On Mental Health, Sandwich Generation

Mental Pathways

When I started seeing my psychiatrist again pre-Covid, he talked a lot with me about alcohol.

Let me back up – I don’t know if I ever explained why I’m seeing him regularly and not any of my previous therapists. It’s because the ones that have helped with specific problems…grief, old emotional traumas, etc…aren’t as good for me with just general well-being. And weirdly, even though I only see him in 20-minute increments a few times a year (depending on the year) he seems to remember more about my whole self in a way that really helps when I’m plagued with general despair unrelated to a specific trigger.

ANYWAY…he knew to ask me that first visit back when I had been experiencing a big downturn during the pandemic…”How much are you drinking?” Now…if you’ll recall I had already started cutting back which he was happy to hear because I have a history of alcoholism in my family so I need to be always watching for an instinct to cope with any negative feelings with drinking.

But we also talked about how I connect “having a beer” with “having a bad day” in my head. So…even as I’m down to one beer night before bed, he cautioned me about using the narrative in my head, Ugggg…this has been a rough day…I can’t wait for that beer.

He said keeping down to one beer a night is great to prevent physical addiction and to minimize the depressive effects of alcohol on a depressed person. But he insisted it was also important to build a good relationship with that one beer a night and not look at it as a relief at the end of a long day. He basically said something like, “When you suffer from anxiety and depression, you’re going to often have bad days and you don’t want your brain to think that beer will solve that because then the road to increasing that quantity is a smooth and easy one to travel.”

If you’ve worked on mental health in reading or with doctors/therapists you’ve probably heard the pathway metaphor. That our brain builds these connections that become easy, like paths in a forest worn down after repeated use. And it takes awhile to build new ones, or to let the undergrowth over take the old ones. And that’s what he’s worried about, that this is a pathway I need to re-examine. Which I agreed with because I definitely proved how smooth that path is by how quickly I jumped to drinking 3 beers a night at the beginning of the pandemic. It was like, “TOO MANY TOO HARD DAYS MEANS MORE BEER.”

All of this is to bring me to Friday. My Mom got hospitalized and it was chaotic to say the least. The hospital website said I could be there with her now so she went willingly, but it turns out they had changed the rules again and didn’t reflect it on the website so Mom was really upset to have to be there alone again and I was very frustrated not being directly involved with her care as I understand what questions to ask and I keep good track of her medical history.

She’s still there, by the way, it’s been a long weekend of disagreeing doctors and frustration but basically she’s losing blood and so she’ll be getting some scopes either today or tomorrow . There’s a constant flux in the information she’s giving me which WE COULD SOLVE IF I COULD JUST BE UP THERE AND ASK THE QUESTIONS MYSELF. DAMN YOU COVID.

But…back to Friday. I was packing my stuff to stay at her place with her dog and I was considering grabbing one of my beers to take with me and I remembered what my doc said about disconnecting that Bad Day/Need Beer path in my brain. AND SO I LEFT THE BEER. I left it Saturday night too. Now, I did end up taking one Xanax last night but still…NO BEER. And the path in my brain that says: Bad Day/Need Rx is a suitable path since that’s the point of the meds and I only take my Xanax like once a week…tops…so my brain has already set the healthy boundaries of where my anxiety needs to be to resort to Xanax.

So…a weekend of my Mom in the hospital and I didn’t drink my nightly beer any night. I think that’s probably some excellent work in letting that pathway get overgrown if you ask me!

Now I just need to work on the pathway in my brain that connects, “Bad Day/Need Ice Cream” because that’s not what you would call a healthy replacement path to travel. But for now? I’m giving myself grace. No food is evil and if ice cream helps me while my Mom is in the hospital then I’m not shaming myself on that.

3 thoughts on “Mental Pathways”

  1. I think it’s so awesome that you share all these thoughts with the world. It is so important to share what we have learned! Someone who may not have access to mental health care may have just stumbled on this post and learned a few things.
    Good for you for leaving that old path. Your description inspires me to incorporate photos of paths (both well worn, over grown and new) into my meditation space. Thanks!

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