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Can We Just Call it Homesickness?

refugee tornadoSince 1935, when Dupont adopted the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry,” we have been a culture pummeled by polymers and overly impressed by the new and shiny. Their advertising not only changed how we thought about the rush of chemicals being delivered to us (through medicine, in our water, in our foods), but reflected a new age of humanity in which biochemistry became a cruel and indifferent king. No longer were people thought of as “heartbroken.” They were thought of as chemically imbalanced.

Most people don’t know that diagnoses vary and move along social currents. Because of the authority with which words like “clinical depression” or “bipolar” are used in modern conversation, they are given the impression that those words have a permanence and solidity they do not actually have.

For instance, what we now commonly call PTSD has only been recognized as a formal disorder since 1980. During the American Civil War, soldiers returning from battle with inexplicable symptoms were said to have “Soldier’s Heart.” In World War I it was referred to as “War Malaise” or “Shell Shock,” in World War II, “Combat Fatigue,” in Korea “Gross Stress Reaction” and after Vietnam, it was cleverly called “Post-Vietnam Syndrome.”

Does it matter what we call it?

Some think it matters a great deal because names often determine approach or treatment. It makes sense. If someone is called “Your Highness” we are sure to approach him or her quite differently than if he or she were called “dear.” Similarly, if we call a state of mind a chemical imbalance, than we are very likely to approach (or treat) that state with chemicals, often many. If, on the other hand, we call it a broken heart or loneliness or arrogance or self-pity, we take a rather different tack.

This comes up because of something a patient said to me the other day. She also recently moved east from New Mexico when her husband was made a corporate offer he couldn’t refuse. She came from an old family in Santa Fe with a history that went back almost 400 years to the Spanish Conquest. She had grown up with open vistas, nearly eternally clear skies, and a community in which everyone knew one another. To say hers was a shocking uprooting would be an understatement.

She came in complaining of inexplicable and free-floating anxiety, lethargy, a tendency to weepiness over trifles, an inability to sleep through the night because of dreams and restlessness. Her first question after she elaborated on her symptom picture was: “Do you think I’m depressed?” The as yet unspoken question underneath was: Did she need medication?

Instead of answering either of those questions, I asked her about her dreams, when these symptoms started, what she’d been doing since she moved here and how well (or poorly) she was getting acclimated to a new environment and culture.

As it turned out, her symptoms began about a month after arriving, shortly after the last box had been unpacked and recycled. Suddenly, there was nothing to do. Her husband was going to his new job. Her two young children were in school. She was at home, sans friends, sans work, sans family. In New Mexico, she had not only been working, she had an extended family that occupied a great deal of her time with social engagements and care-taking elderly members. People stopped into one another’s homes fairly regularly. She had a church she loved. Here, she was alone. Worse, she was lonely.

Could someone call that depression? I imagine they could find support for it in the diagnostics and standards manual. But I’d rather call it homesickness. Not only because it is more precise, but because it gives her a way out.

Of course she misses her home. Of course she feels lonely. Of course she’s bored and restless. Of course she longs for friends and relatives. Who wouldn’t in her situation? There’s no pathology in that.

What needed to be changed were not those feelings, but what she was doing all day with them. First prescription: Volunteer. Second prescription: Find a church with her husband. Third prescription: Join a club (in her case she agreed to a yoga class).

It took about a month for her symptoms to abate.  While she still missed friends and family (and bright, endless blue skies), she was no longer as lonely, bored or restless. She slept better because her energy was redirected and expended during the day. She began to make new friends and feel a part of something bigger than her own heartbeat in a large, empty house.

The more I think about her case, the more I am inclined to think of PTSD as Soldier’s Heart. I think it more clearly sums up what we are looking at: A wound of war that breaks a heart, not a chemistry problem.


Do Guns Make The Man?


This is not a rhetorical question, though, according to my husband, it may be one that I come to regret asking in a public forum like this.

When I told him I was going to write an article about what happened in a gun shop the other day, he winced, “I hope you’re ready for the fallout.”

