Author: Murray Schane

Death and Taxes

murray schane state of mind

When I was eleven years old I was taken to the hospital for an elective appendectomy. It was my introduction to the American healthcare system.

Last week I filed my 2019 income tax forms, paying times what Trump paid in 2017,  thus interacting yet again with our tax system.

Between these two events many decades of living have intervened. Inevitably my involvement with these systems will terminate with death.

Such thoughts give pause—or a rear-end kick—now that a global contagion rages on, climate damage is threatening to result in massive animal and plant die-out, politics appear to be leaning so far right that bizarre, paranoid conspiracy theories and science disbelief are seizing population sectors, human inequalities seem to be increasing, the Amazon rainforest, our carbon dioxide world control center, is being desecrated, international contentions and small wars rage on……it’s a disquieting time. Millions are now living in lockdown and warding off fears—about sickness and economic disaster— with televideo binge-watching and social media and digital converse. Yet they, we, are still isolated or actually alone.

 

“…science, too, as a narrative form”

 

The human brain evolved over many thousands of years primed for expansive and formidable adaptation. Creativity and the search for novelty has pushed us through barriers that are physical, social and even psychological. But we are burdened and limited by the things we cannot narrative. Being fundamentally narrative beings, animals that can not think or dream or imagine without enclosing all that in explanations or stories or theorems or even mathematical formulas that codify narratives. Science rescued us from levels of ignorance and mythologizing that would have held us back, even as we seek explanations and thrust forward leading with our craving for novelty and our inherent creativity. But science, too, as a narrative form. Even our ever-expanding knowledge of the universe is delivered as a narrative, from the first book of the Bible and farther back to the ancient Greeks and farthest back. But where is our narrative brain, our great evolutionary prize, leading us?

When I was given ether as the anesthetic for my appendectomy at age eleven, I woke in a torrent of terrifying hallucinations, like a dream that was more real than any nightmare. I was spinning in a centrifugal whorl, being pulled and stretched further and further as I spun in what seemed like endless space. As the spin increased its speed the tearing and stretching, like some medieval torture, became increasingly painful and frightening. I awoke screaming and thrashing like a wild animal chained. That experience has never left me. Probably induced by the neuropsychological effect of ether, that hallucination ensured my belief in the creative potential of the human mind as well as the narrative impulse that shapes all experience.

Which takes me back to the present. Poised what seems like a very steep precipice, America could topple into the kind of ruthlessly manipulated, re-narratized, information bounded and controlled form of governance that almost every country has, at one time or another, immersed inself in.

Which takes me back to death and taxes. Is the drive to massive disorder that seems now threatening, inevitable.? Does Rome have to fall again and again? Is a new dark age due to befall us, we who brought it on?

Give ourselves a break. Do us all some good.

 

Children of the Pandemic

murray schane state of mind

As a toddler during World War II, playing in our comfy living room in Detroit, I was unaware of the fear and anxiety that permeated the adult life around me. Not just the threat of war possibly arriving at our shore, but the knowledge that my parent’s families in France were possibly subject to the horrors of the holocaust. And word of their fate, their actual status, was unavailing.

When the news came home, after the war had ended, both parents were devastated, my mother especially. She had saved up during the depression years to bring her parents to live in the U.S. They came for a year in 1938, but, unable to speak English and missing their younger children, they returned to Paris in 1939. Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940. Then, on a hot July day in 1942, the French police, eager to please their Nazi overlords, undertook the mass arrest of Jews in the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. Among those 12,000 were my mother’s parents and two of her sisters, ultimately sent to be murdered at Auschwitz. That news devastated my mother.

I cannot measure the effect of living as a child through those tense and grievous early years. Perhaps it’s one reason I ultimately became a psychiatrist. I know I had an especially keen sense of empathy for the suffering of my patients. But I also retained the kind of clinical objectivity that perhaps replicates a child’s eye-view of adults in despair: closely observed and felt, but yet socially distant.

Now, locked in self-quarantine with their parents and with no live interaction with peers, children are subject to the pressured environment around them. The major impact originates from two perspectives: one is the emotional temperature of the caretakers, principally parents, and other co-inhabitants. The stress that the adults (and older siblings) experience inevitably impacts children, the way they witness and observe and experience the behavioral tone in the home.

A second impact derives from the way parents and others directly interact with children. Isolation with children at home continually day in and day out creates issues about relating to and tolerating children who are also unused to extended contact with parents. Discipline and caretaking become redefined merely by force of the conditions of constant contact.

Children are as adversely affected by the social containment forced on them as are the older family members. And children’s tendency to react to conditions forced upon them is not seasoned and reasoned by the rationales available to adults.

 

“[T]he mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before”

 

Fear and anxiety are emotionally contagious. Groups of people are genetically programmed to spread anxiety and panic under massed conditions. Social isolation, though tempered by the reduced number and familiarity, is none-the-less a condition where mood is readily caught and embedded, transferred between each other. Empathy, so much a human trait, when paired with the brain’s flight-or-fight reactivity can overwhelm even the most mature and affectively restrained person.

The coronavirus crisis is a stark example of rapidly spreading panic, exemplified by the enormous surge toward stocking toilet paper. The problem for children is that their capacity to self-soothe and to temper emotional flare-ups is not fully or adequately developed. Children react intensely. Nor can they accurately delimit or correctly interpret the emotional messages coming at them from the adults in the room.

The problem is further extended by the neural plasticity that allows for adaptation to new conditions as well as acquiring new adaptive patterns. Living under stressful conditions affects the neural development of the brains of children and creates adverse patterns of brain-based behavior, mood and social interaction. Stress, experienced directly or vicariously, can reset multiple neural pathways in the developing child’s brain.

With the likelihood that the coronavirus crisis will force sustained social isolation, the mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before.

This, of course, necessitates that parents and intimate caretakers of children are tasked with the need to contain their own emotional lability and to develop methods to assuage the effects of stress on their children.

We are living in an endangered new world, not one only threatened by the mounting effects of climate change, the extinction of critical animal species, the uncertainty of politics, economics, and global relations, but under the siege of fear, anxiety, and endemic stress due to the coronavirus terror.

“Oh brave new world…”

The Passover Lesson That Can Save us All

 

 

 

 

The central tenet of the Jewish holiday, Passover, is the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery. But that deliverance came because the Jews were warned to paint their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb so that God’s wrath would spare the Jews of the slaughter of their first-born sons. That was the final plague Moses proclaimed against the Egyptians. The pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews when faced with this tenth, terrible plague forced God’s hand. But the Jews had to act on God’s instruction, on faith that their sons would be spared. Yet, again, fleeing the attack by Egyptian soldiers, they gathered at the edge of the sea, acting on the belief that they would somehow cross it. And God parted the sea, allowing the Jews to pass, then folded the sea back, drowning the pursuing soldiers.

A very dramatic story, one braced against the grim history of the holocaust. But what is the lesson here? First is the recognition that the entire Passover legend is based on no traceable truths. There is no evidence that Jews were enslaved in Egypt, that almost a million escaped and journeyed through Sinai eventually to found Israel. Passover marks not only divine interventions but also the willing faith of the Jews and their daring decision to follow divine instruction and act accordingly.

 

“The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially.”

 

Deliverance from slavery resonates with the experience of pestilence. It is fitting that that deliverance was wrought by ten plagues. But slavery was the greater plague.  Hitler viewed the Jews as a global pestilence to be eradicated. The very idea of pestilence has pursued Jews at least from the time of the diaspora, after the sack of the temple and the genocide inflicted by the Romans in 60 AD. Almost everywhere in Europe where plagues occurred, and they occurred regularly, Jews were often blamed and punished. These reprisals, though obviously racist, represented attempts to secure deliverance from pestilence.

Today the coronavirus has arrived as a massive plague that spreads because of the core of human civilization—the instinctive trend toward socialization. We can now remove most traces of mythologization. COVID-19, like most viruses, exists in the natural order that ties them to the great evolutionary chain which all living things partake in.

Deliverance from this pestilence requires action faithful to belief in the scientific theory of contagion. Like the enslaved Jews of ancient Egypt, apocryphal as that story may be, people today must act on the recommendations offered by science.

Yet the tendency to assert blame on others, invoking racial and xenophobic slurs, has once again emerged. The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially. The allocation and the hoarding of medical resources recapitulate ideas of special privileging. Our democratic society is back-sliding, falling prey to eons-old fears framing one against the other.

