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9 March 2022

Carl Erik Fisher Q&A: “There can be healthy forms of shame”

The addiction physician on Michel de Montaigne, mindfulness and the addictive power of Nintendo.

By New Statesman

Carl Erik Fisher was born in New Jersey in 1981. He is an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and maintains a private practice where he treats addiction.

What’s your earliest memory?

A nightmare about vampires.

Who are your heroes?

Though I wasn’t particularly religious in childhood, the music director at my church changed my life with his commitment to choral music, a great refuge for me then and now. Today I think of the heroes of socially engaged Buddhism, especially the recently departed Thich Nhat Hanh.

What book last changed your thinking?

How to Do Things with Emotions by the philosopher Owen Flanagan (who has also written about addiction and recovery), especially the passages regarding shame. It’s somewhat of a trend in mental health to be sceptical of the value of shame, but as both addiction recovery and spiritual traditions have found, there can be healthy, mature and compassionate forms of shame.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

I admire people who work for positive change in politics but, honestly, I’m most drawn to folks who renounced politics for things such as art or spirituality. Michel de Montaigne comes to mind.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Within psychiatry: integrating mindfulness, meditation and other contemplative practices with the treatment of addiction. Not unrelated: what the history of addiction teaches us about caring for one another and flourishing in recovery today.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

California in the 1960s. I think I would have loved the combination of beachy surf culture with rehabilitative optimism and countercultural protest movements.

What TV show could you not live without?

The delightful Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent! is the English title), a French comedy-drama superficially about talent agents but really about art, love and community.

Who would paint your portrait?

My six-year-old son. It would be quick and colourful.

What’s your theme tune?

While I was writing my book, I got in the zone by listening to old video game music – Nintendo was one of my first addictions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“People will try to pay you for your lesser skills; don’t let them.” I heard this at a mentorship meeting as a young medical trainee. Since then I have thought of those words as I’ve turned down jobs and career paths that might have been easier routes to status or monetary reward, in favour of more creative pursuits such as writing.

What’s currently bugging you?

The intensity of ideological divisions separating people who otherwise could recognise their interconnectedness and be working together for a common goal.

When were you happiest?

Getting into nature with my partner and son, especially swimming in the ocean.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Opera singer. I studied quite seriously in college and even sang in a few professional gigs, but I realised it was easier to be a singing doctor than a “doctoring singer”, whatever that is.

Are we all doomed?

Certainly not, especially in the sense of “fated”. I think most of us greatly underestimate our capacity for change.

“The Urge: Our History of Addiction” by Carl Erik Fisher is published by Scribe

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror