Thursday, May 4, 2017

On Storms and Suns and Moons and Stars



Weathering the Storms

The winds lash you and whip you
The waves lift you up
and crash you down
It is stomach churning
You feel you can't take another wave
Or another trough
Just please let it be one or the other!
But no
On they come
Up, up, up you ride the wave
Terrified because you know it will peak
And then the crash down into another trough
Please make it stop, you beg
On your knees you plead
Please just make it stop

But on the wind whips you
And on the waves and troughs
Take you up and down
God, make it stop
Please make it stop

You look about you
Your ship is battered
Your sails torn and shredded
How can this go on?
How much longer?
Impossible
It is impossible
Clearly impossible
So battered and broken
Such relentless storms
And wave tossed seas

And then the sea beckons
The only way to escape the seas
And the storms
Is to succumb to the seas
Let them take you under
Then it will stop
Peace will come

But wait!
There is the moon!
If you could just use the light of the moon
Maybe it will guide you to a safe port
The seas and winds calm
Yes, there is hope
Your heart rises
So you gather your courage
Get the best out of your battered ship
And on you sail

There is no port but there is the moon
And some stars
The day brings some sun
These will surely guide you to safety
You have weathered the storm

Then you feel it
The seas are rising
You turn your eyes skyward 
to look for guidance 

But you see no moon, no stars, no sun
The skies have darkened
The winds are rising
The seas churn again

And that slim sliver of hope
That had sustained you
Vanishes under the waves
Torn away by the winds
Clouded by darkness


Your stomach churns with the seas
Feeling every wave
Every trough
The frothy waves and fierce winds
Have become you
You look inside
And feel you have become
the storm
Have become the darkness
You are in the storm
and have become the storm
And the darkness
Nothing is as it was
Who is this dark monster inside you ask
How can I let this be?

And again the seas beckon
Come to us, they say
We will take it away
No! You cry
Yes, it replies
Only the sea can drown your pain
Your suffering
Your sorrow
Only the sea can calm the storms within

Your eyes scan the seas and skies
Looking for signs
A sun, a moon, stars
Part of you knows they're there
Lights in your life
Yet the skies are so dark
The seas rising and falling
and churning your very soul

And the sea beckons


But we are there
Your sun
Your moon
Your stars

I know you can't see us
I know how hard it is
But behind the clouds
Those terrifying dark stormy clouds
We are there

Just weather this one more storm

Just weather this one more storm

Thursday, April 20, 2017

An Introduction to Depression - A Summary of Video Lecture




This post is a summary of the discussion points from the video lecture on an introduction to understanding depression. 




I spoke quite a bit about the semantics of the word "depression". Most people's natural tendency will be to frame their understanding of the condition through their own experience along with what makes up popularly held understandings of the term. This is very unhelpful for understanding any one case of depression - tragically perhaps most often in oneself or in close friends or loved ones - so I have to really emphasize that to get a better, deeper and broader understanding, I need to ask individuals to get past that (even if you understand a great deal of what I present here). There are simply too many variables in the individual, life conditions and body and brain biology and physiology for there to be any one definition of or framework for any one case. 

What I present in this talk is regarding the much more serious end of the scale.

I have many approaches to understanding the brain and the mind and how these produce the experience of depression. 

In the preliminary part of the talk I mentioned the following posts as relevant. These are references only. While it is not necessary to read through them all, they are handy to understand certain points I make during the lecture. 

A note first, however. Many people, I've found, tend to get intimidated by terms and concepts I present here. This is quite understandable but I feel very confident that you can do it. There are no tests or anything to get anxious about. So just relax, take your time and let your brain do its thing - if you let it, it'll absorb this in a way that works for you. 

Neuroanatomy 101 - this lays out some of the very basics of brain anatomy and some of the biology.

Brains as Reality Creators  - every brain creates a unique perception and view of the world. This is very important to grasp and accept when we try to understand other people's experiences and even our own mind and the different "realities" it can create. For example (and I mention this in the video), our "normal" state and a "depressed" state are like two different realities and change the way we perceive the world and our selves. 

