Mental Illness and Physical Pain: When the Brain Destroys the Body

My body is a clunker! And a great deal of the reason is that mental illness and physical pain are inextricably intertwined. Unlike most other illnesses, which are contained in one part of the body, mental illness sabotages the whole organism, much like the flu.

When I was about thirteen or fourteen, maybe even younger, I was at the dentist. He noticed that my canine teeth (the sharp ones that would look like fangs if they were longer) were completely flat. He was stunned that at my young age, I had already done that much damage to my teeth. His first question, asked almost in a joking tone, was, “Are you stressed out or something?” I sheepishly nodded “yes,” and he almost chuckled and asked, “What does a guy your age have to be stressed about?!” I wanted to say, “Everything in the whole world!” but by then I had learned that my obsessive brain made me weird, and so rather than answer him, I just nodded and gave him a you’re-right-my-life-is-blissful smile.

Grinding my teeth was only the first physical symptom of mental illness and physical pain joining forces in my body. Throughout high school, every doctor or PE teacher who has ever tested my flexibility (that sounds naughty if you have a brain like mine) has concluded the same thing: “Wow, Tim, you’re really tight!” As a kid taking the Presidential Fitness Test, I never thought anything of this consistent observation. It just seemed to be the way I was.

Then, two years ago, I developed severe tendenitis in my elbows. I tried to ignore it for awhile, but eventually I reached out to pick up my phone, and the twinge of pain was more than I could stand, so I dropped it. This seemed like a good time to call a doctor, which I did, and before long, I had my first doses of cortisone in each elbow. Over time, I would have 5 more between the two elbows. Oh, and one surgery with another soon to follow. I would put some good money that my tightness and my elbows were/are symptoms of my brain’s problems. My body simply shouldn’t be breaking down like this at my age.

There are plenty more examples where mental illness and physical pain intersect, such as my chronically bad back and persistent headaches, but the last one I want to mention is a horrible way that the brain harms the body in a very literal and deliberate sense: self-harm. On the inside of my upper left bicep – the most tender part – there are 8 prominent scars, slightly raised, looking like organized rows in a garden.

On my inner right forearm there are countless smaller and less conspicuous similar scars. That night the inner pain wasn’t quite so all consuming and I didn’t feel the need to be as aggressive in my pain seeking. I both cut and burned that time, but none of the scars show unless you look quite closely.

And on my inner right thigh, there are two red marks that have taken over a year to fade to skin color. Those are my most recent episodes of self-harm, brought on when someone I considered a friend reached out to tell me that she had unfriended me on Facebook because what I said was too negative for her. Already nearing desperation, I broke. I got my knife and lighter and decided to see how hot I could make the knife and how long I could touch it to my skin.

The first examples are about the unconscious harm our brains do to our bodies, while the self-harm examples demonstrate that sometimes our brains come out of hiding and demand that we do ourselves harm. It’s quite literally insane that anyone could get twisted up enough to start hurting himself. No one does it for fun. People do it because, in an odd way that no one could understand unless they had done themselves harm, it alleviates the horror of that particular moment. Imagine the despair of a brain seeking to inflict harm on the body that houses it, like a car that flattens its own tire.

Mental illness doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t follow the rules of logic or normalcy, and that’s why many people call us “crazy.” For those who suffer from any form of bodily harm at the mercy of your brain, I wish for you the ability to love your broken self. I hope you will see that broken people are the best part of being on this earth. We are the ones who are forced to do what some others will never learn to do: love ourselves, forgive ourselves, and accept ourselves.

And for those of you who are trying your best to support us but get tired of our incessant aches and pains, do your best to put yourself in our shoes. Imagine having a stroke. Suddenly the right side of your body is worthless. But neither you nor any of your friends think you’re faking it because it can be seen on an X-ray. The only difference is you’ll have to trust us and the doctors who diagnose us that there really is something very wrong in our brains. Our bodily symptoms are no different than stroke symptoms: the brain turning on the body.

And for all of you, please know that you are never alone. I am here for you, always available on this page or at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com. And I hope that if you don’t already have them, you will find friends who speak the language of mental illness.

And supporters, you, too, can email me. And I urge you, too, to find friends who have a similar situation as your own. You need grace and kindness for yourselves as well. This is very hard; no one fully understands it.

We are all driving through a 5-mile, pitch-black tunnel without working headlights. The least we can do is to pile in the same car and face our fate together.
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2 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Physical Pain: When the Brain Destroys the Body

  1. Tim,
    I appreciate your story and your honesty and you. I recently listened to S-Town, a podcast with 7 chapters about a genius living in small town AL. The “S” does not, however, stand for “small”. Your post made me think of it. Give it a listen. You will not notice the reference to self harm until the last or next to last episode.
    Joannah

    1. Thank you, Joannah! You’re the 2nd person to mention that to me so I need to heed the advice! I really appreciate your kind words and support…as always!

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