To shrug would be wrong with Andrew Solomon’s ‘Noonday Demon’

To shrug would be wrong. Andrew Solomon‘s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression deserves so much more. Noonday Demon brings so much advocacy, scholarship, and personal truth to its tale that I cannot help but recommend this highly for those with an open mind and feelings.

Noonday Demon examines depression, mental illness, and anxiety. He explores a number of his own experiences with the disease, as well as that of his mother. The non-fiction narrative looks into other cases upon which Andrew Solomon is familiar and conversant. This is the first book that I’ve read that treats this subject both firsthand and with some academic rigor (at least from my reckoning).

There were several areas that stuck with me as noteworthy and memorable. I will quote a few passages that were forceful and compelling.

Noonday Demon 2(Andrew Solomon)

Solomon quotes George Brown at the University of London, a founder of Life Events Research, on the nature of depression and anxiety:

“Our view is that most depression is anti-social in origin. There is a disease entity as well but most people are able to produce major depression given a particular set of circumstances. Level of vulnerability varies, of course, but I think at least two-thirds of the population has a sufficient level of vulnerability. According to the exhaustive research he’s done over 25 years, severely threatening life events are responsible for triggering initial depression…Depression is a response to past loss and anxiety is a response to future loss.

Ellen Frank from the University of Pittsburgh gets into the potential causes of depression, in a sense almost blaming those who suffer for their illness:

“I do not believe that if the causes of your problem were psycho-social that they would require a psycho-social treatment nor that if the causes were biological they would require a biological treatment.”

Solomon pulls no punches in his unapologetic disagreement for this as well as for the weak evidence for claiming that these suggestions indicate a path for returning those suffering back to health.

“It’s fashionable for psychiatrists to tell you first the cause of your depression…and second, as if there a logical link to cure; but this is poppycock.”

Solomon takes on the notion of self-medicating as a means of trading the pain you do not understand for one that you do. Emotionally, I find it hard to judge the decision-making, even though I hope for better.

“Pains are not destiny. If you take drugs, you do it deliberately. You know when you’re doing it. It involves volition. And yet, do we have choice? If one knows that there is ready relief for immediate pain, what does it mean to deny oneself?
     Part of what is so horrendous about depression and particularly about anxiety and panic is that it does not involve volition. Feelings happen to you for absolutely no reason at all.
     One writer has said that substance abuse is the substitution of comfortable and comprehensible pain for uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain, eliminating uncontrollable suffering which the user does not understand in favor of a drug-induced dysphoria which the user does understand.
     In Nepal, when an elephant has a splinter or spike in its foot his drivers put chili in one of his eyes and the elephant becomes so preoccupied with the pain of the chili that he stops paying attention to the pain in his foot and people can remove the spike without being trampled to death. And in a fairly short time the chili washes out of his eye.
     For many depressives, alcohol or cocaine or heroin is the chili, the intolerable thing the horror of which distracts from the more intolerable depression.”

After describing four types of suicide, and then staking out approval for one particular type, Solomon brings the case home by paraphrasing Sigmund Freud:

“Freud himself said that we have no adequate means of approaching the problem of suicide. One must appreciate his deference to this subject. If psychoanalysis is the impossible profession, suicide is the impossible subject.”

The bringing together of a compelling narrative is Solomon bringing his argument together for recognizing that there is a politics of mental health. The cases strikes me, as a layperson, as strong. While this argument aims at speaking to the people of the United States, the case for helping a demographic in need is emotionally compelling.

“The question of what constitutes mental illness and who should be treated rides very much on the back of public perceptions about sanity. There is such a thing as sanity and there is such a thing as madness and the difference is both categorical and dimensional, of kind and degree. Ultimately there is a politics of what one asks of ones own brain and of the brains of others. The problem is not so much the politics of depression as our failure to recognize that there is a politics of depression.
     A particularly disturbing recent op-ed article [at the time of writing] in The New York Times written by a psychiatrist at a conservative think tank in Washington in response to the new Surgeon General’s report on mental health proposed that helping the mildly ill would deprive the seriously ill as though mental health care were a finite mineral resource. She stated categorically that it was not possible to get unsupervised people to take their medications and proposed that those mentally ill who end up in prison probably need to be there.
     At the same time she proposed that the 20 percent of the U.S. citizenry who carry the burden of some kind of mental illness in many instances do not need therapy and therefore should not get it. The key word here is need because the question of need turns on quality of life rather than existence of life.
     It is true that many people can stay alive with crippling depression, but they can also stay alive, for example, with no teeth. That one could manage okay on yogurt and bananas for the rest of ones life is not a reason to leave modern people toothless. A person could also live with a club foot but these days it is not unusual to take measures to reconstruct one.
     The argument in effect comes down to the same one that is heard over and over again from outside the world of mental illness, which is that the only people who must be treated are those that pose an immediate expense or threat to others.”

Should there be more help? Is there no help because people choose to not understand? This is the political animal that Solomon says exists. To shrug at this would be wrong. My call to you is one of awareness; compassion; pressure applied smartly and in astute ways.

Noonday Demon 3(Quotation from Noonday Demon)

I too, am saying that I rate this book highly. I give Noonday Demon 4.5-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Friday, July 14, 2017

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Useful metaphor and concrete language in Emotional Agility by Susan David

In Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, Susan David offers useful metaphor, specific concepts, and concrete language with suggested actions to take for acknowledging and engaging your emotions.

An early metaphor includes the notion of a baited fishing line of emotional treachery; when hooked by thought blaming, anticipatory thinking / arguing, old and outgrown ideas, or wrongheaded righteousness, people that are hooked act against their own values because they are stuck. David gives examples of emotional hooks, with techniques to overcome them throughout the book.

David singles out joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust as emotionally relevant emotions. The point that as many as six scale towards unpleasant or uncomfortable is important. That surprise can be closer to joy, or the other emotions, is tied to context.

Emotional Agility 2

An emotionally agile person who is unstuck tends to show up and step out on all these emotions. Six techniques for stepping out are offered in Emotional Agility, which is as thorough a thought process as I have seen in one place.

A second useful metaphor surfaces in Chapter 6 and deals with “walking your why.” To walk your why indicates “living by your own personal set of values.” Concrete detail for spelling out the concrete values in statements like this is something Susan David did quite well.

Bringing in the notion of changing habits through tiny tweaks, the notion of balance in the Teeter Totter Principle, and then applying emotional agility to work and raising kids were all practical means for impacting life and work. Closing Emotional Agility with the suggestion to become real brought the core message of the book home in a cogent, well-rounded manner that I appreciated.

My overall rating is 4-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Saturday, April 8, 2017

Luke Dittrich explores chilling questions of moral ambiguity in his book Patient H.M.

Luke Dittrich explores chilling questions of moral ambiguity in his book Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. As revealed in the biography of Dittrich by Penguin Random House, Patient H.M. largely tells the “true story of Henry Molaison, an amnesic who became the most studied human research subject ever.”

The book extends the exposition into Dittrich‘s grandfather, Dr. William Scoville. The book delves into much of the history of “psycho-surgeries” (read lobotomies) that Scoville and Walter Jackson Freeman II promoted widely and spread with enthusiasm through the 1940s and some of the 1950s. The book Patient H.M. shares how Molaison was lobotomized by Scoville as a “culmination of a long period of human experimentation that…[Dr. William Scoville]…and other leading doctors and researchers had been conducting in hospitals and asylums around the country.” This August 9, 2016 New York Times article is the source of that quote.

Dittrich‘s book explains that Scoville was in part motivated to find a cure for his first wife; Scoville’s wife at this point (there were two) was Dittrich’s biological grandmother. The book confirms that Scoville performed surgery on Molaison, most likely the wife that would later divorce him, and an estimate of thousands of other patients as well. That this was done with the ostensible support of the American medical establishment, even after the legal and ethical condemnations to human experimentation in Nuremburg following World War II, shocks me. See this Doctor’s Trial link for more details. Patient H.M. explores this subject in enough detail that the reader is left to struggle with the ethical mortification imbued in Dittrich’s exploration.

The book goes into some of the history Dr. Suzanne Corkin of MIT, who studied Henry Molaison as a patient for more than 50-years. (Understand that Molaison underwent the lobotomy as an epilepsy patient in his 20s, and lived into his 70s). It was through much of Corkin’s research that awareness of the way memory works in the human mind became known. Dittrich asks some pointed questions about the raw data underpinning Corkin’s research, what she had to gain from information she kept or did not, and the ownership of Molaison’s brain (and the work product governing it) after Molaison’s death.

Patient H.M. is described in this Amazon book listing as a “biography, memoir, and science journalism” book, which is where it aims and largely lands. The storytelling does demand a certain degree of focus from the reader. Many threads of the narrative tend to get explored for periods of time, dropped, and then reappear. I’ve seen commentary from neuroscientists that indicate some of Dittrich’s knowledge is lacking, though the level of information worked for my tastes as a person not trained in medical science.

