On Deja Vu and Hacking the Brain

There’s a Saturday morning cartoon from my childhood in which the characters chant:

“Deja vu, the sensation you are doing something you’ve done before. Deja vu, the sensation you are doing something you’ve done before. Deja vu, the sensation you are doing something you’ve done before.”

I haven’t given deja vu much thought since watching that cartoon, not until a few months ago when I started having a disturbing sort of deja vu, a kind of deja vu that felt more like psychosis than it did the run-of-the-mill deja vu I’d experienced my entire life.

According to my psychiatrist, frequent deja vu isn’t uncommon for people with mental illness. I don’t know if it’s something that’s just developed or if it’s just that I’m healthy enough that I can now address it properly. For the first several years of my illness, it was everything I could do to just stay alive and make it to the next day, so something like deja vu was pretty low on the priority list.

Technically, deja vu is when we’re given new information in a familiar setting – something brand new but familiar enough that we think we’ve seen it before. And that jolt of familiarity is enough to give us the sensation we are doing something we’ve done before. It leads me to think that I’m some kind of handicapped future-telling-savant as I crane my neck trying to predict the future. And that’s where it starts to become a problem – when I think that I can predict the future but meet disappointment and failure at every step.

Most of the time I have deja vu, nothing bad happens. It’s an experience like anyone else’s experience with deja vu – this neat kind of trippy sensation in which reality is slightly skewed for a few seconds before returning to normal. I’ve noticed that I tend to do well with deja vu when I’m with other people, when I acknowledge it out loud. The rest of the time, the time when it gets bad, I’m usually alone.

On one particular evening a number of weeks ago, I was sitting in front of my computer doing something and suddenly it all made sense. I knew exactly what was going to happen next. But I wasn’t accurately remembering the future, I was constantly saying “yes, I knew that was going to happen,” and that made it disturbing. I got this premonition that I needed to _do_ something. The premonition eventually led me to call my mom.

My parents and I are old hands at dealing with just about anything my illness throws at me – paranoia, psychosis, dissociation, depression, mania, etc. – but deja vu was something that had never disturbed me before and so we didn’t have any kind of protocol for helping me get through it. I called my mom and told her what I was experiencing and she had no clue how to help me other than to just keep talking. But talking was exactly what I _didn’t_ need. As she talked I became more and more upset – with that persistent feeling that I knew exactly what she was about to say, a persistent feeling which made me feel worse rather than better because I was only on the cusp of prediction. It was like my forward memory was failing me. It probably made me feel worse because I’m so sensitive about my memory – lose the majority of your memories to ECT and it’s liable to become a touchy subject.

When deja vu gets bad, it’s usually because it’s gone on for more than a few moments. Being trapped in the cycle of thinking you know what the future holds but not actually being able to predict it is disturbing when it goes on for five or ten or fifteen minutes. It’s a bit like psychosis, only without the psychotic features. There are no voices in my head telling me awful things, there’s no physical pain but there _is_ the mental torture – the feeling that something is seriously wrong and that it needs to end right now.

I went back inside and took a small dose of one of my more powerful antipsychotics. Then I got Kerrin on my lap and sat in my chair as she kissed my face. I don’t think it was the antipsychotic that did it – because within a few minutes I was feeling just fine.

Drugs don’t kick in within a few minutes, they take about 30-45 minutes to take effect. But sometimes, just knowing that relief is coming is enough to help me feel better. But it gave me this gut feeling, maybe the introduction of a totally familiar voice is what helped me. The calming voice of my mom who’s helped me through so much.

A couple weeks after that, it got bad again. But this time I was prepared. I turned into the handicapped future-telling-savant and dialed my parents’ phone number and, when dad answered I asked him if he could sing me a song.

Dad couldn’t think of one, but mom was on top of it and started singing _Holy Night_ and listening to her singing calmed me down. I don’t think I could have accomplished the same thing with my stereo or iPod. It needed to be someone I knew and loved singing to me. It was especially powerful because I grew up singing with my mom. When my mom would drive us for field trips for school there was no better way to keep a van full of fidgety fourth graders occupied than to lead them in a singalong, I often helped my mom with these singalong’s. I got the lead role for the play in eighth grade because I sang “I’m a Lonely Little Petunia” in front of the whole school during chapel. I make up songs with my dad when we’re walking Kerrin, I make up songs to sing Kerrin when there’s thunder outside and she’s scared. Singing is a part of me and so to have mom, whose voice I’ve been hearing singing for my entire life, was enough to get me out of it.

The singing broke the spell. By the time she was done singing the first verse I was no longer a handicapped future-telling-savant, I was back to my normal self. I haven’t gotten deja vu that bad since, but I’m eager to find out if the singing will work a second time.

I’m not trying to suggest that if you or your loved one are experiencing disturbing deja vu that singing will get them out of it. It’s possible that it only worked for me that once and it’s likely that it won’t work unless you have the same kind of connections with singing that I do. What it comes down to is that you need to know yourself, you need to know your loved one.

As I say in the introduction to this blog, the only thing I can speak about are my own experiences with mental illness. Every brain is different, every person is different, every mental illness is different. There are trends, though…there are enough similarities that it’s possible for me to be helpful and offer advice that might work for you or your loved one. I hope to share more of an approach to mental illness rather than a series of “do ‘that’ and this ‘will’ happen.” A paradigm is more of a framework than a series of rules and regulations. And it all starts with knowing yourself.

I treat my brain like it’s a computer, not in the sense that it’s just a machine doing an untold number of calculations every second, but in the sense that if I’m going to fix it, I need to understand the paradigm under which it operates. I’ve been fixing computers my entire life. I grew up in the guts of a computer – holding the flashlight and asking my dad what particular components did. In teaching me how to fix computers, my dad didn’t bestow on me a list of if-then statements, he didn’t give me a manual where I memorized error codes or a list of fixes. There’s simply too much information and it’s easier to have a solid understanding of how a computer works, what normal looks like, than it is to memorize fix after fix after fix. What my dad taught me was the paradigm under which a computer operates as well as proper troubleshooting technique. It’s worked well for me and so it’s the same principal I’ve applied towards my brain.

When I was more into computers (i.e. before writing took over my life) I was a bit of a hacker. Not “hacker” in the sense of the word that most people are taught. Most people are actually thinking of crackers when they think of hackers. Hackers are people that work within a given system to make it do things it otherwise couldn’t do. Hackers are responsible for the computer as we know it – they’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what a computer can do to make it more and more useful, to the point where people now consider and Internet connection to be a public utility like water, electricity, or gas. It was always fun for me to make my computers do things they weren’t supposed to. I didn’t make my computer do anything that was truly extraordinary – it was mostly interface tweaks to make things like the font rendering on the screen look sharper or making it say something ridiculous whenever I typed in the wrong password. I wasn’t cracking into bank sites and stealing people’s identities, I wasn’t creating bot nets to take down credit card websites – that’s for the realm of crackers – the malevolent kind of hacker. A hacker is just someone who wants to figure out how a system works and make it do cool stuff.

And so, when I first decided to take ownership of my mental illness, I turned my hackerish mindset to solving the problem of how to feel better. I’d spent the majority of my life as a healthy person with a healthy mind and so I knew what normal looked like and I applied all of the lessons my dad gave me about fixing computers to trying to fix my brain. It wasn’t a conscious effort insofar as I actively decided “I’m going to hack my brain,” I was simply curious about myself (and hackers are possessed with an insatiable curiosity), something was broken and I wanted to fix it. I’d conveniently found a Physician’s Desk Reference in the dumpster outside my apartment, so I looked up every drug I was taking and learned all about them, then I learned about different kinds of antipsychotics and mood stabilizers and anything else that seemed helpful. I got a copy of the DSM-IV (the “manual” of mental illnesses) and read through the schizoaffective disorder section. I asked my psychiatrist and therapist questions about mental illness. I wrote about my experience, I talked about my psychotic episodes with my parents. In short – I learned the paradigm under which my mental illness operates. Just like I knew how a computer operated, I was going to learn how my brain operated.

I’ve always been an introspective person, I’ve always known myself really well. And this has proven to be hugely beneficial. I’ve kept a journal since I was in high school and have twenty-three, 121 page pocket sized notebooks filled with writing, among countless other notebooks strewn throughout my apartment and my parents’ house. Writing about my experiences has probably helped the most – I’m a verbal processor, I_need_ to write things down or talk them out in order to understand what I’m thinking. And, in writing them down, I was able to understand how my brain works when it’s healthy and unhealthy and what I can do about it when things start getting hard. Through knowing myself, I was able to understand the paradigm through which my mental illness operates.

It’s meant a lot of alone time, time spent with a pen and paper, processing my thoughts and feelings. It’s meant a lot of time spent praying, for guidance and understanding. The kind of insight one gets through prayer and meditation is exceedingly useful. It’s meant having a lot of frank discussions with people I trust, particularly my dad – talking to them about things that are on my mind and listening (not just waiting for my turn to speak) to what they have to say. In understanding the paradigm under which my brain operates, I’m able to more effectively deal with the things my brain hands me. My brain is endlessly creative; just when I think I’ve seen everything it can throw at me, it comes up with something brand new like disturbing deja vu and I have to think about how to best combat it. Since I understand the paradigm, I have a much easier time figuring out what it is I need to effectively deal with the situations I’m presented with. It’s hard to describe the paradigm, I suppose most of what this blog is about is explaining that paradigm. It’s not an easy one to explain, it’s nuanced and changes from time to time – it can’t be summed up in one quick blog post. If I could do that, this website would have one post and that’s all it would need.

In August of 2014, I wrote about what I call “Crazy People Logic” and illustrated it with an example of me getting trapped in the side yard of my apartment building by a large metal fence I was hallucinating. If I hadn’t known myself back then, just like if I hadn’t known myself a few weeks ago when I called my parents to ask them to sing me a song, I would have been a lot worse off. Understanding the paradigm, understanding “Crazy People Logic” is key. Without knowing the paradigm, which can only come through knowing yourself, you end up suffering a lot more. But I can only understand the paradigm because I know myself. I’m at a huge advantage in that I’ve always been introspective, in that I’ve always been seeking to know myself. I’m fortunate in that a lot of the ground work was laid well before my illness started expressing itself and so I could get right to combatting the illness.

It’s work and you have to confront some scary things about yourself, but the end result is incredibly useful. By knowing myself, I can hack my brain – I can make it do things it’s not supposed to do. When I first started out, it was almost impossible for me to write a coherent sentence, it was impossible for me to go for a walk by myself, it was difficult to make it through the day. Every day was about surviving to the next, it was about dragging myself through the proverbial field of mud the mentally ill so often find themselves in. But, I made progress. I learned the system of how my brain works and was able to exploit it to make my brain do things it wasn’t supposed to do.

And now I live on my own in relative independence, more independence than I ever thought I would have. I don’t have the kind of independence my friends who don’t have mental illnesses have. I don’t have a job, I don’t have a car, I don’t have a college education – there are so many things I don’t have and probably will never have. But I live in my own apartment for which I pay the rent, I walk my dog every day, and I do a good job of keeping myself occupied throughout the day and do useful, positive things with that time. My days are no longer about mere survival – they’re about accomplishing meaningful things and working towards helping people. I think I do alright for myself. And I think just about anyone can do alright for themselves too.

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