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Mental Health and the Brain: Working Group, April 27

Mental Health and the Brain Working Group:

April 27th, An Evolving Exploration of Disability
Synopsis and forum for continuing discussion

Thoughts welcomed in the on-line forum below.


Martin Bayer, Laura Cyckowski, Adi Flesher, Sarah Gibbs, Ryan Golden, Paul Grobstein, Julia Lewis, Katie Manning, Brie Stark


This week’s discussion centered around a presentation by David Feingold called "The Liberatory Deconstruction of the Bipolar Impaired Self". The presentation reflects David’s own bipolar experiences and draws as well on Serendip visitors’ comments on earlier digital assemblages of David’s to outline a path for dealing not only with bipolar disorder but with "disability" generally. It emphasizes the importance of first acknowledging feelings about what it feels like to be bipolar as well as how society views bipolar disorder. From there, David moves towards self-acceptance and self-advocacy.

Some people were made uncomfortable by feelings of violence associated with Feingold’s images, in their use of red text colors among other things. This generated discussion on the related themes of the relation between artistic intent and audience response, and the place of violent feelings in the mental health/story realm in general.

David's 5 fold model, it was suggested, is very similar to other paradigms in therapy. Gestalt therapy, for example, is similar in that it emphasizes a "paradoxical power of change". Awareness and integration of the self leads to positive change, not unlike Feingold’s model. David's model is also similar to the first 3 noble truths in Buddhism, which can be applied to anyone in distress: 1) pain is not avoidable; one will never be fully satisfied; 2) the problem lies in the story or attitude towards that pain; 3) the solution is to notice and accept the pain, which by itself may lessen it.

There was also extended discussion of the role in bipolar disorder (and "disability" generally) of two sorts of "story." It may not actually be the sharp mood swings that are the problem in people having bipolar characteristics, but rather the stories both individuals and societies tell about them. A person’s feelings about some aspect of themselves was likened to layers of an onion. At the core are a person’s feelings about their own state, followed by thoughts and reflections on that self, and finally society’s attitude towards it. Sharp mood swings may be judged "bad" by either the individual's story teller or society's story (see diagram below), with the two potentially reinforcing one another. An interesting question for further exploration is the role that both individual and social stories may play not only in how one thinks of onself but also in the sharp mood swings themselves.




Erin Higgs's picture

Bipolar stuff

Okay, I am not a medical expert on this whole thing, but I am bipolar. I have found little help with my disease as I am uninsured. The state that I live in offers absolutely no help for those like me, and we need it! However, although I did not follow a lot of the medical jargon used above this is what I got out of this: In order to better control my disease I need to focus on changing the way I look and my disease and "my story". Now I hope I got that right. Since I just recently found a doctor who would see me and find a way to get me my medications, I am still a little unstable, and I know it very well. I accept that I am bipolar and can deal with it sometimes. I control my diet by eating foods that will make my body more alkaline and less acidic. I have found that this has helped with both my bipolar symptoms as well as my digestive problems. I also control everything around me, I make sure that there is no way for one of my "triggers" to pop up, especially since I can get rather violent. I keep my drapes open and force myself to get dressed every morning, although I rarely go out, social anxiety? Maybe. But I also get strait A's in my college courses, online. And I write. I write about everything I feel. I am actually writing an autobiography, just trying to figure out where all these feelings and thoughts come from. It helps.

Paul Grobstein's picture

disability: deconstructing and reconstructing

I too think it is important to attempt to distinguish, as clearly as one can, between features of one's cognitive unconscious that are directly disturbing to one's story teller,  and aspects of one's cognitive unconscious that are disturbing to one's story teller because they are disturbing to other people.  The two may be difficult to untangle (see Looking in the Mirror), but doing so empowers one to respond differently to what are two distinct issues (one's  acceptance/unwillingness to accept features of oneself and one's acceptance/unwillingness to accept judgements of other people).  David may well, for example, be happy with his color choices even if they aren't the ones others would have made.  As he (and others) may be comfortable with mood variations having amplitudes greater than those with which other people are comfortable.

More generally, I'm impressed with David's five fold model (and pleased Serendip was able to contribute to developing it).  Yes, it has aspects of some forms of both psychotherapeutic and meditative practices and it intrigues me that David could come to it along a different path,  Since people get to it in different ways, there must be a there there.  But it puts, for me at least, a particular emphasis not on finding out what is wrong and fixing it, but rather on reflecting on internal conflicts and their sources, and then creating a new story about onself that makes those particular conflicts go away.   That seems to me a quite generally useful skill for people to acquire, rather than one targeted either at particular problems or at "disablities," a skill we could also stand to further develop.

David Feingold's picture

Commenting on the comments

Wonderful insight from the Working Group. I've been thinking about the allusion to the universality of the pain and stigma associated with my personal story. This got me thinking that when something is universal, there is a greater possibility for having empathy for the other person. One would think that the universality of pain and stigma would
create a universal consciousness of mutual understanding and feeling for the trials that others face. Pain affects people differently, however. As Professor Grobstein points out, I may be more comfortable with mood variations having greater amplitudes than are others. Therefore, I may react less disfavorably to my own art work. I am more desensitized to my own artwork because I live with the features of the impairments that give rise to the art images. For anyone feeling uncomfortable with my artwork--thank you, for you are feeling my pain. You feel something that someone else may not be able to feel or not be able of tolerating. Perhaps that's why some people aren't very empathic--it is just too painful. In my case, people can turn away from my artwork. But what makes me feel badly is when people turn away from me.. I'm sure this too is a universal experience from which we could all share and learn.

Laura Cyckowski's picture

I agree with Brie's

I agree with Brie's thoughts above that conflict between social stigma and one's story of oneself is applicable in many cases, not just mental health.

I think the diagram above that was alluded to in the discussion is certainly accurate, at least partially. I feel though that in the particular case of sharp/severe mood swings, that phenomenon can be internally unsettling for a person, regardless of societys view of that, and hence a problem (not the mood swings, but one's internal reaction to them).



Brie Stark's picture


Something that struck me, as we were watching David's powerpoint, was the ambiguous "feelings" (or "primary stories") that he listed as components of recognizing a bi-polar self.  These feelings, at first glance (had I not first read that they belonged to an individual with bi-polar disorder), seemed universal.  These feelings/primary stories included sadness, agitation, anxiety, inadequacy, burdensome... the list goes on.  Do not most people experience these emotions at some point in their life?  It struck me that his model, which was meant to represent a path to the unification of a bipolar self and self, could be applied to so many different facets. 

For instance, David concentrates on the implication of social stigmas.  Social stigmas are thrust upon individuals that are not diagnosed with a mental health problem, just as they are upon those with a mental health problem.  The problem, then, exists on the notion that the individual comes to recognize the stigma as overpowering their own identity or self.  In David's mind, as I interpreted it, his 5-step method can be an adequate reconciliation of social stigma with self on every level of person, not just those diagnosed with a mental health problem.  One must learn to reconcile the social stigma with one's own belief and ultimately put more weight and respect toward one's own self in order to overcome the stigma -- is it not the same concept that therapy for those with diagnosed mental health problems concentrates upon?

All in all, I thought that this ambiguous nature of self versus social stigmatized self is applicable quite universally. 

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