Our Brains Are Tougher Than We Think

imgres-1imgres Yesterday I struggled with writer’s block.  I really wanted to have the satisfaction of writing something  meaningful, though, so I sat down and fumbled in front of my computer.  Facebook was calling my name, but I told it to…please use your imagination!

I decided to free write.  Free writing is a prewriting technique in which you write continuously for a set period of time without getting fixated with spelling, grammar, or topics.  Free writing is supposed to produce raw, often unusable material, but it also helps writers overcome blocks, apathy and self-criticism.  It was just was I needed to do, and it actually worked!  It worked a little too well, as what you’re about to read is overly long.  I should have broken this down into two parts, but please read away if you dare!

The subject that came to me was about something that was within myself all along, literally.  Yes, my very own brain!  I started typing in a frenzy, but then I had to schlep away to do errands and pick up my girls at school.

After I left the house, I noticed something cool happening throughout my day.  I encountered not one, not two, but three concrete, intriguing pieces of brain-related information (and a fourth just plain-old-weird “coincidence” for want of a better word).  Perhaps I was ultra-sensitive to noticing anything brain-themed, but these happenstances seemed too uncanny.  I considered them to be good omens that I was writing about the right topic.

Before I discuss what happened yesterday, I can’t even think about brains anymore without mentioning my most harrowing brain experience, namely my rounds of ECT,  or electroconvulsive therapy.

As some of you faithful readers know from my previous blog post, I’ve had two separate rounds of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

https://proudlybipolar.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/are-you-shocked-that-i-got-shocked/

The first ECT series I had was after my Dad died.  I became suicidal (he was one of my best friends) and I admitted myself into the hospital.  I asked for ECT because I had been medication-resistant up to that point – it wasn’t forced upon me.  I had unilateral (on one side of the head) ECT.  Several years later, when I relapsed after tapering off my bipolar meds, I had bilateral ECT on both sides of my head.  I was told by my psychiatrist that I would have short-term memory loss only, but I felt totally skeptical.  I was gravely worried that I would have permanent memory loss.

I remembered one time when I was an inpatient at the hospital where I had ECT there was a patient I called “J. Lo” in my unit.  She dressed every day in full makeup and had “Dragon Lady” nails.  J. Lo told me the day before I had ECT that she couldn’t remember her wedding or the births of her children after her ECT, and of course that completely freaked me out.  However, since I was desperate, I went ahead with the ECT anyway.

The good news is that I am one of the luckier ones; ECT helped me function and ultimately do much, much better after suffering during through those suicidal depressions.  After my bilateral ECT, which affects more of the brain, I experienced a few somewhat alarming memory loss experiences.  However, nothing was life-threatening and I even found some humor about the situations which took the sting out of the memory struggles.

One example is when I picked up my girls at school, I ran into some parents in the hallway. Although their faces seemed really familiar, I couldn’t remember their names, which I had known pre-ECT.  I felt embarrassed, unnerved, and even rude at not remembering their names, but my tendency for that to happen reduced greatly over the past few months. My psychiatrist who administered all my ECT told me that my short-term memory loss would come back by the end of six months following my treatment.  While I have no empirical evidence to prove this assertion, I can feel it in my bones that it’s true in my case.  My brain feels stronger, I can retrieve my memories easily, and my intuition tells me that our brains are WAY more resilient than we give them credit for!

The phrase “mind over matter” means when something that seems impossible can be overcome if it’s thought out.  I think that concept could be literally applied to our brains.  I know this will sound a little “out there”, but maybe our thoughts really can heal ourselves, starting with our brain first.  Life is crazy enough – why not?

I live in Santa Cruz, a town famous for its New Age culture, and for all I know there’s a “Resilient Brain” workshop or “Brain Healing Bonanza” weekend nearby at Esalen.  There are lots of books about the brain that examine both traditional and alternative healing techniques.  I’ve also noticed books written by patients with brain injuries or mysterious madnesses who achieve full healing after their traumatic illnesses.  I haven’t read any of them yet, but I bet that some of these books are entirely possible in their far-out-sounding premises.

Something amazing I never expected to happen was how these days I feel heartened at really feeling that my brain is recovering from being zapped, and it’s stronger.  I wonder if our brains get bigger when they are healthier?  Hmmmm – do any of you know? I digress!

I turn forty-four in six days and while I doubt that my brain’s growing older is a plus, I believe that my healthy habits and attitude are restoring my brain.  Some of these habits are: working out, using my Sunbox, having a few people love me unconditionally (and who I love back!) and getting daily doses of nature.  Writing helps too, as does music I enjoy.  Miracle of miracles, I even starting doing a smidgen of guided meditation with my counselor!  In other words, I’m doing many things to keep stable and productive.  (I won’t get into my sugar, fat and chocolate consumption subject now, but you don’t expect me to be perfect, right?)

And now for those brainy coincidences that occurred yesterday.  I received an email message from my friend Amy who runs a yummy gluten-free food business “Gluten-Free For All”.  She wrote me about a psychiatrist/psychopharmacologist/neuroscientist’s podcast.   The headline caught my eye: “How Gluten & Gut Health Impact Your Brain with Dr. Charles Parker”.

http://www.glutenfreeschool.com/2014/03/10/gluten-gut-impact-brain-charles-parker-gfs-podcast-036/

When I visited the link, I noticed a very handy outline of the key points that Dr. Charles Parker makes in his thirty-minute podcast.  I haven’t had a chance to watch the podcast yet, but the outline notes that Dr. Parker discusses how psych medications interfere with the immune system, brain neurotransmitters and gut regulation, as well as exacerbate gluten-sensitivity issues.  Amy has shared with me how much going gluten-free has improved her life dramatically in all sorts of ways, but I haven’t made that plunge yet.  I will watch this podcast later when I work out and hear what Dr. Parker has to say.  I’m curious!

