Mapping the intangible

Content note: Very detailed talk of suicide and self harm, rape, disordered eating

I’m sat on my sofa, exhausted and in a lot of pain after a night of restless sleeplessness, trying to get in the frame of mind to allow me to explain how my head works. Not my actual head, of course, but rather the jumbled basket of emotions, thoughts, moods,  and reactions that I have day on day, year on year. The things that make up who I am, or perhaps that mask who I am. They’re ever changing and splinter off in different ways, making odd connections where you wouldn’t think one could arise, or seem inexplicable but are linked nevertheless.

For a long time now I’ve been wanting to try and get some record of or try to find a way to explain how my moods, thoughts, and emotions have impacted me, perhaps take stock of the turbulence and upheaval that have an enormous presence in my life. If I can get it out of my head and into something that doesn’t completely escape description, even if it’s just a fraction of it, it can surely only help. The more I learn about myself and how to express precise moods, emotions, trains of thought, the less I seem able to do so. A quest for a precise description of self-analysis has led to over-analysis, and employing techniques of mindfulness in recent years have only escalated this. Recently I’ve gone back to seeing someone who’s helped me a lot in the past and I’ve been asked to try and think about or maybe write about what’s going on with me. I know something is wrong but I don’t even know where to begin in expressing it, the sheer scope of it baffles me. Where do I even begin?

I’ve had mental health problems dating back to my childhood, low moods, high moods, anxiety, irrational anger, impulsiveness, obsessive and disturbing thoughts that don’t feel like my own.  I don’t really know what qualifies as who I am any more and I’m not sure that I ever have or will. How do you find the line between personality developed from lived experiences and moods, emotions, entire ways of thinking that are constantly destructive, intrusive, or otherwise harmful, colouring almost every period of your life in different ways? Is there a line between them or is it something I have to accept as being part and parcel of my personality? No matter what it’s becoming eminently clear that the two are always going to be intrinsically linked. While a line may one day make itself clear, my experiences have been impacted by the moods I had at the time, my responses to situations have been clouded by them, my reason differs with each leading to an outcome that may otherwise not have been. It’s woven into the minuscule bits of context that have made up who I am.

I often wonder what I’d be like without it. If you took away the constant whizzing, clouded, grey, itchy, or loud thoughts that circle my head. If you stole away the feelings of greatness, elation, and joy in times of great pain and sorrow, or unworthiness, shame, and wanting to die when life around me was actually better than it had ever been, how different would I be? Would those experiences have led me to be a different or better person? I’ve always had a passion for learning but struggled with it desperately, always unable to focus or absorb information under what felt like immense pressure and inevitable failure. Would I have been able to cope in structured education? Could I have managed with my physical problems better and made something of my life instead of just desperately trying to keep myself from drowning?

Around this time last year I had come off the antidepressants that had been prescribed a few years earlier, finding that while they were successfully dampening the highs and lows I formerly had, making the transitions between them slower, it seemed as though everything had been slanted towards the lows. For the previous few years I had barely done much at all, my thoughts were still switching between a chaotic and distressing buzz and sluggish enveloping cloud. It was as though I was stuck in a loop of frantic self-loathing, an almost calm sombreness, and acceptance of eternal worthlessness, all the while battling to be better. Something about the feelings made them harder to remember, hazy, I couldn’t think back and place how I felt or associate things with moods and any swings that I had. When I try to think back it’s just this grey fog and a vague understanding of what lies beneath it.

I was sick of feeling stunted and began romanticising what it was all like in the past. My moods and the thoughts and emotions they influenced were so incredibly vivid, in my mind they’re like bright or dark colours, solid or beautifully mingled images that are easy to picture and associate with seasons, music, art, activities, colours, memories of feelings and even smells. In my head I cherry picked the times I had channelled the pain into writing or began to see lows as this struggle that bettered me in the end, after all I got through it didn’t I? It’s better than not feeling things so clearly, surely? Also the times that my elation, this almost palatable high and focus channelled so beautifully into art. Days upon days of not sleeping, just focused on getting everything perfect, hour after hour of creation and achievement. I couldn’t go wrong and oh God the happiness that came with it, what was almost a brightness, a light. Yellows and oranges and sunlight, warmth, freedom. I convinced myself I was holding myself back, like my feelings were being trodden down and told to shut up and what it left just made it seem like everything I was going through wasn’t worth it, not least with the addition of the sexual dysfunction that accompanies most antidepressants, I just wanted to feel something again. I wanted Me back. Or should I say the Me that nostalgia had invented after a few years had allowed me to forget it didn’t exist.

