The Mercenaries In Our Brains



“Is something wrong?” Bryan asked, sitting next to me in the passenger seat while I drove down the freeway.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“You hit your breaks,” he said.

“Oh. Yeah. That guy ahead was stopping.” I paused to reflect. The guy ahead of me did stop, but he was far ahead of me. There was plenty of space. “I don’t trust my breaks. I’m paranoid about hitting people in front of me and so I don’t trust my breaks. It freaks me out when people trust their breaks.”

I then went on to explain to him where this came from. As I spoke, I laid bare a behavior that had been unconscious until that moment. I explained it to myself as much as to him. I sort of knew about it, but I hadn’t realized how much went into it, or how consistent it was. It shocked me a little bit. Here was this pattern born from the twin brothers–caution and fear–living inside my head and dictating the way I drove.

It came from a series of events that occurred just as I started driving. Two fender-benders and a car-totaling-collision, all involving smashing into someone from behind.

The first time was just after my wife and I arrived in Florida with practically everything we owned stuffed into the car. I’d gotten my license a few weeks before, at the age of 20, specifically so we could move from Massachusetts to Florida so I could go to culinary school down there. Practically my first experience driving on my own was a 1000 mile trip down the East Coast in a 1996 Dodge Spirit we bought for $600, massively overloaded with clothing and computers and disassembled furniture.

There was a traffic jam and a tricky intersection with a nearly-invisible light. I didn’t break in time, and I bumped into the car in front of me. It scratched her paint a little. I gave her my mom’s insurance card–not knowing for sure if I was covered or how it worked. I never heard from her again.

The second incident occurred a few months later during a rainstorm. It was the kind you only get in the tropics and subtropics, rain escaping from the clouds with such intensity you’d think they were afraid of drowning if they stayed up there. I pulled into a right turn lane-cum-swimming pool, and another drive cut me off right before the turn and stopped short when the light turned red. I slammed on my breaks, but my tires were in three feet of water, so the 10 feet between me and him weren’t enough. Both me and the other driver turned into the mall and pulled over to inspect the damage. There wasn’t any. When I got back in the car to drive off again the engine wouldn’t start.

A few months later we got a brand new black Hyundai Accent named Raven. My mom co-signed, and we got the warranty and everything. One day as I was driving to school a truck screeched to a halt at a turn lane four cars in front of me. The car behind the truck stopped just short of hitting it, then the car behind that did the same, then the car behind that, then I stopped an inch from hitting the guy in front of me. I had just enough time to sigh with relief when an old man slammed into my rear, knocking me into the car in front of me, and him into the car in front of him, and so on until it was a five-car pileup. None of us were moving very fast. The only car to take serious damage was mine. Poor Raven was totaled.

Ever since then I’ve been paranoid about hitting the car in front of me. I stop far before I need to, just to be safe. And I never, ever trust my breaks. It influences everything about the way I drive, and I didn’t even realize that until my friend Bryan unwittingly pointed it out.

It’s like I recruited a mercenary inside of my head. His job is to patrol my attention while driving, and strictly enforce the don’t-trust-your-breaks rule. Mostly he serves me, but it’s unnerving that I didn’t realize he was there. I gave him his assignment years ago and he’s been dutifully carrying it out ever since.

It makes me wonder just how much of our thoughts and behaviors are dictated by mercenaries like this. These unconscious soldiers, armed with sharp spears to poke the inside of our brains whenever we veer off of the behavior they so zealously enforce. Sometimes they take their orders too seriously, or they change over time so that we can barely remember why we hired them in the first place.

It’s hard to dismiss them after a while. They identify so strongly with their jobs. I wonder, too, just how we are paying these soldiers. I wonder if the price is worth it.




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With These Lame Weapons Do We Fight The Darkness


The map of the world of psychiatric disorders is far clearer and more filled in than it was a few hundred years ago, but it isn’t complete. Here and there it is dotted with dragons, and not the fun kind that let you fly around on their backs and chase bullies or have pearls embedded in their foreheads. No, these are amorphous, slimy things that suck in happiness and joy and belch out clouds of oily black smoke. These are the dreaded untreatable disorders.

