Friday, July 20, 2007

New Word

The principal benefit of having an inflammation and allergic reaction that left me literally needing a hand was that the friend who lent the hand also gave me a new word: dysthymia.

Pronounced, against every instinctive impulse of mine, dis-THIGH-me-ah ("You say dis-thigh-me-ah, I say dis-thee-me-ah..."), it refers to a low level, high-functioning form of depression (see here).

How do I come by this piece of information? Six months ago or so I was given steroids to help fight off the effects of an allergic reaction to a prescribed anti-inflammation drug. One of the perils of being generally healthy is that when you get sick you don't know what pharmaceuticals your body doesn't like.

Now I knew steroids from reports about sports figures using them illegally. Myself, I recoil at the idea of taking an aspirin for a headache.

So there I was with the top sports stars and -- wow! -- it was like I was on my third cup of coffee all day long. I was punning like a pro, smiling at and seeing insights in everything and at my charismatic best. (It's not blowing my horn to say that I have a modicum of charisma, but this was charisma ... on steroids. Hey, it really was!)

People noticed. I had never been this lively. It was distinctively me, but like a me that had emerged from under water. But then I began to be on the down slope.

That was more familiar.

In my history there was a very cheerful child who never cried and always smiled until I was about 5. Then I changed into the largely solitary, melancholy, ruminant proto-blogger I've been all my life.

Courtly and charming on the surface, repressed underneath and -- alas! -- never successfully so over the long term. In the wash my monsters come out and I'm a pain.

But what if I had dysthymia, as my friend (a certified and experienced therapist) said? What if the happy person who delights in charming others for the love of life, the one who lurks beneath the surface, can be brought out?

OK, now I've been diagnosed with dysthymia and I'm taking a pill that was supposed to help the real me, the me everyone likes, emerge.

For the first month ... nothing much, I felt. Not like steroids.

But I hadn't been down. I told the nurse who called that I didn't feel much of a change; then I said other people say they've seen a difference.

"Oh, they've noticed!" The jaded, flea-bitten me wondered what her cheerful tone meant.

Now I've noticed. I'm not on the unsustainable steroids high, but there seems to be a safety net to my moodiness and my anger. I go down so far, then it fizzles out. I let it go, then I bounce back up.

Science has been telling us for years that everything we value about ourselves, our personality, our presumed "soul" or "spirit," our individuality -- all of it -- are really a bunch of chemical compounds. Now that the evidence is in front of me I don't know whether I like the conclusion or not.

I would prefer to think otherwise.

Yes, I have not become president of the United States, nor won the Nobel Prize for literature. But in some small ways I've battled against the obstacles of life and won my small victories. Part of that comes from the person I have chosen to be.

Or so I thought. Now, I don't know. Except for one little hint.

Unaccustomed to taking daily medicine, I forget to take it at least once a week. The first couple of times this happened it was an unmitigated disaster. I was a bear just out of hibernation, hungry and in a bad mood.

But more recently, a day or two accidentally without pills no longer triggers Mount Vesuvius. My therapist friend says that it's the cumulative effect of the drug.

My therafriend is wrong. I think I have somehow "learned" to dim the lights of my own worst side. But, OK, just to be sure, I'll get up and take my pill now.


Snoskred said...

I don't think it is *just* chemical compounds. ;)

I do think it is a combination of both chemical compounds and willpower and determination and positivity and all the choices we make in life and all the lessons we learn.

If you check my blog you'll see a very good friend of mine was diagnosed with dysthymia just today. I'm glad you posted this, I'm going to give him the link so he can read this. ;)

What annoys me a lot about depression is that so many people think it is about pulling yourself together and getting on with things. Sure, sometimes it can be that - but sometimes it is more serious and it needs actual treatment. Similar to diabetes in some ways - nobody would tell a diabetic - "You don't need insulin. Your pancreas is just being *lazy*. Get up off your rear and put some effort in, everything will be fine if you do that".

Yet that is the automatic reaction of so many people when faced with someone who has depression. If you get up off your rear everything will be fine. That is not *always* true, and only a doctor should be judging that, not us mere humans who are worried about someone we care about. :)

I believe that our number one reaction should be, get thee to a doctor and find out whether you need medication, or not.

Snoskred - has a new home at -

Sephyroth said...

Hi, I'm the friend referenced in Snos' comment; it was a new word for me as well. However, it's, for lack of a better term, good to know that there is something not completely right with me, and that there's a way out.

It is a lot more to do with actually taking the time to build up the courage to seek the help to get the chemicals balanced, and lead to feeling better about the world.


Cecilieaux said...

Glad to be given and to offer support, Snos and Sephy. But it's unimaginably hard to come out, even under a nom d'internet -- I drafted this months ago.

Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thailandchani said...

I think it's just simply a matter of our bodies not always producing what we need, so medication helps.

I have a mood disorder... and it requires medication.

Dysthymia is one of those diagnoses that fills me with suspicion. Given the conditions most of us live in, a low level depression on occasion seems perfectly reasonable.

At any rate, no "coming out" process needed. It's nothing to be ashamed about.



Cecilieaux said...

I should wait, like Chani, for the comments to pile up (except that here they rarely do), so here goes ...

G, I understand the suspicion you may feel toward pills and certain words, but I experientially know what I know.

Chani, I felt and perhaps still feel a little suspicious about dysthymia myself. Shrinks and docs play lots of smoke and mirror tricks with diagnoses: unspecified this and generalized that when what they really are saying is "we don't know." But how can you charge someone for saying "I don't know"?

Yes, it seems to me that dysthymia is really code for "you have consistent trouble balancing or pulling yourself out of your moods." The pills are like a coolant for an engine that overheats.

I don't see it as major: I lived -- and yes, probably had a less satisfying life -- for a half century without the pills or the diagnosis, yet never tried to kill myself or others (and a few people sorely tempted me).

It's such a relief, however, to learn that there's something one can take and change what remains of one's life. You're right, the body plays odd tricks.

Anne said...

It seems to me that recognition/diagnosis of what's wrong (or right) is half the battle. Who knows, life might take a strange turn and medicine be unavailable and then you are on your own.