Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Am I?: Major Depressive Disorder and Identity

Major Depressive Disorder is the result of brain functioning which produces (or fails to produce) sufficient chemicals. It is a disorder I have struggled with all my life. At some point I should probably post an entry detailing my particular journey through personal madness. But for now, it suffices to say that I cannot remember a time when I did not view the world through an angry grey lens. As a child, I assumed everyone experienced the world the way I did. And at 17, I was (voluntarily) admitted to the nut house and began the long road to recovery.

Of course you never really "recover" from your brain's faulty chemistry. But neither does choking down a lottery of medical cocktails solve all your problems. I had to do some of the work too. And that's what I want to address today. Who is this "I"? 

Thanks to (being dragged kicking and screaming* to) read Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness Without God, I have been better able to clarify just what it is that I believe makes up the "self". The "self", or the individual, is composed of a unique set of desires, thoughts, decisions, values, abilities, and all of those are (directly or indirectly) the result of the brain's functioning. 

What this means is that, when it comes to depression or moodiness, my brain fails to function like most other brains. So I say to myself, "Self, how can this be you? How can you be a person who loathes yourself? Are you really this person who unfairly compares yourself to others? Finding faults in others to feel better about yourself? Being angry with anyone who is 'prettier', 'smarter', or 'more successful'?" I mean, is this who I am?

Truth is, I like to think of "myself" as the person I am when my cocktail has supplied me with the necessary chemicals. I'm thoughtful, confident, and gracious. I help others to the best of my ability. And I find I have unlimited stores of patience with myself and others.

When I'm feeling poorly, I'm self conscious around people whom I don't trust not to judge me, who might think, 'Well, that's just who she is, negative, argumentative, and lazy." But I don't really see myself as "that" person. I prefer to assign those attributes to the disorder. I aspire to keep my dark side from interfering with my behavior and relationships. The depressed person is not really me. I am this other person who is happy, and compassionate, and patient and generous.

But this, of course, isn't true. I am that depressed person. That person is me. As much as I don't like it. 

One funny thing about medication (which they don't tell you about initially) is that it doesn't last forever. By that I mean, your body builds up a tolerance to it. This is true of all medications (as far as I know) not just antidepressants or psychiatric medications. So, it came to pass, on the eighth year of my second brand of happiness-in-a-pill, that my mood, energy, empathy, and ability to feel pleasure plummeted. It was time for a new med.

Changing medications which alter one's mood is a bit like playing Russian Roulette. The effects could be minimal, the switch could be easy. And the first time I changed meds, this was my experience. However, back to reality, this time around it has been a bit more difficult. Among other unpleasant side effects, I have noticed a sudden inability to tolerate criticism in any form. (A quality whose reverse--the ability to accept and effectively utilize criticism--I take great pride in, when I'm feeling "myself".)

A stranger passes me on the street, I smile as I normally would, he looks away, a neutral expression, no smile. And my thoughts run rampant. It's like opening the Pamplona bull gate! I start jumping to all kinds of conclusions that I know aren't true, and running for my life before one of those bulls gores me. He hates me. I'm ugly. I'm worthless. Everyone hates me. There's no point to living. I am pitifully out numbered.

Thankfully, years of meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have enabled me to nab these thoughts right out of the gate, wrestle them to the ground and strangle them outright. (That's right, bull fighting, baby!) But that can't stop the emotions and tears that inevitably follow.

TheLordofDarkness and I have been fighting more often than usual during this Great Transition, and, I suspect, in large part because of it. Every problem he tries to express to me I hear as criticism, and it's all I can do to keep those pesky, terrifying thoughts at bay. I have no energy or mental aptitude left to address the actual problem. Is this who I really am?

The answer is "yes" (as discussed above), but that is not all. I am also the person who decides I don't want to be this way. I am the person who tackles the terrible thoughts, and refuses to let them control my behavior. I am the person who calls the doctor and I am the person who has the courage to say, "No, I am not okay. I need a change. I need some help." This is me too. 

Don't get me wrong, the most terrifying experience a person can have is when her own brain is trying to kill itself. When the self is trying to kill the self. Suicide is a alluring and deceptive mistress. Yep, this is still me. But not all of me. Because, while I have one voice that says suicide is easier than dealing with pain, there is another voice telling me that it doesn't have to be painful, and I can make it through, and I should ask for help. And I can always make the choice. Ultimately, this defines who I am: my choices.

*Have we not yet created a tongue-in-cheek font? I'd use it here if there was one. Can someone please get on that?!

As a personal side note, you may be sick of reading mental health stories like mine and roll your eyes at things like what I'm about to say. And if that is the case, feel free to stop reading. I give you a free pass. For everyone else, if you suspect you or someone you care about is suffering from a mental illness, PLEASE ASK FOR HELP! Do not let anyone tell you how you are feeling or what you need, except a mental health professional. The worst that can happen is that you suffer a small amount of embarrassment being told there is nothing really wrong with you. If you do have a mental disorder and you choose not to seek help, the best you can ever hope for is a miserable, unhappy life. The worst, is no life at all.