The most talked about of these dragons is Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is commonly known as psychopathy or sociopathy by people who aren’t psychologists. Those words don’t have any official medical meaning at this point, but they should give you an idea of the condition. Another disease that is still sometimes considered untreatable is the oft-misunderstood and weirdly named borderline personlaity disorder. There’s a link there if you want the full explanation, but the soundbyte explanation is that people with BPD have a lot of mood swings, poor emotional regulation, and often dramatically demonstrate their need for social and emotional validation.

BPD is hard to treat, but it used to be considered completely resistant to treatment. If you were borderline, the psychological wisdom said, you would never really get any better. I know about all of this because my wife works (indirectly) for an organization called the Linehan Institute, founded by Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT.

The way the story goes in my head, Marsha Linehan buried herself in a sea of psychology journals and a mob of patients with extreme conditions like BPD and severe drug addiction. Then, one day, she burst forth into the sky, clutching the sword of DBT in her hand, and declared that these dragons now had something to fear! I’m sure this story is massively inaccurate, but it the point remains. DBT was one of the first psychological methodologies to make a serious impact on borderline personality disorder.

I first heard this when my wife started this job and she was explaining the whole thing to me. I thought it was awesome and inspiring, and I was highly intrigued by this therapy method and the results it was able to get with such difficult conditions. So my wife explained it more. And I looked into it myself, wanting to learn its ins and outs, both for my potential personal use and because I find that kind of thing fascinating.

I did not find what I expected. These were dragons being slain here. Or, if you want to drop the metaphor, these were severe psychological conditions being treated. Mental constructs with such a deep and sharp grip on people’s minds that nothing had been able to pry them loose. I was sure that whatever was used to treat these conditions must be obviously advanced and complicated. That’s what I thought.

DBT has its complexities, of course, but at it’s core it is centered around a single idea. And that is…Mindfulness. Yes, mindfulness. That’s it. Exactly the same kind of mindfulness that mostly involves sitting there and paying attention to the fact that your foot tingles and the room smells like the cats have just used the litter box. The one where you breathe a lot and try not to think too much about the fact that you’re breathing. Mindfulness. Just…mindfulness.

DBT isn’t alone. When I started going to therapy a few months ago I was excited that my therapist had a strong background in cognitive behavioral therapy and similar empirically based approaches. I had run into CBT many times in my reading but never studied it too deeply, and I looked forward to learning those tools, to acquiring those weapons and letting them loose on my very own dragons.

Mostly, they involve thinking about stuff. To be more specifically, they involve finding out how you think about stuff, and what that does, and then trying really hard to think about that stuff differently.

Other than psychopharmaceutical drugs, which have long names and complicated molecular mechanistic explanations that may or may not be accurate to how they actually work, most forms of modern therapy are like this. They use mindfulness. Or gratitude. Or watching for when you feel an emotion and then doing a thing different than what you would normally do. Reading a book on the strategies of cognitive behavioral therapy feels uncomfortably similar to reading a self-help book.

The big difference is that they work. They’ve been tested, and even though it’s a complicated and dynamic field, modern cognitive methods get results Freud could only dream of. And Freud, for all his flaws, got a lot of good results himself.

But results or not, they’re all incredibly lame. Honestly, I think one of the reasons so many people are resistant to this kind of treatment is that it all just looks and feels like a series of aphorisms. The kind of thing your granny might have stitched into a pillow for you, if you had that kind of granny. I’m always reluctant to recommend a psychological technique to friends of mine because I always feel like I’m going to sound like Stuart Smalley.

But Stuart Smalley was full of crap. His methods didn’t work, and neither did the real-world methods that he was parodying. Part of the reason we’re resistant to the lame-sounding techniques is because most of they really are just as lame and useless as they sound. It’s important to maintain that skepticism and do your research.

At the same time, you can’t take the skepticism too far. It’s impossible to engage in psychological treatment without tolerating how much a lot of it could be put on greeting cards without any alteration. It’s something you just have to get over. These are the weapons we have, and they are sharp and they are powerful. They may be lame, but that is the price you pay for slaying the dragons.

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Scribing The Scrolls

ink jar and quills

Today was bad.

In the abstract I don’t find my job stressful. The work environment is fun, relaxed, and supportive. Kind of mind blowing for a sales office. There’s an emphasis on success but no real pressure, and no chastisement for failure. We don’t have quotas. Once someone passes the probationary period–which can be legitimately stressful–it feels like the company and the management are legitimately invested in them. After that when someone is struggling, they get coached, or moved to a department that might work better for them.

