The Dark Side of OCD
Hello, people~ welcome back to the blog! The last few installments, we’ve been talking about some of the more unusual subtypes or presentations of OCD. Last week, I told you about POCD, pedophilia OCD. This is a devastating harm based subtype that causes people to worry that they might be attracted to children, and could potentially act on that attraction. To reiterate, these are not predators that actually want to harm or molest children. They are simply- or not so simply- obsessed with the idea that they could. Somewhere along the line, that becomes locked in their brain due to the OCD, and they worry about it incessantly. As a result, they avoid all contact with children, and this can have a huge impact on family dynamics. It causes a great deal of shame and guilt for the person who has it, as they fear being judged by others, while always judging themselves very harshly. And it can also be very damaging to the children in that person’s life, since they miss out on the time and affection that person would have otherwise devoted to them. As you can imagine, all of these things often lead to a great deal of anxiety and depression, and many times, people with POCD suffer through it alone. This week, we’ll be continuing the series with a look at perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a pretty self-explanatory subtype, the obsession with appearing and being “perfect.” Perfectionism is kind of an unusual trait. It isn’t unique to OCD; not all perfectionists have OCD, and not all people with OCD are obsessed with being perfect. But perfectionism underlies many OCD subtypes, as it can contribute to the need to do a ritual perfectly, or have things arranged just right. But when it’s extreme, perfectionism can really be thought of as its own OCD subtype; when it’s rooted in obsession(s), followed by compulsion(s), and causes dysfunction in the person’s life, it falls into a class of its own.
Perfectionism can look very different from person to person, but there are some common overarching themes. Perfectionists feel the need to follow rules very rigidly. I’m sure you’ve heard the addage “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Some versions end with “well,” but this isn’t strictly true for perfectionists, it must be right. Things must be done in a certain way- perfectly- or not at all. This is tough to live up to at best, and the pressure to achieve this standard can become so great, that at times it’s far easier to give up on doing something altogether. In addition, perfectionists generally need to feel that they are in control of a situation at all times. By definition, they are excessively concerned with making mistakes, especially when other people could potentially see those mistakes. Ultimately, they think that these errors have some bearing on their overall value as a person, that they define them. They also tend to have an overwhelming need to please others. As a result, relationships with authority figures- people like bosses and parents- can be fraught with anxiety. Perfectionists also have trouble with prioritizing. They can’t make a list of five things they want to accomplish, and then decide which to give 100 percent effort to, 80 percent, and 50 percent. That doesn’t work for them, it’s very all or nothing. Every time they came across a task, whether it’s a strength of theirs or a weakness, whether they have expertise in it or not, they always feel like they must perform it at a high level.
There’s nothing wrong with doing things well, or with being very diligent and detail oriented. These are great qualities, and they work well for people, when they’re functional qualities. But when it gets in the way of getting things done- when it becomes dysfunctional- it’s a problem. I had a patient that was a student, a freshman in college, and he loved school. He was all about it, very intelligent, studied a lot, and worked so hard on papers and projects. Too hard as it turns out. He would begin a lab write up or a paper, but would edit as he wrote. He would then write more, then edit that; then he’d try to stitch them together and get frustrated. Ultimately, he’d have to start all over again. It just went on and on in this way, and it took him forever to do a very simple write up. Something that took his peers maybe a couple of hours tops would take him days of work, because it was nearly impossible for him to write it start to finish, then edit start to finish, a reasonable number of times. There was never an end point- he always felt it needed to be better- and was compelled to improve on it, so sometimes he simply couldn’t finish things. His brain just didn’t want to let him.
Many years ago, I worked with young children in a hospital setting, with a wide array of diagnoses. One young girl, about nine years old, would undoubtedly have a diagnosis of perfectionism. I remember her very well, but her parents made an especially unique impression. When I gave them my assessment, it was quite clear that her being a perfectionist wasn’t a problem for them- this was written all over their faces. The mother especially, she had a little smile, almost of satisfaction or even pride. It was like I was telling them it was a good thing, or maybe too much of a good thing, like having too much money. She was a great student, very precocious, and a great kid, very meticulous. But if she did something imperfectly, if it didn’t meet her standards- which I suspect she may have learned from her mom, or her mom had a hand in planting- it was a problem. She would begin something with such enthusiasm, which was so great to see given her anxiety; but once she realized the task wasn’t going to be up to par, she would just give up and shut down. It was like watching a bright beautiful flower wilt and wither right in front of you. A sad thing at nine years of age.
This is basically a form of avoidance, which is a common compulsion for perfectionists. Better to totally blow something off than to not do it perfectly. Another example of this is something my student patient would do. If he was late for class, he couldn’t bring himself to go in. If he could see from the window that the professor had already started lecturing, and the students were all sitting there, facing front and listening, he would imagine how it would feel to open the door, and have all those heads turn to look at him. He couldn’t take that, everyone seeing his screw up, so he just wouldn’t go, he’d skip class. Then the next class, he was so concerned about showing his face after missing the previous one, it had a tendency to snowball. Even though he was smart and worked very hard, between his lack of participation in class and his issues in completing tasks, he ended up receiving poor grades, or even failing classes, with shocking regularity.
Perfectionism is difficult for those with it to gain insight about, because it’s so engrained within their personality. They like to be focused, discerning, fastidious, and detail oriented. Sometimes it works well for them, but when it works against them, it takes much longer to realize it. All of this makes it hard to treat. Despite the suffering it causes, many times, patients initially resist the idea of abandoning their ways completely. And I get that. Some elements of perfectionism backfire, but there are parts that are beneficial, that help people reach their goals. You don’t want to necessarily eradicate it from their lives altogether, throw the baby out with the bathwater. I understand the hesitation. Somewhere in the dysfunction is function. In my student patient’s case, there were times he got A’s on papers. It took him 40 hours instead of two, but the end result was good, no argument there. So how do you find the happy medium, how do you eliminate the dys- from the functional in treatment? We want people to work hard, to be attentive, accurate, and competent. In treating it, and designing exposures, we don’t want to make a person act stupidly or underperform- proofing and editing is good if you don’t want to send out a paper to your professor, or letter to your boss, filled with typos. That would be nearly impossible to get them to do anyway, even if it was designed as an exposure to treat them. We don’t want to weed out the good parts, or necessarily challenge the outcome or the goal, but we need to challenge how they’re getting there. In the case of my student patient, the exposure would be to write without editing, start to finish, one draft, even if there were mistakes. Other ideas would be to show assignments to other people before they’re turned in, as well as to put max time limits on how long a project can take. Practice doing things well, instead of perfectly, to help them see that they can in fact deal with imperfection. That’s the true reality anyway- nothing is ever perfect. If you want perfection, to the point that you reject anything less than that, you’re going to end up rejecting things you shouldn’t, and missing out on a lot in the bargain.
That makes me think of a book about OCD by Judith Rapoport called The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing. It’s about a law school student with contamination obsessions that agonized over cleaning his apartment. He obsessed about how long the cleaning would take, and especially about how quickly it would get dirty again. He eventually started to avoid going home, so that its cleanliness would be maintained; it wouldn’t be disturbed by the messiness of his living in it. This escalated to the point that he wound up sleeping on a park bench, willingly homeless, all to avoid his apartment. This might seem radically counterintuitive. How could a person with contamination obsessions- who’s afraid of germs- stand to sleep outside, in a park, with all the dirt that goes with it, all for the sake of cleanliness? This is the dark side of OCD when you have perfectionism.
I was thinking about positive perfectionism, and out of curiosity, read about the top career choices for perfectionists. Clearly, positive perfectionism can give a person a set of traits that can help them excel in life, especially in certain careers. Accuracy, attention to detail, persistence, conscientiousness, and organization lend themselves well to roles where design, math, and very complex procedures are essential to their tasks. Mechanics, inspectors, accountants, surveyors, tailors, and engineers would be top choices. Artists and creative types seem to suffer the most from perfectionism. Claude Monet, the highly celebrated French Impressionist, was a perfectionist… the perfectionist impressionist! I read that he was set for an exhibition in May of 1908, featuring his newest works, the result of three years of work. But when he took his final look, he decided the paintings weren’t good enough. Amid great protests, he took a knife and a paint brush to the paintings- worth $100,000 at the time- defacing them irrevocably. Today, they would be priceless. His actions prompted all sorts of ethics discussions; should an artist have the right to destroy his own work? Evidently at least one expert thought so, and actually praised him for being a true “arteest” and told the New York Times, “It is a pity, perhaps, that some other painters do not do the same.” A similar, but more tragic story is told in a book from 1886 called L’œuvre, translated as The Masterpiece. It tells the story of another artist who becomes obsessed with creating a large canvas that he worked on incessantly, but it never satisfies him. He kept painting on more and more layers, to the point that the canvas was destroyed. Then he would start over, again and again. He became so distraught and depressed that eventually, he went insane.
So how do you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism? The difference is when you move from a detail oriented, conscientious place, to a rigid and controlling one. When the ideas of perfection prevent you from doing anything at all, a healthy sense of perfectionism has been taken over by a dysfunctional one; putting you in a place where mistakes are catastrophic, where they say something about you, where you have to live up to other people’s expectations. This induces such anxiety that it becomes crippling, because eventually everything needs to be perfect- even things that other people would never even notice start needing to be perfect. Once again, the pressure from that becomes so intense, it’s easier to just forget it, to give in altogether. But in my view, the only way to truly fail at something is to not try at all. If you fail at something, it’s not because you’re not perfect, but because you didn’t try. Most perfectionists don’t subscribe to this; they seem to mostly have a fear of being average. They want to succeed perfectly, but if they’re going to fail, they’re going to do so spectacularly. A healthier point of view is to accept that nothing is ever perfect… but it won’t be anything if you don’t do it in the first place.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER (Darker Subtypes)
Hello, people! Welcome back to the blog, where we’re continuing our discussion of some darker OCD subtypes. Last week we talked about emotional contamination OCD, which is when people become obsessed with the idea that they may become “infected” by the thoughts or beliefs of another person. This can happen any number of ways; through air, electronic media, by touch, by talking about them, or even by being in the presence of someone who’s been in their presence. It’s difficult to deal with- trying to avoid this influence can become so consuming that it completely alters the course of a person’s life. This week, we’re going to talk about a particularly devastating subtype called pedophilia OCD, which features an obsession with the idea that you might be attracted to children, and could potentially act on that attraction.
Before we get started, I want to make a very important distinction. People with pedophilia OCD or POCD are not people you need to hide your children from. They are not predators, and have no actual desire to molest children. They have an unusual form of OCD where an idea basically gets trapped in their brain, and because of the OCD, it gets twisted in such a way that they worry they may act on it. Maybe they see a news segment that gives details on a molestation case, or they read an article, or participate in a discussion; that may be all it takes. The idea of harming a child is as horrifying to them as it is to you and to me, but unfortunately, the OCD allows the possibility to take root. They wonder if their worry about pedophilia means they have desire. They fear they could act, and they obsess about the fear. It can be very debilitating. I’ve had patients that were so afraid of what they “could” do that they were often unable to get out of bed in the morning. They think these thoughts must mean something… why would they have them otherwise? It can be a real mind screw.
Pedophilia OCD is an example of harm based OCD, and there may be many variations on that general theme. It may be a fear that they may hurt or kill strangers, or even parents or siblings. For any person with harm based OCD, the biggest fear is that they are dangerous. The object of harm can remain the same for years, or may change for no obvious reason. A patient I consulted on, a 20-something named Heidi, obsessed about harming her boyfriend. She would find herself worrying she might push him down the stairs, stab him with the carrot peeler, or run him over with her car. She worried about it for three years before she admitted it to anyone… three years! Can you imagine? Once she initiated therapy for that, the focus shifted to a pedophilia based fear; she worried she might molest her baby nephew. It was her first time as an aunt, and she loved the little guy. She didn’t want to hurt him, it was just her OCD talking to her, filling her head with nonsense. She constantly wondered ‘Am I attracted to this; do I want to molest him? Why did I have this thought? This must mean something about me…. this must be who I am.’
It was a nightmare for her. She couldn’t trust herself to be alone with her new nephew, and yet was understandably afraid to tell her sister she was having these thoughts. She wasn’t able to sleep at night, worried she would do something to him while everyone was sleeping. Eventually, she confessed what she was thinking to her mother. With her support, she was then able to talk to her sister, and then her whole family, who all supported her. Sadly, not all do; but she was able to turn to them to seek reassurance. This is a fairly common compulsion for people with stereotypical OCD- they compulsively need another person to tell them what they’re obsessing about isn’t true. Heidi would call her sister or mom and tell them when she was having these scary thoughts, and they would reassure her that she was a good person, she wasn’t going to molest him. It helped take the edge off, but only for about ten seconds. Then it was back to worrying. Remember that OCD is a disorder of doubt. Even after she was diagnosed with OCD, at the back of her mind, Heidi was even unsure if her thoughts came from that, or if it was truly something darker.
Sometimes pedophilia OCD thoughts first center on a parent. People with it may wonder if perhaps they’re attracted to a parent, and/ or if they were molested as children, if something was done to them to cause the thoughts. That’s never happened in any of the cases I’ve been involved in, it’s simply the obsessive mind looking for reason. These thoughts torment people with pedophilia OCD, and many say that they thought they were going crazy before they were diagnosed with OCD. If their fears revolve around molesting children, they will do all they can to avoid them, and not even talk about them. When they can’t avoid the topic, their anxiety and uncertainty is multiplied. They will desperately review every movement they made around a child to help them figure out whether their actions were inappropriate, and they’ll constantly seek reassurance from loved ones, provided they’re aware of it. If not, they suffer alone. They know they would never hurt a child, but they can’t trust themselves, so they really need to hear it from someone else. Self-compassion is often non-existent, self-loathing is more the rule. They believe they should be able to control their thoughts. Since they can’t, they constantly judge themselves, and that often leads to depression.
As you can imagine, it’s hard for them to seek treatment, because they’re afraid of being judged. They live in fear that family and friends will find out the “true” nature of their thoughts, and they’ll be ostracized, labeled as a pedophile, as disgusting or evil. People with POCD feel extreme shame and guilt for their thoughts. Most people don’t understand that pedophilia OCD is not the same as pedophilia. Imagine this: you see a kid and you’re like, ‘Awww, so cute!’ If you have POCD, your next thought is something like, ‘Oh, my god. Does that mean I’m a pedophile?’ Clearly, babies are cute, everyone knows that, nothing wrong with it. But the POCD tries to spin it, so if you have it, it makes you worry that you’re a deviant.
Last week, I talked about exposure therapy for OCD, and POCD is treated the same way- it requires putting the person face to face with the ideas and “temptations” of pedophilia. Just reassuring them that they’re not a pedophile doesn’t work; they don’t believe it. Instead, people with POCD have to become comfortable with the uncertainty, with the risk that their very worst fears are true. Then they have to figure out how to live their lives despite that risk. POCD exposures might include going to a park where children are playing, or to a children’s store, maybe handling clothing. They could watch that pageant show with the nutty parents- might as well try to get a laugh while working on it. At some point, exposures might re-introduce behaviors the person has been avoiding- like having someone who has been avoiding changing a diaper or giving a bath start doing so again- even if it makes them anxious and fearful. As scary as it can be for them, not doing these things can be much more damaging to the children in that person’s life, since people with POCD often avoid giving affection, spending time, or caring for children because of their fears. Ideally, as exposures continue, the person begins to understand that what they’re afraid of isn’t true. The goal is for them to learn that they can trust themselves to do these things without molesting a child or hurting them in any way. As hard as it may be to get there, every patient I’ve worked with has been willing to do whatever it took to reach that realization. It may not make 100% of the obsessive thoughts stop, but it gives them the ability to call bs on them and keep it moving.
Speaking of, that’s it for this week. Next week, another OCD subtype, perfectionism.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
The Darker Side of OCD
Hello, people! Last week we finished up our discussion on the importance of vitamin D, so I hope everyone spent a few minutes in the sun over the weekend to get a dose… gotta have it! This week, we’re starting another series on OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about OCD? It’s probably neatness, everything in its exact place, like making sure all the edges of the silverware are perfectly aligned in the drawer. Or maybe it’s repetitive hand washing, counting steps, or checking the locks on all the doors in the house. While those stereotypical obsessions are definitely common symptoms, in reality, OCD can involve any persistent, intrusive, obsessive thought that causes anxiety; it’s then generally paired with a behavior that attempts to quell that anxiety. But the scope of it can reach much further than worry over germs or counting and checking, as it is limited only by the person’s mind. Some obsessions are much darker, incorporating a person’s deepest darkest fears and worries. How about obsessing about killing your mother? All of your thoughts center on how you’d go about it, how it would feel. While these types of obsessions may be less common, they can clearly be much harder to talk about, and for that reason, can remain undiagnosed for years, even if a person seeks help. In the best case scenario, it can take an average of 14 to 17 years for people to find treatment, even though OCD usually emerges in childhood.
Think about having an obsession centering on a bodily function, let’s say swallowing. How many times do you swallow in a day, whether eating or drinking or not… ever noticed? Probably not, unless that happens to be an obsessive thought for you. Do you ever worry about the ability to swallow when you need to… do you doubt it? Can you imagine how debilitating something like that could be? And most people have more than one obsession that draws their focus. I did have a patient with OCD who thought he was Jesus, so all of his obsessions centered on that. He dressed like Jesus, wore his hair and beard like Jesus, and acted like Jesus- or how I imagine Jesus would act- with this “peace, brother” persona that he never dropped. He was court ordered, but totally harmless. The total effect was, well… honestly, kinda eerie. That could’ve been me- for some reason, it gave me flashbacks to confirmation classes as a kid. Anyhoo, he was so sure of his true identity that he would only date women named Mary. Yep. Sometimes in OCD, all of the obsessions are present in the mind at once, competing for attention, while at other times, one will take center stage, while the others wait in the wings. Depending on the year, the day, or even the minute, OCD can look completely different, even within one individual.
At its core, OCD is a disorder of doubt. A person can’t be sure that their thoughts aren’t indicative of something that may happen in real life. They can’t be sure of their safety, their intentions, their motives, or even their true realities. And yet, most people with OCD are completely, and usually painfully, aware that what they’re thinking isn’t true. For example, a person with a contamination obsession knows deep down that they don’t need to wash their hands for the 100th time, but they cannot get past the possibility that there could be germs lingering there. They’re haunted by the reality that there could be. Are those germs dangerous… could they make them sick, even kill them? That doubt is what they obsess over. So they continue to wash. When people find out what I do, at cocktail parties and the like, they’ll sometimes ask me, what’s the weirdest/ worst/ scariest symptom or diagnosis you see? Well, when it comes to OCD, there’s really no hierarchy to suffering- one obsession isn’t necessarily inherently worse than another- the worst obsession is the one that’s right now. Still, some forms of OCD are more challenging to deal with, diagnose, and treat. To start with, the content of some obsessions are so taboo that people simply won’t divulge it, so they suffer without finding the help they need. Sometimes they don’t even know that they have OCD, that that’s what’s driving these obsessive thoughts. So this week we’ll be talking about the darker side of OCD, examining some lesser known types you may have never heard of.
Before we start, a note on these subtypes. Although all forms of OCD have symptoms in common, the way these symptoms present themselves in daily life differs a lot from person to person. Usually, OCD fixates around one or more themes, and some of the most common themes are contamination, harm, checking, and perfection. The content of a person’s obsessions isn’t ultimately the important part, though it’s certainly what feels important in the moment. Someone’s subtype is really just their manifestation of symptoms- the particular way their OCD affects them. What does the mind focus on, and what thoughts and actions result from this focus? Psych geeks like me call a condition like OCD “heterogeneous” because it varies so much from one person to the next, but there are a few common “clusters” of symptoms. There’s a lot of discussion about these symptom clusters, and even more debate about whether or not they should be classified as more specific categories or subtypes. But there are clear groups of obsessions and compulsions that pop up regularly in people with OCD. Many clinicians try not to talk about subtypes because there isn’t any real research backing them. They’re not perfect categories or neat little boxes you’re supposed to fit into, so if you have OCD, it’s not worth spending too much time trying to figure out which subtype you fit into if it’s not immediately apparent. That said, for lots of folks with OCD, the immediate recognition of their own experience in a list of subtypes is a powerful thing, and may actually be the start of the treatment process.
So ultimately, I’ve chosen to go with calling these subtypes, but you can call them forms of OCD, or whatever you want, really. The point is that the symptoms seem to fall into groups naturally, and the info just needs to be out there so there’s more awareness of what lots of folks with OCD struggle with on a daily basis. Imagine that you’ve thought of yourself as truly- and totally uniquely- messed up for a long time. No way anyone has ever had the thoughts you have, or so you think. All of a sudden, you’re crusing the interwebs and see a list of symptoms that match yours exactly. Recognizing yourself in this OCD subtype, you’re not alone anymore- there are enough people like you out there to have your own type. Maybe you don’t have to feel hopeless anymore, because other people have clearly faced similar struggles, with similar types of obsessions and compulsions. There’s no realization that comes close to that kind of hope. Listing subtypes may be an imperfect way of categorizing OCD, because people may mistakenly think of them as distinct conditions rather than common manifestations of the same diagnosis, but I think it’s the way it should be. All of that said, keep in mind that there are hundreds of different ways OCD can show up in someone’s life- people don’t fit in boxes, they can have more than one subtype, and while the subtypes are relatively stable over time, they can change- new symptoms can appear and old ones might fade. Not a lot of rules when it comes to the brain’s capacity for imagination and change. So now, finally, we’ll begin discussing some unusual OCD subtypes, just to illustrate the mosaic of experiences associated with the diagnosis, and to illuminate some of what goes on in the OCD mind.
Hyperawareness OCD is an obsession with a part of the body, or with an involuntary bodily function. The patient I mentioned earlier, with the swallowing obsession, had hyperawareness OCD. It’s also called sensorimotor or somatic OCD. At any given moment, your brain, through your entire CNS, is sending and receiving signals about what different parts of your body are doing- like where your hands are, what your heart rate is, or if your stomach is empty or full. These are done subconsciously, so most people don’t pay attention to them. Everyone blinks and swallows, but very rarely do you give it any consideration. With sensorimotor OCD, a function like this can become an obsession. A person can get stuck in this place where they become hyperaware of some part of their body, or of the signal controlling it in their brain. I had a patient obsessed with blinking. Every morning, her first thought upon waking was to check to make sure she was still blinking, or still able to blink. And the thought persisted throughout the day… am I blinking now? It was consuming her life, not only was it the first thing she thought about, but also the last. She even kept herself awake with it, because she would close her eyes to sleep and would have to open them and make sure she could still blink.
When anyone starts to think about things like involuntary processes- even for people without OCD- they can become heightened. If thinking about “it” makes it happen, and if “it” happening makes you think about it… well, you can see how easily this could lead to an obsession in the mind. To make matters worse, a lot of the anxiety in OCD lies in the person’s fear that they’ll never stop thinking about the blinking or swallowing, or whatever the obsession may be. And of course, the more they monitor it, the more they try to control it, the less automatic it feels, the more controlled it feels, and the more it seems like they’re never going to stop thinking about it. It’s a never ending cycle, and it produces a lot of other obsessions like, what if this drives me crazy, what if I never stop, if I’m permanently distracted by it? And in fact, my blinking patient also had a tendency for projection, so she imagined obsessing over blinking for the rest. of. her. life… ife… ife… ife…. I should point out that I make light of it, because one of the ways to combat an obsession is, oddly enough, to examine it in detail, so that includes looking at the futility of obsessing over an automatic bodily process that you cannot control… forever. It sounds counterintuitive, but dealing with it that way is a form of mindfulness- for those of you who read my blog on that many moons ago- examining whatever the thought may be, and the body part it involves, in an effort to soothe and assure. It can’t control it, but it can help lead to acceptance of the thought, which can take away its power.
While sensorimotor OCD is relatively rare, in addition to blinking, the top three obsessions also include swallowing and breathing; but it can focus on the function of literally any part of the body. It can even involve non-functional parts, like the location of a mole or freckle, or hyperawareness of normal occurrences like itching or heart rate. As you can imagine, it can be very debilitating and isolating. My swallowing patient had a very hard time eating in front of anyone- these obsessions tend to be very self-propagating- and she was too anxious over being anxious about her swallowing. And it’s very difficult to talk about these symptoms, even with a therapist or a shrink, so unfortunately, people really suffer. It’s easier to just keep it simple and tell people that you have OCD and let them think you spend all your time straightening silverware or washing your hands, rather than risk being judged for the other manifestations. It’s a tough situation- while I understand it may be easier, it’s not necessarily better in the end. Some clinicians don’t understand sensorimotor OCD, or recognize that people with it have compulsions. Compulsions are the actions or rituals the person is basically “required” to complete in order to make the obsession, and therefore the resulting anxiety, stop. For instance, in contamination OCD, the obsession is germ exposure, and the compulsion is the continual hand washing. But in sensorimotor OCD, the compulsions are there, but they’re just not obvious. It’s more about the mental rituals taking place in sensorimotor, like reviewing or checking to see how that bodily sensation feels, or maybe trying to actively replace the obsessive thought with another thought.
Given the lack of understanding, one of the biggest barriers to treatment is the isolation that the patients feel. Meds are helpful, and there are specially licensed therapists for treating serious OCD. Regardless of the subtype, treatment essentially the same. The gold standard of treatment is exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP, which is sort of a combined approach. I’ll talk more about that later, but as with anything else, acceptance is key. If you’re a person that thinks about blinking, then you’re a person that thinks about blinking. Hopefully treatment stops that, but if it doesn’t, are you going to let it run your life? Once there’s acceptance, that then becomes the question, as opposed to being concerned about it. That’s where mindfulness comes in. If you pay attention to your blinking, then that’s one thing, but if you’re worried about it, that’s kind of pointless. You’ve proven you’re doing it right, and that your blink isn’t broken, about 18 times in the last minute alone. Did you know that that’s the average number of times a person blinks in one minute, 18? Sounds like a lot. Anyway, there’s a difference between watching your behavior in a mindful way, and not trying to change it, versus actively thinking about it and trying to figure out if you’re doing it the “right” way. Personal acceptance of anything means being less judgmental about the internal experience of it. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier said than done. There shouldn’t be any trivializing how upsetting it would be to think about blinking, or swallowing, or where a mole is. These things may seem banal to you, but they may be the center around which another person’s life revolves. When you think about accepting anything, but especially OCD, maybe just ask yourself, what would my patient Jesus do?
Next week… more OCD subtypes! I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting, and of course, educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Hello, welcome back to the blog, people! We’re continuing our look at thyroid disease. Last week, we took a pretty deep dive into diagnosis, especially lab tests. I mentioned that the TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) test is considered by most practitioners as the gold standard test, as it regulates the release, and therefore balance, of the thyroid hormones T4 and T3. A T4 (thyroxine) test is commonly ordered with the TSH, as together, they offer a good snapshot of overall function, as well as suggest a cause for an abnormality. A T3 (triiodothyronine) test is usually only ordered to support a diagnosis of hyperthyroidism, as it’s not very helpful in hypothyroidism, since it’s the last hormone to be affected. Thyroid antibody tests can also be run to help identify different types of autoimmune thyroid conditions, such as Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism and Graves’ Disease hyperthyroidism.
There are different recommendations on how to screen for abnormal thyroid hormone levels, and your health insurance may “help” determine what tests are done and when. In most US states, and probably elsewhere as well, you can order your own thyroid tests on the interwebs, and this may be a more affordable way to have them done. You can find plenty of analyzers there too, so you can enter your results if you’re confused about what they mean.
A TSH alone can be a sufficient screening test for abnormalities, and it can be followed by a T4 and/or T3 should any be found.
Generally speaking, an elevated TSH, with or without low T4 or T3, is associated with hypothyroidism, and a low TSH with high T4 and/or high T3 is associated with hyperthyroidism. I should note that in order to receive a diagnosis of hyperthyroidism, lab tests must demonstrate that one or both thyroid hormones are elevated, so there must be a high T3 and/ or T4.
In addition to lab tests, diagnosis of thyroid disease generally involves a review of signs and symptoms, physical examination of the neck to feel for masses or nodules, while noting the condition of hair, nails, and eyes, with imaging and ultrasound tests to further evaluate findings if needed. A primary care physician can make the diagnosis and formulate an effective treatment plan, but a physician who specializes in the thyroid, an endocrinologist, is very helpful, and may be required in some cases.
Once diagnosed, treatment is aimed at correcting the imbalance and returning thyroid hormone levels to normal, in order to alleviate the symptoms the person is experiencing. This can be done in a variety of ways, depending on the cause, and whether the imbalance has resulted in a hyper- or hypothyroid condition.
Several treatments for hyperthyroidism exist. The best approach depends on your age, personal preference, physical condition, and the underlying cause and severity of your disorder.
Taken by mouth, radioactive iodine is given to a large percentage of adults with hyperthyroidism, as it effectively destroys the cells of your thyroid, preventing it from making high levels of thyroid hormones. It also causes the gland to shrink, which may make it a good choice in cases of goiter. Symptoms usually subside within several months, and excess radioactive iodine disappears from the body in weeks to months after treatment is discontinued. This treatment may cause thyroid activity to slow enough to actually be considered underactive, meaning that it may result in secondary hypothyroidism; so you may eventually need to take medication every day to replace thyroxine. Common side effects include dry mouth, dry eyes, sore throat, and changes in taste. Precautions may need to be taken for a short time after treatment to limit or prevent radiation exposure to others.
Medications like methimazole (aka Tapazole) and propylthiouracil gradually reduce symptoms of hyperthyroidism by preventing your thyroid gland from producing excess amounts of hormones. Symptoms usually begin to improve within several weeks to months, but treatment typically continues for at least one year, and often longer. For some people, this clears up the problem permanently, but other people may experience a relapse. These drugs can be pretty gnarly. If you’re allergic, you can develop skin rashes, hives, fever, or joint pain. They can make you more susceptible to infection, and can cause serious liver damage, sometimes even leading to death. Because propylthiouracil has caused far more cases of liver damage, it should really only be used when you can’t tolerate methimazole.
Beta blockers such as propranolol and Inderal are usually used to treat high blood pressure. They don’t affect thyroid levels, but they can ease some symptoms, such as tremor, sweating, rapid heart rate, and palpitations. For this reason, your physician may prescribe them to alleviate symptoms until your thyroid levels are closer to normal. For patients with temporary forms of hyperthyroidism, ie thyroiditis, inflammation of the thyroid gland, beta blockers may be the only treatment required. Once the thyroiditis resolves, they can be discontinued. These medications are generally well tolerated, but aren’t recommended for people who have asthma, and side effects may include fatigue and sexual dysfunction.
In a thyroidectomy, most of your thyroid gland is permanently removed. If you’re pregnant, can’t tolerate antithyroid drugs, and don’t want or can’t have radioactive iodine therapy, you may be a candidate for thyroid surgery- although this is usually an option of last resort, as it is permanent. Risks of this surgery include damage to your vocal cords and parathyroid glands, those four tiny glands situated on the back of your thyroid gland that help control the level of calcium in your blood. Postoperatively, you’ll need lifelong treatment with synthetic hormone to supply your body with normal amounts of thyroid hormone. If your parathyroid glands are also removed, you’ll need medication to keep your calcium levels normal as well.
If you have hypothyroidism, low levels of thyroid hormones, the main treatment option is to replace the hormone. Daily use of the synthetic form of thyroid hormone thyroxine, called levothyroxine, ie Levo-T and Synthroid, restores adequate hormone levels, and reverses the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism. Determining proper dosage may take time, but you should start to feel better soon after you start treatment. To determine the proper initial dosage, your physician may check your TSH level after six to eight weeks. With a proper diet, the medication will gradually lower cholesterol levels elevated by the disease, and may also reverse any weight gain. Treatment with levothyroxine will be lifelong, but because the dosage you need may change, your physician should check your TSH levels periodically as needed. If you have coronary artery disease or severe hypothyroidism, your physician may start treatment with a smaller dose and increase it gradually. This progressive replacement allows your heart to adjust to the increase in metabolism.
Having excessive amounts of this hormone can cause side effects, such as increased appetite, insomnia, heart palpitations, and tremor or shakiness. It causes virtually no side effects when used in the appropriate dose and is relatively inexpensive, but try to stick to the same brand, as there can be some variances in dosing. Don’t skip doses or stop taking it because you’re feeling better; if you do, your symptoms will return. Food hinders absorption of levothyroxine, so it should be taken on an empty stomach at the same time every day. Ideally, you take it in the morning and wait one hour before eating or taking other medications. If you take it at bedtime, wait four hours after your last meal or snack. Certain medications, supplements, and even some foods may seriously affect your ability to absorb it. Tell your physician if you eat large amounts of soy products or a high fiber diet, or you take other medications, such as iron supplements or multivitamins that contain iron, aluminum hydroxide, which is commonly found in antacids, and calcium supplements.
