March 6, 2020 | Narrative
recovery, in fragments
winning a war against yourself
Neuron Versus Neuron
I didn’t always want to be a psychology major—I only found out what a neuron was in high school.
In my tenth-grade biology textbook, I found the neuron exceedingly ugly: star-shaped heads colored the pale yellow of bile, with tendrils of hair jutting out from the points and a long body protruding out from its head. This last protrusion was covered in green myelin sheaths, all the way down to branch-like neurites stretching away from the hideousness of its body.
“Neurons are the building blocks of the brain,” my teacher said.
At the time, I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
When I first heard the word serotonin—the neurotransmitter that regulates emotion—I liked how it sounded: It sounded saccharine-sweet, and I had the world’s worst sweet tooth. Something about the syllables was enough to make me crave it.
At first, I thought it was only a linguistic affair. I didn’t think it had anything to do with the fact that I struggled to get out of bed most mornings, or the fact that I could barely look anyone else in the eyes, let alone myself. I was a neurotic mess of a teenager, alternating between periods of stress and periods of moping.
“Are you done hibernating?” my mother would call out occasionally, prompting me to crawl bleary-eyed out of my room. It seemed, in those days, the only thing I could muster up energy for was homework.
My grades stayed the same, but everything else dropped off slowly: my social circle, my self-esteem, my happiness…
And the whole time, that hideous neuron looked mockingly at me from my textbook.
No wonder I hated biology.
Learning in Traces
I was in eleventh grade when I learned just how pliable my brain was—that neuroplasticity was a highly possible thing.
“Think of neural pathways like a dirt trail, and neurotransmitters like cattle,” my teacher said. “The more cattle travel a path, the more they wear it out. That’s how dirt trails become dirt roads that become paved streets.”
If this is true, I thought, there must be a highway somewhere in my brain linking every single thought to some sort of abyss.
My psychology teacher called this abyss “learned helplessness.”
“If you administer shocks to a dog in an inescapable cage, it will learn not to try escaping—even in an open cage,” she explained.
This felt somewhat understandable to me.
There were so many things it was just easier to give up on.
Through Tinted Glass
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sounded abstract until I went through it.
I was in twelfth grade when they finally diagnosed me with anxiety.
They told me that the CBT would help me “think more positively.” I didn’t know about any of that, but I did know enough to understand that my friends did not see things the way I did.
During our first session, the school therapist gave me a little booklet: “10 Cognitive Distortions.” I thought it was complete gibberish.
All-or-nothing thinking? Black-and-white thinking? I wasn’t a computer; I didn’t think in binaries.
Mental filters? How could I possibly filter out the good, if there was nothing good to filter out?
Psychological magnification, though, I couldn’t deny. It was too evident, too much a part of me. I’d just spent the whole session secretly worrying about an A- I’d gotten on a paper two years ago.
My fifth therapist (I really went through ʼem) made me draw my anxiety.
I drew a tornado and named him Shylock because he wanted a pound of my flesh. This made my therapist laugh, so I smiled.
I was in college by then, and I’d do almost anything to make people laugh. My therapist thought I was funny, and that validated me in ways I didn’t think were possible. I had spent so much of my life trying to seek validation from people who could never quite reciprocate.
My teachers didn’t care how many A’s I got if I couldn’t speak up in class, I felt like I could never do anything right in my friends’ eyes, and my family…well, I’d closed myself off from them so long ago, I was sometimes surprised they even remembered what I looked like.
I didn’t grow up with many friends, which I always believed was because of how much I resembled a walrus from second to eighth grade.
College, I’d told myself, will be different.
It wasn’t, not completely.
Recovery is never going to be linear, and I understand that now.
When I was too little to know what it meant, someone told me, “Home has a heartbeat,” and I laughed, because I could never imagine synchronizing my heartbeats to someone else’s or draping the windows of someone else’s soul with the living, pulsing walls of my heart.
But I realized—maybe I was wrong.
Over the past year, I have found home in the annoyed shake of my roommate’s head as she tries (unsuccessfully) to wake me at an ungodly hour, in the smile of a friend who didn’t get home till midnight because she wanted to buy me tea when I was sick.
I have found home in the smiles of the girls who live next door to me, who have taught me to believe in myself just like they did.
I have called one best friend home long before he literally risked his life to carry me out of a burning building, and another before she stayed awake all night to wipe tears from my eyes.
So maybe, in the end, it hasn’t been about the bad days, or the bad weeks. It hasn’t even been about weathering through them to get to the good parts. It has been about finding home in myself upon learning that home doesn’t have to mean anything other than the knowledge that I’m going to be okay.