05 May 2010

Polar


It's an incredibly interesting word. All its meanings come from the concept of a pole shape, and so are rather straight-forward in etymology. However, they signify vastly different concepts in and of themselves, depending upon usage. It can mean central, or pivotal, but also diametrically opposed as in the ends of a pole or opposing magnetic forces. In addition, it can be used to describe something that functions as a principle guide. Quite accidentally, it seems, the word "polar" nearly, neatly encompasses (pun unintended [honest]) just about every little thing inside and out, for or against.

The other night I was in casual conversation with a friend when she made one of those sorts of personal observations that was so exact as to give me a start. I've been thinking that I'm in a place of generalized uncertainty; that I have been in such a place for a while, actually, but am only now coming to realize it. My friend said something to the effect of, "You seem to be in a tricky place of trying to figure out what's next." Bingo. Yes. A place of trying. And that makes me feel uncertain about just about everything. And that in turn swings me around, moodily, as though I were a Mylar toy in the mouth of a playful cat.

(Maybe that's only my cat?)

I've noticed a trend in naming when it comes to psychological analysis, and I've always considered myself unqualified for such an observation, so I've kept it to myself. (At least I think I have, Dear Reader; I'm sure you'll correct me if I lie.) Recently, however, I learned about the American Psychiatric Association's evaluation of their terminology and definitions (thank you, This American Life) and the tremendous controversies and impact these ever-changing guidelines can engender. Take the example TAL covers in the linked story: the classification and eventual declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. The next official guidelines, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) are due to be released around May of 2013 and, guess what, you can view the draft online. Heck: Register, and you could've submit commentary. (Only until April 20th! Fail!)

This little affirmation that psychiatry is just as mutable a science as any of the others (if not a bit more so) has me thinking about my little theory a bit more. I think perhaps that the naming of supposed disorders reflects more about our collective relationship to our environment than it does any particular diagnostic insight into psychiatry. To take it further, our concept of "normal" behavior is subliminally reflected in our choice of wording when it comes to naming what we believe to be abnormal. In other words (pun very much intended), by the very act of trying to be impartial and insightful about them, we are showing our specific bias and inability to understand behaviors.

I'm not slamming psychiatry. I think it's a very adaptive science that pursues very important goals. If I'm slamming anything, it's folks who put too much faith in psychiatry as a textbook for understanding people. People who do this exist, and they're stupid. I am pretty stupid, too, as far as formal psychiatric education goes; there's no way I could last in a debate against the most green of students. Fortunately, I'm not aiming for argument here, but for exploration of the possibility that our need for names might offer us clues into understanding the namers as much as understanding the named. All this hinges on another, background premise with which you may not agree -- to wit: there is no "normal." Disorders, yes, to the extent that the disorder refers to behavior that impairs functionality. But normalcy? In self-aware humans? Sorry, I'm not buying it. If you do, you might want to save yourself some grief and stop right about here.

(If you feel like a cat-victimized Mylar toy from here on out, it's not my fault.)

It's interesting to note that the defining aspect of bipolar disorder is currently under review by the APA. That is, the "rapid cycling specifier."[DSM-5: 296.5x] When I was growing up, I never heard about bipolar disorder, and believe it's a quite recent adoption. For most of my life, a sort of blanket adjective was used: manic-depressive. Wikipedia suggests this term was officially adopted as of DSM-2. That same article begins with some etymology far more complex and interesting than the stuff of my opening paragraph. This etymological overview suggests that the behavior associated with these terms dates back to the very beginnings of recorded human history. I can't help but wonder what qualified as bipolar behavior in times of such struggle and innovation.

The term "bipolar" is not only ambiguous for its use of "polar," but for "bi-," which is one of the most misunderstood prefixes in western English. When used to indicate a period of time, it can mean twice per a given unit, or once per every two of a given unit. We attempt to overcome this by using for example "semimonthly" to indicate something that happens twice a month, but this is not a replacement, merely a potential substitution. It doesn't make "bi-" any less ambiguous, in other words. Now, I understand how they mean the term bipolar in reference to the disorder (at least I think I do [two magnets every pivotal two months, right?]). I just find it interesting that in ostensibly trying to refine and specify a description of erratic emotional behavior, we have jumbled it up so very thoroughly.

Maybe it's apt. That is how it feels when one is in the midst of a manic-depressive cycle, or a rapidly-cycling mood, or a feeling velocipede (What?) -- it's extremely difficult to know which way is up, find one's center or know whether one is coming or one is gone. And maybe, just maybe, this is my acting philosophy showing through, but I can't help but wonder if we aren't all pretty bipolar. I'm not discounting by any means people who are crippled by bipolar disorder. There are some who need serious help to function. Yet I feel that by searching for the identities of disorders, we sometimes find disorder in the natural order. In acting, at least in my school of it, we say, "use what works." No one technique is superior to another. It's all about the approach best suited to the task at hand. Sometimes feeling lost, or swung about, is the very technique we need to discover another route onward.

2 comments:

dave said...

So you would prefer we all just went back to saying "mad", "queer", or "touched" for the mentally ill, is that it, Jeffrey?

Jeff Wills said...

I quite like "touched," actually. It's such a tender approach. But overall, I'd prefer we go back to unspoken gestures. "Oh Jeff, you know. He's just a bit..." {extends hand flat, twists rapidly from side to side, makes completely bizarre face}