Depression and the circle of sadness

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband struggles with depression.  His is a disease that comes on strong and hard and completely disables him for months, only to lift leaving him the same vibrant man he was before the episode hit.  It is really hard for me, who has never experienced the depth of his anguish, to relate.  Thank goodness for animated movies!

We saw Inside Out when it was released, and were blown away.  It was such a great movie and gave us such an age appropriate vocabulary to talk about feelings with our daughter.  (Cause, you know, two engineer parents don’t necessarily excel at talking about feelings.  We excel about talking about Excel, the spreadsheet tool.)  It’s great to be able to say to the seven year old Afthead, “Hey, what’s going on?  It seems like Fear has taken over the control panel.”

But the most enlightening conversation came about with my husband.  We were chatting about a specific part of the movie when Joy tries to ensure Sadness won’t interfere with Riley’s first day at a new school.  Joy gives everyone a job (Fear has to come up with the worst possible scenarios, Disgust has to help with friends) and Sadness’s job is to “stay in the circle.”  Joy draws a circle on the floor and pushes Sadness into it.   Of course, Sadness doesn’t stay in her circle and causes Riley to cry at school.

My comment to my husband was, “Too bad your Joy can’t shove  your Sadness into a circle.”

He replied, “Oh, my Sadness always stays in his circle, but when he escapes he’s impossible to get back in.”

It was an incredible vision into my husband’s brain.  He is a man guided by Joy, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, but Sadness isn’t really his thing.  I’ve only seen him cry once, and it was when he was depressed.  He doesn’t really do sadness, which just makes his depressive episodes that much more disconcerting.  But it makes total sense when viewed in the Inside Out context.  Sadness gets out of his circle, and takes hold of the controls and only he and Fear run my husband’s brain.  His normal forceful Anger, Joy and Disgust are gone, pushed aside by Sadness.  Eventually time and drugs wear Sadness out and he heads back to his circle to hibernate for years, decades if we are lucky.

Still, I don’t understand his depth of anguish.  Still, I can’t put myself in his shoes, but finally, I have a metaphor for his pain, and a wish.  I hope his Sadness stays in the circle for a long, long time.


You play the hand you are dealt

My dad is a poker player.  He has been a poker player for as long as I can remember.  When I was a child he played in various neighborhood games.  Then gambling was legalized west of Denver and he added Texas Hold’em to his repertoire.  While I am not a poker player, lacking the poker-face and calculating-odds-on-the-fly genes, I have always enjoyed watching my dad play the game.  When I was in my teens I would go up to the mountains with him and watch him play against the other players at the table.  I’d watch reckless players flamboyantly going against the odds, and methodical players never deviating from what math would tell them to do.  The good players, like my dad, would know the odds, but play the game to maximize the hand they had and the players at the table.

One thing you learn from poker, especially Hold’Em, is that you have to play the cards in your hands.  In draw poker you can trade in the cards you have for other cards that might make your hand better, but once you get those cards, you don’t get other ones.  In the end, you always have to make the best hand you can out of the cards you have.

I think life is like Texas Hold’Em.  You and your family sit around a table and each are dealt cards and you have to play those cards.   Maybe the rules are different because you get more opportunities to trade in your cards, and the stakes are higher, but one thing is the same: once you are dealt a card you have to play it.   You can’t untake a card.

Let’s look at my life.  When I was 23 I traded in my “single gal card” for a “live with a guy card”.  I still had my “loves bad boys who ride motorcycles” card, just in case living together didn’t work out.  Seven years later, the bad boys got traded in for a marriage card and my mate hand was set.

What I didn’t know, and my husband didn’t even know, was that he had a depression card in his hand.  His first episode hit right after we were married.  It took months to diagnose what was going on.  His symptoms manifest themselves physically and he went through a barrage of medical test to determine what was wrong.  In the end there was only one possibility left: that his sickness was in his mind. Therapy, time and medication eased his symptoms and eventually cured him a year later.  We were told that there was a good chance this would be a one time episode, but if he had another it was probably going to plague him throughout his life.

So he had the depression card.  He couldn’t trade it in.  Maybe he was lucky and just had the “one episode” kind, but maybe not.  I had joined my life to a guy who may or may not have another breakdown.  Sure, it wasn’t my card, so I could have left him.  I could have decided that staying with someone who had a chance of another breakdown wasn’t worth it, but I didn’t, because I loved him and I wanted a life with him.

We had a baby together, and when she was four, it happened again.  Now I had a new card, a mom card.  That’s one powerful card, and I spent almost a year keeping her alive as my first priority, and keeping my husband alive as my second.  Again, he has the depression card, not me, but with us drawing the parent card together I was permanently tied to him.  I could help him get well again, or abandon him and risk being alone, divorced from my husband, fighting some future custody battle.  I wouldn’t be married to him, but I would know that he could get sick again and if we weren’t together I couldn’t help him or my daughter.  Worst case I’d have a child whose father killed himself.  I loved our family too much to not try, so I spent another year fighting and we all came through together, but this time I know that it will happen again.

I was frank with my colleagues, family, and friends with the second episode because I needed all the help I could get.  Some asked “How do you do it?” “Why do you do it?”  The reality of the situation was that I didn’t want to do it.  I didn’t want to be married to a man with depression.  I didn’t want to worry day and night about my daughter and him.  But I had to play the hand I was dealt.  The words that meant the most to me while I was struggling was, “This just sucks.”  It didn’t do any good to think about “What ifs”  “What if he hadn’t gotten depressed?”  “What if we hadn’t had a kid?”  He was and we did and we had to do the best we could.  The words that meant the second most were, “How can I help?”  “Can we have you over for dinner?”  “Can I take him out to give you a break?”  What didn’t help were suggestions from people unwilling to jump in and get dirty with us. “You should” and “Why don’t you” drove me crazy.  Those are words of judgement made from the outside and weren’t worth my notice.  No one who didn’t have my hand could really understand what our family was going through, and if you don’t understand you have no right to shout advice from the sidelines.  Trust me, in the World Series of Poker the audience doesn’t get to shout “You should fold” to the players.  The players make the most they can out of the cards they have and the people at the table.

I hate that our family has these cards.  I hate that the cards we have make us fearful of other cards: my daughter becoming depressed; me dying and my husband falling apart; another episode of depression.  We do what we can to arm ourselves against those possibilities.  My husband visits a psychiatrist every 6 months so he has an active relationship with her in case he gets depressed again.  We’ve learned to teach our daughter to stay away from hard drugs as she gets older, because that’s a huge risk to damaging her brain chemistry and causing her problems in the future.  We have a will set up to protect her in case something happens to me and my husband can’t make decisions anymore.  All of that sucks, but it’s part of making the most of the hand we’ve been dealt.

The one thing that makes me grateful for what we’ve been through is the empathy I have for others.  Friends of ours just had their child diagnosed with a terminal illness.  She probably won’t see her third birthday.  I could hide from their sadness.  I could ignore their plight, or I could tell them what they should do.  I don’t do any of that.  I do whatever I can do let them know that this just sucks.  Sucks in a way I can’t imagine, because I don’t have that card, and I can’t imagine having that card.  I can’t understand a situation I’m not living, but I can interpret from the pain of my past the pain of others.  I can acknowledge their anguish, and do what I can to help.  I can’t make it better.  I can’t take their card away.  I can’t make the card never happen.  But I can use what I have in my hand to make their hand the best it can be.  You live the live you are dealt, and sometimes that sucks so bad it’s unfathomable.  You sit at the table with all your friends and family and you do what you can to give everyone the best hand they can get, because unlike poker, there isn’t one winner and everyone else loses.  The players make the most they can out of the cards they have and the people at the table, but in life the winner doesn’t take all.  We are all in this game together.

The Trash and Dish Fairy is out of Town

A year ago Mr. Afthead was just coming through the second major depressive episode of our marriage. Two years ago he was a shell of his normal self, both physically and mentally, and our family was in a pit of trying to survive. Today he is in England on a work trip he found out about on Thursday when he was on another work trip in San Diego. I wish I had some kind of time telephone so I could call two-years-ago me.  I’d tell her that not only would my husband get better, but that he didn’t have to quit his job, that they actually ended up being great to him through his depression and recovery, and today they had enough faith in him to send him on a huge business development trip to another country. Two years ago me would have liked to hear that news. It would have helped.

I’m so grateful we weathered that storm. All that said, right now me is aggravated because my husband is the person in our family who does the dishes and takes out the trash, and he’s been gone for a week and just left for another week. I have been patiently stacking dishes in the sink and responsibly sorting trash into recycling, compost, and trash. (We Aftheads are very trash savvy.) Imagine my annoyance when I went to go balance one more empty box in the recycle bin. I’d already left a trail of cereal boxes to the recycling bin so the trash fairy could easily find the problem and resolve it for me.

Then, you go around the corner and the dish fairy is also completely shirking his responsibility. Gross dirty dishes fill the sink. The dishwasher is full of clean dishes that the dish fairy has not yet put away. I ask you, what’s a person to do? Let me tell you, this person may or may not have thrown all her dishes away in college because they got too gross in the sink. To be fair, that may or may not have happened twice.

Then it hits me. The trash and dish fairy was out of town. He was home for less than 48 hours, and he left again. While home he took out the compost, thank you very much Mr. Afthead, but that was all.  If I didn’t take personable responsibility for the recycle mountain, trash mountain and dish mountain they were going to grow to epic proportions. And if trash mountain kept growing and dish mountain got gross enough I would have no nuclear option.

“Oh no honey, I have no idea where the plates and silverware went. Guess we’ll just have to buy new ones.” Little shrug and grin as the trash bag jingles and clanks on it’s way to the curb.

So this morning I took action and took out the mountain of recycling.  Of course the recycling bin outside was almost full so I had to touch a bunch of gross trashy stuff to get it all to fit.  (The trash fairy never complains about all the trashy bits sticking to him and sometimes doesn’t even wash his hands after.)  Then I unloaded the dishwasher, bleached the straw that had a dead earwig on it – GROSS – and loaded the dishwasher, for the first of many loads.  Little Afthead and I will unload the washer together tonight and then I’ll load it back up.  I’d have her help me do the dishes, but you never know what kind of creatures are lurking in a sink of dishes left for a week (LIKE SAY AN EARWIGS).  I’ll get it all taken care of this weekend, so the mountain can start growing.  That way when the gloriously sane Mr. Afthead returns from England on Friday he’ll have something to do.  I mean, other than being jet-lagged.  He’ll probably be missing those trash bits anyway.

A Quiet Frustrated Rant

Open any news site today and you’ll see reports on two different theater shootings.  The Holmes trial is in the sentencing phase, just miles from where I live.  The Houser shooting happened less than a week ago.  These two events have me ranting in a quiet anguished way.  Three factors make these events personal to me: proximity, gun control, and mental health.


July 19, 2012 I flew home from a work trip.  It was late.  I drove home, and from the highway I could see the Aurora movie theater where less than three hours later James Holmes would open fire during The Dark Knight Rises.  I was right there.  Holmes could have passed me on the road as he made his way to start killing.

This February my family and I stopped at a great restaurant in Lafayette, GA while driving from New Orleans to Houston on Mardi Gras Day.  I made the mistake of ordering barbecued shrimp, forgetting that they come with the heads still intact.  After beheading my lunch I enjoyed my meal just blocks from where John Houser opened fire in a movie theater and killed two women and himself on July 23, 2015.

There is something about proximity that makes horror real.  I was there.  I can picture both of these places.  I have swam in meets at Arapahoe High School and have friends who went to Columbine.  It makes me wonder, are each of us one step away from knowing a victim or knowing a shooter?

Gun Control:

I want there to be an easy solution to this problem.  I want some politician to stand up and say, “That’s it!  No more guns in this country, at all, ever.”  Except I don’t.  I am solidly torn on gun control.  I grew up with guns in my house.  I learned how to shoot, I learned to respect guns, and I fondly remember the hours I spent watching my dad and grandpa reload after target practice.  I enjoyed target practice.  If I walked into a gun shop today the smell of it would bring back happy memories.

My dad hunted.  As a child hunting put meat on his family’s table.  I don’t hunt and never have, but I can tell you that nothing will teach you to respect a weapon like watching your uncle and dad gut and skin a deer they have killed.  I have never questioned what a gun can do to a living creature.  I don’t like play guns.  We weren’t allowed to watch violent movies or play violent video games as kids.  We were taught to respect guns to the point that I still feel a little weird pointing a Nerf water gun at my daughter and spraying her.

There are people who believe they need guns for personal protection.  There are so many guns out there already that we can’t make them go away.  I can’t round up every kid in the country and teach them the power of a gun, install new morals, and make them respect weapons.  The problem seems insurmountable especially when there seems to be no middle ground.

