Sunday, May 1, 2022

Positive Disintegration

    Last Sunday, I went again to the local parish for Mass. Oh, how I miss my monastery and the oblate community there! I sat there last Sunday feeling that old familiar feeling ... feeling like an alien among the congregation. And I don't mean because I'm a foreigner in Spain! The Costa del Sol is full of foreigners. No, I'm used to feeling like an alien in a regular parish setting. I think it's something a lot of neurodiverse people know about, judging by the name of one online community for people on the autism spectrum: And I'm wondering, what is it about my monastic oblate community that is so different? Why do I feel so at home with those people, and not with these?

    As you know, I have been putting a lot of time and energy into learning about neurodiversity. Lately, the track I've been focusing on is "gifted psychology," or the psychological traits and needs of "gifted" people. That has to start with defining the word "gifted." First of all, it is not the same as "genius," although there is a strong correlation with extraordinary intellectual or creative abilities. Giftedness (see more at the link) is a neurocognitive type characterized by complexity, sensitivity, intensity, and drive, expressed in some combination of intellect, emotion, sensation, imagination, intuition, or physicality (so-called "overexcitabilities"). It is not something you can acquire, you are either born with it or not.

    When I was a teenager, I knew I was unusually intelligent. I was put in the gifted & talented track in middle and high schools, which I'm sure was helpful as far as it went. But, of course, back then it was supposed that children just didn't get clinically depressed, not that depression was really understood before Prozac, anyway. And I never heard of ADHD until I was 30, which also got in the way of my ability to take advantage of gifted-track classes. But more than those things, I never had any inkling of giftedness as a broader concept. It just meant high IQ to me, and I'm pretty sure that's what it meant to the school system, too. I had no idea that it went along with these other traits of complexity, hypersensitivity, intensity, and existential drive.

    I recognized as a teenager that having a high IQ was a fine thing as far as it went, but that it wasn't really all that valuable. It was obvious to me that other people, lots of people of average intelligence, were far more able than I was to cope with everyday life, with the ordinary burden of getting through from day to day. It wasn't even a burden to most of my peers, other than what was clearly a passing teenage angst, nothing like what I experienced. 

    A concept that is very big in the small field of gifted psychology is the Theory of Positive Disintegration, by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski. So far, I have only a superficial understanding of the theory, but it has helped me to reframe the arc of my life. Basically, it tells me that there really is a fundamental difference between me and most people, and that rather than being bad at being neurotypical, I've been learning to be good at being my neurodivergent self. That learning has gone by a winding, up-and-down path, and that, too, is both natural and necessary.

    Dąbrowski said that for most people, when they go through some kind of crisis in their lives, the healthy thing to do is to "recover," to heal back into ordinary human life, to become "well-adjusted" to life as it is. This is a state that Dąbrowski called "primary integration," and it is mental health for most people. It's not that anyone is ever unmarked by life experience, especially by a major crisis. But fundamentally, for most people, being "well-adjusted" is about adjusting again to ordinary life, integrating as smoothly as possible into an accepted role in society. 

    But for some people, the "gifted," hypersensitive, intense, driven ones, adjusting back to "normal" is not really a possibility, and the more we push it the more we do violence to our authentic better selves. For us, Dąbrowski coined the phrase "positive maladjustment," which I just love. For us, maladjustment is not pathological, it is a necessary stage to real growth and development into something new and unique, something bigger and deeper and more authentic, something that transcends both social expectations and self-serving ego. It is possible, according to this theory, for the "gifted," "overexcitable" person to become integrated or self-actualized at this higher level (what Dąbrowski called "secondary integration"), through a lot of struggle, and given the right kind of support and knowledge; but it is not possible for such a person to ever be integrated or "well-adjusted" at the primary level of integration, the ordinary way. My goal, now that I have begun to gain more insight into my own different brain and nervous system, is to add to the pitifully small supply of that support and knowledge for other fragile gifted people like myself.

    And here's the thing: maybe because "gifted" is something that we identify in children in the context of productive abilities, the kinds of strengths that society wants to profit from -- intellect, primarily, but also gifts like exceptional musical or athletic ability -- that is how we've ended up defining giftedness. We think it's all plus and no minus. We leave out the hypersensitivity that drives us to existential depression, that makes relationships so excruciatingly difficult, that makes things that other people don't even notice into unbearable sensory irritants -- and, for instance, the relentlessly complex thinking that makes writing a blog post like this one feel like I'm trying to perform brain surgery on myself, with half a surgical text printed in some foreign alphabet, in a rowboat on the high seas..... aaaaaah I will be so relieved when this one is done and posted!

    I think that the reason I feel so much at home with my friends at the monastery is not because it's a bunch of "gifted" people in the way I understood it in high school. I think it's a pretty ordinary group, where IQ goes, with a whole range of intellectual gifts. What I do think there is a high proportion of, is positive disintegration. I don't know what it is in each case that has led these friends of mine to continue on from crisis toward secondary integration, instead of healing back to ordinary primary integration. I know that there are people in the group who have undergone major life crises; there are a number of people in AA and other 12-step recovery programs; others have serious chronic disabilities, including major mental illness, or heartbreaking family tragedies, or other trauma histories.

    But most people who undergo trauma don't actually get PTSD, that in itself falls under the umbrella of "neurodiversity." So maybe there is a high degree of "gifted overexcitabilities" of one kind or another in our little group. The monastic life that I have embraced all the way, as a hermit, and that I share to some extent with all these people, is a whole supported process of radical transformation of self. Supported by one another, by a loving God, and by the guidance of many generations of monks before us. Of positive disintegration and reintegration into a deeper, more authentic way of life, for those of us with what Dąbrowski called the "tragic gift" of neurocognitive overexcitability.

+++ PEACE +++

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