Tag Archives: moving to Berlin 2016

Longterm remission and recovery from severe depression IS FUCKING POSSIBLE.

This November marks my four-year anniversary of complete remission from severe, long-term Major Depressive Disorder.

Photo by Julia Wolf 2015, licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photo by Julia Wolf 2015, licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

glucklich in berlin Suzanne Forbes 2016Despite the US election, despite my fear for my loved ones and my horror and grief at injustice and cruelty, I am deeply happy.

It’s not just that we moved to Berlin and have a better life. I felt better for several years before we left.

I entered remission in November 2012, thanks to my partner who got me on new health insurance, my mom who found me doctors when I didn’t have the strength, and a doctor who changed my meds fearlessly.

I can’t even understand how happy I am these days.

meandmaria-by-sabine-sept-6-2016I’ve been happy much of the time, and deeply content, and gleeful, and terrified, and traumatized, and overwhelmed with grief, and sick with fear, and bursting, bursting with love, the last four years. I’ve spent many, many hours in the pure flow zone of creative work. I’ve been exhausted, A LOT.

What I haven’t been, for a single day, is depressed. If you have depression, you know the difference.

I haven’t had a single day when I wanted to kill myself.

Miss Cat DVine by Suzanne Forbes July 2016Not a single day when I thought obsessively about killing myself. Not a single day when killing myself seemed like gravity, like something I was fighting every day not to be pulled into.

I haven’t had a Plan for four years. I actually almost don’t remember what it felt like to want to drink Drano or to check the windows of the car for leaks. In the last four years, there has been only one moment when I looked at the headlights of the oncoming train and felt a dizzying pull. It was two or three seconds, during the most frightening part of our move, when things seemed hopeless and like we’d have to go back to the US.

If you have long-term suicidal depression, you probably can’t imagine this.

I lived in the Bay Area for eighteen years. By the time we left, there wasn’t a single street I hadn’t driven down wanting to kill myself. I had calculated the speed I’d need to go off every embankment, through every safety rail. Every tall building and dark water had called to me. But the last two years and four months we lived there, I was indifferent to them. I had no business with them.

I tried to kill myself for the first time when I was thirteen.

photo John Garetti 1977

Paramedics had to come for my drug overdoses twice before I was twenty-one. Near the end of my years in the Bay, in January of 2012, I was very briefly 5150’d in the ER at the Kaiser Hospital for suicidal impulse. (They were super nice and they put warm blankets around you. Definitely go there if you’re in Oakland and want to harm yourself!)

I’ve been seeing therapists since I was EIGHT YEARS OLD. I have moderate OCD, Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, PTSD and a bunch of other stuff. Oh and I’m a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict sober 27 years.Suzanne Forbes Rachel Ketchum NYC SVA id 1988

 

I’ve been in in-patient treatment for chemical dependency, spent four months in a halfway house, been through the Kaiser Family program co-dependency outpatient program, been through the Kaiser outpatient program for depression, spent five years each with two therapists doing PTSD work and dozens of visits with other therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors.

Most significant of all, I have spent decades in recovery communities and support groups of all kinds, which have been the biggest resource I have to grow and change.

I HATE being mentally ill.

goat by Suzanne Forbes 2007

Goats for no reason.

I never wanted to be sick and I have fought all the diseases of the mind I suffer from fucking tooth and nail all my life. I know you have too, if you have them. I know you’re not lazy, not weak and not sorry for yourself. You are incredibly brave.

You are courageous beyond words and stronger than you should ever have had to be.

You are a superhero, in the secret identity of a person who has had to spend thousands of days on the couch with a blanket. I know you don’t want to be on the couch. I know you hate it. I believe you when you say you want to be better and that you have tried everything.

I beg you, get someone to help you try one more thing.

Pony rides by Suzanne Forbes Dec 20 2015

Ponies from last December.

I would never tell you to “fight harder”. I know you’ve been fighting as hard as you possibly can your entire life. What I beg you to do is to beg someone who cares about you to help you with your life and death struggle. I didn’t have the strength, when my crisis hit its peak in summer 2012, to find new doctors.

