Secret Agent Man: Adventures in DA Warriors
Written by Kaitrin Higbee
I walked down the aisle of the bookstore, a couple dozen cards hidden in my hand. I had plenty more cards in my purse. Mentally, I cursed myself. Why had I not left my coat with my boyfriend? Juggling it, my purse, my scarf, and the cards was a bit of a hassle. I slipped into a vacant aisle. I checked my surroundings, ensuring no store personnel were around. Then, I slipped a card between the pages of a book. I did this over and over again until the aisle was canvassed .
Rewind to a month ago. It was my first day at a specialized hospital for treating migraines. I’ve had migraines daily for seven and a half years. Pain, sensitivity to light, sound, and smells- along with nausea- were my main symptoms. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a visual aura, a type of visual hallucination that served as a warning that a migraine was imminent, like others who have suffered from migraines, so I had no warning before a migraine began .
You don’t have migraines for seven and a half years without becoming good at handling pain. However, from September 2015 to January 2016, I had a brief but intense battle with depression and anxiety. My depression and anxiety stemmed from a case of hypothyroidism , a disorder where the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. Even though this disorder was easily treated by taking a small amount of synthetic thyroid hormone each day, it didn’t make what I went through any less painful, disrupting, or frightening.
However, I was very lucky. During my struggle with depression and anxiety, I had stumbled upon the Depression Army’s Twitter feed. It resonated with me and I felt less alone because of their tweets. I decided to join the Depression Army Warriors (a group of devoted DA followers), shortly after I recovered, eager to help others with mental illness.
Even with my connection to Depression Army, the depression and anxiety had taken its toll. Fighting through the pain of a migraine became harder. In the past, I was a lot better at fighting through the pain, realizing that, regardless of what I did, I was going to be in pain. Originally, I decided I would rather be out doing things than stuck lying in bed waiting for the pain to dissipate. At least that way, I would be distracted from the pain. I would soon find that this coping mechanism wouldn’t last for long.
Going into the hospital was my choice . My doctors could quickly try many different medications and procedures. As an outpatient that could take months. Staying as a hospital inpatient was the easier option for treatment.
I was in the hospital for 12 days. For those of you who haven’t had a long stay in a hospital, it’s boring with a side of scary . The boring part was waiting. The big changes in my treatment plan would only happen at morning rounds each day. If the changes were medication changes, there wasn’t much to do but wait to see if the medication lowered my pain level.
Then came the scary part, which was that when the doctors’ decided to do things like a procedure, everything happened too quickly for me to process. For example, the doctors mentioned doing nerve blocks on me when I was first admitted. A doctor would inject anesthetic and a steroid into a few of my nerves to attempt to lower the amount of pain I felt. This was fine, because the nerve blocks were at arm’s length, a faraway date in the undetermined future. During rounds one morning, the doctors decided that today was the day for the nerve block. Less than an hour later, another doctor was injecting anesthetic into the nerves on my face.
The second scary part was more mundane. I have a severe needle phobia, which stems from an overactive vasovagal reaction. When I have an injection or a blood draw, I get really pale, very dizzy, and I almost faint. To combat this, I recite Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. I recited this sonnet for every time an IV was placed into my arm, every time I had blood drawn, and every procedure involving a needle that I was awake for.
On my first full day at the hospital, the DA Warriors sent out a call for ideas. The ideas were “guerrilla actions” that us warriors could undertake. I immediately thought of “Guerrilla actions of kindness” and that morphed into “Guerrilla kindness cards”. The cards are about the size of a business card, with short, encouraging messages printed on them. In a perfect world, the recipient of the card would take a picture of the card and tweet it with the hashtag “depressionarmywashere”.
The idea gained traction, and within a couple of hours, I was drawing up prototypes in my hospital room. The first cards were not the best drawn thing that I’ve ever drawn, but they had spirit.
There wasn’t much I could do while in the hospital regarding the cards. I wanted the final version to be printed, so I had to wait to get to a computer. I did a couple of small actions of kindness while in the hospital, such as writing in a guest book, saying thank you to the nurses, and congratulating them when they finally got an IV in (Dihydroergotamine, a drug used for migraines, makes your veins very fragile ). In my mind, I wasn’t doing anything special, simply treating people with respect.
After I got out of the hospital, it took me a full week to get used to my new medications. Once my body adjusted, I started designing the cards. I had already picked ten sayings while I was in the hospital. I picked sayings that would have brought me comfort during my depression. I stayed away from religious sayings, because when I was depressed, I was turned off by religious statements more often than not.
I had 500 cards printed by a local printer. Now it was time to distribute the cards. When I was planning this with my fellow DA Warriors, I knew I would give some of the cards to my therapist. She loved the idea, and took about 100 cards. I also would put some on a message board at a local coffee shop. My final plan was to put cards in books at bookstores. My first target was the local Barnes & Noble.
I was worried about being caught at first. Here’s what I imagined would happen:
B&N store person: You there! What are you doing?
Me: Putting happy cards in books?
B&N store person: *All the alarms* Arrest her! Security!
Cue a fun chase through the store, where my boyfriend and I climb the bookshelves and parkour around on top of them, out of reach of the mall cops. We escape to my car and make our escape. Sometimes there are smoke bombs involved. I don’t carry smoke bombs in my purse, but maybe I should start.
Sure, the safe answer would be to ask permission from the Barnes & Noble manager. I didn’t want to give them the chance to say “No”, so I didn’t ask. Due to my concern about being caught, I only took 50 cards with me the first time.
Pro tip: Barnes & Noble is too big a store for only 50 cards. I only managed to canvas the Young Adult and Sci-Fi/Fantasy sections. The second time I distributed cards, I brought 200 cards for me, and 100 cards for my boyfriend, who wanted to help. Pro tip: 300 cards is too many. Between my boyfriend and I, we canvassed the entire store.
The third distribution was in between appointments at my neurologist in Ann Arbor. There was a large Barnes & Noble there, so my boyfriend and I each took 50 cards.
I developed a strategy to avoid being caught. Step 1: Palm some cards in your hand. Step 2: Pretend you’re browsing. It’s very easy to slip a card into a book while pretending to be interested in the cover of “Mein Kampf”. (Note: I didn’t actually place a card in this book, but looking back, maybe I should have). Step 3: Avoid really crowded areas. Step 4: Don’t go into an empty store, because the workers will keep asking you if they can help you. Step 5: Remember to pick a variety of books. While YA books might soothe my depressed soul, others might look to self-help books or humor.
During the fourth distribution, I completely abandoned my strategy. However, I didn’t intend to. Originally, my boyfriend and I went to a local bookstore for tabletop game night. I put some cards in my purse, intending to distribute the cards after we played some games. Most of the players that night were busy playing their own games. We examined the cart of games, and an eight-year-old boy saw us looking at a game called Dragon Run. He told us it was a fun game, and since neither my boyfriend nor I had ever played the game before, I asked him to teach us how.
He explained as only an eight year old can, leaving my boyfriend and I slightly confused about the rules. The game was a lot of fun, and once it ended, we excused ourselves. I planned to canvas the store with the cards as best as I could.
After I had placed a third of the cards, the boy came upstairs and found us. He asked me what I was doing, and I was in the awkward position of trying to explain DA to an eight-year-old. “Well, there this thing called the Depression Army and they help fight against mental illness,” I started to explain. The kid was hanging on my every word as I tried again. “Sometimes, people get really sad, and everything seems horrible. They find these cards, and maybe they will think that the world isn’t so bad.” This explanation satisfied the kid. He asked if he could help, so I gave him a few cards. I told him he could keep one of the cards if he wanted, to which he replied, “No. I’m not sad much.”
Having thoroughly canvassed the upstairs, we continued hiding cards downstairs. The kid’s dad caught me placing a card, though to be fair; it is hard to be covert when an eight year old is helping you. “So, what are you putting in my books?” he asked. Apparently, he owned the store. I passed him one of the cards, which he read. Thankfully, he allowed us to continue.
I’m still distributing cards. I count myself lucky, but I’m also nervous about my own future. My battle with depression was very brief, but I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I felt so alone during that dark time. I’m not sure a little card like my guerrilla kindness cards would have completely kicked me out of being depressed. To be fair, that’s a lot to ask of any one action. I do think that it might have helped me feel less alone. Maybe, through many little actions, we can fight against the isolation and hopelessness of depression. It’s a long battle to be sure, but not fighting is not an option.