reprints of articles published in magazines

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

As Fate would have it

There was this conference that I attended in Budapest. After all the long winded scientific sessions, the organizers decided to give us the much desired break; they organized a city tour to see all the major landmarks.

We were taken around the popular Baths, soaking in the salty waters of Budapestian Baths is supposed to be healing we were told. We were taken to the historical City Square, where the history of Hungary is depicted as moments frozen into statues: the coming of the fierce half- mongoloid Magyars who conquered the country and laid the foundations of civilization there. We were taken to a rare monumental fort, rare because each part of the fort had been built in a distinct architectural style, some parts Gothic, some parts Baroque, some parts Moorish….it was there that we met Mr Fate.

Mr Fate was a large granite statue, with a hood, cloak and sinister look, depicted as sitting on a huge block of stone. He had a Golden Pen in his right hand and The Big Book of Deeds in his left. We were told touching the pen would give one oodles of good luck, but touching the Book, god forbid would lead to a lot of bad luck.

This spiced up all our imagination; we thought Mr Fate would make a good subject for our group photo. All of us climbed onto Mr Fate, the superstitious of the lot all clinging to the Golden Pen and the indifferent among us just arranging ourselves wherever there was space. The photos were taken and the most superstitious among us, ‘touched and kissed’ the Golden Pen one last time and hopped off the statue, only to turn to look at me and say, “My God, Shalini, what have you done, look at you, sitting right on the bad Book…..god save you now!”

Only then I realized where I was seated…..on the left shoulder of Mr Fate, with my right hand carelessly dangling onto the Big Book of Deeds. I laughed and hopped out of my perch, but my companions would not let the matter rest, “Just be careful, will you….now that you have incurred Bad Luck” they chorused half jokingly and half fearfully.

I was determined not to let that daunt me….in this age of science and logic, the sentiment seemed quite silly. And so I put away the incident and went around the rest of Budapest, enjoying myself at the local fair, where Romanian girls sold exquisitely carved wooden curios and embroidered peasant tops. By the time I finished seeing the fair, I had actually forgotten the Fate incident.

The conference got over, we checked out of our hotel, boarded the bus to the airport, embarked the plane, changed flights at Frankfurt, watched an engrossing movie onflight, reached Mumbai, crossed over to the domestic terminal, boarded the flight to Chennai and finally landed in the long Immigration Queue. It took another hour for us to claim our baggage, and travel-weary I trudged to the Prepaid Taxi Counter with my luggage in tow. As I told the counter-walla my destination I pulled out my wallet from my back pocket…..only there was no wallet in my jeans.

I was taken aback, I fumbled some more….but no, there was no wallet there. I pulled out some money from another of my bags and with a worried wrinkle on my forehead, clambered on to the waiting taxi…..where did the wallet go? I had several thousands worth of Indian and foreign currency in it!

Once inside the taxi, I opened my entire luggage and searched for the wallet….no, it was not there! Obviously I had lost it, but where? I tried to recall all the places that I had been to in the last twenty four hours, and mentally tried to rewind every scene of my movement…trying to identify if the wallet had been with me at that moment or not.

I seemed to remember a sleepily eaten breakfast at Mumbai that morning, which meant I would have paid for it, out of the wallet of course… probably somewhere between Mumbai and Chennai I had lost the wallet, only then did the image of Mr Fate’s Big Book of Deeds suddenly flash into my mind! Was it true after all, the sentiment of the Bad Luck?

I could not decide…my mind seemed divided just then, one half was too busy worrying about the lost money, all the ways that I could have spent it usefully, all the things that I could have bought with it…and just feeling unhappy at having lost so much money….while the other half was analyzing the whole incident typical shrink-style: Mr Fate was only a statue. Good Luck and Bad Luck are mere beliefs. The Big Book of Deeds was not inherently evil; it was made of the same stone as the rest of the statue. Touching something cannot lead to something else that was not even remotely related to it…the cause and effect did not match at all. On a spiritual level, may be it was destined that the wallet be lost for some mystical reason….

Thus split in my thoughts I reached home. The therapist inside me decided the conflict was leading nowhere and asserted itself…. “No more pondering or worrying”, I told myself. Can’t let worry spoil my precious little brains! What’s the big deal, I lost some money, ok, let me face that and move ahead. It was after all only money, I could always make more to replace the lost notes. Thus self-therapized I went about my work as usual.

The nicest thing about Psychiatry is that we are so engrossed in solving much bigger and graver problems for others that personal problems just get automatically deleted in the process. Two days later, I had completely forgotten about the lost wallet and Mr Fate’s alleged conspiracy against me, when I received a call at work.

Absent mindedly I picked up the phone, some sweet-voiced girl from some Airlines was on the other line, asking my contact address. Some one wanting to fix an appointment I thought, preoccupied with the work at hand. She was saying, “We found your business card in a wallet….”

With the word wallet, my mind flew back to her in full attention, “Oh, yes, I’d lost a wallet, you found that?” I could not believe it.

“Yes, we found it on your flight seat….could you please make arrangements to collect it from me..” She proceeded to give me her contact details.

The next day, the wallet was back in my hands, complete with all the currency, credit cards, business cards and scratch pad notes that I had scribbled on….

My thoughts automatically went back to Budapest, Mr Fate and the book on his left hand….with the wallet safe in my hands, my mind was suddenly clear ….Bad luck? bah, all sentimental crap!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

right switch wrong person

Right switch wrong person.

Let me not mention names, but there was this middle-aged lady who came for consultation with complaints of vague aches and pains all over her body, poor sleep, bouts of irritation and sudden crying and very sad mood for weeks together. She had tried attending religious discourses, chanting prayers and meditating in the name of God….nothing helped.

Her complaints were all in favour of Depression and so she was given a robust dose of psychotherapy and a short prescription of antidepressant medication. Like most people she responded to that magic combination and within three weeks her depression was all but gone.

Her sleep had become normal, her appetite was good, her mood was cheerful and most important of all, she had no pains anywhere in the body. But she started talking about new complaints….she had realised that she was being forgetful, absent minded, very sensitive to criticism and having rage reactions at the slightest provocation….all these had been there for so many years, but now that she realised something as gruelling as a depression could be healed within few weeks, she also wanted to do away with these other troublesome symptoms.

It was then that she was asked about any past history of abuse - physical, emotional or sexual. The lady gave a blank look and stared straight into the eyes of the psychiatrist. Within a split second her eyes glistened and tears filled up, her first question was, “Why do you ask that?”

The answer was simple…childhood emotional abuse is extremely common, female sexual abuse is even more common. Some women who have had such experiences later on develop certain kind of psychological problems…that may lead to problems in paying attention to things around them, increased reactivity to even minor things and an unbalanced emotional state.

When she was informed of all these, the lady nodded subtly and whispered, “Yes, doctor. There was this man, he used to teach me tuition….he taught me very well. I liked him. But one day, he…he touched me in the wrong places. I was only eight at that time! I knew it was wrong….but I did not stop him…”

She closed her eyes and the tears dropped off her cheeks, “It was all my fault doctor, how could I let him do that!” She opened her eyes, looked up with trembling nostrils and asked, “You think I am a bad person doctor? I let this man do this to me…what kind of a weird child I must have been! To tell you the truth doctor, I think I might have even enjoyed that man’s caresses…which makes me all the more a bad child”

This story that this lady so hesitantly told is not so rare. Many adult women often have such secret histories of sexual abuse and the quirkiest part is most of these women blame themselves for their abuse.

The human body is designed to feel pleasure when certain parts are touched. Each of such touch sensitive-pleasure eliciting area is called a sensate focus. The human body has many hundreds of such sensate foci.

These sensate foci are like switches, when touched they automatically produce a rush electric sparks that travel all along the nerves and register in the brain as pleasure sensations. Just like anything of high temperature is recognised as hot and something of very low temperature is recognised as cold, so too the human brain recognises touch on the sensate foci as pleasure; pure and simple brain physics that!

It is only because the human body is designed on these pure and simple physical laws that the human beings derive great pleasure from the mere mechanical act of copulation…. no other animal on the face of the planet enjoys the copulatory act so much. Only the humans do and that is because the human body operates though such sensate foci.

But the problem with this Switch for Pleasure kind of body design is, these switches send sensations of pleasure, irrespective of when, where, by whom and how they are touched. The touch could be accidental, by a human, by an object, by an animal, with the consent of the body-owner or even without the consent of the body-owner…still all these touches can produce a sensation of pleasure.

For that matter the switch may belong to the body of a young child, but when touched it still produces pleasure sensations. That is why even infant boys take a great fancy to tweaking their penises….for young and innocent though these babies are, they had accidentally discovered a sensate focus, touching it caused pleasure sensations and so most little toddlers learn the knack of amusing themselves by fidgeting with their penises.

So too does a child abusee feel pleasure when an abuser touches the sensate foci of its body. Now the question is: is the abusee at fault because he/she felt some pleasure by the acts of the abuser?

Let’s look at it this way. Child A does not know that item Z can cause a sensation of feeling cold. But adult B offers the child this item Z. Because the child A trusted Adult B, the child touches item Z, only to discover that it causes cold sensations…now is this child guilty of some sin?

Definitely not. It is unfair to expect a child to identify Z as COLD. And it is preposterous that an all-knowing adult should deliberately give this cold shock to this innocent child…so too is child sexual abuse. The child is unaware of the pleasure inducing properties of some parts of its body. The child is blissfully ignorant about the switches and the sensations. But the adult does. The adult also knows it is improper to touch the child in the wrong places. But this adult, even after knowing what he/she is doing is wrong, operates the child’s switches…then who is at fault, the child or the adult?

Of course it is the adult who is at fault! That is why societies all over the world view child sexual abuse as the cheapest and most lurid of crimes. And responsible societies make sure that preventive measures are taken to route out the menace all together. No society at any time during the long course of human history has ever blamed an abused child of bad behaviour.

This being the case, it is quite inappropriate that many adult women with past history of child sexual abuse blame themselves for the event. They suffer from misdirected sense of shame and guilt and feel they are somehow flawed and dirty. This negative self-perception and low self esteem causes anger and irritation. Such off-putting emotions crowd their minds and they are unable focus fully on the present tense.

Sounds tough eh? But the good news is, knowledge frees the mind from its fetters. Typically when all these women suffering from child sexual abuse related emotional problems understand that they are definitely not at fault, that they were only the victims of the wrong person operating the right switches at the wrong age, they recover remarkably well.

As for example the above-mentioned client. A few sessions and all her negative emotions had vanished. She no longer felt low and inadequate. She learned to overcome her silly childhood fears and self-doubts. She realised that she was no longer a victim, she was actually a survivor. And as always, knowledge gave her power. The sense of being in power gave her the poise and equanimity to handle life in peace.

But she still had one hang up, “I do not want any other child to suffer like me! What do we do to the men who abuse little children doctor?”

Men who abuse little kids and what we should do to them…. that’s a whole new story altogether.