The next brainy thing that I noticed yesterday was posted on one of my favorite blogs “Bipolar, Unemployed and Lost”.  (http://insideabipolarhead.wordpress.com/)  The blogger known as “Oh Temp” informed us that this is “Brain Awareness Week”.  I love how Oh Temp writes in Monday’s blog post:

“This week kicks off NATIONAL BRAIN AWARENESS WEEK and for a whole week I will be posting a random fact on the human brain. Since a lot of our brains hold our STUPID mental illness, I wanted to share great facts about the good and interesting things about the brain!! Enjoy this week, and enjoy your brain (just a little…)”

The following link leads you to a two-minute YouTube video “The Human Brain – 10 Fascinating Facts” that Oh Temp posted on the blog.  If you’ve been feeling insecure about your brain’s ability and potential, take two minutes to watch this inspiring video!  You will learn facts you definitely didn’t  know in less time that it takes to brush your teeth.

Soon after I wrote about the “mind over matter” concept above, I took a Facebook surf break.  I encountered this link below, which discusses ten compelling reasons why “mind over matter” may not be a crock of merde.  Some of them I was familiar with, i.e. the placebo effect, but there were others that I hadn’t never heard about before.  I encourage those of you who are especially jaded about the power of positive thinking, etc. to take a peek at this link.  It might very well change your mind literally and figuratively about the power of our brains to change themselves on their own.

http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/03/08/10-scientific-studies-that-prove-consciousness-can-alter-our-physical-material-world/

Finally, yesterday in the late afternoon I was driving our windy highway 9 to my house, listening to 95.5 BOB FM.  Peter Gabriel’s song “Shock the Monkey” came on the air, which I haven’t heard or thought of in a SUPER-long time.  I was an 80’s teenager during Gabriel’s height of fame, and I heard that song a bazillion times and I could barely stand watching his disturbing video with the scared-looking monkey.  I’ll be blunt with you – I had no idea what the lyrics meant, as I’ve always been terrible with lyrics.  But the word that struck out for me was hearing “shock” sung repeatedly, reminding me of my ECT a.k.a.”shock” treatments.  Impressionable me, I took that as another strange coincidence since I was writing about ECT and brains that day.  I know that’s a biggggg stretch, but it seemed a bit weird.  It turns out that Gabriel has said “Shock the Monkey” is a love song and about jealousy! It has nothing to do with ECT!  I had no idea.  Go figure!  I still took it as a hippie dippie sign of some sort, silly me.

If you want to watch it, go to this link:

If you are like me in the that you take a lot of heavy-duty bipolar medications, you may sometimes wonder how these meds truly affect our brains.  I am just hoping that our chemically “different” brains can not just handle the drugs that give us the gift of stability, but that our brains can get better, not worse, for a good long while.  Let me know what you think and thanks so much for reading this novella.  I got carried away – my brain couldn’t help it! 😉

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2 thoughts on “Our Brains Are Tougher Than We Think

  1. Hi Di! Thank you so much for writing that my posts are inspiring – that makes me feel great! As far as the # of ECT treatments I had for each round, unfortunately, I never kept track, but I have a feeling at least 10 for each one. I could get my hospital records and I probably will get them for the purpose of my book. I didn’t have maintenance ECT, but if I felt I was slipping seriously I’d call my ECT doctor and discuss the possibility of using ECT again if he felt it would help me.

    Re: tapering off lithium. Dr. Liz Miller inspired me, but she was not officially supervising me in any way with my taper. I saw her success in Stephen Fry’s documentary and I thought, hmmmmm, if she can do it, maybe I can do it too. I consulted a bunch of other resources before I made the decision to taper. I tapered against my former psychiatrist’s advice and also against my husband’s wishes.

    Honestly… I totally, utterly regret tapering off lithium NOW, but at that time I felt that I had to give it a shot. There was absolutely no way I could have known I’d fail & almost kill myself from doing it. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to not take that risk.

    I just thank God every day I’ve found meds that work well for me. I never thought I’d be one of the lucky ones. Regarding the very scary, serious-sounding problems with Seroquel that you mentioned – my psychiatrist (who I trust and who is into both traditional and alternative medicine, so he’s not just a Big Pharma type) does not think I should worry about brain shrinkage, psychosis etc.

    My Seroquel has totally saved me – it eradicated my agitated, severe insomnia, and I believe that in tandem with my lithium & the MAOI Parnate it alleviated my depression. Years ago I tried it for depression and it did nothing. It’s so weird how these meds work together…but what matters is that it is working for me now.

    I’ve been criticized for sounding like I work for Big Pharma, but I don’t care – I have a gorgeous family, I’m writing a lot of creative pieces and my non-fiction every day, and I couldn’t do that without these freaky sounding meds. I’m willing to be a lithium lifer if I can see my kids grow old.

    Take care and I wish you the best of luck! I hope you will keep reading my posts and thanks again for taking time to comment and post some intriguing questions.

    Dyane 🙂

  2. Dyane,
    Have been reading your posts and find them inspiring. You are certainly a survivor, given all you have endured. Your husband sounds like an amazing man who has been a great support. It is great that you are doing so well. Just curious; how many ECT treatments did you have in each round and did you ever have maintenance ECT? Would you ever have another series?
    Do you regret trying to taper off lithium after consulting with Liz Miller? You seem to have incorporated many healthy lifestyle choices in your recovery; are you concerned about all the recent press about the dangers of drugs like Seroquel, which studies show to shrink the brain and cause super sensitivity psychosis in some people?

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