Tiny figure lost at sea

Brain weasels; or, high-functioning mental illness and what happens when you don’t trust your own head

I’ve had a couple of people ask me about the descriptor I use for myself at the top of this page: “brain weasel wrangler”. So I figure it’s time to explain a bit about the weasels, and to talk about my journey from denial to acceptance.

This is a longer post than my usual, but I hope it will give some of you something to think about when facing your own brain weasels. Warning: discussion ahead of mental illness, brief mention of suicide.

A lifetime of clues

I don’t know how long I’ve been living with mental health issues. A lot of my childhood and even my adolescence is a blur these days, but there are still clues I can find, looking back. Since at least my late teens, and probably before that, I’ve been a crier. The tears show up at the drop of a hat; at silly little things and sometimes at nothing at all. I’ve always been the “sensitive” one; the worrier; the one making mountains out of molehills.

I’m a lifelong procrastinator, which may sound unrelated, but this quote from blogger David Cain sums it up perfectly:

“[P]rocrastination is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic as it is often regarded to be. It’s a neurotic self-defense behavior that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth. You see, procrastinators tend to be people who have, for whatever reason, developed to perceive an unusually strong association between their performance and their value as a person.”

That’s me, all right. Exposing my work to the judgement of others terrifies me. Decision-making sends me into a mental spiral – what’s the right call? How do I analyse all the factors? What if I choose badly and things go wrong and it’s all my fault? Having an opinion I might have to defend feels like taking a test when I haven’t read any of the textbooks. All it takes is one inadequate result, one critical comment, and I’m off down a rabbit hole of beating myself up – failure, incompetent, know-nothing.

I’ve never, from my early teens, had a job in which I didn’t feel like an imposter, like I was desperately faking competence and just waiting for someone to catch me out.

And then there are the days that overwhelm me, when everything seems hopeless and it’s all just too hard, and even getting out of bed is a trial. They’re a more recent development, but they’re there.

…but it can’t be that bad

Like I said: clues. So many clues. But for the longest time, I just saw these things as character flaws.

I’ve read libraries’ worth of self-help book and blogs. I’ve taken courses in mindfulness and meditation. I’ve done yoga. I’ve piled coping mechanisms on top of coping mechanisms, and I’ve gritted my teeth and got through by myself. Not because I thought everything was fine, but because I thought this was just… me being bad at life.

Of course I knew about conditions like anxiety and depression. I have good friends who have them, and who regularly share resources about them on social media. But whenever they talked about their experiences, or when I read about these things online, my first thought was always, that’s not me.

To be clear: this wasn’t a helpful thought. It wasn’t a healthy thought. It was that same imposter syndrome that keeps telling me I’m faking it at work.

You aren’t miserable enough of the time to have real depression. You’re holding down a good job, so you can’t really be ill. You’re not self-harming, so it can’t be that bad. Sure, you’ve thought about how you’d rather not exist any more, but you haven’t actually wanted to kill yourself (for the record, that’s called passive versus active suicidal thoughts, a distinction I only learned about recently – and to be clear, no, I am not a danger to myself).

Clearly you’re just lazy/a drama queen/looking for attention. If you can’t cope, it’s your fault for not being better at life.

I don’t recall where I first encountered the concept of “brain weasels”. It seems to be one of those phrases that originated somewhere in the depths of the internet and spread out from there. At the time, I embraced it as a way to describe the ways my head was messed up without laying “false” claim to anything as serious as anxiety or depression. It gave me a way to talk about the times my brain made life difficult, without “faking” having some kind of actual mental illness.

In other words: I was very, very good at denial.

High-functioning myself into the ground

See, it turns out there’s this thing called high-functioning mental illness. In other words, it’s possible – for some people – to have conditions like anxiety and depression and still hold down a job, have relationships, and generally look to the outside world like a healthy, functional person.

Functional, yes. Healthy, no.

My muscles are permanently tensed, enough so that I have to do daily exercises to keep the tension headaches at bay. I’ve developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I sleep poorly and wake most mornings exhausted and ill.

My concentration and memory are both shot, because (I realise now) a chunk of my mental processing is constantly occupied looking for “danger”: judging what I’m saying or doing or how people are reacting to me, pointing out all the ways I’m messing up, trying to plan for all the ways things might go wrong, and sometimes just keeping me going when I don’t want people to see me collapse in a heap.

And, most of all, I’ve been holding myself back, “keeping myself safe” – avoiding opportunities that might take me out of my barely-comfortable comfort zone, because I didn’t trust myself to handle any further psychological load.

The straw that broke the weasel’s back

The kicker finally came in early 2017.

