Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You See Four; I See Twenty-Eight

Psychiatry tells us that we typically over-react to situations. We over-think things, we panic, we get overwhelmed. Our brains respond by flipping out or shutting down. We behave badly, and then we're left dealing with the consequences.

"Normal" people don't think and act this way is the message. "They" respond rationally.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based around this proposition. Someone says, "I'll call you later." But we often interpret that to mean, "I'm not interested in you." Then our runaway brains take over, churning out all kinds of crazy destructive thoughts.

"What did I do wrong?" "The bastard!" "Why does this always happen to me?" - Take your pick. Not surprisingly, we end up anxious and depressed and miserable. The person calls, just like he said he would. We respond by snapping his head off.

Congratulations. We've just fulfilled our own prophecy. Now that person really truly isn't interested in us.

CBT is based on mindfully observing these self-defeating thoughts and taking corrective action. We train our brains to interpret, "I'll call back later" as a sign of interest. And how does it feel when a person is interested in us? A lot better than the load of crap our out-of-control brains used to be spinning out, thank you very much.

Naturally, I'm a big fan of CBT and mindfulness. But a new twist came up yesterday. Let me explain:

Something happened in a social interaction with a good friend on Sunday. Her friend was being a jerk, and the only way I could respond without making a scene was by making a scene - I left.

Naturally, the friend thought I had overreacted - made a big deal out of nothing - and from her point of view she was absolutely right. So, yesterday, I tried to explain what was happening from my point of view.

Such and such happened, I began, which meant such and such was going to happen. Clear as day, right?

She didn't see how my first such and such connected to my second such and such.

A light bulb went off. How could she? I reasoned. She was thinking linearly. I don't, even though I have a law degree. I'm non-linear. A lot of us with mental illness are. I've been blogging a lot on this recently. Basically, it works like this: People inclined to high creativity, perception, and intuition tend to have brains that are less than efficient in filtering out the world around us.

Everything lands on our intrays, in effect. Very little goes in the wastebasket. Thoughts, feelings, perceptions in abundance. The positive side of this is that when we manage to connect some of these seemingly unrelated inputs into novel points of view we look like geniuses, or, at worst, a bit weird and eccentric.

The negative side is that is we easily get overwhelmed. Our brains respond by flipping out or shutting down.

Fortunately, I already had shared some of this with my friend. She knows me - kind of. She's seen my brain in action. She knows I have a gift. But I had also been quick to tell her that I have paid a very high price for this gift. A very high price. She's very sympathetic, but nevertheless, here I was, in her presence, being judged, forced to make my case:

It's like this, I replied. You and So-and-So are thinking, "one-two-three-four." I'm already on "twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight." I already know what is going to happen before you do.

They see four. I see twenty-eight. They think I'm responding inappropriately to four. Really, I'm responding as they would to twenty-eight. Probably with a lot more restraint. At least I was able to mindfully observe my brain undergoing a meltdown. At least I was able to vacate the scene before I said things that I would regret.

Unfortunately - for me - I could not stop the chain reaction in my brain. I drove off with the full knowledge that my day was ruined, that for the next several hours the agony of ten thousand hells would play out inside my skull. My only measure of control was to try to endure those hours with some degree of equanimity.

As I said, I pay a very high price for my gift.

I wasn't asking my friend to understand me. Only that she not judge me. In effect, we occupy two different worlds. Or, rather, we see the same world very differently. But the hard cold reality is that the world we share is run by the linear people. The more adept I am at conforming to their expectations the happier I will be. I've learned to be pretty good at this.

In fact, this was what I really valued about our friendship. In her presence I felt that I actually belonged in her world. In the course of the precious time we spent together, I could forget that I was a person that her world was ready to write off as mentally ill.

Then came the brutal hard cold reminder.

Fortunately, I think I salvaged the friendship, but I know she will never look at me the same way again. People like me react to things others don't see. These people, naturally, think we're crazy. At least I know my friend is at least trying to see things from my point of view. A cognitive behavioral therapist sure as hell wouldn't.


The Schimans said...

Excellent perspective, John. You described what goes on in my brain on a regular basis. Now I can justify why I'm at 28 and everyone else is still at 4!

John McManamy said...

Hey, Nanci. After all these years, I think I finally may have cracked my case wide open. Yes, the bipolar explains a lot of my thinking and feeling and behavior, but underlying everything is the nonlinear stuff. The overload manifests as anxiety and bipolar (which explains the bipolar-creativity connection). And when I over-react for no apparent reason, I need to be thinking: Is this my racing mind distorting reality or is this a non-linear insight that everyone else is too stupid to see?

