On the rare morning that I can't wrench myself out of bed, I call in with a sore throat, a bad reaction to sushi (I actually don't like sushi), or a mysterious "girly bits" problem that won't be questioned and will elicit both sympathy and no follow-up questions. It's better this way. Calling in "mentally ill" may not bring forth questions, but it will leave a sticky residue over my work relationships. I don't want pity, or whispers behind closed doors if I'm genuinely annoyed or upset by an annoying or upsetting event that would furrow anyone's brow. And once people know, it's difficult for them to avoid acting like they know, with all the misunderstandings and misplaced sympathies that follow.
I remember the onset of mental illness came somewhere in the fourth grade; paranoia, emptiness, an inability to feel anything but anger or sadness. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had two suicide attempts under my belt.
It wasn't until I was seventeen, in the hospital (again) hooked up to monitors, groggy from an overdose and subsequent chugging of charcoal to mitigate said overdose, that a doctor diagnosed me.
We spoke for awhile, he writing things down on a yellow pad, me staring at a ceiling. I'd done this before, over and over, describing every symptom of craziness in annoyingly boring detail.
He diagnosed me with Major Depressive Disorder and prescribed medication. He said I wasn't really crazy, that my brain was made of chemical soup, and one of the chemicals responsible for a stable mind was running low. The meds would prevent that from happening, or something. And that was that.
That was almost twenty years ago, and probably a defining moment that set me on the path toward atheism, reason, skepticism. My brain was made of chemical soup. My emotions were made of chemicals. The horrible pain that made living unbearable could be fixed with a pill. At least mostly. Too much and I can't write or draw, too little and those unbearable mornings become too frequent.
It's almost romantic thinking of the brain as primordial ooze where synapses fire electrical current through goopy gray matter, sparking reactions to stimuli, some ideas evolve into beliefs, and so on.
It was a huge relief to get an explanation for what felt like a woo-based curse. My teen years were spent searching for some karmic reason for my inability to feel gratefulness toward my parents who tried so hard to rescue me, and love for my brother who was way too little to be dealing with the heavy hand of mental illness that made his life a much scarier place than it had to be.
Recently, NIMH published a study on how thinning tissue on the right half of the brain could increase the development of depression.
That part stopped me cold. Thinking through the generations of people in my family who self medicated on alcohol and drugs, trying to numb that mind-searing pain with no idea that a fairy-dust sprinkle of serotonin could have prevented a Pandora's boxcar full of abuse and neglect.
My prescription for a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) allows me to feel grateful that I'm here, in this generation, where there's a perfectly logical, medical, rational reason for storm that brews in my brain. It leaves me with a sense of relief, but also tremendous wonder about how the disorder manifested in me, and in those who preceded me on the matriarchal line.
I, my mother, my grandmother and great-mother can all draw and paint. I inherited a box of oils and brushes from my mom, who inherited them from my grandmother. I wonder if any part of our creativity comes from the rapid washing away of an emotion stabilizer in our heads. Do we experience the world a bit differently?If so, how so? I embrace new research in a struggle to understand, and once again, the embrace comes with the pleasure of gratitude, that feeling that was completely foreign to me for such a long time. I'm so grateful to live in a time where the word "neurotransmitter" exists.
Those who came before me, whose DNA and brain soup produced the person writing this were not as fortunate as I, and I grieve for that.
I didn't get their blue eyes, blonde hair, or bombshell figures, but I did inherit their low blood pressure, and given the white hot temper flare ups, long bouts of feeling blue and angry, and hypersensitivity to the feelings of others, I think there's a good shot that we all probably have a strangely thinning tissue issue.
I desperately wish I could go back in time, armed with "what we know now" and grant them the peace I mostly feel in my once violently ill brain. Even when I feel the shift in mood, I can carefully, reasonably discern whether it's caused by an outside stimulus or a metaphorical bit of scar tissue from growing up with an untreated mental illness.
This precious feeling of gratitude was brought to me by scientific research. Thank you.