Tag Archives: happiness or something like it

On Negative Self-Talk

12 Dec

I know what it must sound like to you whenever those ugly words start pouring out of me.

Every time I tell you that I’m so stupid, I’m a failure, everything is my fault and so on and so forth forever into eternity, you must think that what I’m really doing is asking a question, namely: Do you agree that these things are true?

Or else maybe it comes off as a command: Tell me that I’m wrong. Tell me that I’m worth it. Validate me.

Maybe it sounds like a dare or a taunt: Go ahead, fight me on this. Just try.

It must seem like I’m looking for some kind of reaction – a hug, or an eye roll, or something in between the two, an affectionate sort of “there she goes again” crossed with “don’t worry, you’re not monster.”

The truth is that when I fall into the spiral of negative self-talk, even when my words seem to be directed at another person, they’re almost always meant for me and only me. These words are also a compulsion, and in the way of many compulsions they act as a sort of charm or a spell to ward off something worse. They’re a way of beating everyone else to the punch, and they also function as a funny type of pep-talk. But even when I say them publicly, they’re never meant for anyone but me.

Sometimes it’s almost like I have to say something out loud in order to know whether it’s true or not. It’s similar to how I can’t memorize something unless I’ve actually muttered it through several times to myself, except that it’s more like I have to shape my mouth around these vile thoughts about myself to see if they have a taste of truth to them. A thought seems so insubstantial that it could be anywhere on the realm of possibility, but a spoken or written word – well, that’s a different kettle of fish, isn’t it?  A thought is like cotton candy, melting and disappearing the moment you try to properly consume it; a word has heft. Speaking or writing something gives me the chance to weigh it against reality, to see which side the scale comes down on.

Negative self-talk is also a way of loudly and triumphantly declaring all of the terrible things you worry that other people are thinking about you. It’s a way to take the sting out of an insult, a way to toss your head and wink like you don’t care. Theoretically, what’s the hurt in someone else calling you stupid or ugly or pathetic if you’ve already embraced those awful things yourself? It’s a pre-emptive shedding of your emotional clothes before another person can come along and lift up your skirt; it’s biting your lip, hard, so that you don’t feel the needle in your arm. But of course you do still feel the needle, and even when you invite people to stare at your naked feelings their gawking sneers still hurt. You’re not really beating anyone to the punch, you’re just pounding away at yourself like a schoolyard bully landing one hit after another on some poor, defenceless, cowering kid.

Whenever I talk badly about myself, it turns into a sort of Harry Potter Devil’s Trap situation – the harder I struggle and the more I tell myself to stop, the worse it gets. Like, if I start of by saying that I’m stupid and can’t handle even the smallest things, then it escalates to saying that calling myself stupid is proof of my own stupidity, and having this meltdown is proof that I can’t handle my life, and then anger and shame that I’m letting other people see me going through this, with every added layer just making me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. Once you’re down in that pit, there’s no way out – you’re just scraping your fingers against the walls, unable to climb or dig through and ultimately only hurting yourself more. My own negative self-talk validates my low self-esteem, and in my rational moments I know that. But when I’m feeling awful about myself, the only way to fix it seems to be to drive the knife deeper.

I know that the negative self-talk serves no real purpose, no matter how I try to frame it or justify it, but it’s hard to quit. It’s an internal groove on a record and whenever my mental needle slips into it, the music needs to play the whole way through before I can put on something else. I’m slowly learning to pull off the needle mid-song, but it’s hard. If I tell myself to stop at the wrong time and I can’t or don’t for whatever reason, then that just leads to feeling awful over the fact that I’m still going. Right now I’m at the point where I can pick out harmful thought patterns after the fact; later, once I’m not sobbing stormily and feeling like the world is ending, I can look at what how wrong and harmful what I was saying about myself was. But when I’m in the middle of berating myself, I’m not in a place where I can listen or change – it’s like this howling mess that blocks out or distorts anything that doesn’t agree with what it says.

So I’m working on this. Along the same lines, I’m learning to Take A Compliment. Whenever someone trots out something nice about me, I just breathe deeply and say thank you instead of explaining to them all the particular ways they happen to be wrong. Sometimes, if I’m not too consumed in the haze of panic that compliments set off in me, I’ll remember to compliment them back. I hope that someday my negative self-talk will work along these lines – like, whenever I feel the compulsion to do it, I’ll just take a deep breath, smile, and say no thank you, brain. Not today. I’m too awesome for your shit right now.

184398_10152373691225215_965134279_n

Advertisements

The Cold, Gaping Maw Of Winter, Etc.

16 Sep

The winter my mother was pregnant with me was one of the coldest and longest on record. And this was in Montreal, mind you, which should give you an indication of just how deeply the temperatures must have plunged. My mother, who spent her days slogging across the snowy city to work, to doctor’s appointments, to the university where my father was a law student, and finally back home again, used to joke that I would be born with frostbite. When she told me this I pictured myself as a fetus, bobbing along inside of her, my toes and fingers turning blue in spite of the many layers of flesh and fabric that swaddled me. Even then, I imagine, I must have hated the cold.

My memories of Quebec in winter are mostly of the childhood-wonder variety; I was only three when we moved to Ontario, so they really only exist in imperfect flashes, more sensation than anything else. Tottering along on tiny skates at the local outdoor rink, stuffed into a Prussian blue snowsuit so thick that my arms stuck out at an angle. Lying on the back seat of the car and listening he quiet shush of tires moving through sleet as we drove through the twilit streets of the town where my grandparents lived. Stepping out our front door and staring at the walls of snow towering over me, the whiteness neatly bisected by the path my father had shovelled. It was like living in a fairytale forest under some witch’s evil spell; fraught with danger, but still full of magic. Like Narnia, before the downfall of the White Queen; you might be chased by wolves, or you might be invited over to a faun’s cozy little den for tea. Anything could happen.

By the time I hit grade school I couldn’t stand the cold; when I was seven, I thought up a genius plan to help me avoid it. I started faking sick every day after lunch, so that I could miss the long noon-hour recess. Instead of going outside, I would sit and read quietly in the nurse’s office, murmuring a no-thank-you every time she offered to call my mother. I remember being so satisfied, sitting there in front of the blasting heater, flipping the pages of my library book. In that moment, I was sure that I was smarter than everyone I knew.

Of course, it didn’t take long before my teacher caught on to what I was doing. She was beyond furious.

“Did you know,” she said, publicly, to all of my classmates, “that Anne has been lying to us every day so that she doesn’t have to go outside for recess? Did you know that your friend has been lying to you?”

What could I say? After all, she wasn’t wrong.

These days, winter brings out a sort of doomsday fatalism in me, as if the world, silent and blank with snow, existed always just a few grim moments away from the apocalypse. The air has a heartless, metallic taste and sun flickers weakly, as if we’ve been pushed out of orbit and are slowly drifting towards poor old not-a-planet Pluto. Frostbite seems like a exceptionally accurate term, because it so precisely describes the way the cold nips at me, sinking its sharp little teeth into my skin. My joints ache until my body feels like a feels like a sour note inexpertly scraped out of a violin; familiar, but so exhaustingly distant from what it should be that I don’t even know where to begin. The nagging pain drags on and on until it becomes my default state; I forget that it’s possible to feel good in my body, and assume that this fumbling stiffness is my new normal.

The end of this ache every spring is always, somehow, a surprise. I forget that it’s coming – I even forget that it’s possible – so I don’t think to wait for it. It’s like a gift from whatever hairy horned god it is that makes sure the clumsy old clockwork of the seasons moves forward the way it should. He’s the kind of god who should have sacrifices burned in his honour. Every year I am absurdly grateful for spring.

Most of the people I know love the fall – the smell of woodsmoke, the thick woollen sweaters, the sharp, lingering sunshine. Fall is apple-picking and flannel shirts and pumpkin-spice-everything; fall is the exhale of relief after the brutally humid summer. Fall is lovely, except that it also means staring down the cold, gaping maw of winter. Fall is a dark tunnel leading to an underground room with no windows or doors. There’s a reason that November is the month of the dead.

A few years ago, my mother picked out her grave. That sounds morbid, but I guess it’s better that she does it now rather than relying on us to figure out where she wants to spend eternity. It’s not even a grave, really – more like a little alcove on a wall in Mount Royal Cemetery where her ashes will go. Her father is in that cemetery, and so are both sets of her grandparents. All of her cousins and aunts and uncles and even a few great-grandparents are there too. I think she’s got the right idea – when I die, I want to be burned, and then I want to be near my family. At least cremation is warm; I can’t imagine spending the rest of time in an uninsulated wooden box six feet deep in the soil. I want to be comfortable, even in death. Especially in death.

I remember this one time when I was a little kid I was standing out in the schoolyard next to the climber. It was winter, and I was wearing this dorky maroon beret with a picture of Snoopy on it. I tilted my head back to look at the fat, drifting snowflakes, and suddenly I felt like I was falling up and up and up into the sky. I stopped feeling my body. I stopped feeling anything. I hovered there, as pure and weightless as the snow.

Then one of my friends yelled at me and grabbed my arm, dragging me into whatever game was going on, and the moment ended.

Whatever enchantment existed in that moment is gone; I’ve since tried to find my way back to that place, but never have. Probably I never will.

5126c3bd652de3934dd3d90b516f91b2

On This Day In History

7 Aug

It’s my birthday, y’all. I’m 32 today.

I had a personal essay go up on Jezebel today (trigger warning for talk of suicide)

I also had a serious scholarly article about Anne Boleyn go up on The Toast.

It’s been a big day.

We drove for three hours to see my grandmother in St-Bruno, then drove three hours back to Kingston, where we’re staying with my mom for the week. I only got to chill with my Nana for about two hours, but it was one hundred percent worth it because I get to see her once or twice a year tops. My Nana is a really rad lady, in case you were wondering.

She hates having her picture taken, but here’s an awesome picture of my grandfather I found while I was there:

IMG_6152

 

Also this is how big the fucking hedge is in my grandmother’s backyard (Theo pictured for scale), so whenever I’m there I feel like I’m chilling in a fairytale forest, which is obviously something I’m into.

IMG_6165

I love that stupid hedge an unreasonable amount. I used to play hide and seek in there with my cousins when I was a kid. Also we turned part of it into a fort where we did secret things. And by secret things I mean played house.

We made it back to Kingston by early evening, and I paid my yearly tribute to Hiroshima. They hold a Peace Lantern ceremony here in one of the parks downtown, and the ritual of making lanterns, folding cranes and singing Pete Seeger songs has become an important part of my birthday. It’s kind of weird to feel so tied to this horrible event that happened decades before I was born, but I’m also weirdly thankful for the moments of sad remembrance on what is otherwise a happy day. The bombing of Hiroshima feels like a part of who I am, in a way that I can’t really properly articulate.

Anyway.

IMG_6234

Making lanterns with Theo

IMG_6235

The boy beside us, Yuto, made the lantern below. As you can see, there’s Pikachu and also an illustration of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was adorable and a great artist. I think that placing these two scenes side by side really makes a statement.

IMG_6236 IMG_6237 IMG_6238 IMG_6239

Making paper cranes:

IMG_6240

My crane:

IMG_6241 IMG_6242 IMG_6243

The lantern procession:

IMG_6244 IMG_6245

Getting ready to float them out on the water:

IMG_6246 IMG_6247

 

Perfect.

IMG_6248

 

This birthday was one of the good ones.

“You Know I Love You A Lot Too Even If I Sometimes Get Impatient”

4 Aug

I am a person who needs constant reassurance that other people love and value me.

And when I say constant, I mean fucking constant.

Like, in a perfect world, every morning and evening all of my friends would fill out a survey detailing how they felt about me. In this document they would remind me of the fact that they loved me, and let me know what my areas of improvement were, so that I could fix any little issues before they blew up. Or if, for whatever reason, I couldn’t fix them, I would, at the very least, not feel blindsided by any big conflict that they might bloom into. I could plan ahead how I would react, the pithy things I would say and the brilliant retorts I would make. I wouldn’t melt into a sobbing, gibbering mess, the way I usually do.

The way I always do.

I found an old notebook of mine in my mother’s basement today. It was from the first grade and was supposed to be a sort of journal, a place where I would write little stories or comments to my teacher every Monday, and she would answer back. A lot of the stuff that I wrote is pretty funny, and probably fairly typical for a six year old.

Stuff like:

“On Sunday we went to Debbie and Dwight’s farm and I saw a lot of sheep. They separated the mothers and the fathers and the babies. And I saw BC, their cat.”

“I have a loose tooth. Next week I will go to the dentist.”

“Today I will go to Brownies. It’s where I go to learn how to jump rope and be nice.”

“Last night I went to bed at 8:20.”

Pretty average, I guess. Except for the fact that tacked on to the end of nearly every other “entry” is a note that says, “I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted a dog but she lived all by herself and didn’t have any money. One day she found a dog. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Last night we went out for dinner. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I would like to switch seats please, Madame Renée. Have you corrected my recherche yet? Goodbye, Madame Renée. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I don’t know what to write. I love you, Madame Renée.”

At first, reading back through all this stuff, I had a hard time figuring out what my angle was. Had I really been such a suck-up back then? That didn’t sound like me but hey, I guess a person can change a lot in twenty six years.

Then I realized why I kept writing “I love you” – because every single time I did so, she would write “I love you, too.” It was a way of checking in, a way of making sure that we were still cool. It was especially a way of making sure that I hadn’t angered or frustrated her past the point of no return, which was and is a thing that I’ve worried about doing to my friends and family for as long as I can remember.

Finally, there’s an entry towards the end of the notebook that says simply, “I love you, Renée,” and then is followed by a lower case alphabet in cursive writing.

My teacher’s reply is something that I would imagine a lot of people who know me even now would like to say to me:

“You know that I love you a lot too, even if I get impatient sometimes.”

I have a hard time understanding that I can still have conflict with people that I love. In my head, it seems so black and white: either you love me or you don’t. And if you’re angry at me, or frustrated with me, or hurt by something that I’ve done, then you don’t love me. And if you don’t love me, it’s almost certainly because of something I’ve done, some way in which I’ve fucked up. If you don’t love me, I probably deserve it.

And so I melt down into that sobbing, gibbering mess and feel like I can’t breathe and feel like the world is ending and feel like I am not worthy of anyone’s love. Like it’s somehow just a weird trick of fate that I have a husband and a son and lots and lots of friends. I feel as if when I have any kind of conflict with someone, it’s because they’re finally seeing the real me, the bad me, and now that the jig is up they’ll never love me again.

I do a lot of stupid little things to try to help shield people from seeing the true, terrible version of myself that I try so hard to keep hidden. I buy people a lot of little presents, as if these objects might work like some kind of charm to keep them from leaving me. I go out of my way to do thoughtful things, so that I might be seen as a thoughtful person. I avoid doing things for myself unless I think that I truly “deserve” it, so that people will believe that I’m a martyr instead of a monster. None of this is logical. None of this is sustainable. And, finally, none of this is actually useful in the long-term.

I need to learn how to manage conflict without resorting to, “you’re right, everything is my fault and it’s no wonder you hate me.” I need to start believing that people love me and want to be around me because I’m smart and funny and interesting, not because I buy them shit and solve all their problems. Most of all, though, I need to remember that my friends and family love me a lot, even if they sometimes get impatient with me. Because that is how relationships work – you have conflict, and you work through it, and then it’s even stronger than ever. No friendship will ever be conflict-free – and if it is, that probably means that something is seriously wrong.

So hey, six-year-old me, I’m sorry I still haven’t figured this shit out yet. But I want you to know that I see you, and I know how you feel, and I’m still trying. And I’m going to keep trying. So please hold on and don’t give up hope. I got this.

IMG_5998

How Do You Mourn The Living?

14 Jun

Tomorrow is Father’s Day.

If you’re a fairly regular reader here, you may have noticed that I don’t often mention my dad, and when I do it’s always in the past tense. He’ll sometimes come up when I write about my childhood, but other than that I almost never talk about him. He’s not dead or anything – in fact, he lives in the same city that I do. He’s just not a part of my life.

A few years ago my father became estranged from my sisters and I. There’s a lot of backstory there, but I’m not going to get into the whole thing here. For one thing, it’s not entirely my story to tell. For another, I don’t want to write anything here that might hurt anyone. So I’ll just say that there was a long, protracted leave-taking that involved a lot of tearful discussions, tentative reconciliations, and a slow, steady breaking of my heart, with the outcome of all that being that he is no longer a presence in my life.

I love my father immensely. We were close when I was a kid, and I have about a billion memories of us being hilarious and fun together. When I was a teenager, he was the cool parent and would buy me beer and drugs when I came to visit him. He taught me about existentialism, and encouraged me to read Camus’ The Outsider (his favourite book) for my big, final high school English paper. We shared a love of music, and from him I learned the deep physical pleasure – the sort of secular reverence – one experiences while placing a record on a turntable and dropping the needle into the groove. He was a great storyteller, and listening to him geek out about our family history was one of my favourite ways to spend an evening. He read to me every night when I was a kid, even once I was old enough to read on my own, and would get grumpy if my mother had to read a chapter to me while he was working late because he always became just as involved in all my favourite books as I did. He would play make-believe games with me for hours on end, something my mother, bless her, didn’t have the patience or imagination for. He was the first person to talk to me like I was a living, breathing person with thoughts and feelings of my own. We shared the same dark sense of humour; maybe we still do.

He loved me. I know he did. I’m sure that if you asked him he would tell you that he loves me still. So how do I reconcile that with the fact that he’s hurt me, badly, and has hurt many other people that he cares about? It seems impossible.

You always read about little kids who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. I was thirteen when my dad left, and was sure that I was old enough to know that sometimes grownups just fall out of love and that’s how life is. I knew that it had nothing to do with me, or my sisters. People change, and my parents had changed in ways that made them incompatible with each other. Case closed. Time to move on.

But lately I’ve been wondering if that’s really what I believe; I wonder if I’ve ever felt entirely blameless. Because, honestly, couldn’t we have done something more? Couldn’t we have charmed him into staying somehow? If only we had figured out the perfect way to be, the way that always made him happy, then he wouldn’t have left, would he? But we could never quite suss out the secret of making my father happy. Or maybe we just didn’t try hard enough, because we didn’t know exactly what was at stake. We never imagined that he’d leave.

And then, years later, he somehow managed to leave again. And I’m left sitting here trying to pick up the pieces, trying to figure out how to live my life without him. And it’s hard.

I told my therapist that it would, in some ways, be easier if he was dead. Not that I wish that he would die or anything, just that I would know the right procedure to go through. I would wear black. I would mourn. I would recall only the happy times. I would keep a picture of him on the wall, and my eyes would well up with tears whenever I saw it. I would love him, perfectly and unconditionally, the way you’re supposed to love a parent. I would know that he’d loved me.

But how do you mourn someone who’s still alive? How do you grieve the fact that they’ve left you, when at any moment they could walk back into your life? How is it possible to feel so angry and so hurt and yet also so hopeful that things might get better? It seems totally self-contradictory. And yet, here we are.

On a more basic level, I struggle to know how to talk about him to people who don’t know what’s happened. When they ask questions about him, am I supposed to answer as if we’re still close? Or do I straight-up tell them that we’re estranged? I don’t want to lie, but I also don’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable. Because it is uncomfortable for other people, isn’t it? Whenever I tell someone that my father and I don’t actually talk, I always feel like I immediately have to reassure them. I’ll smile big and say brightly, “It’s fine, though! We’ll figure it out!”

But the truth is that I don’t know how we could ever figure it all out. Not at this point. We might reconcile someday, but our relationship will never be what it was. How do you grieve a relationship that can’t ever be properly resuscitated?

My father has met my son twice. The first time was on a rainy day when Theo was about four months old, we ran into my father on the street corner. He peered through the stroller’s rain shield at my fat, sleeping baby and said that he was cute. He shook his head and said that he couldn’t believe he was a grandfather. He promised to call me. He didn’t.

The second time was when Theo was two. My sister and I had agreed to have coffee with our father, and then out of the blue I asked if he wanted to meet Theo. We all went to the museum together. Theo and my father had a great old time together, drumming out rhythms in the second floor gallery, choosing favourite fish in the aquarium. Afterwards, we promised to keep in touch, to try to set up another meeting. It never happened.

These days Theo is very interested in familial relationships. He’ll sometimes refer to me as “your wife” when speaking to Matt, and he’ll call his grandmother “Anne’s mother” instead of Gran. So the following conversation was bound to happen sooner rather than later.

Theo: Who’s your dad?

Me: His name is F____.

Theo: Where is he?

Me: Well, he lives here in Toronto, but we don’t get to see him very often for a variety of reasons. But I know that he loves you very much!

Theo: … Is he not a nice guy?

Me: He’s a nice guy. We – well, we just don’t get to see him very much. But he does love you.

Because I’m sure that, in some way, he does.

At the end of the day, I’m left wondering which father is my real father – the one who sat on the floor and played dolls with me for hours and hours, or the one who didn’t just flat out didn’t respond to the email announcing my pregnancy? The answer is both, I guess, but that truth is a lot to wrap my head around.

I miss my dad.

Anne youth photo0014

 

 

Pharmacopeia, or, The Drugs Don’t Work

11 Jun

TW for talk of suicide

Some days, as I rush around the apartment trying to get ready to face the world, I can’t help but feel like a traveling pharmacy. Inside the vast expanses of my purse, along with my laptop, my wallet, my keys, my book-du-jour, two shades of Sephora lipstick (neutral pink “charmer” and come-at-me crimson “tango”), my headphones, my phone, assorted bandaids, bobby pins and hair elastics, I neatly arrange the bottles of multicoloured pills through which I measure out my life like those metaphorical coffee spoons. Blood-red prescription iron supplements, safety-vest-orange Zoloft, dingy red-brown Seroquel, electric blue Imovane and, of course, the virginal pink birth control pills. My own private stash.

The pills are like little hand-holds to grab onto as I swing myself through my day. Orange and red with my breakfast, to keep my mood somewhere above apocalyptic-crying-level and to boost my energy, red again with supper, to keep my iron levels up over night, then red-brown, pink and blue at bedtime to respectively “enhance” my anti-depressant, make sure that I don’t accidentally bring forth another life onto this dismal planet, and then float me off to sleep the sleep of the innocents.

I’ve been on psychotropic drugs since I was sixteen, and can give you a poetic sort of laundry list of all the different types I’ve tried: Paxil, Prozac, Remeron Effexor, Elavil, Ativan, Wellbutrin, each at varying and increasing dosages. Paxil was the first one they tried on me, and when it perform as expected, they kept increasing the amount until I was a miserable wreck: twenty five pounds heavier, lethargic, awake all night and falling asleep in class. The funny thing was that my doctor kept telling me that it was working, that he was seeing improvements. Never mind that I felt worse than ever – to him, it definitely seemed as if I was getting better. It took months of arguing before he agreed to try a different drug.

The latest addition to my personal valley of the dolls is the Seroquel, typically used as an antipsychotic. I wondered if my doctor was trying to tell me something. I asked Nathan if he thought my doctor was trying to tell me something.

Me: It’s an antipsychotic. Do you think my doctor thinks I’m psychotic but just doesn’t want to say anything in case it upsets me? Am I psychotic?

Nathan: The medium isn’t always the message, Tiger. [Editor’s note: he likes to call me Tiger. Sometimes also Buddy or Slugger or Buckaroo. One time it was Tex.]

Me: But Marshall McLuhan said it was!

Nathan: Heritage Moments aren’t always right.

But then again, sometimes they are. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I’ve never really been able to tell if these drugs help at all (except for the sleeping pills, which are an insomniac’s best friend, and, of course, the birth control, thank god). Sometimes I take them and things get better, but it’s hard to know if that’s from the pills or from the natural dips and rises of my inner life. But I keep taking them, even after I swear that I won’t. They’re well-marketed, these drugs, and at my weakest moments I always find myself acquiescing. The doctors make a good case for acquiescing.

Those doctors always sell me on the antidepressants by telling me that I have a chemical imbalance, a lack of serotonin that causes my brain to short circuit and makes me want to die. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be suicidal – a short circuit, a glitch in the system, a design flaw. Killing yourself becomes the answer to everything. Your mind becomes like a record needle that jumps the groove, a sort of skip in your mental process where instead of going forward and thinking up solutions to your problems, all that you can come up with is, the only way out is to kill yourself. And the drugs are supposed to fix that skip, supposed to make it so that your record can play all the way until the end, and then you can flip it over, then put on another record, and so on ad infinitum, happily ever after.

The idea of a chemical imbalance is supposed to make you feel like you’re not crazy in the 19th century meaning of the word;  you’re not some kind of incurable case about to be shipped off to Bedlam. What’s wrong with you is physical – like a diabetic who lacks insulin (they’re always comparing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs to insulin for some reason), you just need a little medical help replacing something that your body is failing to make on its own, and then you’ll be fine. It’s not really a mental illness so much as it is a physical condition with mental manifestations. You’re not like those people.

By those people they mean, of course, the people with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder or some kind of nonspecific psychosis. Doctors never let you forget that there is a hierarchy of mental illnesses, one which you might slip down at any given moment. Doctors want you to remember that your place in the mental illness food chain is a relatively coveted one, lest you get any big ideas about going any crazier.

