The High Life | Marijuana and Us

It appears that Marijuana use has now become a socially acceptable practice. Not only are states falling in line to legalize recreational use (I don’t like that term for it seems to equate smoking weed to working out at the gym), but I was surprised the other day when I happened on to an interview with Liz Post who is the great granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, the etiquette guru.  Liz has taken up the etiquette banner and continued as director of Emily’s foundation for the last 30 years. She has written her own books of etiquette, this latest of which caught my attention. It is titled Higher Etiquette, and is all about proper behavior in marijuana involved social situations.

A few days later, I was confronted with a full front-page spread in our local newspaper about our county’s latest industry, a facility for growing marijuana on a large scale. It was hailed as a major success for the area and projected that it would eventually employ more that 100 people. Image result for marijuana

The story featured a half-page picture of the interior of a huge greenhouse inhabited by large plants. Apparently, since the owners realized potheads would see the photo as their idea of heaven on earth, they assured us that the facility would be heavily guarded. Medical marijuana (whatever that is) was legalized in our state in September 2016.

Image result for marijuanaThe new law only authorizes the use of cannabis orally or topically in the form of pills, elixers, tinctures, and lotions etc. Dispensaries were licensed by the state and product can be obtained with a note from a licensed physician confirming that the person is suffering from one of a list of 21 maladies; although the state medical board is authorized to add diagnoses to the list as they see fit. The law prohibits home growing of weed and smoking it, but allows inhalation through a vaporizer. (I would anticipate there will soon be a brisk business in vaporizers). Not only does this and similar laws across the country violate federal law governing the use of marijuana, it appears to me to bypass Federal Drug Administration procedures which require extensive testing for both efficacy and safety before any drug can go on the market.

Efficacy of Cannaboids

There is a great deal of anecdotal information concerning the efficacy of cannabinoids for a variety of medical problems. In the early 1800s an Irish physician found cannabis extracts helpful in relieving stomach pain and nausea in people suffering from cholera, and recently the FDA approved 2 drugs containing THC, Marinol and Syndros, for treatment of nausea and anorexia in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. It is also said to be useful in the treatment of refractory epilepsy, chronic pain problems, glaucoma, and various neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis to name a few. Prior to the dawn of modern pharmaceuticals, cannabis extracts were widely sold as a treatment for stomach ailments. Now, nearly 200 years later we don’t know much more about them than we did then.

Other Naturally Occurring Plants in Medicine

This is not the first time that a naturally occurring plant would be found to be useful in treating medical conditions. For example, back in the dark ages when I was a general practitioner, digitalis, which was extracted from the foxglove plant was the treatment of choice for a variety of cardiac problems. More recently, taxol, a substance extracted from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree has proven effective in the treatment of ovarian cancer.

The Problem with Pot

The fact that THC is a mood-altering drug complicates the issue of doing the proper research to discern its effectiveness, side effects, and dangers both in the short term and with prolonged use.

There is also the possibility of an enhanced placebo effect. Does drug-induced euphoria tend to mask symptoms, and if so is that bad thing?

The more significant reason for the lack of knowledge as to the effects of marijuania on the human body is due to Federal Drug Administration’s reluctance to allow scientists to possess it in order to evaluate it properly.

In 1970 Nixon signed into law The Controlled Substances Act which listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin, LSD, and other dangerous and /or highly addictive drugs. This was during the time of the War on Drugs, and the FDA was so uptight that they refused to allow possession of any of these drugs for research purposes. Of course, as usual they zigged when they should have zagged for this was a time when new tools were becoming available to researchers with which to evaluate the effect of drugs on the brain, and an opportunity to learn more about the drug was lost. With such information, they could have been in a position to inform us as to the possible consequences of their use, and perhaps more specifically define how or where they might be useful or harmful.

Follow the Money

With one foot firmly planted in the door with the medical thing it is not surprising that the Marijuana Rights and Regulations Amendment will be on this fall’s ballot. It would legalize the use, possession, and sale of marijuana for persons over the age of 21, and would allow the Ohio General Assembly to enact a tax on its retail sales. As nearly as I could tell there are no proposed restrictions and if passed, potheads can rejoice at their new found freedom. Likewise, entrepreneurs would like to see some of that drug cartel money stay right here in the US of A, and why shouldn’t stoners throw a few bucks into state coffers for the privilege of getting high? Those who grow their own (in limited amount) will pay $50 for a license which is not a bad deal when one considers a cigarette smoker pays $1.97 in taxes for a pack of carcinogens.

If one follows the money, it would seem that the proposed bill would pass, and become law. According to one PR organization (ABCD Inc.) the potential profits are nothing to sneeze at. In their 2018 Cannabis Price Index, they project that in New York city alone 77.44 metric tons of pot was consumed in 2018 with a revenue of well over $8oo million, and if taxed at the same revenue as cigarettes $354 million for the city. I have no idea how they came up with those figures, but if true it is little wonder there appears to be an active campaign espousing the virtues of cannabis involving not only established stoners, but big business and politicians as well.

History of Pot

According to the DEA Museum, the oldest known written record on cannabis use is from the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2727 B.C. There is some evidence that its psychoactive qualities were known then. However, the plant was used primarily for its fibers, which were used to make rope, cloth, and a variety of other products, and is thought to have been low in the concentration of psychoactive chemicals. Although hemp and marijuana are of the same species, i.e. cannabis, it is thought that one variety was developed over time with the goal of increasing the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for its mind-altering effects.

A Higher High

The process of increasing the potency of weed has continued and has accelerated during the last 20 years – not surprising since users are always looking for the “good stuff.” One study found the average potency in Europe and the U.S. to have nearly doubled between 2008 to 2017. The THC levels had gone from 8.9% to 17.1% with one variety reaching 67%.

This same study compared rates of psychosis between areas with different levels of cannabis potency and found that indeed those cities with the more potent stuff reported more psychotic episodes. As a matter of fact, those who had used higher potency stuff were twice as likely to eventually have a psychotic episode compared to those who had never used. Even more worrisome was the stat that daily users of high potency weed were four times more likely to experience psychosis. This raises the question as to whether THC may have long term side effects. This is not at all surprising; after all THC has long been categorized as an hallucinogen even though until now a weak one.

Pot and the Teen Brain

With the frightening (to some of us), statistics as to the prevalence of pot smoking among adolescent and even younger children has come realistic concerns as to the effect of pot smoking on their brains. This has become increasingly worrisome with recent discoveries of the so-called “plasticity” of the developing brain i.e. the effect that various stimuli may have on its structure and function. Such changes may not become readily apparent until years later and to that end the National Institute of Health has instituted The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study that will follow 10,000 children through adolescence hoping to find what sort of factors, including drugs, affect their brains. Unfortunately, it will take many years for the study to be completed.

Not So Fast…

Although such information is incomplete, I feel it is premature to judge cannabis to be an innocuous substance, as many would have us believe. I recall similar reassurances regarding cigarettes, e.g., that they were not addictive, harmless, and simply a relaxation aid. It was true those people on billboards, in the magazine ads, and the movies looked really cool with one between their fingers. I was one of those gullible slobs who tried looking cool for 50 years, and was rewarded with a couple of cancers. I was also left wondering how much damage I had done with all that second hand smoke. Of course, I knew that I was not addicted for I could quit anytime I wanted, it was just that I didn’t want to (the same words I have frequently heard from my pot smoking patients).

