Easy Peasy Japanesey

Back in July, I’d signed up for a Japanese class. Mainly because I was bored and suffering from cabin fever; it provided a great opportunity to get out of the house and gain a new skill.
A month-long intensive course for a small group, we were taught the hiragana syllabary and basic grammar/ vocabulary. Even though it makes my usual problems (performance anxiety, social phobias) rear their heads again, I’m enjoying the learning process so much that I went back for round 2 earlier this month.

I’ve had a fascination with Japan since primary school, and as an added benefit you gain fresh perspectives from learning a new language, especially when it doesn’t belong to the same language family as your mother tongue. Different languages come with radically different views of the world around them, which I find very exciting to discover.
The first time I strayed out of the Indo-European branch was 20 years ago, when I started learning Biblical Hebrew at school. Shame that I haven’t had a chance to use it after I got my high school certificate, because even though I can still read it, I forgot 90% of the grammar and vocabulary.

Also, I like the challenge. I spent so many years at uni with the sword of doom dangling over my head that I forgot what it is like to pursue a skill just for the sake of it. As mentioned before, I am not completely anxiety-free in class, but there’s no big test in the end or target I have to meet: just attending and learning is the goal. And nothing or nobody forces me to go there, so I have the freedom to quit whenever I want to. Which is not anytime soon.

Learning Japanese is difficult. Not sure how much of that is the inherent nature of the language (from an Indo-European perspective, at least) and how much of it is my rusty brain creaking into gear… I usually grasp the concepts explained to us immediately, but the reading/writing and numerical systems are very complex, and it is intimidating to start off from a place of complete illiteracy. We stammered our way through the textbook like first graders, even though now, after eight weeks’ worth of lessons, the prospect of reading the lines out loud is not as daunting anymore. I did practice between sessions, though, because it’s a lot to take in at once. Come to think of it, I wonder how long it will be until it doesn’t hit me like a wall of cryptic text anymore – even if I know all the words, nothing jumps out at first glance.

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Jobcenter Updates

The jobcenter sent us two forms as part of a „hearing“ regarding why they paid us too much money. Two separately mailed letters containing the exact same forms and the exact same letters, except that one was addressing my husband with “you earned income” and my letter read “Mr. Layara earned income”. So I explained for the fourth and fifth time respectively in those forms that the jobcenter pays in advance, but my husband’s salary only comes in about six weeks later since he gets paid retroactively the following month. I also asked for our monthly allowance to be reduced, to avoid having to transfer back hundreds of euros later on. We’ll see how that goes.

Tomorrow, I have an appointment with the medical service to assess my mental health. Last time was pretty bad; my one comfort is that with just a few more months to, the result of tomorrow’s appointment will only matter short-term. I was supposed to bring ALL my files from various doctors, but they gave too short notice of the appointment to get anything from the psychiatrist, and anything from the clinic / therapy is not available as it is part of a medical study and thus confidential. For the latter I still have a statement written by my therapist from the last time I had to see the medical service.
Also, I need to bring all the medication I take. Not sure why – to prove that I’m not making anything up? Shouldn’t they already have my medical records on that from the psychiatrist? And how would showing them a bunch of blisters prove I am actually taking that stuff? Seems rather stupid to me.

On Tuesday I have an appointment with my caseworker at the jobcenter. I am not sure whether I mentioned that before, but we got a new caseworker a year ago. She is nice enough, but I miss the old one. She was bipolar, so actually understood how mental health problems can influence your everyday life. Also, she would get in contact before setting the actual appointment. They don’t have to do any of that, but it was a courtesy she extended to me that made me feel as if they took me into account as a human being, not just a file that needs to be processed.

To say that I am afraid of the appointments would be overstating it, but they make me terribly nervous. I feel pressured, and “faulty” to boot. I understand that the state needs to check who they give money to, but this arrangement is not contributing to my recovery.

Cola Addiction Revisited

Long-time readers of this blog may remember the post about Cola-addiction I wrote over three years ago. Even though I was fully aware of how unhealthy it is, I couldn’t go a day without it. When I noticed recently that my cola consumption had been comparatively low for several days in a row, I decided to attempt kicking the habit. It’s been over 48 hours since my last glass now and, to my surprise, easier than expected. The cravings are manageable, and the headaches I’ve had over the past two days may or may not be related to withdrawals. They are nuisance rather than a huge problem anyway.