The major preventative, physical isolation, also creates social isolation. But this preventive measure feels like an ancient enslavement, an imprisonment. But it is an act we must follow, as the Passover story reminds us, in order to find deliverance. And we must do it generously and faithfully.

We will prevail. Only save ourselves from the worst.

 

 

Your Brain on Social Isolation

murray schane state of mind

Social isolation is human despair. We evolved down from primates who were all blessed and sometimes cursed with group membership. Simply put: no (hu)man is an island.

The strangest, and some ways most disturbing, example of social isolation I ever experienced was as a senior officer on a Coast Guard ship were I was sent for a very brief tour. It was during the Vietnam war and I was serving in the Public Health Service. A requirement of that service was to do a 3-week junket providing medical coverage for a small sector, in the North Atlantic —the Sea of Labrador—as part of America’s commitment to NATO.

“Now as the coronavirus is forcing unprecedented isolation and physical as well as social distance many of us will suffer its potentially debilitating effects.”

This was not a case of physical distancing but true social distancing. As Lieutenant-Commander I was second in rank, the first being the ship captain. Tradition requires that he live and dine alone in his cabin. From the moment the ship sailed out of Governor’s Island, NY, I was perpetually seasick. But I had to show up at the head of table at every meal as officers are served in order of rank and I had to be present so everyone else could be fed. At least that is how it was explained to me.

The overwhelming feeling of isolation was probably partly my own fault. I tend to be shy and diffident. In the company of those mostly younger officers committed to a life of service at sea whose talk was mostly about experiences and interests that I did not share, And I missed my family, my home, my life that seemed far and foreign on that little cutter ship. I felt utterly alone. And virtually and actually at sea. Being seasick added a physical sense of detachment and inwardness.

Now as the coronavirus is forcing unprecedented isolation and physical as well as social distance many of us will suffer its potentially debilitating effects. While these may seem merely psychological, there is scientific evidence that such distancing from almost all face-to-face forms of usual and customary engagement can involve significant biologic changes.

Science, the craft that people have forged always collectively, now is demonstrating that isolation disturbs brain function and radiates to affect the health of the whole body. Indeed, isolation can be its own form of trauma.

Humans, born to the longest period of abject dependency of any species and dependent on conspecifics across the lifespan to survive and prosper, do not fare well, either, whether they live solitary lives or they simply perceive they live in relative isolation.” Perceived social isolation is called loneliness….[It] is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, more negativity and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating, heightened anthropomorphism, and contagion that threatens social cohesion. These differences in attention and cognition impact emotions, decisions, behaviors, and interpersonal interactions that may contribute to the association between loneliness and cognitive decline and between loneliness and morbidity more generally.”

While the perception of isolation begins in the brain and spreads within it to compromise mood and cognition, its effects also extend to the endocrine and cardiovascular systems through downward connections from the brain. General inflammatory processes are also set up and reflect back on brain function. Ultimately even micro brain structures are altered.

As the coronavirus crisis continues we can expect these potentially devastating effects to begin to appear, worse in those who mental conditions that can be exacerbated by isolation. And that group is very widely and commonly distributed: from people with major psychiatric illnesses to those with depression, anxiety, trauma histories and even PTSD, ADHD, autism, and dementia. One group, male survivors of sexual abuse, is among the potentially vulnerable and, as I include myself among them, I have posted a blog on the MaleSurvivor.org site. So, almost everyone will be affected to some degree by a prolonged state of social isolation. Add to this the lack of adequate or sufficient medical care, as well as economic hardship, and the disaster will expand even further.

This is a time when mutual support will become critical, now, fortunately, more available than in the past through internet connectivity. We must lean on one another and we also would benefit from support from authorities we humans have always relied on—our societal leaders. One of the greatest failures of our current national leadership is our president who seems innately incapable of broadly experienced empathy. Truth leavened with compassion and understanding is the best medicine in any crisis.

We need that now more than ever before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Write a Children’s Book

murray schane state of mindPanzil. How did I think of that?

I can blame my late friend,  David Gordon, who coaxed me into writing a children’s book. He was a graphic designer and he let me use his back office and his dining room during a dark time in my life, a time when one of my children was suffering from a debilitating illness that was worsening. One afternoon, as I was at the keyboard trying to write about deeply troubled patients, David put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Why don’t you write a children’s book? Something I could illustrate.”

