MEMOIRS OF A STRESS DAMAGED THINKER
I am addicted to adrenaline highs and the despair of adrenaline lows. Stress-damaged thinking and the reactions which stem from it have damaged my body.
My spine is disintegrating. My rotator cup flares up regularly. I have a hiated hernia and a prostrate that tends to enlarge. The allergies I’ve had all my life have accelerated sinus problems and in my fifties I was diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Listing these problems I sound like any other senior responding to the rhetorical question; ‘How are you today?’
I am 76. However, this past year has been the happiest in my life due to discoveries about ways to handle my stress-damaged thinking that made me think I was cured.
But in the last two weeks, my body has become unbearable. I became afraid to go to sleep as my stress-damaged thinking threw me into panic.
Delmare Schwartz in his poem, ‘The Heavy Bear That Goes With Me,’ described this:”…That heavy bear that sleeps with me…Howls in his sleep because the tightrope/trembles and shows the darkness beneath.”
In my forties I became disgruntled with academia, put my PhD dissertation in a shoe box and became a prison guard in the Canadian correctional system. I was going to write the definitive book on prisons by learning not from social scientists but prisoners and guards.
My dad was an ironworker doing steel erection. I followed him in my teens, laying reinforcing and working the high steel. When I went into prison I felt, unlike academia, I had come back home. Guards and prisoners were my people. I was so happy, the prisoners called me, ‘Smiley.’
I chose to work the blocks which are now euphemistically called, ‘units,’ rather than outside posts so I could be around prisoners. Guards in other institutions called my prison, ‘Gladiator School,’ because we worked unarmed among the prisoners. I began to crave the adrenaline highs of the job.
Whenever a smashup or a stabbing, clubbing or other outbreak of violence went down, I wanted to be first on the scene. Working midnight shifts, I searched for shanks, shivs and brew so successfully that the prisoners added on a second name when they labeled me, ‘the Nose.”
The adrenaline highs were near daily and I loved them. Then a prisoner high on brew and downers, tried to stick a shiv in my gut. Because of my defensive stance, he cut my hand instead, though his momentum carried him into my body.
Not knowing where the shiv had gone, I didn’t know whether to fly or cry. So I flew. Meanwhile a fire had been started on the block. I rushed right down and carried out the dead weight of a prisoner on my shoulders, passed out due to smoke inhalation.
Something happened to my body after that. My hair turned white. Suddenly I was angry all the time. I argued with the other guards. I brought hell home to my wife. I was finally diagnosed with that misleading label – Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD). Stress is, of course, not past but now and it is certainly not ‘mental illness.’
I was put on 3 months leave, (called ‘looney leave’ by guards). I saw a psychologist. He had done two stints in Viet Nam. We told each other war stories. Then a year after I went back to work, he drove in front of a semi and killed himself.
About 6 months after this I wrestled a prisoner, put my spine into trauma and went on 2 more months disability. Therapy gave me a series of exercises for my spine which I still do today. After that I went on permanent midnights and tried to write my book on prisons.
A year later I cut down a young prisoner who had hung himself on Mother’s Day. I tried to give him the kiss of life till finally a paramedic got through to me that he’d been dead the whole time. In the prisoner’s Bible was a letter to his mother saying that he wasn’t able to be a ‘good Christian.’
After doing all the paperwork required in such a situation I went home to sleep When after several hours I woke up to go to the washroom, there was the dead prisoner, floating in my bathtub. I let out a scream and my wife came running. “It’s just your white golf bag,” she said, looking to where I was pointing. “I would pick today of all days to try soaking the stains out of it.”
Writing this has caused my adrenaline to go through the roof. I will stop writing till it goes down.
* * *
It is the next day. My adrenaline has somewhat calmed down. It will go up again as I
continue writing. However, there is good adrenaline flow and bad. As everyone knows, adrenaline is a natural part of the body’s maintenance which tells us when we should fight or flee. The key for a stress-damaged thinker is knowing which is appropriate for a given situation.
After this series of incidents, my wife asked me to consider leaving the prison for good. We were at a local Denny’s having breakfast. I blew up at her that she dared suggest such a thing. Then I stormed off to the men’s room where I sat in a stall and cried. When I came back to our table, I took her hand and told her she was right.
Together we saw yet another psychologist who taught me everything psychology knows about stress disease. It was not enough to heal me.
Then he sent me to a return-to-work coordinator. She asked why I was there. I knew she’d probably just transfer me to another prison farther away from home, though the one I worked in was the only one I thought I had any chance of handling.
I told her about the PTSD diagnosis and after that, everything came out. “I’ve been trying to get the prisoners to kill me,” I admitted, for the first time. “I lean up against the cell bars on midnight shift where a prisoner could easily stick me with a shiv or cut my throat.”
“You haven’t tried to kill yourself?”
“No, Then my wife wouldn’t get my pension. Not that there isn’t plenty of opportunity up at the front gate, what with the .38 pistols and the AR15 rifles.”
She shook her head as if to clear away what she was thinking. “Have any of the prisoners tried to kill you, other than,” she consulted her notes, “this stabbing?”
“That wasn’t any of my doing,” I said. “But no. I’ve always tried to treat them with respect and they return the favor.” (‘Respect’ and ‘fuck’ are the two most common words in prison). “They seem to see me as a grandfather type.
She leaned forward, clutching her papers and looked me in the eyes. “You are not going back into any prison,” she said slowly. “The hairs on the back of my neck went up when you told me what’s been happening. You’ve got what – two years before you retire? Till that time you are on permanent disability leave.”
I could hear my wife who had come with me quietly sobbing with relief. I stood up, shook the co-ordinator’s hand and thanked her, though I felt suddenly empty and adrift. I went home with my wife and my little cauldron of despair and anger. What would I do now?
Before trying to write the prison book, I’d been doing research on quantum theory. There was a new kind of mathematical logic called topos theory. I had my wife check it out on her computer. She got right on it, only too glad to see me show an interest in anything at all.
Several topos theorists in Siberia had put a European philosopher’s paper on their blog. It was about quantum theory, topas theory and – Spinoza! How did that 17th century thinker fit into modern science?
I got out the old Spinoza Selections I’d read in grad school, remembering how I’d loved his Emendation (Healing) of the Intellect). But I’d hated the first part of his Ethics on God. I put an X through the god word, every time he mentioned it.
Still I knew for sure that I needed my intellect healed. So I began to read the Selections but they were only excerpts from his writing. I bought Samuel Shirley’s, Spinoza, Complete Works and then Edwin Curley’s Vol I of Spinoza’s Works.
That was over 10 years ago. I have read the Emendation, Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well Being and the Ethics, over and over since then. I continued crossing out the word, ‘god,’ whenever I came across it. There were an awful lot of them.
I wrote down my favorite passages from this reading and put them in my pocket so I could review them regularly. Meditating on Spinoza began to give me an intellectual understanding of my stress disease. I coordinated this with a new love; neuroscience.
Due to the meditation, my life began to change as the anger and despair subsided. I treated my wife better. I began to see that she had her own stress disease. We had both left church when our sons were sexually abused by a choir director. Our youngest son subsequently got into drugs and after many attempts to kill himself, finally succeeded. Our other son is a stress disease survivor.
My wife continued through all this to run an out of print bookshop. One day a copy of Alcoholic’s Anonymous came over the counter, what they called their ‘Big Book.’ She read it cover to cover. Then she began to apply the book’s 12 steps. One day I was talking to her about Spinoza when she had been discussing the steps and I suddenly saw that they were the practical expression of how Spinoza suggested we heal the intellect.
Not long after that my wife told me, with some trepidation, that she wanted to start a 12 step study in our neighbourhood. “I’d like to come,” I said.
She took a deep breath. “How about leading it?” she asked
I had never even read the 12 steps, let alone the Big Book but in my intellectual arrogance, I said, “Oh sure, I could do that.” My wife looked relieved. Through the 12 steps I had seen her change from an anxious, troubled person to a one that was loving and peaceful despite the many fights I routinely tried to pick with her. But my intellectual dismissal of AA and its use of God hadn’t changed at all.
We started the study of AA’s 12 steps with three other people. My interaction with those who joined us began to make me aware of my intellectual arrogance. I wrote:
ANSWERS ANONYMOUS FOR PHILOSOPHERS
1) I don’t have answers
2) The order of the whole of nature does have answers
3) Therefore this whole will guide my thinking and actions in an equal relation with things that exist. I am just a part of the whole. (sources: Euclid, Spinoza & AA Long Traditions ) ‘Each member is but a small part of the great whole.’
I also wrote:
“We use the word, ‘God’ to describe what we believe. I believe god is the
source of all information (energy & entropy) in the universe. God is a source
that is not contained in time & place. Energy eternally fluctuates god into
time & place. God is inside all things including us. Therefore all god’s
creatures think (send & receive information), because of god. You could
say god is, ‘it from qubit.’ This is my faith”.
Notice that my use of the word, ‘god’ is intellectual, not personal. While I loved
the use of ‘truth’ in Joe McQ’s book, The Steps We Took, I still had problems with the word, ‘god,’ in the 12 steps. Spinoza says, ‘Truth is god itself.’
Then I had the panic about not being able to sleep. Last Monday I told the group I couldn’t believe or have faith in god. When my wife and I came home, we continued that discussion.
