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Are you depressed? Here’s how it went for me.

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Gunther, emotional supporter.

October 24, 2018

Two days after my mother’s birthday.  She would have been 106.  

Domestic front:  About two weeks ago my psychiatrist finished tapering me off all my antidepressant medications.  I was on three such meds for several–I don’t know, five?– years. 

I don’t know what happened to make me ill.  Well, maybe I do have a few theories, but I was in a pit of despair for a couple years there.  At the time, one friend told me to “get the fuck in to see someone” about my depressed, suicidal mood.  Gee!  A grandson even phoned me to tell me he would always be available to talk with me if I felt hopeless.

I shared my diagnosis and experience on this blog.

How am I now?  I fear the return of the sadness and anxiety.  Oh yes.  My psych told me to phone him if things got too rough and I felt I needed help.  Yep, I almost phoned him during the first week when I wasn’t taking meds, but hey!  If I can swim through life without water wings, I’d love that.  I’m swimming!  Yeah.  The world still has to cope with a fascist president, global warming, homelessness, racism, but I can still enjoy the fall weather when I walk Gunther, my dog.  This morning I saw a cat drinking from a birdbath.

My memories of that tumultuous time, years ago, of maximum depression are mixed around in my mind like swirling colors of paint in a can, but I recall profoundly hurting, but not the physical kind of pain.  I don’t remember even what I did with my days then.  I wrote in my blog, I walked the dog.  Gunther was a great and enduring comfort to me.  I guess I took more than my share of naps.

I strongly recommend people who even suspect they might be depressed get in to see a medical doctor for anti depression medication and to get a pet.  In either order.  A scrappy, scruffy-looking dog worked for me, but you might need a different species.

A friend brought me over a vest for my dog, Gunther, proclaiming him to be an emotional support animal, or “ESA.”  My psychiatrist wrote me a letter in support, but he stopped short of advocating Gunther accompany me inside a grocery, or even on an airplane.

My oldest son asked me if a blind person needs a dog inside a store, to which I replied yes.  Then he asked me if I needed Gunther in order to go in the store.  You can guess my answer.  No.

In hindsight, I feel fortunate I had topnotch medical care available to me.  Any doctor appointments are hard enough to get, but in Billings, Montana,  psychiatric care is damned near impossible (I’ve heard of people having to wait, like, more than six months for a first appointment), and if my doctor hadn’t referred me to a psychiatrist, I doubt if I’d been able to get in to see one.  He referred me to a psychiatrist because I scared even him.  He said I needed a specialist.  My internist had me on two antidepressants but they didn’t seem to work.

As it was, I got a psych appointment in just a few weeks, although I frequently had to take appointments at odd times, like at 6:30 or 7 a.m.  Those days I stood on the icy steps of the psychiatric center waiting for someone to unlock.  I didn’t dare miss an appointment.  I had heard of people getting fired by their psychiatrist after missing one appointment.

Thanks to my internist I had been on Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, for several years before I went in to see the psychiatrist the first time.  My internist had tried adding first Celexa, then Prozac, to the Wellbutrin, but I felt by turns, no better, then terrible, antsy, nervous, crazy.  My internist referred me out.  He said he didn’t have the experience to tinker.

The psych stopped all but the Wellbutrin, then added Effexor, then had me return in a month.  In many later visits, he adjusted the Effexor, then added Abilify.  

These products are not merely brand names for me, but they have specific properties that work in a variety of ways on the central nervous system.  A lot of it is theoretical and molecular.  The thing is, if a drug has an effect on dopamine, that outcome on dopamine is at most “nice” or “interesting.”  The real outcome of interest, which is hard to gather into data for a study, is if a drug has an effect on whether a person commits suicide.  I call that a compelling outcome.  The nattering about serotonin and whatnot holds little importance for me, but psychiatrists find those concepts useful.

Whenever I talked on the phone about the specifics of my medications, a couple of my family members would chime in about their experiences with their psychiatric meds.  Whoa!  We aren’t talking about whether rhubarb pie is better than apple.  Each person’s experience is bound to be different.  I press home the concept of having a psychiatrist or other qualified practitioner be the coach.  My job (as patient) is to do my best, but the coach is, well, the coach.  Teamwork.

I realize people and the medications they take react together uniquely.  Also, a combination that works well for a person at one time in their life may not work at another juncture.  People change as they age, also the cumulative effects of prescriptions also makes people change.  Ain’t we something?

There are protocols these days for prescribing other kinds of drugs, such as cardiovascular medications, based on data from tens of thousands of people studied for 10-20 years with defensible study endpoints. Like comparison of patient deaths from any cause.  Hard to argue with data like that.  Of course, patient survival isn’t necessarily the most important thing, but if one is taking high blood pressure or cholesterol pills, one can respect an outcome like that.  (Doesn’t address whether the life is tolerable or not.)  Also doesn’t address other aspects of the study.  Are we looking at men? Women? Over age 80? You get the idea.  At least there is scientific evidence to consider with care.

On the other side, psychiatric medicine combinations do not have many large, long, studies, so individual psychiatrists must fly by the seats of their pants.  Well, there are certain pearls of clinical lore, for example:  If one treats the side effect of a medication with another medication, it might (but not always) be a prescription for trouble.  

Depends on their training.  Some psychiatrists believe in dosing a marginally effective prescription up to its maximum before switching to something else.  Medical lore.  A pharmacist I know who has clinical privileges in Billings based some of her choice of med on the effectiveness, as well of the cost to the patient, preferring older generics over newer drugs only available as a patented brand-name product.  An added benefit of her method of using older drugs was the increasing availability of clinical evidence based on many providers’ experiences.  

Back to my experience.  After perhaps a year on the triple antidepressant formula I had gained about 40 lbs, mostly around my belly.  I’ve been skinny most of my life, but psychiatric medications are notorious for weight gain.  The worst for me was the prescription med, Abilify.  Many times I lay awake at 3 a.m. thinking about food before going to the kitchen for a couple bowls of cereal and four packages of ramen noodles.  No, the Abilify is but a tiny, low calorie, pill.  The getting up in the night with a craving for food is a common symptom that I didn’t know how to handle.  Still don’t.  I still have a lot of fat on my belly, but I hope now that I’m not taking psych meds the fat will go away.  I think it will not go away.  

About a year ago my psychiatrist came up with the idea to taper me off all the antidepressants.  I was apprehensive, but he had me return every month while he discontinued first the Rexulti (a brand-name only Abilify-like drug, purportedly causing less appetite increase.  Oh yeah.  Rexulti cost about $15 for a daily pill), then the Wellbutrin, then the Effexor.  He tapered the Effexor over three months.  Like I said, I finished the taper just over two weeks ago.

The good news is I feel well, so far.  I’m thinking that since these antidepressants took more than a month to start working, they may well take that long to stop.  I’ll check myself frequently for the next two weeks, until I visit my psychiatrist again.

He warned me that with each dose decrease of Effexor I’d experience symptoms similar to having a bad cold.  Malaise, mostly.  Sure enough, but those symptoms lasted just a few days, but they were pronounced.

I spoke to my sister Carol yesterday by phone.  I told her about a great opera singer I heard Sunday who sang so magnificently I wept.  To the point where others were thrusting tissues at me as I soaked them one after another.  Carol told me my bladder was too close to my eyes.

What I did during the Vietnam War

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Believe me, although I joined the marines in the fall of 1969, I’ll spoil the story right away.  The most important thing I did was . . . I guess I’d better leave that up to you, the reader.  What a tumultuous time for me and for the rest of the country.  I was 20 years old.

I’ve told my story many times, including once to some friends of my late uncle Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr., killed in World War II on Christmas Eve, 1944.  One of the elderly guys, a tall, lanky soldier like me, said I should have been decorated a hero.  Another, a Southern Gentleman, a retired heart surgeon, said I should have been shot.  Like that.  Kind of like my life has always gone.  Hard to know if any one episode constituted a win or a loss, even looking back over 40 or 50 years.

In 1969, during the months leading up to my marine corps enlistment, I quit college, broke up with a couple of girlfriends and hitchhiked north to work in Fairbanks, Alaska, for a carnival.  I thought I was lucky to get a job with the Golden Wheel Amusements.  Huh.  More like greasy wheel amusements.  The pay was $1.25/hour, so me and this other kid had to move steel carnival ride parts from the back of a truck three hours to earn enough money to buy a sandwich from a concession.  Steel parts, painted silver, caked with lots of grease.  The owner of the carnival company was from the deep south, and so were his permanent staff.  The ones I met were vocally racist.  They talked about murdering blacks if any tried to break into the carnival compound at night.  As far as I know, none did, but the carnival people bragged about carrying weapons.

One other young kid and I did unskilled labor, like I said, lugging steel carnival ride parts from the backs of trailers, then helping setting up the rides for the midway.  I don’t remember the kid’s name, but he had braces on his teeth and was from California.  We both worked for a 5-foot skinny southern guy, an ex-marine, named Benny.  In Fairbanks during July, the sky never quite goes dark, so we worked until Benny was too tired to keep awake.  Once there was a rainstorm and Benny and the kid and I sat in the cab of a semi to wait for it to quit.  We had been working a couple days without sleeping, so Benny nodded off.  You can bet the two of us caught some sleep too.

I had a rucksack with a sleeping bag, two pair underpants, a pair of jeans and a few shirts.  That’s when I discovered you didn’t have to launder your clothes to feel cleaner.  You wore a set until you couldn’t stand them, then changed into the other clothes that were once too filthy to wear, but now seemed a whole lot better than the ones you had on.  I did that day after day, sleeping in the cab of another carnival semi, washing up in a strangely deluxe public men’s room.  We both wore raggedy greasy coveralls we found in a pile in one of the semi trailers. Like the clothes in my rucksack, seemed there was always one set cleaner than the rest.

The California kid and I quit the carnival after about a week.  I had maybe $50 when we hitched rides south to Anchorage with some GIs from a nearby base.  I remember getting an earful of curses from the carnival owner when he paid us.  The guy had gotten into a dispute with the owner of the amusement park so he was packing up the rides and concessions and leaving early.  We wanted no part of that heavy work.  I suppose if they had offered to clean our filthy clothes. . . .

 

In search of Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr., MIA

Visiting the SS Leopoldville in 2007

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Penny and I had tickets to France in 2007 for Christmas.  I took a camera specifically to document our pilgrimage from Montana to the watery expanse out on the English Channel as close as possible to where Carl R. Bonde Jr. reportedly died.
We aimed to drop a few ounces of Montana soil into the water over the wreckage of the SS Leopoldville, his doomed troopship.
He was said to have died just five miles from France and his body is still there, as far as anyone knows.  Some of his buddies were on deck where they could see the lights of Cherbourg when the torpedo struck.

Oh, I thought about it a lot.  We both did, Penny and me.  We prepared and rehearsed several years for our ritual on the Channel Christmas Eve, 2007.  (Carl’s ship was hit by a torpedo Christmas Eve, 1944, about 6 pm.  The exact time has been stated to be 5:55)  My wife Penny and I ordered passports, of course, but we also had to get the dirt.  That was Penny’s idea, putting a bit of Carl’s home into the English Channel.

Not just get it, but get it in the right way from near a certain house in Kalispell, Montana, Carl’s home.  I think I already told about scooping up the dirt from a driveway on the edge of town on memorial day weekend.

Did I mention that I tore the hell out of my fingernail?  Well, I just had a torn nail.  Did I tell how we were in town decorating graves and our visit to Bud’s home to get dirt was our second try?  The first time no one was home to ask permission.  People do this sort of thing all the time, don’t they?  My impulse was to just get out of the car, get dirt, and leave.  But no, I had to actually ask permission.

May was warm in 2007 when we visited Kalispell.  Once we got the baggie with probably four ounces of dirt, gravel, pine needles and my fingernail—well I remembered to take along a plastic bag for the dirt, but it did not occur to me I might also need a tool of some sort to gather up the soil.

The question was:  how does someone transport a bag of soil to France?  I had asked that question of Bud’s Army buddies at the reunion the year before.  Army mortar man Maurice O’Donnell recommended putting it into a woman’s face powder container, or the like.

Instead, I practiced taking a dummy bag of dirt with me on the airplane when we flew to visit our son Todd and his family in Seattle.  Well, I even took the dirt from our yard, and it was very clay-ey and even heavier.  You know, a quart-sized zip-lock bag maybe one quarter filled with dirt, labeled and rolled up.  I managed to get the baggie to Seattle and back: once in our checked luggage; another time as a carry on.

Turns out taking the dirt to France were no big deal at all.  I just put it in my carry on suitcase. My guess is people do that sort of thing a lot.

Allan Andrade, an author and expert on the SS Leopoldville disaster, helped me connect via email with Bertrand Sciboz, a French treasure hunter.  I did attempt to phone Sciboz, but got an answering message in French that sounded like French jibberish.

By email, Bertrand told me to bring a thousand euros in cash for the trip.  Cash, to avoid paying a value added tax.  I got euros from the bank across the street from where I worked.  Of course I had to order them in, pay the exchange rate, plus a percentage fee.  I got five 200 euro notes, big, maybe 4 x 6 inches, colorful, and crisp.  I folded them and put them in my money pouch with the passport.  Later I got another couple hundred euros to pay for a wreath that I sort of got talked into getting because my Uncle’s body was among about 300 others that were not recovered from the wreckage.

With our computer, I studied maps and photographs of Cherbourg.  It sits on this prominent two-lobed peninsula on the Northwest corner of France, the Normandy coast, looking a little like a snail’s head with two eyeballs.  It is situated a little west of Utah and Omaha Beaches.

