Neuroscientist James Fallon shared the stage with clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison and lawyer Elyn Saks, who specializes in law and psychiatry, at the World Science Festival program, Madness Redefined: Creativity, Intelligence and the Dark Side of the Mind, held at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City this June. Here, Fallon shares a bracingly honest account of his life with bi-polar disorder, OCD and panic attacks.
I’m a serotonin train wreck, and I love it. I don’t feel as if I suffer from a mental disorder, but am rather blessed by it. While this may appear to be a bit of denial, a bit of eccentric goofiness, which all may be true too, the crazy quilt of genetic gifts I received from my parents, and more the enlightened way they and my family treated me, provided a powerful fulcrum to succeed, and fully enjoy it all, in spite of sloshing in some funky dark groundwater along the way.
Most of the conditions and symptoms I displayed are familiar to any family. At two I began a lifetime of chronic asthma, full blown obsessive compulsive disorder starting around puberty, years of scrupulous hyper-religiosity and hints of endogenous depression. Then in my late teens two decades of recurrent panic attacks, about 850 in all, each promising certain death riding on a galloping heart beat and blood pressure spikes of 230/140+. This paralleled a lifetime of the ever popular smoking and alcohol abuse, obesity swings of 100 pounds and more twice a decade, 4 hour nights of sleep with apnea and heroic snoring, chronic hypomania embedded within a mild bipolar disorder, and the late life surprise, discovering a latent psychopath inside, not fully, but too close for friends and loved ones.
By ordinary measure, this lifetime of unrelenting psychiatric problems would seem horrifying. But not to me. My life always, from my first memory, seemed charmed and wonderful. The early conditions were always associated with a sense of imminent doom, as untreated asthma, OCD, and panic attacks would to a kid, but these were also associated with insights into myself, and a hint of what suffering people with real problems had. The allergic asthma and anaphylactic shock during my medical exam kept me out of Vietnam and may have saved my life. I was told later in life by my parents that when I was very young I told them I wanted to be a doctor because I knew what it must be for people to suffer. The chronic sleep deprivation was associated with fantastic visions, vivid dream sequences I wouldn’t give up for the world, they feel that exhilarating. In these states ideas would flood over me, and these ideas were both weird and true, and trained me to think out of the proverbial box, which definitely helped my scientific career, where I learned to receive, accept, and try out ideas that emerged from anywhere in my head, and at the most unexpected times and unusual circumstances.
In these states ideas would flood over me, and these ideas were both weird and true, and trained me to think out of the proverbial box, which definitely helped my scientific career, where I learned to receive, accept, and try out ideas that emerged from anywhere in my head, and at the most unexpected times and unusual circumstances.
The OCD would last only about six years, but that trained me to focus and be hyper vigilant, which also help train me to stay on tasks throughout life, and finish them with a fury. They also helped me develop a will to win, to a fault perhaps, but to also stop my heavy smoking and drinking and the will to lose 100 pounds when the spirit moved me. Keep the weight off? That’s another matter. The bipolar disorder did have its many moments of complete dread and darkness, the overwhelming fear of not existing, but 99 percent of the time the bipolar was all about hypomania, a most wonderful upbeat “affliction” no hypomanic wants to treat.
Associated with all of these swings of mood and behavior came bursts of creativity and productivity in science and in the arts. A peculiarity of bipolar disorder, and to less an extent, fronto-temporal dementia, schizophrenia and psychopathy, is that a dysfunctional frontal lobe and imbalanced temporal lobe can release hidden creativity. What a gift!
Those positive feelings and traits and triumphs far exceed the negatives to me, and for that I am eternally grateful to the gods of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. But what about the most disturbing revelation of all that happened in my 60s, supposedly the decade of peak cognitive performance? To me the psychopathic traits are a curiosity, to people close to me, a sometimes curse. But they too feel that in general, the positive parts of me as a friend and family member, edge out the negatives, by a nose perhaps, but hey, life is a horse race, no? We take the thoroughbred we were born with, and ride it to victory, warts and all.