Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Ghosts in the Narration Machine

 I’ve had a lot of therapy over the last few years. Like, a lot a lot of therapy. Four days a week, 50 weeks out of the year, Mecha-Freud lasering holes in the old brain box. Good experience. Highly recommended.

One of the cool parts about it was learning how my brain processes information. While the catalyst for starting was severe depression / suicidal thinking – from the time I was a pre-teen I had hundreds of intrusive thoughts every day, usually associated with hanging myself or some other mode of casting off my mortal coil (I promise the rest of the piece isn’t this dark; I’m just providing context that this wasn’t a generic case of being glum) – after a few months, my psychiatrist casually mentioned that she didn’t think I was depressed at all; rather, I had subconsciously used the intrusive thoughts to build an identity around being a depressed person. That I was essentially choosing to be depressed.

That really pissed me off. The idea that I would happily opt in to the kms lifestyle as some sort of choice was bizarre and I was big mad. I thought about quitting or finding a new therapist, but the notion of starting over was not terrifically appealing. So, I expressed my dissatisfaction at her customer service over the next few sessions, and we moved on.

Inception is a dangerous thing, though, even without sweet special effects and Tom Hardy. For the first time, I began to see my “thoughts” and my “self” as separate things. Prior to that, I was my thoughts and my thoughts were me – bad thoughts, bad person. Now, there was a … space, I guess, between the processes my brain did on its own and who I was as a conscious agent.

To go all trope up in here, the brain is a computer operating system, conducting background functions so applications – the conscious self in this case – can successfully run on top of it. They’re co-dependent, in that the applications would be unable to process all the inputs/outputs the operating system takes care of and the operating system would be pretty uninteresting to most people if there were no applications to run on it. But while applications are affected by the performance of the operating system, in most cases they can still run reasonably well even if the operating system is glitchy.

And I had a pretty glitchy operating system. It associated all sorts of things that I did/was/thought – all with the most profoundly negative interpretation possible - with who I was as person. The, whatever it is, that created my internal personal narrative was a filthy liar. Of course, prior to therapy, I had no idea any of this was happening and, left totally unchecked, my brain made for a pretty shit operational environment for my conscious experience. To paraphrase the great Mr. Meeseeks, existence was pain. Which brings us to Gopher football!

For most of my life I have been a rabid supporter of Gopher athletics. I wear Gopher gear most days, I’d post on all the message boards, I’d watch replays endlessly on YouTube, I blog(ged) about the Gophers, and would more or less plan my entire life around the football schedule. A big part of my identity – how I saw myself and how I perceived others saw me - was tied up in how the Gopher football team fared.

Of course, we weren’t very good for much of that time and, during the Wacker and Brew years, we were a lot worse than that. When we lost, which was often, and particularly if we lost to Wisconsin, which was an annual rite of sacrifice for half of my adult life, I was inconsolable for days. The ultimately meaningless losses of [INSERT PREFERRED SPORTS TEAM] manifested as despondency and hopelessness in my real life. I was the team, and their very public feats of ineptitude weren’t just a reflection on me; I was somehow personally responsible for that year-old, open can of salmon baking in a hot car.

We Gopher (and Vikings, Twins, Wild, and Wolves) fans often joke about the fact we’re in an abusive relationship with our teams, in that we love them and they always cause us nothing but misery. For me, this was absolutely true; only the pain was from an unhealthy relationship with my brain rather than a poor performance by my squad. The Gophers failures were just a heuristic for my glitchy operating system to interpret itself. Appreciate you, narrator!

This mindset only resolved after my psychiatrist challenged me over the state of my depression. I can’t change most of my operating system. That stuff is just biologically hard coded. You can push at it around the edges with therapy, medication, exercise, and meditation but reprogramming it is like training your eyes to see a basketball when you’re looking at a dumpster. And in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. My brain’s default state is inwardly focused and hyper creative. I have a very, uh, rich inner experience, which has been critical in my schooling and work; when not appropriately occupied, though, it creates a lot of catastrophic fiction where I am the main character. It definitely has its downside, but it’s mostly a fun and useful partner to have around.

I think the thrust of my therapist’s challenge was the degree to which I was anchored to the distorted reality conveyed by my glitchy brain. I really was depressed, but I was in that state because I let an unreliable narrator tell my story to me. I can’t stop that narrator from telling the story; but, now that I know a choice exists, I can opt to give it a lot less power than I used to. And that’s changed my relationship with everything in my life for the better.

Including Gopher football. I wrapped up therapy in 2019 and, while I still care deeply, still wear Gopher gear most of the time, and still spend too much time on message boards, I keep our beloved rodents safely compartmentalized away from how I feel in real life. Sometimes it feels a bit muted - the lows after a loss aren’t nearly as bleak, while the highs after a win may be a little less frenzied than in the past – but I’m an Old now and that’s probably for the best, lest I stroke out during a game.

I will say, though, the brain compartment where the Gophers live is pretty fired up for this season. The narrator is telling me it’s the most complete team in my life and, while it may lack the star power of the 2019 team, is better across the board. It sees a January trip to Pasadena. Let’s hope it’s a reliable narrator for once.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I knew mental health was near and dear to your heart but didn’t know that it was a struggle for you.

    1. This is really, really excellent. Grateful to you for sharing your experience and some very vivid and handy conceptualizations. And thankful for your improved mental health. Long may it continue.