It’s easy to internalize the stigma against mental illness. Sure, you’re mentally ill, but you’re not like them. You don’t ever want to be like them.

Never mind that you already are one of them, no matter how you frame it. Never mind that all of your attempts to distance yourself, to other, only make things worse for everyone. Because you’re basically giving healthy people permission to other you.

You and your delicately imbalanced chemicals.

The chemical imbalance theory has been around since the 1960s. There was never much research done into the idea; it was just something that seemed like it could be right, and everyone sort of ran with it. Maybe they couldn’t properly test for that sort of thing back then. Maybe theories were the best they could go on. But now, fifty years later, it might be time to re-examine those theories.

According to Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, doctors have known for a long time that the chemical imbalance model is likely flawed. In an interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, he says,

And as early as 1998, the American Psychiatric Association in its textbook says we’re not finding that people with depression have any abnormality in their serotonin, but because it’s such an effective metaphor for getting people to take the drugs and sell the drugs, it’s continued to be promoted.

According to Whitaker, people who take psychiatric drugs were more likely to still have symptoms five years later than those who didn’t take psychiatric drugs. Because, see, here’s the catch – people who take SSRIs but don’t have low serotonin to begin with begin to rely on those drugs to manage their serotonin levels. SSRIs actually reduce the brain’s ability to produce serotonin.

So maybe the drugs have never actually been helping me, or any of us; maybe all they’ve done is create a population of people who are dependent on psychiatric medication.

And maybe The Verve were right after all, and the drugs don’t really work, they just make you worse.

It bears thinking about, anyway.

I’ve been reading about lobotomies recently (as any good mental health patient does, I suppose), and I came across this gem in Ronald Kessler’s The Sins of the Father describing Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy:

We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards….. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” ….. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like doctors take the same approach – albeit on a much smaller scale – with psychiatric drugs. Increase the dosage until the patient becomes incoherent, or at least docile. Push the pills until they don’t feel anything, because feeling nothing is better than feeling sad or confused or anxious. Don’t offer counselling, or therapy, or life management skills. Just fork over pills pills pills until some kind of effect (or affect – little psychiatric joke there for you) is achieved.

The truth is that we don’t know how psychiatric medication works – we just know that sometimes it does. If you’ve ever taken the pills, you know that it’s a lot of trial and error until you find something that gives you some kind of relief. Which is great and everything for the people who benefit from it, but where does it leave the rest of us? We become guinea pigs of a sort, choking down brightly-coloured pill after pill, praying that something, anything will work. Because, honestly, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative is, of course, that the brain is still a vast unknown. That we are only just barely beginning to grasp its complexity, and we may never fully understand it. That those of us who suffer from mental illness are sailing in uncharted waters, with no stars to guide us. What looks like Cassiopeia or Orion to everyone else is just a jumble of unknown lights to us. And maybe for some, the drugs make the stars realign into their proper order – but for the rest of us, maybe we need to begin creating our own private constellations to ferry us from one point to another.

The thought is terrifying, and I feel unequipped to deal with it. I’m not an astrologer. I just want the same stars as everyone else.

I’m going to keep taking the drugs, at least for now. They feel like a sort of safety net, and I know that I’m not ready to walk the high wire without them. But someday, someday soon, I want to begin to chart my own inner universe. I want a map of my own personal stars, and there isn’t anyone else who can do that for me. If I’m not willing or able to play amateur stellar cartographer, well, then, what’s the point? A lifetime of one brightly-coloured pill after another, each with its own dreary side effects, none of them even remotely effective. I can’t live like that.

But I haven’t lost faith that I can, somehow, find a way to live.

Pills

When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

27 Apr

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

I used to think that I would outgrow it.

I used to think it was just hormones. The same hormones that caused the constellation of angry red pimples on my face and back. The same hormones responsible for the dark, wiry hair between my legs and nearly unnoticeable A-cup-sized swell of my chest. I thought that once the hormones settled down, I would feel better. Normal. But even once I grew used to my new body, even once I hit my twenties and everything was supposed to level out, I still felt it. The same howling misery, the same blind, raging creature whose claws and teeth were sunk somewhere too deep to find, was still there.

I did not outgrow it.

