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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Mass Shootings, The Media, And Mental Health

Dear media,

Like so many others, I have been following the events of Munich’s mass shooting on Friday night. Like others, I want answers. The answer cannot be, however, to publish psychiatric diagnoses without further comment or explanation by professionals.

You see, I happen to suffer from the same mental health problems which are now being shoved into the limelight as the Munich shooter’s conditions, depression and social phobia, so I might be more sensitive in that regard than your average person. But it is extremely unlikely for depression or social phobia to result in the desire to go on mass killing sprees – harming other people doesn’t even feature in the diagnostic criteria.

What you are doing is publicising facts which may have contributed very little to nothing to the crime at the cost of increasing the stigma for millions of people suffering from depression and / or social phobia in Germany alone. You are making life harder for all of us who are already receiving psychiatric or psychological help, and you are potentially discouraging others from seeking treatment because they don’t want to be regarded as a “loose cannon” or threat to society.

Next time, please consult professionals and add their opinion before releasing your findings. Instead of trying to be the fastest to get information out, how about striving to be the one who gets the best information out?

Misfortunes Never Come Singly

Over the past few days, I’ve had to deal with a number of frustrations and disappointments.

The aquafit class got cancelled after local authorities closed the pool and adjoining gym. Apparently there’s fault with the ventilation system, and fixing it will be so extensive that it won’t re-open before summer 2017. A number of schools and seven different sports clubs have now suddenly lost their training locations.
As for the group I was part of, any vacancies at aquafit classes held at different pools are first going to those who joined as part of their physical rehab. Anything that’s still available afterwards will be offered to the “prevention group”, or you can simply get your money back.
Financially it’s no loss, but I was so happy with everything concerning this: the group, the instructor, the time slot, the uncomplicated drive… On Friday I’ll find out if I can at least finish the last four weeks before the summer break.

Then, we are having jobcenter problems. My husband has a fixed salary per hour, but there are additional boni for night shift, Saturday or Sunday work. So he never gets paid the same and the difference can be several hundred euros in extreme cases.
As I mentioned before, welfare is slowly phasing out; we are still approved until the end of September and only get substituted right now to make up the difference between the threshold-income and his actual income. We have to hand in a copy of his payslip every month to prove how much he made.
Well, the first month, when my husband’s actual income after taxes was still lower than what we got from the jobcenter, they paid us too little and the missing rest came three weeks later. The second and third month, they paid us too much (way too much this month) – which wouldn’t be such a big problem if we wouldn’t get into trouble for that down the road. We basically have money sitting in the bank that isn’t ours, that we can’t touch because they might ask it back at any given time, and all attempts to contact them have been fruitless so far. They don’t react to emails, phone calls end in the holding line…

On top of all of this, the jobcenter ordered me in Friday morning to discuss my medical report. It makes me nervous as hell, because I don’t know the result and what they want to do with me. Worst case scenario, we would have the means to terminate welfare support on the spot. Last month we were just 60€ below the threshold and this month we’ll be over it, so the jobcenter would have (or should, at least) stopped giving us money anyway – we only wanted to stay until September because we could have used the “mobile pass” still, which gives you percentages off public transport fares, and as a security net until my husband’s probational period at the new job ends at the beginning of September. Last but not least, terminating now would be a nightmare of bureaucracy, whereas just waiting until it runs out does not require anything other than NOT requesting a renewal.

Logically, I am aware that no matter what they are going to say on Friday, they can’t do anything to me. I could just walk out saying “So long, suckers!” if shit hit the fan. But being the unconfrontational person that I am, it already stresses me out.

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.

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.

Welfare & No Therapy

Yesterday I mentioned going on welfare, and that I had been in the process of writing a blog post about it when the news of my therapist’s illness made some of that draft obsolete. Here follows the part which still is relevant:

Financial troubles have been a steady companion for a long time: I cannot work a job on top of uni, and my husband wants to work, but is currently handicapped by a lack of language skills (even though he is making a lot of progress since he started integration class). We have been living off my husband’s savings, support from family members, and once we also had to borrow money from a friend. Our life is rather frugal: 80% of what I buy is on offer or from the “reduced box” – groceries which are about to expire soon and hence reduced in price. We do not go out or buy anything that is not absolutely necessary.
A while ago, my therapist came up with the idea of me going on social welfare, which would roughly equal the salary of a student job. I could not object based on pride as I am not in the position to turn up my nose at any kind of support available. But I kept putting off visiting the department of social services because frankly I was afraid of doing so. For starters, I have a bit of bad history with administration and it is a very anxiety-laden topic for me. But also, the idea of having a place to turn to in even harder times was so comforting that it was difficult letting go the promise of relief at the expense of possible rejection. It is a pretty stupid concept and I would advise everyone to just get it over with as quickly as possibly if being told this story. Inside my own head, however, things are not always straightforward.
Fortunately, I finally managed to drag myself there, with the result that the state support my therapist suggested is not even available for me. As a student, I fall into a different category of welfare which I have to apply for at the employment agency instead, so the journey continues for a while.

To repeat from yesterday’s post, I need a statement from my therapist that I am not capable of working a job; usually, it would be the employment agency’s own doctors who have to come to this conclusion as a result of their examinations, but with mental health problems, that is hardly possible.
Going on state support was not a decision I made easily, or even voluntarily, but it’s the only practical solution left. It would be great if someone gave my husband a job instead with which he made enough so that we could exist from that income, but that’s unlikely in the current situation. All I know is, if I have to work, that is the certain end of my university career – I tried before, and the result was that I prioritized my job over classes, because “without the money I can’t stay enrolled in uni either”, and I had not enough energy for both. And I do not have it in me to make a third start from scratch, should this second attempt fail. It is all or nothing in regards to uni now.

Life goes on, with or without me. With or without therapy. No matter how unfortunate it is that my therapist got ill just now, when I would have liked to be able to write to him about the whole welfare business, I need to try without him the best I can.
My last therapy session was in early December; the one scheduled for January didn’t happen, and it was a bit of a warning sign already when it took three weeks before my therapist could tell me when he’d have the next opening – we were supposed to meet at the end of March again. He’s been chronically overworked for at least a year: last spring / summer it was pretty much the same, when I’d have a session in April, then an emergency appointment in June, and then nothing until September. My blog is full with comments on staff shortage at the hospital. What’s sad is that on the last day we emailed, he told me he was currently working in a new colleague and that he hoped that we could have “at least one session per month” from April on.

I guess this post is rather all over the place, but all of this has become one huge “cluster” to me anyway.

Help Me, Zopiclone

I did not think it was possible, but the last night was almost worse than the one before. It started promising: Got tired and went to bed at 10.20 PM, read for half an hour and switched the lights off at 10.50 PM. Fifteen minutes later, I was asleep – until 1 AM, when I woke up and was so alert that I could not force myself back into the realm of dreams. Got out of bed for a couple of hours, then back into bed, where I read until 6 AM. Lay awake for another hour and finally dozed off just after 7 AM again.

At least I did not cry this time, but it was even more confusing than simply staying awake. So for tonight, I asked my sister for one of the zopiclone pills she got prescribed for her insomnia last autumn. A definite first, as I never took any kind of hypnotic agent before, but I just cannot go on like this. I have tried everything to rectify my sleeping cycle and it only got worse, and even though I am generally not keen on using pills, I feel like I am going to lose my mind if I don’t get back to normal hours soon.

In other news, I have an appointment with the psychiatrist in four weeks. As the psychotherapy is covered by the fundings of the clinical trial, he has pretty much free reign to do with me whatever he deems fit, because with the exception of the citalopram two years ago, the health insurance did not have to pay for anything yet.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about all of this yet. I would have prefered to see my therapist as the psychiatrist as well, because nobody else knows my mental health history as well as he does, and quite frankly it would save me the hassle of having to get to used to another “stranger”. However, I have hardly any right to complain, and maybe it will even be good for something to keep the two treatment fields separated.

