Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fashion




When I look back on now, I can see some of the flaws in my logic, I guess. But, at that moment, somewhere in the hazy miasma that was the late 70s, it made perfect sense to purchase a burnished leather watchband the width of a baby's chest.

I've never really been much of a fashion plate, or even a fashion saucer. My wardrobe runs to the functional. While I pride myself on not necessarily looking like an old guy (you know, suspenders, plaid shirt, monkeyshit-brown Sans-a-Belt slacks), I'll never be mistaken for Clinton the Hot Gay Dude on "What Not to Wear." For this reason, my apparel purchases tend to take on a life of their own. When I spend money on stuff to wear, I want to make it sure it's a sound purchase.

When I was in grad school, I had a friend named Trey. His real name was Tommy Coble Ishee III, but he was a good southern boy and good southern boys use "Trey" when they're the third in line. While the rest of us were wearing tshirts and Birkenstocks, Trey would come to school decked out in a just-right jacket and tie. He just KNEW what people should wear. If a professor had the bad sense to wear something that Trey judged unfashionable, he'd lean over to me and purr, sotto-voce "that shirt is wearin' HIM" in his Coke-syrup accent. Trey knew.

I was clueless.

I always had been been clueless. Always. When other babies were wearing "Spit Happens" bibs, my clothes were protected with an old diaper. I caught disapproving glances in third grade because my glasses frames were wrong. My mom cut my hair. I never bought a leisure suit, even though my pal Jim Morris had a powder-blue polyester matchy-match ruffled-collar rain-beading beauty that made the rest of us weep with jealous grief. The only reason I had puka shells was because I had found some in the garbage at the donut store. To this day, everyone thinks they were given to me by a girl.

As you can see, my hesitation at the watchband purchase was understandable. My best friend Ben and I had gone shopping with our Christmas money. He blew all his at Rare Earth, the record-store/head-shop that had claimed the bulk of our disposable income ever since we had fallen into the Way of the Stoner. Ben bought a beautiful 3-foot-tall bong with a turret bowl that could hold 6 one-hit loads. It was a technological marvel, no doubt designed by a failed pothead engineer who had been kicked out of the space program for his lack of a sense of urgency. (Side note: you do not want a stoner designing rockets).

As there was no Rare Earth bag big enough to hold the 3-foot glass beauty, he stuffed it into the sleeve of his shirt and spent the next couple of hours making robotic faux-Nazi salutes. He'd bid an emotional farewell to his old bong that morning before we'd left on our shopping spree, and was baked enough to not really feel anything remotely resembling self-consciousness.

I was done with Rare Earth. I had in mind a transcendent purchase - the acquisition of a fashion statement so bold that the babes would be all over me, regardless of the fact that I had no car, no job, and lived in my mom's basement in a room that smelled suspiciously like spilled bong water. I'd seen the watchband in the display window of Nimbus, a little boutique on the main drag. Surprisingly, Nimbus is still a fixture in Ashland to this very day, catering to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who clamor to spend their spare money before the Shakespeare theater opens for the evening. Nimbus is happy to provide them the opportunity to do just that.

Ben rolled his red little beady eyes at me with the disdain that can only come with a certainty that your friend is about to make a stupid mistake. We headed up the street to the store. To my astonishment, The Band was still there, unclaimed by another paragon of taste and style. It was the most amazing piece of wrist-wear ever. Dark brown leather, stamped with an illegible pattern (Sanskrit? Hieroglyphics? Drunk leathersmith?) and festooned with silver rings. Looking back, I'm suddenly wondering if this was a piece of bondage gear, indiscernible to my naive eye. Had I bought some sort of signal? Is that why those guys at the park followed me around that afternoon?

It's all starting to make sense now.

The remainder of the day, and indeed the month, was anticlimactic. I didn't get immediately laid. No one paid a compliment. Some looked, likely to try and see whether I was suffering an unchecked, runaway case of psoriasis. I wore the band for a couple of days, took it back to the store and got my money back.

We used the money to stuff Ben's high-tech bong for a week. In our stupor, looking at each other across the room, we were certain that we were the two most fashionable guys on the planet at that particular time.

The Golden Rule was RIGHT.

Once again, social psychology scores big with elegantly-designed research proving that you've been right all along.

This month's issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports on a study that looks at what your description of others says about you. As you likely had already figured out, participants in the study who rated their peers positively (trustworthy, emotionally stable) reported greater life satisfaction, less depression, and better grades. On the other side, people who thought negatively of others were more likely to be disagreeable, antisocial and narcissistic.

Short, non-clinical version: if you're spending all your time going around saying what an asshole everyone is, you're probably an asshole.

I can't help but think of the behavioral implications of this research. After all, one of the things I get paid for is to help people change their behaviors. And, there seems to be a pretty strong message here that just happens to jibe completely with one of my core therapy philosophies. To whit: spend as much energy as you can in a constant attempt to put love into the world, as that love tends to come back to you when you need it the most. Science is backing me up! Describe your peers, your coworkers, your children, and complete strangers in the most positive, loving way possible, and you'll be seen as worthy of that love.

Scientific American provides a little summary of the research, just in case you don't subscribe to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From the archives

Here's a piece I wrote last year. I was a television producer for years before going back to school and joining the dark side as a psychologist.
--

It is my first night on the job. The mesmerizing thrum, thrum, thrum of the generator powering the Jaws of Life fills my consciousness, drugs me. I am thinking that if I ever made a movie of this, that generator sound would provide a hypnotic audio bed. A light rain falls. I stand on the cold pavement of interstate 84, at the mouth of the scenic Columbia Gorge, and I watch a woman die.

If it bleeds, it leads. I had been in the newsroom for an hour or so, trying to fit in and not say anything stupid. I was the new guy, a lowly news department grip. I knew the rudiments of the job -- hooking up the cable that snaked from camera to heavy 3/4 deck, holding a boom mic, crouching down to stay out of the shot, shutting up and staying invisible. Refinement of those skills would eventually take me under massive hydroelectric dams, into the inner sanctums of government, and to front-row vantage points at events for which no amount of money would provide a ticket. For tonight, though, I was the new guy.

If you want to feel safe in your car, it's probably best to never witness the immediate aftermath of a high-speed collision. Glass and metal and plastic and gas and antifreeze and blood and rain, shiny on the pavement, formerly a car and a person. The studied, false calm of an emergency crew. The voyeuristic professionalism of a couple of TV news crews. The last artifacts of a life.

Looking back, the gleeful tone in the news director's voice was a clue to what would eventually drive me from commercial news into public television and eventually away from professional bystanding entirely. "Looks like there might be a fatality!"

I stand in the rain. Long ago, my friend happened across an accident in which a woman was terribly injured. My friend was unable to do anything but hold her hand, and offer her comfort, and provide a human face to gaze upon in her last minutes of life. When I talk about this, I wonder, will I want to remember what it was like to just watch?

A shooter pointed at me, pointed at the gear, and we get ready to leave. I grab batteries, blank tape, microphones, my assigned deck. Simple things, but forget just one and the entire shoot is ruined. I'm jacked up like a fighter entering the ring. The new guy. We throw everything in the van. We race to the scene.

The generator stops suddenly and imbues the scene with an eerie silence. The onboard lights of the tv cameras cast a hard shadow on the dead woman's bloodied face. I find that I'm strangely cut loose from reality in this moment, disembodied, floating above the scene just watching. The sound of the generator was the only thing keeping me attached to the ground, and I no longer have that ballast. I float, wondering if the woman's soul is leaving her body, wondering if she has children. Pieces of shattered windshield give way to an infinite field of stars. Up there, I feel somehow an important part of all of this, there to record her death so it doesn't go unnoticed.

No one talks much on the way back to the station. The reporter is writing his v/o in a little notebook. The shooter calls in with our time of arrival. Back at the station, the news director kills the story in favor of something far more interesting than a single life extinguished on a rainy night in the Gorge. I unpack my gear.

As I lie in my bed later, unable to sleep, a forgiving rain washes away the last of the blood and the antifreeze.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Researchers: Ecstasy might not immediately rot your brain.

You've probably seen the articles by now - after all, once it hits The Huffington Post, it's all over. It turns out that Ecstasy, preferred party favor for a generation of pacifier-sucking, glowstick-waving ravers, might not be the serotonin-blasting horror that we've been led to believe.

Polite society isn't sure what to make of this. The Guardian's headline neatly sums up the dubious public reaction - "Ecstasy does not wreck the mind, study claims." Panicked straight-laced people from coast to coast envision shambling troops of body-painted X-heads, dancing to techno music and stealing their high schoolers and buying up all the available turntables and disco balls. The problem with hysterical anti-drug propaganda is that it makes people hysterical. That, and when the propaganda is found to be overblown and untrue, no one knows what to believe any more.

So, does any of this matter to those of us who have no interest in dropping X and partying all night? Should we care?

Trauma survivors certainly might care. There is a mounting pile of research showing dramatic decreases in symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder when MDMA is administered in a controlled therapy environment. A study published last summer in the Journal of Psychopharmacology reported that over 80% of patients found significant relief from PTSD symptoms after a combination of therapy and ecstasy.

Research into the psychotherapeutic effects of various "recreational" drugs has been going on for years. Dapper movie star Cary Grant took more than 60 hits of LSD in the 1950s in the interest of science. The research often falls out of favor due to rhetoric, and emerges again as science prevails. Only time will tell if this is the case with MDMA research.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Harbinger

She sits across from me, drawn, gaunt, eyes red, and tells me that she can't sleep in her dorm room without her cat. When I ask her why, she tells me that it is only because of her cat that she can tell the difference between a night terror and something that she should really be afraid of. She sees ghosts. She is sensitive to the presence of things that should remain in other worlds. If her cat remains unaffected, the ghosts aren't real, and she can feel as safe as she is capable of feeling.

That afternoon I will write a letter asking that she be allowed to keep her cat with her. I won't explain exactly why.

In the early days of mining, men sent deep into the earth to hammer out coal would bring a caged canary with them. The canaries, prized for their delicate metabolism, would begin to sway uncertainly on their perch in the presence of trace amounts of methane or carbon monoxide, gases that presaged untimely death by suffocation or explosion. The sight of a dying canary sent the wary miners clawing for the surface. My client's hope was that her cat could keep her safe from fates even more horrible than a lack of oxygen or a cave-in triggered by an underground blast.

Many of my clients come to me bearing such cages. They scan the environment, hypersensitive to that clue that will remind them of just how unsafe their world is, the clue that will send them clawing for the surface, scurrying back to bed and under the covers and safe for another day. They miss classes and end relationships based on the swaying of a canary. They avoid the harsh glare of life, the seeped methane of distrust, the carbon dioxide of a poisonous memory. They live underground, their days dimly illuminated with the faltering beam of headlamps and dingy lanterns. There are days when I feel that to convince them to let the canary fly free is just too jolting and unkind, and I sit with them in the dark, and we watch the canary breathe, both of us mindful of the fragile respiratory rhythm of life.

There are those glorious days when we watch an unfettered flight, the canary soaring, striving to be more than a simple harbinger. I love those days, but I value them the same as the other days, as they are all part of the miner's life. The cage is never discarded, as there will be more descents into darkness. Canaries are easy to come by, a dime a dozen, and as often as they have failed to do their jobs they are still the closest thing to trustworthy that many will ever find.

And on some days, that's enough.

Pain, the brain, and the power of expectation

012508 love hatePhoto credit: Me!

A recent study in the journal Science Translational Medicine has caught the interest of pain patients, physicians, and anyone interested in the complex interactions within the human brain. Bottom line: the effects of pain-killing medication can be boosted, or dramatically lowered, simply by manipulating expectations.

In the study, mild pain is administered to healthy people. The average study participant rated their initial pain at a 66. Without their knowledge, a potent painkiller was administered, and their rating went to 55. After they were told they were being given medication, the rating dropped to 39. The effects were just as strong in the opposite direction. With the painkillers still being administered, participants were told to expect pain, as the meds had been withdrawn. Their pain rating shot up to a 64.

As both a psychologist and a pain patient, I'm used to that stunned reaction that people get when they grapple with the somehow-amazing fact that the mind and the body are inseparable. After three decades of dealing with the complex rhythms of my own pain, I have a never-ending pool of empathy and understanding for my fellow sufferers. Like it or not, we're all part of a club, holders of a wealth of shared knowledge, imparters of well-wishes and comrades in battle. Any pain patient can tell you about the surging tides of pain management - the crests of hope and the cold-sea troughs of discouragement.

Healthy college students sense increased pain when their expectations are manipulated. Imagine what it's like for someone who has dealt with their pain for years and faced a series of discouraging attempts at relief. Hopelessness, those of us in the mental health business know, is a monster, capable of increasing suicide potential, ruining relationships, and hanging dark heavy weight on ordinarily functional people. The good news is that something as simple as hope can do the opposite.

Sometimes, in the face of any kind of pain, whether it's from a physical injury or a more intimate emotional scar, it's easy to forget that no one can manipulate our expectations more powerfully than we ourselves can.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Excuse me while I figure this whole thing out...

Over the next few days, I'll likely be flooding the Doc Blog with content - mainly essays that I've written over the last few years. I have another blog, but it's packed full of day to day trivia, and I'd like this one to be more for long-form writing and not things like grocery lists and movie reviews.

I'm also going to post a picture or two now and then, as I take photos. I guess everyone takes photos.

Here's one now.

moonshot

It's what I do

The job description reads something like this: Show them how to take things apart. Build a container for the pieces, so there's some safety and comfort in the knowledge that you're a kind of steward, an evidence locker, the links in a chain of custody. Provide a scaffold, a blueprint, the tools for putting things together again, probably in a far different way, maybe upside down, maybe using a different language or an imaginary body or the distant icy gravity-pull of another planet. In your heart, feel a genuine compassion, a caring that might keep the last strands of a time-frayed careworn rope from dropping them helpless into the bottomless night sky. Love them, but don't touch. Be what they want, be strong, be loved, but don't give away too much about yourself. Don't be a friend. Delve into the soul, but don't get too personal. When the time comes, say goodbye. A real goodbye, one in which you know you'll never again speak to each other.

Do this again and again.

There's my workday. I help explore fantastic worlds, epic confabulations, giant gleaming towers that stretch to the sky and bear the sole purpose of hiding the existence of whatever lies at their foundation. My clients,others, all humans... we build entire lives devoted to the avoidance of pain real and imagined. We make imaginary walls, false muslin-and-plywood sets with painted windows and doors, and we make them complicated. The very simplest defense is a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. Our facility with language is a sword that cuts both ways. We can speak the truth to others, and with the same words we can hide meaning from ourselves without even knowing it. We think those muslin walls are the real thing. We have no idea what lies at the foot of the tower, even though we laid it there ourselves.

My clients often feel worse before they feel better. They feel vulnerable, exposed. They cast one glance my way and burst into tears. They walk into my office with a mix of anticipation and deepest trepidation. My office is often a vessel for the storage of their dark problems, stacked in the corner where they will wait for the return of their owners. With the right eyes you can see dusty shelves laden with history.

The deconstruction of a lifetime of defenses takes time, and it takes courage, and in some ways it is the simplest thing one will ever do. The release of a lifelong lie can be so much simpler than its construction. Brick by brick, layer upon layer, paint chipped to reveal older coats, other imagined colors. Sometimes you can let go all at once. Sometimes it takes the explosion of a bomb placed there by someone else. People will carry around the tattered remains of a defense as a way to prove to themselves that it once existed.

The best I can do is keep a box of grenades in my office, right next to the tissues. After the explosion, we build anew.

I don't get to pull the pin, though. That's your job.

Afterthought

In the old days, when the dead were placed on flaming rafts and set out to sea, we would have had about a two-hour drive to the coast. We'd have taken a few cars - probably Mike's Geo, because Mike didn't go anywhere without the Geo. We may have hopped into Don's truck, too, the way we did, with two guys in front and 4-5 of us crammed into the back, everyone passing a bowl around, thumping on Don's window and laughing at how many bungee cords it took to hold his canopy together. We'd have headed north to Grants Pass and then swung west, diving back down into California and then up to Harris Beach State Park. We didn't have as much to do then, not as many of us employed, not as many with kids and the other life-hooks holding us. We may have just camped out for the night after building the raft and setting it aflame and pushing it past the icy Pacific waves and out into the open ocean, Greg's body surrounded by a sheet of flickering orange fire.

As it turns out, our raft-free farewell to our unexpectedly fallen brother involved a Ziploc bag wedged into Carl's backpack, thrown in amongst the cans full of cheap beer. We laughed darkly at this as those bound by loss often do. What could be more appropriate than a baggie full of Greg?

We hiked, as we did every year, sweating out the toxins of the night before. The banter waxed and waned, keeping time with the grief, in sync with the rhythmic chest-tightening feelings of having lost something that you know is truly gone. Losing a young friend is like dropping something valuable off the edge of a cliff, or having a beloved possession slip through your fingers into a fast-moving river. You know right away that it's gone forever. No fog of uncertainty, no little golden cloud of hope. Inky black verity. Gone. That part is easy to figure out. The harder part comes later, when you try to fill in the hole that was left behind.

We learned on the way up the hill that about a fourth of Greg was in the bag. Carl had been steeped in the mathematics of losing a family member, doling out portions of ash. Half to Greg's girlfriend, a quarter elsewhere, and a quarter for us as we walked up Ostrich Peak. When we reached the top of the hill and took our backpacks off, Carl procured the baggie. Finally, someone voiced what we were all thinking -- can we smoke him? It may be dismaying to some to know how seriously this plan was discussed, but it was finally jettisoned in favor of a more stately scattering of his remains on the hillside, facing his beloved Rogue Valley, in a spot where we could come talk to him every year when we met for our annual trip up the peak. I think we were all momentarily enthralled with the idea of somehow taking him into our lungs, into our bloodstream. It was needless, though. He was already in there, for all of us. He was part of our collective consciousness, and nothing as cosmically insignificant as death could change that.

I can remember passing the bag around, a morbid talking stick, seeing his corporeal existence reduced to a lump of gray ash. No sarcastic smile, no recent southern California golf tan, no worn cargo shorts. I remember saying a few words, crying openly in front of the people who meant the most to me. Laughing.

We scattered him there. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed us. We said goodbye.

Later, as we repacked our backpacks and put away the crushed cans and finished passing the last bowl around, I lagged behind. I stood on the edge of the hill, remembering the hang-gliding ramp that was once there, remembering lying shirtless and young on the splintered wooden platform and passing a bottle of vodka around with Greg and the others, timeless, caught in a freeze frame of all the glorious warm Ashland autumns. I bent to pick up a little handful of the remains, and I pressed them to my lips. I stared for a while at Mount McGloughlin in the distance. Beyond that was the phantom Mount Thielsen, now the rim of Crater Lake, blurred through tears.

As I rejoined the others, I was sure that I could taste just a hint of vodka in the wet ash.

