Coping, Healing, and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Something very powerful happened to me on Thursday. It was not causally related to the post I made on Wednesday. I received a diagnosis. This is an important step in my healing for two reasons: it gives me hope, and it gives me direction.

It is awfully hard to move forward without either of those.

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For the past few months, I have not been moving forward. I didn’t even know what direction forward was. I had simply been finding things that caused me anxiety, and then placing them as far away from me as I could. I considered myself fortunate to have no bosses or clients. I considered myself prudent to take time away from friends and family. I wore headphones to walk my dog, often without music playing, so I wouldn’t have to talk to strangers.

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My coping methods are fairly simple. I give my brain something simple to spin its wheels on, like poker or chess or Magic or any number of other games with several decisions per minute that I am good at figuring out. Hopefully by the time I am out of decisions to focus my brain on, it is time to sleep.

Force-feeding my brain “problems” keeps it from focusing on problems. It’s a survival mechanism I developed because sometimes things are complicated and overwhelming and digging deeper gives me more pain and no more clarity.

On Thursday, I got more clarity.

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The diagnosis I received was that I suffer from Panic Disorder. I’m going to stay away from specific details of what I have and have not experienced from the list in that article, in part because I am still sorting through all of it myself.

The doctor I am seeing is a province-wide expert on CBT, which, according to both her and the article, is very effective at treating this kind of disorder. The treatment is, as far as I understand it and as non-technically as possible, exposure. I am supposed to stimulate feelings of anxiety, in small doses, and gradually build up my tolerance to them while reducing my fear of them. It is something like an inoculation for my brain: giving it small doses of something harmful so it learns how to process it properly, and builds up immunity.

It is also, you may have noticed, the exact opposite of what I’ve been doing.

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My coping behaviors made sense to me. They made me feel safe and secure and comfortable at a time when I was feeling the opposite of all of those with alarming regularity. I didn’t know what to do to stop feeling anxious in response to things, so I did the next-best thing: I stopped giving myself anxious stimuli.

The problem with that is that it is self-reinforcing. If I avoid the things that cause me anxiety, I am training my brain to believe that those are important things to avoid, that they are dangerous and harmful. I am forcefully constricting my life in order to avoid stress, instead of managing my disorder in order to control my life.

And I had no hope for things to ever get better. I spent a lot of my time without hope, just going through the motions, waiting for something to change but with no expectation that it ever would. I was fully prepared to construct my life to be as low-stimulus as possible. I was ready to retire from live poker. I looked into hermitages I could occupy with good internet, so that I could feed myself and my dog, buried, hiding from the world.

I was actively engaging in self-destructive behaviours, and fully prepared to continue doing so for the rest of my life, because I didn’t know they were self-destructive, and I didn’t know how to identify beneficial ones.

Then I consulted a doctor.

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Doctors are experts of the body and mind. They are technicians. They understand the process of healing better than we do, even if we understand our struggles better than they do. That is why they (should) listen carefully before making a diagnosis. It took me at least eight sessions, spread over two and a half months, to get to this point. But I have hope, now. I have a direction. I have something to work on that gives my life and my decisions purpose again.

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Everyone takes their computer problems and their car problems and their legal problems to someone who is better versed in the nature of computers, and cars, and the law. They explain what symptoms there are, and let someone who spends all their time with the malfunctioning apparatus try to spot patterns that point to a cause, one which probably has a solution that they have worked through before. Psychologists are that, but for your brain. You might know your mind best, but you are very likely not the person best suited to understand how to correct its malfunctions.

Consult your doctor.

Projecting, Understanding, and Sympathy, not Empathy: Clarifications and Addenda

I was rushing out the door when I finished my last post. I wanted to say something. So I did. But I left out important parts, most notably my conclusion, which is so obvious to me that I don’t even have to write it out to understand that it follows from what I said. Thankfully for almost everyone reading this, you are not inside my brain, so I’m going to go ahead and make a couple of addenda and clarifications.

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One thing I want to clarify is that I am very grateful for all the people in my life who care enough to try to find ways to help me. Just knowing that you care gets me through some of my hardest times.

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The conclusion I reached in my head, but not in the post, was not “Don’t bother trying to help me, because you don’t understand what I’m going through and wah wah wah woe is me…” The conclusion was “Trying to solve my problems with things that make you feel good temporarily is a bit like me trying to make you feel good temporarily with prescription anti-depressants.” It’s an attempt to apply pretty decent tools to problems they were not designed for based on evidence that isn’t relevant. It misunderstands my problem as a lack of enjoyable things or things to bring me happiness in my life, which it isn’t. The problem is that I have plenty of those things, and they aren’t working.

I don’t need recreational drugs or sex or literature or art or sociability to take my mind off of how I’m feeling. I need to stop feeling this way. I don’t need something to give me a breath of fresh air. I need the ice to break.

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Part of the reason these conversations are so frustrating is because they come from such a genuinely compassionate place and are so utterly futile. I want to be patient and I want to listen and I hope someone has some spark or insight for me that helps me approach my issues with a new-found understanding. So I sit and I listen to people talk about great experience they’ve had or things that have made their life more fulfilling or things that they really savor and enjoy, and that they want me to try too, because they really want me to be able to share the feeling that it gives them.

