Thursday, March 24, 2016

High Functioning Autism, Ethnic Jokes, and Purim

Ordinarily I wouldn't get started on this, knowing that it is likely to upset at least one reader. But because some of you will propose theses for doctorates and masters degrees, it feels like the right thing to do, open up a topic for further study. Also, this is Purim Torah. And despite what's going on in the world, I'm in a better mood.

Purim isn't the topic for further study, not unless you're Jewish and like studying up on stories from days of old. But the story is about genocide, which is related to racism, and racism affects our mental health because (a) it hurts and provides people with excuses (bad ones) to kill, and (b) racists sometimes tell bad jokes.

Purim is one of those, the joke's on you, holidays. The story is a tale of monumental reversal, salvation, victory, fasting, love, sexual exploitation, and plots inside the kingdom. We're talking Persia, 369 BCE.

Briefly: The Persians beat the Babylonians, and Jews exiled from Jerusalem by the Babylonians wound up there. The king, Achashverosh, has done away with his wife Vashti because she wouldn't dance naked for his friends at a feast. These feasts go on for days and days, and people get wildly drunk They expect to be entertained.

Having banished Vashti from the kingdom, Achashverosh orders that all the beautiful virgins in the country come to the palace to interview for the job, queen.

Esther, a Jewish orphan, adopted and raised by her older cousin Mordechai, becomes the king's top pick. The king loves Esther dearly. He has no idea she is Jewish.

An officer of his court, Haman, is a huge anti-Semite. Haman is narcissistically injured (angry) at Mordechai who refuses to bow down to him at the palace gate. (Jews only bow to God, or sometimes to marshal arts teachers to be polite). Haman has made it in politics, has influence with the king. He requests the annihilation of the Jews, ostensibly because they follow a different set of rules. Achashverosh, a simple guy who just wants to feast, can't see why not. Differences between people are threatening. He signs off to the execution of the Jewish people.

Mordechai gets word to Esther that she has to stop the edict, must intervene somehow. She's not so quick to accept the mission. The king will put to death anyone who visits him without an invitation, and she has not been invited in 30 days. Mordechai tells Esther that if she does not take the initiative, then salvation for the Jewish people will come from somewhere else. She steps up.

An aside to therapists: When working with patients who feel hopeless about their lives, who cannot see a way out, not a single possibility, yet have some faith in God, you can use the following line from the story, even tell an abridged version of the story. Try to say it in Hebrew, because it makes an impression, lends authenticity. The transliteration is in the picture to the right:

The (salvation) solution will come from someplace else, is beyond what you might expect or are looking for.

Solutions come in two dresses, either creative thinking, or seemingly random events.
it isn't our call

But back to the story: The Jews pray and fast for three days, hoping to curry God's favor. Esther gets her audience with the king, liquors him up and outs Haman as a bad man with murderous intentions. The king is outraged and reverses the decree. He hangs Haman and his sons, and permits the Jews to kill their enemies within his kingdom (it is a huge kingdom). They take no spoils, but declare another holiday, a good reason to knock off work early.

It is an eating and drinking holiday, but before any feasting, there is running around town with gifts of food and charity. Kids dress up as kings and queens, and the story is read from a scroll. A younger adult generation entertains with a video, kids who should have gone into film making, not medicine or law, roasting the rabbi and almost everyone else.

Why bring up Purim? It is a lesson that with the stroke of a pen, kings and potentates can order the end of life. It starts with advisers, meetings, influence, maybe someone whose ego couldn't take a hit. Such attitudes are passed down in families and communities, but mostly, families. We trust our parents.

There is a connection to high functioning autism.

Once I saw a man with high functioning autism (or I made him up for this post). We called it Apsergers Disorder until the DSM did away with Aspergers in 2013. The man, like his father, put people into racial and ethnic categories. The Blacks. The Mexicans. The Polacks, The Asians, The Obese. Everyone had a box, and the man, like his father, couldn't describe anything that a person might do or say without first putting the person into the box.

He's a nice doctor for a Jewish guy.

