Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nature's Madness: A Mental Illness Memoir

Recovery: A journey tasked by the trials of loss, misconnection, despair & hope's resurrection.
I'm finding nature in my madness states?


"Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared
to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly
wherever and to whatever abyss nature leads,
or you shall learn nothing." _Thomas Huxley

This new bed sitter room with its dressing table mirror encapsulate my life somehow, as if chance and circumstance provide a compartment for timely self reflection. The God dam mirror keeps implicitly prodding me in some indefinable way, its symbolic presence urging me to dig deeper, to go inside and feel the actuality of my past, not pass over it with the distancing metaphor’s of my objectifying mind. I’m trying to write a memoir of my mental illness experience and recovery here. Yet for weeks I‘ve struggled with words that seem only to effect a distance from the inner nature of my madness experience.

Daily I’ve found myself writing descriptive words, in a narrative style that just doesn’t capture the internal reality of mania, delusion or depression. It feels like I think inside my head with a set of learned words that describe my life as if through the window of an external world looking in, rather than reflecting what actually happens inside me. How do I write about my changed self concept, of a new understanding and self awareness gleaned from these past years of reading the academic jargon of various scientific disciplines, such as developmental neurobiology?

There are so few words of common parlance to make such new and revealing knowledge easily legible to any of us. Right now I hold fears you will only yawn and switch off if I start to spout the academic jargon describing my brains innervation of my autonomic nervous system? Should I even try to describe how its twin sympathetic and parasympathetic branches organize our metabolic energies, our inner world of chemical experience? How do I write about a new awareness of my nervous systems role in my experience of mental illness, when so few will want to read about metabolic energy shifts and the innate physiological reactions underpinning our emotions?

I’m feeling a need to write plainly here with easily understood logic, although when I try to identify and describe the inner experience of madness, logical cause and effect language gets no where near it. Perhaps I should only describe the episodes of mania’s hyper-sexuality and mad mind psychotic ravings. Tell you titillating tales of salacious happenings from beyond the norm of should and should not behaviors. How have life’s normal expectations been for you though? Has it been all you were taught to hope and expect it should be? Or is there a certain dissonance to your real life experience, a deeper sense of things you can’t quite put your finger on? Something we’re not supposed to speak about, or give vent to its exploration, something deeper than our normally voiced perceptions?

These past four days I’ve been reading the accounts of some quality writers describing their experience of mental illness, despairing of my poor writing skill and sorely frustrated in my earnest desire for articulation. Perhaps I should share a few examples;

“People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can't answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It's easy. And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it. - But most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists. And who can resist an opening? Girl, Interrupted In the parallel universe the laws of physics are suspended.” (Keyson, 1993).

“I lay back onto the pillow, exhausted. But the physical pain didn’t bother me anymore. It was dwarfed by a monstrous wave approaching, the tsunami that I’d been trying to avoid ever since I’d arrived in Santa Fe. I shut my eyes tight, I bit my lip; but I was overwhelmed by the realization that for the first time in my life, I was utterly and completely alone.” (Cheney, 2008).

“That fall, as the disorder gradually took full possession of my system, I began to conceive that my mind itself was like one of those outmoded small-town telephone exchanges, being gradually inundated by flood-waters: one by one, the normal circuits began to drown, causing some of the instinct and intellect to slowly disconnect.” (Styron, 1990).

Do you get a sense of what I’m suggesting about an externally oriented narrative from these descriptions of a mental illness experience? Styron’s small town telephone exchange is a wonderful analogy of depressions creeping paralysis of the mind. Its also a perfect example of how we're all stuck in an object oriented view of our inner experience? How can we hope to articulate our experience to ourselves and others using such a system of externally focused terminology? To be fair the knowledge we now posses about the electro-chemical activity of the brain-nervous systems, is so new it makes our current paradigm of objective logic seem a tad archaic. We are entering a new era of increasing knowledge about the origins of the human mind that will be as transformational as Galileo’s observations. A paradigm shift is underway, yet just as in the experience of our individual lives, we’ll only recognize it with the benefit of hindsight.

So please, dear God, help me! I so want to write an insider’s view of the madness within rather than what it looks like from the outside, its been my earnest desire for at least ten years now. You see, mad behaviors are really the second part of a two part equation, to use a mathematics analogy, while the first part remains unobserved inside our organic body/brain processes. Sitting here I’m perplexed by just how to write about my recovery and changed self perception, using the well worn words of objective description we all learned in school? You know that multitude of grammar dedicated overwhelmingly towards depicting scenes from an external world, not the hidden landscape of our internal, organic world.

