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Our human brain is our advantage over all other animals, and potentially the source of our downfall. It is the most fascinating of organs, yet remains poorly understood even as the scientific community makes quantum leaps forward in understanding its processes and chemistries. I derive so much joy and curiosity (and frustration as well) from thinking about how I think and feel, and about being a part of this world. I choose to challenge myself constantly while reserving space for abject laziness. I want to experience things, even difficult things. My brain is a sensorium, sensing itself and countering itself.
When my depression kicks in, I have to use certain parts of my brain to counter the other parts. If I’m feeling utterly hopeless but need to attend a meeting in an hour, I have to remind myself of myriad counter-arguments and other ways I might feel. I try to remember that this feeling of hopelessness is temporary, that I usually feel better once I am around other people, especially if I understand the role I am supposed to play, and soon, very consciously, I start thinking about what I’d like to eat for lunch after the meeting has ended. If I fail at using my brain to fight itself or don’t have an external obligation to pull me forward, I still rely on my brain to remember how to get my body into action, pedaling my bicycle up Stocker Avenue toward the oil derricks at the top of La Brea, or up past the Observatory in Griffith Park. To make a long story short, it takes a lot of work to handle my brain, to keep it from getting in my way, but it also makes me enjoy and appreciate the experience of being alive.
The brain is the focus of our project for a reason: it’s an organ in need of much attention. The brain needs safety and space to be curious, to explore. I’m increasingly convinced that the mental illness I and those around me experience are illnesses primarily in the context of the world in which we live. In other words, mental health symptoms make it difficult to function in a world that does not think about nor attend to such things. The world is confusing and often unkind, and it does not slow down to meet our particular needs. People are expected to understand and follow social norms that indeed come naturally to most. Mental illness often manifests as social impairment. For some this means feeling or acting uncomfortable, even awkward in certain social settings, for others it is more like having a strange secret that lies just under the surface of their interactions. Our brains do their best to keep us as centered as possible in all of these trying situations.
Having a unique brain doesn’t always work out well when we find ourselves surrounded by average brains. For example, sensitivity to emotion can coexist alongside extremely high intellect, but the combination of the two may make it nearly impossible to function very well in a school setting. The confusing social hurdles of high school or college or workplace environments can quickly overwhelm the emotional resources of even the most gifted people. Someone with mania, capable of devising more novel ideas and plans than others, might stumble upon true genius. A brilliant work of art or political cartoon might be sitting inside someone’s desk right now, unseen by the world, because the artist does not feel good enough about him or herself to show it to anyone.
The Painted Brain is embarking on a new project, a diagnosis-of-the-month-club (the name is still in the works) in which we intend to confront the brain, head-on, via the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Each month, we will invite our contributors to bring forth stories about a specific diagnosis-of-the-month viewed from a different angle each week. During Week One, we will look at the common myths and facts about a diagnosis. The second week will feature stories and artwork from people who have experienced its symptoms and manifestations firsthand. Week Three we’ll get really creative, examining all of the potential super-powers available to those lucky enough to share the diagnosis. We will wrap up the month with a week of “anything goes.”
We’re going to celebrate our brains – one disorder at a time.
Dave Leon is the Director and Founder of Painted Brain