I get lost in this blog sometimes. Lost in my own stuff, and I forget my purpose here, which is to shine light into the dark places. Light to help myself see, light to help others see. It ends up being about mental health most of the time, but I really think it’s just about life. I think mental illness is an exaggeration of things that most people experience at some level. An exaggeration of common, day to day experiences.
Those of us that suffer the extremes of mental illness hear it a lot – “Everybody feels like that sometimes” or “Well, I get nervous too!”. I feel like remembering that a disorder is really just an exaggeration of a functional part of us can be useful. It can help us find our way back, when we get lost in our own dysfunction. Whether we are labelled, or label ourselves, mentally ill or not , the human mind and human body function the way they do for useful reasons, when balanced and working properly. It’s when the function becomes a dysfunction that it becomes illness, and not just something everybody else does or feels, too.
When Being Nervous Becomes Something More
For instance – is it normal and common to get nervous meeting new people? Maybe. There are likely some very good reasons for that – personal safety, tribal belonging. That element of needing to belong in a group to survive goes back to the very beginning of human evolution, in my opinion. Surviving alone was questionable – surviving together MUCH more likely. So if we need the group, we need to be liked, and if we need to be liked, we might start worrying about that because if they don’t like us we might die…at least, the primitive brain might be wired to feel like that, right? I mean, the people who DID fit in with the tribe were the ones that survived long enough to be our ancestors. Sure, a rare few of them might have been the “lone wolves” that survived, but more likely our ancestors are the folks that banded together for safety…so it stands to reason that their brains evolved into our brains.
Also – meeting new people – those people might be dangerous. They might be a threat – so we need to be cautious, on high alert, to make sure that not only do we read the signs correctly so that we are liked, but we read the signs correctly if these new people are a threat. In the here and now, that might turn into some form of mild anxiety – or simply feeling nervous.
For someone like me, that nervous feeling is simply in over drive. My brain grabs the worry and anxiety and vigilance and awareness, and pummels it into submission to be tortured for days, sometimes even weeks, before, during, and especially after I meet someone new or engage in any kind of social interaction – even one that is just online. Vigilance becomes hyper-vigilance. Nerves become anxiety. Preparation becomes obsession with examining every possible permutation of an upcoming interaction, or obsessively examining every word of the interaction after it happens, to make sure I have thought of every way in which I might have gone wrong, and how I responded, and whether I should feel embarrassed or judged or liked or accepted or…or…or…
But Doctor’s Should Be Safe…Right?
Lots of people don’t like to go to the doctor. “White coat hypertension” is a thing, because it’s pretty common for people who are at the doctor’s office to have an elevated blood pressure just from the stress of being at the doctor’s office. For most people, though, that is simply an uncomfortable but necessary situation. When it becomes a dysfunction, you get behavior like mine. I have all SORTS of real life, not imagined, nothing to do with mental illness physical problems. Real, provable things, and “invisible”, chronic things.
All things that would have a person who is functional be at the doctor’s office as often as needed to get relief for their pain and help with their physical problems. I haven’t been to the doctor in well over a year, and prior to that, I went only when I just couldn’t stand the pain anymore. I make it a point to find doctor’s that do what I want them to do, rather than doctor’s that think they are in charge.
And I go as rarely as possible, even when I am actively seeking help.
Doctors and Dentists Are People Too…Which Means They CAN Be Evil
My current level of anxiety, whether technically a phobia or not, is merely an exaggeration of a fear of doctors that I’ve had since I was a child, hiding under the doctor’s desk rather then letting them stick a needle in my arm. Or in the dentist’s office in a foreign country, refusing to open my mouth for the shot so they could do whatever they were going to do…and getting kicked out, and facing the wrath of a mother who was truly terrifying when she was that angry. Yep – I have some history with this whole medical phobia thing. I had a scary, scary mom…but even HER fury couldn’t make me let that damn dentist stick his icky fingers in my mouth and then shove a needle in my cheek.
Talk about invasive – is there anything more invasive than dentists and doctors? If you are someone that doesn’t like to be touched and finds strangers scary…how on earth are you supposed to just set that aside because this dude is a doctor??? I don’t THINK so. I learned pretty early in my life that I do a little better with a female doctor – for obvious reasons I suppose. Not a lot better…but a little better. So I make sure that I only go to female doctors. Still – it’s a very, very small shift in a very, very large fear.
