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writing for godot

Prisoner of my mind

Written by Emily Catherine Hughes   
Wednesday, 11 November 2015 15:18

This narrative includes descriptions of methods of self-harm.

Imagine a broken fluorescent light humming ceaselessly in the vicinity of your cerebellum. This hyperactivity is akin to my regular cognitive functioning, and for nearly a decade, it has prevented me from expressing myself freely.

I’ve experienced overanalyzing thoughts and consuming fixations for the entirety of my teenage years, beginning around middle school. I would describe my involuntary, everyday brain processes as furtively calculating, second-guessing and recalibrating, which is not only exhausting — at times to the point of being intolerable — but utterly impedimental to the universal human objectives of relating to people and existing fully in any given moment.

I’ve described my mental illness as “restless leg syndrome of the brain.” My psychiatrist prefers the diagnosis anxiety disorder not otherwise specified, with “the O part” of obsessive-compulsiveness and elements of social anxiety.

(In hindsight, this analysis clarified a great deal regarding my adolescent behavior. Blame misfiring neurons for my juvenile irrationality.)

Only recently, at age twenty, have I acknowledged my condition as a disease, sought clinical therapy and been prescribed medication and counseling to manage it.

Genetically predisposed

My heredity, as it were, is peppered with psychopathology. My relatives have been affected by varying degrees of anxiety, depression, addiction, bipolar disorder, undesignated mental illness and my paternal great-grandmother’s suicide. Essentially, genes-wise, I’ve been screwed.

Manifestations of my personal brand of insanity

My fretfulness tends to veer towards the social rather than the logical. While I’ve been skydiving, longboarding, rock climbing, white-water rafting, been pierced and tattooed, traveled cross-country with my best friend and learned how to operate a motorcycle solo, I often feel out-of-place in group settings, and interacting with guys I’m jonesing after causes me paralyzing nervousness.

I routinely exemplify the I’m-a-creep/the-more-you-ignore-me-the-closer-I-get/hysteria-when-you’re-near brand of infatuation. I get social-anxiety nightmares despite never having been tormented in school.

I experienced months-long periods of unfounded obsession in middle and high school in which I’d create conflicts in my mind, often pertaining to the past, blow them wildly out of proportion and let them overtake my happiness.

Senior year of high school, for example, the college-admissions process sent me into an internal angst-spiral for weeks — What if I choose the wrong college? What if I pick the right college for the wrong reasons? — before applications were even submitted.

My tendency to become consumed by whatever frisson I happen to be experiencing at a given moment is a positive Force when I’m, say, having an invigorating discussion about U2’s 360° Tour with a SPIRITUAL SOUL-SIBLING, but less so when I fixate on the immutable. Some may characterize this propensity as “neurosis.” When I get riled: Achtung, baby.

Spiraling downward into the depths of depression

Ordinarily, my gnawing, churning self-doubt is merely an unpleasant and persistent cerebral nag — although its byproducts, indecision and inaction, can easily morph into missed opportunities, regret and self-hatred.

One day this summer, I broke down in the shower, wondering at the extent to which I’d missed out on getting to know people, and for them to get to know me, based on my own diffidence. More so than ever, I wanted to be anybody but myself.

In the weeks that followed, I took an excess of prolonged showers, cried copiously, spent hours upon days lying face-up on my bed, and lost my appetite and fifteen pounds, relentlessly analyzing all the while.

My mom, initially frustrated by my apathy, soon realized the magnitude of my behavior. After some hesitation, suspecting my perpetual uncertainty to be a natural characteristic of being in my twenties, she obliged when I asked to see a psychiatrist, and referred me to Dr. H.

I had entered my first and only depressive phase, having realized the toll my disposition had taken on my life, in distancing me from others who I innately wanted to connect with. I grieved for relationships I might have been part of if I’d had the nerve to pursue them and for a sense of self-possession I lacked as a teenager.

On the brink of self-inflicted injury

Simply existing inside the shackles of my psyche became so unbearable, I preferred being asleep to awake.

I fantasized about searing the underside of my arm with a lighter, gouging my limbs with a key or needle, branding myself with boiled wire and carving FIX ME into my leg, a mantra I chanted to myself while curled in the darkness at the bottom of the shower. In lieu of drawing blood, I only traced the words onto my thigh.

I resorted to minor methods of self-punishment, the extent of which included smacking myself in the forehead, thumping my skull backwards against our tile shower wall, and scratching my left forearm and abdomen.

I daydreamed about lacerating my forearm with X’s, to the point where I dug out a seam ripper and placed it in my dresser drawer. I haven’t touched it since.

The first step towards recovery is to admit that you have a problem.

After years of suspecting so, it became clear to me that my condition was physiological.

Under the shroud of my mental illness, I contain multitudes; I’m absurd, ambitious, articulate, athletic, awkward, caffeinated, caustic, creative, geeky, lazy, opinionated, et al.

My disease is not who I am. And to live unhindered — or as possible as it is to be — I concluded, I needed to treat my internal poltergeist. I wrote a letter to my future, healthy self:

Dear Emily,

I know things are bad right now, and you don’t want to be you. Things are not OK. There is something wrong with your brain … Once you’re better, you need to own this. … This is when things change for you. You know who you are, and this is preventing you from being that person. … Don’t be so hard on yourself.



Psychiatric evaluation

During my first hour-long visit to his counseling office, I presented Dr. H. with a nearly thousand-word list of symptoms I’d experienced ranging from my current low episode to years-festering phenomena.

Examples from the list included “second-guessing,” “overthinking,” “debilitating self-doubt,” and “prisoner in my mind.” Answering his follow-up questions with lightless eyes, I felt like a sunken, hollow cadaver of myself.

“Cocktail” therapy

After receiving my diagnosis during that inaugural session, I was prescribed multiple anxiolytics to appease my hyper-analyzing, both on the immediate and for the long-term.

In a way, being diagnosed has been revelatory — I’m now aware that my constant overprocessing is not only clinical, but treatable as well.

When it functions effectively, the immediate benzodiazepine Klonopin has calmed my mind, muting my mental gremlin to the point where I feel “normal,” which is massively relieving — although its efficacy varies tremendously based on factors including timing, dosage and whether I’ve taken it on a full or empty stomach.

I’m yet in the experimental phase concerning these drugs, having recently added the antipsychotic Abilify to the mix and still awaiting the effects of Prozac, a prescribed SSRI, to kick in, rounding out the psychotropic-trifecta.

Emotional scatterplot

Even though their onset is so recent, I’ve found the inconsistency and time-lapse of my medications demoralizing.

I’ve fluctuated between feeling grateful towards my psychiatrist for his help and infuriated at his pitying looks and omniscient tone, because despite his Aesculapian abilities and the prestigious diplomas hanging in his office, he’s not trapped inside my head and doesn’t know how I’m feeling.

Frustration, lethargy (my most oft-repeated phrase of late: “I don’t care”), upticks, hopelessness, mood swings, sudden sobbing, and occasional periods of refreshing inner calm are all characteristic of the turbulence I’ve encountered over the past month.

For temporary relief in addition to drug therapy, I’ve found music, the company of friends and family, and driving on the road with no destination to be moderately remedial.

Though aggravated by their gradual efficacy, I have demonstrated noticeable improvement following the onset and therapeutic tweaking of my prescriptions. #ItGetsBetter

Talk therapy

Formerly of the condescending “I don’t need ‘talk therapy,’ I have friends for that” realm of thought, I was recently recommended to undergo a 50-minute session with A., a licensed clinical social worker from the same counseling center as my psychiatrist.

When I estimated my anxiety’s inception occurred at age twelve or thirteen, she informed me it was typical for it to manifest itself around the age of puberty. She also noted that many people growing up view their mental illness as part of their personality or as a flaw, which I certainly did.

A.’s methodology was constructive and “solution”-oriented. As my ineptitude with people-interactions mainly manifests itself around boys, my “social goal” was determined to be initiating contact or conversation with people I find of interest.

A. also assigned me to write a list prioritizing my undertakings for when I return to university this fall, having pinpointed my tendency to overextend myself schedule-wise and then become forced to drop activities.

The key with anxiety, she said, is to stay in the present — a quandary for me, as my preoccupations are so frequently in regards to the past and sabotaging “what-ifs.” I must be cognizant to take negative thought patterns and draw out the positive, she told me — to move forward from my mistakes.

As a person of privilege

It’s imperative to note that while disorders of the mind affect all demographics, I am fortunate enough to have been born into an existence — as an upper-middle-class white female from an affluent background — where I possess the resources to identify and treat my affliction.

Many are not afforded these luxuries, which should unquestionably be birthright. To rectify this social inequity, we need to collectively modify the parameters under which our healthcare systems operate.

“Prisoner of my Mind”

While my pharmaceutical experimentation and mental-maintenance are continuing in perpetuity, I thirst for stabilization. The waiting is the hardest part. Of course, coping with mental illness is an enduring process.

During this episode, I turned to my dad’s acoustic guitar and composed my first melody, for which this essay is eponymously titled. The lyrics to its chorus are as follows:

It’s so aggravating, isolating

Paralyzing, calculating

Quantifying, analyzing

Agonizing, realizing

I am a prisoner of my mind.

“You are not alone”

Mental illness in all its forms can be acutely isolating. I’m learning I need to seek out companionship rather than defaulting to my self-defensive tendency to cloister myself when I’m feeling blisteringly lonely.

While at least in my case, there’s no substitute for pharmaceuticals, communicating about my issues is not only enormously therapeutic, but aids in diminishing the stigma against mental illnesses, which is, without exaggeration, a sociopolitical act.

I’ve discovered the ubiquity and diversity of mental maladies in others through the reciprocity that naturally transpires when sharing my own narrative. As it turns out, many of my friends, their relatives and public figures are also privy to inner brain-disarray.

At a recent family reunion, my mom’s cousin Sara — who offered me perspective and commiseration regarding her own mental health experiences, knowing I was dealing with my own — organized an activity where members of our clan could decorate votive candle holders for themselves and others at the gathering.

On my way out, she presented me with one she’d created herself, emblazoned with the sentiment “you are not alone.”

Emily Hughes is a Harry Potter acolyte, who, at age sixteen, donned a cape, wig and beard in the panache of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore to attend the midnight film premiere of Deathly Hallows: Part 2. your social media marketing partner
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