I came across a video sometime back of Liza Koshy, a YouTuber, where she talks about her mental health. She says that a friend of hers opened up about his OCD, prompting her to bare her soul to him with regard to her social anxiety. This made them connect even more.
“Now we actually have a code name whenever I’m feeling anxious or whenever he’s having his thoughts. It’s called Tiffany, it’s just like, “Hey, Tiffany’s here, she’s freaking here man.” It feels good to be able to label something and put it away in your brain rather than let it become your entire brain in itself.”
That video reminded me of how easy it is to be defined by our mental illnesses. This is is mainly due to the fact that the brain is arguably the most important organ in the body. It plays a role in almost every system in our bodies including organizing and interpreting sensory information, coordinating visual and verbal memory, coordinating movement of our limbs, regulating body temperature just to name a few. When we have an illness that affects our brain, it’s not surprising that we tend to think that there is a fundamental flaw in our being. This is because our brain is basically everything to us. But are we our brains?
John Green’s ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ really opened my eyes to what people with mental illnesses go through. The main character, Aza, suffers from OCD which means that it is incredibly difficult for her to control her thoughts. She has re-occurring thoughts which she refers to as thought spirals. “The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.”
She also says, “But the scary thing is not turning and turning in the gyre, it’s turning and turning in the tightening gyre. It’s getting sucked in a whirlpool that shrinks and shrinks your world until you’re just spinning without moving, stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you’re not actually in a prison cell, you are the prison cell.”
Her thought spirals grated me unendingly. I remember reading the book in a bus and I was so engrossed in it that I forgot to alight at my stop. I was thinking of how hard it must be for those who have OCD. That book built my empathy. After reading it, I didn’t ever want to hear anyone say that they are OCD just because they happen to be clean/neat freaks.
Taking medicine for her condition often conflicted Aza. “There is something intensely weird and upsetting about the notion that you can only become yourself by ingesting a medication that changes yourself.”
I used to think that we are our minds until I read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’. He made me realize that we give the brain more credit than it deserves. We never say that we circulate blood because the process just naturally occurs. Why then do we say that we think when thoughts just naturally occur to our brain? C.S. Lewis puts it even better when he says that thoughts are accidental by-products of the brain. That’s why sometimes you may find completely horrendous and utterly disgusting thoughts occurring to you making you you act quickly to push them away while wondering how in the world you are able to think of such things.
That is why I believe that we are not our brains and that mental illnesses do not define us any more than physical illnesses do. When you’ve broken your arm, you never let that make you feel like everything is wrong with you because you know very well that you are much more than that arm. Of course you’ll feel bad, and the broken arm may help identify you when you are in a group of people but it ends there. You don’t let it define you. It’s just a physical condition. In the same way, being mentally ill does not mean that there is a fundamental flaw in your whole being. It’s just an illness. Period. You can choose to give it a name just like Liza Koshy did so that you are consistently reminded that you are not your mental illness.
“But what I want to know is, is there a you independent of circumstances? Is there a way-down-deep me who is an actual, real person, the same person if she has money or not, the same person if she has a boyfriend or not, the same if she has a boyfriend or not, the same if she goes to this school or that school? Or am I only a set of circumstances?” – Aza (Turtles All The Way Down, JOHN GREEN)
Yes there is. There is a you independent of circumstances. 🙂