Over the years I have developed a somewhat adversarial relationship with My Brain. It often feels like My Brain is sabotaging me at every turn: tricking me into abandoning my healthy habits, refusing to focus on the things I want it to, using perfectionism and procrastination as weapons to sabotage my productivity and my progress — it’s no wonder that I feel like My Brain is out to get me, and that I frequently resent it.
My Brain also gets hijacked by depression, which fills it with dangerous thoughts and ideas about how awful I am and all the reasons that everyone in my life would be better off without me.
What makes depression’s thoughts insidious is that they all have little fish hooks on them, and My Brain gets snagged and takes it at face value that those thoughts are true. depression says that I’m a failure, that I’m stupid, and selfish, that my life is pointless, and that I’m a fraud whom everyone would hate if they ever saw the “real” me — and My Brain says “Yeah, that sounds plausible. And Important. We should probably spend an awful lot of time focusing on these very true facts, and base all of our decisions on them.”
If there’s a quiet moment when my brain isn’t sufficiently occupied it will start telling me depression’s stories, repeating them on a loop until I’ve heard them so often that I get hooked and start to believe them too. And when I’m hooked the thoughts keep me from the things I value by holding me stationary, or by dragging me in a direction I don’t really want to go.
The worst time for this is when I go to bed, so I sometimes avoid going to bed until I’m so exhausted that I just pass out within seconds — but that’s a terrible strategy for someone who wakes up by 6:00 am at the latest regardless of when they fell asleep. So a few years ago, in an attempt to stop (or at the very least drown out) those thoughts I started listening to media when I was going to bed. Something engaging enough to keep my attention, but familiar enough that it won’t keep me awake wanting to know what happens next. This technique worked to help me sleep, so when depression spiked I started using media (sometimes multiple types on multiple screens simultaneously) to keep myself
stimulated overstimulated all the time.
There are a few minor problems with this strategy.
First, although I’m currently not working, when I was, and when I do again, I can’t blast three types of media simultaneously into my skull all day, and the result is that pretty much the whole time I’m at work interacting with coworkers and clients My Brain is telling me that I suck at my job and I suck at life and I’m going to get fired and everyone hates me and really, why do I even bother? Existing?
Second, my extreme efforts to keep My Brain constantly occupied so that it doesn’t have time or energy to engage in the very dangerous pastime of thinking means that I am almost always doing things on autopilot, completely oblivious to my surroundings.
And finally, many of the things I value — learning, creating, writing, communicating and building relationships with other humans — involve thinking, and need to be done in, if not silence, then at least in something less than a constant bombardment of audio and visual input designed specifically to prevent the germination of (let alone the taking root or flourishing of) thought. So, particularly at times when depression has taken control of the puppet strings, those activities that require time alone mucking about inside My Brain leave dangerous gaps in my defenses, and thus I abandon them in favour of security. And maybe that would be okay for a few days, weeks, or even months. But it’s become an almost full-time thing, and it’s lasted a few years. How long did it take me to post a new “weekly” blog? (1,309 days. That’s how long. That’s why it’s now a monthly blog.) I’ve certainly wanted to write some, I’ve had many, many ideas — but when I sit down to work on them the darker thoughts start creeping in, and I abandon my creative outlets in self-defense. And for a long time, I didn’t even sit down to try to write. I just assumed that if I did it would end badly, and so I gave up before I ever started.
Eventually, it became obvious that the technique I’d relied on for so long no longer worked for me — and realistically speaking, it probably never did.
I needed to find new techniques. Skills that could take away the thoughts’ power to hook into me, or let me cut the lines that tether me to them so that quiet time with My Brain would be less scary.
Enter Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the practice of labeling thoughts as thoughts.
I’m not any kind of counselor or therapist — I’m just someone who has participated in a bunch of CBT Skills Groups over the past few years, and the skill that I have found most helpful is to get some distance from my thoughts by labeling them as thoughts rather than letting them sound like facts. “I’m a terrible person” sounds pretty definitive, while “I’m having the thought that I’m a terrible person” carries less weight. I have lots of thoughts, and while some of them make sense and are based in reality, many of them are wrong, or silly, or just plain weird. Thoughts are usually not facts, and labeling them as thoughts takes away some of their power. It may seem like a very small and semantic difference, but try it the next time your brain says something mean about you.
The negative thoughts are still there, but sometimes I can detach from them long enough to have a meaningful conversation or form some new thoughts. I even managed to turn off media long enough to write this blog : )
I don’t want to imply that it’s magic and works completely; I’m not suddenly thinking “I don’t suck, I’m amazing!” or anything like that. And My Brain is quite capable of tying the cut ends of that thread together to re-attach me to a thought that I had managed to gain some distance from, or coming at me with a shiny new thought that I’m not used to defending myself from. It takes a lot of practice, and it’s easy to forget that not everything depression and My Brain tell me is true. I have to keep those metaphorical scissors sharp, and use them all day every day, possibly forever.
But things are slightly better than they were when I didn’t have any scissors.