Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Random Thoughts on Bipolar and the Inevitable - Part II
At some point, when I get around to writing more on the bipolar mind and my neuroscience research, I'll explain why I think the bipolar mind makes for one of the best cases studies and research subjects for understanding brain functions there is. Oh, to have access to a neuroscience lab and all the various scanning machines! I'd have great fun with all that, I assure you (and because this is impossible, I do it in my works of fiction. This is the greatest fun in writing fiction; creating in your mind for the world to see what you cannot create in reality).
Which is sort of a way of expressing some gratitude for being bipolar. At times at least.
Most bipolar people will have a love/hate affair with our bipolar minds and brain functioning and this is neatly captured in this fun graphic (and of course I love it because of its use of a polar bear. If I hadn't found this by chance, it could easily be something I would have created myself).
There are times I think bipolar disorder is one of the worst "disorders" on earth (and in a strict psychiatric disorder view, advanced stage Type I is widely regarded as the worst to live with and treat). Then I look around at all human life and conditions on earth and I get over myself. When I look around I'm hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't suffer something to some degree. As an Eastern philosophy has said, "life is suffering".
Which segues into my next random thought.
One of the fun things about writing a book in online blog form is that one can get almost instant feedback on one's content and sort of "adjust on the fly" as to what comes next. I post on social media and in various segments of the "online community" and at times get very moving feedback which was the case with the responses to my previous post of the same name.
Words like "brave" and references to "how hard it must be to write" were used. As moving and touching and inspiring as these words are, I must say that they are not true, or at least are not particularly true of me.
In understanding mental health disorders and formulating my theories on them, I look at everything and everybody. I now work with certain followers of Taming the Polar Bears privately.
And what I see is that everybody who struggles with whatever life has thrown at them is brave. Some have shared their writings with me and I am awed at the courage it took to share their inner most thoughts and fears and struggles. I am awed and humbled at how bravely they fight their own demons and the great unfairness that life dumps on them daily.
All of which is to say that it's all relative.
I'd also like to say that I do not write looking for pity or sympathy or any special attention at all. From the beginning, the sole purpose of this blog and the hundreds and hundreds of hours I put into researching for it and all the zillions of words I write in it and how and why I disclose my personal story was, is, has been and will be to shine a light into the darkness of those who suffer alone with a mental health disorder and all the stigma and misunderstandings and even abuse that comes with that.
So I don't see my writing and what I share as "brave", it's just merely a job that has to be done and I have been uniquely blessed to do that job and shine one tiny light into the darkness.
Back to the love/hate affair with my bipolar mind, it has given me the drive and ability to do the research I do and to put it into a useful perspective and form that can help sufferers of mental health disorders and family and friends of those sufferers to help understand and deal with it better (if I can ever get the damn thing finished and in proper form!).
At some point I'll get to tying genius, creativity and other higher cognitive functions into the manic - and depressive - sides of my/our "disorder". There is much to harness there if one knows where to look (or to just stay out of its way and let it be and happen).
Anyway, I'm rambling now. Back to the Inevitable.
We all die somehow and at some point. We all have to deal with the end of life. We all have to come to terms with it.
Massive branches of theology were created for the sole (soul) purpose of helping people come to grips with either their own inevitable deaths or that of those in their lives.
I am not of a theological bent, I am of the scientific bent and it is there that I take my comfort.
I was blessed to have had billions of bits of carbon come together to form "me" and to allow this jumble of cells to participate in the great gift of life on earth. In due course those bits of carbon start to break down and return to simply being part of the matter around us and at some point will be recycled into something else. This is the "cold science" way of explaining the Biblical "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and beliefs in "reincarnation".
I don't consider it cold science, however, I consider it the beauty of science and life on earth and at 56 years of age, I already consider myself incredibly blessed to have seen all I have seen and done all I've done and yes, even to have suffered all that I have suffered. I have danced so perilously close to the edge of being driven to take my own life so many times that I see all days on earth as a blessing not to be taken for granted.
