Ithaca

Jul. 16th, 2017 11:00 pm
osprey_archer: (shoes)
I am arrived in Ithaca! The one in New York, not the Greek island, although the Greek island would also be a splendid place to visit someday.

We had a splendid dinner at a restaurant called Rulloff's, which is named after a famous nineteenth century Ithaca murderer (or famous at the time, at least; I had not heard of him until I read his famous last words written up on a chalkboard on the wall in the restaurant), and possessed of excellent food. We had crepes for dessert - or at least, we ordered crepes; I am not sure the chef understood that crepes are in fact supposed to be thinner than ordinary pancakes. However, as the pancakes were topped with raspberry compote and Nutella creamed into mascarpone, of course we forgave them their trespasses and ate them up entire.

***

And I had another thought about Oneida, which I forgot to put in my post yesterday.

Our guide mentioned that over the years in Oneida, the community voted to stop using tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. Now on the one hand, these are all pretty normal nineteenth-century candidates for reform (the Mormons also banned, and IIRC still ban, all three).

But at the same time, hearing about this reminded me of the Rat Park experiments, which were studies in morphine addiction that took place back in the seventies. Rats in ordinary lab rat cages swiftly get addicted to morphine when they're offered the opportunity to take morphine-laced water. However, Bruce Alexander discovered that rats who lived in a less restricted environment - in a structure he called Rat Park, where they had toys and (more importantly) other rats to play with - barely used the morphine water at all.

And what occurred to me is that, for all its problems - which were after all severe enough to eventually break the community apart - Oneida was basically Human Park. Here you've got all these people hanging out together all the time, even doing a lot of their work in bees (think quilting bee, not spelling bee) so it will be more social and fun, constantly putting on entertainments for each other and playing croquet together and, of course, having lots of sex. Who needs cigarettes or beer or even tea when they've got infinite croquet?

...I mean, you'd still have to pull my tea out of my cold dead hands. But then I'm not living in Oneida, now am I.

***

Although it's also worth noting that living for five years in Oneida failed to dent future presidential assassin Charles Guiteau's delusions of grandeur even slightly, so clearly all the togetherness in the world is not a panacea.
osprey_archer: (books)
If you want to despair about something, then Robert A. Forde’s Bad (Forensic) Psychology: How Psychology Left Science Behind is definitely worth a look. This book is an indictment not just of psychology as practiced in the British prison system, but of every comforting lie you ever believed about the predictive abilities of experts (all experts, though Forde is talking specifically about psychologists for most of the book): “it turns out that professionals of all levels of training and experience predict about as well as lay people,” Forde informs us. “There is abundant and increasing evidence that psychologists’ judgments are subject to exactly the same weaknesses as everyone else’s.” His book is a methodical examination of just how weak human judgment often is.

Just look at the clusterfuck that passes for treatment in prisons. One-size-fits-all treatment plans got rolled out on a nationwide scale with little or no prior testing for efficacy, only for it to turn out - when these programs are tested with adequate sample sizes - that these treatments either have no effect on recidivism, or actually make it worse.

And this is what passes for mental health care in prisons. There’s very little attempt to get actual mental healthcare to prisoners with real mental health problems (substance abuse is the big one; Forde also notes that “violence rates amongst those suffering from depression are appreciably higher than in the general population,” although “the vast majority of people with mental disorders do not commit crimes of violence, or any other kind.”). The one-size-fits-all programs are genuinely seen as universally applicable and therefore are supposed to fix the problems underlying substance abuse, which is impulse control, apparently.

(I’m not sure if the proponents of this theory also believe that better impulse control will cure depression, or if depression just doesn’t fit into their understanding of How Crime Works and so they ignore it.)

And then there’s the tragicomedy of the parole board hearing. Did you know that parole boards are more likely to grant parole after lunch than right before? There are studies to this effect. The considered opinion of the parole board is affected just as much by whether the members splurged on a sandwich platter from the deli down the street as by anything in the case files.

In fact, human judgment in general just seems to mess up parole decisions. Statistics have a 70% success rate at predicting recidivism among released criminals. In an attempt to make this prediction more accurate, parole boards often ask prison psychologists for their clinical judgment, which seems reasonable enough - except that “Clinical judgment has long been known to predict reconviction at approximately the chance level, like tossing a coin.”

The question of course arises - if treatment programs (in their current form) and parole hearings are useless, why do they continue? It’s partly inertia - these things have all been set into motion and it’s hard to stop them. In the case of treatment programs, there’s also a profit motive: the people who created the popular treatment programs are making bank, and the people who run them have a vested interest in seeing that they continue to prosper. (This is, I should add, not evidence of a sinister conspiracy, but evidence of the fact that humans are consistently blind to how much our material interests influence our judgment.)

And there’s just the plain fact that we want to do something about crime. Having a parole board seems more proactive than making parole decisions by consulting an actuarial chart of recidivism risks. Treatment programs seem more humane than simply “waiting for prisoners to get older and less impulsive,” as a judge put it to Forde when discussing Forde’s views on parole hearings - even though that’s pretty much what prisons are: holding pens in which people get older and less impulsive until they have probably aged out of their desire to batten on the general public.

Although only probably. We will never be able to predict recidivism rates with 100% accuracy. In fact, 70% seems about as high as it will go, barring some great new statistical discovery. We will have to let go of our hope for a controllable world and accept our own comparative powerlessness.
osprey_archer: (books)
And now for something completely different: a review of a memoir that I actually quite liked! Rebecca Stott's In the Days of Rain is half memoir, half family history of her family's four generations of involvement with the Exclusive Brethren, who are sort of like the Plymouth Brethren except they believe the Plymouth Brethren are not hardcore enough and in fact are especially damned for getting so close to seeing the light and then not going all the way.

This is a background guaranteed to add pep to any memoir, and Stott combines it with a thoughtful and lucid writing style and an excellent figure for a central character: her father, brilliant, charismatic, and flawed, the very definition of larger-than-life. I am glad he's not my father, but he's fascinating to read about.

The Exclusive Brethren seem to have been a fairly normal conservative sect until the sixties, when a new leader harangued his way to power by accusing everyone else of a lack of reforming zeal, at which point the Exclusive Brethren basically began to run like small-scale version of the Soviet state in the 1930s. If a sect member was suspected of breaking the rules, the Brethren would send a pair of churchmen in good standing to interrogate that person at their house, and if they did not prove repentant on the first try, to lock them away in their own house, not allowed to speak even to their family members, but only to the interrogating brothers until they were deemed sufficiently sorry. This led to a rash of excommunications and suicides.

Stott was still a child when her parents got fed up and left the group during a schism, so her viewpoint of this is inevitably rather limited. However, as Stott points out, people like her father who were involved were often too ashamed to speak of it. He was still trying to write his memoir when he died, but he just could not get past the new leader's abrupt ascent to power to the part where he himself became complicit in the system.

The abruptness of the transition really struck me: the character of the sect changed almost overnight when the new leader rose to power. It reminded me of progressive websites that I've been involved with that have begun to eat their own through this same kind of Purer Than Thou rhetoric - 50book_poc, the original Slactivist, Ana Mardoll's blog. (Mardoll's blog is a bit different in that the rot set in not through the commentariat but in Mardoll herself, but it created a toxic environment in pretty much the same way.)

Is this just something that inevitably happens to groups of humans who try to be too far morally superior to the surrounding masses? Does the attempt inevitably loop back around into hair-trigger ostracism for the masses and worshipful adulation for the few who have successfully anointed themselves holier-than-thou?
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Finished Reading

William B. Irvine’s A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt - And Why They Shouldn’t, which is about the history and social function of insults. It includes a chapter about friendly teasing & ambiguous insults, which I found especially interesting, and also a fair amount of space on how to respond to insults - one of the suggestions was to say “Thanks,” which I think is beautiful in its simplicity and ability to throw the insulter off their game. (Probably not for backhanded compliments, but otherwise.)

He also talks about the self-esteem movement a bit, the main point being that the movement saw the correlation between high self-esteem and achievement and got the causation backwards - probably, excuse my grumpiness, because cooing “You’re so special!” at everyone is so much easier than taking the time and effort to foster genuine achievement.

Irvine also makes the point - which ought to be obvious, but lots of commentators seem to miss it - that if the Millennial generation seems narcissistic, it’s because that’s the inevitable outcome of inflicting “You’re Thumbody special!” programs on a generation. You can’t din that in a generation’s ears for years and then act shocked, shocked! when they take narcissism tests and answer “Yes” to the question “Are you special?”

Unread Book Club progress: I finished Virginia Sorenson’s Miracles on Maple Hill, which has lots of delightful detail about tapping maples, wildflowers, the countryside, etc. It doesn’t go very in-depth about Marly’s father’s PTSD, but after all it’s a book about Marly, not her father, and I did think the author did a nice job showing how her father’s less-than-joyous return from a prisoner of war camp has affected Marly while balancing that with the more light-hearted “And then we met the resident mountain hermit!” bits.

What I’m Reading Now

Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I must confess I had some concerns about it: I skipped a lot of Tolkien’s poetry when I read Lord of the Rings, and long-form poems in general are not my thing. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’m liking it so far. (It helps of course that I already read & liked the story in prose.)

I’ve also started reading Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow: Forever Red, which suffers a bit from not being my Natasha headcanon, ha - but we’ll see if Stohl wins me over to hers as I keep reading. I’ve only just started, so she’s got plenty of time.

What I Plan to Read Next

Warren Lewis’s The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Lewis XIV is waiting for me at the library. Warren Lewis is C. S. Lewis’s brother and mainly remembered for that these days, although (according to The Company They Keep) his books about French history are well-researched and well-wrought reads in their own right. I have long meant to learn more about France and this seemed like a good spur to give that a go.
osprey_archer: (books)
I have been struggling for the past few days to write a review of Sarah Arthur & Erin Wasinger’s The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us, because I really liked the book - enough that I am thinking of getting a paper copy, even though I’ve already got it on my Kindle from Netgalley - but I can’t seem to find the right approach to get started.

Partly this is because there’s just so much here that one could talk about. Do I start with the idea of New Monasticism, which I had never heard of before this book, and which so intrigued me that I’ve cribbed a list of further reading from The Year of Small Things?

Or how about the critique of self-help, and not just self-help but self-reliance as a concept? The idea that we should be able to help ourselves, all on our own, with no help from the outside but a paperback, only digs us deeper into the kind of self-centered isolation that is often the problem we need help with in the first place. We try to help ourselves and wonder why it doesn’t work when we’re tackling the wrong problem - because the right one is the lack of community, which by definition we can’t change on our own.

Have you shared with anyone your hopes, your longings? Could you be so vulnerable? Because in being this boldly honest, we’re moving beyond ‘support’ as a euphemism for benign interest and into physically feeling the weight of burdens and the weightlessness of one another’s joys - truly supporting each other.

The book has two authors precisely to underscore this point: both families are interested in shaping their lives around the ideas of radical faith, and they make a covenant of mutual aid for this endeavor because they know that trying to go it alone will almost inevitably lead to backsliding. Radical faith is demanding.

One of the subthemes of the book, in fact, is the concern that radical faith is a sort of luxury good - it’s a demanding doctrine that attracts healthy young childless white people, who almost inevitably slip away from it as they grow older and get spouses and children and health problems and aging parents to care for etc. etc. etc. Is it possible to follow it while parenting small children (as both Arthur and Wasinger do) or having depression (as Wasinger does)?

