Friday, February 5, 2010
In three previous blog posts I created the impression that my friend Tom Wootton’s new book, Bipolar in Order, is a prime example why American civilization is in decline, which is true. I also made it clear that Tom is a visionary who got us thinking that we could lead better lives than the poor unfortunate souls operating within the “normal” emotional bandwidth.
In his 2007 book, The Depression Advantage, Tom represents himself as a person with “over 40 years of direct personal experience with bipolar symptoms” who, during one 15-year stretch “fluctuated between increasingly more extreme mania and depressions.”
But in January 2009, I played a video of a presentation he gave, in which Tom disclosed that, as well as manias and depressions, he had also experienced schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia? I got my first taste of trouble during this time when I asked Tom to write a guest blog for me. He suggested the preface to the new book he was working on. Fine, I said, so long as the preface works as a blog piece. Often they don’t. His draft repeated his assertion that he had experienced schizophrenia. I said he needed to delete the schizophrenia reference and replace it with psychosis.
Here is the email in full he sent back to me: “What is the difference between schizophrenia and psychosis?”
Suffice to say, our guest blog project never got off the ground.
Tom, in his new book, retreats from his claim of having experienced schizophrenia, instead referring to his delusions and hallucinations as “bipolar I schizoaffective.” Even the experts are confused about the schizoaffective diagnosis, but it’s safe to say that there is an overlap between bipolar and schizophrenia and that many individuals experience symptoms of both.
Nevertheless, in his book, Tom claims expertise in helping others gain control over the psychosis in schizophrenia, but he cites no case studies. His one and only example is John Nash in the movie version of “A Beautiful Mind.” John Nash is a real individual, but the movie treatment, especially in relation to his psychotic delusions, is fictional.
“In the beginning of the movie,” Tom writes, “his hallucinations helped him to see solutions to his mathematical problems. This ability earned him a Nobel Prize.” Imagine, Tom asks, if John Nash had been able to harness those abilities.
Sylvia Nasar’s book of the same name, upon which the movie is based, paints an entirely different picture, revealing an early John Nash as high functioning, though clearly a social oddball. The mathematical breakthroughs that led to his Nobel Prize occurred BEFORE his schizophrenia broke out. Once the delusions set in, by Nash’s own admission, he lost 25 years of his life to the illness.
Ms Nasar’s narrative suggests that Dr Nash may have been straddling a dangerous fault line where genius borders madness, but that is an entirely different discussion.
Since Tom gives workshops, it is reasonable to assume that he would have been anxious to document people he worked with, people he rescued from the hells of schizophrenia who went on to lead full lives. I would have loved to have read about this. Instead, all we get is a fictional example.
A fictional example.
This sort of thing goes over well in public speaking, where a skilled presenter can manipulate crowd emotions. At the NAMI CA conference last year, Tom actually drew applause from his fictional use of John Nash. But the left-brain world of the printed word demands substantial non-fiction documentation.
A personal example then? At both the conference and in his book, Tom describes experiencing the sensation of being crushed by a bus and finding himself inside his wife. Tom tells us this delusion is part of a pattern of similar ones that visit him. But instead of being freaked out, Tom tells us, or trying to put these delusions out of his mind, he incorporates these experiences as part of his own personal growth.
Had Tom restricted himself to his own experiences and built on them, he would have found many people who would have related. I, for one, have a creative and very quirky mind. Weird shit runs through it. And, like Tom, I too find myself contemplating my weird shit rather than ignoring it.
To be crushed by a bus. To be dead and in someone else’s body. Had this experience happened to me, automatically I’d be asking myself stuff like: What was it like to be dead? Is dead overrated? When is going into dead mode helpful to me?
Trust me, Stephen King turned this kind of thinking into a career. Tom is using it to seek greater insight and spiritual growth. Tom’s point is that it is not the psychosis that is bad - it’s how you react to the psychosis. Oddly enough, this is vintage Freud. The pre-brain science era DSM I of 1952 views mental illness as maladaptive reactions to one’s environment, including “schizophrenic reaction.”
There is some validity to rehabilitating this viewpoint, and the time is ripe for a full and spirited conversation. To a certain point, we all have the power to choose. But the kind of fleeting psychosis Tom experiences - or for that matter my own weird shit - is not schizophrenia, nor, for that matter, heavy duty psychosis. Being robbed of all power to reason is a whole different phenomenon.
There is a dangerous tendency to romanticize and trivialize schizophrenia, then morally judge those who fail to live up to our own often unrealistic expectations. Tom’s book is rife with this. Clearly, he has yet to spend a day negotiating rounds of transactions in public places dragging around someone with raving psychosis. Until he does, Tom needs to stick to his own experiences.
Reality is a treacherous place, where ivory tower ideas tend to founder. Tom compares himself to Columbus finding a new world. After reading Bipolar in Order, I see him more as a blind visionary who sailed off the edge.
This series of blog pieces sets the scene for future conversations. Stay tuned ...