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FLASHBACK: The Broken Brain 2005

It smacks of a sinister sci-fi thriller—mutilated neural pathways, withered synapses, feeble neural transmitters. A mad scientist couldn’t have plotted it any better, for the clues were obscure, and the end result was assured: my brain would not cooperate come crunch time.

Such an achievement was the unanticipated legacy of an even more wretched tale. Or, as my brother, Dana, once said, "Some people inherit riches; we inherited insanity."

For years I assumed that my mental eccentricities resulted from some muddle in our gene pool, compounded by a cantankerous family of origin. We had our share of alcoholics and rampant depression. One side of the family was overly fond of violence, and the other was overly fond of piety. Uniting the two were the various stages of men who shared an aberrant obsession with little girls.

’Twas not conducive to nostalgia. Further, the worst of it bided quietly in my brain, within the folds and undulations that inform my life. A fleeting encounter now and then made me wonder if there was something deeper and more organic amiss with my willful mind. After all, had I not spent the past 28 years learning that my thoughts affect my reality? How, then, could my brain betray me so?

A growing body of research indicates that early childhood trauma dictates brain development, including the formation and destruction of neural pathways, how synapses are organized, and the relative size of the right and left hemispheres. (Remember that the next time I mention being totally right-brained.)

It’s an elegant system, really. After generations of human evolution, the brain actually anticipates and creates the synapses and neural pathways that we will likely need at birth. A healthy childhood environment produces numerous strong neural pathways and synapses that support validation, self-worth, security, trust, etc. In an abused child, the "survival" pathways and synapses get most of the growth, while those for security wither away. Since there’s nothing logical about child abuse, the left brain goes begging, while the right brain, which deals with abstracts, over-compensates. Finally, all that synapse-pathway-hemisphere confusion scrambles the production and effectiveness of brain chemistry.

Here’s how it all played out. I knew I was near the precipice—had known for weeks. But by that time, I had already entered the dark maze of neural pathways that were formed by a terrified five-year-old. They made sense only to her. Thus, I found myself shackled by her perceptions and in the midst of a mixed episode, driven by manic motivation and depressive hopelessness. I was dealing with primal fear using primal responses.

Dissociated from it all was my mind, which could clearly see the drama for what it was—drama. However, due to the damaged configuration of my brain, I was unable to bridge the gulf between my perception and that of the hysterical child. My efforts fell truncated and mute, each one creating more cognitive dissonance between what I believed and what I saw unfolding. The dissonance drove the panic, which drove a deeper chasm between what I needed to do to save myself and what my panic dictated. In the end, not even Gale could stop my fury.

Mad science triumphed without even trying. At least then. But I know a secret about neural pathways—new ones can always be created. Consciously created. And I’ve been busily creating since 2005.


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