I work in he bubble of mental illness. I have a family history of mental illness. I may or may not get diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in my life, but I have had moments of severe and debilitating stress (many of us have). So even with my work, education, exposure, understanding and acceptance, I still have a lot to learn.
Until reading this book, I didn’t truly comprehend the complexity of the condition. It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced the true highs of mania and the utterly despairing lows of depression to get it, I think at least. And when we do see or hear about someone experiencing bipolar, it’s often on television or the radio and it’s often sensationalized. I think Silver Linings Playbook did a pretty good job, but not a perfect one.
Throughout this book, Kay Redfield Jamison, talks openly about her struggle to maintain her illness, but also her professional career as a psychologist – a very well known one at that.
‘I kept on with my life at a frightening pace. I worked ridiculously long hours and slept next to not at all. When I came home at night it was to a place of increasing chaos: Books, many of them newly purchased, were strewn everywhere…My apartment looked like to had been inhabited and then abandoned by a colony of moles. There were hundreds of scraps of paper as well…one scrap contained an incoherent and rambling poem; I found it weeks later in my refrigerator, apparently triggered by my spice collection, which, needless to say, had grown by leaps and bounds during my mania. I had titled it, for reasons that I am sure made sense at the time, ‘God is a Herbivore'”.
In this particular mania, sounds and music became extremely intense for her. She would listen to classical music, overwhelmed by emotion, only soon to become frustrated with the pace and switch to rock music.
“Soon the chaos in my mind began to mirror the chaos of my rooms; I could no longer process what I was hearing; I became confused, scared, and disoriented. I could not listen for more than a few minutes to any particular piece of music; my behaviour was frenetic, and my mind more so.”
Jamison recounts one evening near the end of this particular mania, standing in the middle of her living room looking at the blood-red sunset spreading out over the ocean, “Suddenly I felt a strange sense of light at the back of my eyes and almost immediately saw a huge black centrifuge inside my head. I saw a tall figure in a floor length evening gown approach the centrifuge with a vase-sized glass tube of blood in her hand”. Jamison continues to view the scene inside her head. To her horror she discovers that it is her holding the blood filled vase, placing it in the centrifuge, turning it on, making it whirl. “Then horrifyingly, the image that previously had been inside my head now was completely outside of it. I was paralyzed by fear…the machine splintered into a thousand pieces. Blood was everywhere.”
How utterly frightening to experience a nightmare during the day, in front of you, as if it were completely and utterly real.
After reading this book and recently hearing another woman recount her experience with bipolar during an education session, I have developed a greater respect and appreciation for what individuals with bipolar experience during their highs and lows.
We assume that people can control their behaviour, thoughts and thus, actions. We often expect this even from those with a diagnosed mental illness. Yet, do we expect someone with diabetes to control the release of insulin (or non-release for that matter) from their pancreas? Do we expect someone with cancer to stop their cells from cancering and spreading throughout their body? Do we expect someone with heart disease to stop the formation of plaque within their artery walls? No. So why then do we expect someone to control the neurotransmitters involved in bipolar from being released in the brain? Why do we expect someone to control the loss of certain neurotransmitters associated with depression?
Psychological conditions are physiological in nature. They are no different from diabetes, cancer, or heart disease in the sense that they influence the inner workings of the body.Yes, they are different in how they present, but that’s all.
For me, this book once again reiterated the complexity of mental illness and the ever-present discrimination attached to it. Jamison held off on writing the book, sharing her story with the masses out of fear. Of course, those who worked closely with her knew as she never wanted to compromise the safety of her patients.
No one would ever want to put themselves through the extreme highs and the extreme lows of this illness. The benefits of hypomania are clear and difficult to give up as Jamison mentions, but she would rather give up the added productivity and energy to eradicate the extremes that this illness has made her feel. But it’s important we realize that people aren’t “faking it” and cannot just “get control of their minds”.
I encourage you to read this book; to learn more about mental illness; to challenge your assumptions.
Part 3: Review on When the Body Says No: The Hidden Cost of Stress
So I’m a day late. Sorry. I woke up late yesterday. That’s the honest truth.
We left off discussing the effect that parents can have on the emotional expression of their children. And the influence is unquestionable and a little frightening.
