Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Elissa Ely

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist in the Boston area - she's a physician and a writer. She has an irregular column in the Boston Globe, usually on Sundays, and her pieces are always thought provoking in some way. I've been a fan of hers for quite a few years.

She also has an irregular radio spot on NPR or the local station WBUR, and I am always struck by how young she sounds - sort of a back of the teeth lisp and a wispy soft voice. It's meshmerizing. ( Elissa Ely on NPR - Reverbiage )

Her latest piece in the Globe struck a chord with me. It's titled A subtle shift of a dilemma, and like many of her pieces it's written from many points of view at once. A man recently discharged from prison, under house rules, is caught between the rules of the program he is in, and wanting to be there for his daughter's birthday party. Knowing what the house rules are, he puts himself in a position where he may not be able to attend the party. Teasing apart what was his responsibility and what was not, when nothing that ever happens to this man is his fault, is a neat trick indeed. She's very good at describing the subtle transformations that happen as the burden is slowly shifted onto the shoulders of the team, and off of his own. As he had hoped, I'm sure. Some folks are really good at avoiding responsibility for their own actions and making them the problem of other people. This guy was apparently a master.

"It was an interesting dilemma. Here was someone struggling, manifestly, with matters of truthfulness, disclosure, and priority-setting. But of course - sociopathically speaking - he was struggling with what he could get away with. It was not subtle. A classic sociopath makes you weep for his poverty while he is easing the wallet from your pocket. The best practitioners are almost impossible to recognize in their handsome sincerity and belief in themselves."

Having met a few masters (and mistresses) of this particular skill in my professional and personal life, I could totally relate to her description of it. How you can be aware of the responsibility slowly sliding off the shoulders of the person in trouble, and onto the shoulders of someone else. If you're really good, you can prevent it from happening, and flip it right back to where it belongs. Unfortunately, legions of little girls at birthday parties are hurt all the time by folks who let their responsibilities slide time and again. I don't think they ever get used to it, even when it happens all of their lives.

I always look forward to Dr Ely's articles. She describes people that most folks don't ever get to meet in their lifetimes. Or, if they do, they don't know what they're dealing with. And she never forgets to relate the human connection of her patients. As puzzling as they are, as hard to connect with as they may be, her patients are always human to her, and as a result, to us.

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