Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Is Anybody Happy?

I am much too young, and so, undoubtedly, are you, to actually remember Ted Lewis, the band leader whose catch phrase, "Is everybody happy?," spoken in his high-pitched madcap-ecstatic voice, furnishes me with the ironic title of this month's essay. Be that as it may, the conversations I have these days, socially and professionally, range in mood from, oh, say Shostakovitch's 8th Symphony, to Chaplin's "Smile, though your heart is breaking...". Happy days are not here again, yet, and they seem like they are more likely to be somewhere over the rainbow than to be just around the corner. (If you want the citations for all these song phrases, email me. And if you don't feel depressed enough yet, listen to Shostakovitch's 8th.)

At the low end of the spectrum, there are those who have lost or are losing a job. The more over 35 you are, the more this hurts, in every way - it's demoralizing. Then there are those who worked hard, saved well, and are seeing their retirement funds go down the tubes while their health costs, even with Medicare, go up up up. I am going to stop talking about financial matters here because it's too depressing.

But before I stop, I have to mention obsessive watching of cable news shows and political talk radio. That's another thing that seems to be angsting up the zeitgeist, big time. It seemed like it might finally be balanced, maybe even fair, when MSNBC came on the air to challenge Fox News. Now, whether you are on the left or the right, watching this stuff is like taking daily doses of terror and rage pills, which gradually accumulate in our brain cells until we are all walking around like we're in a Freddy Krueger movie crossed with a weather disaster movie, waiting for someone to say something on the left or the right or about the weather that will send us screaming in terror as we wend our way through floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, monsoons... and then droughts. Good times!

Well, for people whose lives were already pretty traumatic, you can imagine how keeping things together could be harder than ever right now. It's hard for most people today. Our government is like two bitterly divorcing parents, Republican Dad and Democrat Mom, fighting constantly, making the kids (us) feel torn in half, like nothing is secure, nothing is safe. I won't say which one I think is less guilty, and which one has lost its mind, but the former starts with a D, and the latter starts with an R. 

So how do I finish this up with a ray of sunshine and a gleam of hope? Well, this is a good time, if you have friends and family, to repair damaged bonds and ties, as much as you can, and find time for fun, for connection. It's a good time, if you are alone, to reach out for support where you can find it - maybe through some religious or spiritual affiliation, or from a mental health professional. It's a good time, if you are able, to pitch in to some constructive effort that might help a cause you care about, or maybe the less fortunate; or if you're out of work, in between looking for a job, take care of all the organizing and repairing you never had time for while you were working. It's a good time to turn off the radio and the television and read, play a game, cook a meal.

It's getting darker and it will be getting colder soon. If you can find some warmth and some light, take it in, and spread it where you can.    

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ups and Downs

I had a great vacation this summer. My whole family did. We relaxed, we had fun, we had a great change of scenery, great activities, great food, great people to be with. It was perfect.

And then we got back to JFK on a Sunday evening, and only Dante could do justice to the infernal torment that ensued for the next 5 or 6 hours. I will spare you the gruesome details. Suffice it to say, we finally got to home sweet home early Monday morning.

“Let’s pretend we’re still on vacation,” I suggested to my wife later in the week, as we confronted the bills, the schedules, the yard project, the lack of enough sleep, the suddenly not working refrigerator and the possibly not working dishwasher, the bills … did I mention the bills?

But that’s the thing – vacations are great when they are very different from the rest of your life. Hopefully, it doesn’t mean that life=miserable, vacation=wonderful. But vacation, when it’s good, is good because it’s somewhere around 180° different from your normal routine.

There are people I’ve worked with who have had it very hard growing up – suffering extreme abuse of various kinds. And some of these people have a fantasy that, given what they have been through, life should now be a bed of roses. And they are extremely angry when it isn’t, which is, oh, pretty much every other day, more or less. A big part of living well for these people is accepting that they have to work at creating and maintaining a good life – it doesn’t just happen, it isn’t automatically the reward you get for surviving a terrible childhood. And when you’re doing your best, and hurts and disappointments still happen – it doesn’t prove that life really isn’t worth living, or that the world and all its people are cruel, and you are doomed. It just means that life has its ups and downs, and it is up to us to do the best we can and make the most of what we’ve got.

At the same time, I notice that one need not have had a terrible childhood to unconsciously entertain this fantasy – that life is supposed to be and actually can be wonderful all the time, that we can always be at our best. Many of us with happier childhoods have this fantasy too – and it is being sold to us constantly, in commercials, seminars, retreats, health food stores, plastic surgeons’ offices, and the endless stream of self-help books and tapes that relentlessly identify yet another seven steps to this, that or the other.

It’s true that we are living with a bad economy these days, and it looks like we may be living with it for a while. There are many more people out there now who are busy just figuring out how to survive, let alone live well. But I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who have nothing, and with people who have everything, and I’ve seen both these kinds of people have the same amount of anguish about solving the same puzzle – how to be happy, how to feel good, how to have a good life.

Long ago, Freud said with a touch of irony that the goal of psychotherapy was to convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. But most psychotherapists today would agree, I think, that we are aiming for more. We want to help people find the strength and resilience to get through hardships; and to find the desire and the willingness to work at building a good life. The two go hand in hand – there can be no lasting good in life unless one has the strength and the resilience to endure and get through hardships, whether they be material or spiritual.

Another famous psychoanalyst, Frieda Fromm-Reichman, treated a young severely schizophrenic woman some years ago. As the young woman began to regain her health and sanity, she became terrified of leaving the hospital and being without the therapist. As the time for the girl’s discharge came closer, in response to the girl’s worries about life beyond therapy, Fromm-Reichman was honest with her: “I never promised you a rose garden,” she said, which became the title of the memoir the woman later wrote, under the pen name Hannah Green. Fromm-Reichman had already been through a great deal herself: escaping the Holocaust and starting a new life in a strange land, divorce, and loneliness. At the same time, she loved her work, and nurtured many patients and students. She was loved and respected by all who knew her. A good life.

Most people can’t always be on vacation, and none of us can always dwell in a garden of roses. It may seem like some people have everything come easily to them, but I’m certain that most people with good, happy lives are people who have worked hard, with persistence, to build and maintain that happiness.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Back in 1915, Sigmund Freud wrote one of his best known papers, “Mourning and Melancholia,” and he introduced an idea that has since become common knowledge:  that if a grave loss is mourned well, one can expect, in a reasonable amount of time, to get on with one’s life.  But if mourning never ends, and a loss becomes a source of unending grief, then melancholia, or depression, results.

Most of us adults are mourning, at some level, for something lost.  Lost opportunities and lost youth might be the most commonly mourned experiences.  Though we may not brood openly or excessively, we probably all know someone who has never stopped being bitter, or regretful.  There are some great examples of mourning turned to melancholy in literature – Dickens’ Miss Havisham, still in her wedding dress though she was cruelly jilted many years before; Scrooge, endlessly bitter because his one true love betrayed him; Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, who has had to bury every one of her relatives, has lost her family home, and is fast losing her youth.  Fragile and frazzled, the loss of her sister to the brutish Stanley - her sister being her last family tie and the last person she had any control over -finally drives her insane.

Adults who as children were abused and neglected, often find mourning challenging.  The Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn put it this way: he said that for a child who depends entirely on his parents, it would be better to feel like a sinner in a world ruled by God, then to have to realize that one is an innocent living in a world ruled by the Devil.  In other words, children would rather believe that they are bad  than have to believe that their own parents would abuse them.  Many adults, in therapy years later, have great difficulty mourning  these kind of losses – the loss of security and safety they suffered as children; the loss of ever feeling loved and cherished by a truly caring parent. 

