The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness by Martha Stout

Nothing punches you in the face with reality like this book.  For a trauma survivor, “everyday misery is simply unacceptable.  Life must be a passionate, conscious journey, or it is just not worth the survival effort.”  Before we get to this powerful quote, we need to start with why I bought the book.  I’ve been reading about consciousness and I’ve read a previous book about multiple personalities.  My belief is that the mind is not this homunculus, a creature living in our brain at the controls.  No single personality or entity is in control.  Rather, our mind is like a boiling pot.  The thoughts and feelings arise and once they break the surface and pop, we become aware of them.  Yet, countless thoughts and feelings remain underwater and many perhaps most will remain underwater. 

A few months ago, for a reason that escapes me, I was also looking at spiritual books about the ego, and how it’s an illusion.  The title of this book caught my attention as well as the category in which it was placed, dissociative identity disorder (DID) previously known as multiple personality disorder.  Is it possible that instead of being more removed from reality, people who suffer DID actually experience consciousness more faithfully?  In other words, is our sense of a whole self, a unified, central personality mere fiction, something designed to make us feel the illusion of control and freewill which has been proven in experiments to impact our moral decisions? 

The first chapter covers people who suffer trauma, and this part was unexpected and sort of blew my mind, because it almost described me to a tee.  People who have suffered trauma do tend to live life more fully and intensely and throw themselves at it instead of meander in the middle.  Most people meander in the middle, because it’s safe.  There is no reason to leave the middle or your comfort zone, because the extreme is unfamiliar, foreign, and often dangerous and harmful.  People who have suffered trauma have been there, done that.  It is scary, but they’re survivors.  Hence, it sort of makes sense, that they are more inclined to take risks, while arguably some cope by going the opposite direction and never taking any risks. 

 I suppose, I also bought this book after visiting my crazy family, almost all of whom suffered traumas, so I have firsthand experience of how people cope with trauma.  So if you haven’t figured it out already by my crazy thoughts and style, I have also suffered trauma.  The first chapter also noted that people who suffer trauma tend to seek the answer to the question of what is the meaning of life, and that is a question that plagued me much of my youth and still to this day.  In fact, one fiction writing teacher even told me that my obsession with answering the question of the meaning of life interfered with my storytelling.  But isn’t that a really important part of the story, I would ask myself?  I have also noticed that this possessive pursuit of the truth and the meaning and knowing what is behind the curtain can also interrupt and distract you from just living and enjoying your life.  It’s almost like asking, do you want truth or love, because you can’t have both.  Love, freewill, beauty, and all, they’re all illusions, and if you want the truth and want to see what is really behind these illusions, it ain’t pretty and you won’t be able to love, freely choose, and enjoy beauty ever again.  Is that what you want?

 I am writing this part of the review after having finished the book in between my travels.  If I haven’t written many reviews there are three possible reasons, 1. I’m reading a shit long book.  2. I’m writing a book. or 3. I’m traveling.  This book delves into the lives of many people with varying degrees of DID, from some personalities having names and taking over for weeks at a time to people who just mildly lose themselves in the moment and get spacey.  As with all psychological disorders, they sit on a spectrum.  It’s not a switch.  We all have varying degrees of every psychological disorder but when it becomes debilitating, it gets a name and into the DSM-IV so that you can bill your health insurance.  So we all dissociate and frankly, we all have different personas or personalities when we are around different people under different circumstances.  When we are around babies, we talk like idiots.  When we are around our staff, our voice goes deeper, and we try to act like parents, coaches, or leaders.  We act differently toward someone we have a crush on as opposed to some disgusting person trying to hit on us.  Arguably, that singular personality that we call ourselves is nothing but an illusion, that we are not only an amalgam of all our different little personas and personalities, but we actually borrow or copy them from others, so we’re actually an amalgam of their little personas and personalities, and so we are actually a piece of everyone with whom we interact.  Isn’t that what Buddha says?  We are all one?  The ego is an illusion?