How shall I describe my growing felt awareness of unconscious processes beneath the impulsed thinking of my conscious mind, it’s a conundrum that seems to mirror the essential experience of psychosis and mental illness states. How do I convey the concept of a “neuroception” beneath my conscious perceptions, and how it stimulates my mind’s rationalizations of innate physiological reactions? Like my new awareness of the muscular tensions within my body which correspond with the tone of my thinking, my moods. Like many a good psychiatrist challenged with interpreting the experiences of a psychotic, I feel inadequately equipped by a learned vocabulary evolved for describing external objects, rather than the inner realm of our organic substance, with its overwhelmingly chemical activity.

Let me give you another’s example of what I’m trying to say here;
“The importance of language for the formation of one’s self through organizing one’s experience into a coherent core narrative is emphasized, especially as it relates to the micro-sensory experience of the body for which vocabulary is often inadequate. The importance of movement, oscillations, pulsations, and sensations being included in a full experience of a psycho-somatic self is argued. The still open issue of finding adequate cortical representation of the felt sense of these neuroceptive movements is raised.” and, “When I began reading neuroscience, I fell in love with the vocabulary. Words such as neural oscillation, pulsation, or sinusoidal waves, like music, evoked in me a sensory resonance born of a mysteriously intangible recognition. Perplexed, I surmised that this terminology activated contact with a dimension of implicit experience where words bridge the passage of the body through the mind and the mind through the body.” (LaPierre, 2007).

In our everyday lives, which one of us is aware of such fuzzy internal substance, like neural oscillation, pulsation or sinusoidal waves within our organic body/brain? No wonder the good psychiatrist has feelings of inadequacy when confronted with what looks like incomprehensible madness. How can we hope to understand these organic processes inside us, when the language of our logic is so externally oriented by our perception of objects? The brain is not an elaborate clock of intricately bound and moving parts, its organic functioning is of a seamless chemical kind, nothing like our object oriented perception.

How can we organize our experience into a coherent core narrative when our language is so overwhelmingly based on external awareness? Common language is still decades away from incorporating the new internal awareness granted by the technology revolution of the 1990’s. Neuroscience’s new found knowledge of the body/brain as a complete integrated system, dependent on feedback signals from both without and within, is finding increasingly common ground with systems theories seeking to understand the complexities of the wider cosmos. We are, it seems on the crest of a new awareness that will blow away our illusions of simple cause and effect awareness in the coming decades. Indeed we are getting a practical example of it with interconnectivity of the internet and its part in the global banking crisis. There are implications for understanding mental health that are as mind blowing as is the actual experience of psychosis. It’s a bold statement I know, yet in the following pages I hope to articulate a glimmer of new awareness within your well learned narrative of life experience.

Sitting here in this bed sitter room the isolation of a writer’s experience feels like an old familiar pattern somehow. An internal pattern I’m struggling to articulate due to the distancing affect of my minds thoughts. I’m almost sixty now and a long way in time and geography miles from the safe isolation of my childhood bedroom, yet I’m challenged by vague fears that the hidden patterns of unconscious motivation remain unchanged. Such thoughts urge me to stop playing with these ineffectual metaphor’s of interpretation, and go out to see my Thai girlfriend. She won’t be alone though and after four straight days of seclusion, reading with an interest charged as much by the energies of distress as excited curiosity, I’ll likely step out with the oddness of a self conscious state. That familiar hesitant and faltering approach which blocks an easy spontaneous involvement with other people and their vital support.

Isolation feels a bit perverse now too, after such a concerted effort to learn about the hidden stimulation of my nervous system. Here I am denying myself the practice of a mindful approach and involvement with others, and the steady re-conditioning of my crazy making nervous system. Sod it though! I need to write and I choose to stay involved with my own self, with self stimulated support and the attention distracting company of the TV. Besides, I really need to face this freaking wall mirror, with its implicit trigger to past experience, its symbolic representation of my first psychotic episode thirty one years ago. I take a moment to look around the room and its bed sitter objects, bed, dressing table, wardrobe, chairs and talking TV. “My arm, hand, fingers resting on laptop keys - my body, brain and my mind with its parts like perception of this intangible moment?” I think.

Do you get this notion of an implicit self, a deeper dimension to our experience that is passed over somehow, taken completely for granted until triggered by an environmental moment, by the chance of a situational circumstance? Do you get long forgotten memories, spontaneously rising to conscious awareness when visiting some place you haven’t been for many years? What about that sense of you that is kind of beside you all the while, that unobservable part of you that talks to you, “I talk” the psych’s call it. Is that just your mind talking, or something deeper we might call the implicit self?

