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I Am Inhabited

I realized, after using the word crazy in my previous post, that it was World Mental Health Day. Which event may reveal me to be even more insensitive than I previously knew.

I have talked here, I think, about how I used to conceive of the human body as a machine. Specifically a car: you put in the right fuel, you take care of the various moving parts, and it goes and gets you where you want to go. Sometimes bits of it break and have to be fixed. If you smash it too badly, you can’t fix it. And all of that is true, more or less, but it turns out it’s not a terribly useful way to think about the human body. It also, by the way, leads to internalizing a mind/body split that I have come to find very unhelpful and inaccurate—the body is not a device for carrying some you around, but is at the least a part of who you are.

I went from the car concept to a chemical plant concept. While there still needs to be fuel in and waste out, and lots of infrastructure with moving parts that still can break, the important part, really, is getting the chemical balance right—the right balance of chemical intake produces the right chemicals, which are intake for the next chemical chain. Vitamins and sugars and proteins and whatnot are converted to sugars and blood and fat and muscle and whatnot, and the conversion process is calibrated differently for different people. So if you think about it as one of those puzzler videogames where you have to combine things to make the colors match up in order to level up, every time you play there’s a different mechanism for converting one color to another.

I came across something recently, though, that pointed out that a better metaphor is to think of the human body as an ecosystem. Well, as a rain forest. I am inhabited—we are all inhabited, science tells us, by organisms of a startling variety and quantity. These organisms interact with each other and with the infrastructure in unending combinations. They also interact with the organisms in other nearby ecosystems—every ecosystem contains smaller ones and is contained by larger ones, just a tree can be viewed as an ecosystem, a forest, a range of forests, a continent… the decimation of bats in one ecosystem is felt in the bug population of the ecosystem next door, and the butterflies in my belly cause your hair to fall out which increases my stress levels which interferes with my immune system which allows the reintroduction of wolves into my cerebrum.

Or something. Metaphors and analogies are just ways of thinking about things, you know, they aren’t intended to have one-to-one correspondence. The point is that everything is connected to everything, and that’s true of the inhabitants of your body and the inhabitants of other people’s (and animals’) bodies, as well as all the internal and external infrastructure.

And that, as least as I read it, we are starting to realize that mental health is not something distinct from physical health, that having a lousy digestion and having black depression are not as different as all that, and that having PTSD and having stomach cancer are not as different as all that. They’re not the same, you understand. They aren’t the same. But they aren’t as different as we all thought. They are all manifestations of fuckups in the system—and there are always fuckups in the system.

That, I think, is the lesson of the ecosystem metaphor—the system struggles to an equilibrium, and then something disruptive happens. A fire or a virus or a cancer or a glacier or a bad touch or a parasite or an epidemic or a car crash or insomnia or depression or arthritis or hunger. Something happens. And maybe nothing much happens, or maybe all hell breaks loose. And if all hell breaks loose, maybe there’s total breakdown and the system dies, or maybe a new equilibrium is reached. Until the next disruption.

The fact that everything is connected to everything means that it’s not possible to isolate the problem, that a butterfly in Shanghai can cause a proverbial in whatsit. It also means that there are potentially a million new equilibrium points, and a million paths to them. It’s a hopeful thing, to me. And a scary one, because many of those equilibrium points kinda suck. But a hopeful thing, too, innit?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,