Thyroid Disease: Prognosis
Generally speaking, even if you have a thyroid disease, you can usually live a normal life without many restrictions, as long as you have appropriate treatment. The overall prognosis varies depending on your diagnosis. With hypothyroidism, your levels and overall symptoms may improve with medication, but it’s a condition you’ll be treating for the rest of your life. You’ll take medication daily, and your physician will likely monitor you to make adjustments over time if needed. But this is not necessarily the case with hyperthyroidism. If antithyroid medications work, then your thyroid hormone levels will most likely return to normal without any further issues. That said, once you have any form of thyroid disease, your physician may need to monitor your condition with occasional blood tests to make sure your thyroid hormones are at optimal levels.
Thyroid Disease: Complications
As with any disease, early diagnosis and treatment of symptoms improves the long term outlook. The complications of undiagnosed, uncontrolled, and/or inadequately controlled thyroid disease can lead to a number of health problems that can affect your long term quality of life, and in some cases, can even be life threatening.
Even if you are under treatment or have received treatment for thyroid disease, if you start to notice signs of any of the following issues, see your physician to check your thyroid levels, or seek emergency treatment when appropriate.
Some of the most serious complications of hyperthyroidism involve the heart. These include a rapid heart rate, a heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation, which increases your risk of stroke, and congestive heart failure, a condition in which your heart can’t circulate enough blood to meet your body’s needs.
Excess thyroid hormone interferes with your body’s ability to incorporate calcium into your bones, so untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to weak, brittle bones and osteoporosis.
People with Graves’ Disease can develop eye problems, including bulging, red or swollen eyes, sensitivity to light, and blurry or double vision. When left untreated, severe eye problems can lead to vision loss.
Red, swollen skin
People with Graves’ disease can develop Graves’ dermopathy. This affects the skin, causing redness and swelling, often on the shins and feet.
Thyroid storm, aka thyrotoxic crisis, is a life threatening hypermetabolic state induced by excessive release of thyroid hormones, resulting in a sudden worsening of symptoms. An individual’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature can reach dangerously high levels, causing delirium. This requires urgent medical attention, as without prompt, aggressive treatment, thyroid storm is often fatal.
Constant stimulation of your thyroid to release more hormones may cause the gland to become larger, a condition called goiter. Although it’s generally not painful, a large goiter can affect your appearance and may interfere with swallowing or breathing.
Hypothyroidism puts you at greater risk for heart disease and heart failure, and can raise your levels of LDL, low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol.
Mental health issues
Hypothyroidism can cause depression that becomes more severe over time. You may notice decreased interest in activities you used to enjoy. It can also cause slowed mental functioning, and memory or concentration lapses.
Long term uncontrolled hypothyroidism can cause damage to your peripheral nerves that carry information from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. Peripheral neuropathy causes pain, numbness, and tingling in affected areas, most often the legs and feet.
Uncontrolled hypothyroidism can cause you to have aches and pains in your joints and muscles, as well as tendonitis.
Low levels of thyroid hormone can interfere with ovulation, which greatly impairs fertility. In addition, some autoimmune causes of hypothyroidism can also impair fertility.
Myxedema is a life threatening condition that can result from undiagnosed hypothyroidism. The term “myxedema” can be used to mean severely advanced hypothyroidism. But it’s also used to describe skin changes in someone with severely advanced hypothyroidism. The classic skin changes include swelling of your face, including lips, eyelids, and tongue, and/ or the swelling and thickening of skin anywhere on your body, but especially on your lower legs. Signs and symptoms include intense cold intolerance and drowsiness, followed by profound lethargy and unconsciousness. In people with severe hypothyroidism, trauma, infection, exposure to the cold, and certain medications can trigger a life threatening condition called myxedema coma, which causes a loss of consciousness and hypothermia, extremely low body temperature. If you have signs or symptoms of myxedema, you need immediate emergency medical treatment.
That’s all for this week, folks. Next week will be devoted to thyroid disease and mental health issues.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. If you did, let me know. If you didn’t, let me know that too!
Please feel free to share the love! Share blogs and YouTube videos with family and friends.
Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, and share those vids too!
And if you like what you see and want more of it, or if you want a specific topic, leave it in the comments- I love reading them!
As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in the office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Welcome back, people! Last week we continued our foray into all things Xanax and talked about dependence and use disorder. The next step in the chain- withdrawal- can be a special kind of beastie, definitely deserving of its own blog, so this week will be all about Xanax withdrawal.
As I mentioned last week, some folks can take their bit of Xanax a couple of times a day as directed for umpteen years, and never develop a tolerance or pathological dependence. Others start out taking it as directed, but develop a tolerance and maybe start to abuse it- take too much too often- and then begin to develop a more pathological dependency. Others may abuse it recreationally on occasion, to netflix and chill, find they really like it, then develop a severe addiction. It may not sound like these people have much in common, but they do. When they stop taking it, they’re all going to go through withdrawal.
They won’t do so alone, though. In 2017, doctors wrote nearly 45 million prescriptions for Xanax, so it’s no surprise that these prescribing practices have contributed to thousands of cases of abuse and dependence. With those numbers, there has been all sorts of research and stats examined on benzos, and I read that in 2018, an estimated 5.4 million people over the age of 12 misused prescription benzodiazepines like Xanax. That’s a lot of people, people.
To many patients that take their Xanax exactly as prescribed, it seems to come as a surprise that they’re facing a withdrawal experience, but Xanax doesn’t discriminate- so anyone taking enough of it for more than a few weeks will develop a physical dependence. Once you have become physiologically dependent on a drug, you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop or reduce your dose. Simple as that.
Withdrawal is different for everyone. Depending on the dose and how often you’ve been using it, the withdrawal experience typically ranges from uncomfortable to very unpleasant, but it can also be medically dangerous. The only safe way to quit is to slowly taper down the dose under the direction of a physician, or in an in-patient treatment center setting, depending on the situation. If you’ve been taking high doses of Xanax several times a day, then quitting is going to take a great deal of time, patience, and determination. Please note that quitting cold turkey can cause extremely dangerous withdrawal symptoms. This can include delirium, which is a state characterized by abrupt, temporary cognitive changes that affect behavior; so you can be irrational, agitated, and disoriented- not a good combo. Sudden withdrawal can also cause potentially lethal grand mal (aka tonic-clonic) seizures. These are like electrical storms in the brain, where you lose consciousness and have violent muscular contractions throughout the body. It’s not a risk you want to take, people- so don’t do this on your own! Even if you’ve been taking Xanax illicitly, that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Just fess up to a physician and tell them exactly how much you’ve been taking so they can design a taper schedule for you, or help you find a treatment center. There is a lot of help available if you make the effort.
Tapering your dose is the best course of action for managing withdrawal symptoms, but that doesn’t mean it’s a picnic in the shade. While you taper down the dose, you’ll likely experience varying degrees of physical and mental discomfort. You may feel surges of anxiety, agitation, and restlessness, along with some unusual physical sensations, like feeling as though your skin is tingling or you’re crawling out of your skin. But keep in mind that these are all temporary.
Signs and Symptoms
The major signs and symptoms of Xanax withdrawal vary from person to person. Research indicates that roughly 40% of people taking benzodiazepines for more than six months will experience moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, while the remaining 60% can expect milder symptoms. It’s very common to feel nervous, jumpy, and on edge during your taper. And because Xanax induces a sedative effect, when the dose is reduced, most people will experience a brief increase in their anxiety levels. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may experience a level of anxiety that’s actually worse than your pre-treatment level. Support from mental health professionals can be very beneficial during and after withdrawal, as therapy and counseling may help you control and manage the emotional symptoms of benzo withdrawal.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms
As a central nervous system depressant, Xanax serves to slow down heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature in the body- in addition to minimizing anxiety, stress, and panic. Xanax may also help to reduce the risk of epileptic seizures. Once the brain becomes used to this drug slowing all of these functions down on a regular basis, when it is suddenly removed, these CNS functions generally rebound quickly, and that is the basis for most withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms can start within hours of the last dose, and they can peak in severity within 1 to 4 days. The physical signs of Xanax withdrawal can include: headache, blurred vision, muscle aches, tension in the jaw and/ or teeth pain, tremors, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness of fingers, tingling in arms and legs, sensitivity to light and sound, alteration in sense of smell, loss of appetite, insomnia, cramps, heart palpitations, hypertension, sweating, fever, delirium, and seizures.
Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
Xanax, as a benzodiazepine, acts on the reward and motivation regions of the brain, and when a dependency is formed, these parts of the brain will be affected as well. When an individual dependent on Xanax then tries to quit taking the drug, the brain needs some time to return to normal levels of functioning. Captain Obvious says that whenever you stop a benzo, because it acts as an anxiolytic, you’re going to experience a sudden increase in anxiety levels. While there are degrees of everything, the psychological symptoms of Xanax withdrawal can be significant, as the lack of Xanax during withdrawal causes the opposite of a Xanax calm, which is to say something akin to panic. At the very least, that can make you overly sensitive, and less able to deal with any adverse or undesired feelings. Withdrawal can leave people feeling generally out of sorts, irritable, and jumpy, while some individuals have also reported feeling deeply depressed. Unpredictable shifts in mood have been reported as well, such as quickly going from elation to being depressed. Feelings of paranoia can also be associated with Xanax withdrawal.
Nightmares are often reported as a side effect of withdrawal. I included insomnia in physical symptoms, but trouble sleeping can also be a psychological symptom, as it is both mentally and physically taxing. People can be overtaken by anxiety and stress during withdrawal, and that may cause this trouble sleeping at night, which then contributes to feelings of anxiety and agitation, so it’s a cycle that can be tough to break free of. Difficulty concentrating is also reported, and research has found that people can have cognitive problems for weeks after stopping Xanax. Ditto for memory problems. Research shows that long-term Xanax abuse can lead to dementia and memory problems in the short-term, although this is typically restored within a few months of the initial withdrawal. Hallucinations, while rare, are sometimes reported when people suddenly stop using Xanax as well. Suicidal ideation is sometimes reported, as the anxiety, stress, and excessive nervousness that can occur during withdrawal can lead to, or coexist with suicidal thoughts. Finally, though rare, psychosis may occur when a person stops using Xanax cold turkey, rather than being weaned off of it.
Xanax Withdrawal Timeline
Xanax is used so commonly for anxiety and panic disorders because it works quickly, but that also means it stops working quickly and leaves the body quickly. Xanax is considered a short-acting benzodiazepine, with an average half-life of 11 hours. As soon as the drug stops being active in the plasma, usually 6 to 12 hours after the last dose, withdrawal symptoms can start. Withdrawal is generally at its worst on the second day, and improves by the fourth or fifth day, but some symptoms can last significantly longer. If you go cold turkey and don’t taper your dose, your withdrawal symptoms will grow increasingly intense, and there really is no way to predict how bad they may get, or how you’ll be affected.
Unfortunately, five days doesn’t signal the end of withdrawal for some people, as some may experience protracted withdrawal. Estimates suggest that about 10% to 25% of long-term benzodiazepine users experience protracted withdrawal, which is essentially a prolonged withdrawal experience marked by drug cravings and waves of psychological symptoms that come and go. Protracted withdrawal can last for several weeks, months, or even years if not addressed by a mental health professional. In fact, these lasting symptoms may lead to relapse if not addressed with continued treatment, such as regular therapy.
Factors Affecting Withdrawal
Withdrawal is different for each individual, and the withdrawal timeline may be affected by several different factors. The more dependent the body and brain are to Xanax, the longer and more intense withdrawal is likely to be. Regular dose, way of ingestion, combination with other drugs or alcohol, age at first use, genetics, and length of time using or abusing Xanax can all contribute to how quickly a dependence is formed and how strong it may be. High stress levels, family or prior history of addiction, mental health issues, underlying medical complications, and environmental factors can also make a difference in how long withdrawal may last for a particular individual and how many side effects are present.
Coping with Xanax Withdrawal
The best way to avoid a difficult and potentially dangerous withdrawal is to slowly taper down your dose of Xanax, meaning to take progressively smaller doses over the course of up to several weeks. By keeping a small amount of a benzo in the bloodstream, drug cravings and withdrawal may be controlled for a period of time until the drug is weaned out of the system completely. It may sound like designing a taper would be a no-brainer, but it’s definitely not recommended to taper without a physician’s guidance. Why? Because Xanax is a short-acting drug, your body metabolizes it very quickly. Controlling that is challenging because the amount of drug in your system goes up and down with its metabolism. To help you avoid these peaks and valleys, doctors often switch you from Xanax to a longer acting benzo during withdrawal, as it may make the process easier. And believe me, that’s what you want. If the physician goes this switch route, once you’ve stabilized on that med, you’ll slowly taper down from that a little bit at a time, just as you would with Xanax.
Another reason not to play doctor on this one is if you start to have breakthrough withdrawal symptoms when your dose is reduced, your physician can pause or stretch out your taper. It’s up to him or her, through discussion with you, to design the best tapering schedule for your individual needs. Sometimes it’s a fluid and changing beastie.
In addition, adjunct medications like antidepressants, beta-blockers, or other pharmaceuticals/ nutraceuticals may be effective in treating specific symptoms of Xanax withdrawal, and you’ll need a physician to recommend and/ or prescribe those as well.
Alleviating Symptoms of Withdrawal
An individual may notice a change in appetite and weight loss during Xanax withdrawal, so it’s important to make every attempt to eat healthy and balanced meals during this time. It may sound obvious, but a multivitamin including vitamin B6, thiamine, and folic acid is especially helpful, as these are often depleted in addiction and withdrawal. There are some herbal remedies that may be helpful during withdrawal, such as valerian root and chamomile for sleep. Meditation and mindfulness are very useful for managing blood pressure and anxiety during withdrawal, so be sure to check out my March 15 blog for more on mindfulness. Considering the insomnia and fatigue that may occur during withdrawal, it may seem counterintuitive to commit to exercise, but it has been shown to have positive effects on mitigating withdrawal symptoms and decreasing cravings. Exercise stimulates the same pleasure and reward systems in the brain, so it stands to reason that it can also help to lift feelings of depression or anxiety that may accompany physical withdrawal symptoms.
Xanax Withdrawal Safety
Some of the things I’ve mentioned are so important they bear repeating. Xanax should not be stopped suddenly, or cold turkey, and vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and temperature need to be closely monitored during withdrawal. This is because these may all go up rapidly during this time, and this can contribute to seizures that can lead to coma and even death.
People with a history of complicated withdrawal syndromes and people with underlying health issues should work very closely with their physician during withdrawal, as should the elderly and people with cognitive issues, as there can be unique risks involved. If you have acquired your Xanax illicitly, you can still work with a doctor to taper down your dose. Start by visiting a primary care physician or urgent care center and tell them that you are in, or are planning to be in, benzodiazepine withdrawal. If you don’t have insurance, visit a community health center. If you plan to or have become pregnant, you will need to discuss your options with your prescribing physician and OB/GYN about the risks and benefits of continuing versus tapering Xanax or other benzos. Some women continue taking them throughout their pregnancy, while others follow a dose tapering schedule.
The key to achieving the goal of getting off of Xanax is to follow the tapering schedule to the very end. By the end of your taper, you might be cutting pills into halves or quarters. Note that some individuals may be better suited for a harm reduction approach, in which the taper leads to a maintenance dose rather than abstinence. If you’re very concerned about the risks involved in Xanax tapering for any reason, discuss these concerns with your physician, because you may be better suited for inpatient detoxification. While this is more expensive, it is covered by many insurance plans.
No matter how you slice it, quitting Xanax takes time, patience, and determination. If you’ve been using it for longer than a few months, quitting can be hard, and there will be days where you want to give up and give in. But with medical supervision and support, you can be successful, and in the long-term, the health benefits are considerable. Withdrawal isn’t a picnic, but if Xanax is both the alternative to it, and a problem for you, it beats that alternative hands down.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. If you did, let me know. If you didn’t, let me know that too!
Please feel free to share the love! Share blogs and YouTube videos with family and friends.
Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, and share those vids too!
And if you like what you see and want more of it, or if you want a specific topic, leave it in the comments- I love reading them!
As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in the office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Alprazolam Use Disorder
Helll-ooo people! I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend, maybe bit the head off a big bunny- a chocolate one of course. We’ve been talking about alprazolam, trade name Xanax. Last week I warned you about the dangers of buying it off of the street. If you’ve forgotten why it’s dangerous, it’s because it’s nearly always counterfeit crap made in some moron’s basement with fentanyl and heaven knows what else, and you don’t want that. If you think I have a pretty clear opinion on fake Xanax, or any fake pharmaceutical for that matter, Captain Obvious says you’d be right.
If you read the first blog in this series a couple of weeks ago, you already know that Xanax, generic name alprazolam, is a member of the class of anxiolytic drugs called benzodiazepines, and very commonly prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders- mainly because it’s very effective and works quickly. But it also has serious addiction potential and is a common drug of abuse, and this is something that patients and their families must be aware of up front. With that in mind, this week’s blog will focus on the signs and symptoms of Xanax abuse, and how that progresses to the diagnosis of sedative use disorder, or more specifically Xanax use disorder.
Some people who are prescribed Xanax for anxiety or panic disorders can take their prescribed dose twice a day for years and never experience an issue, unless or until they stop taking it. They become dependent upon it, but only in that their body becomes used to having the drug in their system- it’s not a pathological dependence. Upon stopping it, they’ll still experience withdrawal symptoms, but they don’t develop Xanax use disorder, because their use is quite literally not disordered. Incidentally, I’ll be focusing on withdrawal from Xanax next week. In contrast, far too many people develop a pathological dependence upon Xanax. Even if they have a genuine anxiety disorder and start out taking it only as prescribed, they begin to abuse it by taking too much and/ or too often, and they develop a use disorder, which progresses to what we colloquially call an addiction.
This is a process that generally starts because they begin to develop a tolerance to the drug and require more of it to achieve the desired effect, whether that is to quell their symptoms of anxiety, or to get high. Tolerance is a phenomenon that occurs with many drugs, but it is especially dangerous in a drug like Xanax, as it’s a closed circuit- the more you need, the more you take, and the more you take, the more you need. Ideally, a patient informs their prescribing physician if they feel that their current dose is no longer adequate. But that doesn’t always happen, and patients may choose to increase the dose on their own; and at that point, they’re abusing the drug.
Some of the most common physical signs and symptoms of Xanax abuse include slurred speech, poor motor coordination, confusion, blurred vision, drowsiness, dizziness, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and an inability to reduce intake without symptoms of withdrawal. Beyond the physical symptoms, when a person begins to abuse Xanax, there will likely be noticeable changes in their behavior as well. Some of the most common behavioral signs of Xanax abuse include the following:
-Taking risks in order to buy Xanax: some people may do things they wouldn’t have previously considered in order to obtain it. For instance, they may steal, often from loved ones, in order to pay for Xanax.
-Losing interest in normal activities: as Xanax abuse takes a firmer hold in a person’s life, they commonly lose interest in activities they formerly enjoyed.
-Risk-taking behaviors: as Xanax abuse continues, the person may become more comfortable taking big risks, such as driving while on Xanax.
-Maintaining stashes of Xanax: to ensure that they will not have to go without Xanax, they will attempt to stockpile it.
-Relationship problems: Xanax abuse invariably leads to interpersonal problems and social issues, but this often isn’t enough to motivate the person to stop.
-Obsessive thoughts and actions: the person will spend an inordinate amount of time and energy obtaining and using Xanax. This may include activities like doctor shopping or looking for alternate sources of it, or asking friends, family, and/ or colleagues for it.
-Legal issues: this can be related to illegally obtaining Xanax, being arrested/ incarcerated for drugged driving, or for other disturbances as a consequence of use.
-Solitude and secrecy: when abusing Xanax, it’s very common for people to withdraw from friends and family to protect their use.
-Financial difficulties: to pay for Xanax, a person may drain their financial resources and/ or those of family and friends.
-Denial: this includes setting aside valid concerns about Xanax abuse to protect ongoing use of the drug. For example, minimizing or refusing to recognize the dangers of buying it on the street.
As Xanax abuse progresses, it reaches what most people would term an addiction. But the actual diagnosis recognized in the psych nerd’s bible, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) is termed use disorder. If the person is using Xanax, we call it sedative use disorder or Xanax use disorder, but there is opioid use disorder as well- essentially anything that is abused can fill in the blank. In order for a person to be diagnosed with a sedative use disorder, they must exhibit a certain number of signs and symptoms within a one year period. The more symptoms that are present, the higher the grading the sedative use disorder will receive, and this places the severity of the disorder on a continuum, be it mild, moderate, or severe.
Paraphrased versions of the assessed symptoms of Xanax use disorder are as follows:
-Repeated problems in meeting obligations in the areas of family, work, or school because of Xanax use.
-Spending a significant amount of time acquiring Xanax, using it, or recovering from side effects of use.
-Continued Xanax use despite hazardous circumstances.
-Continued Xanax use despite the complications it causes with social interactions and interpersonal relationships.
-Continued Xanax use despite experiencing one or more negative personal outcomes.
-Using more Xanax or using it for longer than recommended or intended.
-An inability to stop using Xanax despite an ongoing desire to do so.
-Obsessive craving for Xanax.
-Ceasing or reducing participation in work, social, or family affairs due to Xanax use.
-Building tolerance over time, necessitating the use of increasing amounts of Xanax to achieve desired effect.
-Experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon decreasing the dose of Xanax.
These last two signs- building tolerance that requires continual dosage increases, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when dosage is decreased- are indicative of physical dependence and ultimately addiction. These are natural body processes that occur when the brain and body habituate to drug use over time. Once the body becomes accustomed to having the drug, a sort of new normal is established in its presence. Thereafter, when the drug use stops, the body will issue its demand for more of the drug in the form of withdrawal symptoms. And that’s exactly where we’ll pick up next week.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. If you did, let me know. If you didn’t, let me know that too!
Please feel free to share the love! Share blogs and YouTube videos with family and friends.
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And if you like what you see and want more of it, or if you want a specific topic, leave it in the comments- I love reading them!
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At some point in your life, I’m sure someone’s told you, “Life is short, you should stop to smell the roses.” Somebody well intentioned, maybe your Nana, your next-door neighbor Janet, or your favorite uncle Fred, giving you the benefit of their experience, and just telling you to slow down and enjoy every moment. You probably smiled, suppressed an eye roll, noncommittally murmured something in the affirmative, and kept it moving. Nobody actually stops to think about these typically unsolicited pieces of sage advice, right? The very idea is anathema to our frenetic culture of constant multi-tasking and 24/7 connectivity. Well, turns out it might not be the worst idea to actually take it to heart. It seems that science is telling us that there might be something to it- stopping to enjoy the moment may actually be good for your health. It’s a concept called mindfulness, or sometimes mindfulness meditation.
Last week I finished up the remote work blog, and I considered adding mindfulness as a tip for dealing with stress. It’s actually a great technique to use, because it literally takes less than two minutes, so it’s easy to incorporate into your day as you need it. Essentially, mindfulness is a meditative practice where you focus on being intensely aware of everything you’re sensing and feeling in a present moment, without any interpretation whatsoever. However you’re experiencing life, you simply notice each moment as it unfolds, without any judgment or preconceived notions. You just let it flow and let it go. In this way, you take yourself off of autopilot, which is how most people normally operate, and purposefully engage with the world around you. This actively directs your attention away from whatever kind of thinking is causing you anxiety, and that puts you in a more peaceful present place. Whenever you have a few free minutes, you can practice mindfulness throughout the day, no matter where you are, answering emails, sitting in traffic, or waiting in line. All you have to do is become more aware. That can mean focusing on your breath, your feet on the ground, your fingers typing, or the people and voices around you.
Captain Obvious says that the nervous system is always working in the body, but we’re not really aware of everything it’s doing. All of its automatic functions, such as the heartbeat, digestion, and breathing, are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s responsible for our normal, relaxed state, where the body and mind can “rest and digest” as they say. Its counterpoint is the sympathetic nervous system, whose most recognized role comes into play during its “fight or flight” mode. During these threatening situations, the sympathetic nervous system automatically releases stress hormones that flood the system, and we experience a physiological and emotional response in a cascade like fashion. Both branches of the nervous system are clearly very important, but if the sympathetic, “fight or flight” mode is activated too often, or for too long, that’s a serious health concern with harmful consequences. In an analogous way, living in a constant high stress state can elicit similar effects and have a negative effect on physical health, emotional well-being, and longevity.
The overall benefit of mindfulness is that it encourages you to pay attention to where you are right now, without any further interpretation. Once you begin learning how to be more mindful, you’ll realize how much your mind races, and how often you focus on the past and the future. Anxiety is often the product of thoughts about where you need to be, what you need to do, what might happen, and “if and when” type thoughts. Mindful redirection without judgement helps you experience thoughts and emotions with greater balance and acceptance, and removes that anxiety and stress from your mind and body. As a result, most people who practice mindfulness report an increased ability to relax, more enthusiasm for life, and improved self-esteem. Mindfulness and meditation have been studied in many clinical trials, and evidence supports their effectiveness in improving many chronic conditions, including stress, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, insomnia, and hypertension. Meditation also has been specifically shown to improve attention, decrease job burnout, improve sleep, increase immunity, and even improve diabetes control.
The concept of mindfulness is simple, but it’s called a practice for a reason. As I said, most people operate on autopilot, reacting to each situation or sensation as they go. When you have too many obligations and too little time, anxiety and stress often undermine healthy habits such as eating well, getting proper sleep, and exercising. This can easily become a cyclical pattern that’s difficult to break. But mindfulness actually pays out twice, because in addition to being relaxing in the moment, it also has a positive cumulative effect over time. So practicing a pattern of mindfulness breaks unhealthy patterns, which allows you to better enjoy positive life experiences, while also minimizing adverse reactions to negative life experiences. The idea of practicing mindfulness on a regular basis isn’t to get better at it. The goal is to make it second nature, so that you are essentially mindful at all times. Ideally, you then automatically become mindful, rather than anxious or stressed out.
In our culture, we tend to place great value on how much and how fast, but mindfulness doesn’t need to be complicated or take a long time to be effective. Just interrupting daily stress with a healthy response is essentially mindfulness for dummies, so by taking just a moment to breathe deep, you’ve become more mindful. If you’re not sure if mindfulness is your kind of thing, there are some simple mindful principles you can incorporate into your life while you look for proof of concept, to see if it’s helpful for you.- Pay attention. It’s hard to slow down and notice things in the middle of a busy day in a hectic world, but try to experience your environment with all of your senses: touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste. – Treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend; with acceptance and care, and without judgement and harsh criticism. – Eliminate the negative. When you have negative thoughts, try to sit down, close your eyes, and actively remove them from your mind to gain perspective. – Acknowledge and redirect yourself as needed to maintain awareness. Anytime you’re trying to be mindful, if you find your awareness slips, or anxiety or negativity continue to creep in, acknowledge them without judgement and redirect yourself to return your focus to the present.
Below are a few quick mindfulness activities you can easily incorporate into your daily life, including at work. Since you don’t need any specific tools, you can try them out on your commute or even at your desk when you feel stressed out.
Close your eyes and slowly breathe in and out. Concentrate on the rising and falling of your chest, and try to empty your mind. If other thoughts pop into your head, acknowledge and dismiss them, then bring your focus back to present.
It’s easy for your mind to wander during conversations. Instead of formulating your response while a colleague is still talking, clear your mind and really listen to what they’re saying. Try not to think about all the stuff on your to-do list, your plans for the evening, or your previous conversations- just be in the moment. This will help you pick up on more information, and can also improve your workplace relationships.
Choose any object nearby- a pen, your computer mouse, or even your tie- and really focus on it for one minute. Pretend it’s brand new to you and try to see it for the first time. Pay close attention to its shape, texture, and how it’s constructed. Try to connect with something positive about it you may have never considered before. This helps you not only clear your mind, but also helps to foster appreciation for the everyday objects that surround you.
This one requires you to get up and leave your desk, but so much the better. When you go on a coffee or lunch break, take a stroll by yourself through a nearby park or green area. If possible, leave your phone and other electronic devices back in the office, and use these few minutes to focus on and listen to the natural world around you. This is a healthy exercise for both your mind and your body, as you also benefit from the physical movement and the chance to get a breath of fresh air.
Those simple mindfulness exercises can be practiced nearly anywhere and anytime. Some of the more structured mindfulness exercises may require you to set aside time when you can be in a quiet place, without distractions or interruptions. You might choose to practice the following types of exercises early in the morning before you begin your daily routine. Here are some examples of more structured exercises you can use to practice mindfulness.
Unlike when breathing is an automatic function, this mindful technique encourages taking a moment to be present, and focusing on completely inhaling and exhaling air in and out of the lungs. Breathe in through your nose to a count of four, hold for one second, and then exhale through the mouth to a count of five. Repeat often, as needed. Over time, this exercise usually leads to a pattern of slower, deeper breathing as a healthy default.
Mental imagery exercises allow you to picture a calming place for relaxation. This technique focuses on a positive mental image to replace negative thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing at any given time. This is the classic “happy place” you can go to in your mind to reduce stress and anxiety.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When you have anxiety or stress in your life, one of the ways your body responds is with muscle tension. Progressive muscle relaxation is a method that helps relieve that tension. During this technique, you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. You work on your muscle groups in a certain order, head to toe or toe to head. The action of tensing followed by relaxation releases physical tension and relaxes you. When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious, so this is an effective method to relieve stress.
I imagine you’ve heard of “mindless eating,” where you’re watching television with a bag of cheesy poofs in one hand, and the remote control in the other, and the next thing you know, the giant family size bag is empty. When you eat mindlessly, you shovel food into your mouth without noticing how much you’re actually consuming. Mindful eating is the exact counterpoint to this, and for this reason, mindfulness is a universally recognized tool to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight. With mindful eating, you only eat when you’re hungry, you make sure to focus on each bite to fully appreciate what you’re eating, and stop eating when you’re full.
Walking is such an established, habituated action that this is yet another thing we tend to do on autopilot. The moment we step out the door, our minds wander and get caught up in planning, worrying, and analyzing. But it’s pretty amazing how different you feel when you pay attention to your movement and what’s going on all around you, rather than all the stuff swirling in your brain. A walking meditation is a great way to take your mind for a walk with you, and the idea is to focus on your gait and the physical experience of walking. Pay attention to the specific components of each step, being aware of the sensations of standing, and the subtle movements that help you keep your balance as you move. Research indicates that engaging your senses outdoors is most beneficial, so try to find a big green space outside and take a mindful walk.
Ideally, you should aim to practice mindfulness in multiple ways each day. By that, I don’t mean you have to do a progressive muscle relaxation technique each day. I’m saying you can just incorporate the basic principles into your life each day. Eat mindfully instead of mindlessly. When your mind swims with everything you have to get done in a day, slow down and breathe. When you start to criticize yourself, stop the negativity and gain some acceptance. When you walk to work, try to do it mindfully. Remember that it’s far better to make small changes you can sustain than it is to make grand changes that don’t stick, so apply little mindful touches throughout your day. That way, you’re providing a break from stressful thoughts multiple times each day, allowing you to gain more perspective, and you’re also reinforcing this as a response to daily stressors so that it becomes more automatic. Over time, mindfulness becomes more second nature, and this effectively reduces stress and anxiety in the future.
Please note, it takes time and practice to learn to slow down and live in the moment. So if it seems to take longer than you “think it should,” you’re kind of missing the point, and you should drop the judgement and continue the effort. With regular practice, you’ll find that rather than operating on autopilot, reacting as you go, with your emotions influenced by negative past experiences as well as fears of future occurrences, mindfulness will allow you to root your mind in the present moment and deal with life’s challenges in a calm, clear, assertive way. As a result, you’ll develop a fully conscious mindset that frees you from the bonds of unhelpful, self-limiting thought patterns, and this will allow you to focus on the positive emotions that increase understanding in yourself and others. And that’s never a bad thing. So the next time someone tells you to stop and smell the roses, before you roll your eyes, take a mindful moment to be present, and then say thank you.
