Obviously, my use of figurative language is how I make sense of the world. Finding the right words and right imagery to most effectively communicate is a desperate task for a fraught mind. For an ADHD/global thinker, impulsive creative, compulsive over-thinker, I have to overprepare to communicate. I cower at the thought of being judged, criticized, punished. Somehow, I have cultivated a façade of courage to overcome many fears. Yet, they are there.
It is in the name of my fear that I feel compelled to preface this piece of writing. My analogies and similes, metaphors and narratives, are much deeper than they may appear on the surface. Empathetic pain abrades my “scabbed heart” (I love to read). It bleeds not only for my own pain, but also for the pain of others. Like a body occupied, I relive deep emotional pain, traumas of the tragic and mundane. Thus, I find myself surrounded and inundated by people in pain. I am unable to observe the transgressions of the vulnerable without feeling the pain behind their motives. I cannot be complacent in pervasive, protected microaggressions of the privileged.
The essay here is inspired by direct experience with recovery groups and relationships with the addicted. This experience from my past has returned to me as I now struggle with my mental health. In writing this essay, I am ever afraid of stigma, misunderstanding, and further damage. But I have no other opportunity to be heard and the existential compulsion to tell my story.
I’ve written before how emotional pain is experienced synonymously as physical pain. They are inseparable in the brain. Yet, emotional pain can be more damaging. It’s invisibility. It’s impact on the mind, of the ability to judge one’s self and reality accurately. Emotional pain largely fuels risk-taking behavior, which additionally leads to self-sabotaging choices, to either numb or escape the pain. In the worst cases, risky and self-sabotaging behaviors are sadomasochistic forms of self-flagellation that subject oneself to further pain. Often deeply conditioned from childhoods and in response to the world around us. People with severe emotional pain, develop a voice that tells ourselves we are not worthy of things that so many others seem to enjoy as birthright. Namely peace or sanity. Self-flagellation not only hurts the person already in pain further, but does also harm those around us. The desperate, misguided acts of the emotionally pained are attempts to communicate or commune with deeper pains that we often are not sure from where they come or what to do with them. Emotional pain, wherever its genesis, in brain or in environment, is universally tragic, yet pervasively inconspicuous.
Back to comparing physical pain and emotional pain, I started thinking about recovery. Depending on the type of pain a person has experienced, the recovery process is differently treated and supported. Consider persons recovering from a car accident or bout with cancer. Now consider persons recovering from traumas, mood episodes, or addictions. While their injuries are defined differently, experienced differently, treated differently by support systems and outsiders, the recovery process has significant parallels. Each person in recovery is experiencing pain that is visceral. The brain experiences the literal pain of a bone fracture in the same areas as a figurative stab-in-the-back.
Yet recovery from emotional pain is a stigma-filled, merry go ‘round of triggering and suffering. Symptoms are evident, but ambiguous. They are made up of behaviors that cross-reference the entire continuum of the human condition. Treatment of emotional pains is enervated by its nearness to ‘social ills’ and difficult persons. The sheer complexity of mental health episodes and resulting difficulty in understanding, plagues both the experts and the afflicted alike. Junkies and crazies are often misunderstood, pitied, judged, bullied or penalized, during their journey with emotional pain. Arrest and incarceration are only the most extreme variant. But social stigma is at play in classrooms and workplaces abound. The “neurotypical” are privileged in their predominance. Those without direct experience with such deep pains or with placement on some neurological continuum, the majority of “neurotypicals” just cannot imagine or interpret the actions of those persons whose neural pathways have been differently adapted by genetics or by their surroundings. That these pathways are often shaped by both, underscores emotional pain’s infinite complexity.
That so many people experiencing emotional pain is becoming more evident with changes to our urbanized, industrialized, world of toxic capitalism. Treating emotional pain and neurological struggles have been capitalized upon at the cost to the most vulnerable of us. Consider how big tobacco, the alcohol industry, and big pharma have shaped markets serving the ‘indulgences’ of hedonistic consumer demands, but to with particular damage to the self-flagellating tendencies of the pained masses. What a person in stigmatized recovery knows better than their counterparts in pain rehab or physical therapy, is that substances have a greater capacity to add, worsen, merely delay the onset of further pain. Never having felt the cold of stigma, always being in the sunshine of privilege, many folks trust doctors, conflate ‘legal’ with safe, and so easily write-off bad behavior to being a “bad person.”
Still, recovery, from any injury or affliction, is a process that necessitates small steps and requires dedication to a longer journey. Along the way, the path of recovery is riddled with landmines of relapse or re-hurt. My own recovery journey has been marked by desperate self-delusions, hypersensitivity to stigma and injustice, clouded by misdiagnosis and the maladaptations of neglect, and scourged by self-sabotaging choices. Emotional pain clouds the judgement and impairs abilities tantamount to being “under the influence” or to the obvious impairment of physical disability or injury. Still, I don’t have an x-ray or obvious symptom that explains why I do fucked up things to feel better or to not feel at all.
The recovery process associated with alcoholism has particularly resonated with me during this latest and worst mood episode of my life. My judgement and abilities have been deeply impacted by my undiagnosed ADHD, which I come to know as a neurological condition, rather than its indicator as a learning disability. Now I know that my neuro-atypical ADHD brain is more prone to develop anxiety/depression and vulnerable to damaging thought patterns that trigger episodes. These brains (my brain, too) in efforts to soothe and recuperate, are subjected to flawed treatments, misdiagnoses, and medication side effects that further worsen physical and emotional pain. In my experience, medication has kicked in new variants of mood episodes that have me suffering through new physical and emotional pathologies. While I managed my ADHD for years through self-medicating my anxiety, deliberate cognitive change, and building structured habits, I was left vulnerably ignorant of the deeper currents behind my struggles. And so they kept resurfacing, especially in times of distress. Whether from environment, hormones or medication, I now have a ‘rap sheet’ that includes anxiety, major depression, and rapid-cycling bipolar II disorder.
My own research has uncovered studies that indicate ADHD women are more susceptible to erratic, damaging mood disorders that worsen their neurological condition. So I win the odds to be one of the 4.4% of adults that have ADHD, parlayed to beat the odds by being a woman, and being an woman with ADHD to develop bipolar disorder. Never mind how I’ve already won the chronic conditions game. My brain has been wired differently since birth. I have lived neglectful of my brain, have tried to be “normal” and then “tougher” and then “better than.” All have been iterations of behavior and identity narrations to manage my internal struggle with painful neglect, learning difficulties, and self-sabotage. These iterations have further re-wired my brain. My amygdala, our deeply human, fight-or-flight center, has been maladapted to both fight and fly. There is no dichotomy for me. When my brain’s faulty wiring backfires my malformed amygdala, mood episodes kick in and I do things that aren’t “like me.” Out of fear, desperation, anger, shame, I do fucked up things and fuck myself up. When I come out of these episodes, I have to work insanely hard to not descend back into them as I assess the damage to my physical body, my nearest and dearest, my values and identity. Picking up the pieces of shattered relationship and a compromised identity IS recovery.
During my years of struggle, I return back to one of my experiences observing addiction recovery, in particular with Alcoholism’s characteristic approach and the recovery process it represents. With some exceptions, the “12 Steps” process very much parallels my mental health recoveries and deeply resonates with the process of dealing with resulting shame and injury. Each time I had an episode, I would see myself in a new light, would become ashamed and afraid, would try to keep living ‘normally’ with the same habits. The inevitable next relapse, I would fall so much harder, lose so much more, be more emotionally crippled. After each relapse, I had to survey the damage, count the personal losses, and account for persons I hurt. I have a list of the people that have been hurt or let down during each of these episodes. This is the where the “12 Steps” really hit home. In steps 8 & 9, the damage to others is addressed and each step stresses making amends to others (in mind, on paper, or in person).
Persons coming out of mental health episodes, like recovering addicts or alcoholics, must also make amends. Amends for the remorse of missing birthday parties while in deep depression. Amends for the impulsive outbursts from ADHD hypomania that ruins holidays and turns vacation breaks into self-isolation monasteries of regret and repentance. Amends for missed deadlines, unsent emails, and responsibilities not met. Amends for the way that insidious, negative thinking grows thorny vines of resentment, disappointment, and frustration to suffocate and spoil relationships with other humans, just as flawed as I am. Amends for misunderstood intrusions, that are triggered by pain, that set off latent anger from suffering in silence, powerlessness, hopelessness, and that incite wayward ADHD impulsivity and risk-taking. As I said, I do fucked up things, fuck myself up, but it also fucks up other people.
I have many amends to make. So many. Many to myself. But it is the others, with their capacity to help or hurt me further, that priority amends must be made. My list of people that I am sorry to is long. It overwhelms me, it deeply saddens me. I relive the pain and loss associated with each. In some cases, I’m not sure that I should apologize. My distressed, angry mind, can recount these ambivalent persons with the vengeful determination of Arya Stark, or the lonesome fortitude of Inigo Montoya. Yet I always circle back to the self-loathing that tells me time and again that it is MY fault, and my fault alone. And where it is my fault, I am a repentant soul. I am sorry, so sorry. Allow my amends. Accept them if you can. Know that I am in recovery, that I am trying to be my best self.