D.A.D.D. is S.T.U.P.I.D.D. (Stereotypical Thinking Underscoring a Patriarchal Ideology of Domination & Desperation)

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

(Once again, with all apologies for the overly hetero-normative tone of the piece).

Shopping for Father’s Day gifts can be hard.

A lot of dads will say they don’t want or need anything. Or if they do want something, it’s probably very specific to their particular tastes.

That’s at least in part why the buy-dad-an-unwanted-tie jokes have gone on year after year.

And speaking of jokes, one of the most enduring Father’s Day gifts is the joke T-shirt—or, rather, the T-shirt with the dad-related joke on it. You know the ones—touting dad’s love for beer, or naps, or fishing, or farting.

And those are all perfectly fine, I suppose.

But one gift you don’t want to get your father this year, or any time, is the “D.A.D.D.: Dads Against Daughter’s Dating” T-shirt. The T-shirt exists in many forms, and is available from Internet T-shirt sites and Etsy shops, all the way to the Father’s Day gift displays of department stores.

Many of said T-shirts simply have the main phrase, like this one:

For bland dads who want to make a sexist statement.

For bland dads who want to make a sexist statement.

But the full joke involves a follow up line of “Shoot the first one and the word will spread” or a similarly-worded joke about shooting any boy who asks a girl out, like this shirt, here:

For dads who feel the need to aggressively advertise their insecurities.

For dads who feel the need to aggressively advertise their insecurities.

I’ve written before about the whole cultural insistence on threatening boys with violence because of their interest in girls, even when that interest is totally age-appropriate. I don’t understand what such threats are supposed to accomplish, or why such jokes are supposed to be funny.

Most of the responses to questions about the alleged humor of such jokes involve adult men saying that they know what they were like themselves when they were teenagers, and so they know they need to set young men straight/keep them in line.

But I’m not sure if they are thinking clearly about what they are saying.

Are they saying that they needed an adult male to threaten violence against them (or their teenage selves) in order to keep them from raping a girl who agreed to go out on a date with them?

Or perhaps it’s that, as teenagers, they went on dates that ultimately led to kissing, or groping, or any of a number of acts all the way up to and including full-blown intercourse, because their dates were agreeable to engaging in such acts with them—and somehow they think that the best way to prevent their own daughters from being like the girls that they dated is to threaten any teenager who dates their daughters.

But that explanation spawns a whole host of other questions. Did those men, as teenagers and into adult life, really hate the girls they dated in high school so much that they live in fear of their own daughters behaving like those girls? And, if those men did, as teenagers, go out with any of ‘those girls’ (the kind who would engage in at least some form of sexual activity), did threats of violence really shut the men (then boys) down or get them to abstain from sex when it was being offered consensually?

Of course, there is the rather unpleasant possibility that those men are announcing that, as teenagers, they really did engage in sexual assault, and they believe that it was the responsibility of adult males—or more specifically, the fathers of their dates—to stop them from such behavior.

I’m guessing that if someone needs to be a tough-guy dad, threatening one’s daughter’s dates (who happen to be someone else’s children) with physical violence, all because of how one remembers one’s own teenage years, there are a lot of unresolved issues there. And perhaps those issues are manifesting themselves in a need to try and control one’s own daughters—and more specifically one’s own daughters’ sexual behavior, or their potential for sexual behavior. It’s essentially staking a claim to, and asserting a property right over, a teenage girl’s body.

At base, it is an assertion that girls and women are the property of men—first their fathers, and then their husbands. One implication of the anti-dating sentiment is that girls and women should skip dating altogether, and swear off interactions with boys and men, especially sex, until they are married. Essentially, it’s suggesting that there should be a title transfer of the female body/person from dad to husband.

In addition, it is an assertion that all teenage boys are in the throes of raging hormones to the point where they cannot control themselves—or at least not without the threat of violence and death to keep them in check. This, of course, is the kind of “boys will be boys” garbage that both encourages and excuses insufferably sexist behavior, up to and including sexual assault.  It is the idea that the behavior of boys and men necessarily involves violence of all sorts.

It is also a kind of challenge to teenage boys—prove you’re a man by persuading a girl to go to bed with you, while dodging the violent father who wants to put a stop to it. In other words, it’s macho crap that perpetuates notions of who is responsible for their behavior, who is not, and how people need to be controlled. It posits the idea that boys are supposed to want sex, and take it when they can, but that girls are not, and are supposed to resist it until it is forced upon them. It promotes the idea of relationships as conquest—at least for males.

If you deny the inherent sexism, stupidity, and outright creepiness of the joke, then why aren’t there T-shirts promoting the idea that boys shouldn’t be allowed to date?

Where are the D.A.S.D. (Dad’s Against Son’s Dating) shirts? Or perhaps the M.A.S.D. (Mother’s Against Sons Dating) shirts? Or even the M.A.D.D. (Mother’s Against Daughters Dating) shirts? Although that last acronym is taken (which could spawn a whole other piece of commentary about why anybody is deliberately “spoofing” Mother’s Against Drunk Driving).

Why not shirts with “M.A.  I.S.  G.O.D.: Mother’s Against Innocent Sons Going Out on Dates”?

Maybe it’s just that the M.A.S.D. and D.A.S.D. shirts don’t have a very catchy acronym—although I suppose you could make them into D.A.D.S. and M.A.D.S shirts—except that the phrasing gets problematic. I mean, we don’t really want Dads or Moms to be “for” dating sons—especially if the implication of the D.A.D.S. and M.A.D.S. shirts would be that parents are standing up against dating their own daughters and sons. Oh–but wait—there is that whole creepy Daddy-Daughter Date Night thing out there, isn’t there?

I guess when parents get overly obsessed with controlling the sexual behavior of their teenage offspring, things just automatically get creepy.

Overall, rather than getting into these stupid threats of violence, and assertions of rights over the bodies of others, why not, instead, teach all of our kids how to be empathetic, and respectful to themselves and others, when it comes to matters of physicality and sexuality? Why not teach them, both boys and girls, how to avoid succumbing to feelings of peer pressure, or partner pressure, to engage in sex when they are not ready? Why not teach them basic, factual sex education, starting from an early age, so that they will not view sex as some weird mystery, some taboo subject, something that cannot be approached because of the threat of violence, or of damnation, for such approach?

You can teach children and teens the real risks of sexual activity—whether those risks are physical or emotional–without making the main threat one of pointless aggression. And you can teach them how to reduce (not completely eliminate) the potential for unwanted physical or emotional consequences, without having to promote the idea that those people dating daughters should live under threat of violence for wanting to date, or even for having sexual feelings.