Do you get a sense during social interactions, that there is a whole lot going on beneath the surface that we somehow agree not to speak about, preferring mind reading assumptions about other people’s feeling’s and what they might be thinking? Do you drift into daydreams while acting as though your consciously present, that thing we tend to do during a boring classroom lesson? Is daydreaming a dissolving of our objective perception and does daydreaming come from a deeper state of being? If so, what are the hidden mechanisms of our body/brain that enable these simultaneously differing states? Could it be that dreams are a differing state of being because dream was the proto-type of our waking consciousness? In a chapter titled, “Sleep, Arousal, and Mythmaking in the Brain,” Jaak Panksepp, a leading researcher in the neurobiology of emotions, tells us;

“We are forced to contemplate the strange possibility that the basic dream generators are more ancient in brain evolution than are the generators of our waking consciousness.” (Panksepp, 1998).

Consider changed states evoked by the placebo effect for instance, or stage induced hypnosis and what goes on during the oft reported phenomenon of an out of body experience? People report watching their unconscious body being operated on during medical procedures, and it’s a well known experience of people who survive torture. What about an ability to use self hypnosis as an anesthetic? During hypnotherapy training in Sydney Australia I sat in stunned silence watching video footage of a 65 year lady with a history of bad reactions to anesthesia, lie calm and relaxed through a major medical procedure. She used self hypnosis for pain relief while a surgeon cut a big hole in her stomach. It had taken over a year to find a surgeon willing to perform this operation, and he was certain he would have an emergency on his hands not long after he made the first incision. Yet with the help of her hypnosis trainer she provided her own analgesia through an hour long operation.

I remember wondering how could she possibly do that, did she affect some kind of chemical imbalance inside her brain, tricking all those pain receptors? I mean if the body/brain is capable of such unbelievable states of being, then its more than capable of stimulating all sorts of abnormal behaviors. Learning a felt identification and management of my own unconscious stress reactions, has been the key to my mental health recovery.

Anyway, in this particular moment of my life the television is keeping me company. BBC World News with its daily repeated stories are paying tribute to Steve Jobs today, the man from Apple has died. I sight the famous icon and in less than a minute a collage of memory floods through my mind. “How the bleep does that happen?” Memories of reading Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and how Gregor Samsa turns into a giant dung beetle, or imagines he does? Of Wilhelm Reich’s notions of character armor and its analysis, how muscular tensions and rigid posture reveal our personality traits. Of the hardened shell of Gregor’s dung beetle back and his father killing him by forcefully lodging an apple there in, and fast flowing thoughts about the electro-chemical stimulation of metaphor and its non-verbal meaning.

As the minute continues to enfold I get flashes of last years six week long psychosis, its trance like daydream state fueled by soaring emotions that were stoked daily by lashings of loud evocative music. Memories of self referential messages from the cosmos delivered via a TV, perhaps unconsciously seeking a joyfully hedonic tone for an adaptation of unconscious attachment? You see in manic states I have absolutely no problems approaching myself or others, I just didn’t understand the hidden nature of these trance like illusions. I didn’t understand the thermodynamic nature of body-brain and mind, didn’t know I was trying to thaw the frozen terror at the heart of my unconscious expectations. Getting past my fearfully hesitant approach to other people allows the third branch of my autonomic nervous system to be triggered into action by proximity, by touch, by looks and body language. Its part of our hardwired need of others, our vital dependency on each other.

Further memories flash by, those crazy thoughts about metaphors and prophecy, of reading the Christian Bible as literal history when perhaps it’s about metaphor and a projected future, “God and the hidden mechanisms of nervous system attachment, apple and the tree of knowledge, consciousness and the word, the evolution of the mind and the age we’re now living in, not an ending but a brand new beginning, books about realization and a paradigm shift in an awareness of the self. - Noah’s Ark from the perspective of mammalian evolution and the hidden electro-chemical activity of the brain, perhaps the ark is a metaphor for the brains frontal cortex?”

Really crazy stuff, huh? Perhaps I should be too ashamed to write this down? Perhaps I should go back into my fearfully hardened shell? Bipolar disorder is a medical disease within that part of me we label the brain after all, not a manifestation of my hidden nature? Yet when we consider the electro-chemical activity that gives rise to mind within our body/brain, every single thought is a metaphysical transformation of matter into meta by a metabolic process. From this view of understanding and awareness, what are metaphors, myths and legends articulating from within us? Is our myth making, meaning making mind, trying to articulate its own unconscious processes? Are our universal legends about the evolving journey of the mind, of human consciousness? Where exactly does true perception and perspective stand?

