Clues #26: 10,000 dogs. Nature as medicine. The issue with diagnostic labels for mental illness. EMDR as an alternative to psychedelics.
In the jungles of Thailand lives a man who is on a mission to save the world’s street dogs. His name is Niall Harbison. And he is fucking awesome.
If you’re tired of doom scrolling your brain into a 2-pound heap of anxious mush, check out his substack and joy scroll your way to smiles and inspiration. Here’s a brief introduction to Niall and how addiction and psychological suffering propelled him to his new purpose (a story that I can relate to).
Niall’s story reveals a lot about the role that service to others plays in healing. When an existential vacuum of meaning and purpose exists, our body reacts with anxiety, depression, and the pursuit of momentary pleasures. In Niall’s case, that meant nearly drinking himself to death to numb the pain of loneliness and meaninglessness.
He pulled himself out of his existential nothingness by choosing to serve other living creatures. The love and affection from thousands of dogs are more than enough to fill any void.
Niall’s story poses an essential question to any of us feeling a lack of purpose, and offers a clue to discovering a greater sense of fulfillment:
What can I do to begin serving others?
Nature as Medicine
In my mid and late twenties, just before I began working on my mental health with a therapist, I was an ultramarathon runner. What began as a spontaneous entry into the 2007 Firenze Marathon in Florence, Italy evolved into a full-blown running addiction.
After a couple of city marathons, a buddy prompted me to try a trail ultramarathon. Being the impulsive person that I am, I said “Sure, fuck it!” and made my way out to nearby trails in the Santa Cruz mountains to begin my training.
The first run was humbling since all prior runs were on flat surfaces. Instead, my first ultra training run was a 13-mile loop on a mountain, including a 2,500-foot straight descent to the top of a mountain ridge, with food and water strapped to my back and a topographic map taped to my forearm to ensure that I wouldn’t end up lost in the wild.
Physically, I was tested. The mountain turned my quads to mush. However, the mountain produced the opposite effect on my mind. It was calm. And the longer I ran the more still it became as I carved my way through a cathedral of redwoods older than our nation. It was common for me to run in the mountains for 3-5 hours at a time, bumping into the occasional hiker and startled deer, otherwise, I was in solitude with the great redwoods.
My weekend runs, which initially started as an egoic test of achievement and self-validation, unexpectedly transformed into a moving meditation in the natural environment. I was healing my mind in nature before I began paying a professional therapist to do that. In fact, the first thing my therapist recommended was that I get back into running on mountain trails.
She said, “You were healing yourself and you didn’t know it.” I knew then that I had found a wonderful therapist.
Just a handful of days ago I read a meta-analysis that reviewed 28 different studies on the use of “nature prescriptions” and their influence on health. The high-level result is that time in nature produced positive effects on depression, anxiety, and various cardiovascular measures.
Sure, some of you may file this in the “no shit, Sherlock” category. The conclusion of “being active in nature makes us more healthy” isn’t much of a shock when stated. Yet it requires repeating in an era where we’re more likely to be indoors and glued to our devices.
According to a 2021 report by eMarketer, the average time spent on smartphones by US adults is 3 hours and 43 minutes per day.Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that young people between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes per day on screens, including smartphones.
In contrast, a study by the University of Michigan found that the average American spends only 5% of their day outdoors.The same study found that the average American spends more than 90% of their time indoors. The National Park Service reports that the average American only spends about 7% of their lifespan in nature.
We evolved over millions of years within nature's womb, yet in the course of fewer than 200 years, we've eschewed our natural connection and cut the umbilical to the natural environment that sustains us.
Another clue falls on our laps. Put down the phone, go outside, and find any natural environment that you prefer. Then spend time in it. Do that as often as is feasible within the practical constraints of our modern life. And if your modern life doesn’t allow room for nature, consider shaking it up so that it does.
The Issue with Diagnostic Labels for Mental Illness
I’d like to share with you a quote from the psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams in the article Diagnosis and Its Discontents: Reflections on Our Current Dilemma (2021). I’ve put some of it in bold for extra emphasis on what I think you should take away from it:
Mental health conditions are listed in the DSM and similar classifications as if there is no narrative that holds together the kinds of difficulties a person reports. Experienced therapists tend to see connections between someone’s “having,” simultaneously, a personality disorder, a depression, an addiction, a post-traumatic symptom, and a self-harming behavior. Since we know from clinical experience and research on self-reflective function (e.g., Fonagy et al., 1991; Gabbard, 2005; Jurist & Slade, 2008; Müller et al., 2006) that the development of a personal narrative about the connections between one’s unique life experiences and one’s idiosyncratic psychology is a key element of mental health – so evident in its absence from the shattered mental life of many survivors of trauma – it is not hard to view our current psychiatric nomenclature as contributing to self-fragmentation rather than providing a means to heal it.”
As Nancy McWilliams elegantly stated, it’s essential that you’re able to connect the dots between your unique life experiences and how they played a role in shaping your idiosyncratic self.
“Normal” is a myth of the ideal person that we believe we should be. If we don’t fit into what we believe to be the norm — which is an accepted ideal from the perspective of society — then we psychologically punish ourselves for not conforming to the ideal. We harass ourselves over a false idol.
For me, her eloquence provides an important clue. I am not my diagnosis. I am not stuck with an incurable mental disease that can only be managed, not cured. I am compelled to understand my past in order to connect the dots to the present acceptance of myself, especially my idiosyncrasies. And the same applies to you.
The objective isn’t to take out a spoon and uproot the components of our brain that we believe are attached to the aspects of ourselves that we don’t like. For those same “negative idiosyncrasies” are the other side of the coin of what makes us unique, and provide the basis of our individual superpowers.
“The world will ask who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.” — Carl Jung
What’s important is that you understand who you are as a result of the life experiences you’ve had, and any other factors that have contributed to your story. You must find a way to "make sense of it all" that works for you.
So, if you go to a therapist and receive clinical diagnoses, don’t interpret the diagnoses as an immutable label that you’re stuck with — as if a parasite has made its way into your mind and has set up camp for life.
Instead, understand that the labels are there to categorize a set of symptoms, and a particular collection of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that have their roots in your life’s story, and “that the development of a personal narrative about the connections between one’s unique life experiences and one’s idiosyncratic psychology is a key element of mental health.” Finding the throughline that connects past and present, and that arrives in a harmonious understanding and acceptance of what makes you unique, is the goal and gift of the psychotherapeutic process.
EMDR as an alternative to psychedelics
"EMDR works by helping the brain reprocess traumatic memories in a safe and controlled environment, allowing individuals to move past their traumatic experiences and live more fulfilling lives." - Dr. Arielle Schwartz, author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole.
I think of EMDR as a miniature version of a heroic dose of psychedelics. In my experience, both were highly effective at approaching old, painful memories and allowing me to work through them to sever the toxic negative emotional response that was bound to those memories. By doing so, I reduced the number of trauma triggers and the severity of my triggers that remain.
However, EMDR is significantly less intense and much shorter as compared to a large dose of psychedelics. Still, EMDR’s ability to heal you is profound. So, when people ask me if I would recommend psychedelics for trauma, I always ask them if they have first explored EMDR. If not, I suggest they consider looking into it first.
They may find that it provides the healing they’re looking for without having to go down to the Amazon and puke (or shart) their brains out after a whopping dose of Ayahuasca. Nothing against Aya. I have great reverence (and fear!) of that plant medicine. Mama Aya helped me a great deal. However, I’m simply saying it’s not necessary to go straight for the mega doses of psychedelics when a beautiful and more gentle alternative may suffice — that is EMDR.
Or, you can end up like me, shooting a double dose of the mystical vine on the first night of a three-night ceremony, culminating in a shart so loud and unexpected that you scare the military vets you’re in the ceremony with. That event is forever known within that small group of warrior veterans as “The Great Shart of 2021.”
If you want to know more about EMDR, check out the interview I did with Annie Wright, who is an EMDR expert. I’ve also published a thorough summary and FAQ about EMDR on Clues Dot Life as well.
Thank you for reading and your continued support of my writing. Consider checking out my new mental health publishing platform Clues Dot Life. There, you can make a monthly or one-time donation that will go toward producing more mental health content and tools for my growing community of readers.
eMarketer: "US Time Spent with Media 2021"
Kaiser Family Foundation: "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds"
University of Michigan: "Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age"
National Park Service: "Facts and Figures"