A Crazed Psychologist Explains Why Things Are So Crazy

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 I think most people would agree the world is pretty crazy right now. 
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Fasten your seatbelt. This is going to be a long rant about the crazy times we live in. I’m not talking about rampant mental illness. I’m referring to a more insidious cultural phenomena typified by mounting social ills within a deeply divided and polarized nation. It appears that we’re becoming a country characterized by random violence, mass shootings and an anxious self-medicating population with growing uncertainty about the future.  Research suggests that more and more people are troubled and beginning to question the accuracy and veracity of the once proud American narrative that we were all taught in grade school. This storybook mythology about the United States dating back to the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War includes a basic belief that our nation is inherently good and a “beacon of light” for less developed countries and less fortunate people. As a role model in sovereignty, however, the United States may be losing its longstanding luster. Not only is the guiding light fairy tale image of America dimming but it’s being replaced progressively by a stark realization that We the People” may have taken a wrong turn and gotten lost in the dark forest of our dubious “manifest destiny.”
 
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Psychologically speaking, there is a lot of “free-floating anxiety” going on today as well as a queasy feeling of indistinct foreboding. More existential angst than overt apprehension this conflicted state of mind still falls short of what helping professionals call “profound dread” or “impending doom”. Maybe it’s more like a generalized type of “anticipatory anxiety”, a more nuanced but persistent feeling of uncertainty about what terrible thing is going to happen next. Like most things psychological in nature it’s unclear whether sufferers of this specialized strain of existential angst are even aware of this spreading culture borne virus. Regardless, large questions loom in the collective American psyche like, “What the hell is going on in America? Is the United States washed up as a superpower? Are we no longer a global leader and respected role model of freedom, plurality and democracy? These are just a few of the questions that plague many Americans about our national identity and geopolitical self-image.  Such questions pertain not to any random individual seeking psychological help from a psychotherapist, psychologist or psychiatrist but to a conflicted and neurotic populace even as the majority of its citizens carry on with their daily routines, make holiday plans and regularly update their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram social media. But who will be the country’s shrink willing to tell us what’s wrong with the U.S. and what ails us as a social institution?  
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To some observers that which is wrong simply boils down to a growing deficit in our moral foundation, as if the nation’s “moral compass” has gone missing along with its Jiminy Cricket like conscience meant to remind us to be “good” and to know “right from wrong”. Others contend that societal norms related to acceptable social behavior (the stuff that guides rational decision-making and keeps us from behaving like cavemen) are either absent or in transition due to a rapidly changing world and melting pot culture. Other more conservative critics see this as the result of adding too many immigrants (both legal and illegal), different religions with clashing ideologies, and incompatible racial-ethnic groups to the Founding Father’s original Constitutional recipe. Regardless of the reasons, there is an overpowering sense that something is wrong in Camelot (our most positive fantasy and romantic view of America) and while political parties and TV pundits continue to point fingers and argue who’s to blame, signs of this “societal sickness” keep growing and showing. Put bluntly, if social issues and psychological problems were toxic fumes and the country was a coal mine (metaphorically speaking)… the canaries would be dead already.
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As a Clinical Psychologist in practice for almost 40 years and as a cultural critic, it’s scary to have to admit that it’s gotten so bad in terms of stress-related conditions and overall maladaptive behavior that its difficult to say exactly who or what’s the MOST CRAZY. The fact that relatively few people in power or so called authority figures seem alarmed enough to do anything proactive may be what drives me the most insane.  
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As a practicing psychotherapist, I feel less like the guy with his finger in the leaking dam or “dike of the deranged” and more like Dr. Chicken Little the crazed Psychologist and helping professional handyman running around screaming “the sky is falling” in a futile effort to warn the authorities. In reality it feels more like I’m just shoring up an already crumbling hen house made of termite infested boards and toxic asbestos. On the subject of toxicity, it only takes cursory research and a few keystrokes to realize there are more books and magazine articles on toxic work environments, toxic marriages, toxic pollutants, and toxic politics than there are on the social and psychiatric illnesses resulting from living in a TOXIC CULTURE. In fact, I couldn’t find anything substantial or comprehensive on the topic in the professional literature when I googled “toxic American culture”. That seems kinda crazy to me too. 
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Certainly from media reports it sounds as if there are more “bad hombres” running loose and  unhinged than all the existing flavors of Baskin Robbins and Ben and Jerrys ice cream combined. The phrase “another senseless act of violence” seems to show up in the news on a daily basis. Trying to keep up with all the viral videos of incomprehensible antisocial acts and totally bonkers behavior is becoming impossible even for a seasoned psychologist and information junkie such as myself. 
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Unfortunately I don’t have a single all-encompassing explanation for the explosion of irrationality, violence and off-the-wall behavior. It seems that no place (even schools) are safe from random encounters with lunatics or “bad seed” individuals. It’s even more crazy-making to hear neighbors or friends of the identified lunatic interviewed later saying, “He seemed so normal…he was pretty quiet and used to mow my lawn for free, etc.” This disparity includes the broad range of overtly disturbed and psychotic people as well as the plain old regular individuals who  just snap and melt down like a lit candle in a pile of gas soaked rags. Certainly, the Internet, social media and 24-hour cable news haven’t been of much help in assisting people to remain calm, sane or civil in these highly stressful times. For all it’s Steve Jobs hype and “interconnected” gobbledygook, the information revolution actually may do more harm than good when it comes to providing support, safety and security (and especially the kind of tangible help that is shown to mitigate mental illness..see website at bottom). Ditto for the digital age failing to keep it’s Utopian pie-in-the-sky promise of transforming “gaming addicts” and sedentary consumers into “healthier and happier” human beings. In reality it’s more like a mash-up of the movies ‘Wall-e”, “Westworld” and “Halloween 3” online and outside our double bolted and triple locked front doors. Finally, as far as I can tell NOBODY (including myself) is getting the doctor recommended 7-8 hours of “deep restorative sleep” every night. That alone is probably a really bad sign. On the other hand, Melatonin and Ambien sleeping pill sales are skyrocketing.
 
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Let’s put the topic in historical perspective. In the past, when most of the population worked on farms or in factories, people were too busy or too tired to develop floridly psychotic conspiracy theories or wacked-out delusions involving Jodie Foster, Vince Foster or Terminator wireless Foster Grants. Plus, if you brought that kind of crazy shit up at the dinner table your mother (Ma), father (Pa) or grandmother (Granny) would wack you in the head with a large wooden spoon or spatula… or worse. With more discretionary time on our texting thumbs and hands the high tech information age has made it possible for millions of Americans to consume mass quantities of caffeinated energy drinks and pre-diabetic sugar soaked honey buns from the gas station while watching 1000 different channels of shallow entertainment, reality TV shows, and informercials selling shiny objects like “fidget spinners”. Is it crazy to ask,”Who really wants or needs 285 hunting knives made in Hong Kong or knock-off samurai swords in 15 different colors?” Don’t tell me. I don’t really want to know….altho I suspect many of those people live in Florida or Ohio.  Those who prefer to stay “well-informed” on current events can choose between highly polarized and politically prejudiced TV news programs (can you spell “cognitive dissonance”) occupied by bombastic pundits, life-sized talking barbie dolls and extremely desperate stand-up comics. Who’s bright idea was that? Science aficionados such as myself are unfortunately now relegated to pseudo-science documentaries about Mermaids, Bigfoot, and Ancient Aliens…or some bizarre combination thereof.  
 
 Some say the internet will save us. It’s unregulated and driven by consumer demand and free market principles. Not really. The online universe of “everything” may not be any better than the aforementioned boob tube. To be fair, access to the world wide web and the “internet of everything” (which also includes the dark web and more pornography per band width than number of creepy crawly insects per millimeter of mud) probably does have more to offer content-wise that is reasonably constructive. However, It also makes it possible for more people to connect with one another including those who were previously isolated, disenfranchised or just plain alienated from the so-called mainstream. Isn’t that a good thing? Not necessarily, because now really sicko twisted Homo Sapiens akin to the serial-killer Ed Gein (the prototype for Leatherface in the Chainsaw Massacre movies) who was much safer for society stuck on his dilapidated pig farm in Wisconsin is now able to reach out and find like-minded individuals, web forums, paramilitary parades, and “meet and greet” cannibal culture type social events. Finger foods anyone? Connectivity also allows these isolated and demented individuals to listen to wide ranging but completely wacko-psychotic podcasts with “shock jocks” acting like know-it-alls and scientific authorities on topics ranging from the 9/11 “hoax” to alien abduction and sightings of lizard men in Obama’s Oval Office. Crazy people often only need one other totally cray-cray bosom buddy to agree with their thinking or their radical/violent philosophy and rambling Unabomber manifesto to convince themselves of their own merit and veracity. In other words, we all need to learn how to lovingly tell certain friends and increasingly paranoid acquaintances, “Um, sorry but that’s fucking crazy”. 
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All I can conclude is that “epigenetic” changes in the human brain including active mutations in the neurological and cortical structure are now occurring as a result of living in a continuously stressful, topsy-turvy and crazy-making world. The social universe we live in today is one in which “up is down” and even worse, down seems to have no bottom. Good examples would be college students violently protesting AGAINST free speech on university campuses, “trigger warnings” being put on classical literature, and groups of otherwise sane individuals (including certain elected officials) believing it’s “understandable” or acceptable to body slam a news reporter and then later blame it on Obama…or on something in the water.
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HOW CRAZY IS MADE:   If for some crazy reason the goal was to manufacture more and more unhinged and dangerous people in society then first you bombard the entire population 24/7 with offensive and psychologically damaging videos and sound bites of stress-inducing emotionally disturbing news (both fake and real). This includes both traumatizing and empathy-habituating videos depicting random violence, the death and decapitation of innocent people and young children, recurrent episodes of road rage, suicide, etc. Then you add to it an overarching social climate of fear and anxiety, status-seeking narcissism, general mistrust of others (especially those who are different) and excessive conformity to insular xenophobic values and authoritarian leadership (rather than humanistic, compassionate, cooperative or consensual cultural ideals, values and imperatives). Finally you eschew education both for young people and adults that promote objectivity, critical thinking, interior growth (self-knowledge), self-awareness relating to social-emotional intelligence and introspection and fundamental skills for coping and psychological resilience. Wait, did I mention rampant drug and alcohol use and abuse? Did I remember to include the over-utilization of legal and illegal prescription medications that are often highly addicting, toxic, grossly under-supervised, mood-altering and rife with physical and psychiatric side effects? They are a big problem too….. a really big problem.
 
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Over time, the inevitable result of all the above and probably at least a dozen other still unmentioned factors (including thousands of young often suicidal traumatized war veterans with PTSD returning to society without jobs, adequate mental health treatment or follow-up help) is a crackpot/crock pot recipe for societal disaster and social decay. At the very least all of these epigenetic brain changes and external stressors may be promoting a kind of rapidly reproducing meme or cultural virus in the form of maladaptive thinking and behavior, social mimicry (like competing to be the best school shooter) and psychiatric disorders that are neither quiet, reserved or primarily internalized (like say normal variety clinical depression usually is). Those with psychiatric and pharmacological expertise say that one of the worst thing a psychoactive medication (like an SSRI antidepressant) can do is “energize” or “give legs” to a severely depressed or suicidal person. What that means on a practical level is that a depressed person who may be considering suicide or violence is generally safer (to self and others) remaining depressed in bed or at home until he/she starts to feel better than they are “jacked up” on Paxil, Prozac or ANYTHING ELSE. In fact,  if not properly supervised (quite often) it might TRIGGER a suicide attempt or murderous rage.  Now insert “radical religious ideology” or “super crazy delusion” or “dangerous political belief” for Paxil or Prozac.  Rather than suffer in silence, this newer type of hybrid wired, fired, emotionally disturbed/culturally conditioned individual who is now walking around with a REALLY BAD motherboard in his head wants his name in lights and trending on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Put another way, due to the basically antisocial and radicalized violence-prone nature of his affliction (either genetic, acquired, or both) he will desire to achieve (rather than a college education, job, family life, etc.) his own “detonation” (literally or figuratively) and have it be videotaped for posterity as well as  live-streamed over the internet. Why is that so hard for people to understand? 
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Many people assume (at least at first) unusually violent acts and brutal crimes including mass murder to be principally associated with longstanding clinical psychosis, gang involvement , drug cartel criminality or extremist religious ideology, ie., just another treatment resistant schizophrenic dressed as a ninja, radicalized Islamic terrorist or intoxicated illegal alien, etc. . In reality, however, it often turns out to be someone quite unexpected who is either around 23 years old, minimally employed, a “drop-out dreamer”,  gun collector, solitary gamer/internet addict who just broke up with his girlfriend. Alternatively it turns out to be a married mid-life white guy who rather than just have a simple extra-marital affair or buy a red sports car decides to pick up a shotgun (from his growing collection) and use it on someone. Even later it’s revealed that he was “kinda nice but a little weird”, kept to himself a lot,  was socially unpopular, somewhat of a “nerd” or “kind of a loser” (by societal standards of success). We ( the helping professionals) pull out our diagnostic manuals and start to think maybe Aspergers Syndrome /autism spectrum disorder with unusually aggressive or depressive tendencies, conduct disorder, antisocial personality, undiagnosed or untreated schizophrenia or bipolar mania. However, REGARDLESS OF THE DIAGNOSIS the bigger problem is that off the radar and unbeknownst to most people these same individuals “primary interests” have increasingly become dangerous obsessions like learning how to make a nail bomb, collecting an impressive cache of automatic weapons and reading up on the current world record holder for mass murder (all at the expense of much needed therapy, meditation or yoga class, league bowling, craft beer collecting or any other far healthier social pursuit). More often than not these individuals have experienced rejection, humiliation, and a recent loss of their once important dream of personal success, personal belonging, and life fulfillment…yeah the American dream thing. The final outcome is someone inexplicably blowing up a packed music concert full of innocent teenaged fans, randomly shooting a completely helpless elderly man, a nightclub full of gay and straight people, beating a sleeping homeless person to death with a claw hammer, or for some god-forsaken reason murdering their entire family and then committing suicide …all while live-streaming it on Facebook. Now that’s what I call REALLY CRAZY and unfortunately I think WE ALL HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH IT. Before you take that the wrong way what I mean is we need to “wake up” and get better at helping ourselves and others around us including those people outside our personal “bubble” of comfort, experience and expertise. In my opinion, we also shouldn’t be relying so much on well-meaning professionals like myself or even “esteemed” psychiatrists with thick prescription pads, undisclosed Big Pharma connections, and touting another new atypical antipsychotic drug to fix our emotionally disturbed, psychiatrically struggling, and/or socially stunted population. The same is true about believing there is some super reliable professional cure for alcoholism and drug abuse at any age.  Yes many to all of these off-kilter emotionally disturbed individuals need professional help and affordable treatment but they also need a kinder, healthier and more balanced CULTURE to live in. That would begin with all of us recognizing what is physically, socially and psychologically TOXIC to healthy human beings. For starters I”m pretty sure being deployed in combat at the age of 19 or 20 years old (especially if one is already psychologically vulnerable and who isn’t?) is generally toxic to good mental health. It’s impossible to be fully “prepared” or vaccinated for extraordinarily violent and traumatic experiences of that sort. Then these brave young men and women return to a country that busy arguing over everything, playing silly games on their “smart” phones, and watching shows on TV with names like “Survivor”, “Naked and Afraid”, and “Fear Factor”. Imagine what they (combat vets) think of that after having their legs blown off by an IED or having watched their best buddy bleed out in some dusty village in Afghanistan. That would certainly make me crazy.
 
In much the same way, the many thousands of victims of domestic violence, childhood sex abuse, social media bullying, drug addiction, drug overdoses, suicide attempts, suicide-by-cop, and even the much despised suicide bombers very often never had a chance to learn how to handle the uncomfortable truth that modern life is stressful, complex, unpredictable and that emotional pain, loss, trauma, tragedy and failure are inevitable. Helping others to learn how to deal and cope with current reality (rather than reality TV or Hollywood Kardashian distorted versions of reality) is the name of the much better “game” we should all be playing together.
Sadly, some of these troubled and highly disturbed people don’t get a second chance to come back like in the violent video games they play and never get to know that others in the real world can and should learn to be more loving, more compassionate, more present, less judgmental and overall better (humane) human beings. Rather than argue politics or point fingers we could learn to give hugs and train ourselves to listen with empathy and genuine compassion EVEN if we disagree on a number of major issues like politics or religion.  I keep saying this but I’ll say it again. I’m 63 years old going on 64. I’m a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D………but I myself have a long way to go in improving on most to all of the things I just mentioned above. It’s an ego thing.  I keep catching my mind making reflexive judgements and self-serving conclusions. In my fear, anxiety and anger I catch myself (usually after the fact) falling into the trap of blaming, inflaming, shaming, and defaming the so-called bad guys rather than reframing the basic underlying problem. Just like exercising more I know I should do it but tend to put it off or “forget”. Unfortunately, it’s often forgotten because I reflexively turned on the morning television news, immediately check my iPhone for messages or open my precious laptop (god forbid if it’s not already fully charged) to get on Facebook,  to argue politics, or to attempt like a flaming narcissist or failed stand-up comedian to get more “likes” on social media.
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Summary:  Help me (and help one another) to get outside of our ego-centric selves, our electronic addictions and our ingrained “habits” (which includes how we choose to habitually think) that are progressively blunting our empathy, our authenticity, our compassion and our essential humanity. Not to pick on China but I don’t want to end up like the “modern” Chinese people in the viral videos who watch with indifference while children get run over multiple times and then continue on with their busy day (see video below). Help me to NOT forget what I am trying to say in this essay about our toxic American culture. I don’t want to be another numb or narcissistic “numbskull” (my father’s term) who has habituated to a “crazy culture” and lost the ability to see the healthy forest of our future from the troubled and multiply traumatized trees of today.  Things gotta change and I promise you there’s no magic red or blue pill to fix this one. 

About captaincliff

Psychologist by day, insomniac Pirate blogger by night, this Child of God likes to share sarcastic social commentary as well as topsy-turvy observations about life, love and the pursuit of zaniness, a functional form of insanity in an increasingly insane world
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