My son took a course last spring about traumatic brain injury, and we were discussing the mind-body connection. He now has some definite ideas about the brain and the mind.
Synapse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“It’s a silly expression,” he said, referring to “mind-body.” I gave him my “Qua?” look.1 “Thought is a physical act. It’s about the flow of electro-chemical impulses between synapses.”
On some level, I’d known that for a long time. A family friend, a doctor, explained my father’s illness to me that way–that the synapses just weren’t making the right connections. When I repeated my son’s to my mind therapist, she said, “That sounds like a physicist.” However, I found it helpful in understanding myself and my past.
The past. A dreadful word. I’m trying to write past it.
For about eight years of my life, I was defined by the circumstances that started shortly before I was thirteen. After I got married, I tried to refer to them as infrequently and as clinically as possible. Even here, I don’t want to get into an emotional recounting, but it was ugly: my much-admired father was medically retired for what we later found out was an infarct (dead spot) in the basal ganglia, but which manifested itself as what the shrinks at the time, before the imaging equipment now available, as atypical paranoid schizophrenia (in other words, the closest thing it came to was paranoid schiz, but it didn’t quite fit in the box). At that time, the “polite” way to refer to it was “nervous breakdown,” a term I still abhor because it sounds as though things just got too rough and the sufferer simply couldn’t hack it. That was not my father.
I was asked in the fall of my eighth grade year, by the most popular girl in school, “Did you drive him crazy?” The carload of kids laughed. I tried to join them, but anyone with a sympathetic nature can imagine the pain such an attempt at wit caused. It was a very public tragedy, and was soon to get worse. By March of that school year, my 3-year-old sister was hospitalized when she went into a coma with grand mal seizures. She lived in the pediatric ICU for the next eight months, dying less than a month after her fourth birthday. She wasn’t diagnosed until autopsy; hers was as odd as my dad’s: encephalitis, which is rare enough, but instead of being widespread, it was confined to the hypothalamus, making it even more bizarre.
No Me Mireis! (Photo credit: El Hermano Pila)
This brief history of my past is not meant to engender sympathy for me, but to illustrate that everyone walks around with problems or challenges that they may not share. It is also to talk about the injuries to the mind, which, as my son pointed out, are just as much an injury as a broken leg, just far more difficult to see. it’s been hard to think of my difficulties as injuries to the mind when I had two immediate family members die with injuries to the brain. I’m talking about my own with the hope of helping some reader to face their2 own mind injuries.
So posted here is more info here than I generally share with people, although I’ve found myself talking about it more over the last year. My theory is that we delay working through certain events in our past until we’re ready. These events have broken through to affect my life ever since they occurred, but I wasn’t ready to consciously address them; I had other things to deal with: marriage, career, child-rearing. It’s not until the crises are over that you can deal with deeper mind injuries. Most of us are just trying to survive today.
The first time I was diagnosed with depression, it was treated as if it were the flu. It’d go away after a course of antidepressants. The short course helped, but it was merely a band-aid. Most drugs for mind injuries are treating the symptoms. But the classic symptoms were predated by what was then called psychosomatic illnesses, now just somatic., mostly because the precise mechanics of how they work aren’t really understood, although mine all seem to do with serotonin production (as do most of my laundry list of chronic ailments). There are subtypes of serotonin that affect different receptors, for one thing, and then there’s the surprisingly common genetic defect which makes it difficult for some of us to get sufficient folate into our systems. This is a problem because folate is among the building blocks your body uses to manufacture serotonin. Sadly, most insurance doesn’t cover the drug that will give you this important building block.
It makes sense to me why you have weirdass symptoms for mind injuries. Think about it this way: Your body is always trying to communicate with your conscious self. It gives you pain and swelling to tell you to get the hell off that ankle you twisted and give it a rest if you’ve injured it. But mind injuries are harder for the body to talk to you about, so it comes up with novel ways: unexplained stomach aches and nausea, headaches–all those illnesses now linked to stress, a mind injury.
Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was in my late thirties before I started to get more or less continuous care for my mental injuries. More in that I’ve been constantly drugged ever since with something or other; less in that I’ve floundered through several mental health professionals and only sporadically gotten therapy. And the diagnosis has changed, evolved, and is still a bit uncertain, because diagnosis of injuries to the mind aren’t about the chemistry of your brain, which is probably where the physical injury lies, but about a given set of actions, all of which can be normal unless carried to the extreme.
The first diagnosis of the era of semi-continuous care was bipolar II (what used to be called manic-depressive). Sounded right: I have two speeds, normally: full go or full stop. Then it was clinical depression plus ADHD. I’m definitely both of those things, although the depression is in waves; the ADHD is a permanent state of being for which I’m rarely medicated. And then I was diagnosed with PTSD.
All of them can co-exist. It’s the PTSD that was both scary and vindication of the trauma of those early years. I spent years with screaming nightmares. I can be triggered to the point of incapacity by certain things that unexpectedly flash that period into my brain as if Scotty transported me into those past situations. People from that era do a great job of doing so, mostly because they want to keep me the victim of my family drama, not seeing the overcomer I try to be. When I’m not, I tend toward taking refuge like an anchoress, walling myself into the house, or, when it’s really bad, into my bedroom.
What to do about mind injuries
You’ll be shocked to know that exercise helps. My daughter-in-law told me that if you watch animals after a flight/fight/freeze moment, they will “dance it out”: jump, run, shake, shimmy and jive. They get rid of the bad chemicals generated by stress encounters of the bad kind, not having the prefrontal cortex bullying them into behaving like responsible adults. Nope. They deal with it then and there.
As I’ve said many times before in this blog, I’m a big mess physically. Much of it can be attributed to a sedentary life, but a larger toll has been taken because of the mind injuries. Untreated, they only get worse, just like any other injury. Yet people still act as though it’s a character weakness. They are wrong, ignorant of how the brain works. They might as well say diabetes is a character weakness–if you just had the right attitude, that pancreas would make you some insulin.
I’m not a wuss, although I can talk myself into believing I am lazy, gutless, and weak. But I survived my personal war, which isn’t at all like the most frequently recognized form of PTSD, combat survivors. The fact that I have scars and need treatment is not weakness, it is reality.
Get help. Drugs are useful, and so is cognitive therapy, but studies show that the combination of the two is the most effective treatment.
Educate yourself. Check out Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unnquiet Mind, Edwards M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey’s Driven to Distraction, or Joseph Le Doux’s The Emotional Brain, all of which are excellent resources.
Also check out SuperBetter.com, part of what has made me decide to gut up and go to a real CrossFit box as soon as my PT says it’s okay. I’m scared, but avoiding what I fear just makes the fear stronger. It’s no longer a question of if, but when. SuperBetter is a game developed by Jane McGonigal, as she describes in this TED Talk:
Hope your mind injuries improve, too, because that’s the good news: They can!
1, Stolen from Eddie Izzard in “Dress to Kill.”
2. I know there isn’t number agreement between the referent and the pronoun. Don’t care; I predict it will become standard American English within fifty years.