Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lies, damn lies and what matters the most to people

For reasons that are obvious, I had been asked to speak about deception. I had been recruited for the job because of the lies I told and, interestingly, because the sponsors of the seminar realized that I had spent a lifetime – in both journalism and my mental health work now – needing to understand the motives of those working with me and identifying when individuals were lying. I declined the opportunity to help teach them how to better lie, which law enforcement officers can do in some circumstances with suspects, because I knew it just was not good karma for me to get involved in the making of better liars.

After going over the spectrum I’ve found for people’s motives - why they lie and why they tell the truth – I received an interesting question from a member of that group that had been assembled. One of the participants asked whether it was easier or harder for me to do my job when people were lying. I paused and thought about his question. The answer was clear as it was seemingly paradoxical.

Often, when people lie to me in my in work mental health, I said, we get to the truth a lot faster. My reply was something along the lines of this, “Once I know what people are lying to me about, whether it’s a lie meant for me or others or one they are telling themselves, I can usually better understand what scares them, what motivates them and areas that matter to them the most,” I said. “You can learn a lot about people by what they are willing to lie about.”

As I often tell my clients, there would be something wrong and beyond a little odd if they came in during their first session and told me that absolute truth, hiding nothing, lying about nothing and being open about everything. Even with people who have every motive not to lie (for example, their life is on the lie), we know that there are just some things that people don’t feel comfortable sharing. I often catch clients cold in their lies, call them on it in session, remind them that I am a forgiving chap and then seek to use it as a teachable moment because I find that people often lie about the things that matter to them most. If I can understand why they are lying, I can better understand how to help them.

As an aside, I’m not the best analyst of my own motives for lying. The looking glass distorts my understanding of myself in this area, but I can see the same things in my own lies that I see in those of others: pride, ego, a desire to not ask for help, fears, anxiety, and expediency and so on. Others have attributed my lies to personal gain, a notion that I don’t buy, and individuals have a wide variety of motives, ranging from avoidance, antisocial disregard for the rights of others in the name of their desires, sadism, attention, illnesses and a variety of reasons. I saw all this because I see both the lie and the reason for lying as important vehicles to getting to the truth and helping people faster.

I think my background makes it a little easier for people to share the truth, admit when they are lying and know that a pretty forgiving fellow. I have had suburban upper-middle class people tell me the truth about smoking crack when forty five minutes before they were telling me they did not have much of a drug problem. I have had people, crying, admitting to me that they encouraged inappropriate sexual advances from people who were sexually abusing them when ten minutes before that they had told me that they had not. I even had a client who was lying to me two weeks ago about “lying about everything.” She was down on herself and depressed, and couldn’t even be honest about how some of her complaints were real. It was a nice moment when she told me she lied about everything and my response was to chuckle and said, “Okay, now you are lying.”

In each of these cases, understanding the lie was key to understanding the person and understanding what they need to grow and what to do to help them. The suburban woman without the drug problem needed to admit to herself the problem. She said she needed me and others to believe she did not have a problem to reinforce her denial. Once she admitted she was an addict and let go off the cognitive dissonance that comes from being a relatively successful upper-middle class life and an addict, she was able to accept that she was self-medicating a mental health issue and plot a course to sobriety. The woman who admitted to encouraging sexual advances after the first time she was sexually abused by a relative was able to acknowledge the complex trauma of abuse and attack some of the deep shame she had felt for years and let go of some of the guilt she had been carrying silently. It allowed her to engage her sick relative, who was neither a sadist nor a pedophile but did sexually abuse her, in safe and productive ways that lead to great deal of healing for both them. The woman who lied about lying about everything came from a family that did not talk about feelings and she had begun to buy into the idea of those around her who preferred to dismiss her mental health variety problems (although she had known she was different in certain ways since a child, she had begun to dismiss her own symptoms and had internalized that it was all about laziness and lack of motivation).

Dr. Gregory House is probably the most complex antihero in the history of television, but there is some truth to the notion in his oft-repeated statement that “everybody lies.” But more important than just the notion itself is the undercurrent that isn’t often discussed on the show: that finding and understanding the lie is often to quickest path to a diagnosis and effective treatment. As Dr. House says, “It’s the basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.” As he also says, “Truth begins in lies.”

Friday, October 16, 2009

When kids hold hands under water and I believe that purple rocks aren't just amethyst

Sitting in a car in a Virginia university town today, a young friend told me the story of her first boyfriend, a 9-year-old boy from summer camp. I can't say how the conversation started - you never can with her - but its worth pointing out that I've known her for nine months and I never heard her talk fondly and in a detailed way about boys.

I think her segway was something about a boyfriend she had for a month in high school because she "wanted to know what the big deal was with this whole dating thing," or maybe we were talking about whether if all things come from God whether bad things were apart of his design, or patches in The Sims life-simulation computer game that allows men to become pregnant or pharmacists who refuse to dispense the Plan B pill or philosophy or something. I really don't know how we got there, but I do know that while she is no man-hater, my friend is generally and blithely and genuinely apathetic compared to many the boy crazed girls her age.

So, the topic caught my attention like 30 miligrams of Adderall dropped in to my morning cappuccino. And it was one of those stories that would have made Medusa smile, even after she did that whole turn-to-stone thingy.

She told me the story of the boy at summer camp that she only remembers was somewhere "forty five minutes" from her childhood home. She smiled as she described how he and another little boy would do anything that she and her friends asked, helping them, entertaining them and joining them in summer camp activities. She told me about how the boys' boat and the girls' crashed into each other because the boys thought the girls would move at the last minute and the boys thought the girls would move at the last minute. "I guess we didn't really think about how to stop a boat in the middle of the water," she says, smiling. She told me about how her relationship with her fellow 9-year-old was consummated by them swimming through the lake while holding hands. She mentioned a purple rock that he had given her that she had kept for years. She frowned with a half-grin as she said she didn't know where the purple rock was now.

It was one of those cute childhood stories straight out of "The Wonder Years," as if she was playing Winnie and the little boy she was friends with was playing Kevin, the innocence of youth shinning through her words and the images that were wistfully and magically painting in my head. The comparison also rang true, in part, because Kevin was a lot like that little boy she described, and in real life, Danica McKellar, who played Winnie, is just as brilliant as my young friend has grown up to be.

The final sounds, voice-over and dialogue of the last episode of "The Wonder Years" only strengthened the comparison for me, as Fred Savage, who played Kevin, told me through my television screen on the night of May 12, 1993, "Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you're in diapers, the next day you're gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back ... with wonder."

My friend is by no means cold. In fact, she has a warm personality on Tuesday, Wednesday and every other Saturday (you can't get in touch with her on Sunday and Monday; she's generally grumpy by Friday and all bets are off on Thursdays). She's actually passionate about some things (as outlying and interesting as her collection of philosophical, political, teenage and other interests may be). She's fun to engage with; but she does not engage with many. Most people who might meet her would probably view her as shy. Those who get to know her would think otherwise, but if you pay attention you don't hear much talk about feelings. She just implies they exist just enough that she can deny it if you ever accuse her of expressing an emotion. So, it was nice to hear a nostalgic story from a smart young woman who doesn't talk much about feelings. I was ready for her to share how she felt when she thought about the story. And she told me when I asked her about the purple rock.

Her words cracked me up, not for their content, but because she was able to swiftly process, on a dime, nice, warm emotion into an intellectual stone. And she did it with an enthusiastic smile on her face. She explained she was upset about losing the stone "because I really like rocks," as if her disappointment was over a piece of silicon dioxide that turned to amethyst because of some complex interplay of iron and aluminum, as opposed to sadness over the lost touchstone of the fading memory of, and not knowing whatever happened to, the boy who held her hand under the water.

Now, I have zero business talking about over-intellectualizing things. In my first outpatient group therapy experience, my favorite therapist would role her eyes and moan, and then complain about how I could even turn tears into a discussion that included Venn diagrams and flow charts that over-intellectualized where my feelings were coming from. Much of what I now do during any given day is help people intellectualize emotions, and rarely am in the reverse position of getting someone to emote the feelings hidden within their intellectualism.

The conversation and the story made me think of my own tendency to turn, or more precisely, to analyze, any feeling into the dust of ones and zeros, logical correlations, confounding factors and hide those feelings behind the mask of practicality. There is something to be said for practical rationality. We probably need more of that in this world, but for those of us who intellectualize, it is easy to use logic and practicality to put a veil over our own eyes, grow blind to our own feelings, the mask ending up hiding as much from us as it is hiding from others. I've even been known to hide the depth of and my deepest feelings underneath other feelings (some of them piped; some of them real). All too often, we find out how deep our feelings are when the mask cracks, and our emotions are exploding on the outside as we are imploding. There is something to be said for expressing ourselves and allowing ourselves to feel.

The French psychiatrist Moreau de Tours was, perhaps, the first to use the term disassociation in the context of social sciences. He saw disassociation as the splitting off or isolation of ideas from the ego, a disintegration of mind and emotional identity. While the definition of disassociation has expanded and contracted since in 1845, the essential principle is at play on all sides of this equation. We seek out nostalgic moments in order to separate from the present, and we detach our feelings from our experiences to protect ourselves in the present.

It is probably no coincidence that this friend can talk to me passionately about the lives of character's she creates and controls in a simulated computer world but that when she talks about her passion to have children she says so with a sheepish smile, almost as if it is something to be ashamed of, and professes that her true interest in having babies involves the intellectual task of molding young minds and as if they are toys that she's sure she'll be fond of. She says nary a word about the love and nurturing I know also attracts her to the prospect. It's probably also no coincidence I like her so much, for I have always been curious about the intellectual and emotional outliers and struggled with, both in journalism and in my present occupation, focusing on the intuition, logic and feelings of others, as a distraction to my own. I hope I am better able to integrate my ideas and my feelings, but I know that I'm a long way from finding complete comfort in the process and the outcomes.

For all the negatives related to being able to disconnect feelings and live in the world of ideas, there are some benefits, a certain resiliency to people who can intellectualize and rapidly detach from their feelings. If traumatic stress is an overwhelming response to an experience that surrounds and pushes into the mind, disassociation is a sentry that can protect individuals. In fact, I've seen it at play with this very friend. After an experience that would have been monumentally traumatic to most, I watched her rebound at a rapid speed and, on the surface, and probably inside herself, seems hardly affected by it (In fact, recent researchers have argued that all disassociation is not necessarily bad, especially when it does not negatively impact functioning, and that there is a correlation between high intelligence and dissociation, and a correlation between intelligence and a lower likelihood of developing postraumatic stress disorder).

All of that said, I have to wonder, from my own experience with trauma and disassociation, whether those emotions are lurking in there, waiting to reappear as an overwhelming force at some later point in life, as if disassociation from trauma, like denial of intuition, could be some sort of save-now, pay-latter scheme that hits when you least expect it.

As novel as it is to watch disassociation at play, what she does with trauma, The Sims and her talk about children and stories of her stands out the most because she does on her own what others need several shots of liquor to accomplish: walking away from that which might make us feel, when that which might make us feel also runs the risk of hurting. It's not an uncommon experience to see this ability to walk away from that which feels and to only emote feeling in the context of abstract notions at play if you have ever been friends with someone who grew up or were culturally influenced by places filled with trauma, like present day Afghanistan or the Palenstine territories, or Rwanda in the 1990s or the 1980s (or really, any time) in Ireland.

The key to proper disassociation is that you convince yourself or begin to believe in the disconnection, even if you know that there is more inside you. It changes the way we operate and are burdened on a daily basis, even if it leads to some anxiety and even if the emotions you do feel hit you like a rock thrown through a back door window. When my friend reads this, I know she will say she disagrees with me. For a moment, I am sure that in her heart of hearts she will believe that the purple rock has no meaning. But, I am also sure, that in her heart-of-hearts-of-hearts, somewhere she is afraid to tap on a daily and second-by-second basis, it has significant meaning. For who is afraid to feel more than he who feels most deeply?

