Monday, November 28, 2016

Hope Grows on the (Internet) Radio

Hi, All.

So, by some odd sequence of events, I will be the featured guest on Professionals tomorrow, 11/29/2016 at 10:28 in the morning EST.  It's an odd time, right?  Anyway, if you want to listen in, you can go to or  For those of you I haven't met, you have a chance to hear me being me (as best I can in an interview). For those of you I have, you maybe will get to hear a part of my story you haven't.  I hope you are well, and I look forward to speaking to you tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"A Change Gon' Come" : Thoughts on Choice and Responsibility

As we all know, Americans made some significant choices yesterday. For better, worse, or otherwise, elections are over and winners have been chosen.  Whatever my own leanings might be, I believe we need to respect the process we chose and the people we elected.  For many of us, however, we have some discomfort about what has happened, and I think this is reasonable.

Many people struggle with a sense that they, and their votes, are insignificant.  How much does it matter what I vote if I am a democrat voting in a traditionally republican state? How much does what I believe change anything?  How did we end up with these two people on the ballot when people keep saying they don't trust either one?

On a more personal level, we ask the same questions. If I matter so much, how come my own parents didn't see me?  Why can't I find a job/friend/date/spouse that shares my values? Nobody will listen if I say no, so why should I bother?

Many of these questions are hard to answer.  I'm not sure why the system works as it does, except to say that systems exist to keep systems existing and not to make the parts happy.  There's a lot of doing the same things we have always done and hoping for different results this time.

I think as a nation and as people, we have to be more responsible for ourselves.  Perhaps we depend too much on the response of others or on our leaders to define us and to determine what is acceptable.  When I say responsibility, I refer less to blame and more to empowerment. I believe that individual choice can be powerful.

For me, I choose to look at differences as uniqueness rather than threat.  I like to learn about people and what makes them who they are.  We need variety and change in the world to keep us healthy and growing. Somebody has to think about things differently, or we become stagnant.  What do I do, then, if the leadership in the country seems to list to the side of intolerance or fear?

My job, then, is to live in tolerance and curiosity. In my own life, I have conquered fear much more by getting to know people I didn't understand than by avoiding them.  During the debates, when they were discussing what to do about racial issues, the focus seemed to be on increasing power in those whose job it is to protect and defend.  My wish would be that the police and the families hurt in those devastated areas could work together to rebuild both the neighborhoods and the trust that was lost.  I think communication is a powerful tool and our best ally.

At a recent training I attended, the facilitator was talking about how the military used to have problems getting soldiers to fight because they would look across the line and see just another teenager/young man, and this made the opponents too similar to themselves to attack.  As people, we are not designed to attack and harm each other.  For this to happen, propaganda became necessary.  For us to attack each other, we have to be taught to believe that the other is a threat or is less than.  It would seem, then, that the best way to counter this teaching is to connect and to get to know others.

I love my job because I do get to connect to others.  I am no MLK or Ghandi or Mother Teresa.  I doubt I will be nominated for sainthood or start a movement that will change the world.  What I can do is make changes in the world around me.  I can provide encouragement and empowerment.  I can choose to be thoughtful about the words I use and the jokes I make.  I can focus on changing fear and anger to curiosity.

I love my country, and I am privileged to live here with the rights and freedoms that were afforded me simply because I was born here.  I didn't have to fight/bleed/die for these freedoms, and I did not have to go through the pain and fear of leaving another country in hopes of finding solace, safety, or a better life.  I live with much fortune that I have not earned. Still, I have responsibility.

I choose to learn about others and try to understand their perspectives. I choose to support others in doing what they believe is right, provided they do not harm themselves or others.  I choose to spend my time empowering and uplifting others rather than attempting to judge or manipulate them.  I believe people are designed to connect and to want what is best for those with whom they are connected.  The more we can connect, the less we will harm others, intentionally or otherwise.

Similarly, the more we connect with ourselves, the less we will harm ourselves, intentionally or otherwise.  When we can approach ourselves with curiosity rather than fear or hatred, we can learn valuable information and make better decisions. When we truly see and value ourselves, it is easier to stand up for what we believe is good and right.

I hope, when you look at yourself, you are able to explore your strengths as well as your weaknesses.  I hope you can see your value and your uniqueness.  I hope you can choose to advocate for yourself and act on what you believe is right without harming yourself or others in the process.  I hope you will choose to connect rather than isolating or attacking. If you have trouble connecting with yourself or finding connection with others, I hope you will find me. I am not the right connection for everyone, but I would like to help if I could.

I hope future generations and other countries will not judge us by the choices our government makes but by the positive choices that individuals make, whether or not they align with the current government vision.  I believe that I can facilitate change in my little corner of the world by acting on my beliefs and convictions and by supporting others in theirs.  I wish for you that same sense of empowerment.  I believe you can do it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Who Am I: The Problem With Self-Definition

I find myself thinking a lot lately about who I am and what determines how I answer that question.  On the face of things, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a therapist, an American, a human, a female.... None of that seems overly descriptive. I am also a person who has an underactive thyroid and a set of sinuses that appear to have some sort of vendetta. What does that say about me?  I am also a person who struggles with depression and anxiety and the attending issues of self-esteem, motivation, and self-confidence.

Interesting, isn't it, that I find myself the most anxious about the last sentence?  Why is it that, of all the characteristics listed above, my mental health issues are somehow more shameful?  In general, I am pretty open with my clients that I have dealt with these issues, but I think I still fear that I will be judged and seen as less capable, less stable, or less trustworthy.

It seems funny that we are quick to define ourselves by those labels. People will introduce themselves to me and say "I'm bipolar" or "I'm ADHD."  While I understand their meaning, I find it interesting that people never walk up and say, "I'm diabetes" or "I'm intestinal cancer."  We would think it really strange if someone did, but yet we don't think twice when people identify themselves by their mental illness.  People in the therapy world tend to focus on "person-first" language. That is, you are not bipolar; rather, you are a person who is dealing with bipolar disorder.  You are not ADHD. You are a person who struggles with focus, prioritization, and task completion.  It may sound like silly semantics, but it makes a difference.

