The Scars in our Brains

Coping with mental illness and how understanding the 'broken brain' concept can help you set more reasonable and attainable expectations.

Disclosure: This post is written with the permission and approval of my husband to help shine a light on mental health issues and those who struggle. Please see the end of this post for final details.

A couple of years ago, Brandon and I read a book about struggling with mental illness and the impact mental illness can have on beloved friends and family members. Neither of us can remember the name of the book but we do remember an analogy referenced in the introduction; the author of the book wrote about a “broken brain.” 

During the paragraph about the “broken brain” the author wrote about a person with a broken arm. He asked the reader,

“Would you ask a person with a broken arm to do push-ups? Would you ask them to carry heavy packages or to be responsible for walking a dog? Would you insist that they at least try or yell at them if they tried and failed? No. You wouldn’t do those things because you can see that the person with the broken arm is incapable of performing those tasks. With your own two eyes you can see the injury and you know that their body is not capable of doing the things you want them to do. Because you’re able to see the injury you offer understanding and empathy for their situation and you set more reasonable expectations.”

He then continued on to discuss the “broken brain” concept of mental illness and how a person struggling with a mental illness (depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc) has an injury as well but because it’s not visible to the naked eye society doesn’t offer the same kind of understanding and empathy.

Reading those words convicted our hearts in a big way because we both struggle, at various times, with our own mental health issues. I tend to struggle with low self-worth (which I’ve previously spoken about at length) and anger while my husband struggles with a combination of depression, anxiety, and melancholy disorder (which you can read about in detail here).

MDD is a significant mental health condition characterized by persistent and intense feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The disorder can affect many areas of life, including work, school, and relationships. It may also impact mood and behavior as well as various physical functions, such as appetite and sleep. People with MDD often lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and have trouble getting through the day. Occasionally, they may also feel as if life isn’t worth living.

That analogy helped us to understand the times that we put too much pressure on each other to do things we simply are not capable of doing at that moment. It didn’t matter if it was something as simple as walking the dogs or as complicated as taking a week-long vacation with my family. In those moments, at that time, we simply are not capable of doing it. It didn’t matter that we wanted to do them, the “broken brain” wouldn’t let us. This tends to be a result of anxiety attacks or bouts of deep depression more than any other, but it was an important thing for us to note. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to do the things that need to be done.

It also helped us see that people aren’t being deliberately callous or disconnected when we mention melancholy, self-loathing, depression, or anxiety. It is just often something people don’t understand because they can’t see or touch it. The analogy is important to us now because it has become something we can fall back on when we need to explain how we are feeling to someone else. 

and it’s hard…

People don’t realize how hard it is to cope and to even get to a point where you feel like you’re functioning even semi-normally when depression, anxiety, or melancholy strikes. I speak to those directly because I know how much it affects me to see Brandon be trapped inside his own head during the times that depression or anxiety come upon him.

The problems that we struggle with are especially hard because we never know when it’s going to strike, who it’s going to affect, what plans are going to change, and how the people in our lives are going to respond. The uncertainty around everything only makes it worse because it can lead to feeling horrible over letting people down, thinking that everyone would be better off if we weren’t around to disappoint them, then down to suicidal thoughts and even deeper depression.

It’s a vicious cycle.

During the years we’ve been together, mental health struggles have caused us to travel up to 8+ hours only to turn around when we reach our destination and head home, cancel trips and vacations on less than 12 hours notice, cancel plans with family and friends at the last minute, have huge fights at home for no reason whatsoever, and more than a couple of days when it’s felt impossible to get out of bed to face the world. 

Together, we’ve had appointments with therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. We’ve tried different prescriptions, different coping techniques, various meditations and calming exercises, and other activities. If it’s out there as a potential coping mechanism or treatment, we’ve tried it. Some work better than others but nothing is perfect or a “cure.” 

It’s muddy, ugly, and definitely not fun…

It’s ugly and it’s challenging but it’s also raw and real-life.

I’ve had people tell me, “That must be so hard, you know you could get a divorce.” I’m sure that Brandon has had people tell him the same. It infuriates me! A divorce? How dare someone suggest a divorce over struggles with mental health. You could never file for divorce from someone struggling with cancer/major illness or from someone who suffered severe injury without being immediately labeled a social pariah who abandoned a loved one in need. Why is it any different when someone has a mental health issue? It’s abandonment, plain and simple, and it’s cruel.

I know I have my own issues and I own them (for the most part). I know I have severe self-loathing and a tendency to explosive anger. I am overly-sensitive and I’m quick to extremes. I have issues to work on but there is a lot of good in me too. It’s just a struggle to get to the point where you believe that the good about you outweighs the bad. 

My husband is the same way. Despite his struggles, he is unbelievably kind, compassionate, sensitive, loyal, and honest. He understands the struggles and challenges that people face (some more visible than others) and he’s always the last to judge anyone or pass negativity. He’s generous (sometimes to a fault) and he’s always willing to give someone a second, third, fourth, fifth, etc chance (again, sometimes to a fault) and I believe we need more people with his type of kindness.

His sensitivity toward others and his understanding of another person’s challenges is a perfect balance to myself (because, as I said, I can be impatient and quick to judgement). His own struggles have helped him to see and accept the imperfections of others and love them anyway. 

