In the wake of last week’s school shooting in Connecticut all of us in the mental health profession have had to deal with our own as well as our clients shock and terror.
Three big questions come to mind for me:
The question of individual liberty versus collective rights: what right does society have to compel mentally ill people to receive treatment, even against their will?
What about gun control and the possibility of an amendment to the second amendment (the right to bear arms), which was created prior to the event of an organized and nationwide legal system of police, courts, and prisons?
How do we as a society lower the shame and stigma connected to mental illness? If people were not ashamed of their family members’ or their own mental health struggles, more people would get help.
Years ago I read an interview with a concentration camp survivor, who was asked,
“How did you keep your faith in humanity in the face of all the brutality?”
“I saved myself,” he said, “by focusing instead on the kindness we showed one another.”
There has been an incredible outpouring of love and support from all over the nation flowing towards the families that have been affected by this tragedy. It is vital that we keep a sense of context in mind: there are many more good people in this world than bad. To quote a great t-shirt “Love Wins.”
This week I interviewed Gloria Sandford, a bright, intuitive and warm-hearted therapist specializing in addictions and co-dependency.
If you are a therapist interested in learning more about community treatment of addictions within the scope of mental health, Gloria and I will be co facilitating “Becoming Twelve Step Savvy for Therapists” in the spring.
What do you see as the intersections as well as the separations between addictions andmental health issues?
Addictions are a mental health issue. Within addictions brain chemistry, thought patterns, behavioral patterns and family dynamics each play a role as in other mental health disorders. Although overlap occurs, when viewed as a whole, addictions have a unique formation of symptoms requiring a unique response in treatment.
What do you wish the public knew about addictions?
Compassion 1st, Boundaries 2nd, Judgment Never. Nothing happens in recovery work without compassion. Boundaries come immediately after. Addictions are a boundary-less disease/situation/form. And without boundaries, treatment, friends and family will become overpowered and ineffective.
What boundaries do you recommend for family members of addicts?
Find out what really hits you as “not okay” and set boundary for yourself, for what will work for you. Not what they need to do, but what you need to do. Eventually, our boundaries will lead us to healthier boundaries, but at first we will cave, so it has to come from inside: where am I presently? What needs to be okay to me?
What advice would you give to someone who has a loved one that they suspect is addicted?
Communicate! Communicate your concerns with unemotional language and without judgment and you’ll have the best chance of being heard.
What would you say to someone who says, “I tried a 12 step meeting once and it was boring/stupid/etc…”?
That is normal. It takes most people a number of tries to find a fit in 12-Step. Why? Because the big “D” of denial takes some time to conquer.
Recovery takes time and there is no perfect way to achieve it. There are no formulas only paths unique to each individual. It is a journey toward health and one that I feel very privileged to walk along side.
It is difficult for friends and family members to know how to respond to a loved one experiencing a mental illness. All too often the default family-and-friends response is initial panicky attention followed by frustrated withdrawal.
Clients in therapy frequently need two tiers of treatment: one to address their depression and anxiety and another one to address their feelings of rejection by loved ones during those dark times.
It is natural to want to withdraw when we do not know what to do, or when what we do seems to be ineffective. I’m speaking here both about the self-isolating behavior of the depressed person as well as their freaked-out friends who dump or cease contact with them. Our desire to feel capable can get in the way of our duty to be decent.
If you have a friend or family member experiencing depression you must check your own expectations out. If you think you can help by providing time and compassionate attention, that’s great. But if you think you can change them by telling them what to do or why they shouldn’t be feeling the way they do, that’s a problem.
Depression and anxiety do not respond to dismissal, arguing or declarations of how easy it would be if only the other person would X (fill in the blank).
A depressed person is not going to jump up off the couch and proclaim, “Wow! I never saw it that way before. Thanks for the reality check!” And then dash off to do socially significant volunteer work while teaching themselves French cooking.
Mental illness responds s-l-o-w-l-y to therapy, medication and time. The symptoms can be temporarily alleviated by consistent, loving contact in the same way that arthritis temporarily subsides with the ingestion of anti-inflammatory drugs like Tylenol. (Or for locals who prefer a more Bastyr-flavored approach, Boswellia, an Ayurvedic herb for arthritis).
If you have a friend or family member who is depressed or anxious, consider what you can emotionally “afford” to offer. Using your own emotional wellbeing as your guide, you can provide support as long as it does not cause feelings of resentment or burden. Perhaps a weekly walk or a monthly lunch or an occasional cultural event or a daily email or phone calls to check in. But. Not. All. Of. These.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say. They don’t either! But if you really want a direction you can start with, “I know this is a tough time for you” and then you can stop speaking. You don’t need to say more than that. You don’t need to take the pain away any more than you need to make the sun come out in December. You can’t.
(I want to recommend “The Secret Life of Words” about a Yugaslavian genocide survivor. Incredibly sensitive depiction of survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of catastrophic trauma. I highly recommend.)
For years now particle physicists have tried to create a GUT, or Grand Unifying Theory, merging the three forces of the standard model to explain how particles behave. This is about as difficult as understanding the emotional logic of sleep deprived premenstrual teens on triple espressos.
I’m happy to leave the exploration of nurtrino masses and gauge symmetries to the folks out there with way more gray matter than I possess. I admire their ambition and imagination.
The infinitely small, quark-sized portion of physics that I can understand (how to spell the word “physics” is about it) has inspired me develop my very own mental health GUT linking addiction, trauma and mental health symptoms to a unifying element and that is…. (Cue drum roll) Anxiety!
I believe anxiety is the underlying driver of every addiction, the consequence of untreated trauma and the source of every social evil from racism to genocide.
This anxiety is experienced as an internal vacancy—a noisy and chaotic one, a black hole—which the addict attempts to fill with the behavior/substance of their choice, the mental illness attempts to cover with obsessive/hyper vigilant/depressive perceptions, and the monomaniacal political leader attempts to fill with personal power and the domination of all of those around him.
In therapy, as a person’s anxiety management increases, their mental health symptoms decrease and their tolerance for “consciously going unconscious” (as one of my clients so poetically describes the practice of addiction) does as well.
Viola! My GUT. Take that Hawkins, you rascal, you!