I’d been seeing a psychologist on and off for years, a lovely lady I would visit whenever the brain weasels got bad enough that I felt I needed a reality check. On this occasion, I mentioned feeling stuck at work – I’d been doing essentially the same job for ten years – and she got me brainstorming career moves, all the ways I could move up or across into new and interesting jobs.

I made it through the session, and then I went home and disappeared for two weeks into utter hopelessness. I couldn’t see any point in going to work. I couldn’t see any point in getting out of bed. Everything was a fog of meaninglessness.

And why? Because all those wonderful ideas we’d thrown around for things I could do – I couldn’t see myself being able to do any of them, let alone convincing an employer to let me try. I didn’t believe I could do my own job, with ten years’ experience behind me – how on Earth could I be expected to fake my way through doing anything else?

Two weeks later, I dragged myself back to my psychologist, who diagnosed me with depression. And bizarre as it might sound, those were some of the sweetest words I’ve heard in my life. I literally burst into tears of relief.

Because what she was telling me, what I’d never been able to tell myself, was, No, you’re not a faker. You’re not a drama queen. You really are sick. This isn’t your fault.

Accepting the weasels for what they are

The past twelve months have been a journey into better understanding my own head. It’s an ongoing journey, that involves psychology, psychiatry, medication trials, and yet more (but better targeted) coping mechanisms.

I’ve had a range of different diagnoses from different medical professionals; some that feel like a good fit for me, others that feel more like a stab in the dark. Social Anxiety – tick. Generalised Anxiety Disorder – oh hell yes. Depression – well, yes, sometimes, but possibly more of a side-effect of unmanaged anxiety than an independent issue. Bipolar? Emotional dysregulation? ADHD?

Finding a clear set of labels for what goes on in my brain is still a work in progress. In any case, there’s growing evidence that mental health is a much more messy thing than the categories used to describe it.

So for now, I am reappropriating “brain weasels” as a broad-spectrum descriptor of my mental health. I’m confident talking (and blogging) about the impacts of my anxiety, because that’s one weasel I have a good handle on now, but if I need to talk about my mental issues as a whole, “brain weasels” is a good label. I no longer use it to diminish them, but it does help me keep them in perspective.

I won’t say this journey isn’t a roller coaster. There is no simple, straightforward path to better mental health. But overall, the journey is helping me find ways to live better, ways to think better. And the first step on this journey was – had to be – accepting that I had mental illness.

I wish it hadn’t taken things getting so bad I couldn’t hide it anymore for me to reach that acceptance. I wish I hadn’t spent years comparing myself with others and telling myself I wasn’t struggling enough to really be unwell. I wish I had had the faith in my own experience to go see a doctor ten years ago and say, “I would like a mental health assessment, please.”

So if you feel like you wrestle with your own brain weasels, even if you’re telling yourself it’s not that big a deal… please, think about it.

Featured photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
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13 Replies to “Brain weasels; or, high-functioning mental illness and what happens when you don’t trust your own head”

  1. Thank you. I have been dealing with my own brain weasels for years. I just started treatment last month. I am scared. I don’t remember ever being any other way.

    1. Hi Cayla, I’m glad you found my post helpful – it means a lot to me that you felt up to commenting and saying so. They can be awful little buggers, those brain weasels, can’t they?

      Well done to you for reaching out and getting help – I know how hard that first step can be, and I can’t promise it will be a smooth ride from here, but at least now you’re on the road to figuring out what’s going on with your head and how to best keep the weasels at bay. When it comes to mental health, knowledge really is power.

      I’m not sure if I’m interpreting your comment right, but if you’re scared of changing, maybe it will help to let you know that that’s one of the fears I faced when I started down this road too. Having been on a number of different antidepressants and other medications since I began, I can tell you that some of them did affect my mood in unexpected ways – one made me very impatient and irritable – but at no point have I ever felt like I lost track of what made me “me”. The same things still made me happy or sad or contented or angry – what changed was just the strengths of different reactions. And now that I’m on medication that’s doing what it’s supposed to, I’m definitely still me – but what used to feel like “me on a good day” is now “me on an average day”, and that’s a wonderful thing.

      It helped that I had Ben to check in with and ask, “Do I seem different to you lately?” – do you have a close friend or family member you can ask to keep an eye on you, and let you know if they notice any changes?

      Having a good psychologist to talk to can also make a huge difference (in my experience, at least – my psychiatrist is great for helping me trial different medications and doses, but my psychologist’s the one who I can actually sit and talk to for an hour about how I’m feeling). You have to find one you click with, though – don’t be afraid to ditch a psych and move on if they’re making you feel worse, not better!

