It’s All in Your Head

I’m still a little embarrassed when people find out I have depression.

Find out. As if I’m a felon who’s committed robbery or murder. I haven’t, yet the stigma of mental illness commands almost the same level of secrecy. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s paisley and dancing Gangnam style and you’re desperate to glance, but no one is saying anything about it.

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Banksy understands. It’s not dancing, but how could you not look at this?

People are avoidant, seeming to experience secondhand self-consciousness about this thing they don’t understand or understand all too well. If they’ve experienced mental illness themselves, they know the battery of the self. The black hole and cyclone going on in your own mind that can render you incapable of living. Or, if they’ve lived with someone who has mental illness, they’ve experienced the battery of others. The grip is tight.

It’s embarrassing to admit your brain can act without you. You can’t control it.

“[The brain] is one of the body’s biggest organs, consisting of some 100 billion nerve cells that not only put together thoughts and highly coordinated physical actions but regulate our unconscious body processes, such as digestion and breathing.” – National Geographic

The brain is the control center of our selves. It makes us sit in chairs, grocery shop, eat. It’s also the hub of our emotional drive. Why do you cry? Why don’t you cry? What’s funny? Where do you come up with your opinions? Why do you get pissed off if you don’t like someone else’s? It’s all in there. The brain is constantly building, routing, and rerouting neural pathways around every second of every experience. Thinking about it too long will drive you insane. You’ll also go insane if this framework gives way beneath you. It’s insane to dwell on killing yourself. It’s insane not to be able to trust your own thoughts.

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Image by Christopher McKenney

“The cerebral cortex is greatly enlarged in human brains, and is considered the seat of complex thought […] The temporal lobe processes sound and language, and includes the hippocampus and amygdala, which play roles in memory and emotion, respectively.” – Live Science

Among countless other chemicals, dopamine and serotonin are two vital ones that contribute to moods like pleasure, motivation, irritability and impulse. I’ll leave the science to the professionals, but it is true that these chemicals can be thrown out of whack by a circumstance (job loss, new baby, divorce, tragedy), or it can be genetic. Or, if you’re really lucky, you get a buffet of reasons. Regardless of the trigger, if left unattended to, the feelings can be insurmountable. The very reason someone may need help could be the thing that keeps them from getting it. Hopelessness on its deepest level. Not generic hopelessness like “FML.” This hopelessness engulfs, yawns wide and beckons the sufferer let go of whatever grim line there is between life and death. There’s nothing more horrifying than how the body can betray you.

An anecdote I often use when describing the ridiculousness of not taking mental illness seriously is this: if you broke your leg and refused medical care, if you dragged a detached limb around connected only to your hip by thin flesh, it’d be sickening. You’d literally be forced to get medical help. It’s an unquestionable given that when a physical, visual part of our bodies is broken, we get it fixed as soon as possible. But when it comes to what we can’t see in the brain, it’s suspect.

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Callie isn’t telling herself to get up and go for a walk, and she’ll be fine.
“Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—10 million, or 4.2%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” – NAMI

I’ve lived with depression for almost 10 years. It’s been weird road of losing myself and then finding myself, and then re-shaping myself after that. Like a twisted version of Dorothy collecting her totems along the yellow brick road, I’ve collected compassion, empathy, strength, and an extremely macabre sense of humor that I’m sure makes most people think I still actually need help. I’ve lost friends. I’ve forged stronger friendships. I know there are people walking around the planet with invalidated assumptions about me. I know there are people walking around the planet who think I’m fantastic. Once your pride has been leveled, there’s not much left to lose.

The brain is a mystery! Mystery is part of the beauty and scary unknown in this world. There’s mystery in what each of us finds beautiful. There’s fear in what what we don’t know. All the juxtapositions tell us as much: beauty in pain, a phoenix rising from the ashes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We can’t avoid being broken, but there are also many ways to persevere.

Do you live with a diagnosed mood disorder or mental illness? Tell us what it’s been like for you. We’ll highlight the stories in the next update. You can remain anonymous.

Written by Amara Hartman