Depression Is Like “Thought Cancer”

Slowly — too slowly — our culture is beginning to understand that depression isn’t just one person feeling blue because their life sucks. It’s a health issue with causes and effects that can be treated and ameliorated. The human brain is, by far, the most complex, complicated organ in our bodies. It’s also the organ we understand the least. Inside our skulls, 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) [are] interconnected by trillions of connections, called synapses. On average, each connection transmits about one signal per second. Some specialized connections send up to 1,000 signals per second. Our synapses work like digital circuits; they’re either open or closed. If they’re open, electrical currents can travel across them — and information moves right along with the current. “Somehow… that’s producing thought,” says Charles Jennings, director of neurotechnology at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research. As ethereal as our thoughts feel, they probably have a physical form — some kind of encoding sequence “burned into” storage areas of our brains. These storage areas — dispersed across our grey matter — link up as we think associatively — connecting immediate stimuli to memories of similar stimuli.

In a happy world where only happy thoughts filtered into our brains, our brains would (one hopes) process only happiness and happiness is all we’d feel and “know”. Alas, Life doesn’t work that way. Even getting through a morning can produce the full gamut of thought possibilities. Some Life experiences leave behind more than just their physical imprint on our neural networks They leave behind darkness. Depression.

If happy thoughts produce lightness in our heads, depression produces its opposite. And, mind you, just like with cancer, there’s more than one kind of depression. Not all darkness is created equal. What Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” can leave scars on our bodies and in our minds. I was sexually assaulted twice when I was fourteen by the religious director at the synagogue where my family belonged outside of Baltimore. The second instance was especially harmful because (having kept the secret that first time), I believed I was therefore responsible for there being a second time. Somehow, this information imprinted deeply into my brain — not just that it happened but that it happened for a complicated reason for which I was responsible. That’s a lot of abstraction spread across various parts of my brain. But, that abstraction became my darkness — and that darkness haunted me even though I denied its existence.

When does a terrible incident transition into depression inside our brains? What causes that depression to “metastasize” from “sad thoughts” into increasingly self-destructive behavior? I treated this memory of being sexually assaulted like a secret only I (and my attacker) would or could know. That’s why there was a second time, remember? Despite being sexually assaulted once, I said nothing, told no one. That must have been the case — from my attacker’s point of view — since he still had a job and wasn’t in jail. As I walked in the door that second time, he knew he was safe — and knew he could do it again. So, he did.

This particular memory — this collection of information plus perspective plus all other associations connected to it — behaved exactly like a slow-moving cancer. Plenty of other bad memories become “cancerous” in that they interfere with your life in potentially fatal ways. Just like our immune system regularly deals with low level cancers all the time, our brains find ways of, if not healing the cancerous thoughts, at least containing them and the damage done. Talk therapy went a long way toward mitigating a lot of the depression caused by my sexual assault. Unfortunately, until I dealt with that cancer directly, I was never going to put my cancer into remission.

In my case, this “thought cancer” destroyed my ability to relate to other people with confidence. It’s not that I didn’t or couldn’t trust them, it’s that I had a secret that they could never know — and if they didn’t know that secret about me, they couldn’t possibly know “me”. This put me on an emotional island I didn’t even know I was on. I had friends but never close friends; that is, they felt closeness to me that I couldn’t feel toward them because, down deep, I couldn’t understand why they’d want to BE my friend when, the dark, dirty truth was, I was undeserving of anyone’s friendship. Because of what I did.

Three days before Christmas 2016 — my cancer suddenly metastasizing at an even more alarming rate — I came within literal inches of killing myself. My darkness, my thought cancer, had blocked out all perspective. I had become convinced that my family and friends — my community — would go on same as it was just fine without me. That would not have been the case at all, certainly not with my wife and kids. But, that’s the insidious thing about “thought cancer”. Like a tumor does, depression becomes part of the architecture. The body starts feeding it blood — like it belonged there. The tumor’s essence flows into you and, like a virus, sets about turning you into it.

In my case, I convinced myself that because I’d been sexually assaulted, I deserved every other rotten thing that happened. Including death. Talk about bullshit.

