Lifetalk with Roberta Russell
Watch the Fish: Get a Buddy

-By Roberta Russell

I was recently enthralled when I looked up and saw this sign, above a room-sized tank at the aquarium in Brooklyn: “Survival in the reef sometimes means teaming up. By working together both fish and anemone have a better chance for survival.” This lesson from the sea has a special meaning for me. In times of peace or turmoil having a buddy can save your life. Having a compassionate, committed kindred spirit is powerful, especially now, when we are more isolated from each other with remote work, often populated with impersonal icons instead of real people.

The therapeutic alliance has proven to be the most potent ingredient in successful psychotherapy. A buddy, with common goals and a reference point can make the difference between success and failure, even between life and death.

For me this sign above the live swimming clown fish surrounded by sea anemone evoked a powerful memory. 

 

The New York Aquarium, Brooklyn. Photo by Roberta Russell. (Photoshop by Manuel Lopez.)

 

In the 70s, I was newly divorced, cleaved from my immediate family, and searching for meaning. Even then, fully aware of the power of alliance, I tried to connect with the most uplifting people I could find. Joseph Samson Murphy, PhD, a scholarly leader, whom I discovered in my heart-hunting quest, appeared to be a modern-day philosopher king. He had distinguished himself by recruiting Asian kids to go to college and had been in the vanguard of the Peace Corp in Ethiopia helping to eradicate smallpox. By the time I met him he was the youngest president of Queens College, my alma mater. Then he became president of Bennington, and, finally, the chancellor of City University of NY. 

I made Murphy’s acquaintance at the Queens College retirement celebration of my friend and mentor, professor emeritus and psychoanalyst Arnold Bernstein (http://arnoldbernstein.net), a buddy, who also lacked his original immediate family. After I made three attempts to get to know Murphy, he paid me a visit, came back for more, and eventually joined me as an elected public member of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (NAAP). We were charged with the task of protecting the public.

I was riveted by Murphy’s lofty consciousness and buoyed by his support for my independent academic endeavors in my official exploration of the active ingredients in psychotherapy, which culminated in a written and oral published report to our committee (www.effectivepsychotherapy.org). 

Pre-internet, Murphy shared his library privileges with me, thereby allowing me access to all the university libraries. I would bike over to the chancellor’s office to pick up books. In my pursuit of more of Murphy I even learned to fly a plane alone, as he did when he came from Bennington to our Greenwich Village meetings. 

“Watch the fish,” Murphy said one day, cryptically, as he departed from an impactful visit with me. Puzzled, but imaginative and undaunted, I went to the aquarium in Brooklyn to decipher his meaning. There, I met Father George D. Ruggieri, PhD, once a Jesuit priest, who subsequent to leaving his order, had become director of the aquarium.

Before and after. Photos: Harold Krieger.

Father Ruggieri, riding the tide, told me that the clown fish and the sea anemone join, but clown fish first must acquire protective coats so the poison that the sea anemone gives off does not harm them. To me, this meant that I should hone my defenses and sensibilities before trying to bond with anyone.

Guided by Ruggieri’s cautionary note, coupled with Murphy’s encouraging spiritual support, I was aided in building purposeful, fruitful friendships that wove themselves together to create a familial blend. This warm nurturing environment, that culminated in my 27-year marriage to Harold Krieger (HaroldKrieger.com), until his death in 2015, continues to inspire me to brave intimacy today.

Don’t go away prematurely. I went further. 

The power of getting buddies to share the daunting challenge of permanent weight loss is both real and organically possible without being tarred by commercial interests. I know this because I have succeeded in my own quest with the help of other kindred spirits.

In the year 2000, after separating the weight-loss hype from the empirical evidence and consequently moving from obese to normal, I sought structure by starting several free groups, at hospitals and libraries in New York City and the Adirondacks committed to losing weight and keeping it off. You can link to download my free book and video of my Columbia TC presentation by the same name, Report on Permanent Weight Loss from scholar.google.com at www.permanentweightloss.org.

Now, I want to go further—with good-hearted people who are willing to pair off, or just join, on-line to do what it takes to achieve permanent weight loss as a life-long endeavor. 

Meaning in life is therapeutic; it adds to the power of endurance and drive. 

The mutual accountability of peers helped me achieve a calorie and exercise balance and stopped my episodically ballooning weight. Consequently, I have remained in the normal weight range for 22 years. The evidence for the effectiveness of mutual accountability as an impetus to lose more weight and keep it off is strong. 

Buddy up?

If you would like to be part of a free formative Zoom discussion on this topic, a potential source of online or even in-person buddies, first check out what has been shown to work for successful long-term weight loss by viewing a talk I presented at TC Columbia. It was just posted online for free access by Columbia Academic Commons. You can see what the evidence reveals about permanent weight loss by watching this video, Report on Permanent Weight Loss https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/rtgz-pc64

If you think you might be up to doing what works, as depicted without commercial static in the video, please email me at russellk100@gmail.com. Join me if you dare. 

© Roberta Russell, January 18, 2023, New York City 

Roberta Russell is the founder of the New York Calorie and Exercise Logging Group and author of  R.D. Laing & Me: Lessons in Love with R.D. Laing (Hillgarth Press, 1992), Report on Effective Psychotherapy: Legislative Testimony (Hillgarth Press, 1981, 1984, 1994), and Report on Permanent Weight Loss (Columbia Academic Commons, 2017).

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