by Jordan Brown
It wasn’t when they told me I needed to have heart surgery.
The change still didn’t occur when they told me I would need heart surgery within the next two months.
It didn’t even happen when I got home from the surgery, back in Montana, after the 16-hour drive from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Up until that point, I still felt that my brain was on my side, that it was a familiar friend that could be trusted.
The problems came afterward
About a week or two later, to be exact
I had fixated my mind on the physical recovery from the open-heart surgery I would need to replace my failing aortic valve.
During the month leading up to the surgery — and again during the first two weeks afterward — my mind was set on making the recovery as painless and successful as possible.
The doctors and nurses at the Mayo Clinic had given me clear instructions on how to physically care for myself for the months after surgery:
“No driving for a month. Sit in the back seat and let your girlfriend drive you places. You’ll have a chauffeur for a while. It’ll be fun. No heavy lifting. Don’t lift more than 15 pounds for the first month. Take it easy. Enjoy the time off.”
Simple enough, I thought.
For someone used to working nonstop and being as productive as possible, it felt nice to not have to worry about anything for a few weeks.
There was only one problem. I soon realized that the physical recovery was to be the least of my worries. In fact, it wasn’t until two weeks after the surgery that I realized something was seriously wrong.
It started with sudden feelings of intense shame
I was lying in bed reading a book when, abruptly, I was flooded with memories.
Thoughts of childhood, of my teenage years, of the time leading up to the age I currently was, 24 years old. I was about to turn 25, but my mind was sucked into the past.
Memories that had been submerged for years rose to the surface
They were, to me, in that moment, deeply embarrassing– thoughts of how I had failed, of all the bad things I had done. Whether objectively true or not, I felt like I was not worthy of love or attention.
I regretted mistakes that I had made in college, of people I had let down.
I relived these situations as if they were happening to me right at that moment — as if every single embarrassing, shameful misdeed was taking place in the room where I lay reading a book.
Something was happening to my mind. I didn’t feel like I had control over it
These thoughts continued over the next few days, and they soon transformed into something else. Something changed inside of me. It felt like a switch had been flipped in my brain. My thoughts became irrational and obsessive.
I tried to distract myself by reading a book or walking around the house (I still moved gingerly, as the scar from surgery that ran from my upper abdomen to the bottom of my neck was still healing). I tried anything to keep the bad thoughts away.
But I couldn’t shake these feelings.
I could actually feel a physical shift happen in my body. It felt like I had donned one of those weighted, impenetrable smocks that x-ray techs put over you before they take an x-ray. Except, this blanket wasn’t protective; it was suffocating.
And it started to get worse.
The fixation on my past mistakes — and the shame that it brought — was soon joined by waves of depression, one crashing into another tumbling over another.
As the days went by, the depression got worse. I felt miserable. I felt like a burden. I felt unlovable, and I felt like a failure. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
Looking back on it now, this was the point in my life that everything changed — when my mind became unfamiliar
It was the point when my mental health felt like it was outside of my control.
Putting aside the obvious — that having sudden open-heart surgery at the age of 24 could already be considered a momentous and traumatic occasion — something happened to my brain between the moment that the anesthesiologists put me under for the surgery and when I opened my eyes in the ICU several hours later.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the aftereffects of the physical trauma my body went through would pale in comparison to the ways the surgery affected my mind.
I want to set something straight. I know now that I have always had anxiety. I would get overwhelmingly anxious and riled up as a child. My parents tell me that I could fixate at length and ad nauseam.
In a positive sense, I was — and continue to be — intensely curious. But the darker side of that curiosity was a propensity to get lost in my thoughts, to worry about situations days in advance, to plan and prepare for every possible outcome.
The mental gymnastics I would play worked for a long time. It helped me excel in school, so I figured it could be applied to all areas of my life.
I thought it was the way that all people solved their problems, but it wasn’t working this time.
As the days of my recovery from heart surgery ticked by, I couldn’t think my way out of what was happening to me.
The depression became severe
I didn’t tell my then-girlfriend — and now-wife — when it was happening, but there were times, hours when she was away at work, that I cried on that bed. Outside, my body was healing according to plan, but inside, I felt horrible. I was humiliated by how I was feeling even though there was no one around to see my tears.
The depression was now linked to shame, and it would soon be linked to something else: anxiety.
My mind raced miles and miles around an endless loop, a racetrack and hamster wheel of emotions all wrapped up in one.
I also started to mindlessly pick at my skin, first on my back, and then on my face. Starting in puberty, I remember developing a nervous habit of picking at my back when I got anxious. But this was something else entirely.
It became relentless and automatic.
I’m not entirely sure what happened to me on a biological level, but of one thing I am certain.
Having heart surgery changed something in me. It altered the way my body works and manifested in mental health issues that continue to this day.
Over the next few years, several things helped me
1. I first reached out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to see how I could support a loved one dealing with a mental health crisis.
The NAMI Family-to-Family course I took helped me develop a newfound awareness of the impact of mental illness and concrete tools I could use to support my family member. But I ended up staying with the organization, later becoming a teacher and support group facilitator for NAMI, because of how they had helped me.
Attending NAMI meetings was my foray into the mental-health field. I think I used supporting a family member as a pretense for a way to help myself. My intention was pure at the time, but I think I was drawn into mental health work because I was searching for ways to heal myself.
Taking the Family-to-Family class with NAMI turned into teaching the course, then running a support group, and then making a conscious decision to leave a career in political advocacy to pursue a career in mental health.
I realized I had something to give back, a part of myself to share with others
2. As I healed my own emotional wounds, I learned that healed emotions can be the balm to soothe the emotional wounds so many others carry with them.
Approximately three years after my heart surgery, the depression finally went away. But the anxiety, the fixation, the overthinking, the mindless skin-picking — these all flare up from time to time. The symptoms of anxiety mirror the seasons of my stress, and I’ve grown to become mindful of that.
3. I’ve learned that overthinking and over-analyzing every possible solution to my problems is not the way to find peace and happiness.
I’ve realized I need meditation to ground myself and keep me balanced. I truly and deeply know that I need to put myself first before I can be there for others.
4. I started seeing a therapist shortly after my heart surgery, a practice I continue to this day.
Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you are broken. Absolutely anyone could benefit from working through and processing their struggles with a qualified professional. Seeking the counsel of an objective, an empathetic individual can help you to develop awareness that is often not possible to obtain by yourself.
Mental health issues exist on a continuum
We are all affected to some extent. How and why they become too much for any person at any given time can’t be easily explained, nor does it need a neat-and-tidy explanation to give a person’s mental health struggles validity.
What I know now is that my experiences, as painful as they were, were valid — and were necessary to get me to where I am today.
I will complete my graduate education in social work in five months. It’s formal education that I will add to my informal education, my lived experience with mental health issues.
If I’ve learned anything from no longer feeling like I can fully trust my brain, it’s this:
Life is a transformative journey with no clear path
When the road you walk upon falls away to a landscape of uprooted trees and boulder-sized impasses, it can be hard to find the good in life when everything seems so barren and ugly.
But beauty and joy do return — through acceptance, through greater awareness, and through a commitment to keep walking so that you can tell others where you’ve been.
Jordan is a mental health advocate in Richmond, VA who will graduate in May with a master’s degree in social work. He writes to inspire and educate about mental health issues at www.nerve10.com and is a Top Writer in Mental Health on Medium. He draws from his personal struggles and experience with mental health, and from his work and volunteer positions, to model for others how to move from feelings of instability and fear to a place of acceptance and advocacy. Over the last four years, Jordan has empowered youth, families, and school districts to embrace mental health by normalizing it and connecting it to their shared values.