I baked a cake! It wasn’t too good, I had a ton of fun, and you should do something, too

Behold! Behold! A Schloss Cake!!!

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The cake I baked: It’s Schlosstastic

What you are looking at is a red velvet hilarity. It took me about four hours to bake and was largely inspired by the Great British Bake-Off. My wife and I have been binging on it lately, and that can only end hilariously.

I’m not a complete noob at baking. I’ve baked some pretty good cookies and brownies, but a CAKE. Man, that’s a whole different level.

And how did it go? Well, poorly. Everyone LOVED the cake. No one liked the icing. Want proof? Here was the cake when I got back from work:

Cake With Icing.jpg

Now, to answer the question which may have popped into your head: Why the hell am I writing about a cake on a blog about depression?

Welp, because it was fun. And engaging, and I mean ALL ENGAGING. And that was really good for me.

Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I remember my Mom telling me that when she was down, she loved to bake. She said it was all engaging and really absorbed her attention. As an adult, I’ve found that she was completely right.

This jives with my efforts to fight depression. I’ve noticed that, the more absorbed I get in an activity, the less time I have to think about depression. Indeed, this is something I’ve written about before: The key role that rumination has in depression. This is something which has a large role in the book The Depression Cure: Fighting rumination means finding an engaging activity to absorb your attention and break the cycle of rumination.

And, let me tell you, when you bake, your attention is absorbed. Or, at least, it better be. Otherwise, your icing may suck…I mean, otherwise, things won’t come out as good. And I have to say, I really enjoyed it. I think there’s a piece of me…a very large piece…which is still a little kid. You want me to play with food AND bake something which could be very tasty? I’m in! Where do I sign up? And yes, there is a sense of pride that goes with baking. It’s kind of fun to know that I made something which is at least a little bit tasty.

Should you bake? Maybe. I mean, if it isn’t for you, don’t – but, if you want to try, I say it’s totally worth it (start with cookies, those are simpler and harder to mess up). But, if you don’t want to bake, do something else. Do something engaging, something that will swallow you whole. Do something fun. Just do something. It’s really important to beat depression.

And, as always, if you have any comments or thoughts, please let us know below!

A review of The Depression Cure and Therapeutic Lifestyle Change: Is beating depression REALLY that simple?

I recently finished The Depression Cure by Dr. Stephen Ilardi. It was…interesting. A unique blend of common sense, historical perspective and medical research, boiled into a six-step process which claims to be able to beat depression. My summary? A lot of merit in here, albiet maybe too simplistic. And I plan on incorporating some of what I learned into my life.

For starters, here’s the crux of the book: Depression is a disease of civilization. Ilardi argues that we’ve seen a rise in depression because of the way we have become civilized and socialized. We don’t get enough exercise, enough sunlight, enough of the right kind of food, enough sleep or enough social connections. We have broken away from the way our bodies and minds have evolved, and as a result, we’ve broken down.

Even more interesting: The book came out in 2009, well before iPhones became hugely ingrained in our lives. During that time, depression and rates of mental illness have only increased.

So what’s the cure? According to Ilardi, we need to do six things:

  • Get at least eight hours sleep.
  • Get more sunshine/natural light – including with a lightbox.
  • Improve our social connections.
  • Stop ruminating.
  • Improve our consumption of certain nutrients, like Omega-3s.
  • Get more exercise.

Ilardi claims that these steps combined – which he describes as Therapeutic Lifestyle Change – can dramatically reduce, if not outright eliminate, depression.

What does the research say? Well, that’s the thing, actually: This stuff isn’t psuedo-science. Each and everyone of the six steps above is backed up by real research which shows that these items can help reduce depression. Heck, I’ve written on many of them long before I read this book, including sleep and rumination.

How about the overall TLC package? TLC’s website provides a link which shows the effectiveness of each of these items individually, although I couldn’t find anything which evaluates the package as a whole. Still, it makes sense that they would work when used together, with the effectiveness of each individual element hopefully reinforcing each other.

My greatest issue? It just seems…too easy. Ilardi argues that, in many cases, sunshine can beat depression. I just cannot imagine it’s that simple. I also know how difficult it can be to do some of these items. When you are severely depressed, you may lose the ability to care for yourself or work towards self improvement. To his credit, Ilardi recognizes this: He breaks down each of these steps into small, easy to swallow, achievable items. He also acknowledges that there can be many causes of depression for which TLC is inadequate, including PTSD, brain damage and other medical changes.

If this is all real, I’d argue it could be a paradigm shift in depression. We wouldn’t need therapy or drugs: We’d need sleep or sunshine. It seems too easy and I’m skeptical. I’m very pro-medication (when necessary), and this book just seems to simplistic at times.

Still.

I’m going to give some of this stuff a shot, starting with the Omega 3 supplements, and I highly recognize you do the same (if you’re doing anything physical, like a lightbox or supplements, you should talk with your doctor first – I did!). At the worst, this stuff is harmless or good for you anyway. At the best…who knows.

If you’ve had any experience with TLC, please let us know in the comments below!

Do mental health apps work?

One of the things I have seen a lot of lately is apps that claim to be able to help you improve your mental health and get treatment. There are a bunch out there – this includes apps like What’s Up, Mood Kit and MY3, among many, many others.

Here’s the important question: Do they work?

I bring this up because there’s been a bit of controversy with one app, BetterHelp. The App says that it will hook users up with licensed therapists. The controversy, however, emerged with many YouTubers who had engaged in sponsored ads with BetterHelp.

As long as the sponsorship is transparent, I don’t personally see an issue, but problems emerged with BetterHelp itself. First, it’s terms of services explicitly couldn’t guarantee placement with a qualified, licensed professional:

We do not control the quality of the Counselor Services and we do not determine whether any Counselor is qualified to provide any specific service as well as whether a Counselor is categorized correctly or matched correctly to you. The Counselor Services are not a complete substitute for a face-to-face examination and/or session by a licensed qualified professional.

Umm…..that’s a major, major problem. That’s beyond not acceptable. Any app that claims it will provide mental health professionals to users has a moral obligation (and I hope a legal one!) to ensure that the counselors themselves actually are licensed professionals, or at least disclose in a VERY publicly way when they are not.

This entire incident got me wondering about these apps. How good are they? Do they work? Are they substitutes for seeing a counselor in a face to face setting?

First, the obvious: Answers to the questions I posed above will vary widely. It all depends, of course, on the quality of service offered.

The most comprehensive answer I could find was in this paper, published in March 2018. The answer varies, of course, but in sections, it seems to be yes:

  • Depression: ” A meta-analysis of 18 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) covering 22 mobile apps revealed that using apps to alleviate symptoms and self-manage depression significantly reduced patients’ depressive symptoms compared to control conditions (g=0.38, P<0.001).” However, the apps work best when depression is mild to moderate, not severe.
  • Anxiety: “A meta-analysis of nine RCTs that evaluated the effects of smartphone-delivered interventions on symptoms of subclinical and diagnosed anxiety disorders revealed that users experienced reductions in total anxiety after using anxiety treatment apps (g=0.33, P<0.001). Additionally, anxiety-focused mobile apps delivered the greatest reductions in anxiety symptoms when paired with face-to-face or internet-based therapies. In fact, replacing outpatient patient-therapist sessions with a mobile app resulted in no significant loss of treatment efficacy.”
  • Schizophrenia: “Self-reported patient experience survey results revealed high adherence, positive user experience, and broad-ranging clinical benefits.”

Wow. So, yes, theoretically, these can work!

I have two additional thoughts. First, hey, if it works, it works. The mental health practitioner shortage is, in my opinion, the greatest crisis affecting mental health, and if apps can help close that gap at an affordable rate, it’s worth using.

Second. however, is this: It has to be a real app, with high quality and scientifically based therapies and design. In the digital day and age, it can be all too easy to design a subpar treatment program that can scam users out of money and provide no clinical benefit. I hope, in the long run, that the federal government will step in and better regulate these apps in order to protect users from negative experiences that can damage their mental health and sap their limited resources.

Do you have any experiences with mental health apps that you want to share? Please let us know in the comments below!

TMS Update: Is this what feeling better feels like?

So, it’s been about six weeks since I started Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. As I type this, I’ve had about 26 sessions, with another ten or so to go.

How am I feeling? Is it working? Better. And yes. It is working. And I feel reasonably convinced at this point that it’s not just the placebo effect.

Let me discuss the second part of that question first, because I think it’s almost the most important. Why do I think it’s not a placebo effect? Because life is NOT perfect. I think – I don’t know, but I think – that if this was a mere placebo effect, I’d be sitting here, flying through the sky. Life would feel perfect. There would be birds and sunshine and candy everywhere and all that crap. Then, eventually, the effect would wear away, and I’d crash hard.

Simply put, that isn’t true. Everything doesn’t feel perfect. I’ve still gotten depressed about things, upset. Most of the time, it’s been normal life events. On a couple of days I’ve still woken up really down, but that feeling fades easier than it did before treatment. Simply put, things aren’t magical.

So then, let me tackle the question in the title: Is this what feeling better feels like? Maybe? I can’t answer that question definitively yet, because I don’t know . Look, I’ve been on anti-depressants and in treatment, as needed, since I was 18. I’m 35. Half my life. So I’m not quite sure what “normal” is.

Here’s what I do know. Since I started TMS and began to feel it’s positive impacts:

  • I’ve been enjoying things more. A lot more. A couple of examples:
    • As I’ve long since established I am a big computer game nerd. I play these games more, and I just like them more. I’ve had more fun playing them.
    • I was with my wife and my kids at a local food fair. I’m sitting there, eating this big ole Taco Salad. My son is leaning on me, eating Mac & Cheese. He’s snuggling in. I’ve got my little boy, good food, happy environment, great music. I felt good. I felt lucky. My phone was firmly in my pocket. I felt like I was in the moment. That didn’t happen before.
  • I wake up in the morning without this impending sense of dread. Without feeling like there’s a ceiling over my head, pressing down. It just feels like the world has less pressure. I still feel stressed, still feel overwhelmed. But the world doesn’t feel like it is filled with nearly as much darkness.
  • I’ve been less snappy. Less grouchy.
  • I’ve had an easier time concentrating and getting things done. My motivation is higher.
  • You know that myth about the depressed writer? Bull. Depression does help give you insight and experience for writing, but if it’s too severe, you ain’t writing. And I’ve had a much, much easier time writing lately.

Arguably the most important observation since this started has been from my wife. She was skeptical when TMS first started. She told me last week that she didn’t think it would work, and part of her almost wishes she didn’t know I was doing it so she wouldn’t risk being fooled by a placebo effect as well.

Why? Because she noticed the difference too. She told me the other day, unprompted, that she sees it’s working. She sees that I am happier. And my wife is smarter than me! So if she is noticing this, it makes me more convinced that this thing really is working.

Are things perfect? Hell no. They never will be.

But they are unquestionably better.

DISCLAIMER: First, again, I’m not a doctor or medical professional – I’m a damn politician and writer. I’m certainly doing my best to write an accurate description, but if you have any questions or concerns, please contact a medical professional. Second, this probably goes without saying, but I’m going through this treatment like any other normal person and paying with my insurance. I am not receiving any compensation or consideration whatsoever for sharing my experiences. However – and again, this is just me writing – I’ve had my TMS from the TMS Center of the Lehigh Valley. I am grateful for their skills, professionalism and willingness to work with my rather insane schedule. I highly, highly recommend them if you are local to the area.

TMS Update

Well, as I type this I am 10 sessions into the 30 session Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation sessions. 1/3 of the way there. Woohoo!

How’s it going so far? Well…maybe better? Honestly, yeah, starting at the beginning of the 2nd week, it did start to feel like I was feeling a bit better, but let me define what I mean. Birds did not start singing. The sky is not the bluest it has ever been. Depression is still there. Life is not perfect.

But, to some extent, I have to say, it does feel like things have gotten a bit better. My life hasn’t dramatically improved, but there does seem to be a bit less…pressure. Like, the ceiling of depression which pressured down on me seems a bit lighter. That’s the best way I think I can put it.

To be clear, this may be placebo. The readings that the Doctor gave me showed that depression probably wouldn’t start to improve until week four. When I mentioned this to him, he said some people did feel better in week two, but for many it was longer, and it is certainly possible that this is just placebo. So I guess we will see!

