“Sheh-asani kirtzono,” orchids, and neurotic monkeys

3 01 2010

ShehAsani Kirtzono

When we last left our struggling, prayer-commenting hero, she was writing about the Elohai Nishama prayer. It wasn’t so much that she did not want to get to “Sheh-asani Kirtzono” “who has made me according to His Will,” as that she had so much to say about it, that she couldn’t say anything, and, instead, resorted to writing about other things.

I have always loved this prayer. I know that many women (and some men) take issue with it, or, perhaps more accurately, it’s male counterpart, “Who has not made me a woman.” Personally, I always felt that everyone should just say “sheh-asani kirtzono,” “who has made me according to His will.” I’m sometimes not sure how men can resist saying it! I like that it is phrased in the positive; that we are thanking God for what we are rather than what we are not. I like that it is phrased in an inclusive way: However we are, God wanted us that way. God made us as He wished to make us.

I have taken great comfort and derived great strength from this prayer. During my better times, I (surprisingly?) feel grateful to God for afflicting me with depression, which I am certain makes me into a better person. Had I not become depressed, I might have turned out like some people I know: type A, aggressively competitive, perfectionist to a fault, judgmental of those I consider inferior to me, happily self-sufficient, and condescending to all. I am better off as I am: acknowledging my imperfections, understanding of the imperfections of others, kinder, gentler, more open to relationships of all kinds, and realizing that I cannot, under any circumstances, just “go it alone.” I honestly used to think, before I got depressed, that people were often more trouble than they were worth. I no longer feel that way. I used to think, before I got depressed, that if only others were more like me, the world would function better. Now, I know that if too many others were like me, the world would be very broken.

It took my own monumental failures to live up to my sky-high standards to really feel that it was okay to not be perfect. I always talked the good talk of tolerance and acceptance of others, but it took my own inability to fit into the A-hungry culture of the college I attended to really see differences from these cultural ideals as valuable, rather than unfortunate. I still struggle with many of these issues, but my life without these struggles and these nuanced appreciations and understandings of the world around me would be a paler, worse life.

There are other ways in which I sometimes think that my depression has given me a better life than I would otherwise have. I suspect that, when the mood is right, I experience intense gratitude for things that others sometimes take for granted. Things like rushing rivers, red leaves fluttering to the ground, a nine-year-old girl dancing in front of her reflection in a hotel door in a totally un-self-conscious way, babies’ and young children’s open-hearted acceptance of the world and the people in it, sunshine, weather warm enough to go out without a coat, fresh raspberries or figs…the list goes on. I don’t think I noticed these small pleasures before I got depressed.

So, God, I declare to you: Thank you for making me according to Your will! I did not ask to me made this way, and I certainly would be hard-pressed to say that I would choose it if given the choice to avoid it, but having been made this way, I find room in my heart, God, to be grateful. This illness, these struggles, have drawn so many wonderful people and so many satisfying relationships into my life. Back when I was “perfect” and didn’t think I needed anyone, I was worse off.

I don’t always feel this way. Sometimes, this blessing is a major thorn in my side. I don’t understand how anyone can thank God for creating her as a being who wishes to end her own life. I don’t understand how anyone can thank God for creating him as a being who sheds buckets of tears in the shower every morning, instead of being a productive member of society. I don’t understand how anyone can thank God for a condition that seems to thwart every attempt I make to be a productive member of society. It is unfathomable to me, at times, how anyone could ever think that God plays any role in this disaster that is full-blown depression, except perhaps as a punishment. And thinking of depression as a punishment from God for poor behavior goes against everything I believe about God and punishment and good and evil. (Also, I was such a good kid! With a few exceptions relating to my lack of desire to assist in household chores.)

If there was a God at all, I sometimes feel, depression would not exist. Sometimes, I am struck with a particular potent stream of the “What ifs”–thoughts I have about how successful and happy and professionally accomplished I would be had I never been struck with depression, or had I vanquished it for good back in 1998 or 2000 or 2003 or 2007. At those times, I really cannot understand a God who would consciously cripple and hinder His creations in this protractedly cruel way. God, do you know how much better of a Jew and a person I would be had this saga ended years ago?!

I hold both of these feelings simultaneously: I know, when I am well, that I am much better off, as a human being and a Jew, for having struggled with depression and won. I know, when I am unwell, that if these was a caring and compassionate God in this universe, that nobody would fight this hard to simply get through the day, to simply live. It’s ghastly. Just ghastly.

The December 2009 issue of The Atlantic has a fascinating article, called “The Science of Success,” by David Dobbs, that may shed some light on the two sides of this coin and on this blessing.

The abstract reads:

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

I know, if I know anything at all, that I am an orchid. I am decidedly unable to take root and survive almost anywhere.

Although all four of us were raised by the same parents, two of my three siblings are fairly well established in life without too much trouble or angst. The third seems to be well on her way. As far as I know, they  have had no need for therapy or late-night conversations about whether ending their lives was a good idea or a bad idea, despite having been raised by the same parents and many of the same genes. This troubled me for a long time, and made me feel like my depression was somehow my fault. If they could thrive, why couldn’t I? This article explains all of that quite neatly. They are dandelions and I am an orchid. The parenting they received seems to have been sufficient for my three siblings, at least in their current states of adulthood. Although I wish with all my might to have been born a dandelion–life would have been so much easier, and probably better–none of us gets a choice in this matter.

The article also explains why God might choose to afflict someone–or, rather, a random segment of the population–with depression, anxiety, or any number of other afflictions that seem meaningless and simply cruel. It sort of turns on its head the very irritating comment that I used to get all the time, but thankfully no longer do, which was presumably meant to make me feel oodles better but never did: “You know, it’s only the most intelligent who get depressed.”

I cannot adequately summarize (or quote) the whole thing, so you should really read it yourself before going on.

The author begins by describing the “vulnerability hypothesis,” which considers “psychic and behavioral problems” to be “products not of nature or nurture but of complex ‘gene-environment interactions.’ Your genes don’t doom you to these disorders. But if you have ‘bad’ versions of certain genes and life treats you ill, you’re more prone to them.” He then goes on to describe the newer, alternate hypothesis, which is the main point of the article.

This new model suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.

This theory was so consonant with my experiences that it nearly knocked the wind out of me. It also explained, in evolutionary terms, why my existence is not a ghastly mistake and waste of natural resources, as I sometimes feel sure that it is.

This orchid hypothesis also answers a fundamental evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis cannot. If variants of certain genes create mainly dysfunction and trouble, how have they survived natural selection? Genes so maladaptive should have been selected out. Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. The vulnerability hypothesis can’t account for this. The orchid hypothesis can.

This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength. For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.

I went on to identify strongly with his description of the “mercurial orchids” (metaphors) and “neurotic monkeys” (actual psych lab subjects). I was also moved by the author’s own struggle with the decision about whether to have his SERT (or 5-HTTLPR) gene analyzed to see if he carried the allele which came with a greatly magnified risk of major depression. I found reason to hope in this passage:

And even when they [orchids] lead troubled early lives, some of the resulting heightened responses to adversity that can be problematic in everyday life—increased novelty-seeking, restlessness of attention, elevated risk-taking, or aggression—can prove advantageous in certain challenging situations: wars, tribal or modern; social strife of many kinds; and migrations to new environments. Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.

At the end, the author discovered that he had a genetic vulnerability to depression. But rather than seeing it as a cause for despair, he saw it as a cause for hope:

The orchid hypothesis suggested that this particular allele, the rarest and riskiest of the serotonin-transporter gene’s three variants, made me not just more vulnerable but more plastic. And that new way of thinking changed things. I felt no sense that I carried a handicap that would render my efforts futile should I again face deep trouble. In fact, I felt a heightened sense of agency. Anything and everything I did to improve my own environment and experience—every intervention I ran on myself, as it were—would have a magnified effect. In that light, my short/short allele now seems to me less like a trapdoor through which I might fall than like a springboard—slippery and somewhat fragile, perhaps, but a springboard all the same.

I found that framing of the issue to be incredibly hopeful and uplifting.

I am still seeking that springboard part of depression, which so often feels like a deep well out of which I must climb, exhaustedly, over and over and over again. Despite that, I am pleased that science claims that this springboard exists, somehow, somewhere, if only I improve my own environment and experience enough to see  it.

The idea that the genetic predisposition to depression provides something positive, when I am doing okay, is not new to me.

The hard thing is to find the positive when I am not doing okay. To have faith in God and/or the allele that I surely carry that makes me wilt so much more easily than my siblings, despite having been raised with the same care. The hard thing is to stop wishing to become a dandelion and to begin making the most of this “orchidness” that I carry. The hard thing is to recognize that God could knowingly inflict me with the gene (plus some sub-optimal childhood experiences) that have made my life so scary and exhausting, and to say, despite it all:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשַׂנִי כִּרְצוֹנוֹ:

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has made me according to Your will.

The beautiful thing about this bracha [blessing], I think, is that is gently encourages us to take a good, hard look at how we are–both how we were created and how we exist on this planet right now–and to find ways to deal with being that person.

To thank God for having made us dandelions or orchids, monkeys neurotic or calm, rather than bemoaning what we are not.

We are what we are. There are some propensities that we cannot change, but we can always change things about our environments or circumstances. That is what I do whenever I pop a pill that helps bathe my brain in extra serotonin; what I do whenever I sit down with my therapist; what I do whenever I make the conscious and very difficult effort to take a walk outside in the fresh air and bright sunshine; and what I do when I go to the gym to flood my brain with dopamine. It’s what I do when I struggle to create a community of caring friends, and it’s what I do when I try to maintain a relationship with my parents despite great geographic distance. Accepting what I am and trying to change what I can to make those things favorable parts of my personality rather than severe liabilities is the only way to move forward. That is what I shall try to think of the next morning that I utter this blessing.

Here is hoping that 2010 brings all of us springboards and the improved environments and experiences that shed light on them. Here is to honoring the neurotic monkey in each of us.