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When your mind defects (leaving you without your biggest asset)

December 22, 2011

Genetics have been generally kind to me. I have no major physical or health defects, my appearance doesn’t usually repulse (despite my lifestyle choices which have led to being overweight, but I’m dealing with that), and I’m generally average at most things, which is a bigger gift than many realise. My greatest genetic inheritance however is my mind. It’s the tool which has allowed me to become fairly successful in my area of expertise, and to generally negotiate a path through my life’s experiences with mostly favourable outcomes.

Panic Attack

Image by JD'na via Flickr

My brain’s genetic plan and the subsequent synapse-building experiences of my early years have particulary favoured communication skills and empathy, which I view as intrinsically linked, and the ability to bring to bear a sharp, intense focus: a mix which has been perhaps my greatest strength throughout life. As a consultant, my communication skills and empathy result in rapid rapport and understanding of my client’s pains, motivations and expectations, and my focus allows me to absorb, collate and analyse these inputs very quickly. I can generally turn out resultant work pieces must faster than many of my contemporaries, subsequently allowing me to churn out a high volume of quality work.

Recently however, my ever reliable, identity-defining toolkit has faltered. My mind and body colluded to crush my confidence, destroy my focus and undermine everything which makes me… me. The anxiety attacks I wrote of recently were just the beginning (or at least the first signs obvious to me), of what I now believe will be a long journey of self-discovery, emotional upheaval, and change.

I never understood depression. I sympathised with its victims, no doubt, but I didn’t understand what it really meant. I thought it a cognitive process – a ‘state of mind’ thing, which suffers needed to conquer through determination, counseling and support. I had no idea. I had no concept of how rapidly one’s mind can defect – how quickly your greatest gift can desert you and turn you into a direction-less, hollowed-out zombie, wading through a cesspool of overpowering emotions, pointless thought-loops, and self-doubt.

It wasn’t until I spoke with my GP that some pieces of my puzzle finally fell into place – pieces which the ‘normal’ me would have identified, catalogued, analysed and linked together rapidly. For several years I’ve felt unfulfilled at work, thinking what I do delivers no benefit to mankind and is therefore pointless. For most of this year I’ve generally avoided social situations – usually appealing to me, as I thrive on exchanging ideas and learning new things from other people’s experiences. I’ve avoided emotional entanglements – effectively shutting out emotional stimuli. I’ve been numb. More recently I’ve awoken most mornings before dawn, almost overwhelmed by a deep sorrow, seemingly disconnected with events, easing as the day progresses. Criticisms which I’d normally take on board or reject, depending upon the source and the relevance, have devastated me. I’ve avoided reading, for absorbing information has become very difficult, when usually I read constantly. I’ve cried – sobbed – usually in my car, at the slightest provocation. Songs will do it. Lyrics I’ve heard thousands of times suddenly mean something deep and profound. Reading or hearing about suffering does it too, or the thought that I may have hurt someone I care about.

I’ve never suffered from anxiety. My recent panic attacks were the first I’ve had. Although I’m just beginning the process of working through this, my GP said many things I’ve said are indicative of depression, not anxiety, which suffers tend to battle much of their adult lives. We’re doing some blood tests to eliminate some various things, and we’ll start the process on counseling and so-forth, so we’ll see.

Despite my sympathy for sufferers of depression, the thought that maybe I may yet be described as such is rather horrifying. I know there should be no shame, not guilt, but it’s there. It feels so self-indulgent, so selfish. Yet I wouldn’t think the same of anyone else in this position. It’s chemical. I’m still in here somewhere – I’m just going to need a little help finding myself again.

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18 Comments
  1. Symone permalink

    An amazingly articulate and insightful piece especially considering you are dealing with this “real time”. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Steve Payne permalink

    Lucas, I get it. Totally. You put it way more lucidly than I am able to when my depression kicks in. I call my state ‘miserable’ and am likely to burst into tears when anyone asks me “How are you?”

    Not the best introduction, when, surely people are using it as a greeting and not really wanting a man to cry quietly when asked a congenial question.

    I know you are still there, as am I. Persist. Life remains worth it. You have friends who understand and will be happy to listen without judgement and to tell our own stories to let you know we understand.

    Keep at it mate.

  3. Footscarey permalink

    Keep in there buddy. I feel your anguish.

    It’s unbelievably hard to come to terms with in a world where we are so well cared for – a house, a family, a job, food on our plates. The thought of being sad is just staggeringly mind blowing its throws us off course.