I was exhausted by the cycle at Kaiser, where they couldn’t offer me one-on-one therapy and wouldn’t take me off the Wellbutrin/Celexa cocktail because I “wasn’t stable enough to risk it”. I was on new insurance, in the summer of 2012, thanks to the company my bf worked for including domestic partners. But I couldn’t go through the nightmare rounds of trying to find a therapist, trying to find a psychiatrist who was taking new patients, navigating the phone trees.

My mom did the phone calls for me, and it saved my life.

ugly-hippie-sandalI went to a new psychiatrist, who I did not like at all. But he was daring (or close to retirement and just didn’t care); he stopped the Wellbutrin/Celexa cold turkey and switched me to Cymbalta. Which at the time was under patent and cost like $200 bucks a month. Lucky me, I had insurance.

He said it might take longer to kick in than I thought possible. He made me wait, showing up at his office dull-eyed or weeping quietly even though I felt totally creeped out by his old feet in their ugly sandals.

Sometimes he said, wait one more day, then call me if it’s not better. I sustained my sanity during this period by reading the excellent psychiatric medicine website CrazyMeds, where they can help you “Find the Options That Suck Less”. (Sadly, the forums are not currently active as the site owner is very sick and lacks spoons to move the site to a newer host.) Reading about other people’s dogged persistence in finding medicine for their depression helped me hang in. I read about other people who Cymbalta had worked for after longer than they wanted to wait. My mom found me a therapist, and I went back to weekly therapy. For the fourth time? The fifth? Who fucking knows. I hate therapy.

One day the meds kicked in. It was as simple as that.

esdip Berlin summer illustration students Aug 20 2016 Suzanne Forbes

Drawing on the bus with my students, summer 2016.

I was following the oft-described “Most Effective Treatment for Depression”, combining medication and talk therapy. My therapist was warm but tough, and we did a fair amount of cognitive work.

I have no more information than that. I do know that nowadays I feel like I have a scaffolding of cognitive training that keeps me from destructive thought patterns, but I could never have stopped those patterns long enough to develop new scaffolding without the meds. I’ve been on Cymbalta, same dose, for four years. I”m fine, truly and utterly fine. And being fine is WONDERFUL. I make art, teach drawing, care for my husband and our cats.

Don’t think recovering addicts who take anti-depressants are really sober? Come at me!

photo-of-rachel-ketchum-1986-by-possibly-david-seligI forget to take my meds constantly and always have. I have to put them in a 14-day pill dispenser and keep it on my worktable in front of me. I don’t know about you, but I never forgot to take my drug of choice. And I was a pill-freak, I totally fetishized and obsessed about pills. Here’s a picture of me on some downer pills in 1986*. You can see the difference between me then and me now, right?

The meds are totally neutral to my addictive brain, I’ve never wanted to take more of them or abuse them.

I have never been free of depression symptoms for this long in my entire life. Predictably, once my brain got better, my body fell apart. I had to have surgery for fibroids, I had terrible problems with anemia (even now, even though I’m on the cusp of menopause now), I’ve been through crazy perimenopause symptoms. I hate being hot, and I have had three years of hot flashes.

bead embroidered corset by Suzanne Forbes 2013I got calcium crystals in my ear and developed Benign Positional Disorder, an illness of the inner ear that makes you feel like you have the drunk spins. I had to go on disability from work! I had to have physical therapy for vertigo at the Vertigo Clinic in Oakland! Who even heard of such a thing? Isn’t that fucking ridiculous?

And the whole time, when I would stand up and cups of blood would pour down my legs, when all I could do was lie on the couch and hold on, I was fine. I was grateful, actually, and content. I wasn’t in pain and I was just weak like a Victorian invalid. I could embroider, I could watch Supernatural on Netflix, I could go to my half-time marketing job most of the time. I was making beautiful things like this bead-embroidered corset with every ounce of strength I had. Just not being depressed was such a delicious, rapturous, heavenly feeling, I didn’t care about anything else.

Not being depressed feels exactly like being on heroin when you are depressed.

aklamio 5 year anniversary party berlin by Suzanne Forbes June 17 2016They told me in treatment in 1989 that I had been self-medicating as best I could for the variety of symptoms I had, since I was thirteen. Now that I’ve been in remission from depression for four years, the longest period since I was seven, I have a glimpse of what life is like for people who don’t have depression.

It doesn’t mean my other symptoms went away. Actually, this summer I had totally insane PTSD symptoms. Nightmares where I kicked my husband awake or kicked myself out of bed fighting off dream attackers. Intrusive flashbacks. Obsessive thoughts. But it didn’t depress me or make me want to die- it just hurt, so I cried.

Life hurts, life is scary, sometimes I cry.

suzanne-forbes-self-portrait-berlin-fall-2016-editedThe horrible results of the US election wiped both me and my husband out; we average 14 to 18 hours of sleep in our house. My fatigue problems have cycled back. When I wake up, when I’m strong enough to sit up, I run to the work table or easel and work on art. My head is absolutely full of ideas and visions and creative projects, and I do what I can of them, as I can.

My heart is full of love. I love our life, our home, our city. I cherish my loved ones. I thrill to the cuteness of our cats, to the sound of rain, to the taste of ice cream. I am truly, truly not depressed, and it is amazing. You can get better.

You can be helped. Things can change. I promise.

Resources:
RAINN’s links for recovering from sexual violence.

The National Institute of Mental Health. Links to clinical studies, info on ECT– hey, I was desperate enough to try anything, and if you’re reading this, you might be too. Suicide Prevention. Hotlines saved my life so many times. If you don’t like the person you get or they don’t feel safe, hang up and call back to get someone else.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The NHS resource page, if you’re in the UK.

New Zealand resources.

Rob Delaney’s amazing post on depression and getting help.

Allie Brosh on depression. Her experience of depression differs from mine, but this powerful and beautiful work of art seems to help many depressives feel understood and to help people understand depression.

* I believe the photographer who took this was named David Selig, a guy who lived in the East Village in the 80s. He took some devastating, beautifully honest photographs of me.

Moving to Berlin in 2017: Basic needs on arrival!

Scotty the Blue Bunny in Berlin by Suzanne Forbes Nov 1 2016

Scotty the Blue Bunny in Berlin by Suzanne Forbes Nov 1 2016

When you arrive here from the US, you will need money.

You may have gotten some euros in advance- that’s a good idea! Because we just had our first prospective relo whose credit union debit card does not work anywhere, at any bank or ATM, in Berlin. He sent us money via Paypal and i took out cash for him, but obviously that’s not optimal. You will want a way to access your bank account.

Step one: get a debit card from your bank that has a chip, and make sure it works. Because atms here are almost all chip-and-pin based.

So to withdraw money, you will most certainly need a chip-enabled card. You can use a standard American debit card or credit card that works on the Maestro/Cirrus credit card network to buy goods at large grocery stores like Kaiser, at hotels and a few touristy places. But practically no place here that you’ll encounter in your daily life takes American plastic. You need cash or a German bank account and German girokarte (debit card). BTW, they hate VISA also, Mastercard is preferred.

Ah yes, you have a pocket computer to tell you everything. But your pocket computer, it may not work here.

Arriving at the airport, you should have your travel instructions printed out on paper. In case your phone died inexplicably and your charger doesn’t work, inexplicably, or you lost the adaptor for the charger. Or your roaming plan isn’t enabled for some reason. Or the wifi at the airport isn’t working.

Networks and sim cards and all that are weird. There is plentiful free and unsecured wifi, but you will need a charged phone to hunt for it. Regarding power, it might be easier to order the wall plug charger or power supply for your computer/devices from Amazon in the US and bring it with you. Things like flat irons, ironing irons, and hair dryers you can buy cheaply at Rossman, the sundries/drugstore. Like ten euros and made to a far more robust standard than US ones.

Your laptop, if it’s fairly new, will work fine if you have an adaptor or power supply with an EU plug.

Modern computers are made to operate dual-current, as are modern phones. Check to be sure though, cause that German current in the wall will fry your stuff within an hour. As in, you may plug something in, see it turn on, think everything is fine, and find it burned out an hour later. Like my awesome new Halloween lights 🙁

For any important or valuable electrical thing that’s *not* a modern phone/computer, you’ll need a Step-Up/Step-Down transformer. Again, though they are heavy, you might want to buy one to bring along. You can buy one here at a store like MediaMarkt, but what if you arrive on some German holiday weekend when everything’s closed for five days? Or on a Sunday?

Stores aren’t open on Sunday, fool! And you can order it from Amazon.de, but they only deliver things sometimes. (See my post on Things I Hate About Germany for more on the unreliable postal systems).

Prescriptions for medicine: don’t bother to bring them!

Your US health insurance is worthless here. And you may not yet have secured one of the various European or UK insurances that are currently valid for Germany (constantly in flux, check Facebook). Those are really crisis coverage anyway.

So if you don’t have German health insurance, you can go to a doctor and for a like 35 euro visit they will write you what is called a “private” prescription. This is a prescription you can take to any Apoteke and use to get your medicine, which will be ridiculously, hilariously cheap even without insurance. You just hand the pharmacist your prescription and they hand you the box of meds- no waiting to “fill” it or count pills.

US doctors’ prescriptions are worthless here.

Also: there are Apotekes, where you get serious medicine, and there are drugstores like Rossman, where you get things like cough drops and makeup and toothpaste. Toothpaste and such is a little or a lot cheaper than in the US. Lots of medicines you can buy over the counter/off the shelf in the US you have to buy from a pharmacist (likely with face tats and earplugs) here. You just tell them your symptoms and they give you the right medicine. But that includes, huge surprise to Americans, ibuprofen. It comes in tiny packs of ten, costs a euro a pill, and they ask you if you familiar with this drug. So bring lots of Advil!

How do I go places?

I find it very helpful to think of Berlin within the RIng (equivalent to Manhattan and most of Brooklyn or the 7×7) as a clock face. The various transit vectors can be treated as clock hands. To use the transit system, you need a ticket, which is good for two hours in one direction. You MUST validate the ticket in the yellow validating machine next to the ticket sales machine before you start your trip. After two hours the ticket is just a piece of paper- it’s not reloadable.

Your ticket works interchangeably in the entire U-Bahn, S-Bahn, bus and tram systems; you only validate it once, at the beginning. There are also “kurzstrecke” tickets, cheaper tickets for a three-stop journey.

An easy way to start is to buy the 4-fahren deal, which is 4 tickets for 9 euros.

The subway, or U-Bahn, is a city-wide snarl of spiky vectors. It is open til midnight, which is to say the last train through each station leaves some time after midnight and generally before one. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s open all night. It runs both above and below ground. It is supported and interwoven with a kind of light rail system called the S-Bahn, which both runs through the city and forms the ring that defines the central city. The S-Bahn runs both above and below ground as well. Then there are buses, loads of nice clean constantly running buses, and in the East, the lovely clean speedy trams.

There are always at least two ways to get anywhere in Berlin, and often four or five.

Transit is fast and plentiful. Subways come every few minutes. There is an U-Bahn stop within a few blocks everywhere. In short, it is a real city, with real mass transit. And that includes taxis! You can hail a cab in many neighborhoods, just like you would in New York. Or you can grab one at the cab stand at the S-Bahn or a hotel. Or use some fucking app, I’m sure. If you call a cab on the phone, they have to come. And it’s fast.

If you flag a moving cab in the street, and you know you are going less than two kilometers, you can tell the driver you want a “kurzstrecke” or short trip. Then instead of running the meter, the driver drops the flag for a flat fee of five euros. It’s a great deal, especially since you only need to tip the common courtesy 10% or tip-the-change of Berlin. I like the cab drivers, though YMMV.

You can eat and drink whatever you want on the transit system, though technically it is forbidden, and get food from donuts to beer to noodles on the platforms. Speaking of food…

What can I eat?

By having our first vegan relo prospect we really experienced the difference between East and West Berlin. In the West, where we live, everything is easy and convenient and available for the lifestyle of a typical middle-class foodie urban American of the 1990s or Oughts. That is, you can get most kinds of food and excellent cheese at the supermarket, there are plenty of fancy shops for fancy European foods, teas, coffees, perfumes etc., and there are shopping malls that sell anything you would buy in the US.

There are nice organic grocery stores like Alnatura and BIO COMPANY everywhere of course, including West Berlin, but they are very expensive, almost ridiculously so compared to the discount supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl. And of course, all supermarkets are closed on Sunday, unless it is one of the designated Shopping Sundays! (There are actually also a couple supermarkets, at the big train stations, that are 24-7.)

At KaDeWe you can get pastries from the Berlin concession of the Parisian pâtisserie Lenôtre, and every other imaginable traditional European delicacy you’d get at Fauchon or Harrods. But not much vegan, let alone gluten-free or paleo. You have to go to the hip part of Schöneberg to get a green smoothie, an artisan chocolate with fennel pollen, or kale. And even at a trendy Charlottenburg juice bar like What do you fancy love?, the guacamole bagels had hidden cream cheese, unmentioned, on them.

If you are a person who wants to go out and get NY or San Francisco style trendy food, you had better land in the East.

In the Eastside neighborhoods that are full of expats, like Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, you can get your third-wave coffee and your vegan cookie without much trouble. Same in Kreuzberg and, increasing daily, Neukölln. These neighborhoods also stay up later. But after midnight, if you want food you should have a plan. You will generally find only döner shops and spätis (like bodegas) open in most areas. Also, understand this: in much of Europe, closing times are not the sacred compact they are in the US. Restaurants close early, or aren’t open when the website says they are, or close because they ran out of something.

Don’t ever make a big plan around a destination restaurant meetup without someone who lives nearby walking over and actually checking they’re open. Our French bakery downstairs closes whenever they feel like it, at a different time every single day. And don’t run up on a place that’s closing and expect them to make an exception or help you at the last minute like one would in the US. They will laugh in your face. They’re not here for you!

Why are they so mean?!?

They’re not mean, they’re just not…wrapping everything in padding. The ameliorating, softening language of highly educated Americans is a huge time-waster to Germans. They simply don’t see a need to be anything but direct. Don’t waste their time with pleasantries and you will get along fine.

*why is there a drawing of a large gay man in a rather high quality blue latex bunny suit? Why, it’s Scotty the Blue Bunny introducing Amanda Palmer on Nov. 1 in Berlin!

Other posts in my “Moving to Berlin” series:

Happyfuntimes at the Foreigners’ Registration Bureau!

How to move to Berlin in 2016, Part 1.

Finding a flat in Berlin, in 2015.

How to move to Berlin in 2016 or 2017, part 2: Registration!

Happy in Berlin- our one-year anniversary!

glucklich in berlin Suzanne Forbes 2016We’ve been here one year today.

To celebrate, I walked over to the doctor and paid nothing, and took my prescription to a random Apoteke and paid 7.73€ for my Advair Diskus (copay $35 on Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO when we left), no waiting. Then I went to a supermarket and bought couverture, candied orange peel and Kerrygold Irish butter (all expensive luxury items in the US).

I also bought a Kinder Egg for my husband. We live in the land of the free.

Then I came home to our beautiful flat, where soon D. will arrive to enjoy his four-day Easter weekend. Tomorrow we’re going to an Easter Friday dinner at the home of Australian friends who live across the street from the goth club in Prenzlauer Berg. I’m making chocolate orange flapjacks, with Lyle’s Golden Syrup I got at KaDeWe. I feel like we won the lottery, every day.