Why now? The biggest factor in this is the valdoxan: since I’m sleeping better, I don’t feel as groggy anymore and thus don’t need the coke to “wake up” my brain. Plus I was ready for it – right now, I feel like I can handle making lifestyle changes and sticking with them. I am motivated by my weight loss; my depression index and anxiety are low, and I have a moderate amount of energy. Why not seize the chance?

Floating On Top

The first aquafitness class was thoroughly enjoyable. As I wrote before, it’s a course dedicated to overweight people and / or those who haven’t exercised in a long time, so everyone but the instructor is quite large. That alone really helped me to be at ease, because I didn’t worry how I’d look compared to the others.

The group is lovely too; not all the new people on the list showed up, and more than half of the participants already knew each other from previous classes. The instructor made everyone introduce themselves to everyone, no matter whether you were a first-timer or not, which was a little awkward, but I managed. And as far as I can tell, everybody is genuinely friendly and nice. I liked the rapport the instructor had with the regulars. The general setting was non-threatening enough to keep my social anxiety in check.

From what I understand, there are two different kinds of aquafitness: the one where you can stand on the ground, and the one where the water is so deep that you can’t reach the floor. I’m doing the latter. The exercise is pretty similar to aerobics, just modified to fit the environment, and a little slower. Since you’re working against the water resistance, it’s just as exhausting as a normal aerobics class, but without the sweat and running out of breath.

I’m probably going to be sore tomorrow, but tonight I am feeling a good kind of heaviness in my arms and legs – the one that comes when you have exerted yourself. And my back ache already is a lot better after one hour only. Mentally / emotionally I am feeling rather well, too – just what I wanted to get out of this class.

Signed Up For Aquafitness

I’m not a “sporty” person, quite the opposite: about 50 pounds overweight – not morbidly obese (anymore), but in the area where my weight will most likely lead to health problems down the road. The last big check-up was five years ago when I applied for the clinical study. Back then I was physically healthy, but I am aware that it doesn’t take much to change that.

Since November 2014, I lost 8 kg/ 18 lbs. Not through dieting, because going on a diet flips some kind of switch in my brain which causes me to think about nothing but food all day long. Instead, I practice moderation, and thanks to the escitalopram, I am a little more active than I used to be. It’s a slow process, just a pound lost per month on average, but it’s trending towards the right direction.

My all-time maximum weight I had in 2003, when I was 17 kg / 37 lbs heavier than today. It was mostly due to the untreated hypothyroidism that I gained that much, but if I thought taking the appropriate medication would melt the fat away, I was mistaken. Even during my most active times, I would shed the pounds very slowly only.

A few weeks ago, I decided to sign up for an aquafit course – one especially for overweight and/or unfit people. Even though I loved the Tae Bo class, it was so physically demanding that I don’t think I’d be able to do it anymore, and even at the best of times it made me very self-conscious about my body, because the rest of the people were really toned… That definitely shouldn’t be a problem anymore.

Even though I talked a lot about weight, losing it is not my main motivation: I want to be healthy. At almost 36 years old, it is for the first time ever that I feel like my body might fail me if I do not take care of it. I don’t want to get rid of the physical symptoms of depression just to suffer from the side-effects of ill health. Thanks to Facebook I know that somebody I went to school with suffered two heart attacks last year, and even though his lifestyle was a lot unhealthier than mine, I don’t want to be next in line.

Apart from the physical benefits, I also hope for a positive effect on my mental health. I do not believe that an active lifestyle can prevent depression – it was from my most active period ever that I crashed into one of the bleakest phases of my life, and there are too many amateur and professional athletes suffering from it – but that it can help prevent a rebound. Especially since the biggest anxiety factor (being the only fat person among a group of slim people) is being eliminated.

Class starts the first week of April; just an hour once a week. Not a massive programme, but it’s one hour less of sitting on my butt.

Thoughts On Psychotherapy

Last autumn, the clinic contacted me regarding a follow-up evaluation for the medical study. Actually, they had first contacted me in summer, but my family and the paperwork for the renewal of my husband’s residency permit kept me so busy that it got pushed out of my mind. After their last reminder, I offered to drop off the questionnaires in person – I had an appointment with the psychiatrist anyway, and it’s less than five minutes driving distance between the two locations. That way, the clinic would have them faster than via traditional mail, and I’d feel a little less guilty for making them wait so long.

