Guilty pleasures?

Is it wrong?

I’m researching Amazon birds while drinking coffee — coffee being one of many crops destroying these gorgeous creatures’ habitat.

But I am at Cold Smoke Coffeehouse drinking Papua New Guinea, grown nowhere near the Amazon rainforest, though I’m sure there’s destruction going on there as well. But anyway, some of the proceeds from the coffee sold at Cold Smoke goes to supporting El Porvenir, a small nonprofit providing clean water and sanitation to Nicaraguans. I always thought Cold Smoke’s slogan was simply a punny comment about what happens when one drinks too much coffee: “Drink Coffee. Give Water.”

Photo on 8-19-16 at 1.27 PM

So is that supposed to make me feel less guilty? It doesn’t.

Guilty as charged, your honor!

But I’m supposed to be avoiding caffeine as it may exacerbate hot flashes, according to renowned women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup.

So what’s a guilty, aging, coffee-loving girl to do?

My ADDled Brain’s ADDiction

“There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

                –Deepak Chopra

I admit it. I have an addiction.

I also have mild depression and anxiety — conditions not uncommon to people with ADD or women going through perimenopause, of which I have both.

Yay for me!

Though it’s not destined to destroy my physical health like alcohol or drug addiction, mine does feel self-destructive. It affects my ability to pursue my career and creative goals.

My addiction? Puzzles.

When I’m feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and want to avoid work, I turn to online jigsaw puzzles, word games, crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Side note: Nearly 1 in 5 American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Now substance addiction is a different animal than say, gambling or puzzle playing, I don’t deny that. Using alcohol, drugs or even tobacco has true physiological effects. But in terms of brain chemistry, I wonder how different those addictions and mine really are.

For me, I think doing puzzles calms my overwhelmed and sometimes anxious brain, much like a heroin addict who soothes his anxiety or pain by shooting up. OK, I admit, that’s probably a stretch given the physical ramifications of not taking a highly addictive substance, as in withdrawal, which is a serious health concern in and of itself. But either way, both addictions result from a lack of impulse control (as embarrassing as that is for me to admit about myself).

Self-proclaimed Puzzlecrossword addict Dean Olsher is ambivalent about crossword puzzles. In a 2009 interview with Melissa Block on NPR, Dean Olsher spoke about his book, “From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, On Crosswords.”

Olsher confirms my thinking about puzzle addiction. Reading from his book on NPR,  he says, “Entering a crossword is like stepping into the clean, white cube of an art gallery or into a church or a Japanese rock garden. There are days when solving puzzles feels like a practice — the next best thing to seated meditation … It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It’s just something to do every day because it’s there.”

Soothing, right?

However, Olsher also asserts that puzzles “have an addictive, immersive quality that keeps people coming back for more.” Part Zen and part addiction, he likens them to their own form of mental illness.

Yiiiiiiiiikes!!!

According to an October article by National Institutes of Health, researchers found that “addiction’s power lies in its ability to hijack and even destroy key brain regions that are meant to help us survive.”

Healthy brains reward healthy behaviors, it says. Exercising and eating healthy foods switches on brain circuits that makes us feel good, so we’re motivated to repeat those behaviors.

When a healthy brain senses danger, it elicits a chemical release that prompts the body to react quickly — the so-called fight-or-flight response. According to a  Harvard Medical School article on depression, “Every real or perceived threat to your body triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produces physiological changes. We all know the sensations: your heart pounds, muscles tense, breathing quickens, and beads of sweat appear.”

But drugs and alcohol mask those chemical responses by hijacking the brain’s pleasure/reward circuits, the NIH says. Addiction sets danger-sensing circuits of the brain into overdrive, making an addict anxious and stressed when not under the influence, leading them to want more and more.

For substance abusers, it becomes a vicious cycle that has them using drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling bad rather than to feel good.

And those stress hormones? They are produced as a result of increased activity in the frontal cortex of the brain — lo and behold, one of the areas of the brain affected by ADD and depression!

If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating candy instead of a healthy dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the frontal regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions. But if your frontal cortex isn’t totally functional, as is the case with addiction, ADD and depression, you may not have the ability to rationally stop yourself from doing something you know won’t be good for you. I feel that. It becomes an intense struggle to control impulses. And, like any addiction, it gets in the way of living life.

