Monthly Archives: August 2017

It’s high time

 

It’s been several centuries since the Sunni Persian poet Rumi waxed lyrical about the value of wine. Intoxication, escapism from anxiety: these were venerated effects once, before the medical or psychological problems related to drugs were apparent or widely known. Ancients bemoaned excess, thinking drunkenness shameful, but they also observed in humans the drive to change consciousness, as important perhaps as our drives towards sex and aggression. We seek freedom from oppressive thoughts, inhibitions…that problem of what others think.

I’ve long felt ambivalent about what intoxicants promise, regardless of what the medical or psychological consequences are. The tacit principles of psychotherapy extol the values of altered consciousness, but through natural means, not via the imbibing or inhalation of a foreign substance. Further, therapy implicitly encourages the exploration of anxiety or depression—the staying with pain—not so much its alleviation, or the substitution of it with pleasure-seeking. These values place my professional (or at least certain sections of it) at odds with many who are not interested in learning about their pain, and therefore addiction or dependency treatment represents a huge faction within mental health services. Implicitly, most of us in this field are wedded to sobriety, and professionally at least, suspicious of so-called altered consciousness, as induced by chemicals. Fortunately, growing knowledge about marijuana, for example, enables a different discussion: one that focuses upon pain, not consciousness. Increasingly, intelligent choices can be made about the types of pain that should be medicated, and those that shouldn’t.

Medical marijuana, or Cannabidiol (CBD), is one of a hundred plus cannabinoids that binds to cannabinoid receptors within the immune system, whereas Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) binds to receptors only within the central nervous system. That distinction has only been known for a few years. THC has intoxicant qualities—a ‘high’—and impacts various areas of the brain, including the basal ganglia (impacting movement), the hypothalamus (hunger), the hippocampus (memory), the cerebral cortex (reality testing and perception), as well as the medulla, which mediates the experience of pain. That marijuana disaffects short-term memory should remind us that in the context of PTSD, for example, or even certain aspects of grief, we might consider that ‘forgetting’—ordinarily an aversive symptom—is a propitious, as in welcome option. CBD does not get a user ‘high’, nor does it increase appetite, and can (unlike THC) treat rather than stir anxiety or psychosis. As an anti-convulsant, it can also be effective in the treatment of epilepsy. However, it can be counterproductive with respect to eating disorders (because it doesn’t stimulate appetite), and ineffective in treating depression, because it blocks THC from producing feelings well-being.

Research indicates that marijuana, whether in configurations of THC or other cannabinoids like CBD, places teenagers, and specifically males aged 16-24, most at risk for addiction, as that is assessed via DSM criteria. Adolescence is a tender period of life, for sure. We all remember what it is (or was) to worry about what others think, especially as a teen, and perhaps males are less socialized to talk about this–that’s the chestnut theory, anyway. But this vulnerable population constitutes just less than 10% of estimated marijuana users in this country. Now that 28 states have legalized use and possession of marijuana, and that legitimate medical uses for CBD have been established, it seems time to remove non-habit forming marijuana from the federal list of Schedule 1 narcotics (for which lack of medical application, plus abuse potential, is a criteria), and to block what has long seemed a tertiary, social effect: the indirect persecution of the black community via the pretext of illegal marijuana use and possession.

As a therapist specializing in addictions treatment, I have long dodged the legalization debate, especially when speaking to clients who are externally motivated to abstain. The legality question has always been in the way, it seems. The real questions—the ones that will persist over time, are the following: what do you want to do about pain? How do you want to raise consciousness?

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Viva The Who

 

I wasn’t quite on a high. On Friday morning, the day after my presentation, I strolled back to the conference center to hear at least one more speaker. I felt relaxed, sort of pleasantly drained, and because my own talk had gone well, I was spared the figurative hangover that otherwise may have left me sour or sluggish. The first talk was about children and trauma; specifically, it covered the story of a garrulous seven-year-old boy who enthused about movies depicting paranormal activity—movies that his mother watched obsessively at home, and that he watched or listened to because he had little choice. Ostensibly, the boy was a fan, but at night he wasn’t sleeping; instead, he was experiencing nightmares, was suffering injuries at school, hitting himself inexplicably. Self-harming. Dissociation. As I listened I thought of Tommy Walker, the fictional subject of my previous day’s talk, who might have shown similar symptoms had The Who’s famous rock opera been fleshed out with more vivid detail. Halfway through this Friday presentation, I was referenced out of the blue: the speaker was making a point about synchronicity, that Jungian/Joseph Campbell cosmic or spiritual construct, and reminding the audience of a biographical tidbit from my talk: that I was born around the time Tommy was in production. I can’t remember the context in which synchronicity was raised, and I had eschewed a spiritual focus in my talk, but as this other speaker continued I chuckled, and not just because my name had been mentioned. For me, this would be a day of synchronicity.

