Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Reclaiming the dark side of the moon

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

(Pink Floyd, "Brain damage" - The dark side of the moon)

With the memorable Pink Floyd album, the "dark side of the moon" came to signify a locus of the imagination, a powerful visual representation of all those altered states of mind that are considered unacceptable by our society. Exile on the dark side of the moon is the destiny of those who step beyond the threshold of what conventions decree to be the acceptable norm.

The dark side of the moon is of course a licentia poetica: there is a far side of the moon but not a dark side. Calling it "dark", in addition to being the far side hidden from view of the earth, contributes to increase the tragic sense of an ultimate destination of no return, far away hidden from view and from the light itself, an image reinforced by the "lock the door and throw away the key" lines in the song.

You lock the door
And throw away the key
There's someone in my head but it's not me.

The dark side of the moon is such a powerful image because it is as much tragic as it is empowering: it's a place where the undesirable states of mind our society tries to hide away can reside, once again as in Milton's "Paradise Lost", it is hell as a refuge for the cast out, a place where "at least we shall be free". Reclaiming the dark side of the moon means turning the perspective of exile from rejection into liberation as the heroic Lucifer of "Paradise Lost" does in his fall, which becomes his escape from the tyranny of heaven, his liberation and self-assertion.

Reclaiming the dark side of the moon is a broad appeal for coming out of the bipolar closet. I live and work in the community of scientists, which just as much as artists, writers, musicians, and other people whose work is largely based on inventiveness and creativity, have an incidence of bipolar disorder in much larger numbers than the general population. To attach rough estimates to these claims, while in the general population the incidence is about 1 in 100 (the same as for other major psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia), in the "creative professions" like art and science the incidence of bipolar disorder is estimated to be between 10 and 30 percent. Surprisingly, there is a thick veil of denial over all this. Not only people rarely talk openly about their own experiences with mood disorder and altered states of mind, but a lot of "normal" people in the profession have not even ever heard of the existence of a major psychiatric condition variously referred to as "manic-depression" or "bipolar disorder" or "cyclothymia" in its milder form, even though in fact several among their closest friends, collaborators, colleagues might in fact be suffering from the condition.

Coming out of the closet about bipolar scientists is important for a better way of living within the community, more open and understanding, with less desperate efforts to hide away during the "bad phases" in order to appear always in control of things: no more pretenses keeping up the illusion that there is a "normal" behavior we all conform to. It is far more difficult for scientists than it is for artists to admit openly to their bipolar disorders: the romantic "Sturm und Drang" image of the artistic temperament, excessive as it may be, created in the collective imagination an association between artistic creativity and mood disorder, which people are, by now, readily willing to accept. For scientists it is a tougher task to come out of the closet: there is, on the contrary, an expectation of total rational control, of perfectly tuned clockwork in the scientific mind, which people (even other scientists) find difficult to reconcile with the notion of mood swings and flights of the mind to the dark side of the moon, even though there is no shortage of cases of famous scientists notoriously affected by the condition (George Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Norbert Wiener... the list is long and very distinguished).

The dark side of the moon is a beautiful image precisely because it can be seen as highly symbolic of the collusion of scientific creativity and manic-depressive temperament. It evokes on the one hand the Apollo 16 and its iconic photographs of the far side of the moon: a symbol of the capacity of the scientific enterprise to reach "where no man had gone before", and at the same time it is also the "dark side" in the Pink Floyd sense, which made that flight possible. Science needs the extra burst of creativity that manic-depression confers to those who have the curse and the blessing to partake of this muse, and yet the scientific community is not ready to recognize its existence.

Reclaiming the dark side of the moon means coming out of the bipolar closet, spreading awareness of the existence, along with the "norms" of those other ones, so many of us, who are different, who feel things on a different scale of magnitude, who can descend the depths and climb the heights of those mountains of the moon where the mind and the Apollo spaceships fly.
How many people have at least a vague, if generally misinformed, idea of what schizophrenia is? I bet even the least attentive layperson knows of its existence. Yet try to find out how many people in the general population have ever heard even of the existence of bipolar disorder. The reason is quite self-evident: a condition like schizophrenia can hardly be hidden, while even some of the most severe forms of manic-depression often arise among so called "high-achievers" who can more easily hide their condition. It's a mistake to hide, because manic-depression has consequences, in the way one relates to others, leaving behind a trail of broken friendships, incomprehension, all things that could be easily avoided by being more directly open about discussing it. It also involves dangers to oneself, both in the form of higher suicide risk during depressive phases, a blurred perception of risk during the manic ones, a higher risk of substance abuse, and all that. Letting others in on the dark secret face of creativity is a first step to help oneself and others. There is a beautiful book about manic-depression, written by two leading expert psychiatrists (one of them, Kay Redfield Jamison, openly admitting to suffer herself from the condition).The book is a thousand pages, give or take a few, but I highly recommend it to anyone who is seriously interested in understanding what this is really all about. I am not fond of going straight for pharmacology as a treatment for mood disorders, I personally much prefer Jungian psychotherapy (at least that worked very well for me in the past), but a lot of information is given in the book which I think should be known to all those people, "norms" or "diffs" as they may be, who work in the creative professions of arts and science, and who will inevitably come often enough into contact with people with bipolar disorder.

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear.
And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.