We’ve Been Down This Road Before

At the beginning of the 20th century, cocaine was toted as a wonder drug with the potential to cure a potpourri of illnesses including drug addiction. Its health benefits were even extoled by adding small amounts to a soft drink which in honor of the presence of cocaine was named Coca Cola. Two of the best-known pioneers in their respective fields of medicine became addicted as a result of their experiments with the drugs. William Halsted who is credited with devising many of the surgical techniques still in use today became incapable of functioning due to his addiction as did Sigmund Freud who likewise became addicted by testing the use of cocaine for psychiatric illnesses. In the 1960s along comes Timothy Leary a Harvard psychologist who promoted more potent hallucinogens as treatment for depression, to increase awareness of otherwise untapped spiritual states of being and other kooky stuff. He was eventuallyHe was eventually disgraced when he was found to be using prisoners as subjects for his experiments.

Why?

Whenever there are discussions with anti-dopers about mood altering drugs, the question frequently arises as to “why they do it.” Freud attempted to answer that question with his “pleasure principle” theory, an idea which was a couple of thousand years old having previously been described by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. This was the idea that the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain are the essence of life, and therefore all behaviors can be explained by this instinct, furthermore conforming to societal norms is simply to delay gratification of those instincts.

Addiction

The term addiction is not easily defined as it seems to be used in different contexts, but it is clear that the more pleasant the effects of a substance, the more likely it is that one moves on to an insatiable craving. With prolonged use physiologic changes occur as our body adjusts to the presence of the new substance and bad things happen when it is suddenly withdrawn. The extent of its effect on our body/brain is called its potency. A 2- pack-a-day cigarette smoker is apt to have some headaches and grumpy days for a week or so, but a very heavy use of alcohol over a long period of time can result in delirium tremors, a condition which carries a significant mortality rate when untreated. It appears that in some heroin users, the passage from craving to addiction is almost instantaneous.

Of course, the foregoing description of addiction is woefully simplistic for it is a very complex subject with much disagreement among the experts. My point is that without some regulation governing potency of cannabis we may be in for some unpleasant surprises. Having over the course of my career seen large numbers of marijuana smokers, I am convinced that it is by no means innocuous. I also question the conclusion of pot supporters that it is in no way addictive. I believe that it is especially dangerous in children and that many who are exposed at a young age may be permanently damaged.

So, What’s the Answer

Many of you may be thinking: “OK smarty pants, if it is such a big problem, what can be done about it?” The answer is not much. It is clear that the current situation has not worked except to provide opportunities for criminals to make a buck and for addicts to sell in order to finance their habits. Apparently, we did not learn our lessons from the results of prohibition. As with alcohol, cannabis is easy to produce in most any climate and even more difficult to control than opiates, which must be imported. There are some steps I think would be helpful in minimizing the problem:

  • For the states to continue to have their own laws about pot causes confusion. The federal government should legalize the stuff.
  • The FDA should set standards and monitor compliance.
  • It took 100 years for the realization that tobacco companies were spiking cigs with extra nicotine, we should test cannabis for potency.
  • Anyone who gives or sells the stuff to kids should spend significant time in the slammer (I have seen instances where pot smoking is a family affair).
  • Many organizations saved lives with an all-out effort to make smoking uncool, let’s give marijuana the same treatment.
  • With legalization will come more use, encourage NIMH to make research into the drug a priority
  • Please, please, no advertising. Think it couldn’t happen? That’s what the temperance union thought following the repeal of prohibition.

After pushing pills and other remedies for well over a half century I have concluded that there is usually a downside to whatever chemicals we put in our bodies regardless of their positive benefit. In spite of rigorous evaluations, clinical trials and such we often see unexpected side effects…sometimes years later. The current practice of prescribing cannabis based on anecdotal information without benefit of rigorous clinical testing is in my opinion irresponsible.  Nevertheless there is little doubt we have a serious drug problem, and the consensus is that cannabis is safer than most other street drugs. Prohibition offered further proof that “the pleasure principle” thing would not be denied no matter the consequences. Legalizing alcohol did not solve the problem, but it was not as bad as the alternative, and following that model seems to me to be the more sensible approach in dealing with cannabis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brief interruption of the “The Way It Was” Series as we return to “Shrink Stuff” | Personality Disorders 101

PERSONALITY DISORDERS

The other night while dining with friends, I was asked for my professional opinion as to the mental health of our President.  My response was not very professional as I responded “I think he is nuts!” There is a caveat, especially important in our business, that one must carefully consider any pre-determined bias before rendering a diagnosis, and my response suggests that I had violated that rule.

In retrospect, I realize that my friend was asking for a less flippant answer to his question.  Anyone who owns a TV (or uses Twitter) would probably agree that Mr. Trump’s behavior is different from what we are accustomed to seeing in our politicians.   His detractors suggest this is evidence of significant mental disorder while his supporters applaud him for being earthy and “unconventional.”

I have previously written (click this link to read that post from 2016) about Mr. Trump in not very flattering terms concerning his mental status, and the non-position taken by the American Psychiatric Association of which I am a lifetime member.  Those mental health professionals who insist that Trump is mentally impaired and therefore unfit to hold office in most cases make a case for the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  After the conversation with my friend, it occurred to me that most people might be unfamiliar with what signs and symptoms might lead to such an impression

In the first place, it may be helpful to explain what we in the shrink business mean by the term personality disorder as people sometimes overuse a term and its true meaning from a psychiatric standpoint gets watered down (for example: a person who might say upon having a bad day or disappointing day, “I’m so depressed” when in reality they aren’t clinically depressed, just a little down).

Personality Disorders | Definition by Psychiatrists

The general criteria listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM which is now in its fifth edition. The definition of personality disorder as summarized in DSM IV is “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture” (not caused by such things as drug abuse, or other medical problems).  Unfortunately, for me the criteria as listed in DSM V are more complex, and since I am a simple-minded person I will stick with DSM IV in my discussion (but perhaps more to the point I am reluctant to invest a hundred bucks in another 900 page dust collector for my bookshelf).  In either case, it is clear that those who suffer from a personality disorder are very different.

Signs & Symptoms of Personality Disorders

Signs of personality disorders characteristically have been present for long periods usually from childhood.  These patients are difficult to treat.  Although some psychotropic medications may be helpful, the gold standard remains long-term intensive psychotherapy, a commodity which is in short supply these days.  The symptoms usually serve a protective function. Consequently, patients in treatment have difficulty giving them up.  An even bigger problem is that in many cases people who need treatment most are those lacking in insight. Consequently, they are convinced there is nothing wrong with them.  This is especially true in cases of narcissistic and sociopathic personality disorders.  They believe they are perfect in every way so why in the world would they need a psychiatrist?

Narcissism | Signs | Symptoms | Cause

The term narcissism is from the Greek myth about Narcissus who fell in love with his image while gazing into a pool of water.  This did not work out too well for him for he eventually committed suicide when he realized his true love was himself.  A bit of narcissism is not a bad thing…as a matter of fact most therapists would probably report that low self-esteem is one of the most common problems they see and that they spend a great deal effort trying to help their patients learn to like themselves.  But as with most things in life, it is the extremes which cause us problems.  We all know people who are arrogant and self-centered, but those with a narcissistic personality disorder take that to the level where their self-image is so far removed from reality that it approaches the delusional.

He/she of the narcissistic personality disorder is the master of the superlative.  He is never simply good at something, he is the best.  Others are not bad, they are the worst.  Everything in life is measured against the perfection that only he possesses.  The need to maintain this distorted image of himself dominates his life and leaves no time to consider the needs of others.  He is convinced he is special, and deserves special treatment.  He courts admiration or subservience in relationships, and is pathologically intolerant of criticism.  This preoccupation with self, frequently distorts perceptions and may affect judgement.

