Thursday, May 14, 2009

Early Onset Signs of Mental Illness © Megan Snider

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

--Eliot (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")

In the literary practice of giving credit where credit is due, I present you with a list of signs of the early onset of mental illness (in what I presume to be children) pulled from the Dr. Phil site. Some of the symptoms I deleted for redundancy issues.

The list seems fairly descriptive and pretty fair-handed. Mental illness is manifest in children-- beyond a doubt. My early experiences with Panic Disorder as a child led me to believe that my mind was somehow irrevocably damaged. I spent years trying to understand why I had the sensations I had. So, without a doubt, mental illness is present in children; yes! The particular problem I have with this list is that just because it is proactive, does not mean it is preventative.

Early onset signs of mental illness have their roots in childhood. But mental illness does not explode until someone reaches his or her mid-twenties. By the mid-twenties we see things such as dramatic breakdown in thought, concentration, lack of hygiene, inability to leave the house, disordered thought and speech, inability to concentrate and a host of other severe problems.

You may be able to read this list as a person with mental facilities that seem "normal". You can skim the list and say, "uh huh", "yes", and "of course" to many of these symptoms. You may even postulate as to why they occur. Let me take you through this list, one by one, and help you identify possibly why or how you or someone you love might feel this way.

Please keep in mind as I share some of my own personal experiences and beliefs, that mental illness is not set and defined as a uniform condition; it is experienced by a variety of different people in a variety of different ways. In fact, if anyone cares to share his or her own experiences, I would be more than pleased to hear them.

The key to this list is not to take these emotions, reactions, and responses and judge them-- but rather to try to understand them and make some sort of half-step towards acceptance, empathy and acknowledgement.

Remember that one of the key insights applied to mental illness on the sufferer's part is a "lack of insight". This means that the person truly is genuinly unaware and unable to control the thoughts and compulsions running wild in their head. They are increasingly introspective, but lack the ability to understand what they are observing in their own minds.

It becomes more and more difficult to seperate the self from the problem as mental illness stretches its hold over the brain. Just like losing eyesight, the person is totally unaware of how distorted their veiw of the world has become until their are given a new perspective. Try to keep the blame off the victim and instead pin it to the disease.

Withdrawing from friends and family/ Preferring to be alone
The onset of mental illness is much like a clock lodged in your head stuck on the count-down until your death. You begin to see life not as what its potential is, but what its reality is. What is the reality for someone who is afraid to leave his or her house? What is the reality for someone who hears voices or sees unusual things? What is the reality for someone who is beginning to see all of their hopes and dreams slowly coming to anything but fruition?

In a way, mental illness could be considered mental death because functions deemed “normal” cease. With this cessation, all that is left is torment. Physically speaking, the body dies when the brain stops regulating functions. In mental illness, this death is not literal, but symbolic. Perhaps it is better to deem that the spirit dies; the upright house of the soul withers and is twisted up and carried off by the wind.

Once you lose your hope, your ability to cope, your function, structure and access to a happy life, you lose life itself and begin to barricade yourself from friends and family. Besides, what are their chances of understanding anyhow?

Appearing depressed/ Lack of Motivation or Concentration
If someone appears to be depressed, it is generally a pretty good indication that they are. Retardation of speech, motor skills, reactions and expenditure of great effort in relation to little tasks are all simple indicators of the beginning of a black depression—not laziness as some suggest.

Increased anxiety or agitation/Moodiness Mistrustfulness or suspiciousness

Imagine that you do have a mental illness and you know it. Apparently, talking about Paranoid Schizophrenia in application to this headline is another matter entirely. So, let’s nix that for now. Just imagine you are mentally ill and you know it.

You’re the person that is stereotypically running around hacking off heads in CSI episodes; you’re the one shown on television babbling and blinking and ticking uncontrollably. You think knowing might help a little, but instead it makes everything else so much more difficult. What will people you respect think of you? What will people you love think about you? How will employers react?

Changes in personal hygiene
Your life is doomed and you know it. All the things that happen to you are not coincidence; this is your life and you’re damned to live it. Next comes the options: Shall I still do my hair up the way others like it or shall I let it go? Shall I change my shirt or maybe my pants? Let’s face it, you don’t want to get out of bed anymore—you don’t even want to wake up again. But you do. You wake up. You wake up to no point and no purpose except mind-numbing fear and accusations of failure—no matter if they are real or imagined—they sting just as much. You are unattractive, unproductive, and unimportant. You are a throw-away citizen.

Emotions that do not fit the situation
There are a variety of things going on here. In manias people generally feel a heightened mood that exceeds regular euphoria and feel that they can do most anything. In clinical depression people generally have a flat affect, not necessarily remorseful—though it could be— but rather numb. I also recall that a flat affect is a sign of schizophrenia. A variety of mood disorders could be lurking behind the scene of this diagnosis.

Vague speech / Speech sometimes doesn't make sense
I cannot explain to you how hard it is to organize thoughts. These thoughts may lend themselves to creativity, of course, but to get a handle on them is quite another matter. Imagine constant thought—constant thought to the point of helplessness. Looping memories, ideas, expressions in a never-ending circle are constantly scraping through the ceiling and basement of your mind. Now, imagine trying to pick out a few of these and say them aloud.

Unusual ideas or beliefs/Unusual experiences
Again, I cannot stress enough the “lack of insight” idea. The way a mentally ill person perceives the world when held in light beside that of how a “normal” person does makes for a quite startling comparison. The world is much more unknown, misunderstood, and frightening. People begin to fit in this category as well. As the acceptance of mental illness slowly meanders into one’s brain, one becomes naturally horrified that everyone can see one’s mental illness made manifest. Every action taken, every word spoken, every movement began opens the sufferer up to a new world of self doubt and loathing. How will people respond?

There is this tugging notion that perhaps people can see through the ill person and experiences can become strange. What is more difficult to explain than psychosis or depersonalization or derealization? Try writing in your diary about dissociation. It can’t be done effectively enough. The experiences someone with mental illness describes will sound unusual and hard to fathom. If delusions creep in and distort the thinking, then the belief system the ill person begins to develop will also begin to bend and fold at the edges.

© Megan Snider

Sources cited:
Read Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (

The Sylvia Plath Effect © Megan Snider

“The blood jet is poetry and there is no stopping it.”
--Sylvia Plath

"Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy."
--Marshall Mcluhan

I wondered if I was just the sum of my brain scan, little dots clustered in my frontal lobe. Is that where the poems came from? The desire to destroy myself?
--Betsy Lerner

The Sylvia Plath effect is dear to my heart. That sounds like an odd thing to say. Nonetheless, it is true. The Sylvia Plath effect is basically the statement that female poets have a higher incident of mental disorders than their male counterparts. It is no known secret that writers and artists have been pushed over any ledges or edges in sight for centuries now by mental and mood disorders. I have also heard the notion that just the love of "clanging words" or rhyming words and a disposition to use them is a marker for Bipolar Disorder or at least a sign of Autism.

The territory encircling the arts is fraught with financial, marital, public, personal, and mental ruin. I've had arguments with people in college about what is at stake when you are gifted and step into this world. Being inside this little world itself is enough to unleash the demons of mental illness on you. It is a likelihood that if you did not get into the profession with a mental illness, then you will leave it with one. Also, in Plath's case, being married to Ted Hughes probably wasn't a huge help.

I have a great love for Plath. I am able to read her lines and pick up her diary and go through it (the parts that weren't omitted by Mr. Hughes) and completely sympathize with what she was writing. It's true that I'm not sure it what sense she means what she writes-- is it ironic? Is this literal?-- but the point that it's there in the first place makes her work all the more human. I can't say enough about Plath, so I won't. Instead, I'm going to do my best to break down this very interesting insight into the female poet and the world of the breakdown.

The Sylvia Plath effect was coined in 2001 by James C. Kaufman and suggests that creative writers are more vulnerable to mental illness. It goes on to top this claim by the asserting that, out of all classes of writers, female poets are afflicted the most. It may very well be typical to think of the male poet as being dragged down into the depths of a mental illness. I think that this stems from the fact that men are more likely to physically react to illness with successful suicides. Women are diagnosed with depression twice as often as men, but women do not top the suicide statistics.
Another thing is that writers are painfully introspective-- poets even more so. It may be taken as arrogance, perhaps not, but the poet is always looking inward and delving deeper. The creative writer, too, has a responsibility to examine the internal markers of emotional situations and capture and explore them on a blank page.
I hear that women tend to be more introspective than men. Who am I to say that this is true? There is certainly no shortage of male poets and creative writers, so I'm not going to make any hasty accusations. I will simply bring this point carefully to your attention. Women seem to spend a lot of time agonizing over internal affairs and matters tangled up in heart-strings and such; I am in no way trying to sound sexist, though. Both sexes are quite capable of thought and emotion.

I stumbled on this connection when I was in a poetry class myself and doing a great job of scaring other writers. The theory itself is pretty self-explanatory. There are arguments as to whether mental illness causes creativity or if mental illness is mistaken as genius and so on. I think that for this particular topic, I will keep my opinions concerning that to myself. They're not of importance.

What is important is that there are links popping up all over the place like scattered puzzle pieces saying, "Mental illness is this" or "Mental illness is that." The problem is that everyone reacts to a mental illness differently. One can be mentally ill and capable of the works of Plath; another may be mentally ill and incapable of tying two shoe laces together.

I feel personally that people can analyze and re-analyze and brand Plath all they want, but that they will never really get to the root of the matter. I don't think anyone will have an official diagnosis on her. As a diagnosis goes, it is not uncommon for one to metamorphosize into another over the course of a life span or for the original ruling to be false. It's nice to have names for things, of course, but it's not nice to have any name that fits plastered across your forehead every time a symptom shifts or a mood changes.

This is a topic I have been interested in for some time now, but the resources are a little sketchy. For one thing, Plath is hard to pin down-- for another, women poets of note are scare, under-rated and under-studied. It took me several years in college before I even began to touch the surface of female poetry and I loved poetry.

Below you will find a general citation of my sources employed. If you're a poet and you don't know it, maybe you should check out some of these links. (I'm sorry; I couldn't help it.)

© Megan Snider

Links of interest:

Or, if you are so inclined, a basic Google search might satiate your curiosity for the moment.

Complicating Issues © Megan Snider

"O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim"
---Keats ("Ode to a Nightingale")

There are many issues that can complicate "recovery" from mental illness. More than likely, a mental illness will be a life-long prognosis, unfortunately. On the other hand, there are things one can do for oneself to assure that one is taking appropriate care of oneself and may not have to suffer a devastating relapse. One of the most important issues, and one I'd like to touch on somewhat briefly, concerns the use of central nervous system depressants.

Central nervous system depressants are important for people with mental illnesses to avoid for a variety of serious reasons. The central nervous system is responsible for controlling higher brain functions such as breathing, heart rate, and thought while the lower brain controls things such as motor function, balance, and, interestingly enough, sleep. These seem to be mostly involuntary things, but unfortunately, I am no neurologist.

Specific dangers depend on what your diagnosis is and how your body reacts to the chemicals you put inside it. Some agents are already central nervous system depressants to begin with-- some of the most famous being benzodiazepines, certain tricyclic antidepressants, barbiturates used in seizure prevention, anti psychotics, and anticonvulsants like Neurontin which may also double as treatment for Panic Disorder as many other anticonvulsants do. Nonbenzodiazepines (among them Ambien), which are a string of new drugs that behave as benzodiazepines without being structurally related to them, are also included on this list. Please note that this is in no way a complete list.

