Mathematics For The Clueless

Part of my university schedule for the next semester has been published. It’s going to boil down to about 25 hours per week – not yet sure how many exactly since it can still change. The whole structure of it is a lot more like school than my old degree was. I’ll start at 9 AM every day and have lectures until the early afternoon, afterwards there will be more practical classes on most days. Friday afternoon appears to be off, however, which is nice. If nothing else, it offers me a comfortable time window for therapy sessions.

Apart from geosciences – geology, palaeontology, micropalaeontology, crystallography – I’m going to have classes in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Crystallography is the only subject I haven’t had anything to do with at all so far; mathematics the only subject I am afraid of. I’ve always struggled with maths in school, so that makes me a bit nervous, but I checked a book on the basics out of the library and will start repeating them so they are already fresh in my head when I get confronted with it in class. It’s aptly named Mathematics For The Clueless. I also checked out books on physics and chemistry, but since I never had any problems with either, this is intended as a little warm-up rather than serious repetition.

Right now, excitement clearly outweighs the anxiety and I hope it stays that way. Unlike a couple of weeks ago, when going back to university still appeared the lesser of two evils, I am actually looking forward to it now and am very motivated. I only hope it stays that way; intellectual challenges I can tackle, but it’s going to be difficult if I start feeling like me being there doesn’t make sense anymore.
As long as I am undergoing psychotherapy, there still is the option of my therapist giving me a sick note if things go wrong really badly. Of course, I do not want that to happen either. I want my degree, want to prove that I can do this. I’ve spent so many years with a sense of failure lingering in the background…


Once Again, Back Home

Sunday evening I returned from a short trip to Weimar, a small German town with a rich cultural heritage: (in some cases temporary) home to Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Nietzsche, Liszt and many more, founding place of the short-lived first democratic German republic and the Bauhaus movement… Those four days have been filled with a lot of programme – too close or already beyond overkill for many other people, but I really enjoy this kind of intense involvement with topics I am interested in. Beyond the pure joy, I got out of it with a lot more confidence into my cognitive abilities. My sleeping brain is waking up – there was no problem handling the wealth of information.

Apart from all the pleasant things, a visit to the former concentration camp of Buchenwald was scheduled for the last day too. I visited Auschwitz in 1998, so I had a good idea of what to expect and the kind of effect such a day can have on the overall mood. Back then, I experienced a major backlash over a week after the actual visit, becoming furious at all the people around me, in my head silently screaming at them because they dared going about their comfortable everyday life when such acts of inhumanity were reality.

Admittedly, I didn’t really feel like paying Buchenwald a visit, not because I want to close out what has happened – on the contrary, I find it extremely important to educate people about this – but because I don’t want to jeopardize my new and relatively stable mental health. Since the rest of the group wanted to go, though, I joined them and assumed a somewhat distanced perspective, not unlike watching the news: intellectually, I took it all in, but tried to keep my emotions out of the experience. It seems that this approach worked, because even though I find my thoughts wandering back to what I read, saw and heard there, they don’t take over my imagination.

Overall, however, it was a great trip with very little room for depressive thoughts and worrying – just what I need(ed). And next week I will finally have a therapy session again: even though I’m getting by quite well without, I miss them and talking to my therapist. It seems longer than just a month since I last saw him and I do believe that he’ll find me different from the last “version” he met; at least I feel like I have changed during the last few weeks and shed even more depressive behaviour and thoughts. I feel more self-confident and more secure.

Back To Square One

This morning, I was officially released from my old degree and accepted into the new one. I’m a freshman again – with 12 years experience.

I live about half an hour from campus. The tram I took this morning arrived late and then got delayed even further, so I started worrying if I’d still make it in time. The closer I came to my destination, the more anxious I became and sensed a very strong urge to avoid the situation and just go home again. So I asked myself, “Why do you feel this way?” Time wasn’t the real problem here – after all, if I really would be late, the outcome wouldn’t be any different from the avoidance scenario. I quickly realized that I was projecting social anxiety onto the situation; I didn’t want to go because I had negative expectations for the outcome due to bad experiences in the past. I told myself to at least give it a try, and that avoiding the situation today would only make it worse down the road as the pressure for time would only increase towards the end of the month.
Ultimately, it was a rather quick procedure: with ten minutes to spare before closing, I arrived and, after a short wait, was called into the office. I handed in a statement written by the docent, the administrative secretary – who was friendly and unthreatening – made a photocopy of it and filled out a form which I signed, and thus a 12-year-long chapter of my life ended rather unceremoniously and a new one began.

