Part 4 in the series on what it's like to go through mental illness.
In an earlier post, Don’t Worry Be Crappy, I discussed the problem with linear thinking when dealing with people with mental illness. You want things to make sense. You want things to go the way you plan, but mental health doesn’t see things like that. It cares not for your step by step instructions. You wish to understand why a person behaves a certain way one day, and inexplicably inconsistently subsequent days. Your quest for the “why” will naturally inevitably lead to another fallacy: that of cause and effect.
Going back to McFarin’s song, it goes: “You have a problem with [X]? Don’t worry, be happy”. The implication here is that it was [X] that caused you to be in your state of mind, and you can just “Be Happy” it away. Don’t get me wrong. There are definitely events, situations, or conditions in our lives that can cause our mental illness to blossom and flourish. Job and money woes, failing or hurtful relationships, past traumas…any of these and so much more can trigger one’s mental illness. More to the point, the stresses of life put stresses on our mental state that make the illness that much more potent. But then again, so can nothing at all. The throes of mental illness can strike after the worst stresses in life, or simply because the day of the week ended in "y".
The point I’m making is that as humans we need to find a cause. You’re depressed; why, what happened? You’re having an anxiety attack; why, what happened? You’ve started drinking again; why, what happened? It could be any number of things. Or it could be abso-friggin-nothing.
Nowhere is this better seen than my own circle of people dear to me. This includes some physicians, and folks who ostensibly have had some psychiatry training. Some of them, nevertheless, have…well let’s just say, “dated” notions. Notions such as, just have a stronger will and you’ll conquer your mental illness. Once they saw how far I’d fallen into depression, and once they realized that I’d expended a herculean amount of will towards fighting it, they accepted that, well maybe this depression thing might be stronger than just willpower. So their next tactic was to fix whatever it was that CAUSED my depression. Forgetting the chemical imbalance in my noggin, clearly some event, some thing, some person must have made me sad.
Was it your practice? Did you not get along with your office partners? Did the hospital treat you badly? Did you have troubles in surgery? Was your marriage failing? Were your kids in trouble? For you to be so sad, angry, negative, so…so depressed, something MUST be wrong in your life. After therapy and medication, I was still stuck in my rut. Something, SOMETHING, must have been wrong.
And naturally, if there was some cause, fixing that something would cure depression lickety-split. Money woes? Well, here’s some cash, let’s just pay that depression away! Can’t seem to get motivated? Energy level too low? I bet if you found a job you’d feel so much better.
Cause and effect. Find the cause, fix the cause. Fix the cause, fix the effect. Problem solved. I’m not saying everyone falls for this. But, they all eventually do this at some point. It’s almost impossible for human beings not to. We need logic to prevail. If we tweak something, we expect to see results. If those results don’t quite work, we tweak it more or tweak something else and await yet more results. We need to have observable results that make sense, even if the tweak didn’t work. As long as the tweak has a result, any result, cause and effect are valid. We are still in at least observable control.
So when mental illness violates these rules, it is hard, possibly impossible, for a Normal to truly understand exactly what the Crazy is going through. Granted, most people can empathize when someone is totally depressed, say, after a messy breakup or maybe a death in the family. It might be awful conditions, such as an abusive relationship, something traumatic like an assault or PTSD, or deep money woes, or whatever. Anybody might fall prey to such feelings of despair and hopelessness when misfortune strikes. These are the situations that make sense. Cause and effect. Work on the cause, fix the effect. But how do you fix the effect when there is simply no observable cause? What if there is no cause to tweak?
Fortunately, times like these are more often the exception than the rule. Most episodes of mental health flares have a discernible cause. But the unknowable flares will happen. And the Normal who has gotten used to knowing the cause of most flares will be simply flummoxed when a flare occurs for no reason. “Is it something I did?” they’ll think to themselves, “or something I didn’t do?” They’ll search for causes around the house, around work, or school. They may go through their Crazy’s things, mobile phone calls, texts, social media and the like. They’ll wrack their brains wondering "Why now?"
Their frustration will be nothing like what the Crazy will feel, although the Crazy themselves may not realize how frustrated they themselves are. Being Crazy for no particular reason is exceedingly frustrating, infuriating sometimes. Yet it is also so natural that the Crazy may not even act or recognize their own frustration. Imagine being so crazy you don’t know enough to get frustrated.
Pretty nihilistic picture, no? I mean, why even bother trying to help someone when they might just go off the rails for absolutely no reason? If at anytime any progress you’ve made can just evaporate, why try to make progress at all? Believe me, we Crazies feel that futility in spades. We experience it even when we’re making progress, knowing that the next inexplicable episode may be lurking around the corner.
The good news? There is help out there. There is medicine out there. Family, loved ones, therapists, drugs, all of the above and more. It’s out there. But they’ll have to wait for later posts. Can’t give away all the spoilers in one or two post, right?