An Introduction to Neuroplasticity - this is critical for understanding change and to build belief and confidence in the possibility of change within ourselves. 

An Introduction to the Stress Response System - I will make the argument as we go along that any case of depression or psychiatric disorder will involve or be rooted in the stress response system. As I mention in the video, I really need to ask everyone to put aside their previous notions of stress, how it's created and how it affects brain function and mood and open their minds to a new understanding. 

Genetic and Environmental Factors in Individual Brain Development - one of the main legs to my approach is getting past blame, guilt and shame for "who we are" and all these faults and states we beat ourselves up for. I wrote this post to give some understanding into the basic factors that create the brain that will in turn create "you" (as weird as this sounds, this is in fact what happens). This is my basis for compassion for myself - and for others going through difficulties. We did not create this, folks - this process did. 

Again, it is not necessary to read through all these (though I'd be so thrilled if you did!) but they are handy references to help understand a) the basis for my approach and b) to understand the points I make

Symptoms

These are some of the most significant symptoms. I realize these may not be all symptoms - I'm sure I missed some - but they are enough to give us a better basis for understanding. 

 
  • grief
  • guilt/rumination
  • distorted thinking/perspective
  • dark thoughts
  • sensory changes
  • intense introspection
  • sleep disruption (1)
  • fatigue
  • body aches
  • loss of general motivation and will
  • vegetative or catatonic states
  • anedonia
  • self-harm, suicidal ideation, suicidal planning, actions and attempts
  • loss of interest in self-care
  • psychomotor retardation


[(1) towards the end of the time I'm talking about sleep disruption I misspoke and said "sleep depression" when I of course meant to say sleep disruption] 

While I won't go over again here what I talked about in the broadcast, I do want to mention something about fatigue. This is another word loaded with semantic misunderstandings and I'm afraid I neglected to make that clear. By "fatigue" here, I am not talking about the normal everyday experience of it all people will have - this is a huge stumbling block for understanding the clinical fatigue in many people with depression and other mental health disorders. What I talk about here is something very different with different biological underpinnings. 

While I originally researched and wrote this series on the understanding of the well known symptom of fatigue in the depressive phase of bipolar disorder, I've since come across enough evidence to convince me that what I talk about in this series applies to many other disorders in which fatigue, psychomotor retardation, loss of motivation, issues with self-care, vegetative or catatonic states and so on are involved. 

What I briefly touch on is how "energy" is produced at the cellular level by mitochondria. This is a highly acclaimed series and will give you a very good basic understanding of mitochondrial dysfunction and its role in many of the symptoms discussed. 





Possible Factors



  • biological
  • anatomical differences in brain
  • genetic and environmental
  • current or past life events and/or circumstances
  • stress response
  • GI tract
  • energy
  • the human condition

I spoke of some of the biology and neurotransmitters. Here are the posts where I introduce these and look at two of the main ones thought to play roles in depression and other psychiatric disorders. 

Neurochemical in Focus - Serotonin  

Neurochemical in Focus - Dopamine  


Again, this list does not include every possible factor but outlines some of those commonly accepted as factors and some which my own study and research has shown may be significant. 

A point I feel is very important which I was trying to make at the end but which I see I failed to make clear was the distinction between depression as part of the human experience and the more serious clinical and medical cases.

What I see are cases that might be part of the human experience - as enormously difficult as they may be to experience and go through or to witness as a loved one - that are treated under the "disease model" and tragically become much worse and entrenched than they need to be. 

On the other hand, there are cases with biological and anatomical basis that are looked at as just part of the human experience and these become tragically untreated or treated in the wrong way which leads to enormous amounts of additional and unnecessary suffering. 

It's also possible that it could be a combination of the two (life experience plus biological and anatomical factors).

It's my position that without someone very skilled and knowledgeable in looking into a person's background and able to look into some of these factors, it's very hard to untangle what the best diagnosis and approach may be. 


I hope this was useful. If you have any questions, please join us for the webinar this coming Sunday! 