My path out of the darkness and back up into reality began with talk therapy. Acknowledging the need for help was essential to both getting help and being helped. But, I was still keeping that secret from myself — literally denying that such a thing had ever happened to me. I needed even more help — that was my suicide attempt. I had feared mood stabilizers because of the reasons above: we have a “guestimate” understanding of how our brains work but an even bigger gap in understanding how exactly these drugs work in our individual brains. I grew up in a medical family; my dad was a surgeon. I know the culture. I know that my GP doesn’t have a background in these meds — not their fault. Most likely, they’d prescribe whatever the last Big Pharma rep left behind last time she visited and handed out samples. I wanted to deal with my depression while leaving my hypomania alone mostly (that’s where my creativity resides — I’m bi-polar too) and had found lamotrigine (lamictil). The anecdotal information available while I was Googling back in 2014 and 2015 was scant compared to now. At higher doses (I’ve since researched), lamotrigine can impact one’s hypomania. But, I got lucky.

Boy, did I get lucky. Immediately after my attempt — knowing I needed more help than just talk therapy — I drove straight to my GP and told them everything. I told them what happened — but not why because I didn’t know that yet. I told them I’d researched lamotrigine. My GP (and the head doctor — I got a lot of attention) whipped out their smart phones to look it up for themselves. By that point, they’d asked me three times if perhaps I should be hospitalized. I assured them that if trying medication didn’t help then, yes — I’d agree to be hospitalized. They wrote the script.

I went hope, told my family what I was planning — they signed off on it (they were even more desperate than I was that I get help) and I took my first 25 milligram dose. That’s when luck really kicked in. Within 36 hours at that minimal dose, I levelled. I literally felt the darkness lose its power to control me.

My rage was explosive back then. Though usually self-directed, my rage could just as easily be pointed at something stupid I heard on the radio or LA traffic. I don’t remember what set it off that time but the rage erupted in my gut and began to funnel upward with increasing velocity. I was quite prepared for it to hit my throat and — per usual — explode out of me in waves of angry, vituperative spew. But, this time, just as the rage went to explode, instead, it dissipated like a soap bubble popping. I knew I had felt this incredible anger but, just when I expected to really FEEL it? Nada. It was gone except for the (already) fading memory of it.

This was liberating! After the exact same thing happened again several hours later, I understood exactly how the mood stabilizer was stabilizing my moods.

With my depression no longer in charge — no longer able to derail me and my emotions, I could begin the real process of healing. In my case, I could begin to address the eight thousand kiloton gorilla sitting on my chest: my secret.

Long story short: I did confront my secret and confronting it hurt like a mofo. But, confronting that secret — talking about it finally — took away literally all its power over me. Writing about it was even more healing.

I haven’t removed my darkness, I’ve disempowered it. It still lurks within and it knows the power it has over me. If this was “cancer” cancer, I’d change my diet to keep it at bay or alter my lifestyle as necessary. Thought cancer requires the same pro-active measures.

I don’t think for two seconds that I’ve “beaten” this thought cancer. I’ve just figured out how to live with it — and find happiness while living with it. That’s the good news on the subject: there is hope. Lots and lots of it.

Why Are We All So Addicted To Our Own Bullshit? Easy — We’re Addicted To It BECAUSE It’s “Ours”…

I almost learned the hard way how addicted I was to bullshit. My bullshit nearly killed me. For real.

Long story short, I kept a secret from myself for 45 years — that I was molested (twice) when I was 14. If I think of my hypomanic mind as a black box theater filled with projections (my thoughts), this memory sat in a file drawer in a closet in an office far at the back of the theater, up a long metal staircase. The memory glowed inside its drawer.

I always knew it was there.

That I denied this thing happened to me — that was bullshit. But it’s something that victims of sexual assault do as a survival strategy. We blame ourselves. It seems logical. And since it was our fault, we convince ourselves that we deserve every terrible thing that ever flows from it. I became so convinced this bullshit was true that I came within literal inches of killing myself.

I count myself extremely lucky. Between a magnificent therapist, a mood stabilizer (at a minimal dose) that keeps my depression caged and loads of THC to help get my hypomania focused (I highly recommend Durban Poison during the day — it delivers a smooth, even feeling of clear-headed mental energy), I get through my days with a high degree of happiness now. As I started to get healthy, I saw (to my horror) that not only had my own bullshit tried to kill me, my bullshit was undermining every other facet of my life, too.

From the moment I woke up in the morning, I was seeing the world through the bullshit color lenses I kept by my bedside and put on the instant I woke up. I breathed deeply the bullshit scented fumes rising from the piles of bullshit that I had left by my bed the night before. I thought things based on bullshit, did things based on bullshit, said things based on bullshit.

