Aphantasia: How Being Unable to Visualize Anything Affects My Mental Health
Aphantasia is a condition where you cannot visualize — in effect, you are “blind” in your mind’s eye. When most people are told to imagine an apple, they close their eyes and can actually see an apple in their mind. However, due to my aphantasia, when I close my eyes, I see nothing but darkness. So instead of images, my aphant mind connects words. When told to imagine an apple, my mind races to retrieve everything I know about apples, from their color, shape, size and taste, to things you can do with apples, stories that involve apples, pretty much anything apple-related.
Admittedly, aphantasia is still a fairly new condition to be officially recognized by doctors and scientists, so there isn’t an abundance of information and data to be found, and research to better understand the condition is still being gathered. Nevertheless, wanting to better understand what makes my mind work differently from the majority of other people’s, I have frequently talked to friends and family to better understand what things are like through their eyes and in their own mind’s eye.
From how it has been explained to me, when most people are told to close their eyes and imagine an apple, they simply see the apple and, if nothing more is asked of them, they conclude the exercise to be over and done with, and release the apple from their mind. That is something I cannot simply do. When asked to close my eyes and consciously imagine an apple, my mind goes into a state of information overload of everything I know about apples. I cannot help but believe that this dash to connect my mind to everything even remotely associated with the topic at hand plays a big part in how my mental illness presents itself, creating a perfect storm that often escalates and intensifies my condition.
I have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Each one presents differently and they are frequently at odds with each other as I transition from one to another and back again. However, with all three, I often find myself trapped within periods of emotional overload, where my mind traverses a seemingly never-ending labyrinth of thoughts, feelings and memories that my mind has fashioned together as one. I believe this is due in part to my aphantasia.
I have major depression. When I am spiraling downward, my aphant mind will often seek out and cling to a myriad of reasons I should hate myself and beat myself up, looking to connect thoughts and experiences that seem to fit in the moment. I have seen little cartoons illustrating how depression can keep a person up at night by haunting them with reliving one specific moment from their past. My mind never stops at one. There are many, linked in a daisy chain of pain, sadness, trauma and regret. When I begin to spiral down into depression, my mind jumps from event to event, giving me even more ammunition for self-loathing.
I have a generalized anxiety disorder. When my anxiety peaks, my aphant mind races to search for every catastrophic thing that might go wrong based on prior experiences or stories I’ve heard, giving my mind even more to worry about than the original topic at hand. As my mind races, every potential catastrophe that materializes in my mind feels not only possible, but probable. The ongoing quick and steady barrage often leaves me in a frazzled, frozen state of panic, where my chest is tight and heavy, and I struggle to function at all.
I have been diagnosed with PTSD. Because my aphant mind looks to link things and make connections wherever possible, new traumas are frequently attached to old, increasing the magnitude of both so that even seemingly small new traumas carry with them the weight of old ones, and old traumas often feel fresh and raw again whenever something new happens. I have had people tell me that I cannot heal from old wounds if I keep dredging them up, reopening them and making them raw and fresh again. However, it is not anything I am doing intentionally. My brain itself has linked my traumas together. Addressing the newest trauma is like pulling on a magician’s handkerchief — if you pull one out, one by one all the rest will follow. I cannot select just one and be done with it.
Since aphantasia is a fairly newly recognized condition, there really isn’t much information readily available about the condition, particularly as it applies to mental illness, which leaves me virtually on my own to try and understand how it affects my condition. From speaking to many others, I’ve come to realize, on average, things do present differently than they do for many others, particularly those with a mental illness diagnosis. I wouldn’t say worse because I don’t believe in quantifying, comparing and ranking other people’s pain and suffering, but definitely different.
I am never looking for ways to make my depression worse, nor am I intentionally looking for more to be anxious about, nor do I wish to retraumatize myself or magnify my conditions in any way. I believe it is simply how my aphant mind works, racing to make connections, and to link my thoughts and experiences together. My mind is fueled by words and my mental illness always has a lot to say.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash