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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

14 NOVEMBER, 2014

Diane Ackerman on What Working at a Suicide Prevention Hotline Taught Her about the Human Spirit

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“Choice is a signature of our species. We choose to live, sometimes we choose our own death, but most of the time we make choices just to prove choice is possible. Above all else, we value the right to choose one’s destiny.”

“How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say OK?” Maira Kalman pondered in her visual philosophy. Such is the magnificent resilience of the human spirit. Our culture is haunted by the unholy ghost of suicide; those who succumb to it are mercilessly judged by the media and those who stay behind are at risk of contagion. How, then, do we help those on the brink of self-destruction “get up and say OK?” And what does that act of help reveal about our own trials and triumphs as we learn to be OK?

That’s precisely what Diane Ackerman explores in the gorgeous essay “A Slender Thread” in the anthology The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times (public library | IndieBound), adapted from her altogether sublime 1998 book A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis (public library | IndieBound), which recounts her time working as a volunteer crisis counselor at a suicide prevention hotline, performing a “slow tango of life and death” that demands of its dancers impossible “grace and cunning.”

Ackerman — scientific sorceress of the senses and supreme historian of the human heart — marvels at the humbling, uniquely human notion of the very concept of a suicide prevention hotline:

We use only a voice and a set of ears, somehow tied to the heart and brain, but it feels like mountaineering with someone who has fallen, a dangling person whose hands you are gripping in your own.

Ackerman recalls one particularly poignant call, with Louise — a frequent caller with “many talents, a lively mind, a quirky and unusual point of view, and a generous heart” — whom she had reeled back from the brink of suicide many times before. Louise’s anguish, like that of many on the downward spiral of the psyche, stems from feeling, as Ackerman puts it, bereft of choices. (Which is why Kerkhof’s pioneering suicide-prevention technique is so effective both in clinical contexts and in controlling our everyday worries.) Ackerman reflects on this uniquely human dance with possibility:

Choice is a signature of our species. We choose to live, sometimes we choose our own death, but most of the time we make choices just to prove choice is possible. Above all else, we value the right to choose one’s destiny. The very young and some lucky few may find their days opening one onto another like a set of ornate doors, but most people make an unconscious vow each morning to get through the day’s stresses and labors intact, without becoming overwhelmed or wishing to escape into death. Everybody has thought about suicide, or knows somebody who committed suicide, and then felt “pushed another inch, and it could have been me.” As Emile Zola once said, some mornings you first have to swallow your toad of disgust before you can get on with the day. We choose to live. But suicidal people have tunnel vision—no other choice seems possible. A counselor’s job is to put windows and doors in that tunnel.

Talking to Louise, Ackerman contemplates the enormous and vulnerable and terrifying responsibility of the crisis counselor as a torchbearer of luminous choice amid the darkness of the tunnel:

Every call with Louise has seemed this dire, a last call for help, and she has survived. But suppose tonight is the exception, suppose this is the last of last times? What is different tonight? I’m not sure. Then it dawns on me. Something small. I’m frightened by how often she has been using the word “only,” a word tight as a noose.

Assuring Louise that she would stay with her, Ackerman flickers a sidewise beam on the other meaning of “only” — that of the lonesome one, gripped with our civilizational anxiety of being alone:

So often loneliness comes from being out of touch with parts of oneself. We go searching for those parts in other people, but there’s a difference between feeling separate from others and separate from oneself.

When Louise laments her own weakness, Ackerman invokes her acts of everyday heroism, shared during previous calls — like volunteering during the flood, “filling sandbags and making sandwiches” for the victims. “Broaden the perspective,” Ackerman writes. “The hardest job when someone is depressed.”

Because something feels different about the call — because Ackerman feels the tar-thick darkness of that particular tunnel — she alerts the police while on the line with Louise, who had made her promise not to bring in the authorities. When they arrive — faster than expected — Louise swells with the rage of betrayal, screams at Ackerman, calls her a liar, hangs up. Ackerman loses Louise — loses the call, that is, which holds the grim possibility of losing the life. She writes:

Knowing and not knowing about callers, that’s what gets to me. My chest feels rigid as a boat hull, my ribs tense. Taking a large breath and letting it out slowly, I press my open palms against my face, rub the eyebrows, then the cheekbones and jaw, and laugh. Not a ha-ha laugh, a small sardonic one, the kind we save for the ridiculous, as I catch myself slipping into a familiar trap. I did fine. I did the best I could. Maybe the best anyone could tonight.

