So Does It Work?

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Is the sky blue? Is exercise good for you? Do politicians lie? One could say ‘yes’ to all of these ‘universal truths’ and be right . . . most of the time. But, like many questions that beg a one-word, absolute, black or white answer, some of the time that ‘yes’ would be wrong — or, minimally, too reductionist, unqualified, misleading.

The house research muse happened on a podcast recently somewhat invitingly entitled Does Psychotherapy Work? Right up there with is there a unified theory of everything?. At some very basic level, a simple ‘yes’ is a pretty compelling answer. However, like those days when it’s cloudy, daily workouts have inched towards ‘positive addiction’, or an elected official actually tells it like it is, the answer is, at the very least, more nuanced.

Evidence-based ______________. Fill in the blank as you will: programming, treatment, practice. The list stretches to the horizon. The current ‘buzz phrase’ has popped up across any number of disciplines, generally attached to an increased need for accountability, science-based ‘proof’, appropriate resource allocation, program efficacy. Gone are the days of reading the bumps on someone’s cranium, channeling Woody Allen as he sits with his analyst five days a week, exorcising evil spirits, and (dare I say it), intercessory prayer. Show me the beef have belatedly become the new watchwords. Demonstrated proof of effectiveness, controlled studies are the foundation of evidence-based intervention. Injecting bleach evidently doesn’t make the cut. Critical thinking over snake oil.

An essential companion to an evidence basis is measurement of outcome. I drop a glass of milk to the kitchen floor, the glass usually (in my case) breaks and the contents spill. I hit my thumb with a hammer and I feel something I describe as pain (and occasionally say some words). Pretty predictable, pretty reliable results. Basic physics and anatomy. Running these ‘experiments’ repeatedly isn’t going to produce a different outcome — ever. Certainty, though messy and painful, is assured.

Enter psychotherapy. The universe of ‘what constitutes psychotherapy’ has been being refined for well over a century. Study after study, meta analyses, and careful replications have created for practitioners a tool kit with a relatively reliable track record. Results not quite as predictable as losing grip of a glass or a misdirected hammer swing — but better than past life regression!

A metaphor or two. I use an iMac with two terabytes of storage; and just for convenience, I carry a one kilo backup buddy that lets me take my office on the road. And, once on said road, my interactive sat-nav stares back at me from the car’s dashboard. My Apple II+ with a brain now eclipsed by my watch and the comfortable satisfaction refolding a paper map are distant memories. I certainly have the equipment to do wonderful things (and rarely get lost!). But I’m 74. Despite fancying myself pretty tech-savvy, I sometimes reflect on my ‘facility’ with these marvellous ‘gadgets’. In short, great tools do not, on their own make for great results. After all my now sainted mother stored her potato chips in the stackable clothes dryer and never did get the hang of that VHS machine. The tool is necessary — but insufficient in the absence of some very essential conditions!

The most efficacious (I love the very sound of that word) of interventions, ever so thoroughly validated, are only as good as the practitioner into whose hands they fall. Only ‘work’ if they’re the right match for a presenting complaint; brought to one’s office by a client who’s willing to engage. And only produce measurable, long-term change when the ‘fix’ facilitates the development of a sustained practice. The caution of a revered mentor continues to echo in my mind: Insight without action is bullshit!

Back to outcome, the elusive challenge of measuring it — and, perhaps, in the bargain offering an answer to the question at the top of this piece. The sine qua non (another ‘flows trippingly off the tongue’ favourite!), of course is the ‘tool’, the treatment itself. And, for the sake of argument, let’s assume all credentialed practitioners are created equal and competent. Which means they’re all pulling the right screw driver out of the pouch for the job. We’ve stacked the therapeutic deck pretty favourably.

So I take out my ruler, stick it under my tongue for 30 seconds and note that my temperature is 10 inches (allowing for old technology and metrics). Hmm? Nothing wrong with the ruler; no problem with the protocol. Just a meaningless result. Welcome to the world of outcome measurement. Some age old issues remain. Principal amongst these: Are we measuring the right stuff? In a meaningful way? With a valid and reliable test? And, for good measure (in the spirit of same), repeatedly and over sufficient time?

Tests purporting to tap into the holy grail of psychotherapy abound, ranging from short and useless to long and unwieldy. The ‘quickies’ are widely employed and easily interpreted. And almost certainly measure your body temperature in units of length!

One or two rungs up the ladder are longer, better normed, less easily ‘fooled’ instruments. Mapping the course of change is usually possible with these — with two important riders. They are typically ‘self-report’ which brings along all manner of client-based biases — intended or no. And with these, the hobbling of comparing a therapeutic technique’s effectiveness across a client group (not just measuring one individual’s progress over time). One person’s ’28’ as it were, may be quite different from another’s — an ‘I feel pretty good’ versus ‘this is pretty much how I always am’. Still, better than ‘the ruler’.

Finally, the ‘gold standard’ instruments address most of the above concerns — but at a cost measured both in time (for completion) and dollars (expensive). Great information, reliably assessed. Just painfully impractical to administer repeatedly — not to mention client resistance (the ‘Oh God, not again’ dilemma).

So does psychotherapy work? Yes it does. . . sorta, kinda, probably, I guess — with good tools, skilled mechanics, right ‘gadget’ for the job, and committed customers with an eye for future maintenance. How do we know? Well. . . that’s the rest of the story, isn’t it.

2020 Hindsight

Screen Shot 2021-01-04 at 5.41.54 PMA simple enough question. A little small talk opener at a recent ‘bubble’ dinner. ‘So how do you like living in Oakville?’ Just the sort of query that invites a one- or two-word response, a quip, a tossed off but pithy answer. ‘It’s great’. ‘Guess I’ll have to keep working for another few years!’ ‘Really good time to trade in the snowblower for the Porsche.’ But nothing came out.

Our time in this newly adopted community has coincided with last calendar year: 2020. And I was speechless. At the very least, I was taken aback at how an innocent conversation starter could stir such deep and complicated feelings. And I was equally convinced that my son in law didn’t really want to hear the extended version. A little Reader’s Digest would have suited him nicely.

The early days of January are generally given over to resolution and resignation, expectation and examination. The twelve months stretching out before us are greeted with a blend of hope and anticipation; the year just closed demanding a definitive summary verdict, an indictment. Auld Lang Syne’s sentiments aside, the celebration that, in normal times, greets the stroke of is more attached to the relief of having put pay to a year past than to regret its passing; to the welcoming of a new and blank canvas.

At risk of shutting down the evening’s chat early on, I begged his indulgence and came up with a rework of one of my go-to’s: ‘It’s been neither the best of times, nor the worst of times. . .’ (with apologies to Dickens.)

On reflection, and having watched or read the piles of retrospectives of the year just past, I was struck by the parallels between what had unfurled as a truly ‘different’ twelve-month and the truthful answer to my son in law’s query.

Publicly, the villains (and victims) of the piece are pretty available targets. Covid has provided the most marvellous of search and replace opportunities. Name the context (a world-wide pandemic) and insert one’s personal experience of, one’s reaction to same— and you have the answer to the ‘how was your year?’. Equally, although a little less proprietarily for Canadians, politics have overlapped with the plague, preoccupied the media — and been personalized by most all of us. How was your year typically elicits an ‘I can’t believe this one. . . !’ The year when everything became truth or lies, black or white — well, blue or red — with precious little middle ground. And, in keeping with things of hue, the colour of one’s life underscored the polarities lurking beneath the surface. No shortage of issues to divide, to erase nuance, to push us into the tails of the curve.

But it seemed too easy, and more than a little unfair to hang a year — or for that matter, a significant geographic move — on the peg of a single word or two. To indict 2020 on it having had the misfortune of hosting a 100-year pestilence; or equally, the final quartile of a truly villainous administration.

Part of the New Year’s listen included a podcast my wife had found recently and, coincidentally one that offered a little balance and shading to both of these exercises in retrospection. My statistical antennae started to twitch excitedly as soon as I heard stratification, slicing the past year into sections, seasons of experience — instead of one, amorphous, distilled lump. And Dickens’ words began to resonate.

Leaving a city of some five decade’s residence, joining a ‘shared community’ (as condo dwelling is pleased to call itself) with all of the boundary infringements that accompany, downsizing by a factor of three, bidding adieu to professions (sort of) that had defined the whole of our working lives could easily be tagged as challenging disruptions. Stunning views, morning and evening, mere minute’s access to family, amenities, choral opportunities, and ‘banana belt’ (vs. snow belt) weather easily line up on the scale’s other pan. Time and venues to indulge one’s sport passion set up against a precipitous decline in physical function. Leaving old friends, being welcomed by new relationships. The ‘good news — bad news’ dichotomies stretch to the horizon. And really are not, in this view, what the exercise of reflection, contemplation is about.

Change, by definition demands adjustment, not adjudication; acceptance, not avoidance. To vilify (or, indeed ‘laud’) a year — or a move — is not where the learning lies. The Path (the experience), as my longtime mentor would say, is not right or wrong, good or bad. . . it just is. You’re either on it or you’ve wandered away from it. You’re either learning from it or resenting its existence. Closing the book on a year is folly, if we haven’t reflected on the lessons it offers. Codifying it as the crystal ball that predicts the next, equally so. These are indeed ‘the best of times and. . . ‘.

Seasoned Greetings

Screen Shot 2020-12-28 at 9.21.48 PMA tradition of sorts — opening Christmas cards on Boxing Day morning — allows for a measured entry into Christmastide. It signals the easing into those under-recognized ‘Twelve Days of. . .’ that begin (not end) with Christmas day. In ‘normal times’, the fevered run-up to ‘the day’ would be twenty-four hours removed. The equally frantic, Boxing Day assault on shops, this year at least is, like near everything else, a ‘virtual event’. A time to catch one’s breath and reflect on relationships, the connections one has retained, renewed, discovered in the past year.

As a child, the ritual of carded greetings began with the appearance of three or four binders on the dining room table, typically mid-October. Packed with samples of the year’s offerings from Hallmark and its ilk, these fat volumes would be scrutinized, the ‘possibles’ marked for later comparison, the ‘too similar to last year’s’ rejected — and choice for the year made. Message selected, font style and colour chosen.

To call my parents’ Christmas card list a list is gross understatement. This twenty-odd year catalogue of cards sent and received was akin to an accountant’s ledger — and every bit as meticulously maintained. What had started out life as a simple address book had long ago been repurposed as a register with double ruled columns for years: tics (greetings sent / received) or a wee ‘X’, adjacent names, if the gesture had not been reciprocated. Changes of address were recorded in my mother’s tidy script. Unreturned greetings were granted a two-year window — then ‘struck from the roll’, a neat line drawn through, margin to margin. There were very few lines, few ‘de-rostered’ entries.

Most decisions (to send or not to send) were slam-dunks. My parents had lived in the same town for much of the book’s two decades of existence. The core hadn’t changed much: too early for age to yet take its predictable toll, fifty years before the peripatetic pattern of today would manifest — lives were stable, settled, rooted. My father would work for the same company for forty-one years with relationships that only increased in number as his role expanded. He was well-liked and cultivated connections that lasted. My mother maintained an equally steady group friends built around clubs, church- and bridge-derived. By and large, friends, acquaintances were shared — so the calls were not complicated.

A few weeks later, a folding table would take up residence in the bay of my parent’s bedroom dormer, laden with boxes of cards and all the necessaries for the next act: father addressing, mother signing and inscribing the perhaps 150 personalized messages that would cement their connections for another year.

A statement of the obvious, 2020 has been an extraordinary year. Descriptors have found their way into everyday language with new and potent meaning: social distance, bubble, lockdown. . . Daily routines altered. Reflexive modes of greeting thwarted. Commonplace, ‘unconscious’ practices shifted to planned, choreographed events. . . a visit to the grocery store, an elevator ride, a chance encounter with a friend for coffee.

2020 has embraced its paradoxical side as well. In a year when social contact has become near synonymous with risk, creative solutions, work-arounds have become bastions against months of personal isolation. Virtual and intentional have supplanted actual and automatic, cavalier, casual, or ‘mindless’ — not as weak sisters, but as viable surrogates.

In our household, choir practice night became multiple quartettes, members safely spaced in the church gardens, on scheduled rota; services pre-recorded, then live-streamed. A professional practice that was to have seen its graceful wind-down this year, has been reinvented, an online ‘paper route’, my wife’s affectionate reference. Music lessons, far from being sacrificed, have doubled in number. Our adult kids and their partners work from home, have discovered the joys of solitary running and ‘design it yourself’ marathons, Youtube recital, choral creativity. ‘Zooming’, whatever that used to mean, has become 2020’s new verb. The platform and its like have brought an intensity, efficiency, and intimacy to gatherings that the in-person equivalent could never achieve.

And so in times of enforced separation, isolation, the intention to connect has become all the more compelling; not least, for me, in a desire to renew relationships that had fallen fallow. Recommencing long lapsed friendships took on a new urgency — never more accessible than with the assistance of (aptly-named) social media.

A landmark birthday ‘gathering’, scaled to conform to regulated guidelines, was celebrated with emailed tributes in lieu of hugs and face to face good wishes. Even our Christmas ‘cards’, theme and greeting selected online, were ‘sent’ virtually.

Equally though, sitting before the accumulated wealth of carded greetings this Boxing Day morning, I’m transported to the final and most satisfying piece of this now six decades old memory: the thrill and anticipation of each envelope opened, each message shared, each connection renewed. In this year of detachment, disorientation — the familiar, the touching of something real, the closing of the circle.