What it feels like to fight your own brain

No one here but you.
No one here but you.
Image: Reuters/ Dominic Ebenbichler
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That Sunday (Sept. 11) marked the end of Suicide Prevention Week in the US feels a little like a joke to me, as I carry home little plastic containers of Xanax and Celexa. A few weeks ago, I was handling depression through that magical combination of eating right and exercise, and then something in my brain switched on and began playing “the loop” over and over, like an old theatre playing a crackling screen for no audience in particular after the lights have gone out.

The loop is a list of every single one of my failures, through a magnifying glass, with additional commentary that may not have existed in reality; I can’t remember. After that it plays every sad moment I’ve ever been through, and every disappointment. It hits each track on the roller coaster of downward emotions so many times that I exhaust myself just trying to appear outwardly normal.

You are a failure. You are worthless. You are ugly. You can’t do anything right.

Two weekends ago, I just couldn’t listen to the loop any more, and found myself spending Labor Day in the emergency clinic answering a familiar list of questions: “When’s the last time you felt this way?” “Do you take anything?”

“Do you have now or have you ever had a plan?”

A plan. That’s shorthand for, do you know how you would end your life today? After you respond yes to this question, pens click open, notebook pages are furiously scribbled on and another series of rapid fire prompts endures. Do you have access to the items needed for your plan? Do you have access to the place you’d need to go? Have you written a note? If you respond here in a way that seems like you are not an immediate danger to yourself, you’re sent home with a series of next steps, and maybe a mood stabilizer. Sometimes you never talk about it again, even if you want to. Sometimes the nurses will watch you with pity in their eyes. Sometimes people tell you that everyone gets sad, and this too will blow over: “You were strong enough to get yourself here today, and that’s what matters.”

The doctor is right. The times when I’m really in danger aren’t marked by a trail of tears or fits of rage, they’re marked with excessive happiness and overexertion. It’s eating a new food in a new country and thinking there’s no way life could possibly be better. It’s hugging someone you deeply care for, and knowing that nothing could feel as great, that they could be gone in a heartbeat. Or, experiencing an amazing success and knowing there’s no way to top it, there’s misery just around the corner. That’s when the rollercoaster begins its descent, that’s when the plan begins to feel like an option, not a scary, abstract memory. What’s important to note is that there doesn’t have to necessarily be a defining moment or tragedy or circumstance to start the descent; and that’s when my brain and I begin to fight.

The news reel of suicide prevention is always packed with tragic stories and photos of smiling people, followed by a list of attributes about how kind and giving and happy they were. Look how many friends they had! Look how successful they were! As if anyone could be shocked that depressives function within society. As if the highs don’t come with lows.

My depression is Bipolar I. I’m great at creative solutions and analysis, a whiz at checking off to-do lists and optimal birthday celebration planner. I’m great at taking group photos and the first to pet the nearest dog at the party. I have plans every weekend and beautiful friends I’m lucky to be around. My coworker jokes daily that I dress like a Disney princess. There’s no such thing as too much stress or to much change or too many challenges when I’m at my peak.

Depression looks different in everyone who has it, though there are markers and signs and triggers that set the wheels in motion. But make no mistake, these are just triggers, not the root of the pain. For me, it bounced fiercely into action when my mother died, leaving me an orphaned teenager, sick with the guilt that pushed me into my first suicide attempt, and it has been a filter over my life ever since.

In those 12 years, it’s been both friend and foe, a secret weapon for getting things done with fantastic success, and the voice that pulls me down when I enjoy too much of it. Within those 12 years, I’ve built an amazing career where I’ve worked side-by-side with award-winning writers and shook hands with seats of government. Visited some of the most beautiful cities in the world. Fallen in love. Run half marathons. Climbed mountains.

I’ve built a fantastic life, filled with wonderful people and experiences, and yet through it all, the loop plays. That thing you didn’t finish. That person who didn’t love you back. That place you never got to see. It’s always back there like a dangerous friend, waiting for those moments of beautiful bliss, to take complete advantage and kidnap me to my bed for days at a time. Driving me to tears in public, filling my mind with thoughts so impressively terrifying you’d swear they’re an M. Knight Shyamalan cliffhanger.

Did you think you could enjoy yourself? Do you really believe that you deserve this? Do you deserve to be alive?

These are terrifying thoughts to say out loud, and I’m far from the only one for experience them. To acknowledge that there may be something wrong, or different, with your brain, you put a lot on the line. You wonder how people will see you, if they’ll be scared of you, if your job is in danger, or your family ashamed.

But we need to hear the stories, as morose as they are, because when we silo these experiences, we increase the chances that someone else with depression will think there really is something damaged inside of them. And after experiencing that feeling of being damaged, it’s less likely that they’ll get up and visit that emergency clinic when they just can’t listen to the loop anymore. Because when you think it’s only you, listening to the loop becomes easier than getting help, particularly when you think it’s wrong or weak to get help, or when you think yourself undeserving.

See, of all the people I’ve spoken to who also had a plan, none of them actually want to go through with it, they just want the loop to stop playing. They just want the filter of sadness, the immense feelings of dread, to go away for one day. They want to stop being a dark cloud over people they love, and put their guard down for a few minutes. They desperately wanted to break through the walls of feeling alone, and so, we share our stories to normalize this experience.

And we read and share the stories of others who inspire us to keep speaking. Because it’s okay to take a week off of work for a sore throat or a stomach ache, but not yet socially acceptable to spend a week on mental health. We still sweep it under the rug and tell people who suffer to, “just cheer up!”

I couldn’t bear to hear that loop tell me once more that I ruined my entire life, and while I don’t really have any new hope or confidence right now, I think that I could in the future, and that’s enough. I function as many others with crippling depression do, though some days it doesn’t seem worth it. And I vacillate between dark days and manic days when you’ve never seen anyone accomplish more. And it isn’t good or bad, it just is.

I don’t know how long I’ll be in treatment, or when I’ll get back to my non-medicated regiment that gives me the strength to bat away the exhausting thoughts. I don’t have a happy, clean ending to my story, but this is what a first step looks like: I recognized the feelings, and I recognized that I still had some power over them, and I still have my voice and a way to connect to others who feel this, too, because there’s no reason to be silent about it when you’re in such good company.

Hey, I am most definitely not a doctor, so if you feel this way too, you’re obviously not alone, and I would implore you to read some of these articles from the internet. I have them bookmarked and they help me in a jam.
And, of course, speak to someone you love, or call someone, like the National Suicide Prevention Line at (800) 273–8255.