Post No.: 0299
Some people profess, “You’re a grownup now so can think and do whatever you like and forget about your childhood or upbringing” – not understanding how development works (or even more fundamentally causality and the laws of physics, chemistry and biology). The sentiment can be expressed to give optimism to someone who experienced a traumatic childhood but it should never be stated in arrogance.
As a grownup, one will still be the product of one’s genes and upbringing (one’s initial programming and past), including at the neurological and electrochemical level i.e. our very essential being. We cannot, in our day-to-day, see each other’s brain structures, never mind examine them at the molecular level, but every detail at this complex level makes us who we are. It’s all physical – literally like mechanical ‘locks and keys’ when you look up close at the cellular level, literally electrical conductors and insulators.
Therefore trying to change the brain is like trying to change anything else physical about us when older, to various degrees e.g. soft tissues versus bones, or our weight versus our height. The brain is a soft tissue but the arrangement of neuronal synapses and connections is so unbelievably complex that swift and major brain changes would usually require something serious like a trauma i.e. a chaotic and disordered change – but this is obviously not what we want(!) This does however highlight that highly-ordered physical structures, like a working brain, are more easily or quickly damaged than built or fixed. Due to entropy (the second law of thermodynamics), disorder is far easier to produce than order, so mental disorder is far easier to produce than mental order or recovery. It’s like it’s far easier to break a computer than to fix one, thus it’s always best to try not to break one in the first place.
One’s genes and accumulated environment/experiences have made one who one currently is, including as/when one becomes an adult; and the earlier the environment/experience (i.e. childhood), the generally more influential it’ll be too.
Your brain, your neural wiring, has been literally physically developed or moulded, starting from childhood – your associations to what causes fear or pleasure, aversions or rewards, and so forth, have mostly and most effectively been shaped when young due to the general decreasing neuroplasticity of the brain as one ages beyond puberty i.e. the brain is generally more malleable during childhood and increasingly becomes more set and more difficult to re-mould after adolescence. If a person develops dementia, her/his memories from youth are far more likely to remain than her/his more recent memories – in the brain, old memories tend to stick far more persistently than newer ones for various reasons, including the way they’ve been revisited more often and/or their emotional salience.
It’s certainly not impossible to change after childhood, and we must remember that. (Post No.: 0243 looked at some ways to make change easier for anybody.) But it physically gets increasingly difficult and will require a lot of concerted and consistent time, effort, energy and support to change the already-reinforced neural connections and related tendencies already there as the brain becomes less neuroplastic e.g. to become more physically active when one wasn’t when young, to be interested in mathematics when one wasn’t during childhood, to change political views when one was raised with other political views, to support another football team, to like dogs when one had a scary encounter with one when small, to like offal if one was raised in a culture of disgust towards it when little despite consuming other meat products, to be a party animal when one didn’t get to socialise much when young, and so on – never mind to fundamentally change one’s personality or mental vulnerabilities.
The point is that we’re all the products of our own accumulated idiosyncratic pasts, and we cannot be expected to just turn on a sixpence once we hit 18, 21 or any other arbitrary age. And if we developed a mental vulnerability when young then it’s not just a trivial case to pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it won’t/doesn’t have an effect on us when/now that we’re older. Our genes and upbringing – in particular our early life events – influence how we’ll react to present and future life events.
So it’s easy to say that one should be happy to have been born if one wasn’t seriously abused during childhood and didn’t ultimately become severely depressed with suicidal ideations when older. If you were abused when young but didn’t become depressed then you’re lucky to have had sufficient protective genetics and/or counterbalancing environmental factors to buffer against those risk factors – you ‘chose’ your genes well so well done you(!)
And note that people who’ve genuinely experienced a hard or abusive childhood won’t bring it up as if it’s some smug badge of honour, or think that it’s appropriate as light-hearted conversation or something that can be easily and casually disclosed. So you probably weren’t seriously abused if you think it’s so nonchalant or blasé to talk about your experiences, and you don’t have a firsthand clue what genuine abuse is personally like.
It’s got to be something far more, and more constant, than ‘my father threw me into the swimming pool and expected me to swim on my first swimming lesson’ – well at least your father took a day out with you to go swimming and was there watching you to see if you’d be okay. Or it’s got to be something far more than a story about being driven somewhere then dropped off and told to find your own way back home – at least you were wanted back home rather than permanently abandoned. Or it’s got to be something far more than merely experiencing a road traffic accident where you didn’t sustain a permanent injury or no one died. These aren’t, on their own, examples of real abuse, neglect, torture or trauma.
