Classes have started again and I am back to staying in on the weekends to work on work. From my readings:
The term [rhinencephalon] was firstly used by Saint-Hillarie [sic] to name a one-eyed monster.
— Roxo et al, "The limbic system conception and its historical evolution"
I giggled because I am a child. However, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire actually studied extensively abnormalities in physiological development and he actually looked at the congenital disorder cyclopia. (Don’t click unless you want to see grotesque physical malformations.) Rhinencephala are those born with a specific form of cyclopia, rhinencephaly, which is characterized by a proboscis protruding from the head. (See previous click warning.) Rhinencephaly can be present with edocephaly, which roughly translates to genital-like head, because the proboscis from either actually looks like a penis stitched on a head. But edocephaly is a type of otocephaly, which is a (lethal) cephalic disorder of the lower jaw, while rhinencephaly is a type of arhinencephaly, which is a (lethal) cephalic disorder of the nose.
The prefix rhin- means of the nose. (See also: Etymology of rhinoceros.) The proboscis in rhinencephaly is a nasal malformation. Arhinencephaly is the congenital absence of the olfactory system. And if you’re not confused enough, the rhinencephalon is now the part of the brain concerned with olfactory functions, arhinencephaly is now called holoprosencephaly, and cyclopia is a type of holoprosencephaly known as alobar holoprosencephaly.
But rhinencephaly is still rhinencephaly, so at least something consistent.
And I still found a reference to the penis.
(I am a child.)
She told me that there are triggers for mania just as there are triggers for flashbacks. So of course there are triggers for depression. All the pieces fit: performance stress, sleep deprivation, major changes in living situation, losing a significant relationship, and just plain ol’ winter. Then she told me that I am being anti-social. No, I haven’t been the social butterfly I was, but November, December, and now January were unkind to my emotional stability. I could ask what I could have done differently, but those days have passed. Honestly, I am too tired to introspect. More, it’s too dangerous. I’ve been thinking about self-harm again.
She asked if I were okay. We’ll talk, she said, and I knew that something must have given it away. Maybe it was my face. Maybe it was my voice. Maybe it was both. I wouldn’t be surprised if our conversation went something like this:
In a major depressive episode, I have significantly less energy and significantly less interest in being nice to people. Unfortunately, both limit one of the best solutions to stop myself from killing myself. When you don’t have the energy, it’s hard to socialize. When you don’t have any patience, it’s hard to be someone people want to socialize with. More, it’s been hard to be honest. The simple question How are you? becomes complex. How do you easily and politely state that there is something terribly wrong and not make the conversation about you?
Then I realized that’s exactly what you do.
You say things like I’m not feeling that well or I’m a little under the weather. That is the truth. You are sick. If they ask, you sincerely say it’s depression and thanks for asking. Normalizing depression makes me feel less awkward talking about it, which makes other people feel less awkward facing it. The conversation moves on and everyone can have a good time.
I’ve been too tired to be social. Then I’ve been too afraid to be social. I said to her that there is a difference between staying in bed for self-care and staying in bed because you can’t leave. As tired and irritable and wanting to die as I am, I don’t want to be tired and irritable and wanting to die just because I don’t want this to be my life. More accurately, I don’t want this to be my death. No, I don’t want to die in bed. If I am going to go, I will do it some other fucking way and fuck me if I am going to expire before I finish goddamn school.
The non-sensical stubbornness that’s gotten me into so much trouble may be exactly what’s saving my life.
When people don’t understand why I am returning to academia’s heavy hand, I tell them that I was a precocious little shit. In a first-generation Taiwanese-American household, any interest in scholarly pursuits was encouraged and the resulting pain from pursuing such pursuits was normalized. Certainly some of that pain had external sources but some was self-inflicted. Many nights I would not sleep because I liked to read too much. Once, in a perverse combination of curiosity and stubbornness, I read until sunrise because I read about how the sky changes colors as the sun crosses the horizon and I wanted to see what that was like first-hand. Barely in second grade and already I was training my body for an irregular sleep schedule in the name of scholarship.
Some years later, my body decided it was time to sexually mature. Because I liked to read, I already knew all about menstruation, and immediately I went to my mother to ask for menstrual products. However, though I knew the biological mechanisms behind menses, I had no idea what the social norms were. At ten, I was still young enough to conduct bathroom activities in front of family members. Imagine my father’s surprise when he learned that his daughter has entered puberty.
The adults talked over breakfast. My father said something about how the timing seemed really early and my mother said something about how she didn’t know why but it was what it was. I said that though my menarche appeared to be early, it was still within the range of healthy ages of onset. I also noted that one of the factors contributing to menarche is body fat percentage, and I briefly displayed my pudgy midsection and limbs.
Then I pulled out the book. When I was a younger young thing, my parents gave me a book all about the body. I spent many late nights flipping through the pages, reviewing how we smell, the processes of the digestive system, why some people need vision correction. I knew exactly which page had the information to support my argument.
I was ten and I was citing my sources.
Say what you want about the dysfunctional relationship between Asia America and academia. Some of us, I think, have some natural talent for scholarship. We have the skills to learn quickly enough, the inclination to observe and explore, and the confidence to report and defend our results with enough supporting data. It just took another few years before I learned how to present with PowerPoint.
Perhaps I was already primed by that confession by an anonymous neuroscientist about having Parkinson’s disease. His present is my future, except that I don’t have PD but TBI and I am already public about the subsequent mental illness and disability. Sometimes I wonder about what opportunities are open for me and how risky an investment I am seen to be, but most days, I just worry about memorizing the structures in the basal ganglia. The damage, neural and professional, has been done, and I have made peace with my new self.
But that stability crumbled during lecture last week. He was teaching the hippocampus and closed head injuries and memory loss, and I secretly and quietly lost it. I saw across the projector screen how the grey flesh curled like a tiny tail. I heard about lesions and defective declarative memory and contrecoup injury. My life was presented from a textbook, a lecture, a dissected three-pound mass, and I couldn’t look at my self displayed for the class to see. Suddenly I was sixteen again, vulnerable and shaken and seeing and understanding. But at twenty-nine, I know how to let the emotions pass and not overwhelm. Still, I floated, numbly. There was no cold November bite seeping under my scarf. There was no warmth behind the apartment door. There was only the haze and apprehension. Something will go wrong because something is wrong and what is wrong is me.
I am centered again, but like that anonymous scientist I wonder about the self—my self—and what it is like to be shackled by your brain. Though unlike him, I already know. For years, I lived within three-minute periods, learning to shape those disconnected moments into coherence. I saw my ability disappear with my memory. I was someone but who, I was unsure. I knew that I was different, that I could never be her again. Even in that mental miasma, I understood the injury, but in my youth, I couldn’t accept its consequences. So I fought. I have come far. But I learned that there are some truths you can’t fight.
We are bound, by biology, by the natural laws of this world. Whatever the nature of the relationship between our brains and minds, they are intrinsically linked, and no metaphysical speculation should deny that the atrophy of the brain is the atrophy of the self.
I should know. This is my life.
HE: The human body is very resilient. It actually is very hard to kill someone.
ME: That's funny because all I learned in undergrad was how to kill things.
ME: I never told you that joke?
ME: Alright. So in physics, you break things. In chemistry, you burn things. In biology, you kill things. And in math, you model how you wreak havoc on nature.
HE: That's .. exactly right.