Why does he have to take seconds. Look at him!

At first I thought it a racist thing, then realized he had indeed learned it from his father. But more than that, he honestly didn't see anything wrong with it. He thought it was great that he could do this, organize people, understand them by labeling them. He didn't see the labels as gross generalizations, ridiculous simplifications, or that 99% of our DNA is the same.

(Once I went to China and said something about the Chinese, thinking my experience mattered. FD said, "You really can't generalize about 1.5 billion people.")

When I got to know the patient better, I realized that for him, everything had to go into a box. He had to organize somehow. Having high functioning autism, unable to empathize, he also didn't know he had the disorder. As often happens with such patients, he came to therapy for his wife, who had issues with him and his social/marital insensitivity.

He and his father had made an ethnic or physical trait category into a social cue. Labeling people appealed to his obsessive compulsiveness, helped him gain some control in a world of humans who otherwise mystified him.

Moral of the story: When you have a patient who sees nothing wrong with telling ethnic or racist or very insensitive joke, it is a sign that he might have a disorder, such as high functioning autism. He may not mean any harm. You'll know if he is completely confused by your efforts at correction.

Now, Haman? A total racist, calling for the annihilation of a people he didn't respect, hated for their differences, their values. Today he might be put in jail for conspiracy to commit a genocidal (terrorist) act, duping an innocent king on the sauce. And he would see a therapist, undoubtedly, to work on his narcissism  and sociopathy.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016


I'm talking to an older man today, working through some of his grief issues, and he looks up and says, "And this thing in Belgium doesn't help."
Solidarity with Brussels

What thing in Belgium?

It was one of those mornings-- on the phone when I would normally hear the news driving to work. Missed it.

The grief patient tells me about the terrorist attack, that it hit the airport, the train. Public trans, soft targets.

I don't tell him that I have been in Brussels Airport, that I've slept there, prayed there. A long stop-over, going home from someplace else. It is an odd feeling, knowing that this is a hotbed of anti-Jewish feeling, and that Belgium opened its doors wide to its enemies, welcomed them.

They have cots at the airport, and quiet places to think.

Memories of a different chapel for each faith, too, along with your typical book and magazine vendors. We buy small toys, candy. There's a crowd at the terminal, attendants in red, things are clean.

At the time we worried about Ebola. Many Africans travel to Texas via Chicago via Belgium. There had been a case. The man sitting next to FD doesn't look well, covers his face the entire flight.
Brussels Airport synagogue, mosque, and graphic novels

We didn't worry about ISIS in 2014.

I didn't have to share about this, the Brussels airport. Why write about an airport? A perfectly good post awaits publication for this week, one about humor, racism, high functioning autism, and the Jewish holiday, Purim. The desire to share, however, is associated, maybe, with our need to connect emotionally, in this case to show solidarity with people who have been attacked, bullied in a very big way. There aren't that many ways to show outrage, short of filtering our Facebook profile ppic with the Belgian flag. We saw this after Paris, French flags.

And there's something else. People want to connect with people who have a connection, even a weak connection, to big events. When Paris reeled from terrorism, one of my French patients told me that people she hadn't talked to for years, people she didn't especially want to talk to, called to show solidarity, to wish her and her family well.

We just want to huddle together when we feel powerless, be in one space, share our concern. And the overwhelming feeling, at this point in time, is powerlessness, and the Internet that shared place. Can we stop the meshuganah kups (sounds like meh-shuhg-in-uh cups, means not quite right in the head), a Yiddish expression my father would have used to describe ISIS warriors?

Of course, but how soon?

I asked FD a question. How does a late night TV host go on tonight, someone like Stephen Colbert, paid to be funny, how does he do it?  I can't even watch to find out. FD agrees, you don't watch, don't care to find out. He is solemn.

Tomorrow is a fast day for Jews. It precedes the holiday of Purim, a very festive, happy holiday, and hopefully I will post about it, and how it ties into humor, racism, and high functioning autism. But it might not be very funny, is the truth.