Surrender to the Brain: When the Reframing Gets Old
I sometimes wish I didn’t have fodder for this blog, that I could graduate to writing a Happiness Project like Gretchen Rubin, and give you tips that could increase your happiness level. Alas, after weekends like last, I know that I will have the content to write a blog on depression for many more days.
In Beyond Blue the book, I describe my analogy of recovery from depression and bipolar, from anxiety and addiction, as a four-story apartment: the first level is staying alive, the second staying out of the psych ward, the third status quo, and the fourth gusting toward better health. Although I wish I could say the majority is spent in the penthouse on the deck, the truth is that I stay mostly on the third, going up for a quick visit to the fourth some afternoons, and taking the escalator down to the second at times.
This last past weekend I felt like I was in the basement … crawling, actually. I can honestly say that I haven’t struggled so much for three days in a row since my days on either side of the psych ward trips. Had I not been able to recognize my thoughts as the same old bad boys with guns that come into my brain and try to scare the hell out of me every once in awhile, and know that these thoughts are merely thoughts if I don’t act on them, I probably would have asked Eric to take me to the hospital.
Because the ruminations were that severe.
Fellow blogger and therapist Elvira Aletta told me once to think of severe ruminations like contractions when you’re in labor. That is exactly what they are like, except that I think I’d rather be in labor, because I never wanted to die then — just be done with it and get the kid.
This weekend I began to time my ruminations like labor contractions, to be able to better inform Dr. Smith of their frequency and duration. A powerful death thought (I wish I were dead. How long until I’m dead? How can I shorten my life? What kind of cancer will kill you the quickest? How can I get it?) interrupted my lucid thinking once every ten seconds. It didn’t matter what I was doing: swimming laps with the masters program, having dinner with friends, working out on my exercise bike, staring into my HappyLite, eating a lunch full of Omega-3 power, socializing at a St. Patrick’s Day party, watching Avatar with David and a friend at the movies. They were intense and consistent.
Every time I got one, I put on my armor and tried to reframe the thought: by thinking of three things that I’m grateful for (Eric, Thing One and Thing Two), by remembering the woman on the plane I met two weeks ago with a severely mentally disabled daughter and trying to put my pain into context, by using one of David Burns’s 15 ways of untwisting distorted thoughts, by employing mindfulness techniques, by simply letting the thought be and not attaching emotion to it, by trying to create new neural circuits in my brain, so that my death thoughts wouldn’t further widen and deepen the neural circuit, thereby making it easier and more natural to always think it.
(As you can see, sometimes I really wish I didn’t know so much about the brain, because all the information causes a loud and rowdy conversation upstairs that makes it practically impossible to concentrate on the other conversation with someone I’m trying to have.)
After timing this process for a half hour, I determined that I get six ruminations a minute (one every ten seconds), or 360 per hour. Take away 8 hours of sleep, and I am reframing my thoughts 5,760 times in a day.
I think it’s when I hit 2,500 that I start to get weak. I run out of steam. I start to think that maybe I’ll just quit everything and get a job that doesn’t require brain power, because mine is mush.
Sometimes, following Dr. Aletta’s suggestions, I would allow myself to just go with the ruminations … to not fight them. Like, when I was watching Avatar at the movie theater, I let myself have five minutes where I didn’t have to simultaneously concentrate on the movie and reframe the ruminations. I told myself we were taking a bathroom break and closed my eyes–fortunately because we were wearing 3D glasses, no one noticed–and let my brain run wherever it wanted to go. After a few minutes of rest, I was back to reframing again.
I did break down on Sunday night–after (literally) 17,280 attempts at reframing my thoughts–and cried for two hours. I was exhausted. Completely and entirely exhausted. I was extremely frustrated that I was doing everything right: swimming, using the exercise bike, looking into my HappyLite, eating the right foods, lectoring at Mass, socializing, devoting time to meditation and prayer. But every 10 seconds my thoughts would go to death again.
“What kind of cruel God would design a brain like mine?” I asked Eric in tears Sunday night.
Here’s where I am supposed to get the hope part of my blog, not to totally depress you guys who think, as a mental health blogger, I know how to escape the madness of this beast.
I will tell you what kept me going this weekend, and what keeps me going right now, as I write this (and continue to reframe my thoughts every ten seconds):
- I know that I don’t have to fight like this for the rest of my life. I will always be fighting, yes. But not like this. I realize that life with depression, bipolar, and anxiety is very much like running a marathon. The problem is that you have no idea what mile you are on. (I actually tried to figure it out this weekend by averaging all the ages of my relatives’ death, trying to get some round figure of how much longer I had to go.) But, because I’ve run long distance, I know that at certain miles of the race, you don’t even feel your legs and you’re high on endorphins. I know that some miles will hurt much more than others on the path of life, but that I will not be in a state of constant pain.
- I know that a medication change will most likely assist me in trying to get the upper hand on my brain. I’ve been in the process of adjusting meds for the last month, and as many of you know all too well, it’s a messy process, but one that usually leads toward health and resilience.
- Whenever I stopped castrating myself for having these thoughts, and embraced the very ill and scared girl within me, I felt much better. As much as mindfulness and Buddhist philosophies and neuroplasticity have to teach us, I have to put those aside when my ruminations are this severe, because they contribute to my feeling like I’m a failure. It’s easy to think: Since the thoughts won’t stop, I must be doing it wrong, or I don’t have the strength of character that is needed. Instead, I read “Living With Someone Who’s Living with Bipolar” and tried to see myself as that person, and find out what I needed to do for her.
- Finally, I know that all my efforts toward good health–the attempts to refrain my thinking and all kind of cognitive-behavioral exercises, the efforts to swim in the morning and to ride the bike in the rain, and the decision five or more times a day to eat foods that will boost my mood–I know all of this will pay off, even if it doesn’t feel like it immediately.
Borchard, T. (2018). Surrender to the Brain: When the Reframing Gets Old. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/surrender-to-the-brain-when-the-reframing-gets-old/