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Flying Squirrel Boy: Origins

Preface: This post talks about depression. It's not a funny Baby Charlie story. Instead, it's my origin story. I'm like Batman, except instead of growing up as an orphaned trust fund kid I was poor with two living parents and I had depression. So I was like.....Flying Squirrel Boy. Or like....Miscellaneous Bird Dude. I'll give you all double Baby Charlie next time to make up for it.

This is what comes up on google images when you google "Flying Squirrel Boy". The painting is called "Boy with a flying squirrel", painted by John Singleton. I wanna include a subsection of this image below, because it's super important.

Check out that drip. Hell yeah, boi.

Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve had anxiety and depression. The older I get, the more bonkers that sentence becomes. The older I get, the more years of my life gets spent in a mental and emotional ditch in uncontrollable bouts of slow, tired apathy that keep me from getting most anything done (necessary or not). But the thing is, my depression and anxiety haven’t always looked the same as my life has gone on, which has been weird and unhelpful to realize.

I was born to parents who have long genetic histories of various mental health ailments. I won’t share specifics, mostly because I don’t know what they are. I just grew up knowing there were monsters in a mental closet that were passed down generation to generation, and I should expect to find some in my own closet. Some were treated like they were ticking time bombs that had potential to go off if I ever took my eye off them, others were said to have been avoided (or at least, I went to a great effort to avoid them).

I was told I have addiction in both sides of my family, a fact my mom repeatedly shared with me starting from a fairly young age and has been extraordinarily helpful to me along the way. I’ve been able to identify and intervene in addictive behaviors I see In myself and the knowledge of addiction risk has kept my self-medicating from spiraling at my worst. Beyond that, I pieced together my unique brand of fucked up from family stories, told to me over dinner and conversation during the years I lived at home in my early 20’s. I heard stories from 1800’s and 1900’s Ireland, alcoholism born out of stress-coping in water main bomb shelters during World War II, living on the poverty-line in the 1960’s, gender-based expectations in Catholic School, working as a teenager to support family, The Military (just…in general, all of it, every bit), childhood moving, sibling deaths, and on and on and on. It wasn’t really necessary to sit down and share doctor’s charts so I could learn my genetic medical history, I gathered it from familial behavior patterns in circumstances imposed upon them.

There was only one problem with finding out all these stories… They were all extremely traumatic circumstances for family members, and like we see with any child of an immigrant and a child born into poverty, any circumstance their kids are facing that aren’t the most traumatic can’t possibly be bad enough to be depressed about, even if the primary driver behind the depression is literal Major Depressive Disorder that is uncontrollable without proper medication and therapy. If you’re the kid of an immigrant, or an immigrant yourself, you know how this goes: Your parents had to work tirelessly to give you a better life and now you owe them your life to prove to them it wasn’t all for nothing on their part. They push and push and push because they want you to have everything they wish they could have, or everything they wanted you to have. When they’re so busy pushing their offspring, and pushing themselves, into their goals and dreams, there’s no time for having mental health issues (plus the fact that if they’re undocumented, there’s a fear of having to get help because you’re never quite sure if you’ll be reported). So, they’re essentially forcing their children to suffer at the expense of what they want because of how much they struggled to give you what they thought was best. I’m not the child of an immigrant, but my mom was, and its similar to poverty trauma, both of which run deep. For me personally, I also had religious fuel added to the fire where there’s a constant pressure to not complain because someone else always has it worse.

I distinctly remember a time in high school when I was in a pit of self-harm, anorexia, anxiety, and depression. I don’t remember verbally expressing that I was having a hard time, but it should have been obvious to anyone who looked at me for longer than a few minutes that I was not ok in the slightest. Seemingly out of the blue one day, my mom asked me “You know not everyone is happy all the time, right?” and I paused, feeling guilty and bad for whatever I’d done to appear like I needed to hear that, and said “Yeah, I know”. “Because even people who don’t have depression, or whatever, not every day is happy and good” she doubled down. I learned in that moment that what I was feeling, no matter how bad it was, was never going to go away, and even if it wasn’t this bad all the time, I was never going to see relief. That attitude towards mental health not only made it impossible for me to get help because of a constant shame surrounding the feeling of needing to get help, but also created a lack of understanding of when to ask for help and what behavior needs help at all. It primed me to become trapped in a prison of my own mind, feeling as though I was just doing it wrong, and hadn’t figured out the right combination of sucking it up, getting over it, and praying about it that would fix my literal and endless suffering. I didn’t get help until way too late, and even then once I did, the people in my circle at the time were not the ones who would give me the help I desperately needed.

