Saturday, August 27, 2011


(Hey! Less than four months left til Christmas!)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mental illness has benefits!

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts USA, has published a book that links strong leadership ability, especially in times of crisis, with mental illness. Equally remarkable is the hypothesis of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness that mental illness provides us with better tools for coping with extreme crisis.

Dr. Ghaemi's book counters the usual attitude that while some world leaders have been identified with mental disorders, those illnesses are details to be ignored or handicaps to be overcome. But the idea that mental illness can be an asset in a leader isn't new. One of Darryl Cunningham's graphic short stories, in Psychiatric Tales, brings up the same idea. Cunningham writes that Winston Churchill's bipolar disorder symptoms helped his leadership during World War II. In England's grimmest moments, Prime Minister Churchill's extreme energy, grandiosity, belligerence and lack of inhibition helped pull his people through. His remembered quotations include "If you're going through hell, keep going," and "I like a man who grins when he fights."

Dr. Ghaemi says that not only can manic symptoms serve a leader well, but so can depressive symptoms. He writes about Martin Luther King, Jr and Mohandas Ghandi surviving suicidal episodes years before they emerged as grassroots leaders. The idea is that a major depression takes a huge toll on your psyche and requires all of your emotional and creative resources, but the effort it takes to pull yourself through builds a special skill set. Coming out on the other side of wishing you were dead creates a strong sense of self and a learned ability to respond to crisis with positive, productive action. We depressives who have been up and down, emerge from each dark battle with an even better ability to thrive in adverse circumstances.

Surprisingly, A First-Rate Madness includes a discussion of John F. Kennedy, who I'd never associated with mental illness. From Kennedy's hypersexuality, extreme energy and family history, Dr. Ghaemi concludes that Kennedy had a disorder that causes mild manic symptoms all the time. This enabled Kennedy to endure serious health challenges while building a political career towards the presidency.

It gets a bit edgy at the end of the NPR article, when Dr. Ghaemi speculates about President Obama's ability to weather one of the most economically horrific periods in world history. Dr. Ghaemi categorizes the president as being mentally healthy and stable, but hopes the president's early life, which was characterized by both personal and racial identity crises, might have affected his moods and anxiety levels, creating a more "nuanced" personality than average. The doctor recognizes the strangeness of hoping your president has mental illness in his makeup, but believes that if President Obama did, it would be to his advantage.

Any book that points to the advantages of mental illness and how it makes one more resilient under pressure, is a book I must investigate. I've heard the assertions about people with mental illness being more creative, but our society doesn't value creativity nearly as much as it values strong leadership skills. I'd like to be associated with that, too. I urge you to read this article, or even better, listen to the radio story (even better, read the book and let me know what you think). My husband says, "There's good and bad in everything," and I'm happy that it looks like that applies to mental illness, too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Booth at the End

Last weekend I discovered the web series The Booth at the End. Only five episodes were made, shown exclusively on HuluPlus this summer. As I watched episodes one through four, I wished the series went on forever, but when I heard the final line of episode five, I realized, no, the story ends perfectly right where it stops.

Apparently the show counts as science fiction, but only in the way that Stephen King short stories or certain Twilight Zone episodes count as science fiction. The series is really more of a character study (articles about it call it a psychological thriller). I like that one HuluPlus user (HuluPlus is the only place you can see it-correction: you can see it on regular, but not if you're in certain countries) called it the most boring show he'd ever seen. I am fascinated by the show, but to appreciate it you do have to be satisfied with a single location and a bunch of two-person conversations. My only complaint about it is that its many shots of pie and sandwiches make me crave diner food.

The central question of the narrative is "How far would you go to get what you want?" People come to a man who sits in the booth on the end, in a small diner. They want something that has proven impossible to achieve in their lives (it often involves the well-being of someone they care about or the attainment of a certain kind of experience). This man provides them their greatest wish in return for a task that he gives them. As they go through the steps of completing the task, their dream starts to come true.

What's interesting is that not all the tasks are unpleasant. Some are difficult for ethical reasons, but some are just difficult (such as, to befriend someone with agoraphobia and get him to go outside). There also, at first, seems to be no point or greater design to these tasks. Each is simply the price for what you want.
It's painful yet engrossing to watch the characters constantly weigh the challenges of their task against how badly they want their desire. Often the tasks require them to stretch their beliefs about right and wrong and they seem to be asking themselves, "Is this worth it? How about now? How about now?"

The science fiction aspect of the show is the way this mysterious, nameless man can work such magic in people's lives. That part is never explained, but I don't think it's important.
The Booth at the End gets its suspense from the slow reshuffling of people's ethics and the always present question in the viewer's mind: are they really going to do that? If this is the kind of series we get when an Internet entertainment provider creates original programming with no budget, then let them never have enough for a haircut.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I look great

The ten pounds I put on between Mother's Day and Father's Day has finally started to move off. I'm actually down two whole pounds (sarcasm). I'm facing the uncomfortable truth that weight loss becomes an even slower process in middle age. But at the age of 45, I have realized that no matter how old I am, I am the youngest I'll ever be again, so I'm starting a new habit of looking in the mirror and saying, I look great! I'm never going to be this young again! In ten years, or even five, I'll look at photos of me now and think, 'I looked great! I should have appreciated it more.'

It's a good habit that I recommend to everyone. Of course, it's possible that everyone already does this and I've caught on later in life, but that's usually how it goes with me. (Don't know what's going on with the font size here).

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Borderline personality disorder now has a face

Patty Duke and Kay Redfield Jamison have written books about living with bipolar disorder. Famous people who have spoken about their struggles with chronic depression include Sheryl Crowe, Jim Carrey and Owen Wilson. But the mental illness that fascinates me the most is borderline personality disorder and now we finally have a spokesperson for it.

Yesterday I saw this article about Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall stating publicly that he has borderline personality disorder (BPD). (I apologize since that's the same acronym used for bipolar disorder, but apparently the two disorders share the same initials.) I find this absolutely incredible. I think BPD, even more than other mental disorders, is characterized by the person with BPD being certain that there's nothing wrong with them. For Marshall to realize he has this particular problem shows amazing self-awareness and openness to change. Sometimes someone will call me brave for admitting publicly on my blog that I have chronic depression, but I'd say that's nothing compared to someone coming clean on borderline personality disorder.

So what is it? The National Institute of Mental Health says BPD is:

characterized by pervasive instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. This instability often disrupts family and work life, long-term planning, and the individual's sense of self-identity. Originally thought to be at the "borderline" of psychosis, people with BPD suffer from a disorder of emotion regulation.

Actually, I believe there's some debate about BPD since some argue that it doesn't count as a mental illness so much as a personality disorder. Someone please correct me, but I think the difference is that a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder has a physiological component: our brains don't have the right balance of hormones and/or enough active neurotransmitters, etc. Mental illness is often treated with drugs that help our brains achieve the right mix.

But since BPD is a personality disorder, the behaviors aren't caused by faulty brain chemistry, but by trauma and/or learned behaviors and stress responses. (Seriously, someone please correct me if I have this wrong because I'm a complete layperson on all this. All I really know is the flavor of the crazy that's inside my mouth.)

Whichever way you argue it, borderline personality disorder is serious stuff and is very difficult to live with, for both the sufferer and their family and friends. I totally salute Brandon Marshall for stepping up. I've been wondering when we'd have a spokesperson who is willing to take this one on and now we have him.