I'm either the two-year-old and everyone else the adult, or vice-versa, depending on one's perspective. Example:

A toddler runs toward a swimming pool. The adult freaks and makes a frantic dash for the kid, screaming all the way.

The toddler must be thinking: "What's wrong with that grown-up? Grown-ups are crazy people." (Teens excel at this.)

The grown-up, of course, has seen a likely outcome completely beyond the toddler's awareness. The grown-up perceives 28, the toddler (or teen) can't see beyond 4.

So, often I feel like I'm around two-year-olds, but when I react I'm the one who comes across as a two-year-old.

This is something I clearly need to be working on.

Very glad to hear that you see 28, as well, that this trait is not confined to just a few populations. This gives me encouragement to explore the issue further. Any insights from you greatly appreciated ...

CT said...

Thanks for posting. Except for the precipitating incident, I felt like you were describing my thought patterns!!! I appreciate your honesty, and it is comforting to know I'm not alone. I recall a quick exchange with my pcp, telling him how my thinking travels from coast to coast and back in the time it takes another person to mentally drive up the first onramp :0. He knew me well enough to agree, which was something of a relief bc it could have been taken wrong. Lately I've been thinking about input overload and while I haven't devoted much time to researching it, the notion of being a "sensitive" has caught my attention - have you looked into that? I'm curious your thoughts and apologize if you've written elsewhere on it, I just found your site today :) FWIW, your intro page was especially helpful and I really liked your points about psych/anti-psych and all that. Thanks again for sharing!

John McManamy said...

Hey, CT. Very interesting question. I came across this at the-auras-expert.com:

Highly sensitive persons (HSP's) have heightened sensitivity to their environments. If you're a highly sensitive person, your nervous system literally picks up more information than the average person about what's going on around you. As HSP's receive heightened sensory input, you can easily get overloaded by too much stimulation. HSP's can also be more sensitive on other levels. ...

As an HSP, it is important to become aware of your situation so you can learn to manage it. In this fast-paced world of over-stimulation, you need to learn to make choices that are healthy for you, even if others might not understand or relate.


This I can absolutely relate to. But in my case I make no claim to psychic powers or paranormal abilities. I am "sensitive" only in regard to 1) I pick up more information than others on what's going around me (or rather my brain doesn't filter it out). 2) Because of this, I can intuitively come up with answers long before others logically reach the same conclusion. 3) I can also find creative solutions that others would never even consider.

If this were all there was to it, I would be a mental superman and very well off on account of it. Unfortunately, number 4 comes into the picture, namely I get overwhelmed by events around me very easily, which has made navigating through life a considerable challenge.

So, it's the gift and curse thing.

If you have any insights into the psychic and paranormal I'd love to hear about it, as well as any other insights and experiences you may wish to share. You sound like you have a lot to talk about, so, please, let's hear from you. We can all learn.

CT said...

Thanks John. I didn't mean sensitive in the sense of the paranormal though I've had a few instances in my life where I felt a prescient expectation that turned out to be true (unfortunately). If only it was a positive premonition - like predicting the winning lottery #s LOL. The majority of time I think nearly exactly the way you describe, with the possible exception I might also get "stuck" on 28 or keep looping back to it, kwim? It is all very draining. You're right absolutely about it being a gift and a curse. It's a struggle to navigate. In my case it's complicated by the chronic pain which brings more sensory input to the table and takes away some options I might otherwise have used to diffuse it. But back on track, lol, I stumbled upon Dr. Elaine Aron's stuff on sensitives the other day but I haven't had time to review it much. Just part of dissecting the layers... Thanks for the response, hope you have a great 4th!

John McManamy said...

Hey, CT. Very interesting points you raise:

I think we so have an overlap between intuitive and psychic. Here's a copy and past for a blog post last Sept:

"How intuitive are you?" I asked you in a poll I conducted during the month of August. There were seven possible answers - ranging from "psychic" to "sorry," and you were allowed to fill in as many as you like. One hundred fifty of you came up with 316 answers, or two each, presumably not ones that represented polar opposites.

The extremes provide some indication of where you stand. Nearly one in four of you (35, 23%) answered that you were "borderline or full-on psychic, or at least it seems that way." In contrast, less than one in ten (13, 8%) responded with, "Sorry, I'm totally rational and logical."

I highly doubt that we would find so many with psychic tendencies in the general population. I also suspect that a lot less of you would share this kind of information with your psychiatrist. We've all had experiences that we can only describe as uncanny and inexplicable. Some of us have them with greater regularity.

Moving on to straight-up intuition: Four in ten of you (64, 42%) indicated that "my thoughts and ideas seem to come out of nowhere" while more than half (83, 55%) reported that "I often read people and situations like a book." This represents our bipolar advantage - creativity and seemingly otherworldly mental abilities - as well as our curse - racing thoughts and distractibility.

