Live from Ames, Iowa

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I'm chilling out in Iowa, waiting for my ride to the airport. To backtrack:


    Monday late afternoon, St Louis Airport, connecting from San Diego: The ATM machine won't read my debit card. No time. The flight for Des Moines is boarding.


    Monday evening, Des Moines Airport: The ATM says I only have $82 and change in my account. Monday was a bank holiday. I'm going to have to rely on my emergency credit card.


    Tuesday, Ames, Iowa State University: Sixteen hundred is now in my bank account. I won't have to hitch hike out of Iowa. I am at a recovery conference, put on by the state department of acronyms. Most of the people here are professionals. The keynoter talks about transforming the system. He has the candor to acknowledge it isn't going to happen overnight. It's difficult enough to change things in one's personal life, he says, much less getting clinicians and administrators to do a complete 180.

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    At lunch, I talk to a woman involved in counseling individuals with gambling addiction. Casinos came into Iowa about 10 or 12 years ago, and now the state has a gambling problem. This woman has dealt with the full spectrum of addictions. What's the common theme to these addictions? I ask. She talks about the lives of quiet desperation a lot of us lead. Excessive eating or shopping or sex or other behaviors are a way of relieving the hurt. I ask if she has some king of ball park figure, not necessarily of clinical addiction. More like people in pain, seeking relief. Fifty percent or more? She nods affirmatively.


    She fills me in on her trade secret: If I think I'm better than someone, she says, I can't help someone. If I think someone is better than me, I can't help, either.


    Later, at a consumer's dinner, I meet an extraordinary woman. In 2005, she survived a head-on collision. A succession of doctors played pin the psychiatric diagnoses on the patient, then wrote her off as noncompliant. Finally, someone figured out she had a neurological damage, what they call diffuse axonal injury. Basically, the extensions from the neuron that project out through the brain to communicate with other neurons got twisted and snapped.


    Key neuronal pathways went off-line, taking out her memory, her coordination, the way she related to herself and to her world. She could not perceive of a knife as a knife. It was a cutting tool, as was a scissors. Dr Pepper was "the black drink." She could not make out words in reading material, only patterns and the white spaces.


    In many areas of her life, she was back to learning as a baby would. Slowly, through great persistence and determination, she started laying down new neuronal roadwork. Basic functions, simple tasks, started coming back. The other day, she remembered how to use a calculator.


    This is a very smart, personable, attractive woman with a sly sense of humor. She is winning back her life, literally one baby step at a time. She has the grace to tell me she is a much better person as a result of what she has been through. There for the grace of God, this woman could have been consigned to a life spent drooling in a day room, glazed look in her eyes.


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    Wednesday: I'm one of the breakout speakers. They've put me in the main auditorium, and I'm gratified to have a crowd of about 90 people, fairly evenly divided among patients and professionals. My talk is the same one I broke in at the DBSA conference in Orlando in August, and after giving it once I had been thinking of scrapping it. But I was locked into the program blurb, so it was too late to substitute with my tried and true "safe" talk.


    I've done some serious retooling since then, and have been working in major changes right up to show time. Hopefully, my audience won't get lost this time when I lay on the brain science. Hopefully, they'll laugh at the jokes.


    The intro is over. I tell the audience how delighted I am to be here in Iowa. I've met some truly great people, so it comes across as genuine. I launch into my talk. This time, when I look out, I don't see any blank faces. People are laughing, relaxed.


    Later, people approach me saying how much they enjoyed hearing a light and entertaining talk. My talk dealt with a lot of heavy brain science stuff, and it went over like a comedy routine. This has to be a first. I nailed the landing.


    Two and three days ago, I was mildly depressed in San Diego. Now I'm on top of the world in Iowa.


    Flight to catch ...


Published On: October 10, 2007