You know how sometimes the very thing you need the most at a particular moment suddenly appears? It can come in many forms . . . a book, a prayer, a person, a film, a letter, an epiphany. Well, many months ago, film director David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” “The Fighter, “Three Kings”…you get the idea: he’s one of the best!) told me I was going to be invited to speak at the annual dinner held in Boston in June to celebrate McLean Hospital and that he hoped I would accept. He said he had been last year’s speaker and had recommended me for this year. For those of you unfamiliar with McLean, for the past decade U.S. News & World Report has ranked it the #1 psychiatric hospital in the country and this year they were ranked the #1 hospital (of any kind) for psychiatry in the country. Although I cited the McLean Klarman Eating Disorders Center as a major resource for adolescents with eating disorders in my recent book, “Being A Teen,” (for teens and their parents), I wasn’t familiar with the hospital per se. David encouraged me to do the speech, gave me the number of Dr Scott Rauch, the hospital’s President and Psychiatrist-in-Chief, and added, “I think you’ll get a lot out of it.” He also told me he intended to come if I spoke.
Partly to please David and partly because mental health’s an interest of mine, i agreed. I was also impressed that they have a big focus on programs for women and teenagers with histories of trauma and related disorders. Institutions that treat co-occurring disorders — such as eating disorders, trauma-related disorders, borderline personality disorder and substance abuse– are very rare.
I was impressed that McLean also conducts state-of-the-art psychiatric research. Because fewer federal funds are available for clinician-scientists, those interested in both clinical psychiatry and scientific research have to choose between them. At McLean, they can do both.
I also liked that they train psychiatric residents, psychology interns and medical students and that many of their programs are covered by Medicare and other insurance plans.
So, I said yes, wrote a rather personal 20 minute speech and arrived in Boston last Friday night. Looking out the window of my hotel room the next morning, I found I was looking down on the dock where the Boston Tea Party act of rebellion had taken place.
A few days earlier, Catherine Keener and I were talking and when I told her I was coming to Boston, she said she was filming nearby (a film that she said touches on mental health) with Maya Rudolph and that they’d drive up, get an adjoining room for the night, come to my speech and then we’d have a pajama party. I’d never met Maya and the whole thing sounded totally exciting.
Friday morning, as I waited in the lobby of the hotel to be picked up and taken to visit the McLean campus and several women and teen-focused programs, a woman came up to me and asked, out of the blue, “Is Richard an Ashkenazi jew?” “Yes, why?” I asked. She said, “I read your blog and I read that your boyfriend has Parkinson’s and Ashkanizi Jews (jews from Russia and eastern Europe) have unusually high rates of Parkinson’s, so I wondered.” See, this an example of the positive things about being recognizable…people come up and let you know important stuff. The woman, Deborah, was Ashkenazi, her father had recently died of Parkinson’s and she said there are studies being done. We exchanged emails and photos. Doesn’t she have a wonderful, warm face? When I go to Israel next I will look her up. She told me to and she seems like someone I could be friends with.
I spent some time with the very personable Dr. Scott Rauch, President and Psychiatrist in Chief of McLean and was then taken to the Hill Center for Women with histories of trauma and related disorders by Dr. Shelly Greenfield, Chief Academic Officer. Shelly is also the Chief of McLean’s Division of Women’s Mental Health and a pioneer in developing special treatments for alcoholism tailored to women. We sat together in a sunny, cheerful room filled with staff members and talked for 30 or 40 minutes. (For some reason Shelly is not in this picture, nor is Dr. Milissa Kaufman, the woman who presented me with the very thing I most needed right now–a book, a very thick book that I read over the weekend. I’m not going into detail but just to say that it sort of blew my mind apart as a writer —in very constructive way. It felt like a miracle. I’d never met her and she said, “I have something I want to give you,” and she got up, went out and brought back this tome. If I was suffering from PTSD, her eyes are what I’d like to look into. And her face was so calm, intelligent and kind…like you could tell her anything and it would be alright.
(for some reason, Dr Kaufman isn’t in this photo)
In an email to Dr Kaufman yesterday, I told her how miraculous it was that she gave me that particular book and she wrote back and explained why she’d given it to me: Like me, Dr. Kaufman grew up with a mother who had mental health issues and she felt certain that something bad must have happened to the woman when she was a child. As a teenager, Dr. Kaufman had felt herself drawn to the field of psychiatry—she wanted to understand her mother—but she was not sure she could make it through college academically, much less medical school, so she didn’t see it in her future. Then, at 18, she saw my film, “Agnes of God” in which I play a psychiatrist who helps a young woman who had been hurt and Dr. Kaufman thought to herself, “Is that what a psychiatrist actually could do? Does this mean I could actually do such a thing?” She saw the movie 3 times. Six months later, she said aloud to a caring teacher for the first time, “I want to be a psychiatrist.” And 30 years later, two women who do not know each other meet at a trauma center on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital and one—the doctor– gives the other—the actor, a book. Another miracle.
One of the things I was reminded of during the conversations at the Hill Center was that there was no diagnosis for the disorders being presented by Vietnam Veterans until the early 70s when brave returning warriors demanded they receive mental health care and demanded that their symptoms be named and recognized as stemming from combat. That is how and why Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was finally identified. During previous wars it was pejoratively called “hysteria.” It was also in the early 70s that female psychiatrists realized women who had experienced childhood violence, rape and sexual abuse also suffered from PTSD. Dr. Scott Rauch and his colleagues have been world leaders in determining the brain basis of PTSD, using neuroimaging methods. It is equally important to note that various new treatments for PTSD have been and continue to be developed that do not necessarily involve medication. In fact, polls have shown that 75% of patients prefer talk therapy to meds.
From the Hill Center, I was taken to the Klarman Eating Disorder Center, like Hill House, a homey, cheery residence for young women ages 16 to 26. Drs. Skip Pope and Jim Hudson have been leaders in research on eating disorders. Here I am with the staff and, by the way, the wonderful Dr. Shelly Greenfield is 2nd from the left. I can’t help noticing how young the new leaders seem to be.
Many of the teen residents were hanging out in the entrance when we left and I found it very moving. Having suffered from eating disorders myself for many years as a young woman, it made me happy that they were in a program that has such good success rates and I told several of them a bit about my own experiences and not to give up.
The dinner that night at the Intercontinental was a big success and I got to meet all sorts of interesting people including many major benefactors and many doctors and scientists.
Left to right: David Barlow, chairman of the McLean board, Dr Scott Rauch, President of McLean, and Edward Lawrence, chairman of the Partners HealthCare Board of Trustees. (photo taken by Jeffrey Dunn).
After my speech, I was presented with an amazing portrait done by Romero Britto which took my breath away. You can’t really see it in the picture but my lips are covered with glitter.
Maya, Catherine and I had a fun few hours chilling in our PJs. (Don’t know why I forget to take pictures at some of the most interesting times) Keener was going to go out to get some particular food she craved and I asked her not to, saying that I didn’t know Maya and felt too shy to be alone with her. We all got a laugh out of that because they’d been talking about their own shyness while driving to Boston. I always assume I’m the only one who can feel awkward when I don’t know someone so I was relieved to be disabused of this.
I feel I’ve made some new friends and, as David O. promised, I got a lot out of it.