Sugar Water For My Dopamine-Depleted Brain, featuring George Saunders

The importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when the neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. they wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days the animals died of thirst.

In follow-up studies, other scientist also inhibited the dopamine-releasing parts of the brain, but this time, they squirted little droplets of sugar into the mouths of the dopamine-depleted rats. Their little rat faces lit up with pleasurable grins from the tasty substance. Even though dopamine was blocked, they liked the sugar just as much as before; they just didn’t want it anymore. The ability to experience pleasure remained, but without dopamine, desire died. And without desire, action stopped.

James Clear, Atomic Habits (p. 105)

For much of this year to this point, I found myself relating to the rats described above, in that I had very little desire to do much of anything. Although this sounds like—and probably was—a classic depression symptom, I simultaneously observed that, like the rats, I didn’t feel particularly unhappy. I still enjoyed flowers and pretty scenery and conversations and food when—like sugar water getting dropped on the rats’ tongues—it was delivered to me with minimal effort on my part. Luckily, because I live with a man who is moved by his own appetites, much of the world is delivered to me: Marvel television programs appear on the screen, food arrives, I am ferried to various destinations. And as these things happened during this time, I thought mmmm, riding in the car in the sun is nice, this view is nice, this Modern Kale Ceasar Salad hits the spot.

The one arena where Paul could not do much for me was in my writing. With a kind of distanced concern, I observed that my sense of hope and ambition for my writing career had disappeared, and my desire to actually write had dwindled to almost nothing. This, more than anything else, highlighted for me the growing similarity between myself and the desire-less rats. I thought,

For most of my life I have cared about writing. While I don’t care right now, it seems probably that I will care again in the future so it makes sense that I should try to prolong my creative life until the caring kicks back in. To that end, maybe I should attempt to be not only the rats, but also play the role of scientists. (Not the scientists who let their rats die of starvation, but the ones who provided sugar water to keep the rats alive, albeit after cruelly disrupting their normal dopamine flow.)

In other words, I needed to procure my own source of sugar water.

I set about doing this by signing up for a session of the weekly writing workshop I sometimes do. It didn’t push me into writing pages as it normally would, but my sense of social obligation drove me to read other people’s work and give decent notes. There was some satisfaction in realizing that, after years of practice, seeking writing solutions when I read scripts is now as automatic as starting to chew after I’ve put food in my mouth. So I think my fellow writers benefitted and I exercised my brain a little. But after a couple of months, I was worn out even by this. I needed sugar water that required zero response.

Normally I keep a running list of the “content” I am watching and listening to, but I also didn’t care enough to do that. Much of what I was consumed was apparently not memorable, but I’ll mention a couple that were:

On Apple TV, there was Severance. Rather than attempt to say much about it, I’ll just recommend it, or recommend reading the second half of this essay in Electric Literature. (Or, like me, you could read the entire essay and then order the book that it talks about in the first half.)

On audio, there was the George Saunders’ book, A Fish in a Pond in the Rain.

In the first weeks after my surgery, my general I-can’t-make-myself-care mood persisted, mixed with a fair amount of physical pain.

“Are you okay?” asked our most curious neighbor, with some actual concern.

I was not great. I had little energy or desire to have back-and-forth conversations or observe the social niceties of stretching my face into different expressions. But as I slowly shuffled around the block like a battery-finally-depleted energizer bunny, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was pure sugar water piped into my brain via my ears. Inside my head, and even inside my soul, “my little rat face lit up with pleasure.”

Although the book can be described as about writing, Saunders also weaves some discussion of morality, spirituality, human nature and the general poignant ridiculousness of people.

Saunders, like my husband, is an engineer-turned-writer, and it is interesting to observe the ways in which their minds think alike. Saunders elevates this by also being well-read and dedicated to efficiently and affectingly articulating his thoughts that are shaped by years of consideration and teaching.

In each section an actor reads a story by a Russian author you’ve heard of, and then Saunders analyzes each story, beat by beat, page by page, doing both a close reading,” and a larger structural analysis.

If you are a writer, a reader or a lover of stories, I highly recommend this book.

