Monday, December 8, 2008

How to trigger yourself:

1. Have a really stressful, at times splendidly life-changing, at times unspeakably horrible, law school experience that leaves permanent scars. Struggle to find the right mix of chemicals and therapy that works for your slightly irregular brain.

2. While on continuing quest re your slightly irregular brain, spend three years trying to pass bar exam. Eventually find superb therapist and superb chemicals. At long last, pass exam. Wait over a month for good news to sink in and horrible self-talk to lighten up.

3. Watch already not-booming economy go completely kablooey. Scan want ads and law school career center websites for jobs that simply do not exist in your town. Try to maintain perspective. Freak out, cursing decisions you made years ago, about which not a whole lot can be done.

4. At the precise moment when you are finally coming to be at peace about the whole she-bang, and finally easing up on the self-flagellation, and finally learning to be constructively kind to yourself, read this book by a law professor about her harrowing struggle with schizophrenia.

I'd been looking forward to reading this book ever since I heard the author on On Point, and I would love to go through and do an in-depth review of it, something that would encourage others to go out and grab it, but I just can't go there and read it again. I knew from the first chapter that it was upsetting me, and I just couldn't quit. I was totally unprepared for how much we had in common.

I suppose I've always thought of myself as having some friendly, garden-variety type of mental illness. My diagnoses and treatments are fairly familiar and (I'd like to think) non-frightening to reasonably educated folks. When I really get going, anxiety-wise, the distortion in my thoughts probably approaches the level of delusion, but the thoughts at least originate from some basis in reality.

And I suppose I identify MIs that involve psychosis, which a therapist described to me once as a break with reality, as scarier than my own. If I may refer to The Prince of Tides: you can get your head around most of the Wingos, but sister Savannah, with her frightening visions and her razor blades, is a little out there. If I'm honest, it's almost like "I'm over here with my depression and my worrying, and those people over there, the muttering homeless, the people committed involuntarily, those who get prescribed things that aren't advertised in glossy magazines, are The Other." This shames me, as I like to think of myself as both pretty darned open-minded and pretty darned empathetic.

I was hoping Professor Saks would be able to make me understand what it's like to have The Other kind of mental illness, because I think of it as so very different from my own. And I guess what freaked me out is that it wasn't all that different. Not at all. Granted, I don't hear voices I'm not supposed to hear, and I don't think I've ever worried about having killed anyone with my thoughts, and okay, yes, at my most effed-up, I have thought about the s-word, but I've never felt uncontrollably, forcefully compelled to make any attempts. But the devastating, horrible self-talk she recounts? On page after page? That is me. That is totally me. And literally, days ago, it had started to let up, and then the book came in from interlibrary loan. That's not to say it's back in full force--I've gotten a lot better at redirecting my focus--but man, it was really disquieting to read.

There's one part where she recounts feeling utter terror at finding herself home alone, and I had an eerily similar incident when I was a kid. I visualize it at about age 8 but suspect I was even older. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it turned out that my parents and brother had just wandered over to the site of a house that was being built nearby. They probably weren't gone an hour. But when I couldn't find anyone anywhere, and both cars were still in the garage, I went completely apeshit. I called our nanny, who lived several towns over, I was so freaked, and she was so selfless that she dropped whatever she was doing and came.

Several times lately I've read--in Newsweek, in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink--about how desperate we are, as humans, perhaps particularly as American humans, to have explanations for inexplicable things. This is supposedly why so many rely on religion, or on less conventional supernatural tenets. We'd rather have an explanation that veers into the unprovable, even the whimsical, than no explanation at all.

And what's so scary about certain mental illnesses is that there is no why. My therapist would prefer I not delve into Why I'm Like This, because he's very focused on The Now, and on what I can change. But if you were to listen in on Christmas dinner at either of my parents', I think a few things would be fairly obvious. It wouldn't necessarily explain precisely why I'm this way, nor why my brother is comparatively even-keeled. But it likely would explain certain obsessions, certain thought patterns, certain well-worn paths of self-bashing, certain failures in self-care.

The fictional Savannah Wingo suffers terrible traumas at the hands of family members, society, and strangers. Her illness doesn't make sense, and yet it sort of does, because of those traumas. Professor Saks's illness frighteningly began to manifest when she was very young, but she is careful to emphasize the wholesome, loving family environment she grew up in, the fact that she wanted for nothing. Her illness doesn't make sense and likely never will. She writes powerfully about the facts of her life: Sometimes things just unravel. Sometimes the bottom drops out. Despite our best mythology and our best therapies, some things simply cannot be overcome, nor can they be explained. She will be on drugs for the rest of her life, no matter how hard she fights her illness.

I don't know if I will always be on stimulants and antidepressants. I've wanted to be off drugs pretty much ever since I got on them. This is probably due to the fact that when they were first prescribed--I was fourteen--the meds were presented to me not as a remedy for a sickness, but as a punishment for bad behavior. I have received mixed messages from my family ever since then: "Obey your elders and doctors and take the meds," but also, "Why can't you just [exercise] [diet] [socialize] [read] [bake] [12-step] [something] yourself free of it?!" And I've always been conflicted and guilty about how much of me is bonafide crazy, which would be somehow excusable, and how much is just lazy (the result of not fighting it hard enough). None of this worrying is particularly helpful, and I suspect that eventually, like the professor, I will come around to the point of view that dictates seeing mental illness like we see diabetes or other chronic disease, and that I am simply just taking my insulin.

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