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.

One Pound At A Time

As I am typing these lines, I am 100 g or 3.5 oz away from reaching the weight that has been my target for the past 15 years. When I do – and since the aquafitness class starts this week, I have no doubt that I will – it means that I have successfully lost all of my excess university weight. It’s been my goal for such a long time that I don’t even know what the next one should be. Most likely, I’ll just try to lose another 5 kg / 11 lbs and take it from there – but I am also aware that muscles are heavier than fat, so my short-term goal is losing visible belly fat rather than a certain number on the scale.

There’s a certain genetic predisposition for weight gain coming from my maternal family’s side. Even on the oldest family pictures we own, that pre-date the First World War, my ancestors appear stocky and rotund. The only difference between them and me is that I am quite a bit taller than they were.

I was born a chubby baby, and never lost that appearance. Robust build, strong muscles; not fast, but good stamina; extracting every last calorie from a meal. Genetically designed for foraging or farm work. But unlike during prehistory (and most of history), I don’t have to actually find or grow my own food. There are no famines anymore in my part of the world where those “genetic gifts” would have made the difference between life and death.

Without the thyroid problems, I still would have been overweight. No illusions about that. They pushed me firmly into obesity territory, though, and ever since I have been struggling to leave it. Every ounce lost is the result of great effort, as if my body was desperately trying to hold on to the weight.

My husband, who easily eats twice as much as I do, has a different kind of metabolism. He used to be skinny, and even though he isn’t anymore, all it takes for him to lose some pounds is to exercise more. Within two weeks of starting his new job (where he’s on his feet all the time) he began looking visibly slimmer. If he put his mind to it, in a few short weeks he’d probably lose the 8 kg it took me over a year to get rid of.

I’m really hoping that the exercise will make the difference. My eating habits are pretty good – not perfect, but I very rarely exceed my calorie limit. Anything excessive makes me sick quite quickly anyway – fast food or junk food usually results in digestive problems. The only time when I can’t seem to go without it is when PMSing…

My ambition is not to become thin; that would be unrealistic. I never was, never will be. Sometimes, I wonder what that would be like. Would I carry myself differently? Would it influence my behaviour? Because being large has certainly left its mark on my psyche – I had my fair share of ridicule from strangers, and criticism from relatives. I never forget that I am fat, not even when alone. I wonder whether there is a certain point where I would?

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.

The Year Wasted On Venlafaxine

The venlafaxine debacle certainly deserves more attention than just the few lines I’ve allotted to it so far.

The first few days have been chronicled by this blog, but fact is that the side-effects never got significantly better. Nausea, headaches, muscle pain, and paraesthesia became my steady companions. Very often, it made me so sick that I had to lie down two or three times during the day. At every appointment I told the psychiatrist about it: he would either dismiss my complaints as “I’ve never heard about anyone having this problem with venlafaxine before”, or claim that those were not side-effects, but withdrawal symptoms because my dosage was still too low to last all day.

About fifteen months down the road, he finally cranked the dosage up – and that is where the heart problems started. Actually, I was in the early stages of serotonin syndrome, and it felt like I was on the verge of a heart attack. Before the next appointment was up, I had to lower my dosage again without even consulting him, because I just could not take it anymore. Finally he decided that maybe venlafaxine wasn’t for me and that I should try escitalopram instead.

The idea was that I would reduce venlafaxine over the course of three weeks and then start escitalopram. The withdrawal was so terrible that even though I gave myself six weeks instead, I still became bed-ridden. Other than expected, the most difficult part was not when I first started lowering the dosage, but the second to last step, which made me hallucinate.

Imagine lying in bed, sweating, your heart beating fast. Your head hurts, your teeth hurt, your back, your legs… every single muscle is in pain. Lights are too bright, sounds too loud, everything you eat makes you queasy. Your thoughts race and you cannot do anything to calm them down. And just when you think it cannot possibly get worse, you start hallucinating that the walls of your bedroom, the furniture around you, the ceiling above you are pulsating, bending in and out as if they are breathing.
I knew it was the withdrawal – that it wasn’t real – but that didn’t make it any less unpleasant. I cried like a little child: “I want it to stop! I can’t take it anymore!”

I do not want to badmouth venlafaxine, since there are many people who take it with few or no problems. I wasn’t one of them. By now, I am aware that I have problems with every drug that influences the noradrenaline (norepinephrine) cycle; that I am genetically predisposed to react that heavily to them.

