When the Internal Monologue Goes Rogue: My Interpretation of 'The Insidious Whisper'
In this series of posts I will give you my interpretation of my painting 'The Insidious Whisper'. If you would like to watch them in video form then click below:
The internal monologue: it can be defined as thinking in words. It's the voice that you have in your head all the time as you think about things. (This is not the same as hearing other voices in your head, which is an auditory hallucination common in people with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.) It's your own voice, and you use it to solve problems, reflect on what has happened during your day, dream about your next holiday or ruminate on the likely success of Doncaster Rovers in the upcoming season. Well, you do if you're me.
As an aside, if I think in English and someone who predominantly speaks French thinks in French, how do dogs think?
In general, the internal monologue works just fine. It has its problems: you may be critical of yourself for how you handled a certain situation, you may be concerned about an operation you are about to have, or it may tell you not to go out in a certain dress because it looks horrendous. The latter is not from personal experience. Honestly!
These thoughts are just part of everyday life.
But what would happen if an illness could take control of the internal monologue? What if it did so without you noticing and the thoughts were passed off as your own, like a crafty thought-changing ninja? And what if the sole aim of the illness was to put thoughts into your head that drag you down into despair and lead you to self-destruction?
It sounds like something from a 1950s B-Movie (Attack of the Mutant Thought-Changers From Hell, perhaps?). But for me it's very real.
And it's called depression.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is regularly used to treat depression and it focuses on spotting, questioning and turning these negative thoughts around. So I guess it's not just me that's suffered from this rogue internal monologue.
My problem was that for over ten years I didn't even know that there was anything wrong with my internal monologue. I considered all of my thoughts to be normal, yes they were negative, but normal. It's only from reading about depression that I learned that this was all part of the illness. A huge part.
If you've never experienced this and you would like to get an idea of how bad this can be, imagine sitting in a small room with someone whose opinion you value. Then they start talking:
"I can't believe you did that at work today. You really are terrible at your job. It's only a matter of time until your boss realises that you're a fraud and sacks you. Your friends at work will all be talking about you behind your back too. They're not really your friends anyway. They just talk to you so that they can have a good laugh about you later. Can you remember when your best friend told you that they couldn't go out with you because of family commitments? Do you really think that's true? He looked a bit shifty when he said it. He's trying to dump you. Get rid of him first. You don't like him that much anyway. Why would someone popular like him hang around with a talentless loser like you anyway? You're a nasty weak spiteful creature. Okay, you may have visited your granddad in hospital every other day this week, but that's just to stop you from feeling guilty. You're not doing it because there is any goodness in you. It's all for appearances. No-one likes you. How could they? Everyone around you would be better off without you. Much better off. You're worthless. Oh, and by the way, you're ugly. And smelly"
I know I ended on a moment of levity but the serious stuff goes on for every waking hour of every single day.
The depression takes any occurrence and twists it. Take the example above of the best friend with family commitments: is there any story that would explain his shifty look? Maybe he was having marital difficulties, or he couldn't afford to go out due to gambling debts, or possibly he had to visit a specialist clinic because of an unfortunate infestation. There are lots of reasons, but depression jumps at a chance to put you down: it's because your friend doesn't want to spend time with you.
Everything that the depression puts forward as a fact is taken at face value and believed. Then vicious circles set in. You behave differently towards your best friend and as a consequence, he backs off a little, unsure of what he's done. This is more fuel for the depression. And it goes on and on.
You may think that once you are aware that depression can do this to the internal monologue, it would be dead easy to ignore what it says and carry on with your life in a happy carefree manner.
CBT works on the idea that you can examine a single negative thought and try to turn it around. Let's take this statement as an example again, 'My best friend wants to get rid of me'. I would ask myself how much I believed in the statement. Let's say 90%. Ah, then what's in that other 10%! What makes me think it's not true? And then I could come up with a list of alternatives that fit the facts, as I did above. This would then modify how much I believed the statement, maybe to 60%.
But what happens if I believe it 100%?
Where can you go from there? You could come up with alternatives but I wouldn't believe them in the slightest. When I have depression, everything becomes very black and white ("shades of grey are for people who can't make their minds up").
And more disturbingly, what happens if I want to believe the depression?
The illness actually made me predisposed to sink lower, to actually want to go further down. After all, I was worthless and deserved to be miserable. Yes, it was another vicious circle.
So how do you tackle something like that? I've been free of any major episodes of depression for four years, and in part I put this down to leaving teaching, but there are changes I've made to the way I think too. I find it easier to spot these thoughts now and because I know of my black and white tendency, I work even harder to question the thoughts and get rid of them. Sometimes I will have sad thoughts and that's fine. It's when I start to beat myself up that I have to be careful. And if I catch myself trying to become depressed, I try to do something about it quickly: go for some exercise, do a hobby or talk about it.
I'm well aware that despite my best efforts, I may become depressed again. But this time I'd go straight to the doctors and get help. No messing about. If I had a chest infection, I would go. So why not for another illness? In the past, I thought I should be able to beat the depression on my own, that it was a weakness of the mind, so I wouldn't take any tablets for it or go for any kind of counselling. Those were weak options. But now I know depression for what it is: an illness. I wouldn't put the people around me through that nightmare again just to satisfy my own pride. I'd seek medical help.
All well and good, but how does this fit in with 'The Insidious Whisper', a painting of a scabby looking giant with a concrete well for a face? That will have to wait for next time...
For Part 2, Click Here.