Mental Illness:

The other thing Holmes and Houser had in common was a history of mental illness.  So there should be an easy solution there.  We just need to take care of the mentally ill in this country and we won’t have anymore mass shootings.  Well, let me tell that it is not an easy problem to solve either.  I’ve got close personal experience with mental illness in my family: depression and bipolar disorder have wreaked havoc on the Aftheads and extended Aftheads.  I can tell you that even when mentally ill people want help it can be next to impossible for them to get it, or for their families to get it for them.  There aren’t enough doctors, there is horrible stigma, the meds are expensive and can make people worse instead of better.

I’m obsessed with the news filtering in about Houser because it is all so true.  I’m not surprised by the loophole in the law that allowed him to buy a gun.  The rights of mentally ill people are slippery.  Even if someone is a danger to themselves and others, there is a limit to what you can do to get them help.  In the end, they are people and you can’t just go around limiting people’s rights, even if the people who love them are begging for help.  I’m not surprised by his brother’s comments that the shooting wasn’t a surprise, and his words resonate with a truth that only some unlucky families get to experience.  The kind of sick his brother was will rip apart families for a lifetime.  I’ve seen it happen.  Eventually you have to pick between your own life, your own family, your own safety and caring for the guy who just might end up being a shooter.  With little to no help, no support, and no power what is a family to do?  The problem is so big it seems hopeless.

The Solution:

This is a hard problem, and you do not make hard problems go away by ignoring them or doing nothing.  I know that.  We all know that.  So, we have to start a conversation that’s going to make everyone uncomfortable.  We are going to have to talk about guns killing people and we might slip up and talk about crazy people and we might end up with a solution that limits some rights.  This will all piss people off, but isn’t it okay to piss people off to make sure that there is never again a room of dead first graders?  (I’ll admit, as the mom of a daughter who just graduated first grade Sandy Hook is a horror story has a closer proximity than I can even comprehend.)

My favorite article about this topic is from one of my favorite authors, Stephen King.  It’s called Guns, and it’s worth the $0.99 to read it on your Kindle or $2.99 to listen to on Audible.  I have both versions.  Know that if you buy it you are supporting the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  You might not be into such a charity, or Stephen King, so I’ll highlight his three measures to curb gun violence:

“Comprehensive and universal background checks.

Ban the sale of clips and magazines containing more than ten rounds.

Ban the sale of assault weapons.”

These seem so reasonable to me, and such a good start. Yes, people can still die if you have a gun that has a clip that holds ten rounds, but Holmes couldn’t have done what he did without assault weapons.  Sure, people can still steal guns or buy guns for their family members, but Houser couldn’t have bought a gun with stricter background checks.  King doesn’t provide a road-map for solving the mental health issues in this country, but he does ensure that when someone has a history of going to dark places they can’t buy weapons.  That’s a start and we need a start.  If there is a chance that someone is going to use a gun to kill another human being, isn’t it worth it to limit that freedom to make sure that we don’t end up being a country where every single person either knows a shooter or a victim?  Can we start taking some steps to solve the  hard problem before the next tragedy?

Loving People with Mental Illness

Last week was a rough week for mental health.  Up the road from where I live a woman cut a fetus out of a pregnant mother.  In Europe a pilot with a history of depression crashed a plane. There are many obvious victims here: the mom who never met her baby, her unborn child, the passengers of the plane, and the pilot of the plane. I empathize with other people in the shadow of these stories.

The pilot had a girlfriend and parents.  They probably know a bigger story than the one horrible decision he made.  They have seen his struggles.  They have talked endlessly with him about his fears, his problems and his dreams.  They may have wished his suffering would end at times, but they never wanted this ending.  If he was a good actor and hid his feelings they are hurt and sad and furious that such a thing could happen to him, and to them.  Their lives are forever changed because he is gone, hundreds died, and they are left with the loss and the burden of what he did, and the question about what they could have done to change it.

The woman who cut the baby out had a husband.  He took her and the fetus to the hospital.  What mentally healthy person would do what she did?  He is likely pouring over every detail of his life with her and wondering what he could have done to stop the tragedy, and his life is tainted by the ramifications of what his wife did.

