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.

Jerkbrain Lies

We’ve all been there. That little voice in the back of your head that can’t let you catch a break. It’s convinced that everything you do isn’t good enough. It is, in fact, convinced that you haven’t ever done anything worthwhile, ever, and should probably just go back to bed and stay there forever because it’s not like there’s any point in you having gotten up in the first place.

‘Round some bits of the internet that you should all start spending more time in, we have a name for that voice: the Jerkbrain. Jerkbrain is, to put it mildly, a jerk. Some of us have a louder Jerkbrain than others. Some of us have Jerkbrains so damn loud that we have little packets of pills and regular appointments with anti-Jerkbrain coaches to deal with ’em. Some of us are luckier and have reclusive Jerkbrains that only show up every so often. Maybe somewhere there’s a lucky fecker who was born without a Jerkbrain or who’s managed to kick theirs to the kerb. If that’s you and you’re reading, by the way? Please teach me everything you know.

I’ve realised something about the Jerkbrain lately. It’s possibly the most important thing to know about it. It’s the thing that separates Jerkbrain from the far healthier voice of “oh crap I fucked up on xyz.. better fix that”. It’s this: Jerkbrain lies.

Jerkbrain lies. While good old fashioned responsibility sounds different depending on what you’ve been up to and how well you’ve been doing at the things you do, Jerkbrain is always the same. This afternoon I’ve been having a major case of the Jerkbrain, feeling like everything’s hopeless and that the things I do are doomed to failure. What was I doing, you may ask, while I was feeling this way? Putting my hair up for the goddamn awards ceremony I’ve been shortlisted for. I kid you not- I’m popping my hair in rollers and ironing my shirt to go hang out with all the other nominees and be fabulous, and at the same time my Jerkbrain is telling me that I never do anything worthwhile and should go back to bed forever. Oh and also that there is no way I’ll have time to make my hair nice this afternoon and should just give up and, yes, go back to bed forever because everyone else will have perfect hair and mine will be not good enough and they will all laugh at me.

Jerkbrain. Jerkbrain lies.

Knowing that Jerkbrain lies? It’s bloody brilliant. You see, if you didn’t know that Jerkbrain lies, you might be tempted to take it seriously. Might think that maybe it’s right and you should just go back to bed forever to stew in your own filth because you’ll never be worth anything more than that. If you know that Jerkbrain is a filthy liar, though, you can start learning to ignore the fecker. You can make your own internal voice that you get to control yourself. One that says “Psh, everyone else will be too worried about their own hair to mind what mine looks like. Also, telling me that I’m useless while I’m ironing my fancy pants award shirt? Dude? That’s just pathetic.”

That’s the thing about Jerkbrain. It seems big and scary when you listen to it, but if you can step aside and figure out what it’s really saying? It’s ridiculous. Kinda pathetic, even.

I wish I could end this with a nice pithy paragraph about having defeated Jerkbrain and sent him back to the dark, cold, damp cave where he came from. It’d be nice if it worked like that. I’m afraid, though, that for the moment at least I seem to be as stuck as everyone with my personal Jerkbrain. There’s something very comforting, though, about knowing that even when Jerkbrain is trying its very best to convince me that everything is terrible, I can comfort myself with the knowledge that that insidious little fecker knows a lot more about my own insecurities than it does about reality. It doesn’t shut it up, but it sure as hell does make it easier to suck it up and do things anyway.

How about yourselves? Have you worked out ways to shut up your own Jerkbrain? Or ways to make it easier to get past the jerkiness and do things anyway?

Related articles: Captain Awkward Edition

Jerkbrain Lies

A Lunatic State

33/365 -- More Lunacy
33/365 — More Lunacy (Photo credit: jsrcyclist)

My name is Aoife, and I discovered this morning that I am a lunatic. I have to say that I found it kind-of hilarious. You see, not only am I a lunatic, but this morning I’m a lunatic off my meds. Left ’em at home yesterday when I was packing to stay elsewhere last night, and it’ll be another hour or two before I get back to them. It’s very annoying, to put it mildly. For me, missing a dose of my meds is a bit like combining the feeling of having had too much and too little caffeine. I’m agitated, my head feels weird, and I have the concentration span of a distracted gnat. And like the addict I am, I’m craving the thing that’ll bring me back to normality.

It’s in that state- agitated, irritated, jonesing for a fix of SSRI- that I read this, and find out that, according to Irish law, I am a lunatic. You couldn’t make it up. Check it out:

On International Day for People with Disabilities (today, Monday 3rd December), Irish law still calls people with disabilities Lunatics – despite repeated promises of change.

People with intellectual disabilities, those with mental health problems and older people with dementia, are all termed ‘Lunatics’ under Irish law.

I think about the meaning of lunacy and how little it applies either to myself or to most of the legal lunatics I know. Here’s the definition of ‘lunacy’ according to Merriam Webster:

a : insanity
b : intermittent insanity once believed to be related to phases of the moon
: wild foolishness : extravagant folly
: a foolish act

Since my diagnosis- in my case depression and anxiety, the dullest and most common of mental illnesses- I have worked my ass off to be aware of and own my mental state. CBT ain’t for everyone, but it’s changed my life. I know my brain. I know what it’s doing. I know when I have to step in and take steps to change that. As a person with a mental illness I am far more aware of my emotional state than most mentally healthy people I know. Even this morning. Especially this morning. Everything gets put into perspective when I can feel my brain teetering off balance. I turn on the backup systems I’ve worked my ass off to create, and I compensate the hell out of it.

Most of the people I know with mental illnesses do something similar. We’re masters of grappling with the kind of mental and emotional states that used to paralyse us. While sometimes things are too much to deal with, we have a hell of a lot of coping mechanisms. We work out ways to live happy and fulfilled lives when our brains are fighting against us. Lunatics? Are you nuts? Most crazy people are as sane as anyone. Probably more so.

You know, I normally wouldn’t publish anything I wrote today. I’d was planning on writing like I was Spider Jerusalem, popping it all into a drafts folder and editing the hell out of it later. I’m not going to do that. This lunatic wants to prove herself, so this is coming to you unedited. It’s not surprising, really, that I feel the need to show that even in a state like this I’m not insane. I’m writing this on the Dart into town. Somehow I manage to sit here and type while attracting precisely zero attention from my fellow passengers. Not bad, for a crazy person. It is, by the way, a gorgeous afternoon with crisp, bright winter sunlight streaming through the windows and on to Dublin Bay. The sea is a choppy blueish black and the sky a light pastel, like watered-down watercolours.

I wonder what we mean by ‘crazy’, or by mental illness. There is an idea of mental illness as some kind of discrete thing. Here is a person with depression. Here is someone with bipolar. As if ‘depression’ or ‘bipolar’ or ‘anxiety’ were specific things that happen t oa person. But when we are diagnosed our doctors don’t look for specific changes in our brain chemistry or structure. Diagnoses come from conversations. Is this an experience we have? Is that a way that we feel? Does this happen? And every single one of us experiences these things differently. Ten people with the very same diagnosis will give you ten completely different stories. For some it is very much a matter of brain chemistry. For others it is a response to experience that becomes unbearable. There are reasons why members of oppressed groups tend to suffer more from mental illness than their privileged counterparts, and why rates of these illnesses vary between cultures, and it is not because we as individuals are fundamentally broken. We live in damaged societies. Our illnesses often don’t arrive out of nowhere. Sometimes lunacy is the only sane response to a world that demands we reject so much of our basic humanity. Sometimes it’s the only sane response to a world that values competition over compassion, economics over health, morality over empathy.

My name is Aoife. I’m a lunatic off my meds, sitting on a Dart on a beautiful sunny winter’s day.

A Lunatic State

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.