Saturday, February 9, 2019

Are you becoming unstuck in time?

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.
Kurt Vonnegut- Slaughterhouse Five

Books and music. Music and books.

These things have been my salvation in life.

Here’s a little story about one of each. 

Let’s start with Kurt Vonnegut and in particular Slaughterhouse Five. This book was a life-changing and perhaps even life-saving book for me. Mostly, it’s Kurt Vonnegut discussing his own wartime PTSD symptoms through the character of Billy Pilgrim, a veteran of the Dresden bombing who becomes “unstuck in time” as he leaps to and from different time periods of his life. Vonnegut worked out his own PTSD symptoms in part by writing this book, but was also making a point about the fierce and awesome power of the mind to time travel. Particularly a mind that has been affected by trauma. 

I’ve never been able to shake the phrase “unstuck in time.” It describes things I see as a therapist EVERY single day. Many of my patients just can’t shake loose from traumas or heartbreak from their pasts, and regularly time travel back to those places in their minds, in an endless loop of painful memories.

Others jump in time to the future, where they can’t stop worrying about things that might happen, and all of the bad stuff they’ve conjured up in their minds. 

Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD are all functions of people becoming unstuck in time.

But let’s come back to that. I want to tell you about the music part of the story. 

A short while ago, I was driving back from the beach, and heard the song, “This is the time” by Billy Joel. It was late at night, I was cold, a bit lonely, and it was a strange song to hear on the radio, all things considered. 

I heard the lyrics, 

‘This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever.’

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t become unstuck in time.

In that moment, I was 21 again, exploring the world, in love, and driving down the open road.

I drove for miles like that before I realized what happened (P.S. it’s a little scary we do that while we’re driving). That was a good memory, but on the other hand, kind of sad. Although I was young and hopeful at the time of that memory, I was also pretty anxious about my future and very unclear about how things were going to work out for me.

The French have a word called √Čnouement, which means, “The bittersweet feeling of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.”

That’s sort of how I felt.

Now then, back to the mental health side of this. 

ALL of us time travel sometimes. Every single one of us. Some of us look back at the past and ONLY remember the good parts. We fondly recall a lost love, but forget all of the reasons that person is out of our lives to begin with. We think our youth was the most fabulous time of our lives, but forget how hard it was being broke and often not really knowing who we were back then.

Others are inconsolable about things that have happened, and simply can’t move on. They become unstuck in time, and replay painful stories and memories in their heads that render them unable to experience joy in the present moment.

Anxious people prefer to visit the future. They’ve already made up their minds about how things won’t work out, and all the things that are going to go wrong. The psychological term for this is “catastrophizing” and it is a hallmark of most anxiety disorders.

In thinking about time traveling and how it affects our functioning, I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t cherish and remember fond memories from our past. And sometimes we DO have to anticipate the things that are coming in the future and plan a little for a rainy day.

But becoming “unstuck” in time is a different matter. This is when our minds take us out of the present moment to visit another time and place to avoid something in our current lives. Perhaps we decline a social invitation because we feel like it couldn’t possibly measure up to an epic time from our past. Maybe we blow off a job interview or turn down a promotion because we’ve already decided to imagine the problematic future consequences we’re sure they might come with. 

As John Milton said hundreds of years ago, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” That’s the power of the mind to time travel. A great memory can totally make our day, but the SAME memory can lead to intense feelings of sadness. 

This is the fork in the road. Once upon a time, a VERY long book was written about depression and anxiety called, “I never knew I had a choice.” I slugged through it. It took me weeks. 

But 90% of what I got from the book was right there in the title. 

I never knew I had a choice. 

Perhaps the goal is to learn from the past, behave kindly with regard to our future selves, but understand that the person operating NOW is the only one that can do anything about things.

So yes, I’m going to continue to listen to Billy Joel and look back fondly.

But I sure don’t want to miss anyone great in my current existence that could make tomorrow’s memories a whole lot better. I even put it on my refrigerator. 

Be here now.

Be here now.

Be here now…

I don't wanna forget, but I'm sure I will.

Then remember.

Then forget.

So it goes...

