Sunday, April 30, 2017

One Year After

One Year After

It’s been a year since my work with Julie ended. Yet, it feels much longer than that. Much has happened since then…more so than I can detail here. You’d have to read previous blog posts from the past year to catch up. Instead of a list of misfortunes, and minor victories, I’m going to reflect on where I’m at since therapy ended.

I feel that in some ways I’m better. But, there’s still a lot of work to be done. I was under the misapprehension, when I began therapy, that it was a cure all. That one would be completely perfect after the therapist finished their work on the client. Truth be told, that’s not how therapy works. The client does all the work, while the therapist acts as a guide. The client must commit to the work outside of the office. The office itself is a place where ideas are spoken, but the actions of the therapy are committed in the world outside. I have always taken the lessons I’ve learned from therapy into the world around me. Julie would be proud of that.

I may enter therapy again at some point. Another “episode of care” may be needed, but for the time being, I want to continue without a therapist. I want to see what lessons I can learn on my own from the teachers around me. I’ve realized recently that there is much I need to learn. There will always be more to learn. That’s a good thing, even when it seems like I’ll never learn enough.

Perhaps that is also a good thing. One can never learn enough.

There was a lot that happened in my past. But for me, therapy isn’t about the past. It may begin with detangling the past, and working through it. But good therapy is about improving the present, so that one may have a better future. You change old patterns, and make a better version of yourself.

That is a work in progress, one that never ends.

As the cliché says, “A thousand-mile journey begins with one step.”

Let’s walk this journey together. It leads to great things.

Copyright Riley Joyce 2017

Image: Psyche in the Temple of Love--Edwin John Pointer 

One Hell of Hero

One Hell of Hero

I was talking with a new co-worker about Dr. Who. I had mentioned to her that I visited England last year, and would return this year. She got a bit jealous, and then said, “Your parents must have left you a lot of money.”

Honestly, it’s not that expensive. If you know the right websites, and book during the right time, it’s very affordable.

I knew she was joking, but hearing it triggered something.

I calmly said, “My mother didn’t leave me any money.”

That’s not entirely true, as she had some pocket change, but that was about it. I didn’t keep that money for myself. Instead, I spent it to buy Yesterday some cat food. It still feels weird not to buy her food, though she’s been gone since February.

My co-worker looked at me, and saw how serious I was.

I then said, “My mother passed away last year.”


“Yes, she did. July 26th.”

“Oh, my God. I feel like a dick. It had to be on my birthday.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “You had no way of knowing.”
She then asked, “Was it cancer?”

“No,” I replied.

I admitted that I didn’t want to go into the specifics of it at work. But, I did tell her the cause of death.

I didn’t launch into the story because I didn’t have the time for it, nor did I want to repeat it. It’s difficult enough to even think about it, let alone tell it again. So much so that I haven’t read over the blog entry where I wrote about her death. There’s probably typos all over it, but I don’t know if I can proof read it. God knows how I’ll feel when I eventually do read it again. Though, truth be told, my memory of that day is still vivid. It always will be.

I then added, “I lost my mom, but I’m not a superhero or anything. I’m just me.”

My coworker than said, “You study psychology. You’ve been to England. You lost your mom. I was going to make a Batman reference, but that would be wrong now. I don’t believe you’re not a superhero.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I smiled a little, and then we went back to work.

Truth be told, I identify more with Daredevil, but Batman is a great compliment. Still, I’m no superhero. I don’t have special powers. I make a lot of mistakes. I sometimes say the wrong thing at the wrong moment. I don’t have six-pack abs. As for a costume…I guess the flat cap and army jacket count. I try not to prowl the streets at night, as there’s really not much to do late in the city. That, and I usually work early, or have class early. Even denizens of the night need to sleep.

I sometimes think I’m on a hero’s journey. Julie was the first one to point that out. It was something I had kept secret, because I thought it sounded silly.

I told Lady Faye recently, and she said, “There’s nothing silly about that. The world needs heroes.”

So, I try. I think that’s all anyone can do.

