School House Rock: The Mental Health Edition


Do you remember School House Rock?


Of course you do. We watched them in elementary school, on the mornings our teachers were too hung over to even. We hummed their tunes when we took our tests. Ole Bill on Capital Hill and Adverbs for sale at Lolly’s shop. Electricity! Electricity! 


We remember School House Rock, the characters and the songs, because they were really effective helpers in the construction of our educational foundation. They laid the bricks upon which we would later conduct chemistry experiments and political debates, algebraic equations and finely tuned prose, and they shaped our brain in a way, making it flexible for new concepts, critical to anything that didn’t hold water.


I thought about these videos today and my educational history in general, as I was trying to remember what basic building blocks I had been given for handling emotional health. What tips. What tunes. In what ways was I prepared to grow into an adult with sensitive feelings and ragey feelings and so much worry in a world that would often smack the shit out of me.


And then it dawned on me: I had been given the bare min.


Now, that’s not a referendum on what I was taught, in the home or in the school, I think this deficit is fairly universal. We learned it was okay to be sad, but never about what it might mean if we were sad for a very long time. We learned to be careful, but not what it meant if we found ourselves always living on edge, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always bracing ourselves behind a certain belief that everything was about to go boom.


I think about it now,  what it would’ve meant if I had been shown the brain for what it is- a vast network of highways, a billion neurotransmitters speeding along them, the whole thing wild and fast and out of our control. 

In my episode, we might talk about the neurotransmitter. We might talk about this little lightning messenger that sometimes smashes into the guard rails or arrives at the wrong place or time, a clumsy little thing with the power of sending glitches throughout the entire system. Nothing to worry about, the narrator would say. This happens. It’s normal.

However, the narrator would continue ominously, if this keeps happening, if this becomes a pattern, it might mean there is an issue with the routing and the structure, it might mean the whole network is compromised. And at this declaration of doom, a soft-faced angel named Calm would float into the foreground like a savior.  She’d speak in metaphors we could understand, in a voice we could trust. She’d begin by letting us know that even though this is your brain and your own authored thoughts, it is not necessarily your fault. It’s a cocktail of things. Genetics. The weather. Past hurt. Hardwiring. It is a collision of so many factors beyond your control.

Calm would say, You know how you get a stomach ache? Well, sometimes your brain has problems, too. But instead of an ache, sometimes get a tight chest, or a rapid heartbeat, or an abrupt flood of tears for no reason. It’s going to be okay, she’d say. This happens. It’s normal. And like a tummy ache, it too will get better. There are ways to overcome it.


Perhaps we’d see her in a scene on the steps leading up to the almond-shaped building that is our Amygdala- the house of our emotions and our survival instincts. A breathless neurotransmitter named Ned would come bursting out its’ doors, flying down the steps, hands in the air and eyes bulging and screaming at the top of his lungs. Calm would step in his path.


“Where are you going?” She’d ask.


Ned would nearly jump out of his skin, because he’s a cell infused with fear and then he’d double over, panting. “Trouble. Trouble. Ben is in trouble!”


“Is he?”


“Yes,” says Ned, “It’s real bad. Real bad. He didn’t sleep last night and we’ve been researching about death-related-insomnia and it’s not looking good. The sun is going down. I need to warn him. I need to remind him that if he doesn’t sleep he’s going to die.”


“Are you sure? You seem a little anxious Ned.”


“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.” Ned doesn’t blink. “This is protocol. This is what we’ve been trained to do. To warn. To prepare. To get ready.”


“But only in the face of real danger, right?” Calm says. She then sits down on the steps and gestures to the seat next to her. Ned sits down.


“Ned, you are a vital cell to this whole operation. You are so important. Only you can hear the buzz of a swarm of bees, cautioning Ben back on the path. Only you can smell smoke, even as Ben sleeps, and shake him awake and out of the house, pants or no pants. (Ned erupts in laughter.)


“But if you approach the world as if it’s full of bees and always on fire, you’ll steal the life from Ben. You will not be thwarting danger. You will be the cause of it.”


“But I have to warn-“


“If you do, his heart rate will spike. His breaths will shorten. Cortisol and adrenaline will flood his system, making it impossible for him to sleep.”


Ned would nod, “okay. Okay. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” And then he would make one last launch to get out of Calm’s reach, because anxious neurotransmitters can never be reasoned with- but Calm would catch him by the heel and slam like a rag doll against the stone steps and kill him dead.


And the camera would zoom in on her soft face, deep ocean eyes, and she’d say:


You’re going to be okay. Trust me. I got this. 


