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Mental Health Monday: Making the Best of Depression and Dissociation

Along with most human beings, I experienced some trauma in my childhood, and I can make an educated guess that I've also inherited some genetic risk factors for mental illness; my family includes four or more consecutive generations of women who have been institutionalized for mental health reasons. I also received many opportunities to build resilience as a child; my parents provided me with more love and stability than they had experienced growing up, and they challenged me in positive ways that helped me develop traits of self-mastery and grit that protected me from sliding into addictions and disordered behavior patterns. I practiced acceptance and perseverance to get through episodes of depression, anxiety, and dissociation and to find myself in a better, not worse, situation after each one passed. 

When I wrote my novel Leirah and the Wild Man, I made use of my memories of dissociation and my ways of coping with it and applied them to my grim little title character. I thought it would be fun to give my powers of hyperfocus and emotional numbness to a fictional character who might wield them more dramatically than I ever did. Instead of pushing herself to excel at homework and sports, Leirah uses her dead-inside soul-coldness to lie, steal, kill men, and do disgusting stuff like eat a raw frog to survive the brutality of a barbaric medieval wilderness. It all culminates in a secret personal game of "f, marry, kill" with a prince who may or may not have a bounty on her head.

Writing this book was great fun, and it also made me feel gratitude for all the ways in which my life has been comfortably dull.

From early childhood, I've struggled with episodes of anxiety and depression, and from my late childhood through my teens I also experienced extreme periods of dissociation. Sometimes they would last only minutes and felt kind of good, triggered by the flashing lights in a roller rink or on the dance floor of a wedding reception. Sometimes I could cause myself to dissociate on purpose, just to feel a sort of high or to endure an unpleasant experience like a gloomy funeral or a trip to the orthodontist. As my adolescence progressed, though, I became less capable of preventing or ending a dissociative episode at will, and my episodes started to last longer; the last one lingered for two years. Nevertheless, I developed a trick to make use of the times when I couldn't stave off depression or dissociation, to set myself up for a swift and healthy recovery when it ended.

Remember how in old Nintendo games, for a few seconds after sustaining nonfatal damage, the little avatar would blink for a short period of time, indicating invulnerability? And you could use it to run through dangers and obstacles on your way to achieving a goal? That's how my dissociation felt sometimes. Although I sometimes lost all ability to feel pleasure or happiness for the duration of an episode, I also noticed that I lost the ability to feel fear or pain, and I learned to lean into those aspects. I discovered this power in safe contexts such as going on roller coasters at a theme park; when I dissociated, I marveled at how I could not feel the littlest frisson of fear, no matter how big or fast or rough the ride. It was disappointing, of course, not to be able to enjoy the thrill of a roller coaster, but it also made me feel emotionally invincible.

I gave up on trying to claw my way out or desperately chase the sensory pleasures that could offer no real escape or comfort for me. I gave up fighting it. I let it take me somewhere else. I learned to grit my teeth and board a red-eye flight to a future time when I knew that I would feel better again.

I have learned to give up on present happiness or joy when I feel the shadow taking me, which I think has saved me. I hate mindfulness or positivity exercises when I'm in the midst of a psychiatric episode; they don't work, and that makes me feel worse. The best I can do is remember that the emotional suffering or numbness is temporary, and that I can take action to benefit my future self once I accept that I can't make my present self feel any better--so I can quit trying.

Early on, I developed the habit of diverting my attention to unenjoyable, yet healthy or possibly rewarding activities that could benefit my future self when I had feelings again, which I had been too afraid or uncomfortable to do with all my normal emotions intact. Like people who took advantage of their loss of taste and smell due to COVID and made sure to fill up on nothing but super healthy foods while everything tasted like cardboard and swamp mud anyway (when a chocolate shake tastes the same as a kale and algae smoothie, why not???), I found that my loss of pleasure came with an invulnerability to fear and physical pain that I could use to my advantage.

I took greater risks in the roller rink and learned to push through fear and muscle exhaustion to quickly learn new tricks and win speed races. Later, I applied that fearlessness and numbness to pain into accelerated sports training. (This was dangerous, I realize now, because you can seriously harm yourself by overtraining, so I am careful to never push myself that hard anymore--but learning that I could do these things to myself taught me something about mind over muscle.) In the depths of my loneliness, at those moments when I felt like I had no friends and no one who understood me, I focused intensely on completing schoolwork and creating weird, mysterious art projects that would hold meaning for me to interpret later, like dreams made into tangible objects. I excelled in high school and college in both academic and creative subjects.

And when I surfaced from each episode, instead of finding myself buried in the consequences of bad habits and compounding addictions, I'd discover the benefits of having accepted my temporary loss of enjoyment and leaned into my temporary loss of fear and physical discomfort. 

I don't dissociate anymore, and my depression and anxiety symptoms are less severe and better controlled now. I have never had consistent, long-term access to psychiatric treatment or psychological therapy, and I don't use medication except for the occasional low dose of CBD oil to take the edge off a difficult evening so I can sleep it off. I would seek therapy and medication if I thought I needed them, but I think that my lifelong healthy habits are keeping me from needing any more intervention at this time.

I have not yet been institutionalized, and I'm almost 40! That's beating the odds in my family.

I am fortunate that at a young age, I made a habit of lassoing my monsters at the first sign of their approach and yoking them to to the heavy plow of future gains rather than feeding them addictive little treats to keep them mollified--and also ensuring that they'd always come back and stick around longer.

The illustration I used on the front cover of Leirah and the Wild Man is a Victorian-era illustration by Arthur Rackham for the story "Catskin," one of many tales of a traumatized girl who persists and takes daring risks until she finds safety and happiness for herself. The original caption beneath the image was, "She went along, and went along, and went along."

It is important to remember that we can do that, just keep going along, just keep swimming! We can momentarily forget the past, like a little cartoon fish, by distracting ourselves with new experiences. We can forget the future too like a mindful little Buddha. Or, if sitting in the present moment doesn't always work for us (as it doesn't for me--I do enjoy sitting meditation, but only when I'm mentally well), we can get up and move and keep on moving until our mindless momentum takes us somewhere else. If it feels bad to lie around and wallow, why not feel bad on a self-forced march through the wilderness? At least the scenery is better, and our bodies will be made stronger along the journey, no matter where it takes us.

Sometimes, more often than we expect, we stumble upon a moment of grace or a field of salvation in our directionless wanderings.

Writing Leirah and the Wild Man was therapeutic and satisfying for me, and I hope that it goes out into the world and helps others along their own personal journeys too. I know that many times a good story of hardship and redemption has comforted me on a long red-eye flight, sustaining me through a literal journey or an inner, psychological trip. I like to think that Leirah might do the same for others.

Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.

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