A version of this post is also published on “The Mighty” here.
I have long been fascinated and moved by the beauty and complexity of biology. All through school, I lapped up popular science books and TV documentaries like a starved cat confronted with a bowl of cream. I studied it at uni, I loved it so much I did a PhD. And once I had recovered from the PhD, I went back to loving it again.
For most of my life, the most emotional you would actually see me in public (most of the time) was when listening to science seminars – anything from quantum physics, molecules, natural history to astronomy. I’d get shivers down my spine and tears, actual tears of Awe.
Although I stopped wanting to do the routine science stuff that fits pieces into that picture, I have never stopped looking adoringly at it.
So when I’ve thought about my mental, psychological or emotional health in the past, I’ve very much focused on the biological explanations. I knew there were limitations, social aspects to consider, and that the brain is so complex we may never understand it fully. But it was always my focus. It felt comfortable, interesting and right.
I think this was only partly because of my love of science. I think it was also because it made it easier to keep the focus mainly on me. My response to events, my faulty thinking, my difficulties coping and my personal vulnerabilities. This focus made things easier to manage. It’s less messy to only deal with your own head and not to get stuck in the murky waters of politics, society and power structures too.
I alternated between feeling like the most accomplished Vulcan in the universe who was fully disconnected from emotions; and experiencing utterly uncontrollable overwhelming feelings that came from nowhere.
And at both ends of the spectrum, it felt like my brain was somehow not like other people’s. Either people didn’t get the hurricane in my head or they seemed so vulnerable and needy compared to my ability to not let things faze me. The disconnection was with myself but with everyone else too. All around, counsellors, psychologists and other people (especially other girls & women) seemed to speak a language I could understand but not speak.
They talked of ‘processing’, ‘needing to express’, ‘bottling up’ or pushing down’ feelings. They often wanted to talk about their feelings, even when there were no solutions to be gained or any new information to add by doing so. I always tried to listen when people needed me to, and hoped it helped, but I never fully understood what they were getting from it.
So a biochemical explanation felt so right intuitively to me. It’s exactly how everything felt. Like random wonky wrong chemistry.
And then something changed for me.
I read “The compassionate mind“, a book by Prof Paul Gilbert. It changed me by letting me start somewhere familiar. It started from what was a deceptively biological perspective – evolution. We are born more vulnerable and stay more vulnerable longer than most other mammals. Then follows a no-nonsense explanation of how the human brain works because of this vulnerability. It creates a physiological need for safeness, bonding and compassion that is firmly and biochemically embedded in our bodies and our minds and is as vital for survival as food, shelter or water.
I should confess I balled my eyes out through the whole book. And I got through it faster than any book I’ve ever read before. I think my brain had been lulled into feeling like it was on comfortable ground and then it got smacked in its little brain-face with something earth-shatteringly different. And something it couldn’t find a defence against. Suddenly I didn’t have to understand the language of emotions to get it. I didn’t need touchy feely language or to connect with the spiritual or the intangible in order to get what everyone else what talking about.
Through this lens my past approaches to therapy suddenly became really obviously deficient. I had continued to avoid my emotions by talking and engaging with an illness. This had given me validation for my pain, access to support and a level of understanding from others, but one which didn’t necessarily require me, or anyone else having to stay present with my actual emotional needs. I talked about irrational thoughts and about symptoms and “doing something nice for myself”. I spent years trying to prop up my brain with drugs, challenging my inaccurate thoughts and trying to change my behaviours. It helped to some extent, but my brain hadn’t actually been experiencing anything physiologically different, despite all this. None of these things were interacting with that soothing, bonding, safeness and contentment system I’d been reading about.
I realised I needed an intervention that my brain would understand and experience at a biochemical and physiological level that was fine-tuned to the systems evolution had created. Ones created precisely to down-regulate the brain’s ‘things are going wrong” system. Pills thought to increase neurotransmitters throughout the brain (and body) or to reduce the activity of neurons, may help (and may even be life-saving) – but they did not, by themselves, give my brain anything new to work with.
This was the first step on a journey of change, recovery and self compassion.