I guess I am, because I want to tell you the story and ask you what you think. I have come away from the whole experience with less “knowing” than I thought I had when I went in.

Allow me to start by saying I am a gun owner. I have several weapons and I respect all of them. I treat them with the care they demand and I am properly licensed. I have, thank God, always used them solely for target practice. I do not eat meat and do not hunt (though I admit that if there were ever an emergency and I needed to hunt in order to feed my family, I would reluctantly do so).

Mostly, I have them for home defense. I also, however, have a concealed carry permit. In my mind, carrying a gun in public has always had a dual consequence. It has not only implied that I can take care of myself, it has also meant that I have to be able and ready to to defend someone else if that is appropriate and necessary. I do not suffer from the delusion that I am a cop, nor am I secretly looking for opportunities to be a hero. I pray it never ever comes to that, but it is part of the deal (and responsibility) as far as I’ve been concerned.

The Case of The Sweltering Pup
In any event, this is what happened. It is an ordinary day. We are walking into a gun store to make a purchase. As we approach the building, we notice a dog languishing in a car with the windows only cracked open. It is in the mid-90′s and the sun is searing. I point it out to my husband and he cringes, already knowing that I’m going to do something.

I have to sidetrack for a moment to acknowledge that he and I come from different worlds. In his, where everyone carried a gun, a person didn’t get involved in another person’s private affairs, even if those affairs were morally offensive. “Live and let live” was the Rocky Mountain tao by which he was raised.

My conscience was directed by different forces. What was perhaps the strongest code in my family was Edmund Burke’s maxim: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We not only believed in intervention, we actually intervened. We picked up clothes that other people dropped in department stores, stood between abusive parents and their babies, or wrote to congressmen and marched on Washington or the U.N.

When you saw something wrong, particularly something life-threatening, Justice was spelled with a capital J and doing nothing was not an option.

In any case, he was right about what was soon to happen. I walked into a store full of men with guns and told the clerk about the dog. “If you guys don’t take care of it, I’m calling the cops.” They said they would deal with him.

With a few questions, they found the man who needed to bring his dog to the firing range so he could leave him in a closed car in the parking lot in summer. They told him it was “unacceptable” and then they let him go back into the range to continue firing. The dog was still in the car. I waited a little while, then I went outside and called the police.

They came within about five minutes. And the guy, squealing and bleating in shamed protest, finally took his dog home, where hopefully he will live to see another day.

A Psychological Reality Check
I expressed my utter confusion about this to my husband when we got home. I couldn’t understand how a store full of men with guns couldn’t promptly and properly deal with a coward and a dog bully.

He said I misunderstood or misinterpreted gun ownership and that a good number of gun owners do not have guns out of any sense of duty and don’t necessarily develop a sense of duty out of having guns. They have no bearing on one another. Many gun owners are profoundly honorable and benevolent people. But not because they have guns. Rather because they were raised well.

Most, he said, have guns for either sport or self-defense. It is a private matter. And it has no bearing on a sense of responsibility for anyone else.

I was surprised and still confused. But, but, but … I kept asking him: Didn’t the having of a gun at least bring some semblance of duty to bear on a person? All he could do was say, “They’re just not the same thing, is all.”

So, I called a friend of mine, a detective and CSI whose opinion and intelligence I have come to trust. I told him the story and he laughed and asked me, “So, you’re living where?”

I told him.

“And the culture there says what about privacy and animals?”

I shut my mouth and let him continue. I had already begun to see the light.

“To stand up, they’d first of all have to agree it’s wrong. What’s the mentality of the place you’re in? To them, you’re probably crazy. Plus, you think that because you know mostly people who do get involved — like cops or fire fighters or medics — that everyone with a gun is thinking the same way. They don’t necessarily want to be involved at all and don’t want anyone else to be involved with them. They’re not all that interested in being helpful. They’re interested in maintaining a perimeter between them and the rest of the world.”

It came to this: guns don’t make the man. Quite the reverse.

