ON MENTAL ILLNESS: You Are Not Merely Your Brain

Jack Bragen
Friday December 16, 2016 - 07:10:00 AM

There are at least two ways that a person can dis-identify with oneself. One of the two of which I know is a symptom of mental illness that psychologists call "disassociation." This is usually due to emotional trauma. It is often triggered by something in the environment of the past or present, and the individual is effectively unplugged or disconnected from oneself and one's surroundings. Usually, someone in this state is nonfunctional (e.g., she or he would not be able to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread). Or, for some, an alternate personality takes over, in which case the individual has a "multiple personality disorder." Either way, the individual has temporarily lost his or her normal identity. 

Disassociation or "Dissociative Disorder" could be an attempt at protecting the mind from damage, or perhaps surviving, in a situation perceived as overwhelming. It is not an effective way of adapting, even though evolution apparently gave people the capacity for this. 

Another type of dis-identifying is attained by means of a regimen of exercises of mindfulness over a long period of time, often years or even decades. For a mentally ill meditation practitioner (not as rare a person as you might think), it begins with the ego not having a criteria of perceiving oneself as "normal," or perceiving oneself in any other way, to be okay with oneself. This necessitates some amount of mental agility. 

Most people could not accept themselves if they believed they were "abnormal," or "defective." "Dis-identifying," in a meditative way, could mean that such labels do not have any importance. 

As a meditation practitioner continues to gain insight over years of meditative practice, they may gain more power over oneself, and they may have the power of not being upset or feeling threatened in scenarios that would upset or threaten most people. When power is gained over the mind, an individual has more power over his or her actions, including during times of crisis. 

The meditatively attained individual may be misinterpreted as being "out to lunch" when in fact they just don't take seriously something that most people would. 

Being able to consciously disconnect and yet remain in control is a power. This doesn't include situations of harming oneself, nor does it include intentionally creating a problem to see how well you can be immune to it. 

Meditation has allowed me to have more physical bravery than I once had. This has allowed me to find nonviolent strategies to deal with people who have attempted violence toward me. If you are unafraid, you can think--you can use your mind. This is invaluable in a crisis. 

Your brain is the hardware that you have inherited from your parents' genes, your environment, and other biological factors. You did not manufacture your brain, and therefore you did not create your mental illness. No one is to blame for your mental illness. 

Once you are in treatment, and your ability to reason has been restored, you have options. While you didn't manufacture your brain, you have choices of what you will do or not do with it. It is not how good your brain is that matters; it is how well you use the faculties you've been given. 

Learning more about how your mind works, why it does what it does, why certain things work and certain things don't, is a worthwhile course of study. This could be done formally, such as in a meditation class, or it could be done on your own. Recording your thoughts on paper is a very good beginning. This is journaling, and it is a way that you can learn more things about yourself. 

Also, reading books about meditation can help. The rule of thumb with meditation books and meditation instruction is that you should use the parts that work for you and discard the rest. 

While meditation isn't good for everyone, it has helped me tremendously over the years to deal with absurd circumstances, and absurd symptoms of mental illness, and it has helped me to gain release from a large portion of the suffering and despair that I once felt. 

To someone watching me meditate, it might appear that I am not doing anything. Or, it might appear to them that I am going nuts in a chair, due to observable changes in posture or facial expression. Therefore, I am usually at home when I do intensive meditation. I also give credit to myself--while I am not producing anything tangible, I am doing something that is worthwhile. 

Meditation can sometimes be self-taught, which is what I have done, or you could learn it from books or from an instructor. However, it is important not to just sit there and become more symptomatic, which could include just thinking a lot and getting more deluded. This is a note of caution. 

Meditation works for some mentally ill people some of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t. Dis-identifying is the result of some types of meditation, and it can allow an individual to be okay with oneself regardless of labels that people have imposed on him or her. 

I would like to echo something written by Lois A. Crispi in her recent opinion piece in the Planet. Persons with psychiatric disabilities, similarly to Lois's experience, are treated as "nonentities."  

The brainwash that takes place in mental health treatment venues teaches us to disbelieve in our abilities, and to disbelieve in our validity as human beings--even while we are being told this is not happening. The abuse is partly that we are forced to accept the lie that says we are not being lied to.  

When someone with a psychiatric disability shows the capacity to work, we are funneled into a system that removes our ownership of that work, we are told we can only work if they set up a special situation for us, and we are treated as the poster child for a "mentally disabled" person celebrated for the ability to sweep a floor.  

Meanwhile, behind our backs, we are ostracized by counselors, even while they come up with more strategies whereby we can be kept under control and out of the way of those who supposedly are doing the "real work."  

Lois doubtlessly knows more than I do concerning the situation of being disabled in Berkeley, and I would like to see her write more for the Planet.  

This comment is not intended to steal thunder from Ms. Crispi; it is intended to draw more attention to her work. I hope that it succeeds in that.