FINDING CONNECTIONS TO & APPLICATIONS FOR MY MENTAL HEALTH JOURNEY IN THE MAKING SENSE BOOK BY SAM HARRIS
“[H]istory doesn’t repeat itself so much as offer you a broad palette of what’s possible.” - Timothy Snyder (189)
In the preface to his new book, Making Sense, a collection of selected conversations from his podcast of the same name, Sam Harris declares this “a new golden age of public conversation,” thanks to the proliferation of podcasts & interview shows. He speaks to the benefit of our ability to “replace the voice in our heads with the voices of others,” learning, being entertained by, & keeping company with whatever expert, celebrity, or thinker one chooses to listen to on a given day. I’ve begun to think of managing mental health similarly. The negative voices of the self, in the case of mental illness, override the more stable, rational self; one of the main tricks in remedying this imbalance is by allowing the voices of others--therapists, mentors, heroes, your better side--in turn to override those disconcerting head voices, prompting one to retain grounding, make better choices, & navigate the murky waters better.
Reading these transcribed conversations, many of which I’ve heard before, I became acutely aware of how the prevailing interests of both Sam & his guests--consciousness, morality, free will, even artificial intelligence--strike similar cords to the work, in thought & in therapy, that I’ve been doing in my personal life regarding my mental health.. As I manage my bipolar disorder, I am attempting to be more mindful of what Pete Holmes reminds us on his You Made It Weird podcast: to give the fire of consciousness good wood to burn. In these conversations, I find much insight, challenges, & hope for the further understanding & management of this wild mind, this barnacled brain, of mine.
Harris often starts with the basic question, what is consciousness? Early on in the book, David Chalmers defines consciousness as “what it feels like, from the first-person point of view, to be thinking and piercing and judging” (3). Moreover, he declares that “a system is conscious if there’s something it’s like to be that system” (3). In managing my disorder, it is this awareness, or at other times the lack of such, that declares whether or not I am level, stable, & grounded; when I have an episode, a gulf divides the what-it’s-like-to-be-me from the reality I’m positioned in, often creating confusion & panic. In conversation with Anil Seth, Harris reminds us of the alternative view of consciousness that Chris Frith has offered, a theory of “consciousness as a controlled hallucination.” I know a thing or two about uncontrolled hallucinations, within, I supposed, the structure of consciousness.
In some ways, this experience leaves me better-suited to pay attention to the ebbs & flow of the controlled hallucination. As Harris said in conversation with David Deutsch, “Evolution hasn’t designed us to fully understand the nature of reality,” so thus, this is me talking, one must adjust as time ticks on, striving towards the best understanding possible. In their conversation, both Harris & Max Tegmark emphasize the possibility & necessity of this better understanding of reality. Tegmark warns us “that whatever the ultimate nature of reality is, it should seem weird and counterintuitive to us,” which is a sentiment, on a functional, everyday level, I can get behind (388). The reality I am familiar with, one dotted with hallucinations, time loss, & delusions, is already a rather peculiar version; here’s to hoping, as both our understanding of reality & my own trip within it continues, I might be able to adjust to such peculiarity with more grace than I’ve shown in my early days of madness.
Furthermore, Deutsch, without meaning to, offers some comfort, induces in me some power, when he says, “You can’t deduce an ought from an is. But we’re not--or shouldn’t be--trying to deduce; we should be trying to explain” (59). This is totally a misapplication of his idea, but this statement acts as a reminder for me to continue to understand my symptoms, triggers, & disorder, not to sit in the purely conceptual understanding of those things, but rather, to put that knowledge into action, by managing my illness & in some small way, making the world a better place; it reminds me of how my psychiatrist emphasizes the symptoms over the disorder, the treatable variables over the conceptual label. As Deutsch says later in the conversation, “[T]here’s no limit to the possibility of removing evil by knowledge” (75). In terms of my mental illness, this means talking to the experts, reading the literature, & practicing the mindfulness in order to prevent the terror, confusion, & pain my unchecked behavior can cause.