So, sadly, it seems that the world is still as apathetic as it was when Kitty Genovese was killed in a parking lot in Queens, NY with a dozen people watching, none of whom called 911. I may have to accept this, but I don’t have to like it. Just like I will never become the person who walks past the panting dog or crying child in the car and clucks their disapproval without putting any punch in their protest. Some things are worth the risk and the alienation, as far as I’m concerned. And to tell you the truth, I’d do it again.

A while back I was visiting friends in a suburb of NYC. We are walking down the street minding our own business. A woman screeches up to the sidewalk, yanks her kids out of the car, screams at them and leaves them sitting and crying on a park bench. She takes off in the car. My friends and I look at each other in stunned silence for approximately .05 second and immediately corral the children. I call 911.

They put me on hold! I should’ve known right there that something was up. But, caught up in the moment, I stand there like a numskull and wait. The mother drives back up and whines about how no one understands how hard her life has been and how they were driving her crazy and it was just a little lesson…etc… I told her to back away and wait to give her story to the police.

As things went from terse to truly tense, out of the bushes pop up a sound man, a couple of 20 year old girls with release forms, and John Quinones from “What Would You Do?”

I guess we answered the question our way. And no one was carrying a gun.

The Media and Fear Part I: Huffington Post

‘Tis the Season to Be Fearful: Confessions of an Ex-Ad-Woman (Part 1)

It was a long time ago. I was young. I was writing for Madison Avenue, hobnobbing with celebrities, going to parties. It was as far from a meaningful life as I’ve ever been, but it was the 1980′s, Reagan was president, we were selling and everyone was buying. Life was “good.”

Then one day I got an ad order for one of the firm’s big clients. They were pushing a new diet pill that would expand in the stomach and fool the person into feeling full so they wouldn’t eat. I read the marketing stats carefully. Their targeted audience was young, female and anorexic.

I don’t know what made me suddenly so sensitive or intolerant of such an obviously necessary strategy — who else would you sell a diet product to? — but I got angry. And in a pique of rebellion I hurled my typewriter against what I felt to be a nasty injustice and sealed my fate when I submitted an ad with a picture of the little expanding pill and a headline that read: Fat Chance.

Needless to say, they never ran the ad…

To see the whole article, go to Huffington Post.

The Media and Fear Series Part II on Huffington Post

How to Defend Yourself Against the Media’s Fear Tactics: Confessions of an Ex-Ad-Woman (Part 2)

Human nature may be the same, but there are new rules of engagement.

With every major invention, every technical ratcheting forward, human history has been irrevocably altered. Some of the most pivotal alterations have been the result of the least dramatic and perhaps least glamorous discoveries, such as the toilet and interior plumbing.

Massive changes followed the introduction of those little white bowls in the average home, most notably the decrease of acute epidemic disease and the increase in the human lifespan, which in turn has had a ripple effect on everything we think and undertake…

To see the whole topic:

Huffington Post

The Next Osama Syndrome

For the first time in Huffington Post, you can read more about the idea behind The Next Osama! This is one of the most important things I’ve ever done and I hope I can share it with all of you. It dovetails perfectly with all the things Verbal First Aid stands for, but takes a look at it from the cultural angle rather than the personal and psychological one.

The reason I’ve done this is because of what I’ve seen in my psychotherapy practice–people who are afraid, truly afraid, and look to all sorts of products to make them feel better: breast implants (so they feel younger and aren’t so afraid of losing their luster or facing their mortality), viagra (so they feel more virile and aren’t so afraid of the normal aging process), more and more insurance (so they’re supposedly protected against everything the insurance companies can make them afraid of).

I will be releasing a host of new articles on this topic–how the culture and particularly the media perpetuate needless, pervasive and viral fear and, not only what this does to us, but what we can do about it!

As they say, stay tuned.

Endangered Ideas. Endangered Minds.

The minimizing of communication is no accident. It comes as a consequence of minimal thinking, lethargy, and indifference. To some this is the death knell of American and Western civilization, the end of democracy as we know it (which requires active and informed participation by all citizens), the end of the broadest literacy rate in the history of mankind, and the end of equality of opportunity (for this too, takes an active, watchful, and observant eye). If it is, it is hardly surprising. Before the fall of every civilization came a period of fattening, of loosening, and finally, of decay.

