Sunday, March 27, 2011

Depressives don't get happy endings

This would be the perfect moment for the curtain to drop, but depressives don't get happy endings. They don't get endings at all, because depression never goes away. It may be forgotten; it may lay quietly for years; but it's still there. Depressives never know when it will strike again, and every new episode increases the likelihood of another.
--Christopher McDougall, The Long Road Back

I'm writing this on Friday morning, and the sun is shining through the window. It seems like a beautiful day outside. I should go outside and get some sunlight, but I need to get something off my chest first.

It would be nice if the events of the last few weeks allowed me to simply throw off all the depression and anxiety like an old blanket and suddenly become healthy, having been confronted with a disaster, having kept my head and got through it without freaking out and running away unnecessarily as many expats (and not a few Japanese) did.

But that would be a happy Hollywood ending. The reality is, the last few weeks have been tough. While I have little right to complain compared to those in Tohoku who have lost homes, businesses, or loved ones in the recent disaster, in the last few weeks I have had a number of factors come together that have brought my depression to the fore.

Firstly, I have been attempting to taper off medication, after a long time on it. I hate being on medication and I mentally equate taking medication with being depressed. I’m aware this is irrational, but can’t seem to help it. I also worry about the long term consequences of being medicated, and have been troubled about things I have read online.

Secondly, after the marathon a month ago I have had some leg problems which have greatly reduced my ability to run. They are getting better with time, and I’ve been to the doctor and had a few massages but am still not back to 100%. I had started going to a yoga class in December but slipped out of the habit after the marathon. Exercise is very important in managing mood, and for the last month I haven’t been doing that.

Thirdly came the earthquake off Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, followed by the radiation scare at the nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture. While what happened in Tokyo was very little compared to what the alarmist media reports said, and nothing at all compared to what those up north are enduring, it was a tense time. There are concerns about radioactive contamination in the water and in produce from near the reactor.

One might hope that this tense time would let me throw away my own petty concerns and depressions, but the three things above in combination were not much fun. I’ve been stressed, anxious, and had trouble concentrating. One of the most annoying things for me is the fact that I can’t seem to get my head around all these things about radiation, nuclear plants, etc. I read newspaper articles and it just does in one ear and out the other. Nothing seems to really stick, I can’t seem to hold on to it. The sober scientific reports indicated there was essentially no risk to Tokyo, but I can’t really grasp the details behind them. I just have to trust that the scientists know what they are talking about.

But I’m enduring as best I can. I’ve stopped tapering and increased the medication slightly. I’ve been starting to exercise again and hoping that helps lift my mood. I can’t do much about the larger disaster situation, but I’ve made small donations and am paying much less attention to the news. This all feels very selfish and self-centered, but you are no good to the world if you’re good to yourself. And I think I need to accept that I'm a depressive. That the depression will always be there. Denying that simple truth seems to be hurting me. And I'm pretty tired of self-inflicted pain at this point.

Depressives don't get happy endings. But food, shelter, another day above ground, and morning sunlight will have to do. I hope I'm turning a corner here - time will tell.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Earthquakes, nuclear disasters, and an alarmist media

It has been a long week. Thank you to everyone who posted over the last week, I really appreciate it. It is now Sunday night, 9 days after the Tohoku earthquake. The earthquake caused a tsunami which pounded the coast of Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo. It destroyed ports, towns, cars, homes, and took an unknown number of lives. They are still counting the dead, still looking for the dead. The images which flooded the internet and the television look like a warzone.

In Tokyo, however, people have been somewhat distracted from the horror of the earthquake and tsunami's effects by the malfunctioning of the Fukushima I nuclear power plant. Located conveniently next to the ocean, its systems malfunctioned after a pounding by the tsunami, leading to a nuclear accident and frantic attempts to get the plant back under control. The first explosions took place on the day after the earthquake, and the situation deteriorated from there. Much has been written about the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and their less than stunning track record, and there has been a lot of criticism in the press of the government.

The thing that has really annoyed me, however, was the media. The situation is of course very bad. Reactor buildings exploding and increased radiation levels are generally not a good thing. But the media loves a good story, of course. And "the world is ending" is a much better story than "this is a problematic situation of limited scope that a lot of people are working hard to fix". I can't really talk directly about the nuclear situation, as I was not there, but I can talk about the situation in Tokyo.

Everyone was of course shaken up, both literally and figuratively, by the earthquake and its aftershocks, and by the news of what had happened in Tohoku. Then when the Fukushima plant became an issue in the days after the quake everyone started worrying about that. The French and Germans were the first to leave en masse, with their embassies advising their people to leave.

Over the next few days a number of other countries changed their advice and suggested that their citizens leave. Some countries, such as the US and UK, organized flights for their citizens out. Many people took to their heels and headed across to western Japan to await the worst. There were food shortages resulting from hoarding and power shortages that reduced lighting and train services. But the world didn't end. Media from all over the world, eager to scream and shout, were more than happy to find the most scared or paranoid person they could, interview them, and then broadcast their rantings as fact.

This led people overseas with family in Japan to freak out and demand that those living in Japan leave or go to another part of Japan before the nuclear plant blew up and spread radiation all over Tokyo, ushering in the end of the world as we know it. The scientists generally seemed to be saying that even in the worst case scenario Tokyo would be fine. But for the most part the media beat up the story as much as they could, creating an environment of fear that led some to flee. They didn't flee totally without reason, of course.

Last night I was in Shibuya for a goodbye party. Incidentally, this was for a planned departure, not for a "I'm freaking out and jumping on the first plane home" departure. It was a bit dimmer than usual, with some lights off to conserve power, and the huge screens over the Hachiko crossing not blasting J-pop for once. But the streets were still pretty crowded with young people in crazy clothes and odd hairstyles. The restaurants were still open. The convenience stores, like the supermarkets, are not quite as well stocked as usual, but they are far from empty.

The paranoia seems to be subsiding somewhat. I'm not sure if FDR was 100% correct when he said that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself", but he was definitely onto something. The worst appears to be over. I might be wrong, but I think from now things will gradually get back to normal, and the long slow task of rebuilding will begin. I am fortunate in that I don't know anyone who was killed or injured, but a lot of people have not been as fortunate. It definitely helps put things into perspective.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Earthquake

On Friday afternoon at 2:46pm what is now known to be a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred off the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture north of Tokyo. At the time I was in a subway station waiting for a train to come to transfer. Earthquakes are very common in Japan and I've never really given them too much thought. The ground shakes for a short time, then everything goes back to normal. Ho, hum.

For the first few seconds I was just expecting this would be the same thing. But the shaking was very violent, and it just kept going and going. I looked around and the other passengers waiting on the platform didn't seem to be going anywhere. The roof was shaking back and forth, the ground was shaking - everything was shaking. I looked at the ceiling and thought about how Japan has strict building codes, and that I probably should be okay. It felt a little unreal. I didn't feel like I was really in danger, nor did I feel any urgent need to get out.

After a minute or two the shaking stopped and I went out. I used my cellphone to update my Facebook status and people started commenting on it immediately, and updating their own. The phone network was totally overloaded and it was impossible to call anyone or get through by cellphone email, but the internet still worked fine and Facebook was the best way to contact people.

I walked to the office, buildings still shaking around me, the sidewalks full of people who had just been evacuated from their buildings. I met my coworkers, who were on the street outside. No one really knew what to do. There was a public announcement that said something about going to higher ground. Did we need to expect a tsunami? No one knew. The closest higher ground was a shrine nearby, so I suggested we go there. We made our way through the hordes of people and went up the stairs.

A coworker and I went to check on another coworker nearby who had been at the gym. He was still there working out, not letting an earthquake get in the way of his exercising! We wandered back to the group, bumping into various people we knew who were waiting outside their buildings. Everyone was freaked out.

The trains were all shut down. The roads were soon jammed with traffic. Taxis were impossible to get and even if they could be found they weren't moving very much. We searched for a place to stay, but everywhere was closing. Finally we found a coffee shop that was not so full, and someone got some snacks and a deck of playing cards and uno from the convenience store. We checked the news on our phones, followed other people's Facebook posts, tried to contract friends and relatives. The damage in Tokyo was limited, but the northern part of Japan was a disaster area, with horrific images of tsunamis hitting the land and destroying houses, fields, roads - and lives. No one knows the final death toll yet, but it will be high.

Eventually we gave up on waiting for the train and everyone decided to walk home. All over Tokyo many people did this, walking two, three, four, or five hours through the cold to get home. Or more. Eventually some trains started running but they were very overloaded. Fortunately I don't live so far from work, so it didn't take me so long to get home.

The aftershocks continued all Friday night and through Saturday. On Saturday the trains were running limited services, and the situation at Japan's nuclear power plants because a worry, especially in Fukushima prefecture, with an explosion at the Number 1 reactor. As I write this on Sunday I know that many expats, especially Germans and Americans are leaving. From tomorrow there will be rolling three-hour blackouts throughout different parts of Tokyo to conserve power. Needless to say, this is all very worrying.

I don't know what will happen. But what I do know is that the Japanese people are tough and resilient. And historically they have met much larger challenges than this. They were forced out of self-imposed isolation at American gunpoint in the 19th century, and within decades were a world power. After the 1923 great Kanto earthquake which leveled huge parts of Tokyo the city was quickly rebuilt. And after world war two, when the country had been totally devastated by bombing, it only took a few decades for Japan to become an economic power.

Japan today faces many challenges. It is politically unstable, with six prime ministers since I came to Japan, and every appearance that the current one is in a lot of trouble. Japan has an aging population, a huge suicide rate, an increasing income gap, and the loss of jobs overseas. But maybe, just maybe, this disaster might be the thing that pulls people together, and sets the country on a different path. I don't know. But I hope so.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


This has been a pretty long week that has left me kind of drained, and I don't have a particular theme for tonight's blog, so like the goldfish that I am, I think I will write about the last thing that I saw. Narwhals!

CID imbedded the short music video of the Narwhal song in a recent post of his as an intermission between the doom and gloom. I think this was a great idea, and the song is also incredibly catchy. At times when I've been trying to think about and discuss serious things I can't help but think "Narwhals, Narwhals, swimming in the oceans, causing a commotion cause they are awesome.." If you haven't been blessed with the Narwhals, you can check them out here.

On the topic of music, I was happy that in a post about me In the Pink picked Cake's The Distance as my song. I remember that song from when I was at university, and I've been known to sing it at karaoke sometimes.

Speaking of going the distance, I have mostly recovered from the marathon last week. Monday was a write-off, I basically lay around and was in pain whenever I moved. Tuesday I felt better, although going up and down stairs was a bit rough. Wednesday I was better again, and I also went for a massage, which helped sort my legs out too. By Friday I was in my current condition, which is probably 80% or 90% recovered.

I haven't been out to run, but I hope to do so in the next day or so. It will probably be okay, I don't seem to have any major lasting pain. It is much better than 2007. And it is even better than after the half-marathon I did in November last year. That has to be a good sign. My body still has a lot of issues, but it does seem to be improving. I'll definitely sign up for next year's marathon, and I am even thinking about doing another one this year.

I hope this finds everyone well. It is now well after midnight, and I think sleep is calling. I hope you all have great weeks.