And I was shocked, shocked, I tell ya, when I got bullshit back in response.

Now, let’s be real. No one’s ever going to live 100% bullshit free. Bullshit is hardwired into our genome. Take bullshit away from us and there’d be no religion (not the worst thing that could happen to us). Take bullshit away from us and a lot of relationships would instantly metastasize and die. Take bullshit away from us and Donald Trump would be serving multiple life terms in a federal penitentiary already — alongside pretty much every single Republican.

Bullshit comes in 4 “flavors” or levels…

Level 1: Incidental Bullshit

  • Your 5 year old asks if there’s Santa Claus; you say yes.
  • It’s 6 am.  You have to get up.  You don’t want to.  “Five more minutes,” you tell yourself – you won’t be late.  Bullshit – you know damned well you’ll be late.  You do it anyway.
  • “One more spoonful of ice cream won’t matter to my diet/diabetes.”
  • “Why did you look at me funny when I took one more spoonful of ice cream?”
  •  “Have a nice day” (no matter who says it, no matter why).

Incidental Bullshit is water off a duck’s back.  Life’s just too short to get too hung up on this kind of low grade truthiness.  It’s petty mostly.  Meaningless and forgettable.  However:  This is the ‘shit’ that ‘happens’.  It just does.  What are any of us going to do about it?  Nothing.  Moving on…

Level 2: Tolerable Bullshit

  • Your 10 year old – who’s starting to figure things out – asks if there’s a Santa Claus; you say yes.
  • Your bff always brings a bottle of red wine when she comes over – except you drink white wine.  What kind of guest is that?  You could say something, but you don’t; you’ll keep the peace instead.
  • You both know damned well whose turn it is to clean the bathroom – but you do it better anyway, so…
  •  “I love you” said under duress.

Tolerable Bullshit will challenge you occasionally – is it actually tolerable?  Small doses – no problem.  More than that?   It could easily start to feel just like bullshit.

Level 3: Red Flag Warning Bullshit

  • Your 20 year old asks – for real – if there’s a Santa Claus.
  • “I don’t have a drinking problem.”
  • “My phone’s battery died.  No, really – I swear it!”

You know it in your gut – it ain’t right.  It doesn’t add up or it just plain smells.  This is the bullshit that leaves a mark – or worse.  Deal with it now – you’ll probably be okay.  Ignore the warning and this bullshit will likely morph into –

Level 4: Utter Bullshit

  • “I alone can fix it.”
  • “No collusion.”
  •  “I don’t deserve to be here”

This is the stuff that kills.  It changes lives forever.  And it’s bullshit.

Getting rid of our own bullshit is hard. You have to own it in order to get rid of it. Think of it as confession — except there’s no church. YOU are the church. YOU know where all your bodies are buried because YOU’RE the one who buried them.

Does living (or trying to live) bullshit free work? Yeah — it does. I’m so busy dealing with my own bullshit that I never have time to worry (let alone think about) anyone else’s bullshit. That means I don’t judge their bullshit anymore — they’re all as consumed & dominated by their bullshit as I am.

What do you have to lose — trying to live bullshit free — except your bullshit?

Dispatches From The War On Drugs — Is That Marijuana We Smell? Or “Surrender”?

I took marijuana to an airport yesterday — out in the open. Here’s what happened…

I never imagined I would become a warrior in the War On Drugs. I definitely never imagined that cannabis would touch my life so profoundly that I’d take up its cause with a Kamakazi’s zeal.

For reference’s sake — I wasn’t into pot when I was in high school. The handful of times I tried it, it put me right to sleep. Same all the way through college. I preferred cocaine. Speed worked better with my hypomania. At least, I thought it did at the time. I preferred ecstasy. Even psybocilin the one time I tried it. And, of course, there was always always ALWAYS alcohol.

Then Life happened. Ups, downs and everything in between. By the time I reached my mid 50’s, I was depressed and getting more so. Sleep was getting hard to come by. I had no interest in taking Ambien — knowing how my mind worked, that pretty much guaranteed I’d snap to from a fugue state in some strange, public place, completely naked. Wasn’t gonna happen.

I’d been taking Simply Sleep knock off’s for years. Occasionally I would get some sleep from it. Mostly it just made me groggy the next morning and screwed with my short term memory. Living in California, (back before full legalization), I had access to medical marijuana. Being at the very end of my tether, I found a doctor nearby who prescribed.

It wasn’t illicit — but it felt illicit. That’s how powerful bullshit is. “What’s your issue?” “Insomnia,” I said. I began to explain but he held up his hand. Not necessary. He wrote the prescription on his computer, printed it and handed it to me. Short $69, I walked out the door.

Next stop — my local dispensary — located almost literally under a freeway overpass. The only thing it needed to be a full on crime scene was the yellow police tape. I filled out their extensive paperwork. Showed them my California picture ID and my RX. I was buzzed through to the “showroom”, a few old display cases with pipes, bongs, papers, the few edibles then on the market (Cheeba Chews mostly) and a dozen large jars filled with cannabis flower.

My first budtender (I didn’t know he was called that then) welcomed me like I was a “customer” or something. The whole experience — that first time especially was surreal (something about it remains surreal). “Insomnia,” I said.

“Skywalker,” said my Budtender. As he went for the Skywalker jar, my immediate thought was “cute name”. I had no idea — zilch — that Skywalker wasn’t just a “name”, it was a genuine cannabis strain — a known quantity with known effects if you smoked it. It wasn’t the product of a bunch of stoners stumbling upon a plant that made the dope they liked, it was a hybridized product of serious work by serious people. Skywalker was a kind of “brand”. In theory, Skywalker was as reproducible a product as a Big Mac.

My Budtender offered me the jar — so I could smell it. Yup. Smelled like dope. I bought two grams. Took them home, intensely curious about what the dried flower in the plastic vile would do to me that night. I’d already bought a small glass pipe and a lighter. I didn’t have a grinder. Didn’t know I needed one.

I was as green as the Skywalker in the vial in my hand. But, that night, I ground up some of the leaves between my fingertips, snuck outside and smoked it. It didn’t take long — a few minutes — before a feeling of calm came over me. My hypomanic mind slowed down. Then sleep beckoned. Usually, I had to go hunting for it. But, with Skywalker’s THC now in my brain, sleep came looking for me. As I slipped into bed beside my wife, the feeling of sleepiness became downright delicious.

All I remember after that is waking up the next morning, feeling RESTED for the first time in… forever. In time (subjects for other blog posts), I’d learn that cannabis wasn’t just for bedtime. I was buying from one jar at the dispensary. What was in all the others?

Turned out cannabis could be genuinely useful first thing in the morning, too. Turned out pretty much EVERYTHING I knew or thought about cannabis was absolutely wrong. And the more I corrected that problem — the more I learned about cannabis — why it was “illegalized” (check out my series Blunt Truths at Weedmaps News) — the more I learned about the differences between indicas, sativas and hybrids — the more I found that cannabis & me were, in myriad ways, soul mates.

I’d even say we’re “buds”.

Back to my airport story… A few days ago, I traveled from LA to visit family on the East Coast.

In California, cannabis is legal. Because I’m over 21, I can walk around with 28.5 grams of cannabis flower in my possession (I can also have 8 grams of marijuana concentrate — I can even possess six living cannabis plants at my private residence. In California, these are my constitutional rights.

I can possess the flower and concentrate at my house, on the street, in my car (so long as I’m not actually using it then and there, mind you) and — still Constitutionally legal — at the airport. Until I board the airplane — where the FAA and the Federal government have jurisdiction — the weed in my possession is 100% legal.

So — I’m at LAX the other day. I know my rights here in California. I intended to travel some of cannabis with me to the east for personal consumption. The place I was going — another state where cannabis is legal. I know for a fact, as I go through the TSA security line that the vials of cannabis flower in clear view in my carry on bags (I now grind my flower and put it into 5 or 10 dram vials that I label with the strain’s name & type — there will be no mistaking what’s in those vials). I also was traveling with clearly marked edibles. I did not repackage my THC gummy worms with store-bought ones (as one normally does).

Quick footnote — on the day cannabis went fully legal in Nevada, an interesting phenomenon happened. The dispensaries all ran out of edibles. This happened principally because Nevada made a deal with the devil (in this case the liquor distributors who, shocking, did not have their shit together on Day One like they promised to); all re-stocking of retail supply had to be handled by the liquor distributors. Dumb, dumb, dumb. BUT – the phenomenon part is this: most of the sales, it’s believed, were made to non-Nevadans — tourists — who were about to get onto airplanes with loads of THC — in their food.