Or, perhaps we can keep making obnoxious jokes and T-shirts promoting the idea that daughters’ “purity” needs to be owned and protected by fathers, to the point where threats of violence and murder against other people’s children seem totally appropriate.

In line with those stereotypes and attitudes, how about some of the following, somewhat tortured, acronyms as T-shirts:

D.I.P.C.H.I.T.  Dad’s Instigating Pissing Contests w/ Horny Impulsive Teenagers

W.T.F.  D.A.D.? Why The Fascination w/ Denying Autonomy for Daughters?

D.O.D.G.E. Dad’s Obsessed w/ Daughter’s Genitals—Eww!

I.  A.M.  O.C.T.O.P.U.S. Insecure Adult Males Obsessed w/ Controlling Their Offspring’s Puberty Und Sexuality

I’m sure you all can come up with some acronyms that might work with the idea above.

Or maybe we can just shorten that original acronym to what it really means, and think about better ways to deal with it:

D.A.D.  Dad’s Afraid of Daughters

Happy Father’s Day!

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Self-Infantilization or Supportive Compromise? On the Controversy over Safe Spaces

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

In her March 21 piece for the New York Times, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” Judith Shulevitz mocks, among other people and things, Brown University student Katherine Byron for setting up a “safe space” for students who might be “triggered” during a debate between Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy that was likely to include a discussion of rape culture.

Shulevitz reported that the safe space “room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Nothing is said about why such items and personnel might have been present, or what the theory behind such a ‘safe room’ might be, other than Shulevitz’s own assumptions about how college students of today are over-parented and overly-sensitive.

Shulevitz goes on to say that, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” Shulevitz does not provide anything other than anecdotal evidence about the alleged increasing prevalence of such a conviction.

On top of that, one major thing that gets lost in Shulevitz’s piece is that the debate between Valenti and McElroy went on. The ideas were not silenced. No speaker was banned.

Instead, Byron, and those who assisted her, offered a place where audience members could go if they became uncomfortable, not necessarily with the ideas being expressed, but with the content of the discussion, which presumably included descriptions of how rape is depicted in popular culture, as well as how rape and rape victims are treated in the news media, by law enforcement, and in other areas of their lives.  The safe room was established by the Sexual Assault Task Force, first and foremost, to afford a safe space for trauma victims–not a refuge from ideas.

All the comfort of the joys of childhood...

All the comfort of the joys of childhood…

Perhaps Shulevitz’ mocking of the “safe spaces” is particularly disappointing because she has written other pieces on trauma and its impacts, most notably, a November piece in The New Republic, called “The Science of Suffering” which explored research into how PTSD can potentially be transmitted from generation to generation.  In it, Shulevitz includes this succinct and powerful description of PTSD:

Provoke a person with PTSD, and her heart pounds faster, her startle reflex is exaggerated, she sweats, her mind races. The amygdala, which detects threats and releases the emotions associated with memories, whirs in overdrive. Meanwhile, hormones and neurotransmitters don’t always flow as they should, leaving the immune system underregulated. The result can be the kind of over-inflammation associated with chronic disease, including arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, agitated nervous systems release adrenaline and catecholamines, both involved in the fight or flight response, unleashing a cascade of events that reinforces the effects of traumatic memories on the brain.

Shulevitz’s New Republic article describes research into, among others, Cambodian refugees who suffered through brutal conditions of war. And maybe this is where Shulevitz’ disconnect arises: her inability to see how a sexual assault in the modern-day USA could lead to similar forms of psychological and physical response as living through a years-long period of war somewhere else in the world.

But PTSD just as powerful as that experienced by those who have been through war can arise out of a sexual assault or rape. PTSD is not measured and assigned on some scale where those who experienced the longest, and arguably worst, trauma have the ‘most’ or most severe PTSD.

Complaining of the “self-infantilization” (a term Shulevitz credits to Judith Shapiro) demonstrated by things like the Brown University safe room, Shulevitz also neglects to explore other potential psychological issues stemming from sexual assault, particularly for those who were assaulted repeatedly at a young age. To be clear, I am not assigning a specific causal relationship here (i.e., if this happens, then that is the result, and/or, because a person exhibits this behavior, this particular thing has happened to them) but issues such as Borderline Personality Disorder are often tied to a history of having been sexually traumatized.

Strangely enough, complications associated with Borderline Personality Disorder can include shortcomings in one’s ability to develop into an emotionally mature adult.  Along with the repeated hospitalizations, there are frequently tendencies toward anxiety and overreaction to stimuli, impulsivity, fear of abandonment, hostility and perceptions that one is being personally attacked, and difficulties in forming long-term, stable relationships—issues which might, along with PTSD symptoms, be addressed (at least in the immediate sense of a perceived threat) by the “safe room” tactics that Byron deployed.

Rather than exploring the potentially positive effects of the safe room, though, Shulevitz instead uses it, and other alleged examples of “hypersensitivity” at universities, as evidence that today’s college students aren’t tough enough to handle the real world, and that today’s parents are coddling their children too much. But ongoing PTSD, personality disorders, and other psychological manifestations of trauma are not the result of overly-attentive parenting—and are more likely to be exacerbated by the opposite—a lack of attentiveness and support by those who should be providing it.

Still, Shulevitz pats herself and her peer group on the back for being much “hardier souls” than today’s college students–which includes an explanation that, in her day, college students only censored speakers for the right reasons. She writes, “I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable.” Shulevitz isn’t particularly clear on how “politically unacceptable” is markedly different from ‘ideas that make some people uncomfortable.’

Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate that Byron and her Sexual Assault Task Force didn’t actually stop anybody from speaking at Brown, but set up a space, off to the side, out of concern for those who might be interested in hearing the debate, but weren’t too confident that they would respond well to it. If anything, it represents a form of compromise much more than a form of censorship.

So maybe the safe room isn’t the perfect answer. Maybe it seems funny and easy to mock as a form of “self-infantilization,” particularly to those who aren’t all that interested in finding out what it’s supposed to mean or accomplish—those people who, as Shulevitz puts it, haven’t learned “the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”

Then again, maybe today’s college students aren’t really that different from past generations of college students—and are just exploring different ways of addressing concerns that didn’t exist in the past—or, rather, were ignored in the past.

Because heaven knows, none of us from older generations ever did anything questionable while we were in college, or came up with ideas that older generations might mock, as we tried, in an atmosphere of rapidly evolving technology, culture, and scientific understanding, to navigate a complicated passage into adulthood.