Today I’m going to share the “The Seven A’s of Healing” – one of the final chapters of Maté’s book. While I’d love to share all of the A’s, I really want you to read this book. So I’ve decided to share three. Seriously, you should really read this book.
1. Acceptance. oftentimes when we’re unable to say no to something or someone, we beat ourselves up. I do. Sometimes I just don’t want to go for dinner, or chat on the phone, but I do. And then I spend time judging myself for doing something I didn’t want to do. Maté encourages us to have compassionate curiosity about the self which “doesn’t mean liking everything we find out about ourselves, only that we look at ourselves with the same non-judgmental acceptance we would wish to accord someone else who suffered and who needed help”. A big part of my journey towards acceptance is mindfulness meditation which I’ve posted on a few times. Click here and here for more information on the practice.
2. Anger. “Not only does the repression of anger predispose to disease but the experience of anger has been shown to promote healing or, at least, to prolong survival.” Maté reiterates that each of the interviewees featured in the book acknowledged having difficulty around communicating anger. But he then points out that each person, when a child, had a parent who had outbursts of anger which led to the repression of their own emotion. “On the surface it seems like a paradox. If the expression of anger is ‘good,’ Magda’s (an interviewee) father and the father of Jimmy (interviewee) and Donna (interviewee) were only acting in a healthy fashion. Yet the effect of their anger was corrosive to their children’s self-concept and health.” Furthermore, he points out the relationship between anger and increased risk for heart attack.
So how do we make sense of this?
Maté states, “the repression of anger and the unregulated acting out of it are both examples of the abnormal release of emotions that is at the root of disease”. Outward bursts of rage or silent, seething, repressed anger are both unhealthy ways to express emotion and can therefore, have long-term psychological and physiological consequences.
In talking to a physician about this very conundrum, Maté was told that “both repression and rage represent a fear of the genuine experience of anger…that the real of experience of anger is ‘physiologic experience without acting out. The experience is one of a surge of power going through the system, along with a mobilization to attack”.
So how can you tell the difference between rage and anger? Rage is anxiety-laden. Anger, it seems, is not. It seems we have become confused with the definition over the years, muddling the two. According to Maté, anger does not require hostile acting out. It is a physiological experience with cognitive value. The ability to experience it and review the sensations associated with it, allow one to better understand what is going on and why. After review, the person can determine what it is they wish to do, if anything. It should not invade other peoples boundaries.
All in all, it’s important to understand the difference between rage and anger and that anger is considerably more healthy than the other.
3. Attachment. It is important to let people in. Perhaps it is sometimes easier to feel bitterness and rage rather than the “aching desire for contact that, when disappointed, originally engendered the anger”. I can speak from experience, from being bullied, it is much easier to shut down, close people off, push them away than to put yourself out there. Being vulnerable is extremely unnerving, but in order to heal, “we need to regain the vulnerability that made us shut down emotionally in the first place”. This is a difficult one to accept.
We’re not kids anymore and don’t need to fear such vulnerability as we may have once. “We can permit ourselves to honour the universally reciprocal human need for connection and to challenge the ingrained belief that unconsciously burdens so many people with chronic illness: that we are not lovable.”
Maté has a beautiful way of writing. He’s gentle, but firm. He’s compassionate, but often brutally honest. Best of all, he’s an incredible storyteller. Don’t be put off by the use of scientific literature, he interweaves it so perfectly with each case study you barely notice.
I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Regardless of whether you’re experiencing a chronic condition, know someone that is, or experienced a difficult childhood (or a positive one for that matter), you should take time to read this book. While eye-opening and perhaps stress-inducing at times, it made me further appreciate the complexity of our body and the need to respect and care for such a complex system.
We all sometimes question the need for self-care. Many state it’s such a soft, wussy word. Soft, maybe. Wussy, no. It takes courage to take care of yourself. It takes courage to say ‘ no’. It takes courage to make time in your calendar for you when so many other needs and wants are present. It takes courage to put yourself first. Why? Because people judge, gossip, aim to make you feel guilty for your choice to choose yourself. But you shouldn’t. If you don’t take care of you, you may not be there in full form to spend time with others, to help, to be present, to live a long and healthful life.
