The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through The Grass

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8/29/2014

Today, my son Brett would have been eighteen – knocking on the door of manhood. People say to me, “Well, at least you have another one – and with the same birthday, too.” Yes, that’s true, I do have ‘another one’ (Nick – his twin brother) and that is a balm, of sorts.

We will celebrate Nick’s birthday today, and happily. I am so proud of him I could bust, with all he’s been through in his short lifespan, including, but not limited to, losing his brother, his twin, his protector, and his best friend, at the age of six. I admire him for going on, for making the best of a bad situation: he not only lost his twin, but to some degree, his parents, too, for a few years at least, and in truth, he lost some parts of us for good, for those parts — innocence, naivete, a certain smiling belief in the basic goodness of life — are gone forever.

But I’m not going to talk about Nick here, because he has his whole life ahead of him, and besides, he would be embarrassed and mad at me, for what eighteen year-old boy wants his father to blab a bunch of stuff about him to the whole wide world?

Nope, I’m going to talk about things that have to do with Brett, the ‘goner’. Why do I use that term? Because of a patient of mine who, if he’s still alive, most assuredly doesn’t remember me at all. But more on that after a little background.

A long time ago (1972), in a galaxy far, far away (The South), I did a summer internship at the Oteen Veterans’ Administration Hospital, in Asheville, North Carolina. I have only fond memories of Asheville, though some of them are leavened, and improved, by the passage of time. Like what? Well, like the fact that in the little clapboard cottage (well, shack, actually) where we were staying, out on Old County Home Road, if you turned on the lights at night the walls were teeming with hundreds of big, fat cockroaches. And they didn’t just sit there and look at you when the lights went on – they all scrambled madly for the closest available darkness, making the walls a living Hieronymous Bosch canvas of squirming bugs.

And they invaded the kitchen, too. If we didn’t put our silverware in sealed bags, our food, everything – well, it was ‘game on’. Oh, and it didn’t stop at roaches, either: big, bullying raccoons owned the night, too, and they weren’t subtle or scared – not a whit. They would bang around in the darkness of the night kitchen, searching, angrily and with total ownership, for whatever ‘goodies’ you had, in their opinion, procured for them and them alone.

For years, my wife would laugh about how, that first night, hearing the coons scuffling around aggressively, I jumped up in bed and said, “What the hell – there’s a goddam bear in the kitchen!”

But she wasn’t laughing when, the next morning, as she went to put a tablespoon full of cereal in her mouth, a roach suddenly shot out from the underside of the spoon and made a mad dash for her Cheerios!

And Southern culture is, well, different – or at least it was, then. There was a tunnel I had to transit every day on the way to work. It’s name? Beaucatcher Tunnel. Get it? Only in the South. And there was a famous mountain (part of the Blue Ridge Mountains) that was visible from town, too, with a smaller peak next to it. Their names? Mount Pisgah, and The Rat. No, really – it’s a big deal there.

Asheville is famous for a few things: the author Thomas Wolfe was born there, and his book, Look Homeward, Angel, is set in the Asheville area. The Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, is a tourist mecca. They have a minor league baseball team, The Asheville Tourists. In the old days, the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the U.S. was established there, and it was widely believed that Asheville’s ‘salubrious’ climate was ideal for healing all manner of ailments. After the Civil War, the government began to establish what were then called “old soldiers’ homes,” to take care of the medical, and later psychiatric, needs of veterans, and one of these was the beginning of the Oteen VA Hospital (now the Charles George VA Medical Center). The hospital has lovely, large grounds and high-ceilinged buildings that give some of the feel of the old, gracious South.

I first realized that the place had a work ethic, and a pace, all its own on my first day on the job. I was gung ho, hoping to impress my superiors with my dedication to my job, my willingness to learn, and my ‘potential’. As we gathered at lunchtime in the office of the Chief of Psychology, I expected, maybe, an informal ‘in-service’ training session, or at the least a grilling on what I had done with myself all morning.

Instead, the Chief and his cohort, Bob, a friendly, older guy who had been there forever, looked at each other and said, “Okay – we’re all here. Ready.”

I looked from one to the other. “Ready for what?”

The Chief smiled indulgently at my ignorance, picked up his hat and said, “Botanical rounds, of course.”

And with that, we all trooped out to take a long, leisurely stroll through the extensive, green grounds of the hospital, which included, as I remember, picking blades of grass and attempting to whistle through them – one of the manly arts of the Southern gentleman (and if you think I’m making this up, check this out). They could name most of the flowers, trees and birds of the grounds, and aside from an occasional bit of juicy gossip about the staff, no business whatsoever was discussed on these daily perambulations. So, it turned out to be a kind of in-service after all, just not one about work. There was a courtliness – a gentility, about this custom, and these men, that I never found anywhere else I ever worked, and though I didn’t get the fast-lane, sophisticated educational apprenticeship about being a ‘working’ psychologist that I had hoped for, I ultimately ingested something far more valuable, merely by the osmosis of hanging out with these guys: namely, that, while work matters, so does Life. Don’t forget who you are; don’t forget the natural world; don’t forget your family; and don’t forget to have some fun every day.

In effect, they were telling me,

Sure, you may think we’re just backwater old-timers, piling up years until our pensions kick in, and maybe we are, but remember this, boy: you may become a big-city fancypants someday, but you’re also just an ordinary Joe, along with the rest of us, so learn to enjoy it, and you’ll be ahead of the game.

And man, were they right. I never did learn to whistle through a blade of grass, but I did learn from them a couple of other crucial ‘manly arts’: humility and the capacity for a light touch.

Amen.

And then there were the patients. For some reason, I seem to remember that most of the guys I dealt with were Korean War vets – forgotten men from a forgotten war.

Two memories, of two men, stand out especially, because they involved lessons taught to a young, arrogant, would-be hotshot who thought he was slumming in Asheville for the summer.

The first one was Sonny, a small, beady-eyed, unprepossessing guy in his mid-forties. He was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and he did have a wild look in his eye, along with a Southern accent of dark molasses. On his tongue, “shit” was a four-syllable word. I was assigned to interview him, to provide a progress report. You understand, everyone was supposed to be making ‘progress’, due to the powers of our treatment plan, which, along with medication, meant group therapy, where we talked about ‘life’ issues, daily problems, and how cute the nurses were. I’m not knocking it – if I was a paranoid schizophrenic veteran in 1972, that’s what I would have wanted, too. It definitely beat sitting in a bare, one-room apartment and nursing your delusions with Camels and Southern Comfort all day.

So, as I say, I was assigned to meet with this guy and assess his ‘progress’, of which there was, to be honest, virtually none. Well, maybe the fact that he wasn’t out stabbing people or causing the police any trouble. But for Sonny, progress mostly meant keeping his inner demons at bay, rather than ‘getting better’ in the sense that a layman would think of it. In truth, he was an odd duck who unfortunately got caught up in an odd war, and it had ‘affected’ him. I remember his mental disability was rated as 80% ‘service-connected’, which meant that somebody, at some point, had determined that whatever happened in Korea had significantly degraded whatever pre-service mental stability he’d ever had. I wouldn’t know, because he wouldn’t talk about the war, or his experiences in Korea, though I asked. I let it go at that. It’s not like in the movies, where you help a guy ‘recover’ lost memories of how a sadistic platoon sergeant sent him out on night patrol for kicks, knowing the area was infested by North Koreans, and then he sobs into a pillow and screams, “I hate him! I hate him!” for an hour, and is miraculously cured.

Nope, Sonny was ‘gone’, for good, and nobody knew, really, what caused it, or ever would. My guess is that, like I said, he was a very odd guy who was probably barely making it in civilian life, and never should have been subjected to whatever things he went through in war – things that would probably have made even a normal man a bit odd for the rest of his life, but pushed this fragile guy around the bend for good.

I didn’t look forward to my assignment: the guy not only had that molasses accent that meant ‘ignorance’ to me, but a major mouth on him, too, to go along with a chip on his shoulder about everything and everybody in general. He had earned his paranoid ‘wings’ honestly: when he wasn’t being crazy, he could slash and carve with the best of ’em, and sometimes the staff almost hoped he was in his private delusions so that he wouldn’t spray around that verbal machine-gun fire and disrupt the staff and patients with his accusations. He was just crazy enough to harbor wild suspicions about everybody, but just un-crazy enough that his suspicions had the ring of truth and could really hurt.

I thought I would try and put him at ease with some small talk, establishing ‘rapport’. After he had taken his seat, I noticed him looking at a poster on the wall – of a castle. I nodded towards it. “Pretty amazing place.”

His eyes shifted from the poster to me, and back. “Oh yeah?”

