As a child, I was an unabashed tomboy. I didn’t want to play dolls or dress-up. I had no interest in babies and I certainly didn’t want to grow up to be a Mommy, which was one of the three choices I had, the other two being Teacher and Secretary. Then I turned 22 and the alarm went off on my biological clock. All the sudden I wