On Getting the Poison Out

”Fear is a poison.
It breeds violence and apathy and greed”

“This is Not a War” by Andrew Jackson Jihad

Once a poison is introduced to a body it gets to work and wears down the nervous system, it destroys it from the inside out. Poison, venom, needs an anti-venom to counteract it, to fight the poison.

Poison can do permanent damage, it’s one of the reasons why people traveling through remote regions are encouraged to carry around snake-bite kits with anti-venom injections, because time is of the essence when one gets bitten – the longer the poison is in the body, the more damage it does.

So too with the poison of mental illness.

Mental illness has done some truly terrible, lastingly traumatic things to me. I’ve learned that if I don’t get the poison of a psychotic episode, line of intrusive thoughts, or bout of depression out of my system it’s going to do long-lasting damage to me. I’ve learned to carry around my own sort of anti-venom kit to combat the effects of my brain’s attempts to torture me.

My therapist and psychiatrist aren’t always available for me. They might be on vacation, or they might be busy with another patient – they aren’t a 24/7 hotline for when my illness starts to express itself. Similarly, my parents aren’t always available immediately. They’ll be there for me every time – but it might take them 40 minutes to get there. A lot can happen in 40 minutes, a lot can happen waiting for my therapist or psychiatrist to call me back. There are pills, but they can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour to kick in.

Time is of the essence when it comes to mental health issues. In dire circumstances, I can’t wait until my doctor calls me back, I can’t wait until pills kick in, I can’t wait until my parents come over. I need help now.

It’s important to have coping mechanisms, my coping mechanisms are finely tuned and easily accessible. I’ll listen to music or make myself a cup of coffee. Oftentimes, I end up with Kerrin on my lap, petting her soft fur and looking through a collection of photographs from when I was a little kid. My coping mechanisms don’t matter so much as the efficacy of them does: the ease of access to them and their healthiness (e.g. drinking alcohol isn’t a very good coping mechanism and, in fact usually makes things worse given how the brains of the mentally ill respond to depressants like alcohol).

But while coping mechanisms are important, they don’t help with the actual poison of mental illness. They address the symptoms but not the root cause of the trauma. It’s important to process through the line of thinking that brought me to such a dark place, it’s important to express my feelings about what I’ve just experienced, and it’s important to adequately deal with the stress caused by my illness expressing itself. Approaching the aftermath with compassion for myself is key – giving myself the time and space to recover; to return to normal life after going through such a terrible ordeal. It takes time: sometime hours, sometimes days, sometimes weeks. But it’s important for me to take the time to fully recover.

If I don’t address the root cause of the symptoms I’m going to be attacked again and again until it wears me down. The poison of mental illness will eat me away from the inside. To this end, I’m glad that I’m an artist – that expressing myself is something I’m naturally drawn to. Because, in expressing myself I’m getting rid of the poison. I’m dealing with my demons directly.

My weapon of choice is a little black notebook I keep in my back pocket. It’s with me at all times. When I wake up in the morning and go outside to smoke my morning cigarette, into my pocket it goes along with my keys, my phone, and a pen so I can write down whatever thoughts occur to me as I start my day. I write blog post ideas, snippets of the novel I’m working on, ideas for short stories, notes on what I’m going to talk about with my psychiatrist or therapist that week. And, most importantly I journal.

I’m a verbal processor and this is the key in choosing a means by which to get the poison out. Not everyone is a verbal processor – some people are visual processors and might do better to draw a picture. It all depends on knowing yourself well enough to know what kind of processor you are. Journaling is how I discover what I think or feel about a situation. For instance, when my therapist of ten years decided to retire suddenly, the only way I could figure out how I felt about her retirement was by writing about it. Journaling is especially important for processing my psychotic episodes.

I recently had a particularly nasty psychotic episode that involved rats crawling through my body. I wasn’t able to talk about it without re-traumatizing myself. But, after I wrote about it, after I externalized it, I can now mention it without disturbing myself – I can talk about it openly without re-opening old wounds. By taking out my little black notebook and putting the experience down in concrete words – I drew the poison out and it doesn’t affect me like it used to.

I also deal with a lot of anger. When I’m manic, I’m more likely to get angry than bouncing-off-the-walls happy. I used to take that aggression out on my parents. They’re more than willing to face the brunt of my anger, but it hurts me to hurt them because I’ve never been an angry person – I’ve always been reasonable, I’ve always been kind.

So, in an effort not to yell at them because of my illness, I channel that aggression into writing. I sit down in front of my computer and type my most vile, most messed up, most angry thoughts. I type and type and, when I’m done I delete the file.

The deletion is essential for me – I don’t want to re-visit my worst moments at a future date. I write it down and it’s in concrete form and then I let go of it by deleting it. Those thoughts and feelings have been transferred to a place outside myself, the poison has been drawn out. And, because they’ve been externalized they don’t haunt me anymore. Sometimes it take a couple-three passes to get all of the poison out, but it works consistently and it’s efficacious.

This is not a replacement for a trained therapist or psychiatrist. Just like the first-aid involved in a poisonous snake bite isn’t the final treatment, just like it’s necessary to go to a doctor so they can finish treating the bite, it’s important to get rid of the remainder of the poison with someone trained to help with such trauma. After that particularly nasty episode, I saw my therapist and could talk about it such that the rest of the poison was taken care of.

I’ve been writing in these little black notebooks for a long time. I started them shortly after I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2007 – eight years worth of writing almost every day with a total of twenty-three notebooks having been filled. Twenty-three notebooks worth of poison and trauma, among other things that also include grocery lists and names of books I ought to read. Writing is a crucial part of my treatment. Without it, I don’t think I would be nearly as well off as I am right now. Because, when a traumatic thing happens to me, I’m prepared to write about it whenever I need to. I might be sitting at a coffee shop enjoying a cup of coffee, I might be riding in the car on my way to my parents’ house for the weekend, or I might be out on my stoop smoking a cigarette and people watching. It doesn’t matter where I am – because I can just whip the notebook out and start writing; and that’s probably what makes the process so effective.

For the mentally ill, trauma can happen at any time. Our brains can decide to process that trauma at any time. It’s important not to force yourself to deal with trauma prematurely. Sometimes it takes time, you need space in order to properly process it. But it’s also important to be able to deal with it when it needs to be dealt with. Just like going hiking, where there’s a risk of injury or a snake bit, it’s important to be prepared. It’s important to have access to first-aid as soon as you need it, something to tide you over until professionals can get involved.

Everyone’s treatment is going to look different, everyone has different needs, everyone has different ways of processing trauma. You or your loved one might not choose to carry a little black notebook and pen, but there’s something out there that can help you get the poison out; it’s just a matter of finding it.

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