A Brain’s Betrayal


How many times have you fabricated a conversation in your head, planned how you wanted a situation to go, only to have the other side of that conversation not be able to read your mind and follow the script you so carefully drafted? How many times have you watched your friend make destructive decisions, despite your protests, and wished you could choose for them? How many times have you longed to be the player of a giant game of Sims, able to control the actions of everyone else around you?
So much of life is left up to fate or destiny or the actions of others; there is very little that sits squarely in our own hands. In a world jam packed with strings we are not the masters of, a world of twists and turns, surprises and shocks, the one thing we can count on as humans is self-control.
That is, unless you’re suffering from a mental illness.
Having a mental illness is a major, and I mean major, betrayal of the brain. Our bodies can crap out on us and malfunction but, ultimately, we are still in control. Our brains alert us to pain or discomfort and we take the necessary steps to resolve the issue. Got a scrape? Bandage that sucker. Got a stomachache? Tums, probably. Broke a bone? Cast it up. No, it is not fun and there are very serious physical maladies and diseases that nobody asks for and somehow still manage to get. But when your own brain, the captain of your body, goes down? Then what?
Our brains are our source of life. Everything connects to our brains and when we experience sensation—smell, touch, sound, pain, pleasure—it all passes through our brain first, which gives that sensation permission to travel to the necessary parts of our body. The brain is in charge of perception and thought and emotion. It has quite a hefty workload.
When mental illnesses enter the frame, the whole ship is compromised. Man overboard, SOS, ice burgh ahead, abandon ship! Disaster is at hand.
I have always taken great comfort in the fact that, while I have absolutely zero control over anyone and anything around me, I am in charge of myself. Everything I do and say is a decision I am making. I make poor decisions sometimes, and I can either learn from my mistakes or choose to continue blindly blundering around. Either way, it’s up to me.
And then, depression struck. Anxiety entered my bloodstream. I believe I’ve always had some anxiety—it explains much of my skittishness as a child—but during high school was when my mental capacity really shrunk. I would sink into these hopeless, desperate moods for absolutely no reason. I would cry or lash out at others without purpose. Loud noises, clapping, aggravated tones, even just sensing discomfort or unease in someone else sent my nervous system into overdrive, followed by total shutdown. I was losing control. And, as someone who took self-control seriously, that was not going to fly. Thus, the beginning of my destructive perfection complex.
I developed a zero tolerance policy for mistakes. It was not okay to feel things that didn’t make sense and then take that out on other people. It was not okay to cry hysterically without cause. So I took on the role of drill sergeant and set out to get myself back in line. What that looked like was physical harm to my body when my brain didn’t cooperate. I would scratch myself, sometimes just digging my nails into the back of my hand, and other times creating deep gouges in my skin. If I got less than an A on an assignment, if I dropped a stunt at cheerleading practice, if I said what I believed to be the wrong thing to an upset friend, if I didn’t raise my hand in class when I knew the answer, if I snapped at my parents, I got a scratch. It was kind of a classical conditioning in my mind.
Much later, I realized that what I was doing was translating my mental misbehavior—things I couldn’t reach or even begin to comprehend at that point—into a physical sensation that I did understand. Even now, I don’t scratch anymore, but I still find ways to compensate for the lack of control I feel due to my depression and anxiety.
My anxiety amplifies sound and jolts my nerves, resulting in me telling people who are speaking at perfectly reasonable volumes to shhhhhh. I don’t want to be rude, and I don’t want to discourage anyone. All I want is for my insides to stop screaming at me. I sometimes can’t stand the thought of answering my phone so I ignore my calls and text messages, sometimes for days on end. Again, I don’t want to turn my friends away. But I’m at the mercy of my brain.
One of the things I don’t think society realizes about people with mental illness is that we understand and enjoy our compromised actions just about as much as anyone else. Read: not at all. There is a lot of guilt and fear involved with these types of conditions. We see ourselves behaving or feeling a certain way but are helpless to stop it. People suffering a mental illness are people without a steering wheel. So we compensate. We use the degree to which we let people into our lives—what we reveal and to whom—, we have extremely strict guidelines as to how our beds need to be made up, we don’t let our food touch on our plates, we set schedules for ourselves and, above anything, see that our schedules are being abided by. We take what we can get. We scrounge for control in not only a world, but now a body that won’t explain itself to us.
So, this is my message to my fellow scramblers: It is okay to want to grasp something solid and sit in the driver’s seat. What I ask you to do is to communicate. I’ll be the first to admit that I am no communication gold medalist. But I’m trying, and a little bit at a time will help both you and those close to you understand your situation better. Even something as simple as, “please give me a day or two, I need some space,” goes a long way. You need to be respectful, but you do not need to apologize for taking a little longer at the checkout register because you need each item to be listed and added audibly for you.
Take your time, take care, and do what you need to do.

Until next time,

T

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