Salients of a Broken Mind: Lessons From My Spiritual Passchendaele

If you’re inexperienced with psychological trauma and don’t listen closely enough to the taut-eyed stories from those of your friends who survived the mind-trenches, you may believe my battle ended on the day–I forget whether it was the 2nd, 3rd or 4th of August–that I stumbled free of Psychiatric Hell. Unfortunately, whether a battle spawns a war or not depends mostly on how it ends. The victory I won that day came at Pyrrhic cost and by margins so slim a hard push in the next few days would’ve broken me anew. I’ve said my ordeal began half a year ago, but the truth is it started sooner, before I even took my disastrous retail job. The spectacular collapse so dominated my own perception I’ve forgotten what came before. This goes back to last January, when I first instituted a ludicrous uptick in my training without giving my body any time to adjust.

If you’ve not read them already, Part One and Part Two cover the consequences in depth. You don’t have to, though; as I said, these are all tales from the same war. The lessons here function on their own. The breakdown, I now realize, wasn’t the first battle, but the high-water mark of a campaign grown old already, taking place in a blood-and-mud no-man’s-land of the heart tortured by shellfire and spite right up to the present day.

As it stands, I only began to see something like final victory within the past two weeks. Like a newly-minted Major shipped straight into an offensive, I feel I’ve only come to understand the war at the close, after fighting and losing too many battles in ignorance. I recovered tears; believe me when I say you don’t understand despair until every cell of you strains for weeping and you realize your ducts have forgotten how to open. I found comfort again, and you can’t imagine the new-dawn loveliness of remembering, after a year without it, what it feels like to lie in bed and enjoy it. Comfort, readers mine, goes beyond a soft pillow and sheets at the perfect temperature. Comfort includes your emotional and physical responses to the simple good in your life. Think of everything from the velvet ears of a dog to the cool kiss of a breeze, the warmth of your loved ones against you and the savor of favorite meals.

Imagine experiencing every one of these things again, and again, and again, feeling nothing. Softness becomes no more than a lack of friction or hardness, and while I’m sure there’s some pedantic pinch-wit about to say “Of course it is!” that person is a moron and should, to pull from the gutter, shut the fuck up. The breeze just makes you shiver, your lover’s heat brings only sweat, and the meals merely bloat your guts. You can relax your muscles and close your eyes, but you cannot rest. Your purgatorial coffin-body plagues you with volley upon volley of anxiety or panic attacks as the mood takes it–you quickly stop caring that the two are technically different–and churns enough cortisol to fill the vacuum of your happier emotions ten times over. No matter how much you enjoy something, you’ll come to hate it or fear it if anger, fear and sadness are your only emotions. I know from our depictions of melancholy in the media that many people must think we’ll fall back on vicarious vivacity, finding joy in the good things happening to the people around us.

I’m sorry; we don’t. We cannot. Feeling happiness through others is not some arcane transferal granting us color and light our own eyes were scarred against. It still must come from within. And within, by this point, there’s nothing. I firmly believe all the creatures, human or otherwise, suddenly deprived of their emotion in various fiction, would take their own lives at the first opportunity, and I don’t blame them for a splintered picosecond.

In evolutionary terms I understand this; sadness causes us to pull in and conserve energy, anger and fear are our primary emotional responses to danger. We need one of the two to help us fight for survival. When we’re worn down far enough, we enter survival mode. Happiness isn’t a useful response to sleep deprivation, exhaustion and the rest, so it shuts off for a while. Perhaps that’s not the reason, but it makes a form of sense to me. In many ways I feel this reflects the willful-blind attitudes of the general public to mental illness, depression, and yes, suicide.

Over and over we’re told to hang in there by people with lives that are happy enough, fulfilling enough. We’re told we’re selfish for even contemplating an end by people who would snap in half and rend their scalps if they had to endure a few hours of what we survive for months. It’s all well and good for someone with a job they enjoy and plenty of friends and a stable relationship to sermonize about the importance of persevering. They’re surrounded by reminders, both through other people and the way their lives work, that at least their own corner of the world appreciates their value. These are the people most adamant that we hold the line. They tell us to hold, but damned if they offer reinforcements.

Allow me a woefully incomplete rundown of some choicer fatigue symptoms from the past year: needing sustained effort of will to get up and stay up in the morning. On a good day, this only took me fifty minutes. If I let my discipline slacken for a moment, I fell back to sleep for up to two hours. Regular fainting spells during sword practice and weightlifting, arms going numb at multiple points during sword drills, with the record being a period of around 30 minutes during which I couldn’t feel my right hand or wrists (somehow, I still made decent strikes). Head-aches, eye-aches, joint pain, explosive temper, extreme difficulty urinating, slow-healing injuries, repeated muscle tearing. One particularly joyful episode, a tear or pull in the muscles around my left scapula, made it feel as though a knife was lodged in my back, stabbing my lungs with each breath. I know what being stabbed feels like, so please understand I mean it actually felt as though I was being stabbed. For breathing.

In fact, I feasted on a veritable chef’s platter of respiratory problems: persistent coughing for no clear reason, inability to take a truly deep breath, coughing triggered by trying to take a truly deep breath, and a feeling as of straps or ties permanently fastened around my esophagus, just inside the skin, a particularly fun subset of choking sensation I never realized was possible. To this day, I have no idea which exercise or habit caused this last problem.

You’re likely wondering how I could possibly think any of this was normal, or that I should try to push through it. Simply put: having been told, overtly and subliminally, for my entire life, that my disorder can’t possibly be as bad as I’m making it sound, that I’m being dramatic, that I’m making it up for attention (a school police officer actually told me this last!) I eventually began to believe it. So many people couldn’t be wrong, or so empathetically stunted. The most insidious were those suggesting that it wasn’t that bad; their less absolute tack seemed more reasonable, so I was readier to believe it, which then opened me up to think that maybe I really was making something out of nothing. Neuroscience now tells us that mental pain damages our psychology the same way physical pain does (who’d have fucking thought it?!), so in time I came to believe levels of pain other people balk at were normal, then barely worthy of calling pain. After being told mental pain doesn’t exist, I naturally took physical pain as par for the course.

This is why self-harm happens so much: nobody tries to deny you’re in pain when you’re cut and bleeding.

Oh, sometimes a handful of people pluck up the courage and offer words of encouragement when we actually break. Look, readers, I know that damn near every other fantasy author has told you that the time for a rousing speech is right in the middle of a rout, and this instant’s peppy-burst will fix everything. Well, I’ve written more than a few pieces detailing that they understand struggle about as well as I understand sex. You’re supposed to bolster the lines before they break, and–now, read closely, here’s the key part–do not leave the field until the battle’s wonBy this I mean simply that if you want to help people grappling with their inner demons, understand that you’re signing on for a fucking war. You’re safe to assume they’re not getting a single shred’s worth of the positive reinforcement you’re used to, that they don’t have your web of connections or your past successes or any of the things that shore you up.

I can’t be clear enough, the fact that you have plenty of friends to lean on (unless you’re part of the choir I’m preaching to, in which case, sing on, sibling!) is no reason for you to be ashamed. It is reason for you to put some of the strength you save on those supporting shoulders towards helping those who so often stand alone. Again, just telling people that they need to hang in there for friends or family won’t cut it. Every time you do this, you only reinforce the idea that they’re not valuable in and of themselves, that what they’re going through matters less than what others would go through if they don’t hold their pain in. In effect, you’re bombarding people who believe they’re shit human beings with hints that they’re shit human beings. This is slightly counter-productive.

I must bring this back to myself now, not because this is simply about me, but because my own tales from the front will do more than mere abstractions. In the darkest moments over the last year, I thought of dying several dozen times a day, and more than half of them it was not fear I felt, but peace. I needed reasons to live, visible engagement from friends and family. I didn’t need them telling me how much they cared, I needed them to show it. Even the friends I count dearest too often say how much they appreciate my writing or sword-skill. Do they share my blog articles, or even comment on them? Do I see them in the comments under the Youtube videos I upload?

You know the answer already.

If you want to know the reason why so many people with mental health issues self-isolate, why we struggle to connect with others, consider that most of us are also known for being the most energized, passionate people in our circles. Imagine that every new endeavor seems to you as light-limn beautiful as new-fallen snow on a blustery mountain, as a folded-steel sword fresh from a master polisher, with every layer’s grains gleaming forge-bright. A poem, a short-story, an article, a comedy sketch, sword practice: whatever it is, I feel the same every time. Now, imagine that after all those hours, you receive nothing. Not even trolls telling you your work is shit; at least then you know you’ve been heard. No, you slice out a piece of your soul and send it into the world, and it’s just gone. You never hear that it touched anyone. Sometimes, someone will claim it did, but that’s the last you hear from them. Your efforts to connect fare no better; you write essays’ worth of messages and receive, perhaps, a sentence or two before the graveyard quiet falls.

Eventually, you’d stop trying, wouldn’t you? It’s the futility that breaks us, the feeling that no one has our back. Imagine you’re out on a firing line sending tracers at shapes in the darkness, hearing again and again over comms that reinforcements are coming up on your flanks. “Just a little longer”, command says, “we just need to sort this other mess out and we’ll be there for you.” One by one the guns of your comrades-in-arms fall silent around you. “Just a little longer.” You run out of ammunition and you’re forced to turn to the weapons of the enemy fallen, and your shoulder goes numb from the shuddering through the gun-stock. “Just a little longer.” Eventually, command stops responding, and you know you’re alone. But you keep firing, because you made Mom a promise you’d come home alive, and your mother’s the only person you could always rely on, and you’ve been abandoned too many times yourself to dare abandon her. You can’t surrender. If you do, the enemy will kill you or torture you broken, and you don’t know which is worse.

There’s more in this analogy than you may realize. If “the enemy” are the countless forms of depression, self-hatred and other symptoms of mental illness, then their weapons are the emotions they cause. When I talk of taking them, I mean using anger and sadness to fight… anger and sadness. The human mind is such a warped thing that this works, to a degree. Oh, other weapons would be more familiar, they’d sit easier against the shoulder and stop friendlies shooting me by accident. In this case, “friendly fire” means those who lash out against the mentally ill who have been forced to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms rather than offering better options. “Just a little longer” remains the refrain from most friends of people with mental illness. “I have work, I have a girlfriend, I have a pet, I have my own life, just give me time.” And of course, we give them the time. Never mind that texting or typing a sentence takes fifteen seconds. Never mind that isolation is suicide’s harbinger. Heaven forbid, in seeking allies for our internal war, we put some slight demands on one of the sacred normal people.

Besides, I’ve already told you they don’t keep helping. Sooner or later, most of us fight alone.

I mentioned at the start of this article that I felt I’ve been winning at last. Well, the day I felt comfort again for the first time was also the first time in my life I caught the flu. Before I’d even fully recovered from that, I heard from my parents that we had to put down Halla, our aging Swedish Vallhund, because her liver gave out and there was nothing else to do. The closest I’ve received to interest in my query letters so far is an Email which stated that the book was probably too long because the query letter was slightly over exactly one 8 x 11 inch page in length. Obviously I’ll do what I can to streamline it, but I don’t anticipate it’ll be by much. I’ll give what I can once I’m recovered from the flu, again. It’s back because I had a little too much to drink Friday night, and fuck me for trying to feel something, I suppose?

Since I bring it up, I’d like to close with this idea: the idea of the myriad ways in which neurotypical society drowns out, invalidates or hushes the voices of neurodivergent individuals. We’re told to see therapists instead of speaking with our friends, at best telling us that we’re not normal enough to seek support from real people, and at worst telling us we don’t deserve to trouble them with our issues. We’re told not to go on tangents, not to approach strangers because we’ll definitely annoy them (great, that’s really useful for networking) and they’ll almost certainly hate us even if we don’t do anything wrong. Psychiatric Hell simply took this far enough to make it obvious at last, where we were effectively cowed from seeking help for or understanding of our symptoms in a place ostensibly built and crewed to aid us through them. Of course this creates a feedback loop in which the handful of people we trust overreact when we try to reach out because they assume we’re only now having a problem instead of only now trusting them enough to speak to them, thus destroying the trust we built up and making it ever slower to return until we stop seeking help at all.

We’re told everyone understands we can’t do this alone, but when we approach them believing, trusting they’ll act on that understanding, we’re betrayed. So we clam up, assume we must be at fault somehow, and the cycle cuts us deeper each time.

There’s so much for me left to say: how society tries to steal our coping mechanisms from us if they don’t immediately conform with their preconceived notions of “proper” recovery, how it’s often assumed we’re not trying because we’re not getting results, even though, again, supposedly, everyone understands we’re fighting a war that takes everything we have, and sometimes more than that. But for now, I’ve said enough. For now, I need to rest.

There are dark shapes teeming in the night, and I no longer expect reinforcements. But this firing pit is mine, and if my demons are bound to take me in the end, I’ll pave no-man’s-land in their corpses first.

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