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Brains Aren’t Normal

November 1, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about brains these days. Partly because of my own injured brain and the impact it has had on my life so far. Partly because I’ve been trying to process an incredibly bad break-up (from a pretty bad relationship.) Partly because I’ve watched so many people who I love deal with depression and addiction lately. And then, today, I ran across two very interesting articles that dealt with ADHD and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,) which finally gave my queries and frustration a focal point. Everything seems to assume there’s such thing as “normal,” and that we should all fit into the confines of its definition.

My frustration with the psycho-analytical approach to normalcy and happiness is life-long. As a wee one, I would essentially say, “that may work for you, but it doesn’t work for me,” to therapists who wanted to help me deal with a tumultuous childhood. I do the same thing now. (I don’t think the answers are that simple, and I’m not terribly bothered by the questions, even when they have jagged edges.)

All the research in the world, so far, has not been able to fully explain the changes in me following a bad car accident. And they are not likely to revert back. So I just have to go forward with this as the “new normal.” Which is fine. Because I am perfectly capable of that. I don’t need to fix it, (well, the constant pain would be nice to fix,) I just have to understand and live with it. My “psychological” brain is perfectly able to understand the changes in my “physical” brain. Mostly because I am not asking it to be something it’s not. I am not asking it to be my “old brain.”

My brain and I have always had a strange relationship with the concept of “normal.” I am – and always have been – on the far end of the ADHD chart. (I can’t even write a sentence without digressing into a parenthetical!) School was impossible for me, and I barely graduated from high school, with a solid D average and a bunch of night classes my senior year. I cannot sit still, I cannot concentrate on any one thing for all that long – unless it is just the right thing and just the right time, and then my focus is impenetrable. (Usually, creative writing of some sort.)  Once I was released from the need to fit into those “normal” routines, I was better. I was happier, more productive, even healthier. Not because I had changed, but I had been released from the expectation to be normal – and the stress, disappointment & insecurity that comes from failing to meet such simple expectations.

When I read an article today about using Neurofeedback to treat ADHD, I once again had that feeling of wanting to scream, “there’s nothing wrong with me!”  ADHD is normal for many people, it just doesn’t fit into the nicely organized way that “normal” people want the world to work. Maybe the problem isn’t the ADHD brain, it’s that the rest of the world wants us all to be the same, and respond to stimuli in the same way, with the same desired outcome. ADHD is only bad because we decided it is. (Yes, there are times when I wish I was normal, but they are few and far between. And I deal with those situations in specific, not me in general.) I have come up with a laundry list of coping skills that include everything from LOTS of exercise to painting my nails while working and avoiding situations that I know I will fail in, (office job.) But, when I do medicate (occasionally,) it works, for that situation. At the same time, I feel like I’ve lost many of my tools that I use to think about and produce things. It would be horrible to be like that all the time. To intentionally create road blocks and detours in my brain just so that other people can understand me better. No thank you. It’s not my problem. I know that I can’t be like you, and that’s okay with me.

Which reminds me of the far more painful struggles that I have watched loved-ones go through, dealing with depression. I know depression well, if once removed. It is as real as cancer, diabetes and ADHD. It is physical, but the toll it takes is on souls, not muscles and bones.

In all of the struggles I’ve witnessed, I keep returning to two thoughts: 1) This is your normal, it’s ok and 2) Why are you focusing on what’s wrong with you and not what’s right?

The man I love most in the world (and probably always will, and not just because he gave me my daughter,) suffers deeply and painfully from depression. A huge part of his struggle seems to be disappointment that he isn’t happy like “everyone else,” (I assure him, everyone is not happy, it’s a myth!) So he starts the day feeling like a failure because he isn’t happy and normal, like this expectation he has will never be achieved. What if we ditched the expectation of “happiness,” and just expected to feel what we feel without labeling it and judging it? You can’t fail at something that doesn’t have a defined outcome.

Many of the treatment processes he’s been through (including individual and group therapy and AA meetings,) are all focused on what’s wrong, what’s painful, what’s not working, what’s been lost, what’s hard. Good gods. If ANYONE thought about those things all the time, they’d feel depressed.

Last year, Winifred Gallagher released a great book called RAPT, which is, essentially, the psychology of neuroscience written for you and me. The basic premise is that your life is the sum total of what you choose to pay attention to. If you are in a sunny field, with a nuclear reactor on the horizon, and all you choose to look at is the reactor, you’re likely to feel impending doom rather than sunshine and soft grass. My example, not hers, but her premise is totally correct. There is more stimuli out there than our brains can possibly take in, the ones you focus on literally define your perspective on life. This is one reason why two people can have the same experience but take completely different things away from it. There is no such thing as a “normal” or “right” way to experience something.

We want there to be. I think that’s why we turn to religion, or group think, or…..  Because we want there to be logical explanations of things, and predictable outcomes, but there’s not.

I recently had a friend get very upset with me during (yet another) conversation about my recent ex. I had just discovered an all new set of lies (particularly bad ones,) and was flared up (again.) She felt that I wasn’t being honest with her previously when I had said that I was feeling peace and calm. It was true then. But then I got more information, and it was no longer true. I assured her that this too would pass, but that I needed to process it and get it out, so that it didn’t fester. She remained upset, finally telling me that she didn’t think I was dealing with things, partly because I hadn’t agreed to see an expert that she suggested for me.

A lifetime of dealing with everything from divorce, to ADHD to rape, has taught me that an expert would not work for me. But regardless of that, her assertion was that I wasn’t trying hard enough because I wasn’t doing it her way. The things I was doing – writing, talking to friends, having new experiences – didn’t “count” as a process of healing, of trying hard enough. But there is no “right” way to do this. There are no predictable outcomes as the result of specific prescribed actions. Brains – not to mention hearts and souls – just don’t work that way.

But there are all these armies of “experts” out there who have studied these things, and they have given us “ideas” that are supposed to treat us. Just like people have given us pills to cure everything from ADHD to cancer to depression. But feelings are not viruses and there are no actions that can predictably change them into something else. And there may not be a good reason to.

Because our souls, I think, do have immune systems, and we have to use them in order for them to work. We have to be afraid in order to learn how to deal with fear. We have to struggle in order to know that we are strong enough to overcome. We have to love to learn how to love, and we have to be heartbroken to learn that we will STILL be able to love again. You can prescribe all the pills and pop therapy you want, but, at the end of the day, we have to know ourselves, and believe in ourselves. As “not normal” as we may be.

Sure, there have been some great strides taken in understanding the basic processes of the human brain, heart and soul – and how they work together. Grief is a great example. In her 1969 book, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression & Acceptance. Sure enough, most people seem to go through those. However, they experience and express them very differently. And there is not a set of tricks that can be used to hurry someone along their process, or make their process make “sense” to anyone else. For many people, having someone else tell them what and how they should be feeling adds a layer of guilt and insecurity on top of all that grief, and makes it even harder. The process may be similar, but the tools needed are as variable as the people who need them.

Even more, there is a level of arrogance – or at least dismissiveness – in thinking that “your way,” is better. Whether you’re an expert or a friend, you have to let people discover “their way.” You don’t know the answers, and you don’t need to. You are not the boss of anyone.

Which brings me to the miners in Chile. A friend shared an article this morning, the headline of which says it all: Solidarity Wins Out Over Psychobabble. In short, the miners, on top of everything else, had to deal with a team of psychiatrists who were telling them how to deal with their captivity. The psychiatrists, with all their expertise, believed that they knew better than the miners how the miners should and would feel. The miners came up with their own coping skills – group meetings, work, exercise, sharing etc – and were told they weren’t good enough. Even though they kept saying they were fine. A struggle ensued, the miners won, and now the psychiatrists are saying that they will all live lives of hellfire and damnation because they didn’t deal with their emotions and captivity the “right” way.

If I had to guess, I’d guess most of the miners will be just fine. They bonded with each other. They shared. They learned how strong they are. They probably got good and clear about what really matters to them in a way that rarely happens to those of us who never look death so squarely in the eye. They had an experience that, to them, was nothing short of miraculous. It’s the shrinks who are wringing their hands and losing sleep as they try to turn that collective experience into something that it wasn’t. They are applying their own fears, expectations and “expertise” to try and make other people think and feel something that they don’t.

And that never works. Why? Because there is no such thing as normal.

Maybe if we stopped labeling things, we’d be less disappointed when we opened them up and found out they aren’t what we were expecting.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2010 3:41 pm

    MRI brain imaging pinpoints deception
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11668840

  2. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    November 1, 2010 3:52 pm

    Cool! I love stuff like this….. but it doesn’t answer the hard (and fun) question of Why? And how? And what do we think will happen when we deceive? And why do we think that?

  3. Kristen permalink
    November 1, 2010 4:02 pm

    Have you read Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are? So much of what you’re talking about sounds exactly like what Buddhism works to help people do. See where you are at, recognize it, and find ways of letting go of the story we spin around how we feel and whether it’s “ok” or “good” or “bad.” I kept being reminded of this throughout your piece.

  4. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    November 1, 2010 4:27 pm

    I have often said that I am “the least Buddhist person you’ll ever meet,” only to have my Buddhist friends assure me that I am a born Buddhist. 🙂 I need to pick that up, maybe I’ll feel a little more normal then. 🙂

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