Monthly Archives: October 2019

Rat Road Rage

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

For years we have been giving rats human diseases and then trying out new pills, potions, poisons and surgeries on them. This always seemed fair to me. After all, they did bring us two or three plagues over the years. Though in truth they were just the carriers and at least one of these plagues didn’t jump to humans until we went on a concerted campaign to reduce the rodent population of our major cities.

But now I see scientists are teaching rats how to drive little cars and forcing them to commute to work for food.

This strikes me as unnecessarily cruel. What’s next? Giving them facebook accounts? Cell phones? Email? Making them watch hours and hours of Donald Trump press conferences? Listen to Andrew Scheer speak French? Attend three hours of meetings each day? Stare at a picture of Mitch McConnell? Listen to Kanye West rapping or singing or praising Trump? Read about Kim Kardashian every day? Assemble a BBQ? Go shopping with the wife? Get addicted to CNN?

Is there no end to human cruelty?

Besides, we don’t need rats driving cars. Pretty soon we won’t need humans driving cars.

And I look forward to the day I can wake up in the morning and say “Sam, (I’ll call my AI Assistant Sam), Sam, check all the news and all the scientific reports and let me know if there is anything I should know – remember, it has to be something that will actually affect my life within ten years – I will be out on the patio sipping my home roasted Guatemalan high altitude fair trade coffee and watching the birds gather in the pine tree and the squirrels jumping from branch to branch in the Maple. If a rat wanders by I will warn him to stay away from Scientists.

Schizophrenia and the Fourth Wall

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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When we sit on a couch in front of that high definition big TV screen and watch a movie or a series episode (last night it was The Shield) our human brains are uniquely equipped to maintain a foothold in two or more spheres of existence. I am aware of this planet earth, Canada, Hamilton, living room reality as I sit in my corner of the couch with its torn leather (my wife wants to replace), while she sits next to me, our dogs at our feet, ice cubes melting in my glass of bourbon, a large truck rumbling down the hill outside, while, at the same time being absorbed into a fictional version of the mean streets of Los Angeles, or a Boston Legal firm, or a colony on a distant planet. The film makers have done their best to hook me, to have me identify with at least one character, to feel sympathy for another, to experience a vicarious fear, apprehension, or pleasure in the unfolding events, to absorb my consciousness to the point I might duck from a missile, startle at a gunshot, verbally caution the hero, or shamefully experience the sweet pleasure of revenge. At the commercial break I refill my glass even while expecting to  be soon driving in a dangerous car chase.

When the car chase comes I can drive that souped-up Mustang experiencing all the chills and thrills of the experience, providing the actor portraying the driver does not speak directly to the other me on the couch, and thus break the fourth wall. At that point the illusion is shattered and I am back on the couch with its torn leather seam.

And for this reason it is a taboo for film makers and stage actors to break that fourth wall and talk directly to a member or members of the audience. Of course such a taboo encourages some to purposely do it, as in the opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. I, vicariously, have been standing in a theatre line with Dianne Keaton when Woody puts me back on my leather couch and speaks directly to me, and then, to add more disturbance in my consciousness, brings the real (within the film that is) Marshall McLuhan out from behind a billboard to refute the annoying teacher of media studies. Marshall speaks directly to the teacher and does not break the fourth wall, except for his little grin at the end. He is in on the joke, we see. That is, his little grin tells us this filmed Marshall McLuhan is aware at the time of the film making of the camera man, the crew, and the audience beyond.

What has this to do with schizophrenia?

Well, it struck me that “breaking the fourth wall”, especially in film, highlights the amazing sensory, perceptual, and interpretive apparatus that enables the healthy human brain to retain its footing in this real world, even while vicariously experiencing another. McLuhan’s little grin, Woody’s eye movements, his tone of voice, his cadence, his choice of words, his facial expressions all allow us to distinguish one reality from another, to understand the intent of the speaker even when that speaker is playfully breaking the fourth wall. When we don’t receive the signals of a broken fourth wall we can retain the illusion, vicariously remain part of this alternate universe on the screen, while still knowing that our earthly body is sitting on the leather couch with the torn seam. And even when Woody talks directly to me I know it is really to a collective, to a large audience now and forever, and that he will fall silent when I change the channel.

And Schizophrenia?

A very common symptom of schizophrenia entails the experience of “the television is talking directly to me.” Interestingly, at least from what I have seen, this is less likely to be experienced when the news broadcaster is talking directly to the camera, and more likely in a drama when the actors are not breaking the fourth wall. And this implies that the image of a full face forward newscaster and the information being delivered is being understood in its rightful context, whereas the conversation between two characters in a TV drama may not be.

For most of us, even when fully hooked and vicariously enjoying the drama, we hear, see, and perceive the characters as unrelated to our actual presence on the leather couch. But a person with schizophrenia may not. He or she misses or misinterprets the information that signals the difference, and that normally keeps those characters within their own world. For this person suffering from schizophrenia the fourth wall, in a sense, is always broken. The words spoken in the drama become directed at him, or are interpreted as being about him.

In a psychotic relapse, with the terror of disorganization coupled with the need for order, meaning and explanation, the words coming from the TV can become part of a delusion, either as instructions, commentary or condemnations.

For some stable well-functioning people with schizophrenia, otherwise quite well, this experience can be disconcerting and best avoided. They simply don’t watch TV dramas.

Musings on the Canadian Federal Election

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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Image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

Using the three step program (reach for remote, click on guide, click channel 1502) I tore myself away from Donald Trump and American politics to watch a couple of hours of CBC election night, and it was oh so boring and lovely. No one ominously intoning “breaking news” every 15 minutes, a wide collection of thoughtful and polite people, all ages, a variety of racial and ethnic origins, each offering gentle and sometimes humorous musings, no one defending the indefensible, clever but not intrusive graphics, and many women, real women (I have to be careful how I put this) chosen for their knowledge and not their sex appeal, a couple of them completely sans make up. Not once was I distracted by cleavage, flame coloured lipstick and flowing blonde curls. Not once was I dismayed by an overfed bald neck-less undereducated white male in a suit.

During the few breaks, instead of being convinced I had to talk to my doctor about a wonderful new pharmaceutical product that could kill me, I was presented with a short video montage of Canada, from sea to sea to sea, reminding me of what we have and what we are.

And then the results: Bernier and populism is sent packing, left of centre, or progressive parties, win more than 50% of the vote, the Liberals retain power but as a minority government, as long as they can hold onto NDP support. The BQ gains seats, raising the spectre of Quebec Separation again, but only as a small haunting I hope, and Alberta expresses its disdain of the east once more.

But as a friend once pointed out, “My God, in Toronto they speak 50 different languages and they are not killing one another.”

It will always take work to keep this very big multicultural experiment together.

Trudeau, I think, has had a little slap on the wrist, and been told to cease and desist his Kum ba ya apology tour and get down to work. No more dress up. Neither Hindu garb, white cowboy hat nor blackface. Understand where Quebecois and Albertans are coming from and work with it. Work with it as you develop real action for the major issues of the day:

  • Climate Change
  • Wealth inequality
  • Affordable Education
  • Housing for all
  • Pharmacare
  • Electoral Reform
  • A voice of sanity, peace and compromise on the world stage
  • Preparing for the tectonic changes already upon us thanks to automation, the digital and media revolution, over population, climate change, and this country of ours becoming one of the few places on earth everyone would prefer to live.

Donald Trump and the Cornered Narcissist

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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“Projection” within psychoanalytic circles is defined as a defense mechanism that entails attributing your own unconscious impulses to others. Of course in real life the division between unconscious and conscious is a wide grey field, as is the division between willful and impulsive.

And projection is a rather common defense used by children and teenagers when caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing: “He/she (sibs, friends, other kids in the class) did far worse things than me.” More accurately, I suppose, when fully conscious it is deflection, when unconscious it is projection. (with a lot of grey between)

When used by adults it is often more of a fully conscious justification, a salve for the conscience, to point out, or claim, that others have done worse.

For Donald Trump, his projections have frequently been, as those of an adolescent might be, directed at his younger sister, Hillary, and his High School rival, the better looking and more admired Barack.

And now as his circle of enemies widens so do Donald’s projections: to Pelosi, General Mattis, and Joe Biden, for example, ascribing his instability to Pelosi, his weakness to Mattis, and his corruption to Biden. To name just three of many.

One year ago I wrote a piece entitled “A Cornered Narcissist is not a Pretty Sight.” Well, Donald was not quite cornered then. He slipped out from under Mueller, who arrived at the hearing as a forgetful, tired old man who did not want this moment in history.

But now the walls are closing in again on Donald J. Trump and it may be worth publishing that piece once more:

Here is what to expect:

Increasing displays of petulance, irrational accusations, self-pity, rage, and depression, while he continues to seek out adoring crowds and fawning world leaders wherever he can find them.

This depression will take the form of blunt affect, self-imposed isolation, and paranoia.

I was struck by Trump’s demeanor right after the midterms. The news channels referred to it as upbeat, positive. His words (the actual words) started out upbeat, declaring the midterms a Republican “victory”, calling it “great”, before taking pot shots at all his favourite enemies and hinting at a democratic/deep state conspiracy against him, but his affect throughout this was flat, his pronunciation dull, his face blunted. even when using the words “great” and “victory” – at least until his petulant rage at Jim Acosta.

With the democrats now having the majority in the House, the republicans weakened in many State legislatures, the firing of Jeff Sessions, we are now into the endgame.

I don’t profess to feel any certainty how this will unfold. The possibilities include everything from impeachment to endless investigations to a thin gruel of feigned bipartisanship to more unrest, polarization, and violence.

But Donald Trump’s responses are predictable, and highly visible in his five tweets today attacking the press and the Mueller Investigation with even more recklessness and less attention to reality than we have seen before.

There was a time when a mad king could be isolated and the kingdom protected from his madness. Unfortunately we now have twitter and more than a few sycophants surrounding this president. And many more commentators still trying to shine a kind light on his outrageous words and notions.

Perhaps the world’s frightening march back to 1913 with the rise of nationalism, the erection of fences, the dissolution of agreements, and the rebirth of oligarchs will proceed without Trump. Or, or, or America might return to an improved version of itself as the beacon of successful liberal democracy, perhaps even with universal health care, gun control, less racism and a major role to play addressing climate change. I hope they try. Whatever poison flows below the 49th parallel tends to seep into Canada.

So, my American friends, it is now time for damage control and careful planning. If only you could promise him a statue bigger than Lincoln’s and the rating of “best president ever” in the history books in return for his retirement to Mar-a-Lago, quietly and permanently.

Disasters

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In most unfolding human disasters, in my lifetime and historically, it is difficult to ascertain a time, a moment, a place, when the actions of one person could have made a difference, could have changed the course of an unfolding disaster.

But this is one of those rare moments. Simply put as a request:

“President Trump, please call President Erdogan and tell him to stop. Say it simply and firmly. Do it now before it is too late. Then quickly return two hundred or two thousand  American advisors, experts, medical personnel and soldiers to the border towns, encampments, prison camps of Northern Syria.”

You made a mistake giving Erdogan the green light, for reasons only you and Erdogan might understand. You can rectify this with a phone call.

A Refreshing Moment of Sanity in an Insane World

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Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

By Dr David Laing Dawson

She asked what I was smiling about and I said, “I’ll tell you later.”

Earlier we had visited the Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec and spent some time in the contemporary art pavilion. The exhibition was titled in three lines, Where we came from, What we are, Where we are going.

It featured a grouping of several three foot eggs of ragged twine soaked in black paint or tar, the tar staining the white pedestals upon which they sat. And then a male mannequin dressed in jacket and tie, lifelike save for the brown paper bag serving as a head and lit from within. This mannequin was sitting but another standing had its head replaced by an explosion of LED filaments.

There was a placard of artspeak on the wall explaining these, sincere I’m sure, responses to the title. I didn’t read it.

Instead I walked to another Pavilion where I sat for a time looking at the stark and haunting landscapes of Jean Paul Lemieux. Almost always cold and always eternal whether he included a sister in her black habit or not. And always with just enough colour to give me hope that I will see another spring.

And now we were sitting in a small seafood restaurant watching the chef and sous chefs working with enthusiasm in the open kitchen, one shucking oysters, another searing scallops, a third plating with the eye of an artist.

The young couple behind me were earnestly discussing philosophies of literary criticism, I think, though more accurately he was loudly expounding on them while she listened.

I smiled and chuckled a little while I listened to their intense discourse and thought about the sincere artists in the contemporary exhibition and realized that at our table we had talked of nothing but the food for the past hour, the wine, the origin of the scallops and oysters, the pinot noir from France, the preparation of salmon and beef ribs in sous vide before the sear.

With our friendly waiter we had spoken an odd combination of English, French, Dutch and German and when we left he wished us a Guten Abend.

The rain had stopped when we stepped out onto the cobbled walk, and the clouds were lifting across the valley over the Laurentian hills revealing a final pink glow, a punctuation mark to our day.

Roof tops glistened, lights sparkled. We stepped around the puddles.

Trump and the Kurds

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Western powers meddling in, invading, colonizing, any of the middle east Nations has seldom if ever resulted in something good. I must leave this as “seldom if ever” because the history of such meddling, colonization, invasion, corruption is too long and complicated to review. Even the fact there is no Kurdistan but rather populations of Kurds in three adjacent countries is the product of Western meddling, of arbitrary boundaries drawn up after European wars.

But then we arrive rather suddenly in the last months of 2019 and even though, albeit through much tragedy and failed foreign policies, we are at a point of relative peace and success (defeating ISIS), and an opportunity for Western powers, this time mostly the US, at a relatively small cost, to stay with just enough presence to prevent more war and genocide, to provide the Kurds with some defacto autonomy, to prevent Erdogan’s Turkey from exercising its genocidal impulses, to prevent a resurgence of ISIS…. and now, with a rare chance of doing great good with minimal cost the US cuts and runs.

Not the US actually, but Donald Trump. Supposedly after a little quid pro quo phone call with Erdogan.

Such an irony. The most foolish inept corrupt president the US has ever suffered is given an opportunity to have success, and to save lives, and preserve peace by simply doing nothing and he blows it. Over the next few weeks and months we can all watch how this unfolds, causing more suffering and more de stabilization of the region.

But why is this happening? Even Trump’s acolytes know it is a bad move and are speaking out.

I think we are hostage now to Donald Trump’s rather severe personality flaw. As bombastic and ruthless as he appears to be with ordinary mortals he lapses into a craven sycophant seeking approval whenever one on one with a man who holds true life and death power over his own tribe.

As the drums of impeachment beat louder he will seek and need this kind of approval more and more, from both chanting crowds and one on one from those he perceives as powerful men.

Dual Citizenship

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Until the recent news cycle I did not know that in Canada we have no rules addressing dual citizenship and public office. A man or woman who is a citizen of both Canada and another country could become our Prime Minister.

I am once again roused from the suffocating vapours emanating from our neighbour to the south.

Dual citizenship is a way of hedging bets. It is an “If things go wrong I can always go back home.” kind of thing.

And I accept that it is a reasonable and logical state for many immigrants testing the waters in Canada, or someone born of Canadians in another country. But maybe there should be a time limit on that. Say 20 years to make up your mind and commit.

But dual citizenship does imply a divided allegiance, a back door to escape through. It also, in some cases, allows one to benefit from the best of both worlds, say peace, security, health care, good governance in Canada, and big money in the USA, or a life with longer summers, a good pension and free health care every six months.

But never, ever should we allow a person with dual citizenship, a sworn allegiance to two different countries, divided loyalties, an escape hatch, to become a sitting member of our Parliament, let alone the Prime Minister.

Mr. Scheer’s history with this smacks of arrogance, no real commitment, and a reluctance to sacrifice anything for the honour of being our Prime Minister.

While I am here I would like to propose another rule. And that is, No one should be allowed to run for public office, Municipal, Provincial, or Federal, until they have experienced at least, say, 15 years of adult life: job, career, community, workplace, partner, house, mortgage, rent, responsibilities……

Stepping out of college and taking one exam in insurance while working as a clerk does not cut it.

Treatment Resistant Schizophrenia and the Family – A Book Review

By Marvin Ross

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My Father, Fortune Tellers and Me: A Memoir, is a book that should be mandatory reading for all counsellors in training, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists and anyone who is working with or involved with families of those with schizophrenia – particularly untreated or treatment resistant schizophrenia.

Eufemia Fantetti, in telling the story of her family and her mother’s treatment resistant illness, has provided us with the full horrible extent of the complete destructive power of this illness. I can’t think of anything that depicts so vividly the impact on the family but the book also gives us more than that – family love and resilience. The book also demonstrates our total failure as a society to help care for people who are that sick.

Eufemia’s father had a pretty good life as a 30’s something Italian immigrant in Toronto – single, good job and living in a vibrant city with a large Italian subculture when he returned to his home town to take an arranged bride, a second cousin, years younger than him. Eufemia opens the book with a wedding photo of her parents in front of the statue of St Anthony of Padua holding the baby Jesus who, Eufemia says, is waving ciao to someone in the church.

Her father she describes as unsure of himself having only seen his bride twice before that day and he had never spoken to her. She points to her mother, Lucia, with Jordan almonds that symbolize health, wealth, happiness, fertility and longevity “My folks scored two out of five”. Married life continued in Toronto and soon Eufemia came along.

Lucia became increasingly more erratic as the years went on and so the family went for a long stay to Italy where it was hoped that she could get medical help. Once her treatment with an Italian doctor started, her father returned to Canada leaving Eufemia with Italian relatives. Lucia quickly stopped taking her medication and eventually, mother and daughter returned to Toronto.

Of course, the bizarre behaviour continued and often Eufemia was the brunt of the mother’s anger and physical abuse. At one point, a little girl in the neighbourhood had drowned in an accident and Lucia took Eufemia to the visitation against her father’s wishes. Visitations freak me out as they are not part of my cultural upbringing and I’ve never been comfortable standing around with a cup of tea making small talk while grandpa lies dead a few feet away. Imagine what it must be like for a young child especially when the departed is another child?

Lucia drags Eufemia to view the body and, if memory serves, makes her touch the little girl. She then gets in the line and introduces the grieving mother to her own daughter who she describes as the light of her life. This causes the departed’s mother to start howling in anguish and the two leave.

Later, Lucia goes to the factory where her husband works and takes his car in order to drive Eufemia to school. After dropping Eufemia off, she plows into the back of a truck and takes off, puts the car in the garage and says nothing. That evening, the damage is discovered and the father calls the police to report it. The police arrive quickly as they had been out looking for the hit and run driver but Lucia was in church so they come back later.

With all the times that Lucia spent in church, I have to wonder why no priest ever realized she was in need of medical help and suggested it. It was mainly the police who did and, after taking their report from Lucia, the officers parting advice to the family was to take her for medical help. It was because of that suggestion that Lucia was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The diagnosis did not lead to any improvement and Lucia continued to terrorize the family often smashing the house and inflicting abuse on Eufemia. There were countless encounters with the police, charges, restraining orders and, at one point, a police officer arrived and gave Eufemia’s father the business card of an Italian social worker so that he could get help. The cop said “sir, you cannot continue to live like this”.

Eufemia regularly saw a counsellor to help her through and the best advice she was given was to graduate from high school and to go to university as far away from Toronto as possible. Eufemia moved to Victoria, BC and lived on the west coast for many years while trying to help her father as best she could. Eufemia’s father endured until the stress of his life took its own toll on him and he had his own mental collapse.

It eventually took him four years to divorce his wife in a proceeding that his lawyer told him was the most complex of his 30 years practice as a lawyer. Ten years ago, Eufemia moved back to Toronto and she and I  were introduced by our mutual friend, Susan Inman (and Bridgeross author of After Her Brain Broke). I was somewhat familiar with the story in the book but not the full details and always hoped that she would write of her experiences.  I’m delighted she has and the book exceeds all expectations I had for it.

Eufemia often posts conversations with her father whom she calls Pappy on Facebook and the love and affection shines through along with Pappy’s optimism and good sense:

My dad insists that the Lord watched out for him – is certain the biblical sky dignitary dealt the cards for the game of Scopa my father played throughout his life.

“And if I didn’t marry the woman who ruined my life” she quotes her father saying, “I wouldn’t have you. I got what I wanted in this world: someone I could talk to. I prayed for someone reasonable and I got you.”

Words escape me!

Going back to the police, Eufemia states that “in a fair and kind society, police wouldn’t be tasked with the role of front-line mental health workers. We wouldn’t close our hearts to the suffering of others. We wouldn’t blame people for their illnesses…..”

At one point after her return to Toronto, Eufemia goes to visit her mom who is under the care of the Provincial Public Guardian and Trustee housed in a nice one bedroom apartment. Eufemia notices that all her blister packs of pills are months out of date and so decided to take Lucia to the doctor’s office for her monthly anti-psychotic injection.

The pleasant nurse points out that “we have not seen you for awhile Lucia”. And my reply is why do they not ensure that she does get her monthly shot and make sure that she is taking the meds in her blister pack? Should their job not also be to ensure that the vulnerable patients under their care at least get the medication they are supposed to?

And a final word about Eufemia. Her story collection, A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue Publishing) was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and won the F.G. Bressani Prize for short fiction. A recipient of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Award, she is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Event Magazine, and The New Quarterly. She teaches at Humber College and lives in Toronto.

I cannot recommend her book strongly enough.

My Father, fortune-Tellers, & Me By Eufemia Fantetti, Mother Tongue Press ISBN-13: 978-1896949758