Monday, June 8, 2009

The brain and the body unite!

Dear Dualists and Wholistic Leaners,

Some people think that conditions affecting mental health have a clear cause. Extreme versions of Survivor movement ideology and the anti-psychiatry movement, for example, support the notion that a harmful, violent world creates "manifestations of illness" in those who are sensitive. Persons who happen to experience serious traumas like physical abuse and sexual violence and who later experience a crisis of mental health, are often held up as examples that support the notion that a "harmful world" causes mental health problems or perceived problems of mental health.

I think it's a bit misleading to suggest that "physical" traumas, like sexual assault and abuse, are responsible for "mental" illness. This refrain has been repeated over and over again in psychoanalytic literature, has been absorbed and regurgitated by the Survivor movement, and yet it is such an incomplete picture of health and the things that can have an effect on health.

My observation has been that Survivor advocates (capital "S" in the extreme political concept of Survivor) tend to cling to the concept of trauma, reshaping the word to represent its most extreme; painting trauma always as malevolent violence, somehow always intentional (as is the truth in the case of sexual violence and physical abuse) or some type of mass-scale social subversion (big pharma plots ring a bell???).

And so in the Survivor literature, persons affected by mental illness are forever painted as victims of a social construct that is inherently violent, harmful, cruel, and indifferent to what it has created. Survivors were victims of a social construct that created the illness, then victims (to become survivors of) a system that was designed to overcome (entrench???) the illness that was supposedly caused by that social construct.

Sound complicated? It is, more than it has to be, I think. And it seems downright paranoid to me, and I'm prone to paranoia!!!

If we look outside of Survivor literature, and Survivor interpretations, there are actually many types of "trauma," besides any types of physical or sexual violence that a person and their brain can be exposed to. Some of these traumas are innocuous. Some of them are occur simply as a product of living and breathing. Poor nutrition, exposure to toxins, allergic reaction, major life change (whether positive or negative), severe illness, unfavourable/harmful social/family/relationship dynamic, access to opportunity or a lack of, a traumatic event (observer), a traumatic event (participant), a traumatic event (victim), etc... all fall under the definition proper of trauma.

It bothers me when conditions that affect mental health are explained to be a consequence of one event in some distant past... as if something as serious, as profound, and as life altering as a condition affecting mental health has such a simple solution. It's almost as if that one thing hadn't happened, all of life would be different somehow.

If only it were that simple... If only society would cease being "abusive" and "traumatizing," then everyone would be okay, seems to be the logic.

From what I understand, based on my education and experience, there is no "golden shield" protecting the brain from the varied and innumerable assaults of life. In fact, the assaults of life are, for the most part, predictable, and have predictable consequences. In truth, the reality is that the multiple and varied traumas of life don't cause "mental" illness in most people. So really, there isn't anything in the type of trauma itself that causes mental illness, the reality is that the illness lies in wait, like cancer, only to rear its head opportunistically, after an unknown number of cumulative attacks of unknown and likely unforseeable type. And because our brain is innately curious, seeking explanation for all things, and even creating explanation where none can reasonably be found, our brain (and blame) falls on the event that lies closest to our "break."

Because I find this thinking so reductionist, that mental illness can be pointed to a single cause, I'm left to wonder if this is a story we try to tell ourselves for our own comfort and sense of sanity. I wonder if these stories are a place to lay blame for the inherent vulnerabilities of our brain and brain/body relationship. Based on my knowledge and experience, the mind is primed to do things, and motivates us to do things, beyond our conscious control. Lacking conscious control over our minds is not something we are comfortable with, and absurdly, many of our daily routines are performed with little to no "conscious" thought or reflection. By Western rationalist standards, this assertion, that our minds have a consciousness beyond the reach of our own awareness, is tantamount to heresy.

An interesting bit; apparently Medieval monks believed in "mind over matter" so deeply that they were driven to castration when they had unwanted, surprise erections. In fact, castration was a "treatment" for unwanted erections. Since they could not control that bit of matter, then the solution for lack of mental control, clearly, should be to mutilate oneself, no? Out of sight, out of mind? Problem solved?

We want to believe our minds are impenetrable to the effects of life, that the mind transcends our daily routine, transcends the cumulative effects of stress; and yet even the bothersomeness of day to day details can be enough to affect a person's state of mind adversely.

What happens to the body, happens to the brain, and the brain will let the body know. The "inconvenient truth" is that our body's dependence on the brain, and the thinking brain we call the mind, makes us systemically, wholistically vulnerable. When our mind changes, our behaviour changes. If our behaviour changes, people think we have changed. And we, the changed, are forced to ponder that, and submit to the consequences of that.

But let's not be like the monks, misunderstanding the underlying issue; making associations where there are none; seeking simple solutions, potentially harmful solutions, that aren't actual resolutions.

Trying to bring it together, even if it's just for me,

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