As with many mental health problems, the causation is up for grabs.  There may be some abnormality of brain function, environmental factors, or both.  Some postulate that excessive adoration by parents is the cause, while others feel the opposite, namely that excessive criticism is the culprit.  Whatever the cause, most agree that such extremes of narcissism serve the purpose of protecting a very fragile ego.  His need for attention is never satisfied.  Indeed, the tenacity with which the narcissist holds onto and nurtures these false opinions of himself leads one to suspect an underlying desperation at the core of his being.  The most readable synopsis of narcissistic personality symptoms I have found lie in a pamphlet distributed by the Mayo Clinic as follows:

  • They have a sense of entitlement and require constant excessive admiration
  • Have an exaggerated sense of self importance
  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
  • Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
  • Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
  • Take advantage of others to get what they want
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Be envious of others and believe others envy them
  • Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
  • Insist on having the best of everything (for instance the best building, golf course, yacht, wife, etc.–the examples are my words NOT Mayo Clinic’s example–they used car and office)

Narcissism & Trump

So, there you have it – all you need to make a diagnosis.  You Trump watchers have certainly observed enough behaviors to decide if the shoe fits.  If you conclude that the diagnosis of Personality Disorder fits, you should be concerned as to the fitness of POTUS to handle the job.  Those so diagnosed are prone to react in irrational ways when their distorted view of themselves is threatened and consequently are very sensitive to any kind of criticism, often reacting with over-the-top rages.   Mistakes are never acknowledged for to do so would shatter the myth of their perfection.  They react poorly to stress and to change, and there is no doubt that POTUS must be under mountains of stress considering all the investigations currently underway with many of his former supporters on their way to jail.

While in the midst of writing this, I was directed by one of the friends I mentioned in my opening statement to a YouTube presentation by John Gartner, a Ph.D. psychologist at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Gartner is convinced that Trump is demented.  Gartner is adamant in his diagnosis and convinced that he should be removed from office.  In spite of Gartner’s intensely verbalized political views, he does make a good case for an Alzheimer’s type dementia.  However, I believe the evidence he presents is not unusual for one afflicted with a narcissistic personality disorder who is under threat of losing that shield, which protects him from facing the reality of his deficiencies.

Narcissism Exposed (“s#@t hits the fan” time)

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, my major concern is that the current investigations will turn up things which he will not be able to deflect with his usual strategies of denounce, deflect, or deny.  Recently, he has seemed less rational with a 2- hour long rant at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and the strange attempts to demonize John McCain months after his death.  In the so-called Twitter storm from last week, he seems enraged at everyone within range.  It appears that his only respite is the campaign rallies at which he is able to bask in the attention accorded him, confirming to him that he really is “The Greatest.”

Some say our President is “crazy like a fox”.  It is true that he has turned self-promotion into a very successful career, even becoming the world’s most powerful man.  Those same talents have served the additional function of satisfying insatiable ego needs.  I believe that Trump’s narcissism governs every aspect of his life, and explains the “crazy” things he does and says.  I believe that he is psychologically vulnerable and likely to demonstrate irrational and impulsive behaviors if his defenses are destroyed.  With that in mind, I hope all these investigations do not burst the President’s fragile ego for that could be disastrous.

Editor’s Note: I was slow on the editing of Eshrink’s post and so much has happened since he originally wrote this article. The Attorney General released a 4-page summary of the Mueller Report on a Sunday while many of us were watching our brackets bust during the NCAA basketball tournament.  I kept asking why the full report wasn’t being released to the public (the taxpayers paid for it, as POTUS continues to remind us in the context of money wasted) or at least released to Congress (it seems Nancy Pelosi wonders that, too.) However, Eshrink’s post about Narcissistic Personality made me think maybe the inner circle knows more than we think about the stability of POTUS and his psychological vulnerability that could lead to an even worse outcome. History will tell the tale… I’m sure those working inside the Oval Office will have plenty of great material for books once this crazy time in our republic’s history is behind us–if the Republic survives that is. God Bless America. We need all the help we can get!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEX ABUSE OF KIDS

SEXUALLY ABUSED KIDS
Last week I published a tongue-in-cheek response to an op-ed I had read in the editorial page of our local newspaper. The admonishment of the writer of the op ed that we should limit our talk about childhood sexual abuse stirred up some painful memories for me of patients who were attempting to overcome the effects of childhood sexual abuse.

A True Story
One case in particular comes to mind. This patient was an attractive young woman who came to see me with vague complaints and reported she had come because: “I just want something for my nerves.” After initial hesitation, she was able to give a more detailed history. Her general presentation confirmed my initial impression that she was suffering from clinical depression. She seemed shy and avoided eye contact until I asked if she worked, at which time she looked directly at me as if to assess my response as she hesitantly told me she worked as an “exotic dancer.” Apparently, I passed the test, for at that point, she unloaded in great detail how she had chosen such a career, and how she hated it.
She grew up in a blue collar family. Her father was a factory worker who forbade his wife from working. Her dad was a periodic, episodic alcoholic, and when drunk, was violent and abusive. When sober he was easily provoked. Mother was cowed, totally submissive, and seemingly helpless to protect her children from her husband’s rages. My patient (we shall call her Mary) along with her two older brothers developed strategies to avoid Dad when he was expected to come home drunk. As Mary grew into adolescence, her father began to take notice of her, and finally on the return from one of his nightly drunken forays came into her room and raped her.

But this was not the end of the abuse for the old man had the temerity to excuse his behavior by telling Mary that it was only because he loved her that he was sexually attracted to her. She accepted his advances as she was terrified at the thought of his beating her as he periodically did her mother.

Think it couldn’t get any worse?
Think it could’t get worse than this? Wrong. Soon her brothers emulated their father and to make matters even more unbearable bragged about having sex with her to their friends at school. As you might expect, this led to pursuit by many of the boys at school who were convinced that she was an “easy lay.” And where was Mary’s mother while this was going on? Mary was convinced she was aware, and attempted to convince herself that mother was so beaten down as to be rendered helpless, but she was also horrified to think that her own mother might have offered Mary up to her father in order that she would not be a target of his rages.
Emotional Extortion
Mary’s father had promised all kinds of dire consequences if Mary should ever breathe a word to any one about his behaviors. She knew that she would get no support from her mother were she to seek outside help. By now, even Mary’s teachers were convinced that she had become a problem as they heard that she was promiscuous. There was a reluctance to tell anyone due to the intense feelings of shame she felt about the incestuous relationships. There was also that long held custom of blaming the female in such situations, of which Mary undoubtedly was well aware.

The Spiral
The effect of all these prohibitions was made evident as she several times during the session asked for reassurance of confidentiality. In such a situation, the only sensible thing for her to do was run away, which is what she did. From then until the time of our session, her chronology was a bit hazy. I suspect that some pimp thought he had struck it rich when he discovered this beautiful little runaway. Although she did not admit to such, it seems likely she did engage in prostitution. In any event, at this point I felt it not necessary to probe deeper into her past for I had already seen enough pain to last for the rest of the day. It is enough to say that somewhere along the line she did find a way to use the only tool available for her to make a living in a semi-legitimate manner by swinging around a pole naked. Unfortunately, I never saw her again but noted the “men’s club” where she had been working was closed down by the sheriff. Her name was not listed among those who were arrested.

Sex abuse survivors suffer long after the abuse ends 
You may be thinking stories of this kind unusual, but they are not rare. It has been several years since that day I saw Mary, but I still think of her occasionally and wonder what her life is like now. I hope she found a good guy to marry has a couple of kids and is living happily ever after. But in my heart of hearts I know that is very unlikely. Those who have suffered such abuse usually have serious trust issues which interfere with the formation of meaningful relationships. Even though they know on a rational level that the abuse they suffered was not their fault, they often blame themselves by questioning whether the assault was brought on by their seductiveness, which is reinforced by the oft heard “she must have done something to bring this on.” They lack self-esteem, devalue themselves, and feel unworthy. When shown attention, they may be suspicious and distance themselves while others may become promiscuous, feeling they have nothing to offer other than sex. In their search for love, they find themselves in a series of abusive relationships a la the repetition compulsion which Freud so eloquently described.
Meanwhile, I continue to fuss over the op ed that I sarcastically commented on in my most recent blog. I was curious when I first saw the title of Ms. Flowers piece, but as I read on I became so angry that I could have had a Lindsey Graham type temper tantrum on the spot. I immediately wrote a rebuttal in my passive aggressive style, which Maggie thought was worthy of publication however; I feel the subject of child abuse deserves something more than a few smart-ass comments. I felt that Mary’s story speaks eloquently as to the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Fortunately, most cases are not so horrifying as hers, yet even less aggressive acts can have long lasting effects.

More light required
Yes, I was angry with the writer for her blame the victim tactic, and her concern about Kavanaugh’s “pain” but not one kind word about Dr. Ford. But the clincher for me was closing statement in Ms. Flower’s op ed in which she writes: “That we have now reached the point that assaulted children are considered appropriate conversational tender sterilizes the soul and induces a nausea that can’t be eliminated…”I submit that such an attitude is a major contributor to child abuse. For too many years as with Mary, most such vile acts which have robbed many children of their innocence often leaving them significantly impaired with a lifetime of suffering have been carried out in secret.
There has been some progress in shining the light on the problem e.g. there are now mandatory reporting laws in most states which require physicians, nurses, social workers, emergency rooms, psychologists, etc., to report their suspicions that a child is being abused, and yes that includes the sexual abuse which Ms. Flowers insists should not be a subject of “civil discourse.” It is also encouraging that many charged with caring and working with kids are being prosecuted, and that the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the violation of children by priests is being lifted. However, the National Center for Victims of Crime reports some very disturbing statistics which confirm sexual abuse of children remains a serious problem:

  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Children are most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13.
  • 75% are abused by people they know and often those whom they trust
  • 23% of reported cases are perpetrated by kids under the age of 18
  • 40 to 80% of such juvenile offenders have themselves been victims

As we have witnessed in that infamous recent Supreme Court hearing, many of the old habits which allowed such awful acts to be inflicted on our children are still in place. The issue must not be swept under the rug as Ms. Flowers suggests but should be considered “civil discourse” of the highest order. Pedophiles do not feature a sign on their foreheads announcing their sexual proclivities therefore; those to whom we entrust our children deserve careful scrutiny. My own experience in that regard accentuates that truth.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
He was a person for whom I had a great deal of respect. We first met when I was a psychiatry resident, and I was impressed with his knowledge and competence as a board-certified child psychiatrist with many years of experience in institutional practice with a University affiliation.

Upon completion of my residency, he invited me and a couple of other recent graduates to join him and form a group practice. Fortunately for me, I received another offer for later I was shocked to find he was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for child sexual abuse. He had apparently managed to abuse children, in most cases, who were residing in institutions, where complaints would likely be ignored. Of course, no one knows how many lives he may have ruined. In retrospect I realized I had missed all the warning signs.
Yes, it is my most ardent belief that the problem of childhood sexual abuse deserves serious attention and more “civil discourse” not less of it.

Transitions

This title was chosen by my son for reasons which will soon be obvious. His youngest has just left home, this time for good, and he and Sue are now presiding over the proverbial empty nest. It is a frequently quoted truism that if you truly love someone you will let them go when it is in their best interest to leave. I was reminded of this last night as I watched Casablanca…one of my favorite movies in which that theme was paramount. Though it is a noble act to let go of those you love, separation is painful, and usually results in significant changes in our lives.
We experience multiple types of transitions during our lifetimes, but since we are at heart social beings, or to put it more crudely, tribal in nature, changes in our relationships are apt to generate the most intense feelings. It is something of a paradox that as the world gets smaller, we find so many people of whom we care to be geographically farther away. Yes, indeed we are able to communicate with ease yet Facebook is a rather poor substitute for a next-door neighbor, or a relative living in the neighborhood. Prior to the industrial revolution, one’s cadre of friends and relatives was unlikely to change very much, and most people were born and died in the same place, often even in the same house. Now neighborhoods are in a constant state of flux, and there is a lower expectation of lifelong relationships.

STUCK WITH THEM
No wonder our children are among the very most important people of our lives. Since humans require nearly 2 decades to reach maturity and carry our DNA, we tend to form very strong bonds. We are often identified as “Johnny’s” father or mother. We live vicariously through them and share their triumphs, failures, joys, and sorrows. In many ways they are our second chance at life as we attempt to steer them away from repeating our mistakes. As the years go by our intimate involvement in their lives blurs with our own–they become part of us and in doing so shape our identity, i.e. who we are.
GRIEF WITHOUT A CORPSE
With all that in mind, it is not surprising that separation anxiety is a common affliction. When the kids grow up and leave, something more than their presence is missing. It is as if a part of ourselves is gone. Not only is the nest empty, but we feel an emptiness within ourselves, a kind of psychological amputation. In my experience, this emptiness is most profound when the youngest one leaves  for with it comes the realization that nothing will ever be the same. This time they are leaving to build their own nest.
THE FUN TIMES
Life is an ever-changing process. We begin as totally helpless and dependent creatures and experience a myriad of transitions during our lifetime all designed to produce an individual capable of building and presiding over that nest. Some of those changes are more dramatic than others. There are the first steps, the first words, the first solo bicycle ride, the first day of school, the first sleep over and a few thousand other adventures all with a goal of achieving sufficient independence to allow them to face the world on their own.
WHY DID I GET INTO THIS?
But it is not all sweetness and light. There is the messiness, the lack of discipline, the terrible twos, the out of bounds phase, the adolescent rebellion, the sleepless nights, and the continued testing of limits to name a few of the frustrations inherent in the child-rearing business. Those little buggers are also expensive. According to the USDA the average cost of rearing a child in 2016 was over $245,000 which does not include costs for higher education (but for the kids, I could have been a millionaire). Considering all the chaos they generate it is little wonder that we don’t occasionally wish them to be grown up however; one should keep in mind the maxim to “be careful what you wish for.”
BEGINNING AND END
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 67.3 % of high school graduates enrolled in college last year (2017). It seems safe to assume that most of these kids would leave home while in school, but retain a close connection to their old familiar environs. In many cases the college transition is a prelude and training for that final fly away. The days when we dumped kids and their gear off to a strange new environment were certainly memorable to Barb and me.
Our first experience with the off to college scenario was painful for all involved. Molly, our firstborn (now deceased), who suffered from serious medical and emotional problems was unable to complete that transition. Next in the line of succession was Peter, who was much too macho to display his feelings, but I was already missing him by the time we pulled away from his dorm. After a four-year hiatus, it was Trudy’s turn. Trudy, the adventurous one, was on the phone almost immediately, tearful and very upset to find beer being consumed at the sorority rush parties that she attended. We had no idea where this came from for temperance had never been emphasized at home. As you probably already suspect. her distress was short lived and as was her habit she soon became involved in everything.
THE LAST ONE STANDING
Of course, those separations were painful, but none so telling as Maggie’s departure for we were now returning to a house inhabited only by Barb, myself and Grover the dog. Maggie was one who had insisted on an out of state school, for she was eager to assert her independent status. She wanted distance from childhood connections. Her reaction to the college transition was a convincing testimonial for that “be careful what you wish for” thing. Permanently engraved in my memory is the sight of that sobbing, skinny little red-haired girl who stood there all alone in that huge empty parking lot making feeble attempts to wave goodbye as we pulled away. Barb wanted to go for one last hug, but I insisted she had already had several last hugs. We were later told that she cried for the next month and lost 20 pounds. [See an earlier blog post about Separation Anxiety + Mental Health}
NOT ALL SWEETNESS AND LIGHT
In case you are thinking this gang of mine is the Partridge family incarnate, think again. It is true that to date we have come through our transitions relatively unscathed, but not without trials and tribulations. In spite of their best efforts some families are overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control. Barb and I are indeed fortunate that in spite of our screw-ups we have ended up with 2 generations of exceptional people, and the beat goes on.
STILL AT IT
It so happens that this month marks the beginning of significant transitions for every one of my Grandchildren which of course they will undoubtedly handle better than do their parents (or Grandparents for that matter). My three oldest grandchildren are already emancipated and starting new and more challenging jobs. Another is off to her first year in college, and our youngest is entering high school. As mentioned in my opening statement, Carter’s room is empty, and home is now in another city far away. Trudy’s is the only nest still occupied.
LIFE GOES ON
Whatever distress the kids may feel from leaving those years of memories behind is apt to be short lived compared to that of their parents. There is hope for Mom and Dad however. In return for enduring the vicissitudes of child rearing God has rewarded us with grandchildren. Thus, we have an opportunity to get all the goodies and none of the crappy stuff ,which leaves me wondering what it would be like to be a great grandparent. Stay tuned for the answer!