I can remember almost every idea I have read and even where I found it. But I have a problem remembering exact wordings as well as names and other things. So my wife put up what I wanted to remember hanging down from our 10 foot ceiling in the living room. Right next to my TV is Euclid’s, “The laws of nature are the mathematical thoughts of god,’ along with his ‘Common Notions,’ (Fundamental Axioms of Thinking).
There’s also Descartes; “I doubt, I think, therefore I am.” (The Cogito), and Spinoza’s logical rewording of this equation: ‘I am while thinking.’ Finally there is a quote from Joe McQ, “We are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are.” Looking at all this I realize I do have a belief and a faith in ‘God As I Understand It.”
My adrenaline is going through the roof again. I’ll stop for today and watch TV. Maybe some episodes of Cops or Jail (busman’s holiday).
* * *
Back to writing today. My newly-realized belief and faith didn’t seem to be escaping,
‘the darkness beneath.’ I had the worst night’s sleep with panic, yet. After two hours of stress-damaged trembling, I finally fell asleep, exhausted.
I woke up after 4 hours to use the washroom. No floating bodies. Went back to bed and the stress-damage roared in cadence, over and over. I could not sleep. So I got up and began to read Spinoza’s Principles of Cartesian Philosophy.
Just as Joe McQ and AA had their Big Books, I realized that Spinoza and his friends had one too – the writing of Rene Descartes. I went to my shelves and took down the two volumes of Descartes’ writing.
In the ‘Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking For Truth in the Sciences,’ I found Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The Cogito. This statement is considered to be the foundation of modern thinking.
Modernity and humanism, the critical and skeptical thought of today are based on the belief that; ‘I think, therefore I am’ making human thinking the apex of what can be known. This also guides the search for TOE (Theory of Everything) that scientists seek today.
But in coming to his Cogito, Descarte’s said:
“…I could conceive that I had no body and that there was no world
nor place where I might be; but yet that I could not for all that conceive
that I was not.” … From that I knew I was a substance, the whole essence
of nature of which is to think and that for its existence there is no need
of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this, ‘me’
that is to say, the soul would not cease to be what it is. “
Then Descartes goes on to discover that:
…”all the things we very clearly and distinctly conceive of, are true, is
certain only because God is or exists and that [It] is a perfect being
and all that is in us issues from [It]. “
Reading this has forced me to turn in my membership card as a philosopher. Especially in the areas of modernity and humanism. Their, ‘I am’ is entirely different from Descartes ‘I am,’ one that needs god to think at all.
But let’s be practical. What happened to me reading these words of Descartes? First of all I was freed from the trembling of my heavy bear body, as my existence does not depend on my body. In fact, my body will someday no longer exist at all.
Using clear and distinct thinking, I discovered my physical problem in sleeping was because I needed an inhaler to enlarge my damaged bronchi which would close up when I lay flat.
Second, and more importantly, stress-damaged thinking can be cured by realizing all true thinking is from the logical reality we call god. Because it is what makes our brains work at all, it is personal and not just intellectual.
Descartes and Spinoza didn’t have the knowledge of the brain that we have today due to neuroscience, the fact of the three-fold brain that was meant to work in unity with itself but often did not. These three are first; the primitive brain, from where our survival skills and instincts come along with emotions.
Then we have the left brain which gives us reason, the ability to understand the parts of things we experience in living. Finally there is the right brain that brings everything we experience together by the glue of equal into a whole. Our knowledge of what we call ‘god,’ our ability to be empathetic and have feelings, come from the right brain.
Spinoza reading Descartes as his ‘Big Book,’ teaches us how to heal our stress-damaged intellect . Alcoholic’s Anonymous Big Book puts this process into practical steps which revolve around the fact that our existence and true thinking come from the logical reality we call god.
Like many people of our day, I had trouble accepting the second step in this category: ‘Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” But until I came to that acceptance, no healing of stress disease could occur.
Healing does not happen overnight in any case but as stress damaged thinkers, we can learn to be reflective about where our thoughts come from in the brain. We can learn which thoughts are adequate and which inadequate.
For example, anger, jealousy, envy, hate and so forth, do not come from the right brain, where truth and god come from. I can simply reject these thoughts as confused and disturbing.
My body no longer has the control it used to have over me. My thinking is discovering the joy of adequate thought. Since this discovery, my sleep has become peaceful as are my waking moments now
An Apology to Mr Descartes
I realize now how dumb I have been about Descartes in previous writings. I had ignored Spinoza’s Principles of Cartesian Philosophy because I did not understand how important Descartes was in Spinoza’s philosophy. Descartes had laid down the rules and essence of clear and distinct thinking.