Monday, October 31, 2011

Horror and the Psyche

In honor of Halloween, I want to point out Christian Jarrett's great little piece in The Psychologist on the experience of horror and the psyche. Horror is a human emotion, and it seems like a primal one. It's often described as a blending of disgust and terror--certainly the kinds of feelings that we like to attribute to our more animal selves. Of course, the experience of subjecting oneself to horror would be a uniquely human experience, and both the reasons why we might seek horror and the types of things we find horrifying can offer an insight into the psyche.

Jarrett points out that the common villains in horror movies are frequently animals, or humans with exaggerated animal-like characteristics, such as giant claws or a taste for human flesh. And because I am a social worker, I have to ask what kinds of cultural scripts are also depicted in horror movies. And that's why I want to point to another piece, this one from last June's Sex Roles, called "On the Perils of Living Dangerously in the Slash Horror Film" examined one common trope in horror movies: The promiscuous girl gets killed. The researchers here examined 50 films, and concluded that yes, the more sexually active a female character is a horror movie, the more likely she will die, and the more violent and prolonged that death will be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

National Coming Out Day

Today is National Coming Out Day.

According to Wikipedia: "NCOD was founded in 1988 by Robert Eichberg, a psychologist from New Mexico and Jean O'Leary, an openly-gay political leader from Los Angeles." Interesting, but not surprising, that a mental health professional would create a holiday for LGBT people to "come out." I want to write a bit about coming out as an important part of a queer person's mental health and wellness as well as an act of activism--and that those two are linked.

In my practice, I often hear questions of whether or not it is important to come out of the closet. When I was in graduate school, I was taught that coming out of the closet was an essential part of mental health for LGBT people. I clearly remember the instructor, a well-known and respected psychotherapist, saying, "The closet is a coffin." I am sure that, being the high-achiever that I am, I wrote this down dutifully in my copious notes.

After years of practice in the field, I have change my tune about coming out. I have seen that the human experience is too diverse to be captured in simplistic terms like "the closet is a coffin." Questions immediately come to mind: To whom are you coming out, and how? How many people does one have to come out to in order to have good mental health? And of course, there are people for whom coming out is not a good idea. The reality is that some people would make their lives significantly worse by coming out of the closet.

And that last thing--the reality that some people's closet doors are nailed shut for safety's sake--is what brings me to my second point today: Coming out, because it can be dangerous, is also a political issue. Yes, it's a mental health issue, as evidenced by the fact that one of the founders of the holiday was a clinician. But the other founder was an activist, and that reminds us that coming out is an act of activism.

On the personal level, coming out is activism because it goes against heteronormative society, certainly. But beyond that, the more people come out, the easier coming out is. The more people get active and work to change and challenge a society that penalizes LGBT folks just for being LGBT, the easier it is to come out. (Not that it will get truly "easy"; note my use of the word "easier.") The more people who are on the side of LGBT liberation, the more success we have. And the more people are out of the closet, the more normalized LGBT becomes.

Activism, among other things, is aimed at reducing emotional stress through systemic changes: Successful activism can change or eliminate structures of control that contribute to emotional distress in individuals. This connection between interpersonal wellness and social change is one reason that I am a proud social worker, as it happens, but that is a separate essay.

So on this National Coming Out Day, I am choosing to remember that my coming out was made possible by the LGBT people who came before me, and will in some small way make it easier for those who have yet to come. And I am choosing to remind myself of the progress that we have made, and to look with hope and optimism to all that we can accomplish in the future. And I can see, today, how the personal can be political, and how mental health and activism are linked.

Here is a link to "An Open Letter to my Legally Superior Heterosexual Friends, Family, Colleagues, and Acquaintances, by Karl Frisch. I thought this summed it up nicely.

I’ve been open about who I am for ten years now. My parents still love me. My friends have stuck by my side. The jobs I’ve had in these years since coming out treat their gay employees with equality and respect. I’m lucky in that regard because for many people that is not the case. The freedom I now feel is amazing but that freedom is also limited.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Midlife crisis: Existential crises in disguise?

In this entry of his weekly blog, Jesse Bering looks at the notion of a "midlife crisis." He first mentions that the definition of a "midlife crisis" has shifted over the years. First, it meant a crisis of creative potential. Now, it commonly refers to that awkward age in which a man's fancy turns towards thoughts of sports cars and younger partners.

(Two parenthetical things I want to mention about this piece. First, I can't ignore Bering using the term "co-eds" when used to refer to female students, as though male students are somehow the default "eds." But then, Jesse is a psychologist and not a social worker, and we social workers are more likely to be concerned with such things as gender equity. I am willing to overlook it, but I did have to mention it. Second thing: I have seen plenty of gay men who have turned their thoughts to young men suddenly in their middle years. So while this may not be the kind of thing that Queer liberation activists want to fight for, I do not think this phenomena, if it existed, is limited to heterosexuals.)

In that last line where I write "if it existed" I betray the conclusion of Bering's article: The existence of the midlife crisis is not supported in the research. Bering reviews the literature, so I'm not going to summarize it here.

Instead, I want to mention that a mid-life crisis is fundamentally an existential crisis--a questioning of meaning, of purpose, of relationships, and an awareness of impending death. And existential crises can occur at any age, certainly, and there is no reason to assume that midlife would be any more likely to produce such a crisis than any other point.

Of course, that knowledge will not likely stop anyone from labeling their crisis of meaning/increased fear of death that occurs between 35 and 50 as a "midlife crisis." Call it what one wants--I can emphatically state that I've seen plenty of people in my office who reach a point in their lives somewhere between 35 and 50 and start to wonder, "What am I doing with my life, really?" And, in my opinion, that is a question worth exploring. And so I wonder if having the cultural concept of a "midlife crisis" could give people an opening to normalize some of these questions. I am not certain that it does, by any means, but I wonder what effect being able to say, "It's just a midlife crisis" has on any kind of existential concerns that a man who fits the definition of "midlife" might be feeling.