Hibernation / Science and Personal Fantasy

For all but approximately 3 years of my life I’ve lived in “bad winter” locations, and I like winter; it’s the length of the season that gets to me. So I fantasize about the ability to hibernate for a month or two. February is daunting, especially in this part of Wyoming, where the year’s snowfall tends to be delayed until March, April and into May. In other wintry places, one may think of February as the last step toward spring; for us, it’s a dead zone that means 3 more months of winter to go. I’ve also considered the notion that archaic humans, Neanderthals especially, may have entered states of “altered metabolism” during the worst climate / weather periods. Perhaps we call it depression today; perhaps mania too, was a “normal” state of intense activity in warm periods. Bipolar disorder has been investigated as a disruption to circadian rhythm cycles. 

And, getting enough quality sleep is a “modern social problem” that seriously affects health and performance. 

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Why Does Hibernating Make Animals Tired?

Hibernation tires animals out, because it may be more like wakefulness than previously thought.

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ezpnkj/why-does-hibernating-make-animals-tired

Matteo Cerri is a hibernation researcher at the University of Bologna, Italy. He is currently consulting for the European Space Agency about ways to make humans hibernate during long space missions.

Hibernating mammals are able to actively suppress their metabolism, meaning they can tell their body to use less energy. Hibernation is a marvelous physiological and molecular event, and it’s still a mystery how the behavior is activated and regulated. One of the most curious mysteries about hibernation that I and my fellow hibernation researchers are trying to answer is why hibernating animals are so tired when they wake up.

There are several types of hibernation, which can last an entire season or just a part of a day (this is called “torpor”), and can even happen when the ambient temperature is high (which is called “aestivation”).

For sure, the brain plays a key role in starting the entire chain of events, but how and which part is still unknown. Among the many unexpected facets of hibernation, one is incredibly surprising.

Traditionally, hibernation is commonly seen as a “big sleep,” a way for animals to stave winter off when no food is around. But it’s actually not. Hibernation is a state characterized by the active inhibition of metabolism, and in this state, the activity of the brain differs substantially from sleep and may in fact be closer to wakefulness than many people realize. Hibernators are known to wake up periodically from their “cold sleep,” and most people would think “it’s to eat, of course!”

But that is not the case. Hibernators don’t eat during hibernation season (and, for what it’s worth, they also don’t drink or produce any urine). So, why are they waking up? To check out the weather?

Electroencephalographic recordings of the brain of hibernators give a surprising answer: They wake up to sleep. And it’s not like they shift from hibernating to a nap. These animals wake up and pass out like they’re exhausted. Delta brainwave readings, which can be used to measure the deepness or intensity of sleep, show that animals that have just woken up from hibernation are indeed sleeping intensely.

This observation has been confirmed both in seasonal hibernators, such as golden-mantled ground squirrels and European ground squirrels, and in animals that perform torpor, such as the Djungarian hamster. Why this is the case is the subject of great debate among hibernation researchers, and it matters because my team and others around the world are working on research that could lead to the possibility of human hibernation. We’d like to know as much about the process as possible.

There are two main hypotheses. The first one suggests that sleep is such a deep and necessary process for the brain—that it serves such a vital role that the brain itself has to command the body out of hibernation to recover the sleep it’s lost during hibernation. In fact, the idea that hibernation is more similar to wakefulness than it is to sleep is the subject of a recent study conducted by me and some of my colleagues at the University of Bologna in Italy.

This hypothesis has been tested with an interesting experiment. If a scientist disturbed a hibernator of this “recovery sleep” for a few hours after it wakes up, then it stands to reason that after that the animal would make up for this time when it actually does fall asleep (it would sleep for the same total length of time as hibernating animals that weren’t deprived of sleep immediately after they woke up). if that sleep was so important, it would be recovered at the end of the deprivation period. In other words, if the animal had a sleep debt, that debt would have to paid, sooner or later.

The second hypothesis takes a different view of the whole process. Brain activity is strongly affected by hibernation, and the brain itself goes through some intense changes during hibernation. For instance, during hibernation, there is a process of disconnection of neurons. Many synapses are in fact re­absorbed by the brain in what is very similar to a transitory state of Alzheimer’s disease. This disconnection is quickly reversed after an animal wakes up, rewiring the brain in the same way it was before, which brings back all the information that was stored in the neurons.

During the re­connection process, which happens in the first few hours after an animal comes out of hibernation, the brain is in a highly plastic state. Therefore, it’s thought that the EEG activity that we see during these stages is not real “sleep,” but just a nonspecific pattern of neuronal reactivation. If this is the case, in the experiment described before, we should not see any recovery sleep after the sleep deprivation, which would suggest there’s not sleep debt in first place. In other words, hibernation wouldn’t actually be making the animals tired, they would simply sleep to reform these neural connections.

The experiment I’ve suggested has actually been performed, more than once. But the results are conflicting. A team at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, found evidence of sleep debt in hibernating animals. They even went as far as testing different durations of sleep deprivation, and showed that, during torpor, sleep debt accumulates 2.75 times slower than during wakefulness.

A separate experiment by a team at Berkeley and Stanford reported that no rebound was observed after sleep deprivation, and so did teams from the University of Alaska and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

How can we explain the conflicting results? They looked at different animals. The Zurich group looked at the Djungarian hamster, while the Berkeley group looked at the ground squirrel. The main difference between the two species is that hamsters undergo daily torpor (hibernation that lasts less than 24 hours), while ground squirrels are seasonal hibernators.

So, the answer to our initial question is that we still don’t know why animals fall asleep immediately after they wake up from hibernating. No more experiments on the topic have been conducted since the ones I described. But, my own work at the University of Bologna in Italy has supported the idea that brain activity during torpor or hibernation is more similar to wakefulness than it is to sleep.

In this experiment, a torpor-­like state was induced for the first time in a rat, a non-­hibernator (our goal is to eventually open the way to human hibernation in the not-so-near future). Brain activity recordings in this kind of suspended animation state did indeed resemble activity during wakefulness, but the activity became slower and slower as body temperature decreased, as if the frames of a movie were being projected slower and slower as the movie progressed.

No one knows what it’s like to be in a state of hibernation, and we don’t know if hibernators are still somewhat conscious. Perhaps if we can teach ourselves to hibernate, we’ll learn the answer. In the meantime, I’m hoping that research on this topic will flourish again.

You’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is Motherboard’s exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.

Everything sounds better in Italian, including English… Note the importance (and revelation) that synaptic connectivity is plastic…

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A revelation about being Asperger / Chronic Pain

I had a bad day today. What does that mean? Pain.

I had never looked at bad days as being identifiable in terms of pain. I see “problems to solve” as the source of discontent, disruption, a bad mood – the badness in a bad day. I experience physical pain (sometimes intense) at the same time; maybe a meltdown. How could I not connect the two?

Today I could identify that bad days are not discrete events, but wave tops of continuous, chronic pain. I could suddenly see that this has been the pattern, since childhood. This was a connection I had never before made. This connection must be shown visually.

— Such that the wave crest is maximum pain (a meltdown); the wave trough, is the absence of pain: the path of the wave describes chronic pain. I didn’t see the continuous nature of pain because I ignore (am unaware of, don’t feel) the pain between the peaks and troughs.  As is often said of Asperger types, there is pain we don’t feel; there is pain we do feel. Our response to pain is “eccentric.” There is a “threshold” at work in this experience of pain.

Something else is familiar about the “highs and lows” of this wave: Years ago I was diagnosed bipolar. Since the discovery that I’m Asperger, I have suspected that bipolar was a mistaken diagnosis. Could this “wave pattern” of chronic pain (stress induced?) “look like” bipolar mood swings and engender the belief that bipolar is co-morbid with being Asperger? My proposed “Asperger Wave” is actually the inverse of bipolar swings: The peak is extreme pain, the valley is pleasure.

The next question is, What is the origin of chronic pain? 

I’m off to consult the Wizard… 

 

Domestication and Reproductive Change / Grandin

Behavioral Genetics and Animal Science

TEMPLE GRANDIN AND MARK J. DEESING

Department of Animal Science,  Colorado State University,  Fort Collins, Colorado. Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals /  Academic Press 1998

Much, much more at: http://www.grandin.com/references/genetics.html

GENETIC EFFECTS OF DOMESTICATION

Price (1984) defined domestication as a process by which a population of animals becomes adapted to man and the captive environment by some combination of genetic changes occurring over generations and environmentally induced developmental events recurring during each generation: In long-term selection experiments designed to study the consequences of selection for the tame domesticated type of behavior, Belyaev (1979) and Belyaev et al. (1981) studied foxes reared for their fur. The red fox (Vulpes fulva) has been raised on seminatural fur farms for over 100 years and was selected for fur traits and not behavioral traits. However, they demonstrate three distinctly different characteristic responses to man. Thirty percent were extremely aggressive toward man, 60% were either fearful or fearfully aggressive, and 10% displayed a quiet exploratory reaction without either fear or aggression. (Note how individual foxes have varied temperaments – as do humans.) The objective of this experiment was to breed animals similar in behavior to the domestic dog. By selecting and breeding the tamest individuals, 20 years later the experiment succeeded in turning wild foxes into tame, border collie-like fox-dogs. The highly selected “tame” population of (fox-dog) foxes actively sought human contact and would whine and wag their tails when people approached (Belyaev 1979). This behavior was in sharp contrast to wild foxes which showed extremely aggressive and fearful behavior toward man. Keeler et al. (1970) described this behavior:

Vulpes fulva (the wild fox) is a bundle of jangled nerves. We had observed that when first brought into captivity as an adult, the red fox displays a number of symptoms that are in many ways similar to those observed in psychosis. They resemble a wide variety of phobias, especially fear of open spaces, movement, white objects, sounds, eyes or lenses, large objects, and man, and they exhibit panic, anxiety, fear, apprehension and a deep trust of the environment~ They are 1) catalepsy-like frozen positions, accompanied by blank stares; 2) fear of sitting down; 3) withdrawal; 4) runaway flight reactions; and 5) aggressiveness. Sometimes the strain of captivity makes them deeply disturbed and confused, or may produce a depression- like state. Extreme excitation and restlessness may also be observed in some individuals in response to many changes in the physical environment. Most adult red foxes soon after capture break off their canine teeth on the mesh of our expanded metal cage in their attempts to escape. A newly captured fox is known to have torn at the wooden door of his cage in a frenzy until he dropped dead from exhaustion.

This is a good description of how Aspergers react to social confinement.

Although the stress of domestication is great, Belyaev (1979) and Belyaev et al. (1981) concluded that selection for tameness was effective in spite of the many undesirable characteristics associated with tameness. For example, the tame foxes shed during the wrong season and developed black and white patterned fur, and changes were found in their hormone profiles.

This means that the monoestrus (once a year) cycle of reproduction was disturbed and the animals would breed at any time of the year

(This change in the accelerated rate of reproduction is also seen in domesticated humans!)

Furthermore, changes in behavior occurred simultaneously with changes in tail position and ear shape, and the appearance of a white muzzle, forehead blaze, and white shoulder hair. The white color pattern on the head is similar to many domestic animals (Belyaev 1979) (Figs. 1.1 and 1.2). The most dog-like foxes had white spots and patterns on their heads, drooping ears, and curled tails and looked more like dogs than the foxes that avoided people. The behavioral and morphological (appearance) changes were also correlated with corresponding changes in the levels of gender hormones. The tame foxes had higher levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin (Popova et al., 1975). Serotonin is known to inhibit some kinds of aggression (Belyaev, 1979), and serotonin ~levels are increased in the brains of people who take Prozac (fluoxetine). (The carpet-bombing of U.S. citizens by pharmacology can be seen as an attempt to further domesticate “unruly” or non-conforming Americans) 

The study of behavioral genetics can help explain why selection for calm temperament was linked to physical and neurochemical changes in Belyaev’s foxes. Behavior geneticists and animal scientists are interested in understanding effects on behavior due to genetic influences or those which are due to environment and learning.

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Comment: Homo sapiens sapiens (Neurotypicals) are domesticated Homo sapiens. Selection for tameness was necessary due to settlement in agricultural communities and urbanization. As females were domesticated, fertile periods increased drastically, from once per year to monthly; world population grew rapidly, requiring ever more extreme selection for “tame” behavior, or as it is called today, social behavior. Unfortunately, domestication has not produced healthy humans nor peaceful social environments. It has also led to a decrease in intelligence. 

50 Inaccurate PSYCH Words Exposed / Frontiers in Psychology

AT LAST! Honest talk about sloppy, self-serving and misleading claims.  Of particular significance to anyone diagnosed with Autism or Asperger’s.

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Frontiers in Psychology / 03 August 2015

The rest of the 50 terms can be read here: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01100/full/

Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases

  • 1Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
  • 2Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, USA
  • 3Binghamton University – State University of New York, Binghamton, NY, USA
  • 4Department of Psychology, Sacred Heart College, Fairfield, CT, USA

“The goal of this article is to promote clear thinking and clear writing among students and teachers of psychological science by curbing terminological misinformation and confusion. To this end, we present a provisional list of 50 commonly used terms in psychology, psychiatry, and allied fields that should be avoided, or at most used sparingly and with explicit caveats. We provide corrective information for students, instructors, and researchers regarding these terms, which we organize for expository purposes into five categories: inaccurate or misleading terms, frequently misused terms, ambiguous terms, oxymorons, and pleonasms. For each term, we (a) explain why it is problematic, (b) delineate one or more examples of its misuse, and (c) when pertinent, offer recommendations for preferable terms. By being more judicious in their use of terminology, psychologists and psychiatrists can foster clearer thinking in their students and the field at large regarding mental phenomena.”

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” (Confucius, The Analects)

(3) Autism epidemic. Enormous effort has been expended to uncover the sources of the “autism epidemic” (e.g., King, 2011), the supposed massive increase in the incidence and prevalence of autism, now termed autism spectrum disorder, over the past 25 years. The causal factors posited to be implicated in this “epidemic” have included vaccines, television viewing, dietary allergies, antibiotics, and viruses.

Nevertheless, there is meager evidence that this purported epidemic reflects a genuine increase in the rates of autism per se as opposed to an increase in autism diagnoses stemming from several biases and artifacts, including heightened societal awareness of the features of autism (“detection bias”), growing incentives for school districts to report autism diagnoses, and a lowering of the diagnostic thresholds for autism across successive editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Gernsbacher et al., 2005; Lilienfeld and Arkowitz, 2007). Indeed, data indicate when the diagnostic criteria for autism were held constant, the rates of this disorder remained essentially constant between 1990 and 2010 (Baxter et al., 2015). If the rates of autism are increasing, the increase would appear to be slight at best, hardly justifying the widespread claim of an “epidemic.”

(4) Brain region X lights up. Many authors in the popular and academic literatures use such phrases as “brain area X lit up following manipulation Y” (e.g., Morin, 2011). This phrase is unfortunate for several reasons. First, the bright red and orange colors seen on functional brain imaging scans are superimposed by researchers to reflect regions of higher brain activation.

They are NOT a product of the scan, but ADDED as graphic emphasis. (ie, technically “fake”)

Nevertheless, they may engender a perception of “illumination” in viewers. Second, the activations represented by these colors do not reflect neural activity per se; they reflect oxygen uptake by neurons and are at best indirect proxies of brain activity. Even then, this linkage may sometimes be unclear or perhaps absent (Ekstrom, 2010). Third, in almost all cases, the activations observed on brain scans are the products of subtraction of one experimental condition from another. Hence, they typically do not reflect the raw levels of neural activation in response to an experimental manipulation. For this reason, referring to a brain region that displays little or no activation in response to an experimental manipulation as a “dead zone” (e.g., Lamont, 2008) is similarly misleading. Fourth, depending on the neurotransmitters released and the brain areas in which they are released, the regions that are “activated” in a brain scan may actually be being inhibited rather than excited (Satel and Lilienfeld, 2013). Hence, from a functional perspective, these areas may be being “lit down” rather than “lit up.”

(7) Chemical imbalance. Thanks in part to the success of direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns by drug companies, the notion that major depression and allied disorders are caused by a “chemical imbalance” of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, has become a virtual truism in the eyes of the public (France et al., 2007; Deacon and Baird, 2009). This phrase even crops up in some academic sources; for example, one author wrote that one overarching framework for conceptualizing mental illness is a “biophysical model that posits a chemical imbalance” (Wheeler, 2011, p. 151). Nevertheless, the evidence for the chemical imbalance model is at best slim (Lacasse and Leo, 2005; Leo and Lacasse, 2008). One prominent psychiatrist even dubbed it an urban legend (Pies, 2011). There is no known “optimal” level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so it is unclear what would constitute an “imbalance.” Nor is there evidence for an optimal ratio among different neurotransmitter levels. Moreover, although serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), appear to alleviate the symptoms of severe depression, there is evidence that at least one serotonin reuptake enhancer, namely tianepine (Stablon), is also efficacious for depression (Akiki, 2014). The fact that two efficacious classes of medications exert opposing effects on serotonin levels raises questions concerning a simplistic chemical imbalance model.

(23) Psychiatric control group. NOT a true control group! This phrase and similar phrases (e.g., “normal control group,” “psychopathological control group”) connote erroneously that (a) groups of ostensibly normal individuals or mixed psychiatric patients who are being compared with (b) groups of individuals with a disorder of interest (e.g., schizophrenia, major depression) are true “control” groups. They are not. They are “comparison groups” and should be referred to accordingly. The phrase “control group” in this context may leave readers with the unwarranted impression that the design of the study is experimental when it is actually quasi-experimental. Just as important, this term may imply that the only difference between the two groups (e.g., a group of patients with anxiety disorder and a group of ostensibly normal individuals) is the presence or absence of the disorder of interest. In fact, these two groups almost surely differ on any number of “nuisance” variables, such as personality traits, co-occurring disorders, and family background, rendering the interpretation of most group differences open to multiple interpretations (Meehl, 1969).

Asperger Individuals Accused of being Old-Fashioned / Updated

Re-Post from 2015; Re-Post and updated again: 11/2017 

To say that man is a social animal is to say that he never lives in a world of his own choosing.

Gresham Sykes

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Not too long ago I was contacted by a friend from high school via a Facebook account I thought I had closed. Like some world-devouring alien monster, Facebook never lets you go. I faced a dilemma in answering her question: Where have you been all these years?

I actually had little to say: as a concrete visual thinker, a stream of pictures flew through my mind, but to verbalize these fragments would be like trying to restore an ancient mosaic floor in a ruined Roman villa, including all the human events that it had supported; parties, sunny lazy days, Roman matrons fussing over decorative details.  As the restorer of my life I know what the mosaic  portrays – perhaps Poseidon sinking a ship, with playful dolphins rescuing the drowning crew, but an onlooker sees nothing but disconnected patches that may suggest waves or the eye of a gigantic octopus.

The “missing parts” may be the most important parts of the story.

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http://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaics-miscellaneous/unswept-floor-mosaic/

A wonderful excursion into a particular Roman mosaic style known as: The Unswept Floor. 

Thanks to Pliny the Elder we also know that there was at least one other Unswept Floor mosaic in antiquity dating to the second century AD: The most famous in that genre was Sosos who laid at Pergamon what is called the asarotos oikos or unswept room, because on the pavement were represented the débris of a meal, and those things which are normally swept away, as if they had been left there, made of small tesserae of many colours. – Pliny, Natural History 36.184. 

 

Unswept Floor detail with fish head and skeleton, 1st century, Aquileia, Italy.

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My friend remembered me as I was in high school, several life changes ago.

This “social” event brought on confusion: she remembered who I was better than I do. Anecdotes piled on anecdotes: I’d obviously spent a lot of time with her, but remembered none of it. Apparently I’d eaten her mother’s Swedish cooking; we went to parties, studied for the SAT, wore bizarre clothing, spent days at the beach and the city, and flirted with boys: the normal things kids do. All I could do was respond periodically, “Oh, yeah, that was fun” or “I can’t believe we did that.”

fb hs

Who the Hell was I?

What I remember of high school is quite different: high anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and interludes of OCD and depression, and then, in late sophomore year, the person she remembers appeared: mild mania took over as if “the gods” had taken pity on me and concocted a dazzling new persona to replace my previously unhappy existence. I suspect that emerging bipolar symptoms were the consequence of enduring high levels of stress during childhood, including a severe allergy to social indoctrination. Asperger’s disorder wasn’t on anyone’s radar way back then.

I now doubt that I was ever strictly, technically bipolar; “meltdowns” are a much better description for most of what I experienced in childhood and into adulthood – and even today, as an “old” person.

No one noticed me at all, except when my behavior made me socially visible. Attention was negative, whether or not it was excellent grades at school or a bout of panic, anxiety or sensory overload. I learned to avoid attention; many Asperger children likely feel the same. In a backhanded way this lack of help with my particular personality “eccentricities” required that I learn to help myself, a big asset in an increasingly chaotic and dysfunctional American culture. Developing adult behavior, which is deemed “defective” by psychologists, was actually an asset. (Wow! Is that an indictment of American child-rearing?)

Many social children want attention so badly that they will “behave badly” in order to have someone notice them. After all, who does our society pay attention to? Psychopaths, sociopaths, serial killers, the morally bankrupt, the illegally rich and narcissistic parasites. Liars. And these predators rarely suffer consequences unless they are poor and minorities.

We live in a claustrophobic society that offers few options for creating an authentic individual. Children are competing for attention with inhabitants of a “digital”  reality that presents war, brutality and interpersonal violence as “entertainment”. It’s pervasive: “heroes” are monstrous male machines that murder everyone in sight, or equally perverted predatory females who are “turned on” by sexual aggression. These scenarios are concocted by the vast resources of corporations; the media, social media, the film and fashion industries, the advertising industry and gaming. A destructive system has emerged in which the attention that every child needs from its parents and important adults in their environment, has become a mass media environment that inverts the normal process.  Adults are thoroughly engaged by violent entertainment aimed at children, and children are parented by supernatural characters on the digital screen. American children are taught that “normal and acceptable” behavior, – and morality – (actually, the utter lack of) is modeled by imaginary inhuman characters that demonstrate the worst behavior imaginable.