 The author argues that there is in fact some type of homunculus and this is our core personality that has a conscience and takes responsibility for all others.  But why isn’t this just our prominent personality, and for some sociopaths, perhaps it isn’t even the most prominent one, but the one that gets hijacked by the crazy one?  This brings up the possibility that perhaps most criminals have some prominent evil personality that gets its way and the innocent personalities get suppressed.  Perhaps they even don’t even remember committing any criminal act?  I’m not saying we cannot punish people, because one part commits a crime and another doesn’t and is not even aware of the other part or the crime, but I would argue that punishing the person may not help anyone.  The part that committed the act may not in fact be the part that senses or feels the punishment.  While I certainly believe in keeping them separate from society, I would argue that therapy would more effectively keep them from becoming repeat offenders.  If they can learn to exercise some control over their more evil personalities, they could be less of a threat to society. 

 Taking responsibility is a huge key to surviving trauma and also overcoming or at least learning to cope with DID.  It is when we feel trapped and have no control that our mind blows a fuse and some primal animal takes over.  We dissociate, simply because our frontal lobes realize there are no options or choices, and that is the main reason the frontal lobes exists, to make choices between multiple options.  However, responsibility is a double-edged sword.  We want to feel responsible, because responsibility implies power and control.  A kid whose parents divorce wants to feel some responsibility.  He wants to believe that he had something to do with their divorce.  He wants this power, so that in the future when a relationship goes south, he can feel as if he can somehow stop it from happening.  This may not be altogether a bad thing.  I sometimes wonder if it’s healthier to tell a kid, yes, in some ways you were responsible for your parents divorcing.  In the future, if you are a good person, and you truly express your love and resolve conflicts maturely, you can actually stop people from leaving you.  Isn’t that better than implying that the kid has no power whatsoever to have stopped his parents from divorcing, and now the kid feels traumatized and shuts down his frontal lobes and dissociates? 

 Somewhere hidden in this book lies a possible answer to the question of the soul and freewill, but I’ve been too tired from travel and readjusting to work to think about it much, but it has something to do with dissociation, the feeling or illusion of responsibility, relationships, ego, and identity.

 I’ve also read a book about Greg LeMond, the other American cyclist and the only one to have won the Tour de France.  He was sexually abused as a kid, and I can only imagine that he dissociated.  Is it possible that the only reason he was able to endure so much pain in bicycle training and winning the Tour de France is his ability to dissociate?  During one particular Olympics, it was comical how many stories there were of Olympians overcoming insurmountable tragedies and obstacles, and you have to wonder, did they all learn to dissociate, and was it this dissociation that allowed them to overcome so much pain and suffering in training, to push themselves beyond any other athlete?

 Finally, what does it mean to dream?  People with the most elaborate and grandiose dreams tend to be people who have miserable lives.  They use daydreams to escape reality, and this is a form of dissociation.  When I was in high school, I often found it hard to concentrate on my studies.  My mind would simply float away, and I would find myself reading the same paragraph over and over again to no avail before succumbing to this overwhelming feeling of both dread and lethargy.  I was dissociating.  As the book notes, when you dissociate from an initial trauma, the greater the trauma and more frequent, the greater and more frequent and involuntary your bouts of dissociation later.  Was it possible that my inability to study was the result of some prior trauma and the consequential dissociating pattern?  The author argues that our disorders, traumas, and DID in particular, do not make us great, that great artists and thinkers that may have suffered would probably have created even greater works of art or inventions had they not suffered, but I would disagree.  In fact, I would rather argue that many of the greatest artists and inventors and thinkers were dissociation junkies.  We lose ourselves in our minds.  We can spend hours, some even days and weeks, inside our heads ignoring the outside world and our bodies.  We fumble around, stub our toes, forget to eat, forget to drink, run into things, lose track of time and space, but this all creates a rather rich, elaborate, complex world inside our heads.  Of course, some waste that time arguing with themselves or repeating stupid things over and over, but many create a rather intense, vibrant, imaginative world which then translates into great art, philosophy, or inventions.  Could they have accomplished all that without some initial trauma inducing dissociation, or would you argue that some people don’t need trauma to dissociate, they just enjoy losing themselves to their internal worlds?