Below is the Sunday, April 23rd Q&A session following my talk introducing a new understanding of depression. This whole webinar thing is still very much in its infancy so the process for viewer questions hasn't quite emerged yet and as such no questions were asked in the broadcast itself. But I also receive questions via email, one of which I chose to address in this broadcast. The question was:


What can I do to avoid getting sooooo exhausted when there are other people around me? Even if it is just one old friend, it seems as if I spring a leak and my energy is just sucked out.
Is there a way to "shield" myself, from other people 's energy? In public places, for instance. 
I don't live somewhere where i can withdraw from people. No place I can find 'quiet' and I sometimes feel I am gonna explode. What can I do? Please help.  
I am always so tired. Too tired to pick up the remote 5 feet away. I will stare at the TV at something I don’t want to watch bc I can't move. It's a horrible feeling.


While at first glance one might wonder what this has to do with depression this actually ties in very much with the fatigue, vegetative states, and psychomotor retardation symptoms discussed in the talk I gave. Furthermore, it allows us to examine a very unique subset of depression and anxiety sufferers that come from what are known as "highly empathetic people" or "empaths". 

I also address the culture of silence around things like depression and the role of communication in mood and psychiatric disorders. 



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Let's Talk - To Whom?


It is again time for Bell Canada's annual Let's Talk campaign. Its very laudable goal is to reduce stigma around mental health disorders and to encourage people to "talk", to "speak up" and that this will help you feel better. There are some famous spokespersons and they will give personal testimony to how talking about depression helped them (one of whom - and the face of the campaign - is Clara Hughes, one of my very favourite Canadian athletes and Canadians in general whom I greatly admire). If you were to follow the link to their site or see their ads on Canadian TV or hear them on radio, you'd find a very feel good vibe to the whole thing, a sort of "hey, this all isn't so bad, it feels good to speak up and talk" feeling. 

And there's no question that suffering alone, lost in confusion and unbearable pain, will almost always lead to worse outcomes. A recent study - conducted in Canada - found strong evidence that those experiencing suicidal thoughts were seven times more likely to recover if they had someone to confide in. 

However, as good as it all feels, as good as they try to make it feel, as helpful as it could be, most of us know this is not - yet - the reality. In our world the reality remains - talk to whom?


What I would like to see - and I'm sure many of you from our world would agree - is not a "Let's Talk" campaign, but how about a "Let's Listen" campaign? For until we have a society that is better trained to listen - to truly compassionately listen while controlling the natural compulsions to jump in and judge and give "advice" and so on - then "talking" for most of us will be a futile and painful exercise. 

I've never been shy about my condition. I have talked to literally dozens and dozens of people. I have talked to dozens of psychiatrists and psychologists and health care workers. And out of all of those - and we're talking about close to a hundred people - only one really and truly listened and heard me, "B", the therapist assigned to me through a local program to give university psychologists in training some "seat time" experience. 

However, our sessions wrapped up with the end of the university year (we'd met weekly from September to May). I was told to call and register again in the fall but when I called to do so I was told my case was too hard, that there was no one in their program who could handle it. This from the chief (and very experienced and hard nosed) psychologist who oversaw the program. 

As for psychiatrists, they will nod, hum, maybe mention this or that but at the end of the few minutes you have with them, all they will do is pull out their prescription pad and prescribe yet more drugs. No people, this is not a solution. Why it's not a solution, however, will have to wait for a separate piece (among the dozens and dozens on my "to-do" list). 

So that's at the professionally trained end of things. 

As for "talking" with friends, family and so on, what one with serious depression or suicidal thinking will face will almost invariably be some of the very worst of what stigma has to offer. There is a very good chance you will get gas lighted to some degree. You will be told you're just being selfish. You will be told many people have worse problems so suck it up. People will get into "my problems are worse than your problems" arguments. People will tell you that your depression doesn't hold a candle to theirs, so suck it up. People will cut you off and talk over you. People will actually argue with you that your problems don't even exist. People may appear to listen but then you find out they're saying awful things behind your back about what you told them. People will make jokes. And on and on. 

I once tried what everyone tells you to do - dial a suicide help line. The woman on the line sounded bored and restless after a few minutes. I'm one of those people who are super sensitive to tones like that so I had to hang up. Granted, I can think of fewer worse jobs on earth but just to add some insight into what that "let's talk" outlet can be like.

And if you try to tell anybody about all these awful experiences, they'll tell you that you must be exaggerating. 

I really do need to get to an in depth look at stigma in a separate piece (yet more for that long "to-do" list) but I can tell you from an enormous amount of personal experience, from listening to dozens and dozens of personal stories, from reading at least a hundred case studies and from deeply researching stigma in general, that "talking" is almost certain to expose one to stigma and possible character assassination that will drive a person deeper in the hole.

I apologize if this doesn't sound too heartening or encouraging. But this is the bare bones truth from my world. And one of the truths is that it's very easy to post these things on social media and sound "hip" to the problem and pretend to be spreading "awareness", but it's a whooooooole different ball game to actually do, to actually "listen", to actually hear what the person is trying to say, to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk. 

And for anyone needing to talk, it is excruciatingly hard to talk about these things. There is literally nothing that makes you more vulnerable than opening up about these horrors in your mind. I can say with one hundred percent validity, that there is a very good chance that what you say "can and will be used against you". This is not just my experience, I've seen this documented in numerous papers looking at this whole business of mental illness and stigma. There is an enormously high chance that you will lose friends, job opportunities (if not actually lose jobs), be outcast, or at the very minimum, people will look at you differently, in a lesser kind of way. 

So again, "Let's Talk" - but to whom? Who is this mythical person we're supposed to reach out and talk to? What if our problems persist and aren't something that will go away with a simple "talk"?


Yet ... 

I do know it's hard, really hard to just listen.

Through Taming the Polar Bears dozens and dozens of people have reached out to me in one form or another. I've heard some very hard stories. I'm in a unique position to be able to listen and offer solid insight and actual useful things to do. As both a peer (someone who truly gets what they're saying) and someone who's researched so much into what to do and why, I'm in a better position to help. But even then, it can get tremendously emotionally draining. 

So for people who are not at all equipped to help (read: 99% or more of people), it is very, very difficult to just sit and listen. 

So what do I think the answers are? Frankly, I have no idea. But what I've learned since starting all this research (exactly four years ago now) and since writing this blog, is that you nor I nor anyone in particular is going to change how all this works in the world. 

So what it comes down to is the person reading this post - what are you going to do? That's all that matters, what are you going to do? 

And what I can tell you, or suggest to you, is to look into yourself - if someone close to you called you out of the blue (or texted or emailed) and spoke of being in a very dark place and maybe spoke in round about ways about ending it, what would you do? Are you ready for that? Could you just listen without shaming them or judging them or putting them down? Statistically speaking, I have to doubt it. 

So start with yourself. Learn about stigma, learn about what and what not to say, but mostly, learn out how to shut your mind off and just listen and hear what another human being has to say through their eyes

Learn to do that and you might just save a life, a life very important to you. 
Learn to do that, then you can talk about "Let's Talk".

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

It's Okay




Here we are at the dawn of 2017. If at the dawn of 2013 (or the dawn of any year I existed prior to that, for that matter) you'd have said that I'd be considered a sort of expert (that word should be taken with at least a bit of a grain of salt) on the brain, human behaviour and mental health, it would have been a pretty, well, crazy notion. 

For nothing that I know that goes into this blog or what people now know me for existed prior to four years ago. I keep saying I really must get to the story of all how this came about (though some long time readers and those who know me through certain online circles are more aware) but for now there are many other more pressing concerns. 

In any case, the blog now has hundreds of readers around the globe and I have this 'reputation'. As such people write to me from every continent on earth save the Antarctic asking all kinds of questions that pertain to behaviours or mental health. People are upset, people are scared, people are worried, people are on the verge of or are already melting down. Though no one comes right out and says this (save for one notable exception), I know they're scared. I know this because it is scary. I've been there.

