A Mental Health Diet

john nash 2“I became disillusioned with some of the delusions.” With this statement John Nash humorously described one of his main strategies in attempting to better manage his decades long struggle with schizophrenia. I’ve written before about one important factor in John’s improving mental health, about his becoming recognized and appreciated by an appropriate group of colleagues, family and friends.

Another significant contribution to John’s rationally managing the irrationality of his schizophrenia was what he referred to as putting himself on a mental health diet. He pointed out that just as people put themselves on a food diet by choosing not to indulge certain appetites he concluded that he could not afford himself the luxury of allowing all of the voices in his head to be taken seriously as though they were accurate reporters of reality.

Instead, just as a dieter refuses the allure of certain foods in order to more rationally control calorie and nutrition intake John realized he simply had to identify those voices which would be counterproductive to his successfully functioning in his world and disqualify them as unworthy to be heard. He realized that, through the years before employing this strategy, all the voices were being given equal credibility one with another, even those voices that were upsetting and drove him to alienating behavior.

A dieter’s eyes will fall upon an array of foods all of which appeal to him. Yet if he is to be successful, in his mind he will have to identify those foods that in spite of their appeal will have to be rejected. He rationally chooses to not indulge himself with those troublesome foods. So too, John was choosing to not give credence to certain voices since he had selected those voices as being unnecessarily upsetting or as having power to negatively affect his behavior among people.

While curing his schizophrenia would be the best case scenario mental health science has not developed to that extent. There are a number of physical health problems that modern medical science has not yet been able to cure. The next best thing, a not insignificant thing, is to create ways to more effectively manage the power of a health issue to negatively impact the quality of life for patients. Just so, John realized that while he could not eliminate the strange voices in his head he could choose to a degree how much he would pay attention to which voices.

A crucial step in treating the issues that people bring to psychotherapy is identifying structural changes that the client is rationally capable of effecting that will quickly reduce a portion of the negative impact these issues are having on his quality of life. This quickly gives the client a boost in his expectations that therapy could be helpful. It then buys time for the issues not so easily controlled to be treated in a more stepwise fashion.

Even if we can’t yet rid ourselves of all our demons we can at least identify them as demons rather than friends and begin to deny them a vote in choosing what to say or what to do in a given situation. This is an important first step in beginning to move life out of the shadows and into the light.

We have all learned from experience that certain acquaintances have proven not to be our friends and should not be allowed to influence our thinking and decision-making. Similarly we need to identify our own thoughts that are not our friends and begin to remove the vote they have on how I should feel, what I should say and what I should do. Correctly labeling which of our thoughts are truly our friends and which are truly our enemies is essential to gaining control of our lives.

John Nash discovered this. He became disillusioned with his own delusions. And he reaped the benefits, for himself, for his family and friends and for all those who have been enriched by his intriguing life.

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Larry Crowne

julia and tomMost movies are not only fiction but take place with plots and occurrences and even locations that can’t exist in the real world. While these diversions can certainly be highly entertaining I tend to be drawn to movies that either tell the stories of what real people experience or at least tell a fictional story not unlike the real-life experiences of millions of standard folk. These are the movies that pique my interest and are most likely to delight me.

“Larry Crowne” is such a movie, a land of opportunity story similar to the real-life experiences of millions of Americans. Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) is a divorced 20 year Navy veteran proudly working in a big box store for which he takes ownership by his loyal enthusiasm. Set years ago during the great recession, Crowne is “downsized” out of his job. Like so many millions of others at that time he’s upside down on his house payment and unable to find a job even with his enthusiastic pursuit. His next-door neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) directs him towards getting a college education by handing him, and trying to sell him, a (free) local community college schedule.

Larry enrolls in college and upon a dean’s direction enrolls in three courses: speech, writing and economics. His brain expands as he seriously jumps into his courses. He develops real skill in speaking to an audience in, “The Art of Informal Remarks,” taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who is burned out both with teaching and with marriage (you can see part of where this is going, since it is a romantic comedy).

In Dr. Matsutani’s (George Takai) economics class Larry gets a wake-up call about his real financial situation and the wise though unpleasant moves he must make. Among many economists’ terms he learns to use, the phrase, “a strategic foreclosure,” has practical utility. His social life expands as he encounters a wide variety of folk so typical of what one encounters today in thousands of community colleges across the land, from kids not even clear why they are there to middle agers who are desperately focused on redirecting significant areas of their life trajectory.

The movies that please me most usually have some memorable quotes that get my attention. Here are some examples.