I believe that every experience I have builds me in some way. I try to see each of them as learning experiences. I see the people I love and admire as my teachers. They are all guides through a world of uncertainty. I learn what I can from each of them.

I don’t know if I’m a hero. Or, if I’ll ever become one. What I do know is that I’m propelled forward to do better today than I did the day before. Despite the mistakes I make along the way, I keep trying. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. But I believe that what awaits me in the future is better than what happened in the past. I also believe that if one does persist, one does succeed. It won’t be easy, but it can happen.

I also believe that where ever the journey leads me…it will be some place amazing.

Hopefully, I can rack up some frequent flier miles in the process. But I’m not shelling out for spandex.

Copyright Riley Joyce 2017

Photo: Copyright Riley Joyce 2017. 
The photo was taken on Halloween night of 1989. Me as Batman. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Disorder Vs. Reaction

Disorder Vs. Reaction

            As my time in abnormal psych class ends, I’m reflecting on the most important thing I’ve learned from that class.

            The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) has a very long, contradictory history. The title itself sounds like a guide book for fixing your car. Instead, it’s a list of mental maladies, and their symptoms. It doesn’t list how to treat the disorders, or why the disorders occur. All it does is give a description of each form of mental illness. Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Anxiety Disorder are all there. There’s even been a few disorders that were removed, and some that have recently been added. It’s a fluid document that is capable of being changed. These changes occur due to politics, culture, and the persistence of pharmaceutical companies. That doesn’t mean that psychology is quackery, or that all the illnesses in the DSM are illegitimate. What it means is that we must be careful how we label mental “illness.”

            I learned during my studies that the illnesses weren’t always called disorders. They were once referred to as reactions; meaning that one experienced a form of psychological irritation, which then lead discomfort. One became depressed, for example, not from being disordered mentally, but from a reaction to a stimulus that caused the depression. The key then is to find the stimulus, and remove it. Or, more likely, explore the stimulus to defuse its potency.

That has always been my basic knowledge of therapy; find the cause, find the “cure.” I’ve since learned that it isn’t so much about finding a cure. It’s more about finding a way to cope. Good therapy is about helping someone manage their mental health, rather than fixing them. We are people not machines. We mend, but we do not have magic spanners to do it for us. If a therapist literally could use a tool box to fix people, they would. But, it’s not that simple. It never was, and never will be. Even the ancient shamans knew that.   

            When I first heard of psychology, I was a child. I was exposed to the stereotypical image of a client reclining on a sofa, as their therapist took notes. I saw this in cartoons, movies, television shows, etc. We’ve all seen that image. I was surprised to find that my first therapist, Jessica, did not do that. Instead, she faced me, and sat on the carpeted floor, as did I. Though, there were a few occasions where I did recline on a sofa, and she did sit in plush recliner. When talking with Julie, she sat in a leather “captain’s chair,” and I sat on a sofa across from her. At no point did I ever lay down on it. Though looking back on it now, I kind of wished I had, just to play up the image.

            That image came to us from Sigmund Freud, as this was how he conducted his sessions. He wanted his patients to be comfortable, as they’d be talking to him for an hour. But even more so, they’d be talking about difficult things. They needed something to lay back on, especially when in heightened emotional states. Not much has changed since then. Therapists still need their sofas.

I’ve also noticed that they need photos of plants, and loud carpeting. When it comes time to decorate my office, I’ll make sure to avoid orange (inside joke I can’t reveal), or “baby food” green. These seem to be the most common colors in therapist’s offices these days. I’d opt for real plants as well, not just pictures of nature.

Either way, the idea is to create a safe space where the client, or patient, can talk. They need to feel safe. Above all, they need to feel it’s okay to be human.

That brings me back to the concept of disorder vs. reaction.

To say that someone has a disorder would be to suggest that there is such a thing as an “order.” What constitutes an “order” for mental health? We could simply say that it’s someone that acts like everyone else. But, what if everyone else is off their chump? I’m reminded of the H.G. Wells story The Country of the Blind, in which a group of isolated people believe they are living inside the Earth, instead of on top of it. They are all blind due to inbreeding, and as a result, believe whatever they are told. They cannot see the world for themselves, so they relied solely on belief.

