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

On living with a part-time broken brain: possibly a love letter to all of us.
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Medicating the Jerkbrain and the Single Story of Mental Illness

Over at Greta Christina’s blog, there’ve been some.. interesting.. conversations recently around dealing with having mental illnesses that will probably need indefinite medication, and the responses other people have to that. Last week I talked here about my own experiences with having been on meds for my own jerkbrain and the things that allowed me to more-or-less recover.

I’m lucky. I don’t have to take meds anymore. But I can tell you that I’m a happy, drug-free person because I took my drugs when I needed them. I spent, all in all, the better part of a year on Lexapro, and while I’m glad I don’t have to deal with side-effects anymore (did you know Lexapro can make you need to pee all the damn time? Now you do.), those little pills gave me the leg-up I needed to get out of the worst of the maelstrom I was in and sort my shit out. I would not be in the place I am now if it weren’t for many things. One of them is those little pills.

It’s a crutch!

People talk about jerkbrain meds saying things like “it’s just a crutch”. They’re right. They’re a crutch. They prop up bits of your brain that aren’t working right now, just like a physical crutch stands in (seewhatIdidthere) for your leg when it’s too broken to take your weight itself.

Sometimes crutches are temporary. You’ve broken something badly and after a few weeks or months, a cast, and some moderately unpleasant physiotherapy you’re able to put it away and walk unaided. This is great!

Sometimes crutches aren’t temporary. You actually, really, genuinely, have a leg that is (now) intrinsically not able to hold you up while you walk, or that would lead to excruciating pain or balance difficulties or injuries if you did so. So you use the damn crutch, and you get from where you are to where you need to be, and that’s also great.

Sometimes jerkbrain meds are less like crutches than they are prostheses, correcting for things that your brain simply doesn’t do, bits that just aren’t there or don’t work the way you’d like them to in ways we can’t fix. And yeah, having a prosthesis is probably a lot more of a pain in the ass(/leg/arm) than having a limb that does the stuff without having to think about it. But that prosthesis? Is great.

The Single Story

There’s a lot that we, as a culture, don’t get about mental illnesses. We act like depression is the same as feeling down in the dumps, describe ourselves as ADD if we’re distracted one day, and bipolar if we’re hangry and need a snack to get back on the level.  One of the biggest things that we do, though, is act as if each of those labels actually describe just one thing- as if depression is like the measles, a specific thing that we can isolate and treat.

They’re not, though. I didn’t get diagnosed with depression after a bunch of blood tests and scans with fancy machinery. My doctor talked to me for a while, asked me a lot of questions about my life and how I was feeling, and ascertained that I was definitely suffering from the symptoms that we clump together with words like “depression” and “anxiety”. Having those words meant that I had a name for what was going on, and that we (me, my doctor, and the therapist he made an appointment for me with right there in that office, knowing that people you’ve just diagnosed with anxiety might not be people who are good at making scary phonecalls in a timely fashion) had a variety of tried and tested options to choose from for helping me to feel better. That was all.

There isn’t a perfect depressed person sitting in a vacuum in the Smithsonian. We’re not all shadows of the ideal depressed person flickering on the wall of Plato’s cave. Depression’s just a word we use to describe a phenomenon where some things happen together, and it varies as much as the people living with it.

It’s when we decide that mental illnesses (and for that matter, many physical illnesses) are one thing, that we start making harmful assumptions about what to do about  them. We all either are or know someone who had an unpleasant bout with a mental illness that they managed, after a hell of a lot of work, to get past. That doesn’t mean that all mental illnesses can be overcome with bootstraps and gumption, any more than it means that amputated limbs can be grown back because broken bones can heal.

Sometimes bones or minds are broken and heal up fine. Sometimes they can’t.

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Medicating the Jerkbrain and the Single Story of Mental Illness

Linkspam me up, Scotty: feminism edition.

Abortion

After the March for Choice the other week, you’d think we’d be done with abortion news for a little while at least. No such luck! Two major abortion-related stories surfaced this week.

UK Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt voiced his support last week for a reduction in the abortion time limit from 12 to 24 weeks. The Abortion Support Network’s Mara Clarke argued that this would adversely affect Irish women, since we tend to have later-term abortions than our UK counterparts.

In an unprecedented move, Marie Stopes will be opening a clinic in Belfast offering medically necessary medical abortions. Abortions! On the island of Ireland! I’ll be expecting the skies to fall and ground to open any minute now. Either that or Irish and Northern Irish women will finally have some, limited, access to life-saving abortions. Ramp.ie agree with me that it’s long overdue. The Donegal Dollop foresee Ryanair protests and Catholic refugee camps springing up on the borders. When faced with Micheal O’Leary on a rampage, I think I might rather the falling skies.

Finally, my own Feminist Ire have a post up on Islamophobia at Dublin’s March for Choice. I hope I’m speaking for more than just myself when I say that, really, I’d prefer to advocate for rights for one group without trampling over the rights of another. As a general rule.

Rape culture, women’s safety, and the right to exist.

I’ve always been of the opinion that my gender is not an excuse to deny me the right to walk or to speak. An opinion shared neither by Jill Meagher’s murderer or Malala Yousafzai’s attacker.

Looking at coverage of the attack on Yousafzai, I can’t help but be frustrated by a common thread in the English-language blogs and articles I’m stuck with reading. It’s been hard to find pieces that don’t talk about how much better things are here in the West. There’s this piece by Nelle. Listen, I’m Irish. That means I’ve got no excuse not to know better. And I’m sick to death of the side-order of Islamophobia with my anti-sexism.

It’s not like things are perfect here. Blaming the victims of sex crimes lets perpetrators off the hook is a response to Jill Meagher’s rape and murder in nice, “safe”, Western Melbourne. Lisa McInerney says that tragic cases don’t need a side of victim-blaming, and Sinead Keogh would like you to know that walking alone at night isn’t a symptom of silliness, thank you.

On a similar note, Crates and Ribbons have been discussing the selective blindness of rape culture and the ‘Kissing Sailor’ photograph. And because it’s impossible to have a reasonable discussion about rape culture on the internet, they followed it up with a post debunking misconceptions.

Miscellany

Robin Ince just became a patron for Dignity in Dying, and explains why.

I believe the desire to live, especially for those who see no glow of an afterlife, is too great for us to just switch off our existence on a whim, as some of those against assisted dying seem to suggest.

In The Monster that therefore I am, Monsterevity talks about monstrousness and mental illness:

Mental illness, while not necessarily taboo in Ireland, is still an issue that others  the person who lives with it.  What I mean by this is that mental illness makes the person who lives with it other to the “normal” people with whom they interact, (often) in the way in which others view them and (always) in the way in which they view themselves.

Progressive Economy argue against government plans to cut child benefit:

 There are three clear features of this payment, which indicate fundamental values and principles: (1) It goes to all children equally; (2) It is paid to all citizens with children regardless of their income, as part of the ‘return on investment’ of taxation and social insurance; and (3) It is a payment from everyone to Ireland’s children, regardless of whether or not they have children of their own.

And finally… back from another globetrotting adventure, Indiana Jones checks his mail and discovers that his bid for tenure has been denied.

Linkspam me up, Scotty: feminism edition.

On World Mental Health Day, what it means to me.

Just a note, before you read on: Writing this was easy. Posting it is not. This is the first time I’ve been open about this in a space as public as this. It’s a scary thing to do, especially when surveys suggest that almost 2/3 of people have trouble accepting people with mental illness as close friends, and over 40% think that getting treatment is a sign of personal failure. It’s difficult when it’s seen as making a fuss and drawing attention to yourself. So just for this one, please do go gentle on me. After all, it is my first time. Okay?

If you met me, you’d say I’m a pretty damn cheerful person. You’d be right. I’m incredibly lucky in so many ways. I get to spend my time doing things I enjoy. I get to see the benefits of lots of the things I do. I get to be creative and playful in my everyday life. And I get to share my life with some of the most inspiring, genuine and generous people I’ve ever met. I’ve got it good. And every night before I go to bed I take a tiny little pill. That little pill lets all of it happen.

The thing about having depression is that people expect you to be, well, depressed. Same for anxiety. It seems logical, doesn’t it? Depressed people are depressed. People with anxiety are anxious. And so on.

I have depression, and I’m happy.

What’s so wrong with crutches?

When people talk about antidepressants or other mental health medications, they often disparagingly refer to them as a ‘crutch’. It’s funny, because that’s exactly the way I think of my medication. Only I don’t disparage it.

Before I started to take my meds, there were times when I found it extremely difficult to get out of bed. To do anything more than was absolutely necessary to keep going. I was lucky- I always managed to get to work, if little else. A lot of people aren’t so lucky. But even so, the sheer effort of doing nothing but getting myself to work and back and keeping myself fed took all of my energy. When I was depressed, I’d sleep or watch TV most of the rest of the time. When I was suffering with anxiety, I would pace and toss and turn and lie awake and barely be able to eat. You say that medication is a crutch. It absolutely is.

People say that people with depression just need to get better exercise, get out and about, do things we enjoy and get out of that depressive spiral. That people with anxiety need to get a bit of perspective, start to look at the bigger picture, quit being such perfectionists and go easier on ourselves. Maybe go to therapy. Do the work of sorting ourselves out.

I couldn’t agree more.

Which is why I need that crutch.

Depression? Is depressing.

The thing about depression and anxiety- I can’t speak personally for any other mental illnesses- is that they are self-perpetuating. Being depressed is depressing. There’s nothing quite like anxiety to ramp up my fight-or-flight responses. Although you know logically what needs to be done to get out of them, you can’t.

And meds help. For some people. They help me, at least. They don’t change who I am or make me into some kind of automaton. They just give me that tiny little boost I need to start helping myself. They’re like the footstool I keep in the kitchen to reach the highest shelves. I know exactly where I keep the glasses, but no amount of knowing can make me grow a foot taller to reach them. I need the stool, and I always will. I need meds right now. I don’t know if I always will. I hope I won’t. But if I do, I’m incredibly glad that they’re there. Meds give me the spoons I need to help myself.

I have depression, and I’m happy. Being happy when you’re depressed can be hard work. For some people it’s a hell of a lot harder than for others. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m happy.

It’s not about overcoming anything

Being happy doesn’t mean I don’t have depression. I know it’s there. Searching within myself I can feel that yawning, horrible, strangely comforting pit so close. I have bad days. Bad weeks, even. Sometimes bad months, although that’s a lot less common than it used to be. Depression is a thing that I live with. It’s a part of my brain that might very well always be there, even as I try to trick it out of existence with medication, therapy, exercise, love, and all the joy I can fit into my days. And there is joy.

I don’t have a pithy little ending for this, probably because there isn’t one. We talk so much in this society about overcoming mental illnesses. Actually, that’s the narrative we have for most kinds of chronic illness and disability. We want our happy endings. But when it comes to mental illnesses, often our happy endings are more subtle. More like a compromise or an uneasy peace. We don’t overcome these things. We learn ways of living alongside them, because at the end of the day they are part of us. Depression and anxiety may be illnesses I live with, but they are also parts of who I am. They are things that my brain does, and I am my brain. There is no happy ever after. There’s just the work of learning to live with each other. With ourselves. With myself.

For Irish news on Mental Health Day, you might want to check out Mental Health Reform’s Don’t Drop The Ball campaign, thejournal.ie‘s article which includes reports on government ministers as well as some signs of depression, and, of course, the wonderful Mad Pride Ireland, who’ve recently called for the resignation of Irish Health Minister Reilly, and who do incredible work towards the destigmatisation of people with mental illnesses. They rock!

And if you’re more inclined towards blogs (yay for bloggers!), Rewriting the Rules have a wonderful post on mental health and relationships. Because crazy people get to be in love and have healthy relationships too. Not Alone In There is fantastic reading as well. Their post on Asking for Help is a great place to start. 

On World Mental Health Day, what it means to me.