Mental illness runs rampant and there is so little you can do if you love someone who is sick.  The stigma of mental illness is real and asking for help is a series of hard choices. Medicate and risk losing the person you love to a haze of drugs. Hospitalize and risk the person’s job, livelihood and reputation. Do nothing and risk your loved one injuring himself or others. While all this is going on you are stuck with a person who resembles your loved one but is hidden behind a cloud of anger, sadness and fear. You can’t get to him/her to ask what they need from you, what they want from you or what you should do. It is a horrible place to be.

I don’t personally know the people involved in either of these news stories, but I have been personally involved in depression, and I cannot fathom what these poor families are going through. It makes my heart sick.

Being a Grown-Up

Remember when all you wanted to be was a grown-up?  People would stop telling you what to do, what to wear, and how to act and you would be in charge?  Well, I hate being a grown-up.  Some weeks I’m okay with the fact that when I’m lying in bed throwing my booger filled tissues on the floor that two days later, as the grown-up, I am going to have to pick up the remainders of my cold.  Some weeks I can deal with the fact that I can’t blame anyone else when my sweater shrinks, we run out of diet Dr Pepper, or when the back door is left unlocked.  My husband and I use grown-up as the code word to tell our kid she can’t do something she wants to, like sliding down the booth to the floor of the restaurant to enjoy a fine whine.  “Be the grown-up,” the one sitting across from her will snark at the one sitting next to her.  The grown-up will have to haul her up, lecture her, and be the bad guy for the rest of the day.

This week grown-up went a little too far.  Do I go to my friend’s dad’s funeral or go visit my brother in the hospital?  Do I keep my cat on dialysis, at the cost of $1000 per day, or do I let the 7 year old feline we adore die a slow painful death?  Do I go see our family shrink so she can shed some light on familial turmoil or do I make that critical meeting at work that will build bridges and may set me up for my next promotion?  Oh, and the damn dishwasher broke, so I have plenty of time to ponder these decisions while I scrub gross cat food bowls and egg crusted pans.  This morning while I was scrubbing I really should have been working on that $700,000 proposal for work, but whatever.  The manual labor grown-up task won.

I don’t want to be 18, or 23 or 30 again, but I want one day as not a grown-up.  I want to go lay in the hammock because it’s a nice day.  I want to go meet my girlfriends for happy hour and not worry about when I need to get home.  If I decide I want to get drunk I want to get drunk.  I want someone else to pick up my snotty tissues for me if I do the not-grown-up thing and cry about all this crap going on.

Now, I have to stop playing on my blog and go do some dishes, or write a proposal, or call my brother.  Ugh!  Grown-up sucks.


I guess the first step here is to introduce myself.  So far I’ve been yammering on like a new hire at orientation without the good sense to tell you a bit about myself.  By now you are probably rolling your eyes and wishing you had sat next to someone else.  My apologies for being rude and self absorbed.  I’ve never been much for small talk. So here goes:

  • I am a manager of a team of 13 web developers, database administrators, analysts and projects managers and have a degree in chemical engineering
  • I am a mom to a first grader which means I am also a soccer coach, a working mother, a doer of laundry, and owner of two cats, one hamster, about 50 snails and a host of roly polies.
  • I am a crafter with a primary focus on knitting, but also enjoy sewing
  • I am a reader, currently engrossed in John Scalzi’s “Lock In” and listening to Stephen King’s “On Writing”

While I think this all makes me a fascinating well rounded person, it does not explain why I am publically entering the blogosphere.  I am also an aspiring writer and novelist (holy crap it is scary to write that out loud.)  My first book is about half done and was abandoned because my second book couldn’t be ignored.  It flew out of me in a frenzy, and the story took my breath away.  I was about three quarters done when my husband suffered a major depressive episode.  (He doesn’t believe in half-assing anything.)  I sporadically worked on my book, but life took so much out of me that I had no emotional energy left to give and the project languished.

In November my husband was declared cured, for this episode, and I had my own mini-breakdown.  Then, my characters started calling to me again, so it’s time to start writing.  This time I’m going two directions: the blog and the novel.

Why the blog?  Well, it’s really because I could buy the afthead domain and I love the idea of aftheads.  I also have the occasional story that has nothing to do with my novel.  I am not really sure what I hope to get out of the blog.  I make a good living, so I don’t need to make money from it.   I guess I’m looking for some virtual companionship while I go on this new journey into the writing world.

Nice to meet you!