So I’m sitting here in front of a large timber framed mirror, just like I did in 1980 when a profound shift in body sensation seemed to herald my first psychotic episode. This room is about twice the size of that bedroom in Sydney Australia though, and I’m sat on my office style mobile chair instead of the end of a double bed, playing with a laptop instead of a guitar. Similar to three decades ago I’m looking towards the mirror at my own reflection, although this time I’m deliberately looking for signs of muscular tension. I want to see if I can evoke a similar shift in body sensation as I felt back in 1980, if I can consciously shift my nervous systems orientation mechanisms. I need a break from my constantly thinking mind too, from my habitual self support during a lifetime of relative isolation.

Have you had similar feelings of relative isolation, felt alone in a crowded room? A strange sense of being stuck, a hesitant reluctance to move forward, to connect with other people while simultaneously telling yourself that you should? Looking into the mirror as sincerely as I remember doing when I prayed to God back in 1980, a thought springs to mind now. “Was it the first time I’d experienced being truly present, fully grounded and embedded in the moment?” I’m reminded of Eckhardt Tolle’s descriptions of newly felt presence.

“I got up and walked around the room, and yet I knew that I had never truly seen it before. Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence. I picked up things, a pencil, an empty bottle, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of it all.” (Tolle, 1990).

I feel my body soften with an involuntary intake of deeper breath. Moving into feeling for tension while looking at my face, I feel around my eyes and will a strained tightness there to release. I bring a felt awareness to my jaw, checking for ubiquitous tensions there while simultaneously, my tongue lets go its usual pressured thrust against the back of my teeth. My lips part and I feel that flowing down sensation as I did in 1980, my thoughts slowing at the same time. I drop this felt attention further down to my chest feeling for any sense of tension around my heart, and noticing a sudden release in tummy knots, along with another spontaneously inhaled and much deeper breath.

I'm still surprised at the depth of relaxation affected by this felt awareness to how my autonomic nervous system unconsciously organizes my body. Still mildly shocked at how disconnected my usual thought fueled sense of self has always been, and how I can‘t think this kind of unspeakable awareness.

A now familiar warming sensation heats the soles of my feet, with similar warm tingling sensations in my hands and my finger tips, like pins and needles. No wonder I was so impressed by this shift into body state awareness back in 1980, I only wish I had not been so completely ignorant as to the nature of its electro-chemical stimulation. This reminds me of Peter Levine's description of sensations of warmth in the limbs of PTSD sufferers, as he teaches them how to release the trapped survival energies of traumatic experience.

“People often report various qualities of vibration and tingling, as well as changes in tempreture-generally from cold (or hot) to cool and warm,” (Levine, 2010).

"Am I re-balancing my autonomic nervous system here or releasing trauma, or both?" I think. I can't do this kind of felt awareness without wondering if my traumatic birth experience conditioned a life of dissociation? A three day labor and forceps delivery followed by a week of separation in a mechanical crib, may have conditioned a foundational freeze response burned into the primitive neural networks of the brain stem by sustained distress experience. Its always been there, the hesitant approach to others, the camera shy frozen smile with its associated stiff muscular posture. Right now as I lean forward to type these words I can feel the habitual muscular constriction, that has always organized my focused intention to do anything.

Let me share another example of my decade long reading;
“In the state of generalized complete contraction of the musculature, one is impervious to suggestion. In violent rage or anger, one is completely refractory to any suggestion from without or within oneself. In the state of hypnosis, one also loses entirely the ability to command oneself, but is at the highest state of involuntary suggestion.” (Feldenkrais, 1985).

Perhaps Moshe Fedenkrais was thinking of states induced by hypnotic suggestion when he speaks of losing the ability to command oneself, states of mind equally described as trance states? Looking back on my manic episodes I remember well, the dreamy trance like quality of psychotic experience.

“Before this state of suggestibility is obtained, complete relaxation of the musculature must be achieved. Moreover the relaxation must be extended so far as to relax the capillaries and the small blood vessels. The muscular relaxation coincides with the sensation of heaviness in the limbs and in the body, and the dilation of the blood vessels coincides with the sensation of warmth. In such complete relaxation, the person is in the most suggestible state. It is not necessary to lose consciousness to reach this state of complete suggestibility. In the state of complete muscular and vascular relaxation, without any loss of consciousness, one is open to suggestion both from without and within oneself.” (Feldenkrais, 1985).

Perhaps in 1980 I came out of a defensive and habitual state of muscular contraction conditioned by traumatic experience, entering a highly suggestible body/brain state? Perhaps I can expand this notion to show that mental illness experience is as much about body dis-ease and unconscious nervous system reactions as any biological disease causing a chemical imbalance within the brain? Perhaps I can show in the coming chapters how our mind’s constant parts like perception, misperceives the whole psychotic experience when we view the brain as if its an elaborate clock? Perhaps I can articulate how a decade of reading has helped redefine my understanding and awareness of my whole self, away from the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, parts like view I used to hold.

