On living with a part-time broken brain: possibly a love letter to all of us.

It’s always unexpected.

How funny is that? I don’t mean ha-ha funny. How ridiculous, then, is it that a thing as predictable as this can take a person by surprise over and over and over again?

Yes, I know I get Seasonal Affective Disorder- a clean, clinical name if ever I heard one for an experience as ugly and as messy as this. I have known this for years. This marks my fourth winter since I first sat down in a doctor’s office and told him all the ways that I couldn’t cope. I left clutching a prescription, a phone number, and a sense of exhausted relief.

You don’t deal with it though. You think you will, but you don’t. Especially because it’s not always the same. That’s the thing about mental illness, you see. For many of us it is intricately wired into our lives. If everything is fine or better than fine, it’s genuinely not so bad. As long as we don’t have undue stress to deal with? Things are just a little more low and a little more frayed than normal.

Pull on a string at the end of that fray, though, and it all falls apart.

The other thing about it? Those loose strings don’t even have to be anything terrible. I remember reading something- yes, I’ll leave this unattributed so if anyone wants to back me up or contradict me, feel free!- indicating that it’s not necessarily painful experiences that bring on episodes of depression in those of us wired that way, or episodes of stress in the rest of you lucky sods. It’s change, upheaval, intense emotions, routines being disrupted.

You know what happens when your life is full of change, upheaval, intense emotions, disrupted routines, or a handful of those things? You get distracted. You have things to do and to think about that aren’t your goddamn pain-in-the-ass of a chronic mental health situation.

If your goddamn pain-in-the-ass of a chronic mental health situation is one that is pretty much fine nine months of the year and tiptoes up behind you right when all the upheaval (change, intense emotions, disrupted routines.. see where I’m going here?) of the pre-Christmas season kicks into gear? Maybe it’s not so surprising for a person to be blindsided.

SAD is a sneaky little bugger of a thing, you see. It comes on ever so slowly. You feel a little more tired than normal- chalk it up to a long day or fitting too much into your week. Ditto feeling a bit more irritable- maybe you’re PMSing, or maybe it’s just one of those days when hours of friendly, open professionalism around dozens of excitable teenagers left you drained. There’s always an excuse.

There’s always an excuse because, especially at the beginning, it needs something to work with. It takes the everyday things and magnifies them, little by little, bit by bit with every slightly darker day and earlier sunset. You think it might be coming on, but then you justify it in dozens of tiny ways. That hit you took at training that left you crying? Eh, it’s the face. You’ve always reacted the worst to hits to the face*, right?

Bit by bit, inch by inch, a tide rolling over. Even when you realise what’s happening, you figure it’ll be okay. You’ve got this. You’ve got countless coping mechanisms under your belt, you’re resilient as hell, and now you know precisely what’s going on so you can just soldier on through, right? You’re right about that. You absolutely can. Until one day the (actually quite apt metaphor of) the tide goes past your neck, inching higher and you’re on your toes and without warning it’s past your nose and you’re floundering, gasping, reaching out for anyone who you can cling on to who’ll give you just one goddamn moment to breathe.

A quick note from past experience: probably not a good idea to partake of a few companionable beverages too many around this time of year. Especially not when you have a phone with, say, your ex-who-you’re-totally-not-yet-over’s phone number saved, right there in your pocket. NOTHING GOOD CAN COME OF THIS. And yes, you know who you are, and yes, I shall never stop being totes mortified about that, and we shall never speak of it again although since I’ve brought it up now for the world to see you have my consent to take the piss out of me for it on one occasion in our future if you really want to.

Depression- or if we’re being real about this, almost unbearable goddamn mental anguish that feels SO much worse than that word makes it out to be- makes asshats of us all.

It also makes us forget.

You know about situation dependent memory, right? That sneaky little phenomenon that has us finding it far more easy to remember things that happened when we were in a similar mental state to the one we’re in now. It’s pretty useful- why a particular piece of music can help you study and to remember the things you learned, for example. Or the way that when you completely forgot when you went into the kitchen for, you can turn around and go back to the living room and remember it.

It also means that when you’re depressed, your memory becomes crowded with all the other times that you have been depressed (and the terribly mortifying things you did in that state). And it means that when you’re not depressed, it can be incredibly difficult to remember what depression actually feels like.

Depressed-me and regular-me have some things in common, it’s true. We both sit around typing blog posts in our pyjamas while eating avocados on toast for breakfast, for instance.

Regular-me, though? Let me tell you a thing. One of the things I hear about myself a lot, you see, is regarding my sunny, funny, optimistic and open outlook on life. It’s how people tend to view me, and it’s not an act. I flippin’ love life. I have a day job that makes me smile and pretty much pays the bills. I get to work on growing an awesome organisation I made. I get to play the most incredible sport I’ve ever encountered with an awesome bunch of leaguemates. I have friends and family who I love and am so privileged to have in my life. I even have a blog with a small-to-medium wee audience who have insightful conversations with me and some of you even help to support me with the bills. Regular-me is a goddamn ray of sunshine.

Regular-me finds it hard to believe that she- me- is the same person as depressed-me.

But there’s a conversation I will never forget having. This is from back when I was in my last year of high school, 2000-2001. There’s a friend I had who I always saw as a goddamn ray of sunshine- he was sweet, funny, kind, creative and considerate. He struck me as one of the most cheerful people I’d ever met. I remember telling him so at a party one day. I don’t remember his response exactly. And- yes, you know how this ends, and it ends with a phonecall not too many weeks later and a lifetime of things that will never ever be said.

Don’t worry, by the way. If there’s one thing that experience lodged in my brain, it’s that no matter how bad things get I’m never gonna be at risk of topping myself.

It’s hard to reconcile being a goddamn ray of sunshine and being a person with depression. It’s terrifying to understand that all of the coping strategies and mental tricks and strength you’ve developed- all these tough foundations you stand upon- will almost inevitably be undermined by a trick of the light.

Three days ago I finally let go. I would love to tell you all about that, but there are places I can’t go for all the world to see. But I let go of the pretence that it was going to be fine, and I’m.. trying to marshal the tools I have to get through the next little while. Midwinter is almost here. This shall pass.

For all of you out there who are here with me in this: you’re not alone. I am not alone. We aren’t alone. When all we can remember is who we are right now, remember that we have been here before and gotten through and escaped into who the us who we will be again. And remember even when we are desperate and hurting and we- let’s be real- make utter tits of ourselves, the compassion and empathy this grows in us for the times when we are the caretakers of other people’s pain.

It’s not okay right now. I think it will be.

*ACCIDENTAL hits to the face. We don’t go for faces. I’m just a shortarse whose face gets in the way of everyone else’s torso.

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On living with a part-time broken brain: possibly a love letter to all of us.
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8 thoughts on “On living with a part-time broken brain: possibly a love letter to all of us.

  1. 1

    Beautifully and accurately written, Aoife. Moving to the desert where it’s sunny in the winter, getting a job that kept me busy, and taking Prozac all helped me out a lot. And yes, all you kids, you aren’t alone.

  2. 2

    I just wanted to say ME TOO and I’m so glad to know it’s not just me, I’m not “just crazy”. I always thought that it was “just” the triggering effects of the holiday season that got me in this state. But then I moved many hundreds of miles north and, hey, The Intertia Problem started coming on at the beginning of November rather than the beginning of December, and January was basically a write-off. More than the sleepiness and brain fuzz themselves, it was the sense of “oh god I don’t know what’s wrong but something is very wrong with me; I cannot function and I don’t know why” that put the D-for-Depression into the SAD.
    Thankfully, after two years in the UK I managed to find a helpful psychiatrist who 1) deals with a lot of pushy American expats and 2) was willing and able to prescribe bupropion, which is very common in the US but not licensed for depression in the UK for depression bc it was too expensive for GSK ten years ago. (SSRIs make me *more* sleepy … how are they supposed to help with my sleepiness problem??)

    I did some math and lo and behold, I seem to have a critical point of about 9.25 h of daylight, below which my brain chemistry goes haywire. Not to mention the quality of the daylight not quite being “right” when even the noonday sunshine is at a twilight angle.

    Man, but it is not easy to get people who don’t have this problem to believe me that it’s a Real Thing, with Scientific Physiological Reasons.

  3. 3

    I found this site useful – I estimated when It started and ended in different cities I’ve lived in (Pittsburgh, Glasgow, Boston, London) and boom, now I know when to up my meds in any part of the world!
    (Sad though that as much as I love Glasgow – especially in the summer! – i could not live there full time.)

  4. 5

    Yeah, I dropped a knife the other day and it landed on the lino, and it had butter on it so the washing up didn’t get done for 3 days ‘cos whats the fucking point!

    Screw Christmas and New Year, December 22nd is what its all about, and its almost here.

    Counting down with you.

  5. 6

    Thanks for this, Aoife. I’m sure as heck counting down to Twelfth Night here in Greater Seattle–and not because of any mythical wise guys following a mythical star to a mythical manger in Bethlehem, neither!

    Danny B…OM(n-e)G, I’m not the only one who finds the perpetual accumulation of washing-up so infuriating they go on strike for days (or even weeks)?!
    Yeah, that anecdote gave me a chuckle…thanks!

  6. 7

    […] “For all of you out there who are here with me in this: you’re not alone. I am not alone. We aren’t alone. When all we can remember is who we are right now, remember that we have been here before and gotten through and escaped into who the us who we will be again. And remember even when we are desperate and hurting and we- let’s be real- make utter tits of ourselves, the compassion and empathy this grows in us for the times when we are the caretakers of other people’s pain. It’s not okay right now. I think it will be.” On living with a part-time broken brain: possibly a love letter to all of us – Consider the Te… […]

  7. 8

    Thing I’ve heard helps: full-spectrum lighting. Get some full-spectrum light bulbs for your house (maybe even the kind for reptiles, with UV in them, as long as you’re careful not to leave them on *too* long), and they trick the part of your brain affected by SAD into thinking that it’s getting daylight and is fine. They even make LED versions. Replace all of the light bulbs in your house with those, and you may never have to worry about SAD again (as long as you spend enough time at home with the lights on)

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