Don’t tell me I think too much. Even if it’s true.

don't think too much

So, I want to write a little bit about mental health today. It’s a subject that’s close to my heart, but I don’t talk about it much because, frankly, it’s not easy.

For much of my life, I have dealt with a cyclical type of depression. What experience is similar to how people describe bipolar disorder, except it’s … different. I don’t get the manic highs, but I get intense anxiety that builds up until it collapses into depression. Many times, it seems that the diagnosis of mental illness depends on the illness being visible to outsiders, but because my troubles have been mostly invisible, most people figure I’m just a normal person who is moody sometimes. So, even though I’ve been coping with cyclical depression and anxiety for most of my life, I’ve never been diagnosed with anything but plain old depression. On one hand, that’s great because it means I’ve managed to dodge a label that’s easily misused and even hurtful. On the other hand, it means that in my darkest times, the responses I got from other people were usually:
Just get it together.
You’re just too emotional.
Don’t take it so seriously.
You think too much.

“You think too much,” is probably the most common thing I have been told in the midst of an emotional breakdown. I’m not sure if I can explain exactly how unhelpful that is, but for the record, it is unhelpful and also massively insulting. To a person who grew up in an intellectual family and prides herself on being able to grasp big concepts, “You think too much,” is like saying, “Just stop being yourself.”

No, I don’t think too much, but I do have really strong feelings sometimes. And sometimes my thoughts and feelings are hard to control. And there have been times when I’ve lost control completely.

It’s scary to lose control of your thoughts. One minute you’re mad at your roommate for leaving a mess in the kitchen,* and the next minute, someone’s telling you “You think too much,” and you start second guessing everything. Do I really have a right to be mad at my roommate? If not, why am I so upset? What’s wrong with me? I must be crazy. I always freak out about everything. I’m so fucked up. Why can’t I just get along with people? No wonder no one likes me. What the fuck am I even doing here? I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.

This thought pattern can get really dark really quickly, and for me, it usually lead to one place: If this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life, maybe I should just end it now.

That’s a pretty terrifying moment. The first time it happened, I thought, “Mary, you really are thinking too much now. Stop it. Have a drink. Take a nap. You’ll feel better later.” After the second time, I got back on anti-depressants, which I had taken periodically throughout high school and college. But even on medication, I would still have really intense panic attacks sometimes. It was predictable, too. Everything would seem fine until a little anxiety started creeping in. Over a few weeks, things would get gradually worse, and then once every month or two, I would have a meltdown. A couple days after a major meltdown, I would feel bright and shiny as though the sun had come out after a big storm. I took to hiding in my room so my roommates wouldn’t know how insane I was. I was a mess, and I was scared, and I was afraid to ask for help.

For me, help came via my husband, who saw me going through these cycles over and over again. He was confused and hurt and just wanted me to be happy and didn’t know how to help. We took long walks during which I talked to him about everything on my mind. He listened and listened and listened. He loved me even though I felt broken. There were many times when I felt guilty because I couldn’t be as good a partner to him as he was being for me, but he insisted on staying and helping me through it.

It took a long time for me to go to therapy because I thought that people who go to therapy were fucked up. Going to therapy meant admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing with your life. I was afraid it would mean I was stupid or somehow incapable of taking care of myself, and remember, most of the time, I was just normal. Nothing really bad ever happened to me as a kid. I didn’t have any good reason for being so messed up. No one but me could see my scary thoughts, so I assumed I just needed to toughen up and stop letting my emotions get the better of me. Only when I went to the doctor and couldn’t control my tears or my racing heart did someone say, “I really think it would help you to talk to someone, a counsellor maybe…” I didn’t like the word therapist, and my earlier experience with a psychologist was less than stellar, but my doctor was right. I needed to talk to someone. Even though my husband was willing to support me, I didn’t want to burden him with my emotions all the time, and I obviously hadn’t resolved my issues on my own.

The funny thing about therapy is that it worked, even though a lot of people who should know better told me it wouldn’t. I told someone my doctor suggested I take vitamins and focus on getting daily exercise, and they told me she was a crackpot. They would have preferred to see me on lithium, perhaps. When I ran out of my antidepressants, I decided not to refill the prescription since it wasn’t preventing those panic attacks anyway. I learned other coping skills instead. I found that meditation and yoga helped me feel more stable. I learned to let go of those obsessive thoughts that I knew would start the downward spiral. I learned to ask for help. I never went back to taking medication because it turns out that my mental health is manageable through lifestyle adjustments rather than prescriptions, which came as a relief. Not everyone is so lucky.

There must be as many types of mental illness as there are mutations of the common cold virus. Everyone’s experience will be different. But what I know for sure is that mental illness causes suffering, and it gets worse if we believe that “you just think too much,” or “you’re too emotional.” It is terrifying to sit alone in your room and feel that there is something so intrinsically wrong with you, down to the genetic level, that you cannot live a normal happy life. To think, “Well, I guess mother nature fucked up this batch. Maybe I’ll just take myself out of the game.” It’s just an awful experience.

So, what I’m saying is I hope you will ask for help if you’re suffering. And I hope you will reach out to those who suffer. I hope you will not call other people “crazy” when they’re going through it. I hope you will have someone to listen when you need it and that you will listen in return when you can.

Footnotes:

*When you say you’re mad about the mess in the kitchen, let’s be honest. You’re never just mad about the mess. This anger very quickly triggers outrageous thoughts such as, “The mess in the kitchen is just proof that my spouse/roommates/children disrespect me. They leave the mess because they expect me to clean it up.” This line of thinking assumes the other person is being malicious when in fact, it’s just paranoia from your own lack of self worth. That kind of thinking is the result of an anxious and unhappy mind.

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10 thoughts on “Don’t tell me I think too much. Even if it’s true.

  1. This is the best. I know you were/are nervous about sharing it, but the more people talk about their experience with mental health issues, the more people will hear and the more we can remove the stigma/invalidation/misunderstanding of it. Bravo. <3

  2. wow. you just explained my entire experience for the past 20+ years except. my husband doesn’t know what to do other than blame me and bad things did happen to me as a kid (and i’m working through what’s common and “wasn’t that bad” – still processing) so it’s a struggle sometimes, especially during a depressive episode, to take care of myself or even want to eat right, exercise, and take my vitamins. i am damn near 100% opposed to antidepressants but like you, i can successfully manage things through talking/therapy/self-help/nourishing habits. being my own cheerleader makes it just somewhat tricky in the midst of being thrown off-course, though i feel fairly resilient. thanks for sharing your experience and opening the space for others to share – this is such an important, brave topic and so multi-faceted.

    1. Oh, this comment got stuck int he spam filter for some reason, but I found it!

      There was a time when my husband didn’t understand my depression, and it was one of the things we had to talk about a lot. I compared it to diabetes since he has type 1. “Your body lost the ability to produce insulin for reasons beyond your control. My body doesn’t produce enough of some hormone that makes me feel happy and sane, and I take medication to try and fix that.” I should say that I’m not opposed to using anti-depressants if they help you. For me, they didn’t help, though.

  3. Thanks, Ellie. The thing that makes it hard for me is my own temptation to explain it all away. No one really wants to be mentally ill, and I for one don’t want any of the negative associations attached to it. On the other hand, I know my experience was valid, and it may be something that others are going through. I just want people to know that they have a right to ask for help if they’re in the middle of something like that.

  4. I’m living with this type of depression and anxiety too. The attacks are awful and I’ve been the same place you have… hiding in my room wondering why the hell I should keep living if it’s always going to be this way.
    After help from my hubby, doctors and therapists, I now take a daily antidepressant and haven’t had an anxiety attack in a couple of years. I’m better at “catching myself” from going down the spiral. Just yesterday I found myself getting pissed off that my hubby left dirty socks on the floor. I thought, “Wait, why are you so upset about this? Take a breath and let it go.” In the past, I could have easily gone into a rage.
    Mental illness needs to be talked about. Thank you for being brave enough to post your experience, Mary. The more we talk about it, the better.

    1. Margie, yes! That moment when you’re able to stop yourself from getting unhinged about some little thing is like … the proudest and most peaceful moment for me.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. My 16-year-old daughter is going through much of what you describe and it is breaking my heart to see her suffer. Our whole family is trying to rally around her, and we’ve been going round and round trying to find therapists and doctors who she can connect with…it is draining and exhausting, and a daily struggle; some days are better than others. I’ve shared this post with my daughter and I’m hoping it will help her. She seemed to really connect with your thoughts.

    1. Jim, thank you SO much for saying this. Please give your daughter my love and let her know that it does get better. I still deal with anxiety now, but I’ve learned healthy ways to cope. A couple tips: make sure you’re eating enough healthy foods, get outside for a few minutes every day, tell someone when you’re feeling anxious, and forgive yourself. It’s your call if medication helps and seems appropriate to your situation, but these little things have been very good tools for me. Maybe they will help her, too.

  6. As someone who loves someone with depression (we’ve finally made our way through him recognizing it and me sorta-kinda understanding), thank you thank you thank you.

    Even though a lot of people are talking about it these days as opposed to in the past, I feel like mental illness is still so poorly understood by most people, not to mention the unnecessary stigma. My husband and I were both raised to see mental illness as “in your head” and as a weakness, so it was with extreme difficulty that we overcame much of that, even long after we cognitively recognized the facts. But really, in your head? As in, your physical brain? How is that any different than any other illness? It IS a physical issue.

    For him, it’s thinking too little. He says he literally can’t think of anything, can’t connect with any emotion, and the pressure to feel like he has to come up with thoughts and words makes him near-panicked much of the time. I really, really didn’t understand at first. I’m never not thinking something, so I figured he just wasn’t voicing them out of fear that I’d steamroll over his words or he’d second-guess how he was saying them (a problem we also used to have). I thought this long after he told me otherwise, and we wasted more time than I’d like to admit on him trying to get me to understand, all while not being able to talk much. Turns out, I needed to seriously enhance my listening skills.

    I think a lot of understanding mental illness is understanding that someone’s experience is uniquely theirs and totally legit, and not making sense to you in no way invalidates that experience. You articulated that really well here. Thank you for sharing this. <3

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