Every day forward, then, is pure bonus and I merely go about wringing as much life out of each "bonus day" as possible.
I also draw my comfort from knowing that when our hearts stop beating and our brains "power down" and "life" departs us, "we" needn't "die".
Depending on how we go about our brief time on earth and among the living, we can live on well past our expiration dates through the legacies we leave behind.
Which is a huge driving force behind this blog, my neuroscience and neurophilosophy blog (which is greatly in need of much attention and further work) and my photography. While my physical body will surely leave earth, "I" can live on in my writing and photographic art.
Which, and to return to energy, ironically drives me to further burning me out and closer to death.
Oh! The ironies of life!!
Yes, the very things that I need to do to make my life "worth it" also play a large role in driving me to an earlier demise.
But to explain that fully will not fit into the confines of this particular chapter of this blog/book of mine.
It is, however, a fascinating way to examine the bipolar mind and what drives it to early departures.
Dear me, I am rambling now.
I'm afraid that I'll need yet more space in future columns to try to further educate on the importance of cellular energy and how bipolar's unique ability to destroy it and burn it out and to illustrate this better in how it affects day to day life and one's ability to - literally - live.
Back to the Inevitable.
It has always been my belief and position that we all have the "right to die" as we wish and choose and at a time of our choosing. I do not believe ANYONE has a "right" to tell anyone when or how a person "chooses" ("choose" is a thorny issue involving one's positions on "free will", but another time) to depart life on earth.
This is of course a difficult ethical dilemma. Almost all cultures are filled with "taboos" regarding the taking of one's own life and defying our natural courses towards death.
But if we turn this around, what "right" do we have to make a person continue to suffer just in order to keep them "alive"? (And presumably in our lives).
I don't get into debates on this as it's an ethical black hole. I just simply want my own right to do as I think is best for me.
Because I stood so close so often on the precipice of self-generated death, I began making it a major focus of my studies. There is, I discovered, no one definition of "suicide" (a word I have come to greatly dislike because of the (largely irrational) emotions it evokes). But my full thoughts and positions on this will also have to await a future column.
For now though, I think I can say that age and physical conditions are the key factors in determining when it's "okay" and "not okay". In other words, what a person's physical condition is (IE: physical aspects of illness) and how long they've fought it and what stage they're at in life (closer to the end or closer to the beginning) are the "deciding factors".
At some point anyone with an illness for which there is no known treatment or cure has to come to grips with it. At some point they have to decide how "willing" they are (again, that thorny "free will" question rears its head) to keep living with it, to keep fighting it, to keep suffering it.
Suffering. What is "suffering" and how do we define that in ourselves and others? How much "right" do we have to define what that is in others?
I study the self-inflicted end of life question deeply and widely. Because I have danced on the edge of that precipice so closely so often and for so long, I have my own unique insight into the "why" of it. But I have also deeply investigated dozens of case studies from the young to the old. And because of my own experiences (there was great variety even within my own experiences) along with my deep research into the neuroscience of it, I am more able than most to put myself in their heads and understand both the pain of the suffering at the time leading up to the act and to understand what was going on neurologically.
It's left me convinced that no one can "judge" these people for their acts, however tragic they might be.
I think self-inflicted end of life is unquestionably more tragic in the young than the old (let's say forty and above to define "old") but then again, when society and the mental health care system is so ill-equipped to help them, how could anyone "blame" or "judge" them?
The hard and cold truth is that you cannot, nor can anyone.
And yes, I quite understand and have studied the "selfishness" angle of the act but that will take yet another full column to properly address from all angles. All I can say at this point is that it is not so simple as that.
Now back to me and my case (or case study as I prefer to be viewed).
I am not young. I am not naive. I am not rash (and boy, did that take a lot of work). I deeply involve myself in studying the ethics.
It is for me and for me alone to "decide" what is "right" for me to continue with, how much more to suffer with, to define what my suffering is.
And suffer I do.
I know I dance around the topic at hand here. It is so hard to discuss openly. Yet it exists and is the end of life for many.
