Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Let's Talk About Allergies and Mental Illness

I'm having my worst fall allergy season in over a decade.

No one knows why. I'm taking my usual antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays. I'm doing all my routine protocols, showering in the evenings to wash the pollen off, using a neti pot to rinse my nose, sleeping on freshly-washed sheets in a bedroom prepared for an allergy sufferer with a wood floor and a mattress encased in a dust-mite protective cloth. I started another round of immunotherapy ("allergy shots")--the fourth multi-year round of my lifetime--last spring.

Yet last night I was sneezing so hard and so frequently in my bed that I finally got up, clutching my box of tissues, and fled to the guest room to sneeze in private, so that my poor husband, who has a full day of operating on other peoples' eyeballs ahead of him, could actually sleep. In the morning when he came to wake me, he looked at the dozens of used tissues littering the floor and said, "Maybe it's time for prednisone."

I agreed. I went to my stash of prednisone (with allergies and asthma like mine, you keep prednisone on hand) and I took some, and now I'm sitting here typing this, sneezing, and waiting for the drugs to kick in. Prednisone is awesome stuff, but it has side effects that keep it from being the first line of defense.

Meanwhile, yesterday I got an email from a woman scheduling contributions to a blog about mental health issues as presented in young adult literature. I'm all in on this. I have mental health issues (chronic PTSD, depression), many of my family members have mental health issues, and many young adults I know have mental health issues. It drives me batshit crazy when these aren't addressed with openness and honesty.

There should be no shame.

In the past 10 years I've done an awful lot to manage and improve my mental health. I get a massage every week (this was an idea my therapist had a decade ago--interestingly enough, some of the latest neuroscience confirms that it's very helpful in treating chronic PTSD, which, despite the name, is biochemically quite different from the sort of PTSD soldiers get, and has to be treated differently). I take yoga classes four to six times a week. I did several years of talk therapy, and I still get therapy occasionally. (For the record: traditional CBT doesn't do much for chronic PTSD, and EMR doesn't work in most cases; however, electric brain retraining--there's a better way to put that, I just can't remember--and neurofeedback methods such as brainspotting really help. This again according to the latest research. I am a huge fan of neuroscience.)

I also take an antidepressant medication. Every day. I came off meds once and relapsed; it was very difficult for me and for my family. Right now under my doctor's advice I'm seeing if I can lower the dose of the medicine I talk, because we think it's raising my blood pressure, but the truth is, since I relapsed once I'm very likely to relapse again, so I'm looking at staying on some kind of antidepressant forever.

I have always been, since earliest memory, the person with the worst allergy symptoms in whatever group I'm in. I was  the worst in grade school, high school, college. The only girl who bought a bigger purse to have somewhere to hold all the Kleenex. I'm the reason my yoga studio owner stocked all the classrooms with tissues. Throughout my life I have felt annoyed, embarrassed, irritated, and occasionally even angry that for reasons unknown my immune system lives in hyperdrive. However, I have never once felt ashamed.

Taking antihistamines or even prednisone does not embarrass me. Taking allergy meds does not mean I'm unable to sneeze or that nothing ever comes out of my nose. When they work really well, allergy meds restore me to a more normal baseline.

The same is true of my antidepressant. It's not a happy pill. It doesn't make me cheerful all the time (family members can attest to this) nor does it make me incapable of real, deep, penetrating sorrow. What it does do is allow my brain to process events and emotions in a more neurotypical ("normal") fashion. It brings me up to a baseline most people maintain all the time.

Lately there have been a lot more books, especially for young people, discussing depression and other mental illnesses, which should be good, except that way too many of tehm have carried very stupid, potentially harmful messages: that pills are evil, that medicine should be avoided at all costs. That there's something noble in being paralyzed by depression. That suicide is somehow meaningful, or anything but a tragic waste. That people with mental illness should feel ashamed; that if they seek help they should feel more so.

Sorry. I'm not ashamed. Neither of my runny nose nor my traumatically-rewired brain. I've got what I've got. Yoga has enabled me to see my body much more clearly. I've got long legs, a short torso, and short arms, which means I have to use a block to do Half Moon Pose and I really struggle with Eagle Arms. On the other hand, I absolutely rock at Cobbler Pose. In a similar way, I can look at my brain and see that I'm really fabulous with empathy. I don't remember faces well but I can read emotions like you wouldn't believe. I pay attention to the musical rhythms of words, which means I remember conversations accurately, which makes me excellent at creating dialogue and a better than usual writer in general. I lack my husband's and son's near photographic memory for details, but I pick up on patterns easily. I'm not as good as I'd like to be at reading a map. My lizard brain startles easily; I have to deal with a permanently overreactive stress response. Also, ragweed pollen makes my nose run like a hose.

I'm grateful for the medicines that help me.

That's the way it is.