Laugh at Last, Robin

While clinical depression was a topic that I never intended to talk about here, it’s already come up once, and with the passing of Robin Williams yesterday by his own hand, I feel compelled to speak again. Those of us that have been there are members of a secret cadre that speak of it almost never in public, it can impact your relationships, your employment, your health insurance, everything, with devastating effect. A few of us have recovered, and it can still be a day-to-day thing, you’re always watchful for changes in eating or sleeping habits, and if you had a good therapist, their phone number is still in your contact list.

Robin Williams was one of my favorites, as he was for so many. He could render you speechless with laughter, yet to me, he ultimately appeared as terribly fragile. The incandescent ones–their midnights can be deep indeed. And where there is despair, there is no god and no tomorrow. Those who have not been beaten down by its mighty fist cannot imagine what this is like.

There are still many mysteries involved with this illness, why it happens, how to treat it, if it can be treated effectively over the long term at all. Since I know little of the circumstances, I can’t say anything as to the cause of his illness, although I do know from personal experience that alcohol exacerbates its effects.

Robin-WilliamsCertainly it’s a matter of a neurotransmitter imbalance, but recent research is suggesting that it may be a bit more complicated than that. If it were that simple, then just prescribing the correct antidepressant (that’s a battle in itself) would correct the issue.  But the most recent research is indicating that the causes are multifactorial, with everything from family dynamics to baseline interactional skills playing into the mix.

“A nut is a suicide whose rope broke.” Most of us who have been caught in this trap have either strongly considered ending it, or have tried to kill ourselves.  Some of us, the lucky ones, got stopped by someone near to us, a professional or a friend or family member, or even by fate. The really unlucky ones tried and half-way succeeded, those are the truly horrifying cases.  They are trapped in a twilight that lasts for decades until their deaths from medical complications.  The brain-injured, the anoxic-damaged and the crippled. Robin Williams finally turned away at last, looking to escape the unrelenting hammer, and there was no one present to stop him. A friend of mine who works in mental health told me this once long ago, “We have few tools, most of the time it’s just a waiting game of keeping them safe from themselves, and hoping they find some ray of light to grab onto, despite all of our drugs and locked-door institutions.”

When I worked as an EMT long ago, attending a suicide was always a dismal affair.  Even if it wasn’t a mess from a gunshot wound, say like a drug overdose or a carbon monoxide poisoning, a heavy pall of despair always accompanied the scene.  Someone had turned away and walked through that door, seeing no hope.  Many of us are just feet away from that door.

Despite my aspirations of spiritual evolution and cultural maturation for all of us, I’m not so foolish to think we’re all going to get there by a straight-line, ascending horizon of understanding, as Gadamer might say. It’s still a perilous trip, all sweetness and light all the time is a myth, and only true in advertising.

I hope that the “stink” of mental illness can be lessened by better awareness, but it’s going to be a long, slow climb.  Getting thrown under the bus here, particularly when you look basically unscathed, is a hard hole to climb out of.  Some never make it.

I like to think that Christopher Reeves was waiting for him when he crossed the threshold, and that God is now enjoying an impromptu improv show.

Godspeed, Robin, Laugh at Last.

The Dissertation Defense Boogie(man)

OK, so I’m done, done, done.  I defended my dissertation and walked in graduation the next day.  It’s PhD now.  It’s kind of like childbirth–later you don’t remember much.  My committee said I did fine, I don’t know, I wasn’t there.  As in, I was there physically, answered their questions to their satisfaction, and don’t remember anything else.

I have to say, I had a great committee, brilliant, committed, compassionate people who would have made the Marquis de Sade proud (just kidding).  I got pushed right into the corner, and then driven right over the wall.  Revisions were intense, times when your brain rebels about thinking of anything harder than where the bed, fridge and bathroom are, and yet forced to think creatively in that moment in spite of your exhaustion.

Here’s the thing about these gigs–medical school internships are based on the same principle–can you think responsibly, creatively and with insight when you are so tired you can hardly stand up and your mind metaphorically pukes at the thought of producing one more word, or making one more decision? Yes, yes, you can.

So, onward and upward.  The book that the dissertation is based on will come soon and will be available on Amazon; The Anatomy of Death: Notes from a Healer’s Casebook, ebook and hard copy.  It is a collection of stories of people I worked with as a medical intuitive as they were dying, and the things that I learned from them.  It is a place we will all be at the end of our lives here.