For me, I’m terrified & in awe of the depths of my mind, judging from the bits that spew up during spells or psychosis, as well as in my creative work & emotional connections. Harris in conversation with David Chalmers believes there is “reason to wonder whether or not there are islands of consciousness in our brains that we’re not aware of” (11). Later in the book, Deutsch supports this idea when he declares, “What we’re aware of is just the tip of the iceberg, and even our conscious thoughts are supported by a rich infrastructure of unconscious thoughts, which obey the same epistemology as the conscious ones” (82). Here, I am reminded of the critical necessity of maintaining a good subconscious, a la Pete Holmes’ tip, & making the most of my conscious mind. In one of the final conversations, Harris & Daniel Kahneman get into a lengthy discussion about the remembering self versus the experiencing self. Kahneman sees the experiencing self as “the one that’s doing the living” & the remembering self as “the one that’s making the decisions” (304). For me, that dichotomy becomes skewed in the face of symptoms or episodes.
In those situations, the remembering self has gone haywire, irrational & unduly influenced by misconceptions, misperceptions, & perception errors; now, it is the experiencing self trying to juggle both jobs & its many factors. As Harris says in conversation with Robert Sapolsky, “[M]ost of human evil is the result of bad ideas more than bad people” (275). In my case, my evil moments--harming LR, terrifying DS, verbally abusing others--often arise out of the bad ideas perpetuated by paranoia, hallucinations, & delusions. In the confusion & panic of such symptoms, I am overtaken by the bad thoughts arising, the ones I am unable to squelch. Similarly, when I look back on my past, this decade-long struggle with mental illness, I see clearly what Kahneman says about regret, that it is “not about something that happened, it’s about something that could have happened but didn’t” (295). I could’ve been more proactive in distancing myself from my victims before the tragedy; I could’ve been more careful about who & what I trusted for advice & counsel; I could’ve prevented the stressors--a big move, an ill-fitted job, certain social circumstances--that caused such flare-ups of symptoms.
I see now that I’ve been caught up in what Harris calls “the apparent split in my brain between what-it’s-like-to-be-me and what-it’s-like-to-be-the-rest-of-me” (11). That is part of the beauty in Sam Harris’s work with mindfulness & meditation; it bridges that gap. If we believe Thomas Metzinger, “[Y]ou have no self, but you have a self-model active in your brain, and it’s naturally evolved representational structure that’s transparent,” then there is applicable work to be done in awareness. Anil Seth claims, “We perceive the world as it’s useful for us to do so,” which is what I think is so frustrating about knowing when I’m slipping into a manic or psychotic episode (121). I am not functioning in a way that is reasonable & productive for myself. It is completely disruptive & at worst, destructive.
In terms of how we deal with things, Deutsch adds, “Science is a way of dealing with theories regardless of whether or not one believes them.” I use the scientific method & other methods of verification to settle myself when the rumblings of hallucinations & delusions begin, testing out the reality by asking questions of others (“Did you hear that noise?” “I’m starting to be paranoid that [this] is happening.”), checking for evidence (searching for the speaker of the voice I heard, maker of the shadow I saw), & reminding myself of the facts of reality (the conceptual nature of dreams, for instance). Deutsch means it more generally, but I am relieved to know “the fact that improvements create new problems” (90). I am not caught off guard when attempts to improve or actual improvements themselves bring about new challenges; I had this when my anti-anxiety meds caused manic episodes, I had this when my move home to Indiana started rockier than I would’ve liked, I had this when it took awhile to find the right, side-effect-free combo of medications following my hospitalization.
Though he’s talking about larger structures like society & culture, Snyder’s points can be brought down to the individual human level as well, with a warning to heed: “The future will always be full of surprises, structural forces we don’t anticipate, & accidents.” So what do we do in the face of that? As Robert Sapolsky says of behavioral biologists, in response to something happening, we must ask, “Why did that behavior just happen?” (257). I believe on an individual level, we can ask the same question of ourselves. In discussing free will, which Harris & many of his guests don’t subscribe to, he often points to the sheer number of outside influences affecting our decision-making--genetics, biological responses, subconscious impulses, others’ influence, etc. I see that point, but I have found avenues to circumvent such pressures, even in the face of mental illness & loss of control, such as separating from stressors & pinpointing biological catalysts. Though he’s talking more about philosophical & societal concepts, I like Kahneman’s clarification of “a fairly clear boundary about when you can trust your intuitions and when you can’t” (288). I apply this to my management of my mental health, back to the application of evidence-based modes of inquiry. He says you can trust intuition if 1) “the world [is] regular enough” 2) you “have enough exposure to those regularities to have a chance to learn them” & 3) “the time between when you’re making a guess and a judgment, and when you get feedback about it” (288). One thing to do, then, is to manage the container as much as I attempt to harness the reactive material within that container, creating a better context within which to work.
Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle, because, as Harris says in conversation with Metzinger, “[O]ur intuitions weren’t designed by evolution to enable us to grasp reality as it is. Our intuitions were designed to avoid getting hit over the head by another ape and to mate with his sister.” I, more than others it seems, have trouble keeping the lizard brain at bay, instead of leaning on reason. Furthermore, as Metzinger says, “The self-model we have as human beings is something that brings a lot of conscious suffering into the world” (179).” Then, I stumble upon something like this from Robert Sapolsky: “We assume that as creatures with big cortexes, reason is at the core of most of our decision making. And an awful lot of work has shown that far more often than we’d like to think, we make our decisions based on implicit emotional, automatic reflexes” (259). Again, in terms of disorder & symptom management, it circles back to awareness, training & utilizing mindfulness as a means to better understand the conscious nature of our reality & work in tandem with the unconscious impulses in our software.
At the end of his talk with Metzinger, Sam Harris calls for “a fully rational spirituality.” I think that is a good place to start. Using what we know of how the brain, & my mind in particular, works, I can situate myself in more comfortable contexts through mindfulness, gratitude, & better decision-making. This is totally out of context, but David Krakauer says, “The middle ground has always seemed lukewarm and uninspiring--but that’s exactly the bath I want to sit in” (377). When I first started therapy as an adult, my sophomore year of college, my therapist noted how I only lived on extremes, how I was all-in or all-out on situations; the growth comes, continues to come, through following the clues of my own experiencing to lead me to a middle-ground, somewhere closer to contentment, the safety of. Tegmark sums up my feelings well, “[I]f you’re a secular thinker, where does meaning and purpose come from? It comes from our having subjective experience, having consciousness, and I feel that we shouldn’t risk that” & this is me, by letting its depths run-wild, unfiltered & unprocessed, as much as I can (426).
One of the hardest lessons of these last several months has been separating the symptoms & pressures of my bipolar disorder from the grief & depression of my wife leaving. Before I acquired that skill, it was too much, was overwhelming, the disjunction of my mind & the pang of the broken heart coinciding. Since then, I've been able to see the sad seep on the edges of what would otherwise be completely normal days. I call them sad sack days, & I've found that singing my sorrow helps alleviate some of that burden. It gets me through the moments, through the mood, through the sad sack day. Here are seven songs that I like to sing on a sad sack day:
"Sometimes" by Luke Bell
Key Lines: "Sometimes I'm alright / And sometimes I get you off my mind / But other times all I do is cry, I cry"
Take with: a glass of whiskey, a seat at the drum kit
Quick review: This is a prime example of how contemporary country music doesn't have to suck. It packages Bell's modern cowboy swagger into a catchy tune that combines age-old despair & the classic structure of our lonesome country heroes of the past.
