|The Man in the Mirror|
Mirror Neurons & The Motor Cortex?
For three decades I questioned my belief system, “do I suffer from an organic illness during psychotic episodes, a complex disease, or am I trying to evoke a better sense of myself, a desperate need to shift into a predominately positive state of being?”
“Is the common feeling of increased wellness during the early days of a manic mood swing, the body/brain re-adjusting to the growth processes nature intended at the time of conception? - Like how an acorn contains all the oak tree will be unless its natural growth is thwarted somehow.”
Some people ask whether the positive aspects of psychosis represent a spiritual crisis seeking deeper, intuitive insights? While others see its negative aspects, like nightmarish hallucinations and hearing voices as a clear and obvious sign of a biological illness.
Nominally brought up in the Christian faith, the great biblical characters of Moses, David, and Jesus have always inhabited the foreground of my manic imagination, during each of my psychotic episodes. The well known feelings of compassion for all and a spiritual sense of oneness always come flooding through to drown out my usual sense of ordinary, normal reality. Belief’s about God and faith in the nature of existence always come back to haunt my usual trust and steady belief in science and the virtues of simple common sense. My oldest son laughs and calls it my messiah complex, “for God’s sake don’t carry on about Jesus again!” “Why can’t I explore what actually happened though, how I prayed to God and had such an immediate and compelling experience. - Its not all in my head you know, not simply about pure and outright delusion, it started with some very real sensations.” “Yeah! Yeah, blah, blah, just get back to normal will ya!” Never talk about emotional stuff, you might upset somebody, or so it seems?
In February 1980 a sudden loss triggered my first episode of mania and set me off on a thirty year struggle to understand the nature of my abnormal experiences. I still remember those very first moments that led me into mania, the unusual body sensations and the shift in perceptive awareness that overcame me. I was in the bedroom of our first home in the Sydney suburb of West Ryde, sitting on the end of our double bed on the morning after my wife had left me. I sat there with my best friends guitar in my lap, strumming a few chords of gently stroked desire for new beginning and harshly twanged bitter endings. I sat facing a dressing table some three feet in front of me, sat looking at this man in the mirror. Alone on a brand new day I thought about my circumstances, my situation. Problems of a dramatically failing business compounded by yesterdays sudden withdrawal of emotional support.
Fuck it! I’d sat down with firm feelings of resignation, if the past was lost, then I would cut it off and start again. Such was my reasoning back then, my thoughtful assessment of fate, of those strange forces of self defeating and oft repeating life predicaments. Back then I was decades away from knowledgeable awareness, clueless about unconscious reactions within my nervous system and its affect on my thought processes. Like everyone else I just took my thoughts for granted, held simple common assumptions about the way life is. Who needs an education into the hidden stimulation of our thoughts and behaviors, better to study something objective and get a job?
I was 28 years old on that Sunday morning when I sat looking for new direction, seeking some new identity. Human development experts say we all need a sense of attachment to function well, its hard wired within our brain and nervous system apparently, although I didn't know about any of this stuff back then. What would a self employed electrician know about psychology, neurobiology and the electro-chemical activity of my brain and nervous system? Back then I'd never heard of things like trauma, PTSD or the hyper vigilance states of dissociation some doctors call symptoms of mental illness. All I knew about were things, objects like bedroom furniture, dressing table mirrors and my precious hi-fi equipment, and of coarse the money needed to buy these things, I’d certainly never heard of birth trauma.
I sat there alone looking intently into the mirror, unaware of unconscious needs capturing my attention, and I prayed, I prayed to God. A God I'd been sure I'd disavowed during the material striving of my early adulthood. A period when I‘d staked out my ego‘s claim to intelligent thinking and responsible behavior. I prayed while remembering experiences of childhood, like a dramatic out of body experience when I was fourteen years old. Of an earlier prayer during a soccer game when I was surrounded by rough house associates and had faked my allegiance to their team. I’d prayed to God back then and asked him to let my team win, promising to show my true colors no matter the outcome. By coincidence my team did win and I celebrated the victory regardless of the consequence, even earning a grudging respect rather than a beating. I remembered feelings of being special during adolescent periods of transition and the oft repeated circumstance of isolation. Back in 1980 though, I had not studied attachment theory or family therapy, was ignorant of attachments foundational importance to the health of our human psyche. Thirty one years ago I had no knowledge of Monica McGoldrick’s profound statement, “loss is the pivotal human experience.”