I've never embraced changing this particular friend, even though some might view her as lacking empathy and emotion. If this is a perception on the outside, its far from the reality. Her mother believes I have drunk the Kool-Aid, as if I'm staring at a piece of paper so long that I am seeing optical illusions Jesus, Joseph or the Virgin Mary where there might be nothing more than a white piece of paper in front of me. It really doesn't matter, because with the evidence thusfar, choosing to believe appears to be both what I emotionally want to do and the rational choice (it is intellectually curious for me that I am a tactical skeptic in day-to-day practice who chooses to believe the best in a person who is trying to project that she does not have normally positive qualities; that said, it might very well my skepticism, combined with some evidence, that tells me to believe).

So, I choose, for nothing concretely based on logic or reason or evidence other than my certainty that there is something in the deep that she hides from the outside and herself in order to protect herself, that my friend really misses that little purple rock because she longs for that feeling. And if she can't bring herself to admit that she feels it or she can't feel it beyond the loss of a mineral, I choose to, for now, feel it for her. And I'm sure that there is a boy out there somewhere, a little older now, that she matters too just as much as he, um, uh, i mean the silicion dioxide, means to her.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everyday crushes

I confess.

In a life filled with confessions, here's another one.

I have a crush. A Starbucks crush. I think most of you know what I'm talking about. And if you have to ask, well. It was 180-millimeters of heaven. And I was blessed to just have one. Its something about the foam, proportions, the steam and, well, she could tell you. I just know - its better than any I've tasted.

My Starbucks crush actually started with what had to be the tastiest combination of espresso, hot milk and steamed-milk form ever created. The drink was really wonderful, and, really, if I hated her, I would still go back for another and another and another and another.

The crush continued in earnest when I started pointing out to what good drink she gave and her colleagues began to catch on to my infatuation with her bar skills when I would wait and let other customers get ahead of me so I could be sure she would be making my drink. A couple of times when she wasn't there after that first Tall Cap, I ordered something else (not to sully the experience), or just asked when she'd be back and came in later.

This became a problem. Not so much because she drew my name and hearts on the side of my cups but because my constant praise was beginning to resonate with her colleagues. "I hear you really like her cappuccinos," one after the other would say. Another asked my Starbucks crush how she made them and tried a couple (not so bad; not as good) on me. I had to remind them all that they had other, redeeming bar qualities. There are perils, alas, in picking favorites. I couldn't, however, help myself. Sometimes I feel like I should bring the other baristas presents just to make them happy.

So, I've been talking to a friend in another city, who also has a Starbucks Crush, remarking at how similar our experiences are. It started with a drink, turned into a conversation and then became one of the things -- the person, as much as the drink -- that really brightened our workdays. We can both tell when someone has a secret Starbucks crush (or not so secret, in our case) because they blush when we bring up the topic; we wonder when we are walking to the door of Starbucks whether we actually come in for the coffee or for the barista; lifelong coffee addicts, we have anxiety over the idea of our Starbucks Crushes leaving and coffee, and conversation at the coffee house, ever being the same. I used to wonder why I couldn't stop at five cups of coffee a day; now I wonder why I can't stop a ten.

I also wonder when my Starbucks crush goes to take care of another customer after a long conversation whether they like me as much as I think. I can understand having this much anxiety over coffee - after all, Caffeine Intoxication is a disorder in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders TR-IV. But anxiety over the barista making the coffee and getting a chance to chat with them? I didn't think it would ever come to this one.

My Starbucks Crush is also strong, witty, strikingly intelligent and interesting. She has been through a lot in life and one recent Saturday in August I had a chance to talk with her on break and I learned that at least someone in the complex had a life that rivaled my own when it came to complicated adversity. Who would have thought behind those black and green uniforms could be a person who understood the human life and experience so well that she might as well be a psychologist (and, in this case, its her life experience outside of Starbucks and her work there that combine to make her so interesting and thoughtful).

We spend so much time searching for happiness and making plans for big things in life that, sometimes, we forget that the next most interesting thing (the coffee) or person might be starring us right in our face, yelling, "Yes," back to the words from someone behind the register screaming, "Can I call?"

You can find interesting, wonderful additions to your life in all sorts of places. Sometimes its about the human behind the coffee.