Monday, January 21, 2019

Every Silver Lining's Got a Touch of Grey (Explaining the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve)

Oh yeah, life goes on
Long after the thrill
Of living is gone
Jack and Diane- John Mellencamp

As much as I loathe this aging thing, I'm beginning to recognize that I am now a healthier person in terms of self-worth and knowing who I am and where I fit in the world. That’s been a good trade-off for the wrinkles.
Patty Duke

Many of the people I see in therapy are in their 40’s.

And man, they can’t get no satisfaction. 

And I can relate! What is it about middle-age that causes this? There are some obvious candidates. A lot of people are taking care of older parents as well as younger children. Health and energy are often declining, but conversely, it’s a little early to think about retirement. 

Psychologists and doctors and men with red sports cars have long debated the existence of the mid-life crisis, and, really, the jury is still out on this one. But there DOES appear to be some evidence for something called the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve.- Observe

In investigating this idea, I didn’t simply cherry-pick a single graph. Jonathon Rauch wrote an entire book on the subject called, “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife.”

In this book, he does a thorough examination of the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve, and digs into the research that seems to suggest a dip in happiness into the 40’s and then a significant upswing.

Why would this be??

In the interest of full disclosure, this isn’t merely a research question for me. I know the malaise, the boredom, and the disconnection that comes with this time of life, and I want to figure this shit out as well. 

Many people Rauch interviewed for his book talked about how they “SHOULD” be happy. They’ve got more money now, they’ve advanced in their careers, and have put a lot of those manic sorts of stressors from early adulthood behind them. They SHOULD be happy.

So why aren’t they?

Rauch examines a happiness equation described as H=S + C +V +T

“H” is happiness. “S” is your emotional set point, which describes where your sort of default happiness setting lies. “V” described factors under your control, and “T” is time’s influence on life satisfaction.

And therein lies the rub. The way we look at time. People in their 40’s tend to look back at their past and think of all the good things that DIDN’T happen for them, and look into the future and see all the bad things that MIGHT happen to them.

It doesn’t seem entirely fair. 

And before you think it is only humans that tie themselves into these middle-aged knots, consider the following fact. Even CHIMPANZEES seem to go through this same sort of funk in the middle of their lives. 

At this point, the four of you that are still reading may be saying, “Are you really saying that Chimpanzees and Apes have mid-life crises’? 

Yes. I’m really saying that. Read here if you'd like to look at the evidence.

Another contributing factor is something called “affective forecasting.” It's this thing we do where we look into the future and predict how we’re going to feel about things. It turns out we kind of suck at it. Although we THINK it’s going to be awful getting older and dealing with sickness and so forth, the truth is, humans mostly just adjust to things and return to their baseline functioning. Remember our happiness set points? That’s what this is all about.

But in examining the U-Shaped Curve, the news is not all bad. That curve takes a sharp left turn at some point, and happiness really seems to rise from there. 


For one thing, our emotional regulation begins to improve. As my grandfather used to say, "Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.” We seem to “get” this a lot more as we get older. 

We also seem to seek opportunities to take some of the things we have learned and pay it forward. Erik Erikson called the conflict in midlife age “generativity versus stagnation.” 

In other words, we either get stuck and unsure about what to do next, or put the wisdom we’ve accumulated towards the service of others. Psychologist Dan McAdams called this the “redemptive sequence.” Sure we’ve made mistakes, but there’s still some time to do some good. Much of the upswing of the curve is about this giving, connection, and redemption.

Rauch also closes the book expelling that one of the reasons for the upswing in the curve can be summed up in three simple words. Gratitude comes easier. Sure everything didn’t work out exactly as we planned, but we begin to be more thankful for the things that we do have. Therein lies another large piece of the puzzle. 

As for me? One of my favorite songs growing up was “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead, a band I embraced in my own (decades long) wayward youth. It celebrates the wisdom and resilience of aging, and the lines “I will get by," and “I will survive” became a mantra for Deadheads young and old. 

When I was 16, I knew every word to the song, and would belt out the lyrics,

“Oh well a touch of Grey
Kind of suits you anyway’

It had little relevance to my life at the time. It was still fun though.

But now? Sometimes I look at the sink, and wonder if that stray hair is actually brown or grey. But really it doesn’t matter.

Cause maybe, just maybe.

A touch of Grey,

Kind of suits me anyway...