Becoming Powerful

This post was updated on May 10, 2013 at 7:00pm. 

If you’ve ever walked through the world feeling powerful and confident, you know that power and confidence can be felt in the body. Like the endorphin rush of exercise, they buoy you. If you grew up with that feeling, and sustained it into adulthood, you may take the feeling for granted, may not even know it’s there. That is, until it’s gone.

My hope for you, of course is, that your experiences with the loss of power will be of the mundane variety, like the mild anxiety before giving a big speech, or going on an important job interview, or arriving at an event where you don’t know anyone, but want to make a strong impression.

The social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, known for her research on non-verbal communication, stereotyping and discrimination, emotions, power, and the effects of social stimuli on hormone levels, suffered a much greater loss of power following a brain injury, sustained in a car accident when she was 19. I experienced a similar loss of power when all of a sudden, at the height of success in my budding screenwriting career, I found myself significantly cognitively impaired. Which is why I hung on Cuddy’s every word when I first heard her TED Talk on body language and found there the answers I’d been looking for for over 10 years. I’d wanted to know how I could regain the unwavering sense of power and confidence I’d had, then lost and been unable to fully regain.

Cuddy’s talk showcased her research expertise, but it’s her personal story that roped me in. When Cuddy suffered that brain injury when she was 19, she also suffered a significant loss in IQ, a major blow for someone who’s identity, like mine, had been shaped by the fact of her considerable intelligence. She awoke in the hospital to the news that she’d been withdrawn from college and would never be able to earn a college degree. Needless to say, the experts were wrong and Cuddy not only finished college (it took her eight years, twice as long as her peers), she went on to graduate school, spurred on by the support of a mentor who wouldn’t let her quit, even when she was convinced she didn’t belong there. She’d lost more than IQ points in that accident. She’d lost her power and her confidence in her ability to navigate the world. Her mentor advised her to fake it, to act “as if” she belonged, as if she could give the speech, as if she could perform until she reached the place where she realized that she was doing it, that she had become it.

My own loss of power and confidence came by way of a very different kind of trauma, a series of psychic blows that accumulated over time until the injury made itself known. I too experienced a marked decline in cognitive functioning among other symptoms. In the years since, we’ve learned a lot about the effects of repetitive trauma on the brain. Brain imaging has made it possible for us to see the physical damage that trauma does to the brain, but brain imaging wasn’t in use back then, and the kinds of neurological symptoms I was experiencing were understood solely through a psychological lens. I was interested in psychology, I’d done therapy and found it useful, but the experience I was having didn’t feel psychological; it seemed like so much more.

I saw various doctors and sought out answers wherever I could find them. I conceived and considered various theories. Being a fairly cerebral person, I would have liked theories that were backed by scientific proof, but being desperate, I didn’t make that a sticking point. I took what I could get from wherever I could get it. One day while reading a fairly out there new age book on personal heeling, I read to overwrite the neural pathways that had been laid down by trauma with new neural pathways. The book didn’t explain how to do this, so I invented my own way — a combination of telling myself new truth over and over (a process not unlike cognitive behavioral therapy techniques) and doing lots of yoga and meditation (which we now know has an ameliorative effect on the brain). Eventually, my cognitive functioning improved and I emerged from what had been a very dark night.

In the years since, we’ve learned a lot since then about neuroplasticity, and how this process of laying down new neural pathways works. A simple layman’s explanation can be found here. At the time, though, I was playing a guessing game, judging what was helpful by how it made me feel. I also looked to other models that might help me understand the neural symptoms I was experiencing. The experiences of people who’d suffered traumatic brain injury and stroke provided some insights that psychology had not.

My doctor had given me an antidepressant and anti-anxiety med and it helped (though it did not succeed in returning me to my former state of health). By that point I was anxious and depressed  and happy for anything that would help, however partially. Still, I knew I wasn’t permanently, biologically depressed, and if I wanted better answers, I knew it was up to me.

I was lucky on several counts:

One. I somehow knew that I wasn’t suffering from an organic mental illness despite having some very destabilizing symptoms. How I knew I can’t really say, but I knew. This knowing might have been buttressed by the research on mental illness I’d done for a screenplay I’d written, or by the fact that I knew an awful lot of people on antidepressants, far more than the statistical incidence of mental illness would indicate, which made me suspicious of the “here, have an antidepressant” approach to treating what ailed me. As for the seemingly high incidence of antidepressant use among people I knew, I might have chalked it up to the fact that I knew more than my fair share of creative types — except, my friend C, who lives in a tony suburb in Northern Virginia, also knew an awful lot of people, housewives and people with very conventional careers, who were also on antidepressant meds. It seemed impossible to me that this many people could be permanently, biologically depressed. I did notice, however, that a lot of the people I knew who were taking antidepressant and anxiety meds had a history of repetitive trauma in their lives. I thought that might be a clue.

Two. I saw a great therapist who gave my case “serious thought” before also concluding that I was not mentally ill. Though I’d deduced that already, his considered opinion, formed over many weeks of therapy sessions, gave me the confidence of my convictions. Like me, he saw a suffering person, but not a person who was ill.

Three. I’d written a well-received screenplay about a manic-depressive psychiatrist.I’d done a tremendous amount of research into bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses in order to create a convincing character and a compelling world. For a layperson, I knew a lot about mental illness, enough to know that one physician’s conclusion that I suffered from bipolar disorder (on the evidence of the fact that I speak fast) was poppycock. Some quick background: One of the symptoms of bipolar disorder is racing thoughts. Racing thoughts are thoughts that the thinker herself has trouble keeping up with. I did not and never have had racing thoughts. I do, however, speak fast. It’s a behavioral tick that developed around the time of my parents’ divorce, and one that becomes more pronounced when I’m experiencing distress. I’m sure I was speaking very fast indeed in the five minutes she spoke to me, but since I didn’t have racing thoughts, or any of the other symptoms of that disease, I felt safe in concluding that she was wrong.

Four. I have the kind of mind that sees connections that aren’t obvious to most people, like a low-rent Einstein (Einstein, you’ll recall, intuited the Theory of Relativity and then he proved it). Many scientists and creative people think this way. It’s where new ideas and original works of art often come from. It’s as if things are floating out there in the universal consciousness, and some of us pull them down. Because I see in this unusual way, I was able to possibilities for my life — and, by extension, other peoples lives — that the experts I encountered did not. I followed those possibilities and they led me out of darkness and into the light. Specifically, I saw a connection between my own sudden cognitive decline — and the depression, anxiety and other neurological symptoms that accompanied it — and the traumas I’d experienced in my life. I had enough of a layman’s understanding of the brain, developed through the reading I’d done about neurobiology and other seemingly unrelated things, like the possibility, posited by the former nun and religious scholar Karen Armstrong, that the spiritual visions of St. Teresa de Avila may have been caused by temporal lobe epilepsy, a chronic neurological condition that Armstrong suffers from, and that presented with similar symptoms — ecstatic visions, the smell of rotten eggs —  that St. Teresa de Avila described. I also learned that Dostoyevsky, the great Russian writer, also believed to have had temporal lobe epilepsy, had ecstatic visions as well, though his were of a literary rather than a spiritual bent.

I started to develop a picture of the brain as a mysterious organism that might behave strangely when damaged by trauma or disease. My own brain was behaving quite strangely at the time so this interested me. On the one hand, I was cognitively impaired. My brain just wasn’t doing normal thinking very well. On the other hand, I was experiencing a sort of expanded consciousness that felt mystical in nature, for lack of a better world. I felt disconnected from this world. It was hard for me to “feel” the world and it felt far away, like I was was watching it from a distance through some kind of scrim or fog. At the same time, I found it exceedingly easy to access the mystical and intuitive realms. It was exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. Because my linear-rational mind, though still in operation, had taken a back seat to my mystical or intuitive mind, I was receptive to insights I normally would have dismissed.

My insight was that the emotional, psychological and physical traumas I’d experienced in my life were at the root of my difficulties. I believed that they had literally injured my brain. I also knew that my brain would heal. In other words, that I was not permanently, biologically ill. I saw similarities between my own cognitive impairment and the other strange symptoms I was having and the symptoms experienced by people with traumatic brain injury or stroke. I experienced cognitive deficits like Amy Cuddy did after her brain injury, and expansive thinking that seems similar to but also different from the stroke of insight that the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor experienced after her stroke, which damaged the linear, methodical left hemisphere of her brain, and left her temporarily marooned in the expansive right hemisphere, where we experience the present moment and our connection to everyone and everything else. Unlike  Einstein, I never prove any of my theories about the brain (I’m truly not equipped), but the research has born me out. We now know that repetitive trauma does do observable damage to the brain. We also know from the field of neuroplasticity, that the injured brain can heal.

Five. I’m stubborn. That’s the fifth and final reason I was lucky. It’s the other reason I was able to find answers that the doctors I sought out could not give me. I’m stubborn, so I didn’t listen to anyone whose answers wouldn’t lead to the life I believed I could have. I wasn’t willing to accept that the life I’d known before was over. I’d been successful and powerful and confident, and I wanted to be that person again. Also, there was this. Around the time that I was struggling with this very difficult set of circumstances, my childhood friend K was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was her second cancer. She’d lost a leg to bone cancer when we were young teens. This cancer would take both her breasts, her womb and, finally, her life. Sitting with K through that experience was an object lesson in the difference between being at the end of the road, and being in some middle place that just happens to be staggeringly hard.

Like Cuddy and Taylor Bolte, it would be years before I would returned to full health. I don’t feel like the person I was before. I’ve ben changed and shaped by the things that I’ve endured. I still feel very lucky even so. A few weeks ago, I learned that a college friend committed suicide. He had battled bipolar disorder for many years. His illness cost him his life. My injury, on the other hand, cost me some dreams I once had, but it didn’t cost me the dreams that lie ahead.

