Running for your life

Running for your life

by marlies|dekkers

Dr. Bram Bakker is a psychiatrist, a writer, a runner and a provocateur. With his many bestselling books and columns – and yes, even his own theatre show – he urges us to think outside the box when it comes to our mental health. Not crazy about popping pills? Bram shared some interesting alternatives with me, from throwing out our phones to running ‘till we puke’.

Marlies: ‘Go on a run instead of taking a pill’; with statements like this, you are definitely not afraid to shake things up in the world of psychiatry. But Bram, isn’t that exactly what people expect when they come to see you: a pill?

Bram: When I was young, I wanted to become a psychiatrist out of the romantic, perhaps childish notion that I would be able to see through people. But shortly after I started my studies, psychiatry got hijacked by the pharmaceutical industry. By blaming a lack of serotonin for every thinkable mental health problem, they were able to make billions with their antidepressant pills. In the mean time, suicide rates hit their highest point. And I realized: applying a disease model to psychiatry obviously isn’t working. Prescribing a pill is not always the answer.

Marlies: What should we do instead?

Bram: A disease model works great within traditional medicine where things are black or white. You don’t break your leg only a little bit and you are not a little pregnant: you either are or aren’t. But psychiatric problems come in many shades of grey. And what causes them? A bad marriage, a child with cancer, a parent suffering from dementia; all these things can make you depressed. Try solving that with just a pill! I believe that instead, together with the patient, we should construct a personal narrative including all the elements that shape your human experience. Are you in a relationship, how is your sex life? What is your lifestyle? Etcetera.

Marlies: You ‘map’ someone’s life

Bram: Exactly. This way, we can find solutions that work for YOU as an individual. Life is all about balance. Most of us are pretty balanced, but none of us have the guarantee that it stays that way. We’re all on a seesaw and can be catapulted off at any moment. People tell me things like: “I was fine, but then I lost my job and I just went off the deep end.” To help you find back your balance, medical science focuses on eliminating your afflictions. But how about focusing on boosting someone’s power? How about stimulating their talents? We can assume that Vincent van Gogh was bipolar. He cut off his ear during a psychotic episode. Yet, if he would have been given the recommended dose of lithium, we would never have had his stunning paintings with all those explosive colors. We would have had a sea of grey.

Marlies: You are making such a good point. A few years ago, when I was exploring psychoanalysis, my therapist said: “We will leave certain areas alone, because I want to avoid dimming your creativity.” I had always been told I was too excessive, but I realized then that my excessiveness was actually a place where my creativity and talents could grow.

Bram: It reminds me of that quote: ‘A rotten childhood is a writer’s goldmine’.

Marlies: I love that. Let’s go back to your own quote: ‘Go on a run instead of taking a pill’. Can you describe a situation where you actually ‘prescribe’ a run to a patient?

Bram: Running is actually the thing that keeps me somewhat sane myself. Now, when people have destructive habits, like drinking too much or harming themselves with a knife, I try to understand how those habits make them feel and I find an alternative for it. For example, a self-harming girl might say: “I cut myself because I am numb and want to feel something”. In her case, I would tell her to go outside and run. And not a little jog, no, I want her to run so long and so hard till she feels like puking. Then, when she has recovered somewhat, I want her to walk home, have a hot shower and go to bed for a few hours. See how she feels then.

Marlies: There is more and more scientific proof that there is a strong link between exercise and mental health. Sleep is another important factor, isn’t it?

Bram: Absolutely. But did you know that compared to 20 years ago, we sleep an hour less per night? Our phones are keeping us up! Let’s do the math: if we continue to lose an hour every of sleep 20 years, we’ll be sleeping only 2 hours a night in 2119.

Marlies: We’ll be zombies.

Bram: We’ll be dead. You know, the bottom line is that we have completely lost touch with what is actually good for us. And I think the solution for a lot of problems in our society is to return to our evolutionary origins.

Marlies: You want us to sit around a fire together?

Bram: (Laughs) Why not? Let’s throw out our phones and get together. Make love, get in a fist fight, really talk with each other. Leaving a comment on Facebook is not the same as having a conversation. Eat when you’re hungry, spend some time every day doing absolutely nothing. Dare to laze around. For too long we have relied on our brains. And look where that got us: melting ice caps, astronomically high levels of CO2. It’s time to get back to our feelings.

Marlies: A beautiful conclusion, Bram. Thank you very much.

Visit Bram’s website to order his books and read his blog posts.

 

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