I’ve watched every episode of The IT Crowd at least three times, and there are still occasions when someone will come to me with a problem and I feel like an automated machine, clicking over a reel of tape and saying, in bored tones: Have you tried turning it off and on again?
Here’s the thing about the human brain that you are somehow not taught to manage at school: a huge part of your brain is off-limits from your conscious mind. There’s the bit that floods your body with pleasure and, when sick, makes you feel depressed and helpless. There’s the bit that developed to save monkey ancestors from lions, which freaks out when faced with situations that it perceives to be dangerous and gives you no say in the matter – I usually refer to that bit as your ‘lizard brain’.
My lizard brain is the reason there is one Sainsbury’s in south London I can’t walk through without having a meltdown. It’s the reason I can’t watch My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, listen to Bridge Over Troubled Waters or handle the noise of car alarms going off. My lizard brain is the reason I hate choker necklaces and the Tate Modern.
It is irrational in a lot of ways, but it’s pretty simple in others. The reason I have predictable reactions when any of those stimuli come up is because I’ve reacted badly to them before, and my subconscious has stamped each of them with an enormous DO NOT WANT.
My issue is that as I progress further along this mental health journey, more and more places, people and things are going to make me panic. I can’t control when panic attacks are going to happen, and that means they could pop up at literally any time, ruining some important aspect of my life because Lizard Brain now associates it with bad. In the past few weeks, my subconscious has added throw pillows, drying dishes and laptop bags to its hotlist, and I’m generally pretty attached to all of those things, so something needs to give.
I can’t let it get to the stage where work makes me panic (no judgement, though, I know it’s impossible for it not to for a lot of people). I need to be able to commute, and go grocery shopping, and make my doctor’s appointments.
My solution is one lifted straight out of The IT Crowd and is a particular favourite of my Welshman: I try turning my brain off, then on again.
My method of choice is simply going home. By home, I mean my parents’ house, about an hour out of London. I grew up a British expatriate overseas, and ‘home’ was always a blurry concept for me, but my parents have been where they are now for over ten years and I finally feel as though I have roots. The older I get, in fact, the more that the idea of moving out of the city and into their hometown, where I know the culture and the best bridle paths, is appealing.
I go home, usually after a hard week at work. I get picked up by my dad, who will be playing something jazzy or avant-garde on his iPod and will use the 10-minute drive from the station to bring me up to speed on the price of cassava in Nigeria or the current state of the cat’s health. I’ll stand in the kitchen and listen to all the news I’ve missed, have new additions to the house pointed out to me.
I’ll be fed, and offered every beverage known to humankind, and will sleep in ironed bedsheets. The cat will be indifferent to my return. My mother will get misty-eyed. I’ll play my dad’s guitar, take a shower that gives my hair that not-London-water shine, and peacefully mediate the bizarre arguments my parents get into.
After the weekend, I’ll go back to the city, and my mind will be that little bit clearer.
Of course, it’s not always practical to up-wheels and run away, nor always advisable. Sometimes, you have to stay and see things through.
In those situations, my hard-reset button will be something smaller. Leaving the room, for starters, or going outside for a bit. Washing my face, going to get a coffee, having a full day on the sofa.
I’ll try turning it off, then on again. If that doesn’t work, I can try something else. It’s a learning process, trying to figure out what will help, when and to what extent.
The knack is to keep trying, and not to get discouraged when your schemes for self-improvement don’t work. As I’ve said before, what you’re doing is hard. Cut yourself some slack, take a deep breath, and let me know how you’re getting on.
With love, always,
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