The Threesome in my Therapy Office

10 Oct

My clients–whether they are teens, college students, business men in their suits and ties, mothers with pedicured toes–all seat themselves on the comfy couch and then place their uninvited guest close to them: beside them, on their laps, peeking out of their purses or lying unabashedly on the coffee table. They make no apologies for the presence of the third party. No, in fact, in the middle of a sentence they may scoop her up and say, “Here, let me show you what my puppy looks like” or “Well, let me read what he said” …scroll,scroll,scroll….

  smart phone social media conceptI am speaking, of course, of the glowing, dinging, buzzing, vibrating or blinking rectangular wafer: the smart phone. I don’t know just when the moment came that I accepted this intruder into the therapy hour. I know in the beginning, I tried to enforce the no-looking-at-your-phone rule in a weak attempt to maintain the intimacy of therapy: Just you and me and the cognitive emotional process that is the talking cure. Alone together.

But trying to keep that seductive, smooth, soft-cornered,winking and ding-dinging little piece of shiny technology out of our hour was in itself an intrusion. Somewhere along the way my own sleek seducer, the Droid Razor Maxx, found its way to my side, disguised and docked as a very legible clock with date and weather conditions…but even in its clever clock disguise, it whispers to me when someone from the outside world would like my attention.

In the end, because this technology is taking us somewhere emotionally–and because we can’t know for sure the harm nor the good it will bring to relationships and society,  I’ve concluded that psychologists need to struggle along with everyone else with this intruder into our therapy relationships. We need to embrace the smartphone challenges of constant communication, knowledge resources at our fingertips, the built-in distance regulating of text communication instead of voice to voice or face to face and never allowing ourselves to be quite alone. How will our ability to remember things be affected when we carry our memory in our pockets? How will relationships ebb and flow in coming generations of kids who live half the time in the cloud? How will imagination, self-esteem, intelligence evolve?

As a therapist, I need to wonder about these things and observe. So, sure, I’d love to see that picture of your puppy. Go ahead and read what your boyfriend just texted. Then we’ll talk about it.

5 Reasons A Win For Obama is A Win For Veterans

5 Nov

Veterans—mostly older men—currently support Mitt Romney 58% to 34% for Obama. After all, the Republican party has long been viewed as the patriotic, strong-on-defense party. THEY are the patriots! THEY love America. THEY support members of the military and our vets, right?  Wrong. During the past 12 years, their support of veterans has been with words only, while their actions suggest that vets are at the bottom of their political and moral priorities.

Here are 5 reasons why a win for the Obama administration is a win for veterans:

1)  In September, senate Republicans blocked the passage of the Veterans Jobs Bill, sponsored by (D) Sen. Nelson of Florida. This bill was designed to give vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan a leg up in finding good jobs and training in their communities. Why was it blocked? The Republicans said they would not pass a bill that “was unpaid” for. The real reason? It was more important to the GOP to thwart President Obama before an election than to concern themselves with the well-being of veterans.In short, you matter less than the goal of getting the Democrats out of office. (For the record, however, 5 out of 47 Republican senators did vote for the jobs bill: Senator Murkowski of Alaska, Senator Brown of Massachusetts, Senators Snow and Collins of Maine and Senator Heller of Nevada.)

 2) According to a June, 2012 research report for Congress, between 2000 and 2007, at the height of two wars, VA spending on returning veterans by the hawkish Republican administration was slightly less than has been spent on vets in the first 4 years of the current administration. (  Even with this increased funding in the VA budget, the backlog of claims and the waiting list for services at the VA remain unacceptable. In 2008, the current administration began a push to move the VA out of the dark ages and into the world of electronic records in order to streamline and expedite care. But this necessary modernization of service delivery to vets would be jeopardized by a Romney/Ryan win. Are you willing to risk a slashing of the VA budget so that they might retain tax cuts for zillionaires?