I sat looking into the mirror, yearning for a new direction, something I could feed with a sense of dedication. I prayed sincerely, promising I'd do whatever was required if he’d just show me the way, give me a sign, help me please! Nothing happened for what felt like minutes as I sat there in hopeful expectation while looking at my own reflection, looking into my face. Then it began, a new sensation, a feeling at the top of my head which flowed down slowly, down through my face, into my shoulders and down through my chest, down into my pelvic area. I sat with a sense of "what is it” wonder, although more felt than in any thinking sense. A sense of wonder that was similar to the out of body experience when I was fourteen, except this slowly descending calm was the polar opposite of the sudden sharp elevation, when I'd seemly left my body. It felt like I'd been sitting in a bath of water that was over my head and someone had pulled the plug. I sat there as calm descended slowly from head to toe, as if a mind numbing tension were being drained out of me, like waste water flowing down and out through my toes. Next came a mindful realization of the experience in a pleasant and very welcomed surprise. I felt unburdened somehow, refreshed and excited, happy and new. "Wow! Wow! Wow! Has God just touched me on the shoulder? Is this a religious experience? Or am I just relieved by a sense of being free, free from demanding attachment, not needing anyone but myself?"
Thirty one years on now, I recall that day with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of education. I understand that wondrous feeling as the release of unconscious muscular tensions, even though I would love to believe it was a divine God’s intention. Yet the romantic in me still wishes for some kind of quest request, in my heartfelt plea for a sign. Mental illness had certainly not been my expectation during those life defining moments. Oh! The myth making romantic whispers me on though. Perhaps there is some wicked “riddle me this” sense of humor involved, the challenge of a lifetime perhaps? Such thoughts do give me a warm inner glow mind you, like memories of old lover’s and moments of deep intimacy. Perhaps my thoughts of God reflect an unconscious need of a sense of attachment within? Admittedly for the past decade the experience of madness as a medical disease has certainly become a personal riddle begging for a solution, having long failed the challenge of psychiatry’s medication compliance.
Finding the why and how of madness stimulation, beneath my abnormal behaviors and altered states of mind has been something of a compulsion these past years. Time and resources have been expended almost exclusively to finding the insights that would help me break a thirty year cycle of manic depressive experience. In simple terms the key to my unusual experience that day was a release from dissociative withdrawal, a state conditioned by intense distress during a particularly long and brutal birth experience, I believe. I understand the quick impulse to view the word dissociation as a specific and definable symptom of pathology. However, signs and symptoms of madness are much better understood when viewed along a continuum of brain/nervous system responsiveness, rather than as being separately definable as different symptoms.
Born in circumstances of sustained distress, life has always held a sense of threat for me, occasionally soothed by caring support and sporadically dispersed to dramatic affect. Even today after finding the keys to its conscious release, I often wake cradled in its unconscious embrace, yet nowadays knowing of its blind intent to keep me safe. What was internalized during that long labor and harsh delivery, was an unconscious sense of threat. Threat burned into the early forming and still maturing systems of brain-nervous systems that organize my experience. Without consciously knowing why or how, I have always felt scared, felt unsafe. The pulse of each heartbeat manifests natures intent, it urges a search for threats in the world beyond my skin, yet my human dilemma affects a conscious denial of a threat that is retained deep within my own skin.
Safety brings me back to that day in front of the mirror and the unconscious reaction my mind interpreted as heaven sent. Security as a primary survival need is triggered by the sensation impact of our very first breath, the innate response of distress is there in the universally experienced birth cry. Best practice birthing these days requires a gentle handling of new born to mothers chest, skin contact, warmth and a quick return to the familiar sensation of beating heart, are considered essential to soothing birth distress. It’s also become more clearly understood just how much early life experience critically influences our still maturing brain and nervous system during the first three years of life.
So there I was in 1980, sitting on the end of a bed, ignorant about my unconscious stimulation of avoidance behaviors and how a hidden pattern had led me into this very predicament. I had no knowledge of dissociation as a loss of sensory awareness, which includes our internal environment as much as it does the external one. Up until this point in my life I had unconsciously carried myself in a braced readiness for threat, which closes down sensory awareness in expectation of bodily pain. In that particular moment though I was both consciously and unconsciously facing myself, looking into that mirror, looking into my own eyes and aware of the room behind me. There had been a resignation to circumstance when I’d sat down in the bright morning light, a conscious plea for help and a readiness for change, with perhaps an unconscious sensory recognition of no threat? So was a particular circumstance of combined conscious and unconscious awareness the trigger for my unusual sensation experience? Did I experience a spontaneous re-balancing of my autonomic nervous system which had become conditioned to a constant threat response? More recently education has provided me with the insights to believe, that is exactly what happened in those life defining moments, more than three decades ago.
Of coarse the particular circumstances and the unusual experience affected my ignorant mind back then, how was I supposed to interpret what was happening to me? This was not like the out of body incident when I was fourteen years old, which had lasted for less than a minute. Here was a shift in mind-body awareness that was lasting beyond minutes, with a mellow yellow kind of pleasantness that was intoxicating, I suddenly felt more alive than I had ever done before. Feelings of muscular ease were most notable in my stomach, with an expanded sensory awareness that included a freshness on the surface of my skin. Perception changed, with room colors appearing deeper, brighter and every object seemed to have more depth too it. Background sounds were clearer, easier to perceive and define, like the rustling of leafs just beyond the open window. I could hear birds singing too, their music bringing an easy attention awareness to a degree I’d never experienced before. You could say I bathed in this new experience for a good few minutes, while the “what is it” wonder gave way to thoughtful questions about the seemingly heaven sent nature of it. I walked around the house retaining this everything feels so new perception before spending time in the garden, where I simply sat and listened to the birds sing. Most noticeable on a physical level was the release of habitual stomach muscle tensions with slower, deeper and easier breathing which had always been shallow since asthma had returned to my life when I was eleven.
One of the most noticeable affects of the muscular ease I felt on that day, was the change in my usually hesitant approach towards other people. In the afternoon I spent time with my best friend and shared the morning’s experience with him, wanting the opinion of someone who had experienced psychic phenomena in his life, as had other members of his family. He was intrigued by my description of the prayer to God and its apparent affect, confirming that I seemed different some how, bolder was a word that came to mind. We visited with his Aunt and Uncle, seeking the opinion of wiser heads as to whether they thought this might be a religious experience. During this visit my behavior was more forward, more outspoken and candid than it had ever been with people. Similar to the first recognition of clearly distinguishable bird song, there was an unusual clarity to various voices, to pitch and tone and there exact spatial location. I remember thinking how it felt like I’d been listening to people through the muffle of a heavy blanket before this.
There was conversation about religious faith and the emotional impact of the previous day’s separation, about which I didn’t appear to be as upset about as might be expected. I spoke about the irony of my experience, unsure how the urge to pray had even emerged in someone with an Atheist belief and socialist principles, “I’d been a trade union delegate, for God’s sake.” “God tests our faith in many ways,” had been one reply to that conundrum, along with faith in Jesus and the sign of the cross. “I admit, I was particularly fascinated by all those Biblical stories during childhood,” I’d replied. I told of getting a 96% mark for my homework retelling of the Moses story in one class, “which one of your parents helped you write this,” the teacher had asked before he tore up the paper.
Returning home in the early evening I retained my new sense of ease, along with skeptical thoughts about a supernatural involvement, after all I’d been certain for years that Jesus was a very human man with some admirable ideals, for which he‘d paid a terrible price. Alone again in the marital home I turned to my first love for company, listening to music on my pride and joy, audiophile equipment. There was an hour or so of uninterrupted bliss, so enjoyable after the stolen moments when “she who must be obeyed” had been residing there. The mind was ticking over though, even as I played one favorite album after another. I mused about the absence of a feeling I used to get quiet often when indulging in such pleasures, a peculiar shiver would often run down my spine, accompanied by flashbacks of my fathers often angry voice and movement to remove the source of his annoyance. After a couple of hours of pleasure indulgence I decided it would be a good idea to go find a priest, to ask a religious expert about my experience.
I drove into Sydney city center heading for the famous Kings Cross Wayside Chapel, whose doors were never closed as it ministered to less fortunate souls, and it was headed by the very progressive Reverend Ted Noffs. I remember sighting the giant blue neon cross atop a church at Top Ryde as I drove along Victoria Road in the white Bedford van that had been at the center of our marital storm the previous day. An employee had been involved in an after hours accident with it three weeks before, and only two days after I’d bought it, and a day before the business phone had just stopped ringing. Yesterday I’d realized I’d forgotten to pay the insurance as I looked for the paperwork to get it repaired. “I’ve had enough of this shit!” She’d screamed at me as she packed her bags.
I didn’t find a priest that night as only the lay staff were on duty at the Wayside Chapel, although I did end up having an interesting conversation with a street busker from Norway. We talked a lot about his life on the streets and his faith in God's guidance. He was a true believer, working his way around the world with only his trusty guitar and a repertoire of songs to sustain him. I’m sure it was thoughts of friendship and a desire to learn to play that urged me back after I’d walked past his street corner location. He was very suspicious about my approach though, only two questions into my “where you from” inquiry before he announced, “I’m straight man!”
We got past that impasse and explored a common thread of motivation, he’d run away from home and a violent father when he was just fifteen. He told me how he learned the guitar in an Amsterdam squat, had indulged every vice he could think of before a near fatal drug overdose turned him onto to God. “I just go where the holy spirit takes me man! - Love the Lord, trust in him and he will provide!” I remember noticing a sense of openness as I sat beside him, of a wider and easier awareness, and a curious freedom from impatience. Struck too by the ease of my open faced look towards other people, and how easy it was to evoke a smile in total strangers. A strange sense of my face glowing back in smiling welcome at anyone who gave a cautious glance in our direction. Sitting there in a very crowded public place with a total absence of urgency, felt like the very height of luxury to me. After an hour or more exchanging views on the status of Jesus and swapping anecdotal stories, I remained skeptical about God though. Or maybe I was just being oppositional as two young men needed to out do each other with verb and ego? I choose to make a final winning gesture by handing him a five dollar bill and suggesting he have a little more faith in we ordinary men.
I walked away with such a wonderful sense of freedom, reflecting on the ease of my approach and conversation in such a busy public space, unimaginable before today. On the drive home I thought about life changes that might see me pursue my obvious interest in philosophy, an adult entry into university occupied my mind as I drove by that blue neon sign again. Once home I continued to muse on my day with music accompanying me further into the night, sleep seemingly the least appropriate need in my new found state of freedom. I remember being moved to dance to some of my favorite songs, feeling my body move in time with the beat as it could never have done before. The body movement held such care free abandon that it doubled the inspirational sense of this amazing day. Something wonderful was happening to me and thoughts raced about the what, why and how of that undeniable moment in front of the bedroom mirror.
Around four in the morning a wave of fatigue allowed the need for sleep to claim my attention, and I hit the shower before bed. Here again though was a new sensation experience, as I felt the tingle of water on my skin and a peculiar awareness of movement as if time and motion were luxuriously slower. I remember feeling the texture of the soap in my hand with the thought that I had time to feel it now, impressed by the missing sense of urgency in these expansive moments. Lack of urgency and anxiety occupied my mind as I questioned the shower experience while dressing for bed. Looking into the mirror again I felt so deeply grateful for these new feelings within me, such richness of perception and overall sense of ease was surely a minor miracle?
I did attempt to get to sleep, yet the shower seemed to have revived me and I just lay immersed in a steady stream of rapturous thoughts for about half an hour. I got up and watched TV for a while, thinking mindless distraction would allow fatigue to rise again. Coincidently though Christian evangelist shows were on two of the three available channels, and I plunged back into emotive thoughts about God, Jesus and that wondrous moment in front of the mirror. Had I really been touched by the holy spirit, reviving my boyish sense of wonder with an obvious need for love and trust in one another?
I thought about the conversation with the young man on the streets of Kings Cross, how he’d looked more like a left wing radical than a believer in God. Maybe he was the priest I was meant to find, his story of love, trust and faith was certainly impressive? “I just go where the holy spirit takes me man! - Love the Lord, trust in him and he will provide!” I cried, I wanted so very much to trust, to have faith in love because I was so sick and tiered of its continual failure in my life. I was an unwanted child and had suffered my parents palpable resentment, even when I’d tried to heal the wounds and broach that reality with them, I’d met the same old inane reaction. The childish, utterly stupid and thoughtless “us versus them” reactions of “don’t blame us for your shortcomings.” “Stupid, mindless blame games, what’s wrong with people that they can‘t see the abject lack of reason in such brainless reactions? - Why do we love things more than each other?”
Since a very young age I’d sensed the stupidity of a mindless lust for objects, for possessions thought to be more precious than time spent with a child. Of coarse people like my parents would refute this notion of their motivations, yet the evidence was there in behaviors of bitter annoyance with a curious child, while wish and wonder were always directed towards inanimate objects. I’d long withheld a secret question for people, “do you really think Moses was just stupid? - Don‘t worship false idols he said.” A powerful sense of intuitively understanding the false economy of objects when I was only five years old overcame me. “People don’t think, they just do, do the same as everyone else does in a common herd mentality.”
Writing these words I’m reminded of an essay about my family and its generational emotionality, which I wrote in 2006 for my counseling degree, its title, Breaking the Golden Rule! Don’t talk about emotional things, you might upset someone. “Distance and avoidance seem to become the major themes of my mother’s life, due to her experiences with her family. I am reminded very much of Monica McGoldrick's comment, “loss is the pivotal human experience,” and how this has impacted my mother and influenced my own feeling for life. From Gerald Corey, "actions, and interactions that are characterized by retreat, fear and protection, tend to constrain growth and development." The words retreat, fear and protection, leading to constraint resonate within me, and I feel it has been a constant struggle for me to UN-constrain my own innate nature, away from my programmed fearful emotional response.”
Memories of childhood came thick and fast that night, the resentful frustration that created such a dense angry atmosphere inside our house, my constant fearful anxiety which had led to run away episodes four times before I was ten years old. Thoughts about the young busker mingled with childhood memories of feeling safer on the streets than the so called sanctity of our family home. I was struck too by how these new feelings of ease were like a magnified sense of comfort I’d always felt in the quiet of a very late night. I turned off the TV, sitting for a while in the luxury of night time peace and quiet. “Jesus!” If I didn’t believe in him as a God, I certainly identified with his ideals and universal need for an understanding sense of love. Was I just kidding myself with an objective idealism, in my Atheist beliefs, I’d always secretly felt the same thing the street busker feels? A memory of sitting in my only flash car purchase came to mind and how I’d decided to join in with a boys toys fascination. I’d bought that car after a relationship break up too, remembering how I’d parked the Holden Monaro sports salon after an uneventful singles night, “what did I buy this stupid thing for?” I’d asked myself. Dare I let myself fall into the arms of a holy grace, a spiritual sentiment and pure ideals, even if its not a five senses physical presence, or is it? “Life is truly wonderful,” I thought as I opted for more music and the sensual celebration of dance. Just before daylight the first sign of dreamy delusion broke through though, a fleeting sense of words spoken directly to me, as I punched the air in elative agreement with their heartfelt sentiments.
My memory of that first slip into an altered state of mind comes through the filter of hindsight of coarse, normal conscious discrimination was swamped by elation during the moment itself. Back in that moment I was becoming utterly euphoric with a positive energy that seemed suddenly unchained, released from bonds of an expectant negative state. Released from a constant worrying concern and anxious urgency that seemed to have kept these fine feelings of being alive, frozen in aspic until now. Such a palpable release from a prior low grade depression kind of existence, brought a euphoria as powerful as any magic mushrooms could. With that first slip into dream like perception I was like an innocent abroad though, gleefully keen to explore this rich new shoreline of joy tree phantasm land. Back then I had not read about the neuroscience of human development or the thermo dynamic processes of the body/brain, which can explain the dream like quality of such phenomena. Back then I didn’t know I was experiencing an affective disorder and was still decades away from reading affective neuroscience. Back then I’d never heard of people like Allan Schore, Stephen Porges, Jaak Panksepp or Silvan Tomkins, and had not yet read “Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self.” Back then I didn’t understand how I was entering affective disorder, and had no idea there are such things as innate affects as the roots of our complex human emotions.
essence of neurodynamics, and therefore of psychodynamics.” (Schore, 1994).
In 1980 all I understood about my mind was the blindingly obvious, its taken for granted thoughts. I’d heard of atoms of coarse but I had no knowledge or awareness of neurons or pulses of electro-chemical energy within my brain, who does? I equated thermodynamics with external sources of heat, like our electric blanket for winter time nights, but a thermodynamics of emotion and thought? Who knew? Back in that particular moment all I knew of was a growing belief in a religious experience when I’d prayed to God in front of that mirror. I was yet to be told I was suffering from a chemical imbalance in my brain, mind you if God really exists they would be his chemicals too, wouldn’t they? Or maybe the Devil if we hold such supernatural beliefs?