I refused to acknowledge the constant battle against the allure of a razors edge or seeking solace in the bottom of a bottle. I forgot how the elation gave way to anger as the need for perfection leaned towards frustration, taking every interruption or expectation to participate in the world outside of my own little world as a hindrance to the important thing I was presently a part of. The desire to escape and explore everything, to want an altered state of mind and new experiences and a different life. I wanted to create, and feel, and suffer, and live. I wanted the purpose I was sure I once had.

Despite all of the hopes I had built up for myself, I coasted throughout last winter. Energy and emotion I wished for turned into a void instead. My thoughts were sluggish, thinking coherently was difficult as each time I was having a conversation or thought of something it’s like it stopped halfway through, like a caught fish wriggling free. It took effort, concentrating on anything became a mammoth feat. I began to hate myself again, manifesting in everything from shame over the smallest things, feeling as though every minor misstep was a failure. Patterns of negative thoughts were a constant, taking any small event and picking it apart until a conclusion was found that I was worthless. The desire to self harm was there but aside from a few particularly bad days it was more of a macabre dalliance with the thought of it rather than the act itself. There was no biting need to vent or find some kind of relief because no pressure ever built enough, it was dull, blunt, a heavy weight rather than grief and chaos.

A big part of this period was hating the body and looks I had spent so much time and effort into learning to love. Love is probably too strong a word though I had always hoped to reach that point, I’d got to more of a passive acceptance. The weight I was so pleased with putting on after years of trying began to drop off during a period of sickness and I found myself focusing on it, obsessing over it, and starting to fall into old habits of wanting to restrict my intake of food, to get smaller, thinner. The acceptance I’d achieved dissipated as it presented itself as an avenue to try and regain some control. Under the guise of trying to be more healthy, to better love myself as I kept telling myself, I began to explore different foods, reading the labels of everything I ate, using more fresh and basic ingredients trying to cut down on processed food, eat more of certain groups and cut out others. I began to feel guilty if I slipped and to make up for it I would restrict myself further. I continued shrinking and struggled to balance the desire for self acceptance and my new take on old obsessions. I’m still trying to fight the urge to measure and restrict, but the control it gives when I feel I get it right is an odd comfort when everything else feels so uncertain and beyond me.

A lot of the lows changed come March when out of nowhere I suddenly started making plans. I woke up one day and wanted to sew. Then I wanted to move the furniture around, spring clean the house. I wanted to overhaul the garden and grow vegetables and giant sunflowers again. I had ideas for art projects, paintings. I wanted to go and see friends, do things, redecorate, cut my hair. I was a force to be reckoned with and everything felt so right. I remember thinking everything was calm and orderly. I spent less time online, I started sewing projects and creating recipes, I kept a diary. It seemed like nothing could go wrong. It felt almost as if everything bad was behind me, that the future would be brighter now, that things are in order and I’m healthier and it was all going to be okay after all. The yellows and oranges and warmth were here to stay.

Though I had a crushing dread in the back of my mind as I went about things, nagging at me that I’m setting myself up for a fall, I did all I could to ignore it. It must have been there because every time someone suggested that the future would be brighter a niggling doubt arose, but I didn’t want to confront it in nay meaningful way. I tried to play off the explosive anger as justified, the constant irritability and forgetfulness or flippancy as nothing. I was frustrated by the pain that was holding me back but I felt I had so much going on that it didn’t really matter because in the grand scheme of everything I knew life would now be it wasn’t such a big thing, was it? And life was so huge, so vast with so much opportunity, so many connections to be made, ideas to have, things to do. The irritability only grew as a result of my physical limitations and wasn’t helped by the excessive quantities I drank, in part to make the pain shut up and in part because it was just there, but the connection wasn’t made until much later. I had convinced myself it wasn’t the voice of experience and reason trying to get me to stop and think but instead an attempt at self-sabotage over the Now Okay life I was sure to have. To others it was obvious I was a mess, scattered and temperamental, I had spread myself far too thin and was completely unaware. Eventually it was bound to come crashing down.

I want to point out here that what I have written so far draws on memories. Looking back and trying to pick apart the moods, the thoughts, all of it I guess. There’s probably some bias in it due to the mood that I’m currently in, it peppers everything else so I can only imagine it would also impact on my memories and ways I’m expressing things. Writing of the low I am in at the moment will contain a lot more detail, I’ll also be speaking candidly about self injury and suicide ideation.

I can’t remember the exact point it all fell apart but it was perhaps 2 months ago, and with a violent ferocity. There was a few particular days I vividly remember during the swing, hazy ones where I didn’t feel here. It was as though I had taken a step backwards, out of my body, by about an inch, and while I could think it was difficult to really get words out or even connect with what was going on around me. I couldn’t take in what people were saying properly and forgot what I was doing a lot, getting easily confused. I was very calm but completely detached. I’ve had it to lesser degrees a lot as far back as I can remember, usually happening round the more extreme parts of my mood. On the outside I’m told I looked dazed, glassy eyed and not full there, difficult to engage with. Then what started as a thread of a few negative thoughts and odd thoughts of self harm one day turned into a full scale unravelling the next. A close family death and news that my husband had to undergo testing for cancer added to the weight. I couldn’t even take stock of all the ways that life was wrong. It all suddenly all dawned on me, everything, and I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t do anything, I can’t do anything, it’s was all out of my control.

I began restricting my meals further as some kind of way of regaining a balance but each time I deem myself to fail it just adds to the weight. A spiral of shame begins and even if I try to be mindful I just end up over-analysing and finding a hundred other things that are pretty terrible or set up ready to make life worse. Thoughts have been buzzing and chaotic, not really following particular stream of consciousness but changing all the time. One thing, then another, and it leads to another but nope here’s another and oh look have more. They itch, I want to tear them out of my head as they form an almost cacophony of noise inside my skull. It’s like every time I grasp at one another come along and bumps it out of the way before I’ve had a chance to look at it. Someone I spoke to recently likened it to them being put through a washing machine.

This time the low has brought something new. Voices in my head. I’ve had them before in so many ways, particularly as a teenager but not quite in this way. These they circle around like little whispers sometimes, they feel like they belong to someone who isn’t me but I can’t quite place why they feel that way. They don’t seem to feature often but kind of pop up every now and then without cause to tell me I’m worthless and ask who would possibly love me. They bring with them emotions; shame, despair, embarrassment, worthlessness, a feeling of being undeserving of love and a burden. The emotions are usually there to some degree anyway but it heightens or changes the nature of them.

The compulsion to injure myself has been a big part of this low so far. It had been around 2 years since this was last a feature and I left three deep gaping sliced in the side of my torso with a razor blade. I don’t know why I get so transfixed on the desire to cut but it’s difficult to stop thinking about. I’ve tried to stop it by giving myself other outlets. Drawing on my arms, punching myself and pinching until I bruise or bleed, digging nails into my arm instead of picking up the razor blades. It didn’t work. The scars I left 2 years ago are to be accompanied by more as these new gashes heal, and while I hope to fight it I’m still finding it hard not to obsess of the idea of doing it again. I found the cutting like opening a pressure release valve, in a similar way to how crying hysterically about something can make you feel a relief from your sadness. It has a calming effect that makes it a tiny bit easier to cope, even if doing it in itself is a sure sign of not coping. It’s not something I find myself doing on a whim, I obsess over it to the point that it’s too much, instead of just grabbing a blade and going at it, I ready a bowl of disinfectant, gloves, a fresh blade, paper towels for the mess. Steropads and surgical tape for dressing. It’s not until afterwards that the gravity of what I’ve done sinks in. Shame, regret, loathing.

Some emotions themselves bring up memories, things I’ve done or had done to me and want to forget, they get worse… Heavy, crushing. I can’t help but feel I’m a failure and even though I’m here, understanding this is not necessarily the ‘true me’, who I am, I continue to feel that way. This is one of the few places I can definitively draw a line, I can see it’s all illogical and have this notion that my awareness of what’s going on should somehow stop it but it doesn’t make a difference. I still ultimately don’t understand the point of going on with things any more, that everyone would likely be better off without me and that this is the best I could ever hope for in life. This, forever. Endless cycles that inevitably lead to misery. One day I’m certain it’ll kill myself anyway so why don’t I just speed things along?

The first time I considered suicide as a serious option I was 14 years old. It was shortly after a period of ill health where I had been bedridden. I was very out of it and had difficulty really moving much at all because of pain. It was not long after my pain symptoms had really started to make their mark and the flare up was agonising. A man I was seeing, an adult who I met online, came to visit and watch TV with me, quickly taking advantage when we were left alone in my room. At the time I didn’t really feel I had anywhere to turn and had fallen into a darker place than I’d ever found, I had no idea how to manage my emotions at all and often wanted to lash out or scream. It was a deep pit, right in my core. Like an emptiness that I could feel. I began not taking my pills, an array of painkillers and antidepressants in high doses. I kept storing them up for months, making sure I would have more than enough for a certain demise. A moment of clarity led me to throw the entire pot away, something I later regretted but couldn’t exactly do anything about. It was known I had them and I was confronted about it at a later date, something which heavily reignited my thoughts of it.

As with then, pain is a big feature at the moment, both emotional and physical. I never got over what happened and, while I’ve had some experiences since along the same lines, it’s that one which stuck with me, that I was most ashamed of and find myself thinking back to. Pain is impossible to ignore at the best of times, it’s always there to some degree, both neuropathic pain and joint pain. Sometimes one will be worse than the other, attack different areas of my body at different times and different ways. It’s always varying from awful to wanting to curl into a foetal position and die. In moods like I’m in right now it becomes hard to balance all of the elements of my health. Dislocations seem like a big thing, I sometimes cry over them and I have no idea why; I’ve already accepted my body is useless. The constant clicks and falls, the different pains and sensations. It’s the biggest feature in my thinking about killing myself. A few months of a lot of pain and I could save up prescriptions, wait until I’m alone of a day or evening and take a shower, leave a note on the door saying not to come in and to call someone and say what’s happened. I could take them all, tear apart my wrists or thighs for good measure. I wouldn’t have to put up with it any longer. At times it’s the thought of the act that I want. I want to die but I don’t really know if I want to be dead. Others it’s a longing for a void of existence, it all just stopping and having no consciousness, no care, no nothing. A permanent deep sleep where none of it matters any more.

It’s all going to go downhill from here physically, too, both in terms of pain and mobility. While I’m already very restricted my joints will deteriorate and there’s a good chance my nervous system will go along with it. When my nervous system goes they could insert a shunt or perform exploratory surgery to try and work out what caused the problems to appear and fix it. The unfortunate thing would be the success rate of such surgeries though, and for that matter what qualifies as success; ‘it isn’t growing’.

I’ve always had this thought in my mind, a pre-plan if you will, that one day when it gets too much i’ll end it. It could be pain, it could be mobility, it could just be that it all wears me down to a point I don’t want to deal with it any more. It’s a promise of mercy when the time comes it’s right. There are caveats though, that I must be in a good place, a calm place, reasoned and logical with a firm acceptance that this is right. I’ve considered making it that I have to decide during 2 good, clear headed, calm phases. Choose it once and then agree the next time. While macabre, this isn’t an unkind or depressing thought. It’s always been a calm thought, one I’ve held and explored for a very long time. It’s one of the reasons I’ve not acted on any plans I’ve come up with, for some reason it seems like an important promise.

I find myself grieving for a future I will never be able to have. I always pictured having a career in IT, perhaps doing art on the side. Now I need morphine and taped up fingers to hold a painbrush and my fingers can sublux from typing leaving the need for voice software. This morning at around 5am I was lying in bed, wide awake. I was restless and fidgety, also deeply upset as I was thinking over what to write in this, picking apart my own mind. I wanted to get up and paint, something dark in blues and greys, cold. I nearly did as I have canvases galore as well as paints, but I remembered how hard I found the last paintings and it felt like the desire just hit a brick wall, stopped dead, gone.

I’ve lost a lot to my physical health, almost everything that I love doing is out of reach. Pumpkin carvings, paintings swimming, sewing. That grieving for my future will hopefully one day dissipate or move into grief for the past, but for now i’ll have to make do with what I’ve got, treading water and trying not to drown.

I wish I could offer some words of solace to end all of this on given the seriousness and depth of the post, some message of ‘don’t worry, I’ll be fine’ but there isn’t one. It won’t be. While perhaps one day I may get relief in some of the areas that affect me, presently looking into the mental health side of things, I’ve accepted that my future holds an inevitable decline and while I’m not okay with it I also accept that I have no choice, it’s happening whether I like it or not.

Writing this has not been easy, I’m exhausted and drained. I had seriously considered not publishing it but instead considering it an exercise in self-exploration and to assist in helping to find out what it is that’s wrong. But on the chance it helps demystify mental illness for some, helps them understand the devastating impact it can have not only on a person’s life but personality and experiences, or helps someone find comfort that they’re alone, it’s worth it.

In all it’s messy and intertwined glory, this is my head, my life, me, not me, all at once.

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