Meanderings about Mental Functioning

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Dr. Bossypants has a close colleague who wants to eliminate the use of the term “mentally ill.” He thinks it pathologizes people and comes from a medical model that assumes there is or will be a cure for distressing, inadequate, or damaging mental functioning. Dr. Bossypants finds herself in sympathy with this view, but it’s tough to find the right descriptor or metaphor for those times when humans feel, think, or behave in utterly miserable, irrational, destructive ways.

Maybe it would help to consider mental healthiness. Dr. Bossypants suggests that mentally healthy people think and behave in rational ways that are scientifically shown to be beneficial to the human body, mind, and community. (Yes, we include community because evolutionary science has established that humans must find ways to get along with other humans to survive as a species.) Ok, so then mental nonhealthiness would involve behaviors, beliefs, or emotional states that hurt, tear down, diminish or destroy oneself or the community.

Readers may remember that Dr. Bossypants is working on developing a college course on happiness—or, more accurately—how to live a well-lived life. Who doesn’t want to live a well-lived life? Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want to be mentally healthy? Apparently, most of us. Consider this list:

  • Regular exercise is good for the human body.
  • Ruminating about hurt feelings will make you feel worse.
  • Sugar is bad for the human body.
  • Defining success as continual growth is irrational.
  • Forgiveness is healing.
  • Revenge feels good like candy tastes good. Ultimately not good.
  • Smoking damages the lungs. Lungs are important.
  • Going to bed angry is bad for blood pressure and sleep.
  • Cruelty engenders cruelty.
  • Disproportionate wealth or poverty causes unhealthy and unsafe imbalances.
  • Excessive use of mind-altering substances often mangles brains and relationships.
  • Destroying habitat for the sake of individual wealth and comfort is species suicide.

This partial list was designed to irritate you, dear readers. And to illustrate that mental healthiness is relative, transitory, and difficult. We do not always (or even often) do all the things that we know to be good for us and for others. We do not correct our irrational thoughts; in fact, we often defend them vociferously. We nurture our bad moods and resentments.

Dr. Bossypants is a psychologist and is well aware that many allied professions attempt to define and quantify mentally-distressing symptoms into categories of “mental disorders.” The hope is that qualified helpers can figure out how to help these troubled (or troubling) people. And the pharmaceutical companies are hard at word coming up with chemicals to stir things up in our delicate brains.

It’s true that ingested chemicals can calm or alleviate certain symptoms, providing a bit of relief for some of the people some of the time. But they do NOT result in a “balanced brain” or a cure. In fact, there is no such thing as a “chemically-balanced brain.” Our brains are a jungle of electrical connections; a soup of neurotransmitters. They are in constant flux, transformed over and over by what we eat and drink, the drugs we swallow, smoke, or shoot up, the people we meet, the cultures we belong to, the languages we learn, the battles we fight, the math and music, the betrayals and traumas, the adorations and adulations, the viruses and virtues…what goes on in our heads is a complex set of interactions between choices, genes, education, nutrition, injury, insult, exercise, drugs, therapy, and age (and this is an incomplete list).

Most of us fall prey to small mental disruptions or failings—low motivation or mood, attractions to sugar, saturated fats, or sex with the wrong people; we’re too cheap to buy the right light bulbs, too self-indulgent, too shy. Some of us are seduced by revenge, gratified by cruelty, filled with hatred or paranoia, greedy, and deeply judgmental. Some of us are consumed by our own self-worth, willing to lie, steal, torture, and kill in order to hold on to power. Some of us like the attention or other payoffs of being sad, anxious, or generally neurotic. There are also mental malfunctions that are contagious, and even worse, there are severe mental cancers that sometimes metastasize and destroy not only their host, but entire communities.

Dr. Bossypants thinks we’d be better off admitting we all suffer from mental inadequacies and malfunctions–some occasional, some chronic. Any thought, behavior, or belief that causes loss of peace, reduces well-being, or hampers potential growth belongs on the list. Hatred. Hoarding vast amounts of money. Failure to take care of yourself and eat right. Failure to care for the planet. The possibilities are infinite. The metaphor of “mental illness” might even be helpful, if we are ready to admit we all have at least a touch of this bug.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could medicate away all human suffering? All human failing? But as they say, a pill is not a skill. Recovering from a bout of mental malfunctioning or distress involves naming and accepting our mental upset stomachs, our moral failings, our selfish, vindictive, lazy thoughts, urges, and actions– in ourselves and others. Getting better involves patience. Compassion. Containment. It involves facing our fears, minimizing our denial, seeking the help we need, and offering that help to others who need it.

It’s all about acceptance. Life is impermanent and precarious. Most of us are doing the best we can in any given moment. That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement, but sometimes, we just have to endure the occasional bout of less than optimal functioning in ourselves and others, accepting that this, too, is part of the human condition.

One final observation: Being kind to oneself and others may be the most mentally healthy thing anyone ever does, and from what Dr. Bossypants has read so far, it might make you happier too.

Happy Happy

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Dr. Bossypants has been busy lately helping build a college class on happiness to be taught by Dr. John S-F (https://johnsommersflanagan.com/). Yes, happiness. Yes, college. I know. What are our universities thinking? But wait. Here in Montana, we wisely held off while those little east coast institutions like Yale and Harvard had a go at this illusive, subjective, loosely-defined notion. Class sizes and hefty content convinced us that the topic might not be as light-weight as some might assume. Therefore, UM is now ready to pitch in and help students become familiar with the art and science of happiness. Or well-being. Or contentedness. Or joy. Or resilience. Turns out there’s not only a rich history of philosophical considerations regarding what might constitute a well-lived life; there’s also a fairly credible accumulation of scientific inquiry into these same, highly-correlated concepts.

Of course, a small number of people wouldn’t recognize happiness if it bit them on their behinds. They have duties to perform, crosses to bear, and people to annoy. They’re happy being unhappy. If they accidentally loosen up and find themselves in a good mood, they begin a frantic search for something that isn’t quite right. These are not the people gobbling Prozac by the truckload. No need. They’ve made friends with their inner grim.

On the other hand, another small group of people are born with sloppy smiles on their chubby little faces, and from then on, very little drags them down. At least, that’s what it looks like from the outside. But is it just Southern hospitality? Freudian denial? Lack of insight or intelligence? Whatever. These two groups are what we scientist-types call statistical outliers. In this case, the label is especially apt.

The rest of us are happy sometimes and unhappy other times. We might think we know why, but the fascinating thing is this: We might be wrong. On the other hand, we might be mystified by our moods and tell ourselves there’s no reason to be feeling the ways we feel. And again, we might be wrong. As with all things human, cause and effect is often mediated or muddled by beliefs and attributions, genetics, judgments, and assumptions that at the very least confuse the issue, and at the worst, lead us far astray.

Do you think more money will make you happy? A clean closet? Good grades? A well-cooked meal? A refrigerator full of dark beer? More time for yoga? The approval of others? The cessation of pain? Thick hair? How about control of your own life? Something interesting to do? Something to believe in? This list could take a turn toward more X-rated topics, but Dr. Bossypants feels happier refraining from that sort of thing for now.

Don’t worry, though; the class won’t shy away from any aspect of the human experience in its quest to help students dismantle simplistic assumptions and become more sophisticated and knowledgeable about what might contribute to a happier life and a happier society. When Spring Term at the University of Montana begins, Dr. Bossypants will occasionally let you know how things are going. Stay tuned. Stay warm. Be happy.

 

Giving Blood

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In a few minutes, I will be taking a calming drug so I can give some of my very popular blood and not faint. Yes, Dr. Bossypants was born a universal donor (meaning I’m O-negative). They love me, but I’m a needle-in-the-vein-phobe. When they begin draining blood out of me, I drop like a stone. And I get very sick when they yank me up from the howling blackness. They don’t like this outcome, nor do I. So, by introducing the magic of a vasodilator, we all win. The first time I tried the prescribed drug, and didn’t faint, I was so happy I bought a chainsaw.

Giving blood is different than giving a kidney, or bone marrow, or part of your liver. It is different than donating sperm or eggs. It is different than making sure your body can be used for pieces and parts after your death. And it is different than sharing your uterus and a lot of bodily functions so a fetus can develop into a fellow human being. But there are similarities. Each of these kind acts can give, save, or improve lives. Each should be a loving, conscious act that involves willingly extending the use of the body you were born with.