Clarity of Vision

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I need to get glasses. I’ve been saying for at least two years now that I need to get glasses. I’m not having terrible vision problems or anything. But every once in a while—like when trying to read the instructions on a medication label, or the code on a sim card to activate an iPhone—I’m reminded that I just plain can’t see teeny tiny print.

Offhand, I can think of plenty of reasons for the tremendous resistance I’m experiencing, or creating/enforcing.

For one, the last day of third grade, when I was able to cast off my glasses ‘forever’ was one of the greatest days of my life. Of course, in true ‘me’ fashion, I waited until school was out to retire those glasses. I didn’t want to go through the last school day of the year answering questions about where my glasses were, and (oh, the horror) hearing congratulations if I were I to say I no longer had to wear them. The attention was not something I wanted.

Now you see them, now you don't...the incredible disappearing glasses.

Now you see them, now you don’t…the incredible disappearing glasses.

Another element in all of this is just the general difficulty of eye exams. Back in my early elementary school, glasses-wearing days I had an eye doctor—an optometrist—who was keenly aware of the foibles of my vision—or more accurately of my left eye.

My left eye has the peculiar property of shifting out of focus more and more the longer I rely exclusively on it. It’s sort of like, over the course of about a minute, the world shifts from a slightly out of focus photo, to a Seurat painting, to the obscured logos of non-sponsors on the clothing of reality show participants. My optometrist referred to this as a “lazy eye”—not in the traditional sense that the left eye was moving or tracking more slowly than the right eye, but in the sense that my left eye was perfectly willing to let my right eye do all the work, the left eye apparently feeling that playing its part in allowing me to see in three dimensions was work enough.

For a time, I had to intermittently (read: as little as I could get away with) wear a patch over my right eye—and not a cool, Snake Plissken kind of patch–bug a beige piece of plastic that clipped onto the top of my glasses frame, over the right lens—the lens which had no purpose whatsoever, aside from maybe keeping my glasses from tilting too much to the left. (It just now occurs to me that perhaps that thicker left lens carries some of the blame for the uneven positioning of my ears, which always confounds anyone trying to even out my hair in the final stages of a haircut.)

The patch was the kind of odd instrument that caused some of that previously mentioned, unwanted attention, as classmates asked what it was, and why I had it—almost inevitably leading them to stare at my left eye to see if they could tell if something was wrong with it, or to them asking if I could take off my glasses and look from side to side so they could see just how bad this lazy eye was—leading to the necessary, “Not that kind of lazy eye” explanation.

Beyond the attention, the patch just caused me aggravation, as anything I tried to look at would shift out of focus in short order, even through the “corrective” lens.

Ultimately, I’m not fully sure why I was allowed to abandon the glasses. I think it had to do with my hating them so much, along with indications that the ‘corrective lens’ was doing nothing to improve my left eye. Nor was the vision in my left eye deteriorating at all. Since the defect in my vision didn’t bother me or cause any particular problems, I was set free from the need to wear a delicate contraption of metal and glass, of which my care was substandard.

And despite my sister and me having many a laugh over the nose hair of our optometrist—which, in a darkened room, as he tilted his head back to look into our eyes, would be illuminated by the various contraptions he was using—I trusted him like no other person who has ever checked my eyes. Perhaps those were just warm feelings aimed at someone who had the final say in whether I continued wearing glasses—and who chose the way I was praying he would.

Then again, there could be more than a bit of fear stemming from various encounters with other people who checked my eyes. One encounter in particular, with a school nurse, caused much consternation in our household.

First grade year, or maybe second, when we were getting our various health checks, a school nurse came around to each classroom, tacked a vision chart to a wall in one corner of the room, and we all got called up, alphabetically by last name, always keeping the line about three or four deep, to have our eyes checked.

Mind you, by this time in my young life, I had already been wearing glasses for some time, and went in for regular check-ups with our trusted family optometrist. (I never have asked my mom how she kept up with the optometry bills for herself and six kids, all wearing glasses.) So, from the get-go, I didn’t really see why it was necessary for me to get another eye exam, when I’d had one before the start of the school year.

Still, I went up and dutifully got in line. But there was something off about this eye test.

My own optometrist had eye charts with multiple letters. RSTLNE—my sister and I joked about how we had memorized this, the smallest-print line on one of the charts. But the chart the school nurse had brought along was populated with various iterations of only one letter: capital E.

Some of the E’s were positioned as they normally would be. Others were backwards, or lying on their backs, or face down. And rather than the school nurse just having us read off the letters on the chart, (E…backwards E…E…upside-down E) she instead had a stick with a small hoop on the end. The idea in this particular eye exam was that the examiner would position the hoop, encircling one of the E’s, and then the examinee was supposed to point in the same direction that the prongs of the E were pointing.

By the time it was my turn, I had picked up on the fact that we were supposed to be pointing (although that concept was, to me, rather weird for an eye test), but hadn’t quite picked up on the particulars of the pointing.

So when I got to the front of the line, and confirmed that I was in fact, the person connected to the next name on the clipboard, the school nurse asked only if I knew how to do the test. “Yes,” I’m sure I responded. After all, I knew how to do an eye test for Pete’s sake—maybe not this one; but I’d been through much more involved eye tests. And for this one I didn’t even have to know how to recognize multiple letters, just point.

I like to think that I had some particular system in mind when I went through the test—like ‘point in the direction the E is standing’—if it is right-side up, point up—that’s where the top is; down on it’s face, point to the right—that’s where the top is; on its back, point to the left—that’s where the top is; upside down, point down—that’s where the top is.

Then again, maybe I was just thinking, ‘just point in different directions each time she moves the damn hoop, and I’ll be done with this soon enough—after all, I’m already wearing glasses and see a real eye doctor multiple times a year.’

Clearly, by the alarm I caused the school nurse, I wasn’t doing the test right. Again, she asked if I knew how to do the test. Again, I said I did, although I was a little less than certain at this time, and pretty sure I was about to get in trouble.

I don’t recall the school nurse ever actually explaining the test to me—i.e., if the three bars of the E are pointing to the left, point to the left. Perhaps she felt that my vision was so impaired that she had no way of conveying such information to me. Or maybe, by the time she actually did explain it to me, her fear that one of the students in her school had gone blind on her watch was so palpable that I was entirely too caught up in her terror to pay attention to what she was saying.

Now, I don’t specialize in child psychology—and it’s a fair bet that the school nurse didn’t either—but I’d think that if you had to deal with young kids on a daily basis, you’d figure out that when a kid says he knows how to do something, but is really doing a bad job of it, then maybe that kid really doesn’t know how to do whatever that thing is.

