Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review: Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann

Walking Your Blues Away, subtitled “How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being,” by Thom Hartmann is an enlightening read. Though we’ve heard time and again the physical benefits of walking, Hartmann’s approach gives walking a new slant by demonstrating how to enable the brain to restore mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

A psychotherapist, Hartmann has dealt with patients’ crippling trauma from various causes, most notably with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In World War I, postwar depression and anxiety was called shell shock; in World War II, it was called battle fatigue. PTSD, as it is now known, mysteriously haunts some veterans and not others. One reason, of course, is that some vets see harder combat than others. Still, there are many differing reactions between vets who have experienced the same event. Hartmann theorizes that individuals processes trauma differently.

Although Hartmann goes into some detail regarding how the brain reacts to traumatic events, a simplistic explanation is that the brain does not always integrate information properly. Information is sometimes “stuck” in an area called the hippocampus, known for its present-time memory, so that the event, or the trauma from it, always seems as though it is happening at the moment, rather than stored as past memory.

Bilateral intervention has been successful in treating PTSD. One such treatment is Eye Motion Therapy (EMT). Although the process is more complicated than I’ll go into here, it involves moving an object back and forth in front of the patient, who follows it only with his eyes, keeping his head still. The idea is to allow information, or the memory of a traumatic experience, into the rest of the brain to be processed, distributing the memory of an event from “present” to long-term memory.

EMT and its variations don’t always work to relieve severe trauma, but its successes do demonstrate how bilateral therapy can be applied to assist the brain in processing memories.

Hartmann goes into some detail about bilateral therapies and early therapists such as Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud, Franz Anton Mesmer and their various theories falling into and out of favor. For me, the real meat of this book begins with the chapter, “Developing the Walking Your Blues Away Technique.”

The normal motion of walking where the right arm swings forward with the forward swing of the left leg, then the left arm swings forward at the same time as the right leg, in a back and forth motion, is bilateral rhythmic motion.

Capitalizing on this motion, Hartmann suggests consciously walking to get rid of anger, anxiety and other unwanted stresses. Consciously means to walk without distractions, such as radio, window shopping, talking with a walking partner about non-related subjects. Of course, we’re human and we must deal with some distractions. Often at the beginning of a walk we can acknowledge our surroundings and then settle into the walking session.

The book describes in detail the steps to take: Define the issue, Bring up the story, Walk with the issue, Notice how the issue changes, Anchor the new state. This method can be used in many areas of our lives, not just trauma or healing. Walking can be useful for creativity and problem solving, too.

I found Walking Your Blues Away (Park Street Press), a good, down-to-earth approach to vital mental health.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Trip to the Forbidden: Seattle’s Skid Road

After visiting the Seattle-King County Morgue, my 17 year-old curiosity was peaked about Skid Road, the place where they’d found the unidentified body I’d seen. My father, not wanting me to go there alone, offered to take me.

We set out early on a Saturday morning. Dad parked the car in a safe place, and we started our adventure. It was a whole new world. I was suddenly transported from a nicely manicured middle-class neighborhood to sleazy, dirty surroundings. People aimlessly roamed, or staggered around. Many people talked to themselves, some shouted to no one in particular. A fight broke out on a corner–my dad steered me clear of that. It was as much of an adventure for my dad as it was for me–he was a pretty straight fellow.

In subsequent years, they have cleaned up the area, now called Pioneer Square, but in the days of 1953 the Skid Road district was still very tough.

A bit of history: The area previously called Skid Road centers on Seattle’s Yesler Way. The road was said to have been a “skid road” in the literal sense, where they actually skidded logs to a saw mill owned by Henry Yesler. In the 1800s the term also referred to logging camps and saw mills. The term “Skid Road” was used in other parts of the country as well, but it is believed to have originated in Seattle.

So, there we were. What does one do on Skid Road? There were lots of taverns, which was out of the question for us. Not only was I underage, but my dad was a teetotaler–I’d never even seen a bottle of beer in our refrigerator. We came upon a pawn shop. We entered and got many curious stares from other customers and the pawn broker. My dad pretended to be looking for a watch...for me! I was mortified, but couldn’t come up with a better reason. I asked some questions and the pawn broker explained the purpose of pawn shops and how they worked.

Outside, we stopped at a theater. The pictures on the outside, though not as explicit as they would be now, definitely told us they were not our usual entertainment. The movie house did a brisk business though.

As we crossed a street, I saw a woman sort of hang into a car window at the intersection. I slowed down to hear what she was saying. My dad gently took my arm. “Just keep walking. Don’t slow down.”

“I wanted to hear what she was saying. Do you know?”

“She’s trying to line up her business, get a customer.”

“For what?”

“For herself. She’s selling herself.” His voice was so low I could hardly hear. He closed that conversation with “Let’s talk about it later.”

But I was beginning to get the picture. The recent lessons about VD at the Health Department began to fall into place.

We saw a drunk fellow in a doorway, passed out. I remembered the morgue and wondered if the man was dead. My dad shook his head. “No, I don’t think so–just drunk.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?”

“I don’t know–I don’t understand it either.”

We were fairly grossed out by the end of the day, but it was truly a worthwhile trip. I knew right then that the sleazy kind of life was not for me. That day was among the most valuable lessons I received from my dad. He didn’t judge anything we saw, he simply showed me one way of life and let me draw my own conclusions.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Research: The Coroner's Office

I’d interviewed a nurse in the office of Public Health and had been given research material for a high school class assignment on venereal diseases. Then, while leaving the building, I saw the Seattle-King County Coroner’s Office. What did they do, I wondered? I didn’t have time that day, but the following week, I again took a bus into downtown Seattle for further research–this time not for credit, but for personal knowledge. Well, okay, morbid curiosity.

I stepped into the Coroner’s Office and there the man stood, surprised to see a book- toting school girl. I gave him the same rehearsed speech I had given before about a school assignment, but substituted “coroner’s office” for “venereal diseases.” He looked pretty surprised, but there I was and he had to do something with me. With enthusiasm, he launched into describing all they did. I was impressed and found it most interesting.

Up to that point, I had never seen a dead body–this was 1953 and I was only 17. He pulled open a refrigerated drawer, just like in the movies, and showed me a fellow they’d found on Skid Road. A sheet covered most of his body, but his feet stuck out at one end. The poor man had a "John Doe" toe tag since they had no real identification for him.

The Coroner explained to me the procedure for preserving the body, their attempt to locate and notify next of kin, the County’s responsibility for unclaimed bodies, etc. He went into some detail about the procedure for estimating the man’s age. The Coroner folded back the sheet, exposing the man’s head and shoulders, and explained that the fellow was much younger than he looked due to his rough way of life.

The Coroner asked me if I wanted to touch the body–I didn’t, but then gingerly touched his shoulder with one finger. He felt like wax. The Coroner explained that was due to the embalming preservatives. It was all pretty weird, but very interesting. I was thankful for the Coroner’s forthrightness and honesty.

That night at dinner, just as my dad was taking a bite of food, I announced calmly that I had gone to the County Morgue that afternoon. My mother said, “Oh, Mary, you did not,” really thinking that I was kidding.

My dad looked at me and said, “I’ll bet she did.” He was curious about all the procedures and asked many questions. My mother couldn’t believe it–she wouldn’t have done that in a million years.

When I told them about the fellow in the drawer, I mentioned they had found the body on Skid Road. Naturally, my next questions was, “So...where’s Skid Road?”

“Oh, no. You’re not going there.” He looked at my determined face. “We’ll go together some day.”


“Next Saturday.”

Mother’s weak, “Clint, you really wouldn’t take her there,” went unnoticed. I knew he’d keep his word. I could hardly wait.

That’s another story–for next week.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Schoolgirl’s Research Assignment: VD

In 1953, our senior class at Lincoln High School of Seattle was among the first participants to have the topic of sex as part of the Health Education curriculum. Although I was encouraged to ask my mother any questions I had about sex, I realized that there was much I didn’t know. I didn’t even know the questions to ask.

The all-girl class waded through the relatively boring topics of muscle and bone structure, blood, and parts of the brain, then, joyfully, it was time to discuss sex.

The teacher, whom I greatly respected, assigned topics for which we were to present both oral and written reports. She expected us to thoroughly research our chosen topic which we selected from a list the teacher provided. I chose VD–I knew nothing at all about venereal diseases.

When discussing methods of research with the teacher, she suggested I go to the King County Health Department in the Public Safety Building and conduct a personal interview with someone in charge. I felt a little uneasy about doing this, but agreed it would be a good approach. I had checked the school library’s material and came up with almost nothing on the topic. So one day after school, I took the bus into downtown Seattle to tackle my assignment.

I found the office, but once in the room, I wasn’t sure where to go. I noticed a long line of people, so I stood in back of the queue. Soon a nurse glanced down the end of the line and scurried over to me. “May I help you?”

I launched into my rehearsed speech and she escorted me into her office whereupon she explained in detail venereal diseases and their unfortunate manifestations, and gave me some good material, pamphlets, statistical reports and a small booklet explaining treatment for the different VD conditions.

She mentioned that I had stood out from the others in line, people who were waiting for treatment. She laughed and said that she seldom saw scrubbed school girls in her waiting room.

After leaving the Health Department, I noticed signs to the Seattle Coroner’s Office and the Morgue. Hmmmmm. It worked once, why not try again? Join me next week and I’ll tell you about my Coroner’s research.