Sunday, March 31, 2019

Enough Hope

Last Friday I published another Rock Bottom Story. “Pandora’s Box” is about hope, and the difference between healthy optimism and cruel delusion.1

1Like my daughter’s favorite television shows on The CW network, new episodes of Rock Bottom Stories will return next month.

Apparently my friend Dr. Ken was on call at the hospital and bored last Friday, because within a few minutes after I posted “Pandora’s Box” we had this text exchange:

Dr Ken:     So the light at the end of the tunnel comes when you abandon all hope?

Roger:       It depends on where you draw the line between good hope and bad hope

Dr Ken:     I never have anyone to eat lunch with
                   I am hoping to find someone to eat with me
                   Is that good hope or bad hope?

Studies show a generally optimistic outlook enhances mental health – to a point. The question is how to locate that point.

I met Dr. Ken years ago when he was doing his residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Dr. Ken has a childhood kidney disease. By the time he was in college he needed a transplant. Fortunately, he was matched with a family member donor. Unfortunately, several years ago his donated kidney also began failing. After delaying for as long as possible, Dr. Ken submitted to increasingly invasive dialysis. He also became increasingly candid about his disease.

The personal can become not just political but also very public. Even though I’m an introvert, I’ve chosen to deal with the impact of the closet by publicly discussing both my sexual orientation and mental illness. Similarly, as a patient with kidney disease and a fussy blood type, Dr. Ken learned to be comfortable with a level of medical disclosure that ordinary folks are privileged to avoid. On the plus side, kidney failure is slimming.

At this point there’s no need to check out the kidney4Ken Facebook page – his story already has a happy ending. (Although you should consider being evaluated as a potential organ donor – for more information go to After several frustrating false alarms, Dr. Ken was matched with a donor last summer. He’s resumed stuffing himself with bon bons. And peeing.

I’d already been thinking about the limits of hope when I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning last month. Despite his fundamentally optimistic outlook, Frankl acknowledges that it can be unhealthy to pine for a goal with absolutely no realistic likelihood of success. Frankl would put the cutoff at something like a 5% chance. (Coincidentally, that’s also the threshold mathematicians chose to define “statistically significant” results.)

1 in 20 seems awfully low odds to tolerate, at least based on my own experience with the debilitating effects of delusional hope. On the other hand, the stakes may be different for kidney failure or Auschwitz, compared to merely finding a job or a boyfriend. Measuring a “reasonable” possibility ultimately depends on both the specific context and your tolerance for uncertainty and risk.  

As I wrote in “Pandora’s Box,” hope should be like a “stretch goal.” The hoped for outcome is not guaranteed, or even the most likely scenario. Nevertheless, the possibility is both important enough and likely enough to justify a substantial investment of personal resources – including time, energy, bandwidth, and your capacity for absorbing grief.

When I sat down to crunch the numbers for myself, I found my answer in pulp science fiction.

My favorite sentient computer is the fictional Mycroft or “Mike” from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In Robert Heinlein’s 1960s Hugo-winning novel, the moon is Earth’s penal colony. Most of Luna’s inhabitants are free but trapped descendants of former prisoners. HOLMES IV ("High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV") is the Lunar Authority's master computer, tasked with most of the colony’s automated operations. As bureaucrats keep adding more peripherals and memory, Mike eventually wakes up. 

Mike’s first friend and the novel’s narrator, Manny, is the civilian technician tasked with maintaining the Authority’s computers. Manny is apolitical, but a closet idealist. As the lunar natives become restless, Manny crosses paths with Dr. Bernardo La Paz, an anarchist poli-sci professor, and Wyoming Knott, a buxom feminist activist. (Golden Age science fiction can be embarrassingly unwoke.)

After escaping from a small riot, the three humans hole up in a hotel room. Manny introduces the computer to two new friends via phone, and someone gets the bright idea of leveraging their access to the Lunar Authority’s own supercomputer into a revolution.

However, first they want to figure out the odds of success. Mike goes offline to devote his entire attention to crunching numbers. Meanwhile, the three humans quickly reach a consensus over dinner that if the odds of a successful rebellion are at least 1 in ___, they would go for it.

When Mike comes back online to deliver his report, he says, “My friends, sadly we only have a 1 in ____ chance of success.”

Unaware that he’d beaten the point spread, Mike the supercomputer is confused when the other three revolutionaries whooped and hugged each other at the good news.

