l'hermit

l'hermit

Saturday, October 10, 2015

This week in mental illness...

Most people who are at all close to me understand that I have a tendency to be completely transparent about suffering from multiple, sometimes disabling illnesses. Fibromyalgia is the catch-all for my pain, but it's in the world's worst triad relationship with chronic anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. I'm vocal about my suffering because doing so is one of the few things that helps me maintain my tenuous grasp on reality... Oh! And because I'm a feminist who wants to create a better world that has room for people who experience chronic health conditions.

The other reason I'm open about having a mental illness is that it's the go-to diversion when someone decides to kill a bunch of people. The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators thereof. I may be one of the lucky middle-class-ish people who has access to shelter, food, and adequate healthcare, but I'm still one of the many millions of Americans who suffers from a mental illness.

For example, this week was very exciting in the Setzer household. Monday & Tuesday were fairly productive, & Wednesday even got off to a pretty normal start: have coffee, feed dog, experience complete mental breakdown. Oh, wait, that last bit isn't normal.

Panic attacks are not an unusual thing for me. I mean, I've been having them since I was 8, & most of the time the go something like this:

That is I tend to go from drinking coffee to wanting to scratch my skin off, to crying, & back to my coffee in an hour or so. It's pretty routine, so I have developed the ability to deal with it. Usually all I need is to express the ill-humors, & it's back to normal.

However, this week was a little different...
Actually, I was in pain & looking for my KT tape, but not experiencing any sort of panic at all...
I got frustrated not being able to find my KT tape. I couldn't think because I was in so much pain, so I took some medicine. After a while, I gave up trying to find relief & decided to see if the meds would do anything... they didn't. Instead...

I slipped into a sort of dissociative state & watched what was happening to me from deep inside
My muscles started to tighten, my breathing got short & ragged & after a few minutes I got that feeling in the back of my throat that meant no matter how much I wanted to scream for help or cry or tell others what was going on, no words would be coming out until the attack was over. I think I experienced the same physiological symptoms I get when I have really bad nightmares (because a nightmare is a panic attack that happens when you're asleep): I curled up into a ball, & could only move my eyes & fingers. Words evaporated from my mind. For the first bit of it, I chronicled the experience to my spoonies, because I knew they would understand & because I wasn't sure I would remember it. Plus, it was fascinating.

To be sure, this was a full-fledged panic attack, but I wasn't scared. I've been thru this experience before. I've even lost the ability to speak during a panic attack a few times before, so I knew I would come out of it. I also knew that going to the emergency room would have made things about a zillion times worse.

A few minutes in, Ten came into my room to tell me that the dog had pooped in the house (again), but he immediately knew something was wrong when I didn't move or respond. I typed what was happening into my phone (yay pocket internet machine!) because it was in my hands, & he sat down next to me & asked if I wanted a hug. The comforting touch of a loved one has always been essential in bringing me back from the edge of my insanity, so for 20(?) minutes he sat with me & I did everything I could to convey that I really needed him to be there.

Eventually, this stage of the attack hit its peak & I asked him to straighten out my legs so I could start to come down from Panic Mountain. Ten had to get back to work, so Stewart took over & fulfilled his duties as Emotional Support Animal.
"Stage 3: Naked & Crying" is the title of my next book.
After I was able to unwind my body, I turned onto my left side & began to ground myself. "I am in a safe place," I told myself in the squishy, dark magenta hallows of my head. "I am in a safe place in a nice room in a nice house in a nice neighborhood in a city that I love," I imagined myself actually speaking these words, which meant that I was even starting to get my words back from whatever monster had suddenly stolen them.

My breath got steadier, smoother, & more relaxed. From there, my yoga training kicked in, feel your attention return to your fingers and toes my internal yoga teacher instructed as I began to wiggle my fingers & toes in a not-currently-spiraling-into-madness way. And on your next inhalation, turn over onto your right side as tho you were about to fall asleep, this sentence frequently closes meditation sessions for me, & I only had to repeat it to myself 3 times before I actually did turn onto my right side.

"Well, that was unpleasant," I finally said aloud.

A few minutes later I was able to get out of bed & make myself some food, but I wasn't out of the woods yet.

Nothing is more frustrating for me than not being able to think
It took more than 48 hours after the physiological symptoms of this attack abated for me to get my brain back. Thursday I had a second severe panic attack in my sleep, which resulted in nightmares that felt the way losing your mind is portrayed in the movies. I spent most of Thursday sleeping or distracting myself from what I had experienced because I really couldn't process it yet. All day I forgot words I routinely use, & I felt like I was fighting thru a haze just to get to my own thoughts. When I did reach my thoughts, they were full of evidence convincing me that I am just kind of bonkers normally & that I don't really live in the real world -- altho I seem to pay rent here what with the eating & drinking & sex & drugs & rock'n'roll.

Today, Friday, I have been able to think about it a little more & analyze what went on, but I didn't really feel like I could think clearly until around 8:30pm, some 56 hours after my aphasia & paralysis had relented.

I don't know what lead to this episode. Some may jump to blaming some of the medicines I use, or that I haven't been eating enough recently; it could be hormones, or weather changes; it could be side-effects of caffeine or nicotine; or it could be any or all of these things. Honestly, it could be none of these things, because I've always had panic attacks, & sometimes they are just bad.

At no point during this episode, however, did I feel violent. I never thought that I would solve anything by harming anyone. I knew the entire time that I was safe where I was, that it would blow over, & I would get my body back because that's how my illness works. As far as I can tell, that's how most mental illness works: you'll have a surge of symptoms that are frightening, but if you're in a supportive environment you know you'll get thru it & eventually you do (not that it's pleasant).

There are people with mental illness who lack supportive environments; who feel alone & worthless & like they will never be able to function as they once did. It's terrifying to be in that place, & there are predators who take advantage of people trapped in these circumstances. Those who are likely to be violent are going to harm themselves, rather than others (do you know how much easier it is to hurt yourself than to hurt someone else?), & even if they can get their hands on a gun a person without hope or any real connection to reality is probably going to shoot themselves before shooting anyone else. Really, they're most likely to be shot by police, whether they're armed or otherwise.

Factors like homelessness, food insecurity, inadequate healthcare, & abuse are going to affect people with mental illness more than the availability of guns ever could. Yet we keep insisting that it's mental illness that causes all of these mass shootings in our country; that guns don't kill people, "crazy" people do. That "crazy" people are going to find a way to kill people, gun or no gun. That "dealing with the mentally ill" will end these shootings -- except those talking points are then followed with how guns are the most important right we have; more important even than the right to not be killed by someone with a gun. These so-called crazy people are only mentioned as a scapegoat so that we can protect our precious firearms.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that lumping millions of Americans with mental illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia into this category of people likely to be violent if not closely monitored is divorced from the reality of mental illness. It's also just passing the buck & blaming a group of people who need our care & compassion rather than stigma & shame.

And yes, full disclosure: I dislike guns. Loud noises make me cry, & my weapon of choice for the zombie apocalypse is a machete. But what I'm really trying to say is deal with your shit, America. Don't just blame it on the vulnerable like some over-militarized abusive drunk.

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