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Working Remotely, Part Deux
Last week I discussed some of the more personal issues I’ve noticed in remote workers, aka digital nomads, and made some suggestions (lectured?) on some things they should be doing for themselves in order to help ensure a better, more fulfilling life. As a global workforce, ‘rona allowed us, or forced us, depending on your point of view, to embrace the remote work concept. So much so, that many companies are progressively implementing it into their current strategies, and/ or incorporating it into their expansion plans. But given my profession, I have to ask, how psychologically healthy is it? It seems to me that as it stands in some companies now, not very. But certain personality types are somewhat uniquely suited to remote work, and thrive in the independence associated with it. Even if you aren’t necessarily one of them, humans are supremely adaptable beings. The questions then become, are you a person that could be happy working remotely, or could you make it work for you?
Many of my patients say remote work has been an answer to their most ardent prayers. But a disturbing proportion of them say it through a mouth of unbrushed teeth, from a face covered with scraggly unshaven beard, and topped with a head of tangled unkempt hair, so I’m just not buying what they’re selling. So what’s up with that? Why are some digital nomads, who are usually neat and tidy, suddenly messy and… messy?! The answer is deceptively simple: they’re SAD. Stressed, Anxious, and Depressed. But why, when most people’s greatest wish, to ???work from home??? has suddenly been granted? Can you hear the angels sing? Visual sound effects! I’m absolutely positive that it might become a thing.
Well, as with so many things in life, the remote work format is like an equation, with positives and negatives to take into account. In order to know if it works for you or not, you have to know the factors involved in order to effectively evaluate them. Today will basically focus on the more negative side of that equation, and some of the reasons why some people might feel SAD, even though they ???work from home??? Just wanted to test them to make sure they still worked.
I know I make a lot of jokes, maybe as the result of a coping mechanism that morphed into a habit, but there can be real and unanticipated mental health consequences as a result of the stresses associated with working remotely, and it is important to be aware of this fact. I should also note that it’s equally important to remain aware of it, as sometimes it can seemingly sneak up on you, or can even be a building phenomenon. While they can have a serious impact on mental health, these effects can also be very subtle, or happen within a dynamic and fluctuating range. The best idea if you start to notice that working from home is bumming you out, is to make some changes to improve your situation right away, because you don’t get extra points for spending more time miserable. Toward that end, next week’s blog will discuss some solutions to the issues I’ll be posing here today, along with the positive side of the remote work equation.
The Work Experience
Clearly, the actual experience of working from home is very different from doing so in a public office. But it also differs amongst each person who works remotely as well. On a basic level, the work experience is vastly different, because the quality of the home working experience largely depends on the home. Captain Obvious says it’s a much better experience for people that have dedicated rooms within their homes than it is for people in small apartments, or those who share homes, and therefore have to work in their bedrooms. Please note the five extra letters denoting the compound word- bedrooms– not beds, people. At any rate, companies must consider what they can do to help even that playing field a bit, if they want to improve productivity in a remote work situation for all of their employees.
Another huge difference in the remote work experience comes into play when we talk about technology. When it doesn’t work at home, it’s a bigger problem than when that happens at the office. One specific concern focuses on the speed of technology- or lack thereof- when working remotely. Most organizations demonstrated great agility in switching to remote working nearly overnight, but it’s common knowledge that technology never works as well remotely as it does in an office, where it’s laced together with high-tech cabling and hardware. Here in the good ole US of A, if our wi-fi drops out, we feel pretty indignant, but in some places on the planet, just getting a good enough signal to even access the internet can be challenging enough. It may not sound like a big deal, but internet connectivity is important, because it’s how technology talks. As a human, if you’re speaking with someone, and they choose not to respond for ten or fifteen minutes, or not at all, that would be frustrating, no? Especially if it happened all. the. time! All. day. everyday! That’s why connectivity is a big deal when working remotely; because the lack of it is very frustrating to humans, especially when we’re working.
If you’re working from home and faced with problems with wi-fi or getting a decent signal, it’s usually a persistent and pervasive issue. Because it can extend timelines and destroy deadlines, it affects your everyday business, and sometimes can even affect your employment. All of that of course impacts your stress levels, so you can’t really afford to underestimate it. The short answer solution is that you have to do whatever you can to mitigate the issue. Communicate with your supervisor, if you have one, and call whomever you need to call to have the issue resolved. Captain Obvious says your supervisor has a vested interest in making sure you’re adequately equipped, because they want you to get your projects done too. Or build an office entirely out of wi-fi hotspots and boosters, and maybe wear a tin foil hat. You decide.
No matter where you are, if your computer decides it doesn’t want to play ball, forget feeling indignant, we feel screwed. If you’re from a conventional office environment, and now working from home, any tech problems you may have probably won’t get resolved as quickly off site as they would in the office, and unfortunately, that can make it difficult- even impossible at times- to work remotely. The time it takes the IT software and people to diagnose and fix any issues further disrupts processes and extends timelines, adding to everyone’s frustrations. That’s if you even have IT people, people. If you’re the IT department, president, and janitor, that makes it a little more frustrating, and time consuming, to solve tech issues. Because bringing the office home depends so much on remote technology, when you multiply networking issues by slow running apps and software, working from home can equal big tech stress.
But it’s not just IT that has a long road to hoe in the remote work equation. Management also has to make big changes if the remote work equation is going to balance, because you can’t manage people the same way if you’re not with them. If nothing else, ‘rona proved to management that most employees do have the capability to adapt to remote work, and fairly productively and effectively, to boot. But in reality, management and supervisors themselves have to adapt as well. For it to work effectively, they have to learn to trust and enable their staff, rather than interrogate and demand. One of the biggest complaints I hear from employees is that while working remotely, they sense an implied, or sometimes more direct, mistrust from supervisors and management. They feel like every minute must be accounted for, like they have to prove they were working during the day, not just watching television or doing their nails. That said, one of the biggest complaints I hear from supervisors and management types about working remotely, is that they suspect that their employees are taking advantage of a remote work arrangement. I wonder if maybe they suspect they’re watching television or doing their nails instead of working?
This dichotomy would be funny, if it didn’t have the capacity to be so inherently stressful and anxiety producing in all parties involved in the equation. I think the concept of how to manage a person you’re not watching poses interesting psychological questions. When you feel like you’re “losing control” over something, or someone, a natural human response is to grip it tighter; evolution has built that into our brains. In a remote work environment, when a supervisor can’t see what an employee is doing for eight plus hours every day, that equates to the dreaded micromanagement. And in the minds of the employees or people being supervised, that often comes across as suspicion, and can feel accusatory. Taken together, this tends to breed mistrust; and so the problem begins. If the problem sounds complicated, imagine the solution. Personally, I can easily see both sides of this issue, but I know that traditional management methods aren’t the answer to a modern remote work problem, and that for the equation to balance long term, we have to take big strides on the road toward improving the remote work experience for everyone.
Isolation and Loneliness
As I mentioned briefly last week, isolation and feelings of loneliness are among the most commonly reported issues that remote workers face. While working remotely has some benefits, like allowing you to effectively bypass distracting and/ or annoying coworkers, it also prevents you from sharing pleasantries with your boss, clients, and the coworkers you doenjoy camaraderie with. You miss out on the more social aspects of traditional work life, like water cooler venting, office gossip, and bouncing ideas off of one another. These interactions simply don’t translate to tech like Zoom very well, and this lack of interaction between coworkers can be a detriment to team building and corporate culture. In a prolonged state, such as occurs in a remote work environment, this disconnectivity contributes to isolation and loneliness in individuals, and is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, as well as somatic symptoms, such as headache and generalized body pain.
If you’re a person who is already accustomed to, and appreciative of, conventional office life, and the steady rate of social interactions at work, the effects of switching to remote work might have a surprising effect, because our daily interactions help us reinforce our sense of well-being and belonging in a community. Researchers have demonstrated that loneliness as a result of isolation is actually twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. One study I read found that 19 percent of people who work remotely report loneliness; and as with many such conditions or feelings, this poses a bigger risk when it becomes chronic. As you can imagine, people who not only work remotely, but also live alone, are especially at risk for feeling lonely, though I certainly see a fair amount of it in digital nomads who live with others.
Working from home can also feel like never leaving work, and another commonly reported cause for concern is burnout. I read a 2019 US study that polled remote tech workers. It found that 82 percent reported feeling burned out, 52 percent reported that they believed they work longer hours than their in-office counterparts, and 40 percent reported feeling as though they were required to contribute more than their in-office counterparts. These points are very common themes that people considering remote work, and new to remote work, should definitely keep in mind. In my experience with patients, this near compulsion to work longer hours is almost universal. I assume it’s the result of attempts to prove their ability to be productive from home, despite the presence of distractions and the availability of “extracurricular” activities that can accompany working from home.
For many people, it’s already difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance when working from an office, and it seems that this is also the first thing to go when work goes remote. The lines start to blur, and every hour in a day becomes a work hour. If you’re behind on a project, you figure you can afford to spend the “extra” hours in your day on completing it. But not for long. After a much shorter period of time than you’d think, that becomes a dangerous practice. Five minutes for one more email becomes hours, and when you stop to look up, you’ve spent far too long working, and you haven’t moved for 13 hours. My response to burned out, remote workers is to remember that home is also your office now, so you’re not really leaving work unless you turn off all communication platforms. You have to make a concerted effort to leave work, just as you would if you worked in an office. So just as you would walk out the office door about nine hours after you walked in, when you’re working from home, you turn off the devices after about the same amount of time…or else risk the ravages of burnout. Besides, when you’re mentally and physically exhausted, you’re not at your sharpest, not doing your best work, and you’re bound to make mistakes.
Focus, Motivation, Distraction
Any number of factors in a remote work situation can make you lose focus and motivation, and chief among them are distractions. These are the things, intended or not, that distance you from your work. But the reverse is also true. When you’re not focused and motivated, it’s easy to fall prey to the siren’s call of distraction. Remember last week, I said that just because the refrigerator is a short distance away, that doesn’t mean you should constantly make the trip? Eating can be a distraction you act on when you’re bored. If snack o’clock happens every hour, or you’re having multiple versions of lunch, you’re distracted, or maybe looking for something- anything- to do, other than work. When you’re working remotely, you have a lot of freedom, which is generally a good thing in life. But understand that distraction is really the blacksheep cousin to burnout, and it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by it.
Some other favorite classic distractions include wanting to sleep in, kids, myriad chores, online surfing and social media, calling friends or vice versa, pets thinking playtime is whenever you’re breathing, and good weather tempting you to ditch work and go to the beach, mall, spa, movies, etc. It’s easier to become distracted because you may be the only one managing your time, and this is one of the big reasons why people may not be as productive at home as they would be in a traditional work setting. It’s also the biggest reason why employers and management don’t generally like the idea of working remotely. While it might seem that the only way to be a successful remote worker is to be a self starter with superhuman focus who is impervious to distraction, there are ways to manage distraction, focus, and motivation. I’ll get into all of that next week, but here’s a hint until then: having a door to shut is an incredibly helpful head start.
Working remotely can also be stressful because of the inconsistent wages that may be associated with it. The term freelancing is the one most commonly used for positions of this type, though you may better recognize the alternative terminology of independent contractors. It essentially means that they are self-employed, rather than being directly supervised or employed by someone else; as a result, they typically follow a remote arrangement. No matter what you call it, when you compare freelance work to a regular full-time job, there are some important distinctions. In a regular job, you know that no matter what happens, you’ll be paid (at least) the same amount each month; and since you took the job, I can only assume it’s sufficient to cover whatever bills it’s supposed to. But with freelance positions, because getting paid is typically based on contracts and invoices, payments can be pretty variable, and you don’t have any guarantees that your invoices will be paid on time. If the payor is unreliable, or decides to dispute, you have to expend time, and sometimes even money, to collect. Understandably, these variables and unforeseen complexities can result in cash flow concerns, and we all know that can lead straight to stressville. Not only is income variable, but workload is too. The temporary, variable, too much or too little nature of freelance assignments is intensely anxiety producing, and can wreak havoc with your sense of well-being.
Communication with coworkers, supervisors, and clients can be a minefield, as things can easily be misconstrued under the best of circumstances. In a remote work arrangement, when you often keep in touch through non-visual methods like email and instant messaging, communication is further complicated, and this can have some very unwanted effects. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the amount of damage that can result from ineffective communication falls along a spectrum, from “uh oh” to “oh no!” One big problem in general, not just in a work setting, that may serve you well to remember, is that you can’t really get a sense of a person’s tone via typed electronic communication, because they can’t read facial expressions or hear your tone of voice. To the recipient, words read the same way regardless of whether you were smiling or yelling when you typed them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a complaint from a patient start with, ‘And then he texted…’ because instant messaging, while convenient, can also be a recipe for instant miscommunication.
In a work setting, most tone concerns have to do with accuracy; that the words you’re using are literally sending the right message. Do you have a tendency to be very lighthearted and positive, and therefore potentially at risk for sounding like perhaps you’re not serious enough about a certain topic with a client? Or maybe you have a tendency to be sarcastic and risk that same issue? You might be most vulnerable to this when the person doesn’t really know you, or in circumstances where you may be sending an instant message you don’t give as much thought to as you would a more formal email. As you might imagine, these are situations where the smiley face in cool shades emoji doesn’t really cut it. ?
Probably the most common communication issue I hear about is the lack of communication. Just as with the tech issue I mentioned previously, when a coworker is unresponsive, humans get frustrated. And understandably so. When you need an answer, but the person you need it from is uncommunicative via whatever digital channels you try, it can pose a problem. In the office, you could simply visit that individual’s desk and see them in person, but in a remote setting, that’s not an option. Since it’s work, you may have a deadline to complete a project, so not having that answer might make it late, and that may have a negative impact on your reputation. It can be a gnarly domino effect, I get it. But I can tell you that the answer is not to sendthem a message you may regret later, because chances are very good that’ll have an even bigger impact on your reputation, than the original lack of communication on their part would’ve had.
Another thing to keep in mind when communicating electronically is not to set yourself- or anyone else for that matter- up for disappointment, by asking questions that really can’t be answered satisfactorily via these methods. If you’re seeking appreciation or other “feelings” on job performance in a text, you’re nearly bound to read disappointment in the reply, whether it was intended or not. Save the sticky wickets for more personal communication methods, even if they’re not necessarily the easiest choice. While some sarcasm or jokes may be funny, some people may not think so, and that can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings that can have a serious effect on company culture, productivity, team dynamics, and relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and/ or clients. Remember that nothing dies on the net, and everything leaves a digital trail, especially in a remote work setting, so things can come back to bite you later. Lastly, I would suggest that you always think twice whenever you instant message someone in order to avoid instant embarrassment and instant regret, proofread messages to make sure nothing’s getting in the way of what you’re trying to say, and save the complicated stuff for face to face when possible, or at least for video chat when it’s not.
Next week, the working remotely blog continues- I’ll address some solutions to all of the issues I mentioned today, and then I’ll tell you about the positive side of the remote work equation.
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When Home Becomes Work: Challenges of Working Remotely
Captain Obvious says that while coronavirus is responsible for thrusting us (with IT people kicking and screaming) into working remotely as a necessity, it was already a fairly common practice BR (before ‘rona). In fact, a statistic I read indicated an overall global trend toward remote work long BR, with a global increase of 159% between 2005 and 2017. As far as US stats on remote work go, 17% of US employees report that they worked from home five days or more per week BR, but that jumped to 44% DR (during ‘rona). As for the future, polls indicate that totally AR (after ‘rona) a minimum of 16% of American people who had previously worked outside the home BR will switch to working remotely from home at least two days per week AR. In addition, more than one-third of US firms that had employees switch to remote work DR believe that it will remain more common at their company AR. Globally, polls now predict that 25% to 30% of the earth’s workforce will work remotely multiple days per week by the end of 2021. In short, the genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not likely to go back in.
Many employers and business leaders think that going remote is as simple as sending an employee away from the office with a laptop and a to-do list, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In truth, there are real life consequences associated with working remotely. It may sound like a dream come true, but from where I’m sitting, it’s become more like a nightmare. A lot of people have gone back to their outside offices now, but many are still working from home. This is either because they- or their employers- are still too reluctant to make the switch and return, or have found it beneficial enough that it behooves them to continue remote operations. Regardless of why you may find yourself doing so, working remotely does present its own set of challenges, not the least of which is that companies were essentially forced into it overnight, without benefit of true preparedness and system checks.
But in any event, if you are still working remotely at this point, you may find yourself continuing to do so indefinitely. I find that most of my patients enjoy lounging in their pajamas all day as they work from home, never leaving their house because it’s such an effort to get dressed; though they fail to understand why they’re so anxious, irritable, and depressed. The good news is that there is a way to do this work from home deal effectivelyand happily, and even excel at it, while still having a personal life and functioning appropriately. The bad news is there are some not-so-nice ramifications and consequences associated with the routine, and a lot of people are starting to recognize this after far too long being “trapped” at home. Spoiler alert: most people actually are not. The bottom line is that your whole world doesn’t have to change just because you’ve eliminated a commute. Out of necessity DR, it did change for a time, but at this point, it’s time to get out and reclaim some normalcy. Some of the issues that come up with working remotely are more rooted in the personal realm, and deal with basic self care and psychological health, while others center more on professional matters. But don’t kid yourself, there’s a lot of overlap and cross reactivity betwixt and between them. So this blog marks the beginning of a series dedicated to identifying the issues surrounding working remotely, and discussion on how to address them appropriately, with some tips and tricks and coping methods thrown in for good measure.
Today’s blog will deal with some problems that I’ve noted in video calls and appointments with my patients. I sometimes call them “duh!!” issues, because a lot of you are going to be like, “Duh, Dr. Agresti, we all know that!” Well, what some people know and what they do are two very different things. If you’re depressed, and you haven’t brushed your hair or gotten dressed for a week straight, then you might hear me say, “Duh, go brush your hair and get dressed, you’ll feel better.” I suppose you could also call them “helll-ooo!!” issues, as in, “Helll-ooo… you really need to take a shower!!” That’s a real thing, people. Not all of the things I’ll discuss are quite that extreme, but my list of remote work must-do’s includes some personal care requirements that must become- and remain- second nature to you; they must be part of a regular routine, regardless of the fact that you may be all alone, with nobody even there to see (or smell) you. So that’s where we’re starting; with just some very basic, very simple recommendations for a better life and more success in a remote work situation. Most of these you probably already know, but you may not be doing them. Allow this to be your kick in the can if that’s the case.
-Sleep in your bed, but then get out of said bed when you get up in the morning. Don’t just wake up and roll over to reach for your laptop to start your day. I cannot tell you how many patients I talk to while they’re working in bed; they’re literally in bed 24/7. Get out of bed!
-Create a dedicated office, preferably with a door you can close to keep things quiet and help you avoid distractions. If you don’t have a spare room, then at least create a dedicated work space. Even a corner of a room will do if that’s all you can spare. You really just need room for a table or desk large enough to hold a computer and whatever supplies you need, and a chair. Try to make it as comfortable- and functional- as possible.
-Make a schedule and stick to it. And be sure to keep an accurate account of the hours you work. I’ll be discussing supervisory micromanaging in the next blog, but if you keep a regular schedule and good records of your hours, you’ll have all the info you need if you are questioned by a micromanaging supervisor.
-Now that you aren’t commuting to and from the office, you’re going to be physically moving a lot less. So you must make time each day for exercise. So many of my patients that have switched to working remotely have gained a fair bit of weight and almost all of them have lost serious muscle tone. When you’re working from home, it’s easy to get comfortable and complacent, and turn into a flabby flaccid couch potato. Do something to move your muscles every day.
-Eat three square meals each day, and no more 24/7 snack attacks. Just because your refrigerator is mere steps away doesn’t mean you should make the trip every 30 minutes. A small midmorning, midafternoon, or late night snack is okay, but that’s it. Note my word choice: or not and. Three decent meals and one small snack each day is acceptable- just try not to go too crazy- and try to make it reasonably healthy, maybe a yogurt, cottage cheese, or piece of fruit. Like, a box of girl scout cookies is not a snack, people.
-Because you aren’t commuting to and from the office, you’re also rarely going to be required to go outside. So you must make a special point to go outside every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes after lunch. Human bodies require vitamin D, and nothing’s a better source than sunlight. Try taking a walk around your neighborhood after you have lunch, just something where you’re exposed to the sun.
-A lot of my patients are complaining of decreased intimacy and a lack of sexual energy since they started working remotely. So my next suggestion is to do whatever you can to be close to your partner. Emotional and physical intimacy are important, so have sex, but maybe don’t combine this suggestion with the one above it, unless you have an excellent privacy fence.
-When work is over, stop working. It can be tempting to work more hours when you’re at home. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true. To avoid this trap, work the same schedule and number of hours each day at home as you would if you were commuting to an office. Don’t try to cram jam in four16 hour days days a week in order to take a 3 day weekend, unless it’s an unavoidable situation, and/ or you receive permission or clearance from a supervisor if applicable.
-Make sure to get adequate sleep. Go to bed at a reasonable time, get up at a reasonable time, and try to stick to a sleep schedule. And remember to avoid blue light exposure for at least two to three hours before you go to bed, otherwise you’ll have a hard time falling asleep.
-Keep your regular grooming routine- you’ll feel better about yourself. If you didn’t get the hint, shower every day. Brush your hair, and your teeth. Shave and put on makeup if you’re about that life. Work is not a pajama party, so get dressed in appropriate clothing. You don’t have to wear a suit or heels, but make an effort to be presentable, even if there’s no one to present yourself to.
This isn’t rocket science, people. Basically, you should follow the same routine you always have, and do everything you would do if you were going to an actual outside office or workplace: go to bed at a reasonable and regular time on work nights, get up at a reasonable and regular time each morning, and resist the urge to hit snooze 97 times. Shower, shave, get dressed in decent clothing, and eat breakfast. Then go to work in your in-house office space, just as you would if you were going to commute to an office. Avoid distractions and get your work done. Take a one hour lunch break maximum, and make sure to actually eat something reasonable, but avoid eating at your desk. Think about taking lunch outside for some fresh air, vitamin D, and a change of scenery, and you can kill multiple birds with a single stone. After lunch time is not nap time- and it hasn’t been since kindergarten- so after lunch, go back to work until it’s time to stop at the end of the day. Make sure to put in a full day’s work, while also being careful not to overwork. Behave as if you owned the company and were paying employee salaries. Supervisors will be less likely to micromanage you to death if you give them no reason to mistrust you or doubt your motivations.
No Nearly Naked Zooming
Captain Obvious says that videoconferencing has become a big part of our lives DR, and will continue to be long AR. Here’s a fun fact for you, Zoom saw phenomenal growth in 2020, and ended the third quarter of 2020 with an astounding report of 367% year-over-year revenue growth. If you had stock in Zoom Video Communications BR, which I did not, that’s a very fun fact for you. And get this… Zoom hosted an average of 300 million meeting participants per day throughout 2020. That’s 300 million people that don’t need to see you in your underwear, people. Same goes for gnarly, used-to-be-white, ripped t-shirts with yellow pit stains. Get it? If you didn’t, here’s the simple concept: put on a shirt. One with at least two buttons at the top.
Drinks, not Zinks
Even if you dress appropriately for video conferencing calls, there’s really no replacement for real deal interaction, because shockingly, humans are hardwired for human connection. Even Captain Obvious wouldn’t bother with that one. It’s just not possible to simply erase our evolutionary zeitgeist and replace millions of years of in-the-flesh interactions with technologically mediated virtual communications. While Zoom and its brethren have helped us in our attempts to recreate a certain degree of face-to-face experiences, that’s really as much thanks to the power of human imagination as it is to technology; and nothing stifles human creativity and imagination like isolation and loneliness. As a society, we spend a lot of time creating tech to replicate real-life experiences, but it’s a cheap substitute. In most situations, we’re better off spending a larger portion of that time experiencing real-life personal experiences. If you live alone and work from home, you could literally spend days without any human contact. You should make an effort to socialize, but remember to do so responsibly and wear your mask, people. Call a friend and suggest you meet for dinner, coffee, or lunch, or go on a date night. Drinks are hands down better than Zinks, so arrange to meet a friend IRL.
Loneliness or isolation is one of the most commonly reported issues that remote workers and digital nomads face, along with anxiety, stress, and depression. Next week, in part deux of this remote work blog, I’ll talk more about those, as well as some professional issues that can come into play when working remotely, and I’ll make some suggestions on how to deal with them. Then in part three, I’ll talk about some specific anxiety and stress busting techniques you can incorporate into your routine during the day, as you need them, and they won’t complicate or derail your work schedule, or negatively affect your productivity. In fact, they’ll do just the opposite.
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Steroids: Seductive Today, Sinister Tomorrow
An Appointment and Cautionary Tale
I got a new patient who came into my office- we’ll call him Rocky- and he said to me, “Ya know, I’m here because I’ve been having trouble with rage.” And then he just looks at me expectantly. After eleven words, he’s waiting for me to open my desk drawer and take out my magic wand. Bing! You’re cured! He’s clearly never been to a shrink. We talk here.
In all honesty, I didn’t even need a magic wand at that point, because between those eleven words and my eyes, I had already diagnosed him. I should’ve waved my pen at him like a wand and said “Stop using steroids. You’re cured.” Instead, I said, “Let’s explore this a bit.”
He says “I’m worried, I might be bipolar….” How did I just know he was going to say that? It is so typical. At 32 years of age, Rocky’s a big boy, unnaturally bulky, looks like he’s been lifting a lot of weights. Compared to his trunk, his head looks like somebody washed it in hot water. His face is oily, pock-marked with acne and scars. I’m noting all these things, jotting them down on my pad, jot jot, as he goes on. “…and I like to go to the gym to blow off some steam…” Rages jot. Acne jot. Oily skin jot jot. Bacne jot. Receding hairline jot jot. “…and lately everybody just pisses me off and I can’t…” Angry jot jot.“…I mean, I can bench a lot. So the other day, I was with my buddy and I finally figured it out; I realized that he’s jealous; that’s his problem with me…” Paranoia jot jot. “…and I know I’m his competition. I undercut him all the time. He would love to see me fail and close up shop, but…” Ah ha. Psychotic? jot jot. All of this is very typical with steroid use and abuse. “…so anyway, I can push harder, lift more, ya know? I work at it! The steroids help, but the work is all me.” Bingo! Finally! Now we’re getting somewhere.
So tell me about that…the steroids. Who’s prescribing? “Oh no, I am buying it at the gym.” Well, how much are you using? “I’m doing 200mg every two days.” Injecting testosterone cypionate, 200mg Q 2 days jot jot jot jot jot. Buys at gym jot jot. And how long have you been using them? “Uhh, maybe about three years?” Times 3+ years jot jot jot. Do you think maybe you have a problem? “Oh, no. No.” Denies problem jot jot. I explain that he’s at a max dose for someone who has virtually no gonad function. Confusion jot. I explain that means someone who produces no natural testosterone. I spell it out. You’re taking the max dose that a person with no gonad function, zero testosterone would take, and that’s on top of your normal testosterone levels. Or I should say your natural testosterone levels. So you would be way above normal- ten times normal levels or more. And you’re wondering why you’ve been having these rages? Losing control? Loses control jot jot. Banging on s÷=%t at home jot jot jot. Screaming at wife jot jot. Have you ever hit her? “No. I haven’t hit her. But I’ve wanted to hit something. My fists are clenched and I want to tear something apart with my bare hands.” Denies hitting wife jot jot. Clenched fists jot jot jot. Believes he’s bipolar jot jot. I tell him that he’s not bipolar. Steroids are the problem here. He says, “No, it’s not. Can’t be.” No. It’s the steroids, I’m sure. Rocky says, “Ya know, I’ve been reading, and I’m saying it’s probably bipolar.” He’s just holding on to the bipolar excuse. Addicted jot jot. I mean, he would rather be bipolar- actually fight to be bipolar- than admit that his precious steroids are the sole root of his many issues. Denial jot. Steroids don’t cause a typical high, it’s more of an exhilarating positive feeling, an energized, almost super power feeling. For dudes like Rocky, with his temperment, he is all about that musclebound feeling of power.
Have you noticed your hairline is receding. “Oh. You can tell?” Umm, yeah, I can tell- it’s like three inches back from where it should be- that’s why I mentioned it. That’s what steroids do. “Really?” Really. Bipolar doesn’t do that. Have you noticed your oily skin and acne on your back? “Yeah, I have.” Yeah. Bipolar doesn’t do that either. Guess what does. You get really argumentative and pissy. Some people actually become psychotic. “Oh, I’m not psychotic, man.” Really? But, you know, in our conversation, you said you’re always worried about people at the gym being jealous and giving you side eye and you said people are trying to destroy your business. You know, maybe you’re getting a little paranoid. “Oh, I am not paranoid.” Uh huh, yeah. I tried to explain. When you’re getting paranoid, you don’t know you’re getting paranoid. He saw all these deep meanings and he was making these deep connections, why people would be tracking him and why government agencies would be interested in monitoring his business. Rocky is in the nursing home business. He’s not even actually running a nursing home, he just provides services to nursing homes. It’s not like he’s involved with any government agencies. He’s contracted to bring in ancillary services to nursing homes. It’s a fairly big business and he’s been pretty successful financially, but there was no root in reality for the paranoia he was demonstrating.
I asked him if he noticed anything else, like maybe breast enlargement? “Ahh, maybe a little bit, but no big deal.” Mmm hmm. + breast development jot jot jot. He says, “You know, my muscles got bigger, I got leaner, and my endurance increased. I felt trimmer, more energetic.” You said your endurance went up, how much cardio do you do, Rocky? He says, “Well, I used to do more, but man, I’ve gotten so much bigger that it’s hard to breathe when I do heavy cardio, you know?” No, I don’t know, because I don’t abuse steroids. Androgenic erythrocytosis jot jot jot. That means that you have increased the number of red blood cells in your blood, so your blood becomes thick and viscous like oil. You have so many red blood cells, it’s tough for your heart to beat, it’s tough for your lungs to get oxygen, because there’s drag from the increased viscosity, so when you do cardio, you can’t breathe. “Yeah, yeah. I can barely run. I used to do triathlons. I can’t do them anymore, but I can lift way more weight.” Yeah, because not only are the steroids making your blood thick like oil with RBCs, the thick blood makes the left heart ventricle- the one that does most of the pumping of the blood- thick. It’s a muscle, so the thick viscous blood overworks it as it tries to pump that thick gross blood through, so it makes that left ventricle wall thick, really thick. So instead of having a thin elastic pump that pumps blood in and out easily, you get this thick, wide left ventricle wall that cannot pump effectively. It enlarges the left ventricle wall, so you can’t pump good oxygen rich blood through. It’s called hypertrophy. With all those factors going on, it’ll cause hypertension. “Oh, yeah, I take medicine for that.” Like no, big deal. Aah, I just take medicine for the damage that I’m causing myself. Duh! + hypertension jot jot jot. + medication jot jot. And did you tell the doctor that prescribes that med that you’re using steroids? “No.” Nice. Prescribing Dr. unaware of illicit steroid use jot jot jot jot jot. Do you know that hypertension leads to kidney disease? “Really? My kidneys work good I think.” I’m thinking ‘maybe for now’ to myself. You think you look good on the outside, although you’re balding, your skin is oily, you have pitted acne scars on your face and acne on your back and you’re growing boobs like a teenage girl and your testicles are microscopic and you have low to no sperm and your penis doesn’t work… and you can’t breathe with any amount of exertion because your blood is thick and gross so your heart is all enlarged and your blood pressure is so high you have to take medication like a man more than twice your age. And you’re causing all of it! Through your steroid addiction. And as if the physical side isn’t bad enough, now it’s affecting you mentally. You’re paranoid, on the verge of psychosis…really you’ve got a toe or two over that line if you want the truth. So no matter how big your muscles are, no matter how good you think you look (and my raised eyebrows were clearly saying that was debatable) you are destroying your body. “Um, like what? How?” Now he’s really listening. I continued. Do you understand what hypertension actually is and does? Cause and effect? How about atherosclerotic plaques. What are those? What do they mean? The arteries in your heart become lined with plaques that are basically made of fat. These fat plaques are sticky, so as your thick gross blood slogs through the arteries, the fat plaques gather and narrow the arteries, so you cannot push blood through the arteries. Eventually, they clog off. It’s like a tunnel being filled with more and more muck, so there’s not enough room for blood to flow through and you get a heart attack and die. But before that happens, you’re incapacitated with high blood pressure because your thick oversized left ventricle is trying to push your thick gross blood through arteries that are filled with fatty muck, athersclerotic plaque filled arteries. “I didn’t know all that.” I’m sure you don’t, but I’m not done educating you yet. It gets better. Well, actually worse.