Wasinger’s depression comes up throughout the book, and has a chapter largely devoted to it, which is refreshing: in self-help books (Christian and secular) that aren’t specifically about mental illness, often you can practically hear the tires screeching as the authors speed away from the topic. (This is especially funny because lots of self-help books give advice that would fit right into a CBT book. There’s really only so much good advice to go around in this world, I suppose.)

Wasinger made a comment about her depression that resonated with me:

When I’m at the worst of my depression, I’m alone, and I want to be left alone, but then, not.

I have the book on Kindle so I could not draw little stars in the margin and write THAT’S IT, but, nonetheless. THAT’S IT.

It strikes me that I’ve never seen loneliness or feelings of isolation on a list of depression symptoms. Maybe it’s not that common? Or maybe “feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness” are supposed to cover it.

Or another passage that stuck out to me:

Being transparent about our struggles makes us vulnerable. We’re humbled. We’re on level ground with those with whom we share life. We cannot afford to be self-reliant; we cannot pretend to be anyone’s savior. We cannot pretend to be in control; we’re ever at the mercy of God (see Ps. 37). Perhaps our broken minds or bodies are leveling grounds where those whom we are tempted to ‘serve’ instead become people with whom we see eye to eye.

The identification of service as a temptation - a disguise for the sin of pride; a thinly veiled way of proving to oneself that one is better than everyone else. That struck me.
osprey_archer: (shoes)
Patrick O'Malley's Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss is actually about the dangers of attempting to grieve "correctly," to fit grief into the one-size-fits-all template of the five stages of grief outlined by Kubler-Ross. O'Malley is a psychologist, and he gets a lot of clients who come in and tell him that since the death of their spouse/child/parent/parakeet they haven't been moving through the stages properly but got stuck on anger, or depression, or whatever, and in any case it's been nine months since they lost their loved one and the experts say that if you're still grieving after six you're probably cray-cray, so can he help them?

O'Malley has come around to the view that, insofar as help means "help them go through the five stages properly and get over their grief," he can't; most people don't grief neatly in five stages and, if the loss is big enough, lots of people feel at least occasional stabs of grief for the rest of their lives. But he can help them feel less like freaks by telling them that it's totally normal for grief to be chaotic and disorderly and to continue feeling a subterranean hum of grief long after society says you should be over it.

Now, I actually agree with a lot of the stuff in this book. I think our culture promotes a ludicrously foreshortened grief schedule, and we'd probably all be better off if we spent less time telling each other what we're allowed to feel - not even how we're allowed to express our feelings, mind, but what we're allowed to feel in the first place - and more just listening to what we actually do feel.

(I realize that "Have you considered therapy?" is often meant lovingly, and there are times when it needs to be said, but it has the sub-meaning "Your pain is so incredibly tedious that you can't expect anyone to listen to it if they're not actually getting paid." No wonder our society is so full of people who feel miserable and alone and believe to the bottom of their souls that they will only have value if they achieve success, as defined by money-making.)

Nonetheless, reading Getting Grief Right sometimes gave me the same feeling of exhaustion I get when I read, say, dietary studies, when it turns out that everything the previous generation of scientists said is wrong. Fat doesn't make you fat! Eggs are good for you after all! Margarine is in fact way less healthy than butter! Et cetera. Those old scientists got it all wrong, but you should totally believe us new scientists when we tell you carbs are evil.

And it's like, well, why? Why should I believe you this time round when you've gotten it wrong time and time again for the past hundred years? Why, in fact, should I believe psychiatrists about pretty much anything, if psychiatry as a profession finds it baffling that people, lots of people, indeed possibly the majority of people, might feel crushingly sad about the death of their loved ones for more than six months? This is a pretty damn basic thing to get wrong.

Twenty years from now, they're going to decide that carbs are fine but protein is totally making us fat, and also the by-then-orthodox method of grief through storytelling is straitjacketing us in our misery and we should actually grieve through interpretive dance or something.
osprey_archer: (books)
One thing about Netgalley is that it really highlights trends in my reading - in particular, the fact that I read a lot of self-help books. Even more particularly, I like self-help books about how self-help books and positive psychology are the worst. Someday I will find one that asserts that self-help books are the worst because they rarely plumb the depths of how very bad we really are, and how can anyone possibly improve when they don’t even have a clear sense of what they’re doing wrong in the first place, and then I will have reached anti-self-help nirvana and… well, let’s be real, I’ll probably continue reading anti-self-help books. (Another thing that anti-self-help books don’t say often enough is that most people don’t actually change that much once they’re adults, and when they do it’s not always an improvement.)

Anyway. My newest anti-self-help fling is Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which is refreshing in the breathtaking directness with which it dismisses, well, everything really. The culture of constant development! The idea of self-improvement! The entire idea of the self!

No, seriously: “under the surface, inside, there is nothing, no authenticity,” Brinkmann says. He also quotes a psychologist who suggested that “the depression epidemic in the West is explained by the fact that if you look inwards long enough - if you dwell on how you feel, and use therapy to find yourself - then depression will descend the moment you realise that there is, in fact, nothing there.”

I think saying that there is nothing is an overstatement - people do seem to have stable basic personalities, for instance, and I think it’s valuable to know that sort of thing about yourself. But if you’re perusing your deepest soul for the meaning of life and find nothing but a tendency toward introversion and a middling score for neuroticism, then of course that’s going to be a disappointment, not because introversion or neuroticism are bad but because they’re not a Meaning of Life (™).

Brinkmann’s rejection of the idea of an authentic inner self leads to another point that I found interesting, the idea that we are the masks we wear. “You might also ask why it is assumed that it is inside ourselves that we are most truly ‘ourselves.’ Why is the self not reflected in our actions, our lives and our relationships with others…?”

So there is no such thing as inner kindness, for instance, because kindness is entirely about how we treat others. If we feel that we’re being kind but other people don’t experience it that way, then we’re not. Or truthful, reliable, humorous, punctual, responsible, or any number of other traits that are based on how other people experience us.

(My cynical answer to Brinkmann’s probably rhetorical question is that believing in an inner self that is more real than the outer self allows us more space to rationalize away our own flaws, and that’s why we cling to the idea so fiercely. If we believe in our own inner goodness, we can do away with the necessity to actually do good things in order to feel good about ourselves.)

And one last quote, because it made me wince in recognition: “Many people, unfortunately, buy into the idea that they can ‘do anything’... so self-flagellation is a perfectly understandable reaction when their efforts prove inadequate. If you can do anything, then it must be your fault if success proves elusive in work or love (for Freud, ‘lieben und arbeiten’ were the two most significant existential arenas). Little wonder, then, that nowadays so many hanker after a psychiatric diagnosis to explain away perceived personal inadequacies.”

No one’s going to forgive you for suffering from the universal frailties of humanity. If you want forgiveness for your flaws, you’d damn well better be able to pony up with proof that those so-called flaws are actually a disease.
osprey_archer: (Agents of SHIELD)
I found John Kim's The Angry Therapist: A No BS Guide to Finding and Living Your Own Truth super frustrating, possibly because I took the title too literally and believed that he was going to be angry about something. The growing trend toward giving patients medication without therapy? The high cost of mental health care? The fact that American prisons are stuffed with mentally ill people who really ought to be in treatment, not incarcerated? The difficulties of getting insurance companies to pay for mental health care? Stigma around mental health problems?

I mean really, there are a lot of things a therapist could be angry about. But as far as I can tell, the thing that most grates Kim's cheese is the fact that sometimes the strict guidelines of therapeutic practice where he works make him feel stifled, which is... well, I'm sure it's frustrating, but it seems like a weirdly self-centered reason to call himself "The Angry Therapist."

This is in fact something I felt about the book in general: it's weirdly self-centered. Kim wants to help you find your best self, but he also wants you to know that he used to be a screenwriter - a successful screenwriter! He didn't become a therapist because the whole screenwriting thing didn't work out for him. He just realized that being a screenwriter wasn't fulfilling his true self, so he went back to school to study psychology.

And also he ran a high-end nightclub where he rubbed elbows with film stars. And also he created a start-up company called ModelInABottle.com which was staffed with models who were friends of his girlfriend at the time. Who was a model. Just FYI.

Holy humblebragging, Batman.

He also has a deeply aggravating imagined scene where he creates a Genuine Emotional Connection (tm) with a waitress by breaking free of the chains of phatic discourse. She asks how he's doing and instead of saying "Fine" like a normal person, he's all - I have to transcribe this, I'm sorry -

JOHN
You know what?

She instantly looks nervous.

JOHN
You've been asking people that all day. So, maybe I should ask you how you're doing?

She looks a bit shocked, confused, taken aback. She fumbles her words.

WAITRESS
Um...fine, tired. Been here since 10 AM. I can't wait to get home.


PROBABLY BECAUSE SHE WANTS TO GET AWAY FROM NOSY CUSTOMERS PRYING INTO THINGS THAT AREN'T THEIR BUSINESS. If you make your waitstaff look nervous, shocked, confused, and taken aback, that is probably a sign that you are doing something wrong.

(But of course the scene ends with the waitress smiling and grateful that someone has taken the time to treat her like a human being instead of just handing her the credit card for the check. "Thank you," she says, and John replies, "You're welcome.")

Do you know what I dread at work? People trying to create genuine emotional connections with me when all I want to do is take their coffee order and then finish filling the caramel bottles, or emptying the trash, or doing literally anything else because everything in the world is less taxing than having an emotionally meaningful conversation with a total stranger. I get paid $10 an hour! That buys you phatic discourse and an empty smile! There's a reason therapists charge $100 an hour for this shit!

...Having said this, I have friends who work retail who love it when people treat them like a human being rather than a coffee dispenser, so who knows, maybe your friendly local barista is just dying for a chance to tell a customer her feet hurt.

Otherwise, it's basically a bog-standard self-help book (live in the now, surround yourself with people who support the real you, etc. etc.). There are probably five dozen books at your local Barnes and Noble that will give you the same advice. Read one of them.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Nothing. :(

What I'm Reading Now

I'm about halfway through Pam Munoz Ryan's Echo, which is annoying me by piling cliffhanger on cliffhanger. We have one story thread which ends with the hero being arrested by the Gestapo, and then another which ends with a different hero falling out of a tree and I'm going to guess fainting, but it sure sounds like he might be dead, and now we're heading into story thread three without any resolution for the first two in sight.

I'm also about halfway done with The Angry Therapist, which I still am finding disappointing. He just seems... so much less angry than I expected. No rants about health insurance/stigmas surrounding mental health issues/antidepressants (everyone has a rant about antidepressants, either pro or con)/the tragic state of psychologist training/something?

What I Plan to Read Next

I was alllllmost caught up on Netgalley books... and then I checked out the recently added books, and they had one about the history of shyness and another about the minds and social lives of carnivorous animals and another one about Abraham Lincoln (and also one about the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox church which I just barely managed to resist), so. Piles of books to read again!
osprey_archer: (books)
I finished Debbie Corso's Stronger Than BPD: The Girl's Guide to Taking Control of Intense Emotions, Drama, and Chaos Using DBT, which I thought was very useful. I wanted to gain a greater understanding of how DBT works, and indeed, it gives a thorough, accessible, and entertainingly written introduction to that, so if you're looking for an introductory book about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy look no further.

(If I wanted to get a greater understanding of Borderline Personality Disorder, though, I would have been out of luck. This book assumes that you already have the symptom list at your fingertips.)

Corso does have one slightly annoying tic, which is that she constantly uses the word "skillful" to describe the use of the techniques that the book outlines. (For instance, if you're stuck in traffic behind a slow driver, you could either melt down and start honking and tailgating them... or you could skillfully distract yourself from the situation by, say, turning on the radio.) Not that I have anything against the word skillful, it's just on practically every page.

But the repetition of the word did make me notice the extent to which DBT and CBT both position certain mental illness - depression, anxiety, in this book borderline personality disorder - not so much as illnesses but as skill deficits. Why are you unhappy? Because you haven't learned how to happy yet. Here are some happiness skills you can practice, like musical scales but for joy.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I Just Finished Reading

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I nearly gave up on twice because November was not a great month for reading a harrowing book about wartime, death, dark humor and hopeless moral quandaries, but I persevered and I’m glad I did. It’s well-written and thought-provoking (and emotion-provoking) book, and worth reading.

Also, now that I’ve read it I never have to read it again. Also a good feeling.

What I’m Reading Now

I’m allllllmost done with Pamela Dean’s The Whim of the Dragon, the final book in the Secret Country trilogy. I really wanted to finish it last night, but there is only so much Pamela Dean I can read at once before my brain becomes saturated and ceases to take in any more information, so I didn’t. But maybe today!

I intend to do a longer post about the trilogy once I’m done reading. Has anyone else read these books?

I’m also reading a couple of books from Netgalley. One is about Canadian cuisine, about which more anon, although I wish to note right now that doughnuts are at least as American as they are Canadian, I am just saying, they are so American that we sometimes use them as hamburger buns like the culinary monsters that we are.

The other one is a book about DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy), which I picked up because one of my friends has been thinking about trying it out. I wanted to be supportive and also I wanted to know the difference between DBT and CBT, because they seemed (from reading the Wikipedia page) pretty similar except that it’s a hell of a lot harder to find a DBT practitioner.

I’m halfway through the book, and philosophically they do seem pretty similar. My impression is that the main difference is that the difference is that DBT is a more back-to-the-basics version of CBT - that it assumes a lower starting level of emotional skills. It’s like CBT is an emotional high school equivalency degree, whereas DBT is like, “Okay, we’ll go back to the alphabet if that’s what you need.”

What I Plan to Read Next

Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, which is the last of the 2016 Newbery Honor books, and which will I think conclude all of the reading that I planned to get done this year. Possibly I set myself a few too many reading goals this year? But then I don’t regret any of them, so maybe not.
osprey_archer: (books)
My latest NetGalley book is Suzanne O'Sullivan's Is It All in Your Head?, which I found interesting but frustrating, although the fact that it's frustrating is not really the book's fault.

The first reason that I found it frustrating is that I expected it to be about hypochondria, but there's actually only one chapter about that; most of the book is about psychosomatic disorders, which is interesting in a different way, but it's still frustrating to get a book you think will be about one thing and discover it's about another. (In hypochondria, while there are often physical symptoms, it's the anxiety and not the physical symptoms that are debilitating; a psychosomatic disorder has debilitating physical symptoms with a psychological cause.)

But it's also frustrating, and O'Sullivan herself is clearly frustrated with this, that the medical community doesn't understand psychosomatic problems at all and also doesn't seem to be interested in understanding, despite the fact that something like 20% of patients have problems that may be psychosomatic in origin. If 20% of patients presented with any other problem you'd think the medical community would be falling all over itself to figure out exactly how it worked, but as it's just psychosomatic, well then! Why bother?

The medical community (and indeed the lay community) tend to believe that the only "real" causes are physical causes, so if someone is for instance having debilitating seizures, it's only "real" if it's epilepsy. The fact that the sufferer is debilitated by their seizures apparently isn't real enough.

O'Sullivan is a neurologist, and neurologists have very clear and specific tests they can do to detect different kinds of seizures, so she can diagnose with a great deal of accuracy whether a seizure is epileptic or dissociative (which is another word for psychosomatic in this case). And in fact many of her patients with dissociative seizures do stop having seizures, sometimes as soon as they receive the diagnosis and sometimes after getting psychiatric help, and after they've been taken off their epilepsy medication. The cure seems to me to prove O'Sullivan's diagnosis was correct.

In fact, it struck me that a psychiatric cure seems like the only way, at the moment, to prove that an illness is psychosomatic: otherwise it's not clear at all whether it's psychosomatic or caused by some physical problem that we can't measure. I particularly wondered this in the cases of medically inexplicable paralysis that O'Sullivan examined: the medical establishment couldn't find a cause, but unlike with the dissociative seizures, the diagnosis of a psychosomatic complaint didn't help the paralysis sufferers.

But at the same time I wonder if my doubt is simply that paralysis seems so dramatically debilitating that it's hard to believe that it could be psychosomatic. And yet if you'd asked me before I read this book, I would have been doubtful that someone could have a psychosomatic seizure disorder, because seizures also seem so dramatic. So the fact that it seems to defy common sense may not prove anything except that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

In any case, all this seems like yet another good reason why the medical establishment ought to seriously investigate psychosomatic complaints: not only could they help sufferers, but they could probably also get better at distinguishing psychosomatic illness and illness with a physical cause we don't know how to find yet.

But at the moment psychosomatic symptoms seem to have fallen between the two stools of physical and psychiatric medicine.

***

The book also talked briefly about Munchausen's syndrome, and O'Sullivan made the point that in fact people with Munchausen's are sick, that it is a mental illness, and that most of us don't consider that fact because basically we find the idea of pretending to be sick so disgusting.
osprey_archer: (books)
Another book from Netgalley, Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul is a bit out of the way of the things I normally read - in particular I don’t read much Christian inspiration, unless C. S. Lewis counts.

But I really loved the cover so I thought I’d take a chance on it, and while I have some caveats, I did find the book helpful and enjoyable. It made a nice pendent to America the Anxious, which suggests that the roots of our anxiety lie in our quest for happiness. Humble Roots suggests that our anxiety grows from our search for perfection and control, and it strikes me that these two explanation dovetail: treating happiness like a quest means treating it as something that you can perfect and control, as if life couldn’t throw you for a loop with a car crash or a sudden death in the family or anything else it likes.

Humility, in Anderson’s book, lies in understanding that we are not and cannot be in perfect control of our lives. Once we accept this, our humility can free us “from the cycle of stress, performance, and competition.”

The book did rely more heavily on quotations from Scripture than I personally would have preferred (C. S. Lewis never needed to quote this much!), but then I’m not the book’s intended audience. And despite that scaffolding, I found Humble Roots’ steady insistence that we are often helpless and that’s okay somehow comforting. I can’t be in control all the time, and that means sometimes I don’t even need to try. Thank God.

I also really liked this observation: “If a person must announce his humility because we wouldn’t see it otherwise, he is not a truly humble person.” I’ve noticed this about a lot of qualities, not just humility. If someone has to explain that they are compassionate, or not an asshole, or filled with the warmth of lovingkindness… that’s a good sign that the truth is the opposite, or else they wouldn’t need to clue you in.
osprey_archer: (books)
[livejournal.com profile] wordsofastory hooked me up with Netgalley, which is a place where book reviewers (even book reviewers on a quite modest scale like myself) can get galleys of upcoming books for freeeeeeeeeeee, so of course I spent a large proportion of yesterday evening going through it looking for books that I wanted to read.

The first one I actually settled down and did read was Ruth Whippman's America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, which turned out to be a good place to start. It's a good, breezy introduction to the American cult of happiness, with just enough memoir to keep it moving but not so much that the memoir ever overpowered Whippman's research, the main gist of which seems to be that there is something creepy and victim-blamy about the more rah-rah power of positive thinking "If you're not happy it's because you're not trying hard enough!" side of the American search for happiness.

If there's one thing we do know about happiness - and there may in fact only be one thing; as Whippman notes, we don't seem to understand happiness very well - it's that "our happiness depends on other people" (italicized in the original), which is a bit of a bummer if you want to pull yourself up by your happiness bootstraps but kind of a relief if the bootstraps snapped sometime last November. We don't have to do this on our own! In fact we can't do it on our own! Hooray!

And in fact, as Whippman points out, making happiness our preeminent goal in life will probably backfire anyway, because it's "so elusive and hard to define, it's impossible to pinpoint when it's even been reached, a recipe for anxiety." Hence one of the reasons for the sky-rocketing levels of anxiety and depression in America.

(The book did make me wonder a bit if our whole approach to treating anxiety as a public health issue is wrong, because we treat it as an individual problem that requires an individual solution rather than an individual problem indicating a larger societal problem that needs fixing. As if, basically, we were treating cholera as if it were the result of individual intestinal issues, rather than seeing it as indicative of a contaminated water supply somewhere.

However, fixing catastrophically low levels of social connectedness is a bit more difficult than plugging a contaminated water pump, and I certainly wouldn't know where to start on a societal level.)

But getting back to the book. Whippman also spends a chapter with the Mormons! I love Mormons. Actually I love reading about intense religious groups in general: Hasidic Jews, evangelical Christians, snake-handling Baptists, the Amish, anyone.

Whipmann notes that the Mormons are both the happiest people in America and the most depressed, which she puzzles over at first before realizing it actually makes sense provided you realize that you're talking about two different subgroups of Mormons here: the church has fairly rigid guidelines for how to be a good man or a good woman (and they are rigidly gendered guidelines too), so people who fit fairly naturally within those guidelines will feel especially happy - not only are they living a life they enjoy that their community approves, but they also won't be tormented by the question "is this my BEST life?" that bedevils secular folk, because the church says that yes, yes it is - while people who don't fit are going to feel guilty and terrible and depressed.

A quick, interesting read. It probably won't blow your mind (unless you're big on the Power of Positive Thinking, I guess), but I quite enjoyed it.
osprey_archer: (friends)
I had my doctor's appointment yesterday, and to the surprise of absolutely no one but myself, the doctor concluded that there are no abnormalities at all in my breast and probably the red mark was a bruise.

I would feel silly, but I have been so stressed for the past two weeks that really I feel nothing but relief: I have been intermittently convinced that I was clearly dying and wouldn't make it to next June to go to Japan for my friend Sae's wedding, or to the spring to watch season five of Orphan Black, or maybe even until November so I can vote for Hilary Clinton and hopefully see Trump's candidacy go down in flames.

(On the other hand, in the event of a Trump victory I would have escaped his presidency. That was what you might call a silver lining.)

I've been so stressed that I lost five pounds in the past two weeks. I haven't written anything. Last night was the first decent night of sleep I've had in all that time.

So on the one hand it was a very unpleasant experience. But on the other hand it was actually pretty useful, because beforehand I was dragging along, bearing up drearily under the idea of drifting through the vast gray expanse of fifty years or so without purpose or direction. Well, there is nothing to make those fifty years look precious and desirable and all too short like the sudden fear that they are about to be snatched from you by the cruel cancerous hands of fate.

And now I feel very enthusiastic about life! My problems seem infinitely more surmountable! Of course it's difficult to find purpose and direction and meaningful connection, but the difficulties are infinitely preferable to dying young and terribly. In fact, seen in that light they barely look like difficulties at all: not that I think they will be easy, but nonetheless I am filled with the yearning desire to have the chance to take a crack at them, because that's so much better than the alternative.
osprey_archer: (friends)
A girl I knew slightly from grad school is in my town for the summer, so we've been meeting up for coffee once a week - I think at first mostly because neither of us have any social lives, but it's actually proven unexpectedly rewarding.

In particular, this week we were talking about how she's been thinking about either quitting grad school, or leaving academia after she gets her Ph.D. We both evidently went into grad school with the same mental reservation - "If grad school turns out not to be for me, I can just quit" - which is possibly a sign that this major life decision is one you should reconsider, honestly; clearly a part of me knew from the beginning that this wasn't a great idea, but I went ahead with it anyway because I didn't have any better ideas and, after all, I'd always been good at school.

I don't regret quitting. It was a good time to get out, and it would have just gotten harder to quit if I'd stayed longer. And I also felt, at the time, that if I hadn't quit when I did I might have flunked out, not because the coursework was too hard but because I would have lost the will and therefore ability to do it. I imagined spending the rest of my life, an eternity, reading boring monographs in order to spend years writing my own soul-deadening monographs that five people would briskly skim in order to write about why I was wrong, and it all seemed utterly paralyzingly pointless.

So I don't regret quitting. But I don't think I realized how much of my self-esteem I had built on the not-nearly-as-impregnable-as-I-assumed foundation of being good at school until I quit school long before acquiring my intended degree. It destroyed one of the pillars of my self-esteem, and I haven't found anything else to replace it with.

So I felt some chagrin when she asked if I thought leaving academia would make her feel like a failure, because what could I answer but "Yes, probably, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it"?

But I think it was a relief to her to have someone to talk about this who absolutely saw it as a momentous and difficult and potentially crushing decision; I think people who aren't in academia often find it hard to understand how absolutely it can entangle your sense of yourself and your intellect and your intellect as the best and most valuable part of yourself. It can be hard to explain why it's hard to even think about leaving grad school, when leaving grad school is leaving academia which is leaving the promised land and the chosen people.

***

The conversation also made me think about how when I was thinking of quitting grad school, I really didn't talk it over with any of my friends - either in real life or on LJ - and I think if anyone had asked me (although of course no one could have, because how could they have known I was holding back in the first place) I would have said that I was sparing them all the boring angst. And that they wouldn't have been interested anyway.

It occurs to me, now, that sharing the boring angst is how you make deeper connections with people. And in any case, how good a friend is someone who can't bothered to put with any boring angst at all? Or, indeed, someone who thinks that all of your angst is boring?

(I think almost all of us have moments when our angst becomes so repetitively navel-gazy that it is boring - I know sometimes mine bores even me - so being occasionally bored by someone else's angst isn't necessarily a sign of being a bad friend. The problem is so-called friends who want nothing but good times, and no angst at all.)

Last time I was overly forthcoming to one of my friends about my angst, the friendship ended up imploding in lengthy and dire slow-motion. It took years. It was much more complicated than that and I actually have no idea whether or to what extent the forthcomingness was the problem. I'm still not sure what the fuck happened.

That whole drama wrapped up four years ago, so it's really time to move on. I think perhaps I learn a little too well from experience.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price, which I imagine I might have liked more if I read it as a kid. As it was it all felt a bit too goofy to me: the first story involves Homer defeating four burglars with a skunk, for instance.

I also finished Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, which was moderately interesting but mostly reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for ages now. My reading challenge for August is “a book you should have read in school,” and Darwin counts for that, right?

Actually I’m not sure anyone reads Darwin in school. Oh well, I think it’s a good idea, and I shall pencil it into my reading calendar for August.

What I’m Reading Now

Mike Dash’s Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, which is about the tulip bulb financial bubble in 17th century Holland. I guess I have sort of a thing for tales of financial bubbles. So far this one isn’t blowing me away like Zac Bissonnette’s The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, but then we’re still discussing the history of tulips and haven’t even gotten to Holland yet.

I’ve also started Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, which I think may take me a while, given that it’s so full of death and everything. Yalom kicks it off with the disconcerting fact that most therapists are not trained to deal with anxiety about death, like, at all, which seems like a pretty big oversight in therapy training, frankly. Surely it’s not uncommon for patients to fling themselves on the therapy couch and say “Doc, the fact that I will one day cease to exist fills me with an overwhelming terror.”

What I Plan to Read Next

[livejournal.com profile] evelyn_b picked Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist as my book for the next challenge on the 2016 Reading Challenge, so I’m waiting for the library to bring that to me through the magic of interlibrary loan.

I’ve also been poking around the library’s disconcerting range of Darwin editions. I’m leaning toward David Quammen’s illustrated edition, because 1) pictures, and 2) after more hunting than I feel should be necessary, I’ve ascertained that it contains the unabridged text of the first edition, which is apparently clearer and more elegant than subsequent editions, which Darwin tried to emend to meet his critics’ objections.

Shirley

Jul. 5th, 2016 06:13 pm
osprey_archer: (books)
Shirley has arrived! Brilliant young heiress Shirley Keeldar shows up about a third of the way through Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, just when she’s most needed, for our erstwhile heroine, Caroline, had fallen into the Depths of Despair following her crushing separation from her beloved cousin Robert Moore, who she thinks doesn’t return her love. Shirley Keeldar arrives as a breath - nay, a whirlwind - of fresh air, blowing all before her with her good cheer.

“Business! Really the word makes me conscious that I am indeed no longer a girl, but quite a woman and something more. I am esquire! Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and title. They gave me a man’s name; I hold a man’s position. It is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood…”

Shirley rather likes to refer to herself in the third person, with male pronouns, as “Captain Keeldar.” She also, when she first means pretty blonde Caroline, makes for her a little bouquet, and “tied it with silk from her work-box, and placed it on Caroline’s lap; and then she put her hands behind her, and stood bending slightly towards her guest, still regarding her, in the attitude and with something of the aspect of a grave but gallant little cavalier.”

Someone ought to be building their career of a queer theory reading of Shirley, is what I’m saying. Even if the nominal action of the story concerns their hitherto quite amiable romantic rivalry over Robert Moore. They both realize that they both have a thing for him - indeed Shirley comments on it, which is a startling relief in a book with a love triangle - and regret that it causes friction between them.