The wide availability of THC in food that looks exactly like non-THC food changes the game with no going back. It’s unpolice-able. Now that semi-legalization has unleashed all that THC-inspired creativity, there aren’t too many formats THC won’t take going forward. I’m not saying I’ve broken the law and traveled with THC-laced food in the past, but, I might know one or two people who have.

Being a “Have a plan B in your pocket” kind of person, I prepared myself in case the TSA agent understood the law “differently”. I drew plan B from my pocket when my computer backpack got flagged and pulled aside for a hand inspection.

I stepped up to the counter — not anxious so much as wary (I already had lots of THC in me). The TSA agent saw — and moved right past the 5 vials clearly containing cannabis — to the (I thought it was empty) water bottle that was there, too. There was an ounce of water left inside it. I needed to either lose the water bottle or leave my bags with my young adult kids, exit the secure area, dump the water and go through security again — water bottle in hand.

I’ve had this water bottle for a while. It’s a good water bottle. It’s my tennis water bottle. I’m not ditching it because I overlooked a few swallows of water. I left my bags with my kids and did the whole security dance again. Then I carried on through the airport to my gate — water bottle & cannabis still in my possession.

I saw the future — where cannabis was normal and, to a degree already, normalized. It was awesome.

Better than awesome. It was sane.

We Live In A “Golden Age Of Bullshit” – And Its Patron Saint — Donald Trump — Is Killing Us

If ever one word captured the age we live in — it’s “bullshit”. And could a man embody & epitomize bullshit any better than Donald Trump?

Shameless plug first — I just finished (and I’m agent-shopping) a book: How To Live Bullshit Free (And Other Showbiz Tales). It’s a painfully funny, brutally honest, name-dropping Hollywood memoir. I’ve had an unusual career (you can IMDb me here) that’s given me the chance to work with some of the most talented people in The Business. It’s also a “why you shouldn’t kill yourself” book (I came within inches of committing suicide three days before Christmas 2016 — or, as I like to think of it, I came within literal inches of bullshitting myself to death.

As I began to healthy in the aftermath (thanks to a great therapist, a mood stabilizer to cage the depression — it all flowed from a sexual assault at 14 I had buried — and loads of THC to mitigate my hypomania), I saw the myriad ways bullshit was still kicking my ass on a daily basis.

The first thing you have to do — to get bullshit out of your life — is to acknowledge all your own bullshit first (you have to deal with yours before you can even think of dealing with anyone else’s). And the first thing you’ll find, when you begin to deal with your bullshit, is how completely bullshit has destroyed your perspective. Bullshit, like depression, reduces your view of the world to an extreme telephoto lens — dialed in on one thing (how much you hate yourself, say) to the exclusion of everything else. Both destroy perspective until all you can see is your bullshit — and your bullshit is lying to you.

So — what can one do to become the alpha dog in one’s relationship with one’s ownb bullshit? Understand — calling out the bullshit in your life is not a one-n-done project.  Bullshit is like herpes.  It never really goes away.  You manage it at best.  But you have to manage it.  Every day – or it’ll metastasize from herpes into something a hell of a lot worse. 

HOW TO LIVE BULLSHIT FREE: THE DAILY 7 STEP ‘TO DO’ LIST

1 Get Perspective

2 Be Clear on What Is and What Isn’t

3 Keep Perspective

4 Refuse to Engage With Bullshit (It’s Pointless)

5 Own Your Own Bullshit First (Own It All Every Day)

6 Maintain Perspective

7 Wake Up Tomorrow and Repeat

If you look at how the list is structured, one thing kind of leads to another.  Nothing on it is intrinsically difficult – unless you try it in isolation.  The daily hunting and pecking at bullshit is a grind.  You see a lot of familiar faces: your bad habits for instance – they’re bullshit.  Bad habits you know you can break (and should) are bullshit on steroids.  Those are the ones that trip easily into Red Flag Warning territory.  There’s a reason they’re habits despite the fact that they’re bad. 

The getting, keeping and maintaining of perspective are all a matter of pulling ‘the camera’ back as far as you possibly can.  Are you seeing the biggest picture?  Sure you can’t pull it back just a little bit more?  Remember – bullshit eats perspective. 

If you can master that – seeing your circumstances in their fullest context – it may not make you happier, but you’ll know exactly what stands between you and happiness.  You will always know where the bullshit is in your life – and which bullshit you can live with and which you can’t.