Some other notes:

  • For me, there are no side effects. Even the slight headaches that during the treatment have become more tolerable. I haven’t taken a Tylenol before a treatment since it started, and my head has not hurt a soon as the treatment has ended.
  • You really do build a resistance to the minor pain caused by the treatment. Of the ten times I’ve had it, I’ve fallen asleep three of them, which is kind of funny.
  • I went through the math in my head the other day. As I said in the last entry on this subject, the magnet taps your head for four seconds, then rests for twelve. During the four seconds in which you get tapped with the magnet, it makes contact 40 times. A session is twenty minutes, so you get tapped 3,200 times a session. Multiply that by the 30 sessions, and congratulations, you’re getting smacked by a magnet 96,000 time over six weeks!

Only 64,000 taps to go!

The futility of gratitude – and why it’s so important

I had an interesting realization in therapy the other day, and it led to this blog entry. Stay with me for a second.

My therapist and I were talking about trying to change my mindset from both a depression and anxiety perspective. I think a great deal of anxiety comes from a fear of “not being able to handle” any given situation – be that going to school, work, travel, whatever. I’m not quite sure what “not being able to handle” means, save for turning into a blubbering ball of sad and fear, but whatever. Now, by and large, that’s a silly fear. There’s no such thing – not really – as “not being able to handle” something. Sure, there are some life events and experiences that go better than others, but short of dying, you get through life.

This sort of fear in stressful situations can manifest itself in many ways. One of them is that it causes a shift in mindset. You no longer engage in new experiences to enjoy them or learn from them – instead, you do so in order to say “I survived” them. This mindset can be damning for so many reasons. You start an experience not looking to enjoy it, but to get through it. This kind of bunker-mentality can absolutely destroy your ability to get any joy. To try new things. To adventure or gain new experience. Indeed, it makes you afraid, and it makes you far less willing to be adventurous. You live in a constant state of looking over your shoulder, wondering when the anxiety attack will hit. Wondering when you will get cripplingly sad. Wondering what goes wrong next.

This way of thinking, of living – survival versus gratitude – can be absolutely crippling. And it leads me to the point of today’s entry: I don’t want to just survive. I want to thrive. I want to learn and to live. Don’t you?

How do you do that? Hahaha, yeah come on, you know I don’t have an answer. I only have a piece of one. That’s this: Try to change the way you approach new situations. Approach them from a perspective of gratitude and gaining new experience. Instead of entering an anxiety-provoking situation from the perspective of, “Oh, God, how am I gonna get through this?” ask yourself, “Okay, what can I learn from this?” or better yet, “How can I be grateful for this experience?”

Now, I titled this entry, “The futility of gratitude” because I am not an idiot. When you are depressed or anxious and someone tells you to “Be grateful,” you probably want to punch that person in the face. Grateful? For the crippling fear and sadness? That’s madness.

But, that’s exactly why it’s so important.

The only way to break anxiety and depression is to change the way you think. The way you process thoughts and emotions. And the only way to do that is to shift your mindset. So, just try this. Try, every now and then, asking yourself this question: “How am I learning from this new and difficult situation?” or “What can whatever I am experiencing right now teach me so I don’t encounter these problems in the future?” Fear is only crippling is it denies you the chance to grow, to learn. And there’s no such thing as an experience you can’t handle.

So, try to ask yourself that. Try to ask yourself what you can be grateful for. What you can learn. Shift your mind, and maybe you can shift your emotions too.

Redemption – my book – is now available

Today’s the day. A really, really big day, for me. Today, my book, Redemptionis available for order.

First, the logistics: If you pre-ordered it on your Kindle, it should be there! If you want to order it for Kindle or order a print copy on Amazon, go right to the website. To order it in other formats, or to order a printed copy directly from me (which I will sign and ship!), visit my website. Also, if you use Goodreads, you can check out the book’s page here.

Again, here’s what the book is about:

Twenty young people wake aboard the spaceship Redemption with no memory how they got there.

Asher Maddox went to sleep a college dropout with clinical depression and anxiety. He wakes one hundred sixty years in the future to assume the role as captain aboard a spaceship he knows nothing about, with a crew as in the dark as he is.

Yanked from their everyday lives, the crew learns that Earth has been ravaged by the Spades virus – a deadly disease planted by aliens. They are tasked with obtaining the vaccine that will save humanity, while forced to hide from an unidentified, but highly advanced enemy.

Half a galaxy away from Earth, the crew sets out to complete the quest against impossible odds. As the enemy draws closer, they learn to run the ship despite their own flaws and rivalries. But they have another enemy . . . time. And it’s running out.

Okay. Now for the personal stuff.

This book was written during one of the ugliest, most depressed periods of my adult life. I was in a bad funk, my wife was having a hard time at work, and we were both just struggling. I had started seeing my therapist again, I had increased my medication, but I was still in a really bad way. And I made a decision that I needed to do more, and remembered how writing had saved me when I was a teenager. I’d already written a non-fiction book – Tweets and Consequences – and while I’d enjoyed that process, I wanted to do more. I wanted to write something that was truly meaningful to me on a personal level.

Twenty years ago – probably more – I had this idea as a young teenage writer about kids winding up on a spaceship with no idea why. While I was thinking about writing, I remembered this kernel of a plot. I wanted to write about mental illness as well, since that cause has become such a part of my life.

And thus, Redemption.

As for why this is so important to me. Please understand that this isn’t just a book. It’s difficult to explain how meaningful writing this was on a personal level. The best way I can put it is this: When you write, if it is about an issue that you really care about, you’re not just creating words. You’re putting a piece of your heart out for the world to see. This book is a huge piece of who I am and my personal mission of helping people who suffer from mental illness find hope and recovery. I hope this book can do for others what it did for me – help pull me from the darkness. I hope it can help people realize that they can live good lives, even with depression, anxiety and mental illness. And I hope it’s a good read.

Anyway, world, meet Redemption. I hope you enjoy it!

Finding light in the darkness

I’m going to write about two things that personally motivated me to deal with my own demons in a very public way. The short-term inspiration for this is me rereading the acknowledgements section of Redemption. The longer-term inspiration for this is a public tragedy and a low period in my life.

Okay, first, here’s a small section of the acknowledgements in Redemption:

To Robin Williams. Yours was a life well lived, and I hope to be part of a positive story of those influenced by how it ended.

Let me go backwards. Robin Williams completed suicide on August 11, 2014. He had long suffered from a slew of mental health challenges, including depression and substance abuse. However, Williams was suffering from “diffuse Lewy body dementia,” which ultimately contributed heavily to his suicide.

William’s suicide ultimately inspired me to go public with my story. That started when some idiot on Facebook decided to spout off shortly after Williams’ death by saying something along the lines of, “So sad Robin Williams committed suicide. He just needed to pray to Jesus more!”

No, you schmuck, that’s not how it works, and that ignorant comment got me so damn fired up that I wrote an op-ed in my local paper, detailing my own struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. That, in turn, set my career in motion in a very different way, making me become much louder about mental health issues. I’ve spoken at events detailing my own struggles, cofounded a mental health caucus, appeared in PSAs and introduced legislation designed to help those who are suffering from mental health challenges. I know that the work I’ve done in this realm has helped people – and I know I have a lot more to do to help more.

It also inspired this speech, the most difficult one I have ever made:

Fast forward about seven or eight months, and I’m struggling, in the midst of one of the most depressed periods of my life. I’m struggling at work, my wife is struggling at work, and life just generally sucks at the moment. I go back to see my therapist. I increase my medication. And then I realize something else: I desperately need an outlet. Something to help get me through everything I am suffering from. I decide to start writing again – I wrote fiction as a kid and had published the non-fiction book I wrote, Tweets and Consequences.

And I remember this goofy plot idea I had as a kid, twenty years ago, about kids getting trapped on a spaceship. And I realize something: That’s not a bad plot. But what if I could make it more? What if I could fold in a mental health message as well?

And thus, Redemption is born.

For what it’s worth: I have a character named Robin in Redemption. In all fairness though, that’s also my daughter’s middle name, so let’s call that character’s naming a 50% tribute to Williams and 50% tribute to my daughter.

The death of Robin Williams helped me and countless others find their voice and seek help. I know that this may be cold comfort to those he loved and those who loved him. But I sincerely hope that they can take some solace in knowing that Williams’ life and death helped so many, including me. His was a life well lived – and, as I said above, I hope to be a small part of that story.

