I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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Over and over again, the world displays a regular irregularity.
— James Gleick, Chaos
When your child goes mad, you begin to question everything you once thought to be true. Even if you’ve been a questioning person all your life, as I have, the things you took for granted — or, as my college English students often write, “for granite” — no longer lie rock-hard in your palm, but shift and slip away like sand.
Jason, my twenty-five-year-old son, moved from New York City to Chicago last January. I’d arranged for him to stay in a friend’s vacant basement condo while he looked for a job and a place to live. Both Jason and I were full of hope that he would finally be able to have a quiet, independent, satisfying life. Chicago seemed perfect: fairly affordable, with plenty of free activities and great public transportation. A decent job, a small place of his own — those goals were modest enough. And Jason had just graduated with an associate’s degree in art; what better city for an art lover?
Jason had also recently suffered a heartbreak. He’d fallen in love with Max, with whom he’d been friends for more than a year, but Max hadn’t felt the same way, and the friendship had ended. I knew Jason was depressed, and I hurt for him, but what young person hasn’t gone through the pain of rejection? I didn’t see his depression as a sign of something worse to come.
Once Jason was in Chicago, his world opened up again; he saw that his happiness did not depend on one person. He called me daily, sounding joyful — sometimes a bit too joyful. I tried not to think about his strange behavior a year earlier, when he’d become manic and briefly psychotic, and I’d had to bring him to the emergency room. Although he’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I believed it to be an isolated incident, a result of staying up four nights without sleep. His regular doctor, too, had questioned the diagnosis.
In Chicago Jason’s shyness disappeared, and the flamboyant side of his personality emerged; he began going to nightclubs, dancing under the strobe lights, and having 3 A.M. breakfasts with people he’d just met. He decided to call Max to let him know that he was having a great time and had made peace with what had happened between them.
But Jason hadn’t expected to hear the hurt in Max’s voice. My son was shocked to realize that he might have inflicted pain as well. After the call, Jason just couldn’t stay in the condo. He walked toward the lake, three blocks east, fighting the strong wind blowing in from its shores. When he got to the beach, no one was there. It was eleven o’clock and so cold that icicles had frozen horizontally off the pier’s iron rail. Despite the wind and the temperature, Jason walked to the end of the pier, fifty feet from shore, and stood there. His tears froze on his cheeks while he begged God to help Max feel better, to take away any pain that Jason might have caused. He wanted more than anything else to see his friend in person right then. This desire eclipsed all other thought.
As Jason looked out over the water, the sky to his right appeared lit with multicolored lightning. The storm clouds glowed yellow, green, and blue, and the lake beneath them thrashed and burned with fire. But to his left the water seemed calm and serene, full of loving energy. In the distance along the shore, the buildings of downtown Chicago glistened like the Emerald City, and Jason felt a great love for them. For him the buildings were alive, the living products of human intelligence. The world, he suddenly understood, was simply that: pure intelligence, and he was both the creator and the created.
In the distance over the lake he saw a plane heading toward the city. Suddenly the sky was filled with planes, swirling around, shooting past his ears, spinning toward earth. At first he was frightened, but then he understood that these brilliant spirals were new spirits being sent to earth from heaven. God, he realized, constantly sent us new people to love.
A loud voice told him, “Jason, you are all-powerful! You can part these waters! You can walk across Lake Michigan!” Once he had crossed the lake, he would keep walking all the way to New York City. He had to see Max. He had to make amends. He inched toward the concrete edge of the pier and looked down at the bright green, pulsating water, so full of life, so mesmerizing in its beauty. The waves became hands beckoning to him, welcoming him like a mother’s arms.
Just as he was about to step off the pier, another voice said to the first, “Wait! He’s still in his human form! He can’t do it yet!” Upon hearing this, Jason turned and made his way back to the condo, where he called me and told me everything he’d just experienced.
“Jason,” I said, “listen to that voice, the one that understands you’re still human. OK?”
After we’d hung up, I immediately made a train reservation from Maryland to Chicago. (I didn’t have the money for an emergency plane ticket.) Just before I left my house, Jason called on his cellphone from the basement of the John Hancock Building. He was in a bathroom stall, sobbing. “I can’t get out of here,” he said. “I can’t move.”
He’d paid to go to the observation deck of the building because he’d been convinced that he would find Max there. He’d felt that he could literally make Max appear. Of course, when Max hadn’t been there, it had been doubly devastating: his friend had not come, and Jason did not have the power he’d believed he had. In despair he’d made his way to the basement, where he was now hiding in a stall. As we talked, he grew calmer, and then his tone of voice changed to one of sheer awe. “Whoa,” he said, like someone on an acid trip. (He assured me he hadn’t taken any drugs.) “The walls are turning red and orange. The colors are shifting all over the place.”
I thought of calling the police, and I should have, but I wasn’t sure what I would have said to them, or what they’d have done to Jason. I felt confused and helpless. My son was eight hundred miles away and in deep trouble. “I’m on my way, Jason,” I said. “Just get on the el and get back to your place. I’m coming. I’m taking the train. I’ll be there tomorrow morning.” The train to Chicago was an overnight ride.
“Wow,” he said. “You’ll be on a train, and I’ll be on a train. Are you dead, too?”
My train arrived in Chicago two hours late. At the station I frantically made my way to a pay phone, but Jason didn’t answer his cell. Jason always answered his cell. Panicking, I dialed his father’s number (we’re divorced) and spoke to his stepmother. Jason had called from the police station earlier that morning; he’d been arrested in the middle of the night. I was distressed but relieved. At least he was safe.
When I got to the police station, however, I learned that they had freed Jason at 1:30 that morning. Having nowhere else to look for him, I took a taxi to the condo where he was staying. As my cab neared the building, I saw the flashing lights of more than one police car. My first thought was that Jason had killed himself. I rushed from the taxi as soon as it stopped. A woman on the curb was flailing her arms and describing to a police officer how someone had “terrorized” the building all night and flooded the basement. When I interrupted to ask where that person was, the officer pointed to a police car. Another officer opened the car door, and I slid in beside my son, who was wearing only shorts and a T-shirt in the freezing weather. He smiled beatifically at me. “I knew you’d be here,” he said, and he reached out a finger and brushed my cheek. His eyes tracked oddly, as if he were seeing my face in more than just three dimensions. “You’re all golden white,” he said. “Your aura is golden white.”
The police brought us to a psychiatric hospital, where a petite woman with a pen and paper asked Jason questions. Jason stood and paced and acted out what had happened to him the night before with such drama that the intake worker asked whether he’d ever been in the theater. My shy, socially phobic son showed an astounding vocabulary, words I’d never heard him use, and his conversation was fluid, even brilliant. But a question as simple as “What’s your name?” could confound him.
“Jehovah,” he finally replied, then jumped up from his seat. “But we don’t pronounce it that way here in the spirit realm. It’s Yeeeeeeeoooooowwwah.”
The sound he made was more screech than word, truly a language from another plane of existence. The woman looked to me for help, but I was counting on her to help me. “OK,” she said, “what’s your name in this realm?”
Jason paced the room, trying to find the answer, then mispronounced his own name.
“Who is the president of the United States?” the young woman asked.
Jason shot me an amused look, as if remembering how I felt about the outcome of the 2004 election. “Satan,” he replied with a giggle.
The three of us burst out laughing. The woman, struggling to maintain her professional demeanor, continued: “OK, but what is his name in this world?”
Jason promptly answered, “George W. Bush.”
I was proud of my son at that moment. Maybe he wasn’t lost forever. At least he had his politics right.
Nature is constrained. Disorder is channeled, it seems, into patterns with some underlying theme.
— James Gleick
The moments of levity were all too brief, and the severity of Jason’s condition would immediately come back to me. He was utterly convinced of the reality of his current experience. Where had my son’s personality, his very identity, gone?
The next day, with Jason admitted to a state hospital, I visited the church he had attended his first Sunday alone in Chicago. It was a congregation of the United Church of Christ, the church I’d grown up in, and I’d recommended it to him because of its openness to gays and lesbians. Jason had once talked about going to divinity school, which I’d thought would be a great choice for him. I’d always believed he had a spiritual gift.