I used to think that I would get better, if by getting better I meant being cured. I used to think that I would find the right combination of drugs and therapy and life choices to make this thing, whatever it was, go away. Or maybe I would just wake up one morning and it would be gone, instantly and inexplicably, the same way it had come. I thought that it might recede like the tide going out, and then, like a bare beach scattered with seaweed and shells, I would go back to being the person I’d been before, only with a few small relics left over from what I’d been through.

I did not get better.

I might never get better.

These past few months have been hard ones. Really hard. And I don’t know how to talk about this, except that I think I should. For the last weeks of March and the first few weeks of April I was suicidal. Suicide was all I could think about. I didn’t want to die, exactly, but I didn’t want to be alive, either, and I couldn’t think of any other option. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I’d injured my hamstring, so I couldn’t really do yoga. I couldn’t string two thoughts together. I couldn’t even follow a conversation. All that I could do was get up in the morning and drag myself to work, and then drag myself home and cry. On weekends Matt would take over childcare, because I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything seemed awful, without any understanding of why it was awful. I felt like I’d come up against a brick wall, and all I could do was scratch at it until my nails broke and my fingers bled. I couldn’t imagine what the future would look like, other than more of the same but worse.

None of these are especially good reasons for being suicidal. But the thing about being suicidal is that you don’t need a good reason. You just are, and you don’t know how to get out of it. What makes it even worse is that you can’t talk about it – suicide is too big, too scary to bring up with your friends and family. And if you mention it to a health professional, well, I mean, forget it. All they want to do is lock you up so that you can’t do it (and rightly so), but they don’t seem to want to talk to you about the whys and hows of the way that you feel. Which means not only is everything awful, but on top of that you don’t have any kind of outlet. Because you don’t want the worry or the pity or the fear of the people around you.

So you just don’t talk about it.

Things are slowly improving now, but I know it will come back. That’s the funny thing – when I’m well, I’m constantly aware of it waiting for me, biding its time, sidling around me like a constant threat, and yet when I’m in the middle of a breakdown I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be ok again. When things are bad, the only thing that exists is the pain I feel. That is my only reality. While some part of me logically knows that it’s a cycle and eventually I have to come out of it, there is just no way to make myself believe that fact. The only fact I can trust in is how terrible everything is in that moment.

I’m learning to live with the fact that I am not going to get better, if by not getting better I mean that I am probably going to live with depression for the rest of my life. This thing, this goddamn soul-sucking thing, is not something that I can cut out, or drown, or poison. I can’t look at a CT scan and point out where it is. I can’t even really know anything about it, except that it lives inside of me and feeds off of me and leaves me aching and exhausted and so sad that sad isn’t even the right word for it. I don’t know what the right word is; maybe there isn’t one.

I’m also learning to live with the fact that I am never going to be the person I was before all of this started. I’m not even sure that it makes sense to want to be her anymore – she’s an absurdly hopeful little thirteen year old girl with no life experience and little understanding of how the world works. She’s the last memory I have of what I was like before this dark creature began nesting inside of me, and for a while I clung to her image as something that I could maybe someday achieve again, but I need to recognize that she’s gone. She’s gone and she is never, ever coming back.

Mental illness destroyed who I was. And I’m at a place now where I’m trying to recognize that that’s not a bad thing. I mean, I don’t think that it’s a good thing either. It’s just a thing. A fact. A truth. My family and I have had to adjust to this reality; we’ve had to mourn the loss of who I was and who I might have been, while at the same time accepting the person who was left behind. It’s a funny sort of thing, a weird feeling that I’ve somehow lived two lives – like a building gutted by a fire whose façade stays the same but whose interior, once restored, is entirely different.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

So I’m learning to live like this. I’m learning to ask for concrete things – help with housework, help with childcare, help with routine daily tasks. I’m getting used to the idea of talking to my employer about my mental health, and negotiating the possibility of time off when I need it. I’m trying to be better about accepting the fact that sometimes I just need to lie in bed and do nothing. I’m trying to be better about accepting all of this, because fighting it tooth and nail has gotten me nowhere.

I’m trying to tell myself that I am not weak. I am strong, and I will get stronger. The person that I was might be gone, but this version of me, the one that exists now, is just as good as she was – mentally ill, yes, but kind, compassionate, smart, funny, and with so many people who care deeply for her. She, too, is worthy of love.

If you are depressed, experiencing suicidal thoughts or otherwise need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255

For international readers, here’s a database of crisis centres listed by continent

1926769_10154076149725215_518988513332983215_n