By Will Meecham - Ten years ago it wasn’t uncommon for me to be depressed and near suicide for days on end, with few ‘breathers’ between episodes. Nowadays I feel down only occasionally and for brief periods. Even better, my baseline is more optimistic and enthusiastic. Rather than living with a stubborn low-grade depression and rare hypomanic lifts, I now enjoy a background state of sweet (if slightly sad) acceptance with occasional hours of serenity–or even bliss–during meditation. … [click on title for the rest of the post]
By Will Meecham Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, reminds me of how strongly both my physical and mental condition have been shaped by trauma. Spinal arthritis, abdominal pain, chronic muscle aches, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and many other problems combine to form an inner ledger of the abuse, bereavement, and neglect of my childhood and the uproar, frustration, and terror of my adult experience. Why should this be? Why should trauma have such profound effects on body and mind? It’s useful to remember what it means to live as a human organism. There are many ways to explore this, but let’s try an outside-in approach. … [click on title for the rest of the post]
Will Meecham: So although I spent two posts honoring humans as living, breathing organisms, it feels vital to round out the discussion with my conviction that we also embody a loving, timeless Presence that permeates and transcends our material forms. This may be a personal soul, or a universal one. It may be pure consciousness or an artifact of brain physiology. No matter. It dwells within each of us, waiting for the day we abandon our desperate scheming and open to Life in all its terror, splendor, and Grace.
Too many of us grew up in families wracked with pain. Emotional wounds accumulate in settings of neglect, abuse, bereavement, molestation, violence, and misery. As adults, these ancient injuries undermine our happiness. We often choose poorly in relationships, careers, and pastimes. Even if we don’t make gross mistakes, we lack the confidence to endorse our own choices. We feel uneasy in good times and overwhelmed in bad. This is the legacy of childhood trauma. At times we shut down emotionally, closing ourselves off from the affection we crave. Other times we act out and hurt the ones we love or destroy our own reputations. Still, healing can happen after even the worst of upbringings. It takes time, and backslides are unavoidable, but eventually we stabilize in greater maturity and emotional openness than we ever imagined.
So take a moment to answer the question of what you consider yourself to be, first and foremost. Some of us will answer with our careers: “I’m a physician.” or “I’m a writer.” Others will state an important social connection: “I’m a mother.” or “I’m an American.” A few will refer to religion: “I’m a Muslim (or Atheist, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc).” But few of us will reply, without forethought: “I am a warm-blooded animal that walks upright on its hind limbs and possesses an enlarged brain.” And yet, that is probably the most central and accurate description we could provide.
In Chinese medicine, and Eastern philosophy in general, there is less tendency to see mind and body as separate than there is in the West. Cartesian dualism grew out of Western thought and never propagated to Asia, or at least not until modern times. One effect is that mental illness was never seen as a separate condition in China to the same extent as here. This unification of bodily and mental disorders in Chinese medical culture was abetted by societal stigmatization of blatantly psychiatric conditions, especially under Communist rule. Prison or other punishments often awaited those judged psychiatrically unsound, so emotionally-stressed people in China became far more likely to complain of bodily symptoms such as digestive discomfort rather than pure mental distress.
By Will Meecham Progressive forces within the mental health services encourage meditation. My personal experience convinces me that meditative practice can help a person learn to cope with dark moods and sorrow. It can teach one to appreciate the full spectrum of human emotion rather than always striving to feel ‘good.’
Do you feel anxious, hopeless, discouraged, or depressed? If so I have good news: you can break free from all that negativity. The trick is to learn to make the mind work toward your best interests rather than against them.
By Will Meecham -- Acceptance underlies most of my recovery from what was once diagnosed as bipolar disorder. As earlier posts have made clear, I no longer buy into the concept of ‘mental illness’ because the phrase refers to putative brain disorders that are viewed as irreversible. My recovery demonstrates that my formerly intense moodiness did not result from a structural or genetic neurologic condition, but rather from errors in relating to the chaotic vicissitudes of life. My instability resolved once I learned to accept my experience, no matter how painful.
The ‘illness’ metaphor as currently used robs hope from those suffering mental distress. And if there is one thing we need when our minds are in turmoil, it’s a sense that things can get better. The expectation of a little improvement at the cost of drug dependence and awful side effects will not suffice. We need to believe in the possibility of a grand and glorious transformation from constricted misery to expansive joy. The ‘brain disease’ metaphor rules out such optimism.