Saturday, June 22, 2013

New TED Talk blog posting on the Huffington Post.

Dear Readers,

The Huffington Post asked me to write a response to a wonderful Ted Talk, as part of the Ted Radio Hour.
Maybe some of you are familiar with this NPR program?
The talk is wonderful.  By Candy Chang, entitled "Before I Die."
And they were kind enough to select my blog (among others) to post alongside the video, this on their
TED page.  See it at
If you feel like commenting on the Huff Po page, it makes me look good.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rehearsing for Life and Death

A little boy of my acquaintance is worried about death and graveyards and ghosts.  I have been thinking of comforting ways to talk to him about this—something that might be accessible to a 6 year old.  In the midst of my musings I awoke to the fact that I am just as afraid as he, although ghosts and graveyards don’t really bother me so much.   It seems that the predations and losses of aging are my own version of his preoccupation.  The inevitable debility in the body, losing loved ones, mourning recent losses,  these are my ghosts.

I think after a year and a half of working at a cancer support and wellness center in the DC metro area, I am just coming to understand what drew me to this work.  I volunteer once a week to lead a mindfulness meditation group.  I have not been officially trained to do so.  This is in itself remarkable.  I am, however, a qualified, trained, and experienced therapist and a fairly long time practitioner of meditation myself, but my teaching experience is not particularly in this genre.  In the group we mix it up with other practices and I am always drawing on my skills and various tools acquired as a therapist, to deepen and broaden the experience for my very enthusiastic group of meditators.    Remarkably, the changes in those individuals who come consistently and even attempt to practice at home are discernible to themselves and to me.
The members of the group declaim rather loudly and proudly about the benefits and positive energy of the group—they testify to and regularly recruit new members.  But I am quite aware that my benefit is at least as great as theirs.  It is the high point in my week.  Really.

There is the pleasure in doing something that is popular, useful, and positive.  But beyond that, I think I benefit greatly from my relationship with members of the group and with the group as a whole
: their optimism, their strength, their ability to grow in the face of terrifying, often painful, and always life threatening conditions. 

Many are dealing with the long term effects of treatment, more than the threat to their lives.  Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation leave a variety of “gifts” behind.  The hair grows back, but the neuropathy in hands and feet does not necessarily abate.  “Chemo brain” may recede, but memory may never be quite the same for some.  Unanticipated pain may linger for quite some time after radiation.  Anxiety may take up permanent residence, and thin places in the fabric of family may become deep fissures.

I get a front row seat on how individuals are dealing with these challenges to their bodily integrity and mortality.   Mostly what I see are courage, dignity, and grace under fire.  Of course it’s only an hour a week and a self selected group of individuals who are well enough to sit and listen to the sound of my voice directing them to more peaceful places inside of themselves.  And I don’t observe the moments of sheer terror and rage that walk beside them as well.  But these glimpses of resilience in the woman who dons a stylish chapeau to cover her sparse hair, or manages to look fetching in her outfit despite the loss of 25 pounds or so, enrich my spirit.  The man who teaches himself and practices piano to deal with his overwhelming anxiety and depression and the generous cordiality and even gratitude of those who face the final stages of their disease, inspire and soothe me.

This opportunity to bring comforting practices and to learn from my meditators represents for me a kind of rehearsal for what is inevitable in all of our lives.  Unless we die suddenly, we do need preparation for the last chapter and the loss of those close to us.  There are few models available, for most of death and dying are hidden.  We cannot model ourselves on the brave and the resilient if we don’t know them, if we don’t see them.    They are hidden in nursing homes, hospitals, or hidden away at home.  They are for the most part unidentified.   I have the unusual privilege of meeting, working with and learning from many.

I learned to teach graduate students, something I was also terrified of, by “channeling” one of my most admired teachers and then pretending I was him.  I faked it until I made it. 

Sounds like a plan.









Sunday, January 27, 2013


It was probably 1965 when I did my co op job at  Fairfield Hills State Hospital in Newtown, Connecticut.  This was a huge state hospital campus housing thousands of inpatients from all over the state in need of (mostly) long term custodial psychiatric care.  Although this was decades ago, many of my memories of this time are fresh and crisp.  It was one of a few experiences that shaped my interest in becoming a mental health professional.

The setting, a large institution in rural Newtown, Ct.,  was woefully isolated for two young women in their early 20 's dispatched by Antioch college to fulfill their co-op job requirement. We hung out with some other co-op students from Boston and two male psychologists doing their internship at the hospital.   Gimlets at weeks end with the psychologists were all that was available for “partying.”

There was basically no town in Newtown, as I remember it.   We had to catch a ride into NYC if we expected much fun. 

My memories of the facility where we worked, me as an occupational therapy assistant, my friend J. as an art therapist, are quite positivE, however.  The woman under whom I worked was a consummate professional.  She was highly skilled at creating a program for people who were severely mentally ill and compassionate in her attunement to each individual.  I learned a lot from her.   When I wasn’t working directly with patients, she sent me down to read case records.

On one of those occasions I accidentally discovered that one of the in-patients with whom we worked had come to the hospital  voluntarily, for a short period, had somehow gotten lost in the system and was now a long term resident.  Tommy was not psychotic,  he had come to the hospital for the treatment of depression. Over time he had come to look like he belonged there and did not have anyone to advocate for him. He was heavily medicated, and a physical impairment made him look much sicker than he was.

When I shared this with Madelyn, my boss, she got busy, had him re-evaluated and in short order, "sprung" from the hospital.   Tommy was the poster boy, you might say, for “institutionalization.”  The system had swallowed him whole. It was only a lucky accident that freed him.

Madelyn was not alone among the staff of competent and compassionate employees.  This was a good facility.  Some people got stuck, but most were there because they needed the shelter and the supervision.  Many had nowhere to go.  Larry was an example.  He was in the end stages of Huntington's disease,  a neurodegenerative genetic disorder (the disease that Woody Gutherie succumbed to)  with no cure.     The end stage was often characterized by psychosis.

Larry was a very sweet, bright guy.   He had been a working jazz musician in his prime.  Now he had a hard time walking, controlling the jerky movements characteristic of Huntington’s disease.  And he had psychotic episodes.  He needed the  care that the hospital offered and had few or no other options.  Madelyn was very fond of him and took good care of him.

Patients like Tommy inspired the civil rights activists who felt that the mentally ill were unjustly stripped of their legal rights and were often incarcerated against their will.  They became “institutionalized” and were unable to care for themselves out of the hospital only because they had been socialized to the hospital setting.   In Tommy’s case all of this was true.

But they forgot about Larry, and so many other patients who derived protection from the system, not exploitation and abuse. Sadly, Larry needed the care and protection that the hospital provided.

How strange it is for me to meld my memories of Newtown with current events, in which how to care for the mentally ill is heartbreaking front page news.  My  memory is also vivid for the sweeping policy changes and paradigm shifting of the late 60’s and 70’s that emptied the state hospitals, filled the streets with the homeless mentally ill, and made it next to impossible to care for the seriously mentally ill in any viable custodial arrangements. 

In the name of freedom,  we forsook the mentally ill decades and decades ago.  Instead of re-thinking the system, we jettisoned it, de-funded it, and provided nothing to take its place. 

I join my voice to all the others calling for a humane reconsideration of our responsibilities to the seriously mentally ill.

Friday, January 4, 2013

What Good Can It (Psychotherapy) do?

What good can it ( psychotherapy) do?

The  question above is one that I encounter frequently in one form or another from friends, potential clients, close relatives.  It takes various forms:

  1. What can they tell me that I haven’t already thought of myself?
  2. Life will take its course no matter who I talk to.  My partner will die and I will be alone.
  3. I’m going to die anyhow.
  4. Talking won’t bring her/him back.
  5. I’ll still have cancer/multiple sclerosis/end stage heart disease.
  6. There really is no way out of my marital/familial/work dilemma.
  7. My depression is a result of a chemical imbalance.

I’m frequently not quick enough on my feet to respond thoughtfully, so I’d like to take a moment to do so now.

Therapy, at least the kind that I know about, is not chiefly about finding solutions, i.e., problem solving.  Intelligent people are generally quite aware of a range of solutions to their problems.   They just can’t act on them.  They are frozen.

They  think that no potential solutions are really applicable to their situation or relevant or available to them.  Or they feel, and perhaps this is the  most frequent, that in their particular case there are no real solutions.   Its almost reflexive for the listener, the relative, the loved one, the good friend, the clergy person, even some therapists to offer some thoughts as to possible solutions.  Inevitably they fail.  Its not about that.

Within most adult folks there is an inner wisdom that would offer great assist in resolving the impasses of our life. Therapy is about accessing our inner, innate wisdom, not replacing it with someone else’s.  I can think of many instances where I felt that there were no solutions.  I was trapped.  In retrospect I knew the solutions and just found them totally unpalatable.  I could not end that destructive friendship, it was just too important to me.  I could not resolve a domestic or an economic problem, I just wasn’t strong enough.

So what are the elements of psychotherapy that  enable that inner compass.

  1. the magic of relationship.  When researchers have tried to isolate the “active” ingredient in successful psychotherapies, across many theoretical approaches (CBT, psychoanalysis, mind/body  approaches)  they frequently come up with the same answer:  “it’s the relationship, stupid,” the connection between therapist and patient is the key remedial. 

Neuroscientists have a more exact way of stating this, it’s about “limbic (a key brain structure) resonance.”   Simply stated,  therapy is not so much about the rational, linear, thinking mind.  It’s more like music.  In the best situation the therapist hears the particular melodic essence of the individual, playing softly in the background and is able to tune in and hum along, maybe even in harmony.  Just this tuning in is deeply healing.  How many people in your life have actually heard your “melodic essence”?  Do you think even you have heard it?

2.  A therapist listens differently than other people. I heard a story once of a psychotherapist describe his occupation, at a cocktail party, as one of  listening  “I listen for a living.”

A therapist’s training and experience sharpen and educate their musical ear.  It has been called “listening with the third ear, (Theodore Reik)” among other things.   When things go well, a good therapist hears what others do not, even the speaker.

A therapist may hear anger where others only hear hopelessness, fear where others hear anger, shame where others hear belligerence.   Truly thrilling for both the patient and the therapist is the moment when a door opens and the narrator gets a slightly different perspective, a different way of hearing their own feelings/problems.   “Maybe its not my inadequacy, maybe I am feeling truly alone in this intimate relationship.”  “Perhaps my adversary doesn’t hate me, perhaps they are deeply ashamed of their failures in life and feel humiliated.”  And most powerfully, “maybe there is meaning embedded in my confusion and in my unremitting pain.”   Meaning can set one free.

Certainly there is much more to be said on this subject.  But I will pause here and invite readers, both those who have experienced therapy and those contemplating dipping a toe in, to share their thoughts.

Happy New Year to all!!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

MENTAL HEALTH NOTES: Personal Transformation and Wrestling with the Dark Side

After writing my last post (  and reviewing the comments I received, it occurred to me that I hadn’t told Stuart Smiley’s entire story.  Stuart’s  dark side is an important part of his story, indeed an important part of all of our stories.  I did mention that he was a mess.

I’m going to switch characters here.  The story of  Jacob’s struggle with an angel in (Genesis 32:24-30), provides a more sober and profound metaphor for the following exploration.  Personal transformation is not just about affirming the positive, it’s about investigating the negative as well; its about struggle.   The task of psychotherapy,  at its most profound and meaningful level is all about transformation, inhabiting more fully who we are.  And that is Jacob’s story as well.

In Genesis (32:24-30), the first book of the Bible, the first book of the Jewish Torah, Jacob leaves home to meet his nemesis and twin brother Esau.  Esau  wants to kill him.  Esau is angry with Jacob for having stolen his birthright, his father’s blessing, many year’s before.

While on this journey to meet Esau, Jacob has the famous encounter with a mysterious entity.   It is an encounter marked by struggle and suffering.  They wrestle throughout the night.  They wrestle  to a draw and  Jacob is released by the angel who insists Jacob take a new name: Israel.

Interpreters of the Bible story have various ways of interpreting this narrative.  Who is the angel?    Is it G-d?  Is it Jacob’s own fear of the coming encounter with Esau?  Or is it Jacob's own dark side.   And it appears he had a very prominent dark side.  He manipulated his father and stole from his brother for one thing.   The latter explanation, the most psychological one, of course, appeals to me.  This interpretation has Jacob struggling with his own flawed character.   In the process he is both wounded and reborn.  He gets a new name,  he becomes more of who he really is.  And this is the nature of transformation.

What a wonderful paradigm for the best outcomes of psychotherapy.  And I emphasize best, over common.  While the power of positive thinking is an important and real possibility for us all in recasting our fates—the need to embrace the shadow,  those elements of our personality, our souls of which we are least proud, is a  necessary element of transformation.

Trudy wanted to retire and to begin working seriously at her bucket list:  to travel to Nepal,  to write more poems,  to read and garden to her heart’s delight.  She knew it was time.  She felt really burnt by her 40 years of work as an emergency room physician.  Nothing called to her any more about her profession.  The adrenaline generated by the high intensity work had in the end depleted her.  It was definitely time to move on.

Strangely she found that she couldn’t.  She was dogged by guilt, haunted by bad dreams.  And that was when she could fall asleep.  Insomnia and an exacerbation of her long dormant ulcer had her prescribing medications for herself.  Finally, feeling it was a last resort, she went into therapy.

It took about 6 months of pretty intensive work with her therapist to uncover the source of the guilt.

Trudy came from a high achieving, well to do, but essentially emotionally disconnected family.  The three children  had had to fend for themselves as their parents pursued their
own interests, their travel, and their careers.   Despite this the two oldest children adapted well.  They performed well in school, had many friends, and took care of each other. 
The youngest did less well.  He struggled in school,  seemed to be the odd man out socially, frequently got into trouble with the authorities, and was finally expelled from school.  As the oldest child, Trudy knew what was expected of her to help:  she needed to take care of  her little brother.  But she didn’t want to.  For one thing she didn’t know what to do about him,  although 5 years older, she was a kid herself.   For another she was successful both socially and academically and had no real interest in parenting. 
She had made half hearted tries but she resented anything she was asked to do for him.  And plenty was asked.  The parents were preoccupied and clueless themselves as to how to help their son.

The baby brother never did pull himself out of his troubles.  As an adolescent he got into harder and harder drugs and very tragically died of an overdose at age 20.

What Trudy discovered in psychotherapy was that she had never forgiven herself for abandoning her brother.  And she really had to acknowledge that it was an abandonment.  True, she was a child herself and did not have the knowledge or skills to help her brother,  but on a deeper level she just didn’t want to.  She didn’t much like him or sympathize with him—he was always a trouble maker and a drain on the very slim emotional  resources of the family.  The stain on her soul was not what she did or didn’t do,  it was what she felt.  

What she had to wrestle with was her own nature, or what she thought was her nature.  She had not wanted to help her brother and he had died of neglect.

It took another 18 months at least for Trudy to come to terms with all of this.  Actually it probably will take many years beyond these months.  Trudy had to seriously consider that she had become an ER doctor because it was an arena in which she could save people. And that she did.  And now she couldn’t leave it, because to do so would expose the wound: her own self-loathing.

The struggle (in this case her work in therapy) left its mark on Trudy—the wound that had been  there but invisible became visible.  For a short time she needed anti-depressant medication,  later something to help her with her anxiety.  But in the end, she knew her own name.   She became more of who she was.   And eventually she retired.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mental Health Notes: Stuart Smalley and Neuroplasticity

Stuart Smalley was a  character on Saturday Night Live played by Al Franken,  now a distinguished member of congress, then a distinguished comedian. In the  90’s he was a regular on Saturday Night Live.   Blonde and dimpled, somewhat effeminate, Stuart was an earnest simpleton, distinctly un-cool in his cardigan he was “a member of several 12 step programs, not a licensed therapist.”   Actually he was a mess.

One of his funnier bits was staring into a mirror and speaking aloud affirmations, to be repeated daily? “I am good enough, I am smart enough,  and doggone it  people like me.”  There was also: “I am an attractive person, I deserve my share of happiness, I deserve good things.”

The hilarious implication was of course how silly and self indulgent it was to think flattering yourself in front of a mirror really meant anything.

But you know what, it turns out that Stuart Smalley was on to something.

What we now know about neural functioning indicates pretty strongly that what we think can and does change our brain.   In the last twenty years there has been an explosion of new understanding in brain science.  There is more sophisticated, detail mapping of the brain and its functions and very importantly we have learned that the brain is malleable, not fixed as we once thought.  This is why a meditation practice, learning a language, and taking up a musical instrument can demonstrably change brain structure, even quite late in life.

What changes the brain, and/or the mind, changes the body, the immune system, blood pressure, cardiac function, stroke recovery and so much more.    Sophisticated methods of brain scanning have given us access to how all of this works.

The slogan is : what fires together, wires together.  As neurons fire (which is what happens with thought),  they connect to each other.  The more they fire, the stronger the wire.   If you practice weight lifting, or swimming, or piano, or French, you gain more facility, you get better and better—the neural connections grow stronger and stronger.  So if you think good thoughts, that might have an effect also, right?

I have just read the book Freedom from Pain: Discover Your Body’s Power to Overcome Physical Pain, by Peter Levine, Ph.D. and Maggie Phillips, Ph.D.  This book is chock full of exercises and regular practices, that can help people in acute or chronic pain, manage their pain.  Many of the exercises are based on Somatic Experiencing (SE), many on energy medicine.  Somatic Experiencing developed by Peter Levine, is a body awareness approach to treating trauma 
Pain is a form of trauma.