Ackerman circles back to the question of choice, so human and so riddled with perplexity:

Helping Louise survive is always an ordeal. Tonight she sounded even more determined and death bound than usual. It was the right choice. I think. Maybe. On the write-up sheet, under “Caller,” I write “Louise,” put the letter “H” for “high” in the box marked “suicide risk,” attach a yellow Lethality Assessment sheet, and add a few details of the call. Pressing my fingertips to my face, I push again on the brow bones, as if I could rearrange them, but they ache from a place I can’t reach with my hands.

A few weeks after that fateful call with Louise, the Crisis Center received a postcard from her, thanking the counselor — always anonymous, as was Ackerman to her caller — for, essentially, illuminating her tunnel. After the police had taken her to the emergency room, she had checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania for three weeks of “palatial bedlam.” Upon returning home, she had found a new job to replace the one she had lost and begun volunteering again, reporting that she was finally “in a good place.”

Ackerman’s closing words emanate far beyond the grimly glimmering grace of suicide prevention and into the broader and immeasurable beauty of asking for and receiving help. Beholding that postcard in disbelief, she writes:

She blesses the soul who “took my life in her hands that night,” thanks us all for our good work, is just writing “to let you know what happened — I bet you don’t hear that very often.” We don’t.

People take our lives in their hands all the time — parents, mentors, lovers, teachers, patrons. How often do they hear from us?

The Impossible Will Take a Little While, which also gave us Victoria Safford on what it really means to “live our mission,” is a soul-raising read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who changed his life, then revisit Ackerman on what the future of robots reveals about the human condition and a fascinating look at how the psychology of suicide prevention can help us control our everyday worries.

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13 NOVEMBER, 2014

Adrienne Rich on Lying, What “Truth” Really Means, and the Alchemy of Human Possibility

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“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.”

Long before Sam Harris’s memorable assertion that lying is “both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood,” long before psychologists identified the four most reliable ways to spot a liar, Adrienne Rich wrote beautifully about what is actually at stake when we lie and how lying in all of its permutations — especially those subtle everyday evasions and untruths we tend to attribute to circumstance or to the misguided mercy of sparing others pain — chips away at our basic humanity.

In a 1975 speech-turned-essay titled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” found in the indispensable volume On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Rich on how relationships refine our truths and her spectacular commencement address on claiming an education — she writes:

Lying is done with words, and also with silence.

Rich considers how, in relationships, we often use lying as a hedge against the discomfort of being truly seen:

The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control.

The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.

But the pathology of lying, she argues, doesn’t merely alienate us from others — it engenders the greatest loneliness of all, by cutting us off from ourselves:

The liar often suffers from amnesia. Amnesia is the silence of the unconscious.

To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.

The question of lies, Rich notes, invariably invokes the question of honesty and what “truth” really is:

There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no “the truth,” “a truth” — truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.

This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler — for the liar — than it really is, or ought to be.

In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even within our own lives.

The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire.

Pointing out the long history of “the lie as a false source of power,” Rich turns to women’s particular responsibility to one another in matters of truth:

Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.

Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.

[…]

When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.

This notion of possibility, Rich argues, is central to the power of truth and the peril of lies in all human relationships:

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.

When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.

Rich weighs the difference between honesty and oversharing — one particularly poignant today, in an age of compulsive oversharing and very little actual honesty — in the context of honorable human relationships:

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us.

To fully inhabit this possibility requires, it seems, understanding the subtle but vital difference between trust and faith. Rich considers why “we feel slightly crazy when we realize we have been lied to in a relationship”:

We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville.” You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends.” You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining.” Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only by sight, this morning’s weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.

