On having a fucked brain
‘I think, therefore I am,’ but what if you can’t trust what you think?
As I sit in the lecture theatre professionals discuss how best to reduce the unhappiness and suffering experienced by young people. The conference is focused upon avoiding harm to young people and remedying and mitigating what might become harmful if allowed to persist. This is the world of lanyards and small coffee cups, feedback forms and questions from the floor that are seldom actually questions. I am here for professional reasons, my laptop on my knees, but I am also in the land of ‘they’ and ‘them’, the land where broken brains and the best way to fix them are discussed and debated. Listening, I feel the edges of my own broken brain, a tongue flicking over the cracks in a tooth.
A succession of researchers take the lectern, introduce themselves with self deprecation, powerpoint slides filled with diagrams and academic citations an orderly graffiti behind them. I hear about those, who through genes or environment, have brains and bodies prone to unreasoned responses created for a world of fight or flight that never comes. Voices from behind the lecturn describe adolescence as the period when neural pathways are shaped and honed and the way that stress prevents that happening, leaving brains filled with vibrant connections serving no useful purposes. An eminent psychiatrist speaks about cortisol response and stress and how this create deficits in memory and processing, describing the effect on brains with scans and colour codes. A presentation about bullying talks about the ‘loser response’; about the way Syrian hamsters, usually fiercely territorial, when housed with a larger hamster and seperated by glass will show surrender behaviours but will continue to show these behaviours even when introduced to other hamsters again. Each successive speaker adds to a kind of lexicon of how brains can be pushed into uncommon shapes by circumstance, malign intent or just plain bad luck. I am a fifth columnist here. It is not someone else’s brain they are discussing, it is mine.
To know that you live with a fucked brain is not a comfort. Initially it feels like an explanation but it is one that can, in moments of vulnerability, transform into an accusation. Many of the elements of my self-stigma are varieties of this moment-by-moment self-defined pride at being myself, hard won and contested, flipping into burning excoriating shame at that self-same thing: being myself. I know that this is one of the ways in which my brain is fucked. There are others. You can probably detect them as you read this. To me they are like a haunted fairground; a maze whose shape is only apparent once you are no longer lost within it.
A childish part of me wants to shout out a protest, to challenge these professionals, to ask what right they have to stand in judgement of the brains of others; to demand they put away their spotters guides and field manuals and to stop reducing people to proteins and synapses and hormones. I cannot get outside of myself to see myself as a powerpoint slide or as a set of tabulated statistics. I bridle that what is filled with detail and pain and joy and sheer narrative weight to me is reduced to something as mechanistic as identifying a discarded engine part found in a box of garage spares. A great emptiness yawns before me; my feet kick at nothingness. If it is so obvious I am impaired how is it that I could not know it with such clarity? I feel faintly disgusted with myself; a hot flush of embarrassment at being caught out. I can feel the shapes of my own weaknesses and inabilities, hard and cool to the touch like pebbles. There is a vertigo like standing close to the guard rail of a bridge over a deep chasm; a violent river running beneath. The sense I have made of the world and my own response to it has been tainted at source. It is like being told how a visual illusion works but still only being able to see the effect, not the quirk of cognition that creates it. Fingertips inside my head brush the coral of my own fight or flight response, housed in the folds of an amygdala so warped by stress that there is no fight or flight left, only an horrific, passive freeze, like a switch that can be flicked by hands beyond my own.
My brain is fucked and it’s my responsibility
In truth, this is not the first time I have experienced the cold comradeship of finding that what is most me is simultaneously to trained observers what is most obviously shared with others. Each successive decade of my life has brought a further knowledge of just how much my brain is screwed, or how screwed the consciousness that makes its home within it has become in response to its lodgings. It is like a series of terminal maps; each one supposed to be the final map of the knowable world undermined by a further exploration. The end of my teens involved a quest for the citadel of depression, the treasure to won a guilt free explanation of what had made me so ill-suited to the world I found myself in. A period of hypomania and an abortive university career filled with persistent sadness and lack of safety. I remember the horror of the dull reference room at the public library, the experience of reading definitions of bipolar and recognising my most valuable qualities, the mercury that balanced my saturn, as a pathology that others with even a passing knowledge would be able to read like a writ nailed to my face. It was like finding I have a great extended family, like a malicious gossip pointing to people in the street: ‘See him? That’s your brother. See her? That’s your sister. Him over there? That’s your dad. We all thought you knew, it’s so obvious.” Subsequent decades brought further understandings, of grief, of gender dysphoria and of trauma. Each time, what I thought had been the peak turned out to be a plateau, beyond another seemingly insurmountable rock face of knowledge to be overcome. Each time, new self knowledge led to a retrospective re-evaluation of all that had come before.