In response to my last blog, a clergyman I know wrote to tell me a story about an experience he had teaching a group of teenagers (ranging from 13 to 16) at summer camp.

They were all gathered at a round table discussion on the general concept of “Important Teen Issues.” Everyone had a chance to write down what was important to him or her. Someone had written the verboten theme: “Sexual Immorality.”

One of the counselors (a young woman in her early 20’s) immediately raised her hand and asked with all innocence: “What’s sexual immorality? I’ve never heard of it before.”

Mind you, this was at a summer camp sponsored by a local church.

The clergyman monitoring the group was at an honest loss for words. Where to start? He wrote to me that the saddest part from his point of view was that she had honestly never been taught anything whatsoever about it. Sex and morality were separated by a deep cultural chasm and, as she explained to him, “Whatever two consenting adults do is fine, right?”

He shared another similar story:  A teacher of middle-advanced years began working in a local school. Part of her routine was to ask her students to line up every morning, look her in the eye, greet her with manners and warmth, turn in their homework and finally take a seat.

The principal, who was young and new to the job, was alerted to this breach in standard protocol and confronted the teacher, demanding to know what made her do such an unusual thing.

The teacher simple explained, “To teach them respect, discipline, courtesy, and accountability.”

The principal promptly and in no uncertain terms ordered the teacher to cease and desist. “We only teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. And the time you’re taking on your ritual is taking time away from the school’s directives.”

The teacher stood motionless, disbelieving.

“We don’t teach respect, discipline, courtesy, and accountability,” the principal added as she walked away. “We don’t have an approved curriculum for it and it is not in the government’s standard testing.”

Is it any wonder that our language is shrinking? It’s only a reflection of our thinking.

Life Is A Reality Show

TV Producers Badly in Need of Verbal First Aid

A young relative of mine is involved in a relationship that has been making her feel like a dramatic vehicle in a bad TV series. Every talk we’ve had about it has involved a long series of “he-said, she-said” revelations and rarely, if ever, have her conversations involved direct, open communication with the significant other.

She was deeply unhappy and felt powerless to do anything about the chaos, the secrets, the whisperings, or the plot twists and nefarious friends. She talked about her life as if it were a script being written by a committee of ravenous producers.

As a psychotherapist and a teacher of Verbal First Aid, it got me to thinking:

What has TV done to relationships? What have we learned by surrounding ourselves with shows such as “Raymond,” “Two and a Half Men,” “CSI,” “Survivor,” and “Trauma?” If it is true that art reflects life, it must be equally as true that life reflects art. We are what we surround ourselves with and perhaps it surrounds us in the way it does because it is in fact a projection of our truest selves.

If so, what surrounds us? What is the nature of relationships in mass media? What are we listening to as the TV runs on and on in the background and we’re preparing dinner or doing housework or making the beds? How differently are relationships portrayed now compared to, say, 40 years ago?

For the full piece, please go to:

The Media vs. Hypnotherapy


The other night I watched an episode of The Mentalist in which practitioners of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming, an offshoot of Ericksonian Hypnosis ) were suspects in a murder.

Besides the triteness of the script, my objection to the episode was not the notion that a therapist might be charged or guilty or capable of murder. Such things have happened. People who present themselves as healers are not beyond suspicion. Nor should they be. What particularly galled me was the notion that anyone could possibly be capable of putting a perfect stranger into a full-Monty trance with just a touch on the shoulder. As if that weren’t enough, the real killer/hypnotherapist managed to induce a complete amnesia and generate an utter complicity in a police officer so that he would passively do her bidding.

It is unfortunately the stuff of snake oil salesmen and charlatans and it makes the work of genuine practitioners doubly difficult—not only do we hope to be up to the task of genuine healing utilizing the tools of hypnosis, but we have to battle the false perceptions cultivated by a media scrambling to beef up their ratings.