Such acts are tremendous and praiseworthy gifts. Sometimes, such acts can be quite painful or inconvenient. But they should never be mandatory. Autonomy over one’s body and body parts is foundational to human freedom and dignity. We are rightly appalled when we hear of forced use of someone’s body for slave labor, sex, or scientific research. Forcing someone to use their body to bring a pregnancy to term should be equally appalling. Yes, people die because we choose not to give in certain situations. Yes, the unwanted fetus’s chance to develop and be born is ended if the use of the woman’s body is denied. But as I’ve pointed out in an earlier blog, I suspect, if given the choice, many fetuses would not wish to be born unwanted. It is never an easy choice.

These profoundly personal decisions must entail adult reasoning and be left entirely to the individual. Even though giving a gallon of my nice O-negative blood would save more lives in the short run, it would be a very bad idea. It would end the source. Giving of our bodies to save or nurture others must be done in the context of our overall responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our community.  People, we are in dire need of wisdom and compassion. Legislating the use of someone’s body involves neither.

Racehorse Deaths: One Perspective

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In 2018, roughly 1,000 horses died racing related deaths in the United States1. Likely, many more went unreported. The numbers were down a bit from past years. Media attention may have made a difference. It often does. Even now, dead racehorses continue to get a significant share of air time. These are carefully-handled, expensive horses, bred with deliberation and high hopes, given all the comforts money can buy.

Each year, here in these same United States, approximately 1,750 children die from abuse and neglect2, mostly at their parents’ hands. Like horses, there are more dead children than official reports indicate. But unlike horses, these deaths are generally not a fixation of the media. It’s doubtful that most of these children were treasured or that their births brought their families high hopes. More likely, the severe lack of money and support faced by some of their families contributed to their abuse and death. Unwanted pregnancies sometimes become unwanted children who strain systems and families to the breaking point.

Over the years, Dr. Bossypants has worked with a variety of adults who began life as unwanted children. Some of their lives have been very, very difficult. Others, less so. One woman, a devout Christian, told me her story: “It was no secret in my family. If abortion had been safe and legal, I’d have been aborted. But I wasn’t. And I wasn’t abused or neglected; I was loved and supported, and my life isn’t bad at all.” That was an understatement. We both smiled. This was a very wealthy, successful woman. She went on.

 “I know the incredible costs of unwanted pregnancies. And the risks. I’m grateful my birth did not cause my mother’s death, but honestly, it drastically reduced her options in life. I’m also grateful I wasn’t the product of a rape—only a naïve mistake. And I’m grateful there were many extended family members able to help, especially my grandmother…” She paused and smiled again. But she had more to say.

 “I’ve thought about this. Prayed about this. I’m absolutely clear. If somehow, I could have been given a choice, I’d have happily been aborted. I’d have gone straight to the heart of a loving God. And life for my family would’ve been much easier. I don’t get why everyone assumes unwanted fetuses would insist on developing and being born…”

This woman was not alone in these sentiments. She just expressed them very clearly. To state the obvious, Dr. Bossypants reminds everyone: Becoming pregnant is not always a choice, but carrying a pregnancy to term should absolutely be the pregnant person’s choice. To you who would take away these choices (oh ye of little faith) my clear-souled client would have you realize it’s not your business to speak for a fetus. You are not God. It is not your right to tell other humans how to use their bodies. As a psychologist who has observed the world for a good long time, Dr. Bossypants is confident that if there is a God, this entity does not insist on life at all costs. Rather, it appears that most holy writings speak of a God who insists on compassion.

And as an aside, Dr. Bossypants would add: To those rich enough to breed horses with glass ankles, rich enough to bet more on a horserace than it would take to give thousands of children enough to eat, an education, and a chance in life, let’s work on our priorities. How about we side with life and respect the God-given autonomy inherent in being human? How about we side with life and pay our fair share collectively so that the loved and wanted next generations have a better chance at living safe, positive lives here on this increasingly-burdened earth?

 

1https://horseracingwrongs.com/killed-2018/

2https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/fatality.pdf

The Eyes Have It

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There are many philosophies, faiths, and religions that purport to explain the human condition and offer a path to salvations of various sorts. None are entirely accurate. Part of the human condition is that we are destined to understand in part, not in whole. Dr. Bossypants is frustrated by this, but she bravely soldiers on. She would rather have all the answers, and she would very much like them to be correct. However, she manages to meekly accept these limits most days.

Another part of the human condition is for “true believers” to deny the incompleteness of their understanding and jump into a given system with both feet and every available neuron. Dr. Bossypants is horrified and frightened by this. The absolute rigidity of fundamentalism provides a shelter from uncomfortable truths, an excuse for ignorance, and failure to change or repent of actions that cause great harm.

Once, decades ago, when Dr. Bossypants was experiencing anxiety about public speaking, a colleague named Diana shared a strategy for overcoming this fear. Diana said that before she began speaking, she looked out over the crowd and put love in her eyes. Yes. Love. Adoration. Unconditional acceptance. Compassion for every single person wiggling in their folding chair, waiting for the speaker to entertain or enlighten.

Dr. Bossypants was a bit skeptical, but she tried it. It worked. The anxiety abated as Dr. Bossypants tapped into that part of the brain that produces endorphins of love. The muscles around the eyes soften. The lips relax and turn slightly upward. The eyes themselves moisten a bit and draw energy from deep within the brain—the right supramarginal gyrus, to be exact. Empathy replaces self-consciousness. When we will ourselves to emit compassion through our eyes (and face), we change our center of mental gravity. We can get past our isolating and destructive fears and join a larger community.

The astute reader has already made the connection here. The world is filled with people who do not put love in their eyes before speaking. They may be less anxious and more cocky–clinging to the idea that they know the whole truth—but Dr. Bossypants hastens to point out, again, that no human being knows the whole truth. Way down deep, we all realize this and are all a little afraid. We just cover it up different ways. People of all faiths and no faiths, listen. It is time to humble-up. It’s dangerous to believe you have the whole story because this leads you to do things that violate the most basic necessities for human functioning and survival:

  • Compassion (love for the enemy, love for the neighbor, love of our home—the earth)
  • Hope (for the future, for the now, for a better way)
  • Generosity (what goes around does, indeed, come around)
  • Honesty (lying never leads to a better community)

Love is not involuntary. Humility is not involuntary. Salvation has many definitions, and survival is not assured. So what’s a body to do?

Well. Like Diana said, put love in those eyes of yours. Let the muscles in your face surround and enhance your loving eyes. Be brave. Be forgiving. Be honest. Do this as if your life depended on it because as they say, the life you save may be your own.

 

 

 

 

Hatred

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Hatred. According to Dr. Bossypants, this is a human experience everyone has. You can ban the word from your vocabulary but you can’t ban hatred from your emotional life. You feel revulsion toward certain foods, people, art, ideas, legislators, and even words. You loathe them. You revile them. You wish for their existential end. In a moment of unguarded, disinhibited rage, some humans try to obliterate whatever they hate. If you manage to amass enough wealth or power, annihilating things or people you hate can become sport, mission, or obsession.

And just as you’ve experienced hatred of externals, you’ve experienced hatred of internals. There are aspects of yourself that you hate. We want and need to be lovable. Our judgments of ourselves can be so harsh, they sometimes go underground and become unconscious. They’re so toxic we have to redirect the judgments outward and hate anything that reminds us of our failings and shame.

You’ve hated. You’ve been hated. It is part of being human. It will not go away. Thus, Dr. Bossypants is convinced that the question is not how to eradicate, but rather, how to accept and manage our human hatefulness. Here are some steps she believes will be helpful:

  • Stop ranting and listen to your hatred.

What does it tell you about your fears?

What does it tell you about your failings?

What does it tell you about your callings and gifts?

Is it a warning? A source of energy? A source in internal challenge? Can you grow because you welcome and understand your hatred?

  • Put your hatred in perspective.

You are a rational being. You KNOW that which you hate has value.

Do not force yourself to not hate. Instead, make room for alternatives alongside the hate.

  • Do not feed your hatred and starve the rest of yourself. Hatred is insatiable.

Whatever gets your attention grows. There are higher satisfactions and lower satisfaction in human evolution. The satisfaction of hating is fleeting and will never be enough.

  • Be civil.

In a civil society, hatred is best expressed by elevating the opposite of what you hate. In today’s climate of rampant incivility, this may seem quaint. It’s not.

Find gentle ways to express your limits, disappointments, aversions, and disgusts, and then move on to notice and support that which is good.

Stand firm. Compassion isn’t weak or easy. You will have to practice.

  • Accept your whole self.

Sit quietly with your hatred, fears, and sadnesses. Know them well.

If you are not aware of hating some parts of yourself, you are dangerous. This is anaerobic hatred—corrosive, explosive, and blinding. Open up. Dig.

Remember you are only responsible for a miniscule portion of the way things are.

In summary, Dr. Bossypants says this: Forgive yourself, understand your hatreds, face your fears, welcome the dark reminders that sadness brings, and get on with being. And by the way, dear ones, you will need to repeat these steps.

Get Real About Abortion

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For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, clear, and wrong.

H.L. Mencken

People, we need to grow up. This whole abortion “debate” is a sham. The realities require compassion, tenacity, and wisdom, not rigid adherence to the idea that the law will save us.

  • Abortion is a political tool used by the far right to get votes. Many of them do not actually oppose abortion. Many have paid for abortions for their lovers, daughters, and wives, and will continue to do so, regardless of “the law.” They are people who see themselves as above the law. They are posers, tricking naïve but well-intended Christians and others who “hold their noses” to vote for them so they can enact legislation that is decidedly un-Christian and immoral.
  • Even if made illegal, abortions will continue to happen, but just as in other domains, we will make very evil people very rich because they provide illegal, but highly sought-after services. Think pimps. Think drug dealers. This is the type of person we will empower and enrich.
  • Some women will lack the resources to hire a crook to end an unwanted pregnancy. They will give birth to unwanted children for whom they cannot adequately provide. These children will often not be welcomed. They will have a very slim chance of having good lives. I would personally choose to be aborted rather than be born in these circumstances. I feel certain my fetal-self would slide right into a better realm.
  • Some women will take desperate measures to try and end the unwanted pregnancy. They will be seriously injured, or die.
  • Many women will get abortions, but they will not be able to be as thoughtful and careful as they could be if abortions were a viable choice–safe and legal. There will be panic, rumors, and unnecessary fear. Some may rush to abortion, but given time and less shame, would have made a different decision.
  • If made illegal, late term abortions will happen less often because of fears of prosecution. Therefore, women will be forced to deliver fetuses that will die in minutes, days, or weeks after birth due to the severe disabilities of the fetus. Some women will die due to the complications of such profound disabilities, or they will die of late-term life-threatening conditions. Often these will be women with other children. We will deprive those families of their mothers.

If you really want fewer abortions, support the availability of birth control. Work to stop unwanted or uninformed sex. Offer compassionate settings for decision-making in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. Stop the shame. STOP THE SHAME. You imagine you are saving the life of an unborn child. You are not. You are forcing a living person to use her body to continue a process that will, over time, produce a baby. It isn’t a baby yet. But the woman in question IS, in fact, a living, breathing human being. You are willing to violate her rights and autonomy, and risk her health, her future, and even her life, for a human-in-the-making. You value her reproductive function more than you value her as an already-here child of God.

Get off your simplistic self-righteous high horses and use your God-given brains to reason through this complex human dilemma. There are compassionate ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies, but we will never end all unwanted pregnancies. There are times when an abortion is the most loving choice possible. We live in an imperfect world and often have to make wrenching choices. If a woman wants to risk her life and her future for the sake of a fetus, and devote her body to that amazing reproductive process, that is absolutely her choice. If she does not wish to do so, the Government should not step in and place more value on a potential life-in-the-making than on the already-here human being. We do not force people to donate their bone marrow, kidneys, or portions of their livers to save existing humans in need of those organs. We honor those who donate, but we do not force them to use their bodies to save lives, even when doing so would not impair their futures in any way. We simply do not cross that line.

We simply do not cross that line.

Dear ones who sincerely see abortion as wrong, you are much wiser to devote your lives and energies to eliminating unwanted pregnancies, offering viable options, surrounding every woman with love and respect, and refraining from cruel judgments. Do not vote for those who promise to make abortion illegal—they are using you, and should it actually happen—it will only bring about great suffering, increased illegal activities, and crippling shame. We can find better ways to reduce the number of abortions, to care for babies born into terrible environments, and to build a better, more loving and sane society. The law will not help us do this. Compassionate will.