June 30, 2011

Check that one off the bucket list

The last time I posted about driving was even longer ago than I had thought. That's because I hadn't been doing very much driving. My plan to take my final road test last summer was foiled when I was put on bedrest due to my pregnancy. Between that, the C-section and my PPD, there were several months when I wasn't in any condition to drive. As if I needed additional stress, some months ago I received a notice in the mail informing me that my five-year learner's license was scheduled to expire on June 24th. Shit. If I was going to finish what I had started half a decade ago, I was going to have to pack an awful lot of practice into a very small amount of time. So that's what I did. I shelled out for one last driving lesson, ending up with a very good instructor named Joe. He informed me that my original instructor, Lino, had been fired. Joe inherited all of Lino's students and found that every last one of them was woefully behind where they should have been in terms of the curriculum. (You remember Lino, don't you? You can find links to my previous driving-lesson related posts conveniently packaged in this one post.)

Joe was thorough, he gave me pointers and he gave me confidence. He advised me to book my road test at a particular examination centre rather than the one that I had been planning to use, which had a tricky test route and ruthless examiners. Joe also gave me an outline of the two possible test routes. I took his advice and scheduled my test at the centre he recommended.

With Scott having the car for 12 hours a day and me being busy with Kai's dinner and bedtime routine every evening, I did not have much opportunity to drive. Two days prior to my exam I decided to practice driving on one of the test routes. I ended up getting lost. I nervously swerved around the highway for a while, undoubtedly frightening the drivers around me, until I gave up and found my way home, dejected. The following evening, the night before my road test, I did a fairly decent drive along the route. My confidence was returning.

On my way home I noticed a police cruiser up ahead with someone pulled over. For a law-abiding citizen, I have an odd reaction when I see a police officer: I feel guilty and I panic. This is inconvenient when I'm driving. I tightened my grip on the wheel and forced myself to look past the cruiser. Waaaay past. As I drove southbound through an intersection, studiously averting my eyes from the police car, I wondered what all of the northbound traffic was waiting for. By the time I realized that I was running a red light it was too late. I drove on, breaking out in a sweat and waiting to hear sirens, wondering how I could safely cut across three lanes of traffic to the right when the cops pulled me over. To my surprise, there were no sirens, no cruiser lights. Nary a honk, in fact. I'm sure that there were some astonished drivers shaking their heads at my apparent audacity or oblivion, whichever they believed it to be. Somehow I avoided both a collision and getting caught. That being said, I drove home with my hands shaking and my eyes nervously checking the rearview mirror every few seconds. I pulled into the driveway front-first (no time to fuss around with backing in) and ran into the house, telling Scott that he'd best get the car into the garage before the fuzz spotted it.

It was with these recent experiences under my belt that I drove to the exam centre the following morning. Scott had taken the day off work so that I could have the car, since there's no suitable public transit to the town where he works. As he is seldom a calming or encouraging presence when I drive, I chose to leave him at home. I won't go into the details of my 30-minute road test except to note that the examiner pointed out my mistakes in painstaking detail as I drove. When we returned to the exam centre he hastily instructed me to pull front-first into the nearest parking spot. I had been anticipating being asked to reverse into a spot and wasn't at all in the proper position to drive into one. He seemed eager to get it over with, however, so I did as I was told, ending up pretty much like this:

The examiner tallied my errors and put a check mark in the box next to "Fail." Then he muttered, "Oops, what am I doing," and scratched out the check mark, placing a big fat X in the box next to "Pass." He told me he was concerned about my habit of braking whenever I changed lanes. I told him that yes, it was a problem, but that it beat the heck out of my old habit of braking hard and trying to change lanes at a right angle. He did not seem comforted. Nevertheless, my friends, I passed! It took me bloody long enough, but I finally got my driver's license. I drove home from the exam centre, giddy with delight, and I haven't driven since. I may be licensed, and I may in fact be a more conscientious driver than many people (red-light running notwithstanding), but I'm not convinced that I have any business operating a motor vehicle. That's fine by me and fine by a large number of drivers and pedestrians out there, I'm sure.

June 13, 2011

Life on the street (Or, Death on the sidewalk)

Previously I wrote about feral cats in my neighbourhood. My 84-year-old neighbour, Elsie, ended up feeding and sheltering the feral mom, new kitten and one other cat on her front porch. I asked if she knew the gender of the second adult feral. She told me that it was a male and that he was "quite well hung." I kid you not. She was happy to accept the info I offered on a free trap/neuter/release service offered by our local humane society. With her cooperation, I made an appointment for her son to bring in whichever cats they could catch. I am pleased to report that both the mother cat and the kitten were fixed. The humane society kept the kitten in order to arrange for its adoption, but mama cat was returned to her makeshift home on Elsie's porch. The male cat evaded capture and remained at large (and by large apparently I mean large).