I nodded. “Yeah – it’s in Austria.”

He smiled. “You mean, that place near Germany?”

Wow, this was going better than I expected. He was ‘responsive’. Actually, I had been to the castle, but I didn’t want to flaunt that in front of him, not now, when we were doing so well. I played it low-key. “Yeah – I guess Hitler stole their country for a while there, but they got it back after World War II.”

He nodded.

Why stop now, when I was doing so well? “I hear Walt Disney used it as the model for the castle in one of his cartoons.”

He pointed. “You mean, that castle?”

I nodded, enthusiastically.

He pounced. “You mean, Neuschwanstein?”

Paranoid schizophrenia: 1

Bernstein the Intern: 0

I scrambled to regain lost ground. “So – you were stationed in Germany?”

“Nope, never seen the place – I think it’s pretty common knowledge that Ludwig II built it as a refuge for himself. Like me, he didn’t particularly like people.” Spoken with no accent – could have been elocuted by an Oxford don.

Johnny Reb: 2

Yankee Fool: 0

Of course, you know what I was thinking at that point, but he even anticipated that.

He smiled at me, knowingly, his accent back full strength. “Yeah, yeah – if ah’m so smart, what the hail am ah doin’ heah? Well, what the hail else ah got to do? They don’t make no jobs for crazy folks, and gals don’t cotton to ’em much, neither, an’ that’s a fack.” He paused. “Ah on’y tail you this cuz ah lah’k ya.” He paused, then muttered, “Y’all done good with Bobby.”

I racked my brain, and finally made the connection. “Bobby” must have referred to a black patient the staff called Robert – who insisted on being called Robert, in fact. Some of the staff had been trying to transfer him to another unit because he was annoying and provocative to staff and other patients. I dimly remembered a heated discussion at the nurses’ desk weeks earlier, where I had pointed out that his ‘problems’ were precisely why he was here in the first place, and that to transfer him because of them ran counter to the whole purpose of our being there. Apparently Sonny had overheard the conversation, or someone else had, and passed it down the grapevine.

But two things really struck me: one, that a confirmed Southern redneck had appreciated my standing up for a black man. And two, the realization that the white patients apparently called him Bobby all along. It took me a long time, but because of this incident and others, I realized that Southerners didn’t just ‘hate’ black people, pure and simple, as I’d thought. White Southerners saw black people almost as children – hence the automatic use of the diminutive (even affectionate) ‘Bobby’, a name which Robert probably accepted as normal from them. And, they felt in a sense protective of blacks, as they would toward children. From their point of view, the real problems only came when blacks didn’t know their ‘place’, and therefore forfeited their status as protected children. Yes, I know it’s called paternalism, and like I say, it’s ugly and I don’t condone it, and it had to change, but I learned that it wasn’t as simple as pure hate, either. As someone once said, stereotypes work best from a distance. Once you get up close and personal, it’s a little more complex.

I think Sonny had used up all his energy making his ‘point’ with me. Soon after his victory over my own ‘paternalism’, he lapsed back into his psychotic delusions, and though he nodded to me, vaguely, whenever he saw me, we never really connected again.

But I’ll never forget, and will always honor, even the momentary glimpse I was afforded, into the mind of what could have been an extraordinary man.

(Coming Soon: The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Just Passing Through

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We live and we die
Like fireworks
Our legacies hide
In the embers
May our stories catch fire
And burn bright enough
To catch God’s eye

We live and we die

Like fireworks
We pull apart the dark
Compete against the stars
With all of our hearts
Till our temporary brilliance turns to ash
We pull apart the darkness while we can
In the Embers – Sleeping At Last

What’s a nice species like us doing in a place like this? We live and we die, and we know it; we are glory, we are dust, and we know it; we are giants in the earth, we are a hunk of bones, just passing through, and we know it. We are prisoners on death row, who don’t even have the grace of knowing how death is coming, or when. But that, exactly, is our glory – here we are, in this impossible, ludicrous situation, but we make the best of it.

Oh sure, we live in denial of what’s coming – of death, of physical breakdown, of the indignities of aging. Sometimes I think there should be a Dying Anonymous for all of us, where we have to get up in the meetings and say, ‘Hi, my name is Joe Jones, and I’m going to die.”

In his book, Living Your Dying, author Stanley Keleman describes two normal phases in the great flow of human life: Self-expanding is expressive, reaching out beyond the physical body to newness and social interaction; Self-collecting gathers inward, withdrawing from the social world to define the self and its boundaries. We see these pulsations constantly in therapy.