What’s left of this period are a lot of ambiguous feelings and emotional scars. Looking back at the person who first started university in October 1999, I see someone who doesn’t have much in common anymore with who I am today except for a shared past. And as much as I wish my education had worked out better and at least somewhat resembled the vision I once had, erasing the years would do away with a lot of precious experiences or people I love. I am who I am for a reason, and that includes the failures and miseries – without them, I would not only be rather ignorant of what’s around me still, but equally clueless about myself.

Crisis Averted

The appointment with the university administration turned out rather unspectacular: they didn’t ask any questions, just gave me a form that I need to fill out and told me to get in contact with the professor who’ll rate my credits and see how many are transferable to the new degree. The professor in question is overseas for a research trip this week, so I left him an email, and that’s all I can do so far.
At home, I tore half my flat apart while looking for the credits (nowadays, that’s all online, but ten years ago you still got a piece of paper), almost freaking out when I could not find them. It was only later that I remembered I had put them all into a portfolio case which was lying in a shelf in my living room.

I can’t help thinking that this might be a very important step in my recovery process: only now I notice how heavily the burden of this failed education had been weighing down on me. There always was a sense of failure and unfinished business in the background. Of course, I’m still nervous about everything, but it’s paired with cautious optimism.

Intelligence & Intellect

Thursday night I informed my parents that I wanted to make a new start at university, which went better than expected. My mother stressed that I had to get my act together this time around, but the conversation wasn’t unpleasant.
It was one of the few times when my therapist had actually told me what to do: “You need to talk to your parents, soon.” I had been afraid of doing so, mainly because I’m prone to worst-case-fantasies and after a while I can’t tell anymore what’s a realistic expectation and what’s just exaggerating imagination. The biggest problems (by far) in the equation are money or related to money: how everything’s going to be financed and whether I’ll be able to still get a job after all those years. I am going to try applying for a student loan; I don’t like the idea of accumulating debts, but on the other hand it would mean a stable “income” and I could concentrate on the actual classes.

The anxiety is finally gone. I still feel nervous about my cognitive deficits, but try to tell myself that at a time when the depression was not quite as pronounced, I had no problem handling the intellectual part of university.
The irony of it is that I grew up being told how intelligent or smart I am, but instead of becoming convinced that this is true, I live in constant fear that some day people will find out that in fact I am not nearly as intelligent at all and it was just a huge misunderstanding… It might just be a manifestation of chronically low self-esteem, coupled with what I experienced when I was at the absolutely lowest and my concentration was so poor that I could hardly read two lines from a text. The letters would start dancing before my eyes, flowing into unintelligible gibberish.
The topic came up in session and my therapist told me that he had gotten to know me as an intelligent person. “Did anybody ever tell you?” – “Quite a lot of people told me, actually,” I replied, “But… well….” He asked me to guess how many out of his CBASP patients had been able to do a situational analysis alone on the flip chart after a comparable number of therapy sessions, with hardly any help or correction from him, as I had the week before. I was clueless. “None,” he said; then, after a second’s reflection, “No, you are the only one.” He explained that even though a considerable number of his patients with chronic depression were highly intelligent people, I was the first to take the knowledge and transfer it that quickly.

Rationally I know that my intellectual capacities used to be above average, and I also know that I am not the smartest person alive – not even the smartest person I know.
There are three aspects I worry about: first, depression changes the cerebral structure and I worry that the last years, when I had more symptoms over a longer time than before, “damaged” my brain so much that it will never fully recover.
One problem lies on the side of perfectionism, because less than excellent results would feel like a failure in the past. So, I don’t wonder if I’ll manage to pass exams, but I worry if I’ll be able to get good enough grades to not make me feel disappointed in myself.
The last aspect is whether I’ll be able to control my nerves in exam situations, because it has happened that I got so nervous that there was nothing but “white noise” in my brain, like a temporary amnesia – I literally couldn’t remember anything, even though I knew it was somewhere in my brain. My therapist explained to me that this happens when your brain is too busy with too many different things at once: if you are sitting an exam and suffer an anxiety attack at the same time, the brain will eventually tend to the anxiety only and neglect everything else, because the anxiety starts a lot of instinctive reactions in the body. Instincts, however, always have priority.