Education jot. Steroids decrease HDL, which is the good cholesterol that helps keep your arteries open. And it also raises the LDL, which is the bad cholesterol that causes the fatty plaque to build up. So lowers the good while raising the bad. Got that? “Yep. Got it.” So that causes hypertension, and makes you prone to heart attacks and strokes. Did you know that hypertension also makes your kidneys malfunction? I didn’t think so. Right now, your kidneys are trying to pump under hypertension, and that kills them. The gross viscous blood thick with red blood cells kills them. So your kidneys shut down. Do you like to be able to take a piss? To be able to clean your thick slaggy blood of all the toxins you make? He nodded that yes, he rather liked to be able to take a piss and clear his thick slaggy blood of all the toxins he makes. I thought so. Enjoy it while it lasts. Before long, a machine will do that for you: four hour sessions, three times a week…if you’re lucky enough to live that long. If the massive heart attack doesn’t kill you first. Honestly, Rocky looked like he was about to have a heart attack right now. I know I’m hitting him pretty hard with all of this at once, but this guy was in a romantic relationship with his precious steroids, and I need him to break it off, clean and quick like. But wait, there’s more!
Now, with all this bad stuff going on, the little vessels throughout your body do not pump blood as well because they are clogged and they are hypertensive. So all those tissues, joints, and bones are starved of nutrients and oxygen. You get something called avascular necrosis. Avascular means without vasculature- blood vessels- and necrosis means death. It’s everywhere, but especially in the hips, with the ball and socket joint. The little vessels that feed the balls of your hip joints, where the femur meets your hip? Hello, the blood supply gets occluded- it gets starved- and then it gets dead. So you can recognize all the steroid abusers out there: they’re the 40 year olds using wheelchairs and walkers, whining about the pain in their hips. Balding, acne, boobs, erectile dysfunction, heart problems, kidney issues, disability, chronic pain. On and on. Oh yeah, it’s pretty bad, but it gets worse. His face fell. I couldn’t let up now. You enjoy being able to lift weights? You enjoy being physically capable? Like a zombie, he mumbled on a sigh “Yes…” I’m glad you do. But don’t get too used to it. Because if you keep this crap up, keep injecting that garbage, you’ll build your muscles up beyond what your body can handle. You’ll build them up- your muscles will get bigger- but your ligaments and tendons can’t be built up, and they can’t support these unnaturally large muscles. Do you know what muscles without ligaments and tendons do? Not much. Without healthy ligaments and tendons, big muscles are useless for anything but causing pain, debilitating pain. When you’re pumping iron, lifting really heavy weights, your ligaments and tendons get damaged. In no time, the muscle size supercedes the ability of the damaged ligaments and tendons, so you get irreversible chronic muscle pain. Sounds great, right Rocky? Oh, wait, and to top it all off, now you’re having psychological effects. You’re having rages. You want to tear something apart with your bare hands. You said that. What’s scary is that right now, at this moment, you have the physical ability to do that. If somebody pushed you too far on a bad day, you might go there. You could kill someone. I’ve seen it happen to a patient. A guy a lot like you. He came in here young and dumb and I explained everything to him, just like I’ve done with you. For several years, I begged him to stop. He refused to listen; didn’t believe me. Ultimate in denial. He’s in prison now for the next 30 years; that equals a life sentence for him. It’s scary. What’s even scarier is that if you keep this crap up, keep sticking yourself with that needle, you won’t be able to tear somebody apart for long. You might want to, but you’ll be too debilitated. That guy in prison? He’s in a wheelchair now 90% of the time. He uses a walker sometimes- when he can stand the pain- which isn’t often.
I’ll make this very plain. You are addicted to steroids. They are physically wrecking your body, the body you seem to worship. Oily skin, acne, bacne, boobs, receding hairline, balding, teeny tiny testicles, a penis that you can’t get up…and no sperm to come out of it anyway. And that’s just the stuff on the outside that people can see! Your insides get wrecked too. Thick slaggy gross blood, hypertension, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, kidney dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, avascular necrosis, chronic pain. And now you’re raging, scaring the crap out of your wife, you’re paranoid, becoming psychotic. You have nothing positive happening in your life. So it’s your call, Rocky. I can help get you off the train here before it runs your ass over. He was nodding very slowly, but clearly shell-shocked. Look, how about this. Don’t use for two weeks and see me again. You’ll have some time to digest all of this. Can you do it? If you can’t- if you feel like you’re gonna hit that needle- I’ll see you sooner. Here’s my cell number. Call me anytime, but especially if and when you’re tempted to use. Deal? “Deal.” We shook on it.
Dx: steroid addiction, assoc features jot jot jot jot
Pt agrees to d/c use jot jot jot
F/up 2 weeks, will call/ see sooner prn jot jot jot jot jot
Here’s the bottom line on steroids people. Your body just does not like these drugs in excess. There may be some use for them in people with anemia, in people who have wound healing problems, a temporary use in people with HIV or cancer who do not want to eat, and in muscle wasting diseases for short periods of time and in very regulated doses, okay…fine.
But, for my Olympic athlete patients, my professional athlete patients: you all know who you are. All of my Rocky’s out there: cut it out! You’re sterile, can’t get it up, scared everyone’s gonna see your breasts, hello, they are! I know you’re saying ‘but I cycle them on and off, doc!’ I say bullshit. No, it causes permanent damage to heart, kidneys, tendons, and ligaments. Not to mention the cosmetic aspects: the oily skin, the acne on your face and back, the balding, receding hairline… and you say ‘oh, but to minimize the breasts I use an estradiol’ (an anti-estrogen, because testosterone breaks down to estrogen, so if you use an anti-estrogen in someone who is abusing testosterone or testosterone-like drugs, you will not get the breast enlargement) Yes, that’s true. I’ll give you that. But, you still get all that other crap, guys! Hellllo!! All my elite athletes, you all whine like ‘No, no, no, I need it to stay competitive, because everybody else is doping!’ Whatever! You are addicted to the high, the performance, and the cosmetic enhancement. You get big muscles, tiny balls, and tinier brains. You also get limp and sterile, permanent damage to the ventricles, the heart, and the kidneys, hypertension, and its host of other problems. You are predisposing yourself to coronary disease, heart attack, and stroke. You become delusional, and you fly into rages when the wind blows.
As you are my patients, I’ve probably told you about other patient stories. For those that haven’t heard them: one steroid abuser was very paranoid and psychotic, but of course didn’t know it, because you will not see yourself becoming psychotic. He was stopped at red light. I don’t know what he was doing, but when the light changed green, he didn’t go right away. So the car behind him honked. He started ticking like a time bomb, and the car kept honking, but for whatever reason, he still didn’t go. Instead, with the light still green, he got out of his car. With a golf club. He went off, banging on the guy’s car with the golf club, and he just didn’t stop. Eventually, they called the police. The police came and they had to subdue him with a tazer because he was out of control. When he was transported to the emergency room, he continued there, even continuing to spit and scream, even after being put in four-point restraints. Finally, he had to be pharmacologically restrained with a freaking rhino dart. Unbelievable. I mean, he was all black and blue, like he had been beaten, but he did it by thrashing, all by himself. His whole affect was totally inappropriate. I know that some people are beaten by police for no reason; they don’t deserve it, but this maniac was taking every opportunity to hit the police officers for absolutely no reason. In the hospital, he was arguing with nurses, disturbing the entire emergency department for no reason. His wife finally came in, but even she couldn’t calm him. He just lost it, in every sense. He was (or had been) on the road to being Mr. Olympia or some such title. He was 190 pounds, and bench pressing over 450 pounds. It was just crazy. Eventually, but not long after, he went into kidney failure. But it wasn’t from the steroids. Yeah, right. Denial!! jot jot
You know, it also causes immune suppression, so you don’t fight off pathogens like viruses, like COVID-19, like any bacteria. I had someone who had a heart attack and died. He was 25. Another stroked out in his late 30’s. These patients are Olympians, professional athletes, and really elite level people. They’re so hyper-disciplined about their diets and their training and supplements and sleep patterns and all of that. But they’re abusing steroids. It’s a crazy dichotomy. Some have made it. Big success stories that stopped and then did it the right way. But many don’t. Right now I have a 45-year-old man who is just going into kidney failure. And the one with psychosis that killed the guy that set him off. He’ll die in prison. Now I have Rocky. I hope I opened his eyes.
Remember, people… just because you cannot see what’s going on doesn’t mean the steroids aren’t destroying you. They are. But you can get there without them. And PS, for those that are wondering, there is a steroid withdrawal: headaches, drowsiness, decreased appetite, weight loss, fatigue, depression, dizziness. It’s a mess when I get them off, especially when they do high dose. It takes two to four weeks, and they are miserable, cranky, irritable, and obnoxious people to deal with when they are in withdrawal. I use benzodiazepines, things to help them sleep; I sometimes add anti-psychotics because they can’t see themselves drifting to the psychotic lane, sometimes hearing voices and seeing things. It’s a spectrum. And lots of misreading events in reality… “Those people are talking about me. They’re plotting against me. Those police officers are here to get me, or that group of people talking over there are planning something against me or these workers are not working because they are all in a grand plot against me. They are very faint signs and forms of psychosis. Hearing voices and seeing things, disorganized speech and behavior is the extreme. But there can be the unextreme, the misreading, the over-emotional abnormal response to normal events, thinking people are plotting.
Probably from age 10 to 30 is when most people started and abused the steroids. And too often, it’s a one way trip, once they start, they get lost in it. You know, “I am superman now” and they don’t stop, and then they stroll into my office and then I deal with them when they are 45 to 50 and that’s when their kidneys shut down, when they get a heart attack, when they are debilitated with degenerative disk disease from lifting too heavy weights, their ligaments and tendons go, they become sterile, they cannot have kids, they’re in constant horrible chronic pain. They have heart problems and kidney problems, and that’s what gets them. If they have heart and kidney failure, to the point where the organs have just given up, that’s what kills them.
Hopefully not Rocky jot jot jotLearn More
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Pedophilia: Predators in Your Back Yard
Pedophilia has become a topic of increased interest, awareness, and concern for both the medical community and the public at large. In my nearly thirty years of practice, I am sad to say that I have treated far too many victims of pedophilia and sexual predation of every unimaginably horrific kind; those narratives are indelibly etched into my memory. In the last decade or so, increased media exposure, new sexual offender disclosure laws, web sites listing the names and addresses of convicted sexual offenders, and increased investigations of sexual acts with children have increased public awareness about pedophilia. That’s definitely a good thing. The passing of laws, like Megan’s Law in 1996, authorizes local law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living, working, or visiting their communities, and has helped expose pedophiles living amongst us, and this allows parents to better protect their children.
But in the age of the internet, cyber predators can stalk their victims from a safe distance before ever suggesting they meet. They can be very cunning, and they often lie about their age/ gender/ status/ likes/ dislikes; they play online team video games to attract children, and they make up customized stories, tailor made to lure specific victims. Because of these realities, it’s important for everyone to understand pedophilia, its rate of occurrence, and the characteristics of both pedophiles and sexually abused children.
In recent years, the law has taken a tougher stance on dealing with pedophiles and sexual predators, and exposure is often the order of the day for the media, as these cases play out in the wide open. You need only note the allegations of sexual predation in the priesthood or in the Boy Scouts to realize that predators are everywhere, even in some unlikely places. Who can forget Jared Fogle, the smiley faced Subway spokesman who lost 200-plus pounds, supposedly by eating only sub sandwiches? Who would’ve ever guessed that he was actually a predator, targeting children of middle school age, a demographic he often found himself in the company of during his well paid and nation wide lectures about healthy eating habits. That age group was his preference, but he wasn’t discriminatory by any stretch of the imagination. He made that quite clear in the surreptitiously taped conversations he had with a “friend” who was actually working undercover for the FBI. I was physically repulsed when I heard those recordings, and even as I remember them now, I can actually taste and feel the bile rising in my throat. Ultimately, in 2015, Fogle was adjudicated as guilty of charges of child pornography and having sex with minors, and was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison. He apparently passes the time by filing frivolous lawsuits against the Feds and Donald Trump, all without the aid of his attorney.
A name synonymous with sexual predation since the millennium, especially here in Palm Beach County, is of course Jeffrey Epstein. This multimillionaire financier dirtbag was a predator incarnate, who, over a period of at least 15 years, lured a procession of girls as young as 14 to his Palm Beach mansion to perform nude bedroom massages for money; massages that often ended with Epstein groping or sexually assaulting the girls. All told, investigators found evidence that Epstein preyed on at least 80 girls total, here and in New York.
One of my patients, I’ll call her Dominique, was one of at least 15 girls from Royal Palm Beach High School alone, who Epstein sexually exploited in that aforementioned bedroom 15 years ago, and she will live with those memories forever. At the time, it was a not-so-well-kept secret among RPBHS students, teachers, and administrators that girls were being sexually exploited in return for gifts of cash, expensive cars, trips, and shopping sprees courtesy of their Sugar Daddy; but nobody reported their concerns to authorities at the time. Epstein masterminded an underage sexual assault scheme, paying girls $200 for each new victim they recruited, instructing them to target vulnerable girls, often on the verge of homelessness and desperately needing money, and “the younger the better.”
Dominique drove a convertible Mercedes, courtesy of Epstein, flew in his jet to travel on trips with him to Mexico and the US Virgin Islands, and met some very famous and influential people, including a former POTUS, a ridiculously wealthy computer nerd, and one particularly slimy smarmy one that calls Britain’s monarch “Mummy.” Dominique told me that she and the other girls would skip school, hang out at his house, float around in the pool, go out on the boat, or head to Worth Ave for lunch, followed by black card shopping. The girls also drank alcohol and did drugs, made available by Epstein, of course. Consumption of alcohol and drugs is a way that predators groom their targets, to seduce them, make them more comfortable and less inhibited, and hamper their ability to resist.
The girls traded sexual favors in exchange for all of the cash and material gifts he gave them, and Dominique said that oral sex and intercourse were just an acceptable part of the deal; it was very much a simple transaction. The better the girls were, the more they pleased him, the more money and gifts he would give them. It was a calculated and infinitely alluring arrangement, all by Epstein’s diabolical design, and before she knew it, Dominique was in over her head, but yet unable to cut ties. Thankfully, the law intervened and cut those ties for her, for once and for all. Now she’s moving on with her life and looking forward to the future, all while still dealing with the extreme damage done in the past.
When any of his girls became nervous or ever questioned activities, Epstein had a remedy for those circumstances as well. He used his “assistant” Ghislaine Maxwell as a beard to make the girls feel more comfortable; sort of an older sister vibe, a figure for them to look up to and emulate. She played a key role in the scheme, and she’s currently awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges and who knows what else. In his first two charges here in Palm Beach County (soliciting a minor for prostitution and procuring minors for prostitution) Epstein made a sweetheart deal with the Florida DA’s office, spending 13 months (of an 18 month sentence) in a private wing of the Palm Beach County Jail on Gun Club Road, but he was still allowed to go to “work” on Palm Beach Island six days a week for twelve hours each day. I consider that incomprehensible. Then after he served his tiny time here, he was facing more charges in New York for sex trafficking of girls as young as 14 and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. Apparently, the Feds also had a lot more charges up their sleeves, and were investigating every single thing in his life. At his arraignment in New York, Epstein pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, he would have faced up to 45 years in prison. But, evidently, he couldn’t take the heat. He was found hanging in his cell by the guard that may have been too busy sleeping to guard him. The coroner’s manner of death was listed as suicide, but his family and other conspiracy theorists say he was murdered. Either way, he’s gone, as is the opportunity for his victims to face him in open court and tell their truths.
Below, I define pedophilia and associated terms, and discuss a generalized profile of a typical pedophile or sexual predator, and go over what you can do to protect children from such predators.
Pedophile, Hebephile, Ephebophile, Predator, or Child Molester?
I want to clarify some terms related to pedophilia. A pedophile is a person who is primarily attracted to prepubescent children, usually defined as under the age of 12. A common mistake is to define a pedophile as anyone attracted to another person that is below the age of majority; but this definition would include people attracted to teens, which is incorrect. Even a late adolescent (like 15 or 16 years old) can be a pedophile, if they have sexual interest in prepubescent children. A hebephile is a person who is primarily attracted to others in their young to mid-teens, while an ephebophile is a person who is primarily attracted to others in their mid-to-late adolescence. Captain Obvious says that a child molester is anyone who molests a child, but without regard to their sexual attractions or preferences. Their act of molestation is not typically linked to sexual desire or interest. In the interest of time for this blog, I will not divide or differentiate the term predator into hebephile or ephebophile, and the terms pedophile, predator, and molester will be used interchangeably.
Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder in which an adult or an older adolescent is sexually attracted to young children. Pedophiles can be anyone: rich or poor, young or old, of any race/ creed/ color, educated or not, and professional or not. Despite this wide array of potentially inclusive characteristics, pedophiles do often demonstrate similar attributes. Please note that these are just possible indicators, and you should never automatically assume that individuals with these indicators or characteristics are pedophiles. But noticing these characteristics in a person, in combination with questionable behavior, could be a red flag that someone may be a pedophile or sexual predator.
All parents want to protect their children from predators, but how do you do that when you don’t know how to spot one? Anyone can be a pedophile/ predator/ child molester, so identifying one can be difficult, especially because most of them are initially trusted by the children they abuse. Below, I’ll go over which behaviors and traits are red flags, what situations to avoid, and how to deter predators from targeting your child.
Understand that there is no one physical characteristic, appearance, profession, or personality type that all child predators share. They may appear to be charming, loving, and totally good-natured, while also adept at harboring predatory thoughts. That means that you can’t just dismiss out of hand the idea that someone you know could be a child predator. Anyone can turn out to be a pedophile or predator.
Most pedophiles are known to the children they abuse. Thirty percent of children who have been sexually abused were abused by a family member; that can include mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, stepparents, and so on. Sixty percent of children who have been sexually abused were abused by an adult that they knew, but who was not a family member. That means that only ten percent of sexually abused children were targeted by a total stranger. In most cases, the child predator turns out to be someone known to the child through school or some other common everyday activity, such as a neighbor, teacher, coach, clergy member, tutor, music instructor, or babysitter.
Traits of Pedophiles or Sexual Predators
-Majority are men over 30 years of age, regardless if victims are male or female
-Heterosexual and homosexual men are equally likely to be child molesters
-Notion that homosexual men are more likely to be child molesters is completely false
-Female child predators are more likely to abuse boys than girls
-Often single and/ or with few friends
-Some have mental illness, such as a mood or personality disorder
-Many have a history of physical and/ or sexual abuse in their own past
Behaviors of Pedophiles or Sexual Predators
-Display more interest in children than adults -May have a job or volunteer in a position allowing them unsupervised access to a child
-Will contrive other ways to spend time with children (act as helpful neighbor or coach)
-Tend to talk about or treat children as though they are adults
-May refer to a child as they would refer to an adult friend or lover
-Often say they love all children or feel as though they are still children
-May prefer children nearing puberty who are curious about sex but sexually inexperienced
-Common for the pedophile to be developing a long list of potential victims at any one time
-Many believe their proclivities aren’t wrong: it’s healthy for the child to have sex with them
-Almost all pedophiles have a pornography collection, which they protect at all costs
-Many predators also collect “souvenirs” from their victims, which are also very cherished
Other Noteworthy Characteristics
Look for signs of grooming. The term “grooming” refers to the process that the child predator undertakes in order to gain a child’s trust, and sometimes the parents’ trust as well. Over the course of months, or even years, a pedophile will become an increasingly trusted friend of the family; they will likely offer to babysit, take the child shopping or on trips, or spend time with the child in any number of ways. Many child predators won’t actually begin abusing a child until full trust has been gained; this exhibition of patience and restraint is unnerving in the grand scheme of things.
Child predators look for children who are most vulnerable to their tactics, whether they are shy, withdrawn, handicapped, lacking emotional support, come from a broken, dysfunctional, and/ or underprivileged home, come from a single parent home lacking supervision, or just aren’t getting enough attention at home. Pedophiles work to master their manipulative skills and unleash them on these vulnerable children by first becoming their friend; this quickly builds the child’s sense of self-esteem and brings them closer to the predator. The pedophile may refer to the child as special or mature, which appeals to their need to be heard and understood. They basically strive to give the child whatever is lacking in their home. This sounds altruistic, but in reality, it’s just another empty ploy, used by the predator to distance the victim from their family and draw them nearer to them. Often, the next step is to entice them with adult activities, like looking at sexually explicit pictures and magazines and watching x-rated movies.
Pedophiles and predators don’t only need to earn the trust of their mark; they must also work very hard to convince parents that they are a nice, responsible person and capable of supervising their child or children in their absence. They may make it seem like they’re doing the parent(s) a favor by watching them or taking them out, “Oh, I don’t mind taking little Johnny to get an ice cream cone and then to the park, that way you can just relax and put your feet up for awhile.” This is how a child predator manipulates parents, instills a false sense of security, and gains their trust. Pedophiles will foster a close relationship, and even forge a friendship, with the parent(s) of a mark in order to get close to that child. That friendship with the parent(s) is just the ticket to get the predator through that front door. Once inside the home, they have many opportunities to manipulate the children and use guilt, fear, and love to confuse them. If the child’s parent(s) works, they may offer after school babysitting or tutoring, and this gives them the private time needed to abuse the child.
Pedophiles often refer to children in angelic terms; they use descriptive words like innocent, heavenly, divine, angel, pure, and other words that may describe children, but seem inappropriate and/ or exaggerated. They may also fixate on a specific feature on a child’s face or body, and talk incessantly about it, making unusual and age inappropriate comments like, “Oh, that baby girl has the prettiest lips I’ve ever seen, they look so soft, and they’re the perfect shade of pink,” or “Wow…she’s going to be really hot when she grows up and fills out,” or “I’ll bet she’s going to grow up to be a real tease, ya know what I mean?” These are examples of how pedophiles and predators sexually objectify children, by speaking to or about them in a way that is not age appropriate and is not acceptable.
A pedophile will often use a range of games, tricks, and activities to gain the trust of and/ or deceive a child. One of the predator’s main goals is to make sure the child won’t tell anyone about the inappropriate contact. What they do or say to ensure this silence depends on the age of the victim. For younger children, they may suggest a pact of secrecy; secrets are valuable to most kids, because they’re seen as something very “grown up” or “adult” and a source of power as well. For older children, the predator may threaten their victim, warning them that nobody would believe them if they told, and that people would make fun of them, and that they would lose all their friends if they told. In rare cases, the predator may even threaten bodily harm. Some predators just don’t care if the world knows what they’re doing; they feel above everyone else, like nobody and nothing can touch them, a la Jeffrey Epstein. As the relationship progresses, they incorporate some sexually explicit games and activities like tickling, fondling, kissing, and touching. The predator will behave in a sexually suggestive way, and have no issue exposing a child to pornographic material, bribing the target child, flattering them, and then worst of all, showing them affection and love. Be aware that all of these tactics are ultimately used to confuse your child and isolate them from you.
Now that you know some general traits of pedophiles and predators as well as some behaviors to be aware of and look out for, let’s move on to protecting your child from predators.
How to Protect your Child(ren)
One of the first things you can and should do is find out if, and how many, sex offenders live in your neighborhood. There are subscription services that show you everything about the offenders and then send you updates with alerts when new sex offenders are released from jail and/ or if a registered sex offender moves near you. But, unless you need all the bells and whistles for some reason, you can always go to one of several free sites that will allow you to search a sex offender database by zip code, neighborhood, and by offender name if you suspect someone specific of being a sex offender. Here is my disclaimer: while it’s good to be aware of potential predators, realize that it is illegal to endeavor to take any kind of action against registered sex offenders.
Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Website
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement Sexual Offenders and Predators Search https://offender.fdle.state.fl.us/offender/sops/home.jsf
Another way to protect your child is to supervise their extracurricular activities. Being as involved as possible in your child’s life is the best way to guard against child predators. They will look for a child who is vulnerable and who isn’t getting a lot of attention from his or her parents, and they will cozy up to them, and then will do everything in their power to convince the parents that they are of no danger to their child. Show up at sporting games, practices and rehearsals, chaperone field trips and all other trips out, and spend time getting to know the adults in your child’s life. Make it obvious to everyone that you’re an involved and present parent. If for some reason you can’t be there for a trip or other outing, make sure that at least two adults you know well will be chaperoning the trip. Don’t ever leave your child alone with adults that you don’t know well. Remember that rule even goes for relatives too, as they can also pose a threat. The key here is to be as present as possible.
Set up a nanny cam if you hire a babysitter. Obviously, there will be times when you won’t be able to be present, so use other tools to make sure your child is safe. Set up hidden cameras in your home so that inappropriate activity will be detected. No matter how well you think you know someone, you always need to take precautions for your child’s safety.
Teach your child about staying safe online. Make sure your child knows that predators often pose as children or teenagers in order to lure children in. Monitor your child’s use of the internet, keeping rules in place to limit their “chat” time. Have regular discussions with your child about whom he or she is communicating with online. Be sure your child knows to never ever give out your address or phone number, or send any pictures to a person they met online; and that they must not ever meet someone in real life that they’ve only communicated online with. As a parent, you must know that children are often very sneaky and secretive about online behavior, especially when encouraged by others to keep secrets, so you’ll need to be vigilant about staying involved in your child’s online activity.
Make sure your child is feeling emotionally supported. Since children who don’t get a lot of attention are especially vulnerable to predators, make sure you are spending a lot of time with your child and that he or she feels supported. Take the time to talk to your child every day and work toward building an open, trusting relationship. Child predators will always ask, or demand, that their marks keep their secrets from their parents. Ensure that your children understand that if a person has asked them to keep a secret from you, it’s because they know what they’re doing is wrong. Express ongoing interest in all of your child’s activities, including schoolwork, extracurriculars, and hobbies; and let your child know that he or she can tell you anything, and that you’re always willing to talk.
Teach your child to recognize inappropriate touching. Many parents use the “good touch, bad touch, secret touch” method. It involves teaching your child that there are some appropriate touches, like pats on the back or high fives; there are some unwelcome or “bad’ touches, like hits or kicks; and there are also secret touches, which are touches that the child is told to keep a secret. Use this method to teach your child that two types of touches aren’t good, and if and when these touches happen, he or she should tell you immediately, even if the person touching them tells them that they can’t or shouldn’t tell. Teach your child that no one is allowed to touch him or her in private areas, and that they are not to touch anyone in their private areas. Many parents define private areas as those that would be covered by a bathing suit. Children also need to know that an adult should never ask a child to touch their own private areas or to touch anyone else’s private areas, and if someone tries to touch them or tells them to touch someone else, tell your child to say “no” and walk away. And again, reinforce the directive of telling them to come to you immediately if someone touches them the wrong way.
Recognize when something is out of sync with your child. If you notice that your child is acting differently for no obvious reason, pursue the issue to find out what’s wrong. Regularly asking your child questions about their day, including asking whether any “good,” “bad,” or “secret” touches happened that day, will help open the lines of communication and create an important daily dialog. If your child tells you that he or she was touched inappropriately or doesn’t trust an adult, never summarily dismiss it. Always trust your child first. Along those same lines, never dismiss a child’s claims just because the adult in question is a valued member of society or appears incapable of such things. That’s exactly what a predator or pedophile wants, it’s their stock in trade. They’re counting on adults not listening to child victims so that they can continue to get away with molesting them.
By age 12, kids should already have gotten basic sex education explained by their parents, including what everything is called, what it does, and how it works. Parents explaining it all to their kids themselves will prevent a predatory teacher or friend from misleading them about sex for their own nefarious purposes. Make sure your child already knows everything they need to know about what’s what and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, before they are taught very different lessons and definitions through rumor and innuendo discussed on the monkey bars or over ham and cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria.
A child aged 14 and under may not recognize that there’s a difference between a grumpy teacher giving extra homework and a strange acting teacher that insists on kissing them on the cheek before leaving the room. They can’t really differentiate, because at this age, they simply file both of these things in their brain under ‘annoying.’ So if your child tells you vague stories about the teacher making sex jokes or touching them, or being ‘annoying’ and asking all kinds of ‘private stuff,’ you must consider the possibility that there might be something hinky going on. When and if a child mentions that their teacher is acting strangely, asking about their family and siblings, making them uncomfortable by grilling them for private information, and/ or is pushing for pictures, you must guide that child, and tell them how to react to, and deal with, these ‘annoying’ things.
But I cannot stress enough that you must be realistic in your approach! Telling your kids to run away screaming bloody murder if the teacher touches their back, or telling them to yell ‘no!!’ and smack the teacher’s hand away if an innocent touch grazes a shoulder as the teacher walks down the rows of desks in the classroom. Those reactions will not help the situation for several reasons. First of all, chances are that they won’t hit a teacher under any circumstances, but they surely won’t do so if that teacher is actually and truly grooming them, all while filling their head with smooth assurances that they’re a good guy, on their side, and only there to help them.
So, what’s a parent to do if they suspect something’s hinky, but have no concrete proof? If the child is age 14 and under, there are a couple of possibilities to consider. The first one is to instruct the child that if this person touches them, or asks questions or makes suggestions that makes them feel uncomfortable, that they should tell this person that they have told their parents about this issue (of inappropriate touching or making them uncomfortable with questions or whatever the case may be) and that their parents weren’t happy to hear about it. This would definitely take some serious chutzpah on the child’s part, but I think it would also empower them, and that’s never a bad thing. The second option would be to have the child deliver a message to the person that touches them, or asks questions and makes suggestions that makes them feel uncomfortable. One of the parents would create the message by getting a piece of paper and jotting a quick note on it; it should simply say ‘Stop touching my son/ daughter, Johnny Smith/ Jenny Smith’ or ‘Please stop asking my son/ daughter, Johnny Smith/ Jenny Smith so many questions, as they make him/ her very uncomfortable’ or whatever the issue may be. Then finish the note with the date and the parent’s autograph. Then the parent can put the signed note in an envelope and give it to their child, and instruct them that they are to give the envelope to the person who is touching them inappropriately, at the time they are touching them inappropriately, despite being asked to stop; or give the envelope to the person who is asking them questions and making suggestions that make them uncomfortable, at the time they are making them uncomfortable, despite being asked to stop. It is important to make sure the child gives the note to this person when they are red handedly doing what they have asked them to stop doing. This can be a very tricky situation, so make sure to give this a lot of thought. Keep in mind that employing one of these two tactics will only have a positive effect if you are absolutely sure that this person is ignoring a child’s personal boundaries and going too far with touching inappropriately or asking questions and making suggestions that make the child uncomfortable, all despite being asked to stop. You must be sure that this is a deliberate act of a magnitude that is unacceptable. One impulsive hand on the shoulder doesn’t meet the criteria to qualify here.
Remember that the most important thing you can do to protect your child is to pay attention to them and really listen when they speak. Keep the lines of communication open, let them know you’re on their side, assess their needs and desires, talk to them, and basically, just be the best parent you can possibly be. The bottom line is that if you don’t pay attention to your child, someone else will.
These days, it seems like pedophiles and predators really have the odds stacked in their favor; they get away too easily due to lack of evidence, and even when they are caught and jailed, they get out early for good behavior. One factor that works against the pedophile is that eventually, the children they molested will grow up and recall the events that occurred, and hopefully they will report them. Often, pedophiles and predators are not brought to justice until such time occurs, and even then, they get off far too lightly. That makes victims even angrier, as they feel like they are victimized twice- first by the predator, and then again by the justice system. More than anything, victims of pedophiles and sexual predators want to protect other children from the same fate that befell them.
Don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel for tons of interesting lectures, and be sure to hit that subscribe button. If you liked this blog and found it insightful, please pass it along to family and friends, especially if they care for children. And as always, my book, Tales from the Couch has lots of patient stories and great information; you can find it on Amazon.com.Learn More
The 15 Scariest Mental Disorders of All Time
Imagine having a mental disorder that makes you believe that you are a cow; or another that you’ve somehow become the walking dead. Pretty freaking scary, eh? Well, while relatively rare, these disorders are all too real.
