PTSD, Euphemisms, and George Carlin

The famous American standup philosopher George Carlin has a fantastic piece about euphemisms.  Paraphrasing and simplifying, he offers that he’s against euphemistic language.  Part of what I’m with him on is that euphemisms tend to conceal the truth.

May 5th, there was this article in the Washington Post indicating that there are a group of psychiatrists hoping to change the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (AKA “PTSD”) in the upcoming DSM-V (the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition”, the industry standard for all things psychiatric diagnosis… quick primer on my website here) to “Post Traumatic Stress Injury“.  The change, they hope, will make it easier for people, particularly military personnel, to more readily seek help.  They are citing that the term PTSD has a stigma attached to it.

While it arguably does, “Post Traumatic Stress Injury” might also be an equally unhelpful euphemism.  Non-military personnel frequently get the symptoms of PTSD as well.  Victims of crimes, violence, sexual abuse and more often have sufficient symptoms to justify being diagnosed with the disorder (Wiki here, for a quick look).

My concern about this is not simply haggling the diagnosis.  In all candor, the tome (the DSM) is a convention (with some real science too, but arguably still a convention)- a means of shorthand for mental health professionals to communicate.  My interest in the book is mostly about how it helps us guide treatment, and obtain treatment from the relevant funding sources.

Back to Carlin, he specifically addresses PTSD.  He takes us through the historical context- that the problem began with our recognition of the symptoms post war.  A condition we used to refer to as “shellshock” gave way to “battle fatigue”, then “operational exhaustion” (probably the grossest evasion of the depth of the severity of the symptoms of the problem), eventually leading to the current “PTSD”- arguably in light of the awareness that lots of things besides war can cause the aforementioned symptoms above.

We need a shorthand.  This will be the 6th shorthand (if we count “combat stress”) we’ve endeavored to come up with.  What we need more though, is an honest representation (and advocacy of awareness) of the consequences of these horrific events.  I’m less worried as a professional about whether or not someone suffering needs help than I am about whether we can actually get them access to it- and our evasion of these truths, often through our language, prevents us from getting legislation, funding, and other resources necessary that we can serve all victims of trauma in the ways that they need and deserve most.  Sadly, my experience of the last 28 years (at this point) has led me to feel that how we communicate about these problems has led largely to desensitization, in part, due to a euphemistic way of communicating such problems.

On a related note, often, a lot of the language in my discipline serves the individuals and the discipline itself, rather than the sufferer.  Pharmaceutical companies are served, occasionally a “new” theorist is served in terms of marketing their ideas, insurance companies are served, but rarely is it people that are suffering who are served.  It’s a source of consternation for me, both personally and professionally.

Some might say I need to come up with a more accurate term.  Maybe I should, but it’s not really the part of this that I’m invested in.  It takes longer to talk about someone suffering flashbacks, avoiding situations and experiences, fears, hypervigilance, poor regulation of their feelings, struggling with being overwhelmed by sadness or shame, having their ability to function in their responsibilities and relationships diminished (and much more), and explain what these things are to people, specifically.  But seeing how these folk are so suffering, it’s clear that doing so is worth it.  Taking the time to live with these words and feelings means much not just in terms of understanding the suffering, but honoring it.  If we’re truly going to care for people who are suffering, it will take at least that.

Attitude of Platitude

Talking with a client the other day, the subject of platitudes came up.  Many of us use them routinely.  Whether opining about inferences made, used polemically, or giving feedback to a friend or loved one, they’re used fairly often in all different kinds of discourse.  These certainly occur in therapy, twelve step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Co-Da, ACA, Overeaters Anonymous, etc).  We hear them at church/synagogue.  They’re used copiously in political speeches and discussions.

Many years ago, a friend began saying to me when discussing platitudes, “Cliche alert!  Cliche alert!” ala the robot from “Lost in Space”.  It was his way of indicating that the user was often either not really saying anything, and/or wasn’t really aware of the content or context of the cliche being used.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “It is because we have at this present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.”  What I think he was getting at was pretty fundamental, and horror-producing… we all claim a right to truths and perceptions without really going through any real self or “concept” examination, and impose a subsequent template on the world in its wake.

That’s a fantastic way to create and/or perpetuate problems.  Am bringing it up because it seems that platitudes are a common ways this occurs.  Not that many platitudes or cliches aren’t true, just that we often don’t seem to examine if we’re using them, truly understand them, use them in context and the like.  I often see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use cliches and platitudes simply because they don’t know what else to say.

Going back to twelve step programs, one cliche that is often used is “attitude of gratitude”.  With equal measure, it seems that an “attitude of platitude” is what is often in use.  Ideas like “just do what you’re doing”, “keep it simple”, “I decide for me, you decide for you, we decide for us”, and more are arguably great ideas.  These ideas even have utility for depression, relationships, self esteem, addiction, grief, loss and more.  However, our command of the language doesn’t necessarily indicate a real handle on what they mean or how/when/what context to use them and make them practical.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

New Office Space

Have to start here with some gratitude. As many of you know, The Work is really a mission of sorts for me- trying to put myself out of a job so to speak. So many have been so kind and encouraging about my work. Clients, colleagues, friends. It’s really important to me to have a clearsighted and organized way of being a partner with people in eliminating suffering, having principles… preferably both.

Left doing inpatient full time in April, in favor of doing private practice full time. The folk above (and more) have responded by sending a lot of folk my way to do service with/for. As a result, my longtime office space with Brendan Thyne MA, and his dad Rick Thyne MFT (Patrick Thyne and Associates) became too small (time wise) to accommodate my clients.

Noting this because getting a new space wasn’t just a task- it is a loss in a lot of ways. Brendan and Rick are relatives (of choice and affiliation)- and fantastic therapists. The space across the street from Pasadena City Hall has been beautiful, and I really enjoy the surroundings. Between losing the familial contact and the space, is a big deal.

That said though, have found a fantastic space to do The Work in. Am hoping that it will bring an energy and space that can be filled with whatever it is that people need. Want to send some appreciation specifically for Yvonne, my dad, Judy McGehee LMFT, Erika Gayoso/Michael Cardenas/Ted Aaselund and Elvia Cortes. Also appreciation to Jeff Boxer Esq, David Wolf, Ed Wilson PhD, Sue Stauffer, Barbara Waldman PhD, Barbara O’Connor MFT, Tricia Hill, of course Lali and Sadie. A special note for my clients though- you all continue to humble me deeply, and have been fantastic supporters of my work.

Here’s a pic of the new space- near the end of the 110, the 134/210. New address is 547 S. Marengo Ave, Pasadena, 91101:

Preaching Prudence but Practicing Evasion

Just by virtue of having eyes and ears, we have emotional responses to everything. When we have experiences that create loss, damage, violate our sense of self or ethics (prompt an experience of feeling “less than” or being broken, also known as “shame”), frighten us or etc, we have to do something with how that feels. Just like falling off a bike and skinning our knee, we hurt in part because that’s the healing process in action. Many therapists and others refer to these unresolved hurts as “issues”.

If we don’t have a means of healing/dealing with these, there are lots of unintended consequences. Not healing “hurts” (shame, fear, sadness, etc) causes “neurotic” behavior. “Acting out”, drug use, manipulation, self-ful-ness, isolation, “codependent” behavior, “anxiety”, avoidant behaviors, etc. Long term and in the wake of continued losses/traumas, these can turn into more serious problems- depression, relationship issues, “mental illnesses”, addictions and etc.

Sometimes these other problems and behaviors are simply ways of surviving or “coping” with our feelings about things, sometimes they become problems in and of themselves. Exercise, church (etc), self-help books, “will”, diet and nutrition, hobbies etc are all efforts that can be helpful in varying degrees, but for reasons too long for a blog post, they’re insufficient and/or incomplete for this task. Some of these things sometimes turn into means of avoiding our feelings as well.

