Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

New Mental Health Disorders, Coming to A Neighborhood Near You—Dysfunction and Diagnosis Enough For Everyone!

Doctor with inkblotWhen bad things happen, like the shooting at Newton or in Aurora, our country revisits the idea of “mental health.” The truth about mental health care is that it is a fairly new field and as such, has yet to grow into itself. Theories abound and medication for what a group of guys in lab coats deem to be a mental illness is often worse than the condition it’s supposed to treat.

We live in a climate that does not fully support mental health. I am not just talking about the ability to talk to a psychologist or have your M.D. write a script for Prozac or Zoloft. I mean that we live in a country that is not conducive to the health of the psyche. We hold little value for personal silence, reflection or the contemplation of life. The community that we all crave is being taken over by inane relationships on Face Book, that we convince ourselves are real. We seem to have lost the ability to make eye contact, because thumbs are flying over the keys of our i-phone hoping beyond hope to somehow “connect.” And all the while, advertisers mark us to sell us the products that we need to make us full and better people—something to whiten our teeth, shine our hair, thin our thighs, make us look cool. And maybe, just maybe if we use some of these products we will attract the friendships, intimacies and relationships that are part and parcel of being a healthy human.

In recent weeks a new manual, a bible really, of disorders, dysfunctions and illnesses has been released by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s called a “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” In this book, with these codes, you have a mental disorder if you grieve for too long and your therefore you may require Psychiatric Intervention. Translation: a drug for what ails you.  Similarly with restless leg syndrome, caffeine withdraw and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Under the guidelines of this new manual, over 50% of the population would require medication for something, and that is good news for the pharmaceutical industry which takes a certain kind of perverse glee in people staying sick and profit margins staying fat.

It’s as though every emotion can now be considered pathological and your lack of happiness is treatable through the chemistry of Big Pharma. There is no normal anymore. Worse, no “quirky” normal. For anyone who is familiar with the suffering and loss of life, familiar with the harmless nuances of “everyday”neurosis, there’s a diagnosis, a handy code for the insurance company, and a new pill coming your way, courtesy of Pfizer. Navigating the rough events within our lives, teaches us to be more compassionate and often more grateful individuals, a process denied us by brain drugs.

This is the last stripping away of any real mental “health” as far as I am concerned. When we start putting the reactions and emotions of people into categories and boxes to be “treated” instead of assuring and reassuring folks that the challenges of life are what being human is, we have forgotten that we are supposed to evolve and mature throughout life as a result of the rough patches. The common thread, not talked about, that weaved its way through the perpetrators of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown and Aurora, was that they were all medicated. The best intention of helping by the psychiatric  industry can and does create a kind of chemical brain soup, courtesy of the drug companies that surprises us with consequences that we cannot yet predict.  A refillable prescription for an SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor like Prozac), chased by a cocktail of Abilify, a popular anti-psychotic, takes about 10 minutes of face time with your M.D. who may not be trained by anything other than the Big Pharma literature that a perky drug rep dropped at his or her front desk.

Unfortunately, unlike the things that we can put under a microscope to determine the need for antibiotics, no one can put mental health diseases or disorders under the same kind of scrutiny, so the medication of such things is a roll of the dice. I am not against medication. Some people are in such a bad state that medication may help, and I do not think that anyone should have to suffer; but I do think we medicate too much and too often, for too many things– and in too many instances we medicate when it is not needed. Even the best medication is often a band-aid that does not address core issues. It’s interesting to note that there is a diagnosis for “too much grieving,” but I wonder if some of the problem is that we live in a country where people don’t get to, or don’t know how to grieve, and the lack of the grieving process will then manifests itself in symptoms. A pill cannot teach you how to grieve or how to let go.  These are life lessons that should be far removed from medication.

This morning I made my list for achieving good mental health, because I am one of those individuals who left to the devices of modern-day psychiatry would probably be medicated. I deal with a life where anxiety comes and goes; where fear is sometimes way too familiar a companion; and where sorrow can overcome me. But I honestly do not think I am alone in this. I think that what I have described is just part of being alive and that it’s less a disease or dysfunction, and more the nuance of being sensitive, creative and struggling for awareness. So, here is the list that helps me:

1. Distinguish between depression and sadness. Sadness is part of the messiness of life and depression keeps you from getting out of bed. Sadness does not need medication. Sometimes you hurt and sometimes you feel good. That’s just the stuff of life.
2. Make friends. Set aside time to get a coffee or go for a walk with someone and listen to their story…share your own. We all need a tribe to which we feel we belong.
3. Exercise. A good, brisk walk, will get the endorphins going and can help snap you out of a melancholy mood.
4. Don’t drink too much. Alcohol is a depressant.
5. If you don’t have an animal, volunteer at a shelter. You’ll meet potential friends and animals are great healers.
6. Nurture a creative outlet: dance, art of any kind, writing. Express the light and the dark. A lot of good art takes form in the shadow.
7. Avoid self-diagnosis and instead rely on something inspirational. I have a few books that I dive into when I get blue. These days I like reading David Steindal-Rast, who has made and entire career of promoting gratitude. Good stuff.
8. Reach out to the world. I have found that a little volunteer work goes along way in soothing a troubled heart.
9. If you are having a rough time—belly breath for ten minutes. It’s good to develop some kind of meditation or prayer practice that gives you a place to let go your burdens and reclaim your breath. When you breath just in your upper chest—it’s like panic breathing, so deep belly breathing can literally lower your blood pressure and make you feel calm.
10. Don’t get too lonely, too tired or too hungry. Did you know that the symptoms of depression look just like symptoms of exhaustion?

So probably none of that will revolutionize mental health care, but it seems worth mentioning that there are too many diagnosis and too many pills and life was never meant to be a smooth, one-dimensional ride without strife.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Happily Ever Whatever

Basically, we all tell the same stories. The characters and the settings may be different, but the stories are the same. We long for certain stories and certain endings with our whole lives. One of the endings that I long for is the “ride off into the sunset” ending where everyone lives happily ever after. The story that I am in now has harsh, jagged edges. If you have read my “About” page, you know that I suffer from a lack of courage sometimes—what a psychologist would call “dysthymia.” It usually comes in the middle of the night, when I am sleeping soundly and I don’t know about it until morning when I wake up with what feels like someone sitting on my chest ready to strangle me.

Fear is an old and unwelcome friend that seems to find a way to seep under locked doors like yellow smoke, wrapping its self around me. Though I cannot explain the how and why of such events in my life, I have learned to live with it. This morning, I got out of bed, feeling the physical symptoms of the dysthymia and I did deep belly breathing for ten minutes. I am doing that even as I sit here writing. Writing is another tool. Giving voice to the demons seems to make them less, and gives me some small sense of power: I am not a victim.

When I get like this I wonder if the rest of the world has it all figured out and I have somehow missed the bus. I feel guilty for the challenges life throws me and embarrassed by its sorrows. Now, I know this is temporary because I have lived with the on again off again condition for all of my adult life. I have read way too many self-help books; attended enough process groups to be equal to the processing of a Velveeta Cheese block, and prayed myself to sleep in hopes that the fear and sorrow would leave me. Still, even this morning, I don’t feel like a victim, I just feel uncomfortable, and I know I have tools.

In my musings about these states, I wonder about the guy who works hard all day and goes home and takes a hit off of a joint to take the edge off of the day. Does he have demons too, albeit un-named? Or the woman who pours the third glass of wine alone in her kitchen…is she lost in sorrow too? I think we have given psychology way too much credibility over such things. Is it possible that the sorrows and fears of being human are just part of being human and don’t really deserve a diagnosis? Does having a diagnosis make things worse?

So, I will make another cup of tea, take a walk with the dog, keep breathing deeply and know that as the day wears on, the physical symptoms will fade and my mind will be on other things. I would love happily ever after in a life with out challenges. It seems like such a friendly place. I just don’t think I would be willing to give up the textures of the shadow that in a strange sort of way make my life rich, interesting and creative.