Thursday, December 31, 2009

As the years go by...

The years mercilessly
childhood memories begin to
When did I exchange my little red
for the daily work
Can't we stop this crazy
for just one moment to
like the time we were
when the world was innocent and

May your new year be filled with fun memories.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

who stole the souls of our youth?

Who stole the soul of our young and brightest?

He is a mathematician and an amateur philosopher, the spirit of the Queen of sciences personified in a young and attractive guy. But he is telling me that he sees no purpose in living. He half challenges half begs me to give him a logical reason for existence. He is asking me for the rope of hope that will pull him out of the sea of annihilistic thoughts and lugubrious life scenarios.

And then there is the medical student and the gifted artist both steeped in the same pessimism. The same pleading eyes looking at me expectantly and I get scared that I may be their last recourse, terrified really that neither my affinity for philosophy nor my training in psychology will measure up to the challenge. I have visions of all the high school students who in the past 5 years walked in front of trains in Spring Lake and Manasquan believing…what really? That death is the ticket to immortality? That their death publicized and romanticized will be the ultimate punishment for all those who ignored them and hurt them? That life at 16 and 17 and 20 has nothing to offer worth living for? Who stole the souls of these young and promising people?

I have been hearing over and over again from adolescents that they feel alienated that their parents or teachers can not understand them that faced with serious problems they would not turn to their parents for help. How did we lose track of our kids?

When did chasing the mighty dollar chase our kids away? When did the Coach bag or the new car become the substitute for real connection? When did teachers become afraid to talk or touch our kids less they are accused of one impropriety or another?

I remember my Grammar and High school teachers with deep fondness, unwavering admiration and endless gratitude. None of them were geniuses, what the memorable ones had in common was the desire and willingness to reach out to us empathically and understand the angst and tribulations of our youth and gently without criticizing direct us and inspire us to search for and discover the meaning and beauty of life. I do not believe that the youth of today needs anything less or more than just that.

I see the spark of hope ignite in the eyes of my young patients when I am willing to suspend my objections to their young and often immature reasoning, shut up and just listen. It is only when they know that I have understood their world that they invite me to be their guide, direct and inspire them and I discover again and again that their thirst for guidance their desire to connect and need for role models that are more substantial and meaningful than the empty faces in People magazine are as strong today as they were in my school years as they were with the young people that flocked to Socrates and Plato.

So, here is the challenge to both parents and teachers and yes, therapists too: Let’s not confuse indulgence with understanding, love with reckless abandonment, and dogmatism with teaching. We don’t need to be perfect just willing to get off the mouse wheel and listen.

Let’s retrieve the souls of our kids.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Inoculation for anxiety and depression

Inoculation for anxiety and depression

So, you may not have been able to get the swine flue vaccine, but here is a “vaccine” that is widely available:

You have heard it many times from many different sources that exercise is good for you. But just in case the connection between exercise and mental health is not clear, let me attempt to make it transpicuous:

The research is coming out of Princeton University and the results were presented at the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago. The research team working with mice found that exercise did not just produce a temporary good mood in the mice, but it actually altered the brain of the mice that had been put through an exercise program. Exercise actually created new brain cells that remained calm under the stress that the mice were exposed to subsequently. The brains of the mice that had been exercised were biochemically and
molecularly calmer under stress!

Parallel research in the University of Colorado presented data showing that moderate exercise dampens the effects of oxidative stress (anxiety in mice and people has been shown to be linked with excessive oxidative stress).
The Colorado team showed that mice that had been exercised prior to been exposed to severe stress did not run and hide in corners like the unexercised mice but rather they actively explored their surrounding. Exercise inoculated brain cells and created neuronal pathways to handle toxic stress.

These changes did not happen overnight. It appears that in both studies effects started after 6 weeks. And although we do not know exactly what the timing will be with humans, one lesson seems to be clear to everyone: “don’t quit”. Reduction of stress may not happen after your first hour at the gym, but the molecular, biochemical changes will begin and will become evident with time.

