Amanda “Hodg” Hodgman: On Mental Health

Amanda “Hodg” Hodgman and I talked on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in mid August. Given that the topic was Mental Health I could have talked with her for hours, but there were dinner plans looming and it was important to keep the conversation moving to get through the 20 questions I had prepared.

After a brief chat about The Pixies tune “Where is my mind”in the movie “Fight Club” and my morbid wish to be able to make soap out of my own fat, we had this illuminating conversation. I appreciate how open she was about her experience with Mental Health, therapy, medication and her mind in general.

TG: What do you feel is your overall relationship with your mind? When did you first become aware of this? 

AH: That’s a great question. My relationship with my mind…So many times I feel like I am at war with my mind. I feel like my brain is trying to kill me, sometimes literally.

TG: Do you get tingling sensations in your head or anything?
AH: I get a couple of weird different ones actually. If I am waking up naturally sometimes I get a buzz in the back of my brain stem and other times, it’s related to the SSRI’s I think, but “brain shocks” I get those.
TG: Do you call them anything in particular?
AH: Brain shocks.
TG:Have you ever heard them called “Zaps”
AH: Yes.
 
TG: I’ve heard it referred to as both, but would you describe your mind as a “child” or a “monkey?”
AH: I automatically think monkey, without analysis I might disagree further but my first thought when you said that was, that I was in a hostel and somebody played this personality game with us and he said “Okay, tell me an animal…”
TG: Giraffe
AH:Okay,tell me another animal.
TG: Zebra
AH: And  another one
TG: Elephant
AH: Okay, so the first animal is what you want to be.
TG: Okay.
The Second one is what people see you as.
TG: Oh, damn!
AH: And the third one is what you really are.
TG: An elephant, but that’s good luck right?
AH:And they are so intelligent and social and lovely.
TG: Where was this hostel?
AH: In Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia.
TG: I’m going to have to look up how to spell that. 
AH: My animals the first one I said was a fox, because, of course, I want to be a fox. The second one I said was a loon, which I grew up in Maine so lots of Loons, you know. And then the third one that I said was a monkey. So when I get right down to it I am a monkey.
TG: Monkey’s are good luck too.
AH: They are. They’re a mischief too.
TG: They are, they really are…
 
TG: What were you diagnosed as having and how do you feel it affects your day-to-day experience?  
AH: I was diagnosed originally with just depression when I was 19. And it was something I have known for ages. I feel like I grew up depressed. I think my entire life I was mentally ill, and when I first went to get psychiatric help I had been very adverse to medication but then I did [take medication] and they said depression and there was anxiety thrown around too.
And then, at one point I dated a man who was Bipolar Type 1 with delusions. Very interesting to me, I did some research and that is when I learned about Bipolar Type 2, and then I was like “God that sounds like me.” And he was like “no you’re not Bi-polar,” so I (said) “fine, whatever…”  and then I came back and realized I had had manic episodes, and so I basically went to a psychiatrist in Chicago when I came back having decided that I was almost certainly actually Bipolar 2. So I went there and I described the situation and she was like “yeah, sounds like a textbook case.” So it was very satisfying in a way because it was something I’ve known, somewhere for a long time and that finally, this was not just me being insane.
TG: Or that there’s something wrong with you because you’re not navigating the world the same way that everyone else is.
AH: Yes.
 
TG: Bernie Sanders said there needs to be a Mental Health Revolution in this country and I believe that he is right. I want to be a part of the Revolution and hope you do too. What do you think the Revolution will look like with regard to how we care for people who are experiencing mental health issues?
AH: Well, we need to actually first invest money back into the mental health system. Having closed 6 Mental Health Centers in Chicago alone, under Rahm. So having the actual resources available is crucial but beyond that I think that it needs, and in some ways in some communities it already is this way, but it should be a very social endeavour. The problem with that though, is that so many people who do need help become isolated. So having that social element doesn’t reach everybody.
I think we are kind of reaching a stage where apps have become something that can actually be beneficial to people. They have text suicide support hotlines, things like this.
There’s got to be more awareness. They say 3% of people in the U.S. are Bipolar. The number of people with Mental Illness is huge and yet we aren’t willing to keep these people out of prison. It’s terrible.
There we go, decriminalize poverty. Decriminalize mental illness. Stop making money and budgeting municipal budgets off of police income, because it’s causing these types of people to become targeted and institutionalized and eventually becoming even more desperate.
TG: In “The Principles of Uncertainty” Maira Kalman asks “What is the difference between thinking and feeling? And if you had to give up one which would it be?”
AH: I feel like emotion is first and thought is second in the human experience of something and they are beyond that point entangled. There’s a song lyric I really like that says you “can’t change the feeling, but you can change the feeling about the feeling.”
TG: You can’t change the feeling, but you can change the feeling about the feeling…
AH:  “in a second or two uhhaha…” – Silver Jews.
TG: Yes! Okay. I’ve never listened to a lot of Silver Jews but I know what they mean.
AH:  So it’s that sort of interplay between the two. If I had to give up one… I don’t know. That’s hard. I feel like I already kind of eschew feelings in some ways because I feel everything so fucking strongly. Everything is intense and so I try not to be that way. That said there is something desperately lacking without feeling.
TG: That’s so true. Yes. Okay…
AH: I would say probably, God! Would I  really do without thinking? Yeah, I think I would, I do without thinking.
TG: Yeah, because I feel like feeling is our super power, you know? 
AH: That’s good.
 
TG: What is your take on the purpose of going to see a therapist or counselor?
AH: I’ve had different reasons for going at different times. Sometimes it’s been trying to learn different coping strategies for example, to get advice like what is something that I can do to help when I have these recurrent negative thoughts. And Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one time I went was because of that. The first time I went was because I had no idea; I knew I hadn’t grown up in a great situation and that I had a lot biologically that was going on too. And just being under so much stress at school that it was just trying to keep my head above water. To have somebody to check in on me basically. At this point now, my current therapist, I was talking [with her] about these feelings of  resentment that I have toward certain people in my life and she was like
“that’s why we talk about this in here, so you don’t need to talk about this with them, because you don’t need to live in the past with them.” It’s so hard because I do dwell and it’s difficult.
TG: That and then, it’s also my first instinct to talk about it. Talk about whatever the fuck is in the air. You know what I mean?
AH: Yes, I do I’m the same way.
TG: I feel like communicating about things is, it sounds so hippy-dippy, but it’s the first step to healing is communicating about it. 
AH:I feel like I grew up in a situation where there was no real communication and so I would see my mother lie. Not big lies, but just…
TG: Little white lies. 
AH: Yeah because she didn’t want to upset people or because she made a mistake or was wrong and could not admit that that was true.
TG: And she had been conditioned to think “I gotta get out of this.”
AH: Yeah, I have to be right a 100% of the time. So for me it was hard because for a long time  I was convinced, “Oh you can’t be wrong. You can’t be wrong.” Then I was around somebody that couldn’t be wrong and was like “that was the fucking worst.” Then I just embraced it. All of a sudden I was like 19 or 20 and I embraced being wrong.
TG: It’s kind of like James Dyson says “wrong thinking leads to progress,” you know. 
AH: Yeah.
TG:That’s that old saying of “thinking outside of the box.”
AH: Yeah.
 
TG: What was your first experience with therapy like?
AH: My first experience I hardly remember, I went once to visit somebody who was a psychiatrist to prescribe me something and then after that I went to a therapist who was like…
TG: Was it talk therapy?
AH: Yes, and I don’t remember it at all really but I do  remember that I started dating someone who was a professor’s son, who had friends all around town and the best therapist in the town was their family friend. So they got me into see her and she was great. Very motherly and I felt totally welcome. My then partner was also seeing her so we actually signed agreements that she could acknowledge that she knew both of us essentially. It was funny that we had to do that. But it was really a good experience. I don’t think I had any prejudice against therapy, I definitely had more prejudice against medication than therapy.
 
