As a species we really adore concrete things. We like to have hard lines; we like our tables to have edges, our doors to have frames, and a lot of the time that’s practical and necessary. I’ve noticed we also like our thoughts to have the same uniform structure.
Our brains are there to make sense of everything and when something doesn’t make sense we must make it make sense and to do that we find a perfect little box and if we can’t find a perfect little box, we create the broken box; if something doesn’t fit the standard box, that something must be broken. The broken box is where mental health issues lie.
We often call ourselves broken, ill, sick, all these negative connotations because that’s the box we’ve been given, and we feel broken, ill, and sick.
Within the broken box, there are three more little soggy boxes in the rain: mild, moderate, and severe. They’ve been around for a couple decades now, could use some time out in the sun and duct tape on the sides. In the mild box, you won’t find much help or understanding. Maybe you get anxiety every once in a while, or in specific situations. Maybe someone’s poured an ounce of depresso in your coffee and you have that annoying “blah” feeling, but you never miss work, you never want to die, and you function well.
The moderate box is a little less full. Your anxiety is constant. You get two ounces of depresso each morning and miss work once in a blue moon because you just can’t take it anymore. You think about finding a therapist, but draw the line at psychiatry until someone convinces you otherwise.
The severe box is the smallest, but that’s supposed to be good. Your anxiety won’t let you leave your house–not for the last three years. Your depression fills your cups of coffee, all four of them, every morning, and you don’t leave your bed, let alone your house. You can’t think straight, you’re spouting words which don’t exist on earth and God’s been talking to you, really talking to you this time, and you’re the chosen one. You can’t work, you can’t shop for yourself, and help is forced, not chosen.
So, for those of us who don’t fit in the soggy boxes, where do we go? We float in the ether.
Sometime I’ll talk about the most broken areas of the mental health system, and that will include the closet they keep all these boxes. But in this post I wanted to talk about variation.
I’ve never considered myself mentally ill, or to have a mental disorder. That’s not because I’m in “denial”. It’s because I don’t see myself as ill. I was in therapy at 6 for not talking. All of school was trauma because I still didn’t talk, I didn’t make friends, anxiety made me cry every five minutes, I was homeless for a few years and then also hormones. I think puberty should be considered a trauma. In high school I got depressed, was deep in self harm already, got on medication and into therapy. Neither helped.
In college, I solved Ebola and cured anxiety with frequencies. It’s a long story. Then I questioned things. People didn’t seem to hear the same things I did, or notice patterns I did. For some reason this didn’t frighten me. It startled me, but it never frightened me. I only got frightened when I was dragged into hell, trapped by demons, and then caused the Las Vegas mass shooting.
Obviously I didn’t cause the Las Vegas shooting, but I thought it was because of me.
And the things I heard: it was strange. It wasn’t just people outside talking to me, or talking about me, they were in my head too. Like, really lodged in there.
When you read this post silently to yourself, you have that mini-you voice. They were not that. They were similar as I didn’t hear them outside of my head, but they were differently pitched than my mini-me voice. They said random things (my favorite is “Put that burrito on reservation”), commented on things, and overwhelmed me when I sat in class. I dropped a lot of classes during this awakening period.
It never felt appropriate calling these voices because I knew it’d be dismissed and so when assessed I said I heard externally ones occasionally and they didn’t always say a lot, I didn’t know them well, and one just screamed.
Again, I didn’t fit in any box. I had periods of grandiosity, of depression, but also of consistent, unbreakable, delusions, regardless of my mood (sometimes). I’d seen things others didn’t. All I was missing to really put the dot on their fucking I’s were consistent, mind-numbing external voices.
So I read some papers. It was thought just a little over a decade ago that internal voices weren’t a thing, and then when they were, they were considered less severe than external ones.
And then I found this 2016 gem.
And felt oddly validated. Strangely validated. Horrifyingly validated.
Because now I fit in a box. And that feeling has plagued me ever since.
I don’t want to fit in one of those soggy, disgusting, abandoned closet boxes. But if I don’t, my struggles will be invalidated and dismissed.
So, I created my own box. Not a sick, diseased, ill box, but one which harbors a variety of human experiences and calls them just that. It’s not really a box at all, it’s just a flat piece of cardboard on the floor with no ceiling, no walls, and you can stretch your arms and breathe fresh air. There’s no duct tape or shipping labels or clumsy shoving of your limbs.
