The Hunt for Mental Wellness

By Michael Ryan Blackwood

I've struggled with my mental health for almost as long as I can remember. 

I've now seen two psychiatrists and two other therapists.

I have chronic depression, also known as dysthymia. (From the Greek for "bad state of mind," though thumos literally translates to "soul." Bad soul. Well that's encouraging.) If you think of the normal person's mood as sitting on a line (which will have natural fluctuation), the depressed mood sits below that line. Symptoms often include lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt, and sometimes suicidal thoughts. 

also have co-morbid anxiety and panic disorder. It does seem counter-intuitive to have both depression and anxiety, doesn't it? One seems so passive and one so active. But it's not uncommon.

I also probably have ADD. I say probably, because I haven't completed all the official testing. The last psychiatrist I saw wanted me to figure out my meds for depression first. But two mental health professionals now confirm that I probably have ADD, and I have to say, when I first heard that, I was almost relieved. And day after day I see the ways that I have struggled my whole life and how ADD explains so much of my behavior.

Right now I'm on a (potentially years-long) path to figuring out my meds. A friend of mine recently suggested a book, which I devoured in a day. It's a graphic memoir called Marbles, by Seattle artist Ellen Forney. She describes her struggle with manic-depression, also called bi-polar disorder, and her journey to find the right medication.

She also describes a conundrum which is probably familiar to many artists: Will treating my mental health diminish my artistic ability? Many great artists through history suffered from mood disorders and other mental health issues. And of course there's this great mythology built up about the "tortured" or "mad" artist. I've occasionally had these thoughts, but I suppose in a funny way I'm luckier than Ms. Forney. She felt that many of her episodes were times of great inspiration for her, and she was rightly frightened that leveling out her mood would also depress her artistic ability. I, on the other hand, have felt for a very long time that my mental health only impedes my artistic ability. My depression is what keeps me at home. Keeps me in bed, glued to the pillow, eyes stuck to the television. It's what depletes my motivation. It makes me dread the world, to dread being around other people.* It's what tells me that I'm worthless. And lazy. My brain is keeping me from my work. And I'm getting sick of it. 

Years ago, when I first sought psychiatric help, I wanted to stay away from drugs. I wasn't judgmental, I would say, of others who used anti-depressants, but I thought it wasn't for me. I wanted to deal with my issues through talk therapy. I wanted to delve into my mind, look into my unconscious, and see what motivations were lurking there.

And that's all well and good. And research shows that a combination of both talk therapy and pharmacology is the most effective.

But the truth is some of us are literally wired differently. Our chemistry is different. It's not just our minds, but our brains. Our bodies. And we need help to heal. A broken bone does not set itself. It does not mend without the use of a cast. You cannot think away a broken bone. And yet that is what so many of us think about mental health. Cheer up. Get over it. Change your attitude.

After years of therapy, which I do find wonderful, I found myself angry. So angry and frustrated, thinking that I had made so much progress, that I had been looking at myself, coming to understand my mind, and my emotional needs, and still feeling terrible day after day. Still lacking motivation. Still hating myself. So I decided it was time to get a cast put on that bone. 

And, I'm just starting. And it's scary, and frustrating. I have a sensitive system. My first attempt at an SSRI (that's a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, in simplest terms, a drug that increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel happy) resulted in hardcore panic, shaking, and disocciative feelings. So, okay, Zoloft wasn't the one. Now I'm working meds in very slowly, letting my poor body adjust to the dosage, so it may be a while still before I can tell if anything's helping. Which is irritating. I want instant results. Who doesn't? But I'm on a path. I think it's the right path. And I'm not ashamed to say I'm getting the help that I need.

The irony of this is that I would say I consider myself an extrovert. Or, at least, I used to. But when you struggle with depression, it takes tremendous amounts of energy to be around people, and even more energy to be around people you don't know or don't click with. One form of therapy missing from my life at the moment is friendship. I have been so solitary since moving to the city. And I know that's bad for me. I feel at least a little better among the right people, almost instantly. It gives me a boost. But being new, it makes it that much harder to connect with others. So I continue to sit at home. Avoiding social events I know will make me feel better. And hating myself for it... The vicious cycles of depression are cycles of self-destruction. Your self-doubt and self-loathing keep you at home, and as you sit at home, you feel yourself wasting your life away, only confirming the thoughts that you are worthless and lazy.