Social Media & Social Anxiety

Where is this blog going? What does it say about me? Since blogs also are representations of their authors (or at least embody certain aspects of their personalities), it is important to me that it looks like something I can identify with, that I want to be connected to. After checking out other blog designs over the last couple of weeks, I finally decided to make the transition to a new look. I really liked the compact layout of the old blog theme, but had grown tired of the colour scheme and tiny font. The new one has a more elegant typography and no visual clutter, and the so-called responsive design ensures that it can be comfortably read from a variety of devices, from desktops to smartphones.
Lugubrious Layara also got an organisational makeover during the holidays: I streamlined the “About Me” section a bit, and reorganized the side-column. After almost two years, the scope of topics written about here became too broad to be faithfully represented by the tag cloud any longer, so I took it out. The “Social Anxiety” tag got turned into a full category, as it is too important a topic about which I write. I added share buttons to the posts and a contact info with an email address to the side-column. Finally, I designed my own header.
And then, I also joined Twitter in an effort to promote my blog a bit. This step I was not sure about, as tweeting does not come naturally to me. I will give it a try and see how I like it in a month’s time, and whether it actually is worth the effort.

I am old enough to still remember the way the internet was when it first became widely available for private homes – back when you could not receive phone calls while being online and loading graphic-heavy websites was a real test of patience. The era of dial-up, when surfing was so expensive that I was limited to two hours per month (sic), and when I could not even have imagined some of the programmes and games I use routinely now. Before web 2.0 became a reality, the internet was a much easier place for people with social anxiety, like me. One felt much more anonymous back then, and conversations took place on message boards or forums. If you wanted to lurk from the shadows, you did just that, and if you wanted to join in, you had plenty of time to formulate a response.
Nowadays, very many places on the internet feel like the virtual equivalent of a party in full swing. Social media live off rapid-fire smalltalk, and like with a real-life party, those who are best at this kind of conversation shine, whereas the rest awkwardly stare at their feet. On a message board, you could drag posts from the archives and revive threads which had been dead for years, and the discussion would simply continue if some other forum members had sufficient interest. On Facebook, a status update becomes obsolete after a few days at the latest (depending on the size of your friends list), and on Twitter the half-life of a tweet is a few hours only.
I am terrible at smalltalking, both in real life and online. I never know what to say, or how to phrase it, and I am also very shy about approaching another person. Fear of rejection, fear of humiliation, fear of boring the other person… the whole palette of social anxiety at work. And social media have a much lower threshold in that regard than old-fashioned forums. Facebook is ok for me in so far as I know all the people there, and the update tempo on my timeline is not quite that high. But Twitter is difficult, because I do not know what to say: for the mindless quips and joking, I’m not nearly funny enough, and generally too long-winded for anything of substance. Some people have the gift to be profound and deep in 140 characters – but I don’t.
However, it’s not only Twitter which freaks me out. I can’t play any kind of online game where I would have to interact with other players; it is especially stressful because I am supposed to be leisurely around them, but can’t relax in such a setting and tense up. I am also very shy on other people’s blogs, more often than not leaving without commenting because a wave of social anxiety washes over me: “What if they don’t like what you are going to say? I’m sure they’ll find it boring as hell! Oh, look, there already are three comments, and they’re all so much wittier than what you were going to write. Just leave before anyone notices you have been here…” Even on my own blog, I sometimes worry about my own replies to visitor comments.

Both in real life and on the internet, I prefer moving in social circles I am familiar with – among friends, I can become surprisingly chatty. Among strangers, no matter how amiable they may be, it takes quite a while until I will start opening up, and one of the advantages of the internet is that through blogs or forum posts, you can get to know another person a little before you even exchange the first greeting. Social media which put more emphasis on exchange than on content (I am somewhat simplifying here, for the sake of the argument’s clarity), like Twitter or Facebook, are not any different from real life conversations to me, in terms of difficulty. Virtual worlds or MMORPGs are even more stressful than attending a party.
The truism that increased internet usage equals increased loneliness is too simplistic in my opinion, because its default assumption is that online interaction is less meaningful than offline interaction. When you suffer from social anxiety, however, chances are that – given a conducive internet usage – you actually are going to have more meaningful contacts with strangers than in the real world, while experiencing less stress at the same time.
Do not misunderstand me, I am not arguing for the superiority of internet contacts. If given a choice, I will always take a face-to-face meeting with my friends over emailing or messaging them. However, the media tend to paint a picture missing crucial details, both when praising the new interconnectedness and when condemning the arbitrariness of the new online platforms. For many people out there, the reality is much more complicated.
Despite occasional bouts of anxiety, I value the contacts I have through my blog, because they make me feel less isolated regarding my mental health problems, because I can learn from other people’s experiences, and because they allow me dealing with my social anxiety on a smaller, controllable scale.