Worldwide, 450 million people suffer from mental illness, with one in four families affected in the United States alone. While some mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, can occur organically, others are the result of brain trauma or other degenerative neurological or mental processes. Look, having any mental illness can be scary, but there are some disorders that are especially terrifying. Below, I’ve described the 15 scariest mental disorders of all time.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome
In 1865, English author Lewis Carroll wrote the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, commonly shortened to ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre, (seriously, who knew they even had a nonsense genre?) it is the tale of an unfortunate young girl named Alice, who falls through a rabbit hole into a subterranean fantasy world populated by odd, anthropomorphic creatures. That’s your vocabulary word for the week… anthropormorphic. Popular belief is that Carroll was tripping when he penned it. Regardless if that’s true or not, what is true is that one of Alice’s more bizarre experiences shares its characteristics with a very scary mental disorder. Also known as Todd Syndrome, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome causes one’s surroundings to appear distorted. Remember when Alice suddenly grows taller and then finds she’s too tall for the house she’s standing in? In an eerily similar fashion, people with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome will hear sounds either quieter or louder than they actually are, see objects larger or smaller than what they are in reality, and even lose sense of accurate velocity or textures they touch. Described as an LSD trip without the euphoria, this terrifying disorder alters one’s perception of their own body image and proportions. Fortunately, this syndrome is extremely rare, and in most cases affects people in their 20’s who have a brain tumor or history of drug use. If you need yet another reason to not do drugs… well, there ya go.
Alien Hand Syndrome
While most likely familiar from cheesy horror flicks, Alien Hand Syndrome isn’t limited to the fictional world of drive-in B movies. Those with this very scary, but equally rare mental disorder experience a complete loss of control of a hand or limb. The uncontrollable body part takes on a mind and will of its own, causing sufferers’ “alien” limbs to choke themselves or others, rip clothing off, or to viciously scratch themselves, to the point of drawing blood. Alien Hand Syndrome most often appears in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a degenerative brain disorder that leads to dementia and death, or as a result of brain surgery separating the brain’s two hemispheres. Unfortunately, no cure exists for Alien Hand Syndrome, and those affected by it are often left to keep their hands constantly occupied or use their other hand to control the alien hand. That last one actually sounds even worse- one unaffected arm fighting against the affected arm that’s trying to tear into the person’s own flesh. Yikes.
Also known as Body Integrity Disorder and Amputee Identity Disorder, Apotemnophilia is a neurological disorder characterized by the overwhelming desire to amputate or damage healthy parts of the body. I recall a woman with Apotemnophilia making worldwide news ages ago when she fought with her HMO to cover the amputation of one of her otherwise healthy legs. Good luck; they don’t even cover flu shots. I remember I was pretty shocked that she found a surgeon to agree to do the amputation in the first place, as it seemed to me that might violate that little thing called the Hippocratic Oath us docs took when we got our medical degrees, specifically that part about ‘do no harm’… and sparked a debate about the ethical dilemma of treating or “curing” a psychiatric disorder by creating what is essentially a physical disability. Though not a whole heck of a lot is known about this strangely terrifying disorder, it is believed to be associated with damage to the right parietal lobe of the brain. Because the vast majority of surgeons will not amputate healthy limbs based purely upon patient request, some sufferers of Apotemnophilia feel forced to amputate on their own, which of course is a horrifying scenario. Of those who have convinced a surgeon to amputate the affected limb, most say they are quite happy with their decision even after the fact.
Those who suffer from the very rare- but very scary- mental disorder Boanthropy believe they are cows, and usually even go so far as to behave as such. Sometimes people with Boanthropy are even found in fields with cows, walking on all fours and chewing grass as if they were a true member of the herd. When found in the company of real cows, and doing what real cows do, people with Boanthropy don’t seem to know what they’re doing when they’re doing it. This apparently universal finding has led researchers in the know to believe that this odd mental disorder is brought on by possible post-hypnotic suggestion, or that it is a consequence of dreaming or a sleep disturbance, sort of kin to somnambulism, aka sleepwalking. I can buy the sleepwalking thing. I have a patient that is a lifelong sleepwalker who sleep-eats, sleep-cleans, sleep-cooks, sleep-destroys, sleep-online-shops, sleep-everythings. Some mornings she wakes up to very unpleasant findings of the house in total disarray, electronics dismantled and improperly and ridiculously fashioned together, every piece of furniture moved or a sink full of dishes and pots and pans with dried up food in them. Before setting up prevention measures, she even had single episodes of adult sleep-driving, and even sleep-biking at (eek!) age 9. In the middle of the night, her mother awoke to what she thought was the big garage door opening, and when she went to check, she saw her coasting out of the driveway on her bright yellow bike, heading right toward a very busy highway. She always has zero recall of the events afterwards. If she can do all of that while essentially sleeping, it would be comparatively easy to wander out to a pasture on all fours and stick around to munch on some grass. Curiously, it is believed that Boanthropy is even referred to in the Bible, as King Nebuchadnezzar is described as being “driven from men and did eat grass as oxen.” Or was it King Nemoochadnezzar? No? Okay, moooving on…
Named after Joseph Capgras, a French psychiatrist who was fascinated by the effective illusion of doubles, Capras Delusion is a debilitating mental disorder in which a person believes that the people around them have been replaced by imposters. As if that’s not bad enough, these imposters are usually thought to be planning to harm the sufferer. It really sounds like a bad Tom Cruise movie. Oh, wait; that’s redundant. Anyhoo, in one case, a 74-year-old woman with Capgras Delusion began to believe that her husband had been replaced with an identical looking imposter who was out to hurt her. Fortunately, Capgras Delusion is relatively rare, and is most often seen after trauma to the brain, or in those who have been diagnosed with dementia, schizophrenia, or severe epilepsy.
Like people with Boanthropy, people suffering from Clinical Lycanthropy also believe they are able to turn into animals; but in this case, cows are typically replaced with wolves and werewolves, though occasionally other types of animals are also included. Along with the belief that they can become wolves and werewolves, people with Clinical Lycanthropy also begin to act like the animal, and are often found living or hiding in forests and other wooded areas. Didn’t Tom Cruise play a werewolf in one of his many (vapid) movies? Or was it a vampire? Werewolf, vampire – tomato, potato.
In a case of life imitating art, or life inspiring art, we have Cotard Delusion. In this case, the ‘art’ is zombies, a la The Walking Dead. Oooh, scary! For ages, people have been fascinated by the walking dead. Cotard Delusion is a frightening mental disorder that causes the sufferer to believe that they are literally the walking dead, or in some cases, that they are a ghost, and that their body is decaying and/or they’ve lost all of their internal organs and blood. The feeling of having a rotting body is generally the most prevalent part of the delusion, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that most patients with Cotard Delusion also experience severe depression. In some cases, the delusion actually causes sufferers to starve themselves to death. This terrifying disorder was first described in 1880 by neurologist Jules Cotard, but fortunately, Cotard’s Delusion, like good zombie movies, has proven to be extremely rare. The most well-known case of Cotard Delusion actually occurred in Haiti, circa 1980’s, where a man was absolutely convinced that he had previously died of AIDS and was actually sent to hell, and was then damned to forever walk the earth as a zombie in a sort of pennance to atone for his sins.
Diogenes Syndrome is a very exotic name for the mental disorder commonly referred to as simply “hoarding,” and it is one of the most misunderstood mental disorders. Named after the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (who was, ironically, a minimalist), this syndrome is usually characterized by the overwhelming desire to collect seemingly random items, to which an emotional attachment is rapidly formed. In addition to uncontrollable hoarding, those with Diogenes Syndrome often exhibit extreme self neglect, apathy towards themselves or others, social withdrawal, and no shame for their habits. It is very common among the elderly, those with dementia, and people who have at some point in their lives been abandoned or who have lacked a stable home environment. This is likely because ‘stuff’ never hurts you or leaves you, though most people with the disorder are unlikely to be able to make that connection. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, this disorder is much more common than some of the others I’ve mentioned here.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is the mental disorder that used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Another disorder that has inspired a myriad of novels, movies, and television shows, DID is extremely misunderstood. Generally, people who suffer from DID often have 2-3 different identities, but there are more extreme cases where they have double digit numbers of identities. There was a “reality” show a few years ago that centered on a young mother of two that supposedly had like 32 distinct personalities. All of them had names and ranged from a five-year-old child to an old grandpa; and according to her, a few of them were homosexual while the rest were not, so she was required to be bisexual. She claimed that many of the personalities knew everything about all of the others, and they would get mad at or make fun of the others at various times. What’s more, she would “ask” other personalities to come forward so that producers could ask them questions for the camera’s sake, and her voice and mannerisms changed, depending on the different characteristics of the personalities. It was all pretty difficult to buy to be honest, because I’ve seen a lot of people with DID, and none seemed like they were having as much fun with their illness as she did. In true DID cases, sufferers routinely cycle through their personalities, and can remain as one identity for a matter of hours or for as long as multiple years at a time. They can switch identities at any time and without warning, and it’s often nearly impossible to convince someone with DID that they actually have the disorder, and that they need to take medications for it. For all of these reasons, people with Dissociative Identity Disorder are often unable to function appropriately in society or live typical lives, and therefore, many commonly live in psychiatric institutions, where their condition and their requisite medications can be closely monitored.
Most people cringe at the first sniffle indicating a potential cold or illness, especially these days, but not those with Factitious Disorder. This scary mental disorder is characterized by an obsession with being sick. In fact, most people with Factitious Disorder intentionally make themselves ill in order to receive treatment; and this is what makes it different than hypochondria, a condition where people blow mild symptoms into something they aren’t, kind of like if you cough once and automatically think you have covid-19. Sometimes in Factitious Disorder, people will simply pretend to be ill, a ruse which includes elaborate stories, long lists of symptoms, doctor shopping, and jumping from hospital to hospital. Such an obsession with sickness often stems from past trauma or a previous genuinely serious illness. It affects less than .5% of the general population, and while there’s no cure, psychotherapy is often helpful in limiting the disorder.
Imagine craving the taste of a book or wanting to have sex with a car. That’s reality for those affected by Kluver-Bucy Syndrome, a mental disorder typically characterized by memory loss, the desire to eat inedible objects, and sexual attraction to inanimate objects such as automobiles. I’ve seen a television documentary that featured people with strange fetishes, and they had two British guys that were sexually attracted to their cars. They gave them names and described their curves in the same manner that some men describe women. While one guy (supposedly) limited it to “just” caressing his car, the other actually also made out with his car; I’m talking about tongue and everything. Talk about different strokes! Because of the memory loss, not surprisingly, people with Kluver-Bucy Syndrome often have trouble recognizing objects or people that should be familiar. They also exhibit symptoms of Pica, which is the compulsion to eat inedible objects. The same wierd fetish documentary featured two young women that were “addicted” to eating weird stuff; one routinely ate her sofa cushions. She actually pulled the foam apart into bite sized pieces and ate them, many times a day. She became so used to doing so that she would get anxious if she went too long without eating it, so she started having to bring pieces of her sofa with her to work. I’m guessing she didn’t have to worry about co-workers stealing her food. She had started eating the cusions so long ago that she was actually on her second couch. Her family was so concerned about the potential medical ramifications of eating couch cushions that they made her see a gastro doc, who thought he was being punked when he asked why she was there. After imaging studies, she was in fact diagnosed with some intestinal issues and told to stop eating couch cushions, but the desire was too great for her to cease. She’s probably on her fourth couch by now. The other girl actually loved eating powder laundry detergent. She described the taste in the same dreamily excited way a foodie describes a chef’s special dish du jour. This terrifyingly odd mental disorder is difficult to diagnose, and seems to be the result of severe injury to the brain’s temporal lobe. Unfortunately, there is not a cure for Kluver-Bucy Syndrome and sufferers are typically affected for the rest of their lives.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Though it’s widely heard of and often mocked, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is rarely well understood. OCD manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is most often characterized by immense fear and anxiety, which is accompanied by recurring thoughts of worry. It’s only through the repetition of tasks, including the well-known obsession with cleanliness, that sufferers of OCD are able to find relief from such overwhelming feelings. To make matters worse, those with OCD are often entirely aware that their fears are irrational, but that realization alone actually brings about a new cycle of anxiety. OCD affects approximately 1% of the population, and though scientists are unsure of the exact cause, it is thought that chemicals in the brain are a major contributing factor. I’ve discussed OCD and recounted OCD patient stories many times in this blog and in my book, Tales from the Couch.
Paris Syndrome is an extremely odd but temporary mental disorder that causes one to become completely overwhelmed while visiting the city of Paris. Stranger still, it seems to be most common among Japanese travelers. Of the approximately 6 million Japanese visitors to Paris each year, one to two dozen of them experience the overwhelming anxiety, depersonalization, derealization, persecutory ideas, hallucinations, and acute delusions that characterize Paris Syndrome. Despite the seriousness of the symptoms, doctors can only guess as to what causes this rare and temporary affliction. Because most people who experience Paris Syndrome do not have a history of mental illness, the leading thought is that this scary neurological disorder is triggered by the language barrier, physical and mental exhaustion, and the reality of Paris as compared to the idealized version. Slam! I’ll bet the Paris Tourism Board hates to hear about this one! Huh houn, wee wee monsieur.
The Reduplicative Amnesia diagnosis was first used in 1903 by neurologist Arnold Pick, when he described a patient with a diagnosis of what we know today as Alzheimer’s Disease. It is actually very similar to Capgras Syndrome, in that it involves duplicates, but instead of believing that people are duplicates, people with Reduplicative Amnesia believe that a location has been duplicated. This belief manifests itself in many ways, but always includes the sufferer being convinced that a location exists in two places at the same time. Today, it is most often seen in patients with tumors, dementia, brain injury, or other psychiatric disorders.
Stendahl Syndrome is a very unusual psychosomatic illness; but fortunately, it appears to be only temporary. The syndrome occurs when the sufferer is exposed to a large amount of art in one place, or is spending time immersed in another environment characterized by extreme beauty; probably one of those places that “takes your breath away.” Those who experience this scarily weird mental disorder report sudden onset of rapid heartbeat, overwhelming anxiety, confusion, dizziness, and even hallucinations. It actually sounds a lot like a panic attack to moi. Stendahl Syndrome is named after the 19th century French author who described in detail his experience after an 1817 trip to Florence, which is evidently a beautiful place. I have it on good authority that Stendahl Syndrome has never happened to any visitor to Paris, which, oddly enough is Stendahl’s country of origin.
So, we’ve learned a lot today: that there is a nonsense literary genre, that there are a bunch of freaky and frightening mental disorders out there, that some people might need to look up the word anthropormorphic, that illicit drugs are bad for yet another reason, that a lot of terrible B movies are actually based on some pretty obscure mental disorders, that people with Boanthropy probably get a lot of fiber in their diet, that the lives of people with Capras Delusion sound a lot like a bad Tom Cruise movie, that the term “bad Tom Cruise movie” is redundant, that Tom Cruise probably has Clinical Lycanthropy, that Tom Cruise is a tool, oops, sorry, everyone already knew that. We also learned that there is no longer such thing as Multiple Personality Disorder; it is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, that Kluver-Bucy Syndrome is threatening to couches, and that if you have Kluver-Bucy Syndrome, co-workers will never steal your lunch. We learned that Japanese tourists hate Paris, and that Stendahl Syndrome never happens there. And we learned lots of other cool stuff, but that if you have so much stuff that you can’t walk through your house you likely have Diogenes Syndrome, probably because you have a deep seated knowledge that stuff never hurts you or leaves you.
Please check out my videos on YouTube- better yet, hit that subscribe button, and share them with folks. And as always, my book, Tales from the Couch has lots more information and patient stories on various psychiatric diagnoses and is available on Amazon and in the office. Be well, everyone!Learn More
The majority of my practice is made up of fairly young people, so I’m very well aware of what makes them tick. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a definite trend of increasing unhappiness, a dissatisfaction with life. It’s enough to where I’ve begun unofficially gathering data on the phenomenon and formulating some conclusions based on hundreds of hours listening to them, and I’ve come up with a set of circumstances and reasons why I believe they aren’t happy. I’m going to share them with you so that you might better understand them. Why is it important? Why should you care? Well, aside from the fact that they may be your sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, or the friends of same, these are the future leaders of our country, the people who are going to be running things when people of my age are sitting in rocking chairs on porches or rotting away in some old folks home. Sad but true. So, why are young Americans so unhappy? In my opinion, the overarching theme is that the institutions and/ or systems that are meant to guide and give direction are essentially failing to do so, and that leaves this group adrift and rudderless. Below is a listing of these institutions and systems, along with an explanation of the issue(s).
Social media: I have discussed the “evils” of social media many times in other blogs and videos, but there is a definite correlation between the amount of time that the average young American spends on social media and depression and anxiety. Believe it or not, that number is six hours per day. That’s the average amount of time spent on social media daily. Studies have shown that anything north of two hours a day is linked to depression and anxiety. As it pertains to this blog, I think the real issue with social media is that it causes loneliness. When you are only electronically connected with someone, you are not actually with that person…you are actually alone. Loneliness is also a by-product of gaming, web surfing, video watching, video sharing, texting, e-mailing, etc. These are solitary pursuits, often leaving users feeling empty.
Patriotism: We now find ourselves in a position where our confidence in our government and its leaders is in serious decline. We have little to no faith in the powers that be, the officials running our country. As a result, the level of patriotism in our country is nowhere near what it was one generation ago. There is little belief in the “American way” and the power of the “red, white, and blue,” not just in the eyes of many Americans, but even worse, in the eyes of people around the globe. One generation ago, the US used to be respected, even feared, as a superpower. These days, the US is a veritable laughing stock, not respected nor feared. For young Americans, this engenders a sense of chaos, a distinct lack of confidence, and mistrust. The government is not fulfilling its role to help guide us, give us meaning, direction, and purpose; or a sense of belonging to something bigger.
Religion: Today, people are much less involved in organized religion as they used to be. The church used to be a pillar in the community, the place where you saw your neighbors and friends every Sunday morning. Today, churches are often a hotbed of controversy and even scandal. They are no longer sacred places of reverence, no longerinstitutions that establish guiding principles and give people direction. Organized religions and churches are now sources of mistrust and outdated principles in the eyes of many young Americans, a far cry from even the previous generation. Today’s young people have an ingrained sense of mistrust of authority, especially when that authority attempts to dictate the way they “should” live their lives. Many are not willing to “confess” to a stranger that has not proved themselves, or turn their lives over to someone or something they cannot see or challenge. The church used to be a tether of sorts, creating a sense of community. That sense is absent in young Americans, so whether realized or not, they are more adrift than previous generations.
Family: Today, young people are marrying less often. Many don’t even subscribe to the ideology of monogamy for life, it is an archaic notion to them. The previous generation had their sexual revolution, but today’s young Americans are in the midst of a far different sexual revolution, one in which you may not even be the gender you were born into. Having children or being part of a family is no longer predicated on marriage for them; they don’t live their lives for a piece of paper, they live them for themselves and the people they love. Marriages are also happening much later in life, after personal goals like education or travel have been fulfilled. Today, the definition of family has changed drastically from that of the previous generations, and it is a fluid definition, not set in stone as masculine father married to feminine mother that are parents to 2.5 biological offspring. The value of having a family is less than the value of having a fulfilled and accomplished life, whatever that may mean or look like to the individual. Today’s young Americans make their own definitions. Previous generations had faith in the institutions of marriage and family, and that faith grounded them. Many young Americans express to me that they don’t feel anchored or rooted in their personal lives, and I believe it’s because of their negative thoughts about marriage and family. Life is often a team sport, so free agents may be left out in the cold.
Employment security: Individuals from previous generations expected to establish a secure career path, and invest themselves in a company where the boss knows their name. They would start in one position and expect to work hard to move up through the ranks for forty years, and then get the gold watch and retire with a pension. That is decidedly not the case for young Americans today. For them, it’s all about taking jobs that make money now, not jobs that will make money five, ten, or fifteen years from now. They expect they will likely take a series of jobs; they are willing to follow the money. There is no career path or job security. Why? Technology. It’s a double edged sword. It advances our society, but it also dictates career obsolescence. Young people don’t know who will be able to stay in what kind of particular career for any length of time. So they do what works here and now, and they don’t count on having a future doing that same thing. They know that technology or corporate governance will probably erase that job, so they don’t invest themselves in it. They expect it will be outdated,outsourced, taken away by an algorithm or artificial intelligence, a robot, or novel software or methodology. Young Americans know they must make hay while the sun shines. They have no job security, no employer-employee loyalty, and they definitely don’t expect a gold watch. When I talk to young Americans, it’s almost an automatic ‘I‘m screwed attitude’ that I hear from them. It’s pretty clear that the lack of basic job security can lead to undue anxiety and even anger and depression in this group.
Heroism: It seems that heroism decreases with every generation. It used to be that people idolized movie stars in Hollywood and heroes in the sporting world; but young Americans see these people as false heroes. They are exposed as such on social media and in courtrooms across the country. They’re people who can memorize and spit back lines in a script, but they are anti-human beings on the inside. They are not real heroes. They are fabricated by Hollywood or idolized on a field simply because they can run fast, catch a ball, or hit hard. Those things don’t make them heroes, don’t make them deserving of idolatry. Look at O.J. Simpson, he got away with double murder because he was a football hero, and that blinded the jury. Or the recent college admissions scandals, where rich actors believed they were above the law and could afford to pay people to lie, cheat, and steal on their behalf in order to get their kids into a specific college. In reality, they’re dirtbags with more money than scruples. Young Americans see through all of that kind of bs and don’t tolerate it, which is a good thing; but it also makes them jaded, which isn’t such a good thing.
Technology: As I mentioned before, technology is a double-edged sword. For all of its good, it also makes people outdated very quickly. It causes uncertainty to cloud our futures, and leads to complexity and chaos, because we do not know what’s going to happen next or how our livelihoods will be affected by the advances in technology. If you’re a cashier, a bank teller, a retail worker, a postal worker, a UPS driver…anxiety city. Earlier this month, the drug store CVS had a live test for delivery of medications during the coronavirus pamdemic via drone for a huge senior community in Orlando, a job that had employed humans. Evidently it was a great success. Even the practice of medicine is under threat of being replaced by algorithms. There is even an algorithm for the practice of radiology, which has the highest malpractice insurance rates, along with obstetrics. If radiology becomes algorithmic, then that affects insurance companies too. I guess no career path is an island. Think about Detroit- the car companies that all went automated. People were replaced by robotic machines that never get sick, don’t have unions, don’t take vacations, and don’t complain. It became a ghost town overnight. Young people almost need a crystal ball to make a decision on what to do for work, so they don’t think in the long term future, they take a job to make money now, whether they like it or not. They lack security, and that does affect their psyche.
News Media: The media used to be a trusted organization. When the news came on, previous generations watched and listened and believed. If it was stated or printed, it was so. Nobody trusts the media anymore, their opinions are bought by the highest bidder. It is so biased that if you watch it you are misinformed, but if you don’t watch it,you are ill-informed, so there’s just no way to win. These days, every news outlet has its own agenda, and damn if you can figure out what it is. Where previous generations believed that if it was in print or on the television it was true, today, young Americans have zero faith in the institution of media and news reporting. They take everything with a grain of salt, because they have to. Facts are no longer factual, and truth is no longer subject to reality.
University educational system: Young Americans see this for what it is…a biased, outdated system to give people a questionable education in return for saddling them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. They overcharge for an archaic teaching methodology, then pronounce graduates “educated.” Those graduates then enter the job market and find that surprise(!) they aren’t really prepared to work anywhere.
. Two year technical degrees are most definitely more appealing to young Americans these days, because at least they walk out of there certified in a trade, able to do something for someone somewhere. Our educational systems are a failure, in desperate need of an overhaul. They don’t do the vast majority of young Americans any justice at all.
Do you see a pattern here? All of these organizations and systems that are meant to give us direction, give us purpose, and set us up for the future, seem to be failing, becoming less important, less useful, or not worthy of our trust. We have no confidence that what our leaders are saying is worthwhile or applicable to our real life. As a result, we are generally more cynical. It is a precarious situation for young Americans, and there are no google maps to get from here to there or now to then. So I have some suggestions.
Dear Young Americans,
I’m sorry the world is basically stacked against you. Following are some suggestions on how to deal with the hand you’ve been dealt.
Be original. Create your own moral codes and live by them. Decide which relationships are most important to you, and build them up so as to make them permanent and impermiable. They are the most valuable things in your life. Treat them as such.
The place where you sleep at night is your home. The area surrounding it is your community. The area surrounding that is your environment. Your home, your community, and your environment are important. Always endeavour to make them a better place.
You do not require an organized religion or a brick-and-mortar church to live a spiritual life, to believethat there is something greater than you in the universe, or to be grateful to it.
Only you can decide what your work life will look like or what career direction is for you. The job you’re in does not have to dictate your path, it can be a stepping stone to the work life that you wishto create.
You must decide how to approach politics. Don’t let it entrap or bias you. Don’t deal in generalities, only in specifics. Decide what issues matter to you and work toward improving them.
Some part of your life must be dedicated to a charity or charities of your choice. It’s a two-for-one…by helping others we help ourselves, enriching our lives at the same time.
Understand the pitfalls of social media. It is a solitary pursuit, born and bearing of loneliness. In healthy measures, social media is a positive andessential part of life, educating us and expanding our horizons. Optimize the positives and eliminate the negatives, don’t overuse and abuse it.
Remember that by its very nature, life is constantly changing. As such, it must be reexamined andreevaluated on a continual basis.
Good luck. Make yourself proud of yourself.
Mark Agresti M.D.Learn More
The Truth About Gender Dysphoria
Gender dysphoria is basically a mismatch between a biological sexual assignment, i.e. the gender one is born into, and what gender they feel they are psychologically and desire to be physically. Until several years ago, it was termed “gender identity disorder,” but, for three reasons, I never liked that nomenclature: first, it was/ is not a disorder, second, the term ‘disorder’ was further stigmatizing to a group of people who frankly were already dealing with such huge stigma by simply existing, and third, the term ‘dysphoria’ is a more accurate term, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. So, good riddance to bad rubbish.
And speaking of rubbish, we’ve all heard people say how this “phenomena” is a “trend” and how “these young people think it’s cool to say they are something they’re not.” Can I just say, I’ve found that anything following “these young people…” is bound to be crap 99% of the time, and this is just another perfect example. A lot of people also say that “it’s a phase” and that kids will “grow out of it.” To be clear, GD is not acne or puberty or a shoe size. It is not a phase, not a growing pain, not a cool trend, and most certainly not a choice. But what it is, is a very confusing, very painful, very disturbing state of being, especially when first realized and explored. In my experience, the later in life that the realization happens, the greater the pain, ramifications, and complications that will manifest in the person’s life.
First awareness of gender dysphoria historically begins around the age of four, but can be even earlier. In some people, it might be more into early adolescence, and in a very small percentage, even into young adulthood, though I believe those are likely cases of severe repression and/ or denial. Regardless of the age, it is always very psychologically distressing to the person with GD and their parent(s)/ family, but for very different reasons that are age dependent: if a five-year-old has enough awareness to tell their parents about it, his/ her parents will react very differently than parents of a nineteen-year-old. It’s potentially the difference between the six-year-old maybe being ignored or hopefully going to a physician for discussion, and the nineteen-year-old possibly getting thrown out of the house. And of course the potential parental and/ or family reactions to the news vary widely across a huge spectrum, regardless of the age of awareness or realization; and those reactions can either encourage the process or forbid it, or anything in between.
Some people find it very difficult to believe (read: don’t) that a child of four could ever have the awareness of GD, or of being in the ‘wrong’ body, but they absolutely can. Let’s be clear, a four-year-old girl doesn’t look in the mirror and think “Gee, I hate this dress; I’d rather wear jeans. Hmmm, I must have gender dysphoria. I’ll tell the parental units, riiiight after I finish my chicken nuggets.” It doesn’t happen that way. GD is also not about little girls refusing tea parties in favor of tonka trucks or little boys preferring their sister’s tutus to GI Joes. If only it were actually that simple and easy to diagnose! In reality, gender dysphoria can be a confusing conglomerate of signs that can be very misleading. Depending on the age and psychological state of the child with GD, it may be less confusing and more acceptable to them, because younger well-adjusted kids typically have greater acceptance of things they feel but haven’t seen or had exposure to…nobody has tainted them, inoculated them with cynicism, self-doubt, or guile; in short, they’re innocent. If they’re of an age that Santa and the Tooth Fairy are real, how much of a stretch is it to honestly feel they belong in a different body? I know all the questions from listening to the parental/ familial perspective for years. They always wonder if their child is lying. The truth is that children under age ten to twelve-ish likely don’t even know about the existence of GD, much less enough to lie about it. And if they’re asking about older children, adolescents, or even young adults lying, I always wonder (and ask) why on earth anyone would want this, or intentionally insert themselves into this situation? Who would relish this scary, confusing, and troublesome state of being? The answer is no one. Parents exploring GD want to know when “it” happened, like it’s the big bang. They wonder aloud when a girl child is more Tom than just tomboy, what are the signs, and how do they recognize and read those signs? The problem is that they’re usually looking for proof in a situation that is inherently difficult to prove without a crystal ball and related accoutrements. I generally tell them to not try to read any signs; that it’s much better to simply listen when a child speaks. Invariably, it comes down to this: “But how does my child know they’re not the gender they were born, or that they’re in the wrong body? How does my daughter know she’s not a female/ my son know he’s not a male?” I always answer that question with a question: “How do you know you are a female/ are a male?” The answer is that you just know. It’s an inherent thing. Children more readily accept it because they don’t have all of the hang-ups that come as standard equipment with adulthood. But please don’t misunderstand, when I say that children more readily “accept” it, I don’t mean that little Johnny realizes he doesn’t belong in the body he was born in and then he skips off in bliss. Not at all. With gender dysphoria, there is plenty of angst to go around, and every person in the family gets a heaping helping. It is difficult on the person with GD because they were born, named, and recognized as one sex, but have always known they were supposed to be the other sex. It is difficult on the parents and on the family system, because someone who was born, named, and recognized as one sex, (seemingly) suddenly wants to be the other sex. And all of them must choose to adapt to it or fight it, neither of which are easy roads to hoe. And what seems to the parents and family to be a snap decision on the gender dysphoric person’s part is actually anything but; this knowledge came only after long and serious consideration and great internal debate, relative to, but regardless of, their age at the time. In any case, it’s an inherently difficult situation to adapt to for everyone, and that’s one of the main reasons why gender confirmation (aka gender reassignment) is a multiple years-long process, not an overnight thing. Incidentally, the preference was changed from gender ‘reassignment’ to gender ‘confirmation’ by leaders in the field because they (and people with GD) say it isn’t reassigning another sex to the person, it is actually and truly confirming the sex the person was meant to have been in the first place. But both terms are still used interchangeably for the most part.
The Harris Institute says 0.3-0.4% of the US population, approximately 1.3 million people, are affected by gender dysphoria. That’s a pretty significant number; certainly high enough to deserve better care than what’s primarily available. There are a couple centers of excellence with a few big-shot surgeons that handle confirmation surgeries currently in the US, but there really should be several more in strategic parts of the country. I treat about three to four patients with gender dysphoria a year, so figure approximately 100 total throughout my career. To put that into perspective, I’ve treated about 20,000 depressed/ bipolar patients and 8,000 to 10,000 schizophrenia patients. It doesn’t come very close comparatively, but it’s enough to say that I’ve definitely seen an increase in the last ten years or so. And as attitudes change and acceptance becomes more widespread, I expect that trend to continue. It may sound strange to say, but I hope those numbers do continue to go up, because the alternative is frightening…it means that more people with GD are suffering silently, being marginalized, either severely in denial or repressed, hopeless and suicidal, mutilating, and ultimately, opting for suicide rather than confronting the issue headlong. And that is simply unacceptable if we are to call ourselves an enlightened society in this day and age.
As hard as it is on the parents and family, the most difficult path is that of the individual with gender dysphoria. This goes back to my earlier reference of dysphoria being a more accurate term than identity disorder. The reason why is because of the presence of dysphoria in relation to one’s gender. Dysphoria is defined as a state of unease or a generalized feeling of dissatisfaction with life; in gender dysphoria, this state of unease and dissatisfaction is caused by one’s gender, of being born in and living in a body of the wrong gender.
Let’s take my patient Thomas, who preferred to be called Tommy. Born male, Tommy was thirteen, and had started puberty several months before his parents brought him to my office. They said they were concerned because he “had stopped eating recently for no reason.” That piqued my interest, because I had a thirteen-year-old son once upon a time, and he never stopped eating “for no reason.” So I performed a stat parentectomy and brought Tommy into my office. Appearance-wise, he looked like any regular thirteen year old, but psychically he looked down, troubled, and on edge. I asked him what was going on with the not eating thing, and at first, he looked like he was running through a list of answer options, i.e. lies, and was trying to decide which would get him out of here with the least fuss. I quickly added, “the truth, Tommy. You’re never going to be done with me until you tell me the truth and we work through it, so you might as well start now. I can assure you that whatever you tell me won’t shock me.” After a long breath, he wisely chose the truth and started talking. For length’s sake, I’ll paraphrase what he said: he had stopped eating because he had hoped to stop puberty, basically to starve it of nutrition to try to prevent it, because it was so painful for him to gain weight and take on male characteristics. He was so distressed to see facial hair, pubic hair, muscles developing, his penis enlarging, and his voice deepening. He said it was wrong, he had known it was wrong since he was three, that this feeling was one of his earliest memories. Obvi, I had a good idea where he was going, but I had to encourage him to be more specific, and I told him that he couldn’t mince words, that he needed to voice it in his own words; so after a couple of beats, he did. With a few tears, he pointed to his lap and told me that he didn’t belong in “this” body. I really felt for this kid. He went on, the words choking him, saying that every morning he gets up for school and goes to the bathroom, and he looks down and has a panic attack. If I live to be 112, I’ll never forget the next thing he said; he tried to just slide it in, but it made my blood run cold. He said that he was going to find a way to cut it off, that he’d cut it with a nail clipper, but he didn’t have the guts to really do it. I had to bite the inside of my cheek. Every once in a very, very, very great while, maybe three times in my career, for a split second, I’ve thought to myself, “I can’t do this right now.” Looking at Tommy, I had that thought right then. It passed quickly, but the mental picture of what he was describing hit me like a ton of bricks. I asked him if he still had those feelings, and he said that he just didn’t know what to do. That was too vague for me, and in any case, it didn’t answer my question. I needed to know if he was going to hurt himself. I told him that I was going to help him, but to do that, he had to be 100% honest with me. When he agreed that he would be, I asked him point blank if he was going to hurt himself, cut himself, or mutilate himself in any way. He said no, and I believed him. Tommy was clearly depressed; it was clear to me that this scared little kid had the weight of the world on his shoulders. In his mind, he was female; his body disagreed, but he knew with every fiber of his being that his body was wrong. He wanted to be female. He wanted a female voice, a female body, a female top and a female bottom, to match his female mind. For Tommy, it was not a trend, not a passing thought, not a stage, not a lie, not a ploy, and nothing he asked for. This female being in a male body was a condition, one he had suffered with his entire life. He said he hadn’t told his parents, that he didn’t know how. When I asked if he needed my help to do that, he said yes. Tommy’s was my last appointment before lunch, so I had some time. When I asked if he wanted to tell them now or next appointment, he said now. I was on board, so I went out to the waiting room and called them into my office.
Once Tommy’s parents made themselves comfortable, I explained to them everything that Tommy and I had talked about. Suffice it to say there was shock, disbelief, tears, and many questions. Tommy answered some and I took the rest. I explained all about the diagnosis of gender dysphoria and the reason Tommy had stopped eating. There were some protestations and some denial that I did my level best to dissuade, or, if I’m honest, maybe something more akin to shut down. All in all, they took it relatively well, or at least better than some parents have at any rate. I explained that there is a very proscribed path to follow, and I made it very clear that Tommy’s physical and psychological well being was very likely at stake. I told them that he was very anxious and depressed, and that I could treat him for those things, but that I suspected that the only way to make him better was to fix the underlying issue, the gender dysphoria, through hormonal and surgical means. That freaked them out, but they relaxed a little when I said that today’s appointment was only the first of many steps that would be taken before that could happen. I still needed to talk to Tommy a lot more, as well as the entire family, before finalizing any diagnosis. I told them that today was a good start, that I was very proud of Tommy, and that they should be too. I gave them my cell number and told them to call anytime if they needed anything and suggested they go home and keep the dialog going. We made a follow up appointment for two weeks. I shook Tommy’s hand, patted him on the shoulder, gave him my card with my cell number, and looked him in the eye and told him to call me if he needed to talk. He got the message and said he would. He looked like twenty pounds had been lifted off his shoulders. I was hoping that the communication trend would continue when they were back at home. Lots of parents say they’ll do something in my office, but then don’t follow through at home. I didn’t think that would happen in this case. I really hoped for Tommy’s sake that I was right, and that in two weeks they’d say that they were willing to start on the long road to exploring Tommy’s issues, potentially with a view toward gender confirmation surgery. In two weeks, I’d know if they were willing to allow us to explore that potential diagnosis.
I have had a fair number of patients like Tommy, including genetically male patients of similar age who have been sent to me after attempting suicide and/ or mutilating their penises in a misguided attempt to fix themselves, or at least make life more tolerable. Unfortunately, that is not uncommon. It’s a very sad situation for all of them, but especially heartbreaking for the ones that have no support from their parents; or worse, the ones whose parents chide them, scold them, or do anything within their power to try to “change” them or make them see “the error of their ways,” including horrible and illegal things that make decent people want to vomit. I have had young female patients who, when they get their periods, develop severe anxiety disorders. For eight to ten days a month, they have a painful reminder of everything that is “wrong” with them and the bodies they are trapped in. When they start to narrow at the waist and get the weight distribution of a woman, they become intensely alarmed and anxiety ridden; and when their breasts begin to develop, they band them up or they tie them up so severely that they form a band of deep bruising, connecting continents of black and blue contusions. And sadly, breast mutilation in genetic females with gender dysphoria is nearly as common as penile mutilation in genetic males with gender dysphoria. It’s a devastating fact that most people would rather not consider.
Most of my practice is young people, so patients with gender issues, unknown psych issues, or even undiagnosed GD come to my office when they’re usually 12-15 years of age, a time when they are doing everything in their power to block puberty because it is so deeply disturbing to them. When I speak to them about it, I find that they are not afraid of changing their sex, they are not afraid of having top surgery, or of having bottom surgery, which is a major procedure, a very painful one with a long recovery period. What they fear is living in the wrong body, disappointing their parents, and feeling the wrath of siblings, strangers, bullies, and anyone who disagrees with their choices or state of being. Gender dysphoria is the only psychiatric condition that can be cured through surgery rather than through psychiatric intervention. My job is to guide them and treat the depression, the anxiety, and the panic of the unchanged being. Once they are on the introduced hormones and have the confirmation surgery, they do much better. It’s the only psychiatric condition that is like a broken bone, once it’s fixed, it’s fixed…it can never be broken in the same place ever again. Once you confirm the patient’s gender with surgery and change their outward appearance to match the sense of self they have always felt inside, they are dramatically better. They are whole, and they will not break in that place ever again. It is an amazing metamorphosis, one I have been privileged to be a part of many times.
Now, what is involved in this process of diagnosis and surgical intervention of gender dysphoria? I can tell you that it’s a long road, and not an easy one. Basically, there is a long list of criteria required to move forward on the path toward gender confirmation surgery. To meet the psychological criteria, there must be a documented history of gender dysphoria by a psychiatrist for a minimum of six consecutive months. By the time 90% of my GD patients get to my office, they have been tormented by the issue for years, and they are beyond ready to disclose it and take any steps necessary to move forward. I always make sure that the patient’s pediatrician is on board, and that they’ve done labs to look at general blood cell counts and hormone levels, and I also make sure there’s nothing significant in the medical history that might be pertinent to potential diagnosis. Assuming I make a diagnosis of GD, genetic females are put on testosterone, and they develop male characteristics: facial hair, a male weight distribution pattern, increased muscle mass with exercise, and lower voice tone. Then in due time (but never soon enough for them) they start having surgeries. The earlier surgeries are typically mastectomy (aka “top surgery”) and various facial plastic procedures, i.e. mandible (jaw) implants to square off the face and chin implant to accentuate the profile. Some may decide to break from surgery at this point and live this way for a period of time. Eventually, most genetic females undergo “bottom surgery” to complete gender confirmation. This is where female tissue is surgically altered and converted into a penis with varying sensitivity and functionality. Once healed, there can be numerous revisions to improve aesthetics and achieve better function over a period of several years if the person so desires. There can even be surgeries to alter the length of vocal cords to change the pitch and tenor of the voice to sound more characteristically male.
Post diagnosis, genetic males are put on female hormones estradiol and micronized progesterone, and these decrease the male penis, testes, and the sperm product. There are other drugs that can be used to demasculinize male facial features. Then there is laser hair removal for the face and body, and hair implants to lower the hairline to appear more feminine. There are many plastics procedures to make the face less masculine and more feminine, such as narrowing the nose, shaving down the forehead, reducing the chin, reducing the ears, adding cheek implants, shaving down the Adam’s apple, and all sorts of injections and fillers to feminize the face. Breast implants, various body implants, and liposuction feminize the body shape, and there are millions of different facial peels, laser treatments, and lotions and potions to remove the ruddiness that’s more typical of male skin and feminize skin tone. There are many procedures regardless of gender change direction, so a team approach with everyone on board and on the same page, and with constant communication is critical.
As with many medical issues, the sooner you can start therapy, the better. Hormonal therapy in gender confirmation is no different. The sooner you put a GD patient on testosterone or on estradiol/ progesterone, the better the result will be. But before that can start, many things have to happen, and those things take time. First, if the patient with GD is sub-adult (which they usually are), the parent has to get them to a doctor, which means that the child has either told them what’s going on, or the parent notices that there’s a problem, as Tommy’s parents did. That all takes time. Then, the next step is either a pediatrician’s office, who runs tests and then sends the patient to me, or the parent brings the child directly to me for evaluation first. More often than not, the entire process begins in earnest in a psychiatrist’s office. My problem as a psychiatrist is that children of age 10, 11, 12 do not yet have fully formed brains, yet they are asking to make permanent changes to their sexual assignment; to go from a genetic boy to a girl, or genetic girl to a boy. It’s best to start hormone therapy at this age, I know that, but what if you’re wrong? The odds of being wrong are pretty low because of exhaustingly thorough therapeutic examination of the issue, and the fact that really no one pretends that they have this problem, it’s not a fad, not a lie, not cool, not fake, etc. That is all plain to see in these patients. They are suffering and in great emotional distress. Their psychiatric problems are not about having the actual sex confirmation surgery or taking on characteristics of the opposite sex. Their problems either surround not being able to tell their parents, or dealing with family issues, of their parents rejecting them, siblings who may reject them, bullies at school, and/ or being isolated and depressed in their skin, thinking about not having friends, etc. These individuals have much higher suicide rates. The rate of depression, anxiety, and panic disorder are dramatically higher as well. So for the patient with GD, we have to intervene with parental counselling, and we have to intervene with family therapy. The whole family, as a unit, needs to process the potential changes in gender assignment. And of course there must be a great deal of individual therapy to help the GD patient navigate the waters of the process. As I mentioned before, the least of their worries is the surgeries; more importantly, they must learn how to tell people about their status if they wish, and learn how to deal with other people’s reactions, and with society’s reactions as a whole. For example, being forced to use the wrong bathroom, one that does not go with their true internal gender. Or dealing with someone using the wrong pronoun, referring to them as sir or mister when they prefer miss or ma’am. Driver’s licenses list the genetic gender that doesn’t match their true gender. These things are all very painful, very traumatizing for a person with gender dysphoria. Every stage or every place where society labels someone male or female is distressing for people with gender dysphoria. Even after they’ve had confirmation surgery, it can be painful. Obviously, Social Security records and birth certificates always list the gender a person was born under. If they want to change it, it’s not easy. They need lawyers for practically everything, they have to threaten to sue to go to the right bathroom, to get records changed, every little thing. But these things are very important to them, so they often choose to do them, no matter the expense or pain involved. And how do they apply for a job? What gender do they check? Because if that job includes health insurance and life insurance, it all has to match up. They can’t have their genetic/ birth gender on one document and confirmed/ inside/ new gender on another one. And speaking of health insurance, you can pretty much forget them paying for any of it, so you better hope somebody is independently wealthy or wins the lottery, because you’re looking at about a quarter million to get through just the basic therapy, testing, meds, and surgeries. Then tack on a lot more for potential revisions and all of the necessary plastics surgeries and other refining procedures and upkeep.
As a psychiatrist, I am usually the first hoop to jump through. I treat GD patients for depression, anxiety, sleep problems, addictions, attempted mutilation trauma, attempted suicides, and the physical/ emotional/ sexual abuse they may go through, as most do have harrowing abuse histories. I give my stamp of approval to move them forward on the gender confirmation pathway, and continue to follow them throughout. As the person that sees them first and last, I have a front row seat to before and after, so I have seen that things get much better for patients as their sexual transition progresses. It sounds like it happens quickly, but it doesn’t; even all the approvals can take years to put together, and then there are often surgical waiting lists, as there are only a few super-specialists who do the most major part of the process. It also has to be a team approach, with every physician trusting each member of the team. On that team, you need psychiatric therapy for the individual, parents, and siblings. You need a pediatrician for general medical, a pediatric endocrinologist to monitor hormonal changes, urology and urology surgery to deal with the plumbing, specialty surgery to do the actual reassignment/ confirmation, along with plastic surgery of all sorts to deal with function and aesthetics, the list is never ending. And again, you have to go to a center of excellence to find all of these surgeons, because these super-specialists don’t grow on trees…you’ve gotta go to them, for every procedure and every follow-up visit. With so few centers and so few super-specialist surgeons, that involves a lot of time in the air…lots of frequent flier miles. We desperately need more surgical centers and more super-specialists, and we have to maintain the team approach to treating GD. Because the psychiatrist is usually the first hoop to jump through, they lead the team. They are the ones to say “I have thoroughly evaluated this patient, and I certify that they have gender dysphoria and believe that they require gender confirmation surgery.” It’s really not so easy; it’s one thing to confirm a diagnosis, but it’s quite another to say “I am going to lead this team, and I am confident that making this permanent surgical transition is the only path to psychological health for this person. I will work with them, their parents and siblings, separately and together, for the duration.” To say that to a group of ten plus physicians, all of whom are counting on that original diagnosis, putting themselves on the line legally and ethically is a big deal, and not one I take lightly. I have to be pretty secure in what I’m saying, and to be honest, it takes me a while before I’m willing to make that play. I am required to certify the circumstances of GD for a period of six months, but it takes me a lot longer than that. I hate to say it, and maybe I should do it in less time, but it takes me over a year of working with that patient before I’m ready to lay it all on the line with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. And patients get, ironically, well, very…impatient. Whenever I look back at my GD patients, I always think I should’ve pulled the trigger sooner. Sooner really is better in these cases, less traumatic, fewer mutilations borne of frustration, fewer attempted suicides, more effective hormone treatment, and with better final outcomes. I always say I’m going to shorten the time to diagnosis when I get the next case, but then I’m drawn in by an overabundance of caution. It’s not the worst thing ever, but maybe not the best? It’s really hard to say. Next time I have a GD patient, I’ll make a mental note to read this blog, and maybe that will decrease the length of time it takes for me to put my chips down on the GD diagnosis. A lot of it depends on the patient’s age of realization and their willingness, as well as their parent’s willingness, to undergo all of the therapy it takes to come to the diagnosis in the first place.
I’ve had a bunch of patients undergo these sexual reassignment/ confirmation surgeries, and I’ve had pre-op genetic males end up looking like post-op females and vice versa, and at every stage in between, so when they would come to see me during the process and would be in the waiting room, sometimes my secretaries wouldn’t recognize them. They would see a name they recognized on the chart, but sometimes not the face, which has led to some confusion…so these hormone therapies and procedures, when done well, can be very convincing. Over the years, some of these patients were thrilled when the girls up front didn’t recognize them! One such patient was Tommy. Remember him…the 13-year-old genetic boy I talked about earlier? Well, when her surgeries were all said and done, she looked amazing as a nearly 20-year-old woman. The day finally came when Tommy (she kept the nickname btw) caused a bunch of confusion with my secretaries. When she walked back into my office, she was smiling ear to ear because my secretaries didn’t have a clue who she was. It was pretty awesome to see, and I felt good being a part of something that was so clearly right. Tommy walked that long, and often dark, path to acceptance, and came out the other side beautifully, with all of her familial relationships intact. It doesn’t always happen that way. I’ve had patients who had to wait until they were out of their childhood homes because they were told they couldn’t have the surgery while they lived there. So they left as soon as possible. I recall even helping two GD patients emancipate themselves at 17 years old in order to get started that one year earlier. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual patient and the lengths they are willing and able to go to in order to feel comfortable in their own skin. As with any other aspect of life, we each have our own path to take, and I’m just privileged to be a guide.
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What are Personality Disorders?
An individual’s personality is a set of characteristics that defines how they perceive the world around them. It is made up of features that cause them to think, feel, and act in a particular way. Our style of behavior, how we react, our worldview, thoughts, feelings, and the way we interact in relationships are all part of what makes up our personality. Having a healthy personality enables a person to function in daily life. Everyone experiences stress at some time in life, but a healthy personality helps us to face the challenges and move on. Genetic make-up, biological factors, and environmental surroundings all help to shape personality. Personality makes each of us different…makes each of us an individual.
A personality disorder is officially described as “A deeply ingrained, inflexible pattern of relating, perceiving, and thinking that is serious enough to cause distress or impaired functioning.” In order to receive a diagnosis of a personality disorder, an individual must meet certain criteria, which are discussed below.
For someone with a personality disorder, the features of everyday life that most of us take for granted can become a challenge. When an individual has a personality disorder, it becomes harder for them to respond to the changes and demands of life, and to form and maintain relationships with others. These experiences can lead to distress and social isolation, and can increase the risk of depression and other mental health issues.
There are ten types of personality disorders, and The Psychiatric DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition) groups these ten personality disorders into three broad clusters, referred to as A, B, and C.
Cluster A personality disorders involve behavior that seems unusual and eccentric to others.
Paranoid personality disorder
Schizoid personality disorder
Schizotypal personality disorder
Cluster B personality disorders feature behavior that is emotional, dramatic, or erratic.
Antisocial personality disorder
Borderline personality disorder
Histrionic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder
Cluster C personality disorders feature behaviors that are motivated by anxiety and fear.
Avoidant personality disorder
Dependent personality disorder
Obsessive-Compulsive personality disorders
Ten Types of Personality Disorders
1. Paranoid Personality Disorder
Affects approximately 2% – 4% of the general population. A person with paranoid personality disorder finds it hard to trust others. They might think that people are lying to them or manipulating them, even when there is no evidence of this happening. The inability to trust others can make it hard for people with paranoid PD to maintain relationships with those around them.
People with this may exhibit
– Mistrust and suspicion
– Anxiety about others taking advantage of them
– Anger over perceived abuse
– Concern about hidden meanings or motives
2. Schizoid Personality Disorder
Affects fewer than 1% of the population. A person with schizoid personality disorder may feel more comfortable with a pet than with another person, and in fact may form attachments with objects or animals rather than people, because they feel very uncomfortable when they are required to relate to others. Others may see the person as aloof, detached, cold, or as a “loner.” Note that schizoid personality disorder shares some features with schizophrenia, but they are not the same, as psychosis and hallucinations that are required for the diagnosis of schizophrenia are not part of schizoid personality disorder. However, individuals with schizoid personality disorder may have relatives of with schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder.
The person will tend to:
– Avoid close social contact with others
– Have difficulty forming personal relationships
– Seek employment that involves limited personal or social interaction
– React to situations in ways that others consider inappropriate
– Appear withdrawn and isolated
3. Schizotypal Personality Disorder
People with this disorder may have few close relationships outside their own family, because they have difficulty understanding how relationships develop, and how their behavior affects others. They may also find it hard to understand or trust others. A person with this condition has a higher risk of developing schizophrenia in the future.
For diagnosis, the person must exhibit or experience five or more of the following behaviors:
– Ideas of reference; example, when a minor event happens, they believe it has special significance for them.
– Odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences their behavior; such as superstitious thinking, beliefs in telepathy, or bizarre fantasies or preoccupations
– Unusual perceptual experiences, including bodily illusions and odd thinking and speech; example, metaphorical thinking, minute detail, and overelaboration.
– Suspiciousness or paranoia
– Inappropriate or bizarre facial expressions
– Behaviors that seem odd, eccentric, or peculiar
– Lack of close friends or confidants, other than first-degree relatives
– Extreme social anxiety
4. Antisocial Personality Disorder
A person with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) acts without regard to right or wrong, or without thinking about the consequences of their actions on others. It is more likely to affect men than women. Approximately 1% – 3% of the general population have ASPD, but is found in approximately 40% – 70% of the incarcerated (jailed) population. When found in children under 15, commonly referred to as conduct disorder, which significantly increases the risk of having ASPD later in life. Researchers studied specific genetic features in 543 participants with ASPD. They found similar genetic features, as well as low levels of grey matter in the frontal cortex area of the brain. They determined that genetic, biological, and environmental factors are all likely to play a role.
This can result in:
– Irresponsible/ delinquent behavior
– Novelty-seeking behavior
– Violent behavior
– High risk for criminal activity
5. Borderline Personality Disorder
A person with borderline personality disorder will have trouble controlling their emotions.
They may experience:
– Mood swings
– Shifts in behavior and self-image
– Impulsive behavior
– Periods of intense anxiety, anger, depression, and boredom
These intense feelings can last for only a few hours or for much longer periods, even up to weeks. They can lead to relationship difficulties and other challenges in daily life, resulting in:
– Rapid changes in how the person relates to others, for example: swift shifts from closeness to anger
– Risky behaviors, ie dangerous driving and spending sprees
– Self-harming behavior
– Poor anger management
– Sense of emptiness
– Difficulty trusting others
– Recurrent suicidal behaviors, gestures, threats, or self-mutilation, such as cutting
– Feelings of apathy, detachment, or dissociation
6. Histrionic Personality Disorder
A person with histrionic personality disorder feels a need for others to notice them and reassure them that they are significant. This can affect the way the person thinks and acts. It is considered to be one of the most ambiguous (ie non-specific) diagnostic categories in mental health. The person may feel a strong need to be loved, and they may also feel as if they are not strong enough to cope with everyday life alone. The person may function well in social and other environments, but they may also experience high levels of stress, and this can lead to them having depression and anxiety. The features of histrionic personality disorder can overlap with, and be similar to, those of narcissistic personality disorder.
It may lead to behavior that appears:
– Provocative and flirtatious
– Excessively emotional or dramatic
– Emotionally shallow
– Insincere, as likes and dislikes shift to suit the people around them at the given moment
– Risky, as the person constantly seeks novelty and excitement
7. Narcissistic Personality Disorder
This disorder features a sense of self-importance and power, but it can also involve feelings of low self-esteem and weakness. These features can make it hard for them to maintain healthy relationships and function in daily life.
A person with this condition may show the following personality traits:
– An inflated sense of their own importance, attractiveness, success, and power
– Craving for admiration and attention
– Lacking regard for others’ feelings
– Overstatement of their talents or achievements
– Expectation of deserving the best of everything
– Experiencing hurt and rejection easily
– Expecting others to go along with all of their plans and ideas
– Experiencing jealousy
– Believing they should have special treatment
– Believing they should only spend time with other people who are as special as they are
– Appearing arrogant or pretentious
– Being prone to impulsive behavior
People with narcissistic PD may also have a higher risk of:
– Mood, substance, and anxiety disorders
– Low self-esteem and fear of not being good enough
– Feelings of shame, helplessness, anger at themselves
– Impulsive behavior
– Using lethal means to attempt suicide
8. Avoidant Personality Disorder This personality disorder can make it hard to form friendships. A person with it avoids social situations and close interpersonal relationships, mainly due to a fear of rejection and the feeling that they are not good enough. There may also be a higher risk of substance abuse, eating disorders, or depression, and the person may think about or attempt suicide. A person with avoidant personality disorder may want to develop close relationships with others, but they lack the confidence and ability to form relationships. They generally appear extremely shy and socially inhibited.
They often exhibit:
– Feelings of inadequacy
– Low self-esteem
– Distrustfulness of others
9. Dependent Personality Disorder
People with dependent PD often lack confidence in themselves and their abilities. It is difficult for them to undertake projects independently or to make decisions without help, and they may find it hard to take personal responsibility. They are especially vulnerable to ill-treatment from others, including emotional, verbal, physical, domestic abuse. Any mistreatment can lead to further complications, such as depression and anxiety.
A person with this condition may have the following characteristics:
– Having an excessive need to be taken care of by others
– Being overly-dependent on others
– Having a deep fear of separation and abandonment
– Investing a lot of energy and resources in trying to please others
– Going to great lengths to avoid disagreement and conflict
– Being vulnerable to manipulation by others.
– A willingness to tolerate mistreatment to keep a relationship
– A preference to not be alone
Others may see their behavior as:
10. Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
A person with OCPD can find it difficult to accept when something is not perfect. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD relates to everyday tasks, while OCPD focuses specifically on following procedures. In addition, OCD can interfere with the way a person functions in everyday life, whereas OCPD can enhance a person’s professional performance, while also potentially interfering with their personal life outside of work. Some people may experience both OCD and OCPD, and research has shown that there appears to be a link between them. An excessive concern with perfectionism and hard work dominate the life of a person with OCDP. The individual may prioritize these ideals of perfectionism and hard work to the detriment of close personal relationships. In fact, others may see the individual as sanctimonious, stubborn, uncooperative, and obstinate.
A person with OCPD may:
– Appear inflexible
– Feel an overwhelming need to be in control
– Find that concerns about rules and efficiency make it hard to relax
– Find it hard to complete a task for fear that it is not perfect
– Be uncomfortable when things are messy
– Have difficulty delegating tasks to others
– Be extremely frugal, even when it is not necessary
– Hoard items
Personality Disorders: Treatment and Outlook
People with personality disorders often don’t feel there is anything wrong with their behavior, but they may seek help because they are experiencing social isolation and fear. Regardless, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can result from living with a personality disorder. For this reason, it is important for them to seek help early. Personality disorders often share features, and it can be hard to distinguish between them, but there are sufficient criteria for an appropriate diagnosis. Following that diagnosis, treatment can help people with the various types of personality disorders. The physician may prescribe medication, and will often recommend therapy or counseling. Individual, group, and family counseling can help. One type of counseling is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps a person to see their behavior in a new way and to learn alternative ways of reacting to situations. In time, this can make it easier for the person to function in everyday life and to maintain healthy relationships with others. So overall, the outlook is positive if the person with the personality disorder is willing to dedicate themselves to diligent work.
PsyCom has several online tests you can take for yourself or for someone else in your life, and then submit for results. Just for funsies, below are links to some tests related to this week’s topic, personality disorders.
Do you have antisocial personality disorder, commonly referred to as sociopathy? Use this quiz to determine whether you or someone you know may be a sociopath.
Do you have narcissistic personality disorder? Use this quiz to determine whether you or someone you know may be a narcissist or have a more severe case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
If you enjoyed this blog, please comment and share. For more information and stories on personality disorders, please check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
A Coronavirus PSA
Before we get to this next blog on suicide, I must say something related to Coronavirus transmission, because I’m tired of yelling it at my television when I see people doing it or talking about it, how “safe” it is. What is it? It’s “elbow love,” bumping elbows with someone to say hello, goodbye, good job, whassup, whatever. Think about this, people: during this viral outbreak, what have we been asking people to do when they sneeze or cough? Ideally, to do so in a tissue, but that’s not realistic, it rarely happens, so we ask them to sneeze or cough into their bent arm, at the elbow. Get the picture? The droplets they expell during that sneeze or cough are deposited everywhere surrounding that area, including the part you bump, so if your “bumpee” has Coronavirus, even if they have no symptoms, you, the “bumper” get those bijillions of virions on your elbow, and you can take them home with you. Then maybe your spouse or partner welcomes you home by putting their hands on your arms to give you a kiss… and now half a bijillion virions may be on one of their hands, just waiting to be deposited everywhere. Bottom line: for as long as this virus is around, use your words, not your body, to say whassup. So pass this knowledge on…not the virus.
Suicide is always a very difficult topic for every family, and in thirty years as a psychiatrist, it’s never gotten much easier to broach this subject. What motivated me to write this blog is a recent conversation I had with the father of one of my young patients, a fourteen-year-old named Collin, who in fact had just made what I believed was a half-hearted suicide attempt; the proverbial ‘cry for help.’ Understand that half-hearted does not mean it’s totally safe to blow it off, but we’ll get to an explanation about that later. His father, Lawrence, who prefers to be called Law, was a single parent, a widower after metastatic melanoma devastated the family of three about eighteen months before. Shortly after the mother, Sharon, passed away, Law brought Collin to my office. It was clear from the first appointment that Collin was depressed, and had been for some time. Psychotherapy was difficult with him, and it took about five appointments to establish more than a tenuous relationship and for him to begin to open up to me. I had tried him on a couple of medications, but they never seemed to do the job. I strongly suspected that it was due to a compliance issue. Actually, I’m certain that it was. He just didn’t take them regularly or as directed. That always mystifies me, patients who are miserable, anxious and depressed, but they take their meds haphazardly, at best; meds that could turn their worlds around…not because they’re inconvenient, and not because of side effects, just because. So, the tenuous connection made for less than optimal psychotherapy sessions, and that, combined with the absence of appropriate meds, put Collin on a path that led here, my office, 22 hours after his attempt. I was a little shocked by his attempt, but very shocked at how effectively, how deeply, he was able to hide the monumental amount of pain that he had obviously been feeling. His father Law looked exhausted, shellshocked, and was having such difficulty talking about it for a number of reasons, but he told me that one of the main reasons was shame. He was ashamed that Collin was so ill, and even ashamed that he was ashamed of it. He was ashamed that he could do nothing to help him, and ashamed that he had possibly caused or contributed to his son’s illness. I told him repeatedly and in several different ways that I understood, that his feelings weren’t unusual among parents of children like Collin, that he absolutely was helping him, and that while mental illness does have a familial component, he was not responsible in any way for his sons illness or attempt. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really heard a word I said. In my experience, suicidal ideation, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and the actual act of suicide affects everyone it touches in a way that no other psychiatric illness does. But in this situation, I think Law was thinking about what his life would be like if Collin tried again and succeeded. It would be very sad, alone, and lonely.
Facts and Figures
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 47,173 lives in 2019. Montana and Alaska have the highest suicide rates, which is interesting because both of those states have very high gun ownership rates. Believe it or not, New Jersey is the lowest. I have no clue why that would be the case. There were 1.4 million suicide attempts last year in the US. Men are 3.54 times more likely than women to commit suicide. Of all the suicides in the United States last year, 69.67% were white men; they don’t seem to be doing so well. The most common way to commit suicide is by firearm, at about 50%; suffocation is 27.7%, poisoning is 13.9%, and other would be the rest, things like jumping from a tall building or bridge, laying on train tracks or jumping in front of a subway car or a bus. Among US citizens, depression affects 20 to 25% of the population, so at any given point, 20% of the population is a bit more prone to suicide, as obvi people must first be depressed (chronically or acutely) before attempting suicide. There are 24 suicide attempts for every 1 completed suicide. The most disturbing statistic is that suicide rates are up 30% in the past 16 years, with a marked increase in adolescent suicides, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24.
You would think the US would have the highest suicide rates in the world, but in fact, Russia, China, and Japan are all higher.
Suicide Risk Factors
What are some factors that may put someone at higher risk of suicide?
– Family history of completed suicide in first-degree relatives
– Adverse childhood experiences, ie parental loss, emotional/ physical/ sexual abuse
– Negative life situations, ie loss of a business, financial issues, job loss
– Psychosocial stressors, ie death of loved one, separation, divorce, or breakup of relationship, isolation
– Acute and chronic health issues, illness and/ or incapacity, ie stroke, paralysis, mental illness, diagnoses of conditions like HIV or cancer, chronic pain syndromes
But, understand there’s no rule that someone must have one or more of these factors in order to be suicidal.
Mental Illness and Suicidality
In order to make a thorough suicide risk assessment, mental illness must be considered. There seem to be 6 mental health diagnoses that people who successfully complete suicide have in common:
– Bipolar disorder
– Schizoaffective disorder
– Post-traumatic stress disorder
– Substance abuse
Suicidal ideation refers to the thoughts that a person may have about suicide, or committing suicide. Suicidal ideation must be assessed when it is expressed, as it plays an important role in developing a complete suicide risk assessment. Assessing suicidal ideation includes:
– Determining the extent of the person’s preoccupation with thoughts of suicide, ie continuous? Intermittent? If so, how often?
– Specific plans; if they exist or not; if yes, how detailed or thought out?