The afternoon would be anything but relaxing. Upon leaving my hotel, I left for the airport, bidding a fond farewell to Santa Fe—a gentle, artful little town, I must declare. At the conference center, in the airport lounge, and even on the plane to Phoenix, I was enjoying the aftermath of Thursday’s success: people were walking up to me, giving me nice compliments, thanking me for giving them a positive, educational experience with my Tommy lecture. I was basking but I was nonetheless anxious. One of my flights had been delayed, forcing me to wait two hours in Phoenix before catching the next flight, a late afternoon shot to Vegas. I’d never been to sin city before and I wasn’t planning to stay long. One night only: see a show, sleep in; then head home the next day. That was the deal. However, my flight was due into Vegas at 6:30, only ninety minutes before show-time. That would make things tight if disembarking, wading through a terminal, finding a shuttle or taxi, traveling downtown, checking in at another hotel, and then zipping over to a concert venue, all before the lights dimmed.

I wasn’t helped by airline seat assignments, or rather, by the lack of them. Southwest books passengers in groups of three, filling their 737 aircraft with roughly one hundred people for each flight. Technically, I was in boarding group C, passenger 35, or something like that. As far as I was concerned, my ticket might as well have read, boarding group no fucking chance. Anyway, someone or thing was looking out for me. I got a seat, right at the back, and was second to last off the plane, exiting around ten to seven. I made it to the taxis at ten minutes after the hour, got to my hotel twenty minutes later still, and—seeing a line that resembled the security check congestion at airports—decided to stash my luggage with bell staff, leaving check-in until later. The walk over to the concert venue was short, just a quick dash over a foot-bridge that overlooked the strip, but it was long enough to stir impressions that would continue over the ensuing twenty-four hours.

In some respects, Vegas was what I’d expected: a hot, steamy oasis, covering me with thick air and adult Disneyland ambience. It was heavily perfumed, with a tobacco fringe—the whiff of a dinosaur demographic, fused to slot machines. And those totems were everywhere: at the airport, in the lobbies of hotels, even next to restaurant entrances. I was half-surprised to not find them in bathroom stalls, where they would have been aptly placed, it seems to me. Beyond that tractor beam pull, sex was on alternative display. At Caesar’s Palace, within a vast lobby area, a phalanx of young women, mostly unattached, prowled in heavy make-up, ignoring men like me and wearing tight dresses that looked about as comfortable as scuba gear. The men seemed fewer, but they also traveled in groups and gazed about a lot. Like the women, they looked like they’d worked hard to be in Vegas: looking good, but more comfortable than their imminent sexual partners. You see, their pain was over. They’d given at the gym, not in the effort to wear clothes or walk in ridiculous shoes.

Past that display, I made it to Caesar’s coliseum, where I was amongst my element, sort of. Scores of middle-aged men, plus their similarly-aged women, mingled and then filed into the arena, there to see—you guessed it—The Who. A year ago, I met Pete Townshend, the band’s songwriter and guitarist, after a sturdy performance in Oakland. He autographed the paper that served as the basis for the Santa Fe lecture, and we spoke briefly. A special moment. This time, seeing The Who was my reward following a job well done, but there would be no private audience with Pete, despite the synchronicity of our shared presence in the desert. Seeing The Who was another peak experience–a spiritual one, or close to it–and the perfect, even predestined climax to a gratifying, triumphant week. Like many others in the audience, I knew their songs by heart; I danced (in place, sort of) and air-guitared like I did during my presentation; I sang along with lyrics like they were the pieces of hymns.

I’m back home now, with my feet on the ground, and my head more or less focused on the week ahead, the hours of listening that I’m privileged to practice. The Who have followed me and are playing this weekend at a festival in Golden Gate Park. A PBS radio commentator remarked that “Won’t Get Fooled Again” features the greatest scream in rock and roll history. It still gives him goosebumps, he said. Amen, I say.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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I climb a mountain

 

I can’t think what will have changed. From the first moment to the most decisive, beginning with distant anticipation, and climaxing with a relaxed strut towards the podium, the range of me was on show. In my imagination, those last few steps should have been heart-stopping. Terror should have taken over, halting my breath, and stripping my voice of all power. My blank gaze, peering into hot lights and eager, expectant faces, should have betrayed my fear, my clammy need to be absent.

