A Year in My Head

I was looking through my memories on Facebook and found this from a year ago (two weeks after losing my house in a fire):

“…Everyone, to include my psychiatrist, has remarked on how well I’m doing. How together I have things. How resilient I’m being. Here’s what’s going on inside: When things are apocalyptic (my house is gone, the plague is making a resurgence, Trump has largely dismantled our government) the only solace I have is routine. I make lists. I check things off my list. I pick one task at a time, and do the thing. I take meetings where I focus on the task at hand, because that keeps me from dwelling on things that are out of my control – when we’ll be able to even go and look through the wreckage, what might be left, etc. If I’m not working, that’s all I have – thinking about my nonexistent house.

I am overstimulated to the point of collapse. Everyone eats too loudly. Too much light in my mother’s spare bedroom. The dining room table is too high (why does my tiny little mother have a bar-height dining table??). There isn’t anyplace I can sit comfortably and work. Those things are hard, but moaning about it won’t change them – they are my reality for the next few months. I’m hoping that by then, we’ll have worked out a lot of the kinks and I can feel productive….”

That was the day my therapist basically said to me “of course you’re on the spectrum – what did you think?” For a year now, I have been evaluating things in a very different light. At the time I wrote that, I felt like a raw nerve. When I get stressed, life looks like a fight on the old Batman tv show.

Everything is too bright, too loud, too fast. When I’m stressed, I feel everything in my skin in a way I’ve never tried to describe, but I always think of it as being “negatively charged.” Not only do I not want anything to touch my skin because it’s so hypersensitive that any touch is painful, but even sounds, bright lights, and unpleasant smells create a physical sensation that, because I cannot properly express exactly what’s wrong, makes me go directly to crying. It’s like being an infant in an uncomfortable diaper – I am inconsolable, but unable to communicate the source of my distress.

Six weeks after losing my house, my husband and I moved into a rental about 30 minutes from our old house. It’s on a quiet street in a wealthy suburb, so the houses are on large lots and everything in our neighborhood is quiet and tidy.

And yet, the feeling of discomfort persists. Every time I leave the house, it’s like I can physically feel the neighbors’ eyes on me, and in my mind, they’re judging me for going out so often. And every time, I have to say to myself “I used to have a [whatever I’m going out for], and I need it!” As though I need their approval to buy a new ladle or laundry basket or lamp. I feel defensive, even though in reality, our neighbors have been nothing but wonderful to us.

This is my constant battle: I don’t want to let anyone down. Ever. In any way. Even when they expect nothing from me. I also am constantly on the edge of a complete breakdown.

I keep that breakdown at bay with lists, spreadsheets, and as much routine as I’m capable of creating (another by-product of my brain – I am unable to create habits of any kind). But every interaction with another person puts a little wobble in the balance I’m trying to create. What did they mean by that? Does that wave mean they want me to talk to them, or can I keep walking? How good of an excuse do I need to get out of going to their party/taking their phone call/helping them with their project?

I am often told that I have everything together, that I am someone that people look up to for my ability to organize. I understand that it is always meant as a compliment, but each bit of praise for my ability to keep myself from exploding in a cloud of anger and despair is another expectation I have to meet. To lose my shit, to fail, to be unable to do something would be to let someone down, and that’s the thing I fear more than anything.

This is what it looks like in my head – an immense mountain made of individual grains of fear, anxiety, depression, and confusion being separated into manageable piles with a pair of tweezers.

Was, Is, Shall Ever Be

There’s a part of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that rings very true for anyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness. Jonathan Strange has just drunk a tincture intended to make him insane, and wonders if he’ll know when it has taken effect.

After a few minutes he looked out of the window and into the Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo. People were walking up and down. The backs of their heads were hollowed out; their faces were nothing but thin masks at the front. Within each hollow a candle was burning. This was so plain to him now, that he wondered he had never noticed it before. 

Mental illness mocks time, making it impossible to remember what things were like before, or understand how to make things different in the future. Mental illness can feel like epiphany – like you’re only just figuring out the truth. It’s worse when it feels like a truth that everyone else has known all along. “Why didn’t I notice this before? How could I have missed this?”

I’m at the beginning of another depressive episode, and I can tell, not because I’m sad, but because I just don’t care about anything. But the worst part is that I can’t remember why certain things should be important, or what it felt like when they were important. And yet, I know that’s a bad sign. One of those things I’m supposed to look out for. The kind of thinking that, unaddressed, could lead to much, much worse down the road.

My newest doctor asked me why, with my history of illness, I didn’t get help long before. The question surprised me, because it seems so obvious. When you’re depressed, you can barely summon the energy to get out of bed, shower and get dressed – how would you possibly gather the strength to research a doctor, make an appointment and then go? And when you’re not depressed…well, there’s nothing to cure, is there?

Time will tell how this new doctor chooses to tackle the challenges that my last doctor wasn’t exactly up to. Funny, it’s hard to remember how things were when I was seeing that other doctor.

Mental Hell

If you’ve ever seen the internet, you know that there are a lot of people who like to talk about mental illness. I do not like to talk about mental illness. I don’t feel qualified, I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t feel it appropriate. My own experiences of mental health are just that – my own. I can’t imagine why anyone aside from my shrink would want to hear about them, and he’s being paid to listen.

One thing that comes with working with a mental health professional that I can speak to, however, is medication. There is a clinical word for how I react to many psychoactive medications: paradoxical. It means that if I’m given a medication that energizes most people and makes them happy, it will put me to sleep and make me bitchy. Medications that soothe and calm make me jittery and paranoid. It makes prescribing for my particular problems fraught with peril. There’s no predicting how a given medication will work.

All this would just be an interesting thought experiment, if it weren’t for the fact that I have a life, and sometimes, I have to interact with other people who don’t like me.

No!” I hear you gasp. “How could anyone not like you?” And indeed, I share your incredulity. But most of these people are in some way involved with my children. They are teachers or child care providers who have, in my estimation, let my child down. And if there’s one thing that I cannot forgive and for which I will snap your neck like a damp pretzel, it’s letting my child down. That doesn’t mean I need people to be nice to my kid all the time. That doesn’t mean I need you to coddle and baby my girls. Some of my very favorite teachers have been the kind who pile on the homework and give horrendous tests and have improbable expectations. Those teachers have given my girls the chance to show themselves what they’re made of, and my girls know that they are extraordinary.

The ones who don’t like me are the ones who have screwed up. Who have let my children, and therefore me, down. How do you handle someone who has put your child in an emotionally traumatic situation and who refuses to take responsibility for it? Dealing with school problems is emotionally and logistically complicated because this is not just the place where you child gets an education, it’s also most parents’ primary means of daycare for most of the year. Dealing with a school issue means dealing with a whole supply chain of other issues.

Add Is this me, or is this the meds talking? to “my child is under threat, my routine has been disrupted, I’ve now got a host of problems to solve” and it makes me second-guess nearly every decision I make.  Because once I pick up the phone and chew someone out, I can’t very well call them next week and say “Remember when I said I was going to tear off your arm and beat you over the head with the wet end? I’m so sorry, I was over-medicated. Well, not really over-medicated, actually I was…are you still there?….”

My kid was assaulted in school on Monday. Her teacher told me on the phone “she brings all kinds of negative attention on herself.” I told him that violence was unacceptable, and he said he would handle it. He “handled it” by telling her “not to insert [herself] in other kids’ games.” The two boys who knocked her down have received no consequences. During all of this, I’m undergoing a med change. I swear, if I get through this without being arrested, it will be a miracle. A fucking miracle.

P.S. A lot of people are really protective of their mental illness. They get all crunchy if other people talk insensitively about mental illness or use the word “crazy” or whatever. I would like to remind others that words have whatever power you give them. If you let other people’s use of words bother you, you’re giving them amazing power over you. Don’t give away your power. (Letting them beat you up…that’s a different thing altogether…)