When you’re faced with a few possibilities—one being that a kid doesn’t really understand how the eye test works, and the other possibility being that the kid is legally, if not totally, blind, I would think the obvious choice would reveal itself. I mean, I was able to get through my school work each day, and I ran around in gym class and on recess without my glasses on, and nothing terrible had ever happened that might indicate rapidly deteriorating vision.

But, all other evidence to the contrary, the school nurse assumed the worst. And my mom got a phone call. And I may just have had to go to an ‘emergency’ appointment with my optometrist.

So, yeah…I was going to call for an eye appointment today. But maybe I’ll do that tomorrow…or maybe next week.

 

The Great MLK Day Snack Experiment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

My wife, M–, or Ms. M– to her students, is a Montessori-certified preschool teacher, and darn good at it. Each year in the lead-up to MLK Day, she teaches a (age appropriate) unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. that is largely built around discussions of treating people fairly, and all that good, old Golden Rule stuff. I absolutely love this exercise and the stories that come out of it.

The lessons typically start off with a “circle” (full-class lesson time) involving the ‘snack experiment.’ In this exercise, the class is divided in half, or roughly in half. Usually, the division runs along gender lines, as that’s the easiest split to make, and one that the children will easily grasp. It also speaks to other forms of false divisions in our society, but I don’t think they get into all of that.

Anyway, depending on the age and temperaments of the children, there may or may not be an advanced warning that circle time involves an exercise in fairness and feelings. Each year, M– switches whether the boys or the girls get the snack at the outset of the experiment. For 2015, the girls got the snack first.

The group with the snack is encouraged to go ahead and eat the snack, while nothing is said to the group without the snack about whether or not they’re getting anything.

Inevitably, the group without a snack starts into fidgeting, and then a bit of grumbling, about why they aren’t getting the snack. Or they start asking if they’re going to get a snack at all.

Most often, there is also some hesitation on the part of those who have received something to eat, or at least from some of them, about whether or not they should be eating before everybody has been provided with a treat.

MLK blue

M— sits silent for a while, then starts the discussion. She asks, essentially, how everyone is feeling right at that moment.

The hands start to go up—usually from the slighted group. This year, the big word among the boys was “disappointed,” since the first respondent used that word, and it apparently sounded pretty good.

“I feel disappointed.”

“I feel mad…and disappointed.”

“I’m angry…and disappointed.”

“I’m disappointed…and sad…and mad.”

The side that got the snack sometimes has to be encouraged to give some input, which usually starts with some hesitant, and sheepish remarks.

“I feel good.”

“I liked the snack.”

It can take a little goading to get some other responses. But this year, the big breakthrough came from one of the older girls who raised her hand and said, “I don’t like it. I’m not happy. Because ( ) is my friend, and { } is my friend. And if they’re not happy, I’m not happy.”

Before long, other girls were joining in, offering up their thoughts on why it’s better when everybody gets a snack, and how it’s more fun when everybody gets to join in, why it’s hard to be happy when others are deliberately deprived of that same happiness.

When those empathetic thoughts start to come out, there is the beginning of a transformation throughout the class. Even without a treat, the snackless start to feel happier, realizing that others care about them, and are sticking up for them.

Of course, balance is inevitably restored. The snackless become…the snacked? Okay, let’s just go with ‘the hungry are fed.’

The discussion continues on, the children offering up sentiments that are occasionally amusing, occasionally profound, and sometimes both.

And, this year, the discussion was closed out when the youngest boy among them, after being prompted several times to raise his hand if he wanted to share his thoughts, finally did so. Then, talking through full cheeks, said, “I want more crackers.”

Happy MLK Day!

Sylvia Frumkin’s Place

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I’d venture a guess that many who enter the mental health field, as with any potentially dramatic profession all the way from police to executives, do so with visions informed by Hollywood. One of the main Hollywood portrayals of the mental health worker is is that of the therapist/psychiatrist as a well-compensated genius, ensconced in a plush office, treating the worried well or other “eccentric” or “neurotic” types, while constantly being admired by clients for one’s observational skill and ability to call forth ‘breakthrough’ moments. The other end of the spectrum is the heroic social worker who, through sheer tenacity, overcomes all the problems an impoverished neighborhood can throw at her, overcoming multi-generational patterns, and very recent traumas, to really, really make a difference in the lives of an entire community.

Many in the field are drawn to books by Yalom, or Rogers, or perhaps even some acolytes of Oprah, who tell us that just by listening and accepting our clients, or by throwing the right bit of tough-love advice a client’s way, true transformation will take place, and clients will make huge leaps forward, forever changing their lives for the better.

Susan Sheehan’s “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” is perhaps the perfect antidote to the pie-in-the-sky visions of one’s brilliance and dedication making all the clinical difference in the world. It balances out the ideas about the wondrous gift of therapy with the reality of chronic and severe mental illness, and its resistance to ‘ah-ha moments’ and dramatic progress. It pushes past that “we don’t need no medications” mantra, which can, in fairness, apply to a lot of mental health issues.

“Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” was first published as a four part series in The New Yorker in 1981, then published as a book in 1982. For it, Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1983. A new edition of the book was released roughly a year ago, including a new afterword by Sheehan. On reading about the re-issue in the online version of the New York Times in January of 2014, and having never read it before, I put it on my ‘to read’ list, and eventually checked out an old edition from the library.

Frumkin cover

The book, written from the perspective of a journalist, and not of a therapist trying to convince the readers of the efficacy of particular approaches to treatment, is involved in ways that few case studies can be. Sheehan spent over two years with Sylvia Frumkin (not her real name), a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sheehan had a great deal of access not only to the information on Frumkin’s treatment and behavior during the period when Sheehan shadowed Frumkin, but also to family members and others, getting a great deal of background on Frumkin’s life prior to her diagnosis, and the progress and setbacks that took place before Sheehan had ever met her.

Having had numerous contacts with clients diagnosed with schizophrenia, or suffering from other forms of psychosis, most often from a distance, it took me a while to get through the book. That is, the kinds of delusions, rants, and flights from treatment that plague Frumkin and those trying to help her, and which Sheehan documents in detail, were familiar to me—of course, with Frumkin’s behaviors being particular to her own case. Still, it was like trying to read about many of the most frustrating aspects of work during one’s down time.

For the uninitiated, I imagine the book is much more compelling, rather than overly familiar, and thus, somewhat draining. In discussing “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” with colleagues, I’ve most often likened it to Kafka’s “The Trial”—a book that is deliberately tedious in its depiction of a bureaucracy more intent on sustaining itself than serving any clear purpose—although, that comparison probably has much more to do with what I bring to the reading of Sheehan’s book than to what she has documented in such depth of detail. Also, I don’t think the mental health system—either now or at the time—is deliberately set up to be frustrating…it just frequently is, particularly for those most in need of help.

