[This originally started out as a post on my psychotherapy blog, but became so lengthy and opinion-laced that I figured I'd put it here.]
One comment I hear, particularly in op-ed sections of newspapers, is that as a society we are becoming “soft” (ostensibly because we are beginning to encourage children to discuss their emotions throughout public school life, and not just when they get in trouble or are victimized). Within this same argument is the contention that, thanks to people like me (mental health professionals), everything that is perceived to be wrong with the individual is to be blamed on other people or institutions. Thus, the contention is that individual responsibility is somehow being sapped of its strength.
I see no need to blame anyone for anything. If a client’s parent’s were too strict when they were growing up, it’s enough to explore it (and its effects) until such a time as the context of those events have a present-day meaning which will allow the client to lead a healthy, durable life and move on. My interest is with the client: their health, their well-being. I have no use for encouraging, casting, or redirecting blame. That is not within the philosophy of the modality of psychotherapy that I am trained in. It is certainly not within my personal philosophy. There’s not much to be gained from vilifying people and things.
Something to note is that many forms of victimization carry with it, primarily, shame (though other feelings may follow closely, like anger). The shame of not being able to avoid the caretaker who struck you. The shame of not being able to speak out about the racial discrimination you experienced in school. The shame of being sexually preyed upon by a coworker. Shame is a very deep hole to climb out of. Just talking about shameful experiences can retraumatize some clients – that is, put them right back in the original emotional context which first scarred them.
Survivors of abuse often feel responsible for their victimization, regardless of how little agency they had at the time they were victimized. In other words, if we are to talk about blame then we should talk about victims of abuse walking around blaming themselves. One of the tasks of therapy is to move the finger of blame away and to look at what has happened to a client with clarity, without an agenda. Then and only then can the process begin of assisting the client out of that deep hole I previously mentioned; assisting by paying close attention, sharing, talking. The client does the heavy work and I’m there to help in every way I can.
I cannot think of something which better defines individual responsibility than someone recognizing that something deep down within them needs to change, and undertaking the time and effort (and pain, and, yes, in the case of working with a therapist, money) to rework their understanding of themselves, to lift themselves to a higher point of view – and all that this entails both in the therapeutic space and in the outside world.
If by “soft” critics mean weak, then the individual who helps herself is not “soft” – she is not weak. She does not blame herself as she once did. She has taken control of herself and has worked hard to build awareness, and through awareness resiliency.
I don’t believe our identities ever settle, to become static. This isn’t to say that they fly willy-nilly like laundry in a windstorm. There are two great wheels: the one inside of us and the one outside. Both move forward regardless of our individual philosophies.
The outside wheel is time. It is the inevitable movement of progress, the passing-on of events, linking like the teeth of a sprocket on a bicycle chain. Whether we stand still or keep moving, this wheel keeps turning.
The inside wheel is our own development: our learning, the expansion of our comprehension of things, as well as our personal growth. It also keeps moving, again, whether we stand still or move.
Development is growth, and growth is sometimes painful, especially when we suspect we have been travelling on a path which does not intuitively serve our needs any longer. The temptation can be strong to “hit the pause button”; to stop looking at how the outer wheel affects the inner wheel, the learnings contained within their interplay. I’m not sure if it would be fair to call this wilful ignorance, but some would.
I’ve known people, particularly those from school, who seem to have “hit the pause button” at some point in their late teens or early twenties: they dress the same, they obsess about the same music, they ask the same questions they asked at that age – it can seem as if they are exist in a still photo of a past universe. I speculate that they see the larger wheel, the world, turning (one cannot wilfully blind oneself from seeing this), but don’t wish to acknowledge that the inner wheel, identity/personality, still turns and evolves also.
It makes me sad, and yes I realize that is a judgement. I don’t wish to categorize people since we live in a society which already puts such an emphasis on a divisive winners/losers binary. It makes me sad because I have a relational tether to those who are in this way: I know what it’s like. It’s also quite common.
I could speculate all day about whether this is fear-induced, shame-induced, whether (from a psychoanalytically informed perspective) there is a concern about narcissistic rupture at play in this. All I know is that it exists, and that the temptation for some to “keep things the way they are”, regardless that this is kind of impossible, has a strong lure.
In the end, all you have are memories.
I say this as someone who has lived in Toronto since 1995. I’ve seen many changes: the mainlining of Queen West into a retail stripmall, the slow existential irreverence of Church Street/Boystown, the awkward moral reclamation of Yonge Street by the city, the evolution (and perverse deflation) of Ossington Avenue, the current “yuppy tension” in Kensington Market. To name just a few.
One thing you learn in Toronto (and perhaps most large urban centres) is that it was always cooler before you got there. It was always more fun. There was more leniency. Less rules. This is bullshit, of course, but it makes the people who were around back then feel important.
You live somewhere long enough and, whether you expect to be in this role or not, you end up being the person who points out what used to be at certain addresses: clothing stores, book stores, record shops, dance clubs, their lovely fucked-up people, long gone (and missed).
We go through life somewhat arrogantly or narcissistically thinking it’s all being recorded – it is the modern age, after all. But it’s not. The only thing recording it is your head. Your eyes. Your nose, your brain. When it’s all been taken-over, torn-down, or burnt to the ground by corrupt real estate developers, you – yes, you and your memories – are the only record of that thing having existed.
If there is something we share, I suppose it is that we all become storytellers after a while.
If there’s something to be said about going on a vacation – whether that means renting a car and driving two hours away from your town, or buying a plane ticket and flying six hours away from your country – it’s that it provides something crucial: distance. Physical (and, one should hope, subsequently mental) distance.
When I go away I take that idea of “distance” seriously. I don’t check Facebook, I don’t check Twitter. I don’t even check voicemail (unless it looks important). My only transgression is occasionally checking newspaper headlines to make sure that the world isn’t on the brink of collapse (which it often seems to be).
Upon returning, I find myself staring at my computer (or, more often, my BlackBerry) and wondering: what’s the point? Sure, I’ll go back to checking email, scheduling things, occasionally making sure the world isn’t on the brink of collapse, but re-entering the world of social media is another question. A daunting one, to be honest. I respect social media, yet, against its purpose, I often find it paradoxically alienating.
It started with Facebook, which began as a unique way to stay in touch with friends without relying upon email – a communal sandbox with multimedia extensions. With time (and popularity) came the inevitable mediocrity of a lot of people (along with the watering-down of “friend”-ship) without a lot of ideas posting a lot of crap that I found myself more often than not skipping. Continue reading
There has been a lot of work done over the last few years to bring to the foreground how mental health and well-being affects everyone, from every quadrant of society, regardless of their geography, culture, race, or class. And I say, as both an emerging mental health professional and citizen: bravo.
There is, however, something which bothers me in the midst of this accelerated (but otherwise welcome) media awareness campaign. It is the habitually casual use of the term “mental illness”, rather than “mental health”. There is more than a semantic difference between the two.
“Illness” is a medicalized notion. It correlates to somatic cause and effect: the patient’s body is sick, so the patient must take x to get better. When you have an illness, you take drugs to get better. Illness implies sickness, which implies the prescription of medicine. “Health” is a generalized notion, which may incorporate the taking of medication but certainly also encompasses needs which do not strictly apply to treatment via medication.
When we lump such disparate problems as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, cigarette addiction, and behavioural/emotional anxiety under a catch-all phrase, that term should not imply that everything which falls under its domain be medicalized or seen as a medical problem.
If you fear that you may have a problem which is affecting the quality of your life, slapping the word “illness” on it is needlessly stigmatizing. Illness = something is wrong. And when “illness” comes after “mental”, it can then seem to someone that they are wrong or somehow broken. In other words, the constant use of “mental illness” as a generalized term for discussion actually perpetuates a needless (and ironic) branding upon those who are affected.
Quite frankly, to use “mental health” is to say that someone who feels that something is affecting the quality of their life is not ill. They may not feel well, but they still have agency. It’s well-documented that what may appear to some as “symptoms” of behavioural or emotional disorders are in actuality subconscious attempts by the person affected to become healthy. We can facilitate this quite easily by not stigmatizing the language around mental health with terms that needlessly cast an onerous light on the problem.