At the church I sat in the pew, gazing at the intricate woodwork and the stained-glass window. As a little girl, I’d gone to church every Sunday and reveled in the stories of miracles and God’s love. My mother eventually had stopped taking me and years later told me she’d decided that it was “all a fairy tale.” I’d come to the same conclusion, but I still felt attracted to the mystery that religion represented. Right now I needed to be in church, among caring people.
After the service, as I walked back to the train, I stopped in a used-book store and headed straight for the psychology section. I wanted to understand madness, to know where Jason’s psyche was now and how it might be retrieved. Scanning the titles, I kept coming back to one: The Seduction of Madness, by Edward Podvoll. The book jacket said that Podvoll’s therapeutic approach eschewed medication. Though I liked the idea of natural healing, Jason’s illness was so severe that I felt only drugs could help him now. But the jacket also said the author’s approach was related to Buddhist thought, which appealed to me. I bought the book, along with a couple of others. Then I rode the train to Jason’s hospital.
I signed in at the visitors’ desk and was admitted through locked doors to a ward where I found Jason dressed in papery blue hospital pants, just finishing his dinner. We hugged. Jason seemed happy. The food was delicious, he said; he had never eaten so well. “We’re in the holding cell for heaven,” he explained. Moments later he told me he was in his elementary school. The building did, in fact, look very much like that school. The school had been called C.T. Reed, and the hospital’s name was Chicago-Read. Many of Jason’s misimpressions made an odd kind of sense. His thoughts took wild leaps of free association, like those of a person who is dreaming; one thing reminded him of another, and immediately it became that other thing, and the story line in his head shifted to incorporate this new development. Jason seemed to be dreaming awake. The psychologist Carl Jung believed that our dream states connect us to the “collective unconscious,” a sort of universal mind shared by all humans. I wondered whether Jason’s dreamlike psychosis could also be a connection to this universal unconscious.
I understood how realistic dreams could seem: The night my mother had died, after I’d finally fallen asleep, something had suddenly woken me. I lay still, my head on the pillow, and my mother, looking as earthly as ever, appeared and walked toward me. She came to my bedside, touched the mattress, and said, “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” It was exactly what my mother would have said, if she’d been alive.
In the days that followed, I wanted to believe I’d had a visitation from the beyond. Sometimes I convinced myself I had. The problem was that beneath such romanticism lay a hard core of realism — a legacy from my engineer father. I could explain the vision in a more mundane way: perhaps I had been so distraught after my mother’s death that whatever locked gate separates dream and reality had been jarred open, and my mind had conjured her image and made it appear real. As much as I wanted to believe the spiritual explanation for my mother’s visit, I had to accept that it was much more likely my own mind had created it.
Even so, the experience left me wondering how the gate between those two states of mind could become unlatched. I had plenty of time to ponder this question during the week and a half Jason was hospitalized. There was little to distract me at the condo, which was nearly empty of furniture and had no TV, no radio, no Internet. Two huge fans, left there by the water-damage company to dry out the cement foundation after the flood Jason had caused, gave the living room a noisy, industrial atmosphere. I slept on a few blankets and pillows that I spread in a dry corner (Jason’s mattress had been soaked in the flood) and spent most of my time reading and thinking, trying to understand what had happened to my son.
My long daily commute to the hospital also gave me plenty of time to think. I’d wonder what today’s visit would be like, and whether Jason would show signs of improvement. But that was too frightening, so I’d fall back on the larger questions: What causes a mind to turn from sanity to madness? What is the relationship of the mind to reality? What is reality?
Podvoll’s book became my bible. He describes six distinct states the mind moves through on the way to madness: desire, greed, compulsion, the realm of the gods, paranoia, and hell. Some of these immediately sounded familiar: In the condo, I’d found bags of clothes Jason had bought in expensive stores on the Miracle Mile, though he hadn’t even begun looking for a job. During his first arrest Jason had been proclaiming the gospel on a train car. And when he’d flooded the basement utility room in my friend’s condo, he’d thought the room was hell and he was washing away the demons.
These stages are sometimes experienced by people who ingest hallucinogenic drugs, and by those who undergo mystical experiences. The idea that madness has its own kind of order began to occupy me. I looked at the people on the bus and the train, marveling at their diversity. How could it be that all these people, each so unique, would experience madness in similar ways? Perhaps when we go mad — or use hallucinogenic drugs, or have a mystical experience — we are not losing touch with reality but tapping into another, previously unexperienced dimension of it. Jason kept telling me when I visited him that the black man who took my name when I arrived was God. He looked like a pretty good God to me: a Santa Claus type with a warm laugh. For Jason, the stout little Asian woman sweeping the floor was Buddha. (If Jason was seeing things I couldn’t, I was glad they were benevolent spirits.) I still wasn’t sure whether I believed in a nonmaterial plane, but it was immensely comforting to imagine that one existed, making all of this sorrow meaningful.
Still, I was my father’s daughter. The engineer in me wanted this to be explainable by physical laws. Romanticism could keep me dreaming for hours, but, like the pea under the princess’s mattress, that hard kernel of scientific skepticism kept prodding me.
The French artist and writer Henri Michaux experimented with hallucinogenic drugs to try to understand madness, writing and drawing what he saw when he took them. Podvoll quotes Michaux: “Undulations begin. Out of microscopic cells, waves emerge and break loose. Images come in waves, riding the waves; and there are waves of thought, and thought molded by the waves.” The pictures he drew look like graphs of brain waves, or radio frequencies, or the printouts of seismographs. Perhaps, I reasoned, the structure of reality itself is a wave, and the brain is something like a radio receiver. Say the brain is calibrated to experience reality at a particular frequency, but something knocks the dial, and signals that previously were out of range suddenly become visible, knowable. The phrase “He’s on a different wavelength” took on a whole new meaning for me.
Waves were not a new subject to me. My father had led the design team that had invented the first marketable radar altimeter: the device simply intercepted radio waves that already existed in the atmosphere and then used them to tell pilots how close to the ground their planes were. I also remembered seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time when I was seven years old. I found a small piece of Styrofoam on the beach and threw it into the cold waves again and again, fascinated by the little raft’s journey back to me. It never traveled the same path, but it always returned to shore. An ocean wave itself changes and curls and flattens and breaks on the beach only to be pulled back out to sea to form another wave, though never exactly the same wave with all the same molecules of water. Perhaps the structure of madness is like this: always arranged in a similar pattern, but different in each individual.
Thinking about the ultimate structure of reality and how we interpret it, I remembered a passage in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Thoreau studied a mudslide and noticed the branching valleys where the water had drained, the ground’s crackling as it dried. He compared these forms to that of a leaf, and he proposed that the leaf was, in fact, a blueprint for life. Its pattern was mirrored in the human circulatory system; in the hand, with its trunklike palm and branchlike fingers; and in other natural forms, such as rivers and their tributaries. Waves. Leaves. Why did I feel these ideas were linked?
Jason improved slightly each day, but not fast enough to satisfy me. Each night I’d leave the hospital more discouraged. I wanted my son back now. On the bus back to the condo I’d read my book or stare out the window and think about Thoreau’s leaves or some other theory of order in the universe, so I wouldn’t have to relive the chaotic reality I’d just left.
I wasn’t sure the leaf model was exactly right. I preferred the idea of waves: their flow and curves. Of course, leaves have flow and curves as well. And there was a nagging problem with my wave theory: I wasn’t happy with the idea of the brain as a receiver, separate from the signals it was receiving. I considered that the electrical impulses in our brains are called “brain waves.” But then I remembered images I’d seen of brain-wave firings, which branched out like the veins in a leaf.
Neither leaf nor wave theory felt complete. And I still hadn’t ruled out the possibility that Jason had stumbled across some metaphysical realm that lay beyond our perceptual limits. Were the rest of us like the denizens of Plato’s cave, watching flickering shadows on the wall, while people like Jason had the ability to see what was casting those shadows? The romantic in me said, “Yes!” The skeptic in me said, “But how does it work?”
God plays dice with the universe . . . but they’re loaded dice.
— Joseph Ford
Jason was eventually stabilized on medications and released. After I’d brought him home with me to Maryland, I was absorbed in the day-to-day realities of working full time and helping Jason reintegrate himself into society as the drugs brought him back to normal. (The dosages needed constant tweaking.) These considerations consumed any time I had for reading and pondering, yet the desire for some sort of explanation still nagged me.
One morning I was driving to work after a winter storm. Ice glazed each branch of the trees along the roadside, causing them to sparkle: beauty and treachery intertwined, as they so often are. Ahead of me I could see cars pulled onto the shoulder. I tapped my brake, and an SUV bore down threateningly on my back bumper. At the last minute it pulled into the other lane and sped past me. I pressed my middle finger against my car window. Driving on to work, I felt like an idiot for having lost control. I was doing a good job taking care of the big concerns in my life — Jason’s illness, the demands of my job — but the little hassles were about to overwhelm me. The day before, I’d been unable to find my car keys, and I’d had a complete meltdown. Why was it that small annoyances caused such dramatic reactions?
At work I mentioned this puzzle to Gary Seldomridge, who heads our mathematics department. “That’s chaos theory,” he said. “The ‘butterfly effect.’ ”
I’d heard of this: the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas. Gary offered to help me understand the theory, whose complexities seemed far afield from my background in the humanities (though I no longer think this). To introduce me to chaos theory, he drew a number of scattered points on a white sheet of paper. The points may appear random, he explained, but once there are a sufficient number of them, they coalesce into an orderly mathematical pattern. Some points will be outside the pattern, but most of them will be part of it. The idea was counterintuitive. How could anything done without a plan become organized of its own accord? Computers, however, have enabled scientists and mathematicians to reveal a hidden order in what had always appeared random or chaotic.
Gary is particularly interested in fractals: seemingly irregular and chaotic geometric shapes that on closer inspection reveal an underlying symmetry. Created on computers, fractals often resemble patterns found in nature: rippling water, or ice crystals, or snails’ shells. When Gary told me a classic example of a fractal shape is a fern, my heart began racing: there was Thoreau’s leaf again. (I later read that an ocean wave is also a fractal.) A fern, Gary explained, contains structures that replicate themselves. Pick a frond from the stem of a fern, and you have what looks like a miniature fern. Pinch a leaf off that frond, and you have a miniature frond, and an even more miniature fern. Theoretically, those shapes can repeat forever at infinitely smaller sizes.
Unlike simple linear geometric shapes, fractals allow for deviation. The natural world isn’t full of perfect squares and triangles. Instead we have snowflakes. We have flames. We have clouds. All snowflakes resemble one another, but no two are ever exactly the same. The beauty of nature lies in repeating patterns that allow for variation.
If Podvoll is right, madness, too, follows a repeating pattern that varies from person to person — and perhaps has its own beauty. Jason’s mad utterings were also spikes of sheer creativity: his heightened awareness and exploded perspective, his fluid speech and suddenly eloquent vocabulary. Certainly madness and creative genius have long been associated, and I could see an artistic future for Jason if only he could harness the creativity embedded in his madness and apply it to a canvas or a slab of clay.
One afternoon Gary and I viewed a slide show of fractal art based on the “Mandelbrot set.” In the 1980s mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot graphed on a computer a complex nonlinear function that had previously been regarded only as a curiosity. The result was an odd shape that replicated itself infinitely. Mandelbrot coined the word fractal to describe what he had discovered and showed how it could be used to model natural forms that appeared rough and irregular to the eye. Many other equations have since been graphed, creating a myriad of such regularly irregular shapes. Still, Mandelbrot’s first fractal is a beauty. Its specific structure is not found in nature, but suggests the pattern of mold on an orange, or moss on a stone. One slide looked like a jellyfish; another, like living cells. Closeups of the edges revealed curves known as “seahorse tails,” which reminded me of the paisleys and teardrops found in Indian jewelry and fabric.
“I wonder,” I said, “whether those Indian patterns seem so pleasing because they do correspond to shapes we see in nature, even though they’re abstract.”
“I would go one step further,” Gary said. “I would say they correspond to the structures within our own brains.”
Eureka! Perhaps this was the link I was looking for between the forms of the signals coming in and the brain that interprets them. I asked Gary what he believed was going on in the brain of a person who “lost” his or her mind. He thought it had something to do with the fractal nature of the brain’s firing patterns: Scientists have mapped how neurons “light up” in a fractal pattern. In certain situations, that pattern becomes more complex. The fractal “dimension” increases, creating an even more elaborate web of neurons that more completely covers the area of the brain where the firing occurs.
“Have you ever been ‘in the zone’?” Gary asked me. I knew what he meant: that perfect state of being in which time and space seem nonexistent and everything is easy. We can get there when performing many different actions: jogging or playing basketball or writing an essay. Gary believes the “zone” is a shift in fractal dimension. When “in the zone,” we are processing so much information in such a short amount of time that we feel we are in greater control of our surroundings. This perception can give us powers we never knew we had. We can run that extra mile, make that three-point shot, write that amazing line of prose.
If Gary is right and these “altered states” are really the result of increased fractal dimensions, then there must be a point when such expansion can become dangerous, when a person could believe he or she is all-powerful and can walk on water. The zone, then, could be the calm before the storm, the period of tranquillity that so often precedes a dangerous eruption: in this case, madness. The mind of a person who has gone from sanity to insanity may give the impression of being detached from reality, but, as Podvoll and Michaux recognized, there is order even in madness.
© Mike Connealy
On the night of Jason’s mental break, after he was released from jail, he meandered back to the condo. His basement bedroom, with its exposed brick walls and lone window at street level, was cavelike. I picture Jason lying on his mattress in the half light, the fractal dimension of his firing neurons expanding, his brain making rapid-fire associations. The ceiling fan above him morphed into a huge, crouching spider, a messenger from the dark force that had been trying to overwhelm him.
At this point, Jason told me, he began undergoing a “life review,” such as a drowning person supposedly sees before he or she dies. Perhaps it was the expanded fractal set in Jason’s brain rapidly retrieving images from his memories like a manic slide show. Painful or shameful memories, normally suppressed, came to the fore as he struggled against the spider. Jason believed he was in hell, and that each higher floor he climbed in the apartment building would bring him closer to heaven, which was on the fourth floor. Wanting to destroy this hell, he walked out the kitchen door into the dreary utility room, where he found a fire-hydrant-sized spigot and turned it on: he would douse the demons. Wearing only shorts, a T-shirt, and his tennis shoes — all soaking wet — Jason then stepped from the utility room into the building’s courtyard, which he perceived to be warm and filled with sunshine, a garden paradise. (The rest of us would have seen nothing but dead husks and bare branches on the icy January night.)
An increased fractal dimension does not mean merely that the net of associations grows wider; it also becomes twistier and more complex. Data might become superimposed over one another as the pattern winds back in on itself. Our perception gets caught in this feedback loop so that opposites become one and the same. Dead foliage blooms. What Jason’s eyes saw and what his mind wished for — or feared — became enmeshed in a fractal knot.
While water gushed from the utility spigot into my friend’s condo, Jason began climbing the stairs, hoping to get to that fourth level: heaven. He banged on the door of the condo at the top, begging to be let in. He’d brought a present — really a bag of garbage — to offer the condo owner, who did not accept the gift, but rather came out and forced Jason down the stairway and eventually out of the courtyard. As the iron gate clanked shut behind Jason, police cars were waiting for him on the street. I can’t help but wonder how long he would have lasted out there otherwise, soaking wet in subzero temperatures.
Most likely there is a reason nature allows the fractal firing patterns of our neurons to expand and become more twisty. Perhaps those fractal dimensions increase while we dream, enabling the mind to reach into our subconscious world, the place of repressed trauma and desire, symbol and metaphor. Scientists have proven that dreaming helps our minds work, but this brainy clerical chore is meant to be done while we sleep. If those fractal dimensions increase too much while we’re awake, we might find ourselves not in the zone, but in hell, where we are powerless to return to consensual reality. As is true of so many things, what is restorative in small doses can be destructive in excess.
For Jason, the experience in Chicago was nearly annihilating. Yet he gained something as well. Recovery has made him strong again. He’s just finished a successful semester of college, and has visited his friend Max a couple of times in New York, accepting their friendship as just that. And he’s vigilant about his mental health. When he recently began feeling depressed and angry — a possible precursor to a manic episode — he made an appointment with the college psychiatrist and started taking new medications that are working well. We’re both still ambivalent about medications, but until better treatment is available, Jason has little choice. His fragile psyche needs them.
Since Gary introduced me to fractals, I have learned that their study is on the cutting edge of neuropsychiatry. Researchers have measured the brain firing patterns in bipolar patients and found that, indeed, their fractal dimensions are significantly increased during manic periods. The erratic eye movement in schizophrenic patients also occurs in fractal patterns. Perhaps there is a connection between this phenomenon and rapid eye movement when we dream.
The intricacies of chaos theory have broadened my thinking in untold ways and shown me that nature’s borders are not linear. Some suggest that the boundary between the mind and the world it allows us to perceive is a fractal one, a weaving in and out, just as a coastline, neither water nor land, is ever changing and can never be precisely measured. It’s possible even a strictly mathematical structure could lead us to the realm of the spirit. In the end, the battle between reason and faith hardly matters to me anymore. Being defined in purely physical terms does not make these discoveries any less wonderful.
Perhaps Jason will one day be a beneficiary of psychiatric therapy derived from chaos theory. In the meantime, both of us recognize the beauty in his everyday accomplishments. Though he was for a time a visitor in the country of the gods, Jason is more than content to remain a part of this world. There are wonders enough right here.
Mary Spalding’s “The Madness Equation” helped me to see what a mother’s love for a son in crisis looks like, but I’m resistant to her belief that antipsychotic drugs are a necessary part of her son’s recovery. Such medications are harmful to human beings, causing permanent loss of muscle control and balance, brain shrinkage, cognitive impairment, reduced life expectancy, faulty immune function, and increased risk of diabetes. In return, they do no more than tranquilize and zombify people. How would Spalding’s son, Jason, have responded if someone had tried to understand what he was experiencing and helped him to react to it in a less dangerous way? What if his predicament had been regarded as a spiritual emergency, an existential crisis brought on by fear, confusion, and desperation?
Spalding’s explanations all involve esoteric phenomena such as fractals and chaos theory and the collective unconscious. She doesn’t consider the simpler, more common-sense explanation that Jason was reacting to tremendous pressure to be a conventionally successful young man when perhaps he didn’t want to be one, or didn’t think he could be. Or perhaps Jason was estranged from his father. (Spalding mentions a divorce.) Alienation from his father at a crucial time in his life could have contributed to his break with reality.
When the real world becomes too much to bear, one response is to create one’s own reality. People prefer to attribute bizarre, deluded, and dangerous behavior to chemical imbalances and genetic determinism, but human beings do things — including bizarre things — for a reason, even though we may not be aware of what it is.
Jason’s medical history includes three neurosurgeries, seizures, and a lesion on his brain that caused hemiparesis (muscular weakness on one side of his body). So I feel strongly that his illness is of both physical and psychological origin.
Through Jason’s experience I have seen the value of the new generation of drugs for treating mental illness. Though I very much believe in the healing benefits of community, I don’t think it’s the only answer, or that medical science should be dismissed. One wouldn’t rely solely on the love of family to cure a disease of the heart or liver, and the brain is no less a part of the body.
My interest in “esoteric” theories has been less a search for a cure than it has been a coping strategy. I’ve also done my best to provide a loving and therapeutic home environment for Jason as we both recover from this traumatic experience.
Having been accused my entire adult life of “willful insanity” due to drug use and bad behavior, I was relieved to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder at forty-one. I’ve spent the ten years since then being open about my illness, but I’ve never been able to describe with any degree of accuracy what mania feels like.
In “The Madness Equation” [September 2006] Mary Spalding describes the state of being unmedicated so well that I’ve decided not to donate this issue of The Sun to my local library, but to keep it for myself.