Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm on my way from misery to happiness today..

Well, maybe. Quoting The Proclaimers goofy 80s hit may be a bit premature, but I am gradually feeling a bit better as time goes by. Life is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but I feel some progress.

There are probably a few reasons for this. I think this blog has been helpful in giving me an outlet for my own feelings and opinions, and also it is a way to meet other bloggers who are going through similar experiences. It feels good to have some sense of community, even one as ephemeral as the online world. It is good to know that I am not the only one going through anxiety and depression, and having the chance to be there for some others is also rewarding.

Over the past six months I have also been eating more healthily and exercising more as well. There is no such thing as a cure-all for depression, and it is something that will probably be with me in some form forever, but taking care of what I eat, and getting out there and putting my body through it's paces is good for me. Even today we tend to have some form of Cartesian dualism, where we think the mind and body are separate things. This is not true, but it is a very sticky meme. Mind and body are two parts of one whole, and neglecting the body cannot help but have a bad impact on the mind.

I've also made some first steps towards accepting myself as I am. I tend to be full of self-loathing, always wanting to be better or different than I am. But I am what I am, and I need to just deal with that. I'm doing the best that I can, and beating myself up over being inadequate doesn't help anyone, least of all myself.

As well as that, I've come to realize that I am not quite as inadequate as I thought I was. I've been making some progress in life, slowly but surely. Previously I wrote about the isolation I felt when I went to see fireworks a few months ago, feeling so alone, isolated, removed from the people I was with. I received quite a few insightful replies to that post, but the one that really made me think was from Nick. He talked about how there is room for all kinds of people in the world, and no point in trying to be something we are not. I'll never be a gregarious extrovert, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is just the way I am.

Last night I went to a combined halloween/birthday party. I was coming from work, so decided to simply compliment my suit with horns and a pitchfork, and come as a "corporate demon", which people seemed to think was pretty funny. I talked to a few people some of whom I knew, others who were strangers. I talked to a variety of people, Japanese, Chinese, miscellaneous Westerners, in English and my broken Japanese. I wasn't the life of the party, and I did feel uncomfortable at times. I don't think I'll ever be really comfortable in crowded social settings. But it was much better than that night under the fireworks.

Life is a struggle, but I seem to be making progress, slowly but steadily. And like those Scottish lads sang, I'll do my best, to do the best I can!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

If You Don’t Fight You Lose

The title of this post is taken from an old union slogan. It was written about people banding together to fight for their rights as workers. But it works just as well as a truism for dealing with life in general. Life is a struggle, and we all have to keep fighting. In this post, I’d like to talk about a couple of fighters I’ve been following.

For a while now I have been reading the blog of Chronic Impending Disaster, an American guy who writes about his life, the music and books that he loves, and his experiences as a trainee Spanish teacher. Unfortunately, he has been struggling a bit, and is thinking seriously about pulling out of teacher training, and doing something a bit less stressful, where he doesn’t need to be the center of attention all the time. He is trying to see through this final week so he can get a partial credit. And he is doing this while dealing with depression. I’ve been through similar difficulties with dealing with work and depression, and I know how tough it is.

More recently, I started following the blog of Takashi Nakayama, a Japanese guy who is currently on extended leave from his job, trying to deal with depression. He has been living on a reduced salary for some time, and in addition to having to deal with the hell that is depression, he is now having to worry about financial stresses as well, especially the Japanese city taxes.

While it has not been easy, he has managed to get advice about what to do, force himself out of his place to deal with the unhelpful local city office, and is in the process of getting his financial affairs in order. Most of us struggle with budgeting and government bureaucracies at the best of times, and doing these things while dealing with crippling depression, without much support, is very tough.

Both CID and Takashi are fighting hard. They are not giving up. They are fighting each day with everything at their disposal to keep going, keep facing down their depression, keep dealing with all the problems that come up.

Depression is a terrible and isolating thing. But the internet can provide a way for those of us who lack enough community in our regular lives to find people we have things in common with. It is not a perfect solution, but life is not about perfect solutions. It's about doing the best we can with what we have. CID and Takashi are both doing that, and I am really looking forward to seeing them get past the issues they are facing right now.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tokyo Marathon, Take 2

“Never tell me the odds!”
--Han Solo, The Empire Strikes Back

The Tokyo Marathon is an incredibly popular event. This year, 294,469 people applied to run the full marathon. 32,000 were accepted. And I was one of them!

This will be my second time to enter the marathon. The first time was in 2007, at the first Tokyo marathon. I had signed up for it in the summer of 2006, when I was doing relatively well, and running relatively often. But as the winter of 2006 came, I gradually fell into the first of my three major bouts of depression. Among other things, this pretty much stopped any exercising.

By the time the marathon came around in March 2007, I was very out of shape, and still very depressed. But I couldn’t bear to give up. So I went ahead and ran the race anyway. The first ten kilometers were okay. The next ten were increasingly difficult and painful. And the last twenty were hell. Actually, I walked the second half of the race, and took six and a half hours to finish. Even walking was incredibly painful. But I ran the last few hundred meters to the finish line. I was in agony for weeks afterwards, but I finished it.