However, I harbour resentments against the psychiatrist for letting me go through this for such a long time. He was friendly, but I feel like he did not take me or my complaints seriously – whatever it was, you don’t drag out a treatment that doesn’t help and causes so many problems for a year and a half. And I was too afraid that I wouldn’t get my sick note for the jobcenter if I complained too much, so I didn’t dare protesting too loudly. Even when giving the drug the benefit of the doubt, he should have stopped after six month. Instead, I wasted a whole year of my life on top of that trial period.

Coincidentally, just as I made the transition from venlafaxine to escitalopram, the practice was also taken over by a new psychiatrist. The options were to either stay at the old location and get a new caregiver, or migrate to the new location and stay with the old psychiatrist. I chose the former, and have been very happy since with the lady who took over. She’s friendly, competent, seems to genuinely care about her patients, and I find it easier to talk to her than her predecessor.

Escitalopram is a walk in the park in comparison. It really helps with the anxiety, and also has reduced the depression by 80%. What was left fell into three categories:
– problems falling / staying asleep
– lack of energy
– lack of motivation.

The psychiatrist’s suggestion was to try a second antidepressant as a booster. Initially I was very hesitant to even consider this option, because I did not want to go through an ordeal like the venlafaxine-regimen again. She promised that if it didn’t work, I could stop any time, and so I started with bupropion – which is how we discovered that I cannot take any SNRIs. It basically felt like a toned-down variety of venlafaxine to me. After three weeks I stopped.

The second booster I tried is valdoxan (agomelatine), which comes with zero side-effects. It’s slower to show results than other antidepressants I’ve taken, but after five months and experimenting with the dosage there is a definite positive trend: fewer days with sleeping problems, gradually increasing productivity, more motivation. There’s still room for improvement, but I am feeling better than I have in over a decade.

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.

Two Years

Two years since my last blog post. Two years since my mother suffered a sepsis due to necrosis in the foot, caused by undiagnosed diabetes type 1. We didn’t know whether she would live or die – she lived, minus an amputated foot. I could not write about it back then and don’t know whether I want to now, as it was a very saddening and stressful experience and it took this long to come to the conclusion that I might have digested it properly enough to move on. Maybe I will go into more detail one day, maybe I won’t. For now, the above must suffice.

A lot has remained the same since then: I am still married. I am still on welfare. I still haven’t been back to therapy.
Some things changed: I am off venlafaxine now and on escitalopram. Venlafaxine didn’t do me much good and a lot of bad, and the side-effects of quitting it were horrible. Escitalopram works really well for me, though. I also have a new psychiatrist who I am more pleased with than the previous one.

So that was my life in a nutshell these past two years, as far as it is relevant to this blog. I hope to write more regularly again – I missed it, but the mental hurdles were just too difficult to take at the time.

To Hell And Back Again

After the last post, I fell into a really dark hole. For every problem solved there appeared to arise two new ones, and between a lack of energy (which was bordering on apathy) and near-despair, I had some really horrible weeks. None of the bills due June had yet been paid, and I’d really had more than enough of those troubles over the last months: we got threatened with having the gas / electricity switched off twice and had to borrow money from a friend to pay those bills. I had my bank account terminated because I accidentally went over the credit limit and (thanks to being preoccupied with the side-effects of venlafaxine) didn’t notice immediately, so I ended up being blacklisted as a “financial offender” for the next three years – it will be as good as impossible to get any kind of loan, and I had to go begging at the bank to be granted another bank account, and on top of everything else I will have to pay off almost 1250.- Euros for the old account and in penalty fees. I tried explaining my situation on the phone, but first I had to wait three weeks for a call-back since the people holding the decision power were always busy, and when they finally did get back at me, the lady berated me for it “being all my fault”.
We just about managed to pay for my husband’s German classes and get some food on the table, even though the latter was perilously close to uncertainty at two times at least. There was one day when we had all but € 9.- between the two of us, and all that was left to eat was a bit of frozen vegetables, half a jar of jam, pasta and potatoes. No bread, fruit, rice, cheese, meat, fish, butter, milk or soy drink or whatever we usually eat. Our options were plain potatoes or plain pasta, with a bit of spinach or peas. Nothing you’d traditionally serve for breakfast – and having just asked a friend to help us out with money so we wouldn’t have the gas / electricity cut off, I didn’t want to go begging again. My mother-in-law unwittingly saved us from this by sending some money, and my friend scolded me for not telling her earlier when I related the story to her… All I can say is that there’s a difference between having to ask for help once, because you got into a tight spot, and having to do it again and again, week after week or month after month. It wears you out mentally.
I believe my husband became more worried about me and my state of mind than about the money, because even though I was not entertaining thoughts of suicide, he made me promise I wouldn’t do anything to myself. Nevertheless, even getting dressed became an almost insurmountable obstacle, and I oscillated between apathy and fits of crying. I felt like I had nothing left in me: no energy, no fight, no will. And even though I had successfully fought off the denial of the application in April, nothing appeared to move forward in that regard ever since – until the beginning of June.

The money came in about three weeks ago, and despite the fact that we didn’t get approved for March (when I was still officially a university student and not available for welfare), we got monthly allowances retroactively from April 1st on. We could pay our bills, and get rid of the debts with the health insurance and the energy provider. I made a payment plan with the collection agency to pay off my old bank account in rates, paid off my sister since she had covered the contents insurance of our worldly possessions earlier this year, and gave two months’ worth of rent to my mother, as a thank you for supporting us when my parents were on a budget themselves.
Having this existential problem lifted off our shoulders has done more for my mental health than any other measure taken during the last months. For the first time in years, I go to bed without being afraid of what the next day is going to bring: even though I still get a fright when one of those “official-looking” letters comes in, I can immediately remind myself that we have the money to take care of whatever is heading our way.
The German welfare system is far from perfect and much criticized, but compared to our situation during the last year – and especially the last couple of months – we are doing peachy right now. Of course, we are not eating steak and lobster, but I can buy everything we need and some more, whereas before I would have to prioritize and calculate whether I had enough money to buy some yoghurt, for example, or whether it had to wait until the next time since it was not strictly necessary.
There was one day when I went to the neighbouring town for shopping, since the local supermarket had some offers which justified spending money on a tram ticket as we would still save compared to buying the same products in our hometown – and I made a mistake when calculating the expense. It was just a minor figure I was off, about 50 cents, but I ended up those 50 cents short for buying the tram ticket back home. I did not dare taking the tram without a valid ticket because of the € 60.- fine if I got caught, so I had no choice but walking home. It was a relatively warm day and I was dragging / carrying about 30 kg (roughly 65 pounds) of bottles and groceries in my shopping trolley and two bags. I had called my husband to meet me halfway, but by the time we got home, I was completely exhausted.
That is only one story out of many about how destitute we were. I walked around in jeans ripped from wear and tear for over a month, because I could not find a pair cheap enough in my size. When I finally found one, it had a bad, unflattering cut and I didn’t like the colour, but at least the prize was very low and the fabric not torn, so I bought it anyway. After just a few short weeks, the pull tab of the zipper broke – cheap material, I guess – so I had to put a safety-pin through the eye of the slider for using the zipper: the result was that every time I went to the toilet or got (un-)dressed, the safety-pin popped open and stung me in the finger. At that point, I made such a pitiful figure that my mother and sister gave me a part of my birthday present, two pairs of jeans, about ten days early.

Maybe that gives a little insight into why I have not been blogging. At some point, I just got too exhausted – all my mental energy went into making sure we would get on state support. And I wanted to escape from the daily struggles, not reflect on them.

Follow-Up With The Psychiatrist

This morning I saw the psychiatrist again. We discussed the side-effects and agreed that I would continue taking venlafaxine / effexor, as it appears to have some mildly mood-stabilizing effects on me by now, and that I’m going to stay on this dosage until my next appointment at the end of May. Since it’s been only two weeks on 75 mg so far, it might take more time to make the side-effects go away completely: my main complaint was that I felt even more tired than before, but since citalopram had that same effect, switching to another drug does not seem worth it as chances are that I react this way to all antidepressants.

The psychiatrist asked me how I felt on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being absolutely awesome, and I rated myself a 3, even though I had to think about it quite a bit. That rating was more influenced by my physical complaints, and by feeling exhausted and stressed out about the welfare process; otherwise I would have given myself a 4. The goal for now is to make me reach 5 – 6 on this scale, and he asked me what had to change for me to feel that way, which I answered with: “I’d need more energy to actually manage my daily responsibilities sufficiently to feel that way.”

I told him about the recent problems with the job centre and the energy provider, and he was so nice to give me the medication I need until my next appointment out of the stock at his practice, so that I would be relieved from the self-pay contribution necessary at the pharmacy. (One of the benefits of welfare is that it eliminates the self-pay contribution for medication, but right now that obviously doesn’t apply yet.)
He also gave me an incapacity certificate valid until the end of May for the job centre, and I will see him again right before this one runs out. That is important both for proving that I am actually unable to work, and so the job centre can’t put me into an apprenticeship programme – if you cannot prove you are incapacitated, they can take away your benefits if you don’t comply with their orders, or they won’t even let you get on welfare in the first place.