Cracks

There are some sounds in this life that are unmistakeable - a car wreck, the cry of a newborn, the rhythmic pulse of waves against the sand - and, of course, the sound of a 30-ounce, 31-inch aluminum baseball bat tearing into an Ikea floor lamp.

Last Monday, my girlfriend and I celebrated the 3rd anniversary of combining households and moving the entire circus under one tent. At this point, the inventory sheet lists the following:
-One 11-year-old girl, left-handed model, some issues with linear-thinking gear.
-Two standard-issue 9th-grade boys, ages 14 and 15, complete with accessories including the optional "floor garbage" pack and volume boost.
-One 18-year-old boy with non-detachable green hoodie and partially-rooted facial hair kit.
-One 20-year-old, motivation plug-in defective and too expensive to repair.
-Four (4) cats, additional digestive machinery, XXX-girth models. Sleep mode switch.
-One Guinea Pig.

Additional inventory, temporary:
-One temporarily homeless 18-year-old boy, defective hygiene programming
-Two additional homeless, mid-30s, on 6-month loan (originally 2-week loan but factory refused return delivery)

I'll get back to that Ikea lamp in a minute.

Much has been written about the Blended Family, and the inherent problems therein. After three years of practice, I feel qualified to offer some of the wisdom I've accrued over time. And, in the interest of full disclosure, it's probably worth noting that I just want to have someone listen, because my kids sure the hell don't.

On parenting:
- Do not try to parent someone else's children. This does not work. Barring the occasional incident when immediate intervention is mandated, such as having to wrest a knife out of one of your children's hands to avoid wallet-crippling emergency room bills (and criminal charges if another child is at the receiving end), STAY OUT. The worst mistake a blended family dad can make is to act like a dad. Your role is that of an ineffective high-school guidance counselor. Get used to it.
-Acquire a good set of headphones and a prescription for an anxiolytic medication such as Xanax or Valium. Use both every night.
-Practice this phrase - "let's check when your mom gets home." Alternately, "I'm just your biological dad. How am I supposed to know?"

On finances:
-Do NOT feed them. Food is expensive and they will just want more. As Sandi often says when the kids ask what's for dinner, "We just fed you yesterday."
-The best way to guarantee that your children will hate a certain food item is to buy a LOT of it, after it's requested. Somewhere in the back of the freezer is a military-grade package of generic Hot Pockets that had been DEMANDED. Like a bad relationship, interest was lost after the initial orgiastic culinary spree.
-Never leave money laying around where someone can see it. "I thought it was for me" is a phrase that children are born with.

On maintaining an intimate relationship with your partner when there are always 8 other people in the house:
-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! HAHA! HA! That's funny.

The bottom line: Relax. Your role is that of a cowering villager during a wartime invasion by enemy forces. Your goal is to keep your head down, avoid injury, and try to cling to enough food to make it through. Abandon hope of all else. Consider it a bonus.

Oh! About the lamp: Three days into our time under the same roof, I heard a loud crashing noise in the basement. At that point, as a complete noob in the blended-family thing, I raced to see what was going on. As a seasoned pro, I don't respond to anything now unless I can smell smoke, or see actual spatters of blood, but hindsight is 20/20. I entered the basement to see the aftermath - lampshade cracked in a dozen places, light bulb shards scattered, a sixth-grader menacingly holding a bat.

Another blend-virgin mistake: I asked what had happened. Ha! I would later learn to resort to subterfuge, spying, bribery and other investigative techniques (or, more likely, just not giving a damn), but I wanted an explanation. "I didn't know it would happen" was all I got. I now realize that that was the truth - kids go through life imposing their violent energies on the universe without any thought of consequence. Who knew?

I was in the garage the other day, and I spied the lampshade, piled up with three years' worth of other home wreckage and the detritus of daily destruction. The experienced blended dad now, I smiled at the cracks in the shade. As nice as I used to think that clean, tidy, intact things were, now I know the truth. The cracks are where the most light shines through.

Live and learn.