Rough Seas and Life Preservers

In its natural state, my brain is almost always over-stimulated. This doesn’t seem like a bad thing if you haven’t experienced it, but in practice, it means that I just shut down after a certain point. Thing that are easy, run-of-the-mill tasks for most people are insurmountable mountains for me. Calling someone on the phone to sort out something? Panic-attack inducing. Even answering emails or messages can be overwelmingly scary. Am I staring at you blankly? It’s probably because I have entirely forgotten how to make smalltalk and I’m reminding myself that you asking what I’m thinking does not mean you want to hear about my recent foray into reading about “alternative” STI treatments in the early 20th century (readers of this blog notwithstanding). Sometimes the ability to function in society is just so overwelming that my brain snaps.

I’m not going to hurt myself. I’m not going to hurt others.

However, I can’t perform at my optimum or even close to it without mind-altering drugs. Right now, due to a fun insurance screw-up, I’m stuck with self-medicating through caffeine and the occasional Sudafed. This keeps me functional enough that I can keep my job, finish tasks, have hobbies and occasionally write.

It does not keep me functional enough that I can pay bills on time without an overly elaborate setup of cell phone alarms, scheduled emails and scheduled payments. It keeps me functional enough that I can go be social with people, but not functional enough that I can do so without an irrational and gripping fear that I don’t belong, that I won’t be welcome or that people will hate me.

The best analogy I can come up with for my brain is this: Imagine you’re treading water. Treading water is pretty easy and most people can do it for a long, long time without becoming exhausted and falling under the water. Now imagine treading water in open sea. Half of the time, the sea is calm, and it’s pretty easy to stay above water, but half the time it isn’t. A storm can be devastating to your ability to not drown. But so can a mild swell if you’re already exhausted. Most people are treading in a calm sea, with the occasional storm. Some people are always fighting a rough sea… and still having to deal with the same storms.

I’ve written before about how the support network I lucked into through birth has been a protective factor in helping navigate my world, but nowhere is it more evident than when I look at the way my brain works.

But there’s another level to the safety net, and one that isn’t immediately obvious. This is the unconscious knowledge that if something bad happens, there are measures in place that will take care of us: things like fire departments, and friends and health insurance.

My group health plan at work charges women twice as much as men in order to be insured. At my age that payment would take out more than a third of my paycheck. So I decided to go for individual insurance. In order to sign up for insurance at an even slightly-affordable rate (it’s still not really affordable), I had to agree that I wouldn’t be asking for mental health treatment for the first six months.

Which was fine and dandy.

Until I had a nervous breakdown in early April.

I am lucky. I am lucky that my brain’s particular quirks do not allow for truly suicidal thoughts.

I am lucky that I have people to call if things get too bad… my mother, my sister, my best friend. People who will let me hang out with them or sit there quietly, or cry on their shoulder.

I am lucky that I’ve had two other breakdowns and that I know that the way my brain works, they only last a month or two at their worst. I also knew that I only needed to wait a few months and I could medicate if I still needed to. And if worse came to worst, I could ask my parents and they could help me out financially to get me the care I needed. Without these things, I would have been facing a much different decision.

Had the pain I was feeling been without a conceivable end in sight, and if I didn’t know that I could fix this in, at most, a few months, I don’t know if I could have faced the nothingness, the interminable stretch of mottled grey canvas that my brain becomes at these times. It was hard enough to face it for two months. It was hard enough to get out of bed in the morning knowing that this was a temporary thing. It would have been nearly impossible if not entirely impossible if I didn’t know that it was temporary. Or had my brain been just slightly differently wired so that I couldn’t see through the temporary state.

In this culture, we demonize the mentally ill. We other the homeless and the unemployed. But here’s the thing: Not everyone can function without help. Some people have been fighting a rough sea all their lives, so a storm will be entirely devastating.

The wonderful thing about these brains of ours is that we as a society have used them to create treatments to help people. Not ones that are perfect, and not ones that will excise all problems, just yet, if ever. But ones that can alleviate it just enough that many people can go about their business as functional members of society.

But we don’t make these treatments available to everyone. We make insurance prohibitively expensive. We block those who already have known problems from receiving the insurance they so desperately need. We cut government benefits and access to clinics that service lower incomes.

And then we look at the people we’ve cut off from this care and we judge them. We judge them as negligent, as lazy, as useless. We judge them as dangerous. We think they should be locked up, in mental health institutions at best, in prisons at worst.