New therapists are often surprised that, after a dynamic, boundary-stretching session, the following session is comparatively ‘dead’, quiet and more pulled back. But this is exactly how growth and change occur, in pulses: expansion, then consolidation; rupture, then repair.

For example, in one session, someone might experience deep despair, feeling meaningless, hopeless, and hollow. If they are allowed to ‘drink deeply’ of that despair, to experience it fully, to breathe into it, held emotionally by the therapist, the next session might seem relatively tame, disconnected, thoughtful, leading the therapist to wonder if he is doing something ‘wrong’. But if the therapist stays with it, honoring the flow of experience, it pays off. On the way out the door, the patient might turn and say, “You know, I used to love dancing.” What does this mean? It means ‘Thank you’, it means ‘With your help, I’m remembering myself’, and it means that, if we can stand up to despair together, like facing a bully, there might be a way out of this. Does the patient know this? No. Do you say any of this out loud? Of course not – but you file it away, you hold it emotionally for the patient, and, most likely, you sigh to yourself that maybe, like Scherezade, you’ve earned the right to therapize another day.

So we face crazy, impossible things, like the unknown, our physical limitations, death and infirmity, sometimes alone, sometimes together. Where I used to work, in an alcohol rehab program, there was a poster up on the wall – a picture of a mouse, standing on the railroad tracks, giving the finger to an oncoming train. The caption was,

The last great act of defiance

In a way, we are all that mouse, insisting, in the face of overwhelming evidence all around us, that we MATTER. We pulse, expanding and consolidating, reaching out and withdrawing within, changing, changing, as we try to make sense of it all, find our place in it all, even though there are no ultimate answers. In Keleman’s book he tells this tale:

Plato, on his deathbed, was asked by a friend if he would summarize his great life’s work, the Dialogues, in one statement. Plato, coming out of a reverie, looked at his friend and said ‘Practice dying.’

But what does it mean, this ‘practice’? I think it means standing up to our emotional bullies within, not resisting that inside us which is trying to be born, breathing into change. In baseball, they talk of ‘making adjustments’: a kid comes into the league, with a great reputation for batting. He has torn up the minor leagues, and now he is poised to bring terror to the hearts of major league pitchers. And for a while, he does. But what happens? Major league pitchers are smart: they see his tendencies, and they adjust. They see that he is vulnerable to curve balls, low and away. Now what does the new kid do? If he is ordinary, he just continues to flail away at low-and-away curves, gradually becoming predictable, and mediocre. But if he has greatness, he adjusts back: he learns to let those curves go, forcing pitchers to throw him something hittable. And he studies them, too: he learns their tendencies, their patterns, their weaknesses, and he uses all of it against them. Life, also, is a game of adjustments. Things change, constantly. What we held on to for dear life yesterday, is lost for good; what was our best ‘material’ yesterday is irrelevant today.

So, what does Plato mean by practicing dying? Possibly, having an open attitude to changes, the ‘little deaths’ that happen to us throughout our lives. It means being light on our feet in the face of new information, not being unduly attached to ideas, images, or the status quo, not having to have things a certain way, being willing to not be in control all the time. And, maybe most of all, being committed to seeing things as they are. This doesn’t mean being wishy-washy, passive or uncaring. It doesn’t mean not being yourself. It means standing there and bringing your Self to each situation, meeting reality face to face and engaging it fully, in all its complexity, sitting with unsureness, if necessary, until a greater whole presents itself.

We all have our ‘tendencies’, to be sure – these are the legacy, for better or worse, of our early family lives, our genetic predispositions, our unique interactive experiences with life. And to some extent, we are all prisoners of our tendencies. The famous psychologist Alice Miller once wrote a remarkable book, which she called Prisoners of Childhood. It discussed exactly this – how we are all shackled, to a greater or lesser degree, to our early childhood experiences. The book didn’t sell well. Finally, she changed the name to The Drama of the Gifted Child. Sales took off and it became a best-selling classic. No need to explain why: we don’t want to know our ‘tendencies’, our limitations, our flaws. But, if we are willing to face them, to “adjust back” to life, we can do great things, and even if we don’t do great things, we can do ordinary things with a kind of greatness.