If we don’t have a fairly organized (and effective) means of transforming or eradicating our experience in this way, as above, we create or perpetuate problems in our lives. Different therapists have different “tools” suggested to help resolve or diminish the intensity of these issues. My sense of this process though, goes something like this:

List the behaviors we use that put distance between us and how we feel. Some of these are external- but some are internal. Some examples are food, alcohol, work, spending, sex, focus on others, perfectionism (whether imposed on ourselves or others), TV, turning our feelings into anger, etc.

Diminish (or preferably, maybe necessarily) or stop those behaviors. There’s many, many ways of making this happen- see my blog “Wanting to Stop” for some suggestions. As has been said in other blogs, “letting go” means little for something we are not fully letting ourselves “have” in the first place.

Give the feelings we’re experiencing/left with as simple, and common a name as possible. I encourage mad, sad, glad (happy), afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt. And/or because we can certainly feel more than one at a time. Simple, because we often use euphemistic or complicated language as just another means to dissociate (separate) us from our feelings.

Share those feelings, as much as possible with the person we’re having the feelings about, as close to the time we experience them. It’s also really important that we’re actually allowing ourselves to have the feelings as we’re expressing them. Of course this isn’t always appropriate because of time or circumstance. Sometimes, it’s not appropriate because of the person we’re with. Be careful though not to “preach prudence when practicing evasion”.

As has been said by many, “you can’t heal what you can’t feel”. This process is assisted by doing it with a professional who has has both education and experience in doing so not just as a therapist, but hopefully as a person as well. We are trained in various means that facilitate some really important parts of this process that are sometimes not intuitive to our friends, families, loved ones. Am getting at a fairly simple list of ideas here- stop doing what we do to not feel, have an organized way of naming and letting go of or diminishing their intensity.

Utility of Sadness

We do some *ahem* interesting things with sadness.

Often, people ask us how we are.  I think the real question is about how we feel, but we will oft answer “good” or “bad” or “not so good”.  All judgments about how we feel.  Most of us would argue that “sad” is a “bad” feeling.  If we can get past that, we may use another euphemism: “depressed”.  Our relationship to this thing is often not great.

When I left my office this morning (my second office at the Life Fitness Center, a group that provides a more holistic set of services), I was sad myself.  I’d spent several hours with people who were in horrible circumstances, and had already been suffering.  Mightily, and understandably, I might add.  When I got to the light, I noticed a gentleman, probably 7ish, walking through the crosswalk with his mom.  One of my licensures is in developmental disabilities and other related problems, and I noted his cerebral palsy right away.  They were holding hands, and though his body was having a hard time- his soul certainly wasn’t.  He appeared really happy.

Behind my wheel though, I was pretty sad.  For my clients this AM, and for him (though he was probably fine).  Most of the time when we get sad, we find some way to resist it.  We push it away with our minds, set our attention elsewhere, numb it with all kinds of different behaviors, even shame ourselves for having such feelings in the first place.

Would argue though, that my sadness, has great utility.  Not only is it the most effective way to heal my losses, it certainly makes me useful to other people.  Exactly how it heals grief and loss is not quite the gist of this missive, and takes time with a therapist/counselor/life coach to know how to do effectively and gracefully.  Am certain that my sadness today assisted me in being kind and present for my clients, and likely would keep me “softer” when dealing with folk like the gentleman in the crosswalk.

My hope is that I never lose this.  As long as I am sad about the suffering of humans, I have business doing the work that I do.  The point of this though is that this is true not just in terms of my relationship to my clients or other folk in the world, but all of us in relationship to ourselves and one another in general.  Honoring our sadness does more to “cure” “anxiety” (sorry for the consecutive quotes), relieve “depression”, and make us available for intimacy than most any other thing I can think of.

Reconciling ourselves with sadness, and finding some “grace” in how we live with it, if the above is true, surely presents some great reasons we should stop treating our sadness as something repugnant.

On a different note: as a reminder, Judy McGehee and I will be on the radio/live stream/podcasting at the link below tomorrow from 1130AM until noon on the “Project Get Well America” show with Dr. Mark.  The link for the show is here.

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626-676-0541
Hours vary, depending on the day.
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