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.
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.