And after I’m done listening, I go back to thinking about how nice it would be to enjoy the taste of food again, or walk my dog through the woods without every single noise in the underbrush making me visualize very clearly him being attacked and dragged away by coyotes, or get out of bed before 6 pm, or have a functional relationship without losing control of my motor functions every time there is or could possibly be a conflict.

Except now I am jealous, because I have just heard someone talk about how much joy and freedom and relaxation they get from something, and the best thing I have these days is looking forward to maybe being able to feel joy and freedom and relaxation again, or distracting myself for a while from noticing that I am not feeling those things by making my brain work hard.

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Also, I counted the pits, and I in fact had ten olives.

Projecting, Understanding, and Sympathy, not Empathy

I originally tried to write this post, and a couple of others, at the beginning of July. I had had a bad few weeks. I tried a few times to finish those posts, but I inevitably gave up.

I feel like giving up a lot these days.

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The people around me have tried to be supportive during my bad few weeks. They’ve pulled me outside of my wallowing. They’ve made suggestions.

They are good people. They are well-intentioned.

I have not felt better.

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I am going to be reiterating a bunch of ideas that are said clearly and simply here. I am going to add my own voice to them, and my own experience, and my own emotion. If those are things that have value for you, then I am glad I can provide you with them. If you are simply here looking for help understanding, and follow the link and ignore me, you won’t be missing much.

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In my very first blog post, I shared my thoughts on the insensibility of mental illness.

It is a perfectly natural compulsion to try to make sense of things, and to want things to make sense. The world is cleaner and more navigable and less intimidating that way. Unfortunately, it is also less true. Life can be brutal and unfair and unclear, and to ignore the times when it is, or pretend that it isn’t, and to make sensible, ordered, rational, causal links out of smoke is to lie to ourselves about how much we understand and how much we are in control.

I am not sure those lies do more harm than good.

I am sure that they cause people to see the devil’s face in the smoke.

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During the past few weeks, many people have made suggestions to me as to how to improve my mental health. Some of them also suffer their own mental health issues. Some of them have recommended I do the things that work for them. This is done in the earnest hope that what has worked for them will work for me. They are trying to help me.

Some of the recommendations I have received include recreational drugs, being social, jumping headlong into new experiences, music festivals (with recreational drugs), being anti-social, a quiet retreat, music, literature, junk food, healthy food, and doctor-supervised rehabilitation on a farm in Connecticut.

In every case except the farm in Connecticut, these were things that the suggester sought to alter their own mental state when necessary.

My brain is not their brain.

No two people are alike. Even people that suffer from conditions similar to mine can’t predict how my brain will react to stimuli. Medical professionals use mostly an educated guess and check model.

The assumption that the things that you want are the things that I want, or the things that have helped you will help me, does me no favours. The good intentions are very much appreciated, but I am tired of having people tell me what’s wrong with me and what’s good for me. We’re all just shooting in the dark.

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I broke up with my now ex-girlfriend a few weeks ago. I did this because I am not well, and because I did not conceive of a way I could get well while maintaining the relationship. I had the love of a good woman, and I didn’t think I could keep it and my health, and I chose to chase my health.

I haven’t gotten better. I guess I was always going to get worse before it got better. Chalk up another bad few weeks.

Like a prisoner keeping time on his cell wall.

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I’m at my parent’s house while I look for a new place to live. I had been sharing an apartment with my ex. I agreed to be the one to move because I felt like I was the one at fault.

Intellectually, rationally, I think that no one was at fault. I think that the relationship was just one of the things crushed slowly by the weight I’m carrying around. That doesn’t change how I feel, which is like a failure to her and to myself.

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Some days it’s a struggle to get out of bed. Some days I lose. I really thought today was going to be one of those days. It’s a small miracle that I was able to water my dad’s garden and eat seven or eight olives and a handful of almonds.

I’m back in bed now. I still haven’t walked my dog.

I feel like a failure to him, too.

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I’ve had a few honest-to-goodness good days, too. I really have.  The good days, or good hours, feel like a breath of fresh air.

The rest of it, what seems to be my default setting, feels like being trapped under the ice.

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I’m not here to complain, I’m not here for pity, I’m not hear to air my dirty laundry. I wrote a whole paragraph about reactions to my break-up from people in my life, and then cut it, because I didn’t think it would help anyone who read it.  I am trying to provide an honest and unfiltered account of my experiences with mental illness: my feelings, my decisions, my reactions, my hopes, my fears, my troubles. I am trying to do that in the hopes that other people will find it easier to talk about or understand.

I am a child, lost in the wilderness, searching for a way home. I hope that the details of my journey can help some people avoid the pitfalls I fall into or understand the pitfalls someone they care about must tread lightly around. I’m not an expert, I’m not doing everything right, and I’m certainly not special.

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I want to end on a positive note. I tried to two paragraphs ago, but it sort of got away from me, and then I spent the next paragraph apologizing to nobody in particular about my blog, because it is my natural state to feel self-conscious about my actions. So I’m going to let someone else do it.

Several people linked me recently to this speech. I’m not going to parcel out the pieces I agree and disagree with, or try to add my own perspective to it. It is a very good, heartfelt speech that is very clearly difficult for him to give, but he does it anyways, because he recognizes the importance of discussing this openly, and the affect it can have on others struggling with their own mental health. I’ll let it stand on it’s own.