Thursday, November 6, 2014

Stifling the Genius Within

Genius has always fascinated us and there is a surfeit of myths associated with it. In my childhood, there was a disheveled African-American man who wandered our neighborhood talking to himself. He never bothered anyone, never asked for anything, just walked in a seemingly aimless manner. The popular agreement in the area was that he had cracked under the strain of college and what we saw was the unhappy result. Did this truly happen to him or did he have schizophrenia? It does usually begin to make itself evident during the latter part of high school or the first two terms in college. But no one knew anything about him or where this belief has started and by whom.

Other examples of genius can be found in many of the incredibly accomplished and heralded actors we've come to know as true icons of the silver screen. Some of them have spent multiple stints in psychiatric hospitals, others found the lack of understand that they faced day after day and they chose to end it all. The tortured genius is another myth.

Bipolar disorder, in one of its stages, seems to be present in many successful professionals. The disorder not only gives them enormous abilities to expend inordinate energy for more hours than the rest of us but they can, eventually, burn themselves out. I've been told by patients with the disorder that the reason they don't want to take the meds which serve to calm them down is that it destroys the pleasurable, creative high they experience.

You've heard the often expressed belief that genius and madness are just a shade apart and professionals flock to seminars each year hoping to get greater insight into this dichotomy. How should a bipolar genius be treated if, in fact, they should be treated, and how to help preserve the creativity and genius while maintaining the person in a less-tortured state? It is no easy task, but the question remains whether the disorder is a manifestation of the extraordinarily talented and creative or just a symptom of an illness, albeit one that does have its positive side.

Now, a new look is being taken by mental health professionals with regard to a disorder that has become the disorder du jour, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The disorder has morphed from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) to ADHD or some variant of it. Primarily diagnosed in children and treated with amphetamine medications in the belief that the brains of these kids act in a paradoxical fashion when given these "speed me up" medications, it is now attaining greater attention and being more frequently diagnosed in adults. The new approach may be that these kids and adults were born to explore and find the tedium of school and even some work situations intolerable.

But ADHD, whether a valid assessment of this disorder in children or adults, is also being viewed from a different perspective. Not seen as an inability to attend, but rather a distaste for activities that limit individual curiosity and talent, it may be at a turning point.  Squirming may be a way to obtain relief from boredom rather than a deficit to be controlled. Isaac Asimov never worked on one book at a time. He was busy writing at least nine at a time in order to keep himself stimulated.  He dropped one and turned to another when the mood struck him and that happened on a daily basis.

A similar turn around in another disorder may also receive new appreciation for its value rather than its deficits and that is Asperger's Syndrome. The latter individuals show specific behaviors that set them apart from others, they may also be socially isolative as a means of focusing all their attention on a specific task. Social skills are not their big suit.

Was Aaron Swartz, the incredible computer coding genius who created RSS and code for a Wikipedia before there was a Wikipedia someone with Asperger's? Good question. He did have incredible abilities. Watch the documentary "The Internet's Own Boy" to fully gain an appreciation of what he achieved in his short life.

Should we reconsider our professional approaches to individuals with one of these "disorders" if, in fact, they are truly in need of prescription medications to somehow contain these symptoms? Or, are we medicating something that should be approached from a totally different perspective? The voices will be raised on both sides of this argument, I'm sure, because there are many vested interests which will be shaken in terms of their power and certain monetary aspects related to treatment.

Were Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci in need of treatment for their sleep disorders? If they had been medicated, would we have had the wonder of their creations? Two decades ago, an insightful psychiatrist wrote about medicating out our personalities and he may have been more right than he realized.

Antidepressants may be absolutely essential in some cases, but in others the smoothing that occurs may be a distortion of the individual's potential. The lobotomy never did what Dr. Walter Freeman (famous for golden ice pick surgery) claimed it would and it probably did more harm than good. Consider that there are many "strait jackets" that are not quite literally jackets at all, but they do the same thing, they inhibit, restrict and frustrate. They are, if you will, a type of punishment for the different.

Food for thought regarding labeling and diagnosing when a diagnosis may not be what is needed.

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