tissue issues

Allyson On the rare morning that I can't wrench myself out of bed, I call in with a sore throat, a bad reaction to sushi (I actually don't like sushi), or a mysterious "girly bits" problem that won't be questioned and will elicit both sympathy and no follow-up questions. It's better this way. Calling in "mentally ill" may not bring forth questions, but it will leave a sticky residue over my work relationships. I don't want pity, or whispers behind closed doors if I'm genuinely annoyed or upset by an annoying or upsetting event that would furrow anyone's brow. And once people know, it's difficult for them to avoid acting like they know, with all the misunderstandings and misplaced sympathies that follow.

I remember the onset of mental illness came somewhere in the fourth grade; paranoia, emptiness, an inability to feel anything but anger or sadness. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had two suicide attempts under my belt. 

It wasn't until I was seventeen, in the hospital (again) hooked up to monitors, groggy from an overdose and subsequent chugging of charcoal to mitigate said overdose, that a doctor diagnosed me. 

We spoke for awhile, he writing things down on a yellow pad, me staring at a ceiling. I'd done this before, over and over, describing every symptom of craziness in annoyingly boring detail. 

He diagnosed me with Major Depressive Disorder and prescribed medication. He said I wasn't really crazy, that my brain was made of chemical soup, and one of the chemicals responsible for a stable mind was running low. The meds would prevent that from happening, or something. And that was that. 

That was almost twenty years ago, and probably a defining moment that set me on the path toward atheism, reason, skepticism. My brain was made of chemical soup. My emotions were made of chemicals. The horrible pain that made living unbearable could be fixed with a pill. At least mostly. Too much and I can't write or draw, too little and those unbearable mornings become too frequent. 

It's almost romantic thinking of the brain as primordial ooze where synapses fire electrical current through goopy gray matter, sparking reactions to stimuli, some ideas evolve into beliefs, and so on. 

It was a huge relief to get an explanation for what felt like a woo-based curse. My teen years were spent searching for some karmic reason for my inability to feel gratefulness toward my parents who tried so hard to rescue me, and love for my brother who was way too little to be dealing with the heavy hand of mental illness that made his life a much scarier place than it had to be. 

Recently, NIMH published a study on how thinning tissue on the right half of the brain could increase the development of depression. 

The findings come from research on types of depression that run in families. Familytree

That part stopped me cold. Thinking through the generations of people in my family who self medicated on alcohol and drugs, trying to numb that mind-searing pain with no idea that a fairy-dust sprinkle of serotonin could have prevented a Pandora's boxcar full of abuse and neglect. 

My prescription for a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) allows me to feel grateful that I'm here, in this generation, where there's a perfectly logical, medical, rational reason for storm that brews in my brain. It leaves me with a sense of relief, but also tremendous wonder about how the disorder manifested in me, and in those who preceded me on the matriarchal line. 

I, my mother, my grandmother and great-mother can all draw and paint. I inherited a box of oils and brushes from my mom, who inherited them from my grandmother. I wonder if any part of our creativity comes from the rapid washing away of an emotion stabilizer in our heads. Do we experience the world a bit differently?If so, how so? I embrace new research in a struggle to understand, and once again, the embrace comes with the pleasure of gratitude, that feeling that was completely foreign to me for such a long time. I'm so grateful to live in a time where the word "neurotransmitter" exists. 

Those who came before me, whose DNA and brain soup produced the person writing this were not as fortunate as I, and I grieve for that.

I didn't get their blue eyes, blonde hair, or bombshell figures, but I did inherit their low blood pressure, and given the white hot temper flare ups, long bouts of feeling blue and angry, and hypersensitivity to the feelings of others, I think there's a good shot that we all probably have a strangely thinning tissue issue. 

I desperately wish I could go back in time, armed with "what we know now" and grant them the peace I mostly feel in my once violently ill brain. Even when I feel the shift in mood, I can carefully, reasonably discern whether it's caused by an outside stimulus or a metaphorical bit of scar tissue from growing up with an untreated mental illness. 

This precious feeling of gratitude was brought to me by scientific research. Thank you.

11 thoughts on “tissue issues”

  1. Brilliantly said. I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar II 7 years ago. I too became a full-fledged atheist/skeptic shortly after I started the road to finding the right meds… each one changed me in a new and interesting (if not always productive) way, and I’ve been fascinated by the process. I’ve been on fairly stable meds for about 4 1/2 years now.
    It’s hard to watch my loved ones and friends who are in similar straits but are unwilling to go through the process of finding the right medication to help them. I try to tell them how wonderful life is now that I’m not fighting my brain at every twist and turn, but they just aren’t willing to try. Sad and frustrating.

  2. My 16 year old was diagnosed with major depressive disorder this past fall. It’s been a rough year of trying meds and tinkering to get the right one in the right quantity, but it makes all the difference. She is back to her highly creative, energetic self. I too wonder about some family members from long ago (and not so long ago!)

