Friday, January 31, 2014

5 years in review

Wow, it’s been five years.  Friday, January 30th 2009 was five years ago.  In case you are reading this and don’t know me that well, that is the day my worst fears were confirmed, the day I was diagnosed with cancer.  I was 17 at the time and in these past five years I have been through a whole hell of a lot.  But this blog is not about sharing my struggle, though at times, I will.  This blog is mainly an introspection, to put in words how I feel about life at this time and the lessons I’ve learned, so I can look back to it in the future to remind myself where I’ve been.  So here we go:

In my last blog post I talked about how life is a river that constantly pushes you forward, and that sometimes in life, we encounter rapids and have to pick the right path to get through those rapids.  I still believe that for sure, but one rapid that I have been/still am struggling to find the right line through has to do with mental health.  About two years after my Leukemia diagnosis, right around the time of my second bout of pancreatitis, I became intensely sad.  It was the first time that I can specifically remember completely ignoring my phone, sleeping as much as possible and just feeling overwhelmingly sad.  So after about three weeks of that, I went to see a counselor, it kind of went away and I had a pretty good summer that year (2011).  Then in fall, I was back in school, feeling better, but I was inexplicably tired and sad all the time.  Fearing relapse, I went to my oncologist who told me that I was in good health.  So I went back to classes and picked up my books, but something was different this time.  In every quarter in college before Fall of ’11, I had gotten pretty much straight A’s and my cumulative GPA to that point was about 3.85.  But when I tried to study that Fall, it just was not happening.  I still had not figured out what it was, but then I got a flu and that really took me out, to the point where I dropped some classes. So I figured it was just pre-flu weariness.  I finished 2 classes that semester with a GPA of 2.8 I think, my lowest to that point.  Once I got over my flu, the quarter ended and I had a nice winter break, but I could tell something was going on. 
Winter quarter 2012 started and I was taking classes again and feeling pretty good about it.  I made it to week 5 and had completely aced the first round of midterms.  Then one day I went to visit my dad, and on the way back, I was driving on the freeway and I just had an intense urge to drive my car off the road.  I fought the urge, but as soon as I got home, I was completely freaked out.  I had never to that point contemplated suicide in my life, but at the time I was taking 5 classes and had a lot of homework to do so I just tried to ignore what I was feeling and get on with it.  But when I opened my books, I just could not focus no matter how hard I tried.  So I decided, maybe I just needed some sleep and would hopefully feel better in the morning.  I went to bed at about 11 pm if I remember correctly, the next day I slept through my alarm and my reasonable amount of needed sleep quota and woke-up at 1 pm.  “F***,” I thought to myself, I just slept through class and did not do the homework I planned to wake-up early and do.  “But the day’s not lost,” I told myself, I had a laundry bin full of clothes I had been meaning to hang and I still had the opportunity to do homework.  But then this intense feeling just took over. 
Before I go on, this next part of my story will by all means sound a little “crazy,” but it’s my reality and may be similar to other moments many people with depression can relate to and though I’m a bit ashamed/embarrassed by my actions; what happened, happened.  There’s a huge stigma around depression/mental health in general that I believe people need to get over.  It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain and sometimes manifests itself in weird ways, but it’s nothing more than that.  There are a lot of negative words associated with mental health: psycho, crazy, mental, loony bin; and I think that the vocab needs to change.  Now don’t get me wrong, if you have a problem that leads you to hurt people, that is not okay.  But I think that violence as a result of mental health would happen a lot less often if it people with issues knew that they could reach out, be accepted for who they are, and then get help. I   That is partly why I’m writing this, to share my story, even though it sounds out of the ordinary; to just show I have struggled and still do struggle with mental health problems and I may have done some out-there things, but I’m not ashamed, it’s just part of who I am.
Now anyways, enough with the preachy-preachy, more with the story:
What happened was I got an overwhelming feeling of misery.  When I tried to hang my clothes I found myself unable to do even that.  I couldn’t focus enough to even make myself coffee.  But I needed to do something to not feel the way I was feeling in that moment.  So I tried to read, but it made me angry and sad that I couldn’t so I tore all the pages out of the book I was trying to read and threw them everywhere.  But that didn’t help remove the feeling either.  So at this point I realized I needed help.  I called my brother and told him, “I’m not okay, please come over now.”  After I hung up the feeling just seemed to get more intense and the sadness deeper and I just couldn’t handle it.  So I started breaking things in my room, and eventually snapped my phone in half.  At this point nothing I tried had worked and I thought to myself, “People cut to get rid of pain, maybe there’s something to that,” so I slashed my wrist.  Immediately after I still felt the intense feelings and was angry at myself for doing something so stupid and also pissed that it did not help at all.  I started looking for the next thing to do to not feel the way I was feeling for another moment.  It was right about this time that my brother had been let in by my roommate, came upstairs, asked me what was wrong, and my response was just to curl up in the fetal position and cry.  Yeah, that was a pretty rough day in my life lol.
After that whole debacle, I had my brother drive me to Harding Hospital where I spent the next week of my life.  I appreciate the care I got at Harding, but it was definitely tough feeling as if I had lost control of my mind. It was after a few months of treatment at OSU that I was officially diagnosed as manic depressive/bipolar.  To explain a little bit more, I’m not bipolar in the sense that I will feel elated one second and immediately get angry or sad the next.  For me (when not taking medicine), I spend a lot of my time in deep depression and every few months/years I will have a period of intense elation.  Also to note, I’m a generally happy guy and as often as I can I remain elated, but my major manic episode, I thought I had special powers and the ability to read people’s minds.  I know, crazy right?  But again, it happened to me and is a part of my past and has helped me grow into the person I am today. 
To sum up the next 2-3 years: after trying 4 different medicines at OSU, I kind of gave-up on the crapshoot that is finding the right psychiatric meds.  The difficulty of finding a medicine combined with my Russian family’s general weariness of modern medicine led me to seek out alternate means to deal with my depression.  I started eating better, exercising, and meditating.  All of those things definitely helped to improve the situation I was in, but it just seemed that depression kept looming over me and would pick and choose when it decided to enter my life and f*** everything up.  In a word, these years have been rough.
Now, this seems all miserable…but on a brighter note, in the last three years I feel I have accomplished a lot.  I’ve delved deeper into my spirituality and have a good grasp of accepting my situations as they come.  I’ve volunteered with some amazing organizations: Local Matters, Ohio Staters, and Children’s Hospital, and I’ve grown closer than ever to my family and friends.  I also got accepted into a program in school where I was one of the 18 people to get in.  I am very grateful for the life I was given.  And now I get to the good part, the lessons I’ve learned.
Remember that program that I told you I got in 2 sentences ago?  Well, I failed right out of it this fall when I had my most severe run in with depression for a while.  It was at this time I decided that I just could not do school in the state I was in.  After being stuck in my room without contacting barely anyone for about a month, I came to realize that I can live life without the standard course of counseling and medicine, but if I choose that path I have to be prepared to face some dark times.  After what I faced in Fall, I decided hell no I don’t want to live through that again, it’s time to give the standard course another try.  After some time I found a counselor I like and a medicine that works and so far I’ve been doing a lot better.
My battle with depression/bipolarity has taught me a lot of things and I want to see if I can put those lessons into words for your sake, the reader, but mainly for mine when I read this later. 
1. It’s okay to be who you are.  Due to bipolarity, but mostly due the fact that I’m a weird person anyways, I have done a lot of things I’m not proud of.  I used to beat myself up about it a lot, to the point where it would keep me up at night.  My mind would race with regrets of how I acted or how I didn’t do this, or didn’t accomplish that.  Though recently I’ve been thinking about how I can be happy.  And I think the way for me to be happy is that I do my best with the resources I have available while accounting for and the obstacles that are happening in my present situation.  For example, I recently dropped out of school and burned a big bridge that could have led me to my dream of being a dietitian.  I was sad at first and did not know how to come to terms with it.  But I realize when I boil it down, in the face of depression without medicine, I didn’t stand a chance in my program, and that’s okay.  I know now that I have to first focus on myself and deal with my situation and then when the obstacle is not too much to overcome I will work towards my dream.
2. Depression is real.  I say again, depression is real.  I have always had a positive attitude in life, and before I had it, I could mentally wrap my head around the idea of depression, but I never truly believed in it.  I thought things like, “If I could get over cancer and still be happy, why can’t people just think positively and just get over it.”  But it’s wrongful thinking like this that leads to misunderstanding and then to stigmatization of it.  Depression is not just having a bad day, or a few bad days, everyone has those.  It is more like putting on “shit-colored goggles.”  Everything around you just looks and feels terrible and no amount of positive thinking will completely take it away or absolve it.  It’s a natural chemical imbalance in the brain.  The way I deal with it is a combination of lifestyle choices and medicine and counseling, but that’s not the only way.  Accepting depression as a chemical imbalance in my brain and not a defining factor of my life was a huge step towards getting out of it.
3.  Be grateful for what you have.  Sappy lesson I know, but my friends and family that have reached out to me, not only in my struggle with depression, but also my battle with cancer, and most importantly, when neither of those two things are a big issue in my life at the time.  I love that I have such a strong support group behind me and I really don’t know what I would do without you guys (if you’re reading this, if you’re a stranger, sorry for the corniness).  When it boils down to it, our health, wealth, and happiness, is not assured; but it helps to have someone there when you’re struggling.  I’m also grateful for my mind, my health, and just my life in general…it’s pretty fantastic.
4. And finally, this lesson is the same I learned when dealing with cancer, life keeps moving.  What may seem like a huge obstacle or a big deal or an end all be all right now, will not seem as important to you in the future.  I’m not old, but even things as big as the time I had a stroke on both sides of my brain are kind of moving to the back-burner of my mind.  Not to say that I don’t struggle and every day is nirvana and bliss.  If anything, adversity gives a person perspective, and my lesson here is that even though I’ve experienced a lot of tough times, once they pass, that’s it, dunzo.  The only time that it bothers me is when I cling on to how bad things were, or try to grasp at good times and relive them.  It’s only in the flow of the river where I’ve found true happiness, and at some point I realized whether I was happy or not, the river of life keeps moving forward.

