Sep 06

Maria Bamford: “Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult”

An acclaimed comedian chronicles her experiences with mental illness and her search for community. Warning: her hilarious riffs will make you feel seen. Adam Grant, reviewing Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford—the favorite stand-up comedian of Stephen Colbert, Tig Notaro, and other notables—and star of Netflix’s Lady Dynamite (2016-17), which dealt with the aftermath of her actual mental breakdown, has a new book: Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest to Belong Anywhere.

You can read an excerpt on Slate (My First Cult Was My Family. My Mother Was in Charge“). The “cults” she tries (beyond her family) in order to belong somewhere/anywhere include 12-step programs such as Debtors Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous as well as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the programs of Richard Simmons.

Bamford has long been open about her various mental health struggles. Among the list are anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, binge eating, a form of OCD called “unwanted thoughts syndrome” (for which she named a comedy CD), and Bipolar II Disorder.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes that Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult “is a memoir that examines her life in comedy, dealing with mental illness, and finding a way to belong.” Bamford, however, advises readers this is not your typical “trauma, healing, and victory” story.

More from Kirkus: “Bamford creates an effective mix of introduction (or reintroduction) to a fascinating comedian, a guide to the self-help industry, and an encouragingly lighthearted, respectful assessment of mental health, reminding readers that they are not alone.”

Publishers Weekly: “It’s all delivered with Bamford’s trademark blend of disarming intimacy and dark whimsy. The result is a consistently funny and occasionally heartbreaking glimpse into a unique comedic mind.”

On Goodreads Kendra Gayle Lee, an indie bookstore owner, writes:

If you’ve done a 12 step program, you’ll laugh. And nod along.
If you’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, OCD, you’ll feel so seen.
If you’ve ever felt like the only person in the world who didn’t get a ‘how-to’ manual for this life, you’ve found your book!

And, finally, I think Lee’s conclusion is definitely worth adding: “But what really got me was the last chapter on suicide. Maria Bamford wrote such a tender, compassionate tribute to folks who fight suicidal ideation–and sometimes die as a result of their mental illness–that it shifted something in me. She helped me understand something heretofore incomprehensible to me. I’m grateful for that.”

Oct 15

Ruby Wax: A Comedian Waxing Mindful On Mental Illness

“People who say … they’re perfectly fine [are] more insane than the rest of us.” Ruby Wax

The above quote is taken from “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?,” a TED Talk by Ruby Wax, an American comedian who started a successful career in the U.K. in the 1980’s.

In more recent years her career stalled a bit, however, apparently related to episodes of depression.

But Wax has let neither her condition nor the lack of available work keep her down, so to speak. She and friend Judith Owen, a singer/songwriter who’s also battled depression, created their own show, one they inaugurated at various mental health facilities. Along the way, Wax unexpectedly became a celebrity “poster child” for depression.

From the TED blog: “Comic Relief put my face on a poster. I was in the Tube, and there was a poster of my face with the word DEPRESSED stamped across it. When I saw it, I almost lost my organs out of my nose.”

As she continued walking she saw that the posters were everywhere. “And by the time I got down to the platform I thought, OK, well, I’ll write a show and pretend this was my publicity. I’ve always said to myself, if you’ve got a disability, use it.”

So they branched out even further. Their newly beefed-up show Losing It expanded to other venues, including an extended run last year at a theater in London’s West End. The Guardian states that the first half is “funny and informative” of both depression and OCD.

And the second half, a Q & A session? As stated to The Guardian, “‘We wanted to give people a chance to share their experiences and ask questions,’ says Wax, ‘but we only imagined one or two people at most speaking out before it petered out with everyone making for the exit. Rather than finding it hard to get people to talk, our real problem was getting them to shut up.'”

On a more personal level, Wax has been working on her Master’s in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Mindfulness is what she uses to decrease her own ruminating—though as she says (in the TED post)…

…not in a guru Buddha let’s-eat-a-cauliflower way. I throw my attention to a physical sensation, to a sound, focus on my feet on the ground, as opposed to this … endless mental loop tape … because the mind can’t be in two modes at once. It can’t think and also sense something at the same time. It’s a trick you’re playing on yourself, on your thinking. If I throw focus from my rumination to one of my senses, it brings the cortisol down. Other people might say, ‘I’m going to focus my attention on my cat or put Vivaldi on.’ I don’t care how you learn to flip your dial when you need to.

…We need better words. ‘Mindfulness’ sounds like something Martha Stewart says: ‘Be mindful when you serve the chicken at a dinner party.’

…And the bitch of it is, you have to do it every day. Feel your breathing, feel your feet on the ground. It’s attention on attention. When you do it regularly, your neurons are rewiring…

Notably, Ruby Wax says she actually got into mindfulness because she’d become fed up with shrinks who weren’t so helpful.

Aug 23

The World Capital of Psychotherapy May Be Argentina

Is Argentina the world capital of psychotherapy? According to the New York Times:

The number of practicing psychologists in Argentina has been surging, to 196 per 100,000 people last year, according to a study by Modesto Alonso, a psychologist and researcher, from 145 per 100,000 in 2008.

