March non-fiction book: Getting Stoned with Savages

One of my New Year’s Resolutions (the only one, come to think of it) is to read more non-fiction books.  I decided to read 12 non-fiction books this year, one per month.  In January, I read Bonk:  The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.  We shall not speak of the February book.*

This month’s book was Getting Stoned with Savages:  A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by J. Maarten Troost.  This book was a lot of fun and an easy read–I read the whole thing in an evening.  I suppose you would call it a travel memoir even though the author and his wife actually live in Fiji and Vanuatu (an island nation in the South Pacific) for several years.

The author has also written The Sex Lives of Cannibals:  Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific which is a memoir of his two years spent living with his then-girlfriend (no wife) on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.  Getting Stoned with Savages takes place after The Sex Lives of Cannibals, but the author mentions that he is writing The Sex Lives of Cannibals while living in Fiji and Vanuatu.

At the beginning of the book, the author and his girlfriend had just moved back to the US from their first experience living on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.  The author has a job at the World Bank and is making beaucoup bucks.  However, he (strangely, he thinks, because he was miserable on that island) misses living on the island.  His life in Washington seems very artificial.  So, after some thought, they decide to go back to the South Pacific, except to a less remote location.

The entire book is written from a humorous perspective even when the situation is more a “If we weren’t laughing we’d be crying” sort of thing.  He writes a bit about colonialism and his experiences being white in a place where there isn’t even the semblance of equality.  He also writes about his exploration of the islands of Vanuatu, his interactions with the native peoples, surviving a cyclone (hurricane) and his encounters foot-long poisonous centipedes.  And the joys of kava (which is where the book gets its name).

I sort of vaguely recall hearing about kava before reading this book, but I had the impression it was an innocuous herbal tea.  Um, no.  Kava, as consumed in the South Pacific, is a narcotic that is drunk for its tranquilizing effects.  Instead of having a beer after work, the locals drink kava.

I really enjoyed this book and really have nothing negative to say about it.  If you are looking for a book that waxxes philosophical about the rugged harshness of living in the third world, this book ain’t it.  But, if you are looking for a casual perspective about living in the third world, you might enjoy this book.

To give you an idea of the tone of the book, here are a couple of the chapter summaries found in the table of contents:

Chapter 3.  In which the author is confounded by Port Vila , which is not at all like the South Pacific he has known–he does not, for instance, have to eat fish every day–and after dipping into the past, which strikes him as being uncannily like the present, he cannot help but feel that for the whites in Vila it’s forever 1900.

And:

Chapter 6.  In which the author pondrs cannibalism and discovers that he just doesn’t get it–not at all, cannot get past the icky factor–and so, left to his own devices by his beguiling wife, he decides to seek enlightenment on the island of Maledula, where until recently, within his own lifetime even, they lunched on people.

So, that’s the book for March.  I haven’t decided on an April book, yet, but I suspect it may be The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

*Okay, here’s what happened with the February book:  it wasn’t fun enough.  I liked it but I’m having a hard time reading anything serious that isn’t also fairly humorous.  I’ll probably pick it up again after I go to California.

In which L is off the hook

So, I tested the spores from the previous tetrad dissection, and, fortunately for everyone involved, I have the strains.  I thought for sure L would have to do more dissections for one of the strains because of the low spore viability inherent in that strain but apparently the universe decided not to screw me over this time.  Nobody is more surprised than me.

About the committee meeting:

CPP said,

Not being able to schedule a two-hour meeting with less than one month notice is not unreasonable for busy faculty members, and it was not great planning on your part to wait until only about 6 weeks before the submission deadline to start planning the required “go–no-go” committee meeting.

I will concede this point.  Generally speaking, committee meetings are notoriously difficult to schedule for this reason.  And, some faculty are much more difficult to schedule than others.  Which was why I fully expected Dr. Committee Chair who has a very large lab, is on countless thesis committees and is very frequently out of town, to tell me there was no way in hell that she could schedule a meeting until late April/early May (thus missing the deadline).  So, when she was miraculously free for most of the dates and times I suggested, and Dr. Crazy Yeast Geneticist (also with a big lab and a department chair; who, incidentally, was the guy who accused me of unethical conduct with a western blot* at my last meeting) was also free for most of the dates and times I suggested, I was thrilled beyond measure.  I did NOT expect to be thwarted by Dr. Problem (though perhaps I should have, given my past experience with him) who has a very small lab, is not so popular for thesis committees and rarely goes out of town.  That was the main source of my frustration.

But, what do I know?  Perhaps Dr. Problem is on ten different University committees that I don’t know about that meet twice a week or he volunteers to bring food to the elderly or tutors children for an after school program or something equally important and time-consuming.  I would be willing to bet large sums of money against it, but it’s possible.  But, I have decided to not let it bother me because it seems that one of Dr. Problem’s students, D, is also trying to schedule a committee meeting and Dr. Problem has told her he will not be able to schedule her meeting until after April 27th.  And, if he can’t find two hours to spare for his own student, I would not expect him to be able to find two hours to spare for me.  Ironically, Advisor is on D’s thesis committee and has told her that he can’t schedule her meeting until he knows when mine will be (not, I think, to get back at Dr. Problem or to force him into scheduling my meeting but rather because Advisor is giving me priority in terms of his schedule).  D and I have swapped our advisors’ post April 27th schedules and are coordinating our scheduling efforts.

Btw, one of the reasons I’ve been putting off this meeting is because I wanted to have the results of Last Experiment Ever before the meeting.  The other reason is because I’m Not Right in the Head.  Well, after coming back from my mental health break, Advisor told me to schedule the meeting as soon as possible and if I didn’t have Last Result, oh well.  But, unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong (and I don’t think for a second that I can count on everything going smoothly because the Lab Fates severely punish that sort of optimistic thinking), I will have the result by my committee meeting since it will probably be in May.**  With any luck, I will also be Right in the Head by then (or, you know, at least as Right in the Head as any person in my position can be).

So, the bottom line is, it will probably work out okay (even though there is no way in the world I can graduate this quarter).  I may even forgive Dr. Problem for the crime of being unavailable.

Maybe.

*This experiment has been completely redone, by the way, and I think this guy will be very happy with the way I am presenting the new blot.  I hope.  If he isn’t, I’ll send him the file and he can make the figure his own damn self.

**May is going to be a very busy month.  There’s the thesis defense of another member of the lab, my wedding anniversary, my brother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, my birthday and my other brother’s baby is due.  And, I have to pack all my stuff and ship it across the country.

Precarious

Since coming back from my grandmother’s, I have been steadily feeling better.   In fact, a lot of the time, I feel pretty good.  And so, I foolishly thought I was out of the woods.  But, yesterday I found myself sitting at my desk, trying not to cry, and I realized that I still have quite a ways to go.

I’ve been trying to schedule my penultimate committee meeting.  At this meeting, you present what you have for graduation and your committee either says, “Go ahead, write your thesis and schedule your defense,” or, “You’re not ready yet, do these other experiments.”  I really need to have this thing before the end of the quarter.  So, I sent an email to my committee asking about specific dates and times and two of my committee members got back to me right away.  The third waited a day and a half, then told me he couldn’t possibly do it before April 27.  Well, the deadline for giving your committee a draft of your thesis so that you can graduate this quarter is April 29.  So, this means that there’s no way I can graduate this quarter even if I manage to get the experiment finished and all my writing done.

Mostly, I was just pissed off when I got the response from Dr. Problem.  Surely, the man had two hours to spare for my committee meeting sometime in the next month!

I forwarded the email to Advisor, explained about graduating, and Advisor didn’t think it was worth fighting over (because the chances of me graduating this quarter were so slim, anyway).  So, fine.   If Advisor isn’t worried about it, I’m not going to worry about it either.  I sent out another email about scheduling my meeting, but now Dr. Problem is out of town for a week so I won’t be able to work on the scheduling until he gets back (because he’s not answering his email).

Okay, so I’ve got this committee member giving me problems, but I was mostly cool with it.  Frustrated, but functional.

Then, after lunch, I talked to L, who is second author on my paper, about doing more tetrad dissections today and tomorrow.  I have 8 strains that need to be made and they can only be made via tetrad dissection and so far, I only have 1 strain.  L has been doing the dissections because I don’t know how (well, I know how, but tetrad dissection is a skill that requires a lot of practice; add to that the fact that dissection requires fine motor skills and my hands have a slight tremor to them and you realize why it’s a bad idea for me to try and do it).  Well, she wants me to test the other spores she’s dissected before she dissects more.  The thing is, there aren’t that many of them and, for various reasons,  I’m not confident there’s enough to ensure I have the strain I need.  So, I explained to her that it would be ideal to have more spores growing up while I’m testing the ones I currently have, just in case I don’t get the strains I need.  Still, she refuses.  She says it may be a waste of her time since I could very well already have the strains.

I can appreciate her viewpoint.  I really can.  The thing is, when I came back last week, Advisor told me that he spoke to L and she agreed to take over more of the lab work if I needed it.  Also, L is the one who will be finishing this thing up if it’s not done by the time I leave.  So, I was really not expecting her to balk at this.

Well, this little discussion with L just put me right over the edge.  Back to feeling like I’m being dissed by the very people who are supposed to help me.

I feel pathetic for getting so upset.  I know neither of these things is that big of a deal.  It’s not really going to delay me and Dr. Problem and L are not trying to hurt me and they sure as hell don’t know that I’m A Woman On the Edge.  And, if I wasn’t already a basket case I probably would shrug these things off.  But, dammit, I’m just. so. tired. of. this. shit.  I’m tired of fighting.  I’m tired of this place, this work, this situation, these people–all of it!  I desperately wanted to go home and crawl into bed where nobody and nothing are going to disappoint me.  However, I knew that would be a colossal mistake.  So, I held myself together as best I could, looked at a whole bunch of Lolcats to try and cheer myself up a little, and stuck it out until the end of the day when I hopped a bus to the yarn store.

The yarn store is becoming my happy place which is a little concerning because I always buy yarn when I’m there and good yarn is not cheap.  Still, it’s probably cheaper than going to the hospital.  I came home with three balls of yarn and a book of patterns for baby things.  I’m now in the process of knitting a sweater for Sister’s Baby (which was due yesterday).

I can’t wait to see what today brings.

Why I spill my guts on the internet

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve chosen to write about such a personal thing as having a mental breakdown and my road to recovery.

Here is why.

From Sara:

…What you describe is exactly how I feel and how I think when I’m in an episode. What non-depression-sufferers don’t seem to realize is how well we can hide how dire things are.

And from Anonymous:

Hi.

I don’t normally comment on blogs, but I will comment today.

I study science too, which is why I subscribe to your blog’s RSS.

Even more of a coincidence is that your post describes exactly what I am going through, also. I mean exactly. Last month I tried an adjustment to medication, and what a mess.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate this post. Thank you for sharing it. It makes me feel better to read this, and I don’t even know why.

The only good thing that could possibly come out of my being mentally ill is if I share my experience and it helps somebody else.  Whether it’s because that person feels better for knowing they’re not alone or because that person knows someone with depression and reading about my depression helps them understand what that person is going through or because that person has never known anyone who is depressed and reading this helps them understand what depression is.

Tea Therapy

In the battle against mental illness, talk therapy and medication are important weapons.  Equally important, however, are the things you do when you are not at the doctor’s office.  In some ways, these may be more important because you spend most of your time outside the doctor’s office.  But, a lot of times you need to think up these things yourself.  Your doctor can tell you in a general sort of way what you should be doing.  She will probably give you advice such as:

  • Get together with friends.
  • Get out of the house and do stuff.
  • Make time to do things that you enjoy.

The problem is, she can’t tell you which friends you should get together with or what you all should do together or what you should do when you get out of the house or what sorts of things that you enjoy that you should be making time to do.  She can help you out, but the ideas really have to come from you.

Now, my doctor has known me for years.  So, she has a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that I enjoy doing and will ask me if I’ve been doing those things and encourage me to do them.  For instance, she might suggest that I knit because in the past I’ve talked about how much I enjoy knitting and how therapeutic I find it.  Still, she can’t tell me what project to work on that will be the most relaxing or the most satisfying, only I can know that for myself.

The thing is, when you’re depressed, you don’t want to do any of those things.  First of all because you have no motivation and secondly because depression often makes it so that you lose the ability to actually enjoy anything (this is called anhedonia, there is a very good description of it here) which makes you even less motivated to do anything.

One of the components of my recovery has been trying to get myself to do things (like leaving my apt) that I really don’t feel like doing but that I know have made me feel good in the past.  For instance, last Monday, after Husband left to go back to California, I made myself go downtown to the yarn store and buy a couple balls of yarn for a simple knitting project.

Now, I have more than enough yarn in my apt.  But, I know that I need to get out of my apt.  It was very hard to make myself do it.  I don’t have a car, so I had to take the bus.  Since I really hate being around people when I’m depressed, the thought of getting on a bus with lots of strangers that I may be packed against is really, really not appealing.  But (and this is a key point), it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.  And, I enjoyed being at the yarn store and petting the cashmere yarn and seeing the friendly people there.

So, in an effort to continue to getting better, earlier this week I made plans with R to go out for afternoon tea at a fancy-pants hotel on Saturday (today).  The weekends are really bad for me because I have a tendency to hole up in my apt. and lay in bed which is really not healthy.  One way to avoid this is to make plans to do something with someone.  Having company is important because I don’t like to cancel on people because I don’t like to disappoint them, so I will still go out even if I don’t feel like it.

I have to say, I highly recommend going for afternoon tea as emotional therapy.  It’s not cheap, so I can’t do it often, but it is absolutely worth it.  Why?

Because:

  1. You have to dress up a little (because it’s at a fancy-pants place) and doing so always makes me feel better about myself.
  2. Everyone there is extremely friendly and polite.  Everyone.  I have yet to go to one of these places and not have every employee I encounter smile at me.
  3. The food is good and surprisingly filling even though it’s finger sandwiches and tiny scones and cute little pastries.
  4. There is an aura of tranquility and civility in these places that I have rarely found anywhere else.

I actually have never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I’ve read the book.  In the book, Holly Golightly explains why she likes going to Tiffany’s by saying that it’s the kind of place you feel like nothing bad could ever happen there.  This is how I feel about tea.

Nothing bad could ever possibly happen to me while I’m at tea.

Memo

TO: Everyone I know

FROM:  Mrs Whatsit

SUBJECT:  Reproduction

My doctor has been urging me to recruit support and tell people how they can help me get better.  So, here goes.

You folks may not be aware of this, because I don’t talk about it with you guys much (or at all–I’m looking at you, Mother-In-Law), but Husband and I would really, really like to have a baby.  Really.  We have been putting it off because we live hundreds of miles apart (and anyway I’m having enough emotional problems without my hormones all going out of whack, too) but we’re hoping that, in a few months, we can start trying to have our own little bundle of joy.

The yearning has been such that I once started tearing up while shopping for a diaper genie for my sister’s first child (and this was before I started crying at the drop of a hat).  It’s even starting to affect Husband.  I mean, he was pretty stoic when we first found out my sister is expecting another baby (any day now, actually; and we really thought we were safe from her since she just had a baby in the summer of 2007; btw, stop flaunting your fertility, Sis.  Stop.It.) and when we found out that my brother and his wife are expecting a baby (at the end of May).  But Husband lost his cool earlier this week when we found out that his brother and sister-in-law are now expecting a baby in October (there may be a small amount of sibling rivalry involved here because he was also pretty pissed a year ago when he heard his brother–who is younger than him–bought a house).  To quote Husband, “Dammit, that’s another couple younger than us who are having a baby and we’re not and who knows when we’ll be able to!”

Now, I’m genuinely happy for all of the parents-to-be (as is Husband, of course).  Truly.  They are understandably excited and I am excited for them (you know, in addition to being insanely jealous) and I will shower those little babies with gifts of knitted things like everybody’s crazy aunt always does.  But, really, it would be so much better for my mental health if it didn’t seem like everyone else I know is getting to have babies.  So, I need you all to put a sock on it (so to speak).  Cease and desist with the reproduction, people.  Just for a few months.  You can practice all you want, just hold off on the actual procreative aspect of it for a little while. At the very least, just don’t tell me you’re going to have a baby.  Let’s say until July.  After that, you can go to town.

Thank you for your understanding.

P.S.  I think I can probably handle one more person telling me they are expecting a baby.  Please decide amongst yourselves who that person will be.  Thx.

Dear Advisor: I have gone crazy. Sorry.

There may be labs in this world in which a grad student can disappear for a week and not have the advisor notice, but my lab isn’t one of them.  Advisor may not notice if one of us is gone for one or two days.  But any more than that and he starts wondering where we are.  He’ll ask around, look on the lab calendar and eventually send an email asking you where you are.  I know this because when things have gotten bad in the past and I disappeared for a couple of days, I got one of these emails.

So, on the Monday that I left for Grandma’s I knew I was going to have to tell my advisor something to explain why I was suddenly absent with no date set for when I’d return.  Advisor and I have discussed my illness in the past–I’ve been very honest about it when it has interfered with my productivity.  He has also been very understanding about it in the past.  Still, that was before the lab was in dire financial straits and obviously he cannot afford to pay a student who is not actually working, at least not for very long.  So, I wasn’t sure how he would handle this.  But, I couldn’t afford to worry about that because I was in the midst of an emergency.

So, I sent him an email.  In as few words as I could manage, I explained what was going on and appologized.  I believe I appologized four times in three sentences.  Then, without waiting for a reply, I left for Grandma’s where there is no internet (Doesn’t that make it sound like she lives on the edge of civilization?  There actually IS internet in my grandmother’s town, she just doesn’t have it herself).  On Thursday evening, I came back to town, but I couldn’t bring myself to check my email until Friday.

Here is the body of Advisor’s reply to my email:

Your health is the main concern here, and really the only concern at the moment. The last thing you should worry about is apologizing to me.

When you’re up to it, we can talk about the best way forward.

I almost cried.  In fact, I’m tearing up right now.  Now I have to go get some tissues.

[Aside:  I hate crying.  Hate it, hate it, hate it.  I don’t really find it cathartic.  And I’ve been doing a lot of it lately.  Just about every act of kindness causes me to get choked up.  Including your guys’ comments on my previous post.  I appreciate the support; thank you so much!]

So, I sent him an email over the weekend saying that I was back in town and feeling better and that, barring a relapse, I would be in lab Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.

Tuesday morning, after meeting with my doctor, I went into lab and sat down with Advisor.  He told me that he had talked to the graduate student administrator about what my options might be at this point.  Together, Advisor and I came up with a plan.  I will stay in lab through spring quarter.  At the end of spring quarter, I will go live with my husband.  If I have not finished writing my thesis by then, I will be on a leave of absence until I finish writing.  Then, I will register for one more quarter during which I will defend and graduate.  Any lab work that may be left at the end of spring quarter (there shouldn’t be any, but you never know) will be finished off by the second author on my paper.  She will also do any experiments the reviewers request.

This is the best possible plan for me.  I have a firm date after which I will leave this environment which is toxic to me and go live with my husband which my doctor and I both agree will significantly improve my mental health.  AND, I will definitely be able to get my degree, but I will no longer be under the stress of a deadline.  Another important factor is that nothing is changing in the very short term.  Stability and familiarity is what I need to recover and leaving school now and trying to move to California would probably send me over the edge (again).

With luck, this is also good for the lab.  I’m the best person to finish my experiment and I will have time to make sure that all the strains and plasmids that I have created are properly archived and that my notes are in order and hopefully even submit my paper before I leave.

Of course, if I relapse then the lab will have spent all that money on my tuition and stipend for me to lay in bed (at home, or in the hospital).  So, it’s a bit of a gamble on Advisor’s part.  I’m very grateful that it’s one he’s willing to take.

Crash

So, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for the last few days.  What to say, how much to say, if I should split it up into a few posts or just write it all out in one giant post.  Finally, I decided to just start typing and see what comes out.

In the past, I have alluded to the fact that I suffer (and suffer is a key word here) from major depression which goes into and out of remission.  Mostly, I manage to  continue working in lab as though I don’t have a giant, hemorraging, pus-filled, disfiguring wound on my psyche.  However, sometimes I don’t quite manage this.