3) And lest you think, “Well, Mitt Romney is not George W. Bush. He’ll do better”, consider this: Just after July 4rth of this year, Romney named James Nicholson, the former secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs under President Bush, as a co-chair of his Veterans and Military Families for Romney coalition. In this capacity, he would advise a President  Romney on veteran policy. The  trouble is, he resigned from the Bush administration in disgrace in 2007, following criticism for poor treatment for returning vets, decrepit conditions at Walter Reed, a data breach of the social security numbers of 26 million veterans, 3.8 million dollars in top executive bonuses in the VA while veteran’s disability claims languished untouched.  dyn/content/article/2007/07/17/AR2007071700701.html But, hey, he already knows his way around the office.

4) Mental health services for veterans have been dangerously slow and inadequate in the face of the number of Vets with PTSD, substance abuse problems, depression and suicidality. It’s hard to come back from a war when everyone around you lives like it isn’t happening.  But the VA under President Obama has just announced the hiring of 1,600 psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses. This isn’t enough. But it is a start.  In 2011, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched the Joining Forces program for military families, which continues to make an impact by helping veterans and their families find work and stay connected. Both of these initiatives will go if a Republican administration takes over.

5) Mitt Romney personally takes all the help he can get from the government, paying a maximum 15% tax rate on his fortune because he doesn’t actually work, he just lives off his investments. (By the way, how are YOUR investments doing?) According to him and others, he is just a smart businessman. No harm, no foul. So, how come when you attempt to use benefits that you earned serving your country—whether disability, medicare or a tax break—you are in the 47% who are mooching off the wealthy? Governor Romney labels what you may need now or in the future as “entitlements”, and what he needs as something that he is entitled to, because he is a smart businessman.  The attitude of “if you’re rich, you earned it, if you’re struggling it’s your own fault” can only work against the young people who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with holes in their work history and damage to their bodies and minds.

So, this Tuesday, don’t let the false patriotism of Mitt Romney (the same man who dodged the draft in Paris, France—the father of 5 sons who wouldn’t think of serving in the military) fool you: A vote for President Barack Obama is a vote for veterans.





Ten Top Reasons Parents Struggle Through The Teenage Years!

12 Aug

10. When teens do wickedly hilarious imitations of adults such as relatives and teachers, you know they’ve got a good one of you that they’re not sharing!

9.  As early as age 13, a cantankerous stranger seems to have possessed the once-adorable child that you knew.

8. Who among them doesn’t love to argue?

7. Teens ask you to take them shopping and then when you do, they make you live to regret it.

6. They judge you and find you sadly lacking.

5. They have cool, code-like language to get under your skin in a variety of situations, such as “OMG”, “Really?”, “Dude”, “Ewwww” or the condescending “Chill!”.

4. Teens tell you in the most convincing way that you told them the opposite of what you are telling them now about something you do or don’t want them to do (and you know their memory is better than yours) (and they count on that!).

3. They look better than you effortlessly, even first thing in the morning.

2. They have their whole lives ahead of them to be anything they want and for you, the options shrink daily!

And why parents struggle with the teenage years reason  number 1: It breaks your heart when life breaks their heart, and you can no longer just kiss it and make it better.

On Being Someplace Else

31 Jul


Most of the time we are where we’re supposed to be: at work, at school, on the baseball diamond, in our cars, at the grocery store,getting a pedicure, taking the car to be serviced, at the movies, out to dinner….But every once in a while we take ourselves somewhere else, -somewhere that has nothing to do with anything but that we wanted to go there.  It might be someplace close–like a sunny bench we sit on at the railroad station or a flat rock on the edge of a nearby stream–or it might be far away,-a day’s travel by plane, or hours and hours of driving. What these places have in common is this: We don’t belong there; we’re just visiting.

No one knows us here. We can shed our identities, have nothing to say, and we can imagine how much happier we might be if we could live right here, wherever it is. The air seems easier to breathe and the sky more unique. We can imagine that in this place we could be really happy.