“If we were but left unmolested [by Robert Moore’s distracting presence], I have that regard for you that I could bear you in my presence for ever, and not for the fraction of a second do I ever wish to be rid of you. You cannot say as much respecting me,” Shirley says piteously, and Caroline, chagrined, hastens to reassure her:

“I never had a sister - you never had a sister; but it flashes on me at this moment how sisters feel towards each other - affection twined with their life, which no shocks of feeling can uproot, which little quarrels only trample and instant, that it may spring more freshly when the pressure is removed; affection that no passion can ultimately outrival, with which even love itself cannot do more than compete in force and truth. Love hurts us so, Shirley. It is so tormenting, so racking, and it burns away our strength with its flame. In affection is no pain and no fire, only sustenance and balm. I am supported and soothed when you - that is, you only - are near, Shirley.”

The book is also extremely useful to my plans for a Civil War book in that Caroline is a period depiction of what we would now call depression. As Caroline says, “I think I grow what is called nervous. I see things under a darker aspect that I used to do. I have fears I never used to have - not of ghosts, but of omens and disastrous events; and I have an inexpressible weight on my mind which I would give the world to shake off, and I cannot do it… Moonlight, which I used to think mild, now only looks mournful to me. Is this weakness of mind, Mrs. Pryor, or what is it? I cannot help it; I often struggle against it. I reason; but reason and effort make no difference.”

When I read this I punched the air and yelled, “Charlotte Bronte channels the DSM!”

My current expectation is that the book will end with Caroline marrying Moore and Shirley marrying some hitherto unknown fellow, and the two of them stay in the same neighborhood and remain friends all down the years and possibly live together once their husbands have expired. But after Villette I have no trust in Charlotte Bronte's benevolence with regards to endings, so we'll see.
osprey_archer: (books)
Someone - I think perhaps [livejournal.com profile] goldjadeocean? - recommended Irvin Yalom's Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death to me, and I went to the library today and considered it for a good long time and then decided to read Yalom's Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychoptherapy instead, under the impression that it might be a bit less deathtastic.

Reader, it was not less deathtastic. Or, rather, - as I haven't read Staring at the Sun, perhaps I shouldn't compare deathiness quotients - perhaps I should say that Creatures of a Day is plenty deathy all on its own.

But actually it was rather bracing, and has given me confidence that Staring at the Sun will not be a soul-crushing slog of misery, so perhaps I will read that after all. I tend to have more confidence in psychology books - or philosophy, or history; or really just books about anything - that look squarely at the darkness of life, but there can be a fine line between "looking squarely at the darkness" and "plunging abruptly into the abyss."

I was surprised that Yalom saw so many of his patients so briefly. People are forever dropping by his office determined to deal with all of their problems in three or four sessions, which seems awfully optimistic to me. But then many of his patients seem to be doing well on the whole, aside from the sudden bouts of existential angst that send them to his office.

Actually I found it rather cheering to read this book; I kept thinking, "Hey! I am more fucked up than all these people, and they're still seeking therapy!" (Well, not all of them. There's the terminal cancer patient. But most of them.) If they can do it, I could do it too. It's a nice change from reading a mental health memoir and concluding gloomily that I am still inadequately miserable for therapy.

Probably the problem is selection bias. No one writes - or at least no one publishes - memoirs about Dysthymia: A Slightly Sad Life, or Fretful: My Mild Yet Entertainingly Ridiculous Anxiety Problems. It's always Totally Fucked: How My Crushing Mental Illness Nearly Killed Me Fifteen Times. I can't possibly compete with Totally Fucked. Totally Fucked and I are on such different planets that it's kind of embarrassing that I'm even thinking about getting therapy. I would be taking a slot away from Totally Fucked's tragic brethren, who need it so much more than I do and would probably be much more entertaining for the therapist, to boot.

...I have decided that maybe I should stop reading mental health memoirs, or at least the ones from the point of view of the person having the mental health crisis. They make me feel like I'm a failure at being sad, and that is probably the most ridiculous thing I have ever felt in my life.
osprey_archer: (books)
The 1940 Caldecott winner, Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire's Abraham Lincoln, is... well, it's not the d'Aulaire book I would have picked for a Caldecott winner. I would have gone with their beautiful illustrated book of Greek myths.

I don't have a lot of thoughts about this book itself, but fortuitously just yesterday [livejournal.com profile] rachelmanija sent me a link to an article about Lincoln's depression. One of the things the article mentions is that until the 1940s, historians routinely wrote about Lincoln's melancholy, which indeed the D'Aulaire book (published in 1939) does mention, although perhaps because it's a book for children it dwells far more on his puckish, prankish side.

But during and after the 1940s, historians wrote much less about Lincoln's melancholy - because, the article suggests, deep sadness no longer fit with their idea of a great leader. This was apparently not a problem in the nineteenth century, when it seems everyone looked at Lincoln brooding away in a corner, lines of sadness carved deeply in his face, and thought, "He's so sad, that's the mark of a great leader, we should totally elect him."

I'm having trouble imagining someone today enthusiastically endorsing a candidate not despite but because he's soooooo depressed.

Of course there were lots of other reasons to elect Lincoln, it's not like they were electing him on the basis of melancholia alone, but it's interesting that it was an asset. Not only was no one trying to hide it, but in fact everyone happily traded stories about Lincoln's dolefulness. It was part of his mystique, just like his folksy down-home stories.

I've noticed before a strain of fatalism in nineteenth-century American thought. It seems to me that a lot of people suspected deep down, even as they tried to reject their Calvinist upbringings, that the world is inevitably a vail of tears and human beings are indeed hopelessly cumbered in sin. Maybe some of the more ludicrous "and in the utopian future, the sea will taste like lemonade!" excesses of nineteenth-century optimism are a desperate attempt to escape the sense that reform is futile.

And Lincoln and his melancholy sort of square this circle: he sees the world arrayed in all the Calvinist darkness anyone could want, but he still promulgates the Emancipation Proclamation and in general tries to make the world a better place.

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