The Dissertation Blues

So I’ve been absent from here for a good reason, I’ve been working on my dissertation in Human Development. When people ask me what that is, I just tell them, “Research psychology.” It’s not clinical psych, but its basis is a bit broader than “hard” psychology–you know, the area where they used a lot of rat data on cognition, genetics and anatomy plus a whole bunch of other objective measures. The degree I’m pursuing incorporates a lot of sociology and philosophy, history and a good basis in epistemology. Certainly I received a good foundation in Personality and the basic science behind Piaget, etc., but I also looked at the transpersonal, integral basis for personality, cognition and spirituality. I also studied Systems, which involved an historical overview of how we think about our interface with reality. I had a small cadre of teachers who understand me, but even in the wider perspective of the school I attended, not all of them felt comfortable with me. But they have all been extremely rigorous thinkers.

My dissertation is a comparison of case studies of work I have done with the dying that includes mediumship and shamanic practice. These cases appear to demonstrate similar foundational energetic changes to those practiced by mediums and shamanic practitioners within their respective cultures with the dying. I have also brought the Bardos of Tibetan Buddhism into the mix, as their stages also show similarities. My premise is that there is an physiologic process that occurs across cultures during the dying process, unless it has been distorted by the culture in which the person is embedded.

But I am still embroiled in the process of writing right at the moment. I had reached the point of not wanting to write at all, I was so tired of it. Dissertation writing is more of a hazing process. As many of my colleagues have told me, “You’ll never have to do something like this again–ever.” But when you’re in the middle of it, that doesn’t seem to matter much. We’ve all been there.

Desk

But things are looking up. I have turned in my first draft, and my committee chair “loved it.” I’m not sure I believe her yet, there is still some major clean-up and exposition to complete. But I’m on my way.

All I can say to you who are on this journey is 1) Pick a program you actually like (and can pay your school loans in the long run!) and 2) Pick a committee chair and committee members whom you like and they like you. Sounds simple, and perhaps naive, but it will save you a lot of suffering in the long run. And for pity’s sake, if you can afford it, hire an editor. They can turn into your best friend.

A Dirty Secret

So I must tell you, I’m working on my dissertation in Human Development, the thing is bloody hard work.  Our media and culture do not encourage deep, vertical thinking, everything is done on the fly and vast subjects encapsulated into a Lede followed by a few paragraphs.  Most people never get to the end of an article, much less invest years of study on a small group of interrelated subjects.  Academia is an interesting animal, like all areas of earnest endeavor, you have to really love it, because in-between all of the earnest endeavor, there is a lot of bullshit.  But I do love it.

But that’s not the dirty secret; within all of that has been the study of hands-on healing, clairvoyance and shamanic practice to invoke change.  I didn’t attend any one of a thousand “schools” that give  a “certificate” for a million dollars at the end of 12 weeks work with instructors whose experience is questionable at best.  I studied with an old woman–and she is old now–who has been doing this work for more than 50 years.  Like most people of this type, she would hesitate to even call herself a teacher or shaman, much less one of the most intuitive, gifted souls I have ever known.  Within her own realm, she is a genius.  It’s kind of funny–while others represent, or take on avatars of tremendous power–the eagle, or the leopard, for example–hers would be the teddy bear.  With pink fur.  Who could kick your ass into next week if she chose to do so.  But she wouldn’t need to, because by the time you’d gotten to know her, there wouldn’t be a thing on this earth you wouldn’t do for her, out of pure love.  Love is her weapon, no, it is her, no one can withstand her.

So that’s the secret.  Because I live in the world of academia, even most psychologists I know–and I know a lot–would be vastly uncomfortable if they knew this about me.  And it is a shame that it has to be this way, that even the work of Jung makes them uncomfortable.  Yet it was his work, and the work of Maslow that opened the door to the transpersonal, the perspective that the world had been working with for millennia, long before dualism forced our “either-or” view.

Interestingly, it was not a “cognitive” event that forced this change in me.  And it was forced, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new horizon, this epoché, as Husserl would say, a suspension of disbelief.  And that tale will be told forthwith.

So what is a farther axis?