Here I was, a psychiatrist past my twentieth year in practice, a would-be want-to-be writer, but the idea hung in the air like a fly that suddenly rushes past you, then flies out of sight.

Days later, as the fly was buzzing around me, I thought about the horror movies I liked to watch as a boy, shielding my eyes with nervous, cupped hands. All of those films were about creatures, werewolves and gorilla women and Frankenstein and Dracula and the invisible man. All of them secretly yearning to be rendered good somehow, to be rescued.

Of course, I identified with all of them. One of the struggles of my childhood, probably the main one, was defining who I was and who I was going to be when-I-grow-up. Every child’s task is to achieve a sense of self, the person it first begins to recognize through what Lacan called the Mirror Stage. Soon it accrues the qualities assigned by others — I was shy, quiet, regimented, dreamy, fearful, smart. So I was told. And hanging all through my childhood was some future self which I could not identify. I wanted to be a writer because I loved books. Not so much that I loved to write but that I liked the idea of being a writer of books.

My father’s dream for me, doubtless the fulfillment of his dream for himself, was for me to be a doctor. He was quite vocal about that, though never insistent, always subtle. He believed I had all of the qualifications to become a doctor, that I was a doctor incarnate.

So here I was years later, a few years after his death, a doctor, And I was writing a children’s book.

 

“He will live according to principles of being and doing good.”

 

I thought up a little character, a young dragon, born to be bad, but who tries to undo his heritage. He will rescue himself, even defy his parents and all he came from. The image of this young dragon came to me with a pre-determined name, the Yiddishy-sounding Panzil. That name rang out to me like a call from some Transylvanian swamp. A place where dragons might dwell. A dark, dank fen.

David loved the idea and the name. He immediately began sketching.

The thrust of the story became Panzil’s efforts to throw off the burden of evil deeds and evil intent and the fierce dragon powers that for centuries personified hellish intent. Panzil, though, is naturally good perhaps because he is young. But also because, seeing all the old destructive power of dragons now seriously out-moded, he is determined to reverse all that. He will live according to principles of being and doing good. He will go out into the world to liberate himself.

Panzil required some library research to discover the myriad of characteristics that cling to the concept of a dragon. Dragon history is ancient, multicultural, and, at times, seemingly credible. A dragon is a lurking, lone predator often guarding some treasure or holding a hostage like some mercenary devil.

Our first draft, despite the truly inspired illustrations, did not read quite right. The text required a few editorial consultations to give it a voice that speaks to children. Having gleefully turned out the first book, David and I envisioned a series of sequels — how Panzil might save Christmas from climate change; how Panzil could protect endangered species; how Panzil could restore the balance of available water supply. And each episode would serve as Panzil’s lesson to children.

Panzil, the do-good little dragon.

Shut Up, I’m Reading

murray schane state of mind

I remember the first time I held a crayon. The color (blue) and the iconic Crayola wrapper fixed themselves in my memory. But that memory was only retrieved, twenty-plus years later, when my two-year-old son fisted his first crayon.

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Love That Has No Name

murray schane state of mind

My child — the child within me — loves dinosaurs, dragons, and robots. Today, nowadays, robots are the winners. Jurassic Park dinosaurs are for adventures on a razor edge and the adventure ends there. Dragons are for renting out powers like flying, fire-breath, and gentle menacing but then you have to cage them and get back to the everyday.

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Machines Like Us

murray schane state of mind
Every era, every generation seems to have its horrors.
 But none of them, past or present, equate. We are in a particularly rough patch: right-wind attitudes are moving to the forefront and the planet seems to be readying for death by human hands.

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The Sex Life of Tadpoles


Giving a speech at a conference on sexual abuse, I was asked if prepubescent girls and boys can, especially after a sexual assault, masturbate to orgasm, alone, independently.

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Why Do We Call It Asperger’s?

murray schane state of mindI first encountered Carl, my wife’s cousin, in a high school biology class. He stood out because of his nearly white hair, eyes that were always staring past you, and a tendency to interrupt the class asking peculiar questions tangentially related to the topic being discussed—”why is a tadpole forced to become a frog?”

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