November 21st, 2013


what it must be like in my funny little brain

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

mental-health1Earlier this week over at LiveJournal, I mentioned that I saw a lot of myself in the psychological struggles of both Sherlock and Watson on the BBC show. That’s always a danger of becoming fans of a certain show; you tend to see yourself in the characters, both remaking them in your image and remaking yourself in their image.

That said, I do have two major, diagnosed psychological conditions, a past I can only describe as difficult, and a third that my current therapist (yes, I’m in psychotherapy) suspects I may have but that isn’t diagnosable because of effects of said icky past.
I thought it might be interesting to explain a bit about me, to help you understand where I’m coming from.

Over the last decade I’ve known several people who have died. One of them was around my age and died unexpectedly in my last year of undergrad. Another was a child who died at the end of my first semester at Fordham, from a GBM brain tumor. I don’t talk about these things much in public because they’re both very painful and not entirely my stories to tell (why I’m not mentioning names, among other things). But you can’t really understand where I’m coming from without understanding those two events, because the last decade of my life has really been defined by what psychologists call complicated grief. In my case it also meant something of a crisis of faith, a flirtation with atheism before I settled into a less dogmatic Christianity complemented by a vaguely Taoist psychological approach to life, and (because I needed a philosophical framework to approach the problem of evil like most people need oxygen): grad school.

I’m not sorry about that last point, as an aside. If nothing else, I am a more confident, better-rounded and better educated woman than I would have been. I also have the ability to think about things in a way that actually engages my brain enough to not be tortured by the feedback loop. And that’s far from the only reason I went to grad school; I was and am fascinated by the work, and am sorry to see that part of my life wind down. But that’s a story for another day, I think.

Because of those deaths – because I have a big old brain with an imagination to match, because I saw certain details and read medical reports and my brain did the rest, I started having truly horrific nightmares. I became increasingly overwhelmed by sights and sounds, to the point that I’ll wait until after rush-hour to avoid getting caught on a packed subway. Around the time I started Cleveland State University I was diagnosed with PTSD. (It really isn’t just for Vietnam veterans, or even apparently people who actually experienced the event.) In my case, the biggest problems are sleep problems, nightmares, and having a really hard time admitting when things aren’t okay. I can have my happy-face glued on pretty tightly. I also get easily spooked, and the after-effects of it can stay with me quite a while.

As a teenager I was also diagnosed with ADHD, and before that with other learning disabilities related to parsing instructions and written expression. I know, I know, probably the most over-diagnosed situation out there, but in my case it actually really does fit. I’m actually very intelligent, but until well into my college career struggled to get good grades. Partly it was a difficulty of following instructions, but more than that I have a real problem not overfocusing on things. I obsess. I’m very, very thorough and can be a real workhorse once I decide something is worth my attention – often to the exclusion of all else. I also get easily overwhelmed by sounds and can only study if I have white noise. (My GRE scores are about 200 points higher than my SATs, I think largely because I was allowed to listen to headphones they provided with classical music. Also, because I am a genius.

The overfocusing thing is probably the biggest thing. Getting overinvested. It’s probably a major drive in my fannish activities, though not always. (Fandom itself isn’t a mental health issue.) But I do like things being just so. Riding down the road I tend to catlaogue the cars from each state, or the number of mailboxes passed, or whatever. Otherwise I get bored and overwhelmed, and it’s not a pretty picture. Boredom is physically painful. I’ve not gone the Sherlock route (no 7% cocaine, no nicotine patches) but for me there is a tendency to absorb myself in minutia of certain things (historical facts, every detail of the Silmarillion, etc.) – it gives me an intellectual high and something to focus on, I think. It’s also part of what made me such a good admin: I can be really very obsessive in this regard, and a real workhorse at getting things just so. But it tends to crowd out normal priorities, let alone any kind of socialization. “Married to the work” seems a pretty good description of my personality, although typicall not to work that’s anywhere near as crucial as Sherlock’s.

It’s also, incidentally, why I’m so comfortable with online friendships rather than in-person ones. Again, there’s the Sherlock resonance: I prefer to text. Better yet, to email. Give me a way that I can communicate in discrete terms, without being tied to nonverbal communication, and I will be a happy girl. It’s also why I get so frustrated to the point of being overwhelmed with the tendency a lot of people have to eschew labels. I need them, both for myself and others, with the understanding that they are perfect – I need a starting point on how to think of you. I’m fine if someone tells me “I’m sort of like a libertarian (or atheist, or engineer, or Hunger Games fan, etc.) but not in regards to A, B, and C” – but if you just tell me you’re who you are and don’t fit in anywhere, it doesn’t work well. It’s also why I find it so hard to deal with situations where people’s brains don’t work as rigorously logical as mine does. And incidentally that’s not a slam. My brain simply is shortcircuited by contradictions and when people make factual claims but are concerned by something more than whether the fact is true or not.

Finally, the condition my shrink suspects but that isn’t diagnosable: rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Normally I’m quite down. I have a hard time initiating anything, often feel quite exhausted and guilty and get lost in myself quite easily. I just don’t get stuff done, and when I go have fun it’s because I’m supposed to have fun, not because I actually enjoy it. It’s more than that but hard to explain. The real problem is I’ve also been grieving in a serious way, and also have PTSD, which tends to overlap with a lot of these symptoms. This is Kantianism 101: how do you work out the true motivation of a certain result, when it could be caused by more than one thing. But every three months or so I have about a two-week period where I have an extreme burst of energy and almost irresistible urges. I talk quickly. My brain works like a steel trap. I get maybe 3-4 hours of sleep a night but don’t feel tired at all, until eventually I crash.

I’m actually in that state right now. A few days ago I lost my keys (have now been found by the doctor’s office). I actually heard them drop out of a teared coat pocket and was sure I’d picked them up but then got distracted before I picked them up and only remembered later that I’d forgotten to pick them up. I had nightmares last night and got maybe four hours of sleep but am raring to go – and actually have movie tickets both for Hunger Games tonight and the Doctor Who special this weekend, despite not having seen a movie in at least two weeks before then. I’m not as out of control as a full blown mania would require, but then this is also a mania (suspected hypomania, actually, according to my shrink) battling its way through some pretty bad depression and just old-fashioned grief. Still, if the mood struck me, I’d probably sing a few lines of Mozart in the subway, just to play with the acoustic because the mood struck me.

For all of that, I’m really quite high-functioning. I get through the day, most days, particularly when I’m not dealing with major life change-ups.

Anyway, when I refer to various psychological symptoms, that’s the cluster I’m generally referring to. Hope you’ve liked this little tour through Marta-land.