Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Forget the Whittaker Sideshow: Tom Wootton is the Main Event

I’m taking a brief time-out from not posting any pieces here to briefly comment on something I just read by Tom Wootton on Psychology Today. As many of you know, Tom is the founder of “Bipolar in Order” and the author of “The Bipolar Advantage” and other short books, one of which I reviewed a couple of years ago as “the worst piece of crap ever assembled between two covers.” 

But what’s a little minor nitpicking between friends right? When Tom actually sticks to writing what he knows, he is the most visionary and astute mind out there. Trust me, Robert Whitaker is a sideshow. Love him or hate him, Tom is the person we need to be paying attention to, and his recent piece Why I Am Against Meds (the title is a gimmick to get you to read the piece) affords a timely reminder.

First, Tom observes what we already know - that the pro-meds and anti-meds positions are poles apart, to the point where everyone is shouting and no one is listening. This can get pretty frustrating, especially if you’re in the business - as Tom is - of shedding light rather than heat on the topic. Listen to Tom:

At the end of my talks I am frequently accosted by members of one camp or both. It is pretty clear that neither side even heard what I said and the only thing they listened for is whether I took their side in the only thing that matters to them. I didn't validate their extreme point of view and they are furious with me.

He goes on to say:

If you visit the sites that are anti-med or anti-psychiatry it is mostly about what they are against and not about better outcomes. They are not talking about getting bipolar in order. They are talking about their opposition to a set of tools. They are fixated on meds and psychiatry instead of gaining understanding about how to function while manic or depressed.

But he doesn’t have very good things to say about pro-meds extremists either:

Medicine can help moderate the intensity during the freedom stage of bipolar in order, but they cannot get you in order by themselves. The role of medication becomes more peripheral as one moves through freedom stage to stability and is largely irrelevant once one reaches self-mastery. There is no point in taking something to lower the intensity when intensity is no longer an issue.

A little background here: Tom is a strong advocate of experiencing the full emotional range of what he characterizes as our “condition.” Imagine being able to enjoy all the advantages of “up” (the creativity, productivity, sociability, etc) without fear of going off the rails. Even “down” has its upside - depression is very conducive to introspection and a lot of deep thinking. So imagine - and this is a tough sell - maintaining a healthy state of down.

In short, if we are seeking “normal” as an outcome, we are squandering our gifts. Instead of viewing bipolar “disorder” as something we wish would go away, we should think of getting our bipolar “in order.” We can have our ups and downs. Expect to struggle with them, but also expect to be challenged to thrive, not just survive.

If you are new to this and are confused, that’s okay. You are probably used to hearing the standard pro-and-anti-meds party lines. Tom, by contrast, is challenging us to think, daring us to grow and become better people in the process. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

The other stuff. It’s a distraction, a loser’s game.