P.S. Though I’m a fan of George Saunders’ fiction, I became aware of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain via his Story Club newsletter which you can check out on SUBSTACK for free. I will admit to being months behind — apparently opening emails and reading things on my computer is less like sugar-water delivery and more akin to having to cross one’s cage for sustenance, and I’m not all the way there yet. The minute he compile his posts into an audiobook or podcast, I will be the first to lay my money down

Introducing ATOMIC HABITS

Quick health update: I’m almost six weeks out from my surgery and feeling much better. Some aches and pains will work themselves out for a few months and deep healing is a process, but, as of now, no more daily needles in my belly, the glue is slowly peeling off the wounds, and I wake in the morning with more energy…

So… cool! I guess that means I can get back to what I was doing I when I got distracted, like…. six months ago? What was I doing again?

Oh, right, planning my best life ever in 2022! 😹

As 2021 came to a close, I decided to build the new year around two books: Joy at Work, co-authored by Marie Kondo, and Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. My plan was to pre-read these books before the end of 2021, then, in the new year, to go back through them in a more active way, using the advice and doing the exercises until I emerged anew— organized, in control, productive and operating at maximum satisfaction.

Of course, I understood that reconfiguring a lifetime of not-great habits wouldn’t be quick. It might take all year! Though, secretly, I hoped for less. Maybe I would achieve my optimal life in half that time—like by June, or even May!

Hahahahahahaha.

God

Consider this a prequel to some upcoming posts wherein I will reference Atomic Habits in the context of ruminating about life and purpose.

Last Day With Colon

(On the last day before my full colectomy, I prepare for surgery)

Tomorrow is my colectomy. 

My surgery 20 years ago was what they call a “hemi-colectomy,” because it removed about half my colon. Some friends came to visit in the hospital back then and brought me a get well card adorned with a bold, graphic:

;

It was funny. I really enjoyed that. I don’t know what can graphically represent my situation after tomorrow. Maybe this? 

,

PREP DAY:

My pre-op prep started last night with a shower using a chlorhexadine soap that is supposed to block germ growth to prevent infection. After using it, you can’t use lotions or moisturizers, so I currently have elephant skin. I’ll take another shower today and another in the morning before we head to the hospital for our 5:00 AM call time.

For the rest of today my duties are: 1) Don’t eat any food that’s not transparent (which, since I’m too lazy to make yellow jello or clear broth, just means a water fast), 2) Take two kinds different antibiotics three times during the day, and 3) drink two bottles of magnesium citrate (which interestingly (to me) after 20 years of colonoscopy preps, I’ve never had before).

Halfway through this protocol, I can say that in terms of bitterness and nausea inducing qualities, one of the antibiotics is actually worse that the magnesium citrate, but we’re making it through. In between trips to the toilet, I’m prepping for convalescence, which is pretty much like prepping for a trip. Paying bills, set up an auto reply on my email, doing laundry and dishes and whatever tasks I’ve been putting off but now seem worth doing at the last minute. 

NEW VIDEO PROJECT

I’ve also been bossing Paul around, having him get some shots on his phone camera that I might be able to use later for one of the videos I have in my head. It’s possible that my newfound passion to do this YouTube / podcast thing is just my subconscious distracting me from the realities of the realities at hand, and my energy for the whole thing will be short-lived, but…

As threatened in my previous post, I recorded my first video yesterday! A video-version of my last post, “How often will I poop after a colectomy?

It was a good reminder of the joys of producing the simplest of projects. We got the camera and mic set up just in time for the tree cutters, leaf blowers and house remodelers to rise in chorus outside my office window. Once these noises tapered off toward evening, the young woman in the apartment downstairs came home with a girlfriend and they had a nice 3-hour gabfest in the room right below mine. I finally recorded anyway, with the rise and fall of their conversation — that distinct rhythm and lilt of two women in their early 20s — in the background. 

My initial takes were so rambling and disjointed that I ended up reading from script instead of looking into camera which I’m expecting to be weird and off-putting, but in the end I just loaded it onto the hard drive for “Future-Barrington-who-has-learned-how-to-edit” to deal with. The perfect is the enemy of the good enough, right? 

I’m sure Future-Barrington is going to be happy with … everything.

It’s fine. It’s all fine. I’m not worried at all!