I have read quite a bit about prisoner of war experiences in World War II. One of the most surprising things I learned was the importance of rumors. Incorrect rumors. Yes, in memoirs man after man wrote that rumors, most of them begun by the prisoners themselves, were a major source of hope and ‘entertainment’. At first, I was shocked: I would have thought it would make a prisoner enraged to hear that, say, “General MacArthur is forming a 200,000 man army and is only two weeks from returning to free us”, and then learn that it is Wrong. But rumors were a cheap, available and defiant means of keeping up hope and morale, something the Japanese guards could not control, or codify, or influence. They became an expression of creativity, a way of keeping the men open to possibility, and a middle finger raised to the oncoming train.

So, yes, it’s true that death is the oncoming train in all of our lives. We are all on death row, prisoners of childhood, living on rumors. Our position is laughable to some, ludicrous to others, and wholly absurd to anyone who is a fair witness to it all. If you ask ‘heroes’ about their outrageous acts of bravery, they will invariably say, “I was just doing my job.”

And that’s what we do. If we are ludicrous, we are also magnificent: we “pull apart the darkness while we can”, and if we do not live forever, well, we do our best to live now, and that is heroic – that is our job.

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Ready To Fly

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I am standing on the edge of the water,

And I am watching the wild birds fill the sky.

And I am longing to be lifted up among them,

I am not dying – I’m getting ready to fly.

Ready to Fly, by Calaveras*

*Check this song out on the link before you go on. No really – go listen. I’ll wait.

(Dum de dum de dum, la la la, I’m waiting for this amazing, perceptive reader to listen to the song and get back to me, because he/she knows I really meant it when I said “Listen to the song first”.)

Oh, you’re back, having listened to the song! Wow – you’re so amazing and perceptive. Oh, I already said that? Well, that’s okay – it never hurts to put some frosting on the cake!

Good – now that we’re on the same wavelength.

Today we’re going to talk about the deep, dark secret of Western civilization:

Life Ends

(Shhhh, don’t tell! Of course, we can talk about it here, albeit in whispers, because everything that happens on a therapy blog is confidential, right?)

So, yes it’s true – we actually do die at some point. If we last that long, we get old, then older, and then, yep, we up and die. Yes, ALL of us, sport! We don’t know when, we don’t know how: it’s like Russian roulette, but without Zero or Double Zero. Of course, we can “take care of ourselves” in the hopes that this will prolong our lives and provide ‘quality of life’ for endless years. Kind of like Robert Mitchum said in Out of the Past when his girlfriend was playing roulette and losing, big:

Mitchum: That isn’t the way to play it.

Girlfriend: Why not?

Mitchum: Because it isn’t the way to win.

Girlfriend: Is there a way to win?

Mitchum: Well, there’s a way to lose more slowly.

So yeah, sport, you can exercise, you can eat right, you can have so many air bags in your car it would take off if you had an accident. You can ingest vitamins and supplements and Echinacea and ayurvedic balms and homeopathic remedies. You can stand on your head, gobble brewer’s yeast, do puzzles to keep your brain sharp, meditate to achieve mindfulness, and guzzle goji berry juice, acai berry juice and phosphatidylserine elixir, but in the end, there’s still, well,  the end.

There are plenty of books about it, from Living Your Dying to the Stephen Levine books, to The Denial of Death (not for the faint of heart, that one) but all the reading in the world won’t change the fact that, in the final analysis, we’re all taking that long walk on that short plank, and there are no reprieves, last-minute pardons, or stays of execution for the likes of us.

So, all of us are busy interviewing old people all the time, to find out how to do it, to get tips on what aging is like, and to educate ourselves precisely on just what it is to have everyone you know gone, to have no one left who remembers you or your past, to feel all alone in the world, to hurt physically and lose it mentally, right? We just sit ’em down and pick their brains endlessly about adjusting to times they don’t understand, about not having what they know valued anymore, and about how to deal with the fact that everyone’s  younger than them – right?

What do you mean, No? You mean we’re NOT all studying and talking to old people all the time? Are you telling me we just barrel into old age — the hardest thing most of us will ever do – on a wing and a prayer?

What’s wrong with this picture? Can anyone explain this stuff to me?

Okay, let’s pretend you’re an average American young person and I’m teaching your anthropology class, thusly:

________________________________________________________________________

Me: You – you, sir, the one in the back with the shaved head and the nose ring.

Nose Ring: Well, old people are, like, you know – weird and creepy.

Me: What do you mean, weird and creepy?