I think, because mental illness affects thinking, mood, and functioning, it feels like it changes who we are. I believe it does not change who we are, but it may inhibit our access to the parts of ourselves that we prefer. It is, however, something that occurs because of something we are dealing with medically, not just something "in our heads."  Just because I can't find PTSD on an x-ray doesn't mean it is any less valid than a broken leg.  We expect people, however,  just to "get over" their mental health issues. Have you ever told anyone to "get over" their high blood pressure?  Probably not. I try to describe mental health issues as defining what you deal with rather than who you are.  Depression does not care if you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Athiest, Hindu, or Agnostic.  Schizophrenia does not care what financial class you represent or how many volunteer hours you put in last quarter.  Addiction does not care what language you speak. These things happen to people of every description all over the world.

So, if I do not define myself by my mental health, how do I define myself? I guess I define myself by what I care about and what I am willing to do about what I care about. I define myself by my interests, my talents, and my quirks.  I define myself by my morals and my values.  I love people, and I enjoy helping them learn to see and appreciate themselves differently.  I enjoy reading, writing, cooking, and swing-dancing. I love words, ideas, metaphor, and philosophy.  I am great at starting projects and not so good about finishing them.  I am remarkably unathletic and out of shape and, unfortunately, very messy at home. I have a dry sense of humor but I hate being made to laugh when I am not in the mood.  I try never to hurt people unnecessarily, I try to be authentic, and I try to leave people and places in a better state than they were when I encountered them.

All of these things are true about me more or less no matter where I am or who I am with.  When I am feeling more depressed and anxious, some of those things are harder to acknowledge or connect with, but they are still me. It is hard not to define myself by others' perceptions and expectations, but if I am to be authentic, I have to be true to myself.

Who might you see yourself to be if you did not evaluate yourself by your situation or your struggles? What can you hold on to about yourself even when things appear bleak or hopeless? We all need support and reassurance, and there is no shame in that. We can all lose our way when times get difficult.  I encourage you, however, to try to take a different view of yourself than just what you are experiencing now.  If you struggle with that, I hope you will come find me.  I'd love to help you reconnect with you.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Purpose of the Pain

Most of my clients know that I hate exercising.  Let me be clear -- I love the idea of exercising. I know the benefits, and I hear tell that the endorphins are amazing.  Exercise and I, however, do not get along.  I refer to myself as having all the coordination of a three-legged elephant with a short leg. Think about it... get the visual... let it sink in.  See? Not pleasant.  I am, in fact, so uncoordinated that I was pulled out of regular classes in elementary school and put in remedial P.E.  I bet most of you didn't know that existed.  I have the report cards to prove it.

Anyway,  I was running with my daughter in her stroller today, and somehow the weight was wrong.  The stroller sank backwards, and I went flying.  Don't worry.  My daughter was fine. She was buckled in with a five-point harness and just ended up looking at the sky. Me? I scratched up my left hand a bit and bunged up both knees (poor knees).  Fortunately, I was wearing pants, so I did not donate as much skin and blood as I might have.  I managed to get the both of us home (slowly) and made a date with my old friends Bactine and Band-Aid.  I'm fine.  More bruised dignity than anything else... But there was a bit of pain, to be sure.

One of the biggest issues my clients face with me is why their pain must be there and why they can't just ignore it. It is unpleasant, disruptive, distracting, and overwhelming.  Why must it be part of life? Why can't we just shove it away and ignore it?

People attempt to avoid pain in various ways.  We rationalize, we distract, we tell ourselves it doesn't exist and/or we don't have time to deal with it right now.  Some of us drink, use drugs, or engage in other addictive behaviors.  Those who have been through traumatic experiences may cope by avoidance of triggers or by dissociating to some extent or the other.  We go to great lengths to avoid pain.

There is a medical condition known by various terms, including "Congenital Analgesia" and "Congenital Insensitivity to Pain."  What does this mean?  These people physically do not experience pain.  At first, this seems like a great way to live. Wow! No pain! No headaches, no earaches, no toothaches, no gas pains. no arthritis pain... It sounds like a dream.  But wait....

What would happen if you had a nail stuck in your foot and didn't notice? What if your appendix were rupturing? What if you had a massive infection and couldn't feel it?  Does that change your opinion of this diagnosis?

People with CIP must be vigilant.  They must check themselves constantly for injuries, from their gums to their toes.  They can't feel the pain from a fever, either, so they have to check their temperatures regularly. They can't detect temperature,  so they can scald themselves with their food or experience frostbite with no knowledge.  Their bodies don't detect temperature problems, so they don't sweat or shiver.  In essence, they are limited in their ability to recognize problems and to manage them in the natural ways most of us are able to do.

Similarly, emotional pain is also necessary.  The pain draws attention to things we need to address to stay healthy and make wise decisions.  If we did not feel emotional pain, we might stay in abusive relationships, harm others, and limit our own growth.  If we do not have discomfort, we do not make change.  Pain can let us know that we have lost something we value. Pain can alert us that we are not safe in a particular situation. Pain can show us that we are growing. Pain can inform us that we need to change something.  Pain is an invaluable resource of information.

That said, I think there needs to be a balance.  I am a believer in Tylenol, Advil, and Aspirin in moderation.  Next time I need a root canal, I will certainly opt for the Novocain.  If I need my appendix removed, I will expect and accept anesthesia.  Pain for the sake of pain is not healthy for anyone.

We don't have to live in the pain all the time.  If I am having an appendectomy, I would rather my surgeon not choose that time to give in to her grief in losing her mother. I don't want my Uber driver chasing another car with road rage for cutting him off in traffic.  If I am with a client, this is not the time for me to engage in my personal pain in whatever area of my life.  Those are appropriate times to put the pain to the side for a time and focus on something else.  If I can't put aside my pain, I need not to be seeing clients until I am in a better place.

When painful feelings come, however, the best option, usually, is to let the feeling be there. You likely won't need a canoe and oars to get out of the house if you let yourself cry.  Feeling anger doesn't mean you are going to burn the house down or kill the neighbor's dog.  If you can allow the feeling to be there and get the message it is giving you, it will go away on its own.  Emotions are usually fairly simple.  When we shove them away or tell ourselves we can't feel them, that's when things get complicated.

Instead of simply feeling sad, we add in guilt for being "weak," then we get mad at ourselves for beating ourselves up, then we criticize ourselves for being so messed up and for being such a burden on others, and then we can decide that we must be totally useless and take up too much space in the world.  That sure is a lot of stress to evolve from a simple feeling of sadness.  Wouldn't it just be easier to allow the sadness and accept that the sadness is there to help us recognize what is important to us?  It seems so to me. Emotions repressed or suppressed over a long period of time can lead to depression and anxiety.

We are designed to experience pain so that we can address problems when they come up.  Similarly, a lack of pain can help us recognize that we are safe to go on with what we are doing.  The experience of pain is subjective for each of us, and only you know when the pain is tolerable for you and when you need to stop or need assistance.  If we can accept pain as a messenger, then we can accept ourselves with that pain.

Someone with CIP who had my accident today might have significant issues that they were unaware of without the pain.  There might be infection, muscle damage, or even a broken bone that went unnoticed by them.  Fortunately, I experience pain, and I was able to recognize that I was healthy enough to walk home, practice a little first aid, and nurse my bruised dignity.

Next time you have an unpleasant feeling, try letting it be there and see what it has to tell you. You may be surprised how it resolves itself.  If the pain is too much or you are too scared to feel it, I hope you will come find me. We will work together to make it safer for you.  Be good to you...

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Gathering Rosebuds, Making Hay, Taking Paychecks, Etc.

I was reflecting yesterday that the last week and a half have been really positive for me.  Several clients have reflected with me about the progress they've made and how happy and proud they are of their work.  I cannot take responsibility for their progress, but I know I have been part of it and I am always excited to see my clients start to feel good about themselves and to feel that they have the potential to make the changes they need. My work is rewarding in itself, but it is always amazing when clients are able to see their own strengths and tell me about them.

Furthermore, I am getting some new clients, thus alleviating some of the anxiety in the previous post.  My kids are adjusting to their new school situations, and we may be seeing the end of diapers in our near future.  The kids are healthy for the moment, and we are starting to find a rhythm. The temperature has dropped a little outside, and it begins to seem that we can breathe a little. How nice it is to have such a pleasant patch of time.

Unfortunately, like many people, I struggle just to sit and enjoy the moment. My mind jumps to what will happen if someone gets sick, if my client load drops, if scheduling decreases, if my car needs some kind of repair.... You get the idea.  The fact is that any of those things could happen at any time.  Nothing is guaranteed except change, and change is not always what we expect.  I am all for positive thinking (and hope, clearly), but I also believe that we have to be honest with ourselves. Nothing we can do can prevent bad things from happening sooner or later.  We simply do not have that level of control.

So, what do we do when we don't have control? We take control of what we can manage. We pay attention to eating healthier foods, drinking water, getting rest, getting exercise, spending time with loved ones... As one of my previous clients liked to say, "Start with the basics." We can also choose what we tell ourselves about what is happening and how we respond to those things, but that is a different post. What else can we do?

I encourage people to allow themselves to enjoy the happier times.  Many clients have told me that they were afraid to be happy because the depression would hurt that much more when it came back. I tend to liken this to refusing to take a paycheck because I might have bills next week.  Yes, it hurts when depression comes back, but enjoying the happy times is like putting money in the bank so that you can have a better chance of handling the bills when they come.

All of our energy for living -- physical, mental, emotional, spiritual,  and psychological all comes out of one source -- sort of like a bank account.  When we practice self-care in any of these ways, we make deposits into the energy bank. Frequently, however, we forget to practice that self-care, and we become depleted. Then, when our energy bills come, we feel overdrafted when we have to pay them. When we take the time to take a nap or go for a walk or snuggle with a pet or small child, it helps put energy back in.  You may not be able to take that trip to Maui that you've been hoping for, but you can take 5 or 10 minutes to practice mindfulness, do some deep breathing, or listen to a song that helps to brighten your mood.

It can be difficult to persuade yourself to make time for self-care. Life gets hectic, situations get overwhelming, and expectations can feel unreasonable. Think, however, about the difference between a toddler who has had a nap and one who hasn't.  Right. The one who's had the nap is definitely easier to work with.  Similarly, when you take time for yourself, you are more functional, too.

So, those old adages about "gather ye rosebuds while ye may" and "make hay while the sun shines" have some old wisdom.  Surely we age, and surely the rain will come, but the more we make of the time we have, the better we will be able to manage when the more difficult times come.

I hope you will take some time to give to yourself. Every little bit matters. If you are struggling to do that or are not sure how, I hope you will find me.  True, it takes time to come and see me, but it may be that the benefit makes the outlay worthwhile.  I believe it does. In the meantime, enjoy the sun.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"I Haven't Got Time for the Change" vs. "A Change Will Do You Good"

Where I am, change is about to be in full swing.  Kids here return to school on Monday.  This will be my son's first day of Kindergarten ::shiver::.  My daughter will have to go to her preschool without her brother for the first time in her memory.  My husband and I are grateful for the reduced cost in childcare, but we're not sure how to cope with the fact that our baby is not such a baby anymore.

At work, a beloved support, administrator, and clinician is retiring --- or changing positions, as she says. I haven't known her long, but she has been instrumental in helping me adjust to private practice and in helping me put aside some of the professional demons I've been carrying with me.  She is stepping away to spend more time with her family and to take on some other roles.  I am glad she is doing what she needs to do for herself and her family, but I will miss having her there as a person and as a resource.

My clients are changing some, too.  Those that were available for the summer may be going back to school or venturing off for other goals. I enjoy my clients and the work I do, and I find myself in that mother-y sort of position of knowing that they need to make these changes to work toward their goals, and yet I dislike losing the contact of the sessions.  I've been joking a lot lately about how ironic it is that we "people people" become therapists -- the only job I can think of where you're not allowed to make contact with your clients once the job is done.  I also find myself wondering where I will find new clients.

