Photo by Lizzie on Unsplash

My Mental Illness Has A Name

I named it, and it’s helped me treat it.


The engine isn’t turning over today,” I texted my friend, in response to the boilerplate question, “How are you?”

You know the feeling: you’re just not firing on all cylinders. You don’t want to work. You want to get out of bed, but you just can’t. The bills and to-dos are piling up, and so are the dishes. Everyone’s an extra asshole. The world’s out to get you.

I have moments — fewer now than a year ago, but still moments — when I’m like this and then some. When I’m not at my best. When I’m actively engaged in self-sabotage. When, from the outside, I look lazy, apathetic and miserable. Let’s talk about what that feels like from the inside.


Symptoms

Below is a list of how I feel and behave when I’m mentally ill.

  • Restlessness and fidgeting, repetitive movements
  • Anxiety, dread and terror — including panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Abusive inner monologue — occasionally vocalized out loud
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Tremors
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Auditory hallucinations (not voices, just noises)
  • Tension headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Hypochondria
  • Increased sensitivity to touch, sound, light
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Inability to form complete sentences, poverty of speech
  • Inability to articulate basic thoughts or feelings
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Poor executive functioning; lack of goal-directed behavior
  • Muscle spasms, twitches and cramps
  • Pins and needles
  • Mental fogginess
  • Emotional neediness / anxious attachment
  • Binge drinking, chain smoking, indulgence in vice
  • Feeling a lack of control
  • Paranoia
  • High resting heart rate
  • Occasional catatonia
  • Impulsivity
  • Persistent confusion
  • Derealization

These may or may not present all at the same time, and the vary in degrees of severity. But they are all symptoms I’ve observed over the past few years on days when I’m “off-peak,” or “not feeling myself.” They are a seemingly diverse array of symptoms that fall into several different buckets — toggling between the physical, mental and emotional. They defy easy treatment: anti-depressants don’t work well, ADHD medication either cures or exasperates them, anti-psychotics make me sleepy. That said: benzodiazepines work and they work well. This would, naturally, believe you to this ladders up neatly to an anxiety disorder. And you’re probably right. That said, it isn’t a persistent anxiety disorder. It only happens sometimes. Let’s dive into what those times look like.


Triggers and Causes

Below is a list of conditions that bring on or exacerbate the symptoms.

  • Dehydration
  • Stress
  • Clutter or disorganized workspace / living space
  • Sitting in traffic as a passenger (interestingly, not as a driver)
  • Excessive time spent indoors
  • Lack of strenuous exercise in the previous 48 hours
  • Burnout
  • Social isolation
  • Social settings after lengthy periods of social isolation
  • Poor diet consisting of rich foods, processed foods and/or high sugar
  • Lengthy periods of screen time
  • Binge drinking and subsequent hangover, withdrawal
  • Negative feedback or toxic interactions with friends, parents and peers

You can see from this list that some of these triggers can begat other triggers. For example, a hangover can snowball into social isolation. Clutter can cause stress. These conditions were initially difficult to identify because they so often occur in tandem with each other, but spending the past year making substantial lifestyle changes has led me to single them out and parse through them. Many of these are, “well, no shit” obvious roads to lapses in mental and emotional health, and cause me to function at a sub-optimal level, experiencing the cornucopia of symptoms identified at the top of the page. So what do I call this mish-mash of mental mayhem? I’ve given it it’s own cute little name: “The Glitch.” It’s short, simple and catchy — and naming it was the first step on the road to recovery.


The Origin of “The Glitch”

I’ve always known something was “off” with me. As a kid, I was often called “forgetful” or “the absent-minded professor.” As a young adult, I’d often feel out of control, or that the locus of control for my happiness lay outside the realm of my own responsibility.

I’d often complain about “the engine not turning over,” or feeling like “I have two brain cells left and can’t rub them together to get a spark.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what was wrong, because the symptoms were so all over the place and the causes weren’t immediately clear, but that all changed one day earlier this year.

I woke up one morning, late for work and in a total fog. I mainlined two cups of coffee but was still yawning on my commute. I mainlined even more caffeine in the office, and by 11 a.m., I was experiencing panic, hypochondria, confusion, palpitations, restlessness, resentfulness, stress, anxiety, anger, GI issues and sadness. I couldn’t identify what was wrong with me. I checked myself into a hospital by 12:30, and took 0.5 mg of xanax to test and see if I was merely having an anxiety attack. By 1:15, while waiting for my doctor, I had fallen into a peaceful sleep. I was woken up, and they asked me if I wanted additional testing. I said no and was released.

When I got home, I decided to make myself a salad, unplug from screens and resolved to just lay down and rest. I took an additional 0.5 mg of Xanax and slept for 14 hours. I woke up for work the next day refreshed and relaxed. And that’s when I started exploring.

A friend called to check up on me, and as I sussed out why I felt the way I did, and established some distance between my symptoms and my state of mind later in the evening, I was able to describe the way I felt — “it’s like I short-circuited. It happens sometimes, but usually not so severe. It’s like a glitch.”


The Power of A Name

“The Glitch” is exactly what it is. It’s a bug inside of me — not a feature. It’s a sudden, temporary malfunction of my own mind. It compounds upon itself, and until the glitch is fixed, it spreads, causing misfires in areas like mental clarity, happiness, tranquility, empathy, stability and amiability. It has cognitive, emotional and physical components. And what’s great about “The Glitch” is how naming it clued me in to how to treat and prevent it.

Naming my mental illness “The Glitch” allows me the freedom to remind myself that who I am in my glitchy moments is not who I actually am. I am not forgetful, sad, anxious, lazy and weird when I’m functioning normally. I do not feel the judgment I’d otherwise I feel if I just ascribed these traits to my character. It’s given me freedom, and the clarity to search for causes … and a cure.

It’s not a DSM-V term. It’s no substitute for a clinical mental health evaluation. What it is, though, is something I can use to describe myself, and a way for me to recognize when I’m not right. I can say to friends, “I’m feeling glitchy today,” or “I’m glitching out,” and we’ll both know exactly what that means. And I’ll also know how to fix it and prevent future glitches. Let’s explore that.


Treatment

Below are a list of steps I can take when I’m experiencing “The Glitch” to lessen the severity of it and shorten its duration.

  • Chug a litre of water
  • Go for a run of at least three miles
  • Take a long, hot shower
  • Go for a long, aimless drive
  • Take a leisurely walk through nature
  • Eat an acai bowl or a salad of tomato, cucumber, greens, avocado, lemon, dill and olive oil for my next meal (this is my go-to, I’m sure any salad will work)
  • Turn off my phone and hide it far away
  • Take 0.5mg of Xanax
  • Rest and/or sleep

I do those things in that order, and I run down the list until I no longer feel glitchy. They always work, and I often don’t need to go any farther than the run (although I often do).


Prevention

Below are a series of measures I can take to protect myself against future glitches. You may remember them from here:

  1. Drink 3L of water every day.
  2. Clean for 20 minutes every day, 50 minutes of deep cleaning on weekends.
  3. Take a leisurely walk through nature on weekends.
  4. Run between two and seven miles every day.
  5. Schedule fun social activities with friends 2–3 times per week, and a vacation every three months.
  6. Eat the following foods 80% of the time: mushroom, squash, spinach, avocado, banana, lemon, blueberry, tomato, chia seed, hemp seed, black beans, chickpeas, almonds, pistachios, salmon, tuna, shrimp, scallop, feta, pecorino, olive oil, coconut oil, garlic, honey, basil, eggs, mint, cilantro, dill, rosemary, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Acai bowls for lunch on weekends.
  7. Put away my smartphone after 10 p.m., unless I’m texting someone important.
  8. Cut my drinking by 90%, from 100 drinks weekly to 10 drinks weekly since August 21, 2017.
  9. Cut my smoking by 90%, from a pack a day to a pack a week since August 21, 2017.
  10. Write for 50 minutes per day. Practice Spanish and Portuguese on Duolingo for 20 minutes per day.
  11. Attend yoga and meditation weekly, and run through a 13-week course of therapy or life coaching annually.
  12. Cull my Facebook friend list quarterly back down to 500. Delete my active text conversations every Sunday evening to remind myself to be intentional about who I contact.

I used to glitch every day — often severely. I wrote this while glitching, about glitching:

Now I don’t. I generally only glitch on nights after I binge-drink now, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that in the past year.


What Does This Mean For You?

Here’s where I land on this: I’m not a doctor or clinical psychologist, or even a licensed therapist or counselor, or a registered nurse. I’m just an ordinary man with some lived-in experience regarding my own mental health challenges. Since naming and treating them, I’ve become kinder, clearer, healthier and more productive. Your mileage may vary.

If I could offer any practical advice, it’s this: Take ownership of your mental wellness. Regularly take inventory about how you feel and what you feel — jot down your symptoms, your emotions and your thoughts. Do this without judgment. (I know, it’s hard.) Then, try to systematically identify their causes and triggers. Once you do that, you’ll have a better chance of finding actionable pathways to treatment and prevention of the challenges that plague you.

And, most importantly of all, know this: You are not defined by your mental health challenges. You are not you on your off-days. You are you on your on-days. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. You might just find that you’re worth being kind to and taking care of. I think so, anyway. I think we’re all worth that, and a lot of the world’s problems would subside if more of us felt that way.


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