N.R.: Well, they look kind of gross, and besides, they’re all totally out of it.

Me: Out of what?

N.R.: Look, they don’t know anything, man: music, movies, tech, anything that’s, you know, like, actually happening.

Me: Yes, but they had their version of all those things, right? I mean, they had their music, their movies, even their tech: they’ve been there.

N.R.: Been where?

Me: Life. They’ve been there. They could be a kind of, you know, GPS, to life, to aging, to survival, for the rest of us: pathfinders.

N.R.: That still doesn’t deal with the wrinkles, the sagging, all the stuff that’s gross and basically, you know, depressing.

Me: Why is it depressing? Because their faces are a road map of where we’re all heading?

N.R.: Hmm, maybe. Dude, I just don’t want to see or be around that shit, is all I know.

Me: (Looking at the whole group) Is this true? Does he speak for all of you?

Group: (Hanging heads, looking down, pawing the ground.)

Me: Do I take your silence to mean Yes?

Group: (Hanging heads, looking down, pawing the ground, muttering.)

Me: So, let’s review: For the biggest Final any of us is ever going to take, we are not going to study with the only people who could possibly teach us how to prepare for it, how to take it, how to do well on it, how to learn from it, or how to make it be the best it can be – is that what you’re telling me?

Group: (Shuffling of feet)  Woman in red head scarf raises her hand.

Me: Yes?

Red Scarf: Dr B – just because they’re old, that doesn’t mean they know anything.

Dude In Back: (Waving hand in air) Are we allowed to use our vape sticks in here?

Me: Is that what’s important? Really?

DIB: Totally.

Me: Are you using it to quit smoking?

DIB: Duh – yeah, dude. Well, you know, sorta.

Me: Well then, how about learning how to quit smoking, from a generation that smoked all the time?

DIB: Like Mad Men?

Me: Yeah, but for real, not some fake sissy American Spirit herbal cigarettes on a TV show.

DIB: That’s a thought. But they never vaped, dude.

Me: No – they had a little trick they used: it was called Cold Turkey. And if they could quit that way, and you can’t even quit with the fabulous vape stick, maybe they could teach you some things.

Red Scarf: Excuse me – I was trying to say something.

Me: Oh, I’m sorry – sometimes even the Therapy Blogger makes mistakes. Go on, Red.

RS: I was saying that just because they’re old, it doesn’t mean they know any more than we do.

Me: That’s true – they don’t, necessarily, but just because they’re old, they have at least a pretty good chance of knowing more than you do, wouldn’t you say? Think of it this way: wouldn’t you hope, and expect, that you’d know more at 75 than you do now, at 20-something? And if you were 75,  would you want all you’ve been through, all your knowledge, just discarded because you’re old? I mean, we now have laws about elder abuse, but do you notice no one ever talks about elder use?

RS: Well, what do they have to teach us? What it used to be like? What good’s that do us, now?

Me: You think life was just invented in the last twenty years?

DIB: (Waving hand in air) Excuse me – my vape stick won’t draw. Can I be excused to rewind my coil?

Me: I give up – class dismissed. Assignment for next week: five hundred words on what you would ask if you  put on a Hazmat suit, and actually talked to an old person, face-to-face.

DIB: I’m an artist – do I have to use words? Can I use, like, sketches and drawings and shit?

Me: Listen, Picasso, you can take that vape stick and stick it . . .

RS: Dr. B – please! Don’t forget, you’re the teacher!

Me: Oh, thank you, Red, it almost slipped my mind there for a moment. If a teacher falls in the woods and no one learns anything, is he still a teacher?

RS: Well, you’re trying to teach us to talk to old people, right? Well, you’re old and we’re talking to you, aren’t we?

Me: (Sigh) Didn’t I hear somebody say “Class Dismissed”?

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Well, there you have it: we’re all on the bumpy road to Old Age, but nobody wants to do any personal research on it, like we would for any other form of endeavor. My god, if we buy a car, a dishwasher, or even a new set of tires, we do endless study on it, we talk to people, we read reviews and we obsess for weeks before making a decision. But you don’t see anyone knocking on the doors of retirement homes, or seeking informational interviews with the ‘inmates’. There are no unpaid internships with elders, there are no “Aging Gracefully” classes being offered at junior colleges, there are no bestsellers: How to Age Like You Like It, or The Years Are My Best Friend, or Doddering Your Way to Wisdom and Joy. We treat aging, and therefore death, like it was the plague, like even being around old people might be catching, like cooties. And yet we analyze, research, categorize, and poke our noses into everything else that goes on in life. Why not death?

