Monday, January 06, 2014

Two Snapshots: The Cold and Promise Land

Before we begin: Are the ads on this blog getting in the way?  I had to ask. Anything I shop for on Amazon automatically is advertised here! And what about this Dynamic Views Blogger format? Yes? No? Who cares? 

It's been awhile since we had any snapshots.

(1) The Cold and Saving Lives
Chicago Cross-country skiing

The wise among us, I am told, will not leave home today. That's how cold it is.Nobody's flying to Florida; the planes are grounded. Subzero temps cut a wide swath and it is dangerous, moving about out there.

I was at a birthday dinner last night for a couple of really small but well-padded toddlers, and it was all anyone could talk about, think about, worry about, surviving the deep freeze on its way.
I can't help but text my daughter (I am a Jewish mother, after all):
Please tell me you aren't driving downtown tomorrow to work.
She quips back:
No, gonna WFH.
The salt is getting annoying
This makes me happy. Then again, only a day or two ago, at three degrees below zero, her father and I trotted out our cross country skis and had an amazingly great time. We heated up within minutes.

This morning, predictably, television news people shivered outside to tell everyone else to stay inside. It will be 45 below if we factor in the windchill, and in Chicago, we do.

FD has his towel in hand, ready to swim at the community center nearby. We both try to swim several times a week, rain or shine. Swimming keeps us young and one of us is sorely in need of young.

Never one to waste energy, I suggest we call to make sure the pool is open, rumors have circulated to the contrary. Yes indeed! I bundle up to go out, because frankly, if I'm doing therapy on the phone all day (nobody's coming to the office and everyone seems to need therapy) the prospect of eating uncontrollably between patients (because I can! WFH!)  is very likely. Maybe I will bake.

I meet someone new in the locker room, always a good thing, and do something I have never done before, try out the shvitz. I stand in the center of the tiled steam bath in my bathing suit and wait, thinking no matter how hot it gets in here, I won't sweat, it is too cold outside to sweat and it isn't what I do, anyway. Then it happens, beads, oceans of salt water, and this feels better than anything else possibly could on a day like today.
the Schvitz, a wet sauna, winter self-help

Predictably, I am one of two people in the pool and the lifeguard chats idly with me as my feet dangle in the water. She likes it, she says, when it is empty and there aren't many lives to save.

(2) Promise Land

This is a self-help blog, I suppose, and people find it looking for almost anything. A topic is Googled, a link is followed, the searcher finds the answer (or not) at this smorgasbord, an all you can eat, help yourself to whatever proprietary knowledge you can swallow. Over seven years worth, it can add up.

The title is Everyone Needs Therapy, not The Self Help Diner, although that seems like a trendy name. The paragraph following the title advises readers not to consider this therapy, and certainly not to rely upon this advice, ostensibly protecting me from a lawsuit. I just learned that most real self-help writers post this type of warning in the front pages of their books, too. And to think I never even thought of this as self-help, not so much, until reading a new book. Oy vey.

For hundreds of years, we learn in Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture, the self-help industry has provided a cheap alternative to real help, going to the doctor. (The doctor is expensive and inconvenient, comparably, getting grouchier by the moment at the thought of new healthcare proposals, how these will affect her profession.)

The self-help alternative, albeit interesting, really is the subtext of Jessica Lamb Shapiro's memoir. Ms. Shapiro didn't have it easy as a kid, to put it mildly, and as an adult took stabs at different therapies, cures for her anxiety-riddled, depressive psychology. The inside jacket, an appetizer:

“In writing this book I walked on hot coals, met a man making a weight-loss robot, joined a Healing Circle, and faced my debilitating fear of flying. Of all of these things, talking to my father about my mother’s death was by far the hardest.”

Can't wait, right? It does sound good, and it is.

The author comes by an interest in the self-help biz honestly, her dad a paragon of the industry. A child psychologist, Dr. Shapiro is the guy behind psychology board games for little and big kids, the games boasting to build self-esteem, teach children to identify and express emotions. Now he's making suicide prevention apps for the United States Armed Forces. His daughter wonders if self-help apps are destined to become the wave of the future.

