Saturday, July 13, 2013

Andrew & Spencer: A Dialogue on Mental Health, part 1

 My friend Andrew Wood and I both have a mental health diagnosis. We have been talking back and forth about our illnesses--Bipolar in my case, Depression in his--over the past week or so, and decided to make our conversation public. We want to raise awareness of what it means--and doesn't mean--to have a mental illness, and to give strength to others who may benefit from reading about two guys who are going through the same thing that so many folks in this country are going through, often privately. It is recorded that 1 in 4 people in the United States have some kind of mental health issue, yet the stigma surrounding mental illness is deep and wide. Even people suffering from mental illness can internalize the stigmas that they are unable to be successful, or hold healthy relationships, or live a meaningful life, or just 'keep it together'. These stigmas are false. Andrew and I hope to contribute to tearing them down. This will be at least a two-parter.

Spencer: I remember my last break down. I could feel the gears grinding against one another in my soul. It was familiar territory; I had been cycling heavily for months, and was acutely aware of the fact that this break down might be the last one I could handle. Sobbing, I called my wife to let her know I was certain something was going to have to change: I was going to have to go on medication. I had avoided this conclusion for months, but I was cracking. I could see the crash coming; my job, my family, and my sanity were on the line. My wife said she understood, and I made an appointment with my doctor. Medicated or otherwise, life can feel like 'one damn thing after another'; a constant barrage of events, an endlessly moving train without a clear destination. No respite anywhere in sight. With a mood disorder, this effect can be heightened, and goddammit, it's overwhelming. I knew I would need medication, and knowing medication works best when paired with talk therapy, I also found a therapist.

Andrew: I know the feeling all too well. For me these "down" times would last for months. They were months that I felt completely fatigued all day, when I could barely drag myself out of bed at three in the afternoon, let alone at 8am when I was supposed to be up for class. And there was a fogginess about everything: that feeling you have when you first wake up in the morning, the haziness of your brain struggling to switch gears from dreaming to being alert, except that this was how I felt all day. Add in a dose of negative and suicidal thoughts that are playing in loops like film reels in my head and you had the recipe for major depression. Well, medically my case is called minor depression disorder, but let me tell you there was nothing minor about it. My brain going on the fritz disrupted everything I thought I was, and when my family and friends took notice I knew I had to do something about it. At the urging of my parents, and with their help, I made an appointment to see the doctor.

Spencer: The suicidal thoughts are hard to explain to someone who has never been depressed. Intrusive thoughts in general are overwhelming. It's like mental force-feeding. No matter what the problem is, your mind offers 'kill yourself' as an answer. Then, in the deeper depressions, you can get deep down into the mechanics of how, when, and where to kill yourself, losing sight of the possibility of not killing yourself altogether. People wonder why a person would consider suicide, but that implies some kind of choice. The thoughts are forced on us. Our brain is betraying us. Other intrusive thoughts are the same: paranoia, fears of betrayal, perceiving violence where there is none. When I was still religious I would imagine I was receiving messages from God through subtle means like energy fields I thought I could perceive hovering around people. I would think I felt the presence of demons, too. Now I fixate on other things, but I know I have bipolar disorder, so it's easier to manage.

Andrew: I think you've really nailed what it "feels" like to be suicidal. Thoughts of suicide are definitely that unwelcome guest who initiates the same conversation over and over again. And for some reason, even though he's repetitive, he always gets your attention. It was a relief when I started taking medication, and my guest was kicked out of the house. It's exhausting to have to try not to listen to him drone on day in and day out. I think that's why I've never really felt that upset that I'll probably have to take pills the rest of my life. It levels me out, makes it possible to get out of bed, and most importantly it gets "those thoughts" out of my head.
I'm always wary to talk about having felt suicidal though. There's usually not many people I share that with. There's a lot of social stigma attached to even admitting that you've felt like killing yourself. I've found that even mentioning it really freaks the hell out of my close family and friends... which I guess is understandable. But I think if that stigma wasn't there people would be more likely to be open about how they're feeling, and to seek the help they need in order to overcome the depression that's led them to that point.


Bridget McKinney said...

The thing that I wish was easier to explain to people about suicidal thoughts is that, for me at least, it's not necessarily about actually wanting to or thinking that I might kill myself. A lot of times it's just feelings. Sometimes it's thinking that suicide might actually be a rational option to consider. But mostly, just feelings.

And I think that what I have wanted most during those times in my life that I felt that way wasn't someone to tell me things were going to get better or that I had so much to live for or whatever. In fact, I've always hated that stuff. When I'm feeling that negatively, mostly what I want is for someone to just listen and validate my feelings. Don't tell me it's not that bad. Tell me that you understand why I feel that way.

The thing that has kept me going for a very long time is my atheism. Knowing that this life is all there is makes me unwilling to give up on it no matter how bad I feel about it. Because if I off myself, I won't ever get to find out if things get better or not. I guess it's sort of a "where there's life there's hope" philosophy, although it never feels that optimistic to me.

I think that it's hard, especially for religious people, to understand that philosophy and how, really, fundamental that is to my continued existence. It really does make it so that I don't need someone to convince me not to kill myself.

I just need people to understand why I feel so lousy sometimes. Or at least to accept that sometimes I just feel lousy. For weeks or months at a time. Unrelentingly. And that's, you know, something I deal with just for existing.

Bridget McKinney said...

I guess I just mean that I wish more people would learn when to just say, "Man, that sucks," instead of trying to make me feel better with Jesus and platitudes.

Spencer Troxell said...

I agree with you Bridget. I get more sustenance from reading John Berryman or listening to Nine Inch Nails when I am depressed than any platitude you can throw at me. I guess when I am suffering, what I need most is someone who understands my suffering from the inside out. Everything else seems hollow.

Bridget McKinney said...

So therapy/medication works for you? I haven't had insurance for the last few years, and before that I didn't like the idea, but lately I've been wondering if I should try and find some cheap way of getting some treatment so I can function a little better. Which, I guess is another crappy thing about mood disorders. When you feel okay, it doesn't seem necessary to get treatment. When you're going through bad times, it can be hard to organize one's life enough to do it. It honestly feels overwhelming to even try and figure stuff out sometimes.

Spencer Troxell said...

I know what you mean. I give therapy a B+ and medication a C. I'm honestly going through a rough patch with the mood stabilizer right now. Finding the right meds and dose seems to be a definite process. I'm better with meds though.