I came away with more insight into memory and the different ways that it works. The larger stories of Molaison, Scoville, neuroscience in the 20th century, and the meaning this had to Dittrich‘s family, fascinated me. The ethical questions around informed consent and the lines between the research and practice in medicine, trouble me. Upon finishing Patient H.M., my interest in a deeper dive on that last subject.

I would read this book again; I recommend that others read it. My rating is 3.5-stars out of 5, mostly owing to my interest in the subject matter coupled with the author not having taken a firmer stand about his own personal feelings surrounding the morality of his grandfather’s actions.

Matt – Wednesday, April 5, 2017

5,863-days to a new career

Today’s post has it’s beginning in early December last year when we had the Kleenex tissue meeting at my workplace. My colleagues and I were told over the course of the morning how my business unit had been sold in a fashion where the jobs would disappear in waves over the coming 18-months.

A small number of us with specific jobs other than my own would be given the opportunity to transfer over. Others would be asked to stay through the 18-months. Most of us would be provided with a 60-day notice and a severance package.

Unlike some of my colleagues, Lynn and I chose to keep this news pretty close to the vest. That is, I waited to see Lynn in person before sharing the news with her or the in-laws. Sharing Facebook friends with other less reticent people, Lynn captured knowledge of the news before my chance to look her in the eye and address concerns that you’d expect to appear in this case. Overall, Lynn understood my rationale and accepted the news pretty well. To this day, the means of sharing the news coupled with sharing my plans for working the problem pragmatically worked. Focusing on accepting the fact of the setback while acknowledging that it hurt seemed to have offered a sense of normalcy and optimism.

Through the time since, Lynn and I have updated our LinkedIn profile, become acquainted with Glass Door, Zip Recruiter, and Indeed as services. We worked with the displacement services to finesse a more professionally written resume; much has changed in the approach to resumes in the 16-years since landing the job I was losing. I reached out to people across my current industry, from school, in Toastmasters. The idea was to network with resilience and a positive demeanor with those in a position to help.

The decisive turn in finding our next opportunity came about three weeks ago when a former boss responded with his willingness to help. In less than a week, I had interviewed with five different people while passing a skills assessment with this company. Over the weekend that then appeared, the group that wanted to hire me extended an offer. Yesterday, news came back that my background check went well. My new role will start in 10-calendar days.

Today was the end of my 60-day notice period. The job I learned would disappear in December ended today, after 16-years and roughly 2.5-weeks. Next week, I get a “spring break” of sorts as I get to enjoy some relaxation before starting in full force in my new adventure. Today, as I joined many of my colleagues in saying goodbye on our respective last day, is emotionally sad, bittersweet, and a chance for saying farewell after 5,863 days.

Life happens. You feel sad, deal with the feelings, and then use the hurt to focus on moving forward. Lynn and I are happy that things are working out for us. Things are working better for us than for others; I am extending help and empathy where I can. Offer thanks for good fortune and support where possible; do the same with a helping hand where practical.

Matt – Friday, March 31, 2017

Elie Wiesel’s “Night” is psychologically graphic and necessary

Elie Wiesel’s Night was an emotionally difficult book to read. The psychological torture of Wiesel’s experience, and so many others like him that had it as bad or worse (not sure what might be worse … American slavery seems at least similar in context and cruelty). That this happened during the lifetime of people I grew up loving brings this particular account and atrocity closer to home; that is likely about anchoring.

The legitimate nightmare and anguish of Elie Wiesel’s experience is psychologically graphic and horrifying. Descriptions including psychologically graphic and horrifying make this book both a necessary and compelling reading. It’s a bit disappointing that my seventh-grade class had us read Seth McEvoy’s Batteries Not Included. This isn’t to diminish McEvoy’s effort; my point is that seventh grade seems like a reasonable time to expose children to questions involving historical and emotional literacy.

For illuminating something for scrutiny that needs to be seen, this book earns 4.5-stars. That the brutality indicated by Wiesel in Night occurred really spells out the crime of what Erik Larson wrote about in his book In the Garden of Beasts.

Matt – Monday, February 6, 2017

Top 20 Movie “The Shining.”

Stephen King has a solid history with his writings making a transition from book to television mini-series, cinematic movie, and a little more tenuously stage production. The second movie to make a transition from novel to the big screen is the 1980 Stanley Kubrick produced, directed, and written (as a screenplay) movie The Shining. King’s novel was first published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1977, coming in at 659-pages (per the novel’s Wikipedia page).

The Shining was a fortuitous marriage of some of Hollywood’s more commercially successful stakeholders. There was the novelist King, the producer, screenwriter and director Kubrik, and the starring actor Jack Nicholson. These three brought something special and awesome together.