Updates from Limbo – Decision Made

Still traversing this expanse of time between diagnosis and colectomy surgery. It’s been about five months which which seems crazy. The length of time is partly on me — hopping providers and looking for options— and then due to crowded schedule of my surgeons.

This window of time—before the event and the after of the event—has a limbo-like quality. I’m living my day-to-day life in a completely normal way, but also I’m distracted by the waiting. I appreciate this time, because I feel good now, and I might not feel so good after. But also, there’s an element of wanting to get on with it — to get to the other side of the uncertainty about how life is going to be.

But the time has also given me time to process, and even change my mind about stuff. For instance: After much consideration, the ovaries are going to stay.

When all of this is behind me, I have no doubt that I look back at these months that have produced absolutely no screenwriting and wonder “what the hell did I do for all that time?” I will state for the record that I spent many hours researching, both statistics related to my specific situation, and menopause in general. (This is deserving of its own post that I’ll hopefully write in the future, but in the meantime, read or listen to this book.)

Then I had a meeting with my surgeon where I cried twice while presenting my various facts and figures, and neuroses. She was super-nice, saying that there were valid reasons for either keeping my ovaries or removing them and she’d support whatever decision I wanted to make. She was also super-smart in giving me a deadline for a decision. We both wanted her to be able to give her surgery slot to someone else if I wasn’t going to use it — and she could probably see the likelihood of me digging a research hole into the center of the earth if someone didn’t stop me. She told me to let her know in a week and I agreed.

During that week, I talked to two women, both friends-of-friends, who have gone through surgical menopause, and they shared their experiences. During this time, I’ve been so inspired hearing from people who have gone through their own unique struggles and emerged on the other side. I’m repeatedly amazed by people’s strength and resilience and their emotional generosity in sharing their stories with me just because I ask.

Both of the women I talked to noted that my decision, in the end, would come down to “trusting my gut.” This is difficult, because my gut and I have a long history of communication problems. Is it that I’m not a good listener I’ve wondered, or is my gut a little dysfuntional? (Since my soon-to-be-removed colon is part of my gut, I know there’s some kind of metaphorically snarky comment just asking to be made here, but I don’t know exactly what it is.)

In hopes that my gut would pull back on giving me the silent-treatment, I decided that on decision day, from the moment I woke up, I would not speak to anyone, not look at any screen of any kind, not read or even write until I made a decision.

I woke at about 7:30.

A little after 2:30, I turned on my computer in order to message my surgeon with my decision.

The seven hours in between were very… interesting. Interesting and a little boring. Elongated and super-slow, but also not slow. A relief, but also mildly excruciating.

I don’t know if my gut ever shouted, but in the end I felt happy with my decision—or happy to have it made. And my half-day experiment gave me a tiny sample of a new adventure I am planning, with both anticipation and dread… a 10-day Vipassana course.

(Ummm, yeah, this is is also worthy of a separate post in the future— stay tuned!)

A Visitation (All the Woo-Woo, #1)

“You had a visitor during your treatment.” 

(my friend C_, who sometimes see things that other people can’t)

A few years ago, for a scripted project, I read several books about research on reincarnation and near death experiences. There are a number of reports that make it seem likely that there is life beyond our own lives – that our consciousnesses don’t just end.

From there, it’s not a far jump to think that sometimes those other planes might touch our own at time.

Despite this, when I talk to people who tell me about conversing with their “angels” and “guides,” my reflexive thought is, really? Intellectually I am open and curious. At my emotional core, I’m a skeptic.  

I was called out on this by S__, a therapist I booked a session with to help me process my latest health crisis. She brings alternative methods into her practice so over the course of our session she “pulled some cards” for me, and consulted her guides. She concluded I was living with uncertainty. Who isn’t? I asked. But she said that I was haunted, more than others, by uncertainty and thoughts around death. Again I pushed back (at least internally) because I don’t think of myself as someone who dwells on death (after all, there are so many more immediate things to worry about!). But, then I considered more, and accepting we are shaped by our childhoods, and given that my childhood was repeatedly marked by periods of intense uncertainty that accompanied my father’s illnesses with possibility of death looming over each one, I had to admit she probably wasn’t wrong. 

