December 22, 2014

Looking for What “Is” Through the Lens of Mental Illness.


“Your mind is highly preoccupied with what you want, so you fail to see what is.”
Chögyam Trungpa

Some days I truly hate my brain.

My Occasionally Suspect Mental Wiring. © Over the years I’ve dealt with it all: depression, anxiety, OCD, ADD and HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). I’ve kicked a lot of it to the curb. But a lot of it remains in the passenger seat.

I can look at my mental maladies almost as life chapters, and the connective tissue throughout is that my “want” (which was usually crushed by My Own Worst Counsel) always completely obscured my “is” (which was, well, reality).

Depression: I like to think of my mid-to-late 20s as my Brian Wilson Years. Wilson, The Beach Boys resident genius, spent several years in bed, crippled by depression in the early 1970s (of course he was in bed with multiple chicks and hoovering Bolivian with $100 bills, and I was alone with a 12-Pack of Rolling Rock and a pile of Insufficient Funds letters from the bank, but potato/po-tah-to).

Often I would leave my apartment for my job tele-schlepping credit cards, make it just about to the subway, then run home in a panic, leave another message for the boss about another “dead grandmother” or another case of “food poisoning,” throw on a talk show with the sound off, fire up a Marlboro and stare at the ceiling wondering what is wrong with me.

I wanted to be “normal” (my “is” was that I was far more “normal” than many). I wanted to have someone to talk to (my “is” was that I did, but I didn’t know how to reach out). I wanted to understand myself (my “is” is the voluminous stack of journals that remains from that period).

Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and, at 27, I willed myself out of bed and into therapy…

Anxiety: always, always there, like a low-level fluorescent hum. Grade school/middle school/high school was an extremely tough period, thanks to incidents like this and this. I didn’t know how to tell anybody, didn’t know that I could. So I internalized it all, and the traumas built up inside and reinforced themselves and made me more anxious.

I wanted to go a day without pools of nerve sweat under my pits (my “is” was that there are prescriptions for excessive sweat and guidance counselors). I wanted to trust people and have friends (my “is” was that some of my best friends now didn’t even know about these things back then. Lessons Learned: not everybody sees me as I see myself).

OCD: a mild background presence, until the anxiety kicks it up. I’ve never had to (re)count my steps and touches, etc. I have my little bits of ritual and order (always read the paper in the same order, eat my veggies first to get them out of the way, etc.), but I could vary these routines and not collapse in a quivering pile. Oh, but when the anxiety kicks it up… (meet you at HSP!)

ADD: I have the attention span of a humming…SQUIRREL!!! (My want is to be able to focus. My “is” is that there’s meditation for that.)

HSP: Hello, Highly Sensitive Person trait, my new friend…

HSP is the worst for me, because it encapsulates all of the above. If I think for a second that I’ve embarrassed myself, said something the wrong way, gone too far with my hyper-empathy, I get mortified and tank into an internal shame spiral, and the irrationals kick into high gear.

But, here’s the difference: now that I know that it’s HSP (“is”), I can pull myself back and offer My Own Worst Counsel counter-arguments to push the irrationals away.

I have several friends whom I trust to death (“is!”), and I know that they would tell me if I make such a mistake and not hold it against me forever, or even past lunch (not everybody sees me as I see myself: major “is”!). I still tank if I think that I’ve gone too far. But now I know that this may just be…wait for it…irrational thinking! And now within a few minutes I can start pushing the irrationals away and return to “normal” on, if not a dime, than at least on a 50¢ piece. And this reality is pretty inspiring.

My elephant comrade Jennifer White posted this wonderful article, and it has opened my eyes completely to how much of my HSP is on me, and how I can work on just being present with myself and with others. I want to save the world. But just sitting with a friend while the world takes its course —without feeding my own discomfort—is enough.

It has been a looooooooooong journey from seeing the world that I want to seeing the world as it is. But I’m getting there, and I’m learning: kicking away the irrationals, letting go of the trauma that once scarred me and being here.

And I’m even learning to have compassion for my Occasionally Suspect Mental Wiring. © It is what it is, after all…



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Author: Brian Westbye

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Pixabay

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