Defending against their grief and their desolation, these patients often go through life dismissing the pain of their wounds.  “Yeah, so my father was a raging drunk and my mother didn’t do anything to protect us.  So what?  I don’t want to go through life blaming them for my problems.”  I’ve heard this kind of remark many times, and I marvel at how people who take this attitude seem to be trapped in endless self- loathing and self-reproach.  Not wanting to “blame” their parents, they have no problem relentlessly blaming themselves.  Some will even go so far as to claim that they should have been stronger, at the age of 5, and not been so selfish, such a cry-baby.  At 5, with a raging drunken father smashing dishes, screaming at a depressed, crushed mother, this child, according to his adult self, was supposed to have behaved in a way that would have made his mother happy and avoided triggering his father’s rage.

Somehow, it is easier for this adult child to loathe himself, than it is to acknowledge how profoundly his parents failed to function as parents – how unable to give and to love they really were.  He cannot bear to know the depth of  terror he must have felt all through childhood.  He cannot bear to face the facts, because then he will feel the sting of grief so deeply that it will pierce him through and through.  And he fears that once he opens up this grief, it will never stop, he will be drowned in it.   He doesn’t know that this grief, if allowed to be released, can be a part of the mourning process, the process that allows us to bury the dead, to let them be at rest, and eventually to go on with being alive, and free. 

Instead, the adult who was abused as a child, by holding a deep, sometimes unconscious belief in his own badness, keeps his tie to the abusers alive.  Instead of denying his parents the right to define him as the bad one, and bearing the grief of having been unloved, he blames himself, as the abusers did, and keeps the abusers alive, internalized as his own self-attacking voice.   

Very few people go through life without having some grief to bear, some terrible loss to mourn.  Whether we mourn the loss of something beautiful, or of something terrible, our mourning is meant to restore and renew us, to allow for a letting go, to prepare us to value and cherish the life we have, to do our best to make the most of our time here.  Depression can have many causes, and can be treated in many different, effective ways.  For some, it will be the acknowledgment of loss, and the discovery of what it means to truly mourn, that will be the path out of depression, toward life.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Control Paradox

Humans start needing to have some measure of control fairly early in life - possibly from about the time we draw our first breath.  It is ironic, then, that uniquely among all living creatures, we alone are aware of the inevitability of our eventual death, and completely without any control whatsoever over when that will happen.  This may explain to some extent why control issues loom large in the human psyche.  No matter how easy going we may want to imagine ourselves to be, control issues are inescapable.  Our unexamined needs for control can paradoxically put us in prisons of our own making.

Negotiations with significant others around issues of control and power can often be baffling, frustrating and exhausting.  For example, pretty much every parent is familiar with the seemingly endless struggles one has with one's kids.  Are the most successful parents the ones who exert the most control?  We probably all know kids who grew up under extremely strict conditions, for whom things did not turn out so well - unlike the apparently perfect prodigies born to and raised by Amy Chua, the "Tiger Mother" who is all over the news these days.  I certainly talk to quite a few people professionally for whom an authoritarian upbringing was not the way to get to Carnegie Hall, but rather contributed heavily to their addiction problems, impotence, divorce, alienation from family, depression and anxiety - and so on. 

In my work with people affected by authoritarian groups (sometimes such groups are thought of as cults, or as cult-like), I've talked to scores of people who joined such a group searching for freedom of one kind or another:  from ego, from inhibition and fear, emptiness, meaninglessness, etc.   Where they ended up instead was spending some of the best years or decades of their lives living like slaves, allowing a charismatic leader to dictate every move they made, everything they wore, ate, said and did.  In all those years before they finally left their group, they thought they were on the road to liberation.  Michael Wright's superb recent piece in the New Yorker about how the screenwriter Paul Haggis got into Scientology, what he put up with to stay in it, and why he finally left, is a great illustration of how one can allow oneself to be controlled by others - all the while deceiving oneself into believing that the subjugation and exploitation one accepts is all in the name of self-realization, freedom, and making the world a better place.