In December of last year, while doing some e-mail housekeeping, I sent a message to organizers of the Creativity and Madness Conference, asking them to clarify the status of my then 3-month old application to present my Tommy paper at their next event. Given the lack of response prior to this point, I expected a polite form letter, thanking me for my proposal but rejecting my request. It would have sounded like the kind of letters I get from publishers when they dismiss my queries regarding my novels. No big deal. I was simply striking something off my to-do list, and tidying my ambitions. I’d move on to the next writing project, I figured.

Then came a pleasant surprise, not that my negative streak was anywhere near done with me. Within days of my e-mail, I received a reply from event organizers, apologizing for their delayed response, and asking me to present my paper at the next conference, scheduled for this August. I laughed in semi-belief. The only other time I’d gotten such an affirmation was when I’d…when I’d gotten word that my Tommy paper was to be published, come to think of it. Of course, conference organizers would be interested, I suddenly thought. This was a great opportunity. Those doors that seemed impenetrable now squeaked and moved, showing a gap behind which I saw smiling, inviting faces. It was January. I had seven months to prepare a talk based upon a paper I’d spent ten years writing, off and on. I knew the material like the front and back of my hands. Not only was this not a problem, I was ready to slam dunk, hit a home run; I’d even invent a new sporting metaphor to predict the imminence of my success.

Hold on, I soon cautioned my excitable mind. Hold on. I’ve been saying that short phrase over and over again these last few months. Sometimes the words contain, as in restrain, drunken, inflated thoughts, which otherwise fuel my flights. They pull back upon ideas that leave me breathless, floating on momentum, feeling good but also weightless, like Wylie Coyote finally looking down, realizing he’s in mid-air and that his plan actually sucked. Hold on, I likewise say to nagging doubt, to cynical pride; to envious heart and fearful spirit—four horses of my private apocalypse, ever ready to close ranks and bring me down. Caution reminds me of sober days after, when moments have passed, my carpe has not been diemed, but nobody really notices but me.

That’s what it’s like at night when the mind won’t rest, won’t let go of its spin cycle, and sleep is like a forgotten skill. I feel a portent of failure, hitting me like a dull thud, as that’s the sound of a joke that doesn’t work. Between April and June, I happily distilled my seven-thousand-word Tommy paper into an hour’s power-point display. I selected its best ideas, embroidered with an amusing anecdote or two; I included a dozen or so images, all torn from the internet, to stir associations, give my presentation a powerful edge. I even discovered a few tools in my PP program to inject drama, like fade-ins on photographs. Come late July, I was ready to talk, and barely needed a single note before me to aid my oration. Fascinating insight, profundity, even a song would spin effortlessly off my tongue. Or, at least I’d recite the lines of Tommy’s finale, “Listening to you”:

Listening to you

I get the music

Gazing at you

I get the heat

Following you

I climb a mountain

I get excitement at your feet

Then I traveled to Santa Fe, the site of the conference. On the first day, I regarded the audience, its three-hundred-person-deep girth, and gulped. I listened to speakers whose bio profiles took minutes to announce make dry yet content-thick deliveries. An expert on Leonard Cohen and Carl Jung recited song lyrics and quoted Rumi. A vast crowd of erudite baby boomers gazed lovingly at him and other speakers like they were core members of an established fan base. Suddenly I was in mid-air, gazing at a fan base that was not there, and believing that my plan sucked. No one was interested in Tommy, much less my infantile notions of attachment theory and rock and roll. My jokes were leaden; my anecdotes deadening. The baby boomer crowd would fall asleep, and snore loudly during the lulls within my stuttering delivery.

When my presentation began, my mic failed. Seriously. I felt like uttering that line— ‘is this on?’—to signify a kind of comic parallel, but the failure wasn’t mine. The failure: it wasn’t mine. I looked to my right, at the sound man, who looked slightly panicked, under more pressure than me. His boss, the conference director, appeared to snatch from him a hand-held microphone and then walk towards me. We were already behind schedule because he’d privileged a previous speaker with an extra few minutes. There was no way I’d get similar slack. But it was alright. I don’t recall exactly how I felt walking to the podium—only that I felt okay. My breath was there. I felt reasonably embodied, present; the demons seemed sidelined, and I was relaxed, ready to have fun. I got this, I thought. Then I spoke of Tommy, attachment and object relations theory, including self and other representations: in short, all the stuff that had been stirring for…I want to say forever.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

 

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