Sadly, early one morning last week I found the male cat dead on the sidewalk, possibly having been hit by a car. The city's animal services department had not yet opened for the day, so I donned rubber gloves and carried the box from my new microwave, an old towel and a couple of plastic bags over to the scene of the cat's demise. Normally I don't touch roadkill, I swear, but I didn't want any of the neighbourhood kids to have to see (or step over) the cat on their way to the school up the street. I crouched down and steeled myself to pick up the body, thinking that I would slide my gloved, bagged hands beneath it and gently scoop it into the towel-lined box. The thought of accidentally cradling the corpse against my torso made me change my mind. With a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, I picked the cat up by the tail and dropped it into the box without looking at it too closely.

[Here I would insert that popular photo of a large sign reading "Free cat" indicating a dead cat on the road, but some might find it distasteful so I am merely including this link to the picture.]

I carried the box back to my yard. There I stood, wearing rubber gloves and holding a box of dead cat, wondering what to do next. It was early in the morning but already the sun was beating down and the humidity was creeping up. I tried to stuff the box under the little bench in my front yard but it would not fit. There was nothing to do but to leave it in the sunshine, which is normally where cats like to lie anyway.

I called the animal services department as soon as it opened at eight o'clock. A woman assured me that a crew would pick up the cat-in-the-box whenever they next happened to be in the area. I spent the rest of the day periodically peeking out my front window at the box. By ten o'clock I was wondering how it smelled out there. By noon I was growing impatient. I felt bad for my letter carrier and hoped that curiosity wouldn't get the better of him. By mid-afternoon I was pretty sure that I could see cartoon stink waves rising from the box. I decided that I wasn't going to open the front door for any reason less urgent than the house catching fire. I busied myself doing everything I could to avoid setting the house on fire while continually checking to see if the damn box was still there. It was. It was. It was. And then, finally, at five o'clock, it wasn't. Hallelujah. Either the folks from animal services had come by or there was a thief out there who was going to be mighty disappointed when he got home and discovered that what he had stolen from my yard was not, in fact, a microwave oven.

That reminds me of another cat-and-cardboard-box-related story. My brother once dumped his cats' dirty litter into the box from his new BBQ. As cat owners know, used litter is quite heavy. Wouldn't you know it, some misguided loser stole the weighty box from in front of my brother's house. This happened years ago but thinking about it still makes me smile.

Good times.

June 08, 2011

The Not-So-Great Depression

Now that I am aware that several people I know are battling demons similar to mine, I thought I would push myself to complete this post.

While there is a great deal of stigma about depression, as there is with any mental illness, I have never had much difficulty telling people that I suffer from it. My rationale is that the stigma will fade as more people who come across as "normal" reveal that they are sufferers. Admittedly, I may be doing other depressed people a disservice, since I most likely grossly overestimate how normal I appear. My eccentricities are just part of who I am and not a manifestation of mental illness, but try telling that to the man in the food court to whom I turned and proudly sang, "Tadaaaaaaa!" with a flourish after successfully emptying the contents of my tray into the trash. I thought it was my friend standing next to me, you see, but she had wandered off. Anyway, where was I? Right, depression. I am able to divulge that I suffer from it, but describing it is a completely different matter.

I was first diagnosed over ten years over ago. I suspect that I have actually been experiencing periods of depression since my teens. What is different now is how it has affected more than just my mood. Depression robs me of the ability to concentrate. Whereas I once was ├╝ber organized, nowadays I rarely leave the house without forgetting something important. I used to read voraciously, but it has been ages since I have found myself truly absorbed in a book. I can't focus on my to-do list sufficiently to get anything to-done. That is a far cry from the girl who kept colour-coded task lists and loved vigorously crossing items out as they were completed. There are papers and photos and flyers strewn about on every flat surface in my home, which is quite a departure for someone who was known for neatly arranging the few items on her desk parallel or perpendicular to each other; the old me wouldn't tolerate any zany 45 degree angles, no way. (Heck, maybe my depression cured an undiagnosed case of OCD.)

Doo dee doo dee doo, dum dee dum dee dum.

Again, where was I? Oh, right, I was talking about depression ruining my ability to focus. Case in point: I began writing this post a couple of weeks ago. You might be thinking, "It's understandable. You're busy looking after your baby," but that's the pathetic part: I'm not. Kai is in someone else's care during the day and I have many hours to myself. I waste those hours. From the moment I say good-bye to Kai in the morning to the time I leave to pick him up, I am at loose ends. Other moms might speculate that I am just exhibiting the typical absent-mindedness of new mothers, but my uncharacteristic flightiness and forgetfulness predates my pregnancy.

