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"Being Rational"

Posted Aug 11 2010 11:53am
Although I've never experienced a full-blown psychotic episode, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with this neuroscientist's description of her own psychosis .

"Erin, you are a scientist," they'd begin. "You are intelligent, rational. Tell me, then, how can you believe that there are rats inside your brain? They're just plain too big. Besides, how could they get in?"

They were right. About my being smart, I mean; I was, after all, a graduate student in the neuroscience program at the University of British Columbia. But how could they relate that rationality to the logic of the Deep Meaning? For it was due to the Deep Meaning that the rats had infiltrated my system and were inhabiting my brain. They gnawed relentlessly on my neurons, causing massive degeneration. This was particularly upsetting to me, as I depended on a sharp mind for my work in neuroscience.

The rats spent significant periods of time consuming brain matter in the occipital lobe of my brain. I knew, from my studies, that this was the primary visual cortex. And yet, I experienced no visual deficits. Obviously, I realized, I had a very unique brain: I was able to regenerate large sections of my central nervous system—and to do so extremely quickly. I relaxed a bit, but not entirely. Surely no good could come of having rats feed on my brain cells. So I sought means of ridding my body of them. I bled them out through self-cutting and banging my head until the skin broke, bloody. Continually, I kept my brain active, electrocuting the rats that happened to be feasting on the activated neurons.

...Each time, I would be able to evaluate things from two perspectives: my scientific logic and the explanation from the Deep Meaning. As the doctors would say, these corresponded to rationality and irrationality, respectively. But, given the input I had from the Voices (auditory hallucinations, the doctors say) and the immense feelings of truth from the Deep Meaning, I was in fact fighting to preserve my rationality in the face of the irrational. I valued my logical mind so dearly that when it began to be challenged by schizophrenic hallucinations, delusions, and disorders of the ability to ascribe meaningfulness, I used everything available to me to try and figure out what were the most rational explanations. I craved rationality, and rationality to me was taking all evidence and making conclusions. Even if they didn't conform to everyone else's ideas of what was rational, I was fighting to maintain, at the very least, the integrity of my own rationality.

The content of my own anorexic thoughts had nothing to do with rats and neurons. Rather, I was truly convinced that I could stand to lose a few more pounds when I was dramatically underweight, that eating one peanut would make me gain 10 pounds, that not exercising would cause my world to fall apart, and so on. No, I didn't believe that other people would gain 10 pounds when they ate a peanut, but that meant I was just different. My metabolism played by different rules. So did my brain. I didn't really need to eat, did I?

The point is not so much the crazy thoughts we have, but the utterly amazing lengths we will go to in order to integrate these crazy thoughts into our version of reality. The AN boosted my self-esteem a bit because I thought the fact that I didn't have to eat made me "strong" and "special." To admit that I wasn't eating because I was scared of food would have made the world come tumbling down around me. And I found it easier to accept that a peanut really would make me gain weight than to understand that my thoughts about peanuts really had no basis in reality.

Oddly, I was aware with many of my OCD behaviors that the compulsions were in response to the thoughts I was having. If I thought my hands were dirty, I had to wash them, re-wash them, and re-re-wash them. But I was also aware that these were abnormal, bizarre behaviors. I didn't always have insight to realize that they were totally irrational, or that they were symptoms of a mental illness, but I was painfully aware that my thoughts were distorted.

I'm still not fully rational about food--if I ever was, and if anyone ever really is. But as the author said at the end of her essay, sometimes creating distance between your mind and your irrational thoughts can help. You can look at them more calmly and see if reality is being distorted to accommodate these thoughts. For me, thinking that the normal rules of metabolism and eating don't really apply to me, that's a warning sign.

What's interesting is that both the essayist's doctors and mine tried to help us think our way out of our irrational thoughts. After all, hadn't we thought our way into them? Well, yes, but the problem is that rational arguments don't work with irrational people. Perhaps the most irrational thinking was that we both thought we were perfectly lucid. How could we get any more rational than we already were?

Our brains are always trying to make sense of the world around us. Most of the time, we do a pretty good job. But when reality starts to get highly stressful or highly unusual, our brains can make some serious mistakes. It was easier for me to change the rules of biology than understand just how ill my thinking was. Even now, I'm not sure I understand it completely.
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