In addition to capturing the daily details of the behavior of a (this) client with schizophrenia, Sheehan also does a masterful job of explaining, simply and concisely, some fairly complicated legal, medical, and treatment-related concepts. For instance, Sheehan outlines the concept of “least restrictive” forms of treatment, both the bane and the beauty of our mental health system, which has been around since well before the current lack of options made it so completely mandatory.  In doing so, she answers that most familiar of questions about why we can’t “just lock up” people suffering from chronic forms of mental illness who can become rather taxing to a variety of public and private resources.

The most fascinating elements of Frumkin’s story to me, though, were the ‘side treatments’—pointless, and sometimes dangerous, programs that Sylvia was subjected to. Without going into a great deal of detail, the treatments ranged from moving in with a relative and his family who believed that all Frumkin needed was a good dose of Jesus and discipline to overcome her laziness and wicked ways, to a doctor who felt that manipulating the insulin levels of patients to extreme degrees could cure them of schizophrenia.

Ultimately, what works for Frumkin (or worked back around 1980) is what still works for clients today: a small number of medications that prove effective in treating schizophrenia, as well as (to greatly simplify things) a structured environment and supportive professionals. Unfortunately, said medications can lose their effectiveness over time, or the side effects can become increasingly detrimental to the clients. It is also quite common for clients to simply quit taking their medications, feeling them unnecessary or viewing them as the root cause of various forms of discomfort or other troubles in their lives. In addition, the structured environments can only be maintained for as long as clients are compliant with treatment, and as long as the treatment remains effective, and as long as funding and various programs allow. On top of that, anything from the restructuring of institutions, to changes in law and other policy, to the career changes of providers, to differences of opinion between providers and family members, can lead to new doctors and other providers making changes, sometimes rather arbitrarily, to a client’s medication regimen or support systems. In Frumkin’s case, alterations to her treatment and medications were made numerous times, in the most haphazard of fashions, often by doctors and other providers who seemed ignorant of her case history, or of how the medications work.

One might also note that this book was written back before the U.S., under President Ronald Reagan, decided that people with chronic mental illness enjoy the freedom that homelessness brings. So, Frumkin’s movements within the system are relatively easy in terms of her various forays into decompensation leading to fairly quick, and relatively long-term inpatient placements, with step-downs to semi-independent housing, and other supports that are much rarer today (and for most of the last three decades).

Ideally, Sheehan’s book would be taught in graduate schools, or maybe at earlier levels, by instructors who are familiar with the clinical aspects of schizophrenia; the current and historical treatments for it; and the current and historical state of affairs with regard to mental health facilities, available inpatient beds for clients with mental health issues, and legal and systemic complications to accessing those beds or other program options.

To be clear, it is necessary, as therapists, or in other capacities in the mental health field, to come equipped with a belief that we can make a difference. Without a bit of the dreamer in us, we would never head down this path to begin with.

But it is also necessary for providers at all levels to understand just what they are up against, particularly given that almost all providers in the mental health field will end up doing at least a round or two in the public mental health system–from practicums/internships to early jobs to entire careers–where the most challenging of clients often end up by default—frequently after being abandoned by families and other support systems, including insurance companies.

Frumkin’s family, as dysfunctional as they are, and as frequently detrimental to her treatment as they can be, at least hang in there to the extent that they can—which I imagine was at least somewhat less difficult when hospital beds and supported living options weren’t at such a premium as they are today. In the end, though, this isn’t a story of a family hanging together and triumphing over a terrible disease. It’s the story of a debilitating mental illness, and the toll it takes on the client, as well as those around her, and the wildly inconsistent efforts by a variety of people and systems to help her cope.

Welcome to Sylvia’s Place.

Honey Boo Boo Needs Some Real TLC, Not Abandonment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC, de-commissioned ASOTP

Not quite a month ago, The Learning Channel (TLC) announced plans to drop production of its ‘reality’ show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, as well as shelving an entire season that has been completed, but not aired. The reason? “Mama June” Shannon was photographed out and about with her former beau, convicted sex offender Mark McDaniel. Even worse, a few days after the original story broke, a photo surfaced showing June, Mark, and Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson together.

McDaniel was convicted of “aggravated child molestation” for sexual contact with Anna Marie Cardwell, who is June’s daughter, and Alana’s half-sister. McDaniel served a ten-year sentence for the molestation, having been released from prison in March.

Now, I’m not a big fan of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.   I’ve seen occasional clips on other shows, and watched most of one episode when I came across it while flipping channels. But in that episode, I saw that the family was accepting of Alana’s uncle, who is gay, without making a big deal about it. And, despite my unease at the general weirdness of the child pageant circuit, the family members seemed to enjoy each other’s company. And then the show concluded with Honey Boo Boo climbing up on a chair and sticking her butt in the air to fart loudly, which, strangely enough, served as the lead-in to a very somber, ‘feed the children’ infomercial.

At any rate, speaking of the weirdness of the child pageant circuit, having seen a few episodes of Toddlers in Tiaras, the TLC show that spawned Honey Boo Boo’s spinoff, I am disturbed by what can only be described as the sexualization of little girls on that show. The contestants are small children who are essentially treated identically to adult beauty pageant contestants—made to wear too much makeup, with piled-up hairdos, wearing a variety of—I guess you’d call them revealing, although that sounds weird when talking about children—dresses and bathing suits, while performing routines involving dance moves that I pray the girls don’t understand the origins/meaning of.

I’ve had offender clients specifically mention Toddlers in Tiaras as a kind of ‘gateway’ form of visual stimulation leading to seeking out even more exploitative material. And, while such ‘gateway’ comments are often spoken with the intent to limit the personal responsibility of those clients—the whole ‘society is sexualizing young girls, what am I to do?’ complaint—it is somewhat difficult to view the show without thinking, ‘Wow—pedophiles must really enjoy this.’

So, while I could start shaming Mama June for putting her daughter in the beauty pageant circuit, or for taking up with a man who molested one of her daughters; instead it seems a better course in all of this would be for TLC to invest some more effort and money in the show, and maybe take it in some completely different directions—maybe even directions that would involve some actual learning.

Broken portrait of an exploited family unit--Anna Marie, Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and Mark McDaniel.

Broken portrait of an exploited family unit–Anna Marie, Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and Mark McDaniel.

That is to say, it’s very odd to have a show built on the highjinks of a family that is portrayed as a bunch of unsophisticated rubes chasing a weird dream, and then to turn around and cancel the show when the matriarch of the family does something that shows she really doesn’t understand what’s at stake in a particular situation. According to Anna Marie’s own statements to the media, June minimized McDaniel’s behavior, telling Anna Marie that McDaniel wasn’t all that dangerous because Anna Marie was McDaniel’s only victim.

Such a statement is a big red flag that Mama June just might be buying a whole lot of lies from McDaniels—the kind of lies that offenders tell all too frequently. ‘It was just the one time;’ ‘I was drunk;’ ‘It was a mistake;’ ‘The victim did X first;’ ‘I paid the price/did my time;’ ‘I won’t ever do that again;’ etc, etc.

I don’t know what kind of treatment McDaniel may or may not have received in prison. But unless McDaniel has developed some understanding of his own behaviors, and unless Mama June has been educated on exactly what McDaniel did, how he did it, how he justified it to himself, what kinds of things Mama June needs to look out for in McDaniel’s behavior (preferably coming from McDaniel’s own confession); and unless she’s been given instruction in what McDaniel’s behavior means for the safety of her other children, and how to reduce risk (risk can never fully be eliminated), then it’s a little hypocritical of TLC executives to cut her off, claiming that it is in the best interest of the safety of the children involved.

And just for context, here’s the statement issued by the network at the time of the show’s cancellation: “TLC has cancelled the series HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO and ended all activities around the series, effective immediately. Supporting the health and welfare of these remarkable children is our only priority. TLC is faithfully committed to the children’s ongoing comfort and well-being.”

Great, TLC, but where’s the support? I’ve seen many mothers of victims continue on in relationship with the men who molested those women’s children. And a supportive and appropriate relationship with an adult partner can actually reduce risk for re-offense. However, that risk isn’t (generally speaking) reduced when the offender is allowed back around likely victims, particularly without the partner being fully informed as to the nature of the offender’s behavior, and how to provide adequate support for the offender and for other family members. But maybe TLC executives are just looking at this as another example of the stereotypes they’re comfortable promoting–of poor, Southern folk accepting child molestation as a routine part of life.

It is potentially extremely damaging for victims of molestation, like Anna Marie, to see their mothers return to relationship with the offender, or to, in any way, be given the impression that they are being treated as secondary to the perpetrator of sexual violence. It definitely sends some disturbing messages about who is being given priority, and where the concern of the mother lies. It is possible to mitigate that damage, but only with some very involved, professionally-guided therapy.

I don’t want to over-simplify things here, but a major reason for women to continue on in relationship with offenders is economic. I don’t have any idea if McDaniel has any real way of providing for June’s family, but since TLC just cut off the family’s current main source of income, they are increasing Mama June’s likely reliance on someone who can provide support—and at a time when the person June is in relationship with is an offender who is very much putting Honey Boo Boo—that “remarkable child”—at risk.

So, again, why not take the show in a new direction? A learning direction? I don’t mean to advocate for making an offender a reality TV star, but TLC could at least build in scenes to Honey Boo Boo’s show, or maybe a spinoff, that follow McDaniel through treatment, and through all of the difficulties he now faces as a convicted offender trying to rebuild a life outside of prison, in conjunction with Mama June’s exposure to McDaniel’s treatment process.  The audience could see scenes of June attending sessions with McDaniel—scenes of McDaniel explaining his ‘offense cycle’ to June, of McDaniel explaining his actual offense to June, of June going through a chaperone class where she learns just what limits need to be placed on McDaniel and his contact with June’s children.

And what about making sure Anna Marie’s okay? How about, instead of channeling any income to McDaniel, any money involved in a standard TLC reality-star fee, over and above the cost of his evaluation and treatment—funded by TLC—goes to Anna Marie to make sure she can get some ongoing treatment herself?  Perhaps let Anna Marie gain some economic benefit from the exploitation she’s already suffered? She’s had various media outlets contacting her to ask how she feels about the man who molested her being released from prison. How about making sure Anna Marie’s not being re-traumatized by all of this? After all, how many victims of molestation really want the molestation being made public, and then want to have to address it, with complete strangers, for the purposes of having it blasted out all over the airwaves and the Internet?

Of course, TLC doesn’t have to do anything in this case. Perhaps TLC executives were grateful that a scandal of this sort came around when Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was pulling ratings of less than half of its peak performance, just so they had a good excuse to cut their losses. Then again, TLC could really do some good in this case. TLC could truly support the “health and welfare” of their child stars. TLC could really help advance public discourse on offenders, offender treatment, and victim advocacy.

Or TLC could just leave Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and the rest of the clan dangling—dangling over a cliff where falling means families torn apart and potential acts of child sexual abuse—and move on to whatever other ‘reality’ show goofballs America wants to laugh at, until ‘reality’ creeps in and undoes them as well—leaving TLC to cut its losses, abandon its ‘stars,’ and run.

 

Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.

 

 

How About We All Stop Using “Schizophrenic” as an Insult?

by J.C. Schildbach, LMHC, ASOTP

One night about two years ago, I challenged a friend for describing his behavior as “schizophrenic.” In an admittedly snide tone, I asked a quick barrage of questions referencing various types and symptoms of schizophrenia: Are you catatonic? Paranoid? Suffering from delusions? Auditory hallucinations? Visual hallucinations? And so on…

Somewhat unexpectedly, my friend responded with an apology for his use of the term, and didn’t engage in any kind of defensive posturing or attempts to justify his word choice. He clarified that he meant he had changed his mind back and forth several times in relation to a particular situation.

I was a little surprised that I had reacted in such a way to what was supposed to be a self-deprecating comment from a friend. But there were a number of things weighing on me at the time, not the least of which was that my friend was seeking advice on a matter that was best kept between him and his partner, and maybe a good couples counselor. As with most of the times he sought advice, he had already made up his mind about what he intended to do, and was looking to have his intentions validated, or to have them challenged with an argument so compelling that he would have no choice but to turn from that position.

Aside from my irritation with the immediate situation that evening, I had been in contact earlier in the week with a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was in some pretty serious legal trouble, and did not appear to comprehend all that much about it except in the most concrete of terms. That is, he knew what law he had broken and why it was problematic. That information had been drilled into him during his time in court and a stay in jail. But his sense of what the crime meant, and how it was going to impact him, his connection to others, and the choices he was going to have to make, both short- and long-term, was murky at best. It struck me that he was so used to being marginalized that his current situation involved just one more bureaucratic system to interact with—as if this latest set of restrictions was little more than an additional cluster of tasks to occupy his time.

Working in crisis intervention, I also have fairly frequent (phone) contact with people coping with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses that involve psychotic symptoms of varying levels of severity, and which often fluctuate over time. There are few, if any, blanket statements that would accurately cover them all, or make a nice, tidy explanation of what they are dealing with. But, unlike the popular usage of the term “schizophrenic,” the way my friend had engaged it, the behavior, thoughts, and challenges of those dealing with schizophrenia are not simply a matter of being indecisive or changing their approach to an issue.

In the time since I first barked at that friend about his use of the word “schizophrenic,” I have seen it become more and more commonly used (or, perhaps, it was used a great deal before that, and I just hadn’t noticed). Currently, in addition to the way my friend used it, to describe his somewhat erratic decision-making behavior, it is used quite often in relation to politics, and often by writers and other figures I respect or at least tend to agree with. Such uses, though, are potentially offensive, and even insulting in a way that is beneath anyone attempting to make a serious point.

For example, in recent weeks it has been relatively easy to find articles, or to come across people on television news/opinion shows, complaining of politicians behaving in a “schizophrenic” fashion toward immigration policies. Generally, what the use of the term “schizophrenic” means in such a context is that the politicians are saying one thing and doing another, or that they have changed their position on an issue multiple times. It is basically used to mean that a politician or group of politicians have been inconsistent on an issue.

A quick Internet search can find all manner of uses of "schizophrenic" as a derogatory label--frequently in political discourse.

A quick Internet search can find all manner of uses of “schizophrenic” as a derogatory label–frequently in political discourse.

But the problem with using “schizophrenic” to describe contradictory political positions is that it suggests the politicians are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness that is beyond their immediate control, and which can interfere with their perceptions of reality, rather than that said politicians are making rational decisions based on what they think will get the most traction with their “base” or constituents. Politicians shifting their political positions is something that is done with the assistance of political strategists in an attempt to get a message out to voters in a way that might provoke support of a carefully crafted message, even if that message is inconsistent over time.

Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is not volitional. It is not deliberate. People who are living with schizophrenia are not choosing one day to deal with only minimal or well-managed psychotic symptoms, and the next day to pursue the exact opposite. People coping with schizophrenia do not, for example, determine that they will change the content and intensity of their auditory hallucinations based on political polling and messaging strategies. They are not thinking of the gains to be made by crafting an elaborate delusion wherein their friends and family are colluding with various government agencies to monitor and control them.

In short, saying that one’s political opponents are “schizophrenic” is just a different way of labeling one’s political opponents with the big, sloppy label of “crazy”—of indicating that their ideas do not merit any consideration because the people presenting those ideas are not grounded in reality. But, because “schizophrenic” is being used as an insult, as a way of accusing somebody of being worthy of ridicule and dismissal, by extension, it implies that people with schizophrenia are also worthy of ridicule and disrespect. Using “schizophrenic” as an insult encourages ongoing stigma towards those with mental illness. It encourages a lack of understanding of mental illness, and of how to address the needs of those struggling with it. It is dehumanizing in the way that all insults aimed at one’s “enemies” are intended to dehumanize.

And people with schizophrenia are not our enemies. They are people struggling with something that we only barely understand. They are people who, at the very least, do not deserve to be lumped in with politicians who are fine-tuning messages of anger and outrage to try and get votes.

Now, lest anyone think I’m engaging in “word policing,” let me say that I am. As much as language is a dynamic thing, there are still right and wrong ways to use words, or rather, more and less accurate ways of using them. We still make daily decisions about whether we are going to use words to clarify or to obscure, to increase understanding or to confuse. The word “schizophrenia,” unlike a number of other words used in mental health diagnoses (anxiety, narcissistic, etc.) was coined, by Eugen Bleuler around 1908, specifically to refer to the mental illness. It literally means “split mind.”

Arguably, the literal definition of schizophrenia could easily be applied to various other situations such as the one’s already described, and it would not be inaccurate. And, arguably, the mental illness or cluster of illnesses known as schizophrenia involves a broad enough range of symptoms and presentations that the diagnosis requires specifiers for clarification in individual cases. Still, rather than taking a word created to refer to a mental illness, one that will always have ties to that mental illness regardless of how one claims to be using it, and expanding the use of that word to include any behaviors one perceives as inconsistent or otherwise in opposition to one’s own beliefs about appropriate behavior, why not pursue more accurate understanding of the word, and a greater understanding of what the mental illness means, and does not mean?

It seems to me that, rather than calling politicians “schizophrenic,” it would be much more damning to say that one’s political opponents are completely inconsistent in their approach to an issue because they feel that they can achieve greater political gains by changing their position and their message, instead of sticking with real principles or working hard to find real solutions to complicated problems.

And instead of labeling our own actions, or the actions of others as “schizophrenic,” simply because they are inconsistent, appear contradictory, or we disagree with them, why not just acknowledge that most of us are not as steadfast and true as we like to imagine, and that we often don’t make decisions unless and until we have to? Why insult people with schizophrenia by suggesting our poor decision-making skills are the result of a serious mental illness, one that involves much deeper struggles than indecisiveness or occasional mild impulsivity?

How about we all stop using “schizophrenic” as an insult?

So You Want to be a Therapist…

By the end of the day Monday, it will have been 32 days since I’ve had a full day off.  And I’m not sure if Tuesday should really count, because I have to go to the dentist, which is sort of like taking a day off to be tortured for an hour or so.  (I’m pretty sure hell involves some lesser demon grinding that fluoride goo into your teeth, and deliberately getting it all over your gums while only letting you rinse your mouth out roughly every 45 seconds). Then it’s back to work on Wednesday.  By next week, things should slow down some, although I fear I may have just jinxed that.

Now, in fairness, some of those work days involved only a few sessions, plus attendant phone calls and paperwork.  But some involved 14 or 15-plus hour shifts or a ten hour shift transitioning into a three-hour assessment, or…  At any rate, all of those hours were tallied up between my full-time job and assisting in the start-up of a new practice.

Another thing to consider is that my full time job is in crisis services/crisis intervention, which is sort of an ugly stepchild (with apologies to ugly stepchildren everywhere) of that highfalutin really real therapy.  Metaphorically speaking, we in crisis services slap on the splints, and close wounds with superglue, and let other people set the fractures proper, and heal up the deeper damage.  Unlike most jobs in the mental health field, crisis services involves round-the-clock shift work—Hollywood depictions of therapists who are accessible 24-hours-a-day notwithstanding.

Of course, movies and TV shows are probably where most people get their ideas of what being a therapist is about.  And if one accepts those portrayals, therapists are all a bunch of immaculately-dressed, well paid, eccentric/brilliant and/or unpleasant/neurotic people with amazing office space who can’t keep from having affairs with their most attractive but least stable clients.

And while that is pretty much my life in a nutshell—aside from all of those parts—getting to the stage of your career as a therapist where you make a high-six-/low-seven- figure income by sitting around dispensing wisdom to the worried well is a potentially treacherous path that is not for everybody.   So it’s probably much better to just embrace the idea of filling a role more like Mariah Carey’s Social Worker character in “Precious” than the jet-setting millionaire therapist she played in “Glitter.” (Admittedly, I haven’t seen “Glitter” for a while and may be misremembering some things).

The short version of how the process works is: first, get a bachelor’s degree.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be in psychology, although that might help.  Once you’ve realized your bachelor’s degree doesn’t really count for anything, and everybody you know who skipped college is making more money than you, go back for a master’s degree.  Don’t worry, there are plenty of private schools out there now that will gladly take insane amounts of your money (or the government’s money that you get to pay back) so that you can get a master’s degree.  Be forewarned that in order to get a master’s degree that will be good toward becoming a therapist, you actually get to borrow money to pay a school so that you can go work for an agency for free for a period of roughly nine months.  The length of your unpaid employment will depend on how quickly you can rack up hours meeting with clients and your supervisor.  In most instances, getting the hours shouldn’t be that problematic, because there’s a good chance you will be saddled with a far larger caseload than you can reasonably manage, especially since you won’t really know how to manage a caseload.  Your clients are likely to remind you on a regular basis that they are very aware that you don’t know what you’re doing and that they would prefer to have a real therapist.  Don’t let this bother you—most of them would say the same thing if Alfred Adler himself came back from the dead for the sole purpose of conducting sessions with them.

Once you have your master’s degree, try not to think about how much money you owe in student loans—you can’t possibly afford the therapy that it would take to manage your anxiety and your sense of hopelessness about ever paying it back.  One good thing, though, is that you are now probably able to get a job where you are making as much or slightly more than at least half of the people you know who skipped college altogether.  Of course, given the severe drubbing the public mental health system has taken in budget cuts over the last decade or so, jobs can be a bit tricky to come by.  Assuming you get a job in the field, be happy in this job—you will be stuck here for at least two more years as you attempt to rack up enough supervised hours to qualify for your license as a counselor.  In addition to the supervised hours you need to log, you also get to pay hundreds of dollars to take a test designed to prove that you have learned enough in grad school and your various forms of employment to be let loose on the public without supervision.

Now you can open a private practice and just let the cash roll in—assuming you can find and maintain a big enough client load in a space with a reasonable rent payment.  You might also want to go through the painstaking and tedious process of getting on various insurance panels, or establish your suitability to take on government contracts, or…whatever else you need to do to stay afloat.  There is no shame in moonlighting in the food services industry, although you have to remember not to acknowledge any of your clients should you, say, end up delivering a pizza to their homes—unless they acknowledge you first.  And depending on the specifics of your various licenses and endorsements, you will pay hundreds or thousands a year to keep up those endorsements, as well as paying to attend various seminars and conferences to keep up your ongoing education credits in all of the relevant fields.

Just remember that anywhere along this process, anybody who gets mad at you for whatever reason can file a complaint causing you no end of distress and the possibility that you will lose everything you worked for.  Keep up your liability insurance payments and remember that homicidal ideation can be grounds for a mental health detention.

On the other hand, if you want to be a life coach, all you really have to do is watch a minimum of four episodes of “Scott Baio is 45…and Single,” (which, admittedly, is getting much harder to track down) and find a web site that allows you to print off a life coach certificate—I think Crayola’s site has some good ones.

Therapists’ Therapists

It’s a well known fact that a majority of people who go into the field of psychology do so because we—I mean they—are self-absorbed and trying to figure out why they are such human train-wrecks.  They self-diagnose, bolster their negative behaviors with justifications born from that self-diagnosis and then set about diagnosing everyone else and recommending therapy, all while avoiding engaging in therapy for themselves.

To help compound the failure of future mental health professionals to seek much-needed help, grad school programs for such people often fail to require that students engage in even a minimal amount of therapy.  There are roughly 12 billion reasons why this should be a requirement, and essentially only one reason why would-be-therapists reject the idea that they should get therapy: “I don’t need it.”

But therapists and would-be-therapists arguing that they don’t need therapy, is like meth-heads arguing that they don’t need dental care.   It’s the voice of fear, not confidence.  Or if it is confidence, it’s confidence born of meth—at least for most of the meth-heads, and a few of the therapists.  It’s saying ‘I’ve messed around in my stuff enough, and don’t need anybody else poking around in there, because Lord knows it could all come crumbling apart like that bust of Martha Plimpton I made out of things I picked off my scalp, after I forgot to mist it for four days running.’

And, really, if a student is going through a Master’s program to become a therapist, and doesn’t have at least one or two experiences that frighten/disturb that student into recognizing her/his need for therapy, that student is either the most together person ever, or has built up such impenetrable defenses around his/her frail psyche that she/he is probably in danger of eventually dismembering, freezing, and eating his/her clients bit by bit—either metaphorically or for reals.  (Or else the student is just in a really shitty program where he/she never actually gets challenged to explore much of anything about her/himself beyond early childhood experiences that contributed to his/her preference for natural fibers over synthetics or vice versa).

A large number of mental health professionals, and people in what are dubbed the ‘helping professions’ have a sense that they need to exude confidence, avoid negativity and doubt, and just generally have, or appear to have, their crap together across the full range of life activities.  Any admission that such is not the case can be looked on as an admission that one is not fit to help others.  The big twist, of course, is that if one can’t admit when one needs help, and stop trying to fix everything for everyone else, one really does start to lose the ability to be effective at providing help for anyone, oneself included.

As a confession of sorts, I am not currently seeing a therapist—not because I feel I wouldn’t benefit from it, but because I like to pretend I’m together enough to recognize when I need to seek help, and also because I kind of like the idea of seeing what would happen if I let everything just completely go to hell.  On top of that, I am what I would call ‘therapy-resistant.’  I approach therapy like a jealous magician watching another magician’s show—noting the ‘re-directions,’ and countering with an extra helping of defense mechanisms—‘Just try and abracadabra your way out of that underwater straitjacket, before my Buick hits your milk can, buddy.’  Okay, I don’t really own a Buick.

But, what the hell—I was trying to say something about the problem with therapists not actually getting therapy, and then presented myself as an exhibit to bolster that argument.  But don’t worry about me. I’m completely together.   And I like cotton more than rayon.