      I hope some of this is helpful. Best of luck with your mental health journey. <3

    1. Hi Arnout, I’m glad it helped. Those brain weasels can be little buggers, but knowing they’re there is an important first step to giving them less power over you.

  2. Everything I read here rings true for me. Particularly when you say things like ‘feeling like an imposter.’

    I suffered depression and anxiety for many years. I got variously diagnosed with Schizoid Personality, Borderline Personality, Generalised Anxiety, Emotional Disregulation, etc. I got labelled ‘unfocused’, ‘lazy’, ‘disruptive’, ‘incapable of learning’ – all of this mainly at school, where I failed miserably. I was told I was stupid, dim-witted, a ‘whinger’, a ‘malingerer’. The fact that I went on to join Mensa and get a degree didn’t seem to mesh with any of this.

    Finally, three years ago – and thanks to the help of a perceptive therapist – I got my answer. I was diagnosed as autistic. Suddenly, the tumblers in the Turing Machine in my head all fell into place and the code of my life was broken. My realisation of my ‘difference’ has changed my life. Now I have all the answers.

    So, now I’m wondering… Have you ever considered autism? Just a thought. Because reading this made so much sense to me in that context.

    1. Argh, so much of this sounds familiar! The rollercoaster of different diagnoses… I’m so grateful I managed to get a good psychiatrist on the second try (I’d just started with him when I wrote this post), who was willing to really listen to me and to take a thoughtful, trial-based approach to diagnosing me instead of reaching a conclusion first and then twisting everything I said to meet that conclusion. And the school system is just so completely ill-equipped to deal with students with mental health stuff going on.

      Autism is definitely one of the options I’ve considered – it’s really reassuring to know I’m not the only person who’s looked at my experience and gone “hmm, could it be…?” I’m pretty sure at this point that I’ve ruled it out – I’ve taken a few online autism tests, and I know self-diagnosis is a dangerous thing, but I’m a “no” to enough aspects of the autism spectrum for me to suspect that’s not the answer. Plus the anti-anxiety medication I’m on now has been so effective at treating symptoms I had no idea were anxiety-related that these days I’m fairly sure my brain weasels are all anxiety of one type or another.

      If you’re curious to know more, I wrote another blog post about the unexpected parts of my life that turned out to be anxiety-related: http://ehmannwrites.com/2018/04/19/this-is-my-brain-on-anxiety-and-this-is-my-brain-on-drugs-pt-2/

      1. Fair enough. I’ll take a look at that other post.

        The AQ test, developed by Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge, is the standard pre-diagnostic test. 50 questions. 30 is the pass mark for suspected Asperger’s. I scored 34 in my first try. I realised later, though, that some of the answers I’d given were perhaps not quite right, so I retook it thinking I would get a lower score. Second time, though, I got 42! I got referred for diagnosis and had to wait 2 years, but it was worth it. Many of my mental health problems have improved since then. I ask for, and get, reasonable adjustments at work which mean I’m less exposed to anxiety-inducing situations.

        It was just so funny reading your post, because I’m active on the UK’s National Autistic Society’s Online Community Forums, and I read posts similar to your all the time. Part of the problem in this country is that if you go to your doctor asking for a referral for an autism diagnosis, they usually channel you straight into the mental health system – which is in a huge state of denial about autism. So many people get misdiagnosed with MH problems – and once they’ve got that diagnosis, it sticks. I think things are becoming a bit more enlightened with it now, though. I only know that for years and years, I got sicker the more that MH services turned me away with the ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ diagnoses, and I was always getting ‘But what have you got to feel anxious and depressed about?’ I had one psych tell me that she could tell by LOOKING at me that I didn’t have a personality disorder! Another psych said that I couldn’t be autistic because I didn’t flap my hands! The ignorance among so-called ‘experts’ is astonishing – and people are suffering because of it. Many people self-diagnose with Asperger’s simply because of the reluctance of doctors to make referrals. It’s so hard to actually get diagnosed. One friend has been convinced for years, but has been turned away time and time again. So she’s now paying out for a private diagnostic assessment.

        My life makes so much sense to me now, as I say. I realise why I’m ‘different’ and am actually proud of my difference. I tell everyone, too. It’s liberating – like a gay person finally feeling confident enough to come out.

        I’ll go look at your other article now… 🙂

        1. Haha! Golly… I could almost have written that – except for the bit about ‘I love socialising’. I never have, and I realise now it’s because I ‘miss’ social communication cues: body language, facial expressions, gestures. Only about 7% of total communication is verbal – and that’s basically all I have to go on! Having said that, I’m told I’m a social person – and I can be. I’m extrovert. Many people I know struggle to accept that I’m autistic. Thing is, though, I ‘mask’ well because I’ve had so many years of experience. Once I leave that social situation, I go off on my own and recharge, because I find it exhausting so much – being around other people for too long.