Brandon LaMar at Roswell Mill Park

but most days are beautiful…

Despite the struggles, most days are beautiful and fun. Some days I feel fabulous and able to conquer the world. Other days I feel like the worst human alive and wish I would just fall off the face of the planet. Brandon is similar in a way. He has his own struggles but, unlike my darkness which can be all-consuming, the darkness that sometimes threatens to swallow him whole is the same darkness that allows him to see the beauty and the light in others. He believes in the underdog, he’s a warrior for the abused, and he’s an advocate for anyone in need.

I can tell you that no one is without a friend if Brandon or I are around. We are always friendly and we’re quick with a joke to make you laugh. Brandon especially is deeply devoted to his family and friends and is always more concerned about others than himself. He is great at impressions, can recall even the tiniest of details from books / movies / events, and is a constant source of encouragement. He’s fun to be around when he’s not lost in darkness and we have a ton of ‘inside jokes’ that can keep us roaring with laughter for hours on end.

In short, we are best friends and perfect partners but there are also these demons that sometimes grabs one of us by the throat and won’t let go.

People who struggle with mental health need people to understand that being mentally ill doesn’t mean they are “crazy”. It doesn’t mean they are insane, crazy, incompetent, threatening, or selfish people. It means that they have a “broken brain” and they need help, understanding, and encouragement while they figure out what kind of therapy they need to help them overcome and heal. A broken arm can wear a cast, go to physical therapy, and recover often with no lasting problems or symptoms. A broken brain isn’t so lucky. There are no x-rays to see the wound, no cast to hold everything together, no therapy with clear measurable goals, and recovery isn’t guaranteed. 

It’s all trial and error until you (hopefully) find something that works.

Ashley LaMar at Roswell Mill Park

Why share all of this today?

I’m sharing all of this today because things are changing around FBL and I needed to be sure you all understood why. I’ve complained before about curated Instagram feeds and blogs that present this Pinterest perfect life when, for a lot of us, that’s just not true. It’s not authentic (there’s that buzzword!) and it’s not real.

Sure, most of our days are good, beautiful, and bright but they aren’t all that way. Sometimes the days are full of dirty dishes, unwashed laundry, and a house that smells like wet dog. Sometimes the days are full of dark clouds, tons of tears, and crippling anxiety. Trying to present life as anything more than flawed is untrue and I don’t want to fall down the blogging rabbit hole of fake backgrounds and a perfect (fake) life. 

We (Brandon and I) have talked a lot over the last few months about using this platform I’ve built as a way of sharing the truth about living with mental illness and how that affects marriage, family, and life in general. Some days everything is coming up roses and other days it’s a swampy murky mess; but, that’s real.

Moving forward, Brandon is going to be joining me here at FBL as a co-blogger and co-owner (all posts written by him will indicate his author box at the bottom). He’s going to be joining me to share the other side of our lives. His POV on life, marriage, and the struggles that come with mental health concerns (including insight into his good and bad days, the things that trigger his MDD, coping mechanism or exercises that help). Of course, I’ll still be here as well sharing the same content I always have and opening up about my own bad days and the struggles that come with them. We all know that the stigma around mental health concerns has to stop and the only way it stops is by learning to be open and honest about it. I hope you all stick around but I understand if this new direction isn’t for you.

When I first mentioned the ideas of all of this and the idea of Brandon joining me here at FBL he said, “I don’t know. There are so many scars in our brains and no one wants to read about that. It will only destroy what you’ve built.” The thing is though, FBL was always meant to be a reflection of our lives but if we hide the messy parts we might as well hide it all. I don’t want to hide any of it anymore. If being honest about our lives (scars and all) destroys what I’ve built, then so be it. I love my husband, I love our life, and I want to share it with you, all of it.

Ashley LaMar
Ashley bounces between Atlanta, GA + Charleston, WV with her husband and two small dogs for life and work. If she’s not writing or blogging, she can usually be found cooking, reading, or watching baseball. Follow her on Twitter @ashleyfromfbl

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  1. I think it’s awesome that you two are doing this together and being authentic. I also fully believe in complete wholeness and restoration and it being achieved through the journey of growing deeper in who you are in Christ, and giving the body the supplements it needs to regrow healthy tissue and repair itself. His promises for you both is a full whole life with nothing missing, nothing lacking, nothing broken. Perhaps you were meant to go the journey to help bring others along it with you to their place of wholeness ❤️

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    • Thanks Christina! We’ve said something similar in the past. It’s really incredible how God brings the right people together at the right time. I often feel like I don’t necessarily have everything I want but I always have enough and that’s what matters. <3

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  2. You two are so strong and have such beautiful souls. I know it’s so hard to open up, about any bad/ugly part of our lives — but it’s what makes us, us. I had a hard time opening up about our infertility struggles, but I have met amazing women and helped some along the way. I know this will be just that for you two as well.
    God brought y’all together for a reason and I truly believe you two are meant for each other, from the little I’ve read about y’all.

    I can’t even begin to believe that people automatically think that divorce is a way out of it. It’s cruel!

    So happy to cheer you guys on, along this journey!
    xo, Lily
    Beauty With Lily

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    • Thanks Lily! I understand how hard it is to share openly about infertility. It’s such a hard struggle and while I’ve found that a lot of women empathize, if they haven’t had to struggle through it, they don’t really “get” it. I hope 2017 brings a lot of baby dust your way and ours (and to a few other close friends).

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