The refusal on the part of adults (as perpetual children themselves) to impart to growing children moral competence, life skills, self-security, and most of all, awareness of the difference between material objects and real, live human beings, is astounding. The treatment of human beings as objects that may be abused, tortured and murdered, merely to fulfill a sick pleasure that drives seekers of power, is rightfully pornography. Children are taught that the natural need for love and guidance can be fulfilled by violence, domination, cruelty, bullying and that the pain and anger that results from this betrayal can be “solved” by insane lashing out at other human beings.

Asperger children are “accused” of being “too adult and old-fashioned” – which reveals  the prejudice toward children who reject a culture built on lies and inversions about equal opportunity, fair dealings, and truthful communication. After all, these are requirements for democratic government, which the United States abandoned long ago, if it ever was a democratic society, which would be difficult to demonstrate.

 

Sam Harris, Lying, 2011 Old-fashioned? Honesty never goes out of style. 

Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.

To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.

Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.

Who’s Safe With a Gun? Don’t Ask a Shrink

The Daily Beast, May 2013 Background Checks

guns-mattel-swscan08492

Forget any guidance from psychiatry’s bible, the DSM-5, when it comes to background checks for gun buyers, writes the psychotherapist author of The Book of Woe. (Gary Greenburg)

Many years ago, a man I was seeing in therapy decided he wanted to take up a new hobby: high explosives. The state he lived in licensed purchasers of dynamite and other incendiaries only after a background check. He wanted to know: Would I write a letter declaring him fit to blow up stuff in his backyard for fun?

Aside from the fact that this was how he wanted to pass the weekend, I didn’t have any reason to think otherwise, so I gave him the note. He got the license. A few years after he stopped seeing me, I had occasion to visit him at his office. He had all his digits and limbs and, to my knowledge, had committed no antisocial acts with his legally obtained explosives. My note attesting to his mental health was framed on his wall.

I’ve been thinking about this guy recently, ever since our politicians’ imaginations have fastened upon background checks as the solution to our gun problems. I’ve also been thinking about a couple of other patients. One of them, a middle-aged professional, a ramrod-straight retired Marine, father of a little girl, faithful husband, the kind of man who buys a special lockbox just for transporting his weapon between home and gun club. The other: a 27-year-old hothead, an absentee father who never met a drug or a woman he didn’t like. His idea of fun was riding his motorcycle between lanes on the interstate at 100 mph, and he was the proud owner of (by his count) 37 guns. In the three years prior to arriving at my office, he’d been fired from four jobs, arrested for six or seven driving offenses and a few drug charges, and helped to bury three of his friends who met untimely and violent ends.

No one asked me which of these two men I’d rather was a gun owner, let alone which one ought to have a firearms license. But I know what my answer would have been. Or I would have known until about a year ago, when the ex-Marine, inexplicably and without warning (although he’d just been put on an antidepressant as part of a treatment for chronic pain), sat at the base of the tree holding his favorite deer perch and shot himself in the mouth. Meantime, the hothead has cooled down. He’s been with the same woman for two years and the same job for one. He sees his son faithfully twice a week. He’s sold his motorcycle and more than half of his guns, and become obsessed with bodybuilding and responsibility. The transformation is not complete—he’s still dead certain the government wants to come to his house and confiscate what’s left of his arsenal, for instance—and I can’t take too much credit for it. He’s pursuing the pleasures of self-control with the same manic intensity as he once chased adrenaline. But I’m not all that worried about his guns anymore, and I’m really glad no one asked me if he should have them.

Because one thing they don’t teach you in therapy school: how to tell the future. Clinicians can assemble a story out of the ashes of a person’s life; we might even be able to spot what we think are the seeds of catastrophe, but we generally do that best in retrospect. And that’s why, if one of us insists he or she knows for sure what’s coming next, you should find another therapist. It’s also why, to the extent that background checks involve people like me, it wouldn’t do much more than reassure politicians that they are doing something about gun violence without simultaneously threatening their National Rifle Association ratings.

But wait a minute, you may be saying. Don’t mental-health workers have a whole huge book of diagnoses to turn to that can help you assess a person’s fitness to own a gun? No, we don’t. We have the book, of course, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is about to come out in its fifth edition. But while some of those disorders seem incompatible with responsible gun ownership, even a diagnosis of a severe mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder isn’t a good predictor of who is going to become violent. Indeed, only about 4 percent of violent crimes are committed by mentally ill people. We are not going to diagnose our way to safety.

There’s a reason for this. A diagnosis of a mental disorder is only a description of a person’s troubles. A neurologist presented with a patient suffering loss of coordination and muscle weakness can run tests and diagnose amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or a brain tumor. They can explain the symptoms and predict with some accuracy what will happen as the disease takes its expected course. The 200 or so diagnoses in the DSM, on the other hand, explain little and predict less. Until the book contains a diagnosis called Mass Slaughter Disorder, whose criteria would include having committed mass slaughter, it’s not going to offer much guidance on the subject, and, obviously, what guidance it provides is going to come too late.

With the mentally disordered, as with all of us (and let’s remember that in any given year, something like 30 percent of us will meet criteria for a mental disorder, and 11 percent of us are on antidepressants right now), there is no telling what will happen next. No matter how many diagnoses are in the DSM, and no matter how astutely they are used, they will not tell us in whose hands guns are safe. The psyche is more unfathomable, and evil more wily, than any doctor or any book.

 

 

 

The Road to My Father’s Death / RAW DAYS

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Freedom is never free.

It’s more than a road that I follow to death’s door. Ahead lies night a continent across – a corridor of loneliness, of absence, and of terror that will return me to my father’s presence. How shall I conquer my own Dark Continent to be at his side, a frightened traveler who confronts an impossible journey, one that is tangled by the difficulties that complicate a personal and fond farewell?

Someone lend me an undivided heart to guide my actions, so that I may show those who attend him that his daughter has not turned out too badly. Let the darkness ahead yield its depth and fold a pocket in which to conceal a breaking heart. Then let my grief be sealed by time, as if there is no mystery to our departures.

My world was injured by driving east to Rawlins, Laramie, and the familiar streets of Cheyenne, where common sense asked me to stay the night, but ahead lay a spiral galaxy that turned toward my father’s death, and I must ride the circumference of that terrible disk in some way.

The truck sped beyond the border of Wyoming and into the Pine Bluffs of Nebraska, where we stopped at the first rest area. The dogs dragged me into the petrified blackness that was transparent to their senses, tugging me along the ghost trails of summer visitors, the dead grass sending aloft stale messages of happy journeys; family trips. The cold wind briefly chilled my fears of what lay within the night of the dark road, and we drove on.

One hundred miles farther we left the highway for the lights of a prairie town; its main street was as efficient as a rifle barrel and lined with cafes and comfortable motels where I might close my eyes to the nerve-wracking night, perhaps to awaken to the comfort of a blue and friendly morning, but I fed my fast food dinner to the dogs while pumping gas at a brightly-lit service station where young Friday-nighters were fueling their vehicles for fun. The black cold emptiness of the prairie was their arena: I was a stranger who counted the distance to my father’s death in gallons of gasoline.

