I recently came across a video of Dr. Dan Siegel talking about how mental illness can be defined as extreme rigidity on one hand and/or chaos on the other. I wish I could find the video, but I can’t locate it right now.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the connection between traumatic brain injury and mental illness. One of the reasons is, it’s one of the most common combination of search terms people use to find this blog. Plus, I’m personally invested in it, because the last thing I want is to become mentally ill as a result of my head injuries.
Biochemically, I suppose it is quite possible to change as a result of TBI. The brain’s interconnected systems, while amazingly complex, can also be fragile, and the vital balance that keeps us even-keeled can be upset. And after TBI, with all the shocks that hit our systems in the course of experiencing one screw-up after another and/or getting screwed over by the world at large with out being able to properly defend ourselves, whether it’s PTSD or some other form of mental illness, we can certainly develop complexes of some sort.
I have a friend whose mother became a paranoid schizophrenic over the course of years of raising 4 kids after her husband left his family. Between problems of making ends meet and raising 3 sons and a daughter without their father, and never being properly supported financially, she just snapped. Perhaps there was already something going on with her, that made her husband leave… or maybe his leaving tipped the scale. In any case, the hardship had a definite impact on her mental health, and she’s been in and out of institutions, on and off meds, for about 40 years, now. She’s the nicest, kindest lady when you meet her. You’d never guess she raised her daughter with frequent announcements that “the voices” told her to strangle her child.
Anyway, I don’t want to get overly dramatic. That’s just one (extreme) example.
Back to the idea of rigidity vs. chaos. From what I gathered from Dan Siegel, he considers mental illness to arise from being overly rigid and inflexible and/or having a lot of chaos in thoughts and action on the other. This rigidity/chaos is pretty much what I experienced in the first few years after my last injury. In fact, it’s what I’ve experienced in the aftermath of just about all my injuries that I can remember. And rigidity and chaos have marked my life in many ways, intermittently, over the years.
Personally, I’m not sure that I’d call all of what I experienced mental illness. I think there was a distinct neurological/physiological “flavor” to it, which eased up over time, without the assistance of a mental health care provider. Granted, I did get help and support from folks in different ways. But I never took on what I was experiencing as definitive mental illness.
Maybe it was wrong of me to think that way, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that although many folks might advocate talk therapy or some other form of psychotherapy/counseling (especially my therapist friends), that wasn’t really what served me best. What served me, was learning how to just manage my life, and learning that I could manage it — from personal experience. I’m not sure that psychotherapy would have helped me, in any case, immediately after my tbi’s, because my brain wasn’t working well enough to “get” what people were saying to me.
Life, literally, was my best therapy. It was the daily practice of engaging in life to the fullest, seeing how much I could get out of my daily experiences, and committing to being the best person I could be under the circumstances, that restored me to functioning, time and time again. It still does.
And I have to remember that, because when life gets increasingly challenging (as it has been lately), I tend to withdraw and not engage as much as I should. I tend to pull back and shut down, block out the world around me, and try to soldier through, head-down. I have a tendency to block others out, to take on everything by myself, and not be open to input from others.
And that makes me mentally ill.
The more I pull back, the more rigid I get. The more rigid I get, the more everything around me seems to be chaotic and confusing. The chaos contributes to my anxiety, which makes me withdraw even more… and the cycle continues.
And on top of it, I usually get behind in my sleep, which is when the trouble really starts. Being tired… no, in my case, being overly fatigued and downright exhausted (which is where I get to very quickly, if I’m not careful) makes me even more rigid than usual. And chaos reigns — if not in my outer life, than in my head.
So, what helps? Taking care of the basics. Getting ample sleep. Eating right and on a regular schedule. Keeping life simple and not allowing myself to get sleep-deprived. Focusing on the moment for what it has to offer… rather than getting caught up in what’s wrong with it, what I’m not getting, what I’m lacking, how I’m messed up… etc.
When I take care of my body, my mind takes care of my brain. And the physical factors that contribute to rigidity and chaos — and produce the classic emotional volatility, emotional lability, irritability, anger, temper tantrums, rage, shutting down, etc. that makes my life much more difficult than need be — don’t have a chance to get a foothold. It’s good when they don’t get a foothold. I, and everyone around me, has a chance to experience me for what I am, who I am — not the person I become when I’m in bad shape.
TBI or mental illness… chicken or the egg…? It’s a discussion that could go on forever, really. Each can give rise to the other, and each feeds off the other. But where do you determine which is which? On the extreme ends of the spectrum, is there even any difference?
It’s a challenge, to be sure. And judging from the number of people who end up at this blog looking for information about tbi and mental illness, it’s not a rare one.