The Idiorhythmic River

Over the last couple of years I’ve tried to work with my depression instead of against it.  To me this means going with the flow: working on those tasks that I feel up to, and not forcing myself to slog through tasks.  Do this goes against my upbringing.  It goes against some of the underlying belief in hard work that is so prevalent in American society.

We “tough it out” and “work through the pain.”  We never take sick days.  We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and soldier on.  We put in 110% and go big or go home.  We fake it till we make it.  What we never, ever do is stop to question who is the taskmaster that set this schedule, let alone why we should follow it.

Hard work, after all, is it’s own reward.

This last week I’ve been plagued with insomnia … again.  I can’t fall asleep until four or five or six in the morning.  And then, when I do, I sleep away half the day.  If it weren’t for the fact that Stephan is at home and responsible for the kids in the morning, the house would be miserable.

Part of this is a physical cycle: sleep away the day and of course I won’t be able to sleep at night.  Part of it is my depression: meds help, but the American Horror Show: White House that is playing out is making it worse.

I’ve tried to work with this: breaking down work into simple tasks and tackling them as I feel able.  I spent Monday baking and prepping meals.  Tuesday was running errands.  Yesterday I started seeds for the garden, and registered for some events later this year.  Very little time was spent in the workshop.  And it’s that which Jerk Brain latches onto.  I have deadlines!  I am not depressed, I’m lazy!  Going with the flow is just an excuse for not having dedication and follow through!

And, despite having years of practice dealing with Jerk Brain, it can still be hard to ignore.  Especially when one or two bad days drags out into four or five.  I begin to second-guess this plan of giving myself permission to do work that isn’t tied to a paycheck.  I start to look at my output, at my hours worked, and scattered as they are across the days and week it is hard not to see them as inferior to a solid forty hour work week.  When I have to budget and scrimp and save, when I look at my dwindling bank account, it is hard not to believe Jerk Brain when it insists that I am a failure.

One of my weapons against all this is Stephan.  I tell him that I feel like I am being a bad partner and mom.  That I worry I am not contributing enough to our family’s stability.  I tell him that I’m worried my insomnia is responsible for his own sleeplessness.

He responds that I am doing fine.  He says Jerk Brain is an asshole liar.  He promises that if he had an issue with anything he would say so.  And he cracks jokes to make me smile and laugh.  He gives me permission to keep going with the flow, not because he thinks I need it, but because he knows I want it as a shield against my doubts.  I’m hoping that one day I won’t have to rely on him so much.  I am also okay with the knowledge that that day may never come.

More than that I will try to take it a day at a time.  Despite the insomnia and sleeping in today I managed to tidy up the house, help Benjamin with his homework, and take some measurements for projects.  And I wrote this post.  Little tasks.  Little check marks on the to do list.  And one by one I will get things done.

Down in the Hole

Almost three years ago I started to realize that I wasn’t okay.  Stephan was the first to notice it and suggest that I needed help.  That kicked off a period of introspection on my part where I started to recognize what I was going through and drawing parallels to a period in my life, almost twenty years earlier, where I had dealt with the same issues.  At that time I ended up trying to kill myself, dropped out of college and moved 2,000 miles from my home state of Wyoming to start over in Chicago.

Even though I recognized the signs and had a supportive husband, I still could have ended up in a very bad place.  We didn’t have health insurance at that point so I couldn’t get professional help.  In fact it would take about eight months after deciding I needed help before I could see someone.  And when everyday you alternate between feeling like you are being buried alive or that your head is going to explode from all the anxiety, it’s hard to function, let alone jump through all the hoops of finding the help you need.

Much like with my move to Chicago in 1996, I started cataloging my struggles with depression and anxiety out of desperation.  I made posts to my Facebook page about what I was dealing with, what it felt like, what I was going through to find help.  I needed to express what was going on in a place that was safe for me.  And even though I have a tightly locked down Facebook page, with a highly curated friends’ list, I still spent a lot of time agonizing over whether or not to post.

What helped was another friend posting first about going to therapy and then later about taking medication.  It was just two little posts, snuggled in between stuff about politics and books and life.  But it made a huge difference.  Here was someone I looked up to, someone who, to my eyes, had their shit together.  And they were seeing a therapist for anxiety.  They were taking medication for their mental health.  Holy shit!  Maybe I wasn’t the only one!

I come from Wyoming, a state that has a high suicide rate for its population size, and where the most distinct cause of death in the state is the flu.  It is a place where you suck it up and work through the pain, no matter what.  It’s no wonder that we don’t talk about things as uncomfortable as mental health.  My own mother, when I had brought up depression and therapy in the past, cautioned that I had to be careful because therapists would “just want to blame all your problems on your parents.”  The concern with image trumps any pain or suffering you are feeling.  Add to that the belief that mental illness is more about personal failings and irresponsibility than an actual medical condition and you can see why it’s hard to talk openly about depression and anxiety, let alone other mental health issues.

Posting, first only about the arduous process of finding doctors that took my health insurance, but later on my medications and my reactions, had an effect that I had expected.  I started getting private messages from people who I had always seen as, again, having their shit together: people who were working, paying their bills, engaging in life.  These people told me about the medications they were on.  They told me what worked or didn’t work for them.  They wrote to me with support and encouragement.  It was so damned important for me, because I got to see that it wasn’t abnormal to take medication, that there was still life beyond depression.

As I kept writing, people started commenting openly.  Again, all these friends who I thought of as awesome, put together adults, were sharing their own struggles and stories.

And something else happened.  Friends started telling me about how my posts helped them with their own mental health issues.  They recognized their symptoms in my writings.  They went and sought help because they read about me taking medication.  They were feeling better, more hopeful about their own lives because they saw someone else going through the same things.

That realization suddenly made it so much easier to write the posts about what I was feeling.  To mention when I felt I was backsliding, or my worries that my medication isn’t helping.  I was doing the same thing I have been doing when I post about whether or not I am making money in this whole living a creative life endeavor: I am standing in the dark, holding up a light for those who might be otherwise lost.  And that’s a kind of healing as well.

 

 

Putting a Face to the Jerk Brain

As long as I can remember, Jerk Brain has been with me.  My earliest memory of it was in kindergarten where it pointed out how my coloring wasn’t as good as the other kids around me.  This voice, coming as it did from inside at all hours of the day and night, I just took as being part of me.  If I ever thought about it, I figured it was my very own demon Jiminy Cricket.  A critical voice telling me like it is; keeping me honest and on task by reminding e that I had to always be on guard against my natural inclination to be lazy and a waste.

It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I have become able to treat the Jerk Brain as an entity separate from my person.  Therapy helped with that when one therapist asked me to give it a name.  My first instinct was go with “Adversary” or “Nemesis”.  But I rejected those ideas as granting that critical, inner voice too much stature.  I settled on Jerk Brain as the most honest label.

Giving it a name helped, but only so much.  The voice is still there, quick to criticize and blame.  I’ve come across other suggestions on how to diminish or weaken Jerk Brain’s prominence in my thought processes.  There are techniques of changing the tone of Jerk Brain’s voice, making it sound like Mickey Mouse, or turning down the volume like on a stereo.  Another suggestion was to minimize it like an annoying pop-up window.

None of those solutions worked for me.  Having lived all those years with it, I have a hard time dismissing it.  When I have tried, it fights back, accusing me of ignoring it not because it doesn’t have my best interests at heart, but because I just don’t like what I am hearing.   I engage with that line of thought, get dragged into a debate on why I should be able to ignore Jerk Brain.  It is exhausting to find my mind a hostile place where i have to constantly justify my existence.

Which brings me to the realization I had a few weeks ago.  I needed a way to undermine Jerk Brain, to cut it off at the knees before I got treated to yet another chorus of “You’re not really depressed, you’re just lazy and here’s the proof.”   And I thought to myself: if my Jerk Brain was a person I was actually living with, I would have moved out long ago.  On the heels of that thought came the image of someone in my life who has been thoroughly unpleasant to me the entire time I have known them. This is a person who has said truly hateful things to my face and when called out on their unkindness responded with “But it’s true!”

In other words, this person is the Jerk Brain personified.  More importantly, though, I know nothing they have said to me is true. I have no problem ignoring their words because I know they are calculated to hurt me.    It was that realization that has changed how I interact with Jerk Brain.

For the past couple of weeks I have been able to tell Jerk Brain, “I didn’t ask for your opinion.”  And because I can say it with confidence, it works.  Jerk Brain, in the guise of this person, shuts up.  It has been one of the most satisfactory feelings I have had in a good long while.  I can picture Jerk Brain’s sour, puckered mouth, the hunched shoulders and crossed arms, just as I would see in the real life person who has been so nasty to me.  I don’t even feel the twinge of guilt that would otherwise follow the satisfaction of telling someone off.

I don’t know if this is a permanent solution.  Jerk Brain is a tricky creature, capable of evolving it’s tactics in response to my defenses.  For now, I’ll take whatever respite I can get from my jerk of a brain.