The evaluation mostly consisted of self-report questionnaires like I had filled out so many times before in therapy. The most difficult was a section where I was supposed to rate the difference between summer 2011, when the clinical trial ended, and autumn 2015. On paper, my situation sometimes didn’t look all that different, but on the inside it sure felt like a world apart.

So one dark December afternoon, I was knocking at my therapist’s office door again. I felt a lot more nervous than I had anticipated: I hadn’t seen him in three years, and still didn’t know what medical problems had caused him to terminate back in 2013, whether he’d be visibly altered.

When he stepped out of the door, he looked maybe a few pounds heavier than I’d remembered, but definitely healthy. There was an emergency meeting going on in his office, so I couldn’t go inside, and he had only a minute, but “didn’t want me to leave without saying hello”. He showered me with questions, of which I managed to answer less than half, and we agreed to meet again in January after my next psychiatric appointment.

I wasn’t any less nervous about the January meeting than I had been about the December one. It was scheduled as a follow-up, because strictly speaking he was not allowed to see me outside the medical study – the clinic has stopped outpatient treatment completely, with the exception of clinical trials. Which buried my hopes for ever going back to therapy with him for good. Since he had already received my questionnaire, he was somewhat in the loop of what had happened in my life over the past three years.

“What would you say is the biggest difference between now and then?”
I had to think about this one for a moment, then replied that I felt like I had grown up. That I didn’t let people trample all over me anymore, that the person I used to be just a few years ago seemed like a stranger now.

It’s true in many respects. I don’t have that crippling feeling of worthlessness anymore. Not that I think about how awesome I am all day long – I just don’t bother with that topic at all, neither in the positive nor in the negative sense. It’s just become irrelevant for my life as it is now.

Both the therapist and I agreed that I had responded extremely well to psychotherapy. I am convinced that a lot of the positive developments that were planted in therapy only came to full fruition two or three years later, when I was not having sessions anymore. I don’t even know how to describe it properly, other than that my brain got rewired.
He used that phrase a lot when I first started, but I only came to understand its true meaning now: in situations where everything happens too quickly to think about the best strategies, my brain defaults to different reactions than it did in the past. I stand my ground, I defend myself when attacked. All those hours of roleplaying these scenarios during the sessions are paying off.

I also have the situational analyses internalized, so when I find my mood tanking, I ask myself where I did not behave the way I wanted to, and what I could do better next time. I may sound like an infomercial that tries really hard to sell its product, but psychotherapy was the best thing that might possibly have happened to me.

Here’s the catch: it takes a long time to become fully effective. It only happens when you master a situation you would have failed previously – even when you don’t consciously register it, your brain notices that the new strategy was successful and is more likely to try a similar approach next time. So it takes a row of successfully averted crises for the new behaviour to grow roots. If you are like me and try to avoid adversity, it might take a while until you had enough exposure to such “opportunities”.

Of course, CBASP does not change your personality. I am still introverted and shy. But it gave me the tools to fix the holes in the hull that would have made my ship sink in the past.

The meeting with my therapist was over too quickly. I miss him – or maybe not him as much as what he had to offer (that sounds horribly selfish, but essentially what a therapist-patient relationship boils down to): a safe environment to try out new behaviour. Somebody who asked questions that opened up fresh perspectives. Especially the latter.

Of course, I could just start looking for a new therapist, but regardless of who I’d see, that person would never know the “old me”. The Layara who showed up on the clinic’s doorstep in 2010 was so afraid of everything that I’d never be able to properly communicate this to any other psychotherapist.

Then, there’s the question of familiarity. He is “tried and tested”, I know what to expect from him. With any new caregiver, a lot of time and effort would go into reaching that same degree of comfort.

Time is the third problem. Health insurance pays for 26 sessions every two years, and I always wanted to keep that option as my safety net. I don’t want to use them up and then be left with nothing to fall back on if disaster strikes!

And even if I decided to do that, there’s only one CBASP therapist left in my area, with long waiting lists.

When discussing this with the psychiatrist, she basically said she thinks my development over the last six months was promising enough to not necessitate any further psychotherapy right now – that I should see where the new medication and new circumstances (my husband’s new job) take me, and then make a decision. I agree with her – I certainly feel too well to use up my 26 “emergency sessions”. And for paying out of my own pocket we are too poor.

Maybe it is for the best. It took me more than a year to come to terms with the sudden end of therapy, but it also forced me to stand on my own feet. Ultimately, I was ready to do so. And in January, we parted on the promise to keep in loose contact, so unlike 2013, I did not feel like I had to say goodbye for good.

How Welfare Saved My Sanity

One of the biggest contributing factors towards my mental health improvement was getting on welfare. Or rather, not having to worry about how we’d be paying all those bills and the rent. There’s a lot to be said for financial stability, even if it is only the state-defined minimum. No more letters threatening to turn off the gas or electricity, no more anxiety attacks when checking the mailbox.

The public image of welfare-recipients in Germany is just as bad as it is elsewhere, but I learned long ago to tune such things out. Most of those who are judgemental don’t really know what they are talking about – and they certainly don’t know my husband or me.

And it looks like our “leeching off the system” is coming to end. My husband landed a respectable full-time job a few weeks ago which should see us completely independent of state support by the end of the year. I had paid off my old bank account within a year and thus by summer my name should get deleted off the “financial offender” list and my credit rating be ok again.

What the occupational future holds for me, I don’t know. Right now, my husband is the breadwinner, and I do all the paperwork that comes with his job. I don’t plan any further than six to nine months ahead anymore – none of the long-term plans and goals I held in the past came to fruition. I’ll deal with that topic once I actually become capable of holding down a (part-time) job.

I will forever be grateful to be living in a country where a welfare-system even exists. It wasn’t always easy – you sign away a lot of privacy and become the employment agency’s little bitch in exchange – but that is a thousand times better than what we went through before.

The relationship with my mother has gotten a lot better once it was not strained by financial dependency anymore, too. There are different factors playing into this other than money, since her hospital stay very much became a game changer that altered the way we interact, but there is no denying that money used to be a contributing factor to the tension between us.

This Blog Is Still Relevant

Last night, I did something I had never done before: I read my own blog. During the past weeks, I had been wondering whether it was worth keeping “Lugubrious Layara” online – after all, I had not published regular updates in almost three years, and it did not seem to serve a purpose anymore.

But as I worked backwards through my own timeline, from the most recent post to the earliest ones, I realized how important this blog was for myself. Not only as a chronicle, but especially as a measurement tool for how far I have come since.

And that is why I need to keep writing and updating. I probably will never be able to close the gaps, but at the very least, I can make a fresh start right here and now.

Depression Symptoms & Antidepressant Side-Effects Assessed

It’s becoming very clear that despite taking twice as high a dosage of venlafaxine / effexor now, the timed-release capsules work much better for me. The nausea and vertigo vanished completely, and in the mornings I don’t go through withdrawals anymore either. I do feel quite drained from the experiences of the last three weeks, though, very tired and listless. I lost 6 kg (13.2 lbs) – 4 kg over the first weekend and another 2 kg since – and even though I would welcome further weight loss very much, it goes without saying that vomiting, diarrhea and skipping meals due to nausea is not exactly a healthy way to drop the kilos and at least partially responsible for the feelings of weakness. On top of that, venlafaxine also suppresses my appetite for a good part of the day, until it returns in the evening and I suddenly start scouring the kitchen for all the stuff I did not buy when shopping…
There has been no improvements of the symptoms I primarily started taking venlafaxine for yet, the cognitive impairments and lack of energy, but I do feel more emotionally stable recently. Next Friday I have a follow-up with the psychiatrist, when I’ll find out whether I’ll increase the dosage further or stay on it for the time being.

As for the welfare process and related paperwork, the main appointment at the job centre had been cancelled on Tuesday already because the lady had become sick, and the one who works on our case at the employment agency was replaced with a colleague due to illness as well. While being very friendly as well, this colleague could do little more than collect the forms we had filled out at home and the documentation we had brought. Other than that, we will have to wait for them to get back to us. I handed in the questionnaire on my medical complaints today; the question was: “Do you have medical conditions which influence your current job or have done so in the past? Please give a short description of your illness respectively your symptoms and tell us which kinds of occupation would be influenced by these.” The space left blank was less than a quarter or a page, so I could not go into much detail:

“Diagnosis: chronic recurrent depression with comorbid panic disorder.
– permanent / daily symptoms: muscle pain in legs and arms; social anxiety; slowed-down thinking; word finding problems; problems falling asleep (at least 2 hours / night); severe lack of energy; hypersomnia; decreased libido
– frequent symptoms (at least 3 days per week): stomach pains; digestive problems (diarrhea); back pain; memory problems; concentration problems; depressive emotions (sadness, emotional emptiness, hopelessness); headaches
– periodically appearing symptoms: insomnia
– under stress also anxiety attacks
– currently (since mid-March 2013) additionally vertigo, nausea and vomiting due to starting an antidepressant regime (venlafaxine)

Because of the diverse symptoms, I am physically, intellectually and emotionally affected with any kind of occupation.”