No one is going to take care of you like you can, if you make the choice to. You’re health is your choice. You can choose to say yes or no. You need to make the call that’s right for you and believe me, that’s a tough task. But if you do make the choice, the choice right for you, I commend you. You’re one courageous soul and we need more of you if we want any semblance of health in this world.
Happy reading, thinking, and decision-making.
Good morning lovely readers. It’s Friday Funday.
Being the human that I am (accompanied by a very stressful work week) I unfortunately was unable to put together the last blog post on solutions to addressing emotional repression as an adult. I promise you that I will have the post written and ready for Monday morning.
This weekend I encourage you to do some thinking about your own childhood, about your parents, about your own children (if you have them), what kind of parent you are. Be honest. Be prepared for some things to come light you’ve never considered before.
Some may worry that in doing so, in looking for the negative memory, we create it. Perhaps. I promise you it’s unlikely. In fact, it’s more likely that if there is a negative it will be enshrouded by many positive memories trying to protect your conscious.
Some of you will have no negative memories and some will have negative memories but realize that they haven’t affected them as an adult. But for some, this may be anxiety-inducing and result in something unexpected and not pleasant. Thus, I encourage you to have some supports in place prior to exploring the memories of your childhood.
In the end, be kind to yourself. This isn’t supposed to be torturous. It’s not meant to make you feel guilty about who you are and how you parent. Absolutely not. It’s only to help you become more aware of who you are, your past, and bring light to areas / behaviours / thought patterns that you may want to work on.
M (and you all know I’m no psychologist or physician, so take what you want from this post)
Part 2: Review of When the Body Says No, The Cost of Hidden Stress
We left off on Monday with the following questions:
But how does this happen? How do we become disconnected? And what’s this got to do with our childhood experience?
Today, I’m going to talk about how our childhood experiences shape and influence our disconnectedness with our emotions in adulthood.
“A child’s display of emotion is what parents are least able to tolerate if the feelings being manifested trigger too much anxiety in them…a child who’s parents punish or inhibit this acting-out of emotion will be conditioned to respond to similar emotions in the future by repression.”
We’ve all been there – parent or not. I babysat quite a bit in my day and have had to handle a few gnarly temper tantrums. Honestly, I had no idea what the heck to do. In one instance, the young’n was screaming in the middle of the street. I was concerned someone might think I’d hurt her, was a bad babysitter or thought I may be trying to take her (dark thought, but it definitely crossed my mind). It’s stressful, but apparently shushing or telling the child to “be quiet” (which is exactly what I did), isn’t the answer.
Through our experience and conditioning as a child, we can become disconnected from our true emotions. They become repressed; hidden from us. Yet, the physiological stress response continues. Unabated. Unchecked. Unnoticed by the conscious mind. Awareness of these undercurrents may never happen, but for some it may. Many featured in Maté’s book, became increasingly more aware as they talked openly with him about their past.
Emotional repression as a child leads to differences in brain anatomy, reduces the child’s ability to deal with their emotions in an appropriate and satisfactory way, and often leads to long-term maladaptive coping patterns.
And it doesn’t have to be a parent yelling and screaming at us to cause such life-altering changes. No, in fact outward discord may never occur. There’s no doubt parenting is difficult, but this adds a whole new level of complexity.
I imagine most parents say “calm down” or “relax” or say “shhh, it’s okay, I’m here, it’s okay” because they want to soothe their upset child. Most don’t do it maliciously. But it seems that preventing your child from expressing their emotion, which is apparently what this message can convey, can have some serious repercussions.
Maté explains that it is important to help your distressed child process and understand his/her emotions. Help them to understand and clearly express why they’re reacting the way they are. Talk to them. Be a curious cat. This takes a considerable about of energy that I imagine is likely always in low store, but it seems worth it. It doesn’t mean let them scream, it means help them to understand why they’re screaming (I imagine this is WAY harder than the energy it took me to think it and type it).
Helping your child when they are still a child will help them to be better adjusted and emotionally capable as an adult. It means they can be more helpful for their children. Most parents want their child to become an independent thinker and individual who is at less risk from chronic disease in adulthood, but in order to accomplish such a feat, the child needs some coaching, support, and problem solving skills.
