Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bipolar - Family & the Gen Affect

My four sons, my parents & me
‘I’ll have you scheduled myself, this time!’ He said while stabbing his extended forefinger close to my face.
"Jesus! This is harsh," I thought, accompanied by a flashback memory of holding his hand when he was seven years old.

Watching his upper lip turn up in an involuntary snarl the memory played on in slow motion rewind, I was pointing up to a star filled milky way trying to impress a sense of wonder upon my first born child, and here twenty two years later he was forcefully impressing such harsh intent upon his father, for my own good of coarse?

It wasn't the words that cut me to the bone, no! It was the intonation in his voice, the stabbing finger and the blood flushed skin tones, the very incarnation of my own raging volcano father, so much so that in this particular moment the generational divide was collapsed and my son was my father. Murry Bowen's concept of a generational transmission of emotionality had been perfectly captured in this moment, just like the familiar scene of a woman scolding her child and noticing how she'd suddenly become just like her mother.

‘Are you here to manage your father James?’ I asked him, prompted by the sudden realization? He’d come here with his brother, not to embrace a family reunion of “welcome home Dad,” but with a preconceived agenda, an expectant scenario firmly resident within his all of twenty nine year old head.
"How much has he rehearsed this scene," I thought, "and Luke? He’s here as the back up muscle, of coarse!"

It was 10am, Thursday the 14th of October 2010 and I’d been in the grip of hypo/hyper-mania since the 17th of September, spurred on by the coincidence of the ‘Super Harvest Moon,’ a once in twenty year event that sees the sun fall below the horizon as the moon rises on the opposite side. James soon pointed out that this had been by far the most public of my manic episodes, and I wondered if embarrassment was the cause of his anger. He denied that of coarse confessing that he'd tried a softly, softly approach before.

‘You’ve lost your objectivity Dad, you’re caught up in the same old religious delusions!’
‘At least I didn’t think I was J.C. this time,’ I replied, smiling in an effort to diffuse the steely tension.
‘You have a mental illness, you need specialist help,’ he continued.
‘Listen it went beyond religion this time, and it’s not the content that’s important, but the behavioral state the mania enables…’ I said.
‘It enables freaking madness!’ James shouted at me.
‘It enables approach where there had been chronic avoidance, its about emotional energy and my nervous system, the involuntary tension in my muscles, not my objective logic.’
‘Dad your sick, you need help, you need medication and regular sleep,’ he told me as I looked towards his brother for signs of compassion and any inkling of understanding.
‘Do you think I loose all insight into who I am and where I am, after 30 years experience with bipolar? - You think I haven't learned how to manage it when I need too, and when to engage people and bring myself out of these self stimulated states?’
‘You’re fucking sick!’ Was his forceful reply.

There would be no reasonable discussion of my six week sojourn into madness today, how could I convince him that this experience may be different, and that I really needed to talk it through now.
“Jesus! He’s really channeling the old man,” I remember thinking, perhaps trying to bring some relief to my battered senses, and then I thought, “Shit this is hard to deal with, if anything is going to trigger a collapse into depression, then this is it.”

James, may 'write a masterpiece'
My oldest son James, how can he be so much like his Grandfather? The genetics are there of coarse, the DNA and the 'Gen Affect' or what Bowen Theory calls the Multigenerational Transmission Process of Emotionality.

There are models that suggest a deeper intuitive aspect to human nature beyond our objective conceptions, in (neural mirror mechanisms) deep within the motor cortex of the brain. Did I unconsciously pass on the affects/emotions of my father, as did his father before him in a generational daisy chain?
Is there more to the generational expression of genetics than our objective & subjective judgement's consciously observe?

Okay, so what does generational emotionality & mirror neurons have to do with having a bipolar illness? You may be thinking.

The theories & concepts pointed to above combine to show how common perception may contain more mis-perception than true understanding & awareness, so much so that we may be barking up the wrong tree in a belief that 'affective disorders' like bipolar, are in fact an 'illness.'

In the 1950's Silvan Tomkins observed what he describes as innate affects, which he believed are the roots of all human emotion, he also described the well known phenomenon of affect contagion and the part it plays in societal formation. Yelling fire! In a crowded auditorium can spread panic like wildfire, just as entering a room full of riotous laughter will have its unconscious affect, even when we are not privy to the source of the humor.

How much has our judgement of 'mentally ill - mad - crazy' people been driven by unconscious fears about the power of affect contagion and the chaos which lays dormant in our instinctive nature? Indeed how much is our precious objective thinking a regulation of instinctual energies, in the need for calm & civilized interaction?

Indeed how much is our preference for linear cause and effect thinking, instinctively rather than intelligently driven, such as our assumption that the brain alone is responsible for affective disorders, with innate distress stimulating an instinctive aversion to more complex understanding.

Neuroscience is only now beginning to glimpse the complexity of human development and interaction, coining the term 'affective states' to describe the systemic reactivity of each moment we live. The view of mental illness as disease includes this systemic reactivity born of fear and the need for objective distancing from such states by a mind that needs to distance itself from sensation and the overwhelming power of affect/emotion.

As a simple and personal example, think of the times when asked to described your own experience you have used the word 'you' instead of 'I,' a cognitive mechanism to diffuse the internal affect/emotion. Psychiatry has always been affected by the need to prove itself a real science, capable of uncovering empirical proof just like the more object based medical science. Yet despite the promise of the genome project and advanced technologies, no gene has been found for affective disorders and simple blood test like the often compared diabetes.

I went back three generations looking for genetic evidence of mental illness in my family background and was unable to find it. My four boys are grown men now with no examples of maladjustment beyond the 'normal' vices.
Perhaps any genetic predisposition is in the sensitivity of the organism to environmental conditions, such as the response of the autonomic nervous system to instinctive threat, or what neuroscience now calls 'neuroception.'

Murry Bowen and his team hospitalized whole families in researching schizophrenia, and observed the affect on the 'sick' patient when a parent, particularly the mother became ill. Suddenly an ineffective schizophrenic would switch roles to become the competent caregiver, an example of how affectively dependent we are on each other.

The hundreds of thousands of hours of observation that led to Bowen Theory's notion of the nuclear family emotional system, also typified the research of the time with theories like the 'Identified Patient' stirring up much overwhelming affect/emotion. Perhaps it is easier and far to tempting to distance ourselves from these instinctive internal energies through the objects of technology and the pursuit of' 'real' science. Psychiatry hoped it was at last growing up, embarrassed by its founding father's mis-perception of libidinal energies, yet the new search for empirical evidence my be as grounded in denial as Freud's sexuality.

My bi-polar experience is grounded in animal instinct, in a conditioning of my autonomic (animal) nervous system through the chaos, chance & circumstance of unfortunate experience, Shakespeare's 'slings and arrows' and what kept my trauma conditioning alive for so long was simple ignorance and the shame filled arrows of family, friends and a miss guided medical profession.  And of coarse what cannot be left out of societies systemic interaction is the need for economic management in our health care systems, no names, no profit margins mentioned.

With five years of extensive reading and increasing daily practice, I have come to understand the reality of my own affective states as combined affect of systemic interaction between my brain, heart and lungs.

The vagal tones of my heart affect the neural innervation of my autonomic nervous system, causing a primitive response to both internal and external environments.
Unfortunately such unconsciously conditioned responses are maintained by feedback within the same systemic interactions, something I'm learning to re-condition with daily exercises and ongoing mindful awareness.

John Chitty has perhaps the best description of the autonomic nervous system, here on the internet, listen to him talk about the rescuing hug of new born twins that medical science was at a loss to explain.