I have been really not doing well for awhile now.  I can’t find any enjoyment in anything I do.  I’ve stopped knitting.  I don’t watch TV anymore.  I barely read.  Mostly, when I’m not in lab, I’m in my bed hiding from the world.  For weeks now I’ve barely felt any emotions at all.  Mostly, I just felt numb.  My doctor and I are trying to address the depression with medication and talk therapy but the reality is that I am currently in one of the worst possible situations for me to be in, in terms of mental health.  So, it’s a seriously uphill battle.

A couple Fridays ago, the medication situation got a little screwed up.  What happened was such a small thing, but it sent me spiraling out of control into a deep, dark depression and I had what I like to call a mental breakdown.  Friday afternoon, I went to my bed, laid down, and didn’t get out of it for more than 20 minutes at a time all weekend.

Saturday, I was miserable.  I cried.  Buckets.  I made the decision to quit grad school and looked up flights to head to California.  However, I did not book a flight because:

  1. I couldn’t pack a suitcase because I had no clean clothes.
  2. I could barely find it in myself to leave my bed.  Leaving the apt seemed really not doable and going to an airport which had tons of people and sitting on a plane for several hours (also with lots of people) seemed truly impossible in my current state.
  3. I didn’t want to leave my fish to die so I would have to find someone to take care of him and that would mean calling someone up and telling them that I was leaving town and then they would ask why and I didn’t want to talk about it.
  4. I had yeast plates in the incubator in lab and I would have to call someone to deal with them or they would overgrow and then I would have to tell them I was going out of town and then they would ask why and I didn’t want to talk about it (why I cared about my yeast plates when I thought I was quitting grad school is beyond me).

At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that when you are in a severe depressive state, your ability to think in a normal, rational way goes in the shitter.  You start making decisions based on really, really screwed up thought processes.  And, you tend to isolate yourself so there’s no one around to tell you that you are thinking like a crazy person.

So, because I couldn’t handle the problems with leaving that I mentioned above, I went back to my bed and laid down and didn’t get back up until Sunday.  I talked to my husband briefly on Sat. night and just told him I wasn’t feeling well.  Sunday, I felt slightly better in that I didn’t cry at all, but I still couldn’t face being out of my bed.  I briefly considered calling my doctor, but I had an appointment with her on Monday morning, so I figured I would just talk to her then.  Sunday night, I turned off my phone so that I wouldn’t hear it if my husband called because I didn’t want to talk to anybody.

Now, we come to Monday morning.  I got up and managed to get myself together enough to go to my doctor’s.  After hearing how things were going for me, she suggested that:

  1. I should call my husband to come stay with me as soon as possible, or
  2. I should get someone else to stay with me as soon as possible, or
  3. I should go stay with someone else as soon as possible, or
  4. I should go to the hospital.

My doctor has NEVER suggested I go to the hospital before and it scared the shit out of me.  I wanted to go to the hospital like I wanted a hole in my head (fortunately, those two things are no longer synonymous, cutting into peoples’ brains is usually not considered good psychiatric medicine these days).  However, I was really scared that if I didn’t commit to someone coming to stay with me or me going to stay with someone my doctor would have me committed to a psych ward (although she did say that she wasn’t so much in favor of hospitalization because she thinks it’s not very effective in the short term which is all I would be in for; but she thought I should no longer be alone).

So, the solution I came up with was going to see my grandmother.*  I knew she would take care of me.  I stayed there a few days, then went back home and my husband came and stayed with me for a few days.  The medication situation was fixed, although we’re still tweaking it because, although I feel better, I am not in full remission.  But, I don’t feel numb like I used to and I don’t feel as sad as I used to.  So, things are improving.

Now I have to try to plug back in to the rest of the world.

*The speeding ticket I got was on my way to my grandmother’s which leads me to another possible response: “I’m sorry officer, but I’m in the middle of an actual nervous breakdown and I’m on my way to stay with my grandmother because otherwise they’re going to lock me up in the nuthouse and I’m trying to get there quickly because I’ve got about 5 people who know about this and they’re worried about me driving in my current state and I don’t want them to worry longer than necessary.”