The clear, killing acid of modern life

Floor technician.

Environmental technician.

Life coach.

Investment and retirement strategist.

Facility safety coordinator.

Interventional cardiologist.

Cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon.

Neurodevelopmental psychologist.

Are we hiding behind out words? Worse yet, are we afraid to be who we really are?

Maintenance man.

Trash man.

Knowledgeable and experienced friend.


Security guard.



I see it every day. Someone comes to me for a run-of-the-mill mental health problem, absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and asks for help. For whatever reason, when we get to the social history taking part of the interview, the part where I ask things like “How far did you go in school?” and “Who lives with you at home right now?” and “What kind of work do you do?”, there is a very strong need to embellish. To make the mundane and the normal and the usual and the expected look and sound like much more than it really is.

Personal flaw? Societal norm? You tell me.

Years ago, when I was a child, it was okay to be just a teacher. Just a garbage man. Just a fisherman. Just a factory shift worker. Just a  shift supervisor. Just a lawyer. Just a doctor.

I remember with great fondness those people in my life who were sure of who they were, what they did, what they knew (and didn’t know) and were quite comfortable and proud of those things. I remember wanting to be like those adults. I wanted to be as quietly confident as they were. I wanted to be as sure of who I was as they were. I wanted to be like them when I grew up.

Nowadays, I see kids who are afraid to excel, even when they most assuredly can. I see adults who think that just because they process widgets in a factory that they will never be on par with the local businesswoman who wears painfully high heels or the stock broker who drives the BMW and has an office on the town square.

I see people who are blessed beyond measure with titles and material things and degrees and high-powered jobs. I see those same people buried alive under layer upon layer of regulations, rules and policies, so constricted that they are stifled and can barely breathe.

I see people diluted by the clear, killing acid of modern life, spotless and sparkling in their constraining and confining societal beakers, proudly propped on wire stands and bubbling over Bunsen burners of advancement and promotion.

The problem?

Once the heat has been applied for too long by peers and regulating bodies and governmental institutions, once the clear liquid in the beaker has burned off and the residue is swirled around in the bottom of the vessel, there is nothing left.

The distilling process is no longer purifying, no longer leaving only the essence and the basic substance that undergirds life and stability and happiness.

It leaves the beaker burned and crusted, and the flask at the other end of the rig …

… empty.

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.

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  • John C. Key MD

    Mea culpa. I think lots of us in medicine have been high achievers most of our lives. When I entered private practice as a full-fledged, Boarded surgeon it was important to me to squeeze as many credentials as I could on to my business card. I tried to make sure that all and sundry knew of my list of publications.

    Now I’m old, and hung up the scalpel years ago. Today I have a little office in a working class area where I treat the poor and underserved. I put up a little shingle with my name and the hallowed words “General Practice” beneath. But I confess, the first thought in my mind was, “Does that sound sophisticated enough?”

    • Karen Ronk

      I think that someone who treats the poor and underserved can be forgiven for a little embellishment anxiety. I think these days that condition should be classified as a true “social disease”.

  • Rob Burnside

    And I swear it all began when “Personnel” became “Human Resources.”

    • SteveCaley

      HR is perhaps the most insanely corrosive thing to American Business imaginable.

      • Rob Burnside

        And doesn’t the term sound just a little cannibalistic?

        • SteveCaley

          I live in a world that speaks of “meaningful use” when it comes to EMR/EHR ‘s. It’s becoming hard to pick up on connotations – one’s BS filters become clogged.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    So…. We’re talkin’ sertraline then? Maybe a psychology consult to talk it all out if the pt has good insurance.

    I sympathize with you, doc, but we’re patch up artists, nothing more. If I could change the world it would have lemonade springs and the bluebirds would sing.

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