s up to me to see the silver lining, the cup half full, the upside etc.

So what is it today?? Some TLC from my great husband, lunch out together at a bakery on the river, a bit of birdwatching, doing some chores together. Gotta keep looking past the rainy days and Mondays to find the sunny days, even the cloudy days without rain. Seeing the good inside the bad is a good plan, a sound plan. It’s one that I have on a poster on the wall because it’s hard to remember. Still, I keep trying. And that’s what counts, isn’t it?

Picture of a cloudy, rainy day over the river

Walking along the river after a nice lunch at the bakery, looking up for birds with rain dropping in my eyes, swallows flitting overhead and a very brisk wind!

Pretty white flowers with yellow centre

Finding joy in unexpected places, pretty white flowers dancing in the wind and rain near the bakery