– Person’s reason(s) or motivation(s) to attempt suicide
Assessment of Suicide Risk
Assessing suicide risk includes the full examination/ assessment of:
– The degree of planning
– The potential or perceived lethality of the specific suicide method being considered, ie gun versus overdose versus hanging
– Whether the person has access to the means to carry out the suicide plan, ie a gun, the pills, rope
– Access to the place to commit
– Note: presence, timing, content
– Person’s reason(s) to commit suicide; motivated only by wish to die; highly varied; ie overwhelming emotions, deep philosophical belief
– Person’s motivation(s) to commit suicide; not motivated only by wish to die; motivated to end suffering, ie from physical pain, terminal illness
– Person’s motivation(s) to live, not commit suicide
What is a Suicide Plan?
A suicide plan may be written or kept in someone’s head; it generally includes the following elements:
– Timing of the suicide event
– Access to the method and setting of suicide event
– Actions taken toward carrying out the plan, ie obtaining gun, poison, rope; seeking/ choosing/ inspecting a setting; rehearsing the plan
The more detailed and specific the suicide plan, the greater the level of risk. The presence of a suicide note suggests more premeditation and typically greater suicidal intent, so an assessment would definitely include an exploration of the timing and content of any suicide note, as well as a thorough discussion of its meaning with its author.
I spent years teaching suicide assessment to other physicians, medical students, nurses, therapists, you name it. It all seems super complicated when you look at all the above factors written out, but as I always taught, it becomes clearer when you put it into practice. What are we doing when we embark on a suicide assessment? We’re determining suicidality, the likelihood that someone will committ suicide. You’re deciding how dangerous someone is to themselves using the factors discussed above. You’re either looking at how lethal they could be, how lethal they are at this time, or how lethal they wereduring a previous episode of suicidal ideation or previous suicide attempt.
When we put this all into practice, we look at statements and actions to determine how dangerous a person is. Did someone say, ‘if so and so does this, I’ll kill myself’ or, did someone act but just scratched their wrist? Those would be low level lethality, and they would not be very dangerous. Did someone buy a gun, load the ammunition, learn how to shoot it, go to the place where they planned to kill themselves at the time they planned, and then practice putting the gun to their head…essesntially a dry run? That would be the most lethal; that person would be the most dangerous. Those are the two poles of lethality and danger, but there are variant degrees and many shades of gray, so you really have to discuss it very thoroughly with each individual.
Let’s say a 15-year-old is in the office after taking a big handful of pills in a suicide attempt. I ask him if he realized that taking those pills could have actually killed him, and he says no. He’s not that lethal, not that dangerous, because even though his means (pill overdose) was lethal, he didn’t know it was, so lacking that knowledge mitigates the risk, making him less dangerous. Example: acetominophen is actually extremely lethal. People who truly overdose on it don’t die immediately, but it shuts down the liver, killing them two days later. A person that takes a bunch of it thinking it’s a harmless over the counter drug is not that dangerous, because even though their method was lethal, they didn’t know it. In a similar manner, I’ve had people mix benzos with alcohol, which is another very lethal method. It’s a very successful way to kill yourself, but a lot of people don’t realize it, so it’s not that lethal to them. In the reverse case, people who know about combining alcohol and benzodiazepines, who know how dangerous it is, are dangerous, highly lethal to themselves.
People who play with guns, like Russian Roulette-type stuff; or people who intentionally try asphyxiating or suffocating themselves, as for sexual pleasure; or people who tie a rope to a rafter and then test their weight…these people are very dangerous, very lethal, very scary to psychiatrists.
Where someone attempts suicide is also very telling, very instructive in determining their lethality, how suicidal, how dangerous they are. If they do it in a place where there is no chance of being found, of being interrupted, they are very suicidal, very dangerous. Contrast that to doing it in a place where there are people walking by, or in a house where someone is, or could be coming home, then they are not as suicidal, not as dangerous. As an exaple, let’s say someone leaves their car running in a garage when they know that no one will be around for 2 days. That is very dangerous, they are very suicidal. If someone takes an opiate overdose at night when everyone’s in bed so they won’t find them for many hours, they are dangerous. If someone takes the overdose during the day, when people are awake at home, they are less dangerous.
A change in somone’s behaviors and/ or outlook can also help determine lethality. When people start giving away their possessions, that is a sign that they are very lethal, very dangerous. Another factor that can be informative is if an unnatural calm comes over them, and they say that they have no more problems, and everything is great. That is an indicator of serious lethality, major danger. These people have a sense of ease because they know that they’ll be dead very soon, and they don’t have to worry about things anymore. These are ominous signs.
Giving information about an attempt also informs a person’s level of lethality. If someone makes a statement of intent to commit suicide, they are not very dangerous. For example, a spouse saying ‘if you leave me, I’ll kill myself’ or ‘you broke my heart, I can’t live without you, I’m going to kill myself’ those statements alone do not indicate a very dangerous person. Not telling anyone and hiding when they plan to attempt is much more dangerous. There are many cases when people don’t come out and tell, but they aren’t being very secretive, intentionally or not, possibly even subconsciously. They leave clues, almost giving people a road map. This is very common, and these people are typically discovered. The discovery can either totally abort the act before it’s attempted, or can abort after the attempt, but in enough time to get the person help. This is why for every 1 “successfully” completed suicide, there are 24 failed suicide attempts. Similarly, someone who says ‘if this thing (interview, event) goes my way, I’ll be good, but if it doesn’t, I swear I’ll kill myself’ is not that dangerous, not very suicidal, because they’re bargaining, which means they’re still living in the real world. But, someone who does not want to negotiate, doesn’t care to affect things one way or another, may not be living in the real world, and they’re dangerous, they may be high risk to enter the world of the dead.
There are a couple other things to be considered in assessing risk of suicide, determining how dangerous someone might be. If someone is impaired, using drugs and/ or alcohol when they attempt or consider suicide, and if they are not suicidal when they’re clean and sober, they are generally not that suicidal, not that dangerous, they just have a drug or alcohol problem. When they get clean and sober for good, the risk is essentially zero, barring anything else. In a similar way, if someone is suffering from a mental illness when they attempt or consider suicide, but when you correct that mental illness they are not suicidal, they are not a huge danger.
So during suicide risk assessment, you can be looking at someone having a nebulous thought and/ or making a statement that a lot of people may have or make, and you know that they’re not very dangerous; or looking all the way to the opposite side, someone who thinks about it, formulates a thorough plan, picks the place and time, aquires all the things needed to commit the act, writes a suicide letter, and practices the complete act soup to nuts, and you know that they are very, very dangerous. And all the shades in between.
So that’s my primer on suicidal thinking and assessing suicide risk. There are lots of factors to keep in mind, and sometimes it’s a little like reading minds, but you get more proficient as the years go by…it’s easier to tell when someone is misleading or being honest and open. If you enjoy a humorous approach to character studies in all sorts of diagnoses, you would enjoy my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. I mean, most of you are isolating, sheltering in place anyway, right? Might as well entertain yourself! Check it out. – Dr. Mark AgrestiLearn More
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment
Today I want to thoroughly explain obsessive compulsive disorder, because it is a seriously life altering condition that is frequently misunderstood. We have all heard people refer to friends or family as “OCD” in a joking manner. An example may be if you’re at a party at a friend’s house and the second someone puts their drink on the coffee table, the host runs to grab a coaster and quickly puts it under the drink, prompting a partygoer to say, ‘Oh my gawwwd, Pam, you’re so OCD!” This casual and off-handed way that OCD is referred to in everyday conversation may make it seem that the obsessions and/ or compulsions are just something annoying or amusing that a person can just “get over.” But for people with OCD, it’s not just a simple annoyance, it is a complex, frustrating, and anxiety inducing disorder. OCD is fairly common, affecting roughly 3% of the population. The age of onset is typically during the childhood years, and it is equally distributed between males and females. I have many patients with OCD, and unfortunately, I have diagnosed and treated many children with OCD throughout my career. One of the factors I always think about when assessing and diagnosing children with any disease or disorder is how much they may or may not be able to understand the symptoms they’re having. In cases of OCD, it concerns me even more, because it’s clear that these symptoms are very disturbing to children, especially because they don’t know what the heck’s going on. They don’t know why they get fixated on things or what their ritualistic behaviors are about, like why they have to turn their bedroom light off and on exactly 29 times before they can turn it off for good at night. They don’t understand why they get so upset and angry when they cannot perform their compulsive rituals, or why they constantly get stuck in intrusive, obsessive thoughts. Even adults with OCD don’t understand these things, but they are better equipped to recognize that something isn’t right, and better able to communicate the need to seek help. Obviously, children cannot simply drive themselves to a physician’s office, they rely on parents who may mislable the symptoms as a behavioral problem, not even notice the symptoms, or notice them but not realize there is a problem.
At its root, OCD is an anxiety disorder, marked by the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of the two. Obsessions are essentially intrusive thoughts that come up for no obvious reason and that just don’t go away. Compulsions are behaviors they feel they must perform, otherwise they become very anxious and very distressed; for some, almost to the point where they are paralyzed if they don’t do them. But, people with OCD do not want to do these compulsive things; they know they aren’t right, know they aren’t normal, and that means that they are not psychotic. A psychotic individual would say they do these things because aliens told them to, or for any reason. The point is that psychotic people believe they have a reason. Contrast that to people with OCD; they have no reason, no explanation. It occurs because a switch in their minds malfunctions. It doesn’t shut off, it doesn’t ever tell them that checking the lock once before bed is enough, that when they see that the lock is engaged, it will stay that way until they unlock it the next morning.
There are four criteria to consider in diagnosing OCD: – The presence of obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of the two. – These obsessions and/ or compulsions cause a significant amount of distress, to the point that they get in the way of a normal life. – The obsessions and/ or compulsions are not the result of taking any pharmaceutical or street drugs.- The obsessions and/ or compulsions cannot be explained by the presence of another illness; for example,being obsessed with body image as a result of body dysmorphic disorder, or being obsessed with food as a result of having anorexia nervosa.
So, what is an obsession? An obsession is an intrusive thought that an individual cannot expel from their conscious thinking, a thought that randomly pops into their head and will not leave. Now, understand that everyone, even people without OCD, will sometimes have some sort of obsessive thoughts; it’s entirely normal, so this is a matter of degrees. For example: if a student has a big important exam the next day, they may check their phone alarm or alarm clock 3 or 4 times the night before. This is not indicative of obsessive or compulsive behavior. But, someone with obsessive compulsive disorder will check the alarm so often, over and over, to the point that they get no sleep. A person basically crosses the bridge from normal, cautious behavior to pathologic obsessive and/ or compulsive behavior when these behaviors interfere with, and prevent them from living full lives.
Obsessive subtypes in OCD sort of loosely fall into five categories, but don’t forget that there’s always something new under the sun.
1. Counting/ math/ calculations/ numbers: they exhibit a ritualization involving numerical calculations in the brain. They have to count something- it may be steps, times turning switches off and on, locking and unlocking a deadbolt, etc. Some have to add or subtract numbers of steps involved in completing a certain action, and they must get the same number each time they perform that action. If they take three steps forward, they must take that many backward. While these things don’t make any rational sense, they actually create order for them. You might think, well, they aren’t hurting anyone, so whatever floats their boat. But they are actually hurting themselves. These people count so much and do and redo so many times that they can’t get to work on time, they can’t live their lives normally. It can have a devastatingly negative impact on every aspect of their lives. Sometimes they literally get stuck somewhere, because ‘the numbers don’t work.’ One of my long time OCD patients, Bruce, does pretty well for the most part, he takes his meds, keeps his appointments, and earnestly works on himself. He’s pretty much a model OCD patient, but every once in a while, the train jumps the tracks, and I get an emergency call from him saying he’s stuck somewhere. The last time was just a few weeks ago; he was inside a bank, and had just realized that there were separate entrance and exit doors, so he knew that the number of steps he had taken to get from his car and into the bank were going to be fewer than the number of steps it would take for him to walk out of the bank and back to his car. I explained that yes, Bruce, it would take more steps to walk out of the bank and back to your car, simply because you parked closer to the entrance door when you drove in. I told him that was normal, and it was to be expected. But he was really stuck, incredibly anxious, evidently pacing back and forth in the bank lobby. He said the tellers and bank manager were seriously eyeing him. They were probably thinking that he had some nefarious scheme in mind and that his constant frantic pacing was his way of plucking up the courage to enact his plan. Thankfully, I was able to talk him down off the ledge that day. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick, but eventually I convinced him that the difference in the number of steps was expected, that it had to be that way, so it was okay, and that he would see that I was right, that it was true, as soon as he left the bank and got in his car. I stayed on the phone as he walked out of that bank, certainly with great trepidation, and I could hear him counting steps just under his breath, until he got in his car. When I heard him exhale loudly and close the car door, I knew we were home free. He thanked me profusely, I said it was cool, no prob, and I went back to my patient. That’s Bruce!
2. Catastrophic Fears: aptly named, these are fears of major proportions, absolute worst case scenarios on steroids, and taken to the n’th degree. These are not like, ‘oh, I forgot my presentation was scheduled today.’ These are more like, ‘did I leave something on? Oh my, I just know I left the stove on. Oh no, the house is going to burn down to the ground! It’s going to burn! And we’ll never afford to rebuild! Oh God, what will I do?!’
Or, it can be a fear that you will harm someone, even someone you love. That you’ll suddenly take a hammer and bash someone’s head in, or that you’ll take an assault rifle and gun them down in their backyard. I’ve had lots of OCD patients of both kinds, the doom and gloom Negative Nancy types, and the head-smashing-hammer-weilders and assault-rifle-gunners. When I think of the latter type, I always think of a patient named Hillary. She was just twenty when she first came to see me, and she came with her mother, whose name was Alain or Alaina or something like that. I do recall that she had a very french accent. When I asked Hillary why she had come to see me, she didn’t answer right away, so eventually, her mother said in her thick accent, ‘she’s worried that she wants to kill me, to slit my throat.’ I have to say, I was taken aback. I looked across my desk at this whisp of a girl, not looking at me, but at her hands, which she knotted and unknotted, like she was washing them. I asked her if that was true, and still not looking at me, she nodded. I asked her mother, “So you brought her in because you’re worried that she’s going to kill you?” She looked at me and replied, “No, doctor. I brought her because she is worried that she’s going to kill me. I am not worried about that, only about her. She talks about it incessantly. She says she doesn’t think she wants to do it, but she’s still afraid she’s going to.” I asked Hillary how often she thought about it, about killing her mother, and she simply said, “All the time.” I will never forget how heavy that room was. You could feel the oppression, for lack of a better word. Matricide, the killing of a mother by her child is pretty uncommon, especially at the hands of a daughter. I could see clear OCD tendencies, but her pathology really hinged on her obsessive, catastrophic fear, which was undoubtedly 100% genuine. Without any rhyme or reason, apropos of nothing, the thought of killing her mother would randomly pop into her head. Imagine that for a moment. Imagine the first time it popped into Hillary’s head at age thirteen. Then imagine it constantly popping into her head, all the time. But, you know you love your mother, right? Right? But yet you think you might kill her. At twelve. How confusing would that be? I knew that we had a long road ahead, but I wanted to help Hillary. With OCD, one of the main treatments is exposure therapy. For example, if someone had to touch the faucet 37 times before they could turn it on, the exposure therapy would be to push them into walking into a bathroom and simply turning on the faucet without touching it beforehand. You expose them to the thing they obsess about, the thing they perform their compulsion on. It’s very difficult at first, but it can be very effective. There really was no way to try exposure therapy for Hillary’s particular obsessive thoughts of catastrophic fear…I couldn’t give her a knife to hold at her mother’s throat as I tell her to resist slitting her throat. Captain Obvious says that might be traumatic. Nonetheless, we met at least every two weeks, and more often when she was in a tough spot, which happened a lot. We tried drug therapies and eventually hit on a combination that seemed to work well, and we did some serious psychotherapy over several years. And ever so very slowly, she improved. She wasn’t OCD free, but it was possible that it would never be totally gone. There were still times when her obsessive thoughts were exacerbated for no obvious reason, but those have been fewer and farther between as she’s gotten older. I attribute a lot of that to her mother. She is a strong woman, and she could have chosen to dismiss Hillary’s fears because she didn’t understand them or believe them. You have to admit, it would feel weird to hear your child speak obsessively about slitting your throat. But Hillary’s mother didn’t turn a blind eye or distance herself, she actually did the opposite: she drew her daughter closer and sought help. There isn’t always that kind of family support, so it was very reassuring to all three of us. The depth of Hillary’s beliefs in her obsessive fears was significant, especially for a girl of her age. She was sure that she was going to kill her mother, whether she wanted to or not. But please know that just because someone in the family has OCD, it does not mean they’re out to get you.
3. Fear and Hypermorality: hypermorality is essentially taking manners and consideration for others to an unnatural degree. The fear these people have is that they said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, made a mistake or misstatement to a friend or family member, or sent an email or text or made a comment on social media that may have hurt someone else’s feelings or made them upset. They will go over and over a previous interaction in their mind, obsessively searching for anything they may have said that could have possibly slighted someone, because they’re sure they did, they just aren’t certain when. For example, if they say hello, they will immediately begin thinking ‘did I say hello in the right way, in the right tone? Did I walk away too quickly after I said hello? And I only said hello, I didn’t ask how they were, should I have asked how they were?’ This is not an exaggeration. Can you imagine what these people go through, when the simple act of saying hello causes tremendous amounts of anxiety and endless rounds of second guessing everything! That’s how this disorder interferes with people’s lives; it gets in the way of their daily operations, and they simply cannot get anything accomplished because they are so consumed with these obsessions.
4. Religion: some people have religious obsessions, where they believe they must say specific prayers in a certain order for a multiple of times, and that each round must be perfect; if not, they must start again. This can take up hours upon hours on end. These prayer rituals are compulsive, and are required in an attempt to quell the obsessive thoughts about how to love God perfectly, or how to be worthy, how to ask His forgiveness or how to live a righteous life…whatever obsessive beliefs they affix themselves to. Commonly involved in religious obsessions and related compulsive behaviors involve acts of supplication, kneeling or bowing before God or whatever religious idol they obsess about, because they must do so. Some religions incorporate other compulsory activities like fasting, so OCD people may believe they must also do that to show their devotion. When religious activities are taken to a level of obsession, they are likely to be much harsher and far more restricting than the original religion actually proscribes. Ritualistic self-mutilation and pain is encouraged by some radical religions to prove one’s worthiness, and people with extreme religion-oriented OCD obsessions feel a compulsive draw to these behaviors. They can see that they are different, that others do not take their beliefs to the same levels, but they cannot stop. Whenever I think of OCD cases involving religious obsessions and associated radical compulsions, I have one patient that comes to mind. I’ve seen him over a span of probaby ten years…a long time. His name is Benigno, and he is originally from Peru, but he’s lived on Palm Beach for a long time, and he’s done well for himself. He first came to see me (reluctantly) at the request of his family. They were concerned that his religious beliefs and activities had become far too radical in recent years. They reported that he was now totally consumed by his religion, and that they believed it was endangering his life. That’s all the background his family gave me. When he sat down for his first appointment, I started by asking Benigno to tell me about his upbringing. He said he was raised in a traditional Catholic home in Peru, but he always saw his beliefs as very different from his siblings, even though they were raised in the same home. He said that even his family noticed that from the very early age of seven, he took his relationship with God to an unusual level for such a young child. Even at that age, he spoke endlessly about God, he would fast for days, he would kneel on rocks in the backyard as he prayed for 15 hours straight, he would deny himself sleep in favor of praying the rosary until his voice was hoarse. As he grew and advanced in school, rather than playing sports or making friends, he spent time in a radical religious group, with people far older than he was. They clearly saw his unusually zealous behavior and encouraged it, telling him that he must do more to demonstrate his worthiness to God. It was really the only time I can recall hearing that anyone actually encouraged another person’s obsessive thoughts and destructive compulsions. It was disturbing, to say the least. Benigno definitely had OCD, but it was a little atypical in it’s origins. I think that when it started in his childhood, the religious belief system he was raised in may have contributed to its genesis. Perhaps a nun at his school said that he should pray more, or ask God’s forgiveness for something or else risk eternal damnation, who knows. He didn’t like the OCD label, and wasn’t always sure that his obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors were preventing him from having a fulfilling life. He always vacillated on that point, but he did concede that his behaviors weren’t normal. Over time, he’s eased up a little on his compulsions, but he’s uncomfortable during those times, because his obsessive thoughts are telling him that he needs to do certain actions to lead a life that pleases God or to be worthy of His love, whatever thought is screaming the loudest in his brain. I just started him on medication recently, because he had refused it until then. I think that will really help him, but we will continue on with psychotherapy. Benigno is a work in progress.
5. Symmetry/ Order: symmetry and ordering obsessions and compulsions are among the most prevalent OCD symptom subtypes. These people are compelled to make everything line up, to make things equal on two sides, and/ or to arrange things into equal groups. Many times, I’ve seen frazzled parents in my office very concerned, because little Johnny must have his toy trucks in a perfect line, grouped by color, and arranged from largest to smallest. They are amazed and more than a little frightened by his precision. If one truck is accidentally moved a fraction of an inch out of place when Fido runs through to bark at the old lady next door as she heads into her garden, little Johnny loses his mind. And even if mommy runs like a cheetah to put it back perfectly in its place a mere millisecond later, it doesn’t assuage his outrage. This is actually a pretty typical presentation in a child of little Johnny’s age. But these obsessive thoughts on order and symmetry will change as he ages. He may need his third grade class to have an exactly equal number of boys and girls, or else he cannot be in that classroom, and he demonstrates that in all sorts of destructive behaviors…screaming, kicking, biting, throwing books, tearing down posters, and generally throwing a monstrous tantrum. Why? Because little Johnny is pissed off. His brain is telling him that everything is wrong in his world right now, because there are four more boys than girls, and that’s unacceptable. So his brain just fizzes, like when you put pop rocks in a pepsi…it overwhelms him. It’s a difficult OCD subtype to manage because it’s so persistent. Little Johnny will need a lot of time in therapy, but ultimately, I think he’ll be okay.
As for compulsions…these can be as numerous and diverse as anything that people’s brains can come up with, which is to say they’re pretty much unlimited. The ones that often spring to mind are like checking to make sure the stove is off, checking to make sure the garage door is shut, checking to make sure the locks are locked, the alarm is on, the gas is off, the fire in the fireplace is dead, the faucet is off, the grill cover is on, the car has gas, the tires have air, the lights are off…and then checking them again. And again. Maybe locking and unlocking and locking the front door, over and over, until they’re satisfied it’s locked, which is almost never. Their brain never says STOP! THE DOOR IS LOCKED. GO TO BED. That box doesn’t get ticked; it does not happen quickly.
They may be obsessed with cleanliness, either of themselves or their possessions: home, car, clothes. So they ritualistically clean them over and over, it must be perfect. I have a fairly new patient named Launa, and she is obsessed with cleanliness, and she ritualistically cleans…very, very thoroughly. She cleans and cleans and cleans again. She will cover the house seven or eight times in a day, or all through the night instead of sleeping, whenever her obsession moves her. And she doesn’t just sweep, wash, and wax her floors. She gets a roll of scotch tape and gets on the floor, placing her head perpendicular to the floor so that she can see the profile of a microscopic bit of sand, or some flotsam, real or imagined, against the flat surface of the floor. Once she has it in her sites, she takes a piece of the scotch tape and sticks it on top of the speck, pulling it off the floor, trapping it on the tape, then putting the bit of tape with the offending speck in her pocket for safe keeping. She does every square inch of her floors that way, on her hands and knees, moving specifically from her back kitchen door, into each of her two guest bedrooms, and finally finishing at the far wall of her bedroom. She goes through a minimum of six rolls of scotch tape at a time, and she will do this every single day. Often, she gets to that far wall of her bedroom and starts over again immediately. Her knees are perpetually black and blue, and her hands are often swollen and painful from overuse, but that’s more tolerable than trying to deny the compulsive behavior that her obsession demands. It’s sad, because this smart, funny, gentle woman has no life, and she knows it, sees it, hates it, but feels powerless to change it. But I am committed to helping her do just that, and I know she’ll get there.
By the time most of my OCD patients get to me, they’re pretty stuck in their compulsions. There’s the engineer that must spend precisely eight minutes in the shower- no more, no less. He sets an alarm in the bathroom for seven minutes and fifty-two seconds, and when it goes off, he has exactly eight seconds to open the door and step out of the shower. If for some reason something delays his exit, like having to pick up a dropped washcloth, he must start another shower. He will do this until he gets it perfect. I would hate to have his water bill. In a similar fashion, he allows himself four minutes to brush and floss his teeth and use mouthwash…which he must do in a certain pattern…swish quickly in left cheek three times, then right cheek three times, then around his front teeth three times, then tilt head back to gargle three seconds, and spit.
There’s the recent suma cum laud college grad that lost her dream job because she was always late. Why? Because she spent anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour each morning when she was to leave her house to go to work, locking and unlocking her front door over and over until she had to leave. But she was never satisfied that it was locked, so she often went home on her lunch hour, spending it standing at her front door, turning the key, unlocking, locking, unlocking, locking…Losing her job was an eye-opener, and that’s what brought her to me.
Another OCD patient, a 13-year-old boy named Andrew, was consumed with a very detailed and very peculiar eating ritual. The food on his plate could not be touching. His mother had to make sure of this. The meat could not touch the rice, which could not touch the broccoli, which could not touch the roll. If a catastrophe happened and any of the food touched, it had to be thrown out and his mother would have to make him a new plate. But that wasn’t all. When his mother set his plate in front of him, she had to arrange it so that the meat was top left, the veg top right, the starch bottom left, and the roll at the bottom right of the plate. Then, before he could begin eating, he had to hold his fork in his left hand and his knife in his right, each positioned tines and blades up just so, and flanking the sides of his plate. Then he would simultaneously raise the utensils and touch them to the table three times, and then put them together above the center of his plate and touch once there, then put them together again below the center of his plate and touch once there. Only then could he eat his food, but just as the food couldn’t touch on the plate, it couldn’t touch in his mouth either. He ate each part separately, always in order. First the meat, then the veg, then the starch, and then the roll. Well, unfortunately, one day Andrew was riding in a friend’s mothers car, and they were in a terrible car accident, and he was paralyzed, so his mother had to do everything for him, including feeding him. His ritualistic compulsions were still so consuming, so powerful, that before he could eat, his mother had to perform his rituals. Every single one of them. And she had to do them over and over and over, until they were perfect…or else he would totally lose it, scream and spit and curse her for being stupid. She told me that in the beginning, she would be sitting at that table for hours and hours, tears streaming down her face, repeating his knife and fork touching rituals, to the point where she would literally be nodding off, only to be snapped awake by his belittling venom. I told him that everyone understood that he couldn’t help it, that he wasn’t in control of his compulsions, but that it was unacceptable to treat his mother the way he did, screaming at her, calling her names, and spitting at her. I told him that she was the only person even willing to try to put up with his behaviors. His father had zero patience for it, and he didn’t dare speak to him with the words he used with his mother. With time, meds, a lot of therapy, and the acceptance of his paralysis, he mellowed out a little and things have improved. But Andrew needs more work, and his mother is completely devoted to helping him. I honestly don’t know how she does it, but for his sake, I’m glad she does.
I had a nine-year-old boy with OCD come into the office. His mother had to wear gloves and a mask to prepare his food, because otherwise she would contaminate it. She had to serve it on a paper plate, and when she set the food in front of him, he would spend 15 minutes scrutinizing it, like he was looking for germs, as though he could see them. He had to eat with disposable plastic utensils and use only paper napkins. Everything was always single use, so as not to take the chance that old food could stay on ceramic plates or steel utensils even after being washed.
Another patient, a 42-year-old man named Gary, was obsessed with perfectly pristine white sneakers. If he got so much as a speck of dirt on them, they were ruined. He would buy a new pair and burn the offending pair.
Another patient, a man originally from Jamaica, had a ritual of tracing a cross on his chest with his finger every time he felt he had said anything contrary to anyone. He dis this so often, to the point that he wore through the skin, literally down to the sternum bone in the middle of his chest.
I had another patient, a physical therapy tech that had an odd compulsion. While driving, if he went over a speed bump, he had to turn the car around to check to make sure he hadn’t run over a person. He knew on some level that it was just a speed bump, that he had even seen the speed bump as he’d driven ober it, but his obsession told him that it might possibly have been a person, so the compulsion was for him to turn around to make sure. Luckily, it hasn’t been a person a single time.
A young woman came in for her first appointment, and she arrived looking totally exhausted. She had dark circles and huge bags under her eyes, her hair was all messy, and she looked like she was waaay out there. I told her that she looked very tired and she agreed. I asked her why, and she said she had been up all night. That begged the question of why once again, and she said that she had recently moved to a new apartment, and she had been trying to hang a picture. To which I raised an eyebrow and said, and?…. She smiled, blushed, and said that she just couldn’t get it level, so it took ‘a while.’ I said, “Are you telling me that you spent all night hanging that one picture?” Embarassed, she quietly answered yes. I suggested wryly that she buy a level at Home Depot. Still embarassed, she said, “I have one. I didn’t trust it.” Despite myself, all I could do is laugh. Then I suggested that she might have OCD. And I swear, with a straight face, she said, “Really? Do you really think so?” Oh boy…seriously?! She was actually surprised…I’m telling you, never a dull moment.
Late one afternoon not long ago, I finished with a patient, the last one of the day, so I said I’d walk out with him, and I went and turned the AC up, shut the lights off, and walked out the door, never breaking stride. As I locked the office door behind us, I saw that he was looking at me, incredulous. Startled, I said “What?” He said, “Oh my God, how did you just do that?!” Totally confused, I was like ‘what?’ and he said, “How can you just close up and walk out of your office like that, that fast? I spend at least an hour a day getting out of my office, checking everything over and over before I can walk out, then at least another 15 minutes locking and unlocking the front door before I can head to the car.” I told him, “Next appointment, you and I are going to discuss that, man.”
And now of course, I have lots of patients freaking out about coronavirus. I have a specific woman who does not ever leave her home, and even though she’s home alone, never exposed to anything or anyone, she cannot touch anything bare handed inside her own home. So, her solution is to wear surgical gloves, 24-7. We had a facetime appointment recently and I commented on the gloves, and she told me she wore them all the time, even to bed, but that the skin on her hands was getting irritated. I talked her into taking the gloves off for a minute so I could see her hands. They were so pruney, reddish purple, and deeply wrinkled all over, like they had been covered in water for a loooong time…which I mentioned to her. But, she said it wasn’t water, it was sweat. I said, “Ewwww!” and she was like, “Yeah, I should probably let them dry off, maybe air them out a little bit.” Ya think?!
All kidding aside, you can imagine how strong these obsessions can be, and how debilitating all the ritualistic checking, rechecking, doing, undoing can be. Many people with OCD have a very strict schedule. They have a routine that they follow religiously, day in and day out, that helps them to be somewhat functional. They get up at the same time everyday, eat the same breakfast, wear the same color shirt, same color tie, same shoes, drive the same route to work, park in the same space, eat the same lunch, drive the same route home, watch the same television shows, eat the same dinner, on and on and on. For these people, every single day of their lives is groundhog day. They have no room in their lives for spontaneity, no opportunities for joy…not without help.
These are anxious people, stressed out to the max. OCD is a distressing illness at best. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Treatment does work for those willing to put in the work, and they can go on to live healthy lives. The commonly accepted treatments involve psychotherapy and exposure response coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy. What does that mean? Basically, the therapist must coach the patient on what to do with the obsessive thoughts. Explain that they must accept that they cannot control the thoughts. That they must not engage with the thoughts, not feed the thoughts, because once they do, the thoughts will get stuck in their head, with no way to get rid of them. So they must let them just float away, do not address them, just let them float away. Let them drift away, and the further they drift, the more they can replace them with healthy thoughts. Explain that if the thoughts do come, it’s okay, but they should respond to the thoughts in a way that does not escalate anxiety, so not focusing on the thoughts, not feeding the thoughts, but redirecting the thoughts to other thoughts that are healthy, this is the best way to deal with them. There are also drug treatments, SSRI medications, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Prozac and Paxil. Luvox and Zoloft can also be used to treat OCD. Whenever possible, I like to employ a combination of meds, plenty of psychotherapy, and the exposure response coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy. When an OCD patient is willing to work and sticks to the plan, it’s truly life changing. Need proof? Well, maybe ask soccer star David Beckham, comedian Howie Mandel, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, singer Justin Timberlake, or his ex-girlfriend, actress Cameron Diaz. Or maybe actress and entreprenuer Jessica Alba, Shock Jock Howard Stern, or actor Nicolas Cage. They all seem to have done pretty well for themselves, and I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that treatment works.
