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My Shrinking Circle

May 24th, 2015

My circle of close male friends is shrinking, and it’s not that I’ve ever had that many; it’s been hard for me to reach out for that kind of intimacy and it’s getting harder as I get older.

I lost a dear friend this week, a truly extraordinary guy. David had a PhD in molecular biology, was doing basic research at UC in the sixties. The Viet Nam war was escalating, his government grants wanted him to be doing more practical biological research and he wouldn’t do it so he left academia and become an astrologer. His scientific mind understood the mechanics of the universe, and he delved into the mystical world. He studied Buddhism, Kabbalah, Chinese and East Indian mythologies, and when he gave you a reading it was a compendium of scientific and spiritual wisdom. David had you look at what was happening to you at this time in your life, why it was happening, and point out the choices about how you wanted to come to them. He built a worldwide reputation.

He’d been healthy until 4 years ago when he slipped and fell, they never saw the tiny bone fracture that eventually led to a spinal abscess. He developed serious postoperative complications leaving him blind and unable to taste or smell. It took him a year to recover, and then he went back to work. A year later a mass was discovered in his abdomen that turned out to be a kidney cancer, and was successfully removed. Last year, when he complained of neck and arm pain, doctors found metastases in his bones.

He knew what he was facing, understood the trade offs (suffering/side-effects) in exchange for getting the hoped for benefits, and decided to go for the chemotherapy and radiation. The chemo slowed the spread for a while, but he couldn’t swallow and required a feeding tube. We talked regularly about everything, two old guys schmoozing about how we come to our losses, and the price we are willing to pay to pursue life.

The chemo failed to slow the spread, and for the last year he was in unremitting pain. Last week, he had an afternoon appointment with his oncologist to consider another round of chemo. I saw him that morning; he was in bed and grimaced in pain as he got up to walk to the bathroom. I asked him what he hoped his doctor was going to tell them that would make him willing to continue his suffering, and he said there was nothing the doctor was going to tell him that was worth this. He said I’m not going to keep the appointment; call Hospice. With the same commitment and intensity that he pursued life he also pursued his demise, and died within 24 hours.

I spoke at his funeral, and when I watched him being lowered into the grave had this revelation… I had better be reaching out more to expand my shrinking circle, otherwise there’ll be no one left to talk to me.

Cultivate intimate friends; it is through their eyes that we see ourselves more clearly

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Love Never Dies

May 10th, 2015

We just concluded a two-week road trip through France, Switzerland, northern Italy with our almost 23-year-old granddaughter. Before coming home I sat in a coffee on a drizzly Paris afternoon, while my wife and granddaughter were packing up some of her things to take him with us.

Outside, under a canopy, sipping a real cup of hot chocolate in the 11th arrondissement, I watched a multicultural, multilingual community walk by; Africans in colorful robes, Muslim women in hijabs, haut couture fashionistas, skateboarders, and jugglers, all of whom are dodging dog droppings in the middle of the streets in a culture where no one would ever dream of picking it up.

You can sit in a Paris Café four hours nursing a single drink and nobody bothers you, so I leisurely wrote some reflections about this extraordinary trip.

We took a day to get over our jet lag then went to the car and drove through France, Switzerland and northern Italy. We never stayed longer than two nights in any one place; we visited churches, castles, museums, road gondolas up snow-covered mountains, visited friends, took boat rides in the Lord Gurion C, and ate great food every night.

We also spent some time driving every day, and listening to each other’s stories. In spite of the tight space and its occasional provocation of scratching this it was always an atmosphere of loving tolerance. There is a special connection between grandparents and their grandchildren that’s clearly different than the one with your children. My grandkids can say things to me that I don’t hear as well from my kids. I am less defensive if my grandkids tell me something that I may not want to hear or face. Since I was not responsible for raising them and setting the limits we only know each other as playmates. We have fun together and when they confront me about things that I may not want to hear or look at in myself they simplyinspire less defensiveness.

For two memorable weeks we shatter lives and it reminded me again that our survival as a species is not insured through the transmission of our DNA but rather in the transmission of our stories. From generation to generation we learn from each other how to walk a good path in life, and how to love…. And love is the part of us that never dies.

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My GPS

April 29th, 2015

My soon to be 23-year-old granddaughter just finished teaching English to French high-school students for the last year, and suggested the possibility of joining her on a European road trip. We’d never been through southern France, Switzerland and Northern Italy, and her grandmother and I leapt at the opportunity of a couple of weeks with a grandchild who actually wanted to be with us.

I rented the car in Paris not even asking if the vehicle was equipped with a GPS device because I don’t have one in my car and pride myself as an excellent map-reader. Turns out all new cars have them and it would have been a logistical nightmare to travel without one. The GPS a stunning tool, you input your current location, your destination, and whether you want to use the toll roads or not. The device asks what language you prefer and then “Tim” an Englishman then asks you if you want to use the toll roads are not then talks you through the trip while providing visual guidance as well.

I don’t have a GPS system in my car, and you already know that I don’t have an I Phone or handheld computer, so I couldn’t even have turned it on, much less programmed it. My granddaughter however did it in a millisecond, and it soon became clear that without the device, it would have been nearly impossible to get to the obscure destinations we sought out.

The GPS was a godsend but it was exceeded by the human GPS… my Granddaughter Providing Support, because without her we would have been toast. And it was not just the technical capabilities, she knows were slowing down and is had to deal with our growing lessening capacity is like forgetfulness and my inability to hear.

In the best of circumstances my hearing is diminished but in the midst of the allergy season and my upper respiratory stuffiness and spending 11 hours in an airplane going up and down four times I could hardly hear anything with my ears plugged. She knows are limitations, we’ve been old ever since she is no less but this was a bit more than she’d anticipated but her response was what a great situation I’m in I can’t lose she said one of you can’t hear me and the other one forgets what I’ve said, I can’t lose.

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The Price of Shame

April 12th, 2015

Several weeks ago, on the main stage at a TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monica Lewinsky spoke out for the first time about public humiliation and shame.

You remember Monica, the 22 year-old White House Intern who fell in love with the President of the United States. She confided in a ‘friend’ who recorded their personal conversations and then made them public. Overnight, Monica was transformed into to a one-dimensional bimbo/slut/tramp/ and “that woman”. This once unbroken young woman lost her reputation, dignity, and almost her life.

I watched the video (http://www.ted.com/talks/monica_lewinsky_the_price_of_shame?language=en ), and was moved to tears at the poignancy of her presentation. Monica talked about what it felt like to live a life where not a day went by without being reminded of her mistake. I felt ashamed because I too was guilty of having reduced her to a punch line.

Over the last 19 years she has reinvented herself as a hand-bag designer, tried reality TV, got a Masters Degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, and is now writing and speaking about the toll that shame has taken on her life, and that of her family’s.

She said stealing people’s private actions, words, photos, conversations and making them public is destructive and becoming commonplace. Shame and humiliation have become an industry; the Internet has amplified its impact because it gets lots of clicks, and the more clicks the more advertising dollars.

She is now speaking about it publically for the first time about because “it’s time for me to stop tiptoeing through my past, and to take back my own life story”. Cyber bullying is becoming rampant and Monica wants to speak up for the tens of thousands of people who are shamed with tragic consequences. Suicides are increasing because humiliation is a more intense emotion then happiness or anger,

Monica pleaded that as a culture we needed to become more compassionate and empathic. She said that our precious right to freedom of expression could not exceed our responsibility for what it is we say. At the end she told the victims of cyber bullying that they can survive it and create new endings to their life’s stories, and got a standing ovation,

Let’s take responsibility for what we say, and try to walk a mile in somebody else’s headline before passing judgment.

New Job Vulnerability

March 30th, 2015

I’ve been working since I was 11 years old (bagging groceries, delivering cleaning, busboy, waiter), but my first professional job, after finishing medical school and internship in 1965, was as a family doctor with the Indian Health Service. I thought it was going to be a two-year stint as my military obligation but turned into a 20-year job. For most of that time I was Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, that experience was a transformational journey that moved me from doctor to healer.

I left the Indian Health Service in 1986 and spent the next 30 years in my second job, doing less psychotherapy and more writing and public speaking. Now, I’m moving into my third job; this transition has been more difficult and it’s waking me up early in the morning. I am organizing the Clown Town Healing Fest (CTHF), which will premiere Dec. 4-6, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. This is a joyous, celebratory weekend that promotes health and healing in community.

The CTHF will mobilize a cities healthcare resources and provide practical healthcare information to inspire people to become the principal agents in their own healing. This is the perfect time to launch it because we are in the midst of a cultural shift in healthcare delivery; moving from an interventional model that treats diseases, to a preventative model aimed at keeping us healthier.

So why am I waking up earlier and can’t fall back to sleep?…because it’s stretching me far beyond my comfort zone. I get up and think about all that needs to get done (finances, contracts, venue, logistics), all those administrative details that I have assiduously avoided for most of my life. I’m better at ideas and inspiration than slogging through the organizational muck required to translate them into action.

I have been talking endlessly about the critical importance of welcoming change and embracing vulnerability in ones life. Doing it however is harder, than talking about it, and it’s waking me up earlier, but the excitement is also turning me on…(and that’s even more critical as I age).

Join me in my excitement as we usher in this paradigm shifting, practical demonstration of preventive health and healing in community @  (www.clowntownhealingfest.com).

Clown Town Healing Fest

March 15th, 2015

For years you’ve been listening to me rail about our healthcare system and how it’s bankrupting and killing and us. We spend almost 20% of our GDP on healthcare (seven times more than any other industrialized nation on earth) and we’re not the healthiest country in the world… not even in the top 20; because our system is based on an interventional model (we diagnose and treat illnesses).

The future of healthcare is about shifting the interventional paradigm to one that’s based on prediction and prevention. That means inspiring people to become active participants in maintaining their health. I am pleased to announce the Clown Town Healing Fest, a joyous celebration promoting health and healing in community.

This is a dream I’ve shared with my friend and colleague Patch Adams MD for years. We’ve been doing this health promotional work all over the world, and it’s time to bring our clown healing festival to the streets of America. We will inaugurate the Clown Town Healing Fest (CTHF) in Phoenix, AZ. December 4-6, 2015.

Clowns will mobilize Phoenix’s healing resources, from customary healthcare providers, to support groups of every description (burn victims, parents of ADD kids, victims of abuse, cancer survivors, et.al.). There will be nutritionists, music/art/dance/narrative therapists, body workers, traditional healers… they will all tell their stories about how they heal and have been healed.

It’s for people of all ages and backgrounds, with clown performances, presentations, and interactive participation, all designed to inspire people about how to keep them healthier.

This will be a joyous, free, celebratory weekend about healing in community. Help us make this dream happen! Get involved, go to www.clowntownhealingfest.com and share it with your friends. Together, we can help shift the paradigm toward the new preventative paradigm…get well before you get sick.

Addiction Is Not a Chronic Disease

March 1st, 2015

Josh Hamilton, the talented major league baseball player, was the American League MVP in 2010. He has struggled with addictions for year, and just turned himself in for another relapse involving alcohol and cocaine.

Josh said…I live with addiction every day of my life, it’s a chronic disease just like diabetes. But it’s not a disease just like diabetes. A disease is something that has a definitive cause; we know how it’s transmitted and how to treat it. This is not the case with addictions, because the addiction is a symptom of a deeper illness.

The underlying cause of all addictions is the addict’s belief that without them he/she has nothing he can depend on that will make him/her feel as good. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rat or monkey, mammals all share a deep biological imperative to bond with others, we are made to suckle; and it’s those bonds that sustain us when we are vulnerable.

When we feel isolated, unsupported, afraid, and unsure of ourselves, we are ripe for addictions. That’s the message of the new best-selling book Chasing the Scream that says everything we’ve been told about addiction is wrong; it’s not chemicals that hijack the brain it’s the individuals disconnection from the nurturing support of others. Johann Hari, the author of this well researched, easily readable book says the antidote to addiction is human connection.

As a psychiatrist, I agree and wish Josh Hamilton well in his battle against his addictions. What he has however is not a “disease”, it is a symptom of his inability to believe that without his drugs, he has no dependable relationships that make him feel as good.

Amazing Grace

February 16th, 2015

We’re beginning to talk more and more about death and dying since Brittany Maynard’s story when viral. This brave 29-year-old woman, suffering from an inoperable brain cancer moved to Oregon where she could be prescribed a lethal cocktail when she was ready to die. Whether or not you agree with her decision, she has certainly left her legacy by encouraging us to discuss our mortality more publicly.

Last week, I spoke to an audience about the subject and showed them a slide listing the three critically important questions people needed to talk about with their doctors and families, when making choices about facing the end of their lives.
1. Do you understand your situation and its potential outcomes?
2. What are your hopes, and fears?
3. What are the trade-offs you willing to make, or not make?

I turned quickly from the screen and suddenly got a little wobbly; stopped momentarily until my lightheadedness cleared, looked at my notes, and continued on uninterruptedly. During a short break someone came up to me and asked if I was feeling okay. I said that I had actually gotten a little lightheaded, but that I was fine now.

During the Q&A, the question arose as to why wait until the end of life when you are losing everything before addressing those three important questions? It would be wonderful to address our losses as they occurred instead of hiding from our families and ourselves. I asked us how many in the audience noticed my long pause. For the first time from the platform I said occasionally I had some difficulty with dizziness and balance, and was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that wasn’t growing but pressing on my auditory nerve that left me with some balance issues.

I acknowledged my fear that if things got worse I could no longer speak, and continue to do what I loved. I thanked them for giving me the opportunity to say it publicly for the first time on the platform. Talking about it openly helps us clarify how we come to our losses.

Attendees came looking towards fans thanked me for making this difficult subject real for them, in the present moment. If you become aware of your growing limitations and do it publicly, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life hiding from your truth. What you once thought lost, can again be found… now that’s Amazing Grace.

The Mussar of MLK

February 1st, 2015

On Martin Luther King Day I participated a Mussar retreat. Mussar is a Jewish spiritual practice developed in 19th century Eastern Europe. It is intended to open a space within to look at living your values; a spiritual wake-up call about walking a moral path in life. It was a great way to celebrate MLK Day because Martin was my Mussar teacher.

Martin helped me look at my truth and face my fears, he was the stimulus for taking a Greyhound bus to Richmond, VA, in1958 where I sat at a segregated lunch counter in the terminal, and felt lucky to get out alive. I was physically OK, but it had a profound emotional impact on me, I felt how much this man sacrificed in the pursuit his dreams.

When Martin was assassinated in 1968, I was a first-year resident in psychiatry and working on an inpatient unit at the Connecticut Mental Health Center, situated in the mostly black, inner city of New Haven. We were all devastated by the news, and anticipated a deluge of psychiatric emergencies but that didn’t happen. In fact, the patients seeing the staff in such despair took care of each other, and the community came together as well. Martin Luther King was such a potent figure of hope and reconciliation, that even in his death he found a way to bind us together in community.

I spent MLK’s day feeling his Mussar, and the next night saw the movie “Selma”. Over the past weeks I keep hearing him in my brain… get out there, share your truth… do what you can and do it now, you’re not going to finish the job… what matters most is leaving a light for those who follow.

Joseph Campbell, was the world’s foremost authority on mythology, in his celebrated classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he said that in the end the heroes journey was never about the aggrandizement of the hero, the ecstasy of the fame, rather it was about the wisdom and the power to serve others.

It’s important to celebrate MLK’s day every year; a hero who helps us believe in dreams.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

January 19th, 2015

I was moved to tears, when I watched over 1 million people walking down the Champs-Elysées arm in arm in last week’s global demonstration of solidarity against terrorism. Didn’t mind the media hype (even as the Russians marched side-by-side with the Ukrainians, while on the same day killing each other at the Donetsk Airport).

Freedom of speech is the foundation of a democracy, and lived my life defending that freedom. However, I get concerned when that freedom disrespects and demeans what is sacred to others; then it’s no longer just about freedom, it becomes a hostile, provocative act that distances people from each other.

The great majority of Muslim people are not radical extremists who express their anger by killing people. Muslim people of faith did not cause 9/11 or kill the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists; terrorists who hijacked the faith murdered them. The great majority are outraged by the terror, they are also outraged by images of their prophet shown as a perverted fornicator.

Muslims in France are already economically marginalized, their religious garb banned in public, now as a group portrayed as terrorists, and it is turning them into mistrustful, cynical, xenophobes. It’s happening to us all; as a civilization we are all turning inwardly, getting armed, and guarding ourselves against strangers.

When freedom of speech injures our souls as human beings, then it steals from us a greater freedom… to treat each other with loving kindness, generosity, respect, and to recognize ourselves in each other.

My granddaughter is living in Paris with her beloved, he happens to be a Muslim from Morocco. I know and love him; he is kind, considerate, a loving son and brother, educated, and fluent in three languages. We talked after the horrific massacre, he respects freedom of speech, but he also feels that when his sense of higher purpose and his community are insulted, that such freedom is abusive and it enrages him.

I understand his anger and encouraged him to go to the demonstration and share his feelings publicly; I’m hoping he will lighten up and become less offended by the excesses that are committed in the name of free speech, and that one-day we will march down the Champs Elysées together saying Je ne suis pas Charlie…We Are Love.

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Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.