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Years ago, I never tired of asking anyone who would sit still long enough some variation on the following question: Suppose you had to choose between having a strong and alert mind but with severe physical limitations (e.g., wheelchair-bound), or a perfectly healthy body and yet be as dumb as a bag of nails. Which would you choose? There was no right or wrong answer as far as I was concerned, though my own preference was for mental acuity. I simply wanted to hear the preferences and thoughts of people I found interesting.
That particular thought exercise loomed large in the mind when I sat down with my neurologist recently, having undergone a series of tests (cognitive, brain EEG, brain MRI, etc.) in the preceding weeks to determine, A) whether or not the mental fog I was occasionally experiencing was real, and B) whether there was a physical cause. “Mr. Carter, you had a stroke,” the doctor said as matter of factly as if he were announcing the Dow Jones daily closing numbers. Well, that was bracing.
It wasn’t recent, he added, though I had already figured as much. Reviewing my personal history, the doctor determined that the stroke likely occurred during an extremely stressful and traumatic event a few years back that, at the time, had me quite literally immobilized, unable to speak, with what seemed like a ribbon of agonizing pain shooting across the top of my head. Yes, I know I should have gotten myself checked out at the time, but personal circumstances made it impossible. At least now I know what happened.
The doctor went on to inform me that having had one stroke, albeit a relatively minor one, the odds of my having another stroke automatically increase tenfold. As if that wasn’t enough good tidings for one day, Dr. Happy News then asked, “Do you have high cholesterol?” Well, yes, as it happens, my primary doctor had informed me about a month earlier that my cholesterol is “abnormally high.” “Are you on medication for this?” “I am now,” I answered, and added that I’m slated to have my cholesterol tested again in a few weeks. “I want to see those test results,” the doctor directed, to which I enthusiastically agreed.
“So this explains why my memory dulls and why writing becomes more laborious at times,” I said. “Not really,” he answered, explaining that the stroke actually occurred in the part of my brain that controls balance. So not only do I still retain the powers of a first-rate smart ass, but I’ll be fun to watch! The doctor said that the cognitive slippage, while real, is in fact related to a case of mild depression.
Depression? The news shouldn’t have come as a shock given the personal events that resulted in the stroke, followed rather quickly by the deaths of my step mother and my father, which events were then followed by a radical change in lifestyle which, while wonderful, have entailed some adjustments. As I say, a diagnosis of depression shouldn’t have been surprising but, like the news of a stroke, it came as a kick to the spirits. The consensus, however, is that this is entirely treatable without resorting to any medication, which in turn has set me on a course of introspection and learning, which has also stirred in me a great deal of interest in how other people deal with similar issues. I have some questions for you, but first a little background.
I remembered taking a rather lengthy personality test many years ago which revealed that I am what’s known as an, “INTJ” (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) personality type which comprises roughly two percent of the population. The description of someone who is essentially propelled by a constant thirst for knowledge, who lives in their own mind, requires a great deal of solitude both to recharge (being naturally introverted, social gatherings, while enjoyable for awhile, can drain every ounce of energy) and to synthesize the results of their studies and theories into a coherent worldview, fits me like a glove.
But what sorts of things, other than normal calamities like death in the family, can send this personality type into a bit of depression? Lo, after more research, I find:
A Re-Cap Of What Causes An INTJ Stress:
- Being in an environment that doesn’t appreciate their skills or vision.
- Not enough time alone. Too much socializing.
- Too much noise or sensory input.
- Working with those they see as lazy, ignorant, or incompetent.
- Having to focus on too many details at once.
- Being in unfamiliar environments.
- Having their plans disrupted.
- Having to focus entirely on the here-and-now.
- Not being able to envision the future or see a clear direction in their lives.
To varying degrees, all nine of the items above apply in my case (a great deal of it from my work). And while I won’t dwell on the particulars in this space, I’m pleased to report that I have a supportive wife who listens and is willing to help me find ways to alleviate those stressors that are not work related and who understands when I must draw boundaries. Meanwhile, I have to suspect that a great many of the good people here on Ricochet are of a similarly disposed personality type, yes? How do you handle the above stressors and distractions?