If you’re interested in more stories of OCD patients, or other psychiatric diagnoses, you can check out my book, Tales from the Couch, on Amazon.com. It’s a great read, entertaining and informative, and a really awesome way to spend a no- fun quarantine, if I do say so myself.
Be well, everyone.Learn More
You’re in Isolation… Now What?
I regret that I even have to make this blog. The situation we find ourselves in is so surreal, but here we are, so we have to rock and roll with it. Covid-19 is a respiratory virus, a particularly nasty one. In recent years, scientists have tried to prepare for a long-feared hypothetical pathogenic disaster they called Disease X, and defined it as: any unknown disease that springs suddenly into our species and races ruinously through it. Covid-19 is the first Disease X to arise since the terminology was coined, but it certainly won’t be the last. The climate is warming, we’re hacking down forests, our population is expanding faster than the earth can keep up with, and our skills at waging biological warfare are expanding and improving. The odds that we’ll keep encountering more and more Disease X’s are increasing. We will need all the vaccines we can make for this, and future, Disease X’s. Right now, there are at least 40 research groups around the globe working on Covid-19, and there are 43 Covid-19 vaccines in various stages of development around the world. One potential vaccine has just started a small human trial. While it sounds promising, with Covid-19, both the viral contagion itself and the vaccine type (using novel DNA/ RNA tech) are so new that there’s no telling what human trials will reveal, or how long they will take. Most of the scientists researching Covid-19 say that we’ll be lucky to have a vaccine for human use within 12 – 18 months.
Yes, we’re in a pretty precarious state, but there are ways to make it less uncomfortable, less disturbing. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best defense is a good offense. These cliches were not popularized by accident, they’re true. In the case of Covid-19, the best preventative measure and the best offense is…stay home! It may not be fun and it may not be easy, but if there’s any possible way to stay home, do so. The only thing worse than isolating to prevent contracting the virus is to be quarantined withthe virus! I want to talk about some things you can and should do to maintain your sanity while waiting Covid-19 out. For general information, I’ve found that Unicef has great intel broken down into manageable units. They detail handwashing, using hand sanitizer, and behavioral ways to help stop the spread of Covid-19. You can navigate through the entire site from:
After talking with so many patients about Covid-19, listening to their fears and anxiety, I’ve come up with 10 things you should pay attention to while you’re isolating or you’re in quarantine.
1. Consider anyone who is living with you in isolation, under quarantine, or simply in your shelter, as family. Everyone must function as a family, ie as a group, a “covid family” if you will. A few weeks ago, our world changed forever, and you must work together and be in it for the long haul, because we don’t know how long this is going to last. Make a decision to be good to each other, to respect each other. You must get along, because now we have an enemy that is far greater than us. It is a virus, not a natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, tornado, or fire, nothing that we are accustomed to dealing with. It is not a war, but make no mistake…we are under attack. So you need to treat the people in your “covid family” the way that you want to be treated. Talk to each other (no yelling or demeaning language) in a positive manner; this won’t always be easy, because the uncertainties linked to this pandemic will cause stress, which generally leads to shorter fuses. Decisions have to be made in a thoughtful way; if you have several people in your “covid family,” that may mean voting on important issues. Whatever you do, make every effort to keep the peace in your “covid family.”
2. Hygeine is everything when it comes to transmissible disease, andeveryone living in the house must participate in it. Wash your hands often, and just as important, wash them properly! I’ll discuss ‘the how’ below. First, let’s talk about ‘the when’. Your mama taught you to wash after using the toilet, before and after eating, after changing diapers or helping children use the toilet, after touching animals and pets, after touching garbage, and whenever they are obviously dirty. Those rules still apply of course, but with Covid-19, we’ve stepped it up a bit to include a few more “after’s”:
– After coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose
– After visiting public spaces/ places: public transportation, markets, banks, drive-thrus, and places of worship
– After touching any of the surfaces outside of the home, including money, ATM machines, credit/debit checkout machines and stylus pens
– Before, during and after caring for a sick person, regardless of their Covid-19status
Those are minimum hand washing requirements. I suggest you wash at least every 1 – 2 hours, even if you haven’t done any of the above things. Ritualize your hand washing, especially if anyone in your “covid family” is high risk and/ or still venturing out of the home. If you touch the doorknob, wash your hands. If you touch a faucet, wash your hands, stove, wash. You get the idea. In this situation, there’s really no such thing as washing too much; you cannot be too careful, because this virus does live on surfaces for an extended period of time. FYI, that includes Amazon boxes. One of my very high risk patients actually “quarantines” her deliveries for five days and then opens the boxes with gloves on. Overkill? Hard to say. We all have to gauge our personal risk level and then behave accordingly.
As promised, here is ‘the how’ of proper handwashing. There are five simple steps to proper handwashing:
1: Wet hands with running water (water temperature doesn’t matter)
2: Apply soap liberally- don’t skimp- use enough to thoroughly cover your hands.
3: Scrub all over the hands for 20 – 30 seconds with lots of sudsy lather: every surface, back and front of hands, between all fingers and under fingernails. Pretend you’re a surgeon. We’ve all seen surgeon’s scrubbing in. Do that vigorous, thorough scrubbing for 20 – 30 seconds. And yes, sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice to ensure you wash for 20 seconds minimum…it’s so easy to stop early if you don’t sing, because 20 seconds is a fair chunk of time. Don’t short yourself!
4: Rinse well under running water
5: Dry with a paper towel or clean cloth.
IF YOU’RE OUT OR WHERE THERE’S NO SOAP OR RUNNING WATER, USE HAND SANITIZER. Use it basically the way you would soap. Put a generous amount into the palm of one hand and rub briskly but thoroughly all over both hands: front, back, between fingers, and under nails. If necessary, use another dose of it to act as a sort of rinse, especially if your hands have contacted multiple surfaces.
Some other hygeine tips:
– Do not touch your face.
– Make hand sanitizer and tissues like the American Express card…don’t leave home without it.
– Sneeze into a tissue. Some say it’s okay to sneeze into the crook of your elbow, but only as a last resort if you don’t have a tissue; your best bet is to keep a tissue handy.
– If you must leave your home, limit outings to once a day.
– If you do leave your house, when you come back home, go straight to the bathroom and bathe before you interact with the house. Then use pre-moistened antibacterial cleansing cloths or a bleach solution to clean everything you touched on the way in.
3. Do everything you can to boost your immune system, especially if you are higher risk. Take vitamins, 50 mg Zinc Gluconate per day, 1000 international units of Vitamin D3 per day, and 1000mg Vitamin C each day. If Vitamin C upsets your stomach, look for liposomal Vitamin C, because it is better digested.
4. Take care of yourself. I’m embarassed to say that I have a friend from Pennsylvania who found ridiculously cheap plane tickets to Florida, $28 round trip, for he and his wife to take a quick trip about a month ago, just before travel was prohibited. Guess who got sick with coronavirus? Both of them! Guess where they are now? Quarantine! I mean, duh! File that under “Don’t be a moron!” I can’t believe I’m friends with someone that stupid. Anyway, back to taking care of yourself. This isn’t rocket science.
– Eat healthy, limit bad things. You’re likely to have more time on your hands; don’t spend it drinking more alcohol, smoking more cigarettes or more weed, or eating your way through the pandemic. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the best, but you may not have access to them, so frozen fruit and veg are better than no fruit and veg. Every restaurant has delivery now, but try to not give in and order carb, fat, sugar crap delivery. Eating healthy also helps boost your immune system. Google “foods that boost the immune system” and see what you like and what you can get your hands on. Blueberries, raspberries, nuts, eggs, leafy vegetables, lean meat, fish.
– You must exercise every day. Obviously you should not visit a gym or use community gym equipment, but it’s fine if you own it and it’s inside your home. If you share gym equipment with your “covid family” be sure to clean it between uses and wash your hands thoroughly after using it. If you don’t use equipment, go for a walk or bike ride. Look On-Demand or YouTube for workout videos to do at home. Move your body everyday.
– Keep to your regular work day sleep-wake schedule. Go to bed at a certain time, get up at certain time. Sleep deprivation and/ or exhaustion compromises your immune system, so it compromises you.
– Get dressed. If you dress like a bum, you’re more likely to feel like a bum. Try for the sake of the people that may be in your “covid family”. Don’t wear your pajamas all day, get dressed and look a human being please. Shower, shave, brush your teeth, wash your face, yada yada. Fine, if you’re working from home and want to wear sweats for a day or two, that’s fine, but doing it every day for a long period of time tends to undermine the sense of self-esteem and degrade the community around you, aka your “covid family”
– Learn to relax. These are trying times. Do things to help deal with anxiety. Try aromatherapy, music, gardening, yoga, meditation. Google meditation videos, and look on YouTube as well and give it a try. For some people, a pet is the best anxiolytic in the world; think about getting a fish or a little mammal. If that’s not for you, try getting a little plant to take care of, just something you can nurture. It helps a great deal psychologically.
– Meals become a bigger deal now, because it will probably be the most face to face interaction you’ll have, assuming you’re not going out. I suggest you schedule one big meal a day- usually dinner- and everyone pitches in. Some people prep, some cook, and some clean up. Working together is good for the mind and the soul, because it gives everyone a sense of belonging.
5. Be frugal. If that is foreign to you, learn to stop spending. Figure it out. You must conserve all resources and manage the resources you have in the most efficient way, so you are not wasting food, goods, or money. You don’t know how long this is going to last, or the effect on the economy once it’s gone, so think before you spend a penny.
6. Limit news exposure. You’ll go crazy watching it all day. Don’t leave the news station on as white noise either. Remember that some people, like politicians (ahem), have a secondary agenda that you can’t even begin to imagine, so you can’t really believe everything you’re hearing. Take everything with a grain of salt until you hear the same news from multiple sources who have conflicting interests. Then you can put more stock into what you’re being told.
7. How to entertain yourself or others in your “covid family”? The key here is to keep changing it up. Movies, binge watching tv shows, virtual reality systems, Gameboys, puzzles, board games, cards, reading, art. Try some hobbies you’ve never had the time to try before: planting a garden, sewing, knitting, painting, drawing, writing, tie-dye, whatever rocks your boat. You’re not going to be able to do the same thing day after day, because you’ll be bored out of your skull; remember that we’re probably looking at months before it’ll be safe to return to life, but likely a year minimum before things even start to get back to normal. Months to a year is a long time to be bored.
8. You must maintain a high level of socialization. Use Facetime rather than just phone calls. Email or text, however you can stay in touch with people. Anyone who’s read my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon (shameless plug) or reads/ watches my blogs/ vlogs, will laugh at this next bit. I suggest that you use social media, Facebook, Instagram, etc to facilitate interactions with people and get ideas from the outside world and really stay in tune with what’s going on. Normally I harp on the evils of social media, but it’s a brand new world people! Try very hard to stay in touch with friends and family during this isolated state.
9. Have structure, especially if there are kids in the house. You must establish special rules for the special circumstances we are in. If you have school-aged kids, are they “out of school?” This isn’t summer, and most schools have a curriculum for students during this time at home. So, the kids must wake up in the morning, shower, have breakfast, brush the teeth, and boom…school is in session! Make a schedule for them for every day, Monday to Friday, and stickto it religiously. I ran a school for 10 years, and I know how important this is. This isn’t punishing or being mean to the kids; kids are happier on a schedule, because they know exactly what to expect and when to expect it. The key here is to break the day up into separate topics/ sessions: reading time (or lecture, depending on age), discussion/ questions on the reading or lecture, outside activity, snack time, art, creative play time, lunch time, nap time (if applicable), puzzle time, special project time. The key to success is tailoring the subjects, activities, and the length of each session to the age of the kids. Young kids have a short attention span, so spend no more than 20 minutes on each session. Older children can usually handle 45 minutes, but adjust the time according to your child. Special projects could include maybe making homemade kites and racing them, or having a cookie day, where you make cookies and talk about the origin of ingredients and/ or their purpose in the recipe. For instance, when you add the chocolate chips, explain that chocolate actually starts as a big pod grown on a tree, called cacao (pronounced ka-kow), and google a picture of it along with how the process goes, from the pod to the chocolate chips in the cookies. As for lecture subjects, you can google lectures or ‘educational topics for ____ graders’ and find cirriculum and lesson plans. And it really is worth it for you to order stuff online to keep them entertained and learning and productive. You can even get topic or lecture ideas from everyone sitting around the dinner table. Understand that kids feel the stress of this situation too, so engaging them in positive and productive activities will take their minds off the fear and uncertainty while improving their skills and expanding their education. The bottom line is that if you don’t engage the kids, they’ll be idle and bored, a perfect prescription for the house to descend into chaotic madness.
10. Think! Think really hard before doing anything. Ask yourself, ‘Is it worth my money?’ and ‘Do I need it?’ Stop with the panic buying! Really, how much toilet paper do you actually need? Buy the things you need, but think before you do in order to conserve your resources. Think wisely about what your family will eat, and what items will last for a long time: rice, pasta, jarred sauces, frozen fruit and veg, granola, protein bars, shelf stable milk, etc. Don’t do anything stupid like my friend in Pennsylvania did, taking a quick vacay to Florida…now he and his wife are on a Covid-19 quarantine vacay, a bummer place to be. And think how idiotic they’ll look when they have to answer friends and family’s questions on how and where they got the virus! Also, don’t panic. There’s really nothing to panic about. Prepare the best you can, take good care of yourself, be smart, and wait it out. Always keep your wits about you.
Do you know the answer to the question ‘How long can you do this?’ I’ll tell you. The answer is… as long as we need to. Look, this will surely pass, but probably a lot like a kidney stone. That is to say, it’s going to be a long, rough ride that will involve some pain. But we’ll get through it, because we are nothing if not resilient. One day, hopefully sooner than later, we’ll have a treatment and even a vaccine for Covid-19, and eventually this virus will only exist in the perpetually frozen and hermetically sealed specimen libraries of the CDC, WHO, NIH, and whatever other acronym’d organizations keep stuff like that, filed under V– not for Virus- but for Vanquished.Learn More
Coronavirus, covid-19…the mere mention of these names strikes fear into the hearts of people that have one thing in common: they live on planet earth. It’s pretty sad that it takes a virus to bring us all together, working on a common goal.
It’s that fear that I want to talk about. Fear of the coronavirus is the one thing that spreads more rapidly and is more contagious than the virus itself. That’s really thanks to the media. This is one of the most sensationalized topics I have ever seen in the media. Their choice of verbage and the names of their reports, it’s all to get people’s attention; it’s unnerving and inflammatory. A great deal of the intel that we’re fed is misleading at best. I think the virulence has been overstated, along with the way they calculate the percentage of deaths resulting from the virus.
Consider that 50% of the people infected have no symptoms at all, 30% have mild symptoms. They eat some chicken soup and take some acetominophen and they’re fine. Many don’t seek treatment. Maybe 20% have moderate-to-severe symptoms and require treatment. Very few, most high risk cases, go on to pneumonia and organ failure. Now consider how many people actually get sick with the virus but don’t report it. Why? Because they don’t want to be ostracized, treated like a leper, a modern day Typhoid Mary. They don’t inform anybody. That’s why the death rate is so high right now, because the number of confirmed cases is so low. If everyone that got sick from the virus actually reported and sought treatment, we would be able to accurately assess the death rate and it would be far lower than what is reported. That’s just one example of how some things are up for interpretation and one reason why you can’t allow these statistics to freak you out.
The media should learn to dispense accurate information without being sensational, and it should avoid exploiting people’s fears. For example, they call it a “deadly virus,” but that can be misleading, because for most people, the virus is not deadly at all. Don’t get me wrong, this situation is deserving of our vigilance and attention, and I’m all for being prepared and doing everything you can to help flatten the exposure/ infection curve, but there’s a thin line between being aware and informed and living in a state of constant fear and anxiety.
But understand that constant worry may make people more susceptible to the very thing they fear…as long-term stress is known to weaken the immune system. So ultimately, the more worried we are, the more vulnerable we are to the coronavirus.
Look, it has to be said…there isn’t any real, practical (read: sane) reason to stock up on toilet paper, but it may make people feel a little more in control of a situation that embodies the very definition of the word unknown. The less worried they are because they bought toilet paper, as ridiculous as that seems, the more they’ve reduced their fear, and in turn, minimized the effects on their immune system. So, if buying 8 year’s worth of toilet paper gets you through the night, or the pandemic, then go for it.
The good news is, there is a happy medium between ignoring the biggest story in the world right now and going into a full-on panic. Here are some tips. Think of it like hand-washing and self-isolation, but for your brain.
How not to lose your s÷&t over coronavirus: Do’s and Don’t’s
1. Do pare down your sources of information. There is a ton of information out there, which means you have to decide who to believe and wilfully ignore everyone and everything else. You can control your intel intake with the following steps:
– Do find a few sources you trust and stick with them. Choose one national or international source like the CDC, and one local, non-national source; this way you can know what’s going on in the country or world as well as your community.
Don’t sit in front of your tv for hours on end flicking channels between CNN, FoxNews, CNBC, etc.
– Do limit the frequency of your news updates. Things may be changing rapidly, but they don’t change every 15 minutes. And even if they did, do you really need to know the very minute that 4 new people are infected? No, you don’t. Look at it this way: if there’s a tornado coming toward you, you need info asap and in a hurry. HINT: The coronavirus is not a tornado. Don’t leave the tv on all day as white noise, because some of that crap gets in your brain. Doget the information you need and keep it moving.
– Do hang it up! Get some social media self discipline. Put the phone away. For a lot of my patients, this is their biggest hurdle. It may not be easy to limit time on social media, but commentary from friends and acquaintances on your Facebook feed is worse than actual updates from news organizations. Don’tever count on recirculated, dubiously-sourced posts on Facebook, because all they’ll give you is a panic attack.
2. Do define your fears, it makes them less scary. A ‘pandemic’ is such a nebulous threat. It can be very helpful to sit down and really consider what specific threats worry you. Do you think you will catch the coronavirus and die? That’s where the brain is more likely to go, because the fear of death taps into an evolutionary core fear, but how realistic is that? Do consider your personal risk and think how likely it is that you will actually come in contact with the virus. And, if the worst happens and you or someone you love does contract the virus, plan for what happens next. In all likelihood,hope is not lost. Don’t overestimate the likelihood of the bad thing happening while underestimating your ability to deal with it. Being prepared for your fears will help keep them in check. Do everything you can to prepare; once you’ve done that, you’re done… just take care of yourself.
3. Do seek support, but do so wisely.
Don’t talk to Chicken Little…the sky is not falling! It’s natural to talk to people, even strangers, about something so pervasive as coronavirus. But choose your counsel wisely. If you’re afraid, it’s not the best idea to talk to someone else who’s freaking out, you’d just create an echo chamber. Don’t talk to the doomsday preppers about your coronavirus fears. Do talk to a more glass-half-full type, someone that’s handling it well, they can check your anxiety and pointless fears. Do seek professional help if you can’t get a handle on your thoughts. It doesn’t have to be long term, just situational assistance.
4. Do continue to pay attention to your basic needs. In times of stress, we tend to minimize the importance of the basic practices of our ‘normal’ lives when we really should be paying more attention to them. Don’t get so wrapped up in thinking about the coronavirus that you forget the essential, healthy practices that affect your wellbeing every day. Do make sure you are getting adequate sleep, keeping up with proper nutrition, getting outside as much as possible, and engaging in regular physical activity. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, or yoga can also help center you in routines and awareness, and keep your mind from wandering into the dark and often irrational unknown.
I give the media and the government a hard time, but I think they’re panicking a little, because we’ve never seen a worldwide pandemic, it’s awesome. I don’t mean like awesome yay great, I mean awesome like wow, we’re in awe of this crazy pandemic. We never expected this, there’s no road map, but here we are, our collective pants around our ankles. All we can do now is the best we can. I don’t think the US has seen the worst of it yet, but I still see a bright future. In the next months, our detection, our means to stop the spread of it, and our treatment of this will dramatically improve. They will start using antiviral drugs already on the market, like Kaletra that’s used in AIDS cases, and that will likely stop coronavirus in its tracks. The only people that I think may need to worry are people who are immunocompromised or of advanced age. My projection is by the end of April 2020 this will max out, and by end of May the cases will start declining, and by August this will be a bad memory. It will just be another flu virus; and we will have the vaccine for it within 18 months, it will be under control, just another vanquished virus in the CDC archive. It will not overwhelm our system, will not destroy our economy; it will be resolved. My money’s on that.
Be well, everyone. Wash your hands with soap and hot water. Avoid crowds. Flatten that curve, people!Learn More
How Alcohol Kills
Too much of anything, no matter how pleasurable it may be in the beginning, can lead to harmful effects. Anything that you might enjoy- eating chocolate, shopping, playing cards, even exercising- may cause harm if it is overindulged in. The negative effects or the consequences of overindulgence are well known- obesity, bankruptcy, harm to the body, etc. The same can certainly be said about alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is a highly toxic substance that can cause serious damage, both physically to the body and psychologically to the mind. An occasional drink is not the issue. But if drinking takes on a substantial role in one’s life, the effects can ultimately be devastating. You drive recklessly, you have poor coordination so you fall on your head, your inhibitions are down, so you get mouthy in a bar and get yourself stabbed or shot.
Let’s talk numbers. Excessive drinking remains a leading cause of premature mortality nationwide. Alcoholism is a widespread problem in the US, with nearly 90,000 deaths attributed to alcohol each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They have established guidelines to help determine what constitutes excessive drinking.
First: A “drink” is defined as a 12-ounce beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces or wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor. Remember that some cocktails contain multiple types of liquor, so they may have more than
1½ ounces each.
Excessive drinking is considered 8 or more drinks in a week for women, and 15 or more drinks in a week for men.
Binge drinking is considered 4 or more drinks in a single occasion for women, and 5 or more drinks in a single occasion for men.
Binge drinking is the most common form of excessive alcohol consumption, and is responsible for more than 50% of the deaths from excessive drinking. Binge drinking is a major cause of alcohol poisoning, and is a pattern of heavy drinking: in males, binge drinking is the rapid consumption of five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours; in females, binge drinking is the rapid consumption of four or more alcoholic drinks within two hours. These numbers may be lower, depending on a person’s weight and body composition. An alcohol binge can occur over a period of hours or last up to several days.
Binge drinking can cause alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is a very serious- and sometimes deadly- consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking too much too quickly can affect your breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and gag reflex, and potentially lead to coma and death.
Most people can easily consume a fatal dose of alcohol before passing out. Even after losing consciousness, or after stopping drinking for the night, alcohol continues to be released from your stomach and intestines into your bloodstream, and the level of alcohol in your body continues to rise. Unlike food, which can take hours to digest, alcohol is absorbed quickly by your body- long before nutrients are. Most alcohol is processed or metabolized by your liver, and that’s why the liver is so damaged by alcohol.
Captain Obvious says that the more you drink, especially in a short period of time, the greater your risk of alcohol poisoning. There are several ways thatbinge drinking and alcohol poisoning kill you:
Choking: Alcohol may cause vomiting. And because it depresses your gag reflex, the risk of choking on vomit if you’ve passed out is very high. If you don’t die from that directly, you can also die from aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia often results when you breathe in vomit, and you are not able to cough up this aspirated material, so bacteria grow in your lungs and cause an infection. Yucky! And deadly!
Stopping breathing: Accidentally inhaling vomit into your lungs can also lead to a dangerous, fatal interruption of breathing, called asphyxiation.
Severe dehydration: Vomiting can result in severe dehydration, leading to dangerously low blood pressure and fast heart rate.
Seizures: Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to seizure in multiple ways, including trauma to the head from falling or auto accident, a sudden drop in blood sugar, and even upon withdrawl from heavy drinking.
Hypothermia: Your body temperature may drop so low that you become hypothermic, leading to cardiac arrest.
Irregular heartbeat: Alcohol poisoning can cause the heart to beat irregularly, called arrhythmia, or even stop, called cardiac arrest.
Brain damage: Heavy drinking may cause irreversible brain damage. This can happen intrinsically or as a result of head trauma from falling or car accident, etc.
Death: Any of the issues above can lead to death.
If right now you’re thinking you’re safe because you don’t binge drink, think again. If you have “just a few” drinks every night, that is considered excessive consumption, so those few drinks each night are killing you, make no mistake.
When you think about the ways alcohol kills, some obvious ways spring to mind: trauma from car accidents, trauma from falls from being drunk, and general stupidity from being drunk, such as things that happen when alcohol lowers inhibitions to the point that you pick a fight you can’t hope to win (and you don’t) or you get lost and walk drunkenly into a bad neighborhood and get yourself killed. For the lucky people that avoid a trauma-related death from alcohol, the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption may not be apparent for some time, but at some point there will be obvious signs that alcohol is killing them.
Ways Alcohol is Kills
It is mind boggling just how destructive alcohol is to the brain and body. The signs alcohol is killing you may creep up slowly, with a symptom here or there, or hit you all at once with a liver that has stopped functioning, as happens in late stage alcoholism.
Signs and ways alcohol kills:
Cardiac issues: Long-term heavy drinking takes a heavy toll on the heart. Signs of serious cardiac issues that could result in death include atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia, two signs of heart arrhythmia, ie abnormal heart beat. Alcohol can also lead to a heart condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which is when the heart muscle weakens and cannot pump enough blood to the organs. This can result in organ damage or heart failure.
Cognitive dysfunction: Alcohol use can lead to brain damage, which shows up first as a reduction in cognitive functioning and problems with memory. Alcohol use often leads to Thiamine (B1) deficiency, which leads to significant brain damage. Alcohol also destroys the hippocampus, the part of your brain involving memory and reasoning. You get confusion, memory loss, and muscle coordination problems. You also interfere with the body’s ability to repair and build new nerve cells, called neurogenesis; it is much less effective. So without a sober brain, without a clear memory, and without thinking clearly, you will put yourself in very dangerous situations that may end with you dying. Or maybe you have so much confusion and memory loss that you take the wrong dose of medication or the wrong medication completely? Or you have such impairment that you drive and cause an accident or drive and get lost. It happens every day. I had a long time patient named Rona. She was a severe alcoholic; I don’t even remember how many times she went to detox and/ or treatment. She tried to quit drinking so hard and so many times. Back then, my office was in West Palm. One day she had an appointment with me, and I could tell she had been drinking, but she didn’t seem wasted. I told her for the eighteenth million time that she had to quit drinking, and Rona dutifully replied that she knew. I made sure that she hadn’t driven to the office and she said she would be taking the bus home, so I let her go. The next day I got a visit from two sheriff’s detectives, and they told me that Rona was dead, and did I think that she had been suicidal. I told them she had not been suicidal and explained my assessment and protocol for suicidal patients asked how she had died. They said that she was downtown and walked out into the street and right in front of a car. Her whole left side and head were destroyed by the hood of the car, and she was Trauma Hawk’d to the trauma center. Unfortunately, she had massive internal injuries and severe head trauma and she died about 3 hours later. Rona’s story is an example of the kind of trauma that happens when people drink. I had another patient, a 36 year old man named Jennings, that had very poor coordination from drinking, but he didn’t think so. Jennings had this false illusion that he was as capable as everyone else, if not more so, and when he drank he thought he was invincible. His wife had divorced him about a year earlier so he lived alone. He either did really well for himself or had family money. I always suspected a combination of the two. One Saturday afternoon, he was sitting on his porch, drinking of course, looking at his boat at the end of the dock. While continuing to drink, he apparently got the bright idea that he wanted to take the boat out. He went and got it down from the lift and into the water, and then stepped from the dock into the boat to crank the engine. Then he got out and walked inside to get a cooler together, and he stepped again from the dock to the boat to load it in. He then evidently got out of the boat to get something else, and once he got it, he was stepping from the dock into the boat for the third time. But then his run of luck ran out. That third time, he didn’t quite make that step from the dock into the boat, and he slipped, hit his head on the side of the boat, and slipped unconscious into the water, where he drowned. It was a sad end to his life.
Gastrointestinal problems: Alcoholism can cause acid reflux and excess acid in the stomach, which can lead to gastritis. It also causes irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining, which can cause painful ulcers and internal bleeding. Alcohol hampers blood clotting, so the loss of blood from these can be extreme, leading to anemia and causing extreme fatigue, or worse. Excessive drinking can also lead to stomach pain that may indicate chronic cholecystitis, a very serious gallbladder condition.
Liver disease: Alcohol is incredibly toxic to the liver. The problem with liver disease is that the signs of it may not be detected until later stages, such as when cirrhosis occurs. At that point, the eyes will appear yellow, along with other signs of jaundice. Also, one loses their appetite so there will be sudden weight loss, as well as intense itching, weakness, and fatigue, and easy bruising. Cirrhosis of the liver, which often begins as fatty liver disease, is ultimately fatal, unless a liver transplant is successful. But before you die of cirrhosis, you are prone to die of fun things like esophogeal varices. These varices are abnormally dilated veins that develop beneath the lining of the esophagus as a result of the pressure from cirrhosis. The more severe the liver disease, the more likely esophageal varices are to bleed, and alcohol further thins the lining of the esophagus, which contributes to variceal growth, but also makes the varices more likely to bleed. And to top it off, alcohol thins the blood by wrecking clotting factors. So what does that mean? Ruptured varices. Which means all of a sudden, with no warning, blood gushes deep in the throat from all directions, choking you as you breathe it in and cough it up and eventually, you die. It is a painful, bloody, and terrible death, I promise. I have had many patients with very sick livers over the years succumb to esophageal varices.
Pancreatitis: Alcohol causes severe pancreas issues and pancreatitis. The pancreas controls blood sugar by producing natural insulin. Alcohol interrupts this process, so the pancreas doesn’t secrete the insulin. Without the pancreas secreting insulin, your blood sugar sky rockets and you get diabetic ketoacidosis. This means that you have sugar in your blood, but you cannot get it into your cells without the insulin, and that leads to a host of metabolic issues and could easily end in you dead.
Cancer: Excessive alcohol causes inflammation of the tissues, and this inflammation predisposes you to cancer. Types of cancer associated with heavy alcohol consumption include oral, throat, esophageal and voice box cancers, colon cancer, rectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, and breast cancer. The symptoms that may indicate cancer vary depending on the type of cancer, but symptoms generally begin with weight loss, fatigue, and pain in some area in the body.
Absorbtion Syndromes: Alcohol also causes absorption syndromes. A big one is B12. Alcohol prevents you from absorbing B12 in your small intestines, and that leads to all sorts of muscular, brain, and central nervous system issues, causing confusion, memory problems, and eventually death. Alcohol also prevents you from absorbing folate. Folate is a neuroprotectant, so lacking folate causes memory issues. There are also anemias associated with lacking folate.
Poor/ Lacking Sleep: Alcohol causes sleep disturbances. It causes snoring and sleep apnea, so you don’t sleep well and have inadequate sleep. And guess what? People who do not sleep have a shortened life span and a much higher incidence of accidental death. I had a patient named Richard. I don’t know if I would label him as an alcoholic, but he did drink at night and was a heavier weekend drinker. He had a really good job driving heavy machinery on construction sites. One day, there was an accident on the site. Richard had actually fallen asleep and he somehow hit a guy working on site. The injured guy was actually a friend of Richard’s. He was injured with a compound tibial fracture and was going to be fine after surgery, but Richard was sick about it. As a matter of course, the company tested Richard and found no drugs or alcohol in his system. After he told me about it, he admitted that he had fallen asleep on the job and that’s how the accident had happened. I asked him how he slept and he said he thought okay, but je was always tired during the day. I explained how drinking can interrupt sleep and the consequences of that and that I had the cure. He was excited until I told him the cure was to quit drinking. I told him that this time, he’d “only” hurt a friend and co-worker, that next time it might be worse. He said he’d think about it and left. Three days later, he was back, asking me to detox him. Hallelujah! That was almost three years ago, and Richard is doing well. He managed to keep his job and his friendship, and he’s a much happier guy, proud to look in the mirror again. So not sleeping can kill you, or maime you…or someone you care about.
Infections: Alcohol suppresses your immune system, which predisposes you to infections. These may be viral or bacterial infections. Both can kill you, especially if you’re in a physically weakened state from excessive alcohol consumption.
In addition to physical effects and consequences of alcoholism, life-altering impairment can be caused in many other ways as well. There are psychosocial issues, and these include legal problems due to DUIs, loss of a job, divorce, custody battles, and financial problems. There are so many signs…physical, mental, and psychosocial…that alcohol is devastating a person’s life. Make no mistake- the most devastating way alcohol affects lives is to end lives. If you drink, be aware and beware…it happens in far more ways than you could ever imagine.
For more information and stories about alcohol use and abuse, please check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More