The question is how to cope with change.  What I think is frightening about change is the unknown.  What will happen when my child goes to a new school? How will my role change?  What will happen after my client goes overseas? Will she continue the amazing work she has been doing?  Who will I be after I change?  What will my life mean?  How will I handle new expectations?

The antidote to that fear, I believe, is trust.  It's a tricky proposition, this trust thing, because, by it's very nature, we cannot prove that what or whom we trust will be able to meet our expectations.  Many of us have been through changes that were not our choice and/or were not for the better.  Trauma survivors, in particular, tend to see most, if not all, change as frightening.

So, what or whom do we trust? For many, faith beliefs give them hope that a higher power is looking out for them and wants what is best for them. This can be a powerful relief and support for those who are able to hold on to it.  I don't mean to reduce faith to a coping skill. For those with faith beliefs, clearly faith is much more than that, but on a basic level, it certainly can help us cope.

Hopefully, each of us has someone (or more than one someone) who feels safe to us. This would be a person who makes us feel more ourselves, who listens, and who supports us even when we make mistakes.  This person is not magic. He or she cannot solve all of our problems, but we can trust that this person will be there for us through our change.  As I have said before, I believe a support system gives us the courage to step out and try new things (Wow! Attachment theory!). When we have someone we trust behind us, we are less afraid to try and less afraid to fail.

Most of all, I think it is important that we trust ourselves.  I don't mean to imply that any of us are perfect or that we always know what the right thing is, but I do believe that we have pretty good guidance if we will listen to ourselves.  I tell my clients that their guts are different than what they want, how they feel, or what they think.  Your gut is what tells you if you feel safe to share in therapy. It is the part that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when a situation isn't right. It is the part that can help you differentiate whether you are afraid because something is new or because something is hazardous.  If you listen to that part of yourself, you have a pretty good barometer for decision-making.

We tend, however, to ignore our guts. What we learn can be inconvenient.  We stay  in unhealthy relationships because we fear we cannot find anyone better. We agree to things we don't want to do or that do not feel right because we want others to like us or we don't want to create conflict.  We don't want to have to try again or look further or face parts of ourselves that we don't like or that we are afraid are not good enough.  For some, their wants and needs have been ignored for so long that they have forgotten how to listen to themselves.

Therapy, I believe, can help with this.  My primary goal with most of my clients is to help them reconnect with and begin to listen to themselves. Often, once they start to do so, they find that they are happier with their decisions and with their lives.  They feel stronger, and they have ownership of themselves and their choices.  Learning to listen to yourself may feel like a risky proposition.  If you need a support system to help you feel strong enough to make those changes, I hope you will find me.

As much as I worry about the changes around me, I think we'll all come through.  My son will adjust to his new school. My daughter will become more comfortable being at her school without her brother.  Frankly, I think they will both come to enjoy the change.  I believe in and trust my clients to do what is best for them, even though I likely won't get the end of the story.  Their work has been their own doing, and nothing can take that away.  Other clients will come, and I will get to start on new journeys with them.

I am thankful for all of the support I have that is helping me through my changes.  I hope you have some, as well. If not, I hope you will find me.  I would be happy to be there for you.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Well, now that I've said it...

Have you ever made a statement that you believed but then the world/fate/whatever called upon you to uphold it? This has been true for me.  I published a very optimistic post about the power of not being perfect last week, and this week I seem determined to prove the point.

So, I had a new client scheduled yesterday.  I have been excited to meet her, and I think we'll be a good fit. And... I misremembered the time and completely missed the appointment. **Sigh** I spoke to her briefly and apologized profusely, but I felt terrible. I don't like to start a therapeutic relationship (or any other) that way, and I want her to understand she is worth more than that.  She seemed happy to reschedule, and I hope I get the opportunity to meet with her. But... I was human and imperfect. She was gracious and thoughtful, but she had every right to walk away and not come back.  Despite my error, I found grace.

Then, this afternoon, I was leaving my office and I was heading to my car. I was looking at my phone trying to figure out my next step when... I tripped up some cement steps. I can't say for sure if it was because I wasn't paying attention, if it was the heels I was wearing, or... One minute I'm walking, and the next I'm seeing cement come up at me in a hurry.  Fortunately, I wasn't badly hurt. I skinned my knee through my pants and got a knot on my shin, but I mostly bruised my dignity.  Others might have laughed at me, but that was not my experience.  The first person who came up to me mentioned that she had fallen before and I shouldn't be embarrassed. She helped me gather my things.  Five or six others came by, none of whom I knew, and each of them asked if I was all right or if I needed help.

It's amazing the grace I've found in the last couple of days despite issues I could have avoided if I'd been paying more attention.  So, I've learned two lessons: one is a valuable lesson in mindfulness -- if I check my calendar and watch where I'm walking, I will have an easier life. The other is that I can find grace and forgiveness even when I'm not mindful the way I ought to be. I am thankful for the grace that others have given me this week.

I hope that you can find grace in your life in your rough patches.  If you need some help finding that grace, I hope you'll find me.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Perfection... isn't so much

Lately, I  have been thinking about some of the people in my life who have been meaningful for me and who have helped to shape my life.  There was my third grade teacher who helped me, the new girl, connect with a classmate who ended up being my best friend for the next several years. There was my eighth grade and tenth grade teacher (same person) who helped bring me out of my shell and allow me to feel comfortable in my own skin. I had some professors in college who took the time to get to know me, not just as student, but as a person.  We would spend hours discussing philosophy, literature, or religion but also friends, family, and fears.  I remember feeling at home in college in a way I never did before.  I felt like I knew myself and I had possibilities that I had not considered before.

Despite my love and gratitude for these people, they were not perfect.  My third grade teacher caused something of a scandal because she was divorced.  My eighth and tenth grade teacher was wonderful and thoughtful and creative, but I can see now that he was in flux. Not long after I finished tenth grade, he moved into administration and is now the principal at the middle school there.  The professors I loved had various issues: difficulty with connection, depression, self-esteem issues, family stresses, etc.  I didn't need them to be perfect. I needed them to be who they were.

I have a tendency to be somewhat perfectionistic in my own life (sadly, not with cleaning, but with other areas), and this can be a problem.  My own therapist explained to me (and I think she was right), that many of my situational problems have occurred when I tried to force myself to be perfect.  When I get there, I stop listening to myself and stop being myself, and then I trip over and step in all kinds of things.  It's hard to remember that, however, when I am afraid that I am not good enough or that I will make a mistake that will hurt someone.  I have to learn to trust myself.

My clients, I think, struggle with some of that same feeling that they have to be perfect.  They have to be perfect to be loved, to be safe, to be approved of....  The struggle is real.  This perfection extends from their physical appearance to their behavior to their decision making. From the outside, I can see that perfection, even if it were possible, would not be the shield or the insurance that they want it to be. Most of what they are trying to protect themselves from is not about them to begin with but about other people and their decisions.  This, however, is something they need to learn for themselves.

What I notice more, though, is that when they try to be "perfect" in therapy, they don't get the response they want there, either.  When they tell me what they think I want to hear, I don't know what they really are experiencing. When they hide what they feel or what they think, they reinforce their own shame and leave me either responding to something that isn't there or confused about who I'm with.  Neither of us is able to do the work that needs to be done when either of us is focused on being "perfect."

When we are both ourselves, however, we can connect in a way that people don't often have the opportunity to do. What has been hidden in shame can often be seen in a different light and released.  What makes people different becomes a uniqueness rather than a defect.  If I were perfect, my clients could not relate to me.  If they were perfect, they wouldn't need me.  When we are perfectly imperfect together, change happens and new meaning is created.

I would like to thank all of those perfectly imperfect people who have helped me to be who I am today. My heart and soul are grateful to them.  If you have things to discuss and need someone who is not perfect to help you, I hope you will find me.  I'd love to see what we could do together.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Moving from Black and Blue to Purple

When I was in high school, some of my friends used to play a card game in which one had to learn the game by playing it and no one could tell you the rules.  I think they made it up, but I don't know.  I didn't play it. They would all sit in a circle laying down cards, and stating phrases like, "and now for something completely different..."  I never did learn the rules of the game, and I imagined I would be very frustrated if I were to attempt it.

Lately, I have been doing some research on domestic violence for a workshop I am putting together, and it occurs to me that being in that kind of a relationship must be something like a much more violent and threatening version of that game.  It seems like only one person in the relationship knows what the rules are, and the other person keeps trying to figure them out and getting abused for their ignorance. (Please note, I am not calling them "stupid" -- which implies inability to learn -- but "ignorant" -- which implies not knowing.)  Sadly, the one rule is that the one being abused cannot win.  This rule, however, is never communicated, and the person being abused is left trying fruitlessly to "get it right" so that the abuse stops.

The phenomenon of domestic violence is not new. It has probably been around as long as people have been pairing up.  Like most trauma, however, we often don't want to believe it exists.  According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, approximately 20 people per minute are physically abused by a partner in the United States. This does not include verbal abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, or financial abuse.  Too often, people are ashamed to talk about what happens behind closed doors, and that shame is often reinforced by questions from others like, "Why don't you just leave, then?' or "What did you do to piss him off?"  If only things were that simple.

By and large, domestic violence relationships don't start out the way they end.  The abusive partner often starts out very charismatic and attentive.  He or she lavishes gifts, praise, and compliments on the intended partner.  They frequently move the relationship along quickly, leaving the partner little time to think.  Slowly but surely, they begin crossing the partner's boundaries and cutting them off from their support system. ("Do you really have to go see your mom today? I was hoping you could come to the new exhibit at the art museum with me today. You can always go see her next week, right?"  "You know your dad's against me. I don't want you spending time with him."  "I don't like how your friends dress. You can do better than them. Let's go out to dinner together instead," etc.

Gradually, things shift so that the abuser is finding little flaws in the partner (whether or not they exist) and begins creating the belief that the partner needs to fix these things, and then things will be fine.  The failings and flaws generally become greater and more numerous, and the punishment becomes more vicious.  Frequently, the abuser would say something like, "If you hadn't done X, I wouldn't have had to do Y.  You know I don't like doing that to you. Why do you make me do that?"

The above is not a universal pattern, but is representative of what often does happen.  There is a concept known as the Cycle of Domestic Violence that describes the typical pattern:

We start in the honeymoon phase.  All is sweetness and light, and the abuser is loving and attentive. Gradually, we enter the tension building phase. The abuser has become more critical, angry, and degrading.  The tension builds until the violent episode or explosion occurs.  The explosion can be physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, or any combination of the above.  After the explosion, we go back to the honeymoon period in which the abuser is giving apologies (while blaming the abused), giving gifts, and making promises.  Thus the cycle repeats.

By the time most people are ready to get out of the relationships, their self-esteem is all but obliterated, they have little or no support system, and they may have no access to resources.  Abusers often take control of the household finances and may even have control of documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards. All the while, the person being abused is conditioned to believe that the problems are all his or her fault.  Furthermore, the abuser may threaten the abused with physical violence (toward the abused or others), lack of access to children, lack of access to needed documents (including passports or green cards for those not from the U.S.),  interference with work or other relationships, even death.  Getting out is not simple.

Furthermore, just getting out does not bring safety for the abused.  The first 72 hours are especially dangerous and the most likely time frame for the abused to be attacked or killed. Once they do get out, they have to find someplace to stay. They may be afraid to go to family either because of the separation that has been created with them or because they fear harm to their family members if they are found there.  Guilt and shame may also play a role.  If they have no money and no documentation, it will be difficult to find shelter, employment, or even transportation.  When the stress becomes too much, many will return to their abusive homes due to lack of options and face even greater danger and abuse.  Even if they do get out and stay out, the recovery is just starting, and much difficult work lies ahead.  The person coming out very often does not feel much like the person who went in.

