Monday, July 15, 2013
The Thing You Think You Cannot Do
Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist and writer who lives in Maryland. I stumbled across this book of his recently and was intrigued enough by the title to read more. I would not call this a self help book but rather a collection of essays that might give a thoughtful reader something to ponder. Among the Amazon reviews, there are some commenters who slam the author for being political. I think that is part of the author's point. He takes some of the psychology behind personal fear and applies it to the national scene. He talks about fear and vulnerability and the impact those have on individuals but he also occasionally segues into how fear can dominate a culture and its leaders.
I am well acquainted with his political perspective but that wasn't what got my attention. What got my attention was simply that he is an older guy who appears to have lived a rich life. He has met tragedy face to face in his life. His 22 year old son Andrew killed himself while under the grip of a bipolar illness. Seven months later, his six year old son Lucas was diagnosed with acute form of leukemia. Lucas died six months later. Reading a bit about his professional approach to psychiatry and some of his experiences as a psychiatrist made me think I might have something to learn from him. I'm not sure I learned anything new from his book but it did make me ask a few questions and it reminded me of some answers that I already had within me.
Dr. Livingston gives a nod to the pharmaceutical industry, acknowledging that there are some medications that can be effective for some forms of mental illness What I like, however, is that he also very strongly supports the therapeutic model. He makes a lot of room for courage and resilience to take their places in our lives. Anxiety is high on the list for those seeking psychotherapy. There are so many fears: fear of dying, fear of change, fear of intimacy, fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of time, fear of loneliness, fear of the unknown, and on and on. There may be a biological component to anxiety but that doesn't mean the antidote needs to be pharmacological. I, frankly, don't understand the psychotherapy process but that doesn't matter. What matters is that he apparently does and his work with patients involves developing relationships that foster such virtues as courage and resiliency.
The author talks about depressed people as people who are fresh out of future dreams. His job, as a psychiatrist, is "to sell hope in individual doses". He listens to people, he questions their fundamental beliefs about themselves, and he works to help them identify and change those parts of themselves that are holding them back from a more satisfying life. It's not a fast track process. Some people come to him seeking advice (and maybe prescriptions for medications) because he is seen as "the expert". He considers it among his harder tasks to convince his patients that the answers must come from within. It is his job to ask the questions that will help the seeker find their own answers. The obstacles come when patients aren't willing to be patient, when they aren't willing to give the process time to come to fruition. Many people are also resistant to this approach because it requires them to take responsibility for themselves. They just want him to fix them. What he has to offer them is hope. And the thing they need in order to accept his offer is courage. I think it must be a complicated dance. And a scary one.