See previous posts on this site on the subject of SE:

Pain management is a very challenging area of healthcare with pain conditions nearly epidemic.  Medication can be helpful, but sometimes falls far short of bringing comfort, and almost always has side effects that can be distressing.  So practices that depend only on our ability to focus attention have enormous potential benefit.   And no side effects.

I was somewhat amused to see that Stuart Smiley’s methodology was one of the practices recommended by Levine and Phillips.  Here is the scientific justification:

Neuroplasticity research has turned this theory (genetic determination)on its head and gives us an entirely new way to look at the impact of our thoughts and beliefs.We know that thoughts literally change brain chemistry.  Research indicates that the chemical composition of the body can change in relation to a specific thought within twenty seconds (Levine and Phillips )p. 112.
…Research indicates that the chemical composition of the body can change in relation to a specific thought within twenty seconds p. 11.

Neuroscience has caught up to Saturday Night Live!

Try it.  And if you need inspiration, consider where Stuart Smiley is today:  The United States Senate.

Friday, June 29, 2012


I hope that cardiologists everywhere are paying attention to a startling finding  reported online in PloS One.  A review of over 20 observational studies of  cardiac patients found that 1 in 8 (12.5%)  heart attack victims, or patients with unstable angina  had diagnosable PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).     That’s almost double the  (lifetime) rate for PTSD in the general population.   Even more alarmingly this subgroup had double the  mortality rate of those without  PTSD within 3 to  5 years.  In these studies PTSD is very strictly defined as meeting the criteria in the current Diagnostic Manual of mental disorders.  If post traumatic effects like depression are factored in, the rates would undoubtedly be higher.  These findings were broadcast on mainstream media as well.

The study of the effects of war trauma have also reached the headlines as  the rate of suicide among active duty  military personnel now surpasses  the rate of battlefield deaths. ( The New York Times,  6/8/12).  The rate is nearly one a day.

Think about that.   Young men and women serving in  combat zones are more at risk for killing themselves than they are for being killed by enemy combatants. The war moves inside and destroys from within, at a devastating rate.

Long before PTSD reached the headlines, long before the shock and carnage of 911 made knowledge of the sequelae of trauma practically mainstream,  mental health clinicians were reporting back from the front lines of the  child abuse wars that a goodly portion of adults who had suffered as children from sexual abuse, neglect, physical violence,  sex trafficking and child pornography suffered from chronic PTSD;  victims of domestic and sexual violence, ditto.   Suicide rates may not be as high, but soul deaths, certainly.

The articles that I read that  reviewed the heart attack studies, noted that psychotherapy and medications were the treatment of choice for cardiac patients demonstrating trauma symptomatology.

I would like to add that body based techniques such as Somatic Experiencing and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, as well as EMDR, are  good choices in the treatment of  a trauma that is essentially body based.   A heart attack is an attack on the  heart.  It is a "mugging"  within the body that is life threatening, not unlike a near fatal automobile accident, a rape, surviving an airplane crash,  or other near death experience.

The principal behind these body based approaches is that trauma triggers biologically based mechanisms of defense: fight, flight, and freeze.  PTSD and other serious problems will follow when the tremendous reservoir of energy that is recruited when we are threatened and overwhelmed gets locked in the body and can not be discharged.  A heart attack victim doesn’t have a lot of ways to discharge the impulse to flee the “attack,” or unlock from the freeze induced by overwhelming terror (I’m going to die!”).  A child victim cannot fight the predator even though the impulse to do so might be very present.

These body based treatments, or more accurately sensory  based approaches, like Somatic Experiencing or  Sensorimotor Psychotherapy are designed to address and rebalance  the nervous system by addressing it directly and not by way of  the higher cognitive functions.

A heart attack victim coming for treatment for PTSD may be gently and progressively lead  through the body memories of what it was like to experience the crushing pain, the terror, the helplessness, the uncertainty, all this on  a sensory level.  Where is it stored in the body?  What happens when we pay attention to those sensations of the body?    Together patient and therapist track sensation, imagery, and maybe motor inclinations.  All of these activities in the interest of discharging  all that pent up energy.  The work is done from the grass roots, so to speak, from the bottom up.  Cognitive approaches might be aptly described as from the top down.

This method is direct, gentle and amazingly effective.  For more information see  and

or write to me.