Suicide prevention

While the act of suicide is sometimes a long-considered, planned option which nobody can prevent, most suicide attempts are impulsive. According to one study, approximately one quarter of the people who try to kill themselves do so within five minutes of their decision to attempt suicide. Only a small fraction of people who survive a suicide attempt go on to die by their own hand. Throughout my career as a psychologist, I assessed many people shortly after a suicide attempt. A question I always asked of them was, “Are you glad that you’re still alive?” Almost all of them were glad that their suicide attempts had failed. I concluded that most suicide attempts are mood-specific behaviors, often involving intoxication on alcohol or other drugs. Once their mood changes, or they sober up, they no longer want to end their lives.

While in grad school, I volunteered as a telephone crisis hotline worker. I was trained to talk to people who were in crisis, to keep them from engaging in attempts to harm themselves or others. From early in my clinical practice I was called on to evaluate the suicide potential of clients. I learned that many people who attempt suicide are ambivalent about living. “To be, or not to be; that is the question.” At the core of this ambivalence is the issue of existential meaning.

One of the major existential therapists of the twentieth century was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist that I’ve written about in previous posts. His book Man’s Search for Meaning was based on his experiences as a survivor of a Nazi death camp. He observed that in such a hellish environment, those who fought to live were people who had a sense of meaning in their lives. He called his method of psychotherapy logotherapy (logos means “reason” or “plan” in Greek), and his therapeutic approach was to help patients find, or create, meaning in their lives.

Lives bereft of meaning are empty lives, but sometimes the vacuum can be filled. Although I was able to help some suicidal clients to find something to live for, one of my severely depressed therapy clients died by his own hand. It was the worst thing that happened in my career. I really liked “Allen,” saw strengths and personal qualities that he couldn’t see, and worked in therapy to help him find reasons to go on living. I saw him on Wednesday afternoons, and he always kept his appointments. When he didn’t come in one Wednesday, I immediately called his apartment. When he didn’t answer after several tries, I looked up his address and drove to his apartment. When he didn’t come to the door when I knocked and rang the bell, I intuited that he was dead, inside. Sadly, this proved to be the case. It turned out that he’d bought a gun that morning, gone home, and used it. On a Wednesday, instead of keeping his therapy appointment.

I went through predictable self-recriminations and judgments. Could I have done anything differently that would have prevented his suicide? But I recognized this as a question that could never be answered. My colleagues knew that I was grieving as if I’d lost a family member, and supported me in my grief process. A peer review of my clinical records found that I’d done and documented everything properly, in terms of recognizing and dealing with Allen’s suicide risk.

A few years ago a close friend committed suicide. She suffered from bipolar disorder, and had confided in Maria and me that she would take a drug overdose in certain future hypothetical situations. She said it matter-of-factly, and wasn’t depressed when she said it. We knew that there was nothing we could say that would change her mind. We hoped that she’d never find herself in one of those imagined situations.

Philosophically, I’m torn on the issue of the “right to die,” because if suicide were to be legalized, it’s inevitable that some depressed people would convince themselves – or be convinced by others – that it was their duty to die, perhaps because they felt useless, or they wanted to leave an inheritance, rather than spend their money on their own medical care in old age. I’m no longer a therapist, but if I knew that someone was acutely suicidal, I’d do whatever I could to try to prevent an impulsive suicide attempt. (Many times, as a Designated Examiner in the Probate Court, I recommended involuntary hospitalization for suicidal people.) But once a person has suicided, I don’t make judgments about their decision to end their life. I don’t have the authority to judge.

Most people who end their own lives do it to escape intolerable pain – whether physical or emotional. Allen killed himself because he could no longer endure living with severe depression. His life had no meaning worth living for. I tried unsuccessfully to help him find reasons to live. Albert Camus considered suicide to be “the fundamental question of philosophy.” He wrote, “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. . . . I therefore consider that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”

Which takes us back to Viktor Frankl, who found meaning in the Hell of a Nazi death camp, survived, and went on to be a founder of the humanistic psychology movement.

Psychotherapy in movies

In this post I’ll write about realistic depictions of psychotherapy in movies. Not many get it right. Barbra Streisand’s portrayal of a psychiatrist  in The Prince of Tides comes to mind. Her approach to therapy relies on the inaccurate cliché that when the client recovers the repressed memory of his trauma, he will be cured. More often than not movies about psychotherapy (i.e. Analyze This and Anger Management) treat it as a joke  – probably because the idea of being in therapy makes a lot of people nervous. Therapists routinely hear nervous jokes about their profession when they’re introduced to people as a psychotherapist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard comments along the lines of, “I’d better watch what I say around you.” or “My wife really needs to talk to you.”

One of the most realistic depictions of psychotherapy I’ve ever seen in a movie was Ordinary People (1980), the first movie directed by Robert Redford. It depicts the dissolution of a family after the elder son of a loving couple dies in a boating accident. Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for his portrayal of the younger son, who feels guilty for surviving, when his brother died. Mary Tyler Moore distinguished herself as a dramatic actor in her role as the devastated mother, Donald Sutherland was totally convincing as the grieving father, and Judd Hirsch was perfect as a skilled and caring therapist who has to win the trust of his grieving, suicidal client. It’s a sad, beautiful movie, for which Robert Redford won an Oscar.

Good Will Hunting (1997) is another movie that portrays psychotherapy realistically. Matt Damon plays Will, an alienated, self-taught mathematical genius, orphaned and raised in foster homes. He’s grown a hard shell, to keep people out, and trusts nobody other than – to some degree – his best friend, played by Ben Affleck. Robin Williams portrays the therapist, who is willing to try to connect with this tormented genius. Will has to go to therapy in order to stay out of jail, but that’s his only motivation. He does everything he can to provoke and alienate his therapist, and to sabotage therapy. Robin Williams convincingly portrays a therapist who immediately sets boundaries when Will disparages his deceased wife. He’s briefly unprofessional, physically accosting and threatening Will; but this scene reveals that psychotherapists are also flawed human beings.

He clearly sees the sarcasm and hostility that he encounters as weapons that Will uses to push people away. He knows not to take the attacks personally, and works with patience and good humor to win Will’s trust, and to “disarm” him. I’ve dealt with well-defended clients like Will, working to get to the place where they were ready to hear something like this: “Look, we both know that your armor works. It makes you feel safe. The thing is, the only way you can learn that it’s safe – at least sometimes – to go out into the world without your armor is to take it off and venture out into the world.” The final therapy session in Good Will Hunting is riveting, and rings true to me as a therapeutic breakthrough.

Although it takes place in a “mental institution,” there’s not much psychotherapy in Girl, Interrupted (1999). Winona Ryder plays a young woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Angelina Jolie plays an antisocial manipulator. Parts of the movie are melodramatic and implausible, but the acting is good. One thing that the primary therapist in the movie – played by Vanessa Redgrave – says has stayed in my memory, because it’s point I’ve made in therapy about the meaning of the word ambivalence. Ambivalence doesn’t just mean, “Oh, I really don’t know if I want to do this or do that.” or “I don’t care if it goes this way or that way,” serving to deflect or minimize an issue. It can also mean being deeply conflicted regarding two opposing courses of action. An addict can both really want to quit using, but also really want to get high. Suicidal people can be ambivalent about living. Part of them wants to live, but another part wants to die.

The most realistic portrayal I’ve seen of therapy on TV was HBO’s series, In Treatment, with Gabriel Byrne as a therapist with, let us say, an extremely challenging caseload. He’s an excellent therapist, but his own life is something of a mess. One thing I liked about the series was that it not only depicted therapy sessions with a variety of clients and issues realistically, but it also showed us the therapist’s weekly sessions with his own therapist and clinical supervisor, played by Diane Wiest. Healers often need healing, themselves.

 

Paddy Chayefsky

I’ve been a cinema buff all of my life, and one of my favorite screenwriters is Paddy Chayefsky. He wrote the screenplays for some of my favorite movies – most of them dark comedies. In this post I’ll write about my three favorite movies scripted by Chayefsky. Those of you who’ve read my previous philosophical and metaphysical posts will appreciate why the one Chayefsky  movie I’ll cover, that is not one of his dark satires, takes us deep into the realms of ontology and quantum physics.

The first Chayefsky movie that captivated me was The Americanization of Emily (1964), a WWII satire starring James Garner, as a US Naval officer, and Julie Andrews, as an English Army driver. I regard it as one of the best anti-war movies ever made. The Allied forces in England are awaiting D-Day, and Garner works for an Admiral. He’s an admitted coward who thinks his job as a “dog robber” (procurer of whatever the Admiral wants) will keep him out of combat. He meets Emily, who hates war, having bedded one too many soldiers who have since died in combat. She falls for the charming American officer and is glad that he’s a coward, and unlikely to participate in the coming invasion. Powerful people going mad is a recurring theme in Chayefsky satires. In this case it’s the Admiral, who goes off the deep end and decides that he wants Garner’s character to be the first man to land on Omaha Beach, so he can film the Allied landing! I remember the essence of a powerful anti-war speech in the movie, about how honoring the fallen with medals and flags and parades ultimately serves to glorify and perpetuate warfare.

Chayefsky’s best-known film was Network (1976), starring Peter Finch as a network news anchor, and Faye Dunaway as his flint-hearted producer. Finch won an Oscar (posthumously) for his portrayal of Howard Beale, whose increasingly unhinged behavior from behind the news desk leads to higher ratings. The network exploits his growing madness to get more market share, and hires fortune tellers and performers to make the news broadcast more entertaining. The best-known scene in Network  is when Beale, rain-soaked and disheveled, exhorts his audience to stop watching, open a window, and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” He goes on to tell his audience to tune in and watch him blow his brains out on live TV. It’s savage social satire, with brilliant dialogue. I’d hoped when I first saw it that it would prove to be an inoculation, to prevent the continuation of the trend of chatty news and “infotainment” on network news broadcasts. But, alas, it proved to be predictive, not preventive. There was a time when network news organizations didn’t compete for ratings, and pretty much stuck to news reporting. Today, the Evening News  greatly resembles the circus depicted in Network.

The third Chayefsky film I’ll cover is Altered States (1980), which starts out as science fiction, but turns out to be a love story. Chayefsky became fascinated with the work of consciousness researcher John Lilly, and did a lot of reading about psychedelic substances before writing his only novel, Altered States. The book was adapted for the screen by it’s author, and the movie was directed by British bad boy director Ken Russell. It stars William Hurt as Eddie Jessup, a brilliant neuroscientist obsessed with consciousness research and plagued by existential angst. Blair Brown co-stars as his wife, a brilliant biologist who has to live with her husband’s emotional distance. Dr. Jessup is willing to be his own guinea pig and ingest strange psychoactive substances in the course of his research. One day, while he’s alone in the lab for an unauthorized “trip” in a flotation tank, his body reshapes itself, in an evolutionary regression. He temporarily becomes a primate, an early ancestor of man.

Accounting for this transformation requires a paradigm shift in the relationship between corporeality and consciousness. One school of thought (material realism) holds that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of being a complex biological organism: it serves to enable the organism to survive. The other major school of thought (monistic idealism) posits that physical reality arises out of consciousness. Dr. Jessup has personally experienced a physical transformation that his mind enabled, and his new understanding of the nature of reality has terrifying metaphysical implications. He loses all control of the now-constant shapeshifting and becomes something monstrous, damned. He is rescued from the Abyss by the power of love.

I recommend the novel as well as the movie. Chayefsky’s name doesn’t appear in the film credits, because of disputes with Ken Russell. Russell’s contract specified that he couldn’t edit out any of the dialogue in Chayefsky’s script. He kept to the letter of the contract, but had some scenes with multiple overlapping conversations going on at once. Chayefsky didn’t like that, and didn’t want his name associated with the film. What dialogue you can make out is brilliant and thought-provoking, but you’d have to read the book to fully grasp the depth of Chayefsky’s speculations about the nature of consciousness and its relationship to physical reality. Apparently the book wasn’t widely read, but it remains one of my favorite modern novels.

Hatred is not a mental illness

For the most part I’ve avoided political topics in this blog, and I don’t intend to change that. However, our President has crossed a line that I can’t, as an advocate for mentally ill folks, ignore. This week he distanced himself from his promises to do something meaningful about advocating for tougher gun laws when he described mass murderers as “mentally ill” and suggested  that improved care for the mentally ill would prevent mass shootings. We may be sickened by the violence of these hateful acts, but that doesn’t mean that the perpetrators are sick, in the sense of being mentally ill. It’s an insult to all mentally ill people to conflate hatred with psychopathology. People with diagnoses of mental illnesses are  no more likely to be dangerous to others than people without mental illnesses, and are more likely to be of danger to themselves than to others.

I know what I’m talking about. Throughout most of my career in the mental health system, I was certified as a Designated Examiner in the Probate Court. That meant that I routinely assessed people and testified in the Probate Court as to whether they met the criteria for involuntary commitment to psychiatric facilities. The two primary criteria are that the person is credibly diagnosed with a mental illness, and that he or she is at risk for harm to self or others. I was proud to play a part in a system that protects the civil rights of mentally ill persons, and assures that their right to due process is honored.

Xenophobia and race hatred aren’t symptoms of mental illness. They are learned prejudices, not psychopathologies. The President would have us believe that lethal hatred is a symptom of mental illness, not a product of hatred for “the Other.” Our national mental health system is a disgrace and needs to be adequately funded. But even if we had a system that provided adequate treatment for all of our mentally ill citizens, the impact on our national crisis of mass shootings would be negligible. It’s domestic terrorists that we need to worry about, not mentally ill people.

I was raised with guns. My father, an Army officer, was a world class expert on small arms and an avid NRA member. He saw to it that his sons learned to shoot at an early age, in NRA gun clubs – first with bb guns, then with .22 caliber rifles. I own guns, and I taught my wife to shoot them. A reasonable interpretation of the Second Amendment would protect the right of most citizens to own handguns, hunting and target rifles, and shotguns; but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. You can’t buy or own hand grenades, flame throwers, bombs, or tanks – and that’s how it should be. We need to re-instate the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, such as the M-16 (AR-15). We also need to ban clips and magazines that hold ten or more rounds. Until we do this, the body count from mass shootings will continue to rise.

The signers of the Constitution couldn’t have envisioned our modern military weapons, or the mass shootings we see all too often these days, The rifles of the eighteenth century weren’t as accurate as modern rifles, and had to be re-loaded after every shot fired. Today we have semi-automatic rifles, which fire one round each time the trigger is pulled. Fully automatic rifles, which fire rapidly as long as the trigger is held down, are rightfully banned; but some semi-automatic rifles can be easily modified to be fully automatic. With clips that hold from a dozen to a hundred rounds, such rifles are weapons of war, designed for rapid slaughter. They should not be for sale to civilians.

A ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons won’t completely solve the problem, as there are already millions of them out there. However, the overwhelming majority are in the hands of responsible gun owners, who will never use them for mass murder. As long as they’re not allowed to be traded or sold, most of them don’t present a threat  to public safety. But an absolute ban on sales would make it harder for people who decide they want to kill people to acquire an assault rifle. A massive public relations campaign promoting a national, voluntary buy-back program would gradually reduce the number of assault weapons over time.

We also need to have a national dialogue about the “Otherizing” of racial and ethnic minorities by hate groups – the “Us vs. Them”mentality. School children need to be educated about the stereotypes that are being used to indoctrinate people to fear and hate people who don’t look like them or believe in all the things they believe in. They need to be able to recognize the lies that are told to recruit domestic terrorists. Part of the reform of our mental health system needs to be a public education program, to try to end the stigma about mental illness that is so prevalent in our society. Mentally ill people have enough problems with stigma as it is, without being blamed for mass murder.

 

 

My Red Cross service at Ground Zero

In my last post I wrote about my first tour (with my wife, Maria) as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Volunteer  in Manhattan, weeks after the 9-11 attacks. In 2001 Maria was employed, and I was between jobs. She’d been given two weeks leave to serve in New York, but couldn’t get an additional two weeks for a second tour. So, after my first tour ended, I was in a position to apply for a second tour and was again assigned to Manhattan. By this time luxury hotels were filling their rooms again, and I was given a shoebox of a room at the Pennsylvania Hotel – which happens to be my preferred lodging when I visit The City. And this time, when I in-processed  at the Red Cross headquarters in Brooklyn, I was given a prized assignment. I would be working at a Red Cross Respite Center at Ground Zero.

Ground Zero was fenced-in, and access was restricted to those who worked there. The sacred ground where the World Trade Center towers had stood was now known as the Pile by those who worked on it. Two weeks earlier, superstructure was still being torn down by giant machines resembling metal dinosaurs, and the wreckage could still be seen from outside the fence. Now operations were mostly subterranean, and Ground Zero was a vast pit, crawling with activity. The Respite Center I was assigned to at Ground Zero was there to serve anyone who worked on the Pile. The cafeteria operated 24/7 and free services were available for off-duty workers. Our clients included police and firefighters, demolition workers, engineers, telecommunications workers, machine operators, and National Guard troops.

Outside at Ground Zero, everyone had to wear a hard hat. The Respite Center was housed in a college student union building with a large atrium, a cafeteria and big rooms on the ground floor, and two more stories of smaller rooms, behind wide balconies  overlooking the atrium. Serving at the Respite Center was a very different experience than serving at a Family Service Center. It was where people working on the Pile went for meals, and when they were off-duty. Everything was free, from the cafeteria to a supply store with batteries, towels, work clothes, boots, gloves, etc. Workers who had long commutes could stay to sleep in dormitory rooms, without going home after each shift. There were also showers and darkened nap rooms with recliner chairs. There was a big media center where off-duty workers could play cards, or watch TV, or use a computer to play games, send e-mails, or surf the Web.  They could sign up for free massages or attend twelve-step meetings.

All Red Cross volunteers were there to pamper our clients and to help them deal with  the stresses of working on the Pile. We disaster mental health volunteers were there to listen to those who wanted or needed to talk, to be available and accessible. We knew not to ask intrusive questions or to initiate conversations about working on the Pile. We ate with the clients in the cafeteria and we schmoozed. We took snacks and coffee out to the cops and the National Guard troops providing security around the perimeter of the Pile. We filled in for other volunteers, washing dishes or making sandwiches, so they could take a break.

As with my first assignment in Manhattan, I was there to serve as a facilitator and troubleshooter – but in a different context. Our primary job was to provide respite to people doing stressful work. Bodies and body parts were still being found in the rubble. At one point I heard a local Salvation Army volunteer at a cafeteria table with firefighters ask a question about finding body parts. I took her aside and told her why her question was inappropriate at a Respite Center, where workers went to get away from their work on the Pile. She caught on.

There’s no telling how many New Yorkers developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to the events of 9-11, but in my two Red Cross tours in Manhattan I encountered quite a few. Some had seen bodies falling from the burning towers; others had run for their lives when the towers fell. I was asked time after time if what the person was going through was “normal.” The people asking that question might be experiencing depression, anxiety attacks, fear reactions, anger, and other PTSD symptoms. I don’t know how many times I said something like this to trauma victims: “What you’re experiencing used to be called ‘shellshock’ or ‘combat fatigue’. It’s not just soldiers in combat who have the kind of symptoms you’re having. You’re a civilian who suddenly found yourself in a war zone. What you’ve described to me is a normal reaction to an extremely abnormal experience. You’re not going crazy.”

Another question I got a lot from people experiencing symptoms of PTSD was, “Will it always be like this?” While I had to tell them that I couldn’t answer their question, my replies included positive suggestions about recovery: “Everybody’s different. Some people keep re-opening the wounds, or convince themselves that they’ll never get better, and don’t. Some people just get better over time. If your symptoms don’t begin to diminish, and disable you in some way, you should consider counseling..  But the important thing is to keep an open mind about your recovery. Trust in your ability to heal, and get help if you need it. Nobody has the right to tell you that you should have already gotten over it by now.”

Police (“New York’s Finest”) and firefighters (“New York’s Bravest”) were especially hard-hit by the 9-11 attacks, as they were mourning the loss of so many colleagues. All human remains found in the Pile were turned over to a special squad of policemen and firefighters, to be removed with ceremony and respect; so people were still being traumatized, weeks after the attacks. I felt privileged to be in the company of the men and women of the police and fire departments, and to play a small part in New York’s healing. I’d visited Manhattan before, but this time I felt a part of it. I fell in love with it.

 

Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Service

I’ve served three two-week stints as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Volunteer, twice in Manhattan in the weeks following the 9-11 attacks, and once after a hurricane in Louisiana. To qualify as a disaster mental health volunteer for the Red Cross you have to be a licensed mental health professional, and you have to go through Red Cross training. Because of the unique challenges of being a disaster mental health worker, the tour of duty was for two weeks, while most other Red Cross volunteers served for three. The Red Cross is paramilitary in its organization and operations, with a strict chain of command and very specific job descriptions: driver, food service worker, family services worker, logistics and supply worker, etc. To serve in a Red Cross disaster operation is to become part of a well-oiled machine.

Not only can the workdays be long and stressful, but if there are no local hotel or motel rooms available, workers might have to sleep on cots in a big tent or at a shelter. You get one day off a week. While most volunteers have a specific duty station, disaster mental health volunteers are flexible and have the run of the entire operation, doing whatever they can do to be helpful and to keep things running smoothly. We were taught in training that we were not going to be doing counseling, but rather using our clinical judgment and skills as troubleshooters and facilitators: doing interventions when tempers flare, soothing people who’ve been yelled at by an angry client, listening to people who just need to unload, and talking to people about stress management. We would be working with both Red Cross staff and volunteers, and clients (disaster victims), some of whom would be suffering from symptoms of PTSD.

Like most Americans, the events of 9-11 had left me grief-stricken. I was as depressed as I have ever been, feeling like I’d lost family. My wife Maria had already taken the Red Cross courses required for certification as a disaster mental health volunteer. I immediately signed up for the training and within two weeks was certified. We put in our applications for service and were assigned to Manhattan. Airline flights had just resumed, and we were issued some of the first available tickets to JFK. We wouldn’t know where we would be assigned until we in-processed at the Red Cross headquarters for New York City. I’d volunteered so that I wouldn’t have to go on feeling helpless; I would be helping the healing process. It was my therapy, the best way for me to deal with my grief.

One term our trainers used in describing our function within the site operation was “schmoozing.” This meant just walking around the site and getting to know folks, greeting people and chatting with them, asking open-ended questions, letting people know that you’d be there if needed. We wore the same vest that all Red Cross volunteers wear on duty, with nothing to identify us as mental health volunteers; but within a few days at least someone at every duty station knew who the “mental health folks” were, and understood our function.

It was our job to be available where we were needed, and accessible. Sometimes we filled in – making sandwiches or toting trash bags to the curb – to enable volunteers to take a break. We tried to de-fuse tense situations when we could. We asked people, “How’s your day going?” and told duty station managers, “Let me know if I can be of help.” We assessed the morale and did what we could to keep it high. Sometimes volunteers came to us with things like, “You might want to ask Fred how he’s doing today. He just found out his mother’s in the hospital.” Other times a staff member or volunteer might approach one of us, ask “Got a minute?”, and talk for twenty minutes.

Maria and I were assigned to a Red Cross Family Service Center housed in a huge gymnasium/sports center in Greenwich Village – a ten-minute walk from Ground Zero. You could still see and smell the toxic haze from the fallen towers. Manhattan was on edge: recovering from the shock of the 9-11 attacks, and fearful of another attack. The swank hotels were near-empty, so we were assigned a room in a luxury hotel, a block from Carnegie Hall; but we worked fourteen-hour days, and were too exhausted to appreciate the luxuries. Contrary to the stereotype of rude New Yorkers, we found the local folks we encountered to be friendly and helpful. People on the street, seeing our Red Cross i.d. badges (which enabled us to ride the subway for free) made us feel welcome, and many thanked us for “coming to help us out.”

A family service center is where people who’ve lost their residence or their livelihood due to a disaster go, to apply for and receive (if they qualify) vouchers for food, housing, and other necessities. A kitchen on the premises dispensed free hot meals, and there was a free snack bar next to the huge waiting area. Clients were given a number and often had to wait for hours to see a family service worker, who would screen them for eligibility and fill out the requisite forms. Supervised child care was available. The primary task for mental health volunteers was to keep an eye out for potential problems and to schmooze the waiting area, available and accessible to the waiting clients. If things got volatile in the desk-filled basketball court, where family service workers sometimes had to turn down clients who couldn’t establish eligibility, mental health volunteers might be summoned to facilitate the situation.

Clients who clearly needed to talk to someone, or were in evident distress, were told that while we couldn’t “do counseling,” we were mental health professionals and good listeners. Sometimes we were able to answer questions, do brief interventions, or refer people to local agencies and resources, if they needed clinical services. I remember one ad hoc psychoeducational group that Maria and I led for parents, in a room off the waiting area. We heard such things as, “I can’t tell my kids not to be scared. I’m scared!” and “Is it normal for my teenage daughter to still cry every time I leave the apartment?”

More about my experiences as a Red Cross mental health volunteer – including my assignment to a Respite Center at Ground Zero – in my next post.