In the abstract of the above article, the researchers say they found those with internal voices to be more aware of where the voices come from. And that makes things easier, I think, because when I do hear things externally, I usually believe it’s someone in the building or outside of the building commenting on me or hating on me or whatever, and that’s a lot harder to work through.
Maybe it’s the awareness that dilutes the fear. It doesn’t dilute the stress.
And their internal nature doesn’t mean I believe they’re coming from me. So, do with that information what you will.
My point? We are human. Humans have experiences. Humans have varied experiences. And to call an experience, even a terrifying one, even a disrupting one, even a repetitive, life shattering one an illness like cancer is an illness, an illness like high blood pressure is an illness, is some kind of twisted medical logical fallacy.
You want mental health to be treated like physical health?
It already is.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but one thing I struggled with a lot in the worst of my mental health was feeling free. Not just from myself and my own judgments, but from other people’s judgments and the judgments of life; I talked a bit in the previous post about how it feels life has a standard of living we should be striving toward.
Growing up with anxiety meant every little thing made me cry. I felt kinds words reprimanded me, I felt harsh words reprimanded me, and silence or confusion around my actions or word made me feel “stupid”. That’s been a big hurdle for me: feeling stupid. Let me give you a recent example.
I decided to quit a second job I had acquired about six months before. One anxiety I still battle is approaching people, and a series of events lead up to me ghosting the job (as I have every job I’ve quit for the last 7 years). Their incessant calling my phone, my mother’s phone, and my primary job sparked paranoia; I heard the workers talking about me, their voices, their thoughts, and had the first panic attack I’ve had in 2.5 years. At the end of it all, friends seemed to reflect that I’d felt bad for ghosting my employer. But that wasn’t the case.
The things I heard were them discussing how stupid I’d been to do this. I feared looking stupid in the eyes of people I’d probably never see again.
There’s no guarantee had I quit “properly” I wouldn’t have experienced the same things. I always thought they considered me stupid, and that is in relation to how little I speak. That’s traced back into a childhood of selective mutism and gut wrenching anxiety and people actually thinking I was slow.
So, freedom felt hard to come by. Unobtainable. Non-existent.
My first realization came some months back: I needed to give myself permission to speak. I had never been given the chance or the encouragement as a child; at home, I was bullied into stifling my voice, especially around “grown folks”, and at school I was reprimanded for never talking. My child brain didn’t know how to reason through that contradiction. And so my first step as an adult was to remind myself I’m allowed to speak.
My second revelation came as I thought about the meaning of freedom. Could I do whatever I wanted? Murder without a conscience? Disregard consequence? Revel in havoc and embrace chaos? I dabbled in heavy partying for a brief period, mixed medications and alcohol hoping to feel alive and free in debauchery and carelessness. I didn’t feel trapped anymore, but I didn’t feel free either. So chaos wasn’t freedom, it was just a localized, appealing version of pain.
If recklessness wasn’t freedom, than what was? I thought back to the days I berated myself and physically hurt myself out of confusion and some underlying need to be noticed. I didn’t consider myself a bad person, but I didn’t think I was very good either, and then I learned.
I learned I judged myself (and assumed other people’s judgments) were based on whether or not I saw myself, or they saw me, as a bad person, a stupid person, an awkward person. I wanted to be good with the assumption that good meant genius, perfect, social. Being smart wasn’t enough for me–I needed to be smarter than everyone or my intelligence was worth nothing. I needed to not have acne or be so tall or wear unflattering clothes. I needed to not isolate. I needed to not need isolation. I needed to meet people and have friends and be normal. Normal was good. By those standards, I was very, very bad.
I spent time cycling around town, hiking in mountains, and thinking. I learned bad was pretty good.
I don’t mean this in the cliche sense of “in every bad person, there’s a good heart”, nor do I mean “not being normal is also good.” I mean, quite literally, we wouldn’t understand this concept of “bad” without good, and visa versa. Both are within each other, and created from each other, and therefore to label myself one or other, I labeled myself both. And I don’t mean that in the sense of “yes, everyone has a good side and a bad side”. Again, I mean this quite literally, and in a concrete sense, separate from the outcome of actions or thoughts. I.e, starting a riot in the middle of the street is called bad and therefore also called good. One concept can’t exist without the other in every form of life.
It didn’t mean that because snorting coke was both good and bad I should indulge. It meant I could acknowledge the duality and weigh my choices based on the outcome I wanted. I don’t not do drugs because it’s “bad”. I don’t do drugs because it would serve no purpose in the way of freedom.
That brought a lot of comfort because I no longer logically needed to live up to an invisible standard.