TG: What do you feel is the greatest result you’ve gained from undergoing the process of therapy? The greatest gain that you’ve made is what I should say…
AH: I think, in the past, learning how to talk back to my own thoughts. Basically, I’ve had three therapists the second one was the first time I lived in Chicago and he was great. He was giving me that kind of feedback like “You think this way, and  you feel this way but by all objective reasoning it’s not even close to true. And in these moments you need to remind yourself of that. Think about what would this other person say. Would you say this to the other person. Do you think they are that much better than you?” And so that was huge. I think what I’m doing now, is trying to move to a place of forgiveness for certain things in my past. So, not being so Goddamn sad when I think about certain things.
 TG: I hear you…
TG: Alright, let’s shift gears. Do you take medication?
AH: Yeah, at the moment I take Lithium and Lamictal.
TG: What do you feel the medication does for your mind?
AH: Lithium just kind of evens things out a little. It doesn’t really feel like it is doing much, because you can’t feel anything, mostly because it helps you to feel more normal. It does not help me from being really emotional really easily, but the depths are not there and the mania. It’s mostly against the mania quite honestly. And the Lamictal, I needed an antidepressant in combination with the Lithium. I was on Citalopram for like a decade and I was on it when I was on the Lithium and she [my doctor] said you’ve got to stop that. I got down to a really really low dose and it was terrible. It got really bad and so she started me on  something else. That was when I was on Seroquel for a week and it was the fucking the worst. The worst, worst, worst.
I had asked for Lamictal before that too because I read and knew what I wanted to try and eventually I got what I wanted and it does it’s job. My baseline is good except when I am PMSing. And then there’s like four days where I am back in old depression land. I used to live there for months at a time so four days a month while it’s still kind of awful, it’s not as bad as it could be.
 
TG: So you kind of touched on it, but the stigma! Do you think people have misconceptions about mental health issues because you can’t see them? For example, if you broke your arm people might be more sympathetic but if you say that you are experiencing anxiety it is a whole other story.
AH: Yeah. Definitely. There have been a number of times where I had to just not do anything because I was not well, and that’s not something that you see. If I am in a really bad place I can’t hide it, it’s  pretty clear on my face and so if you’re there and you know me you’re probably like “oh this is going on.” But if it’s just some random person they are probably like “man this bitch looks like she wants to punch me in the face , what did I do?”  It’s just like,  “no, it’s my own face I want to punch.”
 
TG: Have you ever seen “Powers of 10” by Charles and Ray Eames? 
AH: The first time was in high school with my physics professor.
TG: It is a great resource for gaining perspective. And so, when you are experiencing “dis-ease” how do you gain perspective?
AH: Hmmm…
TG: You mentioned self talk. You talk to yourself sometimes. I do that a lot.
AH: I’m just trying to think of one of the specific things that I think to try to take me back to. I think a lot of people try to be like “oh, well it could be worse in this way, this way and that way.” And that’s never made me feel better, that’s never worked for me.
 
TG: Do you think people have the ability to change their thoughts in a fashion similar to going to a different website or app on the internet? So you just click a new thought. Do you think people have the ability to change their thoughts that way? 
AH: I’m not sure I understand.
TG: So you know when you’re navigating the internet and you are on a website and you are like “ah I’m bored of this” so you close something and Google something else right? Do you think people have the ability to change their thoughts the same way they navigate the internet?
AH: Sometimes, sometimes I am totally capable of doing that and other times I get stuck and that’s not possible.
TG: Do you believe in a distinct contrast between positive and negative thought? Can either be present a 100% of the time? 
AH: Yes to the first and no to the second. I feel like positive thoughts to me, are an opening and negative thoughts are a closing. While they can exist simultaneously, there’s usually one of them is the more general feeling.
TG: Can either be present 100% of the time?
AH: No.
 
TG: See, this was supposed to be number 6. What is your view on the current landscape of mental health care in the U.S.? I’ll just copy and paste this…
AH: I think it’s sad. I think there’s maybe three major problems like I said before; where there are more mentally ill people in prisons than there are in mental institutions, over half of the prison population is classified as mentally ill.
I think also there are issues with pharmaceutical sales reps pushing medications for off label purposes. I think  that the medical community has issues with money influencing prescribing as opposed to the actual benefits of the drugs themselves.
TG: And number three?
AH: And number three I think is that there needs to be that real community outreach and the ability to get help when you need it. Because I know in Chicago if you don’t have insurance; when I first got back here the first time around  like 2005 I tried to go to the doctor and they put me on a 6 month waiting list. By the time 6 months came around I didn’t qualify anymore because I had a job. It is incredibly difficult to get help when you need it outside of going to the emergency room so you see people coming in an costing tens of thousands of dollars because there’s no place left for them to go and so that place needs to exist.
 
TG: I think we reached our twenty questions. Oh wait, no. How do you feel this interview went?
AH: Great, I could do it twice over.
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