 As I noted earlier, there are some deep philosophical themes I’m too tired to cogitate about, but perhaps it will come to me in my sleep or later at work while I’m daydreaming.  I would also like to claim that people who dissociate tend to enjoy repetitive jobs that do not require much mental exertion, because it allows them ample opportunity to dissociate and lose themselves in their heads.  Not all, but I would argue many, myself included.  Wouldn’t I want a more challenging, engaging, socially-stimulating job requiring more of my creativity and thought?  No, I’d have fewer opportunities to dissociate.  But alas, perhaps, our school system wants us to learn to dissociate, not to be creative and imaginative but rather to enjoy repetitive jobs that do not require much mental exertion.  How many times did you find yourself drifting off and daydreaming in school while some boring teacher rambled on in the most monotonous, disengaged tone about something terrifically trivial and boring?  Instead of engaging us in human stories with a narrative and perspective, we are force fed trivial lists of factoids, disengaged from context and consequence, snippets of stories told out of place, actually inducing us to mentally check out. 

 We talk about trauma only as that singular intense outburst of pain and suffering but fail to recognize the painfully slow, dripping water torture that numbs our soul and causes dissociation just as much.  Or what about a kid who has to endure countless hours of hearing his mother complain about every possible thing in the world?  Does trauma have to only be dramatic and encapsulated in a single moment that can be relayed effectively in a one-and-a-half hour movie?  And what about television?  It provides us with stimulating images that puts us in a trance so that during the commercials it can brainwash us into feeling inadequate and dependent upon consumption and brand possessions to feel relevant and loved.  In fact, who really is crazy?  So many Americans have this demented narrative of working hard to pay off credit card debt acquired trying to purchase happiness, and they have been taught to hate foreigners, immigrants, and the homeless or they’ve been taught to trust in government to provide for everyone and everything.  To this day, most people I think, believe in the hierarchy system and fail to recognize its inherent evil and faults, that those with more money are not smarter, wiser, more hardworking, and trustworthy.  They are in fact the least trustworthy and less than average in intelligence, wisdom, and work ethic.  At the other end, we view those without any money or even a home as the least trustworthy, as deserving of their lot, as having some inadequacy, disease, or self-caused injury like an addiction.  Who is crazy now? 

 Humans consider themselves the apex of nature, the forefront of evolution, the crowning achievement of natural selection, but rather, we have become the most destructive, violent, selfish, detached, and delusional creatures to ever inhabit the planet.  We are all delusion.  But it takes professional help or at least a lot of trusting relationships for us to face the music and see ourselves in the eyes of others more objectively.  Are we ready to discard our delusions uncover what we truly are?  Yet, this is the only way we will ever destroy the voices that call upon us to maintain our evil, destructive ways.  Deep within all our genes lies stories, information stored as DNA about how we survived in the past, and it’s not always a pretty picture.  The reason we still have envy, greed, gluttony, apathy, violence, betrayal, mistrust, and hatred is simply because at some point, some ancestor used it to get through the day, reproduce and pass it on.  We all pretend that this never happened, and we somehow have overcome this rather nasty, archaic affliction, but the more we rationalize it away, it seems, the more vulnerable we become to its powers.  Civilization did not bring an end to cruelty, hunger, poverty, war, violence, destruction, savagery, brutality, discrimination, and child molestation, rather, it increased them all exponentially.  Our delusions are destroying us and nature itself.  Yes, nature created greed, violence, and evil to pass on genes, but under dire and harsh circumstances.  It created dissociation and self-delusion too, but also only to deal with dire and harsh circumstances.  When life becomes easier and things are of greater abundance, these old habits and ways keep us back and even worse, destroy us.  The evil, greed, and gluttony we see today are the result of the Great Depression and World War II.  There is no doubt, these two great calamities traumatized entire generations and left them dazed and dissociated.  They wanted nothing more than to escape in their ideal suburban, white picket fenced houses and ignore the world around them, but this only allowed the most evil, greedy of them to consolidate their wealth and power.  But their great American dream and fantasy is crumbling before their eyes as their wages drop, jobs go overseas, overseas conflicts continue, and the rich get richer as the poor get poorer.  The bubble has burst, but instead of facing the new world and admitting that their entire lives were a delusional fantasy of suburban bliss and utopia, they either succumb to painkillers and deeper entrenchment in their fantasies or demand a weak scapegoat to pulverize for destroying their lives.  This is how we explain Hillary and Trump.  I don’t care if I’m getting political, because it is all relevant and connected.  How can it not be?  Both are selling the same old crap delusions to the same old delusional crowds.  It’s not your fault, we’re in this mess.  Some nasty, evil person woke you from your dream, and that person should be hunted down and punished, but it’s not you.  You don’t have responsibility.  You don’t have power.  You just want to go back to sleep.

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