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The Greatest Tenor

May 2nd, 2016

On my recent birthday I took a stroll down memory lane and treated myself to a Roy Orbison concert; performed by a great tribute band called Wiley Ray & The Big O Band. They did an amazing performance of one of the great tenors and songwriters of all times. Roy opened for the Beatles in London, toured with the Traveling Wilburys (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Tom Petty), but I loved him most because my entire adolescence was spent in a chronic state of arousal slow dancing to those extraordinary high notes.

Thinking about his coming reminded me of a somewhat self-inflated patient I’d seen years ago, whose daughter was an opera star. The patient delighted in regaling me with her travels and dinners with operatic luminaries the world over, who she invariably called by their first names. Describing an evening with “Luciano”, she asked me who I thought was the greatest tenor in the world, and without hesitation responded, Roy Orbison. She was stunned, incomprehensibly muttering to herself… Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison? Until she laughed and acknowledged, “I am such a snob”.

Wiley was a ringer for Roy, wore a black wig and dark glasses, and his range included the stunning high notes. He was accompanied by a bassist, lead guitarist, drummer, keyboardist, and two fully-fleshed, backup singers in red satin dresses who weren’t quite the Supremes but fit in perfectly. I didn’t see many people under 65, and the nostalgia factor was on overload.

If you want to remind yourself of how intact your mind still is, go to a favorite oldies concert, you’ll remember every song on the playlist. People were tapping their feet, singing along, and when he sang Only the Lonely I was a teen holding the soft underbelly of Florence’s upper arm imagining it was her breast, and remembering how exciting it was to slow dance to the greatest tenor in the world.

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The Secret of Life

April 16th, 2016

It’s that time of year that I think about getting older. I’m aware of the less than subtle changes in my body, tire more easily, my knuckles hurt if I fist-bump somebody, have trouble with a twist open a bottle, and sometimes I forget what I walked into the kitchen for. Still, I’m enormously grateful that I’m moving because that’s the secret of life.

Last months Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (March, 2016) says you have to keep on moving if you want to keep your mind functioning well. Since 1989 6,000 older men and women have had medical and cognitive testing (including MRIs) and have shown us that if you walk, cycle, swim, dance, even garden a few times a week, you have a 50% less risk of experiencing memory decline or developing Alzheimer’s.

The incidence of dementia doubles every 5 years from 65-90, and the oldest old are the fastest growing segment of the population. The public health burden of this disease is enormous and we must reduce the risk factors.

Dementia’s are going to expand exponentially as we age; from and estimated     today, we will triple let in 30 years. You have to keep moving as you age if you want to keep your memories and hold on to your basic self. That means being active in mind, body and spirit. Make relationships, keep your mind and body moving.

I learned this 40 years ago, when I met a tiny old lady in the primitive art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I wrote about Pearl in my first book “The Dancing Healers” who came up to me and began a conversation. She had an appointment, they were late, and she was ready to engage. I listened more from politeness than interest, impatiently shifting uncomfortably from flight delayed until I heard her say I think that’s the secret of life”. I knew I had missed something and I asked her what was the secret of life and she repeated that sneakers were the secret of life.

It was only then that I noticed in addition to her  blue suit, gloves, and small pillbox hat she was wearing sneakers. So I asked her how her sneakers the secret of life and she said they’re not need to be comfortable unless you’re moving.

If you want to keep on memories and basic self intact you have to keep moving Relatives, it’s the secret to life.

In The Garden of Eden

March 24th, 2016

My wife Elaine and I just returned from a two-week vacation in Panama. It was clearly time for us to get away after the launch of the Clown Town Healing Fest (CTHF) which drained my time and energy.  I promised her that as soon it was over we would go anyplace she chose, which was a place with beaches, warm weather and sunshine.

The inaugural CTHF was the fulfillment of a dream that would help shift our healthcare culture from an interventional model to one that focused on prevention.  It was an enormous success… (see


(http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/humankind/2016/03/02/real-patch-adams-spreads-laughter-hospital/81155074/ )

…and a week after its conclusion we left for Panama, to an archipelago on the Caribbean coast called the Bocas del Toro. We found a tropical paradise on the isla Solarte called the Garden of Eden. This extraordinary B&B provided just what we needed…quiet, comfort, great service gourmet food, early morning yoga in this silent mangrove jungle magnified every bird call and splash of the incoming tide. After yoga, a snorkeling swim enraptured by this aquarium.

This is as close to Nirvana as I can imagine, and I wondered how long I could live like this in such splendid isolation? For a short time maybe a week, but I can’t conceive of living here in the Garden forever… (just as I can’t imagine living on the golf course, playing every day, or cruising around the world endlessly). There is something in my nature that makes such pursuits seem self-indulgent. I am driven by the pursuit of productivity, a need to make a difference and leave the place at least as good as I found it.

For me, at least in this life, the Garden of Eden is not a place one lives in forever; in this life there is an impermanence to everything. I just hope I’ve learned not to wait until I am depleted and exhausted to bask in this soul-nurturing place of peace.

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A Dream Come True

March 7th, 2016

The Clown Town Healing Fest happened in Phoenix last weekend; it was a vision about how we can heal better in community; the culmination of a solid year’s work and a decade-long dream. Clowns, were the vehicle through which we mobilized a communities healing resources to inspire people to explore the many paths available to them to participate in staying healthy.

On Friday we presented a workshop for almost 100 healthcare professionals interested in magnifying their healing power by using “clown therapies”. Those workshop participants became “Truth Fairies” the following day, and spent 20 minutes talking to people about anything they ever wanted to ask a health professional who had the time for such an intimate conversation.

Saturday morning was a bright, sun-shiny day, and the clowns gathered to parade through the downtown streets, finally ending up at Arizona Center where we were welcomed by the Mayor and received a Native American blessing ceremony. The walkways and green areas were teeming with exhibitors, workshops, a main stage with speakers, and clowns galore; there were cardiac resuscitation mannequins, burn and trauma units, massage therapists, musicians, face painters, dancers, yogis, mask makers, pet therapists, nutritionists, Truth Fairies, a blessing booth, and much more. For six hours an estimated thousand people learned, laughed, and played with us. I can’t adequately describe the overwhelming sense of joy that filled the air, but I encourage you to view and read some of the commentary of others to get a feel for its’ impact.




It was worth all the effort, and I basked in that loving energy as the community shared its healing stories. It was the perfect antidote to rancorous Presidential debates that continue to escalate our divisiveness and fears.

When it was all over my grandson asked me how I felt and I told him I felt as if I had taken a leap from the highest ski jump and stuck the landing; I could never have made it without the support of my immediate and extended family. I told my grandson that surrounded by such love is how I want to go when my time comes.

To everyone who participated in making this dream come true I say thank you, and please keep in touch with us for updates, photos and future plans for the next CTHF.

Healing in Community

February 15th, 2016

I just returned from Delray Beach Florida, the self-proclaimed addiction recovery capital of America. I talked about healing in community, and my 20 years’ experience working as a physician and psychiatrist with Native American people where alcohol addiction is endemic and where I learned about how some people recovered while others did not.

In the language of science and story I suggested the secret to recovery whether from addictions any other problems in our lives (diseases, traumas, relationship issues, self-doubts, fear and all self-destructive behaviors, pretty much came down to the same two things.

You have to stop running from what is destroying you; stop hiding, look at yourself honestly, and acknowledge the truth if you really want to change your life. You have to accept that you can’t do it alone, and  need to be connected/ supported by people who lift your spirit and remind you that what you dare imagine is possible can actually come to pass. Nobody makes it alone, it is our connections that help us hang in there when the times get really rough (and it’s always hard to make serious change).