I have been afraid of doctors and dentists (especially dentists) for as long as I can remember – but prior to getting pregnant, it was a fear that I had managed to…well, manage. OK, not the dentist one. I never go to the dentist unless I absolutely HAVE to. It’s usually 10 or more years between appointments, and if I’m there it’s usually because I broke something. In the last 20 years, the uncomfortable but manageable fear of normal doctors has turned into something that stops me from getting the help I need. Stops me from getting relief from constant and chronic pain that is pretty debilitating on most days.
Take that in for a moment. My body hurts – ALL the time…a lot. That physical pain is usually NOT enough to overcome the anxiety I have about going to the doctor.
Here I Go Again…Again
So I finally made an appointment to try getting some help with my pain, again. I made the appointment for next week LAST week, and I’ve been having nightmares since I made it. If I don’t actively distract myself, I find myself spinning out about it. Imagining and “pre-living” the stress and anxiety. In my head, I’m already IN that exam room, feeling faint and panicked and painfully anxious…waiting for a stranger to invade my body and my space and start poking and prodding and putting me through hell…only to tell me there is nothing they can do to help me.
But if I don’t try again, I stay stuck where I am…so I have to try, right? The fact is, I should have tried a year ago. I should have been trying and trying and trying some more, until I got the help I needed – at least as much as current medical science can offer. Fear stopped me, but I can’t let it keep stopping me.
Unless I do. I mean, it’s not in the past yet. I still don’t know if I’ll make it to the appointments, make it THROUGH the appointments. All because of this exaggerated sense of danger and doom I have associated with the experience of going to the doctor.
I Repeat- Mental Illness Is An Exaggeration
Mental illness is an exaggeration of a useful mental function. So, if you are one that has a mental illness of one kind or another, maybe it helps to remember that when in balance, the very thing torturing you might have a useful purpose. Maybe it doesn’t help at all…but you can at least see it or recognize it’s validity.
If you are one that “doesn’t get it” and thinks, or worse, SAYS: “Why can’t you just deal with it? I don’t like going to the doctor, either!”, well, maybe realizing that what you feel is a teeny tiny taste of what a mentally ill person feels can help you understand what they are going through. Here’s the thing – if you are someone who’s life is NOT adversely affected by your fear or anxiety, then you don’t have an anxiety disorder.
That’s pretty much the difference – either it’s a functional, manageable level that is common and normal and just part of how our brains and bodies work…or it is exaggerated, has become dysfunctional, is a disorder – stops you, DOES affect your life adversely…and therefore, has become a mental illness.
I find myself wanting to once again clarify that I am not a mental health professional or expert. This is all just my observations, my experience, and my thoughts on the matter.
It seems to me that ALL mental illness is an exaggeration of something that, when in balance and healthy, is useful and important to have. So of course most mental illness has something about it that feels familiar to the mentally healthy – your nerves, if hyped up and in over drive, become anxiety. Keep that up, make it chronic and spinning and ALWAYS on hyper drive, and it becomes an anxiety disorder.
OH – And One More Thing – I Did NOT Choose This
I get really frustrated with the perspective that people suffering from mental illness could just choose to feel better if they tried hard enough. I can’t tell you how damaging that perspective can be, when you are someone who has a brain like mine. I already think it’s all my fault – all of it…everything…even YOUR problems are somehow my fault. I’ve been told, a lot, in one form or another, to just CHOOSE differently. “Just think about something else – just calm down, geez!” “Chill out”… “Go make a friend”…
If I could do THAT…it wouldn’t be an illness, would it? It would be something over which I have control.
Believe me, I have tried – I have studied, meditated, focused, done hypnosis, worked REALLY hard for a REALLY long time to try and deal with my anxiety and depression from that “choice” perspective, and not need medication. I have avoided medication as much as possible, and more than I should. If I can just THINK hard enough I can figure it out and I can fix it. Right?
That would work, if my brain were healthy and responsive to those types of techniques. It’s an illness because those things AREN’T working…not because I haven’t tried them. Not because I haven’t tried, over and over and over, to choose differently.
Instead, my brain has exaggerated certain things without my permission. I fight it as much as I can in as many different ways as I can, and sometimes I am kind of successful at it. When it’s not TOO bad, my tools and tricks and mental gymnastics work, and I can function. But when whatever is out of whack in my head gets TOO out of whack, nothing in my bag of tricks helps. That is why I need medical intervention – if I can fight the demons hard enough and long enough AND find the money to GET that help, maybe I can get enough support that my tricks will work and I can start feeling human again.
Then I can go make a friend, and get a job, and live a kind of normal life.