A great way to make yourself mentally ill

I’ve been thinking a lot about TBI and mental illness, over the past few weeks. I just finished up two consecutive weekends spent with my family, some of whom I have not seen in years. I was dreading it a little bit, to be honest. Some of my relatives do not approve of me and how I live my life, and they are also very religious, so I always wonder if they are being nice to me because they want to win me over to the “straight and narrow” and get me to re-join their religious fold.

I got over their judgments a long time ago. But I’m still wary of them being nice to me with ulterior motives. It really puts a damper on spending time with them.

One of the other “artifacts” of my past is the belief that I was somehow flawed or irreparably damaged… that I was broken and could not be repaired. I’m not sure when that belief set in — probably before I was a teenager, when I could never get anything “right”, no matter how hard I tried. I believe that perception of myself as being flawed or damaged was reinforced by my surroundings, especially by my parents, who had impossibly strict standards and let me know that I was doing things wrong a lot more than they told me I’d gotten it right. The same thing happened in school, as well as at church — everyone was so busy trying to stop people from doing the wrong thing, they didn’t spend much time getting people to do the right thing from the start.

The net result of all of this, is that I grew up with a skewed perception of myself as being damaged, incapable, stupid, idiotic, socially inept, and generally bad at talking to people. And the more I told myself those stories about myself, the more I looked for supporting evidence, and I confirmed my worst fears about myself — there was something terribly wrong with me.

Enter “mental illness”. Not mental illness in the sense of a true biochemical imbalance that results in real pathology… rather an illness of my mind that fed itself on a constant supply of fuel from repeated bad experiences. I had myself so convinced that I wasn’t able to talk to people, that I wasn’t able to remember anything, that I wasn’t able to complete assignments in school or at work, that my expectations in life were seriously down-graded and I thought I didn’t deserve anything better. I was un-well in my mind about my own mind — I thought that it was a lost cause, and my spirit and body were the only parts of me that truly mattered. In my own defense (against my self-attacks), I never completely gave up on myself, but I still clung to old beliefs about my mental ability and capacity that simply weren’t true.

I’ve written before about how Narrowmindedness breeds disability and I do believe that with all my heart. Looking back at my life now with a much expanded view of what is “ok”, I can see that the differences I exhibited weren’t punishable offenses — they were just differences from how others did things. And in some cases, my differences gave me an advantage. But because I and the world around me had no tolerance for differences, I developed this really negative view of myself that served no one, really.

It’s unfortunate.

Now, looking at my family from the past two weekends, seeing my nieces and nephews all running around doing their things, I see a lot of myself in them, and I think about how I actually wasn’t really that bad of a kid. There was just no tolerance for how I was. And I see that my nieces and nephews have a much better chance at doing well with their own individual gifts and talents, than when I was their age, 40 years ago.

A lot has truly changed, and for that I am grateful.

The place where it’s changed the most, is really inside my head. I’ve come to see myself in a very different light than before, with many of my old problems either evaporating, or becoming quite manageable with new approaches and new thinking. I still have my issues – impulse control was a bit of a problem, the past two weekends, when I was tired and overwhelmed (which happened a few times), and I had some pretty intense moments with my spouse, and there was a constant fatigue and pain in the background pretty much the whole time – but I dealt with it constructively. I didn’t make it into a sign that there was something wrong with me and I was incapable and inept. I got myself out of that downward spiral of self-attacking thinking and despair that leads to true disability… and I moved on.

See, that’s the secret malady that gets TBI folks time and again — we get stuck in a loop, and we can’t get out. When your brain has been a bit re-wired by injury, it can be oh-so easy to get stuck in thoughts that are unproductive and self-abusive. We tend to fixate on things and focus on the BAD-BAD-BAD! things we think we have said and done, and that compounds the seriousness of them. We do something that may be a little “odd” or unexpected, and then we think “That was stupid!” and then we fixate on that, telling ourselves over and over and over again, “I’m an idiot! I’m stupid! I’m a fool! I’m messed up! There’s something wrong with me!” And we never give ourselves a chance to defend ourselves or come up with a better way of thinking about things. Oh no, it’s much easier to beat up on ourselves and find more and more evidence that shows “for certain” that we are messed up, damaged, hopeless, and beyond help.

And so we very effectively make ourselves mentally ill. We make ourselves sick in our minds and sick in our souls. We could just as easily tell ourselves different stories about our true nature — telling ourselves that we are human and we make mistakes, but we are very capable of getting ourselves back on track and focusing on the positives. We can choose to tell ourselves anything we like, but we get stuck in that perseveration about how BAD we are, and we make ourselves far worse off than we truly are.

