My Writing

I’ve done a lot of writing.

Book cover 2Last year, I published a book that can help you deal with conflict, Constructive Conflict. It’s available in paperback, Kindle, and Audible from Amazon.

I also have two novels: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic and Intersections.

My blog is below. I’m currently posting two series: The Shrink’s Links once a week, alternating with a series on forgiveness, The Road to ReconciliationClick here if you would like to read this series from the beginning.

How Big is the Brain?

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The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

 

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

 

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

 

Emily Dickenson wrote this. She had a big imagination, even though she lived a very restricted life, rarely leaving her bedroom in her parent’s house in a small town in Western Massachusetts.

To read more poems by Emily Dickenson, click here.

 

Reading for the Plot

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What do the flashbacks and nightmares of trauma victims have to do with the way we experience pleasure? Peter Brooks makes these unexpected connections in his essay, Freud’s Master Plot, within his book, Reading for the Plot.

A professor of literature at Yale, Brooks wanted to know why stories are a certain length. Why don’t we go directly from the beginning to the end and skip all the twists and turns along the way? Why is it necessary to have a plot? Brooks believes that he can explain with some help from Freud.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud noted that, in their dreams, flashbacks, and patterns of behavior, trauma victims compulsively repeated their horrible experiences as if they were happening in the present, rather than remembering them as events of the past. If you believe in the pleasure principle, namely that people do whatever is pleasurable, you would not expect this. Freud developed his idea of the death drive in an effort to explain.

This is how the death drive works. Death, you see, awaits you. You prefer not to think about it, but it forces itself into your consciousness when you have a close call; a trauma, in other words. Your trauma made you experience something close to death, before you have had a chance to live life fully. You wish you had the sufficient vigilance to ward it off.

Having a death drive doesn’t mean that you want to die. Far from it. You know that you will die, but you want to do so on your terms. You attempt to master the inevitability of death by compulsively repeating the event that brought it to your awareness. This compulsion to repeat the trauma is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you think you failed to have in the past. You can’t take your eyes off of it, no matter how much you’d like, because of the threat it poses and the significance it has to your story. Flashbacks, then, are rehearsals.

Here’s where Brooks advances Freud and further develops the death drive. The moment you have a desire, you seek to extinguish the desire. When you crave chocolate, you mentally rehearse the eating of chocolate in the same way that trauma victims rehearse, or “remember forward”, their death. All desire, says Brooks, naturally heads towards quiescence, and all life heads towards death.

Turning to Brooks’ interest in reading: when you pick up a book, you soon find that the hero in the story has a desire. The boy desires the girl, the detective desires to solve the crime, the vampire desires blood. If the book hooks you, you soon have a desire, too: to keep reading until the book is done. A good ending achieves a sense of boundedness when all desires are resolved and all the loose ends tied up.

But there’s more, and this is why novels are long: not too long, not too short, but of a certain length. When you crave chocolate, you know it’s not that enjoyable to just cram it into your mouth at once. The craving can be enjoyable, too. If you look forward to the chocolate, delay your gratification; if you lick it, savor it before consuming it, then you enjoy it more.

This process is what Freud calls binding. The more you tease yourself with the desire, the more you rehearse its satisfaction, the more you tightly bind yourself to it. In addition to its original importance, the desire, once it’s bound, becomes invested with all the energies generated by delay.

When you read, you want the hero to be successful, but only after having adventures, suffering setbacks, and acquiring helpers. First, there’s the hero’s desire that drives the plot forward. Then, there’s the delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure, the making of bad choices. This is what fills the pages in the middles of literary plots. Subplots, with their own system of desires, setbacks, and resolutions, contribute to the delay. A satisfying story, by teasing you with the ending, binds all of these elements together. In a good book, everything is there for a reason.

In summary, in real life, just as in fiction, whether there has been trauma in it, or not; life moves toward death. You know you’re going to die, but you want to die on your own terms, after having had a full life. A full life consists of the very same desires, setbacks, adventures, and delay we find in fiction. It is enriched by the subplots provided by our associates. An awareness of death adds a great deal to the story by bringing to mind what’s at stake. Trauma adds drama. The pleasure principle and the death drive coexist and cooperate in the developing and enriching of the good life, as it does in the developing and enriching of the good plot.

The ACE Study

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It makes no sense, but one of the most remarkable and important findings in recent psychological research hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves and still has not had much impact on the practice of psychotherapy. I’m talking about the ACE Study.