King gave us The Shawshank Redemption (1994)The Green Mile (1999)Stand By Me (1986), and Misery (1990)Kubrik gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)Spartacus (1960)A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Full Metal Jacket (1987)Nicholson gave us Chinatown (1974),  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)A Few Good Men (1992)As Good As It Gets (1997), and The Departed (2006).

Beyond bringing together the above three all-stars with their commercial success and influence, the story is a masterful examination of falling into madness in a place of isolation meant to force the confrontation of it. Jack Torrance (Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) give us a convincing glimpse into three characters with questionable grasps on reality. The narrative question that the viewer confronts with the Torrances is “are any of these three reliably sane?” At what point are we losing a grasp with reality? Is this person already descended into madness (mental health is a clear narrative device)?

The truth is that these questions elevate to the storytelling itself. Is the narrative itself reliable?  From the beginning scene where Jack Torrance is interviewing to be the caretaker for a snowbound hotel, Torrance is told that a former caretaker murdered his family and committed suicide. Something is clearly off, even then, when Jack brushes this off with the note that his wife enjoys ghost stories and horror films. Nothing in the Wendy’s character confirms this is true, though the frame of the story as a possible ghost story (it isn’t) and a definite horror film is set right from the start.

One might wonder where the notion of “shining” or “the shining” even comes into the storytelling of The Shining. That notion comes in with the character of Danny, who has the gift of “shining,” which is the psychic gift seeing things from the past and future while also reading minds. In this image here, you get an echo of the opening tale shared with Jack Torrance regarding the murders of the previous family, as we remember from that beginning tale that the first murderous caretaker took the lives of his two daughters.the-shining-2

That the notion of reliable characters is part of that scene comes up when Wendy Torrance doesn’t know to believe the “shining” of Danny, because it is completely reasonable to suspect that the Tony that Danny speaks of might simply be an imaginary friend. The growing drama that leads us to understand the meaning of Danny’s singing “redrum” is part of the genius of the larger tale of The Shining.

The content and tension of this movie, The Shining, is one that I recommend wholeheartedly to those with the temperament to enjoy. Psychological horror stories, as the Wikipedia page for the book tells us is true for the novel, are not for everyone. As such, Lynn of Matt Lynn Digital would neither watch nor enjoy this 18th ranked film on the Matt Lynn Digital blog. On the other hand, I do recommend that you watch.

Matt – Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Undoing Project proves imminently readable…for adults

Set outside of any real sense of constant place, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis is a nonfiction telling of how Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman went about identifying previously unrecognized patterns of systematic human irrationality. In the conventional style, Lewis imbues his telling of the revelation of that style with the real character and drama that you might expect in a highly strung, highly private, highly steeped in Israeli cultural reference that you might expect In the platonic though marriage-like relationship that these two men had.

Lewis is compelling in sharing the rules of thumb, or “heuristics,” that the human mind inserts into decision-making when confronting uncertainty. Expect to see things like “representativeness,” “anchoring,” “availability,” “halo effect,” and so forth as central themes to the somewhat heavy subject matter. In addition to words like heuristic, words like Gestalt theory or utilitarianism might scare some readers away. While the terms come up, they are not central points in an attempt to give you an academic textbook on psychology, philosophy, or medicine for that matter.

I found The Undoing Project accessible and readable. The close collaboration and ability to work together for Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, a pronounced extrovert paired with a pronounced introvert, is an understandably unique characteristic of this book. To have that pairing work with little outside understanding for the dynamics for what made the relationship work, is part of the clarity that Lewis brought out well in this book. I say that Lewis brought clarity in explaining the relationship; I’ll say that calling their relationship love might be wrong. I’ll at least say that if love is the right term, it is something in a professional, friendship-driven, almost brotherly “sharing of minds and vulnerability” kind of way.

The book gives shorter shrift to the actual subject matter of “The Undoing Project,” which I think worked for the narrative in that “undoing” failed to bear fruit for Tversky and Kahneman, though the men’s relationship came undone. It was also Tversky’s undoing that paved the way for Kahneman to come out from Tversky’s shadow.

I disagreed with the editorial decision to bring a discussion of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game into The Undoing Project, as the content and context for using that wasn’t relevant to any of the Tversky and Kahnerman story. Disposing of the sports subject matter altogether in The Undoing Project probably would have made sense.

Given all this as preface, my rating for The Undoing Project is 3.5-stars out of five. In my opinion, many high school kids would have trouble reading along with this book.

Matt – Friday, January 6, 2017