You can always find light in the darkness. Pain makes us great, and with time and therapy, you can turn the most agonizing periods of your own life into something incredible.

As long as you breathe, there is hope. The trick is just finding it sometimes.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

You know, you first hear about something like this, and you think it sounds like some sort of witchcraft nonsense. Magnets? To help depression?

Apparently. And it’s scientific based.

I write about this now because I had an appointment last week to explore this as a treatment possibility, and it is likely something I’m going to pursue. Here are the basics, per the Mayo Clinic:

During a TMS session, an electromagnetic coil is placed against your scalp near your forehead. The electromagnet painlessly delivers a magnetic pulse that stimulates nerve cells in the region of your brain involved in mood control and depression. And it may activate regions of the brain that have decreased activity in people with depression.

 Though the biology of why rTMS works isn’t completely understood, the stimulation appears to affect how this part of the brain is working, which in turn seems to ease depression symptoms and improve mood.

The most important question, of course, is this: Does it work? According to the evidence I have seen, yes, and that’s in tests involving a placebo. More research is needed, but this appears to work.

Thankfully, the side effects are very mild, per the Mayo clinic.

Side effects are generally mild to moderate and improve shortly after an individual session and decrease over time with additional sessions. They may include:

  • Headache

  • Scalp discomfort at the site of stimulation

  • Tingling, spasms or twitching of facial muscles

  • Light headedness

The biggest drawback, as best I can tell? The Doctor I spoke with told me its most effective to do it every single day, for 4-6 weeks. Session, I think, are 30-45 minutes. That’s a heck of a time commitment. That being said, sucks for me. It’s not the Doctor’s fault that this is the way the brain works, but it’s certainly a challenge with my schedule – going to Harrisburg and vacation means I won’t have that kind of time until August.

So, let me conclude by asking you for your experiences. Have any of you out there had TMS? Any experiences to share? I’d love to hear them!

Redemption, by Mike Schlossberg, is almost available!

I just had a really nice moment that I wanted to write about – and for once, nothing that has to do (directly!) with mental health.

Late yesterday, I got the Email from my publisher, giving me the final version of my book, Redemption. I opened it up about an hour ago, and to my pleasant surprise, discovered that it wasn’t final edits – there was just some grammatical stuff – it was ready.  I sent it back, giddy. My book is almost ready!

Redemption was my therapy. I started it a little more than three years ago when my life became more overwhelming than I ever thought it could have. The idea picked up on something that I had dreamed up twenty years ago, when I first thought that I may want to write. More information about the book is here and you can read a summary below.

Redemption, unquestionably, helped save me.  It gave one of the roughest periods of my life meaning and gave me an opportunity to share a story with the rest of the world. It is a young adult, sci-fi dystopia, but I tried to make it different by weaving in the very real themes of depression, anxiety and loss, themes that have punctuated my life and likely yours, too.

I have no idea how it is going to sell – well, I hope – but I do know that this book, like the blog, gave me an opportunity to discuss an issue that I care deeply about, and hopefully inspire others to know they aren’t alone and a better life can be there’s.

As time goes on, I’ll have more to say about Redemption, and I really want to share the writing journey I went through, because I think that can be helpful to others. Art can save.

More info on Redemption below.  It should be available in the next couple of months!

Asher Maddox fell asleep a twenty year-old, depressed college drop-out.  He woke up sixty years in the future, Captain of a spaceship charged with saving humanity.

It’s 2083.  Ash and nineteen other teenagers find themselves onboard the Redemption.  Attacked by an unseen force from the moment they arrive, the crew must instantly bond, learn how to fly and escape whatever is trying to kill them.

Their arrival onboard the Redemption is no accident.  Ash and his crew must stop an alien attack which resulted in the Spades virus wiping out most of humanity.

Each answered question only creates more puzzles.  Why them?  Who are the aliens that keep attacking them?  How did Spades get created in the first place? Can the ship get the various pieces of the vaccine before the aliens attack Earth?  And, most importantly: How can Ash save the planet, when his depression and anxiety won’t even let him save himself?

Coming first half of 2018.