Mental illness. It’s all in your head, right? But what about when it isn’t?
You know what I’m talking about. When the depression is so bad your limbs are too heavy to move, your eyelids are glued shut, and breathing takes too much effort. When the only relief you can get is by sighing, crying, or just laying down to think for hours. Talking about what you’re feeling is out; that makes it worse, that makes it real. All you can do is curl up, hug yourself, and be weighed down by your own ineptitude.
Or how about when anxiety hits so hard you vomit your guts out? Your stomach stabs itself to death from the inside, so anything you eat or drink only Brings The Pain. Migraines, neck aches, chest pain … You know it, you’re dying, you’re sure of it. Forget going to the doctor, they already think you’re crazy, because you are. So you sit in distress, waiting for whatever is bothering you to go away so you can eat, drink, and be merry again. But what if what makes you happy is what is tormenting you? Oh the humanity!
Sleep only brings nightmares. Then you’re up for hours in the middle of the night window-shopping online in a zombified haze, lulling yourself into a retail stupor. You’ve got to get your mind off what you were dreaming about. If it’s not nightmares, it’s charlie horses, or your foot’s at the wrong angle again, toes bent all wrong, and you’re pretty sure you’ve been drinking enough water and taking your vitamins. Right? Right?
Mental illness isn’t always in your head, it has physical repercussions. The mind and body are connected (duh, Jordan), and when the mind is in duress, it tries to tell you first with cognitive signals, and when it’s fed up you’re not taking the bait, it makes you hurt. The ultimate PAY ATTENTION TO ME move. But sometimes you can’t slow life down, even when you’re doing everything to put the breaks on, because life doesn’t slow down when you want it to. Sometimes the mental pain you’re experiencing is the reason you can’t slow down thus creating the physical pain.
Congratulations. You’re a living Catch-22.
For about a decade before I had to stop working, I racked up doctors’ visits and specialists’ fees trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Neurologists, physical therapy, MRIs, CT Scans, Emergency Room visits for shortness of breath or chest pain, a colonoscopy, ENTs for chronic nosebleeds, gastroenterologists for constant stomach aches — but I always left with a clean bill of health. No abnormalities on the MRIs or CT Scans. Nothing but a bill for the ER visits. The physical therapy fixed nothing. Neurologists told me I was wasting their time. Gastroenterologists told me I was the most healthy patient they’d ever had.
Then my primary care doctor referred me to an acupuncturist and everything changed. She started treating me for stress. She still is. I see her once a week and it’s one of the things that keeps me functioning (plus daily walking meditation, which she suggested).
I couldn’t be me without her. Anxiety medication has always put me right to sleep in the middle of what I was doing, only to have me wake up 6-8 hours later, even more anxious about everything I had yet to do that day. But with Dr. Zhang’s help and the walking meditation she suggested, I am a mostly-functioning human being. She is an amazing person.
Yes, still sometimes the anxiety and stimulation is overwhelming. College Reunions, Conventions, large family functions such as weddings and holiday celebrations, two social engagements in one day — these are things that will ruin me for a week or more afterwards. Right now, as I am typing this, my neck aches for no other reason than stress. I know it's stress because I’ve had nightmares every night for the past five. I think all this is because I couldn't do my walking meditation for four days because I messed my foot up somehow.
Like I said, life gets in the way. It's not so easy.
Before we got our dog, we had a fish tank. We were told it would be good practice for owning a dog because fish were easy pets. WRONG. A fish tank is a delicate ecosystem where if one small thing goes awry, the entire tank goes to hell. We were constantly rebooting our fish tank at first because we thought we were terrible people who killed fish every two weeks, but it turns out we were buying fish and plants from a shop that was selling only diseased fish and plants.
I am a fish tank. I have to keep my body in a delicate balance, constantly tending to every part of the ecosystem to ensure the entire whole works and operates at optimum levels to be a presentable part of the décor. But the problem is, all my parts came from a place that provides diseased and broken parts, so I’m constantly playing triage and catch-up. I have to work longer hours just to make sure I can go out to dinner with people on Tuesday and have a “stable” conversation. Oh, and bonus points for not feeling like throwing up when I get home.
Mental illness isn’t all in your head. It’s all over. It’s a whole system thing. The brain is the director of your show, and it decides where the pain goes for extra dramatic effect. You're just constantly trying to make sure everything is okay all the time and it's a lot of work, constant work, not easy work. If you're in similar shoes to mine, congrats, you're amazing, and you're doing a great job.
So … from a fish tank to a Merkava, I’m sorry in advance if I puke on your shoes. It's only because I'm having a wonderful time and don't want to leave.