I will be obsolete.

What me worry, Alfred E Newman might say. There is nothing like the human touch, a subtle glance. The slow nod.

This is a wonderful book, full of wry, compassionate (you can tell) personality folded into the snark. There will be belly laughs. Her best lines make you want to interrupt anyone who will listen. "Listen to this," you might shout to a wall, then read the entire paragraph aloud. Her story is proof positive that people need therapists, not self-help books, but she doesn't bang you over the head with that, indeed never even says it, not once.

A professional reading of her story thinks: Had the Shapiros had the right kind of therapy (family therapy, naturally), they might have been spared twenty years of sadness, avoidance, and anxiety. They could have talked to one another. But family therapy isn't an East Coast thing.

The findings of the author's research are spectacular, full of references to self-made self-help gurus such as: Mark Victor Hansen (the Chicken Soup books and The One Minute Millionaire, Samuel Smiles (Self Help, 1859), Benjamin Franklin (his autobiography), Zsa Zsa Gabor, those women who insisted that to get married depends upon following The Rules (Fein and Schneider), The Secret, Phineas P. Quimby (positive thinking ala Mesmerism), Norman Vincent Peale, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Self-Reliance and Other Essays)Henry David Thoreau, and a dozen or so others.

But it is her story that makes this a page-turner. How do you lose a mother and never talk about it with the one person who knew her best? It is a respectful distance they keep, father-daughter, mutually afraid to stir up the other's sadness. This love, too great a sacrifice.

Funny, but a few months ago a fellow by the name of Leif Gregersen wrote to me asking if I might want to read his story, Through The Withering Storm: A Brief History of a Mental Illness, about growing up with bipolar disorder. As opposed to the Simon and Schuster expensive, glossy, freebee, this work had less initial appeal for me. It is what a therapist does, frankly, during working hours, listen to stories of severe mental illness. Some feel like audiobooks, stories of illness unfolding over a lifetime. Nor did his offer come with the rave reviews on the back cover.

And yet. I am about half-way through, and must thank Mr. Gregersen for sending me his book. He has a nice voice. I like him, and I think most readers like him, and his interests are interesting (collecting army uniforms, for one). And from what we read, most of his peers did not like him, did not appreciate his sense of humor as his story unfolded. That's how misunderstood mental illness can be.



Matt said...

Hi, TherapyDoc!

I'm in New Jersey, and people are going crazy! There was a run at the supermarket yesterday, which is normal for a snowstorm, but not simply because it's cold. We're at 1 degree, but I hear you guys are really going through some stuff. Be safe!

I wanted to tell you, I really liked your thought here: "But family therapy isn't an East Coast thing." This is really interesting. I just finished my MSW last year (hooray!), and in my "Family and Clinical Interventions" class, we had a long conversation about how family therapy is more popular/desired/attended in different parts of the country. And, as you said, the East Coast isn't quite there yet.

We're getting there, though! I worked in a mental health clinic last year, and my colleagues had said how each year seemed to be getting busier.

Anyway, stay warm! And have fun, if you can!


Ps---Thank you for adding my site to your blogroll! I appreciate it. Could you change my address from "" to ""? I don't think I have a feed!

Pps---I don't think the ads are getting in the way! If there's a way for you to make some extra dosh, I'm all for it!

therapydoc said...

Hi Matt! Thanks so much for that validation. So the East really is behind the Midwest when it comes to systems therapies. Still doing the Freud thing, my hunch. Not to be harsh, seriously, and don't want to seem lacking in compassion. Ms. Shapiro's story breaks my heart and makes me so angry at the same time. At least she knows that Kuhbler-Ross is passe. This is a beautiful work, presenting her dilemma and reviewing self-help, how it used to be and how it still is, when we buy the whole enchilada, it is ridiculous. A better book on family grieving, Living Beyond Loss: Death in the family by Froma Walsh and Monica McGoldrick. I'm having trouble with your link, but I'll get to it later.