"Bite the Dust" by State Champion
Key Lines: "It's always shining on Kentucky when you're sad / But I ain't mad about the weather / I just ain't trying to feel much better about my past"
Take with: a warm shower, a good book of poems
Quick Review: The way Ryan Davis of State Champion clarifies how he's feeling is more poet than rocker, an honesty that isn't always brief, an experience that isn't always clear, as in exactly like life is.
"Weakness" by Margo Price
Key Lines: "I can't hide what I am, guess it's plain to see / Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me"
Take with: a cool glass of water, a handful of aspirin
Quick Review: Whatever your brand of weakness, Margo Price acknowledges the dual-nature of the self, one's good & bad. They say admitting is the first step; sometimes it is best to start with a song.
"Dylan Thomas" by Better Oblivion Community Center
Key Lines: "If it's advertised, we'll try it / And buy some peace and quiet / And shut up at the silent retreat / They say you've gotta fake it / At least until you make it / That ghost is just a kid in a sheet"
Take with: a PB&J & a glass of almond milk
Quick Review: The unapologetic forward-trajectory of this song forces one to sing along, to get tangled in the knotty mess of these lines. I find comfort in the being swept along, almost child-like joy of being in the blur.
"Oh Messy Life" by Cap'n Jazz
Key Lines: "Fire is motion. / Work is repetition. / This is my document. / We are all all we've done."
Take with: a lawnmower & a needs-to-be-mowed yard
Quick Review: Recovery is hectic, as they say, "messy," winding one's way through the catastrophe. Sometimes it just feels nice to shout in unison with another body, proof you can move along.
"I Said I Wouldn't Write This Song" by Black Belt Eagle Scout
Key Lines: "I said I wouldn't write this song / I said I wouldn't write this song"
Take with: a dog in the yard & a sparkling water
Quick Review: A song like this exists for that single line, loosely surrounded by few other quips, & in that single expression, there exists much possibility for application, depth. It might be deceiving how joyously I dance to this song in my yard with the dog.
"All the Best" by John Prine
Key Lines: "I wish you love / And happiness / I guess I wish / You all the best"
Take with: a cherished photograph & some CBD
Quick Review: I've been doing metta loving kindness in my mindfulness practice. This is that in song form, trying to move beyond the heartbreak to get to a gracious, open place, to be able to say to the one that hurt you, "I wish you all the best."
I'm in the middle of editing what I hope is the final draft of my next poetry collection, I ONCE WAS SOMEONE ELSE & OFTEN STILL AM. Written over the last five years, these poems grind content versus container. In practice, these poems are wild, harnessing the lopsided logic of mania & the quick energy of panic to say some interesting, often irrational things; in shape, these poems are well-shaped, often in syllabic lines, the line as the unit of measure. I thought I'd share one here that captures the twist that's happening in these pages.
MY TRIPLED-PANED SKULL FUMBLES WHAT’S CLAIMED OBVIOUS
With a flick of the wrist, my grandfather shook the snowglobe.
My triple-paned skull fumbles what’s claimed obvious.
The inability carried by my grandfather in separating cousin from I.
Not in our looks or our lineage, but the deeds we do, the needs we undo.
The twine around the newspaper still fresh with ink pulled tight.
I lose track of what once resembled reindeer.
You drink tea in the other room.
My grandfather requests a blanket of no one.
The vision of my mother set to turn her father into a fake gold watch.
Her pile of nightgowns needs folds.
You sit convinced I am a child of echoes.
Spiritually half-petrified as I barrel forth into the field.
Then later I fall from the roof.
To be frank, I am not trustworthy either.
In actuality, I shimmied the gutter, balanced my chin ever so a bit & plummeted.
I dream the stars fell down & shattered the pocket watch.
It tore grief from the ghost’s grasp, let my grandpa know he knows nothing.
I returned to me, the snow done settled within my northern orb.