That is as accurate an assessment as I could give of my daily problems in such a small space, and each of my healthcare providers should be able to confirm them. I learned today that the medical service will first contact my general physician for information, which is a bit of a problem since at least 80% of my depression treatment has been done by my therapist; the general physician does get reports from my psychiatrist, but except for the fact that I have participated in the medical study he does not know anything about the psychotherapeutic treatment. I do hope they’ll get in contact with him as well – if our regular case worker had been present today, I would have asked her, but her colleague was not familiar with the protocol in such cases.

I’m Going To Quit University

Instead, I will enroll at the only state-maintained German distance teaching extramural university, starting next autumn. The idea was actually proposed to me by my mother and sister, because my sister is considering doing the same, and they thought it might make studying easier for me. I also discussed this with my husband, and slept over it, so while this was a relatively sudden decision, it’s not a rash one.

Arguments in favour of the change:

  • You study online and out of books. Apart from the written tests, there are only two weekends during the entire Bachelor’s programme where you have to attend a seminar in person – and one of the study centres where you can do so is easily accessible to me, even without a car. Since I waste about 75 % of my energy in class on fighting off depression and only the remaining 25 % on taking notes or studying, I believe I will actually be able to study more effectively that way. You receive the materials and literature lists via mail, and you send in your homework and term papers online. There also are video streams of lectures and special software programmes for learning. At any time, you can contact qualified docents if you need additional help, and should you need to see someone face to face, you can also visit the study centres.
  • It’s cheaper than a regular uni. Money is always a factor for me. And you pay for the classes you take only, not a fixed sum regardless of whether you actually take any classes at all. So, if shit hits the fan and I have to take a sabbatical (which I hope never happens, but we are talking eventualities here) again, I don’t have to pay just for staying enrolled in the programme.
  • It’s more time flexible. I can adjust the learning to my personal schedule, because nobody cares whether I study something on Tuesday morning or Thursday afternoon or Sunday night, as long as I send in my homework punctually.
  • Academically, it’s worth just as much as a degree from a regular uni.

Arguments against the change:

  • I’ll not have a semester ticket for public transportation anymore. But: With the money I’m saving every semester on fees, I can buy a good number of tram tickets if needed…
  • It sets me back to square one. But: I only took 6 hours per week last semester, and the next one would have been the same – I might actually be able to take more classes than that and thus eventually make up for “lost” time.
  • They have a limited offer of subjects you can study only. And geosciences is not one of them. That is, in the end, the only heavy argument against it, in my opinion – and the reason why I never thought about making this step before. It would mean changing my major again. But: You can study psychology with them, and that is something I would be really interested in.

In the end, I believe the scale tips in favour of going ahead and doing this, because there are also arguments which fall outside of the pro-and-con-scheme listed above. The days of fantasizing about becoming a world-famous archaeologist are long over, and I don’t see myself crawling through the Andes or Alps, looking for rare minerals, either. What I want above everything else is to finally have some kind of degree and become employable; I’ll happily work as a secretary or a boring office job afterwards. The pipe dreams of glory are firmly buried.

And there are some obstacles in my current university course which did not occur to me when I had to make a quick decision in August 2011, and which I pushed into a remote corner of my mind afterwards: field trips abroad. I can’t do them – it would be ok if I got my own private hotel room at the end of the day, but going abroad and sharing a cabin with people who are essentially strangers for two weeks horrifies me to no end. I have worked really hard on my social phobia, but that is a problem I don’t think can be “treated out of my system”. On top of that, you also have to pay for those trips and all the equipment needed for it in addition to the semester fee, which runs up sums of several hundreds of euros every time, and I just cannot afford that.
Finally, seeing how the current semester ends on Sunday, I could actually apply for welfare myself instead of hoping some cryptic system where I take over from my husband works out – I haven’t been able to pay for the next semester yet, so all it needs is a phone call that I won’t be returning and I’m out.

Maybe it makes me look fickle in the eyes of some, but over the course of the last three semesters I realized that most of my problems with uni stem from the system itself, and I genuinely believe that my mental health would profit both from taking a break until October and even more so from getting out of that system. I love learning and writing papers and all of that, and I want to focus on this instead of how to effectively hold back tears in a classroom.