When I was in community college during running start, I had this one professor. She taught political science. She was known to be an absolute hard-ass on campus, and her introduction to us was a very casual “I don’t give A’s”. I got pneumonia during the second class I took from her and she didn’t give me points back until I threatened to come to class and risk infecting everyone else with pneumonia. But on top of her being a baseline hard-ass, she also spoke German as a first language, so the way she translated thoughts sometimes didn’t make any sense to read in English. Pair that with timed tests that already acted as liquid nitrogen for my brain’s response and what you got was less than 60% on every quiz, which was scored as a test (thank God for second tries she allowed on quizzes). It got to a point where I was physically bracing and in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze (really depended on the situation), so my mom got me hypnosis. While this helped, it really only acted as a butterfly bandage on a stab wound that desperately needed stitches.

At Gonzaga, I finally reached my breaking point. I’d been in my engineering degree for 3 years, and I had experienced enough near failing grades. I knew tests were a primary trigger, and I had also become acquainted with a woman a couple of years younger than me who had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and my symptoms matched hers to a T. I started doing reading about Test Anxiety, and ADHD to get a feeling of what to look for in my behavior history, and be educated before going to the doctor to talk about it. If you’re not up to date on your Test Anxiety and ADHD discourse, let me give you a rundown. If you made a Venn Diagram of the people who don’t believe ADHD is real, and people who don’t believe test anxiety is real, you’d get a circle. At the time, I wasn’t all that tied to Test Anxiety or ADHD as diagnoses, so much as I just knew what my experience was and how well my symptoms lined up with both of those things. Based on my reading, I was prepared to have a conversation where I’d have to defend my thinking, explaining why I felt it was the correct label for my experience, and even explore other options to figure out what exactly was going on. Or at least, I was prepared to have that conversation with a normal doctor who’s even baseline competent at their job.

When I went in to see the doctor about anxiety, I knew it wasn’t going to go well. As some background on my doctor, my GP at the time was a natural path. My mom picked her, because she’s picky about her doctors, and I didn’t have time to make an informed decision that was right for me because I had school and work. Doing the research to find a doctor and making another call to the military base to switch my provider was too big and time consuming of a task for me at the time. I just decided to roll with her and put off necessary check-ups until I had a job and health insurance of my own and could find a doctor who wouldn’t tell me things like “great, you’re 108 pounds which is exactly where we want to see you” and “It’s important to make good health habits now. You’re in your early 20’s now and you’re not getting any younger so if you make those healthy choices now, you’ll be all set by the time you’re in your 30’s”. All of that happened when I was in high school, so I knew she had nothing to offer me or any comfort to give me. On the other hand, I also needed it documented somewhere that I had gone in to talk to a doctor about this. So, I made an appointment one day for what ended up being the same day as a test in my absolute favorite professor’s class. Her tests were always kind; the tests you take and even if you know you get a question wrong, you have comfort in knowing 1) the prof will fill in your knowledge gaps and help you grow, 2) the test is designed to test your knowledge and not designed to make them feel superior, and 3) there would be questions on the test, and help from the prof during the test, that would help you remember the information and not just ask a poorly worded question you were doomed to get wrong. So, when the appointment and this test landed on the same day, I knew that no matter how the appointment went, the test wouldn’t be that bad and the prof would help me feel better about things afterword even if she didn’t have any knowledge of this appointment.

When I got to the appointment and the doctor finally showed up, she greeted me and read the chart, verifying I was there to talk about test anxiety and ADHD. I confirmed, and then she frowned and said “Test anxiety isn’t typically diagnosed, its usually regular anxiety”. So I launched into my educated speech where I said I understood that, I wasn’t sure if it was test anxiety either, but tests were the only time I experienced severe anxiety that threw me into fight or flight, and that while I was fine if it ended up not being test anxiety, I needed to get a medical opinion so that I could try medication and see if there was something that would help. I listed off my symptoms. I also remember I had asked questions about ADHD, and what the testing process would be like. She said it most likely wasn’t ADHD due to my age, and that it would have been caught by then; the symptoms of ADHD and the symptoms of anxiety have a lot of overlap, and it was probably just anxiety. “And anyway”, she said slightly exasperated, “Testing can take up to 6 months, and you might have to wait years to get an appointment. It might not be worth the time it would take you to get a diagnosis if you’re just doing this for a prescription for tests during school”. She asked if I exercise at all. I paused, already frustrated this was being forced as a cure-all, saying I do yoga, breathing exercises, I practically run from class to class everyday so I’m getting proper cardio. She again continued as though I hadn’t answered and said I could really benefit from healthy diet and exercise. At this point I started to panic, due to both not being acknowledged by the person who was speaking to me, and also because I had a whole year’s worth of tests and it was dawning on me that this person was not going to help me. Truthfully, I don’t remember what I said next because I think I blacked out, but the next thing I remember is tears on my cheeks, her frozen, suddenly talking very slowly and calmly saying “I believe you have something going on, probably anxiety of some sort. I can give you beta blockers; they’re a heart medication but they’ll lower your blood pressure and maybe help you. The only thing I can tell you is that next time you feel stressed out, just go for a walk. See if that helps. Ok?” and then left the room. I got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. When I got to the class with the test, I chatted with my school bestie, who was a rower and frequently worked out while frequently being as stressed out as I was, so I knew exercise was a crock of shit under my current circumstances. She laughed and sarcastically said, “Sure Doc, I’ll go do a 2K real quick before my exam, I’m sure that’ll help”.