The thing that helps me get out of this is understanding the two-part nature of this situation.

The first part is neurological: I am prone to slip up in certain ways — impulsive blurting out of things, doing dorky stuff, not remembering things, getting turned around and heading off in a wrong direction (and staying that way), and perseverating on things, etc.

The second part is psychological: I can choose to interpret things the way I wish, and I can choose to entertain certain thoughts about myself. I can approach my life in a thoughtful, spiritually and mentally engaged way, and I can pay attention to what’s going on with me… all the while understanding that there are parts of me that may need a little more care than usual.

The combination of these two aspects produces my state of mind, which can be positive or negative. And knowing how I perseverate, if I can manage to perseverate on the positive instead of the negative, my whole experience and reality becomes very different, than if I perseverate on the negative. It’s my choice.

Of course, these are things that I may or may not be able to control. The best way to handle this is sometimes to simply avoid situations that produce those events, like getting too tired or not paying close enough attention. But when I can, if I can choose the positive and focus my full attention on that, I can save myself a whole boatload of heartache and headache and needless suffering.

Ultimately it’s my choice. I can make myself well or I can make myself sick. I have the power (to at least some extent). And so do you.

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6 thoughts on “A great way to make yourself mentally ill

  1. I enjoy your writings of your experiences. This one especially. Thank you for your thoughts they help me to understand my own feelings. It is a quiet and hard world for me. Especially, when my children and husband don’t fully understand what TBI is.So thank you.

  2. Thank you Lisa. It is a quiet and hard word for a lot of us, too. You’re definitely not alone. So many of our families do not understand. It can be difficult, but keep at it, and keep working towards something better. There is always something better. And it is within reach.

    Best
    BB

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on making yourself sick. I am making myself mentally ill and I don’t know how to stop it! I have tried medication and therapy but it didn’t work. I don’t have the money to go to a real doctor so I go to a clinic that is free. they are overworked and really haven’t helped me much. I need to do something cause i feel that it is getting worse. I am depressed and hopeless!

  4. Thank you for writing. I’m not sure if you’re going to ever read this, but if you do, please consider doing some sort of meditative practice — it is free to do, and it has helped many, many people to regain their balance. By calming down your system, you can sometimes calm down the biochemical “storms” that make us mentally ill — and also get some good perspective. You can either join a group, or you can do it yourself. I prefer to do it myself, because other people tend to distract me from my focus, and I get irritated. But it can also be a great way to meet other people and share some structured time with them.

  5. Wow that really describes my pain. BAD, BAD, BAD making myself mentally, ill never good enough… So is probably what drove me to excell in life after TBI. I truly have come SO FAR others tell me. But I dismiss it. I want to be normal ! Whatever that is…. I was ok with being unique when I was a kid. I was still smart and pretty.. Now I am cracking up! It has been 20 years since my extreme TBI. I have excelled in academics and life, tolerated too much abuse by men and fought out of the relationships. Now I blame myself again because I think that I drove myself to far…Now, I am falling out of the corporate and academic world because I cracked-up, passed-out and the dr’s think I have seizures. My MRI’s revealed my old damage and they won’t let me go back to work or even drive. I think when MD’s see the damage from when I was 16 they know there must be something wrong with me. But, I had one doc six years ago who said, “You are doing fine. You may see stars now and then *shrug shoudlers*, but people everyday are not functioning at the level you are, so just keep it up.” I liked him. Isn’t this the right attitude for a TBI? Back to reality… I am no longer independant. I feel I am a burden on my new husband. Although I am TBI re-wired differently, talk really fast and maybe respond a little slower sometimes, I was Ok with myself and my abilities. Now I second guess my entire identity. I feel I have been (please excuse the word) “retarded” this entire time. I have just been inadequate, it is just that nobody want to tell me . :( I have been assured that is not true. But, the BAD, BAD BAD TBI in me truly believes I have been faking any success, int+elligence and personality for the past 20. I thought i was beyond that TBI stuff. I am facing this Limbo of either get Dr. to give me permission to return to work (even though I am inadequate and crazy) or label me as broke with disability. Then there is the driving issue… Currently I have the worst time getting the ex’s to do the pick-up and drop off for parenting time…I can’t even drive myself to my many medical appointments! I feel useless. This is really making me devastingly angry and hopeless! It is horrible! Somehow this old injury reappeared and ripped through my life?!?! WTF this is making the whole concept of rehab pretty useless! CAN ANYONE RELATE to THIS?? Maybe as I age the TBI is becoming more apparent ??? Any info on this??

  6. Hey there. Actually, the situation you are describing is common to most high achievers (including me) — the vast majority who have not had TBIs. It’s called “imposter syndrome” and it is when people who have achieved a lot in life believe they haven’t really achieved anything, but have fooled the world into thinking that they have been successful. It’s ironic, because I have been thinking about this a lot, myself, lately. How can anyone think I am a success? I’ve made such a mess of things. I am difficult to live with, I am moody, I fly into a rage, I can’t hear properly, I can’t focus for long, my memory is sh*t… and so on and so on.

    It’s true. TBI has re-appeared in your life to seemingly shred it. But that does not need to stop you. There are many, MANY different ways to be effective in your life, which are not the way you are used to doing them. The main barrier, is the voice inside your head that is telling you you’re “retarded” (I have that voice too) and that is convincing you that you are any worse than others.

    You are NOT. The fact of the matter is: Most people are not particularly smart. It’s not that they don’t have intelligence, they just don’t use it much. And they are so self-absorbed, they never realize that they are not using their full potential. You do not have that problem. You know how to use your intelligence, and the only thing that sets you apart from them is the voice in your head that tells you you’re less intelligent, that you can’t, that you won’t, that you’re broken beyond repair.

    Let’s pause for a moment of realism… a lot of people walking around doing big things are idiots who have no clue – but they don’t let it stop *them*. Look around — there are tons of blithering idiots who are in important positions — doctors, lawyers, executives — but their stupidity is not a handicap. If anything, it seems to be an advantage. About 15 years ago, there was some research that showed that the dumber a person is, the smarter they think they are, and my personal experience says it’s true. (Ironically, one of the dumbest people I’ve ever met drew my attention to the research… and they ended up scoring a huge win in a lawsuit and moved from the cold northern states to sunny Miami to start a dance club.)

    My advice to you is to get out of your head and stop being your own worst enemy. Pay attention to everyone around you, keep an eye out for how dumb they really are, and then just do what you want to do. Trust me, nobody is watching you and nobody knows what’s going on in your head. They are too wrapped up in their own stories, their own pain, their own conceits. You can do just about whatever you want, make it all about them, and succeed wildly.

    You’re not useless. You just haven’t figured things out yet — and as long as you keep beating yourself over the head with that “stick” of self-recrimination, you’re not going to have any energy left for getting sh*t done.

    So, do something useful with yourself! Design your own rehab. Nobody has a clue how to do it 100% correctly for you — except for YOU. Go on Psychcentral http://neurotalk.psychcentral.com/forumdisplay.php?f=92 and support some people who need help. Give thanks for the good that is in your life. Expand your horizons beyond your own pain, and you will find a way to become useful to others. It’s not just a way to help them. It will help you, as well.

    And if you need a work from home situation, you can find it. FlexJobs and VirtualVocations are two websites that have work from home jobs. Google them. Check them out and find something you can do. Give it a try. Just do something — besides being so hard on yourself.

    Life has thrown you curve balls and you have overcome. Now you have gotten another curve ball, and you have even more challenges, because your life is a LOT more complicated than it was when you were 16. I’m sure you can think of a lot of things you have done right. Give yourself credit, and trust that the same character that helped you succeed before can — and will — help you succeed again, just under different circumstances.

    Best advice I have heard in a long time — when you screw up, forget about it and move on. Your subconscious will remember what you did and avoid it next time, but if you use up conscious thought thinking about what you screwed up, then you’re using up valuable cycles on something you cannot change. Trust your unconscious to guide you in the right direction… just don’t get caught up in what’s done and what can’t be changed.

    Reading your post again, it seems like the best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to find some peace — any peace — and work constructively towards solving problems. Even people whose lives you make more difficult tend to appreciate it if you are making a genuine attempt to help solve the problems, instead of becoming poor-me and expecting them to carry the full load.

    As for your age… I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I’m rapidly approaching 50 (how did this happen?!), and I wonder if it’s affecting my brain. Whatever. The fact is, my brain has a lot more to process, than it did when I was 20-something, or even 30-something, so of course it takes me longer to sort through things. But I make better quality choices for the right reasons now, than I did when I was younger, so it’s a trade-off.

    But I feel like I’m going on way too long.

    Be good to yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself some credit. You may need to make some adjustments in your life, but genuinely stupid people do this all the time, and they’re none the worse for it. You’re not stupid, so just go for it, make adjustments as you go, and see what happens.

    You can do this.

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