You still haven’t started that paper. You forgot to send that email again. What’s wrong with you? You haven’t done the dishes in a week. When are you going to write your aunt back? I can’t believe you said that stupid thing at work today. You better call the dog in. Are you ever going to start that paper?
So goes the monologue that so often takes over my mind, and that’s on the good days. I’ve posted before about my experience with anxiety and obsessive thinking. I recently stumbled upon a strange method for getting a little distance form it. I named it Simon.
I got this odd notion from an episode of On Being (one of my favorite podcasts) with pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She explained,
I named my depression Frances because it was like a really bad roommate who would never leave. And at the time when I really suffered from depression, it was when Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had their child named Frances Bean, and so I named my — at the time they named their child, I named my depression Frances.
But I always pictured her more like Courtney Love, kind of emaciated in a vintage nightgown with like smeared lipstick and a gin bottle and a cigarette. Like that was Courtney. I mean, that was Frances, my depression. And like at first, she was kind of interesting to hang out with, but then she just never moved out.
Something just clicked when I heard this. Of course! All this time I’ve been observing my thoughts, knowing myself as the awareness, not the thinking/thinker. But it’s damn hard to remember when the dust-devil swirls in. What better way to disidentify from my obsessive thinking than to give it a name?
So I named it Simon. I picture him vividly: a skinny, scrawny boy of 18 or 19, with messy black hair and wire-frame glasses. I feel like he’s my younger cousin or something, and for some reason, I’m expected to live with him. Simon is the kind of roommate who leaves his dirty socks on the floor and eats the leftovers you were saving. Simon has strong opinions on matters on which he is utterly uninformed. Simon believes everything will go wrong and he wants me to know it.
Naming Simon has sparked something of a revolution in my mind. That evening, all my anxious thoughts were suddenly in sharp relief, obvious in their absurdity and complete uselessness. Shut the fuck up, Simon, I though to myself over and over. In the few weeks since this happened, my anxiety has plummeted. Best of all, whenever it rears its ugly head, it is easily shot down. I wouldn’t put up with this crap from a roommate; there’s no need to put up with it from myself, either.
No more Simon Says.
As a kid, I obsessively repeated number sequences in my mind. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2… If I failed to repeat the pattern–the right numbers, in the right order, at the right time–my mother would die.
At 5, I knew she would die in a fire; at 6, I knew she would be shot. At 8, I knew she would be killed be a drunk driver, and at 9, I knew she would get cancer. I became especially consumed by this terrible false foresight when she went out at night. I begged her to take me along to meetings and choir practice, convinced that if I were there, she wouldn’t die. Or at least you would die too, a part of me whispered.
I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I remember. I now recognize it as OCD, which runs in my family. I am worming my way out from under the thumb of these fevered preoccupations.
The same pattern has followed me in a dizzying variety of forms, both subtle and overt. In the most obvious and painful form, I believe that my mind can cause or prevent a loved one’s death. I recognize the pattern by two telltale signs:
- The thought states or implies that my mind can somehow influence external events and/or predict the future. If I think about something bad, it will happen; or else, just as often, if I don’t worry, it will happen.
- I am fixated on an imagined disaster . There is little evidence that this event will actually occur.
The delusion is so obviously false, and the fixation so clearly misguided, it is hard to believe I fall for it over and over again. But mine is a clever and persistent monster. I talk myself out of wild improbabilities, only to talk myself into new fears, ever so slightly more plausible. The shape-shifting apparitions of my mother’s death–fire, gun, car accident, cancer–chronicle the obsession’s development over time.
I want to be free of my father’s disease. I have loosened and loosened its grip; I have reach levels of calm I never thought possible. Transition, medication, and meditation have done me worlds and worlds of good. These days, my moods are upbeat and steady. People remark on my peaceful demeanor, a compliment that always surprises me. Still, again and again, I get caught in its cold fingers, and I find myself with a knot in my stomach, gasping for air, when absolutely nothing is wrong. I never want to feel that melancholy panic again.
Its disguises are manifold, but the root is the same. My mind ceaselessly sets about attacking problems, always making plans and calculations, hedging bets, setting goals. Like a loyal dog, my mind sniffs out possible problems and goes about solving them. There is nothing wrong with this–it’s useful. But my poor little mind, always wandering through worries, returns again and again to one problem, the Problem of Problems, a nauseating truth it cannot solve.
My mind has been trying to outsmart death. Temporariness is the wall I’ve been banging my head against. My mind hits it and gets stuck in an endless loop of magical thinking, like a scratched CD stuttering, like a crashing computer.
When I can observe this, a warm glow overflows from my heart. It is the light of love for myself, for the good old dog that is my mind, bound to try, doomed to fail.
It’s okay, boy. You just can’t solve this one.
הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל
Mist of mists, said Kohelet. Mist of mists, all is mist.
Last month, I visited my doctor and asked her for a prescription for amitriptyline. I took this medication for several years, from the time I was about 16 to age 21, to help me cope with depression, anxiety and migraines. Three years ago, delighted with the way testosterone had improved my mood, I stopped taking it.
I’m still not sure exactly why. I was doing much better–but what made me think I didn’t need it anymore? Maybe I just didn’t want to take two medications. More than that, I didn’t want to be someone who had to take two medications.
Testosterone has improved my quality of life tremendously. But after three years, I had to admit that my anxiety had reared its ugly head again. I got sick of being debilitated by spirals of worries, irrational and bottomless. I got sick of feeling like shit when nothing was wrong.
I realized I had two entirely separate conditions: I am transgender, and I am prone to depression and anxiety. To be more specific, I have obsessive compulsive disorder, in my own semi-educated opinion. These conditions certainly interact with one another, but they are basically separate. A lot of people in my family have the same depression and anxiety problems, but not a one is trans.
It’s amazing how difficult it is to admit you could benefit from mood-altering medication. I am a staunch supporter of mental health treatment–I’m becoming a counselor, for goodness sake–but I felt a major twinge of shame at asking for help.
There’s the idea that having a mental health condition makes you crazy, sick, inferior, or broken. There’s the idea that if you’re functioning and surviving, you shouldn’t seek treatment just to make your life a bit better.
Life is precious. We get one shot. There is truly no good reason not to get the most we can from it–to be our fullest and healthiest selves, to be as alive and awake as possible. For some people, medication is one important tool for making contact with reality.
I am so glad I bit the bullet and asked for the prescription. I still have obsessive thoughts, but they are fewer, and it is much easier to recognize them for what they are. My default mood, when nothing is especially right and nothing is especially wrong, has gone from agitation and uneasiness to quiet contentment. I look forward to starting the day in the morning, and I look forward to coming home at night.
At this point, I couldn’t care less about needing a couple of medications to be healthy. The thought seems preposterous now, and more than a little ungrateful, given my overall good health. I am just so glad I have them.