I’d like to include a note from the doctor from that visit. Pronouns are “She”, as it was written before I was out as trans. Name and pronouns haven’t changed, I just don’t feel like editing it. Just consider it a historical contextual note.

Carol is concern for ADHD. She is in her senior year of a computer science degree, she has noted increased difficulty with test taking and has gone to her school requesting a test accommodation. She spoke with a counselor there who diagnosed her with generalized anxiety. She has been reading online and feels that her symptoms better that ADHD. Growing up throughout school she never had trouble with being redirected. She was a social child and is frequently told to stop talking after her work was finished. She did not have trouble finishing schoolwork for homework. Denies for chronic concern of irritability, hyperactivity, impulsivity.
She does note since she was young she had trouble with test taking, lowest team regarding testing. Frequently experiences slow recall information during testing or not being able to focus for periods of time. She states her parents did have to have repeat direction to have her do things.

The rest of the eval includes notes that she suggested I get counseling, that half of the 36 minutes spent in the session were spent “counseling or coordinating patient care”, that I looked “well-nourished”, and that I had a normal mood and affect under the psychiatric section of the chart. None of this is true. None of it. Not a single word.

Typos aside, because it looks like typical voice-to-text errors, this is just downright negligence. She has me, a fairly textbook presentation of ADHD (genuinely surprising, due to differences of symptoms between males and females with ADHD), and rather than admitting she didn’t know enough and don’t do ADHD testing and referring me, her patient, out to doctors who do, she sat there saying it’s probably not ADHD, and even if it is, I probably don’t want to sit through a wait list just to find out I have ADHD because I won’t get uppers to take in the meantime.

This doctor kept me from seeking medical help for two years, during which I reached points of stress where I was either eating nothing but handfuls of almonds in a good day or nothing at all in a bad day, frequent stress colds, and multiple episodes where I fantasized about falling from the top of the downtown parking garage. This doctor, on top of a lifetime of being made to feel like I didn’t have anything bad enough that needed to be addressed, made me feel so stupid that I felt I didn’t know myself as well as she did.

The punchline is that last April I got diagnosed with not only ADHD, but also Major Depressive Disorder. The ADHD testing was a 6-8 hour appointment day of testing that was scheduled out a couple of months in advance. Generalized Anxiety isn’t in my chart anymore as a current diagnosis because lo and behold, the anxiety was a primarily a symptom of the untreated ADHD and Depression. Once I finally started getting properly medicated, it was almost an overnight change in the right direction. I now take medication to help the brain chemistry, I’ve gained about 50 pounds because I actually eat real meals with balanced nutrients and not just rabid handfuls of almonds now, I have an absolutely amazing therapist who helps me sort through the stuff in my brain like a pile of clothes to keep or give away, and I have a wonderful partner who makes me want to care for myself, even during times of Great Depression, much like the last month or so.

I woke up sometime during the week before last and realized I was depressed. Then shortly after, I realized I had been depressed for about a month and hadn’t noticed. I’d been taking my meds, eating right, on a good sleep schedule, and getting love and support from my partner and my therapist. Then, seemingly just as quickly as I’d realized I was in a depressive episode, I woke up and my depression was gone. It left just as suddenly as it came on, for seemingly no reason. And I’m so pissed about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m feeling more like myself. But it drives me nuts that I’m doing everything right to take care of myself, and my depression still reaches an obnoxious level. And that’s what made me realize: When we culturally talk about chronic depression, by and large it’s still talked about as a disorder people have that makes it more likely they’ll experience worse episodes during big life events than those without depression. We still largely talk about depression like it’s an event-based disorder, rather than just getting bogged down by your own brain chemistry and waiting it out for it to get better. In reality, sometimes you just get hit by the depression freight train or wade out too deep into the depression pool and are suddenly floating untethered in sad, finding yourself unable to swim back for a bit.

The important thing, though, is that you’re eventually able to come back. I’m doing a lot better than I was even a week ago. Sometimes it feels like my brain is always changing and I never really know what’s going to happen from one day to the next, but I have a great network of people to hold me down. If you’re having trouble with finding your way back to your “normal”, or you feel like it’s been longer than it should be before it should have subsided, reach out. Find those good medical professionals. If your doctor brushes you off and treats you like you don’t know anything because you don’t have a medical degree, fire them. Ask around in your network or google around and read bios of doctors and therapists. Research treatments to see if there’s any you think might work for your particular brand of “brain ick” and hang onto it for when you have a doctor that cares about what you think.

And above all else, remember: Your unique brand of brain ick is what makes you who you are. So even if its annoying as hell, it makes you you, and sometimes that's gonna suck. But the rest of the time its great.


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