But I can report now that I have cut down on my puzzle-playing over the last few months during which time, this post sat in my draft folder. Maybe I felt the need for some good news before I came clean to you.

I’m far from cured. I still take an occasional trip to my favorite online puzzles. But I’ve deleted games from my phone and I often stop myself when I feel the urge, so I’m getting there. So does PA exist — a support group for puzzle addicts?

Run For Your Life: Coming Out From Under the Covers

“You initially become funny as a kid because you’re looking for attention and love. Psychologists think that’s all to do with mother abandonment. I think John Cleese has his depressions, and Terry Gilliam’s the same. All of us together make one completely insane person.”

                                                                         –Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame)

Last weekend, I ran the second 5k race in a matter of two months benefitting mental health treatment and suicide prevention.

The first one was in Gardiner, Montana, within view of the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Last week’s race was right here in Bozeman and raised more than $15,000 for our local crisis help center.

Roosevelt Arch -- entrance to Yellowstone National Park

Roosevelt Arch — entrance to Yellowstone National Park

Yes, of course that’s a great thing.

But I can’t help thinking how sad it is that we haven’t found suitable treatment for depression to prevent suicides. The Rocky Mountain West, and Montana in particular, historically has had the highest suicide rate in the nation for many — too many — years.

In 2013, once again, Montana topped the list with nearly 24 deaths per 100,000 people. Not exactly a proud moment for us.

According to the World Health Organization:

  • An estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression worldwide.
  • Over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds.
  • Depression affects women more often than men.

Last week’s race was held on Halloween and aptly called “Run For Your Life.” Complete with “real” trailside zombies it was good fun. Costumes were strongly encouraged. So I rehabilitated an old wizard costume from 2008. It was just easy.

Photo: Paul Bussi-www.idealphotography.com

What I didn’t recall until I was off and running in my moon-star-sequined-adorned graduation gown, was that this was the same costume I wore the day a friend decided to end her life. I have a picture of that day on my desk — a good friend and I in costume mugging for the camera, arms around each others’ shoulders. A fun day as our friend’s struggle and final decision wasn’t revealed until the following day.

It is impossible to describe what it feels like to learn someone you know and care about took their own life. Unfortunately, too many of us DO know that feeling.

Equally saddening is the fact that way too many of us know what it feels like to have no hope.

At the Big Bear Stampede race in Gardiner, my friend, physical therapist and world-renowned ultra-marathoner Nikki Kimball brought tears to my eyes as she spoke of her own struggle with depression. She says suicide doesn’t kill people, depression kills people.

She’s right, you know.

And in addition to successfully treating my achilles tendonitis (YAY!), she’s taught me that we all need to be brave, come out from under our down comforters and talk openly about depression!

So I’m here to tell you right now that, yes, I have struggled with depression on and off since puberty, I think.

It’s a complicated thing and just because I sometimes have this gnawing feeling that I’m not good enough … deep down inside, I know that not only am I good enough, but I’m actually better than good.

That’s one thing that keeps me going.

But it is fairly common for people with ADDled brains to have co-occurring depression. We are so often misunderstood and it is frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t support our creative talents or accept and accommodate our oft-distracted ways.

Lucky me, I have the trifecta of ADD, depression and perimenopause (that time in a woman’s life when her hormones are dissipating, if you will — another condition also often associated with depression. I wrote more about perimenopause and what it does to some women’s brains (me included) in an earlier post.

All that being said, there’s hope. Yes, there really is.

I’m happy to say that there are throngs of people who are coming out from under the covers and sharing their experiences with mental illness on blogs, in books and support groups. Here are some good examples on the web:

  • Kat Kinsman — an editor at CNN wrote and was interviewed about her experience with depression. I highly recommend checking out her piece as she also has a list of other resources at the bottom of her article.
  • Author William Styron, author of “Sophie’s Choice” and a brilliant man well ahead of his time, wrote “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.”
  • Pick the Brain is a website “dedicated to self-improvement with a focus on personal productivity, motivation, and self-education” and includes articles on psychological topics.
  • Daisies and Bruises: The Art of Living with Depression.
  • Bring Change 2 Mind is a nonprofit started by actress Glenn Close with her sister, Jessie Close, and nephew, Calen Pick, (mother and son, both of whom have mental illness). Its aim is to remove the misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental illness. I had the privilege of interviewing and writing about Jessie and her son before their speaking engagement here in Bozeman a few years ago.  BC2M’s website has an excellent blog featuring a variety of writers with equally varied diagnoses.
  • Jessie Close also wrote a book about her experience with bipolar disorder called, “Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness.”
  • Smart Girls with ADHD
  • ADDitude Magazine
  • Dr. Ned Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey (co-authors of many books on ADHD).
  • I found some of these blogs on Healthline that posted a slide show of the best depression health blogs of 2015.

This is a short list, for sure. There’s many others. If you have a great one that you’d like to recommend, I’d love to see it in the comments.

Here’s to throwing off the blankets, feeling the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair …

Where is … uh, what was I looking for again?

Housework can’t kill you, but why take a chance?” –Phyllis Diller

So the reason it took more than 50 years to discover that I had this hardly rare “disorder” called ADD is that the condition was seriously exacerbated by the effects of, shall we say, hormonal changes. Until I hit about 50, I was managing — maybe not as well as I could have had I known I had ADD, but I was getting by.

Perimenopause is the period in a woman’s life when she is going through “the change.” I hate that term. I prefer transition; it just sounds more Zen.

Anyway, the transition is often referred to as menopause. But in reality, menopause is when the hormone shifting has pretty much ended along with all the crap a bunch of dissipating hormones brings.

And when I say crap, I don’t mean that literally — holy hell is more like it.

My symptoms include hot flashes and, trust me, they are not pleasant even in the dead-freezing cold of a Rocky Mountain winter. In fact, the after effects often result in chills. Sometimes I’d get so hot my glasses fog. The hot-cold cycles also severely disrupt my sleep.

I use present tense here because I’m still in the throes of it. However, I am doing significantly better thanks to a little patch I slap on my butt or belly twice weekly. It was a difficult decision to go on hormone replacement therapy, but that’s another blog entry …

Many women who’ve been through it will tell you they get quite befuddled during the transition. Forgetfulness, difficulty communicating and serious cognitive issues sometimes arise. Sleep disturbances only serve to heighten these challenges.

Depression is also not uncommon — predicated, in part, by all the other lovely perimenopausal symptoms.

Creased and nearly falling apart, it is clear this notebook is my constant companion. It contains random phone numbers, ideas, book and video suggestions from other people, old to-do lists and vague reminders.

Creased and nearly falling apart, it is clear this notebook is my constant companion. It contains random phone numbers, ideas, book and video suggestions from other people, old to-do lists and vague reminders.

It’s sort of like going through adolescence all over again — what fun! Only now you understand what’s going on AND you’re trying to live an adult life. So really it’s just damn frustrating.

There’s no more tantrum throwing, emotional meltdowns or locking oneself in the closet only to come out later to a nice, hot dinner and a forgiving family. Seriously, it’s just not acceptable adult behavior. But believe me, I’ve probably wanted to do all these things (and worse) over the past year or so. You women out there of a certain age know what I mean.

So combine this transition thing with ADD and you have a human wrecking ball — at least that’s what I feel like sometimes.

For example, another fun thing about people with ADD is their tendency toward disorganization. Despite my best efforts, I just can’t seem to keep things — let alone my life — tidy. Add to that the befuddlement of the transition and you get, well, me.

I’ve been working to make my freelance writing life more organized and it’s mostly working thanks to Google calendar and GTasks — a mobile app that syncs Google calendar and Google tasks from my computer (actually Google’s gargantuan servers, I guess) into a single window on my phone.

I also carry around a small notepad which I use to take down quick notes which I usually transfer to my computer or phone later. It’s just faster than putting them into my phone when I’m on the run.

But my stuff, well, that’s still a struggle.

I’m attempting to ascribe to the OHIO (Only Handle It Once) behavior and it’s also helping. It’s gratifying to see our house getting less cluttered.

However, right now I haven’t seen my cool coffee press travel mug for weeks (maybe months).

The significant other's coffee press mug. Mine's missing.

The significant other’s coffee press mug. Mine’s missing.

And I know I’m missing other things, but I can’t even remember what they are. One day, perhaps, I’ll come across them again and it will be a fun eureka moment. Until then, I guess I’ll remember what I’m missing when I need it. Or maybe I just didn’t need it to begin with …