The Afflicted Brain vs. An Individual Brain

Let me start by saying my first hospitalization was after a major depressive episode at the age of 16. Even before that, I remember symptoms of depression in my life at the age of 12 or 13, if not before. Overwhelming anxiety since at least 7 or 8 years old. And symptoms of hypomania even before that. Bizarre periods as a small child in the grocery store where I literally could not stop laughing, so much so that at best, all I could do was roll around on the linoleum floor in the freezer aisle. And even earlier, a wicked temper so fierce I periodically looked like the victim of child abuse from the bruises I’d pick up from throwing tantrums.

To me, the way my brain works now (at 26) is the way it has always worked. I have mood swings. I get snippy. My mind races and then screeches to a halt. I feel things deeply, music and art moves me. I get caught up in words. I think too much. Fear or excitement makes me physically ill. I can explode.

It is the way it has always been.

So when people tell me that bipolar disorder is completely separate from them, that it is an illness they seem to have acquired, or that they have bipolar disorder but are not bipolar, I have to admit… my heckles raise a little bit.

It seems common for doctors to encourage their patients to distance themselves from this “disorder”, and on one hand I could see how encouraging someone to think of themselves as having a disorder as opposed to just being different might make people feel better about themselves. It harps back to school to some degree, people just want to fit in, they don’t want to be different.

Personally, I think this attributes to stigma to some degree though. It is hard to embrace people that are different, that is true. But it seems more detrimental to tell people they aren’t different, they’re actually the same as everyone else but afflicted with something that forces them into being different. People become angry at this affliction for making them different, and subsequently others become angry at the affliction as well. The goal then becomes to banish the affliction, instead of just embracing and helping those that are different.

I think it is important to make the distinction that we’re all human, and just because someone has bipolar disorder doesn’t make them something other than human (which is the message I get to some degree from “I have bipolar disorder but I am not bipolar”). At the same time though, I think this particular phrase can be misconstrued very easily to be read as someone who can embrace the idea of the affliction, but can’t embrace their own thoughts and brain processes as their own.

This relates to yesterday’s post on accountability a little bit, because I don’t think people can really take responsibility for their actions until they embrace the fact that their actions are a direct result of them, for better or worse. It becomes easy to shrug off something when it is the result of the affliction, but actually taking responsibility for something ugly that happens is much more difficult with that mindset. For someone who is familiar with their own actions and the way their thought processes work and embraces the fact that they are simply different, that acceptance paves a direct path to taking responsibility for one’s own actions. There is no longer a distinction between the inner self and the scapegoat.

What is bipolar disorder anyway? A series of symptoms that may or may not be produced as the result of a brain that functions differently than the norm?

My brain does not function the way the majority of brains today function. Does that make it an inferior brain? No. It holds me back from time to time, but it has also launched me forward into places I never expected to be. It is sporadic, it can display alternate versions of reality from time to time (delusions, hallucinations, and the like), and it can rob me of my energy or give it to me in spades. But each brain is unique, which is why we’re all unique, and that is part of the reason this affliction is not easy to eradicate. The genetic marker is on different places on the chromosome, symptoms vary wildly, reaction to medications vary wildly, and even the rule of thumb about what this disorder is is skewed from one place to the next.

Treating the affliction here, when the affliction may just be something created to explain something we don’t understand, (which is a difference in behavior based on how the brain functions) seems illogical.

Can’t we all just say, “to heck with it!” and treat whatever symptoms each singular person has which are unbearable for that individual?

Oh wait. That’s how treatment does work. That’s why it is different for everyone. But for some reason, the mental health model does not reflect that.

We aren’t dealing with a specific number of afflicted brains, we’re just dealing with a number of different brains as large as the population of the earth.

So my brain is irregular? Big whoop. I bet there are eons more irregular brains than one would guess. The only difference is that some irregularities are easy for some to live with and difficult for others. The people with difficulty seek help, where instead of being welcomed openly as one of the billions of individual brains on the earth, they’re simply told they’re regular and have an affliction causing all of their ailments.

So it perpetuates.

This is why I don’t quite agree with the model of “mental illness”. Not to mention most people are terrified at the word “illness” on its own anyway.

I just think that instead of being encouraged to distance oneself from the so-called affliction, we should be encouraged to embrace it. If even the patient is being encouraged to distance themselves from “mental illness” -how can we expect to remove stigma and encourage anyone else to want to embrace it?

8 responses to “The Afflicted Brain vs. An Individual Brain

  1. On Charlie.

    “If it bleeds, it leads.” The media want screaming lunatics to sell “eyes on pages.” I feel for Charlie. He is a drug abusing, alcoholic, whoremonger. But I believe that is his character. He needs help with his addictions. For the media to use his behavior as an opportunity to warn the public of the danger of us Bipolars is misfeasance at best, if not outright malfeasance. Talking heads around a table all agreeing with each other gets boring in about two minutes. Remember, Prozac makes people into muderous fiends. Carrie Fisher won’t sell many books until she runs angrily down the street naked buying everything in sight, “on camera.”

    I don’t want to be labled, especially by an essentially evil press; but all diagnosis is based on “signs and symptoms.” Signs are what the diagnostician sees, and symptoms are what the patient tells the diagnostician. Bless the poor psychiatrist that must primarily, in my case at least, rely on self reported symptoms. I have been at the brink of extreme self harm unto mortality; but with my supportive family I was saved the “stigma” having been a hospitalized crazy person. Frankly, I should have been in hospital. I wanted to die.

    Think of this. If one adds a number of variables and divides by the number of variables, the “average” falls out of the operation. And so it is, I believe, with the dreaded “normal.” Look at the world, our ~6 billion kindred. For F’ sake, normal simply “falls out” and therefore is only marginally useful.

