The Helicopter Analogy of Mental Health

I have decided that helicopter controls make the perfect analogy for mental health.

  • When descending (settling) under power, a thing called a vortex ring state can occur where you’re basically sucking yourself down along with all the air around you. If you don’t escape, you crash and die. Paradoxically, struggling against it by applying more power, which should theoretically pull you upward, just makes the problem worse, and you fall faster! The only way out is a lateral move.
    • This feels a lot like spiraling out of control! In such times, all you can do is step out of your own downwash, distract yourself, or seek help. If you’ve got coping mechanisms lined up ahead of time, these can help a lot!
  • If you go up too fast, the rotors over you—which are designed to flex!—will actually bend down enough to strike your own tail, which will of course cause you to crash and die. To counteract this, you can ascend more slowly or move laterally while you ascend to direct the acceleration in multiple directions.
    • It’s not only okay but recommended to make gradual and measured progress toward a goal. This also means that taking an indirect path there may also be the safest!
  • Hovering is the hardest part of learning to fly a helicopter. Aerodynamic forces are constantly moving the helicopter in every axis, and moving any one control has implications in the other axes which entail touching the other controls too.
    • Our mental health tends not to remain in a steady state either, I’ve found. We naturally fluctuate between highs and lows. But as with flight, we do learn to maintain some control over time and not to veer too far into either extreme, as these can be dangerous or lead to overcorrection.

I have probably stretched the analogy too far already, so I’m not even going to mention the rad one-step-forward-one-step-back analogy I have for retreating blade stall.


I’ve dog-whistled this relatively loudly already, but just so everyone’s on the same page—I have a transsexual history. Reach out to me privately if you have questions, but I’ll cover a few points here.

  • To clarify, I’m a woman, and I consider myself transsexual. Specifically, I say I have a transsexual history. I also consider myself homosexual, attracted primarily to women. I consider intersexuality as part of my history, but I don’t claim intersex as an identity (a really complicated topic).

  • I have a complex relationship with this history, my body, and my gender, which includes a history of activism, lots of therapy, and in general, lots of feelings. Consider the delicacy this implies if engaging me on the topic.

  • It’s cliché, but if you didn’t know my history before, this changes nothing you know about me.

  • I prefer to retain whatever control possible over this information. I understand this post constitutes a public announcement, and that necessarily means I’ve sacrificed most control, but when possible, avoid assumptions about my history, my body, or my gender. Point people to me for clarification or questions.

I’m doing this now for a few reasons.

  • First of all, I trust the people around me in my life and in my work enough that I feel this disclosure won’t risk me bodily, psychologically, or financially.

  • Also, it’s pained me for a very long time to keep the amount of distance I need to dissimulate my history. It’s prevented me from explaining much about why family isn’t in my life, why I’m in Portland in the first place, or what my life has been about in the past.

  • It frees me to pursue medical interventions without having to come up with a weird cover story.

  • It gives me a voice, once again, on issues of transsexuality and gender which I used to self-censor out of fear of speaking out.

  • Finally, it reaffirms why I did this in the first place. The goal was always to look and feel more like who I’ve always been, not just to sell an identity or history to others.

On Being Sick

I’m sick, but I don’t know why.

I’ve probably been sick a while, but I got a new doctor who managed to prove something is wrong. I’ve felt bad for a long time, but it’s slowly gotten bad enough that it’s becoming difficult to function normally. I’ve been trying things out for a long time, seeing if vitamins or eating/avoiding certain foods would help, but so far, nothing’s worked, and now I can see that it’s not going to be a matter of what I eat.

I don’t really know much, or else I’d share what it is. I don’t really want to share specifics like lab results, but I can share a bit about the subjective experience. I know I feel like I’m on the edge of exhaustion at all times, and I can’t seem to rest enough to recover. In fact, if I exert myself, I still feel it days down the line. I also have back problems, which has caused permanent numbness and burning in my right leg, but that’s probably unrelated.

Well, unrelated? Nothing’s unrelated. Just like everyone around me, I can perceive something’s not right, but I only see a slice of a cycle that’s been in place for a while. Being sick has led to being sedentary, which has hurt my back further, which has prevented me from moving and cooking properly, which has led to weight gain, which has further fed back into the beginning of the cycle.

Maybe cycle isn’t the right word, either. Maybe it’s more like a snowball. Once it’s moving, it’s hard to stop, but if you don’t stop it, it keeps getting more dangerous. I don’t think my problem is anything serious enough to wipe out a village yet, and hopefully, with this awesome doctor on my side, we’ll figure out what’s going on and find a good fix. We’re already following up, so I’m hopeful.

Wait, Maybe This Is a Migraine after All

I am kind of unsure why I was so insistent in the past that the headaches I regularly deal with couldn’t possibly meet the definition of a migraine. And I get asked that sort of question pretty regularly because I deal with debilitating headaches pretty regularly.

I guess I was getting hung up on some of the weirder symptoms that my doctor asked me about (auras, photophobia). But let’s look at what I do experience for a moment.

  • They’re relatively frequent. Sometimes a few times a month.
  • They’re universally relegated to one side of my head. Almost always the left side.
  • They usually last a day or a few days.
  • They very slowly pulse, ebbing in waves of pain for a moment before flowing into a momentary remission.
  • I’m beginning to realize they are often triggered by stress and anxiety. I noticed one come on strong just after a stressful, depressing meeting the other day (smack dab in the middle of a relatively stressful week for me). On the other hand, during my December holiday break, I was completely headache-free.
  • Most importantly, they’re pretty bad, and on some days, I just know I won’t be able to function well. Such as today, I’m taking off work unexpectedly to deal with it. (With all the appertaining guilt and anxiety about that fact.)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, I am pretty sure that I am in fact dealing with a true migraine (as much as the idea of “true” and “false” diagnoses bothers me).

I reckon it’s time to discuss this with my therapist or even my doctor, but I’m not looking forward to what I imagine and predict will be a struggle to be taken seriously and get some kind of medicinal help.