On madness, pills, and schizophrenia or “the meaning of life”

Lines; Rio de Janeiro, 2014. Photo by Ana Clara Otoni.

I never thought about the meaning of life until I was 25. I was in Ipanema watching the sunset by Post 9 when someone pointed out to the infinite curious line between the ocean and the sky. “No one knows where one starts and where the other ends”, they said.

Now, looking back, I think the same thing about the line that defines life. And no, this post is not about abortion and pro-life movements (although, I’m pro-abortion and defend the right of women to choose what happens to their bodies). This post is about the infinite curious line between madness and sanity.

One of Tim Ferriss’ newsletters quoted the book Autumn, by Karl Ove Knausgård:

“What makes life worth living? No child asks itself that question. To children, life is self-evident. Life goes without saying: whether it is good or bad makes no difference. This is because children don’t see the world, don’t observe the world, don’t contemplate the world, but are so deeply immersed in the world that they don’t distinguish between it and their own selves. Not until … a distance appears between what they are and what the world is, does the question arise: what makes life worth living?”

I have a friend who always jokes that all my conversations have an anthropological background. He might be right. Ever since that evening on the beach in Rio, I started to see the world differently. As the invisible straight line between the ocean and clouds somehow (by the waves and wind — maybe?) became my own personal learning curve.

When I started to question myself about life and its meaning, a part of me decided to navigate the world differently. The future became something that I had to be actively engaged in building. I had to have a job that would pay the bills and sustain my dreams. I had to cultivate a relationship that would blossom into a family. All my decision-making process in the present was affected by my idea of what the future would look like.

Instead of a bright successful future, this concept brought me anxiety. And when I say anxiety I mean panic attacks, social fear, self-doubt and lots of moments of “not worth living” thoughts.

And that’s why Knausgård quote stuck with me. When maturing most of us tend to see the world through the lenses of responsibility.

Work, Bills, Marriage, Mortgage, Children, Bills, Bills, and More Bills.

A never-ending line of commitments that easily tangle, and soon enough you see yourself trapped into a boring life with, again, lots of moments of “not worth living” thoughts.

It’s only when we give meaning to things that they become important or a category in our minds. If we didn’t give meaning to life we most likely would simply exist, just as animals and plants do. Almost as if, the opportunity cost of being a Sapien is to live and not simply exist.

And by living, I mean “talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, f*cking, crying, drinking, riding, winning, losing, cheating, kissing, thinking, dreaming”. This might be exactly what we would do if we were still looking at the world through the eyes of a child. Instead, as grown-ups, we add stress to every single action of ours.

That’s why I couldn’t be very active back here, or here, and what ended up as a long break from blogging.

I had a panic attack for the first time in February of 2018, a bit before Valentine’s Day.

I was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, by myself.

It was a terrifying experience. Traumatic.

It’s not that I didn’t have anyone to call, I just knew no one could help. The numbness in my cheeks and the difficulty breathing gave me the impression I was having a stroke and was going to die. Maybe because it reminded me of my Mom’s brain aneurysm episode that I witnessed at the age of 14. She didn’t die, but she stayed in the hospital for over a month and lost movement of her left side for a while.

Back at the hospital, when I described to the doctor what I felt he told me:

— You had a panic attack. There’s no pill I can give you to fix this. You know exactly what you have to do, don’t you?

Yes, I knew. The treatment involved taking my life back. Having control of my own time and schedule, surrounding myself with like-minded people, and letting go of my past. It would have been easier if they had given me a pill, right?

Hmmm…not really. That’s what happened to my grandma. She was diagnosed with depression 35 years ago and since then she takes all sorts of pills to make her “feel better”. All they end up doing is prolong her feeling of numbness. She spends most of her days in bed and needs help with all of her daily activities, such as eating and showering. It’s common to see my grandma crying and moaning about her life decisions. She says there’s something inside of her that she wishes she could grab by the throat and get rid of it.

A couple of months ago, the doctors diagnosed my grandma with schizophrenia. She is 83 and has been taking medication since she was 49!

After doing some research, I learned that schizophrenia is “a long-term type of mental disorder that involves the breakdown of the relationships between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, that leads to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships, and then into fantasy, delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation”.

Xodó; My grandma and I, 2014. Photo by Ana Clara Otoni.