The most recent of gifts, the understanding of trauma, trumped all that came before. I had left an abusive situation before I knew that it was abusive and revelation after revelations arrived like waves strong enough to fill my lungs with brine and sand, each one adding to a burden of knowledge heavy enough to snap my back. Suddenly, I could see both how what my life had been had pushed my brain out of shape, that the way I had survived and found a kind of peace had in fact been based upon being a state under occupation by hostile forces, my brain conditioned to be a quisling and a collaborator. I had survived, and finally escaped but now all there was were wounds that may never heal. But beyond that, responsibility. This was my fucked brain and now, naked and free, it was my responsibility to finally make the best of things.
LIstening to the unfolding discussion in the lecture theatre, I realise the anger I feel is the anger of knowing that it is too late for me to avoid the events that shaped my brain; that my ignorance of that led to so many wasted years. I am burnt by the knowledge that no saved me; no one went up to the school to have words; that by the time I was aware of enough of what I was the mold had been placed upon my brain, the shape of it already cast. I think back to my own experiences of being bullied, or being made to feel unsafe and small, trapped in situations from which there was no escape. What is me is a collection of over-connected, over-firing neural pathways that never had a chance to simplify and organise themselves into a streamlined machine for carrying a consciousness; instead becoming a scribble of electricity setting off explosions like mis-timed fireworks. What has happened to me has remade me in its own image, like a Pygmalion sculpting not a perfect lover but a perfect slave; one that does not need the whip because the whip is inside of its heart. These are not symptoms that are being discussed but structures. Numerous nameless hands have pressed thumbs into the clay of my brain; shaping not what I choose to do but shaping what it is possible for me to do. What I have been in the world has written itself into what I can be in the world.
A terrible insecurity at being set apart; a terrible desire to remain unique
There is a terrible sense of insecurity in knowing that your brain works in ways that are easy for others to identify: of being reduced by others to your constituent parts and then those constituent parts being substituted for the whole, your differences from the norm like a parasite that sets you apart so obviously from others, a great horn growing from your head or your skin grown scaled. The desire to have what makes you different embraced and to have what makes you different ignored often exist simultaneously like oil and water never mixing. The struggle is constant between accepting your own deficits and trying to move beyond them, something mediated for me by own state of perpetual outsiderdom; this itself a result of trauma and a cause of it. For periods of time I can go on as if this brain in which I live works in the way that others brains do; sometimes losing the consciousness of the way it imprisons me for long enough to forget that it does imprison me. This never last for long. Inevitably I will slip up. It is not a case of my brain working against me: my brain is me.
Even as I write this I can feel the outline of the ways in which the fabric of my brain shapes the fabric of my thoughts; like a memory metal snapping back to its original form when heated. A sharp jagged object sits in the palm of my mind; the child betrayed, alone, cut off from others: both unique and special and worthless and despised. I see myself in the stories of ways to improve services, I see myself as one of the young people who might be helped, a dream version of myself where this knowledge of brains and twins and hamsters and hormones prevents what I would later become rather than labelling it.
But I am also sad that the time for avoiding what I have become has passed. Often we find it hard to think that there is a future when we lived with a fucked brain because we see the point at which prevention might have happened having already passed for us. We are afraid that our desire to be helped is simply a manifestation of how broken our heads are; even as we ask. In turn, we stand arms outstretched like Holden Caulfield trying to catch the people as they run to the edge of the cliff, trying to save others when we feel we ourselves are beyond saving.
Listening to the lectures, with their statistics and trials and recommendations and confident mastery of knowledge I feel as if I am being called out, being named, being cast out again, being robbed of a uniqueness, like as a child first discovering that there are other people with whom they share a name. It is a different experience when there are others present who are open that, they too, have fucked brains, or adverse experiences, or who too have the existential challenge of both being a diagnosis and a person. They are the actual family, warm and human, not the family tree of taxonomy, of itemised deficit. I peer down inside myself at an older, darker landscape of chaos and nature, knowing that at any point I might plunge down into the water, to be broken up by the rocks and currents.
I do my job on that day, I am efficient and approachable and professional. But that night, travelling home on that March night in the sudden chill of another unexpected winter weather front I flashback. The small lost child is still within me. My brain remains fucked but I remain.
I am my brain.