LIFE AND DEATH

Last night I happened upon a documentary about death on PBS. It included an introductory presentation by a woman who reports that she had found resolution to her fear of death by directly confronting it. She had made a point of viewing dead bodies at every opportunity and had even taken a job at a crematorium, which seemed like overkill to me. To complete her story, a vignette of that entire process was shown. I did not find watching the incineration of bodies as particularly entertaining, and Barb left the room saying she was repulsed. In spite of my interest, (I had always wondered how this procedure was done), I shared Barb’s feelings perhaps even more intensely for this is the method I had chosen for my disposal.

 

THE BIG QUESTION
Many years ago, I think it was the late 60s, Peggy Lee recorded a song titled: IS THAT ALL THERE IS? which has haunted me all these years for it expresses to me the most fundamental existential questions. What is life, where did it come from, why are we here, how did it happen, who or what caused it? When the answers to these questions seem almost within our reach, new questions arise and we end up confounded all over again. We humans are undoubtedly unique in our ability to even ponder such questions. As a matter of fact, we have no clear idea what life is let alone what it is all about. Our definitions of life are simplistic and do little to help us understand what it is. For example, for some time there have been efforts underway to actually synthesize a living cell, but those involved in such efforts cannot agree on the criteria for determining when something is alive.

 

WHAT IS DEATH?
Death on the other hand is defined as the absence of life, but is it? At this time of the year, one third of the world’s population is celebrating their belief that life is eternal. Muslims likewise hold strong beliefs in an afterlife as do many other religions. Freud described religion as a symptom of neurosis or in some cases psychosis. Karl Marx famously insisted that religion was the opiate of the masses. Both saw religious dogma as a defense against the vicissitudes of life: for Freud, defense from anxiety, and for Marx defense from the pain of domination. In spite of his atheistic beliefs Freud was reported to have said during a prolonged, and painful terminal illness that he envied those who had strong religious beliefs.
As our brains evolved to become huge cauliflower like globs of neurons, we developed the ability to not only perceive reality but to predict future events. This ability has served us well, but there is a down side in that we became aware of our mortality. Floyd, my dog who sleeps at my feet as I write this, is able to predict certain outcomes. For example, he has learned some of the routines of the house and knows when I put on a coat that he might be able to bum a ride. He will undoubtedly see dead animals during his lifetime, may even experience grief, but I feel fairly certain that he does not realize that in a few short years he will die.

 

RELIGION AND THE DEATH PROBLEM
Back in my younger days when as an academic I knew almost everything about everything, I found that death was one of those things even I did not understand. I was especially interested in how our awareness of mortality affected our thinking, values, behaviors, personality development, and even our mental health. My research on the subject of attitudes toward death indicated that certain diagnostic categories of psychiatric patients had attitudes significantly different from the norm. All very interesting, but I was left with the classic chicken egg dilemma, did their illness cause their unique attitudes or did those attitudes contribute to the illness? But that’s how it is with any scientific endeavor, to answer one question will only lead to more questions.
The study did tend to confirm what everyone already knew in that some people look forward to death while others fear it. In the former category is the late Billy Graham who on multiple occasions insisted that he was looking forward to his earthly death, and the beginning of a new (much better) life. Muslims are so convinced of an afterlife in paradise that they are willing to martyr themselves to ensure their admission. As a matter of fact, all religions seem to have in common the pursuit of a solution to the death problem. Those of strong faith have been shown to have less fear of dying, but in one study those adherents uncertain of an after-life were even more fearful than atheists who were convinced that there was nothing after death.

 

DEATH OR RELIEF?
Death may also be attractive to those suffering from extreme pain either physical or mental. Patients whom I have known to have suffered both serious physical and emotional distress at various times in their lives invariably report the emotional pain to be more difficult to endure. When combined with feeling there is no hope, for such people suicide may seem their only option.

On one occasion in the days before Google, I was approached by a patient asking what would be the lethal dose of phenobarbital. He reported that his mother had been ill for several years with several surgeries leaving her without ability to speak, a horribly disfigured face, and severe pain. She was on large doses of pain medications, and her illness was terminal. She had told her family that after careful consideration she had decided she wished to die sooner rather than later and wanted her family to be with her as she died. Had she been a family pet her assisted suicide would have been declared merciful, but in her case it was criminal. Go figure. On the other hand many agree that to countenance euthanasia is to start down a slippery slope.

 

CLINGING TO LIFE. FIGHTING DEATH.
There are others for whom life is so precious, or is it that death is so threatening, that they cling to life in spite of enormous pain or disability. Such was the case with my daughter who shortly before her death said: “I don’t want to die Daddy.” Was she afraid? I will never know for my response was to reassure her she was not dying rather than to address her feelings about the death she knew was imminent. Thus, her cry for support was brushed off and she was left to deal with the most difficult time of her life alone. I should have known better. Sometimes it is difficult to practice what you preach.

 

A recent example of one who chose to follow Dylan Thomas’s advice to “Rage, rage the dying of the light…….” Is exemplified by the late Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as a graduate student and told he could not be expected to live more than two years. In spite of total paralysis and the loss of his ability to speak, he went on to become a major contributor to the science of cosmology and was described by some as a modern day Isaac Newton. He was a prolific writer in both the scientific and lay literature in spite of limited ability to communicate. In his later years, he gave lectures all over the world with the use of a voice synthesizer operated by his only remaining functioning muscle group which was in his cheek.

 

LETTING GO
Sometimes death can be viewed as an opportunity to be reunited with a loved one. One very personal example of this was with the death of my Mother. My Father had been dead for a couple of years and Mother was staying with us. Her only known medical problem was a few episodes of cardiac arrhythmia one of which had resulted in hospitalization and successful treatment. I suspected she would be discharged the following day and stopped in to see her as I made morning rounds. I was surprised at her response when I asked her how she was feeling when she said: “I am feeling just fine, but I have been thinking a lot lately and have decided it is about time for me to be out there (the cemetery) beside your Father.” I thought little of her comment and went on to my office. A short time later I received a call from her nurse telling me she had died. We should all be so lucky as to go that way, in charge and at peace. This and similar stories have led me to believe that we have more control over our demise than is apparent.

 

SEX AND DEATH?
Perhaps the weirdest thanatophilic attitude toward death is in its libidinization which was not only observed in my research but in Greek mythology. In the story of “The Rape of Persephone,” Pluto, guardian of the underworld ascended from Hades to seduce the maiden Persephone. Throughout history this theme has been repeated many times in different iterations. You may be thinking: how can there be anything sexy about death? I told you it was weird. This brings me back to the young lady who was interviewed extensively on the PBS special. She not only presented her story of how she overcame her fear of death, but was filmed giving a lecture to a group of alleged thanatophobes. It occurred to me that she possibly could have gone overboard as she talked of the joys of death in a husky voice accompanied by a sexy smile. But in case you want to learn about even weirder stuff you might want to check on the necrophiles who enjoy sex with corpses. There is also John Wayne Gacy who admitted to having orgasms as he watched his victims die.

 

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
None of those interviewed in the PBS documentary seemed more certain of life after death than those with histories of near death experiences. Their stories were consistent and the interviewees were very credible. Many others speak of witnessing from above the attempts made to resuscitate them, and report seeing a tunnel with a bright light in the distance. There have also been some who have reported very unpleasant experiences, and following their recoveries vowed to change their ways. There is one neurologist who suggested these experiences were simply the result of cerebral ischemia (diminished blood supply to the brain), but there is little doubt in the minds of these survivors that their experiences were real. One such survivor suffering from a terminal cancer reported she was looking forward to her death and we were told she died two months following the filming of the program. The others all said their lives had been changed since the experience, and that they had developed a kind of serenity they had never known previously. Although not mentioned in the broadcast, I am also aware of at least two books written about going to heaven and one describing a 20 minute visit to Hell, accounts which I found less credible.

 

CREATING YOUR OWN AFTERLIFE
Spookiest of all in my opinion was an in depth look at the so-called cryogenic procedure in which bodies are frozen in liquid nitrogen with the hope that in future years technology will allow their illnesses to be cured, and they will be able to do a secular version of the Lazarus trick. Cellular biologists believe it is impossible to do even a very quick freeze without doing permanent damage to the body’s cells. Nevertheless, there are people who are willing to pony up large sums of money to have their bodies frozen and stored in hopes of being brought back to life. One website reports they have over 100 such bodies stored in huge tanks of liquid nitrogen. As for me, I think I would prefer to take a shot at heading down that tunnel toward the bright light.

 

DEALING WITH OUR MORTALITY
There are many behaviors unique to humans for which one could make a good case to result from awareness of our mortality and even the concept of death. Denial is the most powerful tool that can be used to decrease anxiety, and typically the way most of us deal with the reality of death. Those things we don’t understand are the ones we find most frightening. Freud for all his foibles had much to say about death, although discounting religion, he presented some interesting comments about our denial. One which rang true to me was his statement: “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death, because whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.” I can’t help but wonder if he got this idea from Mark Twain’s story about Tom and Huck attending their own funeral. Nevertheless, he does make a point. We like to give instructions as to how our funeral or lack of should be conducted sometimes with great detail, and without consideration for the idea that such services should be for the benefit of those who grieve. Do we really believe we will be able to hear what hymns are played?
In spite of our knowledge of the inevitability of death we continue to seek token immortality. We select monuments, have portraits made, buy life insurance, establish charitable trusts, write wills, work hard in order to be able to leave something behind, and even write blogs in hopes we will be remembered; and continue to live in the minds of others. Not surprisingly there are often attempts to retain control after death. I recall one example of a friend who was noted to be an in control kind of guy who liked to keep his wife under his thumb. He wrote a will in which he specified that her inheritance would go to charity in the event she should remarry after his death. There are so many other questions which have gone unanswered. For example, to name a few: why do some enjoy the thrill of risking their life, why do some like to frighten others with the threat of death, why do some appear to actually enjoy killing. We seem to be unique among the animal kingdom in those behaviors.

ARE THERE ADVANTAGES TO THE REALIZATION OF OUR OWN MORTALITY?
Lest you think I am totally morbid in these thoughts, I should admit there are some obviously useful things surrounding this mortality thing. We tend in many ways to view death as punishment. We use terms like “he deserved to die,” and “the wages of sin are death.” Throughout history, assassinations have been carried out to punish those accused of misdeeds, and the most serious crimes are still punished by death. If we were convinced we would live forever, would we behave instinctively without regard to consequences, in other words would we have developed a super-ego? In like fashion what about creativity and the urge to complete projects if time were not limited? There would be no need for monuments or for offspring to mourn. Would we feel the need to band together with others? It sounds to me as if life would be boring.

MY STRATEGY
Well, enough of this death stuff. I hope the next PBS program will be about life. Meanwhile, I plan to adopt the “eat drink and be merry” strategy. Barb recently told me she had decided to concentrate on living each day to the fullest as long as she could. I suppose this would not leave much time for worrying about such mundane issues as dying. Maybe she will be willing to give me some lessons.

Addendum by retired eshrink editor:
My dad and I discussed the topic of this blog before he wrote it. I told him of a pivotal moment during college when a marketing professor posed the question, “What if this is all there is? Despite what you’ve been taught in church or by your parents, what if this life is all you get?”

It was if a light bulb went off! Religion uses “heaven” and “hell” (the “afterlife” in general) to relieve us of the anxiety of our own mortality and in some instances, to control us. You want to get to heaven. You don’t want to go to hell. Here’s what you need to do. As if, all chaos would ensue if we thought this was the one life we get to have.

Indeed, that was the point I got from this professor. The realization that this life is the one that is real and I better be a full participant because it’s the only one I know I have. Don’t use an “afterlife” idea to put off living this life fully. Don’t get me wrong, I hope there’s something really good after this life. My version of “heaven” is being able to use the heaven TV network to check in on all my people to see what’s going on because I don’t want to miss anything! Also, I would like to create my own weather, get to choose my own “age” during my time in heaven, visit with everyone else who is dead, and most of all, get all of those big questions answered. I freely admit that I’m afraid to die because I’m afraid of the unknown…I’m with Freud, I’m envious of those people who have no doubt in religion’s teaching of an afterlife. However, I must admit I have never understood why highly religious people who think their dead family member has gone home to Jesus to the next life, cry so much at the funeral. If you truly believe that without a doubt, wouldn’t you be happy for them?

However, I do believe there is something more and hope there is something more, but no proof to date.

So, I try to use mortality to make sure I live well in this moment that I have been so fortunate to be given and even more, to put life’s perceived “stresses” in perspective. “It’s not life and death” I’ll tell myself.

Since my husband died suddenly at a fairly young age , I also use “death” as a way to live my life double for those who don’t get to be here. I try very hard not to take one minute for granted. Life’s short. It’s not a dress rehearsal. Treasure the gift. Be present. Make every minute count.

The Power of Belief

WHAT SHOULD I BELIEVE

          A few months ago in a blog about conspiracies (May 2017, Conspiracy Theories) I attempted to find answers to the question of why so many of us seem willing to subscribe to stuff even when it is far from the truth, or in some cases totally illogical.  The question has been of particular interest to me having seen many, many patients through the years with disordered thinking leading to false beliefs.  The extreme example of the phenomenon is seen in the paranoid psychotic person whose perceptions are so distorted that his interpretations of reality are far enough removed from that of the average person that he lacks credibility.  They are often so bizarre as to make others sufficiently uncomfortable that he may be shunned.  As a matter of fact, it is not a stretch to describe paranoia as conspiracy theories on steroids.

ARE WE ALL A LITTLE CRAZY?

We now realize that there are many conditions that can impair brain function resulting in paranoia, yet when comparing the paranoiac to the conspiracist, we see they have much in common, which begs the question as to whether the paranoid’s extreme suspiciousness rather than qualitatively different is merely an aggravation of the basic human condition.  After all, suspiciousness has been adaptive behavior for the human race.  It has contributed to our survival and those without suspicions are called gullible and looked down upon.  On the other hand, the conclusions arrived at by delusional thinking are rigidly held in spite of whatever logic or facts are presented.  In like manner, the political zealot’s ideas seem set in concrete, and he brushes off contradictory information as either irrelevant or untrue.

THAT TRUTH THING AGAIN?

If suspiciousness is not only protective but in search of truth, why do we so often believe stuff when there is no evidence that it is true.  Any good con man will tell you the best way to gain trust is to tell the mark what he wants to hear, and the best lies are those that confirm what he already believes.  As a personal example, there is the case of Donald Trump, who I thought was a jerk long before his TV show.  Granted, that opinion was based on feelings and maybe not even rational for obviously I didn’t really know him.  Nevertheless, I am now even more convinced that he is a jerk and moreover a bad President.  Consequently, I suck up what is said about Trump on MSNBC and reject what Fox News has to say as bullshit.  I find it difficult to understand how some of my friends can listen to the Fox News bullshit, and I am sure they feel the same way about me and MSNBC bullshit.  As a consequence, we rarely discuss politics, but I am sure that they talk politics to friends who are of like mind while I rap only with the anti-Trump contingent.  Perhaps this is not such a bad thing. One study indicated that groups with opposing beliefs actually became more extreme in those beliefs while discussing the issues with those who differed with them.  Thus, there may be wisdom in the maxim that “one should not discuss politics or religion in polite company.”

CATCH 22 AGAIN

Unfortunately, that policy presents us with another one of those unresolvable dilemmas, for if one assumes that it is impossible to resolve differences without discussion and discussion simply reinforces beliefs, compromise is unlikely to occur.  The phenomenon does offer a measure of security to politicians or political parties in that limited exposure of their base to contrary ideas will keep them in the fold.  With that, he can devote more resources to winning the independent vote.

When I was a kid we played a game called Follow the Leader in which participants were to follow the behaviors of the designated leader, and those who failed to mimic the leader were expelled until there were only two players remaining, at which point the one survivor would become the leader and the game would resume with the new leader.  There is ample evidence that similar behaviors are seen in nearly all aspects of human behavior, and that we are indeed herd animals.

SO YOU THINK YOU ARE A THINKER?

There is a famous British study in which a large group of volunteers were asked to walk aimlessly around a large hall without talking to anyone, while a few were secretly given instructions as to where to walk, and to appear confident of their destination.  95% of the crowd followed those who appeared to know where they were going, in much the same manner as would a flock of sheep follow a Judas goat.  This phenomenon, only one example of what has been called herd behavior or herd mentality, has received a great deal of study through the years by philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, economists, theologians, historians and even psychiatrists like Freud and Jung.

The principles of herd behavior, or tribalism, have been found to have great utility in influencing all manner of human behaviors.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives that is not affected in some way by our tribal memberships.  Those of us who fancy ourselves to be independent thinkers have little awareness as to how these and other genetically ingrained behaviors unconsciously affect not only our behaviors, but our thought processes, opinions and beliefs.  To belong, one must conform and conform we do, often with little awareness of why we do so.

HERMITS NEVER MAKE IT

The importance of herd behavior is not lost on the world’s politicians and despots.  They know how to make use of our need to belong to a group or to use a shrink term to be “validated.”  In order to brainwash someone or start a cult, one must begin by isolating the prospective victims in order to deny them validation so they will eventually align themselves with their persecutors.  They make use of the fact that as herd animals, contact with other living things is essential, and they hope that their victims will eventually accept whatever relationship is made available to them.  Similar dynamics undoubtedly play a part in the development of the “Stockholm Syndrome” as in the case of Patty Hearst, who joined the cause of her anarchist kidnappers after having been isolated and abused by them.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, it has been shown in several studies that solitary confinement often results in the development of psychosis, further evidence of the importance of relationships.

JUST ONE OF THE GUYS

It is largely accepted as fact that negative political campaigning is more effective than merely focusing on issues.  In such cases the emphasis is not on issues, but rather on his/her opponent’s character and identity.  The candidate will set out to show that he is like his audience and thus is a member of their tribe while his opponent does not belong.  When addressing a blue-collar audience, he may shed his coat and tie and roll up his sleeves.  The recent election has demonstrated that a baseball cap can generate more votes than a resume in those rallies while more formal attire will be chosen for $1000-a-plate dinners.

HERDS GONE WILD

Nowhere is the herd concept better illustrated than at athletic events.  I have been an Ohio State fan all my life, which by the way is a long time.   Of course, football is the most raucous of all modern sports and one in which tribalism is on full display.  I paid significant sums of money for the privilege of sitting in crowded uncomfortable seats sometimes in rain or snow. Surrounded by 100,000 fellow tribe members all rooting for the enemy to be vanquished, I felt I truly belonged.  Fellow tribe members were readily identified by clothing adorned with the school colors.  We pledged our fidelity by singing the alma mater followed by the school “fight” song.  Seating was arranged so that the opposition fans were separate from us good guys, and the cheerleaders encouraged our totally uncivilized behavior.  The best seats are those on the 50-yard line not only providing a better view of the action but placing the fan in the center of the crowd much as other herd animals jockey for position to be in the center of their herd.  Our loyalties also affect our beliefs, e.g., questionable calls by the refs are bad if they favor the other team, and the boos of one are apt to be taken up by other fans.

In similar manner mob behavior can be initiated, and there have been instances where those officiating games have feared for their lives.  Soccer games seem especially prone to mob behaviors.  Political rallies can be orchestrated to take advantage of that same dynamic.  It is said that Hitler frequently placed plain-clothed SS agents in crowds when delivering his tirades. Their job was to stir up the crowds by cheering his every word thereby stimulating herd behavior, a technique not lost on modern day political organizers.  For example, it is clear that the “lock her up” chants during the last presidential campaign were not entirely spontaneous.

GOOD GUY, BAD GUY

Throughout history leaders have come into power by designating a person or group of people as enemies.  A prospective leader must be able to place blame for whatever widespread complaint exists, and convince his audience that they are under assault by the bad guy or a group of bad guys.  It is helpful if he can induce hatred, for passion increases voter turnout, and the resulting divisiveness is encouraged.  An opponent will feel compelled to respond in kind to the accusations and the campaign becomes a battle of personalities rather than ideas.  Charisma triumphs and meaningful debate never happens.

We are all under a great deal of pressure to believe as are our fellow tribesmen. Consequently, we are strongly influenced to share our beliefs with those who are sympatico, which often leaves us isolated from those who don’t share those beliefs.  In a previous blog, I referenced a study which demonstrated that people are more apt to believe information obtained from a friend than from conventional sources, another indication that belonging is enhanced by sharing beliefs.

IS INDEPENDENT THINKING A LOST CAUSE?

Although many of our beliefs are buttressed by facts, there is also a certain amount of volition involved.  We sometimes reject beliefs that we find objectionable in spite of significant corroboration, and readily adopt those we find appealing despite limited evidence of their validity.  Religions demand professions of belief if one is to enter into the fold, be eligible for an afterlife or in some cases even one’s mortal life.  Early Christians presented their captives with a choice of believing or dying.  Radical Muslims are reported as doing the same even today.

Today, there are powerful pressures brought to bare in efforts to channel our beliefs.  We are drowning in information, much of which is distorted or false.  We are affected by advertising so sophisticated that it is personalized to each of us.  News sources which we trusted to provide truths are under assault.  Then there is that whole internet thing which muddies the waters even more.  Perhaps it is understandable that in our search for a lifeline we should reach out to our tribe to tell us what to believe.