31 Days of the Brain


image credit

I remember when I read it. I was in the basement in my bedroom with the lights off in the middle of a summer day, because that what I did that summer.

I don’t remember what website it was, but my gut tells me it was some kind of chat room, the author an anonymous commenter replying to a worried questioner. And I remember how worried I was, that summer. I was standing at something of an impasse. A moment of decision. 

On my desk next to my laptop was my first batch of antidepressants and I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know if I could twist off the top and pop them in my mouth and not feel like a failure. So I just looked at them. Suspiciously. Waiting for the right answer to come.

During the summer following my freshman year of college I collapsed into depression. I had such deep anxiety that I developed insomnia, and what I learned quickly about insomnia is that it is best friends with depression and anxiety. Insomnia is to mental health what an earthquake is to a tsunami. Everything goes Boom. First to go was my energy and then my humor about it, next my personality and my forced smiled and my weak grip on things, and at some point I went under. The darkness matted over every single moment.

And so I wound up in my bed at night wondering when insomnia would finally kill me, and if it mattered if it killed me. I wondered if God was getting any of my messages or if he existed or if he loved me at all.

Raised to look at things first through a spiritual lens, I considered myself spiritually sick. I believed depression was a disease of my soul. And so for help, I turned to my emotionally healthy Christian friends to see what they thought of my antidepressants, if they thought I should take them, if they thought it was wrong to. 

They said I was right. This was a sickness of the soul. To try to turn to anything else, like meds, was like turning to a golden calf idol. “God’s love should be enough…” they said quietly. “Keep praying. Keep studying scripture. What if God is just waiting for you to quit smoking so you can feel the fullness of his love? Try that, see if it helps.”

And like most good Christians, they had testimonies to back it up. They told me about friends who God rescued out of grief. They told me about friends who went insane after taking antidepressants. They tried to give me hope, but I got trauma instead.

So, there I sat, in front of the terrifying open sea of the internet and I typed in my questions. I asked if it was okay with God that I take antidepressants. I asked if antidepressants make you crazy. And this is what I remember reading:

“The amount of sunlight you get in a day affects the chemical balance in your brain.”

Just a fact. Just information. Hardly the kind of quote you write on your bathroom mirror. In retrospect, it’s sort of strange how teary it made me.

But I think it’s because the writer wrote about depression and anxiety in a language I had never heard before. She opened the door into the world of the brain. She went on to discuss the inner workings of our minds, how malleable they are, how imbalanced they can become, how depression and anxiety require more than a DIY response. They require a whole new vocabulary. They are chemical: serotonin and dopamine and noradrenaline. They are genetic, passed on through our parents and grandparents. They are real ailments with physiological roots and they do not spring up because of a bad prayer life or a cynical attitude or some deep seed of moral depravity. They are illnesses and they need to be known as such. They need to be understood if they are to be helped, and simply understanding that as I sat there alone and cold in the basement demystified the mystery, diffused the fear.


I could breathe.


I popped in a pill and made a promise to myself keep doing the work and to reject the shame. This, I told myself, is an illness, not a failure.


As a Christian, I have been fascinated by the brain, how it works and how it goes wrong, how it all informs our experience of faith. As someone who has been companion to those that have walked these dark hallways, as someone who has gone mad in these dark hallways myself, I know how important it is to understand our wiring. I know how damaging it can be when we misidentify, misplace blame, tell a different story than the truthful one. When we are talking about matters of the mind, we are talking about matters of the heart and soul, and I believe only the truth will set these parts of us free.

This month is #Write31, a project for bloggers to publish something every day for thirty one days on one subject. I’ve barely written thirty-one words in the last month, and so to snap me out my apathy and get me back into the super fun discipline of brutal writing for public consumption, I have signed up.

And I’m going to talk about the Brain. Because I can. Because it fascinates me. Because I think it’s important to talk about.

I’m going to talk about mental health, yes, but I also want to talk about disequilibrium, the magical thing that happens when we learn something new or unlearn something we once believed. I want to explore the power of our mindset and the way we see the world, the way we reason and the reasons why. I want to talk about nature versus nurture, fight or flight, how our memory works, what concussions do. I want to talk about our intellect and our anger, and God’s hand in it all. There’s a good chance it’s going to be random.

I’m leaving this whole thing wide open for me. It’s a little scary, a little strange. I’ve never done anything like this before and I’ll be up front and say I already have one foot out the door, because the BRAIN, and because FALL IS BUSY, but I hope I can succeed in this little writing challenge. And I hope you’ll walk along with me.