Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt



May 2014

Since November 2013 I have taken, each day, 25 milligrams of what I call my "chemical balancer."  I started the regimen because all "natural" approaches to lightening the dysthymia, melancholy, "blues," and their cognates that have always afflicted me would not work.  I never reached full-blown William-Styron-style depression, though I had my days where I "swam through asphalt" — the moment-to-moment slog to remain vertical and unsuicidal, muscle habits pushing the body through one day and into the next.

Now post-chemical, with the weight lifted and the question "What is the point?" no longer pinging me, like a lost dying black box from a drowned airplane, I have come to an even greater appreciation of the beauty of our undivine material existence and the mystery of the random nature of a self.

Once the medication did its work (by the second day, the weight had evaporated almost completely without leaving any side effects behind), I had the mental and emotional space to re-view myself, or, rather, my "self."  We choose to think of our "self" as an essence, the "I" as the hard nugget that denotes and anchors one's being.  Some locate the self in spirit, others do not, but all feel that the self exists in some independent fashion, that there goes along a body and a self, connected but not cognate.

Not so.  Even the most cursory reading about neuroscience will show you that "mind" or "self" embeds in the brain (or, really, the brainbody, since we should consider the system as one entity).  Our essential "kernel" of self stems from a delicate electro-chemical balancing act, and the "I" issues from the way the brain monitors itself — in other words, consciousness coined by neurons and synapses.

Neuroscience, and the affiliated study of neurophilosophy, have only just arrived on the scene, so to speak, provoking both extravagant claims and debunkings, celebrations and anguishes.  The former: we will map psychology to brain and thus predict and control behavior. The latter: the same thing.  The truth lies in between because the brainbody, like the weather, defies easy modeling and predictability, and brain science really stands at the beginning of whatever paths it will take.

I can only say, based only on my own experience, that I like the self I have today better than the self I had in October 2013, a self created by the way the medication has moved things around.  I also know that this self does not result solely from the medication, that a self comes out of the interaction between the environment and the brainbody — or, rather, the environment and the brainbody make one system.  But in the end the word "I" stands in as a shorthand, a thumbnail, for the intricate and buzzing electro-chemical linkages moving through the world.

This means that I reject, have to reject, enjoy rejecting, any super-natural or sentimentalized origin for the "I."  Not only do such claims coarsen the beauty of what happens within and without the confines of my skin, they reduce rather than broaden our ability to explain what goes on within and without.

Of course, language plays a definitive role here, not only because our lexicons define both the reach and limits of our thoughts but also because we need to create a new lexicon to express the sometimes literally (as yet) unsayable things neuroscience uncovers.  These new languages will also create new selves, the new selves will create new metaphors, which in turn will publish new understandings for people to share and digest.

On a more local level, so to speak, within this being that bears my name, the chemical additive has reduced the heaviness of some things, which has allowed other things (i.e., previously muted congresses of synaptic networks, imprinted in flesh) to carbonate and inspire.  The same being but not, the same self but not, despite appearances. I don't yet have the language to speak about this clearly enough, to translate the subdermal intuitions into usable prose.  But, like the neuroscience that underscores me, I enjoy living as a work in progress, with still available possibilities for shifting and cycling.   I just find that employing the words and imagery of a self, of the "I," as a choreographed physics rather than as a stolid pip liberates rather than frightens me.  Much like the for-better-or-worse digital shifting in our lives, which has melted away institutions while, at the same time, loosening the grip of the gatekeepers, the neuroscience of the self, this neurophilosophy, has re-established the miraculousness of our meat, lending us new ways to move our gatekeepers aside and stand open to what the shifts will teach us.

One last thing.  Some have asked me if I feel like a cheat for taking the drug, often saying in the same breath that they don't like to put things into their bodies that affect them like this and will only, they say, take an aspirin if the headache gets really bad.  (Endurers of pain always think they have more virtue than others.)

I reply by asking them if they eat food when hungry, drink water when thirsty.  Yes, of course.  Do they feel better because of it?  Yes, of course.  Because you have changed the chemical balances, right?  Yes, but, well, that's natural.  That's chemistry, I give back, regardless of the delivery system.  So why not a pill that alters a different kind of hunger?  That pill only cheats in the way that food and water cheat death.  Argument done and won.

It will take us humans a while to figure out how to erase the ersatz borders our language has drawn around our physical and mental parts and feel comfortable with the indeterminacy of our essences.  It will take us a while to see everything about our beings as nodes in a complex weave of shifting physics, from quantum to cosmos (much like the Internet but without all the corporate sludge in the system). But it can begin, as it has for me, with something as small as 25 milligrams, the size of a seed or a parable, and by giving thanks for finding a way to win the losing battle against my demons.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column for Scene4.
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