States of mind


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Sticks and stones

Most of us are familiar with the old chant: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."

While that sounds good and is probably an effective way of trying to condition our children to be not overly sensitive to the taunts of others, we all know it's far from being true. A child or even an adult can be utterly destroyed through words or "names."

Almost any pejorative suggestion regarding someone's significance, appearance or even state of health can have a profound effect. Psychological studies have been conducted, for example, where college students were, collectively, to suggest to another, unknowing student, that he or she did not look well; "are you ill?" The student to whom these comments were directed often developed signs of genuine illness.

Similarly, any "suggestible" (don't confuse that with "gullible") person can be profoundly impacted by name calling and repeated criticism.

Children, often in innocence, can be very cruel to one another. A child with crooked teeth, freckles or who is overweight can easily be conditioned to believe they are inferior. We in the United States put such emphasis on physical appearance.

But attacks on physical features are not the only way in which complexes and neuroses can be effected by "names."

A child having difficulty even a temporary block or lack of grasp with their studies, can suffer lasting, perhaps lifelong, problems through insensitive treatment.

The feeling of inadequacy on the part of the child can make the already problematic subject even more abhorrent. That can make the frustrated parent, teacher or other students even more frustrated and that increased frustration rarely goes unnoticed. Soon, whether it is or it is not, the subject is beyond the child's abilities and the child may perceive him or herself as generally inferior.

With the vast number of self-help books predicated on the many manifestations of what we can generally categorize as "inferiority complexes," I think we should acknowledge that "names" can and do hurt us. We need to work more diligently to insure that we and our children be more sensitive toward others.

The wound from a stick or a stone will generally heal more quickly and much more completely than do those from the names that "will never hurt me." Return to top

Listen to the mockingbird

A mockingbird has it's nest in a hedge just outside the bedroom window. It greets the day with cheerful trills and chirps. Sunlight works its way through the voids in the closed Venetian blind. It's a beautiful scene; intellectually I know that even though I don't feel it.

I lie in bed staring at the ceiling, wishing I could enjoy the beauty that is literally beckoning to me, but it's flat. No matter how hard I try, I can do nothing more than know that it should be beautiful.

Traffic is picking up on the road beyond. Without seeing them I know this is a school bus, that's a garbage truck.

The neighbors' dogs begin to howl and bark. A pedestrian probably a student en route to school is passing.

I wiggle my toes, rub my cheeks and glance at the clock. Then I turn on my side and stare down at the carpet, head hanging over the edge of the bed.

"All I have to do is put my feet on that and I'm up. Then everything will be okay."

The whole day is mine to do with as I please. There are no obligations, there's no job to have to go to. These are the golden days of retirement the life that sells hackneyed bumper stickers.

What has been officially proclaimed the best beach in the United States is 35 miles away.

A lovely furnished apartment back in Washington, DC awaits me for one, two, three months. A phone call will do it.

Persistent, my friend the mockingbird works an especially complicated trill. It's appreciated but it isn't moving. It's like looking at a piece of art you deem not to your liking but you can see it took a tremendous amount of work to produce.

Tired now of the texture of the carpet, I roll over on my back and recount the ceiling tiles, pulling the blanket closer up under my chin.

"This is why childbirth is such a chore," I think with irony. My body is warm, comfortable and protected, snug in this bed. My head, extended from this artificial womb is not so comfortable. Babies know, birth is the end of complete comfort and shelter.

The clock again and I'm growing more angry with myself. It's nearly 8 a.m. I can hear the world buzzing outside my window why am I not up?

Because you don't need to be up. They wish they could be you, you fool, and you're too dumb to enjoy it. All your life you dreamed of retirement and being able to sleep late and lead a life free of stress. What went wrong?

Depression. That's what went wrong.

Depression "the common cold of mental health" and probably one of the most misunderstood mental maladies today.

Depression does not equal "sad." And clinical depression does not necessarily equate to the grief of losing a loved one or your employment.

Depression isn't a lack of awareness that your emotions are fundamentally ridiculous. In fact, that's one of the most damning aspects of the disease you usually do know, but it renders you helpless.

The closest simile I've found to try to explain to someone who has not had a true depressive episode is that all their (and your) well-intended efforts are like telling a very anxious person, "don't worry." Most of us have been there and we know how futile it is. We are going to continue to worry.

Why don't I want to get up? More to the point, since there's no driving reason why I should be up at a given time, why do I beat myself up instead of laying in bed enjoying the mockingbird? Why don't I rejoice over the fact that I can? Surely the people passing by are probably not at all happy they have to be at work in 15 minutes.

On a nice day, why can't I get up at whatever hour I want, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, read the paper and drive to that beautiful beach? If I'm bored with the rural surroundings, why don't I make that phone call and go to Washington? I have the resources to do it.

Unfortunately, I don't know why, and the medical profession doesn't really know why. We know it's a chemical imbalance. We know things that ought to be happening in the synapses aren't happening the way they should.

We have ever-improving medications that help but we're still in the hit-and-miss stage with those. Sometimes a medicine works very well then, for no apparently reason, is totally ineffectual.

Luckily, I am not incapacitated. My worst bouts are relatively mild.

However, I am frustrated that we live in what is supposed to be an enlightened society but when it comes to mental health we are too often as ignorant, superstitious and stubborn as Neanderthals.

Depression is not something the victim wants. Depression is not something the sufferer can overcome by saying, "alright, get your butt out of this bed, get moving and like it."

Depression is not a weakness and depression doesn't equate with mental inferiority. History is replete with examples of geniuses in every discipline suffering chronic, clinical depression. In fact, there is evidence that intellectually superior people may even have a disproportionate incidence of clinical depression.

Society needs to be supportive, not condemning of people who suffer depression. At least to the point of taking the trouble to understand what it is. It is not a momentary funk. It is not a pout. It is not necessarily even being "sad," depressed people even can laugh. But not for long.

I bought a book on depression simply because the title so perfectly describes the condition.

It is Depression: The Evolution of Powerlessness by Paul Gilbert.

That title sums it up and with little more than a moment's thought, we can appreciate, some of our most terrifying moments are when we are powerless.

The world is flat. The bird sings but its melody is wasted. The mind says get up but the body won't do it. Yet, that same mind continues to have the capability to design a new bridge, write a new novel or musical composition or govern a state.

Or end the life that supports it.

The brain is not inferior, it's not flabby but it is missing the joy of the mockingbird.

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I'm an agoraphobe

I didn't know it. It took me all my life, until a few weeks ago, that is, to discover this. So far, I haven't sought an official diagnosis. Don't you just hate all those people in the therapist's waiting room?

Well, actually, it's really confusing. I'm pretty much what I've been all my life but agoraphobes weren't invented until fairly recently. If nothing else, it's been an economic convenience. It helps sell self-help books and populate therapists' waiting rooms.

Not more than a dozen years ago, people would simply have regarded me as a "loner," and probably would have thought I liked being alone. They wouldn't have gone to the trouble to point out I'm really deficient in my recommended daily allowance of social interaction. It's a new disease, pretty much like the multitude of specific new disorders we used to simply call "senile." But let's don't get off on senility, else I'll forget I set out to admit to you that I'm an agoraphobe.

Before my enlightenment, had I heard there were such things as agoraphobes, I'm inclined to think I would have believed them to have been some minute organism that lived underground, surviving off the roots of grass and exchanging ethnic slurs with nematodes.

Guess that proves I'm not only an agoraphobe, I'm an ignorant agoraphobe. Then again...

The American Heritage Dictionary defines agoraphobia as "An abnormal fear of open or public places."

If we go with that definition, I really need to surrender my recently acquired membership. I love country fields, empty beaches, even driving through a big city in the early-morning hours, when no one else is about.

But I guess AHD blew it on this one.

The Third Edition, Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, Sol L. Garfield and Allen E. Bergin, defines it quite differently. That book has those open spaces filled with people, calls agoraphobia an anxiety disorder and instead of an eight-word definition, the work dedicates at least 11 pages to the subject.

"Systematic research programs carried out over the last 15 years have significantly enhanced our knowledge over optimal treatment conditions for agoraphobics, the authors write. Prolonged exposure in vivo is superior to imaginal exposure."

That in vivo exposure could be a problem, couldn't it? If people prefer to spend the major part of their time alone, it's going to be tough to get agoraphobics' support groups that work. I'll bake cookies sufficient for all who attend.

It's a real shame that Daniel Boone, Sam Houston ... all those folk who pushed west because the east was getting too crowded didn't have the benefit of knowing they were agoraphobes. Think of how history may have been changed had we had the mental health diagnostic skills to have helped those poor men and women who thought they wanted space.

If I were a hungry psychotherapist, I believe I would get to know all the Realtors in my area and routinely check for the names of people who are looking for rural property. Think of how many people you could help. These poor folk think they want to get away from people. But many therapists and socially aware people know better. You know they are suffering and what they really need is for you and other well-meaning friends to constantly get in their face and pressure them into doing the things they don't know they really want and need to do. After all; It's for their own good.

I am just beginning to see how wrong it has been for me to slip into comfy jammies and listen to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra perform Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony with Kathleen Battle doing soprano on one of the finest stereo systems available. If luck is with me, I might find a parking place fairly near the high school auditorium entrance. Besides, one side of my umbrella holds up pretty well. And I'm told the Chatham Middle School band plays reasonably well for a group of youngsters.

I'm beginning to see, only a socially maladjusted person would prefer to pay $2 to rent a video for viewing on a 50-inch home theater with Dolby Surround Sound and the refrigerator 30 feet away. Experientially, if I go to a theater, I can also drive 100 miles (round trip), miss the best part because my bladder has no sense of timing and feel philanthropic that I have contributed the better part of a $20 bill to the starving entertainment industry.

Like a recovering alcoholic, I imagine I'll have to take it one day at a time "day-tight compartments," the Dale Carnegie folk call them. With the help of enough doggedly persistent friends, I'll soon abandon my home and, perhaps, move back to Washington, DC. When in full remission, I could join the hundreds of other street vendors along K Street and sell Just Don't Say No tee-shirts.

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John Penman Jones
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