By winter’s clock the terrible darkness was only a summer’s evening, but by my father’s way of thinking, rest was forbidden when so many miles could yet be taken up as if the truck were hauling in a rope that ended at his door. Suddenly, my head floated away over my right shoulder, tethered to the rest of me by the slightest will. Familiar furies escaped from the long-locked suitcase of former journeys and fear seeped in confusing colors between the cracks in my growing disarray. There it was – overwhelming panic and I knew that the road had closed for me as surely as if the highway had been ripped up by its roots.

Familiar Cheyenne was an easy two hours behind us, but it was a distance that seemed unreachable without the sight of the smooth prairie to channel my senses, which had become ungovernable in the claustrophobic night. At that moment I wanted to drive the entire distance home, passing Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins: a great distance with nothing but the cold dark and my anxiety to fill the space between sparse towns strung out along the interstate.

In night-abandoned Cheyenne I found a room with the indecent charm of an interrogation cell. A television set that hung from the ceiling by chains buzzed incessantly. A heater was stuck on cold, rattle, and blow. The dogs had to be dragged through the door, which was a threshold of terror for them also. After long minutes of hysteria, they crowded around me on the frigid bed, and I hung onto them through the night, paralyzed by my own stunning fear of the black road to my father’s death that waited outside.

In the early, early brightness, we fled. A minute’s delay might have broken my glassy hold on the steering wheel. Westward we fled, into the shining mountain plains of Wyoming, into a lens of the whitest fog that had engulfed the town of Laramie. The truck burrowed through that heavenly cloud; a brief journey through peace, but the phone call to my father’s death waited at home and the disgrace of my flight caused my heart to beat wretchedly.

Home: a slow and quiet Saturday afternoon. I ached to be invisible to my neighbors. I wanted to drive into the country where failure has no meaning, but I parked behind the house – a place of poor countenance – a yard of packed mud that somehow gives life to an old broken cottonwood. Why, out of all the miles of western brush and rock is this place home, when any scrap of earth could do as well?

It came to one moment on that dark road to my father’s death, when in panic I traveled the wrong way: not east, from Nebraska to Iowa and Illinois, but back to Wyoming, across the mystical, psychological, soul-bounding border of a hidden corner, to renew my exile in a waste of yellow rock and twisted board houses. None of this was new: I had come west, the wrong way from a daughter’s duty, many years before.

Knowledge folded over me as gentle truth. (Yes, the universe is gentle, eventually.) I hid in the house, hating winter’s early dark. The scene outdoors rippled with change as sunlight worked its way through empty snow clouds. The asphalt street glistened briefly. An old shoe that the dogs have worried to death, and an elk rack propped upright in a barren flowerbed, ought to have comforted me, but it was time to call my father.

His voice sounded oddly high-pitched and raspy, as if a little Egyptian mummy had taken his place. He began by recalling the age at which his father had succumbed, which was sixty-nine. At this far end of the lesson, his mind had returned to counting age in the way of a child and he noted that he had turned eighty-three and a half on Halloween. I wanted to say that eighty-four would come, but couldn’t. Instead I recounted my strange trip; the tide of panic, the terror that I might complete my own journey of death, which had begun five years before. He agreed, but without evident emotion, that I had done well to turn back. Perhaps he had come to expect disappointment from me, but he said that he was glad that I was home and safe and not playing again with chance on that dark road. It was unthinkable to turn around in the night, away from my father’s death, but I had.

Some quiet devil within wanted to know why he didn’t beg me to come home, to share his last dark night, as a daughter should, but he transferred the phone to my brother, who barely disguised his relief at my failure to appear, letting me know how unimportant to him that I had become. Something like a gravity wave passed through my pain, making concrete the fact that my behavior had often been irresponsible. Not in advance, but in retreat, lay progress.

Last night my father was moved into a nursing wing of the hospital. He described the room as being empty except for a hospital bed and a television set, which he complained was too loud.

“I don’t know where your brother is today,” he said. “He’s all upset again.”

“Over money.” I said. My parents had always funded him: I knew that there would be a wretched mess over that later.

“Yes,” he said.

We talked about the coming week, about his treatment schedule and when he might go home. The ability to walk unaided has become an important chimera, but he’s grateful for not being in pain, radiation treatments having knocked back a tumor that encroached on his spine. His raspy voice unsettled me – what is the cause? But the cause is that he is very ill.

His beard has grown too long to shave it by himself, he said. A nurse popped in just then to give him a wash up, which cut our visit short. An image lingered after I hung up the phone, of a cheerful young woman carrying a basin of water as if entering a temple. How has it come to pass that a stranger is more intimate with my father than I have been? Shouldn’t the Good Daughter serve at his bedside, my children gathered like birds in my skirts, to show him, and the world, that life goes on? But I have created no such family, no best accomplishment. Neither has my brother. Crazy ends here.

At the end our relationship was no little different than it had been during the years that we had traded the rinds of our minds over telephones scattered around the West, linked to the one in his kitchen, exchanging factoids about automobile maintenance, home repair, and amazing artifacts from the sciences, so I made a point of thanking him for moving the family in the 1950s to a suburb of Chicago, where my brother and I had access to good schools.

“Growing up where we did provided a foundation for my life that wasn’t only practical, but…”

“Spiritual,” he rasped.

As far as I could remember, my father had not uttered this word ever, but it was apt, coming from the man who had taught me that there is something outside the human ego that must be acknowledged as preceding us and outlasting us. A shared reverence for nature’s depths had helped two damaged people fumble toward love. My mother and brother were alien beings who existed outside reason and were therefore, dangerous.

Compelled by an obsession to make something useful out of everything, I had studied the two as if they were rogue planets, convinced that one more observation might bring them into the realm of order, but nothing is ever solved. People just pass away.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

I had no idea I was Asperger at the time I wrote this, but today I see AS as the primary ground of my “differentness”. I believe that many Asberger symptoms are the result of an attempt by the brain to “adjust” to stress created by my dysfunctional family and to The Social Pyramid, an alien environment that is toxic to “people like me.”

My brother was schizophrenic, in denial, refused treatment, and lived with our parents, who enabled his paranoia and protected him from consequences of his disease. He attacked me viciously whenever I turned up, like a rabid fox protecting a hallucination. My parents never intervened, and let him abuse me, as well as adding dashes of abuse of their own, so I stayed away for years at a time.

I didn’t piece together until much later that my father was an “obvious” Asperger – and that I was also, which eventually led to a diagnosis. This revelation explained so much about my childhood that was inexplicable, tellingly, that I understood intuitively that my father’s “odd behavior” was familiar, and yet, it wasn’t. I was aware that my behavior was “out of sync” and constantly pursued the subject; my family didn’t seem to have a scrap of insight. This bizarre situation became a lifelong laboratory that helped to develop my thinking skills.

Despite being bipolar and Asperger, I was the healthy one in the family: the observer, the analyzer, the recorder and decoder, the documentarian. Survivor’s guilt accompanied my daring escape.

 

 

 

At my father’s house in Illinois / RAW DAYS

 

At My Father’s House in Illinois

I am accustomed to writing about landscape, but at present the internal picture takes precedence. The outer view encompasses a gray-skied, bare-treed, cold and windy Midwestern midwinter day. Longing overwhelms my inner state and I am thankful that the land is bleak. A blue sky over red cliffs, shadowed hills, or a dark, abrupt mountain side might provoke an unbearable contrast to the lock that despair has placed on my heart.