This name just came to me out of the blue, and often that’s where the best ideas come from.  This one evolved from Ken Wilber, whose main contribution is the concept of AQAL to humanistic psychology.  AQAL stands for All quadrants, all levelsreferring to the interconnection between the interior and exterior of the human mind and heart, and between the individual and the group.

4Q

4Q (Photo credit: ~C4Chaos)

Where we are as a group is debatable, and frequently is, but as you can see, a diagram of AQAL makes up the classical positive and negative 2-D object that we are familiar with to visualize multidimensional concepts.  It’s not a new idea, the ancient Hindus were working with the interrelationship between man and his environment since ancient times.  But he is one of the first to propose the idea in an integral way in the Western psychological literature.  Hence the name, more or less begun by him, of Integral Psychology; the integration of Man and Woman, the spirit, mind and heart, into the group and our environment as one working whole.

I have since come to find out–perhaps as the result of age–that working on the advancement of the evolution of the group is the work of the young, and after much development of perspective, have also realized that the only thing one can effectively change is oneself.  A Farther Axis, a place farther down Wilber’s line, is where we are headed.  At least on my better days, I would like to think so.

Ouroboros

So what is this blog’s purpose?  Well, many years ago, after a period of struggle–more on that later–I had a series of events happen to me as the result of me looking for change.  The “flatland” concept of reality, the one where most of our current concept of reality resides, left me bored and sick.  There had to be more to our lives than this morass of meaningless phenomenology. This led to me into a long period of study, some of it didactic, other parts purely experiential, and to the web name I’ve chosen to use for now, Ouroboric.  I have to admit that I first heard the name in the British space…comedy??? Red Dwarf.  Aside from being bloody hysterical, it had its deep moments as well, one of which is when the protagonist, Lister, finds a baby in a box labeled Ouroboros.  

Religious symbolism of unity of opposites (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It turns out that he is that baby, and that in all the time he’s been lost in space, he’s been reborn again and again in a multitude of different timelines, and these are just various aspects of himself that he’s been evolving through.  And that Lister, a hell-bent atheist, is the one who will trigger the second Big Bang, and is actually God.  Typical Brit perspective.

Upon looking it up, the Ouroboros is an ancient symbol similar to the Sacred Spiral seen in so many different ancient civilizations; it is the archetype of the serpent eating its own tail, the concept of opposites uniting through repeating cycles of time. It is symbolic of the idea that we as a group evolve to a higher level of understanding about ourselves as a spiral ascends, as opposed to the idea of Western civilization of pure linear evolution.

Then of course, there’s the episode when Kryten fixes the toaster.  The purpose of this blog may be to document that most of us–including me–most of the time are hell-bent on just making toast.

Come to think of it, I’ve got to go back and watch more Red Dwarf.

From There to Here

I read a post yesterday from one of my favorite bloggers, Alie Brosh at Hyberbole and a Half. The web community had been worried about her; she had pretty much disappeared for the last year or so. Her last post, while funny, was very dark. She’s back, and with a new post about what has happened since then.

Many of us have spun down the hole known as “clinical depression,” although there’s nothing clinical about it. The earmarks are obvious, and when you see someone falling into that vortex, you’re tempted to do all the dumb things people did to you. They usually plied you with some variation of “Snap out of it!”, which is pointless. Alie described the process with such poignancy–and accuracy–she had all of us in tears and laughter at the same time. And the professionals in awe of her ability to define it so well.

She described it as being in the possession of dead fish, and no one else can see it. The fish are dead, and everyone else tells you that the fish aren’t dead, they’re deadest before the dawn, just get new fish, etc. To someone who is depressed, this has no relation to their life. None. I used to liken it to talking to a potted plant, because that’s what your mind feels like, if you could think in such a complex way. Suicide? No–Alie described it perfectly, you want to be “not alive,” and that’s different. Everything feels like nothing, and that gets really boring.

I’m a supporter of the use of medication, but not as a substitute for your life–but that’s another topic for later. In brain injury research, this becomes clearer, the injured person no longer has the ability to think in that way.  It just isn’t there, they left it out on the pavement, or whatever.  It’s like asking that potted plant to do calculus.  With clinical depression, it’s harder to see this, because the person looks fine. But the brain has just shut off.  Fortunately for Alie, she has gotten help, and is improving. She’s a very brave young woman, whether she knows it or not–which she doesn’t.

Keep it going on, Alie, sometimes a minute at a time is all you can do. Glad to see you back.