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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

How Mental Illness Closes Down Our Minds

It may sound odd or impolite to suggest that most of us, when we are in the grip of mental illness, are no longer capable of thinking. That’s not how it feels of course. From the inside, our minds have probably never felt so busy and so focused. From the moment we wake up in panic and self-disgust, we are ruminating, pondering, exploring catastrophic scenarios, scanning our past, attacking ourselves for things we have done and not done, questioning our legitimacy, talking to ourselves about how repulsive we are, paying attention to strange voices recommending that we are evil and sick and headed for the worst – and wondering how and whether we should kill ourselves. Our minds don’t give us a moment of respite, we may rub our temples to cool them down and when eventually we fall asleep, we are exhausted by the marathons our thoughts have run inside us.

Nevertheless, we may still want to insist (for the kindest and most redemptive of reasons) that we have not been thinking at all, that none of this hive of activity deserves the title of thinking; it is just illness. 

To be mentally ill is to be swamped by secretions of fear, self-hatred and despair that – like surging seawater through a pumping station control desk – knock out all our higher faculties, all our normal ability to sensibly distinguish one thing from another, to find perspective, to weigh arguments judiciously, to see the wood for the trees, to correctly assess danger, to plan realistically for the future, to determine  risks and opportunities and, most importantly, to be kind and generous to ourselves.

None of these faculties function any longer, but – and this is the true nastiness of the illness – we are never and nowhere alerted to our loss. We are both very ill and very unaware. It looks as though we are continuing to think as we have always done – with all the usual intelligence and reliability – but that we just have a lot more to worry about. Nowhere along the way does our mind generously tell us that it has begun to look at reality through a distorted lens, that it has – at some point in the day – to all effects stopped working. No bell goes off, no hazard lights start to flash. The mind merely insists that it is giving us all the normal readings, and that we have objectively entered hell. 

Yet the truth is that we have lost command of about a third of our minds and are pulling together our ideas from the most degenerate, traumatised, unreliable and vicious aspects of ourselves. It’s as if a group of terrorists had donned white coats and were impersonating prestigious scientists in order to lay out a set of vicious theories and prognoses.

Once we have been through a few cycles of distorted thinking and recovered contact with reality, we should do ourselves the kindness of accepting that – on an intermittent basis – we will lose command of our higher faculties and that there is nothing embarrassing in recognising the possibility and accommodating ourselves to it very carefully. This is the nature of an illness around which we will need to take the greatest care.

We should start to get better at detecting when illness might be drawing in on us, what the triggers for it might be. Then when it is upon us, we should do and decide nothing. We shouldn’t start to send emails, deliver judgement on our lives or plan for the future. We should – as much as possible – stop all mental activity and rest. We might listen to music, have a long bath, watch something untaxing on television and perhaps take a calming pill.

We should also try to plug our brain into that of someone else, to benefit from their greater powers of reason. We should have a trusted friend or therapist whom we can call on at such moments and ask them if they might recalibrate and regulate our thoughts with an injection of their wisdom and insight. We should willingly put them in charge of determining how things are for us: they should be allowed to tell us what we are worth, what we have done, what there is to worry about – and we should do our best to discount the contrary, doom-laden signals that come from inside us.

We may have grown up with the idea that so long as we are conscious, our minds will be working optimally. But mental illness teaches us a more complicated lesson: our higher faculties (those that give us access to reality) are extremely vulnerable and perilously prone to shut down under the sway of our emotional complexities – and to do so without telling us . We should strive to become thinkers who recognise when they are no longer able to think.

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