Six and a half years ago my brain declared a shock and awe attack against me. I had been fighting a difficult but not debilitating war with my thoughts – my OCD – my whole life. For twenty-five years, my brain attacked me in a First Gulf War sort of way…it was rough, but I fought back diligently by trying to pray it away. Once I finally identified the enemy and got on medication, I experienced a few years of peace. In a sense, I feel like I came out the winner – or at least ahead – in that battle.
But the past six years have seemed more like my 2nd Gulf War: aka The War on Terror. It has been an unending, never-certain-who-or-where-the-enemy-is, this-enemy-wants-to-burn-me-alive-on-international-TV sort of affair.
During my personal war on terror, I’ve been on more medications than I can count, I’ve been hospitalized twice; I’ve become so familiar with suicidal thoughts that I view people who want to live to be 100 as a PeeWee Herman/Denis Rodman kind of weird; I’ve had to leave two jobs because my brain couldn’t muster the stamina for them; I’ve nearly lost my marriage; and I’ve applied 12 times to be on the show Naked and Afraid because I want people to be awed at how big the blur has to be to cover “me” up. (Okay, one of these is primarily for levity. I’m not saying which one.)
Much like the real War on Terror, for the past six years, I have been entirely unsure what exactly I’m battling. The most natural conclusion is “depression.” But depression meds don’t do much for me. Some of them have really weird side-effects for me. Which means I might be bi-polar, but bi-polar II is hard to diagnose because the mania looks like productivity or intensity or agitation. Most people, like me, don’t go into their doctor and say, “I was really productive this month…we need to medicate me so I’ll be less intense next month.” So bpII goes undetected, as has probably been the case with me. When I take bp meds, I do better, for a little while. But eventually, I always feel back to where I started: depressed and hopeless. So my supporters tell me, again, to find a good talk therapist.
And then I uncover what I already knew: that I’m still very angry at a God I don’t believe in; angry at the religious dogma under which I was raised; angry that my career hasn’t panned out the way I wanted it to; angry that I am not the super dad I had/have hoped to be…nor the super husband; that I’m scared to make any radical changes because if they don’t work, then what?; that I feel like a failure because I’m not working in a traditional job these days; that I feel so incapable of controlling my ups and downs that it often feels like everyone would be better off without me; and so on.
In other words, on top of having mental illness(es), I have no small number of issues I need to work through that are only partially related to mental illness. Which just makes it all the more confusing. Where do I start? How long do I stick with a therapist that I’m not sure I’m connecting with? Should I see a therapist that takes insurance or pay the $6,093 an hour the other ones charge? What does it look like to do my part in all of this? I mean, as far as I can tell, I’ve worked really hard to get better, so I don’t think I’m being a resistant patient. But doesn’t anyone give up after awhile when they aren’t seeing results?
All of this might sound like a rant, but I do have a point: It’s hard to know what’s what inside our brains. If you have a tumor in your liver, they can take a picture of it and see that it’s pressing on such and such a spot and that’s what’s causing so and so to happen. There’s no such thing with the brain, though: I’ve had the best pictures they can take, and all the doctors had for me were guesses as to what the images might mean. Their suggestions felt like glorified leeching or bleeding.
This isn’t to disparage the good people who are trying to make inroads to understanding brain chemistry. It’s just to express the frustration that I and so many others feel. It’s like we have a college-level Calculus problem and we are being helped by elementary-school-level mathematicians. It’s not the elementary school kids’ fault; they’re trying to help. It’s just that they simply haven’t caught up to the problem that exists inside our chaotic heads.
So, my friends, I’ll wrap up my point: this stuff is really hard. It’s confusing. You get mixed answers from people. Some want you to exercise more while others want you on 10 medications. One doctor says you have OCD and the next one thinks it’s ADHD. Who are you to believe? I don’t know the answer to that. But I know that you’re not alone and, as with any complex problem, one of the best things you can do is to talk to someone who understands. Not someone who knows the answer…go ahead and give up on that for now. But someone who knows what it’s like to get told conflicting advice by two different doctors…or friends…or therapists. Find someone you can vent to, cry with, throw plates into the fireplace with, or whatever.
And that’s what this blog is all about and I think that’s largely what life is all about: We are all confused and we can all meet each other in the midst of that painful reality. When two brutally honest people come face to face what happens is usually called Friendship. For you, my hope is two-fold: 1. That you will know it’s okay to be really, really confused, scared, lonely, and broken. 2. And most importantly, that you will find friends for your journey – not the kind who stand above you with ideas and answers, but the kind who stand next to you, offering nothing more than their authentic, simple presence.
PS. A word for you supporters out there: I know how frustrating it must be to deal with our all-over-the-placeness. I know that there are times you’ve given us perfectly sensible advice and watched us go and do something entirely senseless. It must be maddening. But please know…it’s maddening to us, too. I mean, you’re talking to someone who thinks he might have contracted Ebola from the door handle at McDonald’s. Just bear that in mind next time you expect me to act sensibly.