No one talks boastfully or nonchalantly about being a displaced war refugee, being constantly beat up or ignored by a drunken parent, having an accident where one did sustain a permanent injury or saw someone’s disfigured corpse, for instance. These latter examples may still be regarded as challenges that one ultimately survived – incredibly tough challenges even – but one won’t be proud of telling these kinds of stories as if to gloat about ‘I had it harder than you’ or ‘I’ve faced worse than you did’, never mind as casual anecdotes slipped into convivial conversations. One would rather these kinds of events never ever happened than to wear them as some kind of ‘badge of honour’. No one who has experienced these kinds of events tells others who’ve also experienced the same events to ‘snap out of it’ either. Meow.
There’s a causal reason(s) for everything, for everyone being exactly the way they are. For instance, sometimes we hear about celebrities and their mental breakdowns, for which the media and public ridicule and demonise them for, but when we finally learn what they had been/are going through, such as a personal trauma or they’ve been keeping private a health condition for years, we finally understand why they behaved the way they did at the time, and sometimes particularly relatively all of a sudden too. Relatively sudden detrimental changes to a person’s demeanour should really be clear alarm bells regarding injuries to their mental health – just like seeing a person suddenly physically limping the next year is an alarm bell that something’s not quite right with them rather than ‘this person has chosen to limp all of a sudden to annoy us or make excuses’(!) If you think they don’t have an excuse for their behaviour then your assumption is likely to be wrong because there’s a causal reason(s) for everything.
A high-achieving and ambitious person, who then relatively suddenly lacks drive and hopefulness, should really be obvious clues that something has mentally impacted that person during that time. So if someone seems to relatively suddenly negatively change then first show empathy and suspect that something bad has happened to them relatively recently – don’t ostracise, sneer at or judge them as if they chose it, any more than anyone chooses to have a broken leg and wants to limp. And note that like limping can be temporarily faked but real limps do exist – although some behaviours can be temporarily faked (e.g. claiming to have an extreme phobia of something to get out of doing some work), it doesn’t mean that real versions of the condition don’t exist. Malingering is done for manipulative reasons, for gaining at the expense of others – genuine mental health conditions like depression and anxiety have no selfish motive for they usually hold the sufferer’s own life back rather than advance it at the expense of others. Genuine mental health conditions also cannot be switched on/off whenever it suits the person so they’ll affect various aspects of their life rather than just one area (e.g. their intimate relationships, other social relationships, career, self-care and/or sleep too).
It’s ill-judged to attempt to judge people we don’t truly know. Following someone on social media won’t necessarily mean we’ll get to completely know them. If anything is kept hidden, most people keep hidden a private side that’s worse rather than better than what they want to freely disclose (e.g. putting on a braver face than they feel inside, to uphold a ‘perky’ public image).
Sometimes we might not even get to fully or truly know someone even if they’ve been physically close to us and we therefore think we know them well – even family and friends – hence a socially intelligent person never judges anyone too harshly, especially if they’re not being consistently rude or doing reasonable harm to anyone else i.e. the harm seems more self-directed. (So maybe those who are consistently rude or doing reasonable harm to others are still arguably fair game – if someone has always been bad then maybe it’s not a mental injury but their core personality? Still, we might need to consider their genetics and childhood upbringing if we don’t know these or weren’t there e.g. the behaviour of some autistic people can be mistaken for aggression and rudeness.)
Well-meaning friends or family may not even understand so it’s often better to talk to someone who is trained or expert regarding mental health. Laypeople might consider someone who takes drugs or punches walls as ‘stupid’ but educated people will investigate why they might be doing so (e.g. they have PTSD). Once we find out that they’ve been suffering from a personal trauma or mental health issue then we often realise ‘that explains a lot’ and we can understand them and give them the compassion they need (and maybe seek forgiveness for jumping to conclusions).
So in summary – there are causal reasons for everyone being exactly the way they are, whether from a genetic or environmental perspective, a biological or sociological perspective, or a deterministic/causal or probabilistic/luck perspective from a fundamental point of view. And it behoves us to investigate these reasons rather than make assumptions.
Hopefully one day it won’t be considered ‘crazy’ to see a person mentally breaking down in public, and hopefully one day we won’t ever see a bunch of onlookers just standing there and watching like lemons rather than offering their help, understanding and compassion.
This post is not about feeling resigned from the perspective of a mental health sufferer – it’s about increasing the understanding of the difficulties faced by a mental health sufferer from the perspective of a lucky non-mental health sufferer. Sometimes mental health sufferers feel resigned and suffer in silence precisely because they sense that society will judge and shun them if they open up – so it’ll help them enormously for us all to become more educated regarding what it means to suffer from a mental health problem and the difficulties sufferers face to change without empathy and support.