This book wasn’t necessarily a relaxing read. In fact, it kept me up some nights thinking about my childhood, thinking about people I know who always say ‘yes’, thinking about people who are already sick and wondering what their childhood was like. It isn’t be a perfect science as there are many risk factors to developing a chronic condition. Maté talks about this, stating that a stressful childhood is one risk factor and that the presence of many are often required to elicit the development of disease.
He talks about blame and how many of his patients asked why he was writing a book that seemed to ascribe blame to people already dealing with so much. He clarifies his reasons at the beginning and the end of the book.
This isn’t about blame, but more about bringing awareness to patterns. Patterns that run through families, for generations. Of course, I thought about my family. I thought about the patterns that are still present and the patterns I hope to break with my children. I thought about patterns that I won’t even be aware of and thus, will pass along to my children. I thought a lot. I took a two week break from the book (after the MS section) and returned with a clear mind, ready to learn.
I felt sad for Maté’s patients, for their families, for their deep loss during childhood. I felt sad for a number of reasons, for reasons I still need time to process. But, I also felt glad. I felt glad that I was reading this book now as opposed to after the birth of my first child. I felt glad that I know firmly understand the critical importance of the first few years of development (they’re all important, but the brain wiring that goes on at this age is remarkable). I felt glad that I am now slightly better prepared to becoming a mother. I know I will never be 100% ready and I know that I will fail at times. And to all the mothers and fathers reading this post and feeling guilty, please don’t.
All I can recommend is go and buy the book. It’s worth it’s weight in gold. I’m not joking.
Stay tuned for my next and final post on Friday. I will share the steps / solutions that Maté suggests to help us become more aware and more attuned with our bodies to hopefully reduce the likelihood of becoming ill.
Part 1: Review of When the Body Says No, The Cost of Hidden Stress
When I started reading this book, I immediately had to put it down (well, almost). What did me in was the section where Dr. Gabor Maté talks about the association between psychological stress and increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS). Developing MS is somewhat of a fear of mine. Not because it runs in my family, but because it is lifelong and there is currently no cure. I know, I know, there are a lot of other conditions out there with a similar prognosis, but for some reason, this chronic disease affects me like no other. Yet, I did manage to pick it up again (it was the book club book for May…but I did actually want to read it) and I’m glad I did.
The book is basically a collection of stories interspersed with scientific literature. Maté, a former palliative care doctor from Vancouver, shares both snippets of his personal story and the stories of his former patients.
He separates the book into diseases: various autoimmune disorders – scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis (MS), various forms of cancer, and dementia. Within each section of disease, he tells the story of a patient or a collection of patients. More specifically, he talks about their childhood experiences.
At the beginning, he tells the story of Mary. Diagnosed with scleroderma, Mary opens up to Maté in an hour-long session (he was once operating as a family physician prior to palliative care work).
“Mary had been abused as a child, abandoned and shuttled from one foster home to another. She recalled huddling in the attic at the age of seven, cradling her younger sisters in her arms, while her drunken foster parents fought and yelled below…She had never revealed these traumas before, not even to her husband of 20 years.”
Through discussion, Mary reveals that she is someone incapable of saying ‘no’, “compulsively taking responsibility for the needs of others”. At a young age, Mary “had learned not to express her feelings about anything to anyone, including herself”.
So what’s the link between Mary’s psychological trauma and her disease? Maté states, “perhaps her body was doing what her mind couldn’t: throwing off the relentless expectation that had been first imposed on the child and now was self-imposed in the adult – placing others above herself”. He states that “when we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us”.
There are many more stories like Mary’s, albeit with slight variation in childhood experience and disease. What’s interesting, is that many of the childhoods and adult experiences that were shared with Maté were not what we would typically classify as traumatic. There were many men and women who had never experienced physical, sexual or verbal abuse. In fact, many recounted having happy childhoods. This is what confused me the most. Many of the people interviewed, many dying of a chronic condition, recalled childhoods that were relatively alright.
So what’s the deal?
Maté believes (through case study and growing literature) that many of us aren’t aware of our inner state. He states, “What has happened is that we have lost touch with the gut feelings designed to be out warning system. The body mounts a stress response, but the mind is unaware of the threat”.
But how does this happen? How do we become disconnected? And what’s this got to do with our childhood experience?
Tune in on Wednesday for my next post to find out…