But there but for the grace of a social safety net go I. And there but for the grace of access to insurance go you. Our brains are easily rattled, both literally and figuratively. A car accident with a hit to the head. A fall off a ladder. The death of a loved one. Witnessing a traumatic event. Our species has created net after net to help us deal with these things, pharamaceutical, therapeutic and social measures to help people who need help. But then we go to such great lengths to keep them from a great percentage of the people who need them most. It is hard enough to escape generational poverty when you’re at your best. How can you even hope to do it when even your own brain is fighting you.

You may think that you are a perfectly adjusted, “normal” human being. Different from those lazy, useless people you see on the street and in the newspaper. But that can change. Our brains are good, even great, at dealing with most things, but you never know when that last straw will break you. And it might be something small. In my case it was. Something so very small that I will have to laugh about it in the future when I recount this story… when I’m over the immediate shame and pain of not being able to deal with it myself.

I don’t fight for access to health care for myself. I have the social net that society so often crows about. I fight for access to health care for those who don’t have what I have. Because I can too easily put myself in their place. I can too easily see myself reaching for help that was being denied to me. And denied for no good reason except for the fact that those denied me still subscribe to the competing and blind dual ideals of protestant work ethic and predestination that are so prevalent in our culture.

Because we tie our place in society to a self-congratulatory sense of accomplishment rather than to institutional advantages, we place ourselves above those who have not been able to “elevate” themselves to the rank of good, hard-working, successful people. And at the same time, we apply a moral judgement of “if you’re not successful, then you must not deserve to be successful” to those same people. Not only do we congratulate ourselves for being harder working, but we congratulate ourselves on being more deserving to start with.

We don’t realize that our place in society is so very, very fragile. Well, I say “we”, but really, most of the people reading this have had a taste of the fragility of our status. We are living during a recession. We are living during a time where it is hard to find a job, even for those who are exceptionally talented and hard-working.

It would be easy for me to judge those who go through similar breakdowns to mine and think “Well, I made it through, why can’t they?” or “It’s not that bad. They just need to shake themselves out of it.” But it is that bad. It’s just that I always had a life preserver sitting in front of me while drowning in my emotions. It didn’t feel like much at the time, but it was enough. It was enough to see that there was a failsafe if my own willpower failed. Just the existence of that failsafe meant that I could continue my own inernal struggle just a little bit longer. Knowing that there was a support structure to pull me out of the water if my own strength failed me.

I can’t honestly say whether I would be looking at my breakdown from the other side if I hadn’t had that support system. Possibly, but possibly not. I don’t know. I don’t have to know, because I did have it.

Those people who have the power in our society have not lived life without those ever-present life preservers. They can shake off the pain and the problems, with the help of the structures that have been created to help them. They still hurt, but they have an extra hand from society. They have a safety net, always in view, even when they are going through hard times. It is easy to forget that not everyone has access to the same things that you might, and that by doing everything in our power to throw down life preservers to everyone, we can do so much more than we can even realize to make our society better. After all, people who aren’t spending their entire time fighting against drowning can make ships that will help carry us *all* across the stormy oceans we are all faced with.

7 thoughts on “Rough Seas and Life Preservers

  1. So much of this echoes a lot of my fears. Sometimes I wonder if I work so much and avoid a lot of social gatherings because I literally have the thought on a daily basis, “The more you talk, the better people will get to know you, and the less they are going to like you.” That’s every day.

    And as far as fighting for healthcare, if that weren’t something people were terrified about all the time, think of the great minds that could be taking chances instead of tied down to a mundane job. Think of what could be invented, created, or thought up, that is instead dying in the brain of some wage-slave in a cubicle.

  2. Excellent article, Emily! Just yesterday I finally decided that I had been “not myself” for long enough, and went to see my GP about starting antidepressants. I am in the fortunate place of having an excellent health insurance plan, so I am immensely sympathetic to those who do not. I hope your situation improves soon and that you can get the medications you need.

    Internet hugs.

  3. Emily,
    Your exhaustion with coping sounds very familiar to me. Fortunately — at least I think it is fortunate — I have been prescribed two antidepressants, so my ability to do everyday things is very much improved. On the other hand, I still have trouble, and take caffeine pills, and need lots of cell phone reminders. More than any of that, though, I just get the impression, from what you wrote, that being inside your head is a lot like being inside mine. And it sure is tiring to be like this — whatever “this” is. I certainly don’t know the answer to that one.

  4. I truly feel for you. I’m in the same boat and am just now able to start working again. Certainly not fun being mentally exhausted within 3-4 hours of waking. I take it you also get that weird form of insomnia where your brain just won’t stop popping up with new thoughts? Anyway, good luck and help it works out well for you 🙂

  5. Beautifully put…it’s amazing to me that an entire culture can turn it’s back on so many people…the safety net is there, but for far too people, as you so eloquently demonstrate here. Thx for this post.

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