That was very long winded and I hope not too preachy.  Probably should have thrown in a few more jokes to lighten the mood, but eh, whatever.  To end this post and to kind of give people a sense of where I’m at in life, I would like to quote Raekwon the Chef in the song C.R.E.A.M. when he says, “It’s been 22 long, hard years, and I’m still struggling…”  But instead of taking that quote directly, I’ll make a slight adjustment that fits my life better.  “It’s been 22 long, hard years, and I’m still smiling.”  So I leave you with that and if you stuck around to this point, you’re either me, or deserve a very big thank you.
                Good Night and Good Luck,
                In friendship,

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Story That Changed My World

My name is Max Vokhgelt. I am currently a student at Ohio State in my second year studying Biology and I am doing the Pre-Med track with aspirations to become an oncologist at some point down the road. Life for me so far has been good, but I've also had to face quite a few really big struggles. Let me explain: I am a proud survivor (so far anyways) of cancer, specifically Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.) I was diagnosed January 30th, 2009 started treatment the 3rd of February, and have been in remission since the 19th of February of last year. Now while I'm sure that many of you reading this have heard your fair share of cancer stories, I won't make this just another cancer story blog but I do want to share the specific parts of my story that have changed my thoughts, beliefs, and how I see myself in this world.
The first thing that I want to mention is the day I was diagnosed. I was 17 at the time and if you asked me what a bone marrow biopsy was for or what oncology meant I couldn't have told you. It's not that I was stupid but I could tell that something bad was going on because I was really tired most of the last few months and I was going to the doctor a lot more than usual. I think it was a conscious choice on my part to ignore what was going on. The day I heard the news was a Friday like any other Friday, I had gotten a bone marrow biopsy a few days before, I woke up and I took a shower and then when I got out I saw my dad who told me I could sleep in until my doctor's appointment. Now this may not sound out of the ordinary to some people but my dad always wanted me in school and if I had an appointment that was after 1st period period he would tell me to attend that period then he would pick me up for the doctor's. So him telling me this with a sad look on his face was where I really started to get scared. I ended up going to school. All during calc, my thoughts were completely eating me, "Where had I heard the word oncologist before, what is really going on right now, why might my cell counts be lower?" Then about half way through that class I realized, in about 30 minutes I'm about to go to the doctor and I might find out some serious shit. Right before I left I told my good friend Rachel that I was about to find out whether or not I had "The Big C" (at the time I was so scared of cancer that I couldn't even say the word). Then I got in the car with my dad and drove to my oncologist's office. When we got there we talked for a few minutes and then my doctor told me the results of the bone marrow biopsy, he said something about how my bone marrow had stopped making healthy cells and that they "found extraneous cells..." As soon as he said that time froze, it was almost like a movie where everything went in slow motion. My stomach just dropped, my brain and thoughts exploded and I knew what no one wants to know, I HAVE CANCER.
At that point I became completely sad and lost and just had no idea what was going to happen. While I say I was sad, it was not too long before I came to a quasi-acceptance phase. I realized that cancer was something that happened to me that was beyond my control and that if I accept it in my life I will be a happier person than if I let things I don't control take over the way I live. While this was my theory, in practice it was a lot harder to pull off. At that time I found that by telling myself that I wasn't really sick and chemo was just like antibiotics that I had to take to get over a bad flu. Then I went on in my ignorantly blissful way mostly smiling and sometimes forcing myself to smile but for the most part happy.
Then in March of 2009 I hit what you might call a "little road bump," I had a stroke. The stroke was chemo induced and happened on both sides of my brain so I became completely paralyzed from the neck down, unable even to hold my own tongue in my mouth. They gave me a feeding tube which if you don't know is a tube that they stick through your nose into your stomach (I know, terrible right?) The stroke was really hard for me and really hard for my family and it was the point in my battle that they were overwhelmed, if only for a little, and broke down. I want to say that I do not blame them at all and love my family very much and respect them for being so strong and supporting during my battle but there really is a limit to how much a family can handle and I understand that. Honestly, seeing my family break-down emotionally was one of the hardest parts of my cancer battle. But by some miracle after only about 5 days I made a complete recovery and to this day have no residual effects (knock on wood).