When I think about what happened to me, I think of it as a brain injury, even though it was caused by a series of events  instead of a single, precipitous blow — and even though those events preceded my symptoms by many years. This may be poetic thinking on my part, I’m a writer, after all, not a scientist, but how different is my experience from the experience of football players who develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurological condition caused by the trauma of repeated concussions, a condition whose symptoms also take years, or decades, to present?

I also use the moniker “brain injury” in order to break through the habit of mind that would have us confuse trauma-induced brain damage with heritable mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression. I want people whose lives have been derailed by the long arm of trauma to know that there is a way back. I offer my story as a lamp to light their way. It’s the lamp I wish I’d had, when I was stumbling in the dark.

It’s been more than a decade since my life fell apart. Accepting that it did has been hard. At the time my life began to unravel, I had a devoted agent who knew how to position my voice in the marketplace. My first screenplay was in development at a top-shelf cable network. I was doing the first of what would prove to be back-to-back writing assignments for various studios, production companies and networks, I was buckling down to strategy the next phase of my career, to turn my splashy entry into what I hoped would be a big and sustainable career. Then, I found myself cognitively impaired and unable to do what needed to be done. It was a while before I understood what was happening. One of the many downsides of a disordered brain is that the brain you would normally use to perceive how you are isn’t up to the task. I didn’t know I was struggling. I just thought screenwriting was really hard. I was also high-functioning enough that no one else noticed either. I fell short, but in the mundane ways that any screenwriter might. The rewrites I delivered of my manic-depressive psychiatrist script, to the producer who was then partnered with George Clooney in a deal at Warner Brothers, wasn’t good enough to sustain his interest in getting Clooney involved (in fact, when I read my work years later with a clear mind I discovered I’d actually made it worse). The ideas I pitched to various studios and production companies were okay, but they weren’t the kind of thing that could sell. Granted, selling a pitch is hard (and the truth is, most pitches don’t sell), but I wasn’t even in the game. In fact, I couldn’t understand the game, even though my agent explained it pretty well.

I don’t know what would have happened if things had gone differently. I may have navigated Hollywood really well, but maybe not. I like to think I would have, but who really knows. I accept the loss. It happened; it’s done. The loss I haven’t been able to accept is the loss of my identity, and the loss of power and confidence in my ability to navigate the world. Listening to Cuddy’s TED Talk, I felt myself in the presence of a kindred spirit, someone who knew what this kind of loss is like.

Losing your confidence is no small thing. It’s more important than talent by far. Confidence, after all, is what fuels the  hike to success. Without it I’ve been like a fish ,washed upon the shore, flapping around, but never quite getting anywhere. Still, I refuse to give up. I feel like my old self more these days than I have in many years. I owe a debt to my husband for that. He’s only known me post-recovery, and he has always seen exactly who I am and what I can do. I also owe a debt to old friends who never wavered, who have always believed.

I have begun to build the life I believe I was born for. It is different than the life I had before. Richer, I think, more aligned with my deep desires.

Some days I sit inside a deep awareness of my own capacities, the same awareness that carried me through high school, college, law school, and into my screenwriting life. Other days, I worry that my talents will not be enough. After all, I built a life once and watched it fall apart.

I think, though, that my days of worry are not long for this world. Watching Cuddy’s Talk, I felt a new door open…, and I felt myself walk through it. What I found on the other side is Cuddy’s sweet, practical offering, her answer to how to get back the confidence and power I’ve lost. The genius of Cuddy’s offering is that it doesn’t require you to have confidence you do not have. It just requires you to do a simple thing with your body for two little minutes. Two minutes to get back to your strong and powerful core, so that you can walk with confidence through this world.

Cuddy tells us that if take a power stance over and over again, eventually we will become that. We may have to fake it at first, but we won’t have to fake it in the end. Cuddy knows from whence she speaks. She’s been there. She’s lost her power and she’s gotten it back.

Most of us will never face the kind of setback Cuddy did, but we all have moments of doubt, when we aren’t sure that the speech will go well, or that the interview will bear fruit, or that we’ll make the strong impression we want to. Cuddy offers the antidote and the answer to all of that.

An update: On Sunday May 12, 2013, a few days after this piece appeared, The New York Times published two pieces in its Sunday Review section about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in anticipation of the unveiling of the 5th edition (the DSM-V) later in May. The DSM-V represents the first major reissue of the manual since 1994. It’s being reissued against a backdrop of criticism by, among others, Dr. Thomas Insel, the head of the National Institute of Mental Health, who concluded, in the words of The New York Times, that “the most important diagnostic manual for psychiatric diseases lacks scientific validity and needs a classification system based on biology, not just psychiatric opinion [emphasis mine]. The hitch,” the article continues, “is that such a biology-based system will not be available for a decade or more,” which is why the agency launched a program two years ago “to finance research in biology, genetics, neuroscience, cognitive science and other disciplines with the goal of helping scientists define disorders by their causes, rather than their symptoms [again, all emphasis mine].”  


PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.

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