Categories: Mental Health
Things have not been going well. And what I’m about to post is probably the most crazy sounding (or at least nonsensical) thing that I’ve ever written down, much less published. I very much fear posting it at all for those I know reading it and deeming me certifiable, or at the very least: unstable. (Newsflash: I’m always a little unstable. It’s kinda my thing. (That’s a joke, potential/actual employers.)) But in my heart I know that I have to post it, because something happened to this blog that I knew was a risk when I de-anonymized it: I started writing it for people. Yes, for “what if this or that person reads it?” but much more so for “but can I make them understand?” As I learned during my time in treatment, it’s a sense of control for me. I want to say the perfect words in the perfect way so that everyone in the situation understands completely and complies. Even if it’s in the best intention -which is most often is- it’s still a sense of control. But as in treatment, I have to teach myself that I can’t control people’s reactions. I can even less control their understanding, and by trying to find the best way to say it, I’m bottling myself up to where it never gets out.
So, anyway, how have things not been going well? Well, that’s where it starts to get tricky. Nearly everything on my recovery plan has fallen by the wayside. Yes, I had some very objective stressors in my life, and those took their toll. But as of the last 4 weeks, it’s been something far more insidious. It took me a good 2-3 weeks just to determine what was even wrong, much less what was causing it. Since then I’ve got a bit more analysis, but not much progress on….well, progress, mostly due to the problem itself.
I’ve tried to express this to two different people and both times, I can hear the words I’m saying and know that they sound crazy, or at least weird. But the thing is, some of these things don’t come to me in words, or in thoughts. They don’t come to me at all. They simply are. They are a state of being, of pure experience, and I have to try to find words to capture them, then one more, I have to find words to tell others. And, just like with the blog, trying to find the best way to represent them is counterproductive. So I usually go with the best way I know how: metaphors. (And because we live in the age of media, they often are in reference to a TV show or book. So if I mention one, you can bet there will be some spoilers.) And, because the part of my mind that does words is analytical, I’ve tried to break it down into components, to try to learn how it ticks.
In trauma therapy, you’re often asked to describe a physical sensation in colors or shapes or textures. It sounds odd to say that this “feels yellow”, but you’d be surprised to find just how often a word will jump to your mind without you even thinking about it. I can’t pretend to even understand it, I am just a patient after all.
For most of my life, when I get very said, I get a cold sensation in my chest, right behind my sternum. Well, I used to call it “cold”, but in recent years I’ve realized that that doesn’t quite nail it. After a long, long time, I realized it feels more like a lack of something. A vacuum. A void. (As much as I love them, I will not say “a black hole” because that is just way too emo.) Then, earlier this year, one of my SE therapists used the word “pressure”, and that instantly clicked. It feels like negative pressure.
And the reason that it clicked so well is that, recently, I had also been experience “positive” pressure. And often simultaneously. While my chest felt as though the center of it was filled with nothing and trying to cave in the rest of my torso with it, my limbs would feel as though they were exploding with energy; with a desire to move. To the point that it’s actually uncomfortable, approaching agonizing. The same SE therapist gave some very wise advice; he believed that when I feel these differences in pressure, engaging my limbs will get things moving in a way. Show my body that it does not have to be either frozen or on fire. And dammit, it worked; I’ve had many times where I’ll be feeling consumed by the negative and positive pressures, and something as simple as stretching, as pushing on a wall, as doing some pushups and squats will bring on a cascade of yawns -a sign that in the SE world and in my personal life is a very good thing. It shows that energy is moving, things are shifting. And the pressure is lessened.
For a while. I’ve found that it cycles: I’ll feel the negative chest pressure, stretch, then be hit with an ungodly amount of physical exhaustion. Then a short time later, the positive limb pressure builds rapidly. I stretch, get exhausted again, and the cycle repeats. I know that I’ve just used the word twice, but it truly is exhausting. Not the dealing with the sensations so much, but the rapid cycling giving me sensational whiplash and the fact that it never stops. I can (and have) layed on the floor stretching for hours, cycling back and forth, and yet one form of pressure always returns. And honestly, while there is a brief moment of respite with the yawning, it really makes me not want to do it. When I feel as though my body is mutinous at the suggesting of taking a sip of Dr Pepper, it’s very hard to rally the troops with “hey, let’s go do this 7 or 100 times”.
By far the most difficult part of this, more than when I’m lying on the couch and it hits me like a freight train, is the fact that, if at almost any point during the day I stop and notice, I feel it. I’m able to push through it and function, heck, my brains learned to ignore it at lower levels, but it’s still there, and it’s still draining energy. On the plus side, it’s made me wonder just how much energy I truly have if this has been sapping me without me knowing. But I don’t have that energy and I don’t know how to get it without stretching 20 hours a day (and even then, only temporarily).
The Upside Down
Recently I started watching the Netflix series Stranger Things in which a kid gets transported to an alternate dimension where everything is the same except that it’s dark, gloomy, run down, and filled with monsters. The other kids, being D&D nerds, call this “The Upside Down”. That was the first thing that seemed to click for this next most difficult to describe part. (I’ve been reading The Dresden Files so another was “The Nevernever”, which is more or less the same but has a cooler name.)
The world is different. It’s the same, but somehow different. Really the metaphor is inadequate because I’m different, the way I see things. I’m not saying I see dragons in my living room, I’m saying I can look at my couch and it still looks like a couch, but the way by which I’m looking at it is different. The me that is perceiving it is changed. So the world I’m looking at is the same, and I know that, but it’s still foreign. People feel distant. When it’s more severe, so do emotions.
When I finally tried to relay all this to my therapist, she told me that she believes it to be another form of dissociation. And that’s great, I’m glad I finally brought it up, but at this point I’m like “ok now what?”. I’ve learned quite a few tricks with my other form of dissociation (e.g. grounding, using the senses, breathing) but none of them work here. I’m in unfamiliar territory, and yeah, at one point I was with the other form, but come on, why the hell this? Why the hell now? And, if it is dissociation, the only real potential trigger I’ve found is sitting in one place for two long (though even that seems inconsistent).
Of course I’m thinking it’s not just now; I wrote a post on feeling as though in “hospice” and oddly, it makes sense when viewed from the Upside Down. Everything is skewed. It’s like a loss in metaphysical depth perception, including time. I can’t put myself into next week, or month, or sometimes even day or hour. Time feels as though it’s undone. Me now and me at 60 feel as though they are the same.
The reason I call it The Upside Down is that it feels as though I phase in and out of it. It’s very hard to gauge (because, hey, putting things into words is usually the first step at gauging and we’ve been through that) but I can at very least stop in a moment and say “Yeah, I’m more/less in The Upside Down then I was 10 minutes ago”. Some days -many days- I wake up in The Upside Down. Some days I feel myself mostly not in it, then somehow seamlessly in it an hour later.
The hardest part about the Upside Down is not that it’s uncomfortable even, it’s that it changes me. Or maybe it is a changed me. It can instantly strip my motivation, my humor, my joy, my presence. And in combination with the other two symptoms it makes a trifecta of insurmountability.
This one’s easier to describe, but probably makes me sound the most crazy. So I’ll do another TV analogy. In The Magicians, the villain is introduced as a man who walks out of a mirror, wearing a suit and with a throng of moths around his face so thick that you cannot see his face. They refer to him as “The Beast”. In every scene he appears in, he walks about, calm and collected and absolutely devastates anyone in his path. Everyone is at his mercy. That’s what’s in my head. No, I do not believe in the bogeyman, and no, I am not demonically possessed (head don’t do the owl swivel) and no, I have no schizophrenia or schizoaffective diagnosis (…yet, I’m still young). I’ve spent countless brain cycles trying to find a way to express this in a way that doesn’t sound looney, but at this point I’ve just accepted that it sounds like it sounds and if the best thing I can come up with is from a show I binge watched in two days while sick on the couch, well, so be it.
Since my adolescence, I’ve had what what my therapist calls a “critical voice”. While in treatment, I came up with the term “tone” instead, since I am not hearing an audible voice, nor a different internal voice as thoughts; they’re simply my thoughts that have such a similar content that they seemingly emanate from the same origin. They arise just as other thoughts like “ooh, I really want a donut” or “wait, did I forget to turn off my alarm clock?” You don’t will them to be there, they just appear. The only difference is that at certain times, like relying on an echo at the Grand Canyon, I can almost “have a conversation” with it. It’s like those psych tests that request “say the first thing that comes to mind”, only for me the prompt is a thought like “I should go to that party” and the first-thought-response is “why? you suck and no one likes you”.
While I was in treatment, I thought I had hit a break through when I (as go into detail in another as-of-yet overdue, unpublished, unfinished post) attributed my “negative voice” to my inner 16-year-old child. And that really seemed to make sense for a while. It explained the inner dialogue, which is not considered crazy in inner child work, and also explained much more. It also really helped how I see the voice; for the longest time, if I had to describe it, it was a vast giant swirling darkness with piercing red eyes, fierce and powerful in its might. Then it became a mad, but sad, 16 year old kid who was just wearing a big mask.
Which brings me to The Beast comparison; in addition to its seemingly endless reserves of power and ruthlessness, it also refused to be given a face. For the longest time I searched for something, anything that would adequately represent it: a shadow version of me; a demon; heck, I wanted dozens of times just to finally go all Fight Club just to drop the shroud. But everything angered it. What vanity to portray a darker version of myself. What arrogance I have to think I deserve a demon. How weak I am to wish for a Tyler Durden to make me seem like the hero. In fact, how dare I try to give it a face at all, as if to humanize it, to try to understand it. Such resistance I faced. I just couldn’t find a term or face for internal and therapeutical use that didn’t hurt every time I thought it. So “the critical voice” sufficed for the longest time, until events unfolded weeks ago and that label no longer seemed to adequate. When I still couldn’t find an appropriate face or term, I settled on “The Void”, with the vision of a man who has something -static, moths, season tickets to the New York Mets- obscuring his face.
And eventually, I started to call all three symptoms “the Void” collectively, as they seem to be most often intertwined. If not concurrent, contiguous.
Even though each of these symptoms had been increasing in severity and regularity, I had not pieced them together in any fashion until one night when I was the furthest in The Upside Down while being the most paralyzed from negative pressure I’d ever been. It was then also that the Void was the most focused and powerful I’ve ever heard. We “conversed” about what It believes my purpose is, what its purpose is. Why it does what it does, why I am what I am. And the scariest, by far the most terrifying thing about the Void is just how powerful its words are. When it says something, a belief is formed. It’s not as though it’s a fleeting thought like “Wait, is my tie uneven?” that you can toss to one side or the other. No, when the Void speaks, it commands how I feel. “You are worthless” brings up the visceral sensation, a flood of emotions, and a cascade of thoughts as though I’d been hypnotized and the magician just snapped his fingers. I’ve made a bit of progress, especially during treatment, at being able to ignore or even rarely challenge the Void, but the success rate is fairly low with mediocre results anyway. (Which is what leads to the Beast-like air of omnipotence.)
That was before treatment. That one night was so bad that I was shocked, even after years of dealing with it. As I lay on the couch, trying to gather will to move my body out of the freeze, finding a small little request that my body would say “ok, yeah, that sounds good” to respond to (one of the few tricks I’ve learned), the Void came back so harsh and so strong that I could almost literally physically feel my will shrink to nothing. And this was to “Imma have a sip of Dr Pepper” or even “Vaping sounds good” or -here’s the plot twist- “I’m gonna cut”, a set of progressively unhealthy coping mechanisms, the last which the Void usually pushed for. But that night they all came back with the same response: “Do you seriously think doing that is gonna help you? Distract you from this?” And the K.O. hit was “What are you even living for?”
The hardest part of that night was not feeling immobilized, or the sheer uncomfortableness that is the pressure, or that I couldn’t have any goddamn Dr Pepper, it was that I didn’t have an answer to that question. Answers did exist, of course, very good ones. But the thing is that, embedded in that question was a statement: that I had none. And so it became. And so I laid on the couch for hours, frozen, while I heard the same question screamed in my head in repetition, demanding an answer and finding none.
And while that night was bad, truly awful, it feels as only a peak in a range of mountains. When I first starting feeling the pressure intensify, I panicked. I was terrified that it was going to be a full-blown chronic fatigue relapse (which for me I’m 98% sure is trauma or at least mental health related) and as a result, I made decisions that were foolish and hurt those close to me. My recovery plan is completely dismantled, and I don’t know if that’s my fault or if it’s like expecting someone with a broken leg to run a marathon. These past few weeks I haven’t even been surviving, I’m simply being. And the weirdest part: I don’t seem to care so much.
Yeah, that’s classic depression. But to me, it’s The Upside Down. To me, I’ve felt that I’m almost so far in as to be in a trance. I can break out of it, when the need is great enough, but that’s not enough. Not enough for what I want, how I want to live. Not enough for me, at least in this moment of writing this post.
I woke up today not in The Upside Down. (Well, not quite, I didn’t sleep last night. But I’m oddly rested, which I take as a sign of Rightside Up.) But the fact is: I’m out. Mostly. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why I fall in and I don’t know why I fall out, and the latter scares me more for some reason. I “woke up” today feeling good, feeling motivated enough to pen down this monster of a blog post in one sitting, and I don’t know the difference from yesterday. And I don’t know of any reason why I won’t wake up the opposite tomorrow. I’m glad that I wrote this blog post, as it means there’s something inside of me that still drives me. That still wants something more. I’ve just been having an awfully hard time finding and feeding that part lately, and it’s due to an enemy that I don’t understand and seems to vastly overpower me. Even now, in this hidden pocket of strength, I can feel it lurking, just waiting until it can find another TV show analogy to make me seem like I’m addicted to Netflix. I have to end on a joke, lighthearted, while I’m in the mood, right?
I’m glad I started with that rambling preface because the more I write, the less sense I feel I make. Or maybe that I go into too much detail. Come on, man, FYI.
But if you’ve asked me in the past few weeks “how ya been?”, well, now you have the long answer.