Nov 15

Joan Baez: “I Am a Noise”–Anxiety, Trauma/Dissociation

As Kenneth Womack, Salon, has stated, the new documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise is “…one of the most intimate and revealing documentaries of its kind. In one sense, it chronicles Baez’s preparations for her final tour; yet at the same time, the film underscores the singer-songwriter’s lifelong search for the truth about the overarching depression that has marked her life.”

But depression is just one aspect of her mental health issues. Her anxiety and panic attacks began in childhood, leading to therapy in her teens. These conditions, moreover, continued to plague her throughout her career.

And that’s not all. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “(T)his intimate and painful documentary… brings us to the brink of a terribly traumatic revelation that it can’t quite bear to spell out.” We get just enough, though, to understand that she has disturbing childhood memories–“though she says she cannot recall definitively whether her father sexually abused her” (Deadline).

What Baez can be clearer about, though, are her experiences of dissociation. Matthew Carey, Deadline: “For the first time, Baez speaks in detail about experiencing multiple personalities, among them someone she describes as ‘Diamond Joan.’ The condition, known clinically as dissociative identity disorder, typically results from long-term trauma in childhood featuring abuse or neglect.”

The following are revealing quotes from recent interviews conducted with Joan Baez.

I. Scott Simon, NPR

“And my sister Mimi just called one day and said, you know, I think something terrible happened in our childhood. Do you want to look into it the way I will in therapy? And eventually I said yes. And we both discovered some very deep trauma from childhood. And we were – our bodies and brains were reacting to that our whole lives without our knowing it because it was all unconscious, subconscious.”

“And I believe with all my heart that he and my mom have no memory of it at all. The mind is an extraordinary thing to have blocking something out if you really don’t want to deal with it. I mean, I had blocked it out for 50 years. And then the journey was really quite something.”

II. Walter Scott, Parade

Regarding her dissociation, or DID: “[Mine] was many splits and each one had a reason for being there—each little entity that’s born is there for a reason—when I was trying to grow up. By recognizing these little entities and then nurturing them, that nurtured a part of me that needed that. I loved all the little people in there and they’ve held me together and taught me a lot.”

Regarding her son, musician Gabriel Harris, age 53: “That’s where this terrible sadness comes in that I wasn’t there for him. I didn’t realize the extent of it until I saw the film and I hear him talking. I salute him for being honest and loving and caring but saying what his truth was about growing up with a mom who basically wasn’t there. A lot of times I was there, but I wasn’t there.”

III. Bobbi Dempsey, AARP  

“First of all, I don’t think the ending in the film really, really shows the amount of peace that I came to. I’m not sure why. But all of that came through deep therapy. I put off deep therapy for half a lifetime. And clearly figured out why: It was too scary to deal with. But no, I don’t have those demons now. Occasionally there’s a little pop-up, but basically, no. Therapy is hard work and it’s a lot of emotional excavation.”

“If somebody [asked] what am I proudest of, I would say getting through that tunnel. It was pretty dark when I entered it, and I entered it on faith. And then by the end I was really back in the light — or in the light, in a way, for the first time.”

Nov 08

Books About Dying: Five Selections

Five important books about the topics of dying, living well before dying, and living well while dying.

I. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When humanitarian Mary Anne Schwalbe was living with terminal cancer, her son Will came up with an unusual idea for an activity for them, which is chronicled in this memoir.

II. Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes theSting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim

From the publisher’s blurb: “As painful as it is to lose a loved one, Exit Laughing shows us that in times of grief, humor can help us with coping and even healing.”

In this collection, various authors tell true stories about dying and loss. For example: “…Amy Ferris explains how her mother’s dementia led to a permanent ban from an airline…Bonnie Garvin even manages to find a heavy dose of dark humor in her parents’ three unsuccessful attempts at a double suicide.”

III. Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich addresses our often futile attempts to prolong life via food, exercise, health, and various medical crazes and procedures.

San Francisco Review of Books: “That doctors have begun having themselves tattooed with ‘DNR’ (Do Not Resuscitate) is a clue how extending life a few days or weeks in intensive care is of little benefit.”

The quest to prolong life usually becomes particularly amped up as we age. Results vary and are iffy. Publishers Weekly:

Ehrenreich’s core philosophy holds that aging people have the right to determine their quality of life and may choose to forgo painful and generally ineffective treatments. She presents evidence that such tests as annual physicals and Pap smears have little effect in prolonging life; investigates wellness trends, including mindfulness meditation; and questions the doctrine of a harmonious ‘mindbody’ and its supposed natural tendency to prolong life. Contra the latter, she demonstrates persuasively that the body itself can play a role in nurturing cancer and advancing aging.

IV. The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler

The Art of Dying Well follows Butler’s previous Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.

In a piece Butler adapted from Knocking on Heaven’s Door (The Ultimate End-of-Life Plan), the author states:

Why don’t we die the way we say we want to die? In part because we say we want good deaths but act as if we won’t die at all. In part because advanced lifesaving technologies have erased the once-bright line between saving a life and prolonging a dying. In part because saying ‘Just shoot me’ is not a plan. Above all, we’ve forgotten what our ancestors knew: that preparing for a ‘good death’ is not a quickie process to save for the panicked ambulance ride to the emergency room. The decisions we make and refuse to make long before we die help determine our pathway to the final reckoning.

V. The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams

The author of The Unwinding of the Miracle, the most personal of these books about dying, died at the age of 42 from advanced colon cancer. (You can read the obituary her husband Josh wrote about Yip-Williams’s incredible life here.)

Kirkus Reviews“: “Along the way, the author considers a fundamental question: Is it more courageous to keep struggling (trying new meds and procedures, seeing new specialists) or to surrender to the inevitable? Eventually, she realizes, she will have to do the latter, and she enters hospice care.”

Nov 01

Intersex Detailed: “Every Body,” “Born Both,” “Orchids”

Two films and one book presented below are good places to learn more about intersex, otherwise known as the “I” in LGBTQIA+. “Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male” (Intersex Society of North America).

I. Every Body (2023)

You can stream this now at Prime Video. The trailer’s below:

“‘Every Body’ is a moving, fascinating look at a too-often-ignored subset of the world’s population, filled with empathy and understanding but also a cool, analytical anger about what history has put them through. The subject is intersex people, the slightly-more-than one percent of individuals who were born with a condition that complicated the state’s ability to identify them with one of the only two options listed on hospital paperwork: female or male” (Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com).

Directed by Julia Cohen, this new documentary features three out and accomplished intersex individuals, Sean Saifa Wall, Alicia Roth Weigel, and River Gallo.

In addition, in order to help illustrate the point that children should not be forced into a particular gender identity, there is also the tragic story of David Reimer (1965-2004). Reimer, born a male twin, received a botched circumcision at an early age and was then raised as a girl on the wrongheaded advice of psychologist/sexologist John Money (1921-2006).

II. Born Both: An Intersex Life (2017) by Hida Viloria

Viloria, an activist and Latinx lesbian, who uses pronouns s/he and he/r, states the following in he/r memoir Born Both:

I was raised as a girl but discovered at a young age that my body looked different. Having endured an often turbulent home life as a kid, there were many times when I felt scared and alone, especially given my attraction to girls. But unlike most people in the first world who are born intersex–meaning they have genitals, reproductive organs, hormones, and/or chromosomal patterns that do not fit standard definitions of male or female–I grew up in the body I was born with because my parents did not have my sex characteristics surgically altered at birth.

Regarding the practice of IGM, or intersex genital mutilation, Viloria advocates against this misguided approach still performed by some doctors and chosen by some parents (HuffPost ).

In an interview with Ariel Gore (Psychology Today) Viloria answered a question about what mental health professionals can do to help clients. Interphobia, including the view that being intersex is a medical disorder, is cited along with internalized interphobia as factors to be particularly conscious of, along with the need to understand that people born this way “can feel good about our sexuality, our bodies, and about being intersex in general, especially when given the right to decide for ourselves who we are…”

III. Orchids: My Intersex Adventure (2010) 

“I’m part male and I’m part female—and I’m a hermaphrodite.” So says Phoebe Hart, the subject of her own documentary, which she made with her sister Bonnie, also intersex.

Their condition is defined by Hart as a developmental disorder, “a biological state whereby a person’s reproductive organs, genitalia and/or chromosomes transcend the binary male-female divide.” It should be noted, however, that the term hermaphroditism is no longer a preferred one in the intersex community as “it implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. This is a physiologic impossibility” (Intersex Society of North America).

Hart’s specific condition is one of the subtypes of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Her body is chromosomally male but unresponsive to testosterone; thus, she developed as female.

Oct 25

“The Mindful Body” by Ellen J. Langer

Harvard psychology professor Ellen J. Langer‘s latest book, The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health, focuses on the importance of the mind-body connection. It is far from her first foray into this subject, however. With over 40 years of study in this area, Langer, often regarded as the “mother of mindfulness” as well as the “mother of positive psychology,” has authored several other related books. 

“It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits,” she stated in her 2009 Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

In The Mindful Body she expands on the mind-body unity concept. From the publisher: “Whether it is hotel chambermaids who lost weight when they simply came to see that their work constituted exercise, or patients whose wounds healed faster in rooms with accelerated clocks, she shows how influential our thoughts are to the state of our bodies. Her work has likewise proven that discouraging health news can have negative effects. Learning you are prediabetic, for example—even if your blood sugar reading is only a fraction away from ‘normal’—may actually play a part in the development of the disease.”

