A Favorite Lie to Tell

I’ve learned that there is hope and that when I feel that there isn’t hope my brain is lying to me.

-John Green, “On Mental Illness (and the end of Pizzamas)”

It seems like most mental health issues have a favorite myth to perpetuate in the sufferer’s brain.  Friends with anxiety have described to me the baseless urgency, the panic without a catalyst, the lie of a magnified threat.  In John Green’s talks on his personal experiences with OCD, he tells of the intrusive thoughts, the lie of an underlying capacity for terrible things.

My depression tells me, as I slide further down the dark spiral, that I am dragging others down with me.  The first time this happened, my sophomore year of college, it told me that I was a terrible girlfriend, that remaining in this relationship would sap the Engineer of his emotional energy as he tried to help me back up the spiral of my quickly numbing mind.  (At the time, I wasn’t exactly the most supportive partner, but that’s because it’s pretty hard to be emotionally available when you don’t have emotions anymore.)  It was kinder, the depression said sagely, to let him go.

Thank God he didn’t let me do that.

Even after I started going to counseling, I tried not to talk about it.  Not because I was ashamed of the depression, exactly, but because I was ashamed to demand anything more from my friends and family.  The depression kept telling me that I would drag them down with me, and that I should at least go through the motions of generosity even if I couldn’t remember how that felt.  Since I no longer felt any real impulse toward either kindness or cruelty, my brain held up the abstract concepts and said, “You used to want to be a nice person.  A nice person wouldn’t do this to her loved ones.”  If I had to be dragged down this path, at least I wouldn’t be bringing anyone with me.  I had forgotten, of course, that emotionally stable and healthy people have more strength to help pull others up.

“Don’t drag them down with you.”  It has a slogan-y ring to it.

A nice person wouldn’t do this.  A nice brain wouldn’t do this.

I’ve learned how to better tell when my brain is lying to me.  I’ve learned that emotional states are not personality traits.  I’ve learned that my family and friends want to help and they do not resent me, nor have I pulled them into the spiral with me.

There are tools available to make the lies more apparent.  That doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be convincing.

If you suffer from mental health problems, there is hope; when your brain says there isn’t, I promise you, it is lying to you.  And if you know someone who struggles with mental health, help remind them of the truth.

 

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Never-ending Easter Egg Hunts

“In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four, five, six yourefineyourefineyourefine seven, eight.  In, two, three four…”

I said the words in my head like a crazed conductor, sternly scolding my chest when it tried to contract again too soon.  My lungs preferred hyperventilating to this slow, rhythmic exercise.  I felt like I was choking every time I breathed out for too long.  But eventually my heart rate slowed.  The air stopped feeling oppressive.  I stopped counting as I drifted off to sleep.

For a few weeks, this was my bedtime ritual.  As soon as I got under the covers, I would immediately feel guilty that I hadn’t completed all these tasks.  But during the day, when I had the time and energy (and daylight) to devote to working, I only remembered a fraction of them.  They seemed to hold back, waiting to rush at me the second I turned out the light.

It was like a protracted Easter egg hunt.  Some eggs, hidden in obvious places, were easily spotted and placed safely in my basket – the completed tasks that I had already planned on doing.  Then there were others that I glimpsed as I went about my day – the random, little things I suddenly remembered and addressed even though they weren’t part of my original list.

And then, when it got too dark to look for Easter eggs, my workaholic little brain piped up: “You can’t go to bed yet.  We didn’t find all of them.”

“It’s fine.  They’re plastic.  They won’t hurt anything if we don’t find all of them until tomorrow.”

“But what if we don’t find them in time and the candy in them melts?  Or what if someone gets annoyed that we didn’t collect them all?  No, we should keep looking.”

“I promise you, it’s fine.  We’ll look with fresh eyes tomorrow.”

“Did you check under the sofa?  I think I saw one under the sofa.”

And on it went.  As much as I told myself that I had time, that I hadn’t missed any deadlines or accidentally forgotten to reply to someone, my anxieties had a new worry for every one I dismissed.  The most compelling of these was, “But if you forgot to do it today, what if you keep forgetting until you completely forget?”

Cue racing heart and shallow breathing.

My mental state, whether in the midst of my depression or just a lot of stress, has always been the most frantic at night.  I have trouble with the concept of “rest” when I feel I haven’t earned it, whether that be letting go of emotions until I am better equipped to address them or getting some sleep even though I haven’t exercised/written/worked “enough” that day.  So bedtime, when I put away all distractions and wait alone with my thoughts before falling asleep, is a great time for my mind to rebel.

Some nights found me up with that damn basket, hunting the rest of the Easter eggs (e.g., all-nighters on projects that weren’t even due the next day, just because they were worrying me).

Other times I’d stay up long enough to map out a plan for exactly where to look for the eggs the next day (putting together a specific schedule for the next day to address all the random tasks I was suddenly remembering).

On occasion, I do manage to shush my brain entirely, with exercises like breathing (fun fact: exhaling longer than you inhale is supposed to disrupt the fight-or-flight response) or doing something similarly meditative like saying my rosary.

Melatonin supplements work too.

I’m still learning how to negotiate with my own mind and body in order to get some sleep.  But even just recognizing that this time of day can be difficult – that’s a start.


What stress-reduction/brain-quieting strategies work best for you?  What time of day do you find it hardest to deal with stress and anxiety?

 

Is This Really the Story We Want to Keep Telling?

When I first saw the trailer for Split, I knew I wouldn’t be going to see it.  For one thing, the scene shown in the teaser where three girls are abducted in a parking lot marked it clearly as Horror, and I hate scary movies.  (Not to mention that I already check under, behind, and around my car before I get in, lock my doors, and immediately drive away from any given location, so thank you Hollywood for reinforcing my paranoid safety check.)  Then there was James McAvoy’s character, who apparently is yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with (and frequent mistaken representation of) dissociative identity disorder (DID).  It seemed unlikely to me that situating a person with mental illness as a kidnapper and probable villain could involve tasteful representation of mental health problems, so that gave me another reason not to bother.

Last week, two of my coworkers began discussing the movie.  They expressed their admiration for the apparent “twist” ending, praised James McAvoy’s acting, then turned to me and asked if I’d seen it.

“No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?” one coworker exclaimed. “It’s awesome!”

“I don’t like thrillers,” I started, “and even more importantly,” louder over their protests that it wasn’t that scary, “I think it’s contributing to social stigma surrounding mental illness by continuing to portray people with those illnesses as automatically dangerous or monstrous.”

They looked at me.  “It’s actually sooooo good!” one of them said, but her voice was quieter.

“I’m sure it’s an interesting story,” I said, “and I’m sure that as far as movies go it has all the drama and suspense that it needs to.  But I don’t agree with perpetuating damaging stereotypes to do that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

“His acting was, like, insane, though,” the other coworker finally said, and they were off again.

I have no doubt that McAvoy’s acting in this movie was impressive; just watching the trailer, I was amazed by his ability to differentiate and fully inhabit even the few personalities shown there.  I have no doubt that the writers constructed a compelling enough storyline to accomplish all the goals of the genre.

My problem is with the priorities that this movie represents, the priorities that keep allowing movies like this to be made instead of giving us popular culture filled with realistic and non-shameful pictures of mental illness.  My problem is that even this article in The Guardian outlining cinematic misrepresentation of DID through the years ends with praise for McAvoy’s acting.  We keep putting “It’s a good story!” and “It’s a chance for the actor to show off their talent!” above the damage done by shoving mental illness into the same old categories.  And mental health deserves better from our popular culture.

Individuals with illnesses other than DID suffer from this idea of the “mentally ill monster” too.  Schizophrenia is the most directly affected, since it is often mistakenly conflated with DID and therefore seen as farther along on the “crazy” spectrum.  Depressed people are often assumed to be suicidal, even though the reality is that symptoms vary widely in intensity and depending on the individual.  As for anxiety, our society already mistrusts people who cannot conform to the Extrovert Ideal, so sufferers of anxiety are often watched as though they might “snap” at any moment.

This isn’t just me over thinking things, either.  The American Psychological Association has done studies interpreting the link between media and the perception of mental illness as dangerousness.  While conclusions vary, the researchers agree that this link does exist and that it is actively contributing to continuing stigma against mental illness.

Given all these perceptions and pictures of mental illness surrounding us, no wonder few people seek help when they need it.  Who would want to seek out a diagnosis or admit to having one of these problems?  Who would voluntarily categorize themselves as a monster?

I congratulate James McAvoy on his talent in his chosen profession.  But I refuse to pretend that admiration for a complete stranger is more important than the work we need to do to alter the perception of mental illness in our popular media.  Now, a movie about a man with DID figuring out how to live everyday life despite the society he lives in constantly viewing him with fear?  That’s a movie I’d go see.