    Except in the cases of “harm to self or others,” it’s ability to “function,” to the degree that “you” are satisfied that matters. If I can’t boil water, but I have no psychic pain about it, that’s “my” normal. If I do have psychic pain, then I may be “ill,” and need help.

    But a handle is useful, a starting point for caregivers to prevent overlooking possible psychic pain buried under fear and denial. So, perhaps it is mere semantics, a convention of english, that we say, e.g., I have diabetes, I have cancer, or I am Bipolar.

    My moods are a source of, and a result of psychic pain. I, for one, have Bipolar and I am Bipolar. And so is poor Charlie.

  2. I have issues with mental illness being distinguished as separate from physical illness. The brain is a part of our physiology – it’s about wiring and chemicals and how they differ from person to person depending on a range of physical, social and genetic factors. This distinction encourages people to view it differently from encephalitis or stroke for example, thus perpetuating the stigma.

    • I think mental illness could potentially live in the world of simple mental differences or oddities, or it could live in the world of literal ILLNESSES.

      The way it is categorized right now, it floats somewhere in-between, so in a sense I agree with you. I really just believe it needs to be put in the right place… and if it is openly distinguished as an illness that is in the same category of all illness, I’m certain (as you said) that would be for the better.

      I think ANY clear distinction would pose an improvement at this point, I just really believe that the system and description of what mental illness is at this point isn’t helping with stigma or the ability for patients to receive care.

    • “Mental illness” is distasteful because of the ancient association with the afflicted having demonic possession or being witches. Many poor souls suffered unimaginably because in humans, as in most of nature, if it’s different, fear it, hate it, and kill it. Vilify it until it is no longer human, to justify its’ neglect and torture. It should at least be locked away so that our village is not known as the “village of the damned.” After all, we need travelers to come by and buy our stuff.

      About a hundred years ago, Dr. Freud created the science of psycho-medicine. It described a disorder of the psyche, part of the misunderstood “black box” of the mind, our mental faculty. The conventional wisdom at the time, and still to this day, is that a human being is mind, body, and spirit. From this I believe we get the distinction mind, body, and moral disorder.

      For disorder of the spirit we have recourse to our higher power, or burning at the stake. For disorder of our body we have the surgeon and pharmacist, or leaches and elixirs of mercury. These we have had for millennia. It might even be possible that trepanning was the application of medicinal plants and surgery to help heal the mental faculty. We may never know.

      If a surgeon still tried to heal the mental faculty, we would all have lobotomies. Only in the last few decades have we had technology that allows us to see the effects of serotonergic, dopaminergic, and norepinephrinergic neuroamines, modify them predictably with “safe” medication, and decode the genetic component of all illness.

      But is a change-phobic society ready for a new language of medicine? There are still turf wars over “control” of medicine. The AMA, APA, big pharma, insurance underwriters, even the trial lawyers have a vested interest in the status quo.
      For example, Psychologists will say that all we need is insight gained through talk therapy and coping/behavioral training; and that all of the evil drugs just dull us, dumb us down, create more problems in the form of side effects, and become a crutch that de-motivates us from making needed changes in our habits. The MDs are drug pushers.

      The MDs think that talk therapy is nice, but without regulating the body’s chemistry, we are just wizzing in the wind. Serotonin is more than a neuroamine. It helps regulate multiple body systems, not the least of which is our digestive system. Dopamine allows us to feel satisfied and happy, but it also allows us to enjoy food so we don’t starve, and to enjoy sex so we don’t go extinct in 80 years. Norepinephrine makes our hearts beat faster when needed, and increases our attention when needed, such as when being chased by a lion or a lawyer, or being overwhelmed by a mob in the mall.

      So what do we propose for our new language of medicine? How about something less specific? If I require exogenous insulin, could I say that I have a pancreatic disorder; if I require dialysis, could I say that I have a kidney disorder; If I have a broken leg, a femur disorder; an abscess, a dental disorder? What if for any shortfall from perfect health I could just say I have a body disorder? It doesn’t work does it?

      It is imperative to keep in mind that these are all well understood body systems, and so a more specific language is not only possible, but vital. We can say not only that a body system is disordered, but exactly which one, where, how and why.

      The mind, the mental faculty, is in the brain. The brain is one organ with many systems. The brain even has its’ own organs. The brain has lobes and areas. Where is consciousness in the brain? From where in the brain does personality come? What is different about brains, if anything, that determines intelligence? If I have a brain, I have some form of mental faculty. Without a brain I have none. That’s about as far as it goes at this point. In the brain there is not yet an exactly where, how, or why for dysfunction.

      Therefore, if the mental faculty is disordered, all we have left, for now, is “mental illness.”

  3. disorderlychickadee

    You know, there’s a very logical argument that the reason that bipolar persists in the population is that it confers some evolutionary advantages.

    I agree with the “different” perspective. Very nicely put.

    • I get it. If I am bipolar and manic to the point of running in front of the lion that should stop for ME; or if I am so depressed that I drift into nothingness because I don’t deserve to live and that will never change, then bipolar is a self limiting genetic anomally such that when all bipolars are all gone, human kind will be at the next level of evolution. But it is also a possibility that Bipolar persists in the population because first cousins make babies together. I dunno.

      • ColonialPunk

        I’ve also heard some very prominent scientists suggest that it could be the other way around, that hypomania is potentially an attempt for quicker, more efficient and creative thought that humans are working up to, rather than genes attempting to eradicate this state.

        I think the important thing to note here is that nobody actually knows, so everyone is entitled to come to whatever conclusion they like.

  4. This is… wow. Just wow. You articulate it so beautifully.

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