Rationality and Irrationality
I suspect that wanting to live—wanting anything at all, just wanting—is a human default. It does (or should) come as normally as breathing. According to this line of reasoning, a mentally healthy human being shouldn’t need a reason to want to live. There’s a reason why survival instinct is called what it is. A desire to live is thoughtless; instinctive.
As I progress in my journey of recovering from mental illness, the thoughts in the paragraph above have been foremost in my mind. The healthier I seem to get, the more I seem to want to live. When I am healthy, I wake up and do things, without necessarily contemplating the futility of it all. And when I do consider the futility of it all, I almost instinctively brush those thoughts aside and continue to do life.
The most fascinating thing about my fluctuation between good and ill health is that in each condition, I continue to think the way I’ve thought for ages. Most things about life as it is, I still consider to be largely meaningless, unnecessarily stressful, and stuff I simply do not want to have to deal with. I’m still frequently baffled as to why Someone thought it was a good idea to put me, alive, into this world. In other words, I don’t consider the sentiments of my mentally unhealthy mind to be the results of irrationality. Most of its reasoning still makes very good sense to me. The difference is that, when I am more healthy than unhealthy, those very good reasons have much less weight on me, in my day-to-day life. After all, many people who aren’t depressed are also not under any illusions that this world is in good, perfectly acceptable condition. So, no, I don’t consider my unhealthy mind to be mostly-irrational. If anything, maintaining the desire to live is one of the most irrational things a human being in this world can do.
The Function of Desire
On the subject of “wanting” and how thoroughly it can just vanish: In my healthy states, I find myself wanting something considerably frivolous—a high-spec Microsoft Surface, complete with a Surface Pen. I don’t need these objects—but I want them badly. Badly enough that I wake up in the morning, think about how I can’t yet afford them, and thus find motivation to go to work so that, sometime in the future, I might be able to. This deep desire for an object as otherwise insignificant as a fancy, underrated computer, is one of the main things I use to confirm that I am alive and (close to) mentally healthy. Because when I am unhealthy, there is absolutely nothing that I want—besides nonexistence or death, I suppose—however desirable my healthy mind considers it to be.
For example, a couple of months ago, a significant paid performance opportunity came my way. It ended up not pulling through—but for the period I thought it would, in working towards it, going to meetings, etc., I felt no positive emotions towards the opportunity. In fact, in that period, I frequently woke up in tears and confessed repeatedly to my relatives that I didn’t want to live anymore (which is nothing new to them, anyway). To put this into better context—and here, the post Work, Worth and Wages might be useful—I’ve spent so much of the past few years worrying that, as an artist, especially in Ghana, significant paid opportunities would never come my way. And here I was in 2019 with offers almost bombarding me successively, and I didn’t want any of it, even though I had been wanting this very thing for half of my life. That was one of the most obvious indicators that mentally, I was far, far gone.
Re-Learning What Healthy Looks Like on Me
On how I personally distinguish between good and ill health: If you had asked me, six months ago, if I thought I was ill, mentally or physically, I might have said no. I even admit to having published a blog post last year to that effect. My reasoning, which I still consider legitimate, was the rationality behind many of the thoughts and sentiments behind my depression and even suicidality. The world is and was trash, my friendships were indeed breaking apart, my academics were legitimately stressing me out, my relationship with my family was in shambles, etc. Verifiable facts. It’s a similar phenomenon with my body. After being plagued with chronic headaches since age twelve, and the various physical malfunctions I’d become used to and exhausted of at the same time, I suppose I came to regard these things as a kind of Akotowaa default. You know, when you’ve been sick for so long, you start believing your sick state is your natural state?
Sometime in January, I started taking two types of regular medication: vitamin supplements—to help with my lack of energy problem—and anti-depressants. Alongside these, I began cognitive behavioral therapy sessions with a qualified, Christian, Ghanaian woman. (This combination of my therapist’s identities is very important to me.) At the beginning of this treatment journey, there were a few things my professionals made clear to me:
- Anti-depressants don’t necessarily start doing what they’re supposed to do until about two weeks after you’ve started taking them. (The side-effects, however, begin immediately.)
- For a case like mine, anti-depressants wouldn’t be enough to set me on a meaningfully progressive trajectory. I would need cognitive behavioral therapy as well. Likewise, therapy alone wasn’t guaranteed to have much of an effect on me if my biological and neurological problems remained untreated. So, neither the medication nor therapy could be taken in isolation; I needed both.
- My healing process was supposed to be a general upward trend, but it was almost certain to be non-linear. This meant that I would be getting better slowly, but each day would not automatically be better than the last. I would still be experiencing bad spells and relapses, but the hope was that a bad spell this week, for example, would be less bad than a bad spell from two weeks ago.
All of these things turned out to be perfectly accurate projections—which is not to say that the forewarnings significantly reduced my panic, doubt and discouragement during bad spells and relapses. But, for now, I want to focus on my reaction to the physical transformations I went through when the meds at last started doing what they were supposed to do. That is, after the first two weeks of taking them.
Those second two weeks of being on medication, I experienced literally the highest level of physical health I had ever experienced in six or seven years. Chronic headaches and photosensitivity, in particular, have plagued me since adolescence began. But the third week into being on medication, I started a new TV series, which I quickly descended into binge-watching. Note that I have never, since 2012, been able to watch things—even movies at the cinema, or projections during classes—without consequences on my eyes and head. So, imagine my surprise when I carelessly got into the habit of watching six to seven 45-minute episodes a day, expecting to be crippled by migraines before bedtime, and instead… Nothing.
I don’t think there are words to properly articulate my wonder. I went twenty-one days (I counted) without a headache, even though it seemed I was doing almost everything in my power to self-sabotage, at least, according to the patterns of my body which I had gotten used to after seven years.
In those weeks, I literally could not believe the state of my health. Not only were my screen habits not severely affecting my health (I say “severely” because I still got occasionally dry-eyed), but I also felt baselessly happy and full of energy for a majority of the days. I’m not exaggerating when I say I felt like a completely different person. This healthy person, I assumed, is what I could have been several years ago, had depression not interrupted my growth.
But it was also jarring and terrifying to experience this bout of high health. For one thing, I began wondering if anything I thought I knew about myself was true. How much of what I thought constituted my personality was actually a side-effect of depression? Am I even introverted? Or has it always just been depression sapping my energy when I’m around people? Do I really have extra-sensitive eyes, or was it just chemical imbalances in my brain mimicking the photosensitivity effect? (And so on.) Among the few, few things that remained constant was that I still had a great love for good stories, storytelling, and lexivism.
Another negative effect of my good health spell was a certain rage. Rage at depression for stealing the entirety of my teenage years. What a waste of the woman I could have grown into by now! What a useless forfeit of all I could have achieved, with a healthy mind and body at fifteen, seventeen, nineteen… Yeah, I think I’m still quite mad about this one. I don’t appreciate how much of my life I feel I have lost.
The point, however, is that, now that I know what healthy feels like, it’s that much more obvious to me that I haven’t been healthy for the past few years, no matter what I have said in previous blog posts. I said those things because I didn’t understand what healthy looked like on me. Now, I do.
The further consequence of understanding my health is a general inability to continue accepting my moments of ill health as my default. (I say “general” because, when I’m depressed, my thoughts tend to return to the idea of me as a permanently-damaged being.) A few weeks ago, I realized something so powerfully striking that I had to write it down: “The sick version of me is not the final version of me.” It’s much easier to recognize depression as an affliction that I have, as opposed to a part of my makeup. My therapist was invaluable in helping me digest this one. Now, it’s easier to recognize my moments of ill health as just those—moments. In no way permanent. Because I’m recovering, however winding this process may be. I’ve decided that being depressed is not my purpose in life; therefore, I cannot stay in it.
Non-Linearity in an Upward Trend
More on non-linearity: If you’re quite bad at athletics like I am, this analogy might make more sense to you.
You have a lap to run, around a track. You go on your marks with full vim, ready to tear the track up. Go! The whistle blows, you start sprinting. This is easy, you’re going to get to the finish line in a breeze. Less than halfway, and your breath is already giving out. You get slower and rockier, your body unable to keep up the pace. You fear you might stop altogether. But you don’t stop. You don’t return to the speed you started with, either, because you don’t have the strength for that. As you approach the finish line, you’re sort-of-jogging at the only pace your body seems able to go at without stopping altogether. But it’s fine because at least you’re stable now. Though you may still stumble, you’re not as erratic as you were in the middle, nor as fast and unsustainable as you were in the beginning. You hope, with a little more time and practice at running laps, that the speed at which you started will one day become your stable pace.
That initial speed is kind of how my body reacted to being put on new medication—the second two weeks. New chemicals had been introduced into my body and my brain was fired up by them. Three weeks without a headache? Unheard of, in this body. But after that, my brain and body were like, “You know what? We actually can’t keep this up. We’re going to stop now, sorry.” Then I returned to chronic tiredness, and random bursts of energy, then back to tiredness. The erratic part of the lap. Now, I feel like I’m stabilizing better, somewhere at a fraction of the initial splendid health. I’m doing life almost—but not quite—like a functional human being, on most days. I’m certainly more productive than I was four months ago. But my mind and body are still swift to let me know when I’m overextending. The migraines from going too long without food, the incapacitation when I worked too much the previous day, the occasional carelessness that brings my anxiety back…
With fair frequency, I have moments of clarity. Quite often, recently, I have been able to find so much joy in personal writing projects. My desire for and pleasure derived from work, both paid and unpaid, has made me think back often to the essay, “Why Work?” by Dorothy Sayers (which is possibly the best essay I have ever read). She says in it, among many other things,
“[…] work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
I’m still slow at most things, which can be crippling and discouraging at times, simply because the world feels so fast to me. It’s a difficult—yet somehow, increasingly easier—thing to accept that the speed at which I think I should be running, in order to be properly aligned with this world, might never be sustainable for me, and thus never achievable if I want to avoid completely wrecking myself. Another difficult prospect to accept is that I might have to be on medication for a long, long time. The future of my health is just so uncertain. Maybe I’ll stop needing the extra help soon. But… maybe I won’t. I don’t think I’m in a hurry anymore to get off it. I also think and hope that if I do get off, and subsequently experience a grave relapse, I won’t throw a fit if I have to get back on drugs.
C’est la vie, I suppose. Personally, I just want to write lit things.