My stroke taught me a lot. It taught me that life is very fragile because you can take a nap one day and then wake up and not be able to talk or walk. It also made me stop complaining. Every time I am doing chemistry homework or start getting caught up in who thinks what of me and small things like that I remind myself that I can walk and I don't have a tube in my nose going through to my stomach and it brings me back and makes me realize I’m not off that bad. I really don't take the gift of the ability to talk for granted anymore. That perspective helped me move past missing my senior prom because of my hospital stays. But the stroke also scared me to death. It forced me to think about the fact that there's a chance that it might not be okay in the long run and that I really am sick and death is a real part of my life. Which in turn, led me to be quite depressed. Though I still pretended to play it off like I was happy because my friends were all impressed by how strong I was and I didn't want to let them down I guess. So, on the outside I seemed happy but inside I had an overwhelming sense of fear.
This brings me to the last part of my cancer story, my experience with First Descents. First Descents is a non-profit organization which provides outdoor adventure camps for young adult survivors. Over this past summer I went to camp twice for one week each time and I can easily say they were the 2 best weeks of my entire life. The first camp I attended was a kayaking camp and the other camp was for rock climbing. To keep this long story a little shorter I won’t go into details exactly about my actual experience in the water or on the rocks, but suffice to say when I got home I bought a kayak and am currently on the hunt for a good pair of rock climbing shoes. While the outdoor adventure was fun First Descents was really the best week of my life because of all the people that I met there and the emotional bond we shared. When I got off the plane and to the camp I was assigned a nickname and told not to use my real name for an entire week, it was Hammer. There were about 15 campers and 15 river guides/counselors. Even though I did not know anyone’s names during the camp (I learned them afterwards) I made true lifetime friends that I can count on in the short time I was there. I think it is because it was the first time I had ever done anything with other survivor’s and it was great to tell a story about chemo and instead of get a look of pity (that was the norm that I had become accustomed to at that point), I would receive real sympathy and an “Oh yeah I hate when that happens.” Also we bonded over the actual challenges we faced at the camp. In the rock climbing camp we climbed to huge heights together completing a 200 foot summit the last day of camp. It was amazing to see because one camper Acrylic, had most of her vision robbed from her by her battle with cancer yet with a little help from the counselors, a lot of persistence, and a lot of cheering from fellow campers even she made the climb! It was awesome to see everyone admit that they were scared but still go for it anyways. This idea was a huge part of my experience too and possibly the reason I picked up kayaking. When placed in the river the only way to go is the way the current pushes you. This is a pretty good analogy for life because it is always moving forward. And sometimes in the river you come up on rapids, which are scary, full of rocks which can hurt you, and seem like too much to get past; and that happens in life too, for me with my stroke and cancer. In the river you realize pretty quickly that there aren’t any ways to back out of the rapid but just different routes/lines to take through the rapid to get you safely to the other side. Again like life my stroke was not my choice, cancer was not my choice, but they happened to me and I have no way to back out. But if I choose the right line to get through or in regards to life, the right attitude, I will come out on the other side of the rapid/problem okay. I realize that I may not come out of cancer physically okay but by facing my problems and accepting it for what it really is I am at peace, and that’s good enough for me. First Descents and the river gave me practice in facing my fears and conquering them.
When I got back from the camps I really took a good look at what cancer meant to me. I came to the conclusion that it is something I should be scared of. But I also realized that being afraid is okay, just as long as you are comfortable with and find ways to adapt to that fear. There are days when I feel tired for a few days and I get scared and wonder if I relapsed. But I do not live with constant fear because I looked what scared me in the eye (cancer), and I said I’m okay with you. And as the river moves my life keeps moving forward too. Even though I don’t know what the future holds for me First Descents showed me how to make the right paddle strokes in life or adapt to whatever comes my way. I truly love First Descents.
If you want to support this awesome organization and help them help people with cancer regain control of their lives, the link is below. You don’t have to donate a lot, just whatever you can 2, 5, 10, or 100 dollars all donations are welcome! If you donate thank you and if you can’t right now donate when you can please, they don’t ask for much. Also if you know any people between the ages of 18-40 who have cancer please refer them to FD at Thank you again for listening to my story.

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but is the presence of fear and the will to go on"