Depression: Reflections on Robin Williams and Recognizing Pain in Others

Robin Williams’ death rocked the worlds of many. I share the sentiment that so many people have expressed, that it’s hard toCarie Sherman believe someone who made so many people laugh could have suffered so greatly.

Yet I have a feeling, if you’ve suffered from clinical depression (and it’s close cousin, addiction), the news isn’t that surprising.

I’m one of the 350 million people worldwide who suffers from clinical depression. It’s been a constant companion.

More than 10 years ago, when I was 26, I woke up and realized there wasn’t a goddamn thing on earth that could motivate me to get out from under my blanket.

I’d been in a “mood” for a while. I blamed work. I missed my family. Life had just felt tough. But that morning, I was on vacation. My parents were visiting. I had a wonderful relationship with my now husband and a multitude of friends I could count on for support.

The mood persisted. Soon enough, I had to get help.

I’ve spent years trying to understand my depression. Anti-anxiety and anti-depressants motivated me get out of bed in the morning. I learned how to recognize Depression’s Voice over my Own Voice through cognitive behavior therapy. I found refuge in exercise: Running, hiking, yoga. Rinse, repeat.

And I got better. I praised the meds, the therapy, the exercise…

If there’s one thing feeling good does, it breeds complacency. I felt invincible, and for a time, I was. But soon I “knew” I could do it without the meds. I upped the exercise and sought different methods through therapy.

I did everything I could to avoid pain and increase pleasure. For me, pleasure equaled busy. I buried myself at work, went to school at night, ran races, volunteers for charities, threw parties, binge-watched the Sopranos, read every bestseller. Each unit of time I was given was scheduled.

Little did I know, that which I ran from would always, always be with me.

It took getting sick to find this out. My lupus-like illness brought my treadmill life to a screeching halt. And without all my distractions, life felt, once again, impossible.

But I had to get out of bed. I had a family. And as worthless as I felt and as loud as Depression’s Voice was, I could still recognize my own. It told me to hang on, if only because my daughter didn’t deserve to navigate this life all by herself.

So I began a new march–recycling what I’d learned years before in an effort to get better.

This time, it didn’t work. Therapy took far more energy than I had in my reserves. I could hardly shower, much less drive across town. I started new medications. The side effects were terrible.

I tried to run. My body put me out of commission for a week.

I couldn’t control this new illness. I couldn’t control my old illness.

I was lost.

Depression is one of the most common complications of chronic illness. It isn’t just being sad. Depression is not just about being hopeless. Like lupus, somedays you feel fine. Other days, you wish for permanent reprieve. You seek pleasure–from socializing, from booze, from drugs, from food–because pleasure remission keeps you going. Depressed people are chameleons–we cloak ourselves in clever disguises so even those closest to us never see our true colors.

I’m still lost. But I credit this loss of control with opening my eyes to a new way of living. Change is constant. Pain is inevitable. Control is an illusion.

So what helped? For the first time ever, I was quiet. I started to trust my intuition and practice gratitude. I realized the only thing I could control was my thoughts. I went inward, through meditation and the seeking of universal principles. I listened for Depression’s Voice, telling me untruths with unmatched persuasion. And I listened for my own voice–that little piece of love that remains strong and steady regardless of my circumstance.

And guess what? I feel better. But the suicide of Robin Williams has forced me to remember:

1) Clinical depression can’t be cured. I’ll always need to do what’s necessary to stay a few steps ahead of it, be that meds, meditation, calling in a higher power, or writing about my experiences with the sincere hope my words could help someone else.

2) Everyone experiences pain. Even those who never show it. And pain–be it physical or emerging from deep within–can take over your life so quickly. Pain can take a single moment to a defining moment in a heartbeat.

I hope by remaining aware of my own depression–my own pain–I remain aware of the pain of others. I have gotten through many days because of the love, kindness, and patience of others.

Today, I promise to be more to the people around me, even if my mind says it’s none of my business or that the person is undeserving. Because you just never know.

RIP, Robin Williams.

Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression in yourself and others.


Life Lessons from a Broken Kitchen Sink

The faucet in my kitchen broke this weekend. Each time you turn it on, it sprays water–everywhere. And though I instantly thoughtCarie Sherman this type of problem was an emergency, it seems plumbers prioritize things like “major pipe bursts” and “sewer back-ups” over my inability to function properly in my kitchen.

So I’m without a water source in my kitchen.

After more than a few “dammits!,” I realized going to the sink for water was far too much of a reflex for me to remember on my own. I finally resorted to forming an “X” over the sink with painter’s tape–a visual reminder of what’s broken and a pattern I need to change.

Now, being without a kitchen sink–in the grand scheme of life–isn’t such a big deal. It can certainly be filed in the nuisance category. But let’s not underestimate the nuisance either: How many times do you use your kitchen sink every day? I reckon it’s a heckuva a lot more than you realize.

It’s been a few days now (plumber is coming tomorrow–they could have been here sooner but they operate like the cable companies and give you windows of time–and though I work from home I do have other obligations–so tomorrow, it is).

And guess what? This morning, I filled my coffee pot in the bathroom. Without thinking about it. I washed my hands, filled the refrigerator water jug, and the pet dish–all without turning first to my kitchen sink. Of course, I had to give extra thought to walking with full water containers the 10 feet from my bathroom back to the kitchen, but it wasn’t that big of deal. It’s just … different.

Kind of like the changes we’re forced to make when the bigger things in life go wrong. Like lupus. It’s not ideal. It’s not what we hoped for in life. But over time, we adapt. We learn to do things differently.

My sink broke, and I needed Plan B. With lupus, you always have to have a plan. Am I rested enough? Is there a place I can sit? What am I doing the day before? Did I pack Advil and water and comfy shoes?

Using the kitchen sink was a habit. So I had to put a big “X” over it. With lupus, sometimes you have to X over a few things to remind yourself that life has changed. I’ve put Xs over many things, and I’m sure you have, too. From where I sit right now, I can see my pill bottles–my visual reminder that life changed, and I need to take my meds.

But time passes. And today, using the bathroom sink emerged as a habit. Just like many of the changes I was forced to make because of my chronic illness. It’s still not ideal. But it’s certainly not the end of the world.

Life is filled with problems. Your sink will break. Your body will fade or your mind will betray you. Relationships will end.

Sometimes, the best you can do is put an X over it, and move on.


Four Ways to Do More with Less: Applying Business World Lessons to Life with Chronic Illness

 Carie ShermanBy Carie Sherman

The last time I thought about the statement “do more with less,” was back in my corporate life. The sentiment had been thrown around by management for a few weeks when suddenly, our cushy styrofoam disposable coffee cups were replaced with a non-insulated version that burned my hand. I decided then that I hated the prospect of doing more with less.

But today I had a realization: THIS is what lupus asks of a person. THIS is the challenge. Not to sit down and admit defeat and bury ourselves in the memory of our once healthy lives, but to learn how to live with less. I’m greedy. I want to do more, despite having less.

So I consulted the business world and found an article titled “Four Ways to Do More With Less (Really!).” And I stole each idea and applied it to chronic illness. I hope these ideas help you, too.

The Business World Says In Order to Do More With Less, One Needs To…
“1. Specify ‘must win’ battles.”

In business, this means declaring priorities in order to focus on essential, value added tasks. Here’s how I applied this concept:

My priorities: 1) My family; 2) My friends; 3) My business; 4) My writing. All of my essential “to-dos” usually get covered.

Did you notice any missing priorities? I did. “Health” was a no-show on my first attempt at a list. Yet you and I both know that it must be a priority or nothing else will happen. So I added a few items that contribute to my overall physical and mental health: 1) Seeing my docs and taking my meds; 2) Eating right; 3) Exercise; 4) Stress relief.

The term value-added makes me crazy, but in this case it almost makes sense: I can add “value” to each task by thinking strategically. For example, I could take my little girl to the Farmer’s Market for fresh veggies and family fun. I could skip happy hour and hike with my BFF. I could use my calendar better so my deadlines, appointments, and refill reminders are all in one place. And in that same calendar, I could schedule meditation breaks and writing time.

How can you add value to your day-to-day tasks?

“2. Avoid the trap of routines…evaluate work processes regularly to ensure that they’re aligned with changing work demands.”

Back when I had to leave my house to go to work, I had a morning routine. I’d wake up at the last minute to rush out the door and to rush to my desk. I’d eat what hadn’t spilled of my made-for-car-breakfast (using our regular plates, which infuriated my husband) and wash it down with a paper cup of coffee while responding to each and every email in my inbox, checking the news, and clarifying my day’s priorities.

Now that I work from home, I no longer eat breakfast in my car. But I held on to this routine, and it has to go. I’m most creative, energetic, productive in the hours before 9 a.m. Tasks that would take me three hours at 3 p.m. take me 30 minutes at 7:30 a.m. Yet more often than not, I fall back into this routine. It wasn’t effective then…it sure as heck isn’t effective now.

What do you do out of habit that keeps you from being effective?

“3. Treat training as a process, not an event.”

At first I thought this wasn’t applicable. The line for “training” in my freelance business might as well say “there’s always next year.” But then I realize how much I missed this aspect of my corporate life. It was filled with education and training. I took classes on computers, on productivity, on design, HTML. Heck, I got a graduate degree.

But my illness has given me a whole lot of life lessons in a short period of time. And one thing I’ve noticed (and I’m sure you have, too) is that I take steps forward. Then back. It’s not Diagnosed and Done. It’s lifelong learning when there is no cure.

“4. Provide ‘specific freedom to act’…clarify the scope of employees’ authority, so that fear of overstepping boundaries doesn’t become a disincentive to taking risks or making even-simple decisions.”

Chronic illness is a boundary. And, it’s a scary boundary. I don’t have a boss giving me “specific freedom to act.” But today, I’m giving myself permission to better understand the boundaries my illness has given me so I can stop living in fear of my body. I still have the authority to act and take risks, and so do you.

I never thought I’d look to the business world for advice, but these tips made me think about ways I can be smarter with the energy I have. Now tell me, how have you learned to do more with less?


Bring Back the Fanny Pack and Other Lessons from Getting Lost in the Woods

Carie ShermanBy Carie Sherman

The BFF and I recently took a hike. We got lost. Well, not really lost, per se. Let’s just call it misinformed about the direction we had taken. We didn’t have a trail map. We “kinda” remembered the name of the trail we planned to take. And we “kinda” turned a 3-mile hike into 8.

Relax. We were in Castlewood Canyon State Park. We were able to see a physical human establishment for at least half of the hike and never spent more than 30 minutes between other groups of hikers–most of whom were refreshed and beginning their hikes from the various parking lots our trail took us past. And we had plenty of water.

The park does have decent elevation gains. My guess is at least 40,000 feet.

Here’s the best part: I wore a fanny pack. It was awesome. The BFF protested but knew if she took a real stand against my fanny pack I might start reconsidering the helmet I threatened to wear because of an article I’d just read about head injuries. She’s a confident girl and can handle when I’m strange, but she does try to stop me from humiliating myself.

Anyway, chronic pain folks, take note: I always carried a backpack but it kills my back and shoulders, likely due to the terrible hiking posture that one gains when one constantly stares at one’s feet. Turns out, my hips are good for hauling. I wholeheartedly encourage you to come to the darkside. Let’s Bring Back the Fannypack!

Who am I kidding. Fanny packs probably are back, for all I know about fashion and the like.

Anyway. 8 miles. Me. If I had known it would be 8 miles, I never would have started. I haven’t gone that far since 2010. And I didn’t realize it at the time, probably because the sheer elation of not needing to call in a backcountry search party for a day hike just minutes from urban areas, but it was a big deal. I hiked 8 miles. In this body. This body that two weeks ago wouldn’t allow me to lift my arms. As you know, I have an entire blog dedicated to my body failing me.

And here’s a kicker: I could walk the next day. And the day after that. And even the days after that, which were leading up to my period, when typically all hell breaks lose and I move only when forced. My body was…good.

Now, I’m not saying that I’ve cured my mind, body, and soul here. But I learned a valuable life lesson on this hike, and it’s a lesson you can apply to just about any circumstance under the sun.

Sometimes you have to get lost. Sometimes you just have to work way harder than your brain believes you can–even if the only reason is because you were forced. If you have the desire–and someone awesome by your side–you can really surprise yourself.

I have a lot of goals right now. One in particular scares the crap out of me. I have no idea what I’m doing. But I know I have to work and work hard and rely on the crazy cool people in my life.

I might not bring back the fanny pack (assuming, of course, it’s not already back). I might whine and complain. But I’ll stay on the dang trail til the end. Because I can.