I find, for example, that processing, studying, and applying information takes on a sort of “visual,” or “impressionistic,” thinking rather than “thinking in words.” As Dr. A.J. Drenth observed:
Although INTJs are classified as Thinking types, their dominant function is Intuition, or more specifically, Introverted Intuition (Ni). In seeing the world through Ni lenses, their typical mode of operation is well described as impressionistic. Rather than noticing or concerning themselves with the details of the world around them, their existence is more cerebral or dreamlike. This can lead them to feel estranged from their physical environs, not to mention their own bodies.
Yes, well, while I haven’t done any out of body traveling lately, I can attest to many a night while leading an almost monastic existence on the road that I would become so totally engrossed in research and writing that I would completely forget to eat dinner. Even now, despite the fact that I no longer live in a truck, the reality of stopping the work of the mind in order to feed the body can be irksome. Sometimes, biology simply gets in the way.
And when I can finally give my noggin free rein, the business of reading and writing requires, for me at least, a quiet area. I marveled once when my wife was able to have a perfectly coherent telephone conversation while the television boomed right in front of her even as her mother carried on yet another phone conversation not more than five feet away. So here were three different conversations, two of them occurring in real time, and neither my wife nor my mother-in-law were the least bit distracted by the other two conversations happening all around them. I would have Simply. Gone. Nuts. Now, is this a consequence of processing information visually rather than linguistically? Or is it simply my own tendency to become easily overloaded by “sensory input?” In either event, I now have the benefit of a small study in our house, to which I withdraw when possible, and it makes life easier — that is, when I can find the time to go there.
Meanwhile, how, pray tell me, do you handle social situations? Going back to life over the road, I eventually took almost all of my meals in the privacy of my truck because the overbearingly loud and empty conversations that seemed to intrude in my head from all corners of the restaurant nearly always put me in an unpleasant mood. Relying again on the INTJ profile simply because it so perfectly encapsulates my own tendencies — while I can engage in intellectually stimulating conversations for hours (yet another reason I love Ricochet Meetups, by the way), the incessant, mundane droning on and on about topics of no real value can wear me down quickly and have me essentially shutting down or retreating into back into the mind.
Perhaps the most ominous factor in the above list of stressors reads, “Not being able to envision the future or see a clear direction in their lives.” Of what use is it, for example, to devise and develop half a dozen essays or column ideas in one morning while behind the wheel if, at the conclusion of a 14-hour work day I barely have time to consume the only meal I’ve had in the last 24 hours before I must rest so as to rise early again the next morning an early and begin it all again? Two weeks later, when I finally have a few hours to write, events have rendered the essays obsolete, and I find myself in that mental fog again, struggling to compose anything meaningful or even relatively coherent.
A couple of weeks ago, I had been scheduled for a fairly light day behind the wheel, which would leave several hours during which I would be awake and alert enough to work on a piece I had been planning. A quick call from my dispatcher during which he nonchalantly shattered those plans in mere seconds, resulted in me getting home late that evening, physically and mentally spent, another essay unwritten. In my frustration, I told my wife that perhaps I should just give up writing, turn off my brain, drive, eat, sleep, and let it go. Of course, as soon as I said it, I realized that I could no more do that than I could resolve to give up breathing. And besides, that approach would surely contradict my own answer to that question, posed decades ago, concerning a preference for a healthy mind over biological satisfaction.
Ultimately, it’s a question of balance, yes? The requirement to earn a living must be met, and until such time as I can do that with my writing, it means I’ll be behind the wheel. But that requirement, as with the obligations of family and faith, must be balanced with careful attention to maintain those aspects of my mind’s work and those things that keep me, well … me. Once achieved, perhaps that balance will alleviate the current impression that I’m simply spinning my wheels, and I can more fully engage in the world of ideas while resolving what Winston Churchill called the “black dog” of depression.
Meanwhile, I hope to be more active on Ricochet and elsewhere, and remain interested in whether you’ve had similar experiences and how you handled them.