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Living Life on Memorial Day 

May 29th, 2016

Today is reserved for thinking about the dead…of course it’s not the only day we think about death and dying. As a matter of fact, in contemporary life we often think more about dying than we do about living. We are forever seeking new ways to avoid it, to reverse the aging process and extend life. We pride ourselves in our ability to cheat death and disability with all kinds of pills, procedures and manufactured body parts.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing it to; I’m increasingly focused on my escalating debilities and limitations., struggling to keep them in check. In the past couple of years, I’ve had dental implants, a prostate surgery, new hearing aids, glasses, and last week fitted for a leg brace to lift my drooping foot.

Just spoke with some college friends and as usual started with “what’s new” and I started with my newfound limitations. I am becoming what I used to laugh at; another old person talking about dribbling’s, drooping’s, and dumping’s.  It was only when our conversation was ending that we finally got to was happening in our lives that brought us joy and fulfillment.

This Memorial Day I am making a vow to start every “What’s New?”  conversation with what’s happening in my life that’s nurturing my soul; what’s bringing me joy and fulfillment. And I’m going to get away on more mini-vacations, sit by a stream, wet a line and  listen to the music of that fly line whipping by my ear; feel the drumbeat of my beating heart with a fish on the line, maybe even spend a night watching the flames of a campfire on a starry night feeling grateful for all that surrounds me, and saying thank you..

The art of living a meaningful life is to come to peace with the fact that it will end. Everything comes and goes, whether in milliseconds or millennia, life and death are our partners in the infinite recycling of our universe. Once we come to peace with that fact we can get on to the task of living. The process of dying is not about leaving life it is about living it fully in every moment.

And today….remember the richness of the lives of those now dead who have made it possible for us to live.

Opiate Epidemic and Overprescribing

May 16th, 2016

There is a national opioid epidemic. Opiate related deaths have surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of injury-related fatality in the US. Since 1999 the prescribing and sales of opioids has quadrupled. The director of the CDC says that there is no other medication that’s routinely used for nonfatal conditions that kills patients so frequently. Doctors are overprescribing opiates for people with chronic pain outside of those who have active cancer, palliative, and end-of-life care.

The CDC and the FDA’s answer to this is to call for more warnings and guidelines… but they’ve had no demonstrable impact; doctors are not writing fewer prescriptions, and even if they follow the guidelines and tell patients all the potential complications, and even if they only prescribe them for short periods of time, the vulnerable will become dependent and find other prescribers.

Opiates are not the only thing that doctors are over-prescribing. The CDC has also just reported that about a third of children suffering from ADHD have the diagnosis made by the time they’re six years old; and three out of four children diagnosed are put on medicine even though research finds the behavior therapy is as effective and doesn’t give them stomach aches, sleep problems, other side effects (and whose long-term impact are still unknown).  But the work of modifying one’s thoughts and behaviors seems so much harder than the seductive promise of immediate relief.

The answer to this problem is not in issuing more warnings and packaging guidelines, it is in changing a healthcare culture that promotes the idea that if you’re feeling anything other than wonderful in every moment there is a pill to cure you. Everyone wants immediate relief from whatever ails them… but chronic pain and behavioral problems are generally not eliminated by pills, but by the hard work of learning how to change your behavior.

It doesn’t matter what you are suffering from, the critical issue is recognizing that whatever it is, it is you who have got it…not it that’s got you. You can make better choices than believing the answers are in pills; find the answers within… explore all the alternatives to medications that exist from herbal medicine to CBT, find something and then commit yourself to doing the healing work that’s necessary… and you will overcome.

P.S. If you want some ideas about how to create a new ending to old painful stories,  read my mini e-book Stop Your Sh*t Shoveling (available at healingdoc.com )

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.

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.