Addendum by eshrink’s offspring (Maggie)

So, what is the answer to this dilemma? Maybe recognition of our need to belong is the first step to evaluate our own ability to think rationally. Instead of convincing or attempting to persuade others, maybe more listening and less talking will lead to greater understanding. No matter our opinions and thoughts, greater understanding and close relationships are what define the human condition.

One of the primary teachings I learned while earning my journalism degree was one of neutrality and learned objective behavior. “A reader should never know what your opinion is. Save that for the editorial page,” a professor preached to our class. To counter the need to disagree, I was taught to ask why. There is always more value in understanding why someone believes something than trying to convince them why their thinking is flawed. To ask the question and learn about their thought process (if there is one) can lead to greater understanding for the person asking the question and sometimes illicit the process of critical thinking in the one whose opinion differs from your own.

At the end of the day, this life is about relationships. Humans connecting with one another. Maybe we can be an example for the pundits and the politicians who want to gain power by dividing rather than unifying. One can only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BOOMERS’ KIDS

While the baby boomers head toward retirement, their kids are beginning to take the reins.  They are commonly referred to as the millennial generation.  We can only hope they will do a better job than have their parents or grandparents.  These millennials have received a good deal of bad press, mostly from old farts like me  They have been called narcissistic, spoiled, inept, lazy, and trophy kids among other things.  They are the first generation to prefer a computer screen to stuffed toys or rattles.  This was brought home to me yesterday when I passed a grocery cart in the store containing a baby in a child seat who was apparently entranced by something he was holding which looked very much like some kind of mini ipad.  With that in mind is it any wonder that digitally deficient old folks like myself rely on kindergarten grandkids for computer lessons?

Educator Marc Prensky in his publication, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, defends the millennials and insists that our misunderstanding of them is the result of our speaking different languages.  He posits that their nearly total immersion in the digital world via computers, video games, digital music, cell phones, video cams etc. has resulted in their “thinking and processing information fundamentally differently from their predecessors”.  They even prefer to communicate digitally.  As a matter of fact, the geeks may be the new heroes of the millenial generation.  Prensky concludes that all of this leads us to feel apart, since these geeky kids do inhabit a different world.

Pensky goes on to quote Dr. Bruce Perry of Baylor College of Medicine who echoes his assessment with the statement, “It is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed and are different from ours-as a result of how they grew up.”  Although the idea that a whole generation of brains might be changed in both function and structure seems farfetched, recent research concerning the elasticity of the developing brain suggests it not so much of a stretch as it seems.

David Burstein, himself a millennial, in his book “Fast Future” coined the term pragmatic idealism to describe millennial philosophy and insists that millennials in general have “a deep desire to make the world a better place.”  He goes on to say that their idealism is tempered with the realities of what is possible, and consequently, they will be able to bridge the divisiveness that currently prevents solutions to world and domestic problems.

He is an ardent defender of his generation, and insists that they are optimistic about the future as is he.   He points out that soon his millennials will represent one third of the population and mostly represent a consensus on societal, environmental and economic issues.  It is easy to see how when these kids (to me all people under the age of 40 are kids) ascend to positions of power they could conceivably bring about massive changes to the status quo.

In a time in which our electronic gadgets are obsolete by the time we old codgers learn how to use them, these geeky kids stand a better chance of utilizing the best features of a cyber world, and warding off nefarious uses of technologies that seemingly progress at warp speed.  The dangers inherent in artificial intelligence and robotics was the subject of previous blogs, but there is also the problem of cyber warfare which seems to be already underway via Russia’s attempt to undermine our democracy.  A criminal element will always be with us and they have found ways to do much harm with only a keyboard as a weapon.  A digital world will require our best millennial minds to sort out the good and protect us from the bad.

In such a world it is vital that those scheduled to take over be forward thinking if they are to be successful in adapting; however, in doing so they tend to ignore traditions important to previous generations, undoubtedly convinced that history is no longer relevant in their digital wonderland.  Materialism is frowned upon, and new lifestyles are in vogue.  To own a home in the suburbs is no longer the ideal for many.  Those women who choose to marry are more likely to sign up for the Wal-Mart bridal registry, and could care less about inheriting the family silver.  In many areas the antique business is on life support.  In their zeal to move forward, let us hope they will not lose sight of the lessons painfully learned by their ancestors which led to the origin of many of those irrelevant traditions.  Prensky posits that we have been remiss by failing to teach “both legacy and future content in their language”.

There is evidence that Burstein’s positive assessment of these kids is valid.  One example of which I am aware seems to fit his “pragmatic idealism” mold quite well.  It all began when four college students at the Indiana University became interested in beekeeping, and ultimately, concerned about the plight of the vanishing honey bee.  With further study they learned to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.   It is said that nearly 70% of the world’s edible crops depend upon honey bees for pollination, and we are now losing nearly half of all the colonies each year.  The extinction of the species would be catastrophic.  Other animal life could also be affected due to the lack of pollination of plants on which they feed.  The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that without honey bees it would be impossible to feed the 9.1 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050.

This group of four college students formed a club to study bees, and noted that although there was ongoing research into the problem, little was known about life inside the hives.  The university annually hosts a contest, Building Entrepreneurs through Science and Technology (BEST), for would-be entrepreneurs with an award of $100,000 to be used as seed money for the students to put their idea into action.  After an application process, the finalists present their business plan to the venture capitalists involved much as in the TV series Shark Tank and our heroes won. Click here to see the press release.

They incorporated in February 2016 under the name “The Bee Corp” and set about to use their grant to purchase some bee hives in order to have a cohort on which to learn, but were not averse to harvesting and merchandising nearly 1,000 pounds of honey the following year (one jar of which I enjoyed).  Those hives had suffered a great deal of neglect prior to their purchase by Bee Corp consequently; there was much sweat equity involved in the production of that honey.  This business success while in the pursuit of their stated mission “to drive innovation on traditional beekeeping practices through scientific research and technology in order to foster sustainable honey bee populations” a perfect example of Burstein’s pragmatic idealism.

Meanwhile, they continued in their efforts to develop the means to monitor the health of bee hives and indeed to collect enough data to learn what parameters were most healthy. Not surprisingly they came up with a digital solution.  They proposed to monitor intra-hive conditions by placing sensors in the hives which could transmit data wirelessly to the beekeeper.

Soon another instance in which business opportunity coincided with mission occurred.  In their contacts nationwide with beekeepers, they learned that a secondary problem had accompanied the loss of hives.  As the shortage of hives became acute, those remaining became more valuable, and there developed a widespread business of hive theft.  More than 1700 hives were stolen in California alone during the 2016 almond season.  They were able to enhance their intra-hive technology by developing a GPS tracking system which could be forwarded directly to police.

On January 1, 2018, this trio of kids who were now full time into the bee saving business were rewarded with a grant from the National Science Foundation in the amount of $225,000 to further develop a database which can used to “create a baseline model of a healthy hive to detect anomalies” as stated in the award.  The award allowed them to hire their first full time employee: a data scientist.   The beekeeping industry welcomed the news that there was an effort underway to solve their problem.  Successful Farming magazine wrote “Ag tech start-up The Bee Corp is causing quite a buzz as it begins to monitor conditions inside commercial beehives.”

the bee corp crew

It so happens that one of the co-founders of this corporation is well known to me, as a matter of fact he is my Grandson, but you may rest assured this in no way affects my objectivity in writing this for he would be an exceptional person no matter who was his Grandad.  Simon has always been interested in business but is not lacking in altruism, or environmental concerns even ending up with a major in environmental science while working nearly full time throughout college.

So, there you have it.  Millennials working hard to provide themselves with a comfortable lifestyle while simultaneously improving the lives of others.  Where could you find a better example of “pragmatic idealism”?  Let’s hope there are many more like them, and that greed will not blind them to the second part of that phrase.