“Pain is a vibration; allow it to shine out as part of your content; it’s not consciousness itself.” -- Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
I’ve been meeting my basic goal on this blog, to produce a post about mental health &/or poetics every Tuesday, the last couple weeks, but I haven’t been exploring those topics in the depth I would expect. For one, I’ve been hunkered down with creative projects--preparing a collage show, beginning work on the (hopefully) final draft of my next poetry manuscript, cooking up some sweet kabobs. But more intensely, I’ve been chased by this question--“Am I an abuser?”--finally distanced enough from & stable enough in the wake of the grief of my wife leaving & the pang of my bipolar diagnosis to constructively meditate on such a monumental question.
In response to LR’s essay (& in the essay itself), I was labeled many things--abuser, alcoholic, psychopath, etc.--by former friends, then-colleagues, & even strangers. I was able to interrogate many of those claims through work with my then-therapist, SW, & in conversation with my then-wife, DS, & other trusted loved ones; I also conducted personal experiments on those accusations as well. I took quizzes like the Psychopath Test. I managed my alcohol consumption & even cut it out of my lifestyle completely on several occasions, like I am doing right now, to prove to myself I am in control of my relationship with alcohol. I’m reminded of what my current psychiatrist, AR, said in response to my worrying about the label of my disorder--is it bipolar disorder with psychosis or schizoaffective disorder, bipolar-type? She taught me that what is treatable (& thus most important) are the symptoms of my illness & its resulting behavioral dysfunction.
Regarding my mental illness, I’ve spent the last decade pin-pointing my repeated actions, their psychological components, & the triggers surrounding those episodes. I now know situations that elicit feelings of abandonment & embarrassment get me off-kilter, especially when tied to bouts of exhaustion & leadership-based stress. These situations cause me to dissociate, hallucinate, & become obsessive about delusions, which leads to episodes characterized by furiosity & panic. That is where the abusive tendencies come in. I’ve compared it before to a fucked-up version of the Tasmanian Devil character on the Loony Tunes, becoming so overwhelmed by the intensity of my symptoms that I spin off into this hyper-emotional, hyper-irrational, hyper-energetic storm. LR in her essay called it a black out; dissociative studies call it switching. Sometimes it is immediate like that, the lights switched off & no one is home; other times, it is much fuzzier, a transition bound up in confusion & panic. Anywhichaway, it often leads to a flurry: my emotional self unable to regulate itself, my rational mind not able to console the situation, & ultimately my physical body shifted into high gear.
In no way do I mean to justify what has happened, nor do I want to take away from my victims’ stories, but in this exploration of the term abuser, it is necessary to contextualize the situations in order to look at the symptoms & triggers of my episodes. I will lay-out the three major episodes I’ve had, so we can examine how the abuse occurred, my psychological state at the time, & how they’ve been conveyed to me by the victims &/or witnesses, to the best of my ability. Again, this isn’t an argument, but rather an exploration.
My first major episode was on a camping trip with a group of friends in the summer of 2011, immediately following both my graduation from college & my divorce from my first wife, SB. It was our first night there & something was making me less-balanced almost immediately; talking through the scenario with my therapist a few years later, I realized it was the fresh sting of abandonment, that SB should be on the trip, along with the uncertainty that both of these two major life changes brought on. I tried taking a walk. I avoided following my friends into the depths of drinking. I went to bed early. Yet, I still wasn’t able to prevent an outburst when a friend, RR, woke me from my sleep with loud drunken talk about my sex life involving someone who was present.. I swear I heard that present, involved person say, “Do something,” & then I snapped, blacking out, only to awaken when another friend restrained me after attacking RR.
The details of the situation with LR are becoming grainy again, as her essay has been pulled from the web & over six years has passed since she relayed the facts of that night to me. Still, the haunting moment feels as terrifying today as it did when I awoke on the couch & she told me through tears what had happened, the first switch that was unprovoked, or at best, minorly so; after arriving home from somewhere, we parked in the parking garage below our apartment, something LR said triggered me, I switched, & I then grabbed LR by the throat. I disappeared upstairs, only to awake awhile later to LR crying at the end of the couch, me with no recollection of what had just happened. She didn’t have the strength to recollect much of the experience with me over the next few months before she cut off contact, but based on her essay, there was a clear pattern of me becoming overcome by paranoia & delusion, rocket fuel for my irrational physical responses, also including things such as stealing her car & disappearing for hours at a time.