  3. Allyson:
    Thank you for your post. I know it took a great deal of courage to be so forthcoming. My best wishes for your continued joy and happiness. I do wonder though whether or not the meds might have taken you in another extreme direction which led to your atheism. I for one am not an advocate of gods and the like but I think it important to also understand the limits of what we think we know.

  4. Totally, totally, totally. And praise from me too about coming out. My family was in the same Ohio village for nearly 200 years (no, we weren’t inbred, actually) and the strand of crazitude that runs through generations proves everything anyone wants to know about inherited depression. The Jane Fonda genogram has nothing on mine!
    I have been taking one SSRI or another since they first were approved. Life isn’t perfect but it’s better than it once was and might still be (if I hadn’t drunk or drugged my way out of it).
    I wish our time could be more forgiving than it is, but I think it’s a matter of not yet. Western culture still has a way to go in being accepting of people’s differences. It needs people who look fine to be open about how they got that way.

  5. sister of physics brothers

    While I empathize with those who have mental illness, throwing in the “mysterious girly bits” as a more acceptable and publicly stated reason for being “not quite normal” and therefore, “unable to work” (over mental illness) perpetuates additonal and unnecessary stereotypes and derision we have been trying to get rid of for decades. This should not be another burden that women, including those with mental illness, might have to face in trying to get their issues taken seriously. And it’s not funny to me as a woman on the receiving end, even if it’s another woman making the joke.

  6. Now that I’ve walked the dog and had a little caffeine, I can be a little more indignant.
    The only way a vag issue can be considered “not quite normal” (since I have a vag, the issues that come with vag-having are pretty freakin’ normal to me) is if “normal” is defined as not having a vag.
    Those with a vag occasionally suffer from wicked pains, yeast infections, urinary tract infections, menopause, and sometimes, in the interest of perpetuating the human race, we vag-havers suffer labor and birth.
    Anyone who finds this unacceptable is a jackhole. My goal is not to pretend I don’t have a vag, but to make sure that those that actually don’t have one behave with some fucking gratitude and derision. “Hooray! You have a vag! Thanks for taking one for Team Human! How may we accommodate your vag?”
    So we have maternity leave, which is nice, since it’s difficult to give birth in a board room in between powerpoint slides.
    “Normal” is not the state of not having a vag. A vagina is a good thing. Everyone who ever came out of one should both agree AND make sure that all the issues that come with vag ownership are considered “normal.” Because they are normal. So there’s that. A workplace that doesn’t get that will miss half the world’s talent.
    I once worked for an all-female team of lawyers where it was okay to cry if you were especially stressed out. You’d get handed a box of Kleenex and the conversation would continue as normal, since “crying is a normal response to stress.” Not a weakness, but the body righting itself. Blow your nose, dab your eyes, continue. I understand that it’s rare, but it was AWESOME. And productive. And drama-reducing.

  7. Allyson, this is a freakin’ awesome post, and really courageous, as well as fascinating. Brain chemistry and the internal world we build from it has always fascinated me, never more so than when I found myself sliding down depression’s well-oiled slope. The day all the color leached out of my vision was one of the scariest and yet most interesting days of my life. It’s never been clearer to me than it was at that moment that mental illness is some biological and/or chemical process that shouldn’t brand people as anything but in need of medical help and support, like, say, the flu. Still, it’s hard to tease apart social attitudes and beliefs from disease (see Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor). Posts like this help a hell of a lot. Bravo.

  8. Rob Alexander

    Wow – I hope my daughter thinks this well when she grows up. Oddly enough, Allyson, my SSRI experience has led me directly into the church, and I even work in one as a musician, composer, and arranger. I started having severe depression in my early teens. My cousin committed suicide in his early twenties, nearly 30 years ago and before the discovery of the effects of SSRI’s. I am thankful that alcohol and drugs, as much as they caused me pain and addiction, were available… otherwise I would probably not be here to author this homily. I was introduced to Nardil in the early 90’s but quit taking it because my (then) wife thought it was “weak” to have to take drugs for depression. I was reintroduced to SSRI’s through the insistence of my current bride of 10 years, who refused to marry me unless I did something about my “moods”. Although I am very conservative these days (haven’t always been so) I am in a church environment that does not foster intellectual or emotional limitation. Our pastor, Joel Hunter, is on O’bama’s advisory board and gave the closing to his Denver acceptance speech last fall. He is far from being a liberal but does believe that religion should not be offered as “proof” of anything, nor should it be used as coercion; this is what I’ve been taught here. It is odd how Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), which was one of the saving graces of the input of numerous psychologists, can work to send us down one path or another. At any rate, the discovery of this website has been quite a birthday blessing for me… and I wish you the best as you continue to experience the well deserved enjoyment of your life.
    RobA

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