Bad Brain Days

Here on Medium, tags are auto-generated for you after you start to publish a post. On my last entry, the one about Balin, the tags that were generated were “Psychology” and “Narcissism.”

I’m not sure why the entry about my ball python would be any more narcissistic than any of my other entries, and I’m sure the post just tripped some sort of algorithm, but it stung. And I started to wonder if that’s all this blog is, an exercise in self-obsession. So I thought I would give it up and just stop writing.

This was the day after I had seen my psychiatrist and totaled up the sum of my improvements over the past six weeks: I’m doing volunteer work four days a week. I’m planning to set up a website. I’m writing a blog. Things that, in her office, seemed cheery precursors to better mental health now felt like less than nothing. What am I doing with my life?

About this time I realized that I was having a Bad Brain day.

It’s hard to explain what a Bad Brain day is; and the truth is, it can vary. But the gist of it is that the parts of the brain that are small, recalcitrant, and spiteful are overthrowing the parts of the brain that are wiser and more expansive. Just recognizing a Bad Brain day for what it is can be one small step toward heading in the right direction, a little bit of metacognition that gently reminds, I am more than this. It’s similar to the concept of Monkey Mind in Buddhism, where slowing down and realizing that the brain is doing its distracting thing can allow for better, more mindful thinking.

Yet it isn’t always that simple.

I think that one thing people without mental illness often don’t understand is how difficult it can be to do the simplest tasks. Yesterday, I knew I needed to go to the grocery store, and my brain kept telling me that going to the store was just too much, that what I needed to do was go home, that I didn’t even know what to buy at the store, that it was too exhausting. But if I had gone home, it would have been, Why don’t you ever do anything? You should have gone to the store. Why are you just sitting here? What are you going to do?

Contradictory and cruel, my thoughts on these days don’t have to be consistent or make sense. They just persist, a clanging bell in my consciousness screaming that something is not right, but they remain unable to fix it or even say exactly what it is.

I did go to the store, and I did simple tasks like laundry and dishes, and I went to my volunteer work…where I also told the classroom teacher “Good mor — I mean, good afternoon,” and forgot what day it was when she asked me if I was coming back tomorrow. And my brain reminded me that I seem stupid and flaky and it might be a side effect of my medications and do they really want people like me reading to children?

Speaking of medication, the current Bad Brain days are a vast improvement over the ones when my medication wasn’t working. At the beginning of this year, my days were a haze of being unable to eat or sleep, of dry heaving, of near-constant feelings of being terrified, of rapid walking whenever I could because my mind kept saying, I have to get out of here, in a panicked, unending loop. Xanax helped, but not as much as it could have; it made me sleepy, and it wore off quickly. Because of the vomiting, I had a hard time working; I would dry heave uncontrollably before work, and sometimes run to the restroom during work, and my work tasks seemed insurmountable. I had sweet coworkers: one would go for walks with me during lunch every day, and another always made me laugh, but in the end I lost the (temporary, tech writing) job after I went to the hospital and before I got on a schedule of meds that is currently, mostly, working for me.

I went to the hospital because I just couldn’t do any of it anymore, the not-eating and the not-sleeping and the vomiting and the constant walking and the being afraid of everything. I found myself thinking that if I took a lot of my Xanax, I would just go to sleep and not wake up, and that would be the very happiest ever after.

They won’t miss you, my brain said. None of them will. At all.

But I was strong enough to realize that depression lies.

In any case, I don’t recommend going to a mental hospital if you have extreme anxiety. In my case, I’d had trouble getting in to see my therapist and my psychiatrist’s office, and I felt backed into a corner. I was calling the Crisis Center Hotline each day and taxing my friends, and I was running out of things to say other than, “I’m so anxious and I don’t know what to do.” But being in a mental hospital means you mostly can’t go outside, so instead of walking around a lake, I was pacing one small hallway. The few things I could eat in the cafeteria were sometimes unavailable. Unlike many of my cohorts, I was unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a stretch, even with Ambien, and I couldn’t lie down during the day for more than a few minutes. If I’d had my FitBit, I would have racked up tens of thousands of steps. Pace, pace, pace, pace.

But while I was in the hospital, I realized that I wanted, with all my heart, to get out of there. It was an improvement. I wanted to live, to be with my family, to drink apple juice without thinking the machine was going to run out because there were too many people in front of me. I wanted to be able to wear a belt on my pants and go to the restroom with the door closed.

Being in the hospital eventually got me the help I needed, and more importantly, it taught me to be my own advocate. It taught me to rely on myself to get help and not to give up, even if help didn’t seem forthcoming.

But it doesn’t, sadly, mean that I don’t have any more Bad Brain days.

I was talking online with a friend last night, telling him that I was going to quit writing this blog, and that I was having a Bad Brain day, and that everything seemed wrong and nothing seemed right. And he listened. And he encouraged me to keep writing, telling me, “I’m just offering a somewhat outside perspective that, in my past experience, you’re generally happier and better in the long run (and even medium) doing than not-doing?”

I told him about Medium and the algorithm, and he said, “ I don’t think there’s anything innately narcissistic about sharing your life and yourself with people who want to hear it,” and when I said, “But what if no one really wants to hear it?” he simply copied and pasted each and every positive comment about my blog on my Facebook page into Gchat.

And then all I could say was thank you. Because I have a friend like that.

I wish I could have Good Brain days all the time. I wish there weren’t days where going to the store, picking up my kids, and cleaning the bathroom all together feel insurmountable. But in the meantime, I’m glad for things like (soft) apple cider when I want it and good friends to remind me of gentle truths and little people who mostly listen when I read books to them.

If you’re reading this, I’m grateful for you.

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