I learned about Cherbourg from Jacquin Sanders’ book,  A Night Before Christmas.  The US Army and Navy established forts and headquarters there after liberating France from the Germans.  The Google Earth pictures showed the huge breakwater and the port of Cherbourg.  Also, you could see the giant pier where ferries take people to England.

A hotel is located near the north end of the jutting land, the Hotel Mercure.  Our AAA travel agent arranged for our stay Christmas Eve and the night before.  She also arranged for a round trip train ride from Paris to Cherbourg.

Door-knocking for Democrats

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July 29, 2018

Door-knock chronicle number three:  a roller-coaster of emotion. 

When I introduced P. and me as canvassing for the Montana Democratic Party, one woman said she wouldn’t say whether she was voting for Jon Tester, because it was nobody’s business.  I dutifully ticked the box, “refused.”

We ended up visiting 45 houses from the voter registration list, public information.

At another house we met the former Superintendent of School District Two who engaged with us for a good 15-20 minutes.  He said he had run in the primary for the state legislature against a young woman who “kicked my ass!”  He lives up on the rims where a large Jon Tester sign will be easy to see.

Across the street from the aforementioned educator was a man who said he had been in one of Tester’s political advertisements.  “Cost me my job,” he said.  He had been president of a small bank.  What does he do now?  He is retired, he said, and he now plays all the time.

Mostly people were kind to us, even if they said they were Republicans.  Several said they would vote for Tester even though they normally voted Republican.  In one case the man said he knew Tester personally.

Face of Mountain Trail

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Gunther tuckered out after 7 mile hike.

July 27, 2018

P. and I got up at 5:30 to drink coffee, eat cereal with canned milk, then drive to Red Lodge, thence to the Sunlight Ranch on Meeteese Road.  Trailhead for Face of Mountain Trail No. 7.  We’d hiked the trail two other times, the first time with an organized Montana Wilderness Society group.  

Turns out the flora is natural and wild, I’d say.  Thanks to excellent land management practices by Sunlight, who provided a parking area and some signs out on some rolling prairie.  

We walked through sagebrush and grass for the first mile, or so, then up a gentle switchback system about 1000 feet higher.  P. said it is one of her ten favorite views in Montana.

Heathered Moss-colored paint

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July 26, 2018

Thunderstorm last night, so of course I worried about my painting project.  Don’t want the rain to rinse away the paint.  These days I’ve been redoing the garage a shade of green called “Heathered Moss.”  

Somewhere someone is sitting in front of a keyboard inventing names for paint colors.  I imagine they have two columns of words and select one of each.  Monkeyed Sable, maybe, or perhaps Broadside Newsprint.  You know, random words.  Carpeted Doorway.  Oatmeal Sandstone.  “Don’t label that blue paint Carpeted Doorway, call it Robin Sapling.”

The particular green I’ve been using is that of our house’s HardiePlank siding so I wanted to paint the the garage to match.  Our garage is probably about 90 years old and some years ago I peeled off its brittle siding that contained asbestos.  Had to wear a special rubber mask, load the siding into heavy plastic bags, and send it to a designated place in the city-county landfill.  You know, pay a fee.  Beneath the siding was some dirty, badly checked, and peeled painted boards.  Yesterday while painting I found a fragment of the old asbestos siding.

This Spring I scraped, sanded, and washed the wooden siding.  I even bought a pressure washer that did a pretty good job of taking off old flaky paint and chewed up the wood.  Now I’m putting two coats of expensive paint and worrying it will rain.

“I’m not stupid. I’m voting for Tester.”

 

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July 21, 2018

Door-knocking chronicle number two:  at least two professed Republicans who voted for Trump expressed remorse.  One of them repeated, “I’m a Republican, but I’m not stupid.  I’ll vote for Jon Tester.” [ Insert heart emoji.]  I recommend door knocking.  Sure, there are people who won’t open their door, instead shouting that they aren’t interested, but that is more than offset by folks like the garrulous gent, Joseph, who just wanted to shoot the breeze about politics in general and our Democracy in particular.  

We approached a house with a Marine Corps flag.  I knocked.  A woman who said she doesn’t do politics advised us that the people who lived there were strong Republicans and unlikely to vote for Jon Tester.  I asked her who was the Marine?  She said he wasn’t home, but he was a relative of hers. 

“I’m a Marine and I am voting for Tester,” I said.  “Tell him ‘Semper Fi’ for me!”  She warmed right up.  We ended up chatting with her for perhaps three or four more minutes as she told us how she was soon going to Denver to drive back to Great Falls with her blind grandson.

Like that.