shut me off

I’ve been waiting for tomorrow to arrive for awhile. Tomorrow I get the results from my testing last month. I went in for my testing on October 12, twenty-five days ago. It takes awhile to get an appointment at this place, and this is my third. (At the end of my first appointment, the doctor scheduled my testing herself, and then said I could go upstairs to the front desk to schedule the follow-up or call and schedule. Following my typical M.O., I did neither and waited until testing day to schedule it.)

I’m feeling really ambivalent about the coming diagnosis, or possible lack thereof. At my first consultation, I got a strong feeling that the doctor agreed with my idea of myself, that I have ADHD-PI. However, I got such mixed messages during testing that I’ve since doubted my own assessment. With good reason—I’ve had plenty of wrong ideas about myself before. If they decide that I don’t have ADHD, do I have to change the name of my blog? I’m sort of hoping for a clear yes, so I can get on with treatment. And blogging.

I didn’t do myself any favors by picking up an Alice Miller book we had sitting on the bookshelf, The Drama of the Gifted Child. I had forgotten we’d had this book, until reading another essay that mentioned it. Since I’d been reading about gifted adults, I thought I would give Alice another whirl. And oh, she had me going down the path of neurosis as the explanation again, back to the land of anxiety and depression, and long, complicated unraveling as the cure.

Most of the newer ADHD work talks about brain biology: poor pathways for executive function, problems with dopamine levels. Alice Miller, in this book primarily about anxiety and depression, is the other end of the spectrum, a good old fashioned Freudian. I started to get pulled in to Miller’s explanations about why gifted people struggle (people pleasing, weak sense of self, even grandiosity) but totally got turned off by the explanation: the mother screwed everything up, and the only way to set it right is to Rage Against the Mother. Furthermore, the level of certitude in the work is really frightening:

Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.

That’s the first sentence of the book. I am suspicious of anyone who has the “one true way” when it comes to human behavior. It’s something I’ve learned as a teacher: watch out for anyone who has the only way to teach properly—that person has other issues to work out (Miller would say he’s redirecting his maternal rage to students). For me, such certitude is a kind of sales talk right up there with fail-proof diets, guaranteed exercise regimens, and get-rich quick schemes. The One True Way is always a sort of snake oil to me.

After I kept reading, I got the strong feeling I was being drawn in to a conspiracy. Miller sets up a tautology, a circular argument, the same way conspiracy theorists do. Her basic premise is that people suffer depression because they repress and suppress negative events from their childhoods and the only way to gain freedom is to unearth these unsavory events to be rid of their control. To do otherwise is to remain in a state of self-deception.

So, if you argue against this model, (such as the “only way” part) you are, like the movie cliche, caught in the trap of defending your own sanity while stuck in the asylum. According to this line of thinking, people who don’t acknowledge the absolute primacy of childhood trauma in a person’s psyche must be repressing/suppressing their own childhood traumas and therefore prove the argument. She states this pretty clearly, also on the first page:

In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth . . . If we choose instead to content ourselves with intellectual “wisdom,” we will remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with unearthing past traumas and facing down your demons. I think that’s quite healthy, in fact. However, this book (which is still popular, still being reprinted, as are most of her books) reinforces a simplistic view of depression, that we’re a blank slate when we’re born and our parents screwed us up. In fact, she states her definition of depression in a single sentence: “Depression consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions.” That’s it. No hedging, no qualification, it’s just about denial. If you don’t agree you are suffering the same denial.

How could this book be so weird? Well, two things are going on. First, it’s a translation from German, with it’s sturdy, declarative sentences. And second, the first edition of this book appeared in 1979. Think of all the advances we’ve made in understanding genetics, brain biology, and pharmaceuticals in the last 32 years. Prozac, the first of the new, revolutionary SSRI’s didn’t hit the U.S. market until 1987. (At least that’s what Wikipedia tells me.)

Even in “revised and updated” editions, the central thesis remains, and the book isn’t being sold as an historical document. It’s outdated pop psych. Curiously, Miller’s work was first recommended to me by my psychologist.

My objection is my own experience. The therapeutic work she’s talking about? Been there. Done that. Years of talking, uncovering, journaling, raging, accepting, even with the help of modern antidepressants. According to Miller, I should be cured by now.

In this book, there is no allowance for any sort of influence of genetics or brain wiring, not even “predilection.” In fact, she sets up a classic straw-man argument when she writes about another psychiatrist’s book that questioned why some people can endure horrible tragedies without apparent pychological damage whereas others seem to wilt at the slightest inconvenience. This other psychiatrist’s explanation? God’s grace.

She dismisses that outright, as you’d expect, but makes no mention that, God or not, there might be an inherited resilience that doesn’t come from one’s conditioning in childhood. I mean, the word “gifted” is in the title of the book. Where did this “gift” come from, if not God or genetics? If a gift can be independent of experience, something you’re born with, why not depression? Somehow, one’s self-deluded, selfish, and damaging parents managed to create this gift at the same time as screwing up absolutely everything else.

She uses the incident as an opportunity to rail against religious explanations and make a plea for religious leaders to “acknowledge and respect these simple psychological laws.” In my (admittedly layperson’s) reading of psychology, the only law is that there are no simple laws. Again, I’ll use the parallel of teaching; nothing does more damage to students than absolute certitude about how people learn, especially if that involves a simplistic, singular model, even if that model is a good one.

So I’ve begun to reconsider the years of work I did with my psychologist. It was enormously helpful, but eventually I plateaued. Since 2005 or so, I’ve been working on my own, making steady progress. She was wonderfully supportive, but I have to question her recommending Alice Miller (it was The Truth Will Set You Free, I think).

I’d have to say Miller is stuck looking at the mind from the story of psychoanalysis. Freudian stuff is fun to read. Writers and English majors love it, because it presents a compelling story, a never-ending source of conflict. Good stories are about conflict. But it is just one way to understand the mind.

Ultimately, Miller’s whole enterprise seems like when dentists tell you they can detect all your health problems by looking at your teeth, and optometrists say the same thing about the eyes, and chiropractors, the back. Seriously, my former chiropractor believed you could cure allergies by aligning the back. I went along with his story, just because I wanted to be able to get out of a chair without wincing. That, and he liked to call me “Professor,” with serious respect, even though I was only twenty five.

The human body is a greatly interconnected thing. Someone who oversimplifies it isn’t doing us any favors. The best book that looks at the whole landscape of depression is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. I say “landscape” because he calls his book, aptly, “an atlas of depression.” Surprisingly, Miller and Solomon come to the same conclusion:

The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. —Solomon

The true opposite of depression is neither gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality. —Miller

So Miller gets one end of the argument right.

Well, that turned into a rant. I guess I wanted some distraction until bedtime, so I could stop ruminating about tomorrow and do something productive. I gave myself an hour to write, and it’s turned into two, so now I’ll finish with one last thought.

Another piece of evidence in favor of the ADHD diagnosis: I have to pay the water bill tomorrow, or else they’ll turn off our water on Tuesday. I know this for a fact; our water’s been turned off three times before. The best thing about it is they leave a little blue flag of shame in the front yard where the shutoff valve is to be able to find it in the afternoon after you’ve trudged down to City Hall with the rest of the delinquents. If you drive around Big Rapids on the second Tuesday of the month between 10:00 and 3:00, you can always see who hasn’t paid their water bill in three months. At least this month it won’t be me; I’ll have paid mine in two months and 29 days.