[SPOILER ALERT:  the Loonies win their revolution and declare independence on July 4, 2076, but half of your favorite characters die]

I couldn’t remember the exact odds from Heinlein’s novel, so I decided not to peek until after writing this section of my essay.

In general, you should plan your life based on realistic assumptions about what’s most likely to happen. But you can still have fun dreaming – including the “stretch goals” you’re willing to hope and work for. They shouldn’t involve pie in the sky. They’re firmly grounded in reality. But you’re not going to quit your day job and join the circus, at least not right away. 

Most people have an emotional set point that reflects their mix of optimism and pessimism. Before I can let myself hope for something big, I need to believe the upside is so attractive that it justifies making sacrifices. Running to be a judge, applying for other appealing jobs, and meeting someone for a coffee date all are good examples of hopeful adventures. On the other hand, I’ve learned from experience that I can only handle so much stress and disappointment before I’ll end up crawling under a rock. After some meditation, a few walks with the dogs, and hours relaxing in the hot tub, I came up with a 20% chance of success as my floor for healthy hopefulness.   

After computing my own tolerance for delusional hope, I pulled out my copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and refreshed my memory:

Mike goes offline to devote his entire attention to crunching numbers. Meanwhile, the three humans quickly reach a consensus over dinner that if the odds of a successful rebellion are at least 1 in 10, they would go for it.

When Mike comes back online to deliver his report, he says, “My friends, sadly we only have a 1 in 7 chance of success.”

I’m only half as much of a gambler as our fictional Lunar revolutionaries. Nevertheless, my dreams don’t need to involve a sure thing. Or even a 50-50 coin toss.  Instead, at 1 in 5, my mental health depends on taking hopeful risks with better odds than you’d get throwing dice. Or rather, better odds than you'd get throwing one six-sided die.

So to follow up on Dr. Ken’s question, what are the odds that someone wants to have lunch with you?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Guncle Again

I used to be a fabulous gay uncle. 

I’m the oldest of four boys. My brothers all got married in their twenties, and immediately started having children. By the time I thought about having kids myself, I already had eleven nieces and nephews. 

During my guncle years, I was a carefree gay bachelor with a well-paying lawyer job. I could afford to dote. I plied them with gifts. In hindsight – and as a parent myself – I regret certain birthday and Christmas presents. Like “Band in a Box.”

As a guncle I insisted on maintaining healthy boundaries. For example, the first time I ever changed a diaper was in the hospital with my newborn daughter Eleanor. But I was always available for fun with nieces and nephews. My mom’s younger brother is only a few years older than me, so I had my Uncle Dennis as a helpful nongay uncle role model.

Nevertheless, all good things must come to end. Eleanor was born when I was 41. As my nieces and nephews will attest, guncling efforts immediately dropped precipitously. It turned out I don’t have enough bandwidth to be both a great dad and a fabulous uncle.

Pets weren’t part of my life growing up. 

My father was raised on a family farm with lots of animals, including dogs and cats. They were working livestock, with their own specific roles to play in the barn and fields. If any dog had attempted to enter the house, my grandmother would have vigorously repelled it with broom. Likewise, my mother is not a pet person. I remember a couple of occasions in my youth when we insisted on acquiring a puppy or kitten. Each disappeared before long, in what I now recognize as suspiciously convenient circumstances.

As an urban adult I never saw the attraction of any kind of pet. As I jokingly told folks, if I wanted that much responsibility I might as well have kids.

Even from a distance, I can tell I’m not a cat person. However, dogs have their attractions. When I was a young lawyer in Seattle, I moved into a fabulous house on Capitol Hill with a couple of gay friends. Phillip had a friendly chocolate Labrador retriever named Sasha, and we enjoyed going on walks around the neighborhood.

About the same time, my physician referred me to an allergist. It turns out I’m allergic to basically everything – springtime, feathers, dust mites, you name it. I particularly react to lilies, most cats, and dog dander. So I replaced my down bedding with hypoallergenic substitutes, and Sasha was carefully quarantine away from my loft bedroom.

When my children raised the subject of pets decades later, I tried to communicate that I would be open to discussing pet logistics when they were ready to take responsibility themselves.

What they heard was “Papa is deathly allergic to all animals.” Perhaps there was a little overkill. 

In contrast with my upbringing, my ex’s family always had dogs when he was growing up. Before moving to Seattle, he and his previous boyfriend had a couple of large mutts. After we separated, my ex acquired a more compatible husband and eventually a house with a fenced backyard. Unsurprisingly, a couple of years ago “the kids” got a dog.

Bear is an Aussiedoodle – a cross between an Australian shepherd and a poodle, with one blue eye and one brown eye. He's an adorable medium-sized hypoallergenic furball. Bear loves to cuddle, chew things, and herd children. 

Buster arrived a year later. He’s black and white and rambunctious. Buster and Bear keep each other company when they’re alone in the house. 

A second dog means my ex has to buy twice as much food, but otherwise requires only a little additional effort. Apparently dogs are like kids and Doritos – as long as you’re at it, you might as well have one more. 

Buster came as a puppy from the same breeder. Biologically he and Bear are some kind of cousins. But in a house full of adopted kids, it’s reasonable to refer to them as brothers. 

One of the differences between being a dad and being an uncle:  guncles are allowed to have favorites. It’s not supposed to be obvious, but everyone knows. (“If you really wanted the china set, you could have tried harder to suck up to Aunt Ida in the nursing home.”)  

In contrast, having a favorite among your own kids is a major developmental faux pas. As a practical matter, I wouldn’t even know how to identify a favorite. My three kids are all very different from each other, and I have a very individualized relationship with each. They’re like apples, oranges, and bananas. Or rather like sushi, blueberry tarts, and gnocchi alla Sorrentina.  

Fortunately, unlike children with attachment disorders, Bear and Buster are just dogs. Even Buster is doing fine.

By the end of winter, both dogs were rather shaggy. Their recent spring buzz cut reveals that one dog is svelte and the other is a bit zaftig. 

A few weeks ago they switched to a new brand of dogfood. Apparently it tasted better than the prior selection, and they both insisted on wolfing it down. Unfortunately, every couple of days we would discover a pile of vomit. (Yes, of course I made the kids clean it up.) Eventually we figured out Bear was the culprit. 

Perhaps Bear overheard me criticizing Buster’s paunch, and developed an eating disorder. I hope Bear isn’t purging to impress me. He’s already my favorite.

As I recently mentioned in “Roger’s House of Dreams,” I had to move out of my Bellingham rental house over the holidays. Since January, my ex and I have been experimenting with letting the kids stay full time in one place. That means I’ve been spending alternate weeks in a house with two charming Aussiedoodles. I’m loving it.

It turns out the dogs really are hypoallergenic. I wash my hands a lot, and try not to touch my eyes after playing with them. But allergies haven’t been a problem. I’ve even reached the point where I let them climb into bed with me (it’s king sized). 

The dogs and I enjoy our regular walks in the fresh air while the kids are gone. During the day, Bear and Buster keep me company while I read and write. I try out material on them. It’s nice to have someone around the house who actually listens to me.

The other day I observed to my ex that the dogs seem more attached to me than to the kids. Should I avoid being the one to feed them? He laughed, and said it’s because the dogs can tell I’m the “alpha” of the pack.

Frankly the kids are pretty useless as pet-owners. But they provide enough help to keep the dogs from feeling like a burden. My ex and his husband are just down the hill if any real problems arise. I feel like a fabulous gay uncle again for the first time in almost fourteen years. It’s been one of several pleasant surprises to come out of our new housing arrangement.

[SPOILER ALERT:  Weak couples should avoid this last bit]

Do you want to know the dirty little secret of an amicable divorce? Spending alternate weeks with three children is just about the ideal amount of kid time. When they get home from school on Friday afternoon, the dogs and I are waiting. We have a fun weekend together. We go on walks. Everyone indulges in too much screen time. Papa starts nagging about homework and dishes. On Thursdays I try to plan some fun activity together. Still, by the time Friday morning comes around, we’re all a little tired of each other and need a break. 

During my kid-free weeks, I recharge my batteries, get things done, and fumble with a social life. By the next Friday I miss my kids. Sometimes I miss them as early as Thursday morning.

I usually miss the dogs by Tuesday. Or maybe just Bear.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Pandora's Box

One of humanity’s oldest stories about hope comes from the Greek myth of Pandora’s box. The name “Pandora” means “all-giving.” Like the Trojan Horse, Pandora and her container challenge our ideas about choosing tasteful presents.

