Take Out the Garbage

Old Posts

I once facilitated a group for people recovering from severe mental illnesses. We met once a week and they talked about how things were going for them. They tried to support each other. One day a man came in and said his landlord was going to evict him if he failed to clean his apartment. Landlords can do that if it’s really bad. We knew that just talking about it and offering moral support was not going to help him much, so we all went to his place to help him clean. In the end, he got to keep his apartment and I got a story about forgiveness and letting go. Continue reading

When You Need Your Space

Old Posts

Some days, you just need your space.

The trouble is, your partner is there, too, and if you try to get some space, they may take it personally. You don’t want to get into a long discussion over why you need your space when you need your space. It may not be good to get into discussions when you need your space. They seldom go well, then.

What you need, at times like that, is a hat.

Not just any ordinary hat, but a hat that is easily recognizable and officially designated as the I Need My Space Hat.

So, some time when you don’t need your space, pick out a hat and talk with your partner. Put the hat in a common area where both of you can find it. Whenever you need your space, put on the hat. Only use this hat for that one purpose. The hat communicates something to your partner, so you don’t have to. It says, I need my space. It’s not about you, it’s about me. I’ll tell you why when I take off the hat.

It’s important that you have this discussion first, before you need it, so both of you understand what the hat means. It’s also important to obey the hat, no matter which one of you is using it. Finally, it’s important to talk after you take the hat off. Tell your partner why you think you needed your space and was going on with you.

Some days, you just need your space and it’s hard to get it. Unless you use a hat.

You Can’t Stop Thoughts from Knocking at the Door, but You Don’t Have to Answer

Old Posts

Every day I work as a shrink I hear someone say the same thing, “I wish I could stop my thoughts.” They’re talking about intrusive thoughts. The kind of thought you wish you didn’t have.

I wish they didn’t have these thoughts. These are usually destructive thoughts, thoughts of drinking, drug use, gambling, violence, worries, or needless self-recrimination. I wish these thoughts didn’t exist, or that they’d go away to wherever thoughts go. But they can stop them if they understand the thought stopping process and practice it whenever they need it. Continue reading

Rat Park

Old PostsA well-funded behavioral researcher once spared no expense to create a perfect environment for rats. No, this wasn’t a PETA scheme gone wild; it was an important study that could pay off handsomely if life was as simple as research.

The beginning of the story is well known. You take a rat and put him in a cage, give him the choice between drinking life-sustaining sugar water and water that is laced with drugs like cocaine or heroin. Many of the rats will choose the drugs and use them to the extent that they will starve themselves to death.

Those results are often cited. They’re told in every high school as a cautionary tale to discourage kids from using drugs. It’s only part of the story, though. Bruce Alexander wanted to know more.

Dr Alexander looked at the cages where researchers were conducting their experiments and said, that’s no place for a rat. Imagine yourself shut up in a wire cage with nothing to do and no one to do it with. Wouldn’t you use drugs then, if only to pass the time? What would happen if the rats were living in rat heaven? Would they still use drugs and kill themselves, doing so? He created Rat Park to find that out.

First of all, the individual cages had to go. Rats are social creatures. They need room to play and explore. Get some trees, grass, and line the floor with woodchips so they can make nests. Keep the cats away. Scatter some cans and boxes for them to hide in. Now give them the choice to use drugs.

The rats weren’t interested. Who needs drugs when you’ve got wood chips.

OK, so next, they got some other rats addicted by the previous method, in the stark, isolation chambers, and then set them free in Rat Park. They’re gunna need rehab, right? They’re not going to be able to stop on their own without methadone or a rat’s version of a twelve-step program.

Not so, those rats weren’t any more interested in the drug-laced water than the others were once they became residents of Rat Park.

Some say that Alexander’s study demolishes most of the assumptions of drug addiction theory.

Rat Park suggests that the desire to use drugs is, indeed, super powerful if you are isolated, alienated, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. If you’re living like a rat in a cage you’ll be inclined to use drugs and probably use those drugs to such an extent that you’ll neglect your basic needs till you die. However, it suggests, if you are in a safe place, around supportive people you love, given the opportunity for meaningful work and creative play, then drugs aren’t going to be that interesting.

If you look at what we do to drug addicted people, limit their options and put them in cages when they violate possession laws, you’d say that we make the problem worse. If you look at the way many rehab programs are run, like impersonal boot camps, you’d say we make the problem worse. If you look at the way employers, schools, friends, and family treat the addicted person, like a pariah who you can’t trust, you’d say we make the problem worse. This is madness, you’d say.

I agree we make the problem worse that way, but I don’t think recovery from addiction is as simple as Rat Park suggests.

You see, humans are not rats. Take your typical human and put him in a secure environment with plenty of food and companionship, give him something pleasant to do, tell him that he is loved, that he is forgiven, that he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Will he be happy? Maybe for about a week. Then he’ll find something to be miserable about.

The truth of the matter is that not all of our drug addicts come from the inner city or depressed rural areas, both places worse than even a rat’s worse nightmare; many come from the comfortable suburbs, from loving families, enjoying every privilege, and anticipating the fulfillment of every dream. There may not be much addiction in Rat Park, but there is much in Human Park. It doesn’t make much sense, but that’s why we call it madness.

When I went to repost this old post I realized something important was missing. Why can’t humans be as happy as rats? I decided to try to answer that question. It will be in my post next week. It’ll be titled, Cranky. Sorry to anyone who was made miserable by this.