Because we’re scared – and we’re not even subtle about it:

Death?
I don’t want to talk about it.

Aging?
Call my attorney.

Senility? Forgetfulness? Loss of sight, hearing, balance, memory?
Don’t call us, we’ll (not) call you!

Sexual decline? Hair in your ears?  Shaky hands? Having to move out of your own house, to be “put in a home”, where you have the honor of living in sterile segregation from the rest of society – for your own good, of course?
Take a number – a high number.

Reminds me of Casey Stengel, the former manager of the New York Yankees, who, after many years of unparalleled success, and multiple World Series championships, was unceremoniously dumped by management, ostensibly for being too old. His response?

“I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again.”

Our obsession with youth, our denial of aging, of death, our trying to thwart the years, to slather ourselves with potions to stay the hands of time – these things aren’t just minor societal quirks; they are a rejection of a part of ourselves, of something that all “flesh is heir to”, that should be a mark of dignity, an ‘honorable estate’. I’ve always thought (yes, even when I was a kid) that there is nothing more impressive than a man or woman who has come through the many years intact, who still finds good reason to get up every morning, who still believes in things, takes joy in things, finds things to appreciate, and at long last, has come to terms with, and maybe even found beauty in, our finitude, our limitations, and our imperfections.

This is something to be proud of, just as a couple who has been there for each other through the long seasons of life, for forty, fifty, sixty years – has something to be proud of, for the rest of us to honor, to learn from, to study, to revere. It’s easy to feel hopeful and full of yourself, to feel possibility is unlimited, to rub shoulders with immortality, at 25. But to feel hopeful at 80, to respect yourself, to look in the mirror and see the good, strong years reflected back – that is a big deal. To be an older couple who still loves one another, still laughs together, and cries together, and has found out what it really means to love another person deeply, 50 years after the crush is over – now, that is a big deal.

I mean, we’ve all memorized the Five Stages of Grief, right? What stages do we go through when we are confronted with something new, something hard, that we can’t deal with? : Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, then Acceptance. Well, folks, as a society, as far as aging and death, we’re all, embarrassingly, still in kindergarten: Stage One – Denial. Like the old joke about bringing a knife to a gunfight: in the marathon of life, we’re trying to run the 100 yard dash. Then we’re shocked, shocked, when we get to the last third of the race and find ourselves exhausted and helpless: of course we are – we only trained for the 100! There are millions of older people out there who are at the Acceptance stage: why don’t we ask them how they got there?

But no – our idea of ‘researching’ the aging process is to ask some old guy,

“So what’s your secret?”

And what answer do we want back? Something that takes work, or maturity, or time? Hell no: we want to hear,

“Kale,” or “Raw honey,” or “Bee propolis.” Something easy and quick, that we can take, or swallow, or toss down without addressing anything more than two inches, or two years, in front of our own noses.

So, let us all take a vow to prepare ourselves for aging, rather than just clinging desperately to youth, to open our minds, just a little bit, to older people, to listen to them and not dismiss everything they have gone through, everything they have to offer. Let us try and envision what it would be to welcome old age, to pack away, carefully, all the memories and lessons of our youth, but to ALSO have respect and veneration for those things that it takes long years to anneal, to harden, to forge into something beautiful, but beautiful in a new way, not physically, but spiritually.

Let us all face our older lives with grace and dignity, so that, when it is our turn to go, we can smile and say,

I am not dying – I’m getting ready to fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

BK

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Today I want to talk about King Kong. No, not the Big Themes, like Beauty and the Beast, or human chauvinism, but something smaller and quieter. No, today I want to talk about BK.

As you probably remember (and I’m talking here about the recent remake, not the original film), early in the film Kong snatches Ann Darrow and, after a long and harrowing journey through the jungles of Skull Island, they finally arrive at his ‘home base’, a high, craggy cliff face. Behind it is an ancestral cave, replete with the skulls of Kong’s dead ancestors – he being the lone surviving member of his line – and in front of it is a magnificent, sweeping view of the island. Ann, recovering a bit from the horror of the abduction and the journey, sees Kong looking out over his world, and for an instant, she understands not only his loneliness in being the last of his kind, but his pride and glory in his kingdom. She touches her heart as she speaks to him: “Beautiful – it is beautiful,” and in some sense, Kong seems to understand, and to see that he is understood. She has seen, and accepted from him, perhaps the most important thing that he can offer. She has understood the magnificence of his primacy over this land, and his sadness in ruling over it alone.