I had no interest in ever doing a marathon again. But this year I started running again, and gradually I have been getting fitter. I am still out of shape, but I am gradually getting better. This week I ran 15 kilometers for the first time since that day back in March 2007. Slowly but surely, my body is getting in shape. It is not all improvement – yesterday I went for a run and felt I had to stop after 4 kilometers. I still have a lot to learn about fitness, about my body and how to treat it well. But I’m getting there.

I have no intentions of repeating the self-imposed death march that was the 2007 marathon. I am running two or three times a week, and gradually extending my distances. I am trying to eat well and will also be doing a number of shorter races in the next few months to build up my stamina.

I completed the 2007 marathon, but I still feel I was defeated by it. In 2010 I want to make a success of the race. It will be hard, it will be painful. But I want to be able to run it at my pace, and run the whole way, not have to drag myself across the finish line. I’d like to finish it in 5 hours. And I’d like to finish it with a smile on my face!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sushi Oasis

Life in Tokyo can be exhausting. The city is huge and sprawling, almost a world unto itself. It has been the center of power of Japan for 400 years, and in that time has grown to into one of the largest cities in the world. 13 million people live here, and sometimes it seems like we are all crammed into the same train.

Much of Tokyo is a wasteland of concrete, steel and glass, with very little in the way of nature. Garish neon lights blast into the sky, pachinko parlors with their incessant noise are everywhere, and black-suited salarymen are constantly rushing around. Death from overwork is common enough to have a word to describe it (karoshi, if you are curious), and the city can be incredibly isolating, for both Japanese and foreigners alike. In other words, sometimes, it all gets a bit too much.

There are many possible temporary escapes from the stresses of Tokyo life. Alcohol and karaoke are popular, usually in combination. All the retail therapy one can afford is easily available. If a more personal consolation is what is required, despite prostitution being technically illegal, Japan is filled with brothels of various types. There are also many “host” and “hostess” clubs where those interested can go to be plied with alcohol and entertained by the modern day descendants of the geisha.

As for me, I prefer to go to a sushi shop.

I eat sushi at least a few times a week. When I step into a sushi shop, it often feels like stepping back in time. The walls are usually wood-lined, and when customers enter they are greeted with a hearty “irrashaimase!” from the staff. The types of sushi on offer are typically written in Japanese on boards against the wall, sometimes in English as well as Japanese.

In a standing sushi bar, the sushi chef will lay a bamboo leaf on the counter. Green tea is free, as is the ginger used as a palate cleanser between different types of sushi. Customers order sushi two at a time, which the chef places on the leaf. Customers come in by themselves, or in groups. Sometimes there is banter between staff and customers, but usually it is quiet. There is music playing, which usually seems to be about 50 or 60 years old. It is relaxing.

I prefer the bar to be not too crowded, but not too empty. Sushi is good for you, and eating it has its own little ritual. Lifting it with chopsticks, a slight dip into the soy sauce, and then into the mouth. If it is good fish, it often melts in the mouth. With each piece of sushi I eat, each minute I spend in the sushi bar, I feel a little more relaxed. A few of the worries of the world fall away, or at least recede from view for now.

If I’m feeling good, I usually feel great after going there. If I’m feeling down or stressed out, I tend to feel a little better. The food is healthy, and the environment is enjoyable. I step out of the sushi oasis refreshed, and ready to do battle with Tokyo once again.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bon Voyage

On Tuesday a friend and coworker will be leaving Japan and heading back home to Chicago. We’ve known each other for about three years, and had many discussions about matters large and small, eaten sushi many times, done crossword puzzles, been to karaoke more times than I can count, and climbed Mt Fuji.

There are many things that I will remember, not the least of which were his truly memorable karaoke performances. The highlights were definitely “Beat It”, “Baby Got Back”, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The stage presence, air guitar, and passion he sings with are really something else.

But these are not the things that I will remember most about him. Back in 2008, I was doing okay. My depression was under control, I had a girlfriend, work was going well, and I was enjoying life somewhat. I had just turned 30 and was relatively content.

Another coworker, however, was not enjoying life at all. She had a variety of personal and relationship problems, and was most likely suffering from a mental illness. She was a bit difficult to deal with, and most people, myself included, tended to give her the cold shoulder.

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. To the extent that I did, I basically thought of her as a basket case and wrote her off, hoping to minimize my contact with her, which I did quite effectively.

My friend from Chicago, however, was different. He tried to help, tried to listen, even offered her a place to stay when it seemed like she might lose her accommodation unexpectedly. I thought all of this was a bad idea and advised him against it. In the end, our troubled coworker wound up leaving. I’m not sure what happened to her.

It was not until later, when my own troubles multiplied, that I appreciated what he had tried to do for her. Everyone wants to be a good person, but when it comes right down to it, we tend to look out for number one. I, and the vast majority of others ignored the woman who was in trouble, not wanting to get sucked into her problems. To use the biblical parable, we “walked by on the other side”.

There was only one good Samaritan around in 2008, and it definitely wasn’t me. I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget the man from Chicago who did his best to help a troubled soul. Bon voyage man. I wish you all the best for the future.