My job isn’t stressful, in the abstract. In practice it’s enormously so. Or at least, it is when the blood pumping through my veins is 25% plasma, 20% red blood cells, 1% white cells and platelets, and 54% anxiety. When my brain decides to be anxious, work makes it much, much worse. Making sales calls is like stress in a bottle. No matter how good the last conversation was, as soon as it’s over you have to start over. From scratch. From the cold. I make hundreds of calls a day, and when it’s bad every single one is battle with the black tar warriors marching through my veins.

Today was bad.


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Time’s Dark Bargain

The time has come

Time floods away from us like blood from a wound that eternally bleeds.  It’s a particularly depressing part of growing up, when a person realizes just how finite their stay on this mound of slowly-freezing magma really is.

Every second you pass through is a smaller percentage of your life than the second that came before it. People get confused when I say that, so I usually have to break it down into years. Each year of your life is a smaller part of your life than the year that just died. I don’t usually say “just died,” but it’s appropriate, here, in this place.

Because that’s what happens. We shed seconds and minutes and years from us, and we look back and watch them rot.  We watch them rot and we can only imagine what fertile soil they might have been. What could we have done, with those now festering piles of wasted moments?

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Oblivion, The Hunter


He’s behind you.

You cannot hear his steps, because he makes no noise. You feel his breath on the back of your neck the way you feel eyes staring at you in the darkness. These sensations aren’t real. You can feel nothing because nothing is there. Until it is.

He stalks you with the relentlessness of dispassion. How can he feel passion? No heart pumps in his chest. No epinephrine bathes his neurons in a chemical bath of intensity. No blood flows through his veins. He has no heart. He has no neurons. He has no veins.

When you turn to see look at him he is never there. You can’t even catch him out of the corner of your eye, though you long to do so. You long for the terror to be tangible. To be real. If it were real, you could just be afraid. You could fight, and maybe you would die. But you would know.

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Newly Spun Horror

If all we can ever interact with is what our senses give us, what our mind construct from the caresses of the universe, then we all live in different worlds. Recently, mine has changed. It used to be a place of sunlight. A place where closed doors in back alleys contained hidden pub rooms full of joyful, boisterous laughter. I used to live in a world where some benevolent God had childproofed everything, and nothing I could touch would cut me.

Not anymore. Now, the shadows lengthen in the brightest part of day. The doors conceal horrors. Every edge is sharpened. The world around me hasn’t changed, but I have changed, and that changes everything. For the first time in my life, I’m struggling with anxiety. I’ve always been a nervous person. I’ve always had more than my fair share of fear.

This is different. This something warped and alien, something that is sometimes crippling in its immensity. I’ve seen it in others, read about it, studied it. Touched up against in with my mother, with my wife, with some of my closest friends.

But it was always distant. Jagged knives cannot cut you if they’re in the drawer. I felt their suffering with my empathy, but it was ephemeral. It flared up when I was near it—I loved them, so I felt their pain–but I always recovered. I always healed. These days, I’m not healing so well. The wounds stay open.

Maybe all the bad things in my life have piled so heavily that they’ve finally splintered my spine. Maybe I’m just older, and I’ve lost my resiliency. I know that my anxiety is is mild compared to that of many people, but it’s so new, so fresh, that my skin is thin and easily pricked. I don’t know how to handle the fact that what once was a safe, comforting world is suddenly full of sick, hungry, threatening things that wish nothing more than to crack me open and drink deeply of my fear. For someone who has always been happy go lucky, it’s like living in a horror story.

The thing is, I love horror stories. I read them, I watch them, I play them, I write them. I never wanted to live one, but that is my world, now, whether I want it or not. That gives me a choice.

Whatever awful things my brain chemistry has planned for me, I still have a choice. I can run from it, pretend it isn’t happening, or I can turn around and stare into the ravenous blackness breathing down the back of my neck and find out what it looks like. If you can’t write effectively about France without ever having been there, maybe the same is true of the darkness.

I’m stepping into that cold, lonely place. I cannot make that go away simply by wishing. But I plan on coming back. I plan on getting back to the sunlight, though it may never be so innocently bright as it once was. Maybe I can bring some of the darkness back with me. Maybe I can make of it shapes, horrible and beautiful, that my tender eyes could never have witnessed, and my jovial brain could never have conceived.

Maybe, through my suffering, I can spin a few Tales.

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