From Healing Ourselves

Letters The New York Times Chose Not to Print: Occasional Postings

Like many people I know, I’ve long been in continual dialogue with The New York Times, my breakfast companion for over 60 years. Often I’ve nodded my head with appreciation when The Times reporters have brought back news from far away or previously ignored places, or its columnists have set out a position with which I agreed or one I was groping toward. Sometimes I’ve been stumped, particularly by the arcana of financial reporting. And on occasion—coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq comes to mind—I’ve found myself shouting at the folded paper, even shaking my fist.

I’ve written for The Times occasionally, over more than 40 years, mostly for The Book Review but also for the Science section. The Times has also written about me and my work, mostly quite favorably. And I’ve also written letters. A couple have been published, and a number of them have been rejected. Or is “ignored” the better word?

Perhaps it’s vanity or the infirmity that comes with age—or maybe it’s just experience and conviction—that makes me feel I have something to say that others should attend to. In any case, I decided that I’m going to share with you what doesn’t appear in The Times to let opinions and words that may have seemed peripheral, tendentious, or perhaps too challenging to The Times staff, find a more welcoming home.

What I’m going to do is publish the letter I wrote here with a link to the original article and another to the letters The Times did choose to publish. I hope you’ll find this experiment interesting and that it will also inspire you to let your own voices be heard. In any case, please let me know what you think.

This first posting, below, concerns a column by Nicholas Kristof “A Veteran’s Death, The Nation’s Shame,” which I admired, which appeared on April 15th, together with the letters that were in the paper today, April 20th.

Preventing Military Suicide with Self-Care

James S. Gordon, M.D.

In his poignant piece on escalating post-deployment military suicides (NYT, April 15), Nicholas Kristof writes that “we refurbish tanks after time in combat, but don’t much help men and women exorcise the demons of war.”

There are in fact programs that do address these demons successfully and in ways that are stigma free and widely acceptable to the military and their families. Unfortunately they are not yet widely available.

These programs are based on the understanding that persistent stress and trauma may come to all who are in combat; and that practical self-care skills like meditation, guided imagery and movement can provide prospective on and address the agitation and aggression, the overwhelming memories, isolation, despair, and suicidal feelings—the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—that may come in its wake.

At The Center for Mind-Body Medicine we have used this approach to reduce symptoms of war-related PTSD by 80%-in Kosovo and Gaza. The 300 US military and VA clinicians whom we have trained and the active duty, veterans, and family members with whom they work, appreciate the stress-reducing, mood enhancing practicality of our “mind-body” program. They embrace the opportunity to express themselves without fear of censure, or career foreclosure, in small groups whose support is reminiscent of combat units.

We are currently undertaking a Department of Defense funded randomized controlled trial of this method with war-traumatized US vets. Others are doing similar studies with similar approaches. Our preliminary results are promising, but research is slow and the time for many vets, like Ryan and Michael, is short. The Defense Department and the VA need to move ahead swiftly to offer this program and others to the hundreds of thousands who can make good, perhaps life-saving use of them.

“A Veteran’s Death, The Nation’s Shame”

“Letters to the Editor, April 20th, 2012″

James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine with Saybrook University.


Amazing Graces: Days Two, Three and Four

The Missing Twin: Part Two

For two years whenever the teacher closes her eyes to sleep or rest she sees “only all darkness.” After a while of doing Soft Belly, it changes. By the second day she is “seeing colors” and pronounces herself “very satisfied.” That first night she returned home and, just as we had done in the training, she shook and danced with her surviving son. The next night, after we had used imagery, she tells him to “close your eyes and say what you see.” “A house and a sailboat,” he tells her. She is amazed. This is exactly what she had drawn in the picture of how she would be without her biggest problem. On the third day she tells her group, “My smile is back.” She brings her son to a party and we kid around and dance a bit. Her smile lights up the restaurant.

Then, on the fourth day, when I give my talk on Trauma and Transformation she finds herself, like so many others, remembering and crying. “I am afraid the crying will never stop,” she confides. That she will never again locate the smile which has so remarkably reappeared. Toni tells her that smiles and sorrows can live alongside one another in the same person, that she felt that way when she did our training after Katrina destroyed so much in her own state. She and I and our whole team have seen it in Kosovo, Israel, and Gaza, and indeed everywhere we’ve gone.

When people are frozen in shock and grief all the emotions are deadened. As our work unfolds, they recover what they have lost. Years ago, I remember teenage Kosovan girls in a refugee camp in Macedonia. When they shook and danced the tears they had held back finally came, tears for the loss of fathers and brothers dead, imprisoned, or fighting. Only after they cried could they laugh with the ordinary joy of girls.

On the fourth night, the teacher returns. She is going to partage, to share, everything she is learning with her husband.

James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine with Saybrook University.


Amazing Graces: Days Two, Three, and Four

The Missing Twin: Part One

The loss of life here in Jacmel is far less than in Port-au-Prince but the burden is still heavy. There are of course the ordinary deaths that come with age, and the losses of younger people cut down by accident, sudden illness, or murder. And in the background for everyone in this coastal city, and all the surrounding communities, as well as in Port-au-Prince, is the tide of losses that came with the January 2010 earthquake. The deaths of children seem the hardest to bear.

Toni, a clinical social worker from Baton Rouge, tells me about a woman in her group–a school teacher. Her six-year-old twin sons were buried under the rubble with their father. He struggled to carry both out, but one fell under a collapsing ceiling. The father suffered a serious head injury as he carried the first boy to safety. Still, he returned to dig frantically for the fallen twin, but to no avail. By the time he reached him, his second son was no longer moving or breathing. Two years later the family is still frozen in grief. The surviving twin is furious. “Why are you alive?” he shouts, when family tension rises, at his father. “And why is my brother not? He should be alive, and you dead.” Toni and I both suspect that the boy feels guilty that he could as easily be angry at himself.

After her son died, his mother “lost my smile. When I smile now,” she goes on, “it feels”–and here she grimaces, all teeth–“like this.”

James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine with Saybrook University.


Amazing Graces: Days Two and Three

By the second day there are actually 135 participants-almost 180 of us altogether. The ones who didn’t come to the opening are present and others from the waiting list have found a way. There are thirteen in most of our small groups.

One of the remarkable things about our trainings is how often people who at first seem utterly closed down—walled off with indifference and suspicion, sunken beneath sorrow—suddenly come alive, sharing what they have not spoken of before; discovering new worlds of feelings, possibilities, hope.

The soft belly meditation invites calm and acceptance. The drawings play to the imagination, sometimes revealing solutions to problems that have seemed intractable. Shaking and dancing loosens most of us up. And the experiences that follow in the large and small groups provoke wonder.

Regine tells me about one of the leaders of the regional police. He came to early morning yoga and scoffed, “I thought we were talking about taking care of people. This is sports.” The drawings seemed, at first, ridiculous. “This is child’s play.” He stays and later in the day she sees him sitting quietly in meditation, laughing as he shakes and dances. He’s back the next day and the day after.

The drawings of a young woman whose face is filled with rage evolve from cramped stick figures–she is fighting with her parents–to a full bodied woman standing apart from them looking at the horizon. When she does the safe place imagery she sees herself “playing hide and seek with my friends having fun as I did when I was a girl.” And then–and a smile cracks her stern face–“flying free.”

I do Mindful Eating in the large group: a third of a banana for each participant. Almost two hundred people feel, smell, taste, and slowly chew. A fit man in his 50’s comes to the front of the room. “I have tended banana trees since I was a child. I know everything about the fruit and the tree and the soil and the bugs that come around. I sell bananas and give them away to the poor and have done so for many years. I eat them every day. And yet, I have to tell you, this is the first time I have truly eaten a banana.” The room swells with laughter as everyone gets the message: It really is possible to come to any experience, including eating an everyday banana, with an open mind and an open heart, as if for the first time.

James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine with Saybrook University.


Happy Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day often offered choices and called up anxiety as well as affection. Was it presumptuous – or misleading- to send a card to x? Would y feel hurt if I neglected her? What kind of card could best, most honestly and lovingly convey feelings that were sometimes complex or even mixed. It was always easiest with little children I loved. I smiled and printed carefully and drew hearts, feeling happily like a child myself.

Today I find I’m doing something different. I begin the morning with thoughts of the children I love, my own and others’. I look at the photos I carry with me, see, in my mind’s eye each one playing, silently thank God or Nature or more often both, for their existence. And then as my day unfolds, on the way to the train back to Washington, their mothers come to my mind, and their fathers too, and I respond with unwritten valentines of gratitude. “Thank you for your children whom I love.” And my heart keeps opening, on the phone to friends and colleagues, on the screen of emails. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I write to people I don’t know that well but like; “send your children Valentines. “ I find love coloring my glances at the train’s conductors with the day’s red roses pinned to their lapels. I sense sweetness in the suited men and women on their way to meetings.

The anxiety of choice or appropriateness evaporates. You are all my valentines.

Dr. James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder and Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC. He is also Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine with Saybrook University.


Sadness in Winning

An unfamiliar mixed emotion overtook my nine year old son, Gabriel, and me as we watched the New York Giants close out the San Francisco 49ers.
For almost four hours, we’d been sitting in a San Francisco home—lone Giants fans happily slapping palms and shouting encouragement surrounded by three generations of equally fervent Niner supporters. And then, after a moment of unalloyed glee, as Giant’s holder Steve Weatherford recovered a bad snap and Lawrence Tyner nailed the winning field goal, Gabe and I fell silent.
We were, it turned out, both thinking of Kyle Williams, the Niners kick return guy who had lost the ball that opened the door to the Giants’ winning field goal, after he had earlier, inadvertently kicked away a punt. The TV camera had found him on the bench pushing his mouthpiece around with his tongue. How, Gabe and I wondered, was he going to make it through the night carrying all the burdens of his unfulfilled responsibility, and through all the nights ahead?
Perhaps it’s because Gabe earnestly loves to play ball, and I feel so intimately the pain that comes with his inevitable share of mistakes; perhaps it’s because I am a psychiatrist and older and more aware of my own blunders and their consequences, that I find myself ever more interested in the quality of the play and the feelings of the players- and less preoccupied with the identity of the winner.
I think, too, that journalists—especially the old fashioned ones who write for papers- have helped to sensitize me. Over the last few years, I’ve become aware of how much and how subtly they attend to the psychology of their subjects—players, coaches, managers, and even owners. Anticipating meeting real people- as well as the drama of the game and its results- now brings me to the sports pages with a pleasure I haven’t had since I was Gabe’s age, devouring box scores and aping batting stances.
I also cannot help but contrast this attention to what “hard news” counterparts usually offer in our papers’ front sections. I feel I know and have more fellow-feeling for the emotions and egos, the idealism, attentiveness, self-deception, and fatuousness, of Shaq, Kobe, and Dirk, of Pac Man and Kim Clijsters and Martina, than I do for Barack, Hillary, and Mitt, Bibi Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamid Karzai.

The omission of this psychological, this human attention, handicaps my understanding of political players and the weighty moves they make. It also tends, I believe to make us readers less sensitive to the negative consequences- collateral damage it is sometimes called- of their actions. The presence of this sensibility in the sports pages, on the other hand, helps me to feel far more connected to the men and women who populate our playing fields and courts.
So I’m glad that the sportswriters and I can feel for and with Kyle Williams, even as I root against him, and with Billy Cundiff, who missed the Ravens’ game-tying kick, and everyone else who can’t step up or who falls down. And because I can, feel for them I can tell my son that I hope Kyle Williams will be able to accept responsibility without being devastated by self-blame; that he will, as I hope Gabe and his friends would, talk with his teammates and family and friends. And as I do so, I know that I’m at least as grateful for the opportunity to learn and share this lesson in compassion as I am for the Giants hard earned win.
James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder and Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC.


Gulf Coast Hope

Grace is small, slight, and dark and moves almost without sound at the side of her two blond sons. But once she registers, like a negative coming alive in a tray of developer, her image stays with me, still, mournful and isolated among a crowd of a hundred adults and children who have come, curious, clamoring and needy, for Wellness Day at the Grand Isle Community Center.

Grand Isle sits at the end of a forty mile long sliver of Louisiana coast that pokes into the Gulf of Mexico. It is regularly throttled by hurricanes and, more recently, invaded by the BP oil spill of April, 2010. I’m there with a team from our sister organization the Mind-Body Center of Louisiana, physicians and psychotherapists whom the Washington DC based Center for Mind-Body Medicine has trained. Beginning just after Katrina in 2006 we’ve taught them, as we have clinicians and community leaders around the world, to teach self care – meditation and guided imagery,  drawings and dance – and to lead small supportive groups in which kids and adults can learn to use these and other  tools to quiet their anxiety, gain perspective on seemingly intractable problems, and feel the connection to others who are also struggling  to mend their lives.

For many, particularly on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast,  the oil spill was the insupportable last straw: “The hurricanes, Katrina and Gustav, scared us and took our money and some of our homes,” Judy a fit, gravel voiced  51 year old house painter who has already been in one of our eight week long mind-body groups, tells me as we take a break on the porch of the Community Center. “But this BP thing doesn’t go away. Of course, it’s in our bodies” – in an authoritative survey a year ago 48% of all Louisiana Gulf Coast residents reported “an abnormal increase of at least one health symptom”. Judy has “headaches and these rashes,” pointing to her red blotched legs, “I never had before, and my grand kids are wheezing and have sinus problems. My friend, a healthy, clean-living Christian lady younger than me has already passed from a pneumonia that never went away.

“But it’s even worse for our minds and souls.” The beach and the Gulf which were “always my solace” are now “torture” to Judy who the other day, long after residents have been told that the waters are safe, counted “forty-eight dead animals washed up, fish of all sizes and big old sea turtles, with their intestines hanging out. We know,” she concludes sadly,  “it’s our mother the Earth that’s been hurt.”

Employable and feisty, equipped with skills for self-care, Judy is poised to make a new life elsewhere with her daughter and grandchildren. Grace and her family, like dozens of others whom we have met on the Gulf, and inland too, feel  trapped as well as endangered. You can see it in her eyes, scampering across my face, back and forth over her six and nine year old boys, and around the room, vigilant, it seems to me, for threats. The white plastic bracelet she still chooses to keep on her wrist, emblem, she tells me, of a recent, long and scary medical work-up, reminds me of the metal ones that indicted felons under house arrest may be forced to wear on their ankles.

Except Grace and her family no longer have a house or even a rented room. Her husband Ty, who sits stolidly nearby, worked on the rigs for BP and then, like 52,000 other Gulf coast residents, on the clean-up crew He is now, he says, seeming a bit dazed, “on call,” to BP, a kind of economic and social limbo in which he has no work or pay and cannot collect unemployment.

Grace has been told that the numbness in her face, the headaches and the weakness in her limbs signal the onset of multiple sclerosis and that medicine has little to offer. When I say that many others have developed similar symptoms since the oil spill, that they, like the rashes, respiratory and digestive problems, depression, confusion,  and anxiety have been noted in medical journals as toxic side-effects of the oil and the dispersants, not of MS, she seems unconvinced. The diagnosis has been made, the sentence already passed.

In the morning I teach slow deep breathing  to quiet anxiety. We do shaking and dancing to release tension and raise spirits and over lunch I give a talk on foods that help the liver detoxify the chemicals from the spill and the clean-up. At the end of the day we all – children and adults – do three drawings: “ourselves as we are now,” “ how we would like to be” and “how we are going to get there.”

Chad, Grace’s six year old, jumpy and aggressive at the beginning of the day, now concentrates on crayoning himself in a new house, a little boy on his feet, holding a tiny replica of that house, symbol of his hope, in his hand. In her first drawing Grace is surrounded by all four of her children –  faces without bodies, mouths turned down, big tears on her cheeks. In the second drawing all five faces are inside a house, smiling. And in the third picture, the one of how she is going to get from the situation she is in to the one she hopes for, Grace, a  figure with a body now, is kneeling, praying.


Who Will Lead Haiti’s Mental Health Recovery?

We did a workshop for our team while we were in Haiti last week– at a church retreat center, a little, open, green place at the bottom of a hill in the middle of Petionville, bird-filled flowering trees, some fresh, if very warm air—an oasis.

More than 60 of those who completed our Advanced Training in Mind-Body Medicine came for the day—from Port-au-Prince, Petionville, Leogane, and even from further out in the countryside.

They were quiet at first, then fairly bursting with stories about the work they’d done, with children in schools; with patients in hospitals; with Catholic, Protestant, and Voudoun parishioners; with students and colleagues at universities and professional schools; and family members, friends, and neighbors.

Many people who have come to these groups are, we hear, sleeping well for the first time; chronic pains are receding; kids who’ve lost parents and homes are able to focus. The need to talk about what has happened, to share the feelings that continue to well up, is everywhere. The groups have become a place to go—to get relief, to “be at home,” to learn “something that works”.

Amy, Linda, JJ, and I all teach and answer questions–stretching mind and body; how to deal with someone who is, or may be suicidal; how to stay “present” and empathetic without being overwhelmed by needs that cannot be met.

Linda Metayer presides with grace and clarity, gives a lecture on biofeedback and autogenic training that is a model of economy. It’s a pleasure to watch her and to listen as she explains the next steps we will take together—the ongoing supervision, the site visits that we’ll make to our trainees’ groups, the workshops we’ll all be offering in the community.

We also outline our plans to develop a leadership team that will work closely with our international faculty in providing supervision and in training hundreds, perhaps thousands, more Haitians to use our work with hundreds of thousands.

The next morning, we meet with the first nine members of that leadership team: highly energetic, talented people who have deeply been moved by our approach and have begun to lead groups in hospitals, churches, school, and tent camps. Among them are a child psychiatrist, a pediatrician and neonatologist, and a medical student; several psychologists, a consultant to the Ministry of Health who is a professor as well; and an accountant who has left his practice for the more-than-full-time job of leading a tent camp and teaching mind-body medicine. I’ll tell you much more about them in future entries.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of our crew—Haitians and Americans together.

From left: 4th row: Lee-Ann Gallarano, Spencer Aimable; 3rd row: Caroline D. Coicou, Lynda Richtsmeier Cyr; 2nd row:Junie Delmont Fortuné, Linda Delmont Métayer, Amy Shinal, Anne-Kary Perrault, René Domersant; 1st row: Fornia Cenezir, Clairetida Cassamajor, Jim Gordon, Jesse Harding, Marie Ange Octena


Visiting Leogane Haiti – Mind-Body Skills at Cardinal Leger Hospital

We spend the morning at the Cardinal Leger Hospital, destroyed in the earthquake and quickly rebuilt. Haiti’s lepers come here, older people without legs , or with fingers and toes amputated by the disease; brothers 8 and 12 years old whose noses have collapsed and whose faces and hands already bear the scars of the condition.

The kindly and concerned Sisters and lay nurses who are in charge have been overwhelmed by the suffering around them—staff, friends and family killed in the earthquake, as well as by the weight of sadness their patients bring. Out in the country, living with people whose illness has wasted them, meeting acute care needs, they are clearly stretched thin.

Little by little, they brighten during our workshop, appreciating the relaxation of Soft Belly, laughing with the shaking and dancing—“The first time laughing since last January 12th,” notes one sister.

Here’s a quick video we took of participants dancing at a Port-au-Prince workshop—

Sharing their drawings, One sister notes how rigid her body is in the drawing of her “biggest problem”, and how the flower that she draws in the third picture (“the solution to the problem”), bending gracefully toward the sun, is a “lesson to remember.” Before we close, JJ teaches us all to stretch in our chairs.

Afterwards, outside, the Sisters show us the bushes blooming red, yellow, white, and orange, and reach up with a net to fetch us mangos for the road. “We will use what you have taught us, ourselves,” says Sister Yolande, the Director, “and we will teach our patients too.”


Visiting Leogane: Earthquake Epicenter to become Center of Healing

Visiting Leogane the day after the inauguration, we are plunged into the canyon between the promise and its fulfillment.  The city,  which was the epicenter of the earthquake, is desolate, a combination of “the hour before the shootout” in the Westerns, and a scene from after the Apocalypse. There are empty lots where once there were buildings; rubbish is thrown on top of rubble; motorcycles buzz around, but their riders are solemn.

We stop to buy Haitian CD’s and talk with a 30-ish man whose face looks frozen, who is standing near the rack. “Is this your store?”  I ask, of the tiny cabin.

“It is not mine,” he says, “but I built it.”

“What about your house?” I ask.

“My house was destroyed,” he replies.

“Did you lose family?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, and slowly, deliberately, names them. “My brother, my other brother, my sister, my mother.”

Around us, other young men stand like statues. Only when the music from the CD begins does anyone move. The young man who actually owns the store shuffles his feet and smiles a little. A couple of the other guys sing along with Belo.

We know we will be coming back to Leogane and working there.

To be continued tomorrow . . .