Prisoners of metaphor

Humankind has been called “the magic animal” because of our linguistic ability. Robert Anton Wilson put it this way: “Language. . . allowed people to do what no other animal seems to do, namely to visualize and/or verbally ‘contemplate’ something that is not present before their senses. This fantasy or reflection or cognition allows us, then, to compare the imagined with the experienced.” The amazing discriminating mind that language has enabled is, however, a two-edged sword. Language has made it possible for us to progress as a species –  to create civilizations, art, literature – but it’s also responsible for a kind of suffering that’s unique to the human animal.

Any bad situation can be made much worse by the way we think about it. Our human imagination can make us depressed, fearful, or enraged without a realistic external cause.  If it’s responsible for the building of magnificent cities, it’s also responsible for the Holocaust and other man-made horrors. As a retired psychotherapist, I know well that people often suffer needless pain because of the way they think.

The purest truths, it seems to me, reside in our experience. Anything we say about things we experience is once-removed from reality. We  have to rely on metaphor to communicate our truths. Nothing we say or write about  love can match the purity of our experiences of love. Most words don’t have absolute meanings, and the possibilities of misunderstanding another person’s words are endless. We encode our thoughts into words, and every listener must decode them. Two people hearing the same sentence or speech might decode it in very different ways. Language is a leaky vessel for conveying Truth.

Not only do we have words for specific phenomenal things, like rain; we also have words for things that don’t exist in the same way that rain exists. Concepts like Justice and Salvation and Divine Right are noumenal, and might not have the same meanings to different people. And yet people often act as if certain noumena were as real as rain, and had some absolute meaning. Wars are fought over things (Honor, God’s Will) that are totally subjective, or can’t be proven to exist in the way rain exists. To most Muslims jihad means the inward spiritual battle against sinful impulses, but to some it means killing infidels  in the name of Allah.

The Wharfian hypothesis – a popular linguistic theory for much of the twentieth century – suggested that our experience is created by the language that we speak. While a person from our culture, at the beach, would see waves in the ocean, someone from another culture might see the water waving. According to the theory, the first person perceived the waves as things, while the second person perceived a process. While the theory has been largely discredited, I think there is some truth to it: language may not determine one’s experience, but it certainly shapes it to some degree.

Linguistic conventions can make us prisoners of metaphor. Words can almost instantly arouse emotions. A good orator or storyteller can put her audience in a trance. A speech can turn a crowd into an angry mob. In both his essay, “Politics and the English Language” and his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about the manipulation of language for political purposes. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” He also wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In my last post I wrote about the linguistic trap of “is,” and E-Prime as a tool for becoming more aware of what “is” is in our language and our thought. To the degree that you’re unaware of the limits of language as a means of conveying truths, you are under its bewitchment.

Our belief systems are largely constructed from our native language, and the conventions we live by are largely determined by the culture we were raised in. Because we’re all acculturated, we tend to share certain assumptions about what is real, and what is right or wrong, with the people around us. It’s even been speculated that each of us live our lives in a culturally-induced trance state. It’s easy to find seeming irrationalities or blind spots in people whose belief system differs significantly from your own, not so easy to become aware of your own culturally-transmitted limitations or fixations.

Imagine living in a culture whose language didn’t have the word “week,” and which didn’t have the convention of a seven-day week. How would life be different? Years and months are phenomenal  measurements of time, based on solar and lunar cycles. The four seasons are likewise phenomenal. The seven-day week is an arbitrary, contrived convention which affects the lives of most people on the planet. It’s noumenal, but seems to be experienced by most people as real, in the way that rain is real. Many workers wake up with the blues when they remember that it “is” Monday, and tend to have a bright mood when it “is” Friday afternoon. If you  were a castaway on a desert island, would you have a reason to know what day of the week it “is”?

It’s only Monday if you think it is. Your experience or interpretation of almost anything you encounter in your life is mediated by your belief system, your mental map. It’s possible, as Alan Watts put it, to miss the meal and eat the menu. We all need mental maps to navigate our way through life, but the map isn’t identical to the territory it depicts. If you don’t like some of the places your mental map takes you, you can re-draw parts of it – whatever your age. If you pay attention to the tricks and traps of language, it need not ensnare you, or limit who or what you may make of yourself.