On Emotions, Worry, and Pragmatism

Emotions can be a wonderful thing. The joy we experience at the start of a new friendship or the sorrow we feel at the passing of a loved one: emotions make life more interesting, they give life flavor, they let us know important facts about life happening around us.

But, for the mentally ill, emotions can be overwhelming, like putting too much salt on your eggs. For the mentally ill, emotions are complicated. A person with a mental illness is oftentimes sent through a rollercoaster of emotions in the span of a short period of time, seemingly for no particular reason. I’ve gone from deepest dark depression to highest elation in the span of half an hour when I’ve been rapid cycling. It’s debilitating, it throws me off – it makes me unstable. In the course of any given day, irrational worries will enter my head – will Kerrin (my dear dog) die today in some terrible way? will my dad get hit by a car while he’s walking over to my place for our afternoon walk? will I have to get ECT again? does such and such a person hate me because of something I said to them? Worry upon worry upon worry can build up inside of me until there’s no room for any other kind of thought and they consume me. I have no recourse but to take some medication and call someone to try to sort through the ugly mess.

In my years of dealing with overwhelming, irrational, and unfounded worry, I’ve come up with a system with which to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come with them. I treat worrying thoughts like breathing – a worry enters my brain and just as easily as it has entered my mind I let it leave – inhale worry, then exhale that same worry. The key is not to embrace them, to not open their Pandora’s Box.

I see emotions, especially the kind that lead to worry as existing in two distinct categories – useful and useless. The useful emotions, the useful worries are those that I can do something about. These worries are a call to action, to fix something in my life.

Maybe I’ve been neglecting to take Kerrin for sufficiently long enough walks and I’m worried she’s getting depressed just sitting around the apartment all day. That’s an easy worry to accommodate – I increase either the number or the length of walks I go on, I make sure to play with her when she wants to play, and I can continue to go over to my parents’ house on Sundays so she can run around their backyard.

Or maybe I’m worried that I’ll suddenly lose my SSDI and my dad will lose his job and I won’t be able to afford my apartment anymore – that I’ll end up either homeless and on the streets or back in Aurora living with my parents. I don’t have any control over either of those things. I’m disabled, unable to work, there’s nothing I can do about either of those things. So I let that worry go. It won’t go anywhere productive, it won’t motivate me to improve my life in any way. That kind of worry just begets more worry and such a slippery slope leads to my mental illness expressing itself. It’s useless.

We seem hardwired to believe anything our brains tell us. It’s what can make mental illness so devastating. In a way, mental illness can be understood as our brain telling us false information and the trauma, the conflict of believing that false information despite evidence to the contrary. It’s not an easy or a simple thing to come to terms with, this division of reality. The mentally ill oftentimes exist in a kind of dual reality, the reality that our brains are telling us is true (whether it’s the deep dark pit of depression telling us that life is meaningless or the very real sensation that someone is tracking your every move via a device implanted in your toes) and the reality which is still presented to us by our senses. There’s a disconnect there and the suffering of mental illness comes as a result of this disconnect, this disparation from reality. We at once exist in reality and exist in our own self-generated, self-perpetuating reality.

It requires an almost spiritual understanding to come to terms with, oftentimes along with medication, therapy, and a good support system. Being pragmatic certainly helps as well as a radical acceptance of my illness.

I would oftentimes hallucinate horrible, terrifying creatures. They’d follow me down the street, sit at coffee shops or in doctors’ waiting rooms. They used to deeply disturb me, triggering episodes, because I knew these were the creatures who tortured me during psychosis.

Early on, I fought them, I denied their existence – I told myself they were simply figments of my sick imagination. But things didn’t improve. It wasn’t until I embraced them, accepted them, that they stopped bothering me. I have a kind of pact with the monsters I see (and indeed with the voices I hear): I allow them the space they need to exist and they largely leave me alone. Fighting them only makes them stronger, accepting them leaves them relatively benign.

My brain wants me to live in two places at once, I can’t fight my brain’s desire, so I embrace it. I coexist with the monsters that haunt me, recognizing both that they aren’t real but also that they’re real-to-me and, as such they shouldn’t be discounted.

My pragmatic side recognizes that some of the thoughts which enter my mind are useful, but only if they come with a call to action. I’m not just going to sit there and needlessly fret over whether or not my apartment caught on fire, taking all of my writing with it, I let that worry be exhaled out of my system. But at the same time, I can set up my computers in such a way to ensure I have backups which are kept off site of my apartment so if disaster strikes I don’t lose everything. I can keep all of my writing on a flash drive I keep on my keychain, so all of my writing is always with me.

I can be pragmatic with many irrational fears. And being pragmatic gives me ammunition should the exhalation not prove enough. When the irrational fear of my apartment burning down pops into my head I can tell myself I have all of my files with me and the rest is covered by insurance, that it’s just stuff and most of that stuff is replaceable. Furthermore, I can recognize that, if my apartment were to burn down, it would be part of God’s will for me. Just like ECT and my life falling apart were part of His will. It was an awful time to go through, but I came out of it a stronger, better person and so any other trial will give me such an advantage again.

I don’t think we talk about pragmatism enough with mental illness. Perhaps because we assume people like me aren’t capable of being pragmatic. I don’t see it as so much being incapable of pragmatism as much as it is a fear of letting go. Mental illness strips you bare of everything but your irrational fears, it’s hard to let go when you’re not sure there’s anything else to hold onto. Or perhaps it’s because we assume someone who’s irrational is incapable of thinking (and therefore behaving) pragmatically. But even when I’m at my craziest, I’m not necessarily irrational – I’m just adhering to my own, different sense of rationality, based on things other people can’t think of or perceive because they don’t sense with my senses. Pragmatism can be adopted to the kind of rationality the mentally ill abide by. (See my post on Crazy People Logic here)

Mental illness is not a hopeless proposition, it’s not a senseless way-of-being. Mental illness has its own logic and the key, regardless of whether you have a mental illness yourself or if you’re in the support system of someone with a mental illness, is to understand the rules and implications of that logic. Radical acceptance requires radical thinking, a radical re-structuring of how you understand the world works. It can be an overwhelming proposition, or maybe it’s just an exciting project to participate in – to see life and reality from an entirely new perspective.

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