The holidays are stressful for everyone, but they can be particularly brutal for people with mental illness. I’m fortunate that the holidays have never been a particular trigger for me. However, as stresses mount and social situations become more frequent, I am provided an opportunity afterwards to reflect on the continuing ways mental illness affects my life. This holiday season, I was reminded of one of the more unpleasant effects.
I noted in a previous post that I’m a introvert, i.e. I refresh myself by being alone or with small groups of friends and loved ones. New Year’s is always an interesting time for me because it often involves going to some party with a whole lot of people I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that I get anxious necessarily – it’s highly unlikely that I have an anxiety disorder – but I nonetheless need to make sure that my batteries are charged properly before the heading out, something I did this year
This New Year’s, some friends and I went to some houses with lots of people I don’t know. Yes, houses plural. It was a “house pub crawl”, which I did not realize was a thing. Anyway, we ended the night at a very cramped house with a dance party going on and 25-30 people shoved into two not-terribly-large rooms, people of whom I knew exactly 3 (one whom I met that day). In other words, it was an introvert battery leech.
I was designated driver, a role I often serve because 1) I don’t particularly enjoy the sensation of being drunk and 2) I really shouldn’t be mixing all that much alcohol with my meds anyway. Being sober and starting to get overwhelmed, I ended up where I often do in such situations: standing somewhere out of the way as inconspicuously as possible. Despite my efforts, people nonetheless would interact with me, including my lovely friends checking up on me.
Meanwhile, back at the point, mental illness, this situation brought up one of the most long-lasting parts of my disorder. My mind since the onset of my dysthymia has always been able to split itself in two. One of those parts is just me in the moment, doing whatever. The other is the supposedly-rational observer me, the part of me that some depression researchers might think of as my brain engaging in “analytical rumination“. I don’t want to give the impression that I hear voices or anything, as that is definitely not the case (and, if true, would mean that I have even more problems). It’s more that my mind is operating on two tracks simultaneously, with thoughts from both tracks occasionally coming to the fore. That observer me is the part that judges, that criticizes, that tells me I’m not good enough and that I could be doing better. That other part of me is kind of an asshole, hence I christen him “assholish observer”.
When I was at the party, the assholish observer was telling me I was lame for not approaching people and talking with them, that I should have been dancing like other people, that I should have tried to talk more to the new friend I met that day, that I looked like an idiot standing alone, that my year had been unproductive and wasted, and that my new year would be similarly so. He berated me when I left a bit early, alone, to go on the long, cold trek back to pick up our vehicle, even though that was probably the best thing that I could have done to get some energy back.
I mentioned that my dysthymia primarily manifests as itself as an emotional dullness. Let me correct that. There are two emotions I feel quite acutely when in the throes of depression: shame and guilt. The assholish observer shames me. He tells me I’m a social moron, and, as if from a self-fulfilling prophecy, I often am. I become less confident in the social skills in which I’m already pretty damn unconfident. In addition to the emotional greyness, the assholish observer is another aspect of my illness that, taken by itself in limited quantities, isn’t too terrible. Taken as a continual life companion, he becomes toxic.
On my good days, my medication and other treatment keeps the assholish observer at bay. Somehow, even before I started getting treatment, I managed to keep him at bay; I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t. But when I’m weak or stressed or my batteries are running low, as on New Year’s, he comes back, more critical than ever. He’s my (non-violent) dark passenger, and he’s kind of an asshole.