A fir tree composed of a gently curving trunk, its branches resembling dogs’ tails, stands in front of my truck. I start the engine periodically and slide the heater lever far to the right to counter cold air that sinks through the windows. My brother paces outside, indifferent to the cold. He is not lazy per se, but for some reason he is not productive either, expending energy on the complications that can be made to adhere to any project, and in the process, derailing his efforts into lost canyons. I confess that this compulsion baffles me. A monthly flea market located west of Chicago attracts thousands of buyers, come rain, snow, or as we have joked, nuclear attack, but my brother will not sell there.  He mentioned a dealer with whom he had a disagreement of some sort, hinting that the man had stalked him afterward: that is, he showed up at the same place once or twice. This was years ago, but he will not sell at that market.

Today we have dragged a trailer load of goods to the parking lot of an antiques store, the same store my brother refused to venture into last week. He sent me instead, carrying a box of things to sell. The owner was not in. I waited for an hour, passing the time by dusting egg cups and figurines, and straightening doilies.

My brother urged me to repeat the effort some days later, but I declined. Surprisingly, and to his profit, he went himself, but last night he refused to attend an auction that this same store owner frequents.

I look through the windshield at the gray Illinois sky to where my brother leans against the flank of my truck. Rotund and nearly fifty, with a gray knit cap squashed over his forehead, his greasy black hair straggling from beneath it, he wears a surplus parka with a rip in the sleeve and many stains on the front. He tilts his face toward the dark snow-spitting sky, and I notice that his eyeglasses are dirty, too. He smiles at me and I smile at him. Two people could not be more unalike, but nevertheless, we are family.

Winter’s box besets my father’s house. Barricaded by black trees, it is impossible for me to know what transpires in the larger world. A storm cloaked northern Illinois with ice during the night, and a thick skin mimics the shape of my truck. A red concrete goose, a lost daughter of Juno’s flock, is stationed at the entry to the house; she acquires a mantle of white wood ash that drifts above the sidewalk. The source is a trowel held in my father’s hand.

Last night my brother scrubbed the kitchen floor and I swept the porch. My father knows that we’ll track the mess inside, and yet he shakes the ashes onto the walk like some medicine man describing a chant.

A patch of blue sky can be seen for the first time in days, just above the tangled black oaks growing at the edge of the lot. A small forest begins there, dense and unlovely, like lines of type overprinted by a printer that is stuck. When I was nine years old my father ditched his mother and sister as if they were nothing. The shock of this event caused me to flee to the perimeter of the Garden, but his harsh judgment of the women followed me there, worn into my thoughts like hollows in the rocks beneath a waterfall. My father taught me that contrary to Christian conceit, it is not a supernatural Father that picks and chooses who among us shall suffer, but our earthly one.

Spring ought to have made gains, but the days remain gray and ice-sheathed. Without notice, something sharp and cautionary breaks through. Impulses one could call manic threaten the compliant and silent demeanor I have cultivated these many weeks. Happy hysteria is feared and yet longed for; the green brightness within has become something to withhold – a peculiar, protective, irrational impulse in someone who badly needs a lift.

Tiles fall away from a tub surround that is black in places with mold. Chunks of plaster tumble into the tub. I shower anyway, feeling a shadow of guilt by doing this healthy and normal thing. According to my father and brother, my insistence on bathing is ruining the tub enclosure; the extra and unneeded water will hasten the rot. The two calculate that by not bathing they can delay making repairs indefinitely. I recall seeing my brother with damp hair on two occasions; my father never, but he hasn’t much hair.

My father cuts deadfall with a chainsaw this morning. The branches are about three inches in diameter. He cuts enough to fill the bottom of an old wheelbarrow, and then rolls it up the lawn to the screened porch, which is sealed by plastic sheets that remain in summer. Unavailable as a bug-free haven, the space is reserved for makeshift stacks of scrap wood, which he loads into the fireplace day and night, winter and summer, like bodies into a crematorium. It is my observation that neither the heat gained, nor the life of the flames, propel what he calls recycling.

Broken pallets and dismembered furniture, roof shingles and plastic are burned as a sacrifice to the darker purpose of being perverse for perversity’s sake: he punishes the air we breath in order to punish us. The abundant deadfall is the result of my father’s indifference to the health of the trees on his lot, which are not trimmed, shaped, sprayed, or removed when dead. Infested branches plummet audibly to the ground. Several metal rods dot the yard, each with a rusted can balanced on top, marking where volunteer trees grew long ago from the seeds of a rotted hickory. My father marked them in this way in order to avoid mowing them down. He may have done so anyway: regardless, they died. I offered to remove the rods and cans that remain, but was forbidden to do so.

We never mention my mother, but I thought of her tonight as I plucked giant yellow tulips from the yard in front of my father’s house. The tulips grow in the lawn along a line that marks a relict garden, which is why I thought of my mother. It was only to remark how she would have liked to see the flowers, but as they were before she died, when the lawn was mowed, the beds were readied for planting, and weeds were kept at bay. A section of sidewalk has subsided so that a fault scarp, as well as a pair of overturned urns, must be negotiated on the way to the door. Next to the stoop, a crater of unknown origin is being colonized by bright cones of convallaria that erupt through ferns that lie brown and prostrate as if blown down by an explosion. We never mention my mother, as if there had always been just the three of us.

My brother and I searched the yard for scrap materials to build flower boxes – anything to focus my attention. Our contact over the last three months has been like that of wild animals forced to drink from the same small water hole. At one point I looked at him and wondered, What’s wrong with clean clothes, a hair cut, and polished eyeglasses? Just then a spasmodic cough overcame him: I turned to face a giant pear tree dressed in thousands of fragrant white blossoms. Where did this apparition of life, this white tower of profuse flowers come from in such a place?

My brother halted every few feet on his way to the house to bend over and cough. Whatever is wrong with him, it is none of my business, although if he were an acquaintance or a stranger, I would ask. His health is yet another part of the family’s world from which I am excluded, a world where nothing is open to discussion.

The drive home from town lends a reprieve when the highway crosses a valley edged by low glacial ridges. The view ahead clears and the sight of a narrow asphalt thread snaking eastward toward my father’s house reminds me of roads that cross western plains. The rolling gray road lets me know that I belong to the universe, not to my family nor to anyone else.

My existence tears and flutters like tissue, and yet I survive. Last night I checked inside, looked into the goo that resides at the bottom of the well. The stuff began to rise like a gas bubble in heavy oil and strange things appeared as it broke the surface; bouquets of sea creatures appeared black and metallic, and yet glinted with color. A nuclear wind reduced me to a crouching corpse transformed into a lump of ash. I breathed a short gasping breath. Someone spoke and I was encouraged: my father entered the room where I cowered in bed.

“I’m in bad shape,” I told him, a confession of weakness that pegged me as the perfect audience for a monologue about what a clever lad he had been. The man possesses a remarkable memory for data such as the height of the fence posts at his childhood home, or the dimensions of a boat that he constructed as a boy, but he can’t recall that I’m staying at his house because I’m quite ill. Despair overcame me as he droned on, but the ordeal helped to pass the time.

Days slide underfoot, passed from front to back like buckets of debris in a rescue brigade; my days are wasted in the knowledge of the Gothic cathedral and its chain of souls, the apex of daring among men and women who imagined heaven as an experience. Love comes to me in post cards of traveling stones and earthbound sagebrush, of grassy islands in the dust, of seed wands that nod beneath boiling clouds.

