A beautiful mind, a jerk brain

“Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

Stephen Fry

Late in my teenage years, I started experiencing symptoms associated with Major Depressive Disorder, also known as clinical depression. I was diagnosed officially in college and formally introduced to the elaborate, mysterious, and frustrating relationship between the two rival factions in my head: my brain and my mind.

My mind knows that, no matter how bleak it all may seem at the time, I am not alone and things will get better. Its counterpart, my brain, is under no such pretenses. My brain spins like a hard drive, refusing to wind down, constantly grinding away. My brain betrays my mind, sapping my energy. Replacing passion with nothingness, leaving a state of numbness and paralysis. When my brain wins, I cannot get out of bed. My entire body feels heavy and I cannot muster the strength to break free of the invisible force surrounding me. Exhaustion, even after 12 hours of sleep, envelopes me.

I have been very lucky over the last twenty years in that, with a combination of therapy, medication, and personal lifestyle choices, I have remained highly functional. I am truly fortunate to have the ability to access quality mental health care and to have my symptoms taken seriously. For many people, the same is not true.

In September 2018, seemingly overnight, I entered a major depressive episode. Having been in this position before, I knew what I needed to do—see my doctor and find my way back to an even keel. The answer, at the time, was to increase my medication. For a few weeks, it worked. But, at the end of October, I found myself again unable to get out of bed. Adding another medication, I appeared to come out of it. Unfortunately, that too was temporary. My cycle of decline and slight rebound continued until, in June, a medication mixup sent me into a tailspin. Over the course of this past summer, I clawed my way back, but even this period of calm was short lived. My brain kept sliding back four steps for every one step gained.

The side effects of my significantly increased medication fully manifested themselves and couldn’t be hidden, try as I might. A dear colleague, seeing my shaking hands, was so concerned that she lovingly reached out to ask if I had seen a neurologist for my tremors. Other side effects were easier to conceal, but troubled me far more. The dense fog surrounding my mind kept even my most commonly used words and phrases just out of reach and hid my short-term memories, just far enough away that I couldn’t grasp them. I felt my mind, the place where I find joy and fulfillment in thought and reflection, slipping away. In early November, I had a moment of extreme clarity where I felt myself, literally, losing my mind. My brain told me that I was trapped and would never be able to escape. I started to think, very systematically and pragmatically, about how I would end my life, just to make it stop. One afternoon, about two weeks before Thanksgiving, I took out a notepad and started writing my own obituary. I’m struck by how ludicrous it all seems to me now, but it wasn’t then.

In that moment, something clicked and my mind pulled me back from the brink. I called my husband and asked him to come home. He knew I was feeling down, but I had kept the extent of my depressive episode from him, just like I’d kept it from everyone else. In our current work culture, if I’m not in the office, people might notice they haven’t seen me around lately but, thanks to technology, they generally aren’t concerned about it as long as emails and calls get returned, and deliverables show up.

This moment wasn’t about realizing that I need help—twenty years of living with depression has taught me that—but rather that I needed more help. Together, my doctor and I agreed that I must address whatever is at the center of my brain’s inability to function in its current environment.

So, I’m taking a leave of absence from my job, as a consultant in professional services, to focus on my mental health. Experience tells me to look for improvement, not a cure. Managing my own expectations is important, because it helps to keep the feelings of being fatally flawed or irrevocably broken at bay. My brain wants to convince me that I’m a failure, because I have depression. Societal pressures and stereotypes around mental health do not help either.

Even as I write this piece, I’m apprehensive about the reaction of others. This feeling reinforces for me why I spent so much time minimizing and hiding, gaslighting myself, my brain convincing my mind that it’s my imagination, that everything is fine. The talk track in my brain goes something like this, “If I just keep going, things will get better. My depression is a character flaw and, if I just tried harder or was somehow enough, this wouldn’t be happening.” My brain lies. My brain is a jerk.

What am I doing during this time away from my regular job? I’m seeing my doctor, reengaging in talk therapy, living healthfully, and doing a lot of reading, writing, and reflecting. An academic paper that I wrote, my first, was accepted for presentation at a conference next month and I’m going to go give it. I’ll be spending time reconnecting with my husband, my children, and my friends and family. My new job is a tough one; I’m working on myself. As Ani DiFranco so eloquently put it, “Self preservation is a full-time occupation.”

I could go on hiding, but I am choosing not to. Acknowledging the stigma associated with mental health challenges, I am telling my story in the hope that perhaps someone will read this essay and feel that they too can ask for more help. I am telling my story so that others can learn how to compassionately reach out with kindness and respect. I am telling my story so that those who are afraid to speak up because they don’t know what to say, can learn the words. I am telling my story to call attention to the fact that I am privileged to have the care and support I need to get well, but many, many more don’t, and we have to fix that. Most of all, I’m telling my story for me. Telling my story reinforces that I am not alone and that things will get better.

For the next little while, I’m going to use this blog as a journal of my experience. I’ll share whatever is going on with me periodically. The topics will vary. If you would like to come along, please feel free to subscribe or just check back when the mood strikes.

I’m including a Contact page, as well as opening up the posts to comments. My level of responsiveness will be a factor of how I am feeling and my capacity to do emotional labor at that time. I will read everything, although I may not answer. If you feel moved to reach out or comment, I welcome your engagement. I ask that you please not offer medical advice, invalidate my lived experiences, or relitigate my personal medical choices. I recognize that what has (or has not) worked for me may (or may not) work for you or anyone else.

Most importantly, if you, or someone that you know, is at risk of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at http://SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

For those outside of the United States, a list of International Suicide Hotlines is available at the International Bipolar Foundation website: https://ibpf.org/resource/list-international-suicide-hotlines/.

5 Comments

  1. I have lots of complicated thoughts and feelings about depression (and psychiatric care), but I’m 100% certain of this – you’re an amazing writer, and I’ve enjoyed and learned from all of these blog posts. Looking forward to reading more.

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  2. My dear, I offer you a loving virtual embrace, from a elderly soulmate in another part of the world. You are brave young woman, much regard I give you, for your courage and frankness. I too have been in this position. I have found it humbling, (and freeing) to admit my utter brokenness, and to name the terrible truth of wanting to die. I hope you will not be alone in this journey. I pray that you, in acknowledging your brokenness, (and the world’s brokenness), will be held close in the embrace and abiding love of us all. I pray for you to be pursued, uplifted, and preserved in God’s merciful grace. May I offer these ancient words? Please take them within whatever view you hold, and let us all be strengthened by the wisdom of our collected struggles and triumphs, past, present and future, across all of eternity. May you be filled with a spirit of strength and courage, and find healing to go forth and share your light with the world.

    May I share these words? I discovered that I found great comfort here, in my hour of need:
    Psalm 23:4 ESV Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

    Isaiah 41:10 ESV . Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

    Philippians 4:6-7 ESV Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

    Matthew 6:33 ESV But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

    Matthew 11:28 ESV Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

    Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

    Romans 12:2 ESV Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    Romans 15:13 ESV . May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

    Revelation 21:4 ESV He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

    Matthew 7:7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 So if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!
    12 In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the Prophets.

    Psalm 34:17-18 ESV When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

    Jeremiah 29:11 ESV For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

    John 16:33 ESV . I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

    Joshua 1:9 ESV Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

    John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

    Romans 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

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