Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The hardest time of my life, and an apology

Two nights ago, I sent this to three people who were owed it or something better:
I'm sorry about my depressed and obsessive behavior of the last couple of years. It turns out that I've been suffering from an extreme B12 deficiency. The most likely explanation seems to be that my quasi-vegan diet was insufficiently quasi. I've recently gone through a series of B12 shots, begun taking daily vitamins, and adopted a pescetarian diet. Now the world seems, well, every bit as fucked up if not more, but less daunting. It's like stepping from a dark tunnel into a wasteland, but there are many spots of beauty and promise in that wasteland. With work, it could become a garden, and the work appears hard, but possible.

Brain chemistry. I wish it was less interesting.

Anyway, you each received too much railing from me, and I'm sorry for that.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote back:
It's not like I'm not going to understand this one. It's why I have a soft spot for the brain-damaged and the neurochemically deranged: it could happen to any of us. I've seen the shift in facial muscles appear on an old friend, and it's as chilling as any dark mass that's ever turned up in an x-ray.

I knew that wasn't what was happening to you, but I could tell something was going wrong. It was like you'd lost your way, or were being ridden by some uncongenial dybbuk, or no longer had a clear field of vision. Something. I know from experience that almost no one talks about it, but I really did notice, and was worried.

I know what a relief it is to figure out what's been happening, and find it's treatable. Congratulations, and may you have much joy. I also know how bitter it is to realize how much time and credibility, how many plans and opportunities, have been lost to such a small thing.

Hey, you escaped. Many people never do.

May I make a suggestion? Write about this in public. Blog about it. Writing about the rough patches isn't making excuses for yourself; at minimum, it's testifying that this is something that can happen to people.

You never know the full list of who has and hasn't noticed, who's been worrying, who'd be glad and grateful to know what was really going on, and wants to hear that you're feeling better. What you absolutely cannot know is how many people have built you into their worldview, and will have drawn conclusions about life, the world, and everything that were informed by what they've watched happening to you. We really do have a secondary life in the people around us. When our lives go dark, that patch goes dark for them too. Turn the lights back on.
What Teresa said is better than anything I can add, but I’ll try, starting with some simple facts in case they’re useful for anyone else:

I became a vegetarian in 1995, I think. I knew vegans need to be concerned about B vitamins, but I ate a couple of eggs or a bit of cheese once or twice a week, so I didn’t worry about it. Maybe a couple of years ago, my doctor noticed my homocysteine levels were running a little high, so he prescribed folic acid. A few months ago, I finally figured out that I was suffering from depression, and I began googling.

What I learned:

Vitamin B-12 and depression are related.

"Vegetarians who do not supplement their diet with vitamin B12 tend to have elevated homocysteine levels." “Keeping homocysteine at levels associated with lower rates of disease requires both adequate B12 and folate (also known as folic acid) status.”

And most significantly for me: "The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) [of folic acid] has been kept low (currently 200 mcg) because of a remote risk of folic acid masking some signs of B12 deficiency."

I told the doc about this, and he ordered a B-12 test. As soon as he got the results, he put me on a series of shots, one every two weeks. Some people apparently feel better immediately after getting their shots. I didn’t, but I felt like I was regaining some perspective on life.

Now, here’s why I never noticed that I was becoming seriously depressed. If you had asked me what the hardest time in my life was, I would have considered three possibilities:

1. When my family was involved with civil rights in Florida in the ‘60s, we were threatened and ostracized for being “niggerlovers.”

2. When I tried to make an indie film, I failed and went deeply into debt because I was insufficiently prepared.

3. When Emma broke both of her elbows, we had no health insurance.

But those were only tough times. In every case, I was ready to keep working. I believed the only requirement for success was the willingness to fail over and over until you got things right.

My hardest time began a few years ago. I thought I was depressed for good reasons: my sister died, my career seemed to be over, and all around me, capitalism was hurting everyone who wasn’t rich. I couldn’t bear to try doing anything because I knew anything I tried would fail.

I’m an agnostic on whether people have souls—that just doesn’t seem terribly relevant in this life—but if we do, our souls are affected by our brains, and when our brains do not have all they need, our essential self, whether you call it mind or soul, suffers.

I got myself back when I got my B12 levels back. Now I’m looking forward to failing again, in bigger ways, with greater frequency. It’s a great feeling. I forgot that being able to fail at what you love is the greatest privilege any of us can have. Most of us don’t even get the opportunity to try.

I owe apologies to more people than I know. I am sorry for every time that I did not disengage sooner from a disagreement. If you think I owe you an apology, ask, and I’ll almost certainly give it.

Honesty requires that I add this: I’ll stay obsessive. Everyone who pursues truth through art or science has to be obsessive. But I’ll smile more, and I’ll be more understanding of those who disagree with me.