For many who are struggling to find the right intimate partner, control issues can be a stealth killer.  One strong, highly accomplished woman I worked with whom I'll call Sonia easily attracted men who showed intense interest in her.  These were men who seemed masterfully in control - of their careers, their wealth, their bodies and their sexual performance.  Sonia would eventually become dismayed to discover that these men also expected to be able to control her.  When she resisted the controlling behaviors, the man in question would quickly turn from seductive pursuit to belittling rejection.  In spite of the repetitive disappointments she experienced with men of this type, she found herself turned off by and made herself unavailable to men who were less dominating.  Catch-22.  

Like Sonia, we all have unconscious, complicated relational patterns that are impacting our way of managing our control needs, especially with our most significant others. If we believe that it is a basic human right to be free - and today, more and more people all over the world are beginning to assert that it is - then it behooves us to understand more about the need for control.  There is a world of difference between control as a destructive, rigidifying tool for domination; and control, built on trust, compassion and respect, that creates stability, allows for flexibility, and encourages freedom.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Two of my patients some time ago were men in their 40’s, married faithfully, each with a couple of adored children.  Both men were coming to therapy because of panic attacks – terrifying moments of helplessness and confusion, feelings so painful that neither man could really find the words to describe what happened to them at these times.

Each of these men were up against extremely stressful circumstances:  one man was facing serious financial troubles with his business; the other had learned that his wife had a difficult health issue that she would need to address.  It wasn’t hard to understand their fear, their dismay.  Yet at first glance, these men seemed to have all the strength they might need to face their challenges: intelligence, the love and support of significant others, considerable talents, and many previous achievements and successes.  Both men were going ahead and doing what they needed to do.  But neither could stop the force with which they would suddenly, with little warning, find themselves in the grip of panic episodes so intense that they feared they might be losing their mind.

What these men, and many other men and women I’ve known, had in common was that they were taught, pretty much starting in the cradle, that feelings of distress, of any kind, were not worth having.  They were taught, by the way they were responded to by their parents, that to be afraid, or sad, disappointed, hurt – feelings like that were just a waste of time.  Don’t feel sorry for yourself, it’s nothing, don’t be ridiculous – cheer up, forget about it; those were the more benign kinds of responses they got when they were seeking comfort and understanding.  Others I’ve talked to tell me that they would get yelled at, or hit, if they were upset.  One man recalled that every childhood picture showing him smiling was taken just after his father had smacked him in the face, for not smiling.

Obviously, parents want their children to learn to be strong, have a thick skin, be able to handle themselves, because parents want their children to grow up to succeed in the competitive adult world.  But too often, parents want to dismiss the difficult, painful feelings their children have, because many parents are overworked, too stressed, and too tired to have the patience and take the time to calmly and sensitively tune in to what their children are feeling. 

If we as parents are not dealing with our own troubles – avoiding them by drinking too much, for example, or zoning out in front of the television night after night - then we are not teaching our children how to understand and express their feelings, because we are finding it preferable to be numb.  In essence, we end up telling our children that we love them when they don’t bother us with their troubles – and that they can expect withdrawal from us if they aren’t burying their feelings and making things easy for us.

When you learn to minimize your own feelings and needs, and to adopt a stance of always being “fine,” because that’s what your parents rewarded, or because it made you feel superior to your whiney sister, or because it made your anxious, depressed parent feel better, you have learned not to take care of yourself.  The contempt and dismissiveness you’ve learned to feel toward your own vulnerability keeps you from tuning in to what you feel, what you really need and want.  When all the suppressed and warded off feelings reach a boiling point, they break through the walls of denial, and hit the fan, wreaking panicky havoc.

Life is always going to be presenting us with problems, including some that are frightening and overwhelming.  We will, every one of us, have to face painful situations, no matter how much you may think you’ve got it all under control.  Contempt and impatience for your own feelings, and for those of your spouse and children, are not effective coping mechanisms.  What that’s really about is fear – fear of feelings.  Feelings are what make us alive – and being able to stay open to the full range of our feelings is a way toward realizing the fullness of the human potential – for growth, for health, for life.  

© Daniel Shaw, LCSW 2011