Dam! This is such a limited format, this page of written words, I could tell you more in ten minutes than I can write here in hours? So much is missing from these pages, like the millisecond communication of eye to eye looks and unspoken body language. How do I give you a quality description of my whole body/brain/mind experience in this or any particular moment? I guess I could describe my physical features, five foot ten, brown hair not yet balding, brown eyes not peering through spectacles yet, a big L shaped scar on my left thigh, visible just below the hem of my green shorts. My medium length slender fingers taping at the keys on this laptop?

Should I use other words of a parts like perception to convey some sense of observation, some vague feeling of being here? Should I describe more of this bed sitter room and my behavior as I move around it, how I put a key in the door when returning from my daily walk? Yet can such descriptive language paint a true picture of the wholeness of our human experience, my multifaceted sensory experience in this or any given moment? I mean I’ve had the devil’s own job finding the true nature of myself during those precious moments of my life thus far. I’ve struggled to fully inhabit my body, to marry my mind to its reactive energies, its desires and temptation to embrace all that can be felt and sensed in fullest of moment. Somehow I’ve held life at bay with an unconscious muscular constriction?

“Jesus! How can you not inhabit your own body?” I assume you may be thinking? How indeed? By the devils own device I’ve come to suspect, the ultimate human dilemma, by the unconscious mechanism’s of our mind’s dissociation. Dissociation seems to trick me into analgesic flights of thought so insidiously, I’m likely to write with pale rationalization here. Analgesic in the way my thinking rushes beyond any felt sense of my body, forcing to much sensation awareness into my head. Its as if there is an unconscious desire to escape into the painless synaptic connections of my brain, beyond the reach of my body with its pain receptive nerve endings. Its like I’m attempting a mini version of the body denial achieved in self hypnotized anesthesia.

Consider the words of the wonderful Peter Levine again;
“Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system. On the other hand, acutely traumatized people (often by a single recent event and without a history of repeated trauma, neglect or abuse) are generally dominated by the sympathetic fight/flight system. They tend to suffer from flashbacks and racing hearts, while the chronically traumatized individuals generally show no change or even a decrease in heart rate. These sufferers tend to be plagued with dissociative symptoms, including frequent spacyness, unreality, depersonalization, and various somatic and health complaints,” (Levine, 2010).

I’m liable to pass right over my body sensations in this moment and write in automatic assumptions, typing the words I‘ve learned for symptomatic description? Its what my mind seems to do, to constantly quantify the experience of a lived moment with simple object metaphors, with separate this or that, thoughts. If I attempt to describe the sensual wholeness of all I see, hear, touch, smell and taste in a this very sensate moment, I’m forced to separate the experience into object like labels, as if I’m doctoring my own condition.

Funny! Perhaps my mind is my very own spin doctor, spinning its tangled web and trapping me there in? In trying to articulate the true nature of a psychotic experience I’m liable to such objective separation, with only my body retaining true awareness of the qualities of experience, while my mind continues to quantify it. I’m looking into the mirror quietly now, trying to feel my true nature within these curiously differing states, my body, my mind, somehow there‘s a distance here, a disconnect - by degrees of dissociation.

Chapter Two->>

Also posted on;
Nature's Madness: A Memoir of Mental Illness & Recovery

Recovery: A journey tasked by the trials of loss, misconnection, despair & hope's resurrection.

Keyson, S, 1993, “Girl Interrupted,” Vintage Books, USA.
Cheney, T, 2008, “Manic,” Harper Collins, USA.
Styron, W, 1990, “Darkness Visible a memoir of Madness,” Vintage Books, USA.
LaPierre, A, 2007, “The Language of Neuroception & the Bodily Self,” Hakomi Forum – Issue 18.
Panksepp, J, 1998, “Affective Neuroscience - THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN AND ANIMAL EMOTIONS,” Oxford University Press, USA.
Kafka, F, 1996, “The Metamorphosis - Translated by Stanley Corngold,” Bantam Books, USA.
Reich, W, 1980, "Character Analysis," Farrar, Straus and Giroux, USA.
Tolle, E, 1990, “THE POWER OF NOW a guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,” New World Library, USA.
Levine, P, 2010, “In an Unspoken Voice,” North Atlantic Books, USA.
Feldenkrais, M, 1985, “The Potent Self,” North Atlantic Books USA.

David Bates, October 2011.