When our minds start to go off the rails and we feel we're on the very knife edge of life itself, frightening thoughts are racing through our head, we can't sleep and we don't know what to do or where to turn, it's scary. Real scary. Those who aren't scared have interesting psychological features to delude themselves so they're sort of blissfully unaware (a whole different sort of mental health kettle of fish, but we won't digress). I know it's scary because I'll never forget how scared I was, and still can be. 

So you know what? It's okay to be scared. We can get past scared but it's absolutely alright to be scared. I can one hundred percent assure you that there's nothing shameful about being scared. 

Let me tell you something. I'm 6 foot 2 (184cms) and most of my life I was "built". I worked in hard scary jobs, I played tough sports. I road motorcycles over some of the scariest roads on earth and through some of the most chaotic dangerous traffic there is. I faced and conquered a lot of scary stuff. But when my mind started going off the rails and I began having psychotic episodes and my life started falling apart, I can tell you, I was scared. Nothing I'd seen or experienced in my life was scarier. Nothing. I've met people tougher than me who were scared when going through something similar. 

So right now you're feeling a lot of things that are causing anxiety and depressed feelings and this is all really frightening and there are good reasons for you to be feeling these things, but we're not going to feel any less of ourselves or ashamed of ourselves because we feel scared. It's okay. We'll be surrounded by people who will heap shame on us for feeling this way, but right here, in here in this space, we're going to know that it's okay. It really truly is. 

Now, about breaking down. 

We live in the most complex, fast paced and fast changing and densely populated time in the history of the planet. As I present and argue in Evolution, Life and Why Our Brains Developed the Way They Are, our brains spent millions of years evolving for conditions that bear absolutely no resemblance to today's world. We daily must deal with cultural and societal and family unit complexities that have no precedent in history. 

Knowledge is doubling at the rate of every thirteen months. Technology changes yearly. We are exposed to the ails of the world and human suffering in ways and at a scale that are unprecedented in human history. 

So are people going to break down under those conditions? Yes. On a scale that is again unprecedented in human history. 

So if you are breaking down (or have been breaking down or have been broken down for some time) or are are feeling anxious and depressed (or all of these things at once) you know what? It's okay. There are literally millions of people around the world breaking down (and each day many won't live to see the next day). I don't mean it's okay these things are happening to you - it's not - but it's okay in the sense that you are not some Particularly Flawed Human Being for breaking down. So yes, it's okay. It really is. 

Your brain is the most complex biological organ in the four billion year history of life on earth. It operates on levels of complexity that defy any current understanding or ability to explain it, despite the efforts of thousands upon thousands of the most highly trained people on earth using the most advanced instruments in human history. It has to operate 24/7 for every second you draw breath. Even some of its most basic functions would cripple the most advanced supercomputer on earth. 

A simple watch is going to break down under certain (and far less stressful) conditions. So I think we can assume that it's pretty unreasonable to expect that this unfathomably complex organ between your ears isn't going to break down under some of the most trying conditions in history. So yes, it's okay that you're breaking down. Again, I don't mean it's okay that it's happening to you, but it's okay that your brain is experiencing some 'wobbles'. You aren't "weak" or a "wimp" or in any way a lesser human being. You are very normal and it really is okay for this to be happening. 

Now when I say "it's okay", it's not in the fluff "everything's going to be okay" way we see and hear passed around as "advice". For in truth, if your mental health problems are serious, then if certain things don't happen, I can assure you on no uncertain terms that there's an unacceptably high chance that no, it won't all be "okay". I can tell you this from studying countless case studies of what happens when certain efforts aren't undertaken to make things better, not to mention from my own very difficult case. Long time readers will know - and appreciate - that I'm not of the type to blow rainbows and moonbeams up your butt and tell you "it's okay, it'll all work out" because frankly, that sort of fluff gets too many people killed or keeps them in unacceptable conditions.

I mean it's okay in the sense that you are a perfectly normal human being who's not going handle everything perfectly. We can beat ourselves up about a lot of things but we're not going to beat ourselves up about this. It's okay. It really is.