My biggest fear these last six years was causing the kind of mental & physical suffering to my wife DS that I had caused LR. At the beginning of this Covid pandemic, DS & I were having a regular weekend afternoon at home. We were going to record a Hot-Ones-style podcast episode, eating increasingly hotter wings & chatting about our transition to life in small-town Indiana. Then, our new-to-us, second dog, Bo, whined in the middle of the taping & I don’t remember anything after that, besides a vague sense of running around the room & yelling, until I woke up in my underwear on the cold hallway floor, DS sitting beside me crying. Apparently, as I would later figure out with my latest therapist, TT, the dog’s whining triggered a repressed memory of (possibly) killing a sick dog that attacked me when I was an early teenager; in the midst of that panic, I pushed DS out of the chair she was sitting in, scraping her knee. That was the final straw for her, for our marriage.
Since then, I’ve been hospitalized four times, including a week-long stay at Options in Indianapolis, tried out various cocktails of antipsychotics & mood stabilizers (a double-daily dose of Risperdal & Depakote has been doing the trick lately!), & am tackling some hard questions about myself. Chief among them is “Am I an abuser?” Some will see it in black and white, either “yes, you laid hands on another person who you were in a relationship with” or they’ll say no as a result of contextualizing; those folks will (& have) give(n) me a psychological-crisis pass, a lack-of-memory pass, a no-intention-to-harm pass. But I believe I am an abuser, aligned with the former group in terms of logic, attempting to accept responsibility for the results of my actions, regardless of my intent or state of consciousness.
The mixture of guilt, shame, remorse, & lack of closure of the past bothers me everyday, itching me like a forever rash. I feel so helpless to do anything about those situations, given the requested separation from all three victims & the fact that they alone have to carry those memories. I also feel so helpless to the fear of the future, acknowledging my dangerous side & the very real possibility that something like this could happen again. Again, I am not trying to diminish those victims, but rather, in solidarity with their experience, I am trying to feel those negative feelings, shackled monthly by physical and psychological pain, rather than avoid them.
Last week, I had one of those down-low days, launched by nightmares of these past episodes & potential outbursts, a montage of my worst possible moments. Like I do, both in these depressed days & in the wake of episodes, I was jolted awake by feelings of fight & flight, a “fuck-this” attitude that tells me to abandon this life, either by running away or committing suicide. It is of the opinion that my world is already shattered, my prospects so hopeless, I might as well force the hand & end it now. But something about this one felt different, even though the feelings were of the same name.
It wasn’t as dramatic. I could see reality more clearly. The depression & shame cycle didn’t last as long as it has in the past. We can thank the meds, stabilizing my mood, mellowing out the symptoms, & keeping the ceiling of my irrationality low. We can thank the mindfulness practice, well-versed now in paying attention to the sensations of my body & the thought-processes of my mind, where in the past, I would have either had to shut down completely, giving over to a depressive state, or else face yet another psychotic episodic cycle. In a recent episode of You Made It Weird, Pete Holmes echoed what many mindfulness teachers have said, that you’ve gotta give good wood for the fire of consciousness to burn. I think I’ve been doing that, avoiding violent or negative media, finding hope in good conversation & exercise, & reading books & listening to podcasts that fill me with insight, joy, & hope.
So, yeah, I believe I should carry the burden of harming others. Still, I believe those professionals & loved ones who have said I deserve the rest of my life, one full of community, public endeavors, relationships, & hopefully a job. Thus, I must take these things--the hauntings of my past, the label of abuser, the symptoms of my disorder--in stride. I must not forget what Byron Katie says--life is something that happens for you, not to you--because I still have lots of work to do.