So, here is my prescription/wish/ gift to you for this particular stressful time of the year:
Hit the gym, the treadmill the boardwalk and inoculate yourself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Freeing Sisyphus

Freeing Sisyphus

How do you say goodbye to the person who held you in her arms, whose breast quieted your hunger pangs whose eyes and face were the mirror you looked into to define and know yourself? How do you let go of the person who gave you life and then for some unfathomable reason made it unbearable?

I have been asked this question so many times by so many patients. Souls divided between love and hate searching for understanding, comfort, absolution, peace.

Their personal agony tags on my professional responsibility to make sense out the whirlpool of their emotions. After all, am I not the Psychologist, the doctor who is supposed to know the workings of the human mind?

Like Ariadne I am asked to lead them deep into the heart of the Labyrinth where understanding and forgiveness are waiting to be mustered. But understanding more often than not does not fill the emotional void while anger becomes the final bond that ties us to the abuser in an insouciant search for both love and revenge.

Understanding abuse demands of us to transcend the childhood illusion that our parents are all- knowing, all- powerful, paragons of emotional health punishing us only for our own good and only because we are intrinsically and hopelessly “bad and stupid”. It requires that we put our pain aside and search for theirs. It asks us to do something that we often resist with every fiber of our being: seeing the abuser as damaged, tortured, herself a victim of abuse, emotionally retarded and pathetic. Forgiveness requires a level and kind of empathy (understanding a person’s emotional limitations) that our anger and the yearning for acknowledgement and retribution often do not allow.

Do you see how maddening this vicious circle is? We want an emotionally retarded, morally bereft person to acknowledge and understand the wrong of her actions, but if she was capable of this kind of understanding she would not have done them to begin with. The fault is not with the victim’s ability to explain how she was hurt, but with the abuser’s ability to comprehend. It is like expecting someone who never learned Greek to read the Odyssey in its original.

But isn’t understanding and accepting the abuser’s pathology and limitations letting her off the hook?
Letting go of the yearning to be validated, which feeds and multiplies the rage of the original abuse and abandoning the demand to be loved in the way you understand love is not saying to the perpetrator that what she did is ok. It does not even mean that you will ever have to talk to her again if this is not what is best for you.

What it does mean is that you will not let the anger corrode your soul. That you will not be tied to an abuser with the chains of an illusion: for ever seeking love and acknowledgement, incessantly explaining, placating, ingratiating or as a last resort threatening and forever been crashed.

Put down the boulder Sisyphus. This is an impossible task.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Au Revoir

In the classic and wonderful book I never promised you a rose garden the young girl about to be released from the mental hospital is telling her beloved therapist (in real life the eminent psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm Reichman): “the worse thing about getting better is having to say goodbye”

As therapists we have to say good bye to so many people we came to know deeply and love and care for sincerely. As spiritual guides we watch people freeing themselves from the shackles of misguided notions and atavistic beliefs to find their own path and discover their own unique talents. And when their wings are wide and strong and beautiful we have to let them fly away with a mix of wonder and pride and nostalgia.

How do you do it? my patient asks me with tears welling up in her eyes. I imagine you at the end of your long day going to a mystical cave and seating around a healing fire with other healers and a golden dust rains down on you all and you get renewed and ready to come back and do it all over again the next day. She is right of course, but this magical cave is no other than the sacred space created between patient and her therapist. My own mentor said that “if you allow them, your patients will heal you”. I tell my patient that in the journey that we took together we both learned from each other. Both our consciousness were raised a few feet higher.

When I am settled in my new place, she tells me, I will continue to rescue and shelter stray and abandoned animals. Every time I write a check to take care of another cat I will do it in your name. Yes, she has learned to love herself and follow her passions and out of this new place she extended a loving hand to touch my own most sacred core in a most tender way. She just sprinkled a good amount of the magical, healing dust on me.

You saved my life, she continues with the tears streaming down her face now, and I will probably never see you in my life again. Oh, but she is not right there. You see she may not have realized it yet, but I have taken permanent residence in her prefrontal cortex, somewhere above her left eye. From there I will be able to remind her (whenever I have to) not to be so harsh on herself. I have set a camping site deep in her brain, somewhere between the hippocampus and the Amygdala. From there I will remind her not to be afraid of her feelings and when she feels alone or disconnected I will remind her that somewhere a few thousand miles away there is someone who knows her deeply and cares for her sincerely.

So, no goodbyes are necessary, I’ll be seeing you around…

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sin Athina kai xira kini

Yesterday I came across this story in the news: Tunisian pilot who paused to pray instead of taking emergency measures before crash-landing his plane, killing 16 people, has been sentenced to 10 years in jail by an Italian court along with his co-pilot.

My first reaction was to laugh, then as I kept reading horror replaced my defensive initial reaction. Picture this: you are a passenger on a plane happily anticipating a vacation to Sicily (where the plane was heading) or some business deal, or seeing grand mom and giving her a big hug. All of a sudden a fuel-gauge malfunctions and the plane starts to rumble. At this life and death moment your pilot abandons his training, the established aviation procedures, his instruments and instead begins to …Pray! Pray? While the plane takes a death dive into the ocean? Sixteen passengers dead, sixteen families devastated, a grand mom still waiting with her eyes pinned on the road and her arms yearning for the promised hug, and survivors clinging to a piece of the fuselage that remained floating after the ATR turbo-prop aircraft splintered upon impact.

My third reaction was rage. The pilot was sentenced to 10 years for 16 deaths, a little more than 6 months per death! Shouldn’t there be an outcry against the architects of his religious indoctrination? Who should write something about the stupidity, the arrogance and the utter irresponsibility of this kind of religious dogma? How far away do we have to go from the ancient Greek adage that titles this blog and which loosely translates: along with your prayers to Athena start rowing your boat, before we come back to our senses?

When are we going to leave the gods alone and take responsibility for our own actions? When are we going to demand from those who hold our lives in their hands to abide by the same ancient wisdom? After all, the ancient Greeks flourished under this dictum to become a world power unparalleled in human history.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Prescription for the economic jitters

A Prescription for the economic jitters

It appears that fear has become our constant companion these days. You turn the TV on and here comes the dreaded red arrow of the stock market taking yet another precipitous dive. You switch the computer on, same Friday the 13th scenario. And as you watch one business after the other being axed and friends losing their jobs you fear that the bells will toll for you next. It is evident that fear has overtaken our brains.

Now, the thing with fear is that although it has consistently saved our you-know-what through our evolutionary struggles to survive as a species, when it overtakes us it leaves very little space and time for anything else but saving our skin. Fear breeds avoidance and retreat both of which are serious obstacles to progress. So, now that more than any other time we need our creativity, inventiveness and thinking out of the box all we can do is fortify our box and make sure that we keep what we have.

Fear and pain are neuronally very closely linked in our brain. It has been shown that when our brain senses pain or anticipates loss, we tend to hold tightly onto what we have. Have you ever noticed how when you see in the news that a kid was harmed or kidnapped you want to hurry back home hug your kid and never let him out of your arms? When it comes to the economy when everyone holds on to what he/she has at the same time the result is the economic paralysis the whole world is presently gripped by.

This brings us to the prescription for the fear jitters: Pessimism is contagious, so avoid people who are overly pessimistic about our economic outlook. Turn off the media’s incessant talks about economic solutions (just remember what all these brilliant economists got us into), and unless you make a living trading stop watching the Dow’s impressive acrobatics.
I am not suggesting total denial just a healthy dose of it. I am not advocating blissful irresponsibility just a little less paranoia. No, now maybe not the time to buy that red Porsche but letting your hair turn white or walking around with holes in your stockings maybe taking it a bit too far.

When I first came to this country and I was trying to adjust, my mother in law gave me a very wise advice: when you feel blue go buy yourself a pair of stockings. The other advice comes from History: Americans have from the get go overcome inordinate obstacles on their way to becoming the greatest power on earth. They said that the settlers will never survive the wilderness of the new world. They said that they will never beat the Brits. They said that they will perish during the great depression. They said that we will never beat the Germans in splitting the atom. They said that we will never get to the moon. Yes, we heard it all before. And they were wrong!

In the words of our wonderful poet Maya Angelou;

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise.