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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