Irangate, the presidential sweepstakes, SDI, these are things that preoccupy official Washington. But there's another Washington out there and it's worried, too, not about global issues but about the same kind of everyday anxieties that trouble folks from Boston to Berkeley, Schenectady to Seattle.
How do I know? I talk to that "other" Washington every day. As a psychiatrist and host of a nightly radio call-in program, I answer the questions that preoccupy the Washington that, after the government offices close, becomes Everywhere U.S.A.
After reviewing my program logs of the past six months, I've compiled an overview of what's really on the minds of those Washingtonians who call me: Top 10 Worriesli,21p3
1. Child Rearing. In a city of movers and shakers it's comforting to know that Washingtonians still worry about their kids.
The most common child-rearing questions are about discipline. The goal of parental discipline is to raise a self-disciplined child. To the father who asks: "Is it better to be authoritarian or permissive?" I answer: "Neither. Steer a middle course. Be authoritative, but not authoritarian, friendly but not a best friend."
I've found that most of the mothers and fathers are doing a pretty good job of mixing love, understanding and clear limit-setting. Interestingly, a majority of the children and teens who call me appear to be in basic agreement with their parents on several key issues. In a recent on-air poll, for example, 85 percent of teen-agers said that parents should be at home when a teen hosts a party (versus 100 percent of parents responding) and 73 percent said alcohol should not be served (compared to 95 percent of parents).
But then there are the parents who have allowed things to go too far, like the mother of a 13-year-old girl who wanted to know if she was "within her rights" to tell her daughter not to smoke pot in the basement.
2. Marriage. "My marriage is on the rocks but my spouse won't go for help," is a common lament. Sometimes it's a case of the well-known Washington workaholic husband. He's too busy to see a problem. Sometimes it's a husband who sees his wife slipping away from him and whose solution is to put her back the way she was. The woman who marries a man assuming that "I will change him" and the man who marries a woman hoping "she'll never change" are both in for some unhappy moments.
I also get a number of calls about second marriages. The single greatest cause of friction is stepchildren, especially if teen-agers are involved. My advice to these second-timers is to make the marriage, not the kids, their top priority.
3. Depression. If there's a common cold of psychiatry, it's depression. Yet, unlike the common cold, depression is very treatable.
I attempt to educate my audience about the many symptoms of depression (such as social withdrawal, loss of interest in things previously enjoyed, sadness, early morning awakening, helplessness, and hopelessness) and the various treatments available.
4. Fears and Phobias. It began in April with a caller who was already dreading her upcoming vacation in July. "I'm shaking right now as I think about it," she stammered. What was she so fearful of? Driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. This opened the floodgates.
Gephyrophobia, fear of bridges, and aerophobia, fear of flying, are as common in sophisticated Washington as anywhere in the country, and are very treatable. Medication, for example, is available for social phobias (like fear of public speaking) and panic attacks. Various talking therapy techniques, such as systematic desensitization, behavior modification and hypnosis, also can provide relief. Careful consultation with a doctor -- to determine the most suitable treatment -- is necessary for individual cases.
5. Drugs and Alcohol. When there's a drinker or a drug user in the family, everyone is touched by it sooner or later -- the illness of alcoholism or chemical dependency is a family disease.
The most common question is how to get a spouse or teen-age child to admit he has a problem and to go for help. It's not easy. Denial is part of the illness.
One caller, whose 17-year old daughter was a heavy PCP, marijuana and cocaine user, was unexpectedly philosophical about it: "She won't accept help. I guess there's nothing I can do. When she hits bottom, she'll go for treatment."
Wait for her to hit bottom? No way. I urged her to take the "bottom" to her daughter. How? First by learning about her daughter's illness at Al-Anon or Narc-Anon and then, with the help of an experienced drug counselor, by staging an "intervention" -- confronting the abuser.
6.Relationships. I don't run a dating service but sometimes I wish I did. Washington's singles, like singles in most big cities, find it hard to meet Mr. or Ms. Right. And when they do, something always seems to go wrong.
One recently divorced man in his late thirties boastfully described a series of one-night stands and then complained that local women lack commitment. "Commitment," gasped a female caller, "that guy ought to be committed."
7. On the Job. Washington, perhaps more than any other place in the U.S., is a work city. It comes as no surprise, then, that work-related questions should make this list of Top 10 Worries. Questions range from how to get along with an insensitive supervisor, or problem employe or obnoxious co-worker, to how to impress interviewers, to getting ahead on the corporate or federal job ladder. There are also probably more mothers of school-aged children in the workplace in Washington than in any other American city. Many of them, like women elsewhere, are frustrated by the dual demands of job and home.
Some callers, however, love their jobs, sometimes too much. They allow their jobs to dominate them, to define them totally as individuals. They lack balance and perspective. A healthy person is like a juggler, working with several balls at the same time: work, love, family, friends, hobbies, philosophy and religion. All jugglers drop a ball now and then but a juggler who can only keep one ball in the air (marked "work") doesn't have much of an act.
8. Sex. Surprised that it's so far down on the list? Well, we don't pretend to be a Doctor Ruth show, but I do allow sexual questions as long as they can be handled tactfully within the format of a family-oriented program.
One night I cautiously allowed a pedophile on the air. It turned out to be a powerful and educational call. At the age of 25 he had been molesting children since his mid-teens. He wanted to stop. He wanted to warn parents and youngsters about guys like him. So, he described his tricks of the trade: how to gain access to youngsters, winning them over, conning their parents and other adults, introducing them to sex via play, the role of threat and coercion. It wasn't a pretty story.
One of my most memorable calls about sex came from a 14-year-old boy who said he had a question "about teen-age sex." "What is your question?" I asked expectantly. "How can I get some?" he blurted.
9. AIDS. Most of the callers are heterosexual singles and young to middle-aged marrieds who are worried primarily about exposure, transmission, prevention and whether or not to be tested.
10. Elderly Parents. Many Washingtonians come from somewhere else. This often means that aging parents are back in Ohio, Nebraska, Colorado.
I've gotten several calls about elderly parents who live alone, are failing mentally and/or physically, and who refuse all offers of assistance. My advice is to intervene aggressively if your parents' health or safety is in jeopardy but, if not, back off; give them room. In other words, try to become a good parent to your parents.
Joseph Novello is a Washington psychiatrist whose call-in program is heard nightly 7:05-9 p.m. on WMAL-AM (630).