I'll continue this in a second comment ...

John McManamy said...

Hey, CT. To continue:

So it looks like we're talking about a spectrum where intuition and perception overlap into psychic or what seems like psychic.

I've had a lot of uncanny weird stuff happen to me - such as having a vivid dream about an earthquake the day before I experienced my very first earthquake. But these are random chance occurrences. If this were a power I could control, I'd be rich. Or at least I would be able to understand women.

My earthquake experience was probably related to my brain not filtering out stuff. I probably subconsciously experienced something similar to what animals experience just prior to earthquakes and it somehow got converted to a dream.

All I can say is thank god I don't have a higher sensitivity. Imagine my brain going off over every little seismic incident. I'd be a nervous wreck. My guess is my brain learned to tune out this stuff. I later on moved to earthquake zones and = thank god - no premonitions.

So that's my take on overload. More in another comment ...

John McManamy said...

Hey, CT. Your point on getting stuck on 28 is really fascinating. I've only peripherally alluded to this in other pieces and need to investigate it further.

In the incident I describe in my piece, yes, I got stuck on 28. My brain locked into it. This has to do with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the various feeback loops it regulates. We see this in people with OCD. The ACC won't let them let go of a thought.

So we get overloaded and flip out or shut down. But we also get overloaded and stuck on the insight we've come up with and then either good or bad things happen.

If the thought we're stuck on is the next Apple Computers that might be good. But if we're deluding ourselves into thinking we're the next Steve Jobs, well that's bad.

So, once I got stuck on 28 seeing my way to 72 was all but impossible.

I can only imagine what it must be like with the chronic pain you have to manage. You can't filter it out and of course you can't focus on anything else.

Please keep this conversation going. I'll check out Dr Aron.

And how can I have a great 4th? While everyone else is celebrating July 4, I'll be struggling with July 28. :)

Willa Goodfellow said...

I have been pondering your story for several days -- it struck so many nerves. They circle around the common theme of double-bind.

A piece of recovery seems to be the ability to pass. I have been so good at passing that I was able to work for a few years after I had pretty much fallen apart -- albeit by self-denial and by reducing my hours each year. But this ability now proves to my disadvantage. It would be so much easier to document my SSDI claim if only I had not lied so much to my boss, wife, therapist and psychiatrists to stay out of the hospital.

Part of how I pass is to absent myself when I can't pass. Lately, most of my social life is on Facebook. The internet makes passing very easy, because one can edit and limit ones entry and exit. (You notice some irregularity in the postings of my own blog.) But again, this makes me look more functional than I am, and makes my wife nervous about my SSDI application.

Meanwhile, I think my closest friends and family are the ones who MOST want me to pass, because they really, really don't want me to have this disease, and don't want to see it. Ironically, even when they have learned about and somewhat understand what's going on, when I do lose it, they have forgotten, and lose their understanding. My guess is that your friend knows a lot about you. But she doesn't get it when the evidence presents itself.

On Friday, I had an animated, charming and two-hour conversation with my seat mate on the plane -- the tail end of a three-week spell of hypomania. It came up in the conversation, and I told him explicitly that he was witnessing hypomania, and that I would pay for it later. But it must have been most confusing to him.

I try regularly to tell my friends about how my illness affects me. But of course, I only tell them when I am well enough to communicate with them and don't seem sick at all. I suspect that they get tired of it and don't believe me anyway.

Notice, a "but" in every paragraph. Yes, the way our brains work has advantages, and was the most exciting part of my job. But what a sucky disease.

Kate Si said...

"People inclined to high creativity, perception, and intuition tend to have brains that are less than efficient in filtering out the world around us."

Exactly. I would give a kidney for that filter.

The Neurotic said...

I have found myself in more situations than I can count where, by the time a potential match's profile and a couple emails have been read I've already "seen" us having dated, married, had children, fought bitterly, had affairs, divorced, or (if I've been watching too much true crime TV) taken out hefty life insurance policies and killed the other.

By the time my obsessive mind has played out all these possibilities, I am thoroughly exhausted and either start to treat the poor fellow like the cheating bastard I "know" he will become or close contact altogether to save myself the hassle. It takes a couple days for me to settle and realize what an idiot I've been, but in the moment it seems entirely reasonable. Seeing 28 is a damnable thing for my social life!

On psychic stuff... I knew several hours before it was announced at my college that my professor's newborn baby had passed away. That truly freaked me out. I also knew that a coworker was pregnant months before she showed or announced to anyone. FWIW.