How often is the world like that?

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man may very well be king. They are the outsider, but that doesn’t mean they special apart from anyone else. They just see things differently. As a professor once told me, “Normal is just average. It’s not necessarily healthy.” I’d rather be healthy instead of normal.

Maybe that person with anxiety disorder is just more sensitive to stress? Maybe the person with depression feels deeply, and needs to explore those feelings?

There are conditions such as bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, which are indeed real biogenic and psychogenic illnesses. A person with either condition will need medication, as well as talk therapy. The medication itself isn’t a cure, but leveling mechanism. It brings the person to a state where they can focus long enough to talk about what irks them, and provokes their respective condition.

That brings me to the condition itself.

When I had depression, I knew it had a root cause. It wasn’t something I caught like the common cold. It had a point of origin that needed to be traced. Similarly, my anxiety also has a similar point of origin. I was able to trace the depression, and lift it. But, I’m still not sure about the point of origin for the anxiety. That needs a little bit of work still. Though I improved greatly with therapy. Again, it’s about management, not a definitive “cure.”

I’m only an expert on my own experiences. I can’t speak for other people who have, or have had, similar conditions. What I can say is that you are not your diagnosis. The diagnosis is a way of understanding what is wrong. It helps you to put a name on it, so that you can explore it. But it doesn’t label you. You can have bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t mean you are bipolar. I’ve heard it remarked that a cancer patient doesn’t say, “I am cancer.” Or a patient with the flu doesn’t say, “I am flu.” The label is there to explain the condition, not the person.

The symptoms themselves are part of the condition, but they are only just that; symptoms. They are the signs of a root cause, not the cause itself.

As Viktor Frankl once wrote, “Depression is not a sign of illness, but a sign of existential crisis.” It means that something isn’t being addressed, or something hasn’t been explored that should be. It can cause disorder in a person’s life. But the ailment itself is reaction to something upsetting that happened to the person.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, likewise is a reaction. It makes sense that one would be upset if they were in combat, and saw lives being taken around them. It makes sense that one experiences trauma, and then feels a heightened state of alert, to protect one’s own existence. It even makes sense that one may feel anger, frustration, even remorse after such events. These are not signs of weakness, but signs of humanness.

            While I acknowledge the reality of mental illness, I also acknowledge our difficulty with expressing empathy for it. I feel that is now changing in our culture. I see it more so across the pond than I do in my own backyard. I don’t think America is quite there yet for the frank discussions that mental health advocates are having in the U.K. and Europe. But I sure hope they get there soon.

I think part of that lack of empathy is fear. Fear that one may have such ailments, and not be treatable. Is it possible to find a cure for being human? No. But what we can find is a greater understanding of being human. We can learn that disorders do not make us monsters. They make us acknowledge our own frailty, and the reality of living in a world that was always difficult.

We are all, in a way, reacting to something. Our emotions; love, hate, anger, slightly being annoyed, massively annoyed, and even mildly pissy on a Wednesday afternoon stuck in traffic, are all signs of reactions. There is inspiration to love, just as there is inspiration to anger. Could there not also be inspiration to sadness, or joy?

I believe then that the key to understanding mental illness is to treat the person, not the condition. Using that method, we will then understand not only the stimulus that caused the illness, we will understand something far greater. We will understand the person, and ourselves.

Text Copyright Riley Joyce 2017

Above image: Copies of the various versions of the DSM. Copyright, Riley Joyce 2014.
Below image: autumn leaf after rain. Copyright, Riley Joyce 2016

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interlude One: Reflection in Blue

When I was still working with Julie, she once asked me, “What was the last happy memory you have?”

There have been several, but they are often tainted by some form of heartache, so I reached for one from my childhood.

I said to her, “I remember being eight years old, and seeing the moon at dusk. I was standing on a neighbor’s lawn, and my parents walked across the street to come get me. My parents and I went to the mall that night. I bought a Ghostbuster’s action figure (it was Peter Venkman!) Then we went home.”

