"Being Rational"

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.


Lisa said...

"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." These few lines in your blog make so much sense to me and are such an inspiration.

I think that your entire process is correct. the standards and rules we have for ourselves aren't the same as the ones we have for others, but why? it makes no logical sense...

i hope your day is going well!!

Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul said...

Wow, that's a powerful excerpt.

I work with psychotic patients every day on the inpatient unit where I work currently. However, I've worked with eating disorders in the past (and will soon again) and I'm always intrigued at how "psychotic" seeming some anorexic and bulimic thought patterns are. Of course there are individuals with both a diagnosable eating disorder AND psychosis, but I'm talking about in the general ED population. You're also correct that, in general, fighting for rational thinking doesn't often work when the person is incapable of that type of thought pattern. We need to be more creative in our approach.

Boston Femme said...

Thank you so much for this post! I can definitely relate... I am constantly having to examine my thoughts and figure out: "is this me talking (and being healthy and rational), or my eating disorder talking?" When it gets really difficult to decipher, or the "eating disorder voice" is taking over, I tend to write my dialogue down and literally talk back to my eating disorder voice- it helps me to see it in writing and makes my rational rebuttals sink in.

I just found your blog recently and love it! Thank you for your honesty and insight, it is very helpful and inspirational.

Unknown said...

we must separate hte rational from irrational. it helps us find ourselves. our TRUE selves.

insightful, as always!

have a relaxing night, dear!
love, becca

Cathy (UK) said...

Really interesting post (as usual) Carrie. The similarities between ED thoughts, OCD thoughts and psychosis can be striking.

When I think back 33 yrs to when I was diagnosed with AN as a 12 yr old, a paediatrician asked me: "Why is eating so difficult Cathy?" My response was: "Because this 'thing' in my head won't allow me to eat."

As far as I am concerned, AN is a brain illness. It's not caused by our culture, but facilitated by it. The plethora of media publicity around AN and (e.g.) fashion nowadays encourages anorexic individuals to interpret their behaviours in the context of cultural pressure to be thin, but I am rather convinced that such individuals would have become sick irrespective of culture. After all, those of us who develop AN invariably have co-morbid psychiatric or neurological difficulties.

A supposed difference between psychosis and OCD relates to whether the individual really believes the delusions/hallucinations, or knows that they're just irrational thoughts. Yet, in many ways, severe AN is not dissimilar to psychosis.

Charlotte Bevan said...

This is a quote from an email correspondence with Laura Collins on the subject of the similarities between mental illnesses across the spectrum. When the brain is ill it manifests itself in different but finite ways, hence the similarities in signs and symptoms and why, quite often, there are co-morbid conditions.

Laura, of course, says it so much better than I do.

"That the brain is a complicated machine but has a limited amount of behaviors to work with. A number of internal problems can cause the same symptoms, and yet the same symptom may have several avenues to become unwell.

Right now we don’t know if what we call Illness X is really a number of breakdowns happening together or one central problem with several symptoms. We don’t know if the process is by accretion or loading. We don’t know if we have got the categories right or even if we’re looking for the right symptoms.

I suspect we will look back and see that we took certain constellations of symptoms and called them by one name as very quaint. Kind of like the humours and such of the past. Not that we should just throw everything we know out in despair but rather to keep the WONDER in wondering how it all works. Since one mental illness seems to hang out with others so often it makes sense that there are multiple relationships between them, to my mind."

Amanda @ HopeHasAPlace said...

"Rational thoughts don't work for irrational people." So true.

Thank you for bringing this article to my attention. As a psych major and a recovering anorexic, I find it fascinating.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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