[…]

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

Noting that common liar’s excuse of “I didn’t want to cause pain” is merely the liar’s unwillingness to deal with the other’s pain, Rich writes:

The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.

Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze itself; it has to be created between people.

[…]

Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it’s a movement into evolution.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence is a spectacular read in its totality, a trove of timeless truths spoken by one of the most intensely interesting and important voices of the past century. Complement it with Rich on love, loss, and creativity, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, her soul-stirring poem “Gabriel,” and the courageous letter in which she became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2014

William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams Talk Writing, Drugs, and Death in 1977

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“Deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins.”

Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs had a great deal in common: Both were born in St. Louis, within three years of each other, but didn’t meet until, in their late forties, they were introduced at a table in the Cafe de Paris in Tangiers; both revolutionized their respective fields of creative endeavor despite years of dismal commercial prospects and what Williams once described “absolutely merciless ridicule”; both were queer men in an era when this meant secrecy and social disgrace; both were tragic testaments to the relationship between creativity and mental illness, confronting lifelong struggles with addiction and other anguishing malfunctions of mental health.

In May of 1977, as his play Vieux Carré was about to open on Broadway, Williams invited Burroughs, who had attended the preview two weeks earlier, to his spacious apartment at the Hotel Elyseé. Both men were in their late sixties. Originally published by The Village Voice and later included in the altogether fantastic volume Conversations with Tennessee Williams (public library), their convulsively candid conversation unfolded over two bottles of wine and sprawled across writing, drugs, and death.

Burroughs: When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say, “Every word is autobiographical, and every word is fiction.” Now what would your answer be to that question?

Williams: My answer is that every word is autobiographical and no word is autobiographical. You can’t do creative work and adhere to facts.

After contemplating the wistfulness of growing old (“That’s the sad thing about growing old, isn’t it — you learn that you are confronted with loneliness,” Williams laments), the paradox of youth (“If there weren’t age, there wouldn’t be any youth, remember,” Burroughs consoles), and the bias of autobiographical memory (“I’m ever satisfied to look back on youth,” Williams professes; “Writers don’t, as a rule,” Burroughs observes), the two veer into a strange and strangely satisfying discussion of drugs. Williams, who brings up the subject, tells Burroughs:

I’ve always wanted to go on opium. I did try it in Bangkok. I was traveling with a professor friend of mine, and he had been in the habit of occasionally dissolving a bit of it — you know, it comes in little long black sticks — dissolving it in the tea, and drinking it. And he was angry at me, or confused mentally, I don’t know which — and so I called him one morning, as he’d gotten me this long black stick of opium, and I said, “Paul, what do I do with it?” And he said, “Just put it in the tea.” So I put the whole stick in the tea. I nearly died of an OD, of course. I was puking green as your jacket, you know? And sicker than 10 dogs all that day. I called in a Siamese doctor. He said, “You should be dead.” I said, “I feel as though if I weren’t walking or stumbling about, I would be.” I’ve always said I wanted to write under the drug, you know, like Cocteau did — all of a sudden, my head seemed like a balloon and it seemed to go right up to the ceiling…

Williams then recounts more of his substance experiments:

I wrote [the film script One Arm] one summer while I was taking Dr. Max Jacobson’s shots. I did some of my best writing while taking those shots. I had incredible vitality under them. And I got way ahead of myself as a writer, you know? And into another dimension. I never enjoyed writing like that.

They proceed to exchange substance preferences:

Williams: You’ve never written on any kind of speed, have you Bill?

Burroughs: Well no, I’m not a speed man at all.

Williams: I’m a downer man.

Burroughs: I don’t like either one very much.

Williams: Speed is wonderful, while I was young enough to take it; but you don’t like either one, now? You don’t need any kind of artificial stimulant?

Burroughs: Ummmm, well, you know … of course, cannabis in any form is —

Williams: Cannabis has the opposite effect on me. But I think Paul finds it very helpful — Paul Bowles. But I have tried it; nothing. Just stonewalled me.

Riffing off an oft-quoted line from one of his stories — “All art is an indiscretion, all life is a scandal.” — Williams steers the conversation, tongue-in-cheek, toward writing:

I hate politesse, don’t you, Bill? I don’t like people who play it too close to the vest — especially when there isn’t too much of it left. I intend to enjoy what little there is. We’re having a very literary discussion, aren’t we? [hearty laugh] I avoid talking about writing.

[…]

There’s something very private about writing, don’t you think? Somehow it’s better, talking about one’s most intimate sexual practices — you know — than talking about writing. And yet it’s what I think we writers, we live for: writing. It’s what we live for, and yet we can’t discuss it with any freedom. It’s very sad…

Williams returns to the subject of drugs, this time with full facetiousness, and shares “a poem about a junky,” written during one of his bouts of severe depression. It was inspired by “the mistress of a famous man,” who left the woman and she died from substance abuse.

I met an apparition, and so did she.
She was as lovely as ever and even more fragile than ever and her eyes
were blind-looking.
I found myself able to think and speak a little.
“What have you been doing lately?”
Indifferently she said: “When you take pills around the clock
what you do is try to get money and pay the drugstore.”

Williams, his mind no doubt on Burroughs’s extensive autobiographical writings about the heroin addiction of his youth, adds:

I think it’s most remarkable that you avoided any commitment to drugs, you know? Except cannabis. And your’e strong enough to control it. I’m strong enough to control anything I take…

To hear such a classic addict’s statement from one of the most brilliant creators of the twentieth century is heartbreaking evidence that there is no outsmarting addiction. By that point, Williams had spent decades spiraling deeper and deeper into the pit of substance abuse.

And yet it is unsurprising that two men of such considerable talent and intelligence wouldn’t be able to discuss drugs as a purely recreational subject outside the bounds of larger considerations of morality. When Burroughs quotes the English occultist, poet, and novelist Aleister Crowley’s line, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” the conversation takes a turn for the philosophical:

Williams: Provided you want to do the right thing, yes.

Burroughs: Ah, but if you really want to do it, then it’s the right thing. That’s the point.

Williams: Isn’t that an amoralist point of view?

Burroughs: Completely … completely.

Williams: I don’t believe you’re an amoralist.

Burroughs: Oh yes.

Williams: You do believe it?

Burroughs: Well, I do what I can…

Williams: I don’t think it’s true.

Twenty years earlier, in another interview included in the volume, Williams had addressed the question of moralism directly:

I have a distinct moralist attitude. I wouldn’t say message. I’m not polemical, but I have a distinct attitude toward good and evil in life and people. I think any of my plays examined closely will indicate what I regard as evil. I think I regard hypocrisy and mendacity as almost the cardinal sins. It seems they are the ones to which I am most hostile. I think that deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins.

In this light, the final moments of Williams’s conversation with Burroughs twenty years later reverberate with even more poignancy:

Burroughs: We were both brought up in the Bible belt; but it’s obvious that what you want to do is, of course, eventually what you will do, anyway. Sooner or later.

Williams: I think we all die, sooner or later. I prefer to postpone the event.

Burroughs: Yes, there is that consideration.

Williams: I’m in no hurry. But one doesn’t choose it. I’ve always been terrified of death.

Burroughs: Well… why?

Williams: I’m not sure. I say that, and yet I’m not sure. How about you?

Burroughs: Well, as I say, I don’t know. Someone asked me about death, and I said, “How do you know you’re not dead already?”

Six years later, 71-year-old Williams was found dead in his hotel room, having choked on the bottle cap of his eye drops. The evidence strongly suggests that his lifelong drug and alcohol use had damaged his gag reflex, causing his death. This renders Conversations with Tennessee Williams, in which his creative genius and intellectual integrity blossom with breathtaking beauty, all the more bittersweet — and an immeasurably valuable reminder that life is woven of dualities and contradictions, that “everything exists at once with its opposite,” that the greatest struggle of the human experience is that of reconciling the life-giving parts of us with the deadly ones.

Complement with Williams’s stirring reading of two poems by Hart Crane, Burroughs on creativity, his advice to the young channeled by Patti Smith, and Aldous Huxley on drugs and democracy.

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