The problem comes in with the fact that often the patient being treated for a mental disorder does not believe he or she is receiving adequate help. This assertion may very well be true for unless a patient can afford to be admitted into private care, the centers available to the public can be under staffed and met with a superfluous quota of patients, all of whom require serious help, whom can simply not all be treated effectively nor given enough individualized care.

Met with the options of hopelessness, genuine terror, and the feeling of an isolated, wasted, and doomed future, the patient may turn to self-medication in the hope of remedying his or her quality of life. And here is where the great danger dogs at the feet of a great temptation. The temporary, psychopharmaceutical Band-aids that have been hastily applied start to fray at the seams and slip off when a new rush of problems meets the patient head-first and he or she begins to turn to self-medication, administered oftentimes ruthlessly and frequently to dull the constant, roaring ache of a mental disorder.

Substance abuse, both in its legal and illegal form, may entail ingestion of central nervous system depressants depending on your drug of choice. Substances with the potential of being abused and acting as central nervous system depressants include alcohol, barbiturates, opioids, and, once again, benzodiazepines. As before, please note that this is in no way a complete list.

It is a general rule that when any psychopharmaceutical is administered, alcohol consumption is not generally advised simply because that alcohol is one of the most famous central nervous system depressants. The dark relationship between alcohol and mental illness stretches back centuries and has been explored countless times. From dealing with Major (Clinical) Depression to Panic Disorder, alcohol seems to be the drug of choice. My intent for this blog, however, is not to explore alcohol specifically, but to warn about the adverse effects of mixing too many central nervous system depressants. I assure you, I have much to say on that issue and many others, but the need to verify my information and explore my sources supersedes my desire to swan dive into a dangerous tirade against mixing alcohol with medicine.

Basically what happens when a person combines too many central nervous system depressants is, at first, the symptoms of being under the influence. This can be observed in Xanax overdoes as well as over-indulgence in alcohol. Drowsiness, a general numbness, perhaps an initial sense of well-being and a loosening of inhibitions all overtake the body and mind. As the amount of depressants are increased, the user begins to entrap him or herself in a dangerous state between life and death. What can begin as a rather pleasant experience, rapidly deteriorates into something dangerous. Respiration slows, heart rate plummets, and the user could fall into a coma which may be followed by death.

When one is cautioned not to mix depressants, it is for a good reason. The physical reasons alone should be scary enough, but there are more reasons to follow the advise of not piling depressant upon depressant such as rebound-anxiety, increased inducing of psychosis and an increase in disordered and confused thinking, to name a few. I will explore each of these in upcoming posts.

It is not my goal as a writer nor as a human being suffering which some of the aforementioned afflictions to be lazy or take a simplistic approach to my posts. Nothing about mental illness is simple and can be wished, waved or prayed away. Anyone suffering from a mental illness has probably tried one or all of these methods at some point in his or her life and can assure you that easy solutions and simple fixes are most certainly not the case.

If you would like to verify my sources or simply read more about these conditions, below I've provided some links with more information. Google searches are always helpful as well and I encourage anyone in treatment or dealing with someone in treatment to do firsthand, in-depth research into their particular diagnoses as well as mental illness itself.

The links:

Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" (Read it all at:

Personal Disclaimer

While I am documenting these posts as a writer, it is important to understand that I am also documenting them with personal experience and emotion tied to the issues I present. I will be frank about conditions from the point of the diagnosis (or, at least, by explaining what I can understand myself if I am unaffected by the particular ailment) and from the point of view of the diagnosed, as I have struggled through various situations myself for at least a decade now.

It has never been my intent to treat any of this lightly because I have seen my own problem treated lightly and I find it insulting, if not extremely insensitive. (I once had someone kindly suggest that I "pinch myself" when faced with depersonalization or derealization brought on by Panic Disorder. I'm not sure that "pinching oneself" would be an adequate course of treatment found in the DSM for treating dissociative features.)

© Megan Snider