Turns out this illness is caused by an imbalance of dopamine in the brain. Yes, dopamine, “the hormone of pleasure”. I learned that dopamine is the hormone the brain releases when we eat food that we crave or while we have sex. My grandma might have developed schizophrenia because her depression was treated primarily by giving her artificial doses of this chemical.

My Mom and I believe that my grandma’s depression started in her 40’s after she had her uterus removed arbitrarily. The type of thing that happens in Brazil’s health system, and was overlooked for a long time.

Long-story-short: my grandma was submitted to surgery to remove a benign tumor in the wall of the uterus and was advised by the doctor that there would be no need to remove her uterus if the tumor was small. After the surgery, he informed my mom that he had removed my grandma’s uterus. My mom asked if the tumor was big, and he said: “not really, but I decided to remove her uterus anyway”.

Now, imagine what it was like for her to have the organ that allows her to generate life to be removed from her at a considerably young age. My grandma was a simple, cheerful woman with a positive attitude about life, always cracking jokes and making sure her lipstick was on point, although she doesn’t have much education. My grandma only finished school up to the 4th grade and had no idea that not having a uterus meant no periods, no more children, and an avalanche of hormonal imbalances.

Losing her uterus was losing part of who she was. The once joyful woman became a moaning, unhappy lady who to this day swallows pills with no belief that they would make her feel better. Throughout the years she tried a couple therapy sessions, but never had the patience to continue or didn’t find a professional who could address her traumas effectively.

I was raised by my grandma, so it was only natural that I thought about her when I had a panic attack. It was clear to me that I had a mental issue that was taking control of my body’s health and I wanted to make sure I would address it in a more effective way that my grandma did.

Connecting dots; Laguna Beach, CA, 2018. Photo by Ana Clara Otoni.

The times we live in are certainly different from my grandma’s. The advancement of technology has brought us a plethora of new problems, but it’s also created a broad space for the exchange of creative ideas and innovative solutions. During my personal search for an alternative treatment for depression and anxiety, I came to the conclusion that I needed a holistic approach.

I remembered getting a notification from the Headspace app saying:

Work-life, social life, personal life…doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing…there is only one life

Little by little, I started developing my own treatment that combined a series of things such as:

  1. Exercising with a community (I joined the Long Beach Running Club);
  2. Journaling with a purpose (I would write about things I wanted for my future in the past tense, as if it had already happened);
  3. Meditation (Headspace helped me to develop a quiet-time routine);
  4. Mindful eating (I did a six-month coaching program with a nutritionist that taught me how to listen to my body. I’ll discuss more in another post);
  5. Taking breaks (I love planning things, even when it comes to “fun time”. My best friend and my husband have been helping me with this one! I still have a hard time not looking at the clock even when I’m on my “time off”);
  6. Therapy (I’m still searching for a good therapist after a few sessions here and there with some professionals. I’m afraid that, like my grandma, I need to be patient and persistent with that);
  7. Dedicating time to people I love (No matter what, every single day I talk to someone I love, usually a friend in Brazil, my Mom or my sister. I especially enjoy reaching out to people I haven’t connected with in a while);
  8. Improving a skill (My ultimate goal is to make a living as a writer, so I decided to craft my writing by joining a Toastmasters club for writers);
  9. Making time to read (I absolutely love reading and I love books! I often read at least a chapter of a book every night before bed. It’s a great exercise to wind down);
  10. Searching for my spirituality (This one is under development. It goes from taking dark showers, attending different cults, temples, and churches, carrying crystals, saging my house, practicing tea-meditation…)
Happiness; Long Beach, CA, 2019. Photo by Ana Clara Otoni.

Looking back to my grandma’s story and my own mental issues, I see how fine and connected the lines are between sanity and madness. We can reflect upon life and ponder the future, and we will always have our past experiences within us. These ideas and thoughts shape our behaviors and can lead us to dive into a beautiful journey or sink deep into our fears. We can reflect light or we can project darkness. It’s a choice.

For some, there would have to be a reason, a purpose, to swim.

For others, the idea of survival would be enough motivation.

I decided that I won’t ever find balance. I will never know where the line dividing the sky and the ocean exists. I will simply accept the infinite possibilities that it gives to me every time I’m “talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, f*cking, crying, drinking, riding, winning, losing, cheating, kissing, thinking, dreaming”.

It’s good to be here — now.

Odarize-se diariamente! Become Odara daily!

Journalist. Sustainability, Social Justice & Gender Equality. Becoming Odara daily. Passionate about life, sexuality & wine. Mugs lover.