          I used to take anti-depressants, but don’t now. They’re designed for a neurological template that autistic people don’t have – which is probably why they never worked for me. They just made me feel doped. Even valium doesn’t do much.

          Good to read your posts! 🙂

          1. I know what you mean about “masking” – a vital skill for hiding “high-functioning” mental health issues as well! I suspect there are a lot of commonalities between mental health and neurodiversity in terms of the “high-functioning” experience: both how skilled we become at hiding our differences when we present ourselves to the world, and how easy it is to fool even ourselves into thinking we’re “normal”. It’s a real problem with living in a society that regularly presents mental illness and neurodiversity as an all or nothing situation – you’re either “normal” – i.e. your feelings and behaviour fall within a very strict set of parameters – or you’re so obviously “abnormal” that no one could mistake one of the other.

            Like you, I love to talk about my brain weasels these days. It feels so good to not be living in hiding (and denial) anymore, and I hope that by being open about mental health I can help break down the misconception that people can’t be both living a normal life and struggling with their mental health.

            Out of curiosity, have you seen this comic presenting the autism spectrum as a colour wheel rather than a line? I’m be interested to know what you think of it.

  3. Yep, this is me. I was diagnosed with bipolar about 8 years ago, but this explains more clearly what the day to day of it is like. One thing I’ve found that helps *sometimes* is when I get like this, reminding myself this is my brain and not a reflection of reality. It does help when it’s not too far down the rabbit hole.

    I’m so glad you did end up getting help. One thing my partner never really understood was how much of a relief those labels can be. That it’s not me being a failure at life, but this thing going on that I can’t control. Even with the stigma, having the label does help.

    1. Absolutely right, Misha. As someone at the intersection of the queer and mental health communities, there’s a lot of commonality between them in terms of the power of labels: they can do a world of good when we find the right ones to apply to ourselves (as opposed to the harm they can do when someone else applies them to us against our will).

      Best of luck with your own mental health journey.

  4. “And why? Because all those wonderful ideas we’d thrown around for things I could do – I couldn’t see myself being able to do any of them, let alone convincing an employer to let me try. I didn’t believe I could do my own job, with ten years’ experience behind me – how on Earth could I be expected to fake my way through doing anything else?”

    What did you do after this? Did you figure out what to do? I’m at this part in my life, only not working and seems everyone has finally seen I’m an imposter after 4 years of unemployment due to downsizing. Hubby thinks I should keep going and learn new aspects of my industry, but I want out. I’m in my 40’s and want to change gears, but I’m crippled with indecision. Like…. “that looks like a fun wall to climb” followed immediately by “but…..excuses”. I’m too old to start over. I won’t make as much. College will cost too much. I’ll be ignoring everyone if I pay attention to what I want. What do I even want? Plus everything you said, too. What employer is going to want a 40+ yr old imposter?

    1. Hi Em, I hope you’re doing OK. I’m so sorry for leaving your comment hanging as long as I did. At the point that you wrote it, I was going through a bad meds transition and in no state to deal with these kinds of questions in myself, let alone someone else.

      So, what did I do after everything fell in a heap? Well, first, I quit my job and found a much easier one – casual call centre work, very basic, the kind of work some people will look down on, but you know what? Screw those people. It gave me what I needed: a low-pressure source of income, a job I could forget about completely when I wasn’t at work – a way to be financially stable (mostly) while focusing on the more important work of taking care of myself. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to lean on Ben on the weeks when I didn’t get enough shifts to fully cover my half of the rent.

      The second, even more important thing I did was: I started getting help. Because there’s no way anyone should be expected to make progress when they’re stuck in the mental state of “everything I do is wrong”. I had counselling to help me untangle what I was thinking and feeling, I found online communities of people who were going through/had been through experiences like mine – and I got on antidepressant medication to help me develop a healthier and more resilient brain. And honestly, while counselling was helpful and community was wonderful, it wasn’t until I found the right medication that I started really being able to think like I wasn’t an imposter and believe that I had a chance at future happiness.

      It’s almost exactly two years now since I quit my old job, and I’m just about to embark on a new one – only a six-month role, but my first step back into conservation work after thinking at one point that I would never work in conservation again. My life is still far from perfect, but I have a far better understanding of my brain and its limitations than I ever have before, and I have hope that things can continue to get better.

      I hope that gives you some things to think about, Em. You don’t have to go this alone.

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