Personal Health

Blog posts with a category of Personal Health.

Michael Phelps: Life isn’t paved with Gold

FCBK 1By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

“I feel fulfilled. It was what I wanted.” – Swimmer Michael Phelps after the 2016 Rio Olympics

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time; a man of wealth and esteem who is admired world-wide, has reached a state fulfillment, as the above quote attests. But the back story tells a far different tale. Phelps has struggled with mental disorders and conditions his entire life. Thanks to his strength, resources and wonderful family led by his mother, Debbie, a single mom, he seems to finally be in the clear.

What it says for the rest of us, is that living a human life is rarely easy, even for those who are fabulously successful and can afford the best professional help.

As a 9-year-old struggling to pay attention in class, Phelps was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that affects an estimated four million children and phelpsadolescents in the United States. He simply couldn’t sit still or pay attention.

In a recent blog I explained that I’m ADD, but didn’t have the “hyper” component and it didn’t greatly affect my school performance like it did Phelps’ and millions of others. Like Phelps, who took up swimming at 9, I’ve always had laser like focus – but only for things I’m interested in, which is a characteristic of people with ADD.

With the help of  medication and behavior therapy — and the support of his mother, Phelps channeled his energies into swimming, and by age 15 became the youngest male record holder in modern sports.  Debbie and his two sisters had become a team, paying attention to his eating habits by restricting things like sugar. They also instituted restrictions on some of his activities to teach him time management, and he began making choices that helped him use his time more wisely.

Fast forward 12 years to the 2012 London Olympics where, at 27, Phelps ran his medal count to 18. He was the undisputed greatest swimmer of all time, but in his private world, wrestled with inner demons that sapped his sense of self.

“I went in with no self-confidence, no self-love,” Phelps said in an interview on NBC’s “Dateline” following the London games. “I think the biggest thing was, I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.” He also admitted that he had been struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse and that nobody except his closest friends and family knew about it.

“100%, I was lost, pushing a lot people out of my life — people that I wanted and needed in my life. I was running and escaping from whatever it was I was running from.” It took a life-changing run-in with the law in 2014 for Phelps to realize he needed help. He was arrested for driving under the influence for a second time and it provided a major call for self-analysis.

“I was in the lowest place I’ve ever been,” he told Dateline. “Honestly, I sort of, at one point, I just — I felt like I didn’t want to see another day. I felt like it should be over.”

depressionIn other words, a man who had achieved world fame as the greatest in history at his chosen pursuit was ready to commit suicide. It’s called depression, a condition Phelps shares with some 15 million, or 7% of his fellow Americans.

Phelps went into rehab in October 2014, where he says he cried himself to sleep the first several nights. In treatment he addressed many of the underlying issues affecting his health, including a turbulent relationship with his father dating back to childhood.

Before his recent Rio Olympic heroics, Phelps said, “I’m having fun again. This is something I haven’t had in a really long time.” His fiancée, Nicole, just gave birth to their son a few months ago. And becoming a dad has been the “best feeling” he’s ever felt in his life.

So, why was New Oakland created 25 years ago by Dr. Ismail Sendi? Because he realized that a staggering 1 in 4 Americans suffers from any number of mental disorders and illnesses such as those that plagued Michael Phelps. And Dr. Sendi also felt deeply that every child and adult deserves a loving family and competent professionals to guide them out of the woods to experience love, success and self-respect.

When celebrities speak out about their mental health struggles, it’s worth noting because their courage can be contagious. It’s why I wrote about golf and TV personality David Feherty recently for his wonderful interview on HBO’s Real Sports about his colossal struggle with depression.

It’s also why I feel that Phelps is equally worthy of universal admiration for openly discussing his struggles as he is his for Olympic medal haul. His courage allows him to symbolically say, “Out of the pool, I’m just like you. I admitted I needed help. You can too. And hopefully you’ll find the great personal and professional I support I had.”




Making stress work for you

FCBK 1By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

I worry about retirement, but maybe not for the same reason many others my age worry about it. It’s not the money. No, what I fear will be lacking in retirement is something I learned to love: Stress!

I put the exclamation point there because almost everybody feels that lack of stress is the ultimate goal in life. But that’s only partially true.stres

We all agree that when stress is chronic or repeated it can cause big problems. It can dampen the immune system, dry out the digestive tract, impair memory, fuel anxiety and accelerating aging.

But we’d also be dead without it, because stress is also a springboard to excitement and achievement. When managed properly, stress provides the essential stimulation that keeps us engaged with the world. Without it we’d never win the golf tournament, ski down a steep mountain or have the guts to ask for a raise.

“Our goal isn’t a life without stress,” Stanford University neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky says. “The idea is to have the right amount of stress.” Like a roller coaster ride that lasts just a few minutes. Sapolsky explains this as “voluntarily relinquishing a degree of control and predictability in a setting that is benevolent overall.”

You experience good stress when you accept that although you can’t feel a constant sense of control, it’s still worth the risk.  No matter how your mind and body may respond in the moment, you know you’re still going to come out fine on the other side—and maybe even be better off for the experience.

stresssBeing on television taught me the difference between good stress and its disabling evil twin: Panic. If I was well-prepared, I interpreted the stress as excitement. I still knew that something could go wrong because an engineer might roll the wrong tape for example, but the reward was worth the risk, because when things went well the adrenaline could be intoxicating.

When the brain perceives a stimulus, the nervous system releases stress hormones, dilating bronchial tubes to make space for more oxygen and enabling more blood to push through the heart en route to the brain and muscles which must be ready to flee or fight. The key is to control it for good. If not, we become disabled and increasingly vulnerable.

I was terrified before my first public speech. It was the same sense of panic I experienced in school, when I was unprepared and a teacher called on me. Eventually, I developed techniques to change my thinking. I realized that the difference between panicking and being excited was controlling my thoughts. I convinced myself to change my pre-speech thoughts from, “Oh no, I may make a fool of myself,” to, “What a cool opportunity to share some insights and have people enjoy it.”

Sadly, many people experience chronic, disabling stress or “toxic stress,” according to neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen . “Things are coming at you left and right,” he says. “You can’t keep up with them. There is the danger of developing a sort of ‘learned helplessness’ “—that is, not even trying to cope anymore because you feel there is no point. “The more threatened you feel, the less capable you feel,” says McEwen, “and the worse your physiology is going to be as a result.”

So here’s the truth about stress: What matters most isn’t the event itself, but how you respond to it. And how you respond both emotionally and physiologically depends on how you perceive it.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare nailed it in Act 2, scene two. Hamlet wasn’t real happy with the rotten state of things in Denmark:

Denmark’s a prison.

Then is the world one.

A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Here are some ways out of the “prison” of stress:

  • Reinterpret a negative experience:You absentmindedly leave your headphones in the car when you go to the gym. Look at getting them as a chance to warm up before you start working out.
  • Give to someone else: Studies show thatdoing something nice for others can make you happier and calmer.
  • Jot down attainable goals :Even something simple like successfully running errands. Aim to achieve one every day. Write it down or tell somebody. This is a way to track what’s going right.
  • Meditate: Meditation can actually alter the brain, increasing emotional regulation and decreasing fear.
  • Get enough sleep: Sleep deprivation causes stress hormones to soar and sparks other imbalances.
  • Exercise regularly 2 ½ hours of moderate intensity exercise a week is linked with both reduced stress levels and increased growth of new brain cells.

If stress is negatively affecting you and you can’t successfully alter your thinking, call New Oakland Family Centers. Our many professionals are standing by to teach you how to make stress work for you, not work you over.

The drug world: taming a wild frontier


Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

As a collegian in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and therefore a 40-plus year observer of drug use and abuse in America, I can’t help but reflect with amazement on the changes I’ve seen. It’s as if the drug world has turned upside down:

  • Marijuana has gone from “Reefer Madness” to being viewed by many as a miracle drug that appears to be rapidly on its way to full legal status, treating many things, like epileptic seizures in children
  • Heroin has gone from an urban ghetto drug to rampant and deadly use in affluent suburbs
  • Opium has gone from a rarely seen substance, to its prescription opioid derivatives sitting in bowls for the taking in NFL training rooms as well as becoming the number 1 source of American drug addiction and death
  • Doctors, not drug dealers, are the now the most prolific narcotics distributors in America

Across America, drug overdoses now kill more Americans drugsthan guns or cars do. According to a recent New York Times editorial, this stems from the mid-90s when pharmaceutical companies argued that doctors were under-treating pain and aggressively marketed opioids like OxyContin.

Even after executives of the company that made OxyContin pleaded guilty to a variety of criminal charges, profits still rolled in, and many users who could no longer get or afford prescriptions for it turned to heroin, which is cheaper and produces the same effect.

Here are a few examples of the non-recreational variety:

  • A.D.H.D drugs, often unnecessarily prescribed, are an $11 billion a year industry
  • Antipsychotic drug prescriptions for children have grown 7-fold in the last 20 years
  • Johnson & Johnson registered $30 billion in sales of Risperdal before paying a $2 billion penalty for deceptively marketing its dangerous side effects for children

It goes without saying, of course, that prescription drugs are literally lifesavers. And when wonderful medications aren’t curing malaria, lowering cholesterol or blood pressure and preventing heart attacks, antipsychotic drugs are also helping millions of people of all ages with mental illnesses to lead productive, happy lives.

That’s why solving this problem is so difficult, and to solve it we have return to our core principles and values about how prescription medicines should be used. When New Oakland’s founder, the late Dr. Ismail Sendi, opened the doors to the first of New Oakland’s now seven locations in the early 90’s, prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to children was viewed as a very delicate matter. According to Harvard psychiatrist and former director of the National Institute of Mental health, Dr. Steven Hyman, “Children, because their brains are still developing, are not just small adults.”

As Dr. Sendi continually reminded us, a deep and thorough mental health diagnosis the only way to bridge the potentially deadly gap between the right medication and unnecessary over-prescription or the wrong prescription.

Today, New Oakland medical director, Dr. David Harris, carries on that essential philosophy.“We treat each patient and family individually after our extensive diagnostic procedures,” says Dr. Harris.  “Our team of doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and therapists determine what the best course of treatment might be and whether medication needs to be part of the solution.”


In respect and deference to Dr. Sendi’s example, New Oakland continually strives to be a standard bearer of proper procedure, always putting the patient’s health and safety first when it comes to prescribing medications.

It’s because in a rapidly changing landscape for both the proper use and abuse of medications, rigorously following that philosophy can often be of life and death consequence.