18. Swings and roundabouts.
Forgive me tonight for going down a bit of a grim direction, but this is something that I think needs talking about just as much as any other aspect of mental illness, and especially depression; while I’ve touched on it previously, there’s more I’ve realised I needed to get out. One of the aspects of this illness that I’m still wrapping my head around even now is the challenge of working out how to set up mental and physical spaces in my daily life that can assist me in breaking out of a phase of anxiety or depression when it happens. For some people, it can be a small trigger that sends them into a tailspin that might take days or weeks to recover from. One such small thing in particular I’ve heard of is a show of fireworks. To the average person with a tolerance for noise, they’re a joyful, raucous and beauteous display of celebration, and every New Year’s Eve I love to watch them (usually at a party with dear friends), vivid bursts of incandescent greens and magentas and cascades of golden sparkles, watching the phantasmagorical tones illuminate friends’ captivated faces in shades neither sun nor moon could ever produce. But fireworks are explosives, of course, and to a military veteran suffering from PTSD the sharp reports of exploding fireworks – and indeed, also the smell of gunpowder that often lingers after a large pyrotechnic display – may be indistinguishable from sounds of gunfire and artillery combat, thence triggering an episode of intense anxiety, or even a full-blown flashback. I’m immensely grateful that this association is not one that I suffer from, but nonetheless, there will be times during the course of some days where someone might say something insensitive, or even something that reminds me of a traumatic event in my past, that will set me off. And the phrasing of such events as “triggers” is exactly right, in my experience: like a gun’s trigger, or a set mousetrap, the right (or wrong, as it were) pressure will switch on those unhealthy, unproductive thought processes almost immediately, and the stimulus will make you think of one thing, which then leads to another, and then another, and before you know it you’ve fallen back onto the carousel of crazy, the vicious cycle that you know intellectually is bullshit but you can’t stop yourself from being dragged into anyway. There are, however, ways in which you can gently help yourself down off the madness-go-round. This is related in some ways to the “Spells of Coming Forth into Daylight” metaphor I used in a previous blog post. My personal set of spells is fairly neatly delineated into tools in my environment, tools I can summon physically, and tools I can summon mentally. Long work with my psychologist and psychiatrist has given me many conceptual tools with which I can analyse my thoughts, and try to step outside the illness to look at a scenario more objectively rather than letting emotions run away with me. But when I’m in the middle of a dead phase, summoning such conceptual frameworks can be challenging in itself, when there are no emotions, just sheer emptiness and vacuum. This is where the physical (or at least quasi-physical) manifestations of my brain repair kit come in handy: they’re unarguably present and direct stimuli that can remind me of cheery things even in times when I can’t think of such things unbidden. In my phone case, I have a small pamphlet from my psychologist giving me a step-by-step guide to overcoming a panic attack, which has come in useful more than once. On my phone itself, I have a carefully-curated collection of digital images and videos, every single one of which I’ve saved only if it’s never failed to bring a smile to my face on an absolutely involuntary basis. There’s an image macro of Lyanna Mormont snipping back at Ramsay Bolton. There’s a video of a cute little marching band made up entirely of cartoon cats. There’s another video of my little nephew, burbling formlessly for a few seconds before he spontaneously grins and sings the word “Pickles!”. When I’m feeling poorly or defeated, these little digital pick-me-ups are pure gold: they help to create a tiny chink in the robust armour of the anguish, and remind me that emotions do exist, that they’re things that people feel, and that they’re things that I can feel too. And around the room that serves me as workspace, there are more permanent fixtures – the tools in my environment that I mentioned just before – also aimed at breaking me out of the darkness before I fall in too deeply. The three trophies I amassed from winning poker tournaments. A whiteboard prominently bearing reminders of effective ways to minimise negative feelings and improve the impact of the positive (above the aphorism your current situation is not your permanent destination). A canvas I painted myself, bearing a quote from the film Clerks II that’s always struck me deeply (even moreso considering the film is supposed to be a comedy):
“If you had any sense whatsoever, you’d fucking stop trying to bray it up with the rest of the sheep and live your life the way it makes sense for you!”
– Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), Clerks II
It’s never just one tool for one job, you see. The protean nature of mental illness means that the sufferer may often need a whole arsenal of methods through which to learn how to deal; and while my toolkit remains far from complete, the tools I have are at least sharp and efficient, and get ever more so as I continue to accumulate insights and support from my psychologist, my psychiatrist, my doctors, and my allies.