I have this new thing I do, since our shipping container arrived. I lie in bed next to my hubby, listening to the silence of our building and the courtyard, and I just…relax. I lie there, completely at peace and unafraid, with everything in the world I need. I listen to the silence in my own head, where for so many years there was a cacophony of terror.

I can’t begin to express our gratitude to the family and friends who got us here and helped us stay. You saved our souls, our health, and maybe our lives.


Glücklich in Berlin by Anna Depenbusch.*

Hello, how nice you here to go good to see, it seems you
I think you are happy in Berlin
Your big dream to many years finally be many seems true
Part of me wishes you good luck THEREFOR
And a part of me wants you here her back

Yes, it’s nice if you tell me who you meet and so you had play
In dieser city you know your way
I mean who longs as home?
A part of me is very happy for you
And part thinks: Berlin War ‘Not for me

Too big, too small, too close, too far
The one goes, the other remains
I envy you was’ somehow lied
but it’s great, you have hit the jackpot

You say you’re now in the middle because everything else makes no sense
Because here begins the wide world and it sounds true life
Part of me wonders What is the whole search
And part hopes that you are happy

Too big, too small, too close, too far
The one goes, the other remains
Part of me wishes you luck with all your heart
And a part of me wants you here her back

Too big, too small, too close, too far
The one goes, the other remains
Part of me wishes you good luck
Part of me wants you back
to envy would ‘somehow lied
but it’s great, you have hit the jackpot

Hello, how nice you here to go good to see, it seems you
I think you are happy in Berlin

*lyrics courtesy google translate. I am sure I could get a better translation, but I really like this one.

*ps if you’re coming to visit though could you bring me some American deodorant. German low-aluminum-content stuff is no match for perimenopause sweats and I smell like a horse sometimes.

How to move to Berlin in 2016, Part 1.

Are you a well-paid tech worker who is sick of barely getting by in SF, New York or DC? Do you have a spouse who has health problems and doesn’t earn much money?

Are you exhausted from working 70-hour weeks and being constantly on call? Is your spouse sick of doing battle with the health insurance company over enormous copays and treatments they refuse to pay for? Do you feel like you can’t afford to have kids, even though you’d like to?

If that sounds like you, Berlin is your best shot at a decent life, maybe the kind of life your parents had. You might still have a chance at the American dream, in Germany.

First, let’s see if you are a candidate for a good financial picture in Germany. (it’s my first flowchart- sorry it’s kinda janky!)2016

 

Next, ask yourself some important questions.

Do you care about owning a house? Most Berliners rent for their entire lives.

Do you like public transport? You can certainly have a car in Berlin, but it is very difficult and expensive to get a driver’s license if your license is from a state that doesn’t have the wonderful reciprocity deal. Plus, the superb transit is really one of the defining characteristics of life here.

Are you ok with a life of modest expectations? This isn’t really a culture about getting rich or having huge successes. It’s about security, stability, and straightforwardness.

Speaking of that, are you ok with people telling you exactly what they think? Occasionally very rudely? A total stranger told me I was “doing it wrong” today, because of the way I was pulling my little shopping trolley.

Can you follow rules without losing a lot of energy over “why” and “that’s stupid”? There are a lot of rules in Germany. Most of them boil down to, “Be responsible for your own actions and don’t make life harder for your fellow humans”, but you still have to know them all.

Are you a good recycler? The recycling here is CRAY. I only recycle because my friends have kids, but 18 years in California, and especially Berkeley, trained me to separate and sort. Good thing, cause they are SO serious about it here.

We’ll close Part 1 with the most useful thing you can do if you are planning a move here.

Step 1: Learn some fucking German.

I had never been to Germany and did not know a single word of German except zeitgeist and schadenfreude. All the blog posts I read said that it was no worries, everyone speaks English in Berlin. This may be true if you spend all your time talking to expats in expat neighborhoods like Prenzlauerberg and work for a tech company whose HR department will manage every detail of your move.

But if you are moving yourself on a shoestring or limited resources, you will be well served to learn a bunch of basic words, like the word for apartment. Because trust, MOST people you will encounter in the process of setting up a life here do not speak English.