Sunday, November 22, 2009

Instincts and Drives: Powerful Stuff

Human beings regularly ignore the fact that we are mammals: warm-blooded, live-birthing animals who share a lot of DNA with beings as diverse as chimpanzees and elephants.

When it comes to thinking, we win, hands down. At least, most of the time. But we often forget how deeply we are designed to do certain things, like eat, sleep, defend, or mate.

The deer in this photo is dead. It killed itself by head-butting a 640 lb. bronze elk statue in a Wisconsin backyard. In the rutting season, deer will defend territory, attempting to secure mating rights and sending the less powerful males on to other acreage.

I post it because I found it an astonishing image. Mammals, driven by the powerful brain chemicals of hormones, will do a lot of strange things. Like head-butting a statue to death.

Research proves again and again that human beings underestimate the power of instinct and arousal on their own behavior. This one fact of mammalian biology may help us understand why we keep doing what we do, despite our own good intentions: eat more than we should; pressure another into sexual activity despite our more clear-headed promises; start fights when cooler heads should prevail; rest or play when we should work.

It's not quite the Animal Kingdom in our heads, but at times, it can come close. How does remembering that you have powerful animal instincts change, concern or alert you to your own humanity? It's worth pondering. (I've been wondering about people with brain or thought disorders, and whether they can truly be held accountable for some of their most anti-social behaviors...)

Wherever your conclusions about instincts and arousal patterns, thinking is the one thing you have going for you that this unfortunate, driven deer did not.


Photo Credit: Mark Brye, via La Crosse (WI) Tribune

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What Exactly is Closure?

Convicted mass murderer John Muhammad was executed this week in Virginia. He and a teenage accomplice went on a three week killing spree in October, 2002, that left 10 people dead and a whole region of the country afraid.

Reports of the execution included select comments from some of the victims' survivors. Many spoke about getting or not getting, a sense of "closure" with his death. I have been wondering, as I often do when people use this popular emotional term, just what they mean.

I think that closure, in this context, has come to mean this: I can't forgive, and I can't forget. But at least I have some sense of justice done, and that closes the book on that nightmare. I can sleep at night without endlessly spinning on the fact that the one I love is dead, and the one who killed her is alive. I think that closure in the case of state execution may be a soft, acceptable term for vengeance.

But people say they find "closure" when some hidden secret is revealed, or when they find the answer to some perplexing mystery, like the disappearance of a loved one. People don't say "I have closure" when they forgive someone, or when they have attended a funeral for one lost to cancer or accident.


"Closure" is a contemporary image which means, I think, I can put this part of my life to rest. I can close the door on this room and finally walk away. I can shut this window, this file, this book, all the images we conjure of things that are open and unfinished that once closed, we can put down or away or forget. 

But in the end, it's a mirage. Because we will always have our whole life within us, and the whole of us to contend with from day to day. Nothing is ever really completely finished, is it? until the day we die. And even then, even then, God is not finished.

So, is closure just a wish for an end? That is my best guess on how we use it. Yes, we wish for our nightmare to end. And we call down closure upon it. Knowing, perhaps, it's just a dream. But we call for it, nonetheless.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Secondary Trauma

Lord, have mercy.

We have endured another mass shooting in our nation, this time on a military base. It will take time to sort out the details of this horrible crime, but we are impatient to know: was this an act of terrorism? The shooter is a Muslim, and some have reported that he shouted to Allah as he fired his weapons. There will be a good deal to learn of this man in the weeks ahead.

Of great interest to me: he is a psychiatrist who worked with soldiers suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental health professionals of all kinds who regularly work with trauma survivors often find that hour after hour of listening to people recount horror is traumatizing. Without regular and systematic debriefing of their own work, therapists lose their own resilience and begin to suffer a secondary PTSD. They begin to show symptoms of chronic anxiety, restlessness, easy startle reflex, difficulty sleeping, intrusive images of trauma, and hypervigilance in the same way soldiers returning from battle can.


I wonder if this doctor, whose healing work helped soldiers return to their lives after battle, was waging a private battle of his own with nightmares, fears and overwhelming anxiety. Would he have been able or willing to share that suffering with others in the military? How are these fears linked to his natural anxieties about being deployed to the battle zone? Are there systems in place to have therapists working in PTSD debrief and consult with others about their cases and experiences?

Helping others recover mental health is not work for the faint of heart and mind. The very best healers understand that they are naturally effected by what they hear, and need help for their own pain. Perhaps this tragedy will highlight the continuing true costs of war: that the horrors of destroying others in battle don't stop at a nation's border. War is hell, and it exacts a toll far wider than we can imagine.

Oh God: hear our prayer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How To Marry Well

The best marriages are made by people who begin their relationship as friends and use friendship as their marriage model.

Do you know how to make and keep a friendship? Listen and talk, share work and pleasure, respond to a friend's bids for attention, and get some attention back? Laugh and enjoy each other, be flexible when things don't work out, fix your disagreements, stay loyal but open to other people in your friend's life?  If you do, and can keep these skills going with people your own age, you already know how to sustain a marriage.

The dramatic stuff of romantic attachment, the wash of sexual attraction, the focused desire for only that one partner: that biological experience, which is the core of nearly every popular song or relationship movie made in the last 50 years, is a piece of human experience, too. But it is crushingly brief. Most of us will only sustain that brain and body phase for 12-18 months. After that, we begin to readjust to a steady attachment that looks and behaves more like a close friendship than any other relationship we have. Friend with benefits? That's what a solid, happy, sustainable marriage is.


The best advice I give people (when they ask for it) about how to make a successful marriage is to take their time. I know that if they begin their relationship well, move into the infatuation phase, and begin to resolve that roller coaster with a deeper, more loyal friendship intact, they have a good running start on a happy union. This means that ideally, we should know our partner for a year or two before we marry. A lot can happen in two years. Exactly the kind of things that test the best of friendships, and expose our strengths and vulnerabilities to one another.

The best preparation for a happy marriage is not a long dating history, a series of broken engagements, or even one marriage after the other. The best marriages are made by those who have learned how to make and keep friendship relationships. Who'll will stand by you in difficult times, visit you when you're sick, and share their ice cream? That's who you want at your side when the real rubber meets the road: a dear friend. Your spouse.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pastors are a Bridge

When I first began my private mental health practice, I knew one thing was certain: I needed to meet as many area clergy as I could. Today I had the pleasure of having coffee with an another local parish pastor. Thanks, C!

So many people still experience embarrassment, resistance and fear when it comes to seeking therapy for relationships, emotions, or behaviors, they stall when it comes to getting help. They may talk to their friend or family member. They may occasionally tell their physician about how they feel. But as they get ready to reach for help, they may also talk to their pastor.

Most pastors are great at emotional triage. Trained in basic listening skills, taught how to manage themselves in emergencies, experienced at handling emotions at funerals, parish clergy are the go-to folks in many people's lives when it comes to figuring out what to do when the going gets rough. I am honored so many people trusted their lives to me over my years in the parish. I learned early on to have a small group of trusted counselors I knew and to whom I could refer my parishioners who needed more help than I could give. I tried to think of myself as a link between suffering and help, and I kept in touch with those counselors on a regular basis.

Now, I strive to be one of those counselors that the pastors, ministers and priests around me trust. Someone they have met, looked in the eye, and gathered a personal sense of me for themselves. As I reflect on clients who have recovered well, who make the most progress in their personal goals, the ones who feel that therapy was a success: most have come to therapy via their pastors.

Thank you, Pastor, for being on the front lines in people's personal lives. You are under appreciated in our secular culture, and over-worked inside the special world of the congregation. You may not feel it often enough, but you are loved, respected and trusted by your members, and a lot of neighbors and strangers, too. Helping people navigate the details of mental health care is a compassionate gift you give. Thank you for trusting people you care to me, and to other therapists you know and trust. 

Oh, and one more thing: you are often neglectful of your own mental health. Don't forget to reach out for help yourself. Some of us know exactly what your life is like, and can be trusted as a confidential guide to increasing YOUR emotional health.  God's grace surround you!