All of this sounds very dour and dire, and it is. People's lives and livelihoods are threatened this way much too often.  Much of the abuse is kept hidden, and those abused are riddled with guilt and shame.  Abused men, in particular, can have a difficult time seeking and accepting help because of the assumption that men should be able to take care of themselves.  There is hope, however.

Most states have domestic violence hotlines available.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline is : 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). In my state, Georgia, the hotline is 1-800-33HAVEN. These hotlines have trained therapists available to help abused people find resources and make plans to get out safely.   When possible, it is helpful to have a plan in place and to have whatever resources possible available before someone tries to leave.  Many organizations exist to help those who have been in abusive relationships, and they can help with finding safe housing, getting employment, and providing needed support in legal proceedings.

A trained therapist can also help. Some can help with finding a way out, and others can help once someone has gotten out to help that person regain a sense of self and safety.  There are support groups available as well. It takes time to move from being a victim to being a survivor to thriving, but it can happen.

If you believe someone is being abused, try not to judge them.  Listen to them and let them know that you are there for them.  You can help connect them to support through a hotline or a therapist.  They may not feel comfortable calling a helpline themselves because their partner monitors their calls or does not allow them to make calls.  Remember that leaving without a plan is not recommended and that they may need time to be able to leave. Let them know they are not forgotten or alone.

If you are being abused, I hope you will contact one of the above numbers or speak with a trusted friend who can help you.  You are not alone.  It is not your fault. You cannot change your abuser, so focus on doing what you can to take care of yourself.

Purple is the color of domestic violence awareness.  I hope this post has helped you better understand some of the dynamics and issues of domestic violence.  I am not an expert, but I am learning more every day. This post is not at all exhaustive of the available information or the issues inherent in domestic violence, and I hope you will do what you can to learn more.  Volunteers are always needed.  People escaping abusive situations need food, clothing, shelter, and housing supplies.  They also need support, understanding, and patience.  I hope you will give what you can.  I thank you for letting me make your understanding a little more purple.  If you have been hurt by domestic violence and need someone to talk to, I hope you will find me. I believe in hope and healing, and I would be honored to help you find yours.

(Statistics cited from NCADV. (2015). Domestic violence national statistics. Retrieved from

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Belief and Trauma -- Why What We Believe Matters

Before I write this, I want to acknowledge that I have not done extensive research on this particular subject and I do not consider myself an expert.  What this is, however, is something I have considered and observed with many clients. These are my musings and my theories.

Lately, I have found myself discussing trauma with a number of clients and exploring why the trauma matters so much. My clients have experienced everything from sexual abuse to domestic violence to emotional neglect to physical abuse and beyond.  Certainly there are some traumatic experiences that appear obvious: hurricanes, wartime experiences, random acts of violence, rape, etc.  Others are less easily identified: emotional neglect, emotional abuse, acquaintance/marital rape, and  psychological abuse to identify a few.

What ties all of these experiences together? My belief is that it is the message we receive about ourselves as a result.  This is particularly true about relational trauma (trauma that happens between people in some form of relationship rather than an act of a stranger or of nature), but also true about other forms of trauma as well.   Trauma tells us something about who we are and what our value is as well as what we can expect from the world.

The example that I have been pondering with my clients is this:

Suppose I tripped and accidentally knocked my son down the stairs and he broke his arm.  How would this affect him differently than if I had pushed him on purpose and he broke his arm? (I wouldn't, incidentally, but I wanted to set up an example.  I hope you know me better than that by now.)

The response I get from my clients is generally, "intent."   I think this is true from my perspective, but I am not sure that my son could consider intent.  My guess is that the difference would be what the action told him about himself.  If it is an accident and I come and tend to him, hug him, snuggle him, and do what I can to find him help and healing, that gives a much different experience than if I just leave him at the base of the stairs crying or if I yell at him to stop being such a baby and get over it.  The first says, "I love you, I value you, and you are worth more than what just happened to you." Furthermore, I would take responsibility for the action, and this would continue to reinforce that message.  The second says, "You are worthless, disposable, not good enough, and only useful for me to take out my anger on."  Those are much different experiences.  My son emotionally would recover much faster and more easily from the former than the latter.

One instance of abuse is bad enough, but when abuse and neglect are repeated, the negative beliefs about self are reinforced, potentially to the point of creating a strong negative sense of self.  We all search for meaning and understanding in our lives, and, particularly in the case of trauma, we are not comfortable with not having a cause and effect relationship.  So, in absence of a better answer, we often blame ourselves.  This is equally true for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as physical and emotional neglect.

Sex in itself is not a bad thing and does not have to be hurtful.  Accidents happen.  Sometimes we struggle to get our physical needs met.  In each of these cases, emotional support and comforting can help to ameliorate the impact. When emotional support is not given or is actively taken away, the impact is intensified.

One of my big beliefs in working with trauma is "you can't compare pain."  What has happened to each person affects them, and there is no comparison. I find, though, that it is particularly difficult for those whose abuse was largely verbal or psychological to accept their experiences as being as valid as those who suffered physically or sexually.  In my belief, it is the emotional impact that matters, and this is what I tend to focus on.

Trauma recovery is not just about learning how to manage and store one's experiences but also about challenging and changing the beliefs that we develop about ourselves as a result of what has happened.  My goal as a therapist is to help my clients develop a more balanced view of themselves and to reconnect with themselves as wonderful, valuable human beings.

If you have been hurt in any of the above ways, I hope you can find someone to help you navigate these experiences and rebuild your sense of self.  What happens to you does not define who you are but what you have to deal with.  If you need someone to talk to,  I hope you will find me.  I would love to help you find your way back to yourself.  Whoever you are, you matter.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Whence Comes Forgiveness?

Ordinarily, when I am writing this blog, I tend to write about something about which I have been pondering and on which I have found some level of resolution.  This, I think, will not be like that.  It is a question I am still exploring, but maybe I will find some clarity discussing it.  I hope you will bear with me on this.

"Forgiveness" is a topic that comes up frequently in therapy, particularly with clients who have been through some level of trauma.  They seem to have a lot of pressure to forgive without having a clear  understanding of what that means or what it would look like.  Furthermore, many people have grown up with the notion of  "forgive and forget," and the latter is nearly impossible for trauma survivors.  Frankly, I think forgiveness is a good thing but forgetting is unwise.

So, I guess if we are going to discuss the idea of forgiveness, we need a workable definition.  This can be a bit squirrely for some people, particularly those with certain faith backgrounds.  As a therapist, I try not to pull from a religious definition, not because I don't have faith, but because I feel it is not my place to tell others what to believe.  I am happy to discuss your faith with you and how that affects your concept of forgiveness, but I am not likely to start from that space in that conversation.

My understanding is that the concept of forgiveness, in itself, arose from monetary transactions. The example I give to my clients is this:

Suppose I asked you for $200. (I wouldn't, by the way.  I do have some ethics. But go with me on this.) So, I ask you for the money, and you give it to me.  I promise I will give it back when I see you next week. Next week comes, and I don't pay you back.  I apologize, give an excuse, and say I will pay you the next week. Say this continues for many weeks or months.  This may escalate in a number of ways, but let's say I never pay you back, despite my promises and protestations to the contrary.  Forgiveness in that sense would mean writing off the debt. You would be saying that you no longer have any belief that I am going to pay you and you are not going to put any more energy into trying to get that money back.  The money is gone, and it's not coming back.

What are the implications of this? Well, the first part is that you have accepted that the money is not coming back.  You feel you have done everything you can or are willing to do to get financial remuneration from me.  You are done with filing legal charges, hiring private detectives, calling out a hit squad (just kidding, I hope), whatever.  You are done with that interaction.

Second, you probably won't lend me money again. (I don't blame you.)  This is where the "forgetting" concept is unwise. If you know I'm a bad credit risk, you're less likely to give me that chance again. If forgiving and forgetting were synonymous, a lot more people would have a lot less money. Not expecting me to pay you back does not mean that you have to lend me money again. You are welcome and encouraged to learn from the experience.

Finally, not expecting the money to come back does not mean that you don't still have problems related to what happened. Maybe you can't pay your light bill or your rent or buy your groceries because you gave that money to me. Maybe your own credit is affected. There can certainly still be repercussions.  Forgiveness, then, does not necessarily mean that things don't hurt anymore, but it does mean you have stopped looking for things to be different or to gain back what you have lost. You are able to move past wanting things to be different and into healing.

The question for me is how we get to the point of forgiveness and how we know we are there.  A client of mine was mentioning that the rational part of her had decided to forgive someone.  When she said that, I was taken aback.  I had never considered forgiveness to be a rational decision.  As I discussed it with her, I found I wasn't sure where that decision came from. Is it rational? Spiritual? Emotional?  I think I have always just thought we had a sense of knowing that we were at that point. I don't know exactly how we get there.  It seems more than an intellectual decision. That seems too simplistic to me, yet I don't have a better answer.

What I do know is that we cannot forgive, not sincerely, if we are not ready.  If we are not done with trying to get things to change, to get our remuneration or revenge, or believing that things "should"
be different, trying to force ourselves to forgive is an exercise in frustration and guilt.  We cannot be done until we are done. We have to do the work before we can forgive.  Needing to do the work is not a sign of weakness.  We cannot be there until we get there. Remember, readiness is different than willingness or potential.

Have you been able to forgive someone? What was that decision like?  How did you know you were ready?  I'm curious to explore more on the subject.  I believe that forgiveness happens, and I know some of the steps toward getting there, but I am curious about that moment when we know we are done.  What do you believe? I would love to continue this conversation with you.  If you have not been able to forgive yet, I hope you will give yourself some grace.  If you need help with that, I hope you will find me.  I would like to walk this road with you for awhile.  Perhaps we can learn together.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Case for Creativity

I have always loved driving through a city at night.  I look at the buildings with their lights on, and I wonder what the story is of the people in those buildings at that time.  Is it someone working on a cleaning crew trying to get everything done quickly so he or she can get home to their family?  Is it some harried executive trying to finish a project or proposal? Is somebody behind one of those windows looking out at the city as I am and thinking long thoughts?  I wonder what the people in those buildings are thinking and noticing.  I wonder what they know that they don’t even think about.  What is their experience? Where do they come from? Where would they like to be? So many possibilities….

What do you wonder about?  What makes you curious? What do you daydream about or imagine?

Many of the clients I see have lost touch with their curiosity.  Anxiety and depression, in particular, can quash creativity.  When we are depressed, there is no energy to find alternatives, and when we are anxious we can get too wrapped up in the problems to find creative solutions.  When I have been in darker places in my life, it felt as though the situation would always be that way and that things would never change.  I can always tell when I am coming back to myself because I start wondering about things and asking more questions. I can start to see possibilities and play with ideas in my head.

One of the ways that therapy can help is that a therapist can provide perspectives and possibilities at times when we struggle to come up with our own.  I find, sometimes, that just the act of exploring a possibility helps to relieve depression. Sometimes just knowing that there might be an alternative is a huge help.  It is so easy to get caught up in what is going on in our minds that we believe it to be Truth rather than a perspective or a temporary situation.

How can we regain a sense of curiosity and possibility?  Sometimes it helps to engage in something you used to do as a child (playing a game, coloring, singing songs, playing with Play Doh) when you used to have more flexibility in your mind.  Sometimes it helps to take a class, academic or otherwise, to utilize a different part of the brain.  Maybe you’ve always wanted to take acting classes or learn Chinese or swing dancing….  Getting out and getting active can help as well. When our bodies are moving, our brains start moving, too.  Spend time with other people, particularly kids, and look at how they see the world.  Sometimes even physically changing your perspective can help.  Get up high or down low. Go outside. Try some yoga.  Scribble on a paper for awhile, bake some meringues, or try knitting or crocheting.  None of these may sound appealing right now, but trying some of them may still help re-engage the part of your brain that finds possibilities and curiosity.

If, however, you find that you are still feeling stuck, I hope that you will come find me.  I love to use my curiosity with my clients and help them find new possibilities and perspectives.  Sometimes a change may truly do you good.  Alternatively, if you have found your creativity and have some ideas, I hope you will share them with me.  I am always open to learn. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Mighty Tidal Wave

Do you ever wonder if you make a difference? If your life has any meaning?  I wonder that sometimes.  When I was a child, I wanted to be someone people remembered.  I believed there was this one great history book, and I wanted to be in it.  We moved around a lot when I was a child, and I worried that people would forget me after we left.

Oddly enough, I moved into an occupation/avocation in which I rarely get to see the full impact of my relationship with people.   Rather than being a tidal wave that everyone notices and remembers, I have become more of a pebble in a bucket.  The change I help to facilitate is on a much smaller scale.  While I bring myself fully into the therapy room, the focus is not on me or on what I want but on my clients.  Rather than being the star, I am more of a behind the scenes sort of a person.  How do I make peace with this change in plans?

One of my favorite musicians, David LaMotte, wrote a song entitled, "Drops Like Me."  The song starts with a single drop of water and then goes on to describe what many drops together can do.  What I love about the song is the end of the chorus where he says, "We will roll on together til everyone can see that the mighty tidal wave is made of little bitty drops like me."  I am small but part of something mighty.

I am not alone but am surrounded by other "drops."  When I come together with a client, we become stronger together and can make amazing change.  The change often appears small and gradual, but then, the Grand Canyon used to be a lot shallower sometime ago.  I have learned to look for and appreciate small changes. I celebrate each time clients take a step.  Maybe they exercised. Maybe they asked for something they wanted. Maybe they brushed their teeth last night.  All of these things can represent the start of great things.

My clients, honestly, have become my heroes.  They live their lives, they keep persevering, and they have the courage to show up. I am honored to be with them. I am content not to be center stage because I have the joy of witnessing what they are able to do and watching their creativity and imagination come forth. The experience is awe-inspiring, and I am able to be a part.

I wonder what changes you are making in the world around you and in yourself.  When was the last time you looked for something positive to affirm in yourself? Have you tried something different lately?  Have you taken a moment to be gentle with yourself or to give yourself grace?

Recovery is not a tidal wave. It is a series of choices, one at a time, that ultimately engrave new rivers  and canyons in the ground.  The goal is not to become perfect all at once but to make the best decision you can at any given moment.  Over time, it can be fascinating to see the lengths and patterns you have made that you might never have noticed.  It all starts, however, with one drop. Do not underestimate yourself or the power that you have to make a difference.  You, too, are part of the "mighty tidal wave."  If you need some help charting your course or making sense of your journey, however, I hope you will find me. I would be happy to join with you in creating your mark on this earth.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Well, 2016 is here, and the airwaves are again filled with "New Year, New You!" commercials. It seems there is a lot of focus on change and a lot of advertising out there telling us how easy it is to become the person that other people will accept and/or look up to. If we just eat the right diet, lose the right amount of weight, and get enough exercise, we will have finally reached the goal.  On a certain level, the idea of a New Year's resolution feels a little arbitrary to me, and a part of me finds myself a bit irritated with the focus on change as desirable to make oneself acceptable. Most of these commercials don't focus on what happens after you have lost x number of pounds or when you have been working out at the gym for a month.  The change then has only started.

One change for me right now is that one of my offices is opening a satellite location. This is exciting for me, and I find myself enjoying being a part of that change.  We did a presentation there this last weekend exploring the idea of change as a journey rather than a straightforward step. I think I like this better.  As a counselor, I see people less as diagnoses and more as people who are in a certain point in their full lifespan.  Wherever you are is where you are right now, and tomorrow you will be somewhere different.  Change is a natural process rather than something manufactured.

Where does this leave me as a professional? If change is unavoidable, why is my position necessary? Well, I have been thinking about boat metaphors lately -- hence the title above.  If life is like a river or some other body of water with a natural motion, then each of us is in a vessel on that river on our own journeys.  Occasionally, however, we have problems. Maybe we lose an oar. Maybe we've lost our maps or senses of direction. Maybe we are seasick and don't have the energy to row.  Maybe we are overwhelmed with the more turbulent passages behind and in front of us, or maybe we have a hole in the boat.  I see my job as a counselor as an opportunity to pull my boat up next to yours, moor up for awhile, and help you build your skills, energy, and confidence to find your next destination.

I don't get in your boat for a number of reasons. First, my journey and yours are different. If I am in your boat, I am not in mine. Second, if you have a hole in your boat and I get in, it will sink that much faster. If I bring you in my boat, then you are not in your own journey and you do not realize that you have your own capacity to guide your ship.  You may have had friends or family that have tried to help but either took over your ship or were too worried about whether or not they did something to harm your ship to be able to hear you.  As a person in my own boat, I cannot take over your vessel, and I do not have the emotional investment to feel overly responsible for what has happened in your life before.

If, however, we tie our boats together for a time, mine can help provide yours some stability until you can make the changes you need or want to make. Maybe I can help you find or create an extra oar. Maybe we study the map together to determine where you want to go and the best way to get there. Maybe I help you take the time to rest to help you get your energy and enthusiasm back. Maybe we work together to patch up your boat and to improve your boating skills such that your boat is less likely to be damaged in the same way again.

When you have accomplished the change that you need for that time, we will separate our boats and move on. Maybe we meet again, maybe we don't, and maybe each of us moves on to moor up with other boats.  Throughout this time, the river continues to flow and each of us has to make adjustments. Each of us must be aware and focused to handle the water safely.

I have been fortunate to have some good people to moor with me when I have needed it, and I am honored to be able to do the same for others.  I have not always enjoyed the rapids, but I am grateful to have survived the experience.  If your arms are tired, your compass is broken, or your rudder seems to have lost its effectiveness, I hope you will keep an eye out for my boat. I would be happy to join with you on your journey.