I’ll admit, I’ve been sitting at my computer for hours trying to figure out how to start this post. I was chatting with a student at work the other day about mental illness, specifically bipolar, and why it terrifies me as much as it does. The truth is, it’s hard to explain. The hypomania isn’t terribly scary and even the depression isn’t that bad, most of the time. Part of that, though, is because of my mom.
I think she must have always known that I would end up with bipolar. After all, she had it, and the chances were high enough that I would inherit it. In fact, some of my earliest memories were lessons on how to regulate myself through meditation, mindfulness, breathing, and so on. Imagine that. I was 6 years old and I could meditate as if I had been born doing it. Talk about a life skill!
A Wise Mind
One of the other things my mom taught me was the importance of remembering there’s an emotional brain, and a logical brain. Ideally, these two brains work together, and you are able to make wise decisions (something Dialectical Behavior Therapy calls, unsurprisingly, the wise mind).
Relevant link: Click here to find a worksheet explaining the basics of wise mind and a brief activity on how it applies to your life.
As I got older, we talked frankly about depression and suicide, and at the center of this was the knowledge of my logical mind and my emotional mind.
See, here’s the thing: she knew that depression was inevitable. It’s horrible to think, but the chances were just too high. So my mom did everything she knew to prepare me. Whether that was a conscious choice on her part, or not, I couldn’t say, but it happened. And the result? For the last couple of decades, I’ve been able to weather almost any depressive episode. How? By remembering one simple fact:
My brain was lying.
Yup. I knew better. I knew that when depression struck, that emotional part of my brain was just taking over and, honestly, it’s a bit of a liar. I knew that because somewhere in there, the logic part of my brain was still screaming,
“What?! That’s ridiculous! Think of all the stress you would cause if you did that. Think of all the things you would miss. And think about all the times you’ve felt horrible and then you’ve gotten better. If you give up now, you’ll miss out on that! Stupid emotional brain, don’t listen to that guy!”
And so I didn’t. I curled up in a ball. I cried. I screamed. I did everything I could and I got through it. Until the day I almost didn’t, because my logic brain threw in the towel.
An Unwise Mind
What’s so scary about bipolar (or any depression, really)? Your brain is trying to kill you. Some days you do everything you can, and it doesn’t matter. On that day, my wonderfully logical brain just rolled over and said: “eh, whatever.”
Internally, I screamed at it. I pleaded. I did everything I could to convince it to keep going, but it didn’t work. For every reason I’d ever had to keep going, it had a perfectly logical reason why I shouldn’t. It was determined to give in.
On that day, my brain truly tried to kill me. And that’s more than scary, it’s terrifying.
I was lucky…
I had a very skilled support network. They were able to keep me going until my family got home, and from there, they took over keeping an eye on me. I was lucky, but many are not.
When I’m asked what severe depression feels like, it’s hard to answer. Suicidal depression is not about being weak. It’s not about hating life, even. Often it’s just an intense weariness from trying to hold on, a point in which your mind turns against you and tries to convince you there’s no reason to continue. Most of us suffering from depression desperately want to live, though.
So, when someone tells you it’s getting too hard, take them seriously. Keep them safe and be the wise mind for them until they get theirs back. Remember, external threats we can run from, but when it’s your mind there isn’t much of an escape.
And for those of you who do suffer from severe depression: remember, it will pass. And until it does, get help. From loved ones. From friends. From others who have been there. Support groups, support networks, even hotlines. There are resources out there for you, so please ask for that help.
And remember, just because the monster trying to attack you is your own brain, doesn’t mean you have to play nice. Call it out for what it is: a lying, manipulative ….well, you know the word.