In the 1990’s, the CDC and the health care giant, Kaiser Permanente, teamed up to recruit more than 17,000 adult research subjects, who filled out a short questionnaire, asking about their adverse childhood experiences. That’s what ACE stands for: adverse childhood experiences. They then compared their answers to a list of common ailments. They found a very strong correlation between the degree of adverse childhood experiences and a decline in both physical and mental health for the person later in life. Continue reading

The Plant in my Office

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Continuing my series on objects in my office, let me introduce you to the plant in the window.

 

I placed this spectacular specimen of a jade plant right by the chair where I usually sit because I want to put it directly in your line of sight when you look towards me. I do it because this plant is my hero and I want it to inspire you, too.

This jade plant is my hero because it’s the best damn jade plant it can be. It’s flourishing, as I hope to be, and as I hope for you.

Of course, it’s relatively simple for a plant to flourish. All it has to do is grow up towards the sun and down for the water. Provided there’s sun and water, it will flourish. I guess it needs to have fertile soil, too. I take care of that by feeding it what’s left of my coffee when it gets cold.

Flourishing for people is a lot more complicated. We grow in many directions at once. Our bodies have to be healthy, but that’s not enough. Our lives have to possess meaning; or, at least we must think they do. We get bored if there are not enough challenges and overwhelmed if there are too many. There are spiritual, social, and ethical dimensions. Some people can’t be happy unless everyone else is. Others can’t be happy if someone, somewhere, is flourishing more than they.

I don’t know how my plant knows which direction the sun is, or how to find water; but happiness guides people to flourish. If they do what makes them happy, they flourish; most of the time. Not all the time, though. Sometimes happiness leads you astray, as happens when you marry the wrong person, eat too much of the wrong food, or party all night when you should be in bed. There’s also a lot to be said for making significant short term sacrifices to achieve meaningful long term goals. Sorry, but happiness is not a consistent guide. With all due respect for Thomas Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness is not a worthwhile goal.

Flourishing, on the other hand, is worthwhile. You might say, it’s the only thing that’s worthwhile. The trouble is in knowing what flourishing is. There are some who say you know it, you just know it, in your gut. Listen to your gut, they keep telling you. Well, I listen to my gut all the time; mostly, it’s just talking about lunch.

Many people, in attempting the pursuit of flourishing, only chase one part of it. They define flourishing as having a lot of money, for instance; so, they pursue money at the cost of everything else. For others, it’s being loved, respected, having lots of kids, or doing whatever they want whenever they want to do it. Being free of symptoms of mental illness can be mistaken for flourishing. It’s not the same. For example, an opera singer having stage fright as she prepares to perform is not free of symptoms; but, when she sings, it’s glorious.

My plant has only one window to grow towards, a single source of light. There’s only one pot where it can find water. But, people can get up and move around in ways plants can only dream about. Therefore, you have many, maybe infinite, things you can grow towards. When you’re growing towards one, you’re neglecting the others. When you work late and never come home to your family, for example, you are not being the best damn person you can be. Like I said, being a human is a lot more complicated than being a plant.

If I wrote my own dictionary, under the entry for flourishing, I would have a picture of my plant. No text, just the picture. I don’t believe in trying to define flourishing any more than that. Flourishing, for us, is a moving target, a shapeshifter. What flourishing would be for you one day may not be the next. What flourishing would be for you may not be flourishing for another. The guides towards flourishing are inconsistent, as well. Happiness can be a great guide in some cases and can get you lost in others. Still, in the same way that the plant seems to possess some instructions on how to grow, I’ve got to believe we humans have some mechanism to carry us to our fullest potential.

So, that’s why I have this plant in my office. It’s my role model. I hope it can be yours, too.

Mindless Mindfulness

shrinbks-links-photo1If you’re a shrink and have been paying attention to trends, you’ve noticed that everyone in shrinkland is talking about something called mindfulness. I don’t know if mindfulness has infiltrated non-shrinkdom as much as it has the land of shrinkishness; but if it has, it’s either got you completely converted, or, if you’re like me, you’re ready to puke.

As much as I hate to admit this about a trendy thing, the purveyors of mindfulness are selling something that’s real, and really good; the trouble is, they’re doing such a great job of selling it that they may be outselling their supply. The customers buying mindfulness may be placing their order, awaiting the delivery, opening the box, only to find it empty, containing as much mindlessness as they have in the rest of their life.
Continue reading