Friday, August 7, 2015

Insomnia and the life vest (and teacher sexual assaults and the brain and probably the kitchen sink)

3:00 am--awake with insomnia

I haven't had insomnia all summer, even with the graduate class, but elementary and middle school meet & greets in a 3-hour period AND an editorial miscommunication email with the magazine apparently needed to spiral in my mind in the wee hours.

I woke up to the life vest squeeze.  Eventually, after thinking all of my thoughts, I engaged in deep breathing and got back to sleep.

One of the things I'd never fully understood was the actual process by which anxiety affects a person, that whole "fight-or-flight" thing.  It was part of my grad research project for this summer's class, so in light of my recent episodes of panic/life vest squeezes, I am trying to explain the process to myself as I'm being squeezed.

What happens to me, at least, is that I am feeling a physical "fight-or-flight" without even being aware of what is causing the "fight-or-flight."  Like I'm surprised that I'm having minor panic.  But this makes sense given that panic/anxiety is a process that leaves the rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) out of the equation for a long time.  The sympathetic nervous system is working, the hippocampus (memory) is working, the thalamus (sensory processing) is working......the amygdala (emotion/fear-center) is off-the-rails, but the PFC hasn't been sent a memo.

So my body (the squeeze) is out of my control before I can even get my brain working properly to analyze what the heck is going on, to rationally examine anything to determine whether it is a real "threat."  Of course, modern life is a barrage of unreal threats that feel real.  I have yet to encounter a feral boar or saber-tooth tiger.  They might be less exhausting than meet & greets with 700+ people mulling around.

The benefit of my medication is that it helps quicken the time it takes for my PFC to begin working.  Prior to medication, it would take me weeks before I was able to rationally investigate anything going on in my head.  The physical "fight-or-flight" panic would lessen over a week or two.  Now, I might have a day or a couple hours of physical sensation before my PFC goes, "Ok, what is this all about?  Let's apply some CBT practices."

I am forever amazed by the brain.  In addition to being an astrophysicist, I think if I could be anything in the world I'd want to be a neuroscientist.  Basically, I want to explore the unknowns of space and the mind---the two big black holes of stuff we can't wrap our puny little understandings around.

Within the past month, a former colleague of mine from a decade ago was convicted of raping one of his students, a situation that makes me feel all weird inside for a variety of reasons.  I am shocked because I never, ever would have thought this possible of him.  I find myself thinking, "Maybe he is innocent?" because it just seems so.....horrible that someone I actually know and worked with would do such a thing.

This week, I had an online discussion with college friends about claims that a former college professor sexually assaulted a teenager.  Now this guy I could totally see doing such a thing.

Isn't it interesting and troubling that I could totally imagine one man doing that and another one completely not?  It makes me question my own judgment of others.

These two episodes makes me think about the brain and what it tells us.  I tend to believe that most people who commit crimes of any nature are either 1.desperate or 2.mentally ill.  Mostly #2, which can make a person feel #1.  I say this from personal experience with OCD.

I think I've written about intrusive thoughts---those repugnant, random ideas that pop into someone's head.  If they are in any way sensitive or conscientious, that person will feel mortified by those thoughts and believe they are going crazy.  I suffered from intrusive thoughts when N was a baby---imagining myself stabbing her with a knife as I was cutting apple slices.  I wasn't angry, frustrated, provoked....nothing.  Just slicing an apple for lunch and having this reprehensible image pass through my mind.  I doubted myself.  Did I want to hurt my daughter?  I didn't feel like I wanted to hurt her, but if I was thinking this, then maybe I did?  Can I trust the thoughts in my own brain?

Even though I was medicated when the boys came along, I would sometimes have an intrusive thought of a sexual nature when I changed their diapers.  By that time, I had read enough about OCD to know that 1. these thoughts were my worst possible fears flitting through my brain and 2. just because I had a thought didn't mean I wanted to do it or would act on it.

We all have sometimes reprehensible thoughts, and most of us do not act on them.  Some of us are lucky enough to not even pay them any attention.

So what makes a person move from the thought to the action?  The conviction of my former colleague and the claims about the college professor make me consider.

This line of thinking makes me wonder about intent.  Is intent thinking about something?  What kinds of crimes would any of us be guilty of if intent was any random thought that popped into our heads?  Is the difference between intent that a reprehensible thought scares us to death or a reprehensible thought makes us feel excited?

Whenever I hear about a female teacher assaulting students, I am usually pretty astounded by this, more so than when I read about male teachers.  Yes, some teenage boys may look like adults physically, but eventually they speak, and it becomes quite clear that they are children.  I often question the maturity of the 46-year-old boy with grey hair who lives in the house with me.

It feels like a slippery slope whenever I think of these things.  I certainly don't condone such behaviors in any way.  I ask myself repeatedly when I think of my former colleague, "How in the world could a person do such a thing to anyone, but especially a child?"

But I also know from my own experience not being able to control my own thoughts that I can't be too high-and-mighty when it comes to others.  Maybe I've only been extremely lucky that my thoughts have remained random thoughts and not anything more.....maybe the majority of us are lucky in this regard.  

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