When Mental Illness Feels Good
When Mental Illness Feels Good
by Sarah Hartshorne, Project UROK Vice President
There are lots of things about my PTSD that I would get rid of if I could: feeling like I got hit by a ton of bricks out of nowhere; being flooded by memories while getting a sandwich; being triggered by a Julia Child’s impression at a comedy show (actually, I wouldn’t change that. That’s hilarious.)
Seeing concrete improvement helps. Knowing how far I’ve come is like a silver lining I can hang onto. After a hard couple of days my husband said, “I know this sucks, but isn’t it nice that we know what’s going on now? That we know what to do?” Which is so true. It used to feel like my brain was full of this terrifying chaos that was always lurking, always lingering, threatening to overtake my day, week, or month at any moment. I was always looking over my shoulder, even when I felt joyful. Knowing how unreliable my mental levees were, how suddenly they could give way to the dark flood that would stain and taint any moment of happiness was exhausting.
But after a lot of therapy and hard work, now it all feels less like an unchained brain monster (dibs on having a band called Unchained Brain Monsters) and more like symptoms. And symptoms can be managed and predicted.
Therapy and hard work paying off feels great, for the most part. And yet.
What happens when mental illness, frankly, feels good? When some things are harder to let go of? It feels weird to say, but parts of my mental illness are comforting and easy. Sometimes it feels good.
There are lots of ways mental illness lies to us. It tries to tell us it knows what’s best, that it’s the only thing in the world that knows the truth. In my case, that lie is disassociation. Disassociation is a coping mechanism- when my brain disconnects me from reality. It feels like I’m floating away to a space just above my body, where everything is quiet and calm.
Sometimes, disassociation is totally normal, like if you’re bored or tired or zoning out. But in my case, it’s a reaction that I learned through childhood trauma. Dissociation is one way brains react to real or perceived threats. Since I’m lucky enough to be a white person in America in 2016, the “threats” are almost always imagined. Vanessa Bellew has a great way of explaining how PTSD affects the brain but, in short, the part of my brain that is in charge of the fight or flight reflex becomes convinced that it’s in danger by “triggers” which can be anything; a scent, a stranger’s face, a tone of voice. Since I’m lazy, a pacifist, and can’t actually fly, the way my brain reacts to being told, “FIGHT OR FLIGHT!” is to convince me that I’m not really there. And if I’m not there, I can’t be hurt, right?
Wrong, but you try telling an ostrich to pull its head out of the sand. And disassociating isn’t without consequences. When a brain’s go-to impulse is to detach and dissociate, it fails to learn how to be in the moment and to process emotions. It can also make it very hard to form emotional connections to moments and, therefore, people. I think back to a lot of times people were reaching out and trying to help me, and I was unable to see it at the time because I was so detached from myself and what was happening.
I know that learning to prevent and stop myself from dissociating will make me a happier and healthier person in the long run. And yet.
Disassociating feels great. It’s like being high without the munchies or paranoia. Since I’ve been doing it ever since I was a kid it feels warm, and comfortable, like a security blanket in my brain. Not doing it means processing every emotion that comes my way and dealing with it like some kind of adult.
So how do we let go of those mental security blankets? How do we get rid of what feels good along with the bad?
For me, it’s definitely a work in progress. Part of it has been changing how I think about disassociation. I used to think of it like my brain’s junk food; easy, convenient and bad for me in the long run. But that made it feel like forbidden fruit, and I wouldn’t have lasted a day in the Garden of Eden. Yes, junk food is bad for you, but everything in moderation, including moderation. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
Thinking about a symptom of PTSD as junk food also left me feeling guilty about how my brain worked, and that’s never constructive. It’s so easy to blame ourselves for our mental illnesses and symptoms, so easy to forget all the good we’ve done and can do. Mental illness is not a crime or a defect.
So I’m trying to think of it like a crutch. There’s no reason to feel guilty for leaning on something when you need it, and learning to walk without it can be hard, but ultimately, hopefully, worth it.
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