I recently had an MRI scan as part of a research study, and this is the picture I came away with. I think it’s always nice when they give you a souvenir for taking part in medical research…! Not being a physician or radiographer, I can see the picture but I don’t really know what I’m looking at, and I certainly don’t know what the researchers are looking for. But what I found even more intriguing than the brain scan itself, was one of the exercises that I did alongside it. Although I don’t know what they were looking for from the exercise, or what questions they were seeking to answer, it certainly had something to teach me, and what I took from it was a mental picture and a lived experience of something I have read about many times in parenting books.
The exercise in question involved choosing one of a number of stimuli based on whether you got a ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’ response to your choice. Responses changed, and you had to try and figure out the rules to get the maximally positive result. I found that when the tests involved either ‘positive and neutral‘ or ‘negative and neutral‘ responses, I was able to keep focused; to remember what I was doing as I went along; to try and figure out the rules; and to stay motivated to ‘get it right’. The positive responses were encouraging, and the negative responses just brought out my competitive nature and my determination to figure it out and ‘beat the system’! However, the difference in my reaction to those responses, compared to my reaction to mixed ‘positive and negative‘ responses (with no ‘neutral’), was immense. It was as if my brain just went into meltdown: I couldn’t concentrate; I kept forgetting what I was doing; I couldn’t figure out the rules or try and follow the ‘logic’; I felt confused and incredibly demoralized and demotivated.
I’m not sure what the ‘point’ of the exercise was – or what the researchers were trying to learn. But the first thing I thought of straight after that experience, was the parallel with the way in which I sometimes behave towards my children. I try to be consistent with my children – both in terms of discipline and also in terms of how I react to them in different situations. But, as with any parent, I don’t always succeed. And I think that at the moment, BPD means that I don’t succeed anywhere near as often as I might otherwise. Emotional dysregulation and emotional lability are at the core of BPD, and I do often find my mood switching very quickly between calm and angry; or between happy and irritable.The changes in my mood also mean that one day I might find something very triggering which on the previous day, did not affect me at all. I try not to let this volatility affect my children, but neither can I fool myself that they don’t notice it, or that it doesn’t sometimes affect them. A major reason for my being in therapy, is to try and ensure that I minimize the impact of my mental health difficulties on my children.
And so the experiment struck me because I wondered whether this is how my children feel, when presented with rapidly changing reactions; when there seems to be no rhyme or reason why their choices or behaviour receive a ‘positive’ response one moment, and a ‘negative’ response the next. A consistent and predictable environment helps children to work out ‘the rules’ of social interaction and acceptable behaviour – when that consistency isn’t there, do they find it as confusing, demoralizing and demotivating as I did? When presented with constantly changing reactions, I felt as though my brain was in meltdown and I couldn’t function – could that be related to how my children feel when they are visibly having a meltdown?
I’m not sure if it’s legitimate to extrapolate from my own feelings and worldview, to that of my children – not only are they different people, but the way in which they see the world is probably very different at this stage in their lives. But – what if there is something in that extrapolation? If there is, it gives me an important insight into some of their behaviours and the feelings that might underlie them, and it shows me just how difficult it might be for them to respond to me in a positive way sometimes, when they do not know what to expect.
This may sound sobering – and it is. But the reverse side of this particular coin is that although the change in my reactions was dramatic, it was also temporary. I sometimes switch rapidly from one emotional state to another, and sometimes that change is very visible to my children. But, as my therapist has told me on a number of occasions, my children and I will continue to work on our relationship all of our lives – we will be constantly building and rebuilding and repairing.
I am excited to have taken part in this research study for a number of reasons – but most of all, I am grateful for the fact that a different perspective on what goes on in my own brain, may have given me new insight into what goes on in theirs.