The Masterful Myth of Free Will

Part One: How I Spent My Winter Vacation.
So where have I been? Not been writing much, not been able to, that’s for sure. What happened?
By the time winter rolled around I had weaned myself completely off the Effexor. Effexor is not a bad drug, per se, but it was not the correct drug for me. I appreciated that it lifted me from the absolute dregs of depression, that it evened out my mood swings, that was awesome. The problem with the Effexor is that it made complacent with my depression. I knew things were not going well, but meh, I had a hard time caring about it.
Winter rolls around and I am completely off any meds at all. Let’s just take this moment to contemplate the idea of facing the holidays (and all the stressful nuggetry they entail) sans brain meds! I don’t even recommend that my healthy friends do this. Holidays should…nay MUST! be endured with some form of artificial fortification. To do otherwise is to mock the entire institution of holidays with the family! Suffice to say, things went from tolerable to not okay to entirely fucked in a few short weeks.
It happened mid December. The best way I can describe it is that my mind split into two parts. One mind was sick, very sick. That part of my brain was a whirlwind of anger, paranoia, hurt, suspicion, irritability and generalized craziness. While you might be tempted to say, “but, Heather, how is this different from normal?” and I would respond with a hearty, “suck it”. Seriously, though, it was pretty awful. My mind was thinking thoughts that I did not want to think, it was believing things that were completely untrue. My mind was suspicious of everything everyone said. The worst part of all this was that it was constant, it was uncontrollable and it was pervasive.
The other part of my mind stayed rational and mostly reacted in horror at the thoughts and ideas in the crazy part of my head. I was lucky, very very lucky. I imagine I was on a precipice looking over the edge at the abyss of mental illness and I almost fell. The fact that I managed to maintain that slice of rational mind is a miracle, nothing less. I stared into the face of true mental illness and it scared the holy hell out of me.
Unless you have experienced it, I’m not sure you can quite appreciate it. We tend to see our minds as an ineffable, unquantifiable part of our physical brains. We separate them, our brains are corporeal but our minds are non-corporeal. The mind is the essence of you. So what happens when your mind starts doing things that you don’t want it to do? How do you control the thing that you need to use to control itself…what? How do you use your mind to control your own mind and thoughts? What do you do when you cannot control your mind? What exactly does that mean about you?
There were so many horrid thoughts in my head, so many awful conclusions reached. It took a grand force of will during every interaction to not blow up at people, to not scream in anger, to not accuse people of secretly hating me, of conspiring against me. And even when I did limit my interactions with people these thoughts would not stop. They were like a hurricane in my skull, an unceasing force in my mind. At one point it got so bad that I found myself in the bathtub knocking my head against the edge of the tub. One good thump of the tub would give me 3 or 4 minutes of relief, would provide enough external stimulus to distract my from my mind.
My little slice of rational brain was screaming! I knew this wasn’t right, I knew this was unhealthy. Most importantly, however, I knew that I could lose that slice of rational brain. I told people, I called for help. I was losing this battle and I was sinking fast. And help was what I got. We bumped my therapy up to twice a week, I got a couple county social workers (which is a completely different post), my friends and family grabbed me by my hair and pulled me to the surface and they held me aloft until I was able to tread on my own.
What is free will? What does it mean if the choices you make are tainted by depression? mental illness? poor ‘wiring’ in the brain? The fact that the small slice of rational brain remained is the exception, not the rule. It was wholly terrifying to see how easy it was for my mind to become that black and oily snakepit. If I’d lost that bit of rational brain and fell off the edge there, would I still be operating within the parameters of ‘free will’? How free is your will? how many of the things you choose or act on or react to every day are truly free will? How many of your emotions and reactions are free and how many are the result of baser instinct? or brain chemistry?
The thing that scared me the most was knowing that if I lost that bit of rational brain I’d never know it, that there would be no way to recognize the loss of rational mind without the rational mind there to analyze the situation.
The good news is that I climbed out of that morass. I survived. I got new meds, I’m taking Nortriptyline and it’s working. It is really truly working. It is like a vice grip of fog has been removed from my brain. I went to therapy twice a week as needed and as the fog lifted I was able to bring it back down to once a week. I’m calling this ‘My Cautiously Optimistic Phase” as it’s true that I am feeling good but I know that it might be temporary, that it’s not enough to just want to feel better.
And while this won’t mean much to most people, it will mean something to those who have been close to me during this crisis: I cleaned my kitchen.