DIY Brain Chemistry

I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

I don’t want to call it “research,” because looking up a bunch of studies isn’t really the same as designing an experiment or compiling a meta analysis, but it’s a lot of reading nonetheless.

See, for years, I’ve been trying to find ways to mitigate some Brain Things. It isn’t purely panic disorder, because there are some very evident physiological aspects to that aren’t really adequately explained by anxiety. It also isn’t purely physical, either.

The first doctor I ever discussed it with was my pediatrician. I was thirteen, had begun experiencing regular panic attacks, and my mother was tired of it.

“It’s anxiety,” he said. And that was it.

It went untreated for years — I was told it was all in my head, that the liver absorbs adrenaline in under a minute (lol what), and there was no reason for any panic attack to last longer than that. This left me with two things:

  1. A raging, untreated panic disorder.
  2. A diagnosis of anxiety.

Getting diagnosed with anxiety is a curse in its own right, particularly if you’re medically female. Women’s pain is often ignored as it is, particularly for black women. If you have a history of anxiety and depression, it is downright impressive how many medical conditions will be blamed on it. (Like the time I was given SSRIs to treat a symptomatic hemangioma. Fun!)

SSRIs didn’t do much for me, and I want to stay away from benzodiazepines. I’ve got a bottle of generic alprazolam for emergencies, I’ve tried CBT, I meditate, I carry a charged amethyst, I’ve got a bottle of magnesium oil in my nightstand, I consume more chamomile than the entire Roman empire, and I spend most days smelling like Provence in the spring. They help, but not enough.

There's gotta be a better way!

There’s gotta be a better way!

Someone I knew briefly talked about his luck with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). He had a lot of odd theories attached to it, so I didn’t pay it much mind at the time, but lately I’ve wanted to give it another look. As someone with some extremely excitable neurons and a diet that’s pretty naturally high in glutamate, the GABA-glutamate balance caught my interest.

Glutamate is excitatory, where GABA is inhibitory. When people talk about being sensitive to MSG, it’s possible that they are really feeling what happens when increased uptake of free glutamate throws this balance out of whack. There are medications that increase GABA activity, like tranquilizers, but I’m trying to avoid using them on more than an emergency basis if I can manage to. A lot of them have a high potential for abuse, and some have extremely nasty withdrawals.

So, is there another way to reconfigure my GABA-glutamate balance? There’s eating less free glutamate, but that’s not necessarily going to increase GABA levels or activity on its own. Some people take GABA as a supplement, but there is not enough evidence to conclude that this is actually effective.

This leaves me with one question: how can I increase my endogenous GABA? Without relying on tranquilizers to boost its activity, or by taking questionable exogenous GABA supplements, what do I do? Some foods are purported to be sources of GABA, like mackerel and wheat bran, but these might run into the same issues as exogenous GABA supplementation when it comes to actually getting GABA where it needs to be. There are foods (like chamomile tea) that contain flavonoids that influence how GABA works, but that doesn’t really correct a deficiency in it.

What’s left? Germs.

As it turns out, they’re really good at pumping it out. There is some evidence that the GABA from certain strains of lactobacillus might be a better bet, for me, than tranquilizers or exogenous GABA. I don’t think any human studies have been conducted thus far (the only one I could find used mice), but it sounds promising. If nothing else, probiotics don’t really hurt, right?

What was most interesting to me about the mouse study was the fact that it used L. rhamnosus. I’ve been collecting studies on L. rhamnosus because, as someone with allergies, it’s really interesting stuff. I was also pretty excited to read about L. rhamnosus’ potential effect on the vagus nerve — as anyone who’s ever had to perform a Valsalva maneuver to slow their heart down in the midst of a panic attack, it works, but giving yourself a brute-force nerve massage is not a super good time.

L. rhamnosus has some other advantages, too. For one, I’ve never heard of anyone suffering from addiction, withdrawal, or unwanted side effects from a probiotic, other than gas. It’s also cheap and pretty readily available. Best of all, it’s not likely to interact with my already-broken brain in any unique and terrible ways. (The list of medications you can’t take when you have idiopathic intracranial hypertension is long and ridiculous. I’m not even allowed to have Tums, for crap’s sake.)

Will a capsule full of gut germs be the answer? I don’t know, but I’m willing to give it a shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Living my best life is sucking the life out of me.

Its 2:00 in the morning, and I am writing because I have, once again, destroyed my sleep schedule.

Well, not just my sleep schedule.

I have idiopathic intracranial hypertension. It makes me forget things, feel constant headaches every moment of the day, lose my ability to see sometimes, and want to sleep basically forever. Left to my own devices, I will sleep for twelve hours and still be able to take a substantial midday nap.

Such is life.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow me much time for anything else. This doubly sucks, because what time I am left is also devoted to coping with the headaches, dizziness, anxiety, depression, and other trappings of having a head full of surplus brainjuice. Showering is tiring. Clothes hurt. On a high-pressure day, even holding my head up is more than my neck can manage.

I combat this somewhat by strictly scheduling my day. (It’s particularly helpful for the depression — if I don’t leave myself enough time to think, it’s harder for it to get me.)

This means waking up at 6:30 AM, using a pedaler to get some exercise, having breakfast at 7:00, then being at my computer to work on blog posts, paid writing, or artwork (on days when I’m able to) until 10:30. After that comes carefully broken up blocks of time for another half hour of physical therapy, meditation, taking care of my apartment and cats, doing whatever dinner prep my goldfish-like memory allows for (no stoves or ovens if I’m home alone), and getting in bed by 2:00 PM. From there, I sleep until my S.O. comes home from work, eat dinner, hang out, and handle any unfinished work from earlier in the day. By 11:00-12:00ish, it’s time to sleep again. It sounds weird and restrictive, and it is. It’s also carefully arranged around the times of day when I’m the most likely to experience pressure spikes, so I don’t have to work and fight a crushing headache at the same time.

Polyphasic sleep is a strange thing. I feel better when I divide my sleep up into regular blocks, twice a day, even if they are only for a few hours at a time. The only problem is, it isn’t really a natural state for me — even though it’s what lets me get the most done and do more to try to take care of myself, it requires an exhaustive (and exhausting) level of planning and tenacity. Let one part slip, and everything else falls out of whack. Skip exercising, and hello muscle pain. Skip meditating, and good morning, panic attacks. Fail to fit my paid writing jobs into their particular block of time, and hey there, inbox full of annoyed client emails!

Scheduling around it can be difficult, too. The rest of the world doesn’t really readily accommodate people who are the sleeping equivalent of hobbits, and, while being able to nap at 2:00 PM would’ve been the pinnacle of luxury when I was working a 9-5, it’s a lot less decadent when I’m using it to force a damaged brain that needs 14 hours of sleep into functioning on eight or ten. If I need to go to an appointment during sleep time, phase I, then half of my sleep isn’t going to happen that day… which means more pressure spikes, anxiety, brain fog, and forgetting.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m holding myself to a standard that doesn’t work anymore. I measure my worth by what I produce (but, perhaps ironically, this does not account for pumping out several extra ounces of cerebrospinal fluid on the regular). It isn’t even necessarily about tying my self-worth to work — even when I earned more, I had deep feelings of discontent when the only thing I had time to create was profit for my employer. I’m fortunate now that my job, as small as it may be, relies on me producing actual, tangible things I can take pride in for their own sake. As difficult as self-employment can be, particularly for a disabled person, it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to cope with than having to measure my productivity by what an employer feels like paying me.

But does this idea of productivity really benefit me or anyone around me? Is tying so much of my self-esteem to what I’m able to create actually a sustainable act? What would it feel like if I stopped?

There are spells out there. Cord-cuttings, banishings, all sorts of tiny ceremonies for getting rid of the things that no longer serve you. I’m well enough versed in them that it wouldn’t take too much for me to adapt one to fit my needs, or even create a new one. I don’t think I’m ready to, though. Not yet.

I’m doing more than I could before, but man, I’d give it up in a heartbeat for sleep.

 

When hexing is a feminist act.

“Harm none.”

If you’re in a witchcraft-using community, you hear it a lot. It’s a truncated version of the Wiccan Rede, “An harm ye none, do what thou wilt,” informally interpreted as a binding rule of witchcraft. It isn’t, though — there are plenty of witches of different religions, or none at all, and most of them aren’t bound by it any more than they’re required to follow the Ten Commandments.

