Medusa. I definitely resembled Medusa. Twenty-one electrodes, like snakes had been glued to my head – a crazy helmet I had to wear for forty eight hours. A crazy helmet I had to wear because a crazy neurologist was trying to figure out how my crazy brain had gone crazy haywire.
But not because I was crazy.
Many years ago I started having side effects from one of the crazy drugs I was prescribed. The symptoms were both surreal and terrifying. They occurred only at night. It was like a power outage, like someone had flipped a switch. One minute my brain was on. The next minute it seemed my brain was about to shut off. I didn’t want to close my eyes. I did not want to go to sleep. I was scared to death that I might just wake up dead. Short circuited. Wires fried. Unplugged.
Dr. Khan stared at the scratches and the scribblings. Silent seizures, she said. That’s what wrong with your head. You’re not bipolar. You have silent seizures. Days of mania? Nights of depression? One EEG and she thought she had my brain all figured out. Diagnosis done. But Dr, Khan in the end turned out to be the crazy one. Crazy wrong.
But it’s really not so crazy to want to understand. The mystery of the mind is not solved with an x-ray or a blood test or an EEG. Cracking open the skull is like trying to crack God’s own safe. It is virtually un-crackable.
Just ask Michio Kaku, a theoretical astrophysicist and author of The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.
There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, roughly the same number of neurons in your brain. You may have to travel 24 trillion miles to the nearest star outside of our solar system, to find an object as complex as what is sitting on your shoulders.
The Universe is concerned with the vastness of outer space…. black holes, exploding stars, and colliding galaxies. While the brain is concerned with inner space, where we find our most intimate and private hopes and desires. The mind is no farther than our next thought, yet we are often clueless when asked to explain it.Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Question to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
100 billion lights to light up the brain. 100 billion lights wired 100 billion different ways. To the 100 billionth power. Welcome to my wired world. There is a symphony of synapses firing in my head. Sometimes the music is exquisite. Sometimes cacophonous. Sometimes incomprehensible.
And sometimes my brain erupts like fireworks. Bright flames of orange and yellow and red. Flames I am most reluctant to extinguish. Flames that keep me up at night. Once upon an October , I barely slept for ten straight nights. And on those ten nights my fingers flew like lightning on the keyboard of my Mac. Twelve sermons in two hundred and forty hours. The first half dozen were pretty brilliant, the second half dozen, not so much.
Manic fire fizzles. It fades to shades of purple, blue, and black. Just how purple, blue, and black depends. Sometimes dim, depressed, and distracted. Sometimes as deep and dark and black as a black hole.
The brain burns itself out — shattered in an electric storm as surely as when lightning strikes a tree. A matter of scientific interest of great interest to none other than Mary Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
…for a time I was occupied by exploded systems, mingling a thousand contradictory theories and floundering desperately, guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an accident again changed the current of my ideas.
When I was but fifteen…I witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from the mountains…and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood twenty yards from our house; and as soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump….shattered in a singular manner….not just splintered by the shock but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood.Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus)
My mother once was shattered thus. So shattered she could not speak. So shattered she could not hear. So shattered she did not eat. So shattered she could not raise her head. So shattered all her days were night. So shattered it seemed – it would take a lightning bolt to raise her from the dead.
A lightning bolt did. It’s called ECT – electro-convulsive therapy. And my mother, a bit like Frankenstein, had these electrodes wired to her head. The doctor flipped the switch and she was resurrected. Maybe not the first time, but after several treatments — with all the electricity of a 100 watt light bulb — my mother was resurrected.
And no one knows how. No doctor, no scientist could explain how my mother’s brain got rewired but it did. Who needs a psychiatrist when you can call an electrician.
Differently wired. I have come to understand my bipolar brain as differently wired. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and Mount Sinai Hospital Center are all working on the same thing. How to make visible that invisible thing called bipolar disorder. How to rewire the manic side and the depressive side just so. The very best scientists of the very best kinds are all exploring that inner space — magnetically, electronically, digitally.
All to find out what I already know. My bipolar brain is differently wired and that is how it works. It is how I perceive the world. It is how I experience the ups and downs of life. It is how I think. It is how I feel. It is both blessing and curse. It is a gift I did not ask for, but I am grateful for it just the same.
My mind dances in spirals not and does not walk in straight lines. My thoughts fly like fireflies and my head is often in the clouds. Words spill out of my mouth both melodious and ridiculous. I am a one woman band, getting so much good stuff done in so little time. At least so I believe of myself — most of the time. And I know that my hypomanic grandiose self sometimes can be too much for others to deal with. And for that I am sorry. My brain does need a little management — well, sometimes more than a little therapeutic management along the way. Management for which I am very grateful.
And now there is a scientific category for the differently wired: neurodivergent. Rather than the stigmatizing language of illness and disorder, the term neurodivergent describes a family of brains that differ from the norm:
Neurodiversity is the idea that it’s normal and acceptable for people to have brains that function differently from one another. Rather than thinking there is something wrong or problematic when some people don’t operate similarly to others, neurodiversity embraces all differences. The concept of neurodiversity recognizes that both brain function and behavioral traits are simply indicators of how diverse the human population is.
The idea of neurodiversity also seeks to frame these differences as ones that are not inherently “bad” or a problem; instead, it treats them in a more neutral manner and also highlights the many different ways that neurodivergence can be beneficial.
The term neurodiversity was coined by sociologist Judy Singer, who is autistic, in 1997. Neurodiversity can be broken down into two categories of people: those who are neurotypical and those who are neurodivergent.verywellmind.com
Brains diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Asbergers, bipolar disorder, OCD, Down Syndrome, epilepsy, clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and more. Neurodivergent.
How many members of this family do you know? Do you count yourself among them? I believe this way of understanding the final frontier of the brain – and its intricate impact on the living of our lives — to be very helpful and healthy. A way to have positive conversations about what differentiates us neurologically. A way for us to honestly engage both the blessings and the curse of the human mind.
And for the whole human family, neurotypical and neurodivergent, I conclude with this prayer:
God of love, attend to minds that diverge and differ from the norm. Grant them and those that love them insight and understanding, that their gifts may contribute fully to the good of our common life.
God of grace, hear our prayer.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog