Introduction: Broken Tools

Every time I think I have a handle on how my brain works, I learn something new. I keep trying to find some overarching theme, one single metaphor I can use to get a handle on how it's broken. But the problem comes from thinking of mental illness as something separate from me. Breaking an arm doesn't mean it's suddenly not your arm.

So it's time for a new tack. Instead of pretending there's one single way I can think about it, I need to focus on aspects. Even then, this can get arbitrary with a quickness: any dividing line by definition excludes other things. So any way to break my thinking into pieces is only valuable insofar as it makes things better.

Psychological diagnoses largely work the same way. There's a great deal of comorbidity, and the way mental illness is classified can often come down to a question of degree. (See here for a discussion of a different framework.) For example, I've been diagnosed with two: ADHD and persistent depressive disorder, also known as dysthymia. But even then there's some anxiety floating around too (although this has gotten better over time), and it's easy to see how symptoms of these conditions can overlap. And where they don't, to what extent might symptoms of one be caused by symptoms of the other?

Lensing

Any problem solving begins with thinking; with how we see the problem and how we approach it. But when the problem is with my mind itself, this can complicate things. One of the biggest breakthroughs I've had so far was when I realized that my brain lies to me.

I've struggled with mood for about as long as I can remember, and since adolescence at least. But I could always find something that could be causing these feelings if I wanted to. Our brains are very good at finding patterns, even where none exist. So it was that I spent a good 20 years bouncing from one guess to another. “Maybe this is what I'm missing?”

Of course, it was no one thing. Even as I got older and life definitely got better, any contentment was always brittle: it didn't take much for my mood to get knocked back off the cliff. It took me about that long to realize that it wasn't the outside, but the inside. Rather than being the situation, it was my own disproportionate reaction to it.

This sounds obvious in retrospect (and in some ways I guess it is), but think about how much we trust our own minds. How much we have to trust them. Thus the first steps at coming to grips with mental illness has been in sussing out the ways it distorts perceptions, both of myself and of the outside world. It means questioning everything, and taking time to really feel my way through my perceptions.

To that end, I'm hoping that by writing things down in blocks, I can really parse through them (and keep track of what ground I've covered already). So that's what this series will be about.