We live in an atmosphere concentrated with media: we are drenched so deep that we don’t often realize how integral it has become in our lives. In my fiction, which can be speculative and sometimes nodding to “the future”, I don’t mention this much. I was wondering if, by not speaking to this (awesome/scary) fact of life, I was missing out on saying something substantial about our lives; then again, a writer with the intent to say “something substantial about our lives” is often asking for more than they can deliver to begin with. Perhaps I intentionally avoid the subject. Perhaps I want, fictionally, to portray a world where the reader can escape our media fishbowl, not content to stare into our monitors and smartphones – into any one of the many shining screens around us. *
(*This is not to say that, as someone who writes stories to be read, I am exempt from any of what I go on to describe.)
As Madge the manicurist in the Palmolive commercials used to say: “You’re soaking in it.” And we are.
My concern, as far as this post goes, is not the number of screens surrounding us, nor is it the gross subsidization of our environment by advertising (vis à vis self-interested parties). Content is king, after all. And, unlike ads and the proliferation of screens, I feel we don’t look at content very closely.
We are essentially surrounded by narratives.
There are always going to be thin-skinned readers, but writers who self-censor for fear of offending said readers suck more. #canada
This was going to be a missive sent over Twitter. Then I thought, what if someone replies to me, calling me out? What if someone says:
@m_cahill Care to name names, or are you AFRAID OF OFFENDING SOMEONE? #jerk
Allow me to elaborate (and do it in an environment I can totally control without distorting my message due to a 140-character limit).
Two articles in the last week were sources of outrage among certain parts of the online world, particularly on Twitter, where it’s particularly easy to express outrage*. The first was Ian Brown’s essay on men gazing at women in the Globe & Mail. It elicited a lot of criticism, from feminists who were offended by the objectification of women to people who simply construed Brown’s perspective as creepy in a Lolita sorta way.
My partner and I began talking about some of the anger we saw in our respective Internet social circles. I felt a lot of it was overblown. Predictable, actually (sadly). And yet I agreed with Ingrid, who reminded me that there is something to be said about “the gaze” which women historically have been on the other end of. In other words, it was a complex issue. All said, something I found admirable in Brown’s piece (and his writing in general**) was his forthrightness. Unlike so many writers there was no effort made to allay the concerns of the entire reading public that he wasn’t trying to offend anyone.
Everyone is waiting for the zombie genre (in books, television, and particularly film) to whither away like a desiccated corpse. I argue that it’s here to stay – that, in fact, it has stronger legs (ugh) than most other genres of the macabre.
The dread of zombies imagined – the tiredness some of us feel with each iteration (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Walking Dead, Zombieland) – is understandable. Less understandable than with vampires, but understandable still. There are too many zombie and zombie-like (for the record, 28 Weeks Later is not, strictly-speaking, a zombie film, yet it more or less qualifies itself by virtue of many shared) themes in books, shows, and movies these days. But I would argue that it’s because – due to our increased connectedness to each other via the Internet and social media – we are exposed to real life zombies. Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. And the exposure stands to increase.
A shitload of people voted for a complete ass to be the mayor of Toronto. A shit. Load. Mind you, not many who lived downtown did. Still, it was a rout. People like me – people who prize intelligent discourse over pot shots, people who would prefer to be ruled by someone with an informed conscience rather than a bullet-list of to-dos – were incredulous. It didn’t even matter what quadrant of the political spectrum Rob Ford occupied: he was the last person any reasonably well-informed person would have wanted. And yet he won in spades.
Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. The dread of zombies.
Who voted for him? Who can say that they “understand” him? Are they too not also zombies by virtue of his succession to the throne of city council? Faceless, nameless, godless, conscience-less hordes hefted Mr. Ford to office, and we stand here still – a year later – asking ourselves just what the hell happened, watching the circus of political buffoonery before our eyes.
Lest this become a solely personal treatise, isn’t this the same for everyone? Aren’t we witnessing “zombie activity” in other guises: large groups of seemingly nameless, faceless, godless, conscience-less hordes blindly enabling things we fundamentally disagree with but are powerless to dispell? For me it’s the rise of Rob Ford, for others it could be the Occupy movement. For others still, it could be the revolution in Tahrir Square. The massive, faceless but powerful other. The faceless, godless, conscience-less hordes…with agency.
Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. The dread of zombies.
No, it is not going away. Make popcorn.
It was with considerable surprise when, browsing the shelves of our favourite used bookstore, Balfour Books, I was handed a book by my wife. “Did you see this?” It was purporting to be about a massive psychoanalytic commune which had its roots in downtown Toronto during the 60s and 70s. I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before – the group was called Therafields. I was immediately struck by the communal angle, the era, the emphasis on psychological investigation – it was like being handed a screenplay by David Cronenberg. The fact that I am studying psychotherapy and its theoretical/historic development made it irresistible.
Subtitled The Rise And Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalysis Commune, Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields is just that. From the mid-60s till the early-80s, what was eventually coined Therafields, became one of the largest active communes in North America (significant considering both the era and that it happened with virtually no physical or cultural traces left in this city), owning as many as 35 houses within, and 400 acres of farmland just outside Toronto. At its apex it had over 900 members.
Starting out with a modest practice in the Annex, Welsh émigré Lea Hindley-Smith began by seeing people in her home. Her open embrace of students combined with an uncanny ability to get to the bottom of her clients’ problems (not to mention her real estate acumen) conspired along with the socially progressive ideals of the 60s to develop a remarkable experiment in psychotherapy: a live/work environment which operated also as an ongoing group-process for its members, all under the auspices of Hindley-Smith who became their professor, CEO, and den mother. More houses were bought so that more living spaces could be added to accommodate new members, and new groups were developed. The story of Therafields is an account of how this creative hive eventually became an unmanageable empire. It is also an invaluable reflection of the changes happening at the time, guest-starring those stranded by the revoked promises of Vatican II, the back-to-the-farm movement, and the idea that psychotherapy could be about society rather than the individual.
I am a child of the 70s. Nothing could possibly be less meaningful than that statement. However, culturally speaking, I was surrounded by the 70s. The mid-70s to mid-80s were a formative time in Canadian television. In other words, we saw a lot of ourselves. And what we saw was produced and inflected by those who came of age in the 60s and early 70s (that’s the way it always worked until recently, by the way – the older generation helped the younger generation identify with their own generation). In other words, I can imagine Therafields, while reading about it. Goodbrand has done a good job of contextualizing the era in which his book takes place. It also helps that Goodbrand was a key member of Therafields himself, and as such is gifted with a familiarity which an outside author would struggle to develop. The flip-side to that statement is that an outside author might have had a better chance of keeping the rhythm of the book’s story consistent: there is a habit of temporal back-and-forth which does not make for smooth comprehension at times.
Considering Goodbrand’s credentials, Therafields unfortunately suffers from a detached perspective. He is as qualified as anyone to write about Lea Hindley-Smith and those who were key to the group’s skyward development – like esteemed poet bpNicol, for example – yet it seems only an accumulation of actions, the plotline of a biography, which gives us clues to the hearts beating behind the cast of characters. Goodbrand’s book sometimes reads like an account rather than an experience.
And here we come to a marketing dilemma: I’m not sure who the intended audience is. I am thankfully, luckily, well-suited to read, understand, and enjoy Therafields. Yet… With its insistence on differentiating what Hindley-Smith practiced (Kleinian) from classical psychoanalysis, without necessarily providing a debriefer for the reader on what makes Kleinian psychoanalysis different from it, I cannot imagine the “average reader” walking away knowing what that all should mean. Perhaps that won’t matter if they are keen on digging into a prime slice of Toronto history – complete with addresses, one could conceivably operate a motor-tour of where Therafields took place.
It is, nonetheless, an insightful read and an invaluable chronicle of a peculiar social/cultural phenomenon. Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand (ISBN: 978-1-55022-976-9), is available (evidently) from a used bookstore near you, and also online.