Monday, April 27, 2015

Behind Dr. Oz's Curtain

My son's pictures on the Dr. Oz Show, September 9, 2014
What’s Really “Nuts or Normal?”

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”—The Wizard of Oz, 1939

I don’t watch much television. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when I was shocked to see my then four-year old son crash his toy airplanes into towers built of blocks, I decided we didn’t need cable television and 24-hour news anymore. All the news was bad. And the rapidly expanding reality TV genre was worse. My children were raised on a media diet of PBS (delivered via old-fashioned rabbit ears) and DVD science documentaries we checked out from the library.

That being said, I’ve been on television more than some people, usually to talk about the increasingly desperate need to address the public health crisis of mental illness (one of my children has bipolar disorder). I’ve appeared on national media including the Today Show, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, Erin Burnett, and Al Jazeera America. I’ve done numerous local broadcast interviews, most recently in Bismarck, North Dakota and Cincinnati, Ohio.  

I was even fortunate to be a guest on the Dr. Oz show last year to talk about my book. Though I don't watch much television, I knew who he was, mostly from his syndicated column that appears on Sundays in my local newspaper. And while I was also vaguely aware of controversy about some of the weight loss methods promoted on his show, I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just do their own research. There aren’t many times the word “always” is appropriate, but I think it’s fair to say that “Get Rich Quick” and “Lose Weight without Diet or Exercise” promises are almost always too good to be true.

I’m a bit puzzled by the credibility that people attach to television celebrities. The medium’s first duty is clearly to entertain; daytime television never even pretended that it had an obligation to educate.  What are your ethical obligations, then, if you’re a daytime television celebrity physician who calls himself “America’s Doctor”? How do you entertain your audience while also upholding your Hippocratic oath to protect the individual patient’s health and privacy?

In light of this flurry of Dr. Oz criticism, including calls for his resignation from the staff of Columbia University’s medical school, my fearless friend and fellow mental health advocate Janine Francolini of the Flawless Foundation has been quick to remind the public of the Dr. Oz show’s truly terrible 2012 series “Are You Normal or Nuts?” in which a panel of “top psychologists” evaluated audience members’ mental health concerns. 

This truly tasteless show echoed an equally tacky Reader’s Digest annual feature by the same name, which trivializes the tremendous suffering experienced by individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness and their families. For example, the 2013 "Normal or Nuts" article led with this charming introduction: “Calling all neurotics, paranoids, and phobics! Our panel of experts says you might not be as loony as you think in this fan-favorite feature.”

And people wonder why there’s still stigma attached to mental illness.

Like Janine, I want Dr. Oz to use his celebrity status to promote mental health. In my personal experience with him, that’s exactly what Dr. Oz did.

“I’m a dad, and this is important to me,” he told me before we began taping a segment discussing my experience as a parent of a child who has bipolar disorder. His approach to my family’s story was overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the tremendous gains my son has made since his diagnosis in May 2013. The audience applauded when I shared that my son has now written a book of his own, a science fiction novel where the Greek gods all have a mental illness that is actually a super power. This is what the correct diagnosis and treatment can mean to parents and children suffering with mental illness. It means hope.

Dr. Oz has tremendous power to shape public opinion about mental health and mental illness. How can we encourage him to use his power for good, like he did for me and my son? When it comes to mental illness, sadly, too many Americans are still like star-struck Dorothy, believing in the all-powerful image of Oz, not willing to look behind the curtain and acknowledge the truth.

I have an idea for this season’s “Are You Nuts or Normal?” producers. Dr. Oz invites panelists to rate people like Judge Michael Bohren, who refused to authorize medical treatment for 12-year old Morgan Geyser, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and locked up away from her family and denied medical treatment for her brain disease for almost a year.

Nuts or normal?

Dr. Oz interviews the six police officers who tasered 130-pound Natasha McKenna, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and asks them to explain why she died in custody. 

Nuts or normal?

Finally, Dr. Oz presents British parliamentary candidate Chamali Fernando so that experts can discuss her suggestion that people with mental illness should wear color coded wristbands. 

Nuts or normal?

The way we fail to treat children and adults with mental illness in this country is what is really crazy. It’s also expensive, not only in financial terms, but also in lives lost, in dreams shattered. Dr. Oz could rebuild his credibility by focusing his attention on this public health crisis, by providing help—and hope—to millions who are suffering with serious mental illness. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Lost Weekend

Where were my children? Photo by Jonathan Malm,
In high conflict divorces, it’s best to stick to the agreement, even when it hurts

I don’t talk much about my ex-husband or our extremely high conflict divorce. But I recently discovered Tina Swithin’s epic One Mom’s Battle blog, in which she details in blow-by-blow, excruciating detail, what it was like to divorce a narcissist. I couldn’t have found it at a better time.

Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to understand. In the spirit of solidarity with Tina and so many other mothers, here’s a little glimpse of my life.

