Saturday, March 31, 2007

Laughter is a drug

This started out as a comment to respond to some comments in Your Doctor is Making Jokes About You, but it got so long that I thought I'd post it. Midwife's comments (dang, I see she removed them but they deserved to remain) about being able to laugh at tragic circumstances provoked some anonymous comments about insensitivity, which is the other side of the coin to humor (all humor has this Janus quality... it is insensitive to laugh at that poor chicken's difficulty getting to the other side of the street). Mid wife apologized for inciting a riot.

There's no riot. This is a healthy discussion about what it is like to work in a job where one deals with human tragedy on a daily basis.

The problem, I believe, that the anonymous poster has trouble getting his or her arms around, is that physicians (and here I mean all health care "professionals") are not perfect. We do not possess some unique ability that shields us from anger, fear, depression, loneliness, despair. Yet, for some reason, there is an expectation that we are somehow above these human foibles.

We are not.

In the past week, I have dealt with near-lethal suicide attempts, single women who have had their children taken away from them (probably forever) because their brain illnesses currently prevent them from providing adequate parenting, people who have recently lost a loved one, a home, a job, their freedom. I have also dealt with people making more incremental steps of improvement in their life (another week of sobriety, making it to their follow-up appointment, getting a job, making a new friend).

And, I'm afraid, this is a typical week.

Just writing this comment, I feel tears welling up. That's fine. I'm in touch with my pain. I'm down with that. Woo. But I cannot be in touch with it all the time. That may work for some, but for me it would impair my ability to be effective.

So humor is my way of managing these emotions, both in me and in others. And I use it like I use a medication... with a particular dose to achieve a desired outcome (that is, in my work with patients and staff... at home, my humor is much more random... in my posts, it is somewhere inbetween, depending on the topic). (Mind you, I am not talking about "humor" where one laughs at another's misfortune in a way that is intentionally harmful/evil/superior to that person... that is not what I am talking about here.)

My intent is to heal... both myself and others. Just like a drug may have unintended side effects and be harmful, so might humor. I choose medication which I think is uniquely appropriate for a given patient. My patients do not get angry and hurt when a drug makes them have a dystonic reaction. A shot of Cogentin makes it better, and I avoid that type of drug again. They know my intent was to help.

Similarly, I choose the words I use intentionally for a given patient because it is important to use language that they often use. It helps us understand each other. When my humor has an unintended side effect and is experienced as harmful, my patients also do not get angry and hurt. An Apology makes it better, and I avoid that type of humor again. They know my intent was to help.

On the internet, when one stumbles onto a near year-long, extended conversation about psychiatry, mental health, blogging, ducks and fish, it is all too easy to jump right in, read some comments that appear hurtful or mocking, and take offense. This casual blog observer does not know what the intent is, unless they take the time to understand. Similarly, in the hospital, it would be easy to judge me, for example, as insensitive if I am administering one of my therapeutic aphorisms and someone walks past the door, only to hear "You gotta cut this shit out, Joe," or "So your right arm became paralyzed just after your boss told you that you didn't do a good job on the report that you've spent all month working on? I tell ya, it's a good thing it happened when it did, because if that woulda happened to me, I would have wanted to punch him right in the nose."

My approach (in life, but especially on the net) is to assume benign intent. This takes work, because I am, deep down, somewhat suspicious. But at the end of the day, I am convinced that this way of viewing the world makes the world a better place.