I’m not sure where I first heard the phrase “a storm in the brain,” but it has stuck with me for years. (I named my LiveJournal blog A Storm in the Brain, I was so enamored of the phrase.) There is just something right about the metaphor of the brain as stormy landscape—lightning-fire synapses wreaking havoc, randomly charging this nerve or that, never resting, never relenting, not even in sleep.
My brain is like the tornado from The Wizard of Oz. Seriously, sometimes I expect to open my eyes and see Margaret Hamilton flying by on a bicycle, chasing me and my little dog, too. From childhood I’ve suffered extremes from insomnia and oversleeping to lethargy and nervous fidgeting. My brain and I were at odds, fighting for supremacy over my body, often wearing ourselves into a stupor in the process. For much of my life, I thought this was just normal functioning of the brain. It took a lot of pain and suffering for me to finally realize that there was another option, if only I had the will to take it.
Peace as a Last Resort
One day in the late 80s, I decided to treat myself to a showing of Disney’s Fantasia at the Galleria in New Orleans. I went alone and sat enraptured at the back of the theater as I watched the show. But before I could get through my favorite part—the rise and fall of the dinosaurs to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I had a terrifying experience.
My pulse began to race, I had pains in my chest, and I was overcome with a sense of dread. I knew I was going to die. Right there, expiring along with the dinosaurs in glorious 2-D color on the screen in front of me. I was too afraid to drive—I called my sister and had her drive me home. The next day, I went to the doctor, who found nothing wrong with me.
It wasn’t until about two years later that I realized this sort of event was called a panic or anxiety attack. Over the course of the next few years, I had them with increasing regularity, so often in fact that I retreated from life on some level. I rarely left my house, shut out my family and friends, and stopped doing most the things I loved to do. I’d experienced anxiety in several forms since childhood, but by the end of 1992, I was having nightmares every night, throwing up every morning, and was absolutely sure I would not live to see my thirtieth birthday. Moving across country in 1993 broke the cycle for a while—I was too distracted trying to survive to worry about my angst, and for a couple of years I was able to live close to normally again.
You Can’t Fight What You Won’t Acknowledge
By the later-90s, I was on my own, kind of loving my life (in general) and doing pretty well. But all it took was a very bad job to bring me crashing down from my delusions of health, and in 1996 I had what my doctor call a nervous episode that kept me off work for six weeks. (Who am I kidding? I was a suicidal wreck, crackers, I tells ya!) I seriously considered checking myself into a mental hospital, and my friends formed a circle of protection around me that would do any coven of good witches proud to see.
You’d think that this would be enough to get me to do something about my anxiety and depression, right? No. Instead of saying, wow, I’m sick, I need help, I need guidance, I just quit the job and found another one. I started from scratch, again, ignoring the underlying problem and distracting myself with everything but getting better. That had become a pattern in my life—getting so depressed I couldn’t stand it, then sweeping the shards under the couch and covering them up with some new, happier activity I would eventually come to loathe.
Do you know what finally got me into therapy? My throat. During the 90s I was singing with an a cappella trio, performing and recording and rehearsing all the time. Trouble is, I had been throwing up at least once a day since high school. Not from bulimia, from nerves. The night before we recorded our first CD, I was so nervous I threw up every hour, on the hour, from eight pm to four am. Consequently, my throat was wrecked on the first day of recording. Finally, like a bolt of lightning, it occurred to me that all that throwing up was torture to my voice, and maybe I should try to fix that.
You would have thought the panic attacks and suicidal ideation would have been a clue, right? Anyway, I had a good doctor at the time who prescribed an anti-spasmotic to help with my throwing up, Prozac for the depression, and therapy. I have never gotten, before or since, better medical advise.
Becoming a Militant Mental Health Warrior
I suffered from depression for about sixteen years before I ever sought treatment. Every day, I woke up, got out of bed, and fought a fire-breathing dragon with no sword, no armor, and no understanding of how to protect myself. Like so many people fighting this particular beast, I just assumed if I was better, smarter, nicer, more talented, harder-working, blah blah blah, I would no longer be depressed. Depression, anxiety, these are physical diseases that do physical things in that stormy landscape we call our brains. One of the most insidious symptoms of the disease is that the sufferer blames themselves for their illness!
Finally, a very dear friend sat me down and asked, “If you suffered from diabetes, would you blame yourself? If you suffered from heart disease, would you say it was because you just didn’t work hard enough or weren’t smart enough?”
Prozac and therapy were good starts, a sword and armor, in my battle against the dragon, but eventually I needed to confront the dragon in a more permanent and organic way. I needed to address the shame of my illness, and the belief that I was not going to live long enough to matter.
To address the shame, I very consciously chose to break my silence about my depression and anxiety, knowing that if I had known what was wrong with me back in the 80s and 90s, I might have been able to do something about it. Every time I tell my story, it is my hope that someone out there might find the courage to seek help and the comfort of knowing that they are not alone.
To fight the sense that my life was constantly teetering on borrowed time, I decided to do something physical. Medication wasn’t enough; I had to start treating my body like I fully expected to survive my thirties…and forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies. Exercising, becoming a vegetarian (well, now I’m a pescetarian), and meditating all joined my arsenal against this disease that had been trying to kill me for most of my adult life. And for the most of the time, it works very well.
Of course, everybody has bad habits, and I am no exception. I work too hard. I rarely get enough sleep. I drink too much caffeine and stress over money and time and job and no cat food in the house. But still, I know I have a safe place when my life decides to do its Tectonic Dance O’Stress.
Mental Health – It Only Works if You Use It
Meditating is like exercising, in that if you skip a few days after doing it regularly, you really notice it. Grant it, I’m not some yogurt-eating, lotus-sitting guru at the top of a mountain chanting ohm atop a bed of nails, but I do find that daily meditation can be much more effective than Prozac. It’s even better with the Prozac.
Unfortunately, like exercising (and Prozac and keeping up with the house-cleaning), meditation is one of those things that actually contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, at least as far as continuity goes. Everything is going well (because you’ve exercised, meditated, taken your meds, and washed the dishes) so you give yourself some slack. I’ll surf the net tonight. I’ll just watch this DVD instead.
And BAM, you’re stressed out, depressed, bulging out over the top of your jeans, and the garbage has evolved to the point it’s filing papers for legal emancipation.
The Dragons Never Really Die
The thing many people don’t realize about clinical depression and anxiety (especially those living with them) is that they’re never really healed. They can be treated, go into remission, regulated and controlled, but they’re always there, lurking in the caverns, waiting to strike when the opportunity arises.
Exercise, diet, medication, therapy, and meditation are all weapons in the arsenal against mental illness, but the only thing that can truly keep you safe is to bring the dragon out into the light. Dragons are most dangerous in the dark, in the shadows, in hidden cramped places. But people who are affected by mental illness can band together, like knights in formation, telling their stories until the dragon is no longer an unconquerable foe, but a manageable beast that snarls and bites and threatens, but cannot truly destroy.
Until next time, I wish you peace and love and clear skies in the brain.