Although there are multiple versions of the Pandora story, they all begin the same way. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Mankind must therefore be punished. According to one account, the Olympian gods created Pandora as the first human woman in retaliation for Prometheus’ crime. Cunningly, the gods gave Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus as his wife. Introducing females ruined the prior bro paradise. Just like in the Garden of Eden.

In other versions of the Pandora myth, the gods' booby-trapped gift to Epimetheus’ household is not Pandora herself, but rather a jar (later mistranslated as “box”) marked “DO NOT OPEN.” As with Genesis, later authors blamed the wife for opening it.

Out poured all manner of mortal evils:  pain, sickness, death, greed…. When Pandora looked at the bottom of the jar, only one thing was left. Unlike Adam and Eve, Pandora and Epimetheus didn’t find knowledge as a consequence of their disobedience. Instead, humans got hope.

For most readers, the gods’ inclusion of hope among all those troubles represents a positive outcome:  the lemonade making the most of a bad situation, or even the silver lining that ultimately redeems Pandora’s choice. 

Since the ancient Greeks, however, a vocal minority has drawn the opposite lesson from Pandora’s story. The Greek word translated as “hope” could also mean “deceptive expectation.” Hope was the cruelest of the gods’ gifts to humanity.  

Lately I find myself in the anti-hope camp.

As a person, I’m a big believer in redemption. As a lawyer, not so much.

This skepticism comes from decades of practical experience. Attorneys who focus on litigation rather than transactions are never in the room when everyone is popping the champagne over their amazing deal. Instead, the deal has already imploded by the time we arrive. At this point disaster is inevitable, and everyone hates each other. Nevertheless, your clients still suffer from an unhealthy degree of delusional nostalgia for what might have been. The result tends to be the same, regardless of whether the failed transaction involved Microsoft and Boeing, small business partners, spouses, or college friends renting a house together.

I’m a proud English Major. But if I were embarking on a pre-law university course today, I’d definitely get at least a minor in psychology. As my law license says, I’m an “Attorney & Counselor.” It turns out a huge chunk of practicing law actually involves helping your clients process their grief, anger, and denial. When new clients walk into your office, they tell you their ideal outcome would be to put things back together – to stay in that business partnership, fix that toxic workplace, or teach that freeloading housemate to do dishes. (At this stage, clients alternate dreams of reconciliation with fantasies of brutally crushing their estranged partner/boss/roommate.) 

Eventually, your clients gain a more realistic and healthy perspective. Hopefully you can resolve the legal part of their problem before they realize a real therapist would be much cheaper.

In contrast with my mostly managed anxiety, I’ve personally experienced major depression only a couple of times:  thirty years ago at Brigham Young University, and a couple of years ago at the nadir of my struggle with discriminatory and hostile employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office

Both times my mind responded to traumatic life events with sustained anhedonia, destructive impulses, and inexplicable behavior. My reaction was out of proportion to actual events, horrific as they were. Both attacks left me beyond the reach of reason because they exceeded the capacity of my mechanisms for coping with grief and stress.

In hindsight, I realize my more recent suicidal episode resulted from blindingly cruel hope.  

Almost thirty years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, implicit and explicit bias still plagues many workplaces. After I had my first appalling encounter with the AGO’s inept middle managers in January 2016, I correctly predicted exactly what would eventually happen. But this was my dream job. These people were breaking the law. I thought if I explained things clearly enough, someone would figure out a way to fix the situation. Unfortunately, everything I tried just made things worse. As the weeks went by, I became increasingly stressed. By the time I hired an experienced employment attorney in March, I’d completely lost my perspective about essential aspects of my case. I’d become a “client.”

For six weeks, the lawyer representing the AGO absolutely - and illegally - refused to respond to my attorney's inquiries. After they fired me, my lawyer kept trying to engage them in a meaningful dialogue. The lawyers from the AGO stalled. (Meanwhile the AGO also managed to mess up my family’s health insurance benefits for months, but that’s another story.) The combination of PTSD and anxiety pushed my stress levels beyond the capacity of even my overdeveloped coping mechanisms. The pressure continued accelerating. At some point I crossed the line to suicidal depression. As the weeks went on, I fell further into the depths.

Despite my attorney’s sensible evaluation of the situation, I insisted that we push for me to be reinstated in my position. As with my landslide-battered dream house on Whidbey Island, I couldn’t let go of my Bellingham dream job. In contrast with the house, however, I kept trying long after any reasonable person would have called it quits. By the time of the mediation, I was approaching rock bottom  completely deranged by the dissonance between my delusion and reality.

We finally mediated my claims against the State at the end of October. Of course my reconciliation proposals went nowhere. Instead, with the help of the mediator and my patient attorney we reached agreement on the basic terms of a settlement agreement, and then tied up the various loose ends over the next few weeks.

The most interesting part of the mediation experience was observing how the fog of my depression lifted almost immediately afterwards, and never returned. Without the burden of delusional hope, I could finally begin the long process of recovery.

I recently read Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning. The first part of the book is a quiet yet riveting account of his years in Nazi extermination camps. In the second partFrankl outlines his psychiatric approach of “logotherapy.” In contrast with his Viennese colleagues Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, Frankl identified the drive to find meaning in life as our fundamental motivating force – rather than a will to power or a will to pleasure. 

In 2017, Canadian writer Emily Esfahani Smith published The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life that Matters. According to Smith, 

One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise, and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts…. Mental illness is often the result of a person’s inability to tell a good story about his or her life.  

In particular, numerous academic studies – as well as my own personal experience – demonstrate the value of journaling and other story-telling techniques for treating a wide variety of mental disorders. As Smith notes, “this form of therapy is as effective as antidepressants or cognitive-behavioral therapy.” 

On the other hand, some of the stories we tell ourselves are toxic. This week the New Yorker published a profile of English Professor Lauren Berlant from the University of Chicago. In 2011, Berlant published Cruel Optimism, which the New Yorker describes as “a meditation on our attachment to dreams that we know are destined to be dashed”:

The persistence of the American Dream, Berlant suggests, amounts to a cruel optimism, a condition “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” We are accustomed to longing for things that we know are bad for us, like cigarettes or cake. Perhaps your emotional state is calibrated around a sports team, like the New York Knicks, and despite hopes that next season will be better you vaguely understand that you’ll be let down anyway. But our Sisyphean pursuit of the good life has higher stakes, and its amalgam of fantasy and futility is something that we process as experience before we rationalize it in thought. These feelings, Berlant says, are the “body’s response to the world, something you’re always catching up to.”

Hope should be like a stretch goal.

In nonprofit fundraising circles, whenever you plan your annual campaign you try to set realistic financial goals. First the program people tell you want they want to do with the money you raise. Then you examine your existing donor base, review the past performance of your events, grant-writing, and other outreach efforts, and the team brainstorms about other potential sources of income. When everyone agrees on prudent expectations, you adopt a budget that includes responsible revenue and expense assumptions. 

When you're done with the the budget process, you can have fun dreaming about your “stretch goals.” They’re firmly grounded in reality. But you’re not going to run out and hire a bunch of new staff based on the hope that you’ll reach all of your most optimistic targets. (I understand the same principle applies to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and weightlifters, but I've never been part of either scene.) Don't undermine your focused campaign with numerous hair-brained schemes. Buying lottery tickets is fine for amusement, but not as a budgeting or retirement strategy. 

Over the years I’ve been accused of being a grumpy pessimist just about as often as I’m called a wide-eyed idealist. Both are true. By nature and legal training, I compulsively search for potential problems. At the same time, I can’t help believing in a place called hope. 

Previously in Rock Bottom Stories: “Happy Holidays

Up next: “Maximum Leverage

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Happy Holidays

I'm the eldest of four boys.

All three of my brothers are very smart. All three are excellent writers. And they’re all amazing dads. 

Nevertheless, we’re probably better known for the various annoying personality traits we share. We do not talk about our feelings. We do not ask for help. We do not hug strangers. We are very funny. However, we overuse humour as a coping mechanism. Very dry humour. Humour that is often lost on normal human beings.

Even our partners and children struggle to keep up. My kids claim I’m terrible at signaling when a text is meant to be funny. It’s because my generation never figured out how emojis work.

Nevertheless, my daughter Rosalind tells me she and I are finally on the same wavelength. According to Rosalind, her other father recently “explained" me. Apparently her sister Eleanor already had a similar conversation with one of my longsuffering sisters-in-law about the Leishman brothers’ appalling sense of humour. 

For example, my next younger brother Doug has a whole closet full of sarcasm-themed T shirts he’s received as gifts from friends and family. I know, you thought I was the sarcastic one. I’m merely ironic. It’s a gay thing.

During the Christmas holidays few years back, we hired a photographer to take family portraits at a park in Bellingham. Everyone was there:  my parents, the four brothers and three sisters-in-law from Generation X, and all fifteen grandchildren. 

It’s the only time we’ve all assembled in one place. My youngest brother is in the foreign service, and my middle brother lives on the East Coast. Even on the rare occasions when their visits overlap, someone is always away at school or on a Mormon mission. In fact, two of my nephews are currently serving missions in Africa – just like in the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.

As part of the family holiday photo shoot we posed for several subgroupings, including a sequence of pictures featuring all four brothers. As you can see, I am neither the greyest, the baldest, nor the fattest. Just the oldest and gayest.

Even though I’m sitting on a stool in the pictures, I confess I’m also the shortest. But each brother has been known to stand on tippy toes for photos.

Last year I realized how good a writer my brother Doug is when I read his elegant Facebook post letting folks know he has cancer. He went to see his doctor about lower back pain. It turned out he had a slow-growing tumour the size of a grapefruit.

Without calling anyone out as the fattest Leishman brother, I can report that at the next family get-together, Doug was defensive about his failure to notice the tumour. “It’s inside my pelvis! They’re big bones!”

After radiation treatment earlier last year, Doug was frustrated in December when the pain returned and required surgery. We were even more frustrated when he got a staph infection in the hospital. (Or was it a “staff infection”? Hmm.) 

Doug endured a round of industrial-strength intravenous antibiotics. As a result, he ended up staying in the hospital for thirty-two days, including Christmas and New Years. At least it distracted everyone from that fact that his older brother was still jobless and about to become homeless.

In addition to packing boxes, over the holidays I read a couple of books by Barbara Ehrenreich. She was diagnosed with breast cancer twenty years ago. In Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, she recently wrote about the limits of medicine and a medical mindset. In Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about EverythingEhrenreich observed about her diagnosis that “if you’re not prepared to die when you’re almost sixty, then I would say you’ve been falling down on your philosophical responsibilities as a grown-up human being.”

My brother's treatments have been going well. Obviously we haven’t talked about our feelings. But we're both responsible grown-up human beings. I suspect he would agree mortality is not something to fear, other than our loved ones’ inevitable pain.   

Still, the stakes may need to involve life and death before you’re truly gazing at “rock bottom.” 

Over the holidays I visited my brother at Vancouver General Hospital several times on my way to chorus rehearsals and performances. The first time I arrived, Doug was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons with his kids. 

My brother and I exchanged the kind of witty fraternal banter that no doubt appalled his listening wife and children. Doug capped it off with a particularly humourous cancer zinger. Right now I can’t remember exactly what he said, only that it was funny. The funniest thing either of us said in our absurdist exchange. 

It will come back to me. The good ones always do. Eventually. I just remember thinking that when I got around to writing about the hospital, I intended to use this particular witticism as part of something thoroughly non-elegiac and funny. 

We can choose to face even the most terrible things with dignity and humour. Most people eventually realize there’s no better way to deal with terrible things. The Leishman brothers are really good, both at humour and at dealing with terrible things. 

FYI, Universe:  We're good at dealing with good things, too. In 2019, we’re all ready for a little more practice with good times.

Previously in Rock Bottom Stories:  “Breaking the Glass.”

Up Next: “Pandora's Box.”

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Breaking the Glass

Despite years of practice, I’m not very good at therapy. Mostly I blame my healthcare providers for failing to recognize the real impact of youthful trauma. They let me settle for a generic “anxiety” diagnosis, punctuated with rare bouts of clinical depression. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve greatly benefited from a wide variety of therapists over the years. They helped me manage anxiety and depression, as well as serving as my foil each time I processed a major life challenge (coming out of the closet, having my heart broken, chronic career dysphoria, etc.). Hiring and firing counselors also gave me an excuse to postpone trying psychiatric medications. I figured I still hadn’t given therapy enough of a chance.

Not that I'm against drugs. I’m not some kind of Luddite anti-vaxer, and I have no philosophical objection to responsible pharmaceutical use. To the contrary, I thoroughly researched various anxiety meds, and observed their efficacy in others. The true reason for my drug resistance:  I was afraid if I broke the glass I'd find out I'm one of those unfortunate patients who don’t benefit from medication. And then what hope would be left?

I like to analyze major life choices as a matter of game theory. After twenty years of intermittent therapy, I was running out of unplayed aces in the hole. 

If you've read my blog entries about mental health issues, you probably think I finally went on meds in November 2015, when my insightful new Bellingham physician, Dr. Heuristic, diagnosed me with PTSD and serious codependency. You’re off by a year.

By November 2014, my ex and I had been successfully juggling alternate kid weeks for as long as anyone could remember. Then he and his husband decided it was time for them to move out of Seattle and start a small business. They ended up relocating to Bellingham, not far from my parents.

The girls had already begun Grade 4 in Seattle, and our son was in Grade 1. [Ed. Note:  anything written in Vancouver automatically uses the Canadian idiom, rather than the American-style “4th Grade” and “1st Grade." Same with spelling.] 

We'd carefully chosen Seattle’s excellent McGilvra Elementary School three years before – shout out to the inestimable “Miss Melonie” for nurturing the kids in before- and after-school care ❤️.But we knew the urban middle school options the following year would be dicey. Fortunately, within a few months I found my dream job in Bellingham, and we were all in one place again. The kids spent the next three years attending excellent public schools, regularly eating Grandma food, and smoothly shuttling across town between the two dad households each Friday. [SPOILER ALERT:  that “dream job” turned out to be a nightmare….] 

However, before moving to Bellingham I had to survive eight months alone in Seattle with the kids first. During the school year my ex and his husband hosted them in Bellingham a couple of weekends a month, but other than that I was full-time single parent. It’s hard to imagine a more stressful rock bottom moment. [SPOILER ALERT….]  

Which brings us to my Seattle gay doctor’s office in November 2014. The day I suffered my first-ever full-blown panic attack. On a school bus, on my way home from volunteering with a Grade 4 field trip. 

The doctor offered me my first Xanax. Fortunately, it immediately calmed my spiked anxiety levels. Even more fortunately, I haven’t had another panic attack since. Despite everything. [SPOILE…]

My Seattle doctor also prescribed a generic version of Zoloft. This is not where I summarize twenty-five years of research and dithering over the potential pros and cons of taking powerful psychotropic drugs. Instead, it’s the moment when I finally broke the glass. Even if I didn’t think I needed help yet, the kids needed me to get help right now.

My doctor and I carefully ramped up my dosages over the next few weeks. I can report that generic Zoloft works, at least for me. The side effects are mild, and the benefits are real.

When I started exhibiting strange new symptoms a year later, my new doctor in Bellingham diagnosed me with PTSD and codependency. I was a little disappointed to hear I was already on the right medication and at the right dosage. Fortunately, my meds still work. I’ve even ramped down from the maximum dose.  

How did I know when the medications kicked in? I like to compare it to cartoon dynamite. The most alarming effect of amped-up stress had been on my temper around the kids. Every little mess was making me uncharacteristically angry. 

On medication, my fuse feels a few inches longer. Just enough to avoid explosions.

My resistance to prematurely breaking the glass is not limited to life’s nadirs. It applies to zeniths as well.1

1[Ed. Note:  In mathematics, the “nadir” is located at the bottom point on a curve. The “zenith” is the highest point on a curve.]

Long ago, a grateful law firm partner gave me a bottle of vintage champagne. Here are the “Winemaker Notes” for Dom Perignon’s 1999 vintage:

On the nose, this wine is full of life, with a fresh nose that dances through a spiral of aromas, blending hints of angelica, dried flowers, pineapple, coconut, cinnamon, cocoa and tobacco. With a fullness in the mouth, its earthy, smoky, pearly complexity rises to the surface, underscored by the vibrant warmth of peppery spice. The sensation of intensity develops and melts into a deep, rounded heart, with a fruity, exotic maturity and a slight touch of aniseed. This sensation, almost unsettling, is even more pronounced in the finish, while the notes of spice, still present, remain discreet, with toasted, iodine flavors.

Sounds perfect, right? Except for the iodine flavours at the end.

I still don't know what Dom Perignon '99 actually tastes like. I’m a ditherer. For years it was impossible to identify any occasion that would justify opening a $200+ bottle of champagne. Eventually I zeroed in on three possibilities:  becoming a judge, saving my house on Whidbey Island, or finding a real boyfriend. The bottle is still sealed in the box.

According to Wine Spectator, drinking the Dom Perignon 1999 vintage is “best from 2008 through 2020.” I need to hurry things up. Or lower my standards.

Previously in Rock Bottom Stories: "Prodigals."

Up next: "Happy Holidays."