S__ said to me, “Life will be different for you when you believe in something after death. When you know there is.”

I agreed, though I wasn’t sure how the observation was helpful. Of course it would be more pleasant to believe in something like that, but if I’ve lived half my life without knowing, I couldn’t imagine what would need to happen to change that. Still, I dutifully recited the meditation script she gave me for the next week and ordered her book recommendation* from the library.

A week or so later my two friends D__ and C__ came to our apartment. They are taking an energy healing class where they need to accrue some practice hours, and they generously offered to do three of their sessions with me. The session itself was similar to a reiki treatment, although there was more movement. At times it felt like a pulling and moving of energies, though it’s subtle, and I never forget that I might be imagining it.

When the treatment was over and we were sitting afterward, C__ said, “You had a visitor during your session.” 

She described this visitor as “a tall, stern lady who stood very straight”* who stood at the head of the massage table during the treatment.

“She looked a little like you. I thought maybe was an older version of you, because she said her name was “B.” But then I got that it wasn’t B, for Barrington, but spelled B E A, short for Beatrice. She didn’t say much, just that she was there and that you’re strong, you’ll get through this.”

I gasped. I’ve only known one Beatrice. She was the mother of a serious boyfriend in my 20s, someone I’d considered to be almost a mother-in-law. Everyone had called her Bea. She had died almost exactly two years previous to the day of our session   Though I’d never thought of her as “stern,”she was tall, with good posture. People had observed we were similar. In this moment, I was struck, less by certainty than by emotion. Tears welled up when I thought of her coming to give me encouragement for my situation, and also evidence of some continued existence after life just when I had been asking for it! I’m here, she’d said.

I think this would make a good ending for the story, but it is not the end. 

C_ and D_  returned a few weeks later to do a second healing session, This time, C__ again saw Bea, and this time Bea was holding hands with a younger man, whose name Caron intuited also started with the letter B. Bea said this man was known to me, although she (Bea) knew him better. That he had struggled earlier in life, but now was doing better. And that I would remember who she was referring to. I wracked my brain, but I didn’t remember. I couldn’t think of a single mutual acquaintance whose name began with a “B,” much less a dead one…

“Wait…” C_ consulted her pendulum, then said, surprised, that she didn’t think the man-whose-name-began-with-B had passed over. He was still alive. That was interesting! But not that helpful, since I still couldn’t think of anyone. I let it go. Not everything needs explaining, and ,of course, a skeptic doesn’t need to go chasing belief.

Some time after this, I got a call from a sort-of cousin. His stepmother was the sister of my mother’s father. He and my mom spent time together as children, then lost touch for decades before re-discovering each other in their 70s. His name is Bob.

I’ve met Cousin Bob in person only twice, but he will occasionally call. Whenever we talk, there’s usually a point where Cousin Bob brings up childhood memories involving relatives who died before I was born and haven’t really heard of. My mother almost never talks about her father’s side of the family. Which I guess is how it’s possible that I was caught by surprise when I heard Cousin Bob say “something, something, your great-grandmother, Beatrice.” 

I asked my mother, and she confirmed that, yes, I had a great-grandmother named Beatrice, and recollected that yes, people had called her Bea. And, yes, she was a stern woman, “We were all scared of her when we were kids.” I recounted Bea’s words, You’re strong, you’ll get through it. My mom said, “Yep, that sounds like her.”

So, to recap: My great-grandmother was named Beatrice, and the person most closely connected to her that I also know is a man who’s name begins with “B.” He is, without deep-diving into his life, someone who had struggles earlier in life, but is doing better now…

I had wondered, what would need to happen to make me believe? And then this happened.

And S_ was right, it has changed things. The transition has been more subtle more than dramatic, but it’s there. My immediate circumstances are the same — none of my visitors (there have been others now) have hinted at what decisions I should make about my health or career. Confusion still abounds— but I’m considering a different sense of proportion. There is a new question I am contemplating:

What does it mean if one’s singular life on this planet is not the entire measure of one’s existence, just a segment of something larger? 

* Book recommendation: Journey of Souls by Michael Newton, in which the author interviews people under hypnosis about their existence between reincarnated lives.