On Wednesday at 3:45, I left work early, like I always do on Wednesdays, to drive to my younger two children’s schools and pick them up. It had been an incredibly stressful week, with last minute projects and deadlines, so I was eager to leave work behind and enjoy my time with my family. I hummed as I thought about the weekend ahead: the forecast was sunny and warm. Maybe we could go for a family hike on Saturday.

When I pulled up at my son’s school at 4:00, I knew something was wrong. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and no children were waiting outside or walking home. I went inside. “Maybe he’s in the library,” I thought. Worried, I sent my son a quick email. “I'm wandering all over campus looking for you--can you check in with me if you are by a computer? Or did you walk to your sister’s school?

It was close to the time I needed to pick up my daughter. Unsure of what to do, I decided to go to her school, then return to look for my son. Her school’s parking lot was also almost empty. I went to the gymnasium where she usually participates in after school jump rope club. “There’s no school today,” a teacher told me.

I was suddenly sick to my stomach. No school. On a Wednesday. Then where were my children? I did something I haven’t done in five years: I called their father. Of course, he didn’t answer, so I left a message. “Hey, there’s no school, apparently. Are the kids with you? Where would you like to meet so I can pick them up?” I also emailed him, “I'm at the school to pick up X from jump rope club and was just informed there is no school today. Where are X and X? Where should I pick them up? Or do you plan to drop them at the clubhouse? Please let me know as soon as possible.”

I had now tried to contact my kids and my ex five times in the course of 15 minutes. I put my head on the steering wheel and started to sob.

It was 4:31. My ex emailed me this: “we waited but you never showed up.”

My mind was racing. What did my current custody agreement say about days when there was no school? There have been so many changes to our agreement over the seven years we have been divorced.

So I emailed back, asking where we could meet to exchange the children.

My ex’s 542-word response had quite obviously been prepared ahead of time. I’ll just share the last bit: “You were not on time for the ordered exchange.  You made us and the children wait and wait.  That’s not good for the children. The court order says if you don’t make the exchange, you forfeit your visitation period.  That language was per the recommendation of (court ordered psychologist) because of your past pattern of actions like today's--creating crises and causing drama and involving the police etc.  We are done with your drama.  The order says show up on time or miss your visitation period.”

Yep, the reality was this: my ex-husband bet (correctly) that I would forget about the Wednesday in-service day. My other children are in a different school district and had school as usual. So my children’s father drove all the way across town with my son and daughter. He did not answer my phone call. He did not respond to my email. He just waited, like a spider in the center of a web, for me to not show up—because I was on the other side of town at the kids’ schools.

You may be scratching your head at this point. Most divorced parents manage this kind of mix-up easily. For example, one parent might politely remind the other parent that there is no school and confirm the drop off location. Or a parent might text, hey, I’m at the kids school, but they aren’t here! And the other parent could respond, no school. We went to drop off location—headed home now since you weren’t there. Want to meet in the middle? And the first parent would respond, sure, so sorry for mix-up.

That’s not how it works in my world. In my world, we stick to the agreement. We only communicate through email and non-emergency police dispatch. In my world, it’s not about what’s best for the children. It’s about payback.

The thing is, my ex is right on some levels. I should have known the kids didn’t have school on Wednesday. And we need to follow the agreement. Honestly, making exceptions to the agreement is bad for both of us; I am still resentful about the concessions I have made to him in the past, and it’s my own fault for making those concessions. I understand that my ex feels that the agreement should always apply to me and never to him. I need the protections of this agreement in many ways. While I’m sad I don’t get to spend my weekend with my children, I’ve also learned some valuable lessons. Most of all, I’m relieved that they are safe. There’s no worse feeling, as any mother knows, than not knowing where your children are.

I stopped by my children’s schools at lunchtime the next day, to apologize for my mistake. I gave them each a “date with mom” coupon so we could plan our next adventures together. At the end of the day, I’m fortunate to have smart, fun, capable children who love me—and I love them.

It’s been harder for me to forgive myself. My time with my children is precious. Also, because I was so flustered and worried, my ex was able to get me to engage at first. For example, I threatened to call his LDS bishop and report this. I also said I would file a police report. I’m not going to do either. I refuse to engage emotionally for even a single minute more. Instead, I’m going to enjoy that weekend hike, with my husband.

And next time I see my younger children, we’re going to have so much fun!

P.S. If you have a high conflict divorce, here are a few great resources for you:

Divorcing a Narcissist by Tina Swithin. Reading this agonizing tale made me realize that I actually have it pretty good. I don’t think my ex is a full blown narcissist. But he is very controlling and always has to be right. His favorite phrase is "The court order says." Apparently, this phrase only applies to me. Smiley face.

Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss and James Masterson, M.D. This book really helped me to understand my marriage and why I started to disappear. It has also helped me to make better choices in my subsequent relationships.

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I Sutton. Narcissism in the workplace can be toxic. Sometimes the only solution is to leave.

You might also want to check out or I'll be sharing more about wevorce in a subsequent blog.

One final note: if you are divorcing a narcissist, you should be emotionally prepared to spend quite a bit of time in court. We have changed our custody agreement five times in seven years. But you should also know that as you heal and find yourself, you'll find the life you (and your children) deserve.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Dangerous Illusion of Safety

What a German co-pilot’s death and a Jewish rabbi’s life teach us about love

In 1984, I was 12 years old. That summer, my mother handed me two worn paperback books: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “Read them both,” she told me. “Then tell me which one you think is more likely to come true.”

In 1984, I chose Huxley, with his seductive dystopian future shaped by caste systems and fueled by a pleasure drug that rendered life pleasant but meaningless.

In 2015, with our terrorized, NSA-monitored, trigger-happy America, I choose Orwell and his future built on fear and the dangerous illusion of safety.   

For me and for many, this Easter season has been overshadowed by yet another tragedy involving a young man with mental illness. This time, the weapon of destruction was an airplane, not a gun, and it proved far more deadly than other tragedies like Sandy Hook or Columbine. Yet like the school shootings, the essential purpose of the Germanwings crash was the co-pilot’s suicide.

While tabloids could not resist inflammatory headlines like “Madman in the Cockpit,” 
for the most part, the mainstream news outlets were respectful and cautious, stressing the outlier nature of the tragic incident that claimed 150 lives and calling for an increased focus on improving mental healthcare for everyone. Two years after Newtown, this balanced approach shows that we have come a long way as a society in how we understand mental illness.

But the “blame and shame” comments on these articles demonstrate that we still have so far to go. 

Orwell’s book described a society controlled by fear. I would suggest that our society is swiftly moving along this exact trajectory, and that the way we treat people who have mental illness demonstrates how Orwellian fear can be used to control public opinion.

As one example of how we have traded reason for fear, in the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, a journalist with a major news outlet actually asked a mental health policy expert friend of mine, “Is it safe to fly?”

This question demonstrates our incredible inability as a species to assess risk. In fact, it is still safe to fly, much safer than driving to the grocery store. In 2013, for example, there were 32,719 automobile crash fatalities, and only 443 aviation related deaths. This year won’t be much different, even with the Germanwings disaster.

The way we think about violence and mental illness also reveals how we fail to understand risk. While it is true that school shooters are more likely than the general population to have mental illness, the vast majority of gun-related violence is not associated with mental illness. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked school-related violence since 1992: in the entire United States, between 14 and 34 youth die violently at school each year. To put that number in perspective, in Chicago alone, more than 300 young people between the ages of 10 and 25, mostly young men, were killed by guns in 2008

The crux of our collective and irrational fear is this simple truth: we are all going to die. An almost statistically insignificant number of us will die in an airplane crash. More of us will die in car accidents or because of gun violence or by suicide. Many of us will live to old age, only to succumb to dementia, heart disease, or cancer. But one way or another, every one of us is going to die. Nothing can keep us safe from death.

Only when we embrace this essential condition of human existence—when we become comfortable with the inevitable truth of our ultimate ending—can we live a life that is truly free from fear.

For me, Easter is a celebration of this freedom. The celebration begins more than 2000 years ago with Christ’s bloody, agonizing exit from mortal existence, his lifeless body hanging on a cross, pierced by a Roman spear. The celebration ends with Christ’s mythical transcendence to divinity and allegorical return to the empty tomb. But Easter is really a celebration of radical love, the kind of love that makes all men and women our brothers and sisters, the kind of love that conquers death.

I think sometimes that we focus too much on the promise of the resurrection, of life everlasting, and too little on the Rabbi’s earthly message of love right here and now. At its heart, Easter teaches us to overcome our fear of the most cruel and brutal death possible, to embrace instead the life we were meant to live. Christ's life reminds us that a stranger from Samaria may save us, that the leper may be cured against all odds, and that none among us is perfect. Christ’s message was to “love one another,” to embrace the stranger, to help the poor, and to forgive.

Instead, our “Christian Nation” has adopted an Orwellian illusion of safety and rejected the inherent risk of Christ-like selfless, radical love. We do not love one another. We do not embrace the stranger or help the poor; we blame them and incarcerate them. We do not forgive trespasses; we harbor grudges, as individuals, as communities, and as nations.

Here’s the question I have for you on Easter: What if this life is all we have? That is the question we are asking ourselves, in the wake of a senseless airplane crash that could have been prevented, if only (mental health care, no stigma, social support networks, etc.).

The question we should be asking ourselves is this: “How do I live the best life I am capable of living, here and now, today?”

Only by answering this question can we overcome the Orwellian culture of fear that is dividing the world into smaller and smaller islands of false safety. None of us can escape death. But Christ’s death should have taught us this: we all have a sacred duty to love.