Kirkus Reviews offers additional info about the latter amazing finding: “…(T)here’s not much difference between A1C counts of 5.7 and 5.8, but one is held to be normal and the other prediabetic. Furthermore, telling someone they are prediabetic often leads to diabetes owing to the way people are inclined to read medical judgments as infallible and fixed.”

Other interesting research cited by Langer in The Mindful Body involves “several elderly men[who] roomed together in housing ‘that was retrofitted to suggest that time had gone backward twenty years.’ The men quickly began to behave as if they were 20 years younger: ‘Their vision, hearing, strength, and even objective appearance improved’.” 

A conclusion from the review at Publishers Weekly: “According to Langer, patients given grim diagnoses often adopt defeatist attitudes and other ‘stereotypical responses and behaviors’ associated with the illnesses, but when one recognizes that diagnosis criteria, cut-off points, and labels are made by people…we gain a newfound sense of freedom’ and ‘can learn to heal ourselves.’ Langer notes that even chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s can improve with psychological interventions, making decisions mindfully, and realizing that every choice offers opportunities for growth and education.”

The following are some of the ways Langer says we can use our minds more effectively (Greater Good Science Center):

  1. Question authority.
  2. Recognize that what counts as “risky” is different from person to person.
  3. Approach predictions with skepticism. The future is never completely knowable.
  4. Understand how our choices are never completely “right” or “wrong.”
  5. Avoid social comparisons or ranking yourself.

See GoodNet.org for the details.

Oct 18

“Sex Education” Wrap-Up: Wounded Healers in Youth

If you’ve finished watching (this means spoilers ahead!) all four seasons of the Netflix series Sex Education (see previous post), you’ve seen a number of flawed but well-meaning helpers reach fairly satisfying turning points in their lives. This includes not only student “sex therapists” Otis and O, who ultimately vie to become their college’s sole sex therapist, but also Otis’s mom Jean (Gillian Anderson), a practicing sex therapist in actuality, who’s eventually seen in flashbacks to her teens.

In my estimation, one of the major themes of Sex Education is that of the wounded healer, a concept known to non-shrinks as “therapists are as screwed up as the rest of us.” Although many other TV series and movies have depicted dysfunctional therapists (some examples here and here), typically it’s played for laughs and/or derision and not so much for understanding or acceptance. Not really the case in Sex Education.

Roger M. Cahak, Psychology Today, on the origins of “wounded healer” in the work of Carl Jung. “His theory is that therapists who have been wounded can provide their clients with a deeper level of empathy, patience, and acceptance. Since we’ve already traveled the journey, we’ve encountered the hazards and dead ends, navigated the detours and discovered the most breathtaking vistas.”

All the significant helpers in Sex Education struggle with their own issues. Although Otis, for instance, is highly anxious about having sex himself, he is able to offer sound advice to his more sexually active peers. O’s unresolved issues include a budding awareness of her own asexuality, yet she’s extremely well informed about the issues plaguing her more sexualized clientele. Jean, a mostly successful therapist who has experienced multiple episodes of depression, has a history of childhood and family trauma.

Over 25 years ago Robert Epstein and Tim Bower wrote (Psychology Today), “Here’s a theory that’s not so crazy: Maybe people enter the mental health field because they have a history of psychological difficulties. Perhaps they’re trying to understand or overcome their own problems…”.

Recent research confirms that many mental health professionals do have their own significant issues. In a study of psychologists “(o)ver 80% of all respondents reported having mental health difficulties at some point, and 48% reported having a diagnosed mental illness. These rates are similar to rates of mental illness in the general population,” reports The Conversation.

Similarly, a 2018 Social Work article notes that a large 2015 survey of licensed social workers found “that 40.2 percent of respondents reported mental health problems before becoming social workers, increasing to 51.8 percent during their social work career, with 28 percent currently experiencing such problems.”

Naturally, it’s important that practicing therapists seek and maintain whatever forms of help they need in order to function effectively. When this is not the case, impaired therapists need to be identified.

There are other kinds of wounded healers besides therapists, by the way. In her recent post “Are You a Wounded Healer?” Diana Raab, Psychology Today, states, “They can be mothers, fathers, or found in many other vocations. They often have a tendency to make their family and friends feel better, especially when their loved ones experience challenging times. Because they’ve dealt with their own challenges in the past, they more easily understand hardship. They also know, like therapists, that to help others heal, it’s important to instill hope so the person is able to see the light in their darkness.”

Are you a wounded healer? Raab provides this list of possible traits:

  • You are a lifelong seeker.
  • You have a strong sense of purpose.
  • People call on you when in need.
  • You’ve helped people since you were a child.
  • You look at all experiences as an opportunity for growth.
  • You’re able to find the calm in the chaos.