One time, standing on the top of a hill on an island called Isles de la Madeleine in the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, I had such a moment of being entirely someplace else. It was windy, but warm and I stood beside a gigantic wooden crucifix looking down on the web of small houses and small roads below that made up the island’s tiny town. In the distance, I noticed a dog loping down a road toward a small boy with his arms outstretched and then another dog sniffing at something in the road in another direction. And yet another older dog, tail wagging, walking slowly down a side street. It suddenly dawned on me that not only was I in a Grandma Moses painting, but that there were no leash laws in this Grandma Moses island. Dogs just wandered free, like in the old days.  Suddenly I felt a rush of possibilities! Life would be easy here, no expectations, dogs run free, water on all sides,  the closest civilization a 6 hour ferry ride to Nova Scotia. And for the rest of the trip I lived the fantasy of the  perfection of that “someplace else”.

Whether we take ourselves to an island,or CinqueTerre, Italy or the middle of the New Mexico high desert to ride dirt bikes, being someplace else is worth the hassle it takes to get there when we end up feeling truly alive.

On Guns

18 Apr

On the intake paperwork that I ask new clients to fill out, in addition to “name”, “insurance”,”next of kin”,there is one final question: “Do you keep a firearm in the home?” I admit that the question can sound a little paranoid here in New England, where everybody hunts.There is game bird season, deer season, bear season,fur bearer season and even rabbit and squirrel season. Every town around has a gun range, and near every town forest you can hear the “boom” of exploding ammo. In fact, in Massachusetts, with a Class “A” License to Carry, you can even tote around your very own concealed weapon. Just in case.

Just in case what? Just in case you are attacked on the streets of Concord by a deranged escapee from the prison? Just in case you’re walking home alone to your dorm at 3am? Just in case you have to shoot out the windows of a burning building to save the people inside?

Judging from the way firearms–usually shotguns– have been used here in my middle class suburb of Boston,  it’s rarely self-defense or heroism that causes a firearm to be discharged. If it’s not hunting or target-shooting, the actual use of these weapons is for suicide and homicide. Take the upscale town of Westford, MA (pop.22,600) for example: In 2010 alone, there were two firearms suicides and two murder-suicides by gun. In January 2010, Fred  LeDuc shot and killed his wife and injured himself, leaving their children essentially orphaned. Just one month later, Brian Marchand shot and killed his 17 year-daughter Olivia, shot and critically injured his wife and then killed himself. The effects of these violent events continue to ripple through the community. One of the suicides in that year was that of a young man suffering from depression who had been asked to take a medical leave from college. Another was a man in his early 40s who was going through a divorce.

In all of these cases, the shooters were going through dark times, plagued by financial stressors or by a sense of failure or a sense of loss. But would these stories have been different if the shooter hadn’t had a gun handy?

Decidely, so. Take a look at the difference in suicide rates in the 6 states with the highest concentration of weapons versus the 6 states with the lowest concentration of weapons:

                                                  High-Gun States        Low-Gun States

Population                                  39 million                   40 million

Household Gun Ownership             47%                           15%

Firearm Suicide                           9,749                          2,606

Non-Firearm Suicide                     5,060                          5,446

Total Suicide                             14,809                          8,052

In the high gun ownership states, firearms suicides are almost 4 times more frequent than in low gun ownership states. Yet suicides by other means are almost exactly equal. What we can see from these statistics is that where there are lots of guns, there are more deaths by suicide. The lower overall suicide rates in low gun ownership states suggests that an absence of guns in the home allows people to get through moments of despair or passion without violence.

So many good people–teenagers, fathers, daughters– have died unnecessarily because during a few hours of despair or anger, there was a firearm within reach.

a psychologist’s notebook

18 Feb

Welcome to a psychologist’s notebook. Here you will find both information and observations derived from weeks,months, years of providing mental health treatment. Like my clients, I’m in search of that state of being that some call “wise mind”. Wise mind is that perfect balance between thinking and feeling, a balance that allows us to know joy and to tolerate suffering. Others simply call it “happiness”.

Psychologists have the privilege of looking in on many, many lives. We are not just stuck with the one that is our own. This is especially true for someone like me, who works with children, teenagers and adults.

In this notebook, I sometimes share my expertise in the science of the mind and at other times consider the questions, uncertainties, joy and humor in human behavior.

–Dr. Christine Musello