Don’t get me wrong, the Rede isn’t a bad thing. Really, it’s pretty liberating… Particularly for people coming to it from more dogmatic religions.

“If it doesn’t hurt anyone, do what you want.” Does your partner consent? Sex isn’t a sin. Does your desire to get tattoos or piercings hurt anyone else? Do as you please. Do you want to carve an image of something? Knock yourself out.

I’m not going to lie, though. Misapplied, it blows.

I’ve talked about gender identity before, but, as someone who was raised in a fashion common to girls in my country, feminism still affects me. (Well, it affects everyone, but hopefully you get my meaning.) I’m also shorter and lighter than the average man. I menstruate. I could, if I wanted to, probably carry a child. The cultural attitudes and prejudices that affect women still affect me, and that includes the idea that women and girls should be gentle, nurturing, ladylike, and harmless.

The Rede is really elegantly simple. It’s the Golden Rule wrapped in gentle deprogramming from dogmatic conditioning. It gives you the freedom to act, and reap what you sow. So, when a liberating phrase is reduced down to an admonishment to behave, it grates on me. As someone who’s seen enough witchy finger-wagging in the name of the Wiccan Rede, by Wiccans and non-Wiccans alike, it grates on me.

Strangely, it’s also unevenly applied. I don’t know if it’s because witches may be disproportionately female-presenting, because women are more likely to be told to behave themselves than men, or both, but I have seldom seen a male witch, of any religion, get scolded the same way. That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, but there’s a recognizable pattern there that I’m not really inclined to ignore.

Especially because that interpretation of the Wiccan Rede isn’t universally true. These things only really work on those who have agreed to be bound by them, and no one actually seems to agree on the outcome. If you do do harm, what happens? The Threefold Law says it will return to you multiplied by three, but how? If you rob someone, will you be robbed three times, violently mugged, or just experience guilt?

Western society seems fond of invoking a very informal interpretation of karma — not karma as in the sum of a person’s actions in life influencing the circumstances of their next life, but karma in a  “what goes around, comes around” sense. It rarely happens, though. What’s done in the dark isn’t always brought into the light. We’re fond of the idea that the just succeed and the unjust suffer, when the opposite is much more likely to be true.

There’s a fondness for telling people — especially women and girls — to behave themselves, sit quietly, be decorative, and karma will eventually get the bad guys, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. There’s a fondness for syncretizing pseudo-occult philosophies like The Secret and The Law of Attraction, which blame you for the circumstances of your life because you had the audacity to be sad or angry about your own trauma. Witches are wild, and liberated, and there are still those, even in our own communities, who would prefer we be quiet and behave ourselves.

No thanks.

I have seen, and participated in, situations where a witch needed help handling someone. I have seen witches who weren’t Wiccan hamstring themselves with a “do no harm” philosophy, only to ask others to do their magical dirty work for them. In a way, it becomes worse than cowardice — admitting you are unwilling to bear the consequences of your actions, and wheedling others to do it for you. (Interestingly, these witches often ended up hit with the lion’s share of the fallout anyway. You can’t rules-lawyer your own morality.)

Even the word “harm” is very flexible. If I want a child molester’s genitals to get bitten off by raccoons, is that creating more harm than doing nothing? Theoretically, I should do a spell for justice instead… But in an unjust society, that isn’t something I’d bank on.

Not all Wiccans interpret the Rede as a warning against defending yourself, or even against pointing retribution at the wicked. Some choose to view it in a liberating light. Witches, as a whole, are autonomous, independent entities that aren’t beholden to a moral code. We are not required to be kind, we are not required to be harmless, we are not required to render ourselves toothless and soft. We are not required to bind ourselves by any moral philosophy we do not choose.

And in an unjust society, sometimes you need to fuck shit up.

 

Why “Unseelie?”

So, I’ve gotten asked, “Why do you go by Unseelie J online?”

There are a couple of reasons. Yes, it’s a pun on unseelie fae, but it goes a bit deeper than that.

While the word unseelie, particularly when attached to the unseelie court, is taken to mean “malevolent,” it has a number of uses. Seelie, its opposite, meant blessed, lucky, or happy. Unseelie, therefore, meant unhappy, unfortunate, or not blessed. It’s a term that resonates with me.

I have mostly created my own luck in life — I was born to a poor family, in a not-terribly-great family situation, raised by an abusive, staunchly religious homophobe, nearly killed in a car accident as a teenager, and, to top it all off, was diagnosed with a very rare, poorly understood, incurable, potentially lethal neurological disorder about six years ago.
It’s been quite a time.

I’ve also long realized that my primary purpose in life may very well be to serve as a cautionary tale to others, and I’ve become okay with that. I’m also okay with the fact that I am chiefly alive out of pure contrariness.

After all, like Maria Bamford says,

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So, while I’ve got a neurological disorder, anxiety, physical pain, and the weight of my past to carry around, I’m okay with being unseelie. At this point, I also aim to be the biggest thorn in the side of the status quo that I can be, so I’m even okay with being considered malevolent.

It all depends on who’s doing the considering.  💜

 

I did the thing!

Years back, I had an Etsy shop. It worked out pretty well — I made a little money, a few friends, and had customers who genuinely enjoyed my art. Unfortunately, I fell out of it after I moved, was diagnosed with a neurological disorder, and began losing my sight.

I’ve always wanted to start it up again, though my artistic output isn’t as prolific as it used to be. Finally, I figured, why not? I have some finished paintings, jewelry making supplies, and other things I could use to start my store up again, so why not?

So, I did:

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It isn’t yet fully stocked, because I had the sneaking suspicion that, if I chose to wait until it was stocked to my complete satisfaction,I’d never get around to actually opening it. So, if you’re interested in tarot readings or prints of my artwork, I’ve got you covered. In the meantime, I’m working on more things to add, so please favorite and keep an eye out!

 

The Science in Magic.

I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about how much work goes into something like, say, making a magical oil.

I used to work in a chem lab — I did soil and water analysis for an environmental testing company. I loved the job, and worked there up until I was no longer physically able. It was challenging, rewarding, and allowed me to work a job that paid my bills and didn’t require me to sacrifice my principles.

All of this is to say, I really dig the science underlying the patently unscientific things I do.

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I’ll give you an example. There’s one particular divination tool I’m in the process of working on. It hasn’t been easy, and it has required a lot of research. Not only did I have to delve into the magical properties and folklore of all of the ingredients, I also had to figure out their respective contents of estragole, anethole, thujone, and other compounds that are soluble in alcohol, but only weakly soluble (or completely insoluble) in water. Hopefully, this will yield a final product that not only has the magical properties I desire, but the physical properties I need to work the way I want it to.

Another example is oil. Sure, most of the oils I make are infused, not dilutions of essential oil, but I still need to be mindful of their capacity for toxicity, unwanted side-effects, and (perhaps most importantly) sensitization. I’ve been in the process of re-working a recipe to guard against nightmares for weeks, just to yield an anointing oil that will protect your sleep and not give you a rash at the same time.

Of course, sometimes the toxicity is the point. I don’t walk the poison path in the same way other witches might. At the moment, with my particular health challenges, the risk is not necessarily worth the reward when I have other herbs and tools at my disposal. But “the dose makes the poison,” and the poison path is a rewarding one nonetheless.

It’s fun process, albeit a frustrating one. I do get a fair amount of people who roll their eyes, and ask me why I even bother for something they see as fake to begin with. It’s the kind of thing where, for people who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, none is possible.

Besides, the challenge is half of the fun.

 

 

 

The baby got locked in the car, and then an exorcism broke out.

I wasn’t always self-employed. Did I ever tell you that I used to work retail?

If not, this is why.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad gig — I learned a lot, especially about nutrition. The management was often a nightmare, but the work was decent enough to keep me doing it for several years.

I also had a number of customers who seemed to think I was pretty neat. One lady managed to avoid putting down her son’s dog after I made a dietary recommendation (he had been medicated for severe allergies of unknown origin, then needed phenobarbital to counteract the seizures his medication gave him. It turned out to be a severe allergy to corn). One couple straight-up told me that, when I changed stores, they would continue shopping at whichever one I ended up working at.

Those times were nice. The other days, though? Ho-lee crap.