I only wish, like anyone else living with an illness or disorder (I do not like the "illness" or "disease" model for bipolar disorder but it certainly seems like one in this case) to be able to openly face and discuss how I must deal with it and how long or not to continue living with it.
There are "society related" aspects to it as well. The stigma, the shame. It's often humiliating to be an apparently "perfectly healthy" man and be unable to perform even the easiest of tasks for very long, if at all. I'll tell another time how I've constructed an entire "cover story" that I use in my new hometown to cover up the fact that I have a "mental illness" (bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are the two most stigmatized disorders and receive the most prejudice).
I do think I have come to pretty good terms with it all and have learned to make life as pleasurable and meaningful on a day by day basis as anyone, but there is a suffering - and a physiological basis to that suffering along with complex psychological suffering - that I and I alone understand and must deal with when it hits.
Right here and right now the evidence for the physiological basis getting better enough to afford me the life that I want to live - and thus the end of my suffering - does not look good. There is a powerful psychological basis as well but to deal with that takes enormous amounts of - guess, what? Energy.
I have suffered this for years now and while I have moved heaven and earth to diminish it and live with it better, it is still there and there is no signs that it is getting better.
But I am blessed with this stubborn ability to not give up (or at least part of me is).
One of the unique benefits to bipolar is that it is a nuclear power plant generator of hope. The depressive side may demolish these hopes but the manic side always fights back. One of my greatest feats in learning to live with myself (me, myself and I so to speak) was in learning to harness this capacity of my manic mind to manufacture hope out of nothing.
So, despite how badly this hammers me sometimes, I remain hopeful.
One hope - from an unexpected direction - is that I now have a "love interest". And, while the "sample size" is small (it's only been a month or so), I can feel what seems to be a noticeable difference in how I'm experiencing life, my days and so on. There's a tangible reduction in stress.
Oh, the power of love!
This is not a corny romantic load of sap. The power of love - or more precisely the lack of it - is a key factor in how neuropsychiatric disorders run their course. It's a key factor in ALL mental health disorders, I would - and will - argue.
For one of the key factors in how any mental health disorder manifests itself and runs its course is isolation and loneliness and the emotional pain of these and the stress responses these generate. I'll be getting to the neuroscience and whys of this in future columns but love and affection and devotion can play huge roles in reducing the toxic affects (and I'll firmly establish that they ARE toxic) of isolation and loneliness.
For a while I was able to forget that pain of isolation. Things were happening.
Then, in one fell swoop, all the pain of the isolation came searing back, a pain that is largely from the stigma and isolation of attempting to live among an uncaring, stigmatizing, ignorant, assuming, stereotyping public with the kind of mind and being the kind of person that bipolar disorder creates.
It's an incredible pain. One that seizes every inch of one's mind and body and soul. It is all consuming, inescapable.
And nobody understands it. There is nobody to call and talk about it with. There is no one who wants to hear about it. There is nobody who understands the cause and source.
Not a single, solitary soul anywhere. No one, no matter how close they may be to me in the Other World.
Then I remembered, "oh yeah, this is the other thing that drives us to taking our lives".
Then I remembered, "oh yeah, this is probably THE thing that drives us to take our lives".
Then all the love in the world is inaccessible. There's a rabbit hole tunnel that sucks you in and whistles you to another place with almost violent ferocity, rapidity and suddenness.
And that tunnel takes you to a tiny island of one. No one else can exist there. It is the only place to be. Just you. In crushing isolation.
And then, in that crushing isolation, the next logical step, almost the only option your mind has, is - why even stay on this island?
And to leave the island is to ...
[What I am talking about here is the crippling and long term fatigue that comes with severe and long term bipolar cases. I investigated and wrote a highly acclaimed three part series (including kudos from Yale professor and author of an award winning neuroscience blog Searching for the Mind) on bipolar fatigue and mitochondrial dysfunction starting here]
[I wrote also wrote about The Mother of All Manic Depressive Cycles that largely led to this particular (and particularly bad) bout of the depressive phase]