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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Cherry trees.


I walked home lateish last night after a couple of drinks in the local with my derbywife. It was a warm enough night that walking home felt comfortable. We split up at the river, I set off down my road.

I don’t feel scared walking at night anymore. I don’t feel scared in the daytime, either. Walking home last night I realised two things. I am happy. I was not happy before.

Two years ago my life felt impossible. I was still reeling from the losses of the months before, spending my days in a job that felt pointless and that I didn’t have the money to leave. I would wake up in the night in terror- not from any nightmare, but from the idea that I could be stuck. That my life wouldn’t get better. That five or ten or twenty years from then, I wouldn’t have escaped, and that I would have wasted these only years I’ll ever get. I woke up in the night in tears because I knew there was so much more joy to be had in life and I felt myself hanging of a precipice of never experiencing it.

It feels overdramatic, really, but there you go. That was real, for a while.

A year and a half ago my attempts at making things better- studying for another qualification, finding another job, dragging myself out of the pit I was in, grasping for something– left me one morning sitting on the floor of my apartment, finally giving in after the tension and the terror had built up enough that I couldn’t eat, sleep or even keep water down for long. My desperation to get out had me feeling that this one chance was the only chance. I had to grasp it and take it or else I’d be trapped again, falling back into that utter pointlessness and drudgery and I couldn’t take it and in the midst of this another death, this time of someone far too young, and that morning it became too much. I quit.

I quit, and my friends were there to catch me. Even though I had failed. Even though I was someone who patently couldn’t cope with my life right then. That morning, a friend of mine was there to hold me and to tell me that it was okay to fall apart. That evening, two. I’ve never known so suddenly that I had made the right decision. My friends plonked themselves down next to me on the sofa. My family talked to me on the phone. That was the week I found an incredible therapist who coached me through the next year of my life. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but for the first time in so long, I felt something close to safe.

I think that was the moment when I realised that being an adult doesn’t mean never needing help.

A year ago, things were getting a little better. A lot better, in fact. After I quit my job (a few weeks before the lease on my apartment was up), another friend offered me her spare room to live in for six months. Those months and that space meant the world to me- every day I knew that I was loved and cared for and that the people in my life felt that I was worthwhile. We would curl up on the sofa with TV box sets and a bottle of wine and share our days and in those moments my loneliness and tension started, oh so slowly, to dissolve. I started to write again, blogging almost daily, words and ideas and enthusiasms that actually seemed to connect with others in a way that I have never stopped feeling astounded by.

Six months ago.. six months ago, another decision just for me. I moved out of the city into this town for no good reason other than that I wanted to and that the friends moving with me were people I thought I’d be happy living with. Turns out that making decisions purely because you think they’ll make you happy can work out pretty damn well. I knew the internship I was working on was going to end soon. I knew that I wanted out of that- that I wanted to be paid for the work that I do, to be able to volunteer my time as I saw fit, and that I wanted to live somewhere with room, sky, the sea, and green.

And yesterday night I walked home and knew that right now, I am happy. I live with people who are not only wonderful, but who are compatible with how I live my home life. I wake up in a bright and spacious room with the sun streaming in my window, in a home that feels comfortable and safe. I have a job where every so often the hours I’m at work provide the highlights of my day. I spend my evenings with incredible people working my ass off in a sport that builds me up and fills me with inspiration, love and power. And.. and now, I have time to write again.

Two years ago, I was terrified, plagued with nightmares of dying at the end of a pointless life and the plodding, dreary decades in between. Now? I look to today, to next week and see every day filled with meaning and joy. I got here. It’s okay. I’m okay.

Jerkbrain, trampolines, gardening.


Imagine you’re in a garden. It’s a sunny day. A big, green garden- shady trees in one corner and a great big lawn, tons of flowers and somebody’s cooking on the barbecue over by the house. You’re on a trampoline. You twist your ankle- or have you broken your leg? You try to get off the trampoline but you can’t find the way out. You know you need to stop bouncing but the door is gone, there’s netting all around you and everything you do just bounces you more.

You’re still in the garden. You love trampolining. Everyone knows you love trampolining. You know that you’d be fine if you could just get out of this trampoline and sit by the barbecue or under the trees until your ankle heals. It’s still a sunny day. Your foot is getting worse, you can’t get out, and you can’t stop bouncing.

It feels like that, sometimes. I’m in the midst of this fantastic life, surrounded by things that I love. I should be having the time of my life- but all I can do is keep bouncing on that goddamn ankle.

It’s not like that all the time. Eventually I find the way out, figure things out.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been blogging as much as normal. It’s partially being stuck on that trampoline and not having any goddamn energy left to deal with messed-up things in the outside world. Partially that a couple of months ago I started a job and moved house and a whole bunch of other things in my life changed and working out what shape my new normal is supposed to be seems to be taking a while. Also, work involves sitting in front of a screen and when I get home all I want to do is anything else. I’m tempted to turn this into somewhere I talk about gardening and cooking and skating and all sorts of things that have nothing to do with keyboards. 

Speaking of gardening, check out these pics of what I did this weekend. With my bare hands (okay, there were gardening gloves involved) I turned this:

garden before

 

Into this:

garden sunday

Important to note there is the massive pile of rocks you can not quite see in the right hand side of the picture. Those rocks used to live in the Future Veggie Patch. They do not live there any more. Because ME.

 

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.

Continued at the Tea Cosy’s new home. See you there!

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:

1
a : insanity
b : intermittent insanity once believed to be related to phases of the moon
2
: wild foolishness : extravagant folly
3
: 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.

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.

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.