Much later, when he has fled to the top of the Empire State Building, with Ann again at his side, they look down over the glittering city, for a moment safe, for a moment triumphant, and she again touches her heart and says to him, “Beautiful”, and he seems to understand, and this is their bond. He has given her something, passed on a legacy, a gift of the heart, that will live on in her, that will supersede him: his Beautiful Kingdom – BK.

At the beginning of my career, I worked for years in inpatient alcohol programs. I was the ‘hired gun’, the psychologist who came in and ran groups composed of lots of tough union guys – those who had good benefits and could afford expensive inpatient treatment. It would be thirty guys, thirty cigarettes going, in a closed room, for two hours at a time. Crazy, and fun, too – but that’s a tale for another time.

Right now, I want to talk about the wife of a particular inpatient. The program, like most, included treatment and support for the families of the inpatients, helping them come to terms with the reality of alcoholism, that it is an illness, that it can be treated but cannot just ‘go away’, that the family members need support too, to help them stop centering their entire lives around the drinker, to create meaningful lives of their own, whether they stayed or left the alcoholic.

This particular woman, I’ll call her Jackie, had the wide-eyed look of a total innocent, despite all she had been through with her husband’s drinking. There was an indomitable naivete about her, a freshness and openness to life that hadn’t been degraded by the loneliness and frustration of being the wife of a heavy drinker who was killing himself, literally (cardiomyopathy and cirrhosis), and his family, metaphorically, daily.

I ended up seeing Jackie in individual therapy some time later. Her life continued to be hard and hurtful. She eventually did work up the courage to leave her husband, but never hated him or blamed him, although this was certainly not her life plan. Conservative, sweet Jackie even had a brief get-together with a married executive in her industry, whom she still, respectfully, called “Mr. ___________”, throughout their entire relationship.

She still had to raise her children and keep a household together, on very little money. But she maintained her spirit, her joy and her spunk, regardless of the curve balls life threw at her. My ‘job’ was to teach her to be more guarded, more questioning, more realistic, more protective of her own boundaries and limits, and less susceptible to shady situations and unkept promises.

But she was doing a job, too – on me. She would spend an entire session trying to decide whether pimentos should go in her potato salad. She would ask me to explain, in detail, once again, “Why can’t people be nicer?” She would talk about a section of Berkeley where she grew up, and draw word pictures of Ozzie’s Soda Fountain, a place where all the kids hung out, that made me feel I had grown up there too, that made me agree with her that, yes, it really was a shame that the gang at Ozzie’s was not there anymore.

One Halloween, she came to therapy dressed in a witch outfit, complete with pointy hat, with orange and black cupcakes she had made, with orange and black candles in them, which she set down on my table and lit, saying, with pure joy, “Now, look how pretty these are.”

Of course, I was a young, earnest therapist, a ‘serious’ therapist, and on some level I considered all this to be humoring her until we could get to the real stuff, the deep stuff; it was all probably just resistance to the treatment, a way of roping me into her obliviousness to reality – maybe I was just colluding with her denial? How could she ever get better if she didn’t get down and muck around in the grime of reality? Of course, we talked about her past, and she came to understand some of her patterns. I once even tried to point out how the Halloween session might have been a way of avoiding reality.

She looked hurt.

I never did that again. But I did keep worrying about how she was ever going to get better if she didn’t do the ‘deep work’. But Jackie did get better. A few years later, she found and married a wonderful man who loved her a lot. She was happy – a well-deserved happiness if ever there was one. She would finally have the life she deserved.

A short while later, I got the news: Jackie had been killed in a traffic accident. A drunk driver swerved and hit her head-on.

I wondered about fate, about god, about luck, about deserving — and undeserving. I was mad, I cried and thought about the unfairness of life and all the other things that you think about when bad things happen to good people. And, in a strange, maybe selfish way, I felt cheated, too – cheated of the life she should have had because of all the work we had done together.

But as time went on, I came to realize that I still had the time we had spent together. I still had the smiling face, the courage, the unreasonable optimism, I still had Ozzie’s, and the Halloween cupcakes.

All of this was her legacy to me, her beautiful kingdom.

BK.

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.