Brain Diseases are Real Diseases

Brain Diseases are Real Diseases

You know how it seems like every month is something month? Like, last month was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, March was Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month? May is both Brain Tumor Awareness Month, and Mental Health Awareness Month. I'm sure this wasn't exactly planned, but I think it's meaningful that these two awarenesses are overlapping.

Back before Mike was diagnosed with glioblastoma, I thought I was a pretty aware mental health advocate. After all, by then I was a survivor of a suicide attempt, self-harm, and all kinds of depression. My family had always been plagued with mental illness, from schizophrenia to anxiety to substance abuse. I believed in the importance of therapy, and in medicating chemical imbalances in people's brains.

I *thought* I was aware.

I also thought I was aware of brain tumors. I'd been told on three occasions, by three separate doctors, that I had a brain tumor. I thought I knew what the hell I was talking about when it came to both of those issues.

And I was dead wrong.

Living with a brain tumor is not at all like it's made to look like in the movies, and oh my god does Hollywood love to depict brain tumors. Phenomenon, The Green Mile, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Good Wife... I can't tell you how often Mike and I have watched a movie or show and seen a character get sick and then sighed and groaned when, yet again, it's a brain tumor.


And it's never accurate. It's never done right. But it's done better than mental illness.

Before Mike got sick, I thought that it was "awareness" to accept that people had mental illnesses, that those illnesses were not their fault, and that they could be treated or even cured. What I did not understand was how thoroughly sick a mentally ill brain can be.

It's not just behaviors, behaviors are symptoms. Just as seizures and paralysis are symptoms of what's happening in a brain with a tumor, mania, obsessive compulsions, intrusive thoughts, suicidal ideation.. these are not the illness. They are not personality quirks, they are not a difficult personality. They are not laziness or weakness. These are the symptoms of an illness.


The more I learn about trauma, the more I understand this. The electrical structures of the human brain are changed by trauma. There are now blood tests doctors can use to look for markers of depression. It's only so hard to see these diseases as real, as diseases and not some sort of personal failing, because the way the brain exhibits these symptoms isn't visible. The most visible symptom of Mike's tumor has always been his limp, but there's nothing wrong with his leg. The most visible symptom of my depression has always been my self-loathing, but that's not my personality. I am not a self-loathing person, self-loathing isn't my identity. But it doesn't look like the symptoms we associate with illnesses. We can't measure it with a thermometer, we can't see hives erupting on a patient's skin. We can't see anything but the influences on behavior, and we always want to believe behavior is a choice.

When you're living in the direct aftermath trauma, much of your behavior isn't a choice, it's your brain responding on instinct. When your brain is in the grips of depression, a lot of your personal behavior isn't a choice, either. Executive dysfunction isn't a choice, exhaustion isn't a choice, indecision isn't a choice. These behaviors are the symptoms of a brain grabbling with actual, structural changes.


The doctor who misdiagnosed my husband with a pinched nerve instead of a brain tumor saw a symptom in his leg, and thought, "Leg problem." When most people see a symptom in a loved one's behavior, they don't think "mental illness," they think, "Having a shitty day," or worse, "Asshole." And those things aren't necessarily wrong. I'm sure most people who have trouble in one of their legs when they start up a new sport do have problems like pinched nerves, and most people who show up to work one day unable to laugh at their coworker's jokes or finish a task on time are just having a shitty day. But not always. Sometimes, a shitty day is a sick brain lashing out. Sometimes, a leg that won't move as fast as you think it should is a brain tumor.

So this month, don't think about mental health and brain tumors the way they're so often depicted in the media. Think about your brain, instead, this amazingly complicated part of you that is an organ like any other, but is also what controls everything your body does. It is the self-regulating creator of your personality, ideas, preferences, quirks, tastes, sense of humor... It tells your heart to beat, it tells your muscles to contract and relax, it tells your lungs to breathe.  And its diseases, whether caused chemically as in mental illness, structurally as in trauma and injury, or organically as with tumors, are as real and complex as the diseases of any other part of your body.

Be kind to yourself, and be kind to others. You are not your diseases.

And you can treat them without redefining who it is to be you.


Read more about treating the diseases of the brain here: Why We Laugh in the Brain Trauma Unit

Read my most recent post here: Speaking for the Freedom to Opt Out of Fertility

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