Yet, a part of me is also looking forward to studying again; happy that I get a second chance at higher education and doing what I used to love so much when I was younger. There is a little glitter of hope on the horizon.

Pandora’s Box

Half a year from now, the recent turn of events might reveal itself as a blessing in disguise, but right now I’m majorly stressed out by it.

University is a huge trigger for me, because there are a lot of bad feelings associated with various elements of it: not only the normal social anxiety in regards to professors and students (which I should be able to handle better now, thanks to therapy), but also additionally heightened social anxiety of administrative staff. It all stems from years ago when I wanted to apply for financial aid and one of the people who had to sign my form yelled at me for half an hour about what a social parasite I was, exploiting the tax payers. I know now that I shouldn’t have “swallowed” all this and protested instead, but I took it all to the heart. On top of it all, I happen to have very intense cases of exam nerves, up to the point where I skip exams at the last minute.
The irony of it all is that in regards to the matter taught, I used to be a very good student – which, again, I turned into a way to pressure myself, because only very good grades were really acceptable to me.

I spent some time reflecting on this and I believe that the problem is that I knew I wanted to do “something with history or archaeology” since the age of 6. It was not merely something I did and enjoyed, it was part of my identity. So every test became not only an examination of what I’d learned, but by extension also an examination of me. Failing or even average performances had no place in it, but that kind of perfectionism is very demanding and sets you up for disappointments.
And I was not only a perfectionist about it, but had a number of special permissions going just so I could do my thing: the combination of subjects I chose required permission by the dean, I did classes at another university as part of an “exchange programme” that they didn’t recognize later…

Originally, I wanted more time for this because there was so much anxiety related to the topic that I meant to untangle the mess in baby steps, in order to prevent what happened yesterday: that I get such a huge anxiety attack that I run the opposite direction as fast as I can. I owe it to my therapist that I snapped out of it again and started thinking it through logically…

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I really want some kind of university degree to prevent all the time and effort and money spent on the first degree from being a complete waste. And I also know that I don’t want to go back to prehistoric archaeology. It was my first love and we were incredibly close for a long time, but had a really messy relationship after a couple of years and I think a divorce and fresh start will be much better.
So, I guess a bachelor’s degree in geosciences it is. It looks like a clean slate. No special permissions required, no foreign languages I need to spruce up (I learned English, Latin, Ancient Greek and Biblical Hebrew in school, but prehistoric archaeology required French), no secondary subjects, no classes blocking one another.
I checked the requirements and deadlines, and I still have about three weeks to present myself to the university administration for starting the process. All I want to do is talking it through with my therapist first, because obviously I will need to work on all the anxiety that comes with the step.

A few weeks ago, I spoke about having opened Pandora’s box in therapy, when I went through all those old memories… Well, it looks like the box has not been emptied yet, not nearly. However, the original box of Pandora also contained hope…

Welcome To Your Life

I had a clinical interview with another psychologist this morning – the same who created my personality profile back in December before I started psychotherapy. It was more or less a follow-up, consisting of the same questions.

The depressive episode was officially pronounced over, even though some residual symptoms currently remain. The panic disorder is gone (I haven’t had a panic attack in a year), and so are the slight traces of agoraphobia she could detect six months ago.
Of course, my “avoidant personality structure” still remains, but it has softened up a bit and the extremes of the social anxiety are gone as well.

It’s a rather strange feeling – despite the fact that I knew I was doing much better, there still is a difference between merely suspecting and being officially told that the last depressive episode is over. I am happy, mostly, and a little bit nervous.

Fortunately, I have the chance to continue therapy, because I don’t feel stable enough for carrying on completely on my own just yet. The last relapse brought up too many doubts to make me trust myself (yet).
However, right now I’m not relapsing, and there’s still work to be done. I got rid of the depression, but not of what caused it and was caused by it. I picture it as a decrepit house being renovated: the roof got patched up, the debris cleared out… now I need to replace all the broken furniture.

The therapy session in the afternoon was intense, but in a good way. The headline actually is a sentence my therapist said to me today – to signify that for the first time ever, I can start living without being ruled by an illness.

First Anniversary – A Year Of Being Treated For Depression

Since I have been in therapy for six months now, we did a little retrospective session yesterday. First, my therapist asked me to recount the events that led to me getting in contact with him, so I started with the three big panic attacks I suffered during the night exactly a year ago – it’s actually the first anniversary today. On June 24, 2010 I went to see my general physician about it and started with antidepressants the following day.

Looking back, I am glad about those panic attacks. As awful as it felt, without them, I would never have gone to the doctor, who urged me to start psychotherapy every time I saw him over the summer.

I proceeded to talk about the problems I had deciding what kind of treatment I wanted and that after finding contact information for a CBASP programme at the hospital online, I called as soon as possible because I knew I would not bring up the courage anymore if I waited for too long. The diagnostic phase started, with lots of tests to classify my psychological problems, I got off the antidepressant and a week before Christmas, we had the first session.

The next step was listing everything I had learned during those six months:
– talking about my problems and describing them
– asking for help
– understanding my own behavioural patterns and how people react to them
– understanding the depressive symptoms and handling them
– modifying my own behaviour if necessary
– becoming a more “visible” presence
– respecting and expressing my needs

It’s a topic that has been on my mind since my birthday last month. The change happens gradually most of the time and I can hardly tell a difference from one week to the next, but if looking at longer periods, there is a very clear distinction between then and now, and people notice. My therapist said I stopped “being on the run from other people”, my boyfriend commented that I seemed more self-confident these days, etc.
I also notice it myself – I do not sleep 12 hours every day as I did last autumn, but “only” 9 hours per night. I have more energy and can take care of myself better. Even if I have bad days, I know that they are going to end again eventually. Not everything is bleak anymore, not everything doomed to fail. I actually want something from life again.
The one situation that made me realize how much I had altered already actually took place 10 minutes before my session started: I was at the hospital cafeteria, counting coins for getting a bottle of coca cola from a vending machine because I needed some caffeine before the session. My therapist walked in, wanting to buy a cup of coffee, and he was so lost in thought that he didn’t see me. Just a few months ago, I would have hidden somewhere until he left again – or at least pretended I had not noticed him either, so that if he would say something, I could act surprised to find him standing next to me. For a second, I didn’t know what to do, then I simply looked at him and said hello.
For someone not suffering from depression and/or social anxiety, this must sound very trivial, but to me it was a big deal, and clearly to my therapist as well, because he commented how nice it was that I had said something and brought it up in the session again.

Starting therapy was definitely the right decision and I am really grateful for getting help.

On My Birthday

It’s shortly after midnight and thus I am officially turning 31 today. In recent years, my birthday has usually been an occasion for sadness and regrets as it reminded me of how little I accomplished and how I was growing older without having the life I wanted to live. Especially the big 3-0 last year I had dreaded – when I was younger, I would console myself that even if the situation was bad then, I would surely be in a better place at 30. As the day approached and it was painfully obvious that my circumstances had hardly changed during the previous decade, it was the final kick into the abyss.

One year later, I’m in a much better place. Not everything is great, but there were enough changes to make me believe that I will eventually get the life I want.

For one, there is my boyfriend and the fact that we finally carried our relationship to the next (“real life”) level. Prior to his arrival in December, I would often be tormented by anxieties about whether we’d actually manage to do so, not to mention the irrational fears that I’d end up as an old spinster, forever alone. Crazy-cat-lady-to-be.
Obviously, I’m not worried about that anymore, and the time we had together was so wonderful, so peaceful. I love him so much…

Then, there’s the fact that I’ve recovered from the depression and made so much progress in therapy. For the first time in years, it feels like something’s happening, that I’m not stuck in a loop.