That compares with about 27 psychologists per 100,000 people in the United States, according to the American Psychological Association.

And that’s just the psychologists, only one of several disciplines in which psychotherapists practice. In other words, what about clinical social workers, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, etc.?

Another (now unlinkable) source gives a broader breakdown. Stating that “Argentines are officially the most analyzed people in the world,” the report says there are 15 therapists for every 1000 residents.

Psychoanalysis has apparently found much popularity ever since Freud’s ideas emigrated there in the early 20th century. However, the other end of the spectrum—cognitive-behavioral therapy and other of the shorter-term approaches—is also represented in Argentina.

Apparently high fees don’t necessarily pose a big issue. From the NY Times article: “Andrés Raskovsky, president of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association, recently asserted that psychoanalysis had little risk of extinction in Argentina since seeing a psychologist twice a week is still viewed as being affordable for much of the population.” When people can’t afford it, sliding scale fees and other types of arrangements are often offered; also, public insurance covers it for some.

One analyst interviewed about the wide acceptance and use of therapy in Argentina says that it’s basically about their people liking to talk—as well as liking having someone to listen.

Could it really be that simple? Probably not.

Maybe Argentinians are more in need of therapy than other folks? Unlikely. In one article last year (update 2018: source no longer available), two therapists who were both originally from the U.S. but now practice in Argentina observe that people have essentially the same types of problems there as anywhere. As stated by one, Steven Nissenbaum: “It doesn’t make a difference what the culture is – people are people. Problems include life transitions, relationships, family, health or addictions.”

Therapy is also big in their popular culture, with the TV show In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne as a shrink, currently being quite popular. In addition, on the “Broadway of Buenos Aires” you can now find a staging of “Freud’s Last Session,” last year’s winner of New York’s Off Broadway Alliance award. It’s about the conversations that take place when the seriously ailing Freud invites writer C.S. Lewis to his home in London.

Michael Tanenbaum describes the play for The Argentina Independent:

As the two men carry on their debate – Lewis equating psychoanalysis with intellectual religion and Freud swatting away God as an infantile fantasy – the conversation and circumstances take multiple turns in subject, intensity, and competitive edge, bringing the men together at a historically fateful moment…

God, love, sex, and the meaning of life may be suitable tag words for this play, but overwhelmingly it is a display of the walls we build up and break down in dialogue with ourselves and others.

Another hit play “Toc Toc,” about six characters with obsessive-compulsive disorder who meet in their psychiatrist’s waiting room, is also currently playing.

World capital of psychotherapy? Certainly in the running.

Jun 08

Bud Clayman: His Mental Health Challenges Depicted in “OC87”

Bud Clayman: focus of a new film

OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie 

(A New Film)

OC: obsessive-compulsive disorder

87: the year the obsessive-compulsive disorder of Bud Clayman led to a total retreat from others

The Rest: his other diagnoses

“OC87” became the nickname for the “altered state of mind” Bud Clayman experienced during that particularly challenging year—Clayman and his therapist came up with that. The specific disorder in question is known as “harm OCD“—when the intrusive thoughts have to do with causing harm. 

A definition of harm OCD by The Gateway Institute: “Harm OCD is a type of OCD that causes a person to have doubts and fears about whether they are in control of themselves and if they could become violent towards themselves or others.”

Clayman explains some of his issues to Robert Siegel, NPR: “OC87 stands for the year 1987, when I decided to literally control the whole universe – or at least, attempt to try and control the whole universe. I wouldn’t allow any spontaneity with people. I wouldn’t small-talk with people. Basically, it was just something that totally existed inside of my head, that I created.”

States psychiatrist Larry Real, M.D, about the film: “An engaging strength of this entertaining documentary is that we see how a person with severe mental illness needn’t be a genius or a virtuoso to be worthy of our respect, admiration, and love. Instead, the person can be a teacher, a waiter, a student, or Bud Clayman – a late-blooming filmmaker with a great sense of humor who’s doing his best to get by.”

Kalvin Henely, writing for Slant:

As Clayman lets us in on the obtrusive and uncontrollable thoughts that stifle his efforts toward functioning normally, we witness the degree to which the quality of his life—his job, the film’s financing, his emotional support—is owed to others, especially his father. Because of this, it’s obvious that, while Clayman’s life has been stymied, he’s luckier than most people, a fact of privilege that’s never acknowledged in the film, but would probably be healthy to realize.

At one point, Clayman’s psychologist mentions to him that if he actually looked as anxious as he felt on the inside, everyone would be freaked out. That seems obvious to us, but to Clayman it’s news he needs to be reminded of…(I)t’s in this rather dry and ordinary portrait of Clayman that it’s possible to realize how internalized real mental illness is; it can seem almost unnoticeable to others, silently isolating the sufferer from those who might be able to help.

Joe NeumaierNew York Daily News: “Clayman, who co-directed with filmmaker friends, is fascinating company. The camera allows a necessary distance for him, as evidenced by the ladies who sit with him at a speed-dating session. They don’t get him, but he’s not the one missing out.”