As you may have gathered from my last update and from the lack of blog posts generally, the brain weasels have been biting hard.
Stepping down off Effexor has been a painful process. At the higher doses, it was mostly a case of waiting out the first week of adjustment: the dizzy head-spins, the oversleeping, getting motion sickness from something as minor as looking at my phone while walking. As I’ve hit the lower doses, though, I’ve started to experience effects that don’t go away as I adjust.
It’s been hard – but it’s also been instructive.
Here’s a quick rundown of what it’s felt like to be me in recent weeks:
I’ve had a lot of days when everything seemed pointless, when my ability to feel anything at all deserted me and I couldn’t find the motivation to even get out of bed or feed myself. And then there have been the days when everything felt hopeless – when I was overwhelmed by doubt and indecision and an inescapable, bone-deep despair.
Nothing about that is new to me. If you have any experience with depression, you’re probably familiar with them yourself.
But what really struck me about the last few weeks is how obviously they were outside my control.
Lesson 1: This isn’t a choice – it’s brain chemistry
In case the sheer frequency and intensity of my recent bad days wasn’t evidence enough, I’ve also met the new and intriguing* phenomenon of rapid-cycling depression:
Everything is awful and I can’t deal with anything. Ten minutes later, I’m feeling basically normal and cautiously trying out some basic decision-making: what should we have for dinner? Ten minutes after that, I’m a despair-ridden mess again – and so on, ricocheting back and forth between “basically OK” and “completely non-functional” like a disaster pinball.
It’s so obviously artificial that even I can see through the illusion. This is not how normal emotions work. This is not me deciding to be miserable. It’s certainly not a response to any external stimuli.
This is my brain flailing around, trying to cope without the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine it got used to having on Effexor.
“It’s all in your head”
Oh, and then there’s the crying. I’ve always been a cryer – not just when I’m sad, but when I’m scared, when I’m angry, when I’m relived, when someone else I know is crying, when someone on TV is crying… It’s ridiculous.
On Effexor, I stopped crying all the time. I still felt emotions and empathy, but not in that overwhelming, uncontrollable way.**
Now I’m back to crying at the drop of a hat (boy, did I not miss that) – and the only thing that has changed is my dosage. If that’s not brain chemistry at work, I don’t know what is.
“It’s all in your head,” I’ve heard people say of depression and other brain weasels. “Just get over it.”
And they’re half right. These experiences are all in my head – in the same way that asthma is all in your lungs, or arthritis is all in your joints.
The brain is just another body part: as complicated and as fallible as any other, and as little in our control.
That’s not to say that I have no control over how I react to having a mental health condition. I use dozens of strategies to better manage my mental health, from therapy to medication, mindfulness to regular exercise (oh hey, just like you might use medication and exercise to manage, say, arthritis – fancy that).
But being smart about how I manage mental illness doesn’t change the fact that I am ill. It’s not a choice. It’s not my fault.
And some days it’s going to hit me harder than others.
Lesson 2: Don’t treat a bad day the same as a normal day
Even knowing that it isn’t my fault, it’s hard not to rail against myself when I have a thousand things to do and I can’t even make myself get out of bed. It can be even harder to resist the temptation, when I’m actually up and about, to push myself so hard that I collapse under the pressure.
I’ve had to learn to pay attention to how I’m feeling, and not approach the bad days with the same expectations of myself as I would bring to a good day.
And for that, I’ve adopted my friend Elise Kumar’s STUFF model.
Elise is a fellow brain weasel wrangler, and she’s awesome and open about her weasel-wrangling strategies. One of her tricks is to categorise her abilities each day on the STUFF scale:
- Surviving – the worst days. Getting out of bed is an achievement in itself.
- Treading water – a bad day. You’re getting by OK, but don’t push it.
- Usual – a “normal” day, good for getting on with life.
- Fulfilling – a good day, when you have mental energy to spare for those projects you’ve been putting off.
- Future – a great day! Time to take stock and make plans for the future.
On Surviving days, Elise recommends to focus on what she calls the “non-negotiables”: the absolute basics that have to happen every day. Feeding the cat. Feeding yourself. Taking your meds. On Treading Water days, she recommends adding in some basic life maintenance – do the dishes and the laundry, do what you need to do to keep things running smoothly – but don’t try to treat it like a normal day where you can achieve a normal amount.
Funnily enough, I’ve had a lot of Treading Water days in the last few weeks – and more than a few days where Surviving is the best I can do.
It’s no fun having days like these, but at least using the STUFF model I can recognise them for what they are and adjust my expectations of myself accordingly. It’s a far healthier response than wasting what precious mental and emotional energy I do have on trying to push myself to do more than I can manage.
My bad days are not laziness or incompetence. My bad days are a result of my brain weasels doing their thing. Chances are, if this sounds familiar, that yours are too.
*Well… intriguing when I’m not in the middle of it. (return)