Escaping from Ourselves: Music, Crowds, and Other Ways Out

April 21 was Record Store Day, an international event celebrating the hunt for tunes you can hold in your hands. By coincidence, this classical music lover found himself listening to a rock concert at a stop where I hoped to shop, not bop. I’d never attended anything similar, but learned something you won’t in a Mozart-friendly venue: the pain people suffer to escape themselves. Or simply to have a good time.

Only a matter of feet from the amplified band, everyone was moving to the music, ear drums be damned by snares and cymbals. What was punishing to me in sheer volume got other people out of themselves. Big music doing a big job. The point was not to use thought, but to submit to the mood-altering bombardment and escape reasoned analysis and reflection.

We do need to get away from reality. Intensity of sound was the key. The straight-jacket of our brain gets loosened and our suffering is covered-over, swamped by an aural tsunami.

Music isn’t the only way. Take the extremity of self-mutilation: cutting your body, as some do, not for decoration, but replacement of emotional pain by the application of physical pain; like a new coat of paint.

Sports venues also use loudness to launch escape from self. Conversation is difficult. Even attention to the game on the field. “Play ball?” You’ll see it, but won’t hear the infield chatter or bat striking ball. No foreground of sound and background of silence, like visual art, but all foreground all the time.

Beyond a flight from acute emotional distress, why might we want to depart reality? Life can be rather too much, don’t you think? The vocational rat race, mortality, and inevitable comparisons and competitions come to mind. No wonder we drink, smoke funny cigarettes, and overeat.

The human being is a clever creature, tricking himself to fly without even knowing what he is doing or why.

Those who dissociate in the midst of a traumatic event describe their transformation as a “going away:” separating a part of themselves from the portion encountering the unsparing awfulness. By breaking into segments, another facet of the personality experiences the grotesquery in a muted fashion or not at all.

Nearly everyone sometimes compartmentalizes his experience. We take in what distress can be managed and screen out the rest, without the extreme loss of awareness in dissociation. “I’ll think about this later,” so we tell ourselves, and a door in the brain closes.

Crowds can help you get out of yourself. Not just at concerts, but political rallies. Size matters. We give up thinking for nonbeing, joining, submerging. At the crowd’s worst, rules disappear, exchanged for bad faith. Humanity and civilization are discarded. We return to more primal roots. The unity of the group is all. You are not solo, not separate, but swept into in a mob of homogeneous excitation. No wonder the mass goes crazy and the individuals lose themselves, surrendering their agency to the power of the collective.

Talented populist orators evoke a frenzy, a single-mindedness they manipulate with our complicity. Why? Because we desire this loss of responsibility and control; the mental weight of making a decision. Once unburdened, anything is possible with someone else’s permission and direction. Think Lord of the Flies and what happens to Piggy.

Sensation of a transcendent kind is found in sex. Sexual contact allows us to escape of our bodies in the body of another. We are swept away in the stretching, sweating, touching, playing, craving, and holding. Our surrender to flooding hormones and synchronous beating hearts yields ecstasy: escape velocity that returns us to our unthinking creatureliness, our animality.

But there is more. When wills and wants and sensibilities align we exchange essences. After, we take some portion of the other’s otherness with us. Each party is completed. We are less ourselves and alone. In the consummation we escape our own boundaries.

Dancing and religious rites can create self-abandonment. Some worshipful gatherings sanctify and applaud those who “speak in tongues.” They become unmoored, taken over by a language that is not a language.

Quieter ways to lose yourself exist, but they lack the drama and require concentration; say, on a book you are reading or by the discipline of a hard-won meditation practice. We can depart our self in a state of “flow” at work, too. But, if you want to leave your consciousness behind without industrious effort, these will not do.

Standard variety vacations suffice, especially if they take you to a place of anonymity, a strange culture, away from work and obligation: in the most positive sense, out of your mind. The tendrils of thought pulling you back to homely discontent are cut.

No judgement here. Relief is necessary. Distraction and diversion take many forms. We don’t always choose our evasive poisons or medicines wisely, but one cannot make the best of reality without the occasional departure from the realm of the hard and real. Passing time without flights of fancy would be too grim.

Here’s to the high flyers, the ones climbing toward the clouds in search of cloudiness. It is true, the upper reaches are opaque, but where is it written we must always be clear-eyed?

Smile, laugh, and make love. Or, as the old verse tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.”

So says the Bible!

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The first image is Tape Floor by Jim Lambie. The second is Fenix by Josignacio. Finally, Dancers by Degas. All are sourced from Wikiart.org/

Understanding Rebound Romance (and the Rest of Life)

512px-Angel_with_broken_heart

A heart in pain is like a falling star, fascinating until you realize it might become a meteorite about to burn and crash. Will the object splatter? Will the rock survive? Will it bounce in the wrong direction? Such is the life of romance on the rebound.

Unrequited love offers a chance to understand life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” not only those puncturing the bubble of romance.

What causes us to make a rapid jump back into the dating pool after the ex has left the water? The easiest band-aid for rejection is to blame the former love and pick yourself up quickly, as if to say “I’ll show him!” Or perhaps solitary time frightens you, having never learned to be independent. A long stretch being without a sweetheart to lean on is unimaginable for the insecure.

Fair enough, but this is a reminder to become self-sufficient, not to substitute a fresh body. Moreover, we must learn about our part in love’s failure — one’s own fingerprints on the broken pieces of the loving cup. Was he the wrong mate, yet the type we routinely pick? What motivates our repeated errant choices? Which of our personal characteristics require change — the ones that fray a relationship’s fabric?

Just as essential is the need to grieve the loss. Without doing so, plotting a course forward has but a blind man’s chance of success. We run backward into unfamiliar arms because of the preoccupation with those that previously encircled us. Too late do we turn to look closely at the one now holding us, so great is our desperation to flee the pain of dismissal. Accidents are expected if you don’t see the Mack Truck coming your way. Might the unknown man be just a distraction? Might he remind you of the bygone boyfriend? Do you want to make the ex jealous by displaying an updated, successful, stud puppet? Or is the replacement beau a bodily application, flesh against flesh — a kind of salve — not to heal soreness but to sooth the soul?

Perhaps the fresh darling represents a flight from pain and loneliness, as drugs, alcohol, and overwork often do. The world is now too much. Deadening and distraction can take a human form in the new beloved. You feel powerless over memories and the emotions attached. These unwanted intruders inflict anguish to head and heart. The awfulness seems eternal, as if each second of woe is like a person in a line stretching over the horizon, where the queue’s length (to the point past suffering) signals a journey without end. So you interrupt the grieving you need and escape to someone untried.

Sometimes you are so foolish as to persuade yourself that you won’t permit strong emotions about the new person. I cannot tell you how many patients told me this only shortly before they were again “in love,” again with a bad match.

A rush to get past sadness — as if sorrow can be outrun — often leaves you unstrung. Your head swivels: first looking back, then looking away, finally looking without seeing.

We need to abide with the pain, learn what it can tell us.  Affliction is endurable, albeit one second at a time. Blinder yourself (if you can) against the imagined endless emptiness. After all, perpetual sadness is a possibility, not a guarantee. The catastrophized future leads to desperation, despondency, and poor decisions. Hearts heal, but only if we attend to their needs.

Just as you would not dismiss your grief after the death of a parent, so must you not race past it when love vanishes. The disappearance of affection, no matter the kind or cause, is a stern taskmaster. Pay now or pay later, but you will pay.

We need human attachment to mend the broken heart strings. Before you flee to a passionate embrace, however, are there those who would embrace you in sympathy? Friends, family, or (figuratively speaking) a therapist? They can be enough.

Life asks us weighty questions. How much of the human experience will we let in? How much of living and sensation do we wall off in order to survive? The round world has sharp edges. Walls must be built. We all do it and, to some extent, we have to. How high, how completely, and in what manner are the only relevant considerations. And what do we give up to make life manageable, prevent feeling overwhelmed?

In pondering our psychological defenses and their cost, whether we have love in our life or not, we are all summoned to the same solemn self-interrogation.

How will you answer?

The top photo, Angel with a Broken Heart (Tomba Famiglia Ribaudo) is the work of Jeff Kerwin, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Unsung Value of Denial and Distraction: Where Therapists can Go Wrong

Big Eyes

One of my mentors was a psychiatrist of immense intellect and a laser’s capacity to cut to a psychiatric diagnosis. His brilliance as a diagnostician, however, did not extend to gently bringing his well-defended patients down the therapeutic path. He was a surgeon of the mind. Surgeons leave scars.

You might think of psychotherapy’s beginning as a kind of dance, with the patient in motion like Salome, wearing seven veils. The veils and shifting movement are for protection, not seduction. The client suffers “too much” and the covering — any covering — guards against invasion. If you, as doctor, rip the gauzy garments away, you do an injury. Without a shield, the client is exposed, terrified, and likely to flee treatment.

Too much too soon. A good mental health professional doesn’t drain a protective moat until the patient develops the courage to take on the scary world outside the castle (or inside his head). The counselor must avoid retraumatizing the patient, in effect flooding him with emotions he is unprepared for. The irony of hurting when you mean to help could not be more poignant or more terrible.

Young therapists can miss this. So do managed care companies when they want you to push treatment as fast as possible (to cut its cost) or medicate the insured party for the same reason. My mentor was guilty of ignoring the same therapeutic speed bump.

The challenge of focusing on life’s dark side was understood by the mathematician and big thinker, Blaise Pascal, who died just short of age 40 in 1662. He recognized the need to divert oneself from contemplation of the human condition. Students of clinical psychology might benefit from his words. For example:

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.

Or this:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

In short, the world can overwhelm such small creatures as we are. Those in most need of distraction are often the least inclined to make use of this necessary method in the pursuit of equanimity.

Pascal again:

However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts, and however happy a man may be, if he lacks diversion and has no absorbing passion or entertainment to keep boredom away, he will soon be depressed and unhappy. Without diversion there is no joy; with diversion there is no sadness.

I’d say Pascal goes too far, but his point is a worthy one. I can name many people who seem relatively happy (at least for the moment) because they don’t think about the shadow following them down the street. A memorable patient of mine found escape in diversion and denial: she ate enough carbohydrates to push her well into obesity and diabetes. Yet, while eating, she felt good. Indeed, during stressful moments, she believed she deserved a treat as compensation for her upset.

The therapist’s job is to find a balance between allowing people to use their long-standing psychological defenses while gradually helping them recognize the longer term damage they are doing to themselves by not facing problems. With the large lady in question, it was quite a tightrope walk.

I find myself on both sides of the balance beam. Socrates was right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So, however, was Pascal, by implying the deleterious effects of too much “examination,” rumination, and painful memory. The truth is hard to swallow, as the kid in the top photo is about to find out.

I guess if I had to create my own mantra, I’d look to alter the inscription on the Temple of Apollo, which read:

“Know Thyself”

My less pithy version would be: “Know thyself, but not all in one bite. Remember: your eyes (for truth) are bigger than your stomach.”