Being content with and understanding the connective duality of life gave me freedom from myself. It allowed me to allow space for those voices in my head, including my own negative thoughts; we were all now equal in our non-equality. Their darkness, and my own, was now also light. There was freedom in not fighting, and by not fighting, I fought. It’s similar to breaking an enemies resistance without fighting, which I believe is a central theme in Doaism teachings.
None of this stopped the pain. But all of this let me understand pain, and what I understand, I don’t fear.
It’s refreshing to understand yourself.
When I stopped seriously blogging about two years ago, it was abrupt and painful. Painful because I missed the writing community of almost five years which had enjoyed stories and laughs and tears and memories and traumas alongside me. They were there when I got my first car. They were there when I quit each job I got. They were there when I became employed at a Peer Respite house. They were there in my largest transformations of self.
Also painful because I was cracking up. Breaking down. In the hospital, confused and somewhat oddly satisfied in my terror of life. I felt alive again in a twisted way. I felt targeted and special and immortal and genius and connected to something greater than myself.
I posted every once in a while, but lost my follower’s attention. I created a slough of new sites, but WordPress changed so much of their format that I got frustrated trying to adapt. So, I went dark.
I told myself I’d be back only when I felt secure in myself. I’d be back only when I knew I had something important to say. I have something important to say.
This journey through depression and delusion and anxiety has given me new insights on darkness. Its introduced me to the true duality of nature so described in daoism. It’s roughly coddled me into accepting not only myself but all of life.
At the beginning of the pain, before I even worked at the respite house, a voice kept telling me “dead man walking”. Considering I’m a woman, it kind of cracked me up and also simultaneously terrified me; someone, something, was coming to kill me I thought. But I don’t think he predicted my future. I think he commented on my present. I was dead. I enjoyed nothing. I faked smiles. I practiced expert avoidance. I ignored myself and my inner processes because they scared me and because of that fear those inner processes found a way to express themselves for the first time in both of our lives. That way was voices, beliefs, depressions, a mania, panic attacks, and the underlying feeling of being broken.
I could talk about childhood stuff here. I could talk about medication and homelessness and the trauma of school. But I spent years reiterating that on my previous blog. I’ve spent time reiterating it to friends and therapists. And now, I can sum it all up in one word: fear.
I feared everything, for many reasons. I feared life. I feared being sad. I feared being happy because sadness came after. I feared anxiety, I feared death, I feared fear.
I think many of us go into therapy or other treatments confused on what “processing emotions” means. I think some therapists and psychiatrists who have never really gone through that heavy process are also confused on what it means. So they blurt it because they’re supposed to, it’s part of the script.
Processing emotions for me meant more than just talking about them and feeling them. It meant not telling myself “tomorrow will be better” or “this is temporary” or “I’ll be happy some day”. It meant not telling myself “you need to get up”. It meant greeting darkness with a handshake and respecting the space it needed within me. The darkness is lonely, too.
It meant sharing my body and my mind with panic and voices and fear and setting boundaries with them; if we all have to live in here together, we need to communicate and I can’t hold the power. But neither can you.
It meant getting comfortable with uncertainty. There is no standard “life”. My experiences don’t make life worse than what life should be, they don’t make life better than what life should be because life doesn’t have a designated “should”. It doesn’t have a designated “have to”. It’s just there.
It meant veering from my psychology degree and studying philosophy, a bit of physics, and leafing through neuroscience articles. It meant studying research. It meant, for me, getting off medication, and really feeling ALL of myself.
I’m sure most people have heard of the double-slit experiment in physics. I remember hearing about it for the first time as I sat high as a kite in High School chemistry. You learn the conclusion is that photons (and other particles) behave as both a wave and a particle, given the observed interference pattern. What high school teachers don’t talk much about is that the reason we come to that conclusion and label it as a reasonable consensus is because, as of right now, we’ll never know if we’re wrong.
We can’t see a single photon pass through anything with the naked eye. And so when we don’t observe it with a camera, when we can’t see what’s happening, the photon behaves as a single photon. The camera we use to observe this particle has a tiny light. That tiny light is a confounding variable–it could be affecting the particle’s behavior. Or maybe it isn’t. But, because we can never see for ourselves with a naked eye, we’ll never know. That’s the paradox, and part of the foundation of the Uncertainty Principal.
We’ll never know. We’re limited in this life we have, and when we’re not okay with that, we run ourselves exhausted trying to fix what isn’t broken.
I’m not scared of darkness anymore. What is there to be scared of?