One of the locations at which I worked was located right next to a barbershop. Barbershops aren’t always exactly like hair salons — they’re as much a chill spot and center of community as they are a place to get your hair cut. So, this place was always busy and had a small contingent of satellite businesses that kind of popped up around it. (Which was somewhat of a problem for our more skittish customers, who didn’t really know how to handle overly friendly strangers trying to sell them bootleg DVDs out of a car trunk.) Point being, a lot of people were in, out, and about this barbershop basically all the time, especially on weekends.

One day, my store’s dead. It’s Sunday, nobody’s coming in, the radio’s playing whatever insipid top 40s mush was in rotation at the time. People are still going in and out of the barbershop, as per usual, but nobody seems particularly in need of my services at the moment. Even the sandwich place next door to us is quiet.
Then the door opens.

“There’s a baby locked in a car in the parking lot.”

The woman is rushed — hurried and upset, but not frantic. I can’t leave my store, I haven’t seen the baby, I don’t know when the car pulled up, how long she’s been out there, or who either car or baby belong to. Neither does this woman. We could wait around for the mother or father to return, but what if it’s too late? Is it really safe to assume the baby hasn’t been forgotten and everything is okay? What if we’re wrong?

Headlines flash through my head. Interviews with parents who, after one sleepless night or minor disruption to their morning routine, managed to forget their children in the backs of cars to tragic result. Bad things happen, even to loving and attentive parents. Neither of us know this person or this child, but nobody wants that for them or the rest of their family. The worried woman doesn’t have a cell phone, so she asks if I can call for help.

Strangely enough, having to do that wasn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence. We had to call 911 when a customer experienced a grand mal seizure in front of the cash register, another time when a customer had a heart attack, again when another overdosed in his car, and again when I had a very weird episode of tachycardia. This store was not exactly a stranger to the local paramedics.
(In retrospect, it may also have been cursed.)

So, I call 911. I’m not even off the phone yet — I had just asked for an ambulance, just in case — when the I hear the door chime again.

It’s the baby’s mother.

And she is pissed.

I still don’t know how she found out that this other woman spotted her baby in the car. Maybe she’d gone into the barbershop to ask before she came in the store? I don’t know.

Now, this woman is probably a loving mother who was only stopping by the barbershop for a grand total of three minutes, but nobody else knew that. What the other lady saw as justified concern for a child’s safety, she doubtless saw as some random busybody’s scathing indictment of her abilities as a mother. And, once again, my store was completely dead. Apparently, the lack of other witnesses allowed these ladies to lower their inhibitions enough to begin the most bonkers verbal throwdown I have ever seen in my life.

The mother, fuming, shouts at the other woman to mind her own business. The other woman shouts that she can’t leave a baby alone in a car. The mother begins to shout to God. The other woman shouts even louder explanations for why you can’t just leave a baby in a car.

“I WAS ONLY THERE FOR FIVE MINUTES. YOU DON’T KNOW MY BUSINESS!”

“DO YOU KNOW HOW FAST A BABY CAN OVERHEAT AND DIE?”

“LORD, PLEASE BLESS THIS WOMAN WHO OBVIOUSLY HAS SO MANY PROBLEMS-”

“BABIES CAN’T REGULATE THEIR OWN TEMPERATURE!”

“EXORCISE THE EVIL FROM HER LIFE-”

And I’m standing there, slack jawed, with the phone in my hand.

“Miss?” I hear a tiny voice. “Miss?”

“I, uh. I don’t think I still need that ambulance, thanks,” I murmur into the phone.

“COVER HER IN THE BLOOD OF JESUS-”

“YOU CAN’T LEAVE A BABY IN A CAR.”

“… Are you sure everything’s okay?” The 911 operator asks.

“… Yeah. Yeah, I think so,” I respond, struggling to be heard over what has turned into some kind of Jesus-vs.-Baby-Death-Statistics free verse poetry slam, reasoning that I can always call back if/when one of them starts throwing elbows.

AMEN!

GO TAKE CARE OF YOUR BABY!

The mother stormed out.
The other woman bought a bag of horse feed.
The baby, presumably, was fine, though I really hope her mom was mad enough about the whole thing to avoid letting her stay in the car again.