Larry bemoans having two years ago at his divorce bought his wife’s half of the house at its pre great recession value, and Cedric responds:

“I told you how to avoid divorce lawyers. You get married and you stay married.”

On the subject of his life trajectory being completely overturned by these events beyond his control:

“You are starting over. Manifest destiny has led you someplace else.”

And in response to the nonsensical reason Larry was given as to why he was let go:

“The man wanted you gone.”

In tough love verbal prods from fellow faculty member and friend Frances (Pam Grier) to Mercy, trudging through divorce and career disillusionment,:

“There’s not a woman in the world that has not been standing where you are right now.”

And

“When a man shows his true colors that’s when a woman has to make the decision to go or no go.”

From Larry, speaking of the delightful free spirit Talia who has so uninvitedly impacted his life for the better:

“She’s a unique bundle.”

Larry responds to Mercy’s late-night inebriated poor impulse control:

“It’s now time for both of us to do the right thing.”

And then when much later she thanks him for keeping that to himself his response is:

“I can keep a secret.”

Mercy, “Gentlemen do”.

In Larry’s speech to the class he gives a very appropriate George Bernard Shaw quote:

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, art into pedantry. Hence University education.”

In addition to making money, movies are made with a variety of motivations. If one of the goals of this movie was to, almost stealthily, stimulate in the viewer an interest in the possibilities offered by your local community college, then it is highly successful. I found it a light, very enjoyable and refreshing movie from beginning to end. I love the very optimistic message that wherever you are in life, if your body and mind can still function you can redirect and create a far better life for yourself. And in the process you can influence others in the same direction. Way to go Lance Corona, er, Larry Crowne!

Trying To Make You See I’m Right

arguing coupleOne day reading an old issue of life magazine I came across the brief story of a woman driving along a city street when a drunken sailor stepped in front of her car. She slammed on brakes, came to a screeching halt and jumped out of the car to find witnesses to prove she wasn’t at fault. Fortunately for her a few city officials happen to be standing there including two traffic judges who witnessed the reckless behavior of the sailor. Unfortunately for her they also witnessed that she was driving on the wrong side of the street and gave her a ticket. The sailor was apparently unharmed and wandered on his way.

What’s my point? Frequently in couple therapy where the wife goes on, usually with much frustration and even hurt about the husband’s irritating, irresponsible, selfish and in general not smart marital behavior, the husband’s response is to go on about equally bothersome behavior of which the wife is guilty. They are giving me a live demonstration of how they attempt unsuccessfully to resolve issues in their marriage. They’re also giving an illustration of why they fail to achieve meaningful changes and merely add to the collective anger moving them toward the destruction of their marriage.

It usually occurs to me as I’m listening to the wife complain about the husband that almost any wife would have the same complaints if she were married to that man. The smart thing obviously would be for him to pay attention to her problems with him and use these as suggestions for self-improvement from someone who perhaps knows him best. Chances are that a lot of what she finds infuriating about him would be pretty much what his boss, fellow workers, friends, parents and siblings would echo. But instead of perceiving them as wiser courses of action his response to her complaints about him is to essentially say, “Well you’re not perfect either.”

The wife’s strategy in responding to her husband’s complaints is the same strategy he’s using. Don’t give any credence or validity to his concerns about you. Change the subject. Turn the spotlight of criticism on him. As long as they continue like this the marriage is heading down a bad road.

Each one of them is feeling very helpless, so troubled is he or she at being unable to get any cooperation from the partner. It also is interpreted that my partner doesn’t really love me. Each feels there’s nothing I can do to turn this marriage around.

Fortunately neither one of them is helpless to change the marriage. Either one can without any argument, capitulation or disagreement, without any request for cooperation, simply choose one of the items on the partner’s irritation list that is easiest to change and change it. I don’t mean change it briefly for a day or two to see if he or she will notice and reward you for it. You’re not doing this to win an argument. You are doing this to change the relationship for the better. Pick the next easiest-to-change behavior and do the same thing. Noticing will be done whether it’s voiced or merely pondered for how long is the change really going to last and what’s the meaning of it. This is empowering, moving you from helpless to effective in creating a better marriage for yourself and your partner and any children you have.

You are likely changing something that makes you more companionable, perhaps more likable and even more efficient. You get the benefits elsewhere in your life as well. You are not losing the power struggle with your partner; you are moving beyond it to a more mature strategy. You are stepping up your value as a human being… value to yourself and to the others whom your life impacts. Step up your game, not your arguing.