What was new about my most recent bout with depression was its intensity and pervasiveness. It was not your garden-variety depression. It was post-partum depression (PPD), and it is by far the most painful experience I have ever endured. Yes, including labour. Between the sleep deprivation and the depression, I was unable to cope. Several months ago I found someone in the area to babysit for four hours every morning to give me a chance to catch up on sleep. When that person, a mom herself, realized that she had to return to her full-time job, she and I decided to pool our funds for childcare. Her one-year-old daughter and Kai now share an attentive, loving nanny, something Scott and I would never have been able to afford on our own. I feel tremendously guilty that I am not spending more of my maternity leave being, well, maternal, but for the sake of my sanity I needed to arrange childcare. Scott works out of town and he is often gone for 11 or 12 hours a day, sometimes longer. That was far too long for me to cope with Kai on my own back when he was prone to lengthy crying jags. Frankly, I was terrified of being left alone with him, not because I thought I would hurt him but because I simply didn't know how to manage. PPD does not infuse one with confidence.

I can handle things better now. I have gained confidence as a mother and I have finally tapped into my maternal instinct. Kai is no longer colicky, he sleeps fairly well at night and he is able to amuse himself for short periods of time. That all being said, I feel as though going through PPD has left me with another dreadful acronym: PTSD. I am realizing as I type this why I am having such a difficult time putting the PPD experience into words: I am afraid that delving into the details rather than speaking in generalities will cause me to relive it. I can't risk that, not when it is still nipping at my heels, not when the cry of a young infant still triggers panic. I will sum it up thusly: It was total hell.

The contrast between the lowest lows and the overwhelming love I was developing for Kai made me feel as though I were being drawn and quartered. I felt trapped. I thought my life was over. I wanted my life to be over. It sounds so silly and melodramatic, but there was nothing silly about it; at times I truly wanted to die to escape the pain.

I had a tremendous amount of help, as I've written about previously, but I still required a long time to begin to recover. I attended a group for PPD sufferers, my doctor increased my dosage of antidepressants, family and friends provided both practical and emotional support. I can't express how thankful I am, as I don't believe I could have survived otherwise.

I also had to do a lot of work myself. Like my other muscles, my brain does not get much exercise, I'm afraid, so I had to put in a great deal of effort to change my perspective. One day I was sitting on the edge of my bed, holding Kai to keep him from fussing, feeling crushed by the weight of overwhelming responsibility. Suddenly it dawned on me that Kai would someday be wriggling out of my grasp rather than wailing for me to pick him up. I realized that I would miss this someday. That was a turning point for me. That was when I began to understand that the saying "This too shall pass" was very true, and that I was missing out on enjoying what might later feel like an all-too-brief period in Kai's life. I began to remind myself of this whenever I felt the pull of the downward spiral again.

Remaining positive has not been an easy task, and I have faltered on many occasions. I know that fresh air and exercise would lift my spirits. As someone whose nature tends toward the hermitical, however, going to pick up Kai is usually the only time I venture outside. One route home from the sitter's house includes a walk through the local cemetery. During the winter this was often the only road that was cleared of snow, and since my neighbourhood is hilly it was the safest path on which to take Kai in his stroller. As beautiful and serene as the cemetery is, I struggled to avoid being further depressed by the headstones. The epitaphs of married couples depressed me, as did my contemplation of the presumably lonely years between one spouse and the other dying. Freshly dug graves depressed me. So did gravestones that had sunk into the ground so that only a corner was visible. Perhaps worst of all was the small section of the cemetery just by the entrance closest to my house: the children's section. Of course I had always found it sad, but now that I was a mom the sight of those tiny plots was almost unbearably heartbreaking.

Finally, as spring approached, I found a reason to look up. The cemetery is home to dozens of species of trees. Gazing at the newly budding branches was far more uplifting than reading headstones and staring at newly turned earth. Outside the cemetery it was the same: looking up lifted my spirits, while looking down discouraged me. With the winter snow gone the ground was littered with old dog crap and trash, but if I looked up I would see clouds and birds instead.

Now I regularly remind myself to look up, not down, even though I'm prone to tripping if I don't watch my step. I hope to encourage others to do the same thing. You can't pull yourself out of depression with positive thinking alone, but you can't recover from it at all without thinking positively. You also can't recover all on your own. Depression is an illness, not a state of mind. Asking for help or sharing your story should not involve a sense of shame.