We heal better in community… when lots of people work together towards a common goal it actually increases the likelihood of its happening. That evening,  a standing room only crowd at the historic Crest Theater, with City and County officials, agencies, many treatment programs, the police department, educators and employers came together to create a healing community. They addressed important legislative changes to ensure quality care, reduce fraud, and enforcing those standards. I had the feeling this community had the motivation to make it happen.

We heal better in community, and we’re are about to make that happen in Phoenix, Arizona in two weeks at the inaugural Clown Town Healing Fest (clowntownhealingfest.com).  We are going to mobilize this cities healing resources and invite the people to see how many ways there are to stay healthier. This is a practical demonstration of the cultural-shift in healthcare delivery toward preventive healthcare. Join us if you’re close by, it’s going to be an extraordinary happening.


How We Heal

January 26th, 2016

Last week my dear friend Fernando Ortiz Monasterio called me. We met quite by accident more than a decade ago while watching the sun set on an isolated beach in Baja California and bonded immediately. He was an engineer from Mexico City and worked with the Huichol Indians who live in the inaccessible canyons of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.

When he found out that I was a psychiatrist who worked with Native peoples he told me about a 10-year epidemic that affected children in boarding schools; they became possessed by demons that transforming them into aggressive animal’s, and it lasted for days, sometimes weeks’.

In my work as Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center for many years I learned about the profound impact that witchcraft/ the casting of spells/ demonic possession/ could have on people. I also came to appreciate the profound impact that rituals, ceremonies, prayer, drumming, and natural medicines could have in opening channels into the unconscious mind. It changed people’s behaviors, even their crazy thoughts, and as a result I have come to incorporate such healing practices In my own work.

Fernando asked me if I thought I could be helpful in dealing with this problem, and told him I might, but if I became involved I would need an invitation from the tribe to do the work. It took us a year to work out the details and gather the team of three Americans and three Mexicans all with specialized skills to participate, and it has been the most profound healing I’ve ever participated in, (Kindling Spirit, Hammerschlag, C. A., Turtle Island Press, 2011)

When Fernando called, he wanted me to capsulize in a sentence what the critical elements were that promoted healing? I said, at its core it was belief in the practice and in the practitioner. It didn’t matter if you were a neurosurgeon or shaman, you needed to believe in the system, and trust the person treating you. You also had to want to get well, and be surrounded by a community of loving support.

You don’t have to be possessed by demons in the wilderness to experience how to get healthier; want to see how to get well when surrounded by a community of support; come to the Clown Town Healing Fest (clowntownhealingfest.com) in Phoenix, Feb. 27, 2016 and experience how we can heal in community.


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New Year, Old Disgrace

January 10th, 2016

Just before the New Year, Phoenix police found the body of an unidentified woman sitting on a couch ceremonially enshrined in towels. The corpse had been there for days; almost immediately the suspect was found…a 39-year-old, seriously mentally ill woman, who insisted that the body was her own.

There are lots of chronically mentally ill people on the streets and in prisons in every city in American because the seriously disturbed have been shamefully neglected, abandoned, and left untreated.

We got into this position in the 1960’s and ‘70’s when there was a concerted effort to de-institutionalize the chronically mentally ill. It was a noble idea; close down the medieval, locked wards of State Mental Institutions, and get people back into the community where they could be supported and followed. The result has been that over the last 50 years, the number of psychiatric beds has shrunk from 650,000 to 65,000; the most seriously disturbed wound up in the streets and in prisons (the police have become the first responders for the chronically mentally ill). What’s happened is, the funds that were promised were never delivered. The money was siphoned off by a delivery system that was ripe for fraud.

The recent report by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and colleagues entitled, Fraud, Theft, Waste and private profits: The Fate of Money Intended to Treat People With Serious Mental Illness (Mental Illness Policy.Org, Sept. 28, 2015) offers depressing evidence that billions of dollars allocated by the states to provide mental health services for the chronically mentally ill have been siphoned off by fraud, theft and private profits.

Torrey estimates that between 6-10% of a States mental health funds ($4-$8 billion/year) are being lost to fraud; most to excess profits taken by for-profit managed-care companies. Administrative costs in for-profit psychiatric hospitals are 32% higher than nonprofit psychiatric hospitals, and 83% higher than public psychiatric hospitals. The profit motive in healthcare delivery does not mix well with our social responsibility or our humanity.

The profoundly mentally ill in this Country are vulnerable, powerless, and unrepresented, and a national disgrace. I applaud Dr. Torrey’s scholarship, consciousness, and courage to tell us clearly what we need to do. We must hold State Mental Health Agencies responsible for assertive oversight in how mental health monies are spent; and we must expand the Federal Health Care Fraud Prevention Task Force to deal with crooked institutions and practitioners who are defrauding the system.

The Light at Years End

December 27th, 2015

This year is coming to an end and I’m becoming consumed by these dark days and times. The recent attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, a xenophobic, narcissistic blowhard running for President and turning the Country into a polarizing, reality TV show. The gun control debate has not stemmed the proliferation of assault rifles, there is a refugee crisis, the Greek debt showdown, and the potential undoing of the European Union; it’s easy to feel sad, angry, and despairing.

Then, I watched the awesome spectacle of a night of shooting stars, and it helped me see things from a different perspective. Meteor showers are the result of streams of cosmic debris entering the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrating into celestial fireworks. I wondered, how do we create light from the debris that descends upon us? How do we move beyond these global demonstrations of the worst of our humanity, and remind ourselves of what is best about us?

We are all fading stars, and sparks we want to leave behind are the the reminders of our capacity to love. I watched the shooting stars and saw the lights in my life. The antidote to despair, fear, and rage is to find what you love and love it more… your family, friends, values, purpose; they are the light that illuminates the darkness.

To all of you Relatives, I wish you peace and continued growth in the New Year; may you walk in beauty in the healing light of love.  I say this for All My Relations, Mi Takuye Oyasin.

Clown therapy in Peru: Maria returns

December 14th, 2015

For the last 7 years, I have been traveling with Dr. Patch Adams, the world’s most recognized humanitarian clown, and 100 other clowns from around the world, to participate in the Belén Festival. This is a community health project that educates people, promotes wellness, and brings joy, hope, and healing to this impoverished community in Iquitos, Peru.

Clowns conduct dozens of workshops (from the art of trapeze to puppetry); they paint murals, create art projects, and visit hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. In addition, for the last 4 years, clowns who also are health care professionals conduct mental health clinics in the streets.

I have described the street clinics previously. We walk the streets announcing our presence with a bullhorn and tack up flyers as we go, inviting people to come and talk to us about any problems they are struggling with. Clinicians talk to people in a tight circle, in a public place (school yards, ball fields, wharves, markets), and spend up to 20 minutes with them. Twenty minutes is not a long time, but it’s more than most people (especially women) get to spend with somebody who is actively listening to their story.

The clown clinicians listen empathically. They have the ability to stand in patients’ shoes and convey an understanding of their situations, and they have a desire to help. Clinicians do not make diagnoses or prescribe drugs; they focus not on people’s traumas but rather on their resilience and strengths. They give advice, make recommendations, tell a story/parable, and sometimes bestow blessings and sacred amulets. In that short a time, you can make a profound connection with another human being.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag transforms into a clown clinician at the Belén Festival in Iquitos, Peru.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag transforms into a clown clinician at the Belén Festival in Iquitos, Peru.

Last year, I shared the story of Maria, a middle-aged woman who the very day I saw her had decided to kill herself. Suffering severe emotional and physical abuse, she went to church that morning and asked for gift lists for what she was about to do. After leaving the church, she bumped into a clown announcing the arrival of our mental health clinic, which brought her over to us.

For the first time since doing these clinics, I believed this patient had the potential for taking her life, but hospitalization was not an option and the best I could do was to get her to agree not to kill herself until I could see her again at the next street clinic in a couple of days. I gave her an amulet and suggested she hold it during her morning prayers. I also encouraged her to remember how we found each other so miraculously that day and the promise she made to me to come back and see me in 2 days.

Maria did come back, and this time brought along her 16-year-old daughter and 18-year-old pregnant daughter. For the first time, Maria and her girls told each other their whole story. Then we talked about choices, and before leaving I gave each girl an amulet and a blessing telling them that together they had the strength to find a way through these hard times.

This year, I asked our street clinic coordinator if she could find Maria and her daughters. It took a while because they’d left the abusive home they were in and were living in their own “house.” I visited the three of them (and their now 1-year-old baby) in their home, a single room built on a wooden platform lashed onto an abandoned water tower, and partly covered with a tin roof.

The success of the mental health clinics in Peru show just how quickly humans can make intimate connections.

The success of the mental health clinics in Peru show just how quickly humans can make intimate connections.

I brought along some nonperishable grocery items, and we greeted each other joyfully. They proudly showed me their amulets; we put some chairs together, and talked about what had happened over the last year – how, with the help of neighbors, they found this place and were able to move out of their abusive home, and were living happily together.

When we left, they thanked me effusively. Their gratitude had far less to do with the groceries than for having remembered them and the specialness of our miraculous connection.

We are psychiatrists; we know about transference and how quickly people can make intimate connections. An active listener who comes to the relationship with an open heart can practice this kind of clown therapy. As psychiatrists, imagine how much more fun we would have if instead of doing the 15-minute medication reviews that focus on side effects, we listened to people’s stories and shared some of our own wisdom. Not only might we prescribe less medication, but it would also remind us of why we came into the profession.

In late February 2016, Patch and I will be conducting a clown therapy workshop at the Clown Town Healing Fest. If you want to stimulate your creative juices, launch your intuitive wisdom, and learn about clown therapy, join us and reconnect with the joy of your healing soul.

Dr. Hammerschlag is chief of community mental health at the Gesundheit! Institute. He is also the author of several books on healing and spirituality, including “Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within” (New York: Turtle Island Press, 2012) and “The Dancing Healers: A Doctor’s Journey of Healing With Native Americans” (San Francisco: Harper, 1988). Dr. Hammerschlag’s website is healingdoc.com.

Living with Bewildering Uncertainty

December 8th, 2015

We are living in an age of escalating dread… with random killings, bombings, racist terror, and seemingly endless wars. We are all feeling vulnerable, and these reminders of our mortality are intensified for me because of the changes taking place in my own house.

I have lived in the same home for 45 years; originally built in 1937, it’s a big house surrounded by adobe walls, on an acre of land that needs lots of attention. It has been the refuge and ceremonial foundation of our family life; we have celebrated all the lifecycle events here, and survive the traumas; I shudder at the thought of leaving the sacred grounds.

Alas, the time has clearly come to downsize; the house is old, the plumbing needs replacement, the heating and air-conditioning pumps need upgrading, and all these external changes are mirrored in the breakdowns of our own pipes and pumps. We are getting old (the kids and grandkids remind us we have already arrived), and if we move I’d like this to be the last one.

The question is, where do we go? We’ve looked at retirement communities, some luxurious with five-star concierge services and offering graduated care should you ever need it. Even the more modest ones seem like end-of-the-road “gray farms” of impending decay to me. It’s not my cup of tea, I don’t want to live in such a closed community. I need a place where I can stroll with young and old people, a community with arts, theater, music, a corner coffee shop to sip and have a conversation.

The Phoenix downtown is experiencing a vibrant revitalization and has all those options available, but my wife is less enthusiastic about the neighborhood; she would prefer a 55+ gated community with amenities and planned activities. The thought of it makes me cringe.

In three weeks we will be married for 55 years, it’s been a wonderful, loving partnership with plenty of challenging times and we are committed to hanging out together. However, I’ve got to say that I’m not use to living in such bewildering and uncertain times and it’s intensifying my vulnerabilities.

In these times that frighten and demoralize us, remember what you value most because that will inspire and give you hope.

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.