A prominent feature of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is anosognosia, a sick person’s unawareness that he is sick. — Algis Valiunas, New Atlantis, Winter 2009.
No one really understands why those of us with serious mental illness struggle with insight. Current medical theory holds that it’s actually a core feature of our neurobiology. It’s not that we’re in denial or stubborn—we simply can’t see.
This seems ridiculous to those observing from the outside as our behavior becomes more risky and disjointed. But those are the times when our insight is most impaired, because anosognosia is also a symptom. We lose insight just when we need it most.
Lack of insight is relative. It fluctuates as the illness fluctuates. When we are in remission or in a more stable state, we can often see that we were ill.
Lack of insight is listed as the leading cause of non-compliance with medication (I’m not sick, so why should I take these drugs that make me feel lousy), and in another paradox, compliance with one’s medication regime can improve insight in some cases.
Aggression and violent behavior are also linked to lack of insight.
So, if insight is important to recovery and functionality, what can we do to foster it? Unfortunately (and not really a surprise), the mental health delivery system has little to offer: Take your meds. Go to therapy.
I’ve been told by most of the professionals I’ve worked with that I have a high level of insight. Even when my symptoms are at their worst, I retain some awareness, though it becomes harder to access and trust. But very few of those therapists and psychiatrists ever asked me if I do anything to strengthen my awareness. The fact is I work very hard at it.
I started meditating and working on mindfulness years before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and those practices continue to help me “wake up” in the middle of an episode. Meditation is the only “exercise” I know that builds the muscle of insight. And like any muscle, the more it’s worked, the stronger it becomes. We can build insight by using insight.
It’s not for weenies, this practice. Ask any neuro-normal who sits meditation or suddenly realizes he’s projecting his fears into the future instead of living in the Now. Most people are asleep. To be anything else requires dedication, courage and sweat. It also requires forgiveness, tenderness and a willingness to observe rigid beliefs with gentle curiosity. And then, those moments of awareness are still fleeting.
Insight is a Big Ticket item, and most people would rather spend their hard-earned psychic cash elsewhere. I get that. I’ve taught meditation for fifteen years, and most people don’t stick with it. Sitting with oneself can be uncomfortable. It can be frightening. Why not practice golf instead? At least that’s fun.
That’s been my experience with neuro-normals. Now I’ve been asked to teach meditation to folks like me with serious mental illness. I’ll introduce it gently next week, then see if anyone wants to continue.
Because these are people who will recognize the price tag. And they might decide it’s worth it.