    Just understand that it’s a process and you will get through it – I was sitting where you are now 5 months ago – and I was building a new house – if that is not suppose to make you dance around with joy I don’t know what is – yet I still did the same as you – got up each morning feeling so sad I could hardly breath – feeling numb – crying at the drop of a hat. Every decision I had to make I doubted – I constantly said to myself that I couldn’t do it. I still have monumentally bad days of depression but I know the signs now and just let it run its course.

    Keep talking, keep discovering and keep looking for answers and most importantly keep asking for help.

    xoxo

    • It saddens me so to hear you went through this or worse so recently, and I wasn’t any the wiser. The positive for me is the closeness I now feel to friends like you 🙂

  4. flip permalink

    Sigh… You described all 20 years of my 30 year life so far… Especially the morning thing, which I’ve felt every day even more so since graduating uni and losing job after job. It’s really hard to ignore the lethargy when you know every day is going to suck.

    “Despite my sympathy for sufferers of depression, the thought that maybe I may yet be described as such is rather horrifying. I know there should be no shame, not guilt, but it’s there. It feels so self-indulgent, so selfish. Yet I wouldn’t think the same of anyone else in this position. It’s chemical. I’m still in here somewhere – I’m just going to need a little help finding myself again.”

    I can totally understand. Even though I’ve been a sufferer all of my life, it wasn’t until I went into the psychiatric wing of a hospital that I figured out that the stigma permeates even my thoughts. My first night I shared a room with a woman who screamed (blood curdling screams, most likely not consciously doing it) randomly throughout the night. It terrified me, even though I knew she was in great emotional pain. I also knew I wasn’t in any danger, because the doctors wouldn’t have given her a shared room otherwise – still, that stigma hit me. To this day my family deal with it worse than I do; by ignoring it and pretending I should just get on with life like everybody else.

    I also totally understand the inability for your brain to work. I’m bright and creative, but I work from home (self-employed). But the combination of lack of ability to concentrate, constant surroundings of noise/TV/builders/etc, lack of proper sleep, and stress in general builds up. Today I went from a great 2 hours of work and energy to throwing objects at the wall out of frustration at not being able to concentrate…

    Personally, I never understand the concept of just being determined: it’s a form of victim blaming that annoys me greatly. I’ve wasted half of my life just trying to stop crying for long enough to *do* something useful; and it’s not like when you’re suicidal you can just switch it off. But then, I also don’t understand ‘normal’ things, like having a social life, sleeping within 15 min of hitting the pillow and not wanting to die all the time.

    I hope you do find yourself in there somewhere. I got lost a long time ago and I don’t think I’m ever coming back.

    From a fellow skeptic and astronomer lover: take a look outside at the sky tonight (or whenever it’s clear). Remember there are wonderful things that you can still enjoy, even when you’re feeling depressed; and more than that, remember that there are other people out there who know how you feel and that they’re willing to help. One other thing I discovered along the way is that talking to a GP (or other professional) may help, but the only people who really ‘get it’ are fellow sufferers. Depression is far too complicated to be encompassed by the English language, and far more subtle than most people realise.

    And thanks for speaking out. People really should learn more about how it affects every part of your life, not just your emotions. Quite honestly, there have been times when I literally could not move for the state of mind I was in; and other times when I was not ‘here’ mentally. It’s extremely hard to convince many people that it’s not just a ‘state of mind’… you literally have your mental capabilities go walkabout on you and no amount of wishing gets it back.

    (Ahem… somewhere along the lines this was supposed to be encouraging… I’m having a bad day, so I’d probably post something less morbid on my good days)

    My advice: the hardest thing to do is fight the lethargy. Even though you really don’t feel like being sociable, you’d be surprised at how much better you feel being around friends and family. If you want to be sociable but on a more comfortable footing, only attend things you really would find interesting: skeptic events for instance, or whatever takes your fancy. The other advice is to do a lot of self-analysis; what makes you react and why? Figuring out your triggers and how to deal with the aftermath is a good ‘trick’ to learn. Sometimes you’ve got to step back and take a breather; other times you can do something to fix the situation (or remove the problem) and move through the fog. And of course, the big thing: do continue discussing with your doctor and seeking treatment.

    If you’d like a chat, email me. I promise to try to be more upbeat if you do 🙂

    • Thank you so much. I’m quite blown away by your story, and I couldn’t agree more with your statement that only others who’ve been through this can truly understand. Thankfully my GP gave me what I needed at the time, which was some degree of explanation and direction for dealing with the problem.

      The process ahead is likely to be long and possibly difficult, but explanations comfort me in some way, probably because of my deep need to understand the world around me.

      Thank you again.

      • flip permalink

        Actually, I feel a bit bad posting my comment… I had a pretty bad day and it coloured my usual attitude which is slightly more upbeat when talking about my illness. I’m normally far more encouraging and supportive and less… well, overtly ‘glass empty’.

        I agree that it’s probably going to last a while, but with time and support things do get better.

  5. My younger brother is suffering form something that has been diagnosed as depression. He is 29. A little over a year ago, he was fine, doing pretty well for himself in life when suddenly these changes in his behaviour started showing. Staying aloof, not talking to family when at home, missing on his bill payments etc. He’s totally isolated himself from the outside world which includes his family, work and friends. We are yet to take the final decision on how should we go about helping him. He is in a very bad shape and we are feeling terrible and helpless.

    • flip permalink

      Kids with anxiety, I’d like to respond if I may…

      As someone who is currently doing most of what you’re brother is doing, and a little bit older (although some of ‘being isolated’ for me is due to my work, as I’m self-employed. I’m not missing bills yet though and if I do it’ll be because of lack of money rather than lack of will).

      Part of the problem for me – and I can only speak about me, your brother may be different, and I am NOT a mental health professional so it’s really just my advice – is that I feel that no one cares and no one will listen. Especially for me, I have tried talking to my parents and friends in the past, but they either pass off my comments as “oh, it’s just a phase” or “this is too heavy, I have my own problems, don’t put this shit on me”. In particular, I hope you are pro-science. My family is considerably into woo and it makes it hard to discuss treatment with them. My mum’s idea of helping is to buy me presents – none of which I am actually interested – and suggest vitamins. Instead of trying to put your own ideas of how to approach this onto him, just give him the space, time and encouragement to listen openly. In my case, I don’t so much want a response, as acceptance. If you want to encourage him to open up, I’d just occasionally ask how he is, and start small, on subjects that he is comfortable talking about.

      On reading your list of symptoms again, mine are more situational: I live at home with my parents but want to move out. It’s been incredibly noisy in this house the last few years and as I work from home with no set hours, I find I have to work from 1am on til 6am in order to get anything done. This constant source of noise means I’ve lost all interest in talking to the people who make it; add to that a considered source of tension in the house due to my ‘not getting a normal job’ and it’s hard to want to be around that disappointment/judgemental attitude. I’m not saying this is what’s happening for your brother, just that it’s very easy from your side of things to not know causes for actions – mine is semi-reasonable, but because I’m tired of being ignored when I want some quiet, I don’t bother explaining myself anymore.

      Isolation: well, I’ve lost all of my friends over the years, due to lack of contact (mostly on their side, partly on mine) and lack of a steady job. My work is all online, so isolation comes quickly. Even so, I find it difficult to go out (ignoring lack of money to do things with) because I’m also not the prettiest person or the fittest and it’s hard to not feel uncomfortable with other people; I’ve never been sociable anyway.

      While I do recommend trying to encourage him to participate, it can easily swing in the other direction. Most of the time, I just want to do my own thing in my own time: it’s likely he’s trying to work a lot of stuff out in his head, but you just don’t see it, so you don’t know. If you do want him to participate, do it gently, don’t force him, and find something he’s genuinely interested in doing. I am totally unsociable right now, but am willing to head out of the house for things I’m *extremely* passionate about. There’s a lot of stuff I can ‘safely’ do from home too, so even if he’s not willing to go out, maybe there’s an activity at home that he might enjoy?

      Don’t underestimate the need for giving him a little space. Too much nagging and it won’t help. I’d also advise you to seek assistance yourself. Hopefully there are family support groups out there, but if not I’d bet a helpline, doctor, or psychologist could be useful.

      Lastly I’ll add that I know how you feel. I had to watch my parents watch me become so distraught I ended up in hospital. Even though I was ‘out of it’ I was fully aware of the look on their faces and how upsetting it was for them. I understand that my actions do hurt them, but I guarantee you he is feeling just as helpless – and far more alone. It’s hard to speak out when all you want to do is to be left alone: it’s a symptom and not at all something you can control or deal with easily.

      I know your comments were directed at Lucas, but as my situation is so much the same it really moved me to write a reply. I hope that at least some of it might shed some light. I’m subscribed to receive replies to these comments, and if you’d like to talk privately just let me know.

      (See, I’m having a ‘better’ day and my comments are more normal)

    • Firstly, thank you for sharing your story.

      Of course I, like Flip, am no expert in these things, and can only offer you the benefit of my limited personal persepctive.

      You said your brother has been diagnosed with depression: May I ask, was he diagnosed by a psychologist, and is he receiving treatment?

      I imagine your brother may be feeling disconnected, alone, ashamed and guilty if he isn’t receiving treatment, or communicating with anyone who knows what it’s like to deal with depression. There’s so much stigma still surrounding mental health, that many sufferers I’ve now spoken with feel as though they’ve let themselves and their families down by succumbing to it. They (me included), struggle to accept that it’s NOT a personal failing, and there are many others (they probably know some but don’t even realise), who struggle with the same symptoms.

      Personally, I found talking about it with others who understood, and had been through similar things, helped me enormously. It helped normalise what I was dealing with, which reduced the guilt and shame, allowing me to step back and look at it as what it really is – a normal human condition.

      I really hope your brother finds his way, and I’m sorry I can’t offer you much advise on how to encourage him to seek help. I think you need to tell him that you are prepared to listen without judgement if he wants to talk, that you love him and support him regardless, and that whenever he is ready to seek help, you will do what you can to support that process.

      Good luck.

      Lucas.

      • flip permalink

        I imagine your brother may be feeling disconnected, alone, ashamed and guilty if he isn’t receiving treatment, or communicating with anyone who knows what it’s like to deal with depression. There’s so much stigma still surrounding mental health, that many sufferers I’ve now spoken with feel as though they’ve let themselves and their families down by succumbing to it. They (me included), struggle to accept that it’s NOT a personal failing, and there are many others (they probably know some but don’t even realise), who struggle with the same symptoms

        I’m sorry I have to disagree with some of this. Whilst I do encourage everyone to seek professional help, I’ve been down that road and found it caused a lot more problems and no longer see anyone because of it. Mental health in this country has a lot of pitfalls and like everything requires a skeptical eye. (This is a very personal choice, most of my issues right now are situational. I’ve dealt with depression since I was 8, so I have a lot of stuff that I’ve worked out by now to help me cope.) This is a preface for my actual point:

        I do think I should probably see someone, but I don’t feel guilty or ashamed that I don’t. I’ve never ever ever felt guilty or ashamed.

        Other people try to make me feel that way, as if I can just stop being this way or like I just need to ‘get on with life’ and ‘make the best of it’ or like if they don’t see me upset or see me at all, then everything’s fine. Most days nobody realises I’m contemplating suicide or that I’m struggling to ‘get on with it’. But I’ve not once felt like I’ve let anyone down: this is as much of an illness as cancer or measles. You don’t feel like you’re letting people down if you get cancer, and you certainly don’t get to blame the cancer sufferer for ‘succumbing’ to it. As far as I’m concerned the people who make me feel bad about my illness can f* off.

        I know that’s not what you meant Lucas (about all sufferers feeling guilty) and I do agree with most of what you say, but I wanted to point this out because you can easily slip into reinforcing stereotypes and typical stigma-thinking without realising it. (Heck, I do it too. And I hope that you do eventually feel blameless)

        If we could get other people to understand that when you go into your room for a few days, or you shirk responsibilities, or you need something else – it’s not selfishness and it’s not on purpose, and it’s not laziness – then we depressed people would have a much better support system. That people see us doing these quiet, subtle things but don’t see the ‘aftermath’ going on in our heads means that they assume there’s nothing wrong; or that there’s a normal reason for it. (And I say this having spent most of my life being unable to express that very fact to my parents. It’s a very hard thing to deal with where you get blamed, and looked at with anger and disappointment, and treated like a naughty kid for something that is just not under your control)

        This is what I meant earlier about support. It’s about knowing that the person you love isn’t walking away on purpose. … Anyway, like I said, I know it’s not what you meant but I still wanted to point it out. This is a skeptical site after all…

        PS. I hope blockquotes work…

  6. Thanks for the insight into your problems. I’d been a long-time sufferer from panic attacks until a few years ago when my situation began to improve considerably. Acupuncture, meditation, and exercise played a great role and I am once again beginning to enjoy life. So I would happily recommend these therapies to anyone. I’ve always felt that medication hardly ever cures the ailment completely.

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