Julie smiled a little, and even laughed. She wondered why I chose that memory. I explained to her that it was because of the mood associated with it. The sky was a perfect shade of azure (a color word I often overuse in my writing). The moon looked as if it were made of chalk. The idea that I could see the moon in day time fascinated me as a child. It still does fascinate me. I can’t get over that something that symbolizes night is visible in the day. The stars are always out as well. It’s just that the Earth reflects so much of the sun’s rays during the daytime, that one cannot see them. They are always there, even though we don’t think of them.

After my mother’s death, I got into the habit of finding a secluded spot to see the stars. This was difficult where I was living at the time, as there was so much light pollution about. The black canvas of the night sky was drowned out by the nearby city. Even the porchlights of nearby houses, which glittered like jewels in the hills, competed with the stars, and won. Still, I found a place and I’d look at them. I could even see a faint gossamer strand of The Milky Way, which is hard to do where I lived then.

As a child, I’d sometimes look at the stars, and be slightly frightened. Though I pressed on, and would try to identify each constellation. The fear was from the thought of “The Heavens,” which I associated with heaven, the afterlife, and death. I had this vision of souls wandering among the clouds above, as if they were harvested from death. The heavens were where God dwelt, along with the dead.

That’s how a child thinks, imaginative, and yet concrete. Yet, I couldn’t see gods or the dead in the sky, I felt they were there. It wasn’t until I put aside that kind of horror show thinking that I realized it isn’t the dead in the heavens; it’s us. We are among the stars, twenty-four-seven. The heavens are a place for the living, for we can wonder, and wander about them. From that point on the skies took on a new meaning. They became a garden in the night, where one could gaze on the light of distant suns, as if they were flowers in bloom, eternally. Distant planets were like continents on distant shores, across a black void of an ocean.

On a spring day like this, as the sun sets, I see the blue light again. It was that same blue light that would filter through the front windows of my childhood house. It tinted everything, and everyone in the living room a fine shade of, you guessed it, azure. It was the only time the house looked beautiful to me. The place was always messy; crammed with my toys, and my mother’s Pennsylvania Dutch decorations. But with that blue wallpaper, with the little roses on it, reflecting the rays of the setting sun…there was a somber beauty to it all.

I see that blue tint, and I’m transported back. I’m an eight-year-old boy again, with a Member’s Only jacket. I’m wearing a Miami Vice t-shirt. I have camouflage sneakers, with red socks! But mostly, I’m just there. I’m in the moment, and not thinking ten steps ahead. You lose that when you’re an adult. You must think ahead, because one needs to plan, and make sure there’s nothing to worry about. That’s a good thing, in a way. But one needs to find a balance between in the moment, and looking to the future.

The future seemed so distant then. Instead, it came toward me like a rushing wave. Then, it engulfed me. Here I am now, thirty-odd years later, and it feels like it all passed in a blink. Funny, I don’t feel older. Yet, I can hear it in my voice. I’ll see a gray hair, and think, I’m still a kid. I’m not old enough to have gray hair. I guess time moves on, regardless of where you are in life…mentally or physically. That being said, I do live in the now. I still reflect, but I don’t reminisce as much as I used to.

This is a musing about time, place, and sensation. Not a lament over that lost time, or place. The sensation is still there. Whatever I find in the future, and where I go, will be better than where I came from. I just know it.    

I once painted the walls of my old bedroom blue. It’s a room that no longer exists, as the house was torn down. But it was such a dark shade of electric blue. I was bathed in that blue light every day. I once wrote on the wall next to the bedroom door, “Is this the end?” But someone, I knew it wasn’t. It’s never the end, because there is always more to see.

Now, the sky over the city is turning black. Clair de Lune is playing, and I’m losing all sensation of time and place. I’m in another time, another place. It’s one that I haven’t experienced yet. The moon is full. Its light shines through the windows of the kitchen, and casts its blue light on everything. There’s a gentle summer breeze that makes the curtains dance. There’s someone waiting for me at the table. She smiles at me. Then I know, I’m home.

Text Copyright Riley Joyce 2017

Photo of the moon in daylight: