Why I Became a Psychologist

Recently, a pre-doctoral candidate in psychology asked me why I became a psychologist.  That question I have thought about in the past, with the implicit recognition, that the answer was not a simple one. I need hearken back to childhood to best respond to this young woman’s inquiry.

The American playwright, Tennessee Williams, once said: “Happiness is insensitivity.” As a child, I still very much remember the hurt I felt in the 1st grade when a friend left me, stranded in the classroom, waiting for him. Because the event did not affect him in the same way it did me, I am quite sure he has no recollection of it. I have carried this sensitivity to others to the present day.  In fact, when I express my hurt that someone’s comment may have caused me, whether intended or not, my wife, Lisa, will plead with me to let it go.  Good advice but most difficult to follow.  Life can be wonderful, but at the same time, we humans can be most cruel to one another.  My mother once told me: “We criticize the living but we eulogize the dead.”

I believe the insensitivity that Williams spoke about was twofold: 1) Handling the nasty comments and then 2) hurling nastier insults toward others.  People that have a good sense of self   probably manage the give and take of everyday life without being thrown off balance.  They keep their cool or equilibrium.  At an early age, the pain I experienced from the words and actions of those around me, most prominently my classmates, made me seek a path that would result in minimal torment.  So, the weapon I chose to fight my proclivity of deep sensitivity was to make friends with as many people as I could.  I intuitively knew that if I was to be critical of my peers, I would have to bear the brunt of their embittered reactions.   I did not want to put myself in that position.  Rather than criticizing others, I complimented them, at times, perhaps, excessively.  My ability to have friends from all walks of life enabled me to stave off much of the harsh comments that otherwise may have come my way.

The late psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, who I met in Los Angeles, told me that the pain he had experienced growing up facilitated his work as a therapist.  That is to say, as he mentioned, he could feel the suffering of his clients.  I very much resonated with this observation inasmuch as a child, and afterwards, I frequently felt the emotional hurt endured by close companions.  My own keen sensitivity allowed me this very important therapeutic power of empathy, that is the ability to experience what another person is feeling.

I first became intrigued with the process of psychology, in high school, when my friend Marc and I met on a number of occasions with another friend who had indicated to us the serious nature of some of his problems. I remember Marc being an “armchair therapist” making some brilliant comments in his attempt to help our mutual buddy.   Perhaps it was a combination of my sensitivity and empathy that brought me closer to my companion whose pain I could almost feel.  I was both excited and gratified to realize that listening and responding in an understanding way held healing powers.

I did not major in psychology because the prerequisites required a strong scientific and math background, not my strong areas of study, at the university I attended.  Instead, I decided to major in cultural anthropology. In my sophomore year, I took a course in abnormal psychology, taught by Dr. Julius Wishner, I found captivating.  Upon graduating from college, I joined the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) which now goes under the rubric AmeriCorps Vista, with the hope of giving me a year to figure out what I would do when it was time to become an adult and take on the responsibility of making a living.

I very much remember that day in August.  I had been assigned to a community action program in Moses Lake, Washington where there had been some racial disturbances. It was located east of the Cascades where there is little rainfall and very dry conditions.  It was a hot Sunday afternoon and, while sitting in the building where I would meet with my supervisor, I asked myself “where do I go from here.” By that time, I was quite sure I wanted to go into a human service area where I could directly help people.  I had majored in cultural anthropology and, though I had enjoyed my work, I never felt stimulated in the same way as I had when I had taken the course in abnormal psychology.   I then turned my mind to sociology, thinking about the possibility of either being a sociologist or social worker.

My thinking at the time was that sociology and anthropology dealt with people in groups.  However, the practice of psychology concerned itself more with individuals and, for me, the most intense and meaningful conversations, had always occurred on a one-to-one basis.  This is where I was most comfortable and also where I appeared to be at my best.  I then understood explicitly what I probably had known all along, and pretty much from that day on, my course was set straight toward becoming a professional psychologist.

Tom Brady Does It Again

My last blog spoke to the meaning of heroism.   Great athletes are not thought of as heroes, but rather as stars, a term reserved for the entertainment industry of which sports is one.  I confess that I never was a fan of Brady inasmuch as I have remained loyal to my childhood team, the New York Giants.  Moreover, I was delighted when the underdog Giants, with Eli Manning quarterbacking, defeated the Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl by a score of 17 to 14.  This loss broke the New England Patriots undefeated season and yielded a large payoff to those betting on a Giant win.

However, perhaps the most spectular of all Bowl games occurred in 2017 when the Patriots met the Atlanta Falcons to decide Super Bowl LI.  In that contest, with the Patriots losing 28-3 with 8:31 left in the third quarter, the Patriots went on to tie the game 28-28 and win in overtime 34-28.  Yours truly, Tom Brady, played a key role in this amazing Patriot come from behind triumph. 

When the Patriots lost to the Titans in the first round of the playoffs on January, 2020, most of us thought it was time for Brady to hang up his cleats and retire.  After all, he already claimed six Super Bowl titles, and at 42, he had reached an age regarded as ancient for most athletes, even the great ones.  Compared to his previous years, Brady had performed in subpar fashion.  The human body reaches its physical peak in the 20’s, with gradual decline, each year afterwards. 

But when Brady left the Patriots to join a franchise accustomed to losing, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the 2020 season, he defied his body and the odds.  Being inclined to root for the underdog, I began to cheer for Brady and Tampa Bay as they competed in the playoffs. Brady had recruited three players, two of whom had played with the Patriots, Ron Gronowski and Antonio Brown, and the third, Leonard Forchette.  These three teammates all were instrumental in helping the Patriots win the Super Bowl against the favored Kansas City Chiefs.  As the game got underway, I thought the 3 ½ point betting odds favoring the Chiefs, the team that had won the Super Bowl the previous year, were way too low.  The week before, the Buccaneers had upset the Green Bay Packers 31 to 26, despite the fact that Brady was hardly at his best, throwing three consecutive pass interceptions during the second half.  But the Tampa Bay defense hung on for the win. 

I drew two conclusions from the Tampa Bay victory over the Packers:  1) Either Brady simply was unbeatable or 2) He was just lucky enough to win after a lackluster performance on the gridiron.  Kansas City had a starring quarterback in Patrick Mahomes II, who at 25 years of age, was in his prime.  I thought that Brady and the Buccaneers would need more than good fortune to overcome the returning Super Bowl champions.  Like many others, I guessed wrong.  The Buccaneers took advantage of some misplays and penalties by the Chiefs that gave Brady plenty of room to operate.  He made 21-out-of 29 competed passes with three touchdowns to win the Buccaneer’s second Super Bowl.  In so doing, Tampa Bay won eight straight games on its way to a Super Bowl LV title with Brady being chosen as MVP in that contest.  I always have said it is the mark of a great team that can take advantage of their opponent’s mistakes.  Brady, the great player he is, made sure that he would not let his teammates down, and they responded to the challenge with a superior defense that never let up.  Great players frequently inspire those around them to perform at a higher level.  Such was the case of the Buccaneers’ defense that relentlessly rushed Mahomes throughout the game forcing him to consistently miss his targets. 

Brady’s record seven Super Bowl rings is not likely to be surpassed soon. Will his streak continue?  He assured the fans he would be back next year, so let us see.  

On Heroism

On Thursday morning, I ate a quick breakfast, finished sipping the last grains of coffee and turned on Zoom to meet with my friend, Chuck Sooter, who I first met doing voluntary mediation for Small Claims Court cases in Fullerton, CA.   We have been meeting every other week, for several months, discussing whatever issues might interest us.  Despite our advancing age, we share one thing in common:  We have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

Chuck’s latest interest had to do with polysemes or how different words can take on an assortment of meanings.  But before we both began to give examples of polysemes, I had a pressing urge to bring up a topic of a different nature:  Aleksei Navalny’s voluntary return to Russia.  Here was a man who had come close to losing his life by poison, an act that surely possessed a Russian imprint, returning to confront his would-be killers directly, rather than choosing the much safer path of exile.  Amazed at the personal sacrifice and risk by returning Navalny was making, I asked Chuck: “How could one be so brave?”  To which he replied by mentioning Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela as two such people.  Of course, there are others but in proportion to the world population, those that behave heroically during their lives are few and far between.

Because I knew Chuck had served as a U.S. Marine during the Viet Nam War, I did not doubt his courage, so I asked whether he would be able to match Navalny’s bravery.  He said “no”, and oddly enough, I felt vindicated because I knew deep in my heart that returning to the bed of Hell that awaited Navalny most probably would not be the action I would pursue.

Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Anwar-Sadat and Yizhak Rabin all held one thing in common from the rest of us earthlings.  The cause they sought to achieve had a greater meaning than their own individual lives.  In Sadat and Rabin’s case, each of them strove to make peace with the enemy of their people to reduce the bloodshed lost to war embraced by each country’s hatred toward the other.  The others died in their efforts to achieve a sense of parity for the different groups within the boundaries of their nation.

Of the above leaders, Nelson Mandela was the only one that was not assassinated.  But, nevertheless, because he spent 27 years incarcerated, he paid a huge price for his beliefs.  After an unsuccessful attempt to kill him, no doubt Navalny knew the risk he took in returning to Russia to face the consequences.  But he understood that his visibility was a much larger threat to Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial reign than his staying out of Russia and writing about the unfairness and inequities existing in Russia.  Aleksei’s return was a direct hit on the governing regime insofar as he was able to let his people view a videotape showcasing the exorbitant life style evidenced by Putin’s palace.  While being sentenced in court, he expressed his feelings directly to Putin’s evil and corrupt rule when he said: “Well, now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants—that’s how he will go down in history.”

Great leaders and heroes share one important quality in common:  Their foremost concern is not themselves, but rather the overall good of their people.  This characteristic is quite the opposite of many politicians whose primary concern often is their own individual advancement.   By virtue of the fact that they are heroic, these feats occur rarely.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if our elected leaders strove to set goals that are better for the vast majority rather than a particular group with whom they identify?  The dearth of leadership in the West has allowed the leaders of China and Russia to gain in their influence and power.    Although Aleksei Navalny’s actions have gone a long way, he cannot do it alone.  Let us hope and pray the delegates that represent us put down their swords and work with their political opponents in a constructive way.  When our leaders work together as allies, rather than enemies, they will fortify the armamentarium so essential for a democracy to survive.  This then is not so much a plea for heroes, but rather for women and men that can go beyond their own self-interest to serve us all in a better way. 

The above men that I have given as examples of heroes were first recognized as great leaders.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in the above, many great leaders’ lives are shortened by their brave, sometimes transformative, deeds.  They then often become memorialized as heroes.  I believe the fact that Aleksei Navalny has consciously placed himself in grave danger, by exposing the deceit and dishonesty of the ruling power of Russia, elevates him to heroic status.  We can only hope that these courageous feats do not result in his tragic ending.

Race Relations in America Year 2021: The Times They are a Changing

In honor of Martin Luther King, let me give you my perspective on race, currently a most thorny topic here in America.  After George Floyd’s ruthless murder by a white (I will not alter the convention of both white and black, when referring to people, not being capitalized) police officer, most everyone regardless of race were up in arms.  On the other hand, America elected its first Afro-American President in 2008 and, subsequently, reelected him in 2012.  We now have the first Afro-American female as our Vice-President.  These are historic events the Reverend King certainly would have looked upon with much delight.

Rather than go through an analysis on the direction of racial progress in America, I will point out two specific events I experienced, though on the surface small, I believe to reflect the bigger picture.  In 1967, I was a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker that serviced marginalized groups.  During my training in Salt Lake City, I went on a field project with an elderly retired couple from Texas, who were also in VISTA.  We had been placed with different families, and when we compared notes about the families with whom we had been assigned, the husband nonchalantly used the “N” word that quite shocked me.    

Sometime around the turn of the century, upon visiting my mother in New Jersey, I took a taxi to Newark Penn Station  enroute to Manhattan.  Although I do not recall much of the conversation, part of what the cab driver said still remains quite vivid in mind.  He indicated he was from the North Ward, an area in Newark, that was predominantly Italian.  He stated that he could understand how black people like to hang out together, just like he, an Italian, enjoyed staying with his friends where he resided.  Though he may not have been open to having relationships with Afro-Americans, he was able to acknowledge their right to live peaceably in Newark as equal to his right to live there.

In prior years when I would take a taxi, the drivers often made comments that had an underlying malicious tone.  In more recent years, I have observed the tone of such comments by the drivers to be much less embittered, more toward accepting, rather than bad mouthing their black neighbors.  Taxi drivers, like barbers, hear from all sources and very often echo back the sentiments of the varied clients with whom they have contact.  In this sense, they may serve as cultural barometers.

The Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60’s, led by the actions of Martin Luther King Jr., ended the systematic discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in employment practices, schools and at the workplace.  By 1967, major civil law legislation had been passed, outlawing racial segregation in schools, public accommodations and employment discrimination. The passage of the Civil Rights Act ended the flagrant abuses of de jure (that is, by law) discrimination.  This is not to say that de facto (by fact, but not sanctioned by law) discrimination does not exist.  Without a doubt, it still does.  A change in laws does not magically change people’s attitudes toward others.  But at least not condoning or permitting racial discrimination by decree or order brings the level of consciousness of such action to a much higher level.

Although some form of anti-Semitism has been with us since ancient times, and yes it still exists in America, it is much less pervasive here than in other countries.  Unfortunately, hate has been with the human race for time immemorial.  Despite this fact, the Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, has demonstrated in his studies that the level of human violence throughout the world has decreased over time.  He documented his findings in his book:  The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Let us hope the manifestation of hate into murderous acts continues to diminish.

Uttering the “N” word today is considered much worse than any expletive one might say in anger.  Perhaps not for all, but I would maintain for many, this word has a very pejorative connotation that the couple I met in VISTA did not recognize.  I don’t think, even the most cynical of us all, can contest the progress in race relations since the time of Martin Luther King Jr.  But despite these positive changes, the recent rise of white supremacist antipathy for minorities, such as Jews and Afro-Americans, threaten to throw us back to the past.  Let me end with a quote from Coretta Scott King, the late wife of Martin Luther King:  “It is the very nature of this fight for civil rights and justice and equality that whatever gains we make, they will not be permanAent.  So, we must be vigilant.”

Football Interlude

I need a time-out from the commotion and craziness of the past few weeks.  The world of sports provides us with a wonderful escape from the stark realities of the day. Although it may not be true in today’s political universe, athletic events usually have an underlying basis to their rules and regulations.  Once an avid New York Giants fan, my attraction to the sport waned many years ago.  However, during the playoffs, at the end of the season, my interest perks up.   

Because I am much more into baseball than football, I have not paid too much attention to rule changes in professional football.  However, a noticeable development in the game did not make a lot of sense to me:  The kickoff and its return.  Way back in the ‘50’s, the kickoff would be at the 40-yard line of the team kicking the ball.  If the ball went into the endzone and was not returned, play would begin at the 20-yard line of the receiving team.  Because the performance of athletes has improved over time due to better exercise routines, better equipment and greater strength, the kickoff would wind up deep in the endzone with no return.  This eliminated the possibility of a return that had been viewed as one of the most exciting plays in a football contest.

Apparently, the line of scrimmage (where the ball is kicked from) at one time had been pushed back to the 30-yard line in professional football making runbacks much more probable by the receiving squad.  However, subsequently, the line of scrimmage was moved up to the 35-yard line, once more, resulting in many kickoffs again not to be returned.  But additionally, if the ball was not returned (in both college and pro football), it automatically came out to the 25-yard line, 5 yards further than previously.  Because it is harder to reach the 25-yard line on a return, this reduced the incentive to run back a kickoff.  Furthermore, balls that were fielded in play (that is on the playing field and not in the endzone) had to be returned.  Now, however, these balls could be caught in play and not returned, moving the ball, once more up to the 25-yard line.

When players choose not to return the ball, thereby, bringing the ball up to the 25-yard line, a potentially exciting play occurs much less frequently.  I decided to ask my cousin, Mike Natelson, who is a sports enthusiast, why the kickoff return had been eliminated.  His answer, unlike recent political events, made sense:  The kickoff return resulted in more injuries than any other play.   Huge guys running at full speed for 60 to 70 yards make a big impact when they hit or tackle the return player.   By reducing the number of football returns in each game there is less likely to be an accident. 

Football is indeed a dangerous sport.  But now that management can no longer deny the risks to body and brain that result from the game, they are taking some important precautionary measures.  In most cases, apparent contradictions or inconsistencies can be understood if one takes the time to investigate them.  However, often human emotions take precedence over reason blinding us to best solutions.  One need not look further than at the many crises and gridlock we currently face in the political arena but this is grist for another essay.

Trump’s Final Days

I can hear the voice of my grandmother reverberating from her grave:  Trump is a shanda.  Shanda is the Yiddish word for a person who commits a shameful act.  As a child growing up, I would know some political figure had committed an act of skullduggery, when my grandmother would yell out this word.  Make no mistake about it, Trump has committed that act and worse when he incited a crowd of followers to reject the election results resulting in them violently storming the Capitol.

Mr. Trump (at this point, it is difficult to call him President) by his actions has managed to alienate many of his followers.  I believe Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who led a group of senators challenging election results that designated Mr. Biden as the winner, have lost credibility in the eyes of their foes and allies.  Furthermore, Mr. Trump’s outrageous actions insisting that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger overturn the presidential election results in that state allowed for a democratic victory, a first, for its two senators.  That is to say, it was the last straw that ended the chances of the two Republicans, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, to win the runoff race for positions in the U.S. Senate.  Rather than declaring themselves separate and opposed to Trump’s latest actions, they chose to back the President, a misjudgment that apparently did not help them.  Thank goodness that in the eyes of the American public, there are occasions when political opportunism fails. 

There are some brave souls whose character stood out in the face of the bizarre and troubling events of the day.  One of them was Senator Mitt Romney, who apparently was booed and nearly assaulted by some of Trump’s supporters on the plane flying from Utah to Washington.  His defense of American democracy in his speech at the Capitol after the rampage was most notable.  He repeatedly has shown how his integrity, values and love of country supersedes partisan interests.

However, most importantly, the strength of our country’s democracy provided by the Constitution did not permit  Trump’s seditious behavior to suppress the rule of law set by the electoral results that declared Biden the victor.  It was sobering to see, in the wee hours of the morning, Vice-President Pence, with the assistance of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, certify the electoral vote count from each state, confirming Mr. Biden’s election victory. 

We can judge a person much better by their losses rather than their gains.  Trump’s refusal to accept defeat does not bode well for him or anyone who wishes to be considered a leader.  Hopefully, Mr. Trump’s shandas have exhausted the patience of the American public.  Let us hope and pray that Mr. Biden can put to rest the uneasiness of these past four years and begin a new era of civility in American politics.

A Tale of Two Countries

The New Year happily brings us out of Year 2020.  It was a year of failed opportunities by the two most powerful countries in the world:  China and the United States.  The leaders of both of these countries suffered from a state of massive denial.

The coronavirus first reared its ugly head in Wuhan, China in November of 2019.  Unfortunately, the President of China, Xi Jinping, did not want to deal with the problem when alerted by Chinese doctors of a disease that had the capability of being transmitted to humans.  He did not want to upset the applecart, called the Chinese economy, inasmuch as he was more focused on an upcoming trade deal with the Americans.  When President Xi finally realized the gravity of the situation, it was already February and, sadly enough, for the rest of us the “corona” cat had been let of the bag with the virus quickly spreading to other countries.  It did not help that President Trump earlier had pulled many American epidemiologists, experts in contagious diseases, out of both China and the White House.

Meanwhile, Mr. Xi shuttered all businesses and travel resulting in a general lockdown decree that the Chinese people were forced to obey.  This stance, though dictatorial in nature, rapidly flattened the curve related to the prevalence of the Covid-19 in China with the mortality rate showing a steep decline.  Although Mr. Trump’s advisors dutifully informed him of the existence of the virus, I remember one of his early messages stating because the virus will miss America, we had nothing to worry about.  His attempt to reframe the reality of what lay ahead into a positive moment was ill conceived as we now have approximately 350,000 dead Americans by this invasive disease with the count increasing each day.  I likened his message to the Biblical story about the Jewish peoples’ homes being “passed over” by the Angel of Death, when the first-born Egyptian male child was killed, that Passover commemorates.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi committed the same mistake: They wanted to keep the economy booming as it reflected on their successful leadership.  But President Trump was more concerned about his personal acceptance rather than the health and ultimate good of the country.   For example, a recent article in the New York Times pointed to the fact that Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, argued that wearing masks would be seen as instrumental in providing safety so that Americans could dine in restaurants or attend sporting events.  However, Mark Meadows, the White House Chief of Staff countered this statement by telling the President that use of masks was detrimental to his political base.  Regrettably, for both Mr. Trump’s candidacy and the country, the President chose the latter interpretation and continued to refuse to cover himself with a mask and follow the rules of social distancing.

Overall, there was little coordination among the agencies involved in such matters as testing, and in tracing trouble spots where the virus was penetrating.  While Mr. Trump does not deserve all the blame for the virus spreading, nevertheless, he did not exhibit the role of a leader when he repeatedly denied the magnitude of the problem in declaring that the source of the difficulty was too much testing and not the pandemic.

A good leader makes a decision in an emergency based on his nation’s best interest not his political future.  Furthermore, a good leader needs to listen, access and employ the most expert voices available.  In the case of China, Mr. Xi could conceal his errors and misjudgments in contrast to an open society like America where it could not be concealed.  The sheer number of people that have died in America due to Covid-19 has demonstrated a lack of quality management by Mr. Trump.  Because Mr. Trump’s poor response to a crisis cost him a second term, his epitaph may someday read:  President Trump’s Waterloo–COVID-19.

The Scream

 I remember very few details from that night, not even recalling the exact year of the incident.  I do recall it being a snowy evening on a Sunday the day before President’s Day in February.  At the time, I was living in Manhattan on the 1st floor of a high-rise building on the Upper West Side so it had to have occurred sometime in the mid ‘70’s.  My brother, Andrew, and I were dating two sisters living in the Bronx.  Andrew met us at my apartment before we all headed out to the Bronx where friends of our dates were throwing a party.

Together at my apartment, I cracked open a few bottles of wine that we all drank along with some assorted crackers and cheese.  Although my brother was working the next day, the three of us were off on Monday putting us all in a celebratory mood.  As we imbibed, our voices grew loud and, having been warmed by the alcohol, we grabbed our winter coats; with much cheer, perhaps bordering on the obnoxious, we departed.  Across the street, a woman in a high-rise, in a disturbed voice, told us to quiet down, upon which I impulsively yelled an expletive, instantaneously, causing her to slam her window down with a resounding crash.

At the party, I recall little more than having a good time and that my girl friend appreciated the fact that I could mix with her friends without hanging on to her.  Because my brother had to leave and the sisters already had made plans the following day, we said good-bye to them and returned to my apartment by subway.  From here, all I can remember was saying good-night to Andrew, and being pleasantly, but not overly intoxicated, immediately falling in bed, noticing it was already past 1 a.m.

Both physically and mentally exhausted from all the activities of the day and evening, in conjunction with the food and drink, I rapidly started falling asleep.  Suddenly, a loud shrieking sound jarred my senses throwing me into a confused state.

In this half-awake state, I thought I must be dreaming, but when the noise continued at the same loud pitch, as I began to regain consciousness, I knew I was not dreaming.  My jumbled mind shuffled through all sorts of conjectures in trying to piece together what was happening.  No longer believing it to be a dream, I thought and hoped it might be an animal, perhaps a feral cat, letting out a screech either attacking its prey or defending itself.  But as my brain defogged, it became clear it was a human voice that I now hoped was coming from outside the building. “Go away,” I said to myself, but it refused to do so.  It was a piercing unending scream, worse than anything I had ever heard, and I suddenly knew I no longer could question the inevitable:  A woman in the building was being attacked.

I was terrified. Not knowing what to do, I started toward my wine collection with the thought of picking up a bottle and running toward whomever, I met, outside to free this woman.  But then my fear took over:  When I reassessed the situation, I stopped and decided better to call 911 and let them handle it.  The dispatcher, in her effort to verify that the call was real, asked me to identify myself and, I angrily said it’s happening now.  After what seemed forever, she said that help would be on the way as soon as possible.

I then had to make a decision:  To stay safe in my apartment or to go out and be of assistance.  The screaming had at last stopped.  Having abandoned my Rambo moment, I moved cautiously with no rush to go out into the unknown.  Still wavering on what to do, I determined to venture out of my apartment to see what had happened and, perhaps be of some help.  As I opened my door, a trembling trepidation seized my body not knowing what awaited me.  To my relief, I saw a live woman, trail of blood behind her, standing in the middle of the lobby holding a wad of tissue in the back of her bleeding head.  When I asked her what had happened, she told me she had let a male in, who she thought was locked out, and as soon as she had entered the elevator, he had attacked her and pistol whipped her in the head.  Almost reflexively, I started to ask her why she would let a stranger in at such a late hour, but my good sense steered me from interrogating her, realizing any criticism would not help her.  Soon someone from upstairs came down with a towel, and shortly afterwards the police arrived at which point I returned to my apartment still in utter shock at what had transpired.

Because the level of crime in the ‘70’s in the City was pretty high, and, especially, after what I had been exposed to, I contemplated purchasing a gun.  But before doing something like that, and having no experience with a firearm, I decided to consult the police.  When I called a neighboring precinct and told the officer what I had experienced, he indicated that possession of a gun in a private residence is more dangerous to the owner than its value as a defensive weapon.  I chose not to buy a gun when he stated that accidental injuries and/or deaths occur with no infrequency with people that keep loaded guns in their homes.

A few days later that same woman who had been assaulted, knocked on my door and thanked me for what I had done.  She stated she had been in the hospital overnight where she received 18 stitches for her wound letting me see the back of her head.  Because her long hair covered the injury, she told me that the scar it left could not be seen. We both agreed that she had been extremely fortunate with my letting her know that her scream may have saved her. 

When a special meeting for the tenants was held to discuss what had occurred, one of them said they did not come out because earlier they had heard some frolicking and noise at a party.  I chuckled thinking they were referring to the little gathering of my brother and me with our dates.  That they could not distinguish the noise of laughter, be it loud, from a cry of terror, suggested to me that they were unwilling to accept or admit to their own fears.

Although I was living in one of four apartments on the first floor, I was the only one to come out.  Someone later told me the Super, who lived on the 1st floor, did not want to get involved because he had children.  Even though Monday was President’s day and some residents might have been away, it still surprised me that I was the first one to offer aid with a resident from upstairs coming down with a towel soon afterwards.  My delayed reaction at responding to the screams had annoyed me and caused some guilt.  However, when the victim told me the assailant had a gun, I knew that any “heroic” act such as my idea of madly running after him with wine bottle in hand, could have resulted in disaster.  If the mugger had been on drugs, he may not have given too much thought to pulling the trigger very possibly resulting in my death.   Emergency situations calling for split second decisions are never easy to make.  When it was happening, I thought I should have done more, but when it was over I felt relieved in how I had acted.  

Is He a Real Doctor?

The recent Opinion article appearing in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein asking President Elect, Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, to drop the “Dr.” before her name, I am happy to say, received many letters that cried disbelief.  One claim Mr. Epstein makes is that when Dr. Biden received her doctorate in educational psychology, the Ph.D. was no longer prestigious because, according to him, it “has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education.”  There has been much criticism of contemporary higher education such as Jonathan Haidt’s work, embodied in his essay, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”  Granted, I have heard of grade inflation, but I believe the University and not the student, working toward his/her doctorate, should be held responsible for this trend in education.

Given the steady ongoing erosion of University values that Mr. Epstein speaks about, I suppose he would be satisfied if Dr. Biden, who received her Ed.D. after 2000, should have an asterisk affixed to her degree.  By the same token, I imagine Mr. Epstein would like those that receive their doctorates after 2010 to have two asterisks appended to their degrees and, those poor souls, who will receive their doctorates after 2020, need have three asterisks affixed to their degrees.

My wife, Lisa, and I received our doctorates prior to the “relaxation of standards” of university education that Mr. Epstein talks about.  Nevertheless, we quickly discovered that her status as an Ed.D., and mine as a Psy.D., appeared not to merit the word Doctor in front of either of our names.  When I passed both the written and oral part of the licensing exam, my supervisor, where I worked at that time, addressed me as Dr. Natelson.  I had toiled countless hours to surpass the many hurdles necessary to arrive at that moment so I had a feeling of accomplishment.  It felt good being addressed as Doctor.  But little did I know that I was in for a rude awakening on both social and professional fronts.

Many years ago, before marrying, I enlisted a matchmaking agency that I thought might direct me to a woman that wanted to enter into a sincere relationship.  When I told the owner of the service what kind of doctor I was, she responded by saying that I was not a real doctor, that is a medical doctor.  My ability to gain access to what she had boasted was her vast supply of beauties that filled her dating service suddenly plummeted. She apparently preferred M.D.’s whose income potential was much higher than what I could earn as a Psy.D.  Needless to say, the two of us bid one another adieu.

In the professional area, I soon discovered that Ph.D. or Psy.D. psychologists et al., in the mental health establishment, are viewed as primus inter pares, that is first among equals, whereas psychiatrists hold a rank above us all.  When I first started working with my license in a clinic, I was there many more hours than the consulting psychiatrist, so I went on a first name basis with my colleagues who gave the title of doctor to the rarely seen psychiatrist.  Moreover, psychologists, in the public eye, with the exception of psychological testing, perform similarly to other therapists.   Psychiatrists, along with other doctors, on the other hand, distinguish themselves by being able to prescribe medication.

After beginning my private practice, I later took a job in a clinic in which I came in once a week.  In this latter situation, perhaps because I had become scarcer than I had formerly been, support staff, such as secretaries and receptionists, all addressed me as Dr. Natelson whereas the staff doing therapy, such as social workers, called me Bernard.  It took a while for me to recognize how I wished to be addressed that would make me feel most comfortable around peers, friends and strangers.  I soon realized that it was both arrogant and off-putting to have friends and peers call me Dr. Natelson.  It was perfectly fine for both them and me to have them address me by my first name. 

Later, however, for people that I might have been involved with on a non-personal, but business-like relation, I corrected those that called me Mr. Natelson.  Once when I consulted an agency in which a worker had died in an accident, I told the managers of the company that I was Doctor and not Mister.  They seemed perturbed but it didn’t bother me because I strongly believed that they needed to recognize, like it or not, my level of education.  Although in my private practice I always introduce myself as Dr. Natelson, occasionally a client will ask how I wish to be addressed.  I tell them either Dr. Natelson or Bernard, that is, whichever label makes them feel most comfortable.  I once had a husband of a woman, who I was treating for PTSD, tell me Ph.D.’s and Psy.D.’s are not supposed to refer to themselves as doctors.  “Fine,” I replied, “call me Bernard, but not Mr. Natelson.”

Obviously, as is the case for most life events, there are exceptions to the above rule.  If I know I am meeting a stranger on a one-time basis, I don’t bother to correct him/her.  But if the relationship is ongoing, I will indicate that I am not Mister but Doctor.”     

I remember the sudden acknowledgement of my title by a manager of a bank where I had an account.  When I opened a business account, she, suddenly, addressed me as Dr. Natelson.  I think in this instance my added business to the bank, rather than my degree, elevated my standing in her eyes.

No, I don’t think Dr. Jill Biden, as Mr. Epstein would like, “should drop the Dr. before her name” in favor of Mrs. Biden. She should still be referred to as Dr. Biden even if she is not a “real doctor.”  And to me, it does not at all “feel fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” as Mr. Epstein asserts.  Because he never received a doctorate, perhaps Mr. Epstein envies Dr. Biden’s achievement.   I am sure that Dr. Biden, like the rest of us, had to go through the many hours of study it requires to obtain a doctorate degree in her area.  There are qualifying exams, practicums, internships and dissertations in conjunction with the advanced coursework that one must complete before a person can rightfully call himself a doctor.  I know I did not pursue my doctorate so others could refer to me as Dr., but rather because I wanted to gain as much knowledge in the field before I began to employ the tools of the trade.  Likewise, I’m sure this is true of Dr. Biden. To conclude, I recommend that we acknowledge Dr. Biden as a person who has expertise in her field at the doctoral level.

Educating Our Clients

I recently had a chat with a fellow I knew since childhood.  When we talked about our careers, he asked me what I do as a psychologist.  Obviously, that question was hard to answer on a phone call in which we had not connected in several years.  But in attempting to summarize, I told him as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, my focus is to help my clients change their irrational disturbing beliefs to more rational ones, that is change the way they think about things.  After speaking to him, I decided to write about two aspects of therapy that, to some, might seem apparent, but still, often have been a good starting point in helping my clients.

These important methods in affecting change in my clients take place through the use of education.  If my clients do not understand how I am trying to help them, much of my efforts will be in vain.  Speaking in the client’s language is strategic in behavioral change.  Depending on the client and the issue at hand, I may start the therapeutic process by illustrating how the process of change occurs by defining two terms, used on a daily basis, emotions and thoughts.  I let them see that an emotion relates to an expression of a feeling in one word, such as anger, depression, anxiety, love and hate.  But the thought that they have generally takes the form of a sentence or a group of words.  This distinction is crucial in understanding what is causing a client’s discomfort.

As higher primates, humans have the ability to think and it is this same characteristic that can boomerang on us resulting in emotional pain and hurt.  But as I tell my clients it is the emotion, that though not the root of their problem, can act as the clue to uncover their irrational beliefs or thoughts.  A therapeutic intervention that has served me well in my many years of practice is to have clients search for the thought through the pain of their feelings.  Just as a fuse will go off to break an electric circuit if the current exceeds a safety level, a negative feeling such as depression or anxiety signals a fundamental problem in our underlying thought processes.    By employing this analogy, clients can identify more easily the thought that is producing their negative emotion.

Because couples’ therapy is not the same as individual counseling, I employ the use of education in a different way.  For example, the majority of the couples I see in therapy come in with a mutual sense of not being able to communicate well with one another.  Once I have each partner define what poor communication means in more specific language, the therapeutic process is facilitated.   Problems become much more tangible when each partner avoids name-calling and labeling that have a pejorative connotation.   When clients can explain more clearly what it is that they find bothersome about their partners, much confusion and bad feelings are avoided.

I have employed the above examples of what I do in therapy as mere starting points and not solutions to the problems my clients may have.  Psychoeducation serves as only one component of the therapeutic process but, nevertheless, can play an important role in counseling.  Because my clients are all different, I tailor the treatment I provide to them to their set of unique needs. Whereas some individuals may require little psychoeducation, others may need more, but then this is really what the experts refer to as the practice of therapy not only being a science, but also an art.