On the morning that I didn’t leave my father’s house for the 5th, 6th, or  7th time, I can’t remember which, the air was cold and the sun was shining. The rumble of a prop plane carried into my escape pod, a travel trailer parked in front of a shed nearer to the road than to the house. The dogs lay with me on top of an electric blanket, unaware of the journey that they would miss that day. I was sick with confusion, cigarettes, and self-hatred and I wanted to lie in bed until I died. I lit another cigarette and tried to imagine that the three of us were parked along a clear stream a thousand miles west. Soon I must go up to the house: hunger and humiliation called. I closed my eyes and sought relief in the warm blanket, but the airplane circled and my stomach dipped and dived with it.

“You are a coward,” my throbbing head observed. Two days earlier I had informed my father and brother that I must leave: this was true. My confidence slipped as I spoke, but having declared that I was leaving, I had to. My father reacted as if I were planning a vacation; he brought a dusty bundle of fishing rods up from the basement. He looked as if he would cry. I felt dismal, and worse, I felt my strength and resolve dissolve.

I didn’t have the courage to leave this morning, but went up to the house and drank three cups of coffee, saying things like, “I hate myself,” which I did.

My father said to me what he used to say when my mother was ‘blubbering’ over something: “Quit getting all worked up.” He still doesn’t know that lamentation is the result of distress, not its cause.

“It’s good that I’m crying – I haven’t cried for ten terrible months,” I said.

Signs of life were brief, so it was out to the trailer and back to bed, the aluminum hull a serving as a second skull that protected me from whatever would happen next. The sun went down and I walked back to my father’s house like a shipwreck unwilling to let go of her leaky raft despite having washed up on a beach.

The day that I left my father’s house, my destination was a motel a mere eight miles away, a small affair attached to a dairy farm. A German shepherd met me inside the office, so I was encouraged that my dogs might be welcome.

I returned to my father’s house to tell him what I’d done. He may have been upset; it was hard to tell. He was likely thinking that it was a fool thing to do when I already had a roof over my head. The empty motel called to my confused grasp on the idea of salvation, but I spent one more night at my father’s house, gathering some clothing and a box of food.

In the afternoon I left for the motel, but the room seemed ugly and smelled like vomit. Feeling silly, I asked the manager to move. The new room proved to be warmer in color, the carpet was newer, and the room didn’t smell, but I panicked around dinner time  and felt ridiculous.

The next morning I didn’t feel well, but this had been going on for months, so I did what I’d done every morning: brushed my teeth, showered, dried my hair and dressed, then pulled on rubber boots. It had snowed overnight and a drift blocked my truck. Two orange shovels leaned on the wall by the office door, but no one was about. There was nothing to do but dig in. Eventually the owner joined me.

“That shovel you’ve got doesn’t work too well,” he said. We kept digging until the truck was free.

I drove to a coffee shop and surprised myself by eating a plate of eggs, hash browns, and toast, with three cups of coffee. Encouraged, I drove to my father’s house where I discovered that whoever had plowed the driveway had also piled the snow in front of my trailer.

The dogs burst into the yard when I opened the truck door, running circles around the big oak trees and plowing trails through the snow with their noses. No one was at home: the house felt less awful now that I no longer lived there, but I crept around like a thief collecting shampoo and a scarf, my electric teakettle and mouthwash.

Back at the motel I felt all right, perhaps relaxed. That night I lay sleepless as the curious situation played on my mind: eight miles from my father’s house and homeless. What did that mean? Was I capable of hooking up the trailer and driving away? If so, where would I go and what would I do when I got there? Could I pull off my own rescue without ambition or desire?

On the second morning after I left my father’s house, I began removing the snow that blocked my trailer. The plow had scraped leaves and gravel into the pile, and the resulting melange was difficult to dissect. My father came out to see what I was up to: an irritable comment escaped my lips.

On the third day after I left my father’s house, I didn’t go there.

On the fourth day it was time to finish off the snow that barricaded my trailer, since more bad weather was predicted. My father again appeared, this time carrying a garden shovel. He jabbed at the snow and leaves looking for an entry, then mumbled something about his failure to dispose of the snow pile for me.

“Don’t help her!” My brother shouted as he emerged from the house. He pushed past me, as if I was no more alive and present than a concrete statue. “This doesn’t concern us,” he added. No surprise, but why antagonize me now, when I would soon be out of his way?

“I didn’t ask for help,” I said. This brought a vicious reprimand from him, so I called him a jerk. He countered by hurling grudges from the stockpile of warheads he keeps armed like a Russian who aches to launch a few missiles, for old time’s sake.

Our father stood aside like a wounded sack of coal, passively sanctioning the bullying initiated by my mother and perpetuated by my brother. When I was a child there had been no escape, unless turning into a nervous wreck is a form of refuge.

“I’m leaving for Wyoming,” I told my father. That was the last time I saw either one of them.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

raw days editThis piece is from RAW DAYS, a book about being bipolar.

I had no idea I was Asperger at the time I wrote it, and now I see AS is the primary ground of my “differentness” with bipolar symptoms the result of an attempt by the brain to “adjust” to stress created by my dysfunctional family and to The Social Pyramid, an alien environment that is toxic to “people like me.”

My brother was schizophrenic, in denial, and refused treatment. He lived with our parents, who protected him from consequences of his disease. He attacked me viciously whenever I turned up, like a rabid fox protecting a hallucination. My parents never intervened and let him abuse me, so I stayed away for years at a time.

Despite being bipolar and Asperger, I was the healthy one in the family: the observer, the analyzer, the recorder, the documentarian. Survivor’s guilt accompanies my daring escape.

 

 

 

Human Perception / Aesthetics as Equilibrium “The Optimum State”

Humans have more than five senses, according to how “sense” is defined. As usual, there is a range of opinion about the subject, so the reader is welcome to plow through the debate elsewhere. But, however many there may be, the brain must coordinate sensory information as perception.

I think that there is an aspect of perception that sets some of us on a special path through reality: the aesthetic conclusion or judgment. For social humans this perception is attached to other people and is experienced as emotion, as connections to family and friends, but emotions are short-lived and fickle. The euphoria lasts but a few seconds and people are stuck trying to regain those feelings of “aesthetically pleasing emotions” by obsessively manipulating their own feelings and the feelings of others. For all but a few relationships, it’s an exercise that is doomed.

If emotions are the aesthetics of life, life will be perpetually dependent on momentary satisfaction, followed by a letdown (change in body chemistry) and the subsequent struggle to regain the external certification of self-worth that comes after social acceptance. Emotions are temporary reactions to the environment, but this doesn’t stop modern social humans from elevating “feeling” to an experience that dominates everyday life. This dependence restricts aesthetic satisfaction to a fleeting experience that lacks continuity; and when emotional connections aren’t there? The artificial “high” supplied by drugs and other addictive behaviors is pursued.

Other animals experience their environments via a wide variety of senses, many of which are entirely alien to humans, and even with technical help, we cannot “see” or “hear” the electro-magnetic spectrum as many animals experience it. Aesthetics may or may not be expressed or experienced in a fish or a bear; we tend to assume that “lower” animals are robotic and lack deep connection to the environment.

Aesthetics may exist as a reference point around which an animal’s behavior is contained; interaction between the bear or bird and its physical environment achieves equilibrium, and allows for rest, recuperation and play.

I think that “aesthetics” has a similar source in humans; awareness of what constitutes equilibrium can be formed or “intuited” – a state of calm, receptivity, a “joining with” nature and one’s surroundings; a letting go of the attempt toimpose behavior on oneself and other human beings. It is commonly believed by social humans that a specific cluster of behavior defines “being human” and can be applied to every human on the planet. Imposing our own warped and egomaniacal conditions on other humans is disastrous, and yet we persist with all our might in remaking the world. What we have managed to do is to create environments that are disordered, unhealthy and out of balance: social environments lack “aesthetics” as the fundamental guide to optimum functioning – nature’s primary aesthetic.

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I would have to say that exposure (confinement) in a chaotic or unbalanced environment is the trigger for many of (my) Asperger symptoms. When I was a child, my reactions were unconscious, immediate and inexplicable to other humans. I was told over and over that I ought to love “people” events: crowds of pushing, shoving, loud, incoherent, aggressive beings – with no escape. I was supposed to say things I didn’t mean, to suppress my awful discomfort, to pretend that unlike the bear or tiger, I had no internal sense of my proper boundaries. Only after a lifetime of living with “invasive and alien” social requirements have I come to understand that an intuitive “aesthetic” that is inherent in animal sensation may underlie the conflict.

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Zinc, Lithium, Manganese, Magnesium, Iron and your Brain / SciAm

SA Mind

Metals and Mental Health

Deficiencies in zinc can play a role in depression and a new way to enhance lithium may hold promise for bipolar disorder

  • By Tori Rodriguez on September 1, 2015 (Click on author for access to a variety of interesting articles.)

An Elemental Effect on Mental Health
Zinc, copper, iron—these and many other elements play a crucial role in health and sickness. Beyond the well-known toxic effects of lead, it can be difficult to determine the precise impacts of these metals because they interact with one another and with many types of molecules found in our body. Recent research has led to some key insights, however, which may lead to new treatments for mental illnesses.


Linking Zinc to Depression
Depression is tricky to treat because many patients do not respond to antidepressant medications. A growing body of evidence suggests that zinc deficiency may be a factor underlying depression in some cases—and zinc supplements can be an effective treatment for people whose levels are low.

A meta-analysis published in December 2013 in Biological Psychiatry analyzed 17 studies and found that depressed people tended to have about 14 percent less zinc in their blood than most people do on average, and the deficiency was greater among those with more severe depression. In the brain, zinc is concentrated in glutamatergic neurons, which increase brain activity and play a role in neuroplasticity, explains one of the paper’s co-authors, Krista L. Lanctôt, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto. “Those neurons feed into the mood and cognition circuitry,” she says.

Newer results increasingly point to a causal relation. Last September researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia reported findings of two longitudinal studies that demonstrated an inverse relation between depression risk and dietary zinc intake. After adjusting for all known potential confounders, they found that the odds of developing depression among men and women with the highest zinc intake was about 30 to 50 percent lower than those with the lowest intake. Although previous studies have shown that zinc supplementation can augment the effects of antidepressant medications, research published in May in Nutritional Neuroscience is the first to investigate the effects of zinc alone on depressive symptoms. In the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, researchers assigned participants to one of two groups: every day for 12 weeks, one group received 30 milligrams of zinc; the other group received a placebo. At the end of the study period, the zinc group showed a steeper decline in its scores on a rigorous inventory of depression symptoms.

“The future treatment of depression is zinc sulfate,” says Atish Prakash, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of pharmacy at the MARA University of Technology in Malaysia, who co-authored a thorough review of studies on the role of zinc in brain disorders, published in April in Fundamental and Clinical Pharmacology. Researchers strongly caution against people trying zinc supplements on their own, however—when levels are too high, zinc can cause other complications. Working with a doctor is essential, and in most cases, eating a healthier diet is probably a better way to ensure optimal zinc levels than supplementation. Yet for those with depression who are also at high risk for zinc deficiency, including vegetarians, people with alcoholism, gastrointestinal issues or diabetes, and pregnant or lactating women, zinc may be just what the doctor ordered.


Improving Lithium Treatment

Lithium has been providing relief to patients with bipolar disorder for decades. Although it is considered the standard treatment for the illness, how it works—and why it does not work for at least half of patients who try it—remains largely a mystery. Recent study findings suggest that a hormonal mechanism may be a factor.

In research published in July in the Journal of Molecular Neuroscience, scientists from several universities expanded on earlier work investigating the role of insulinlike growth factor (IGF1) in lithium sensitivity. (Scientific American is part of Springer Nature.) A 2013 paper by some of the authors of the newer study had found higher levels of the hormone in blood cells of bipolar patients who were responsive to lithium treatment, as compared with nonresponders. In the current study, researchers tested the effects of administering IGF1 to the blood cells of those same patients.

Adding the hormone increased lithium sensitivity only in cells of nonresponders, which “proves that indeed IGF1 is strongly implicated in determining clinical response or resistance to lithium,” says study co-author Elena Milanesi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Further research will be needed to discern treatment possibilities, including supplemental use of the hormone or a similarly acting drug in lithium-resistant patients. Synthetic human IGF1 is already FDA-approved for human use in other kinds of disorders, Milanesi says, so she hopes clinical trials can get under way quickly.


Other Metals and the Mind
IRON. Iron deficiency impedes neurotransmission and cell metabolism, and research findingshave linked it with cognitive deficits in children and adults.

MAGNESIUM. Low magnesium intake has been implicated in anxiety and depression in studies of humans and rodents, and new research published in Acta Neuropsychiatrica suggests the relation is mediated by altered gut microbes, which have previously been linked with depression. In the study, mice fed a magnesium-deficient diet displayed an increase in depressive behavior and alterations in gut microbiota that were positively associated with neuroinflammation in the hippocampus.

Supposedly sources of magnesium

Supposed to be sources of magnesium

MANGANESE. In research reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, scientists from China and Japan investigated the role of manganese—a known neurotoxin at high levels—in the progression of cognitive decline. In 40 older adults, they found that manganese levels were significantly correlated with scores on assessments of cognitive function and dementia and that levels of the characteristic protein tangles of Alzheimer’s disease increased as manganese levels did. Excessive manganese is usually caused by airborne pollutants or pesticides, but eating too little iron can increase manganese absorption—so a healthy diet is key here, too.


Beware of Supplements
That headline may sound alarmist—if your doctor advises you to take a supplement, by all means, you should take it. Yet we cannot emphasize enough the importance of consulting a health care provider before starting any kind of supplement regimen, especially one that includes the trace elements discussed in this overview. Many of these elements can cause serious complications at high levels as well as low levels, and it is easy to accidentally go overboard. In addition, it can be hard to tell whether a person truly needs supplements—zinc, for example, cannot be reliably measured in blood or urine. Researchers use a complex variety of measurements and indicators to determine patients’ zinc levels—something the average doctor’s office cannot replicate. (Supplements are NOT regulated and may or may not contain the ingredients on the label or may have contaminants.)

In addition, most researchers and physicians believe that improving a person’s diet is a far better way to reach healthy levels of these elements. Eating whole foods such as fresh meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds will give most people the nutrients they need. Avoiding highly processed foods with added sugars and fats is key, too, because those types of foods can impede your body’s absorption of nutrients. In other words, that spinach salad is actually rendered less healthy if you chase it with a candy bar.

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