Patients as Partners: Doug on learning about himself through others

Posted July 27th, 2016 by

Next up in our Partnership Principles series is Team of Advisors member Doug (ducksixty). A writer and former actor, Doug tapped into his creative side and has shared a personal essay about Steve, a neighbor with fibromyalgia who unknowingly helped him realize something about his own experience with depression. Check out his story below and find out how Steve inspired him to look inward and re-evaluate what’s important: “I’m electing to dethrone the disease and reassert a part of my former self.”

Steve can barely move. Wants to, but he can’t.

A burly, silver-bearded, former long-haul trucker, he lives in the senior citizen one-bedrooms next door. Had to throw in the towel several years ago when inexplicable, undiagnosed joint pain made it impossible for him to drive safely. Retired early, Steve lives on a carefully-measured monthly Social Security payout. He knows enough to call what he’s got “fibromyalgia,” and he’s tried to get help for it in our rural, medically-underserved corner of California desert, but he simply doesn’t have the means. Even after Obamacare.

Every day, he shuffles out his front door, gingerly lowers himself into the folding chair outside his apartment entrance, and chats with passersby. All day. Won’t do ibuprofen anymore because of his kidneys; afraid of opioids, and can’t afford them, anyway. Steve’s only relief is a single beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale when he can afford it, each afternoon.

So I’m surprised when I overtake him on my walk to work last Tuesday morning, three blocks from home. Halting gait, for sure, but no cane, moving deliberately down Warren Street.

“What’s up? You okay?” I ask, hoping to learn what prompted his sojourn.

“Fibro’s been lettin’ up lately, and I’ve got a little extra cash,” he says. “Headin’ for the bike shop.”

He reads the question on my brow, and, before I can vocalize, explains, “I’m buying a used bike.” My question persists; I try to get my head around the thought of crippled-up Steve flying up a trail, or even simply coasting down the street.

“Think I might be able to ride again; figured it’d be more fun sittin’ my butt down on a moving bike saddle than sittin’ still dying on a fold-up chair.”

He smiles, wipes his brow, looks in the sun’s direction, squinting at the mountains. We move on slowly, chatting, down Warren toward town. I can tell he’s in pain, but I can tell he’s determined. And I can tell he’s excited.

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Winston Churchill’s “black dog” has pursued me since 1998, when I was thrust into my first major depressive episode by worries surrounding Y2K. I lost twenty pounds, I cried the night through in lieu of sleep, I had to daily reassure my kids that they weren’t the source of Daddy’s sadness. Couldn’t work, and confined myself to the bedroom. I held out on professional help for six months (macho bullpucky), on medical treatment and pharmacotherapy for eight. I lost a full year of my life that first time to ruminative inactivity. A year of my marriage, a year of my kids’ childhoods.

As the meds took hold and therapy helped me reclaim my confidence, I became a student of major depression. Learned about neurotransmitters, primal brain centers, PET scans, and diet’s effect on mood. Joined online support communities and found a site for logging my symptoms and other details. I sought out discussion of historic and current medication protocols and information on emerging electric/electromagnetic therapies. I even found academic papers that argued depression could be an evolutionary adaptation. In short, like scores of other PatientsLikeMe members, I became an expert on my malady.

But my Tuesday morning stroll with Steve raised big questions. Did I really need to be as expert as I had become? (Did I need even to be on the Team of Advisors?) My family had been strained enough dealing with the depression itself. Did the addition of a couple of hours, isolated, reading all of the latest on mental illness every morning provide more benefit than if I’d just spent that time with my wife or kids instead?

Steve, when presented with an opportunity, elected to act contrary to his disease. To ignore it. When his joints allowed, and while he still had reasonable strength and balance, he got back on the proverbial horse…or mountain bike. He didn’t spend the regained time, comfort, and strength his “remission” afforded learning more about his disease; he sought to regain a part of his former life, a part that provided him great pleasure. In my efforts to master my disease and feel like I had some control in a miserable situation, had I unknowingly shot myself in the foot?

Depression had to some degree taken me away from life; had studying the condition ad nauseam simply moved me even further from it?

I’ve been “coming back” now for some six years, after being gravely injured by a drunk driver, losing my marriage (and ready access to my three children), and enduring a years-long emotional decline that saw me into psychiatric hospitalization and a couple months’ worth of electroconvulsive and outpatient therapy. The post-ECT psych-drug regimen they’ve got me on now does a number on my emotional range (what range?) and plagues me with crappy side effects, and I’ve continued research to see how to abet my situation.

But I’ve increasingly become more Steve-like, too. Ventured back into relationships and found a wonderful partner. Travelled independently (first time in eight years) to NYC to see my daughter and her husband last fall — I even attended my first theatre in a decade (I had formerly been a professional actor). I’m a depressive, yeah, but I’ve decided — and Steve reinforced that decision — not to let that label serve as my singular definition. I’m still trying to start a bipolar/depression support group, still counseling and messing with my pharm cocktail, and still working with PatientsLikeMe as an advisor. But I’m trying not to succumb or obsess.

I believe other PatientsLikeMe folks might also benefit from auditing their day-to-day and learning where they’ve allowed their (totally understandable) prepossession with their condition to eclipse possibilities for a richer life. After Steve rearranged my thinking the other morning, I went home and read a one-man play I’d heard about from friends. I decided to perform it next fall. I’m working on rights, finding crew, putting together an agreement for using a local space, even thinking about the possibility of performing it in schools or on tour.

The fact that I’m depressed will shape the way my experience unfolds, but obsessing over it won’t preclude that experience altogether. I’m electing to dethrone the disease and reassert a part of my former self.

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Steve mounts his new used bike outside on the street. He’s fragile, even tottering, as he balances. He’s really slow, and I worry that he’s not wearing a helmet. But he moves determinedly up and down our block. He’s obviously in considerable pain, and his forehead is shiny with sweat. And the smile on his face tells me he’s undeniably happy, despite the challenges. So am I. I dive back into scoring my script.

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One Comment

  1. This story reminded me of how I finally healed my insomnia after years of agony.

    My life used to be miserable. I lied awake for hours, was too tired to work properly, had no energy for social activities, and wondered if I would have to spend the rest of my life miserable and exhausted.

    Doctors prescribed pills to knock me out, but I would wake up even more tired than when I went to bed. I would go through my days groggy and in a haze.

    In fact, I felt like I was drunk all the time. One day I couldn’t even remember how many pills I had taken. I ended up taking too many and wound up unconscious in the emergency room.

    I knew that there had to be another way. I searched long and hard and finally came across some simple natural remedies that finally got rid of my insomnia for good…to the amazement of my doctors.

    In fact, you might want to check out this article, it really helped me a lot:

    http://www.journalofnaturalhealth.com/insomnia

    Hope it helps anyone reading this!

    Name: Paul Woods
    Email: paulwoods1a@mail.com
    URL: http://www.journalofnaturalhealth.com/insomnia

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