Tag Archives: depression

Our storytelling minds.

rainydayinfall

A few days ago, I finished reading The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottshcall. In it, Gottschall presents a unique theory–that stories assist humans in navigating the complex social problems we encounter throughout our lives. Likening storytelling to flight simulators, which allow pilots to learn while on the ground, we live out a multitude of situations through the landscapes of make believe which are later applicable to our reality. Storytelling has evolved, he argues, in order to help keep us alive. There are many aspects of this book which I found fascinating–linking narrative to psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Not to mention, highlighting instances where a story changed the course of history (think Wagner’s Rienzi‘s influence on Hitler, Uncle Tom’s Cabin setting the stage for the most terrible war in American history, and the economic impact of Jaws on coastal vacation destinations).

There is another link, however, between narrative and mental illness. After the passing of yet another beloved performer, artist and storyteller who suffered from depression and addiction, the implications of this connection seem exceptionally pertinent. Gottschall points to the psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig’s study of mental illness and creativity which found far higher rates of psychiatric disorders in artistic fields than say political, scientific or business. Perhaps, the book points out, those with mental disorders are drawn towards creative outlets because of the stories they can create there. Stories which can give structure to what is going on inside their heads. Sometimes these stories are what bring us The Starry Night or Mrs. Dalloway and sometimes these stories go terribly awry. At times, there is a tragic cost for having storytelling minds.

So, what does that mean for us? In the wake of Robin William’s passing, diminishing the stigma of mental illness is again on the minds of many. Helping those suffering is a cause worth fighting for and believing in…but how do we do it? Personally, this is something I’ve been trying to find the answer to for some time. And one passage in Gottschall’s book really stood out to me. While it speaks to the success of psychotherapy, I found it an interesting analogy to help me better conceive of depression and it’s effects on the affected brain and person.

According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems from an “incoherent story,” an “inadequate narrative account of oneself,” or “a life story gone awry.” Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with…A psychotherapist can therefore be seen as a kind of script doctor who helps patients revise their life stories so that they can play the role of protagonists again–suffering and flawed protagonists, to be sure, but protagonists who are moving toward the light.

We each live the story of our lives. Our stories change and intersect, get written and edited and re-written…and sometimes we need reminders that we are the heroes in our own stories. And so that is how I am resolved to help, to continuously write chapters into my own story in which I name the heroes of others.

 

(Painting via here.)

 

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MLK, Jr’s call for abnormality.

mlk

Recently, I read a very thought-provoking article about a seldom discussed aspect of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. The author posits that depression could have played an influential role in the efficacy of his life’s greatest works. Nassir Ghaemi, who is working on a psychological biography of MLK, poses the following question in the February 2014 Psychology Today, “ Were personal demons a key factor in MLK’s charismatic and transformational leadership?”

The deeper attitude behind [MLK’s] philosophy was his view that we should be “creatively maladjusted.” King was explicit in a sermon: “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted,” he said. “But there are some things… to which men of good will must be maladjusted.”

Psychiatrists and psychologists see being “adjusted” as fitting in, being accepted, “functioning” well. We tend to be rewarded for being well-adjusted, but King realized that to solve life’s problems, especially the most profound—racism, poverty, and war—we have to become, in a sense, abnormal. We have to stop accepting what everyone else believes. We have to become maladjusted if we are to be creative, and then we may find that insoluble dilemmas are masks for unrecognized problems with simple solutions.
King may have known what it meant to be maladjusted psychologically because he wasn’t normal psychiatrically.

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Some won’t like the notion that King suffered from manic symptoms and depressive episodes. It would be ironic if those who admire his valiant fight against racism showed a bias against psychiatric illnesses, especially since illness may have contributed to his accomplishments.

Studies show that depression enhances empathy toward others, as well as realism in assessment of one’s own circumstances. King’s nonviolent resistance can be understood as a politics of radical empathy, an acceptance of one’s enemies as part and parcel of advancing one’s own agenda. The goal was not to defeat them but to change their attitudes: Racism was not a political problem to be outlawed; it was a psychological disease to be cured.

I recommend you check out the whole article here. It really forced me to take pause and think about the psychological make-up behind the very real people who fill our textbooks with their actions and end-goals but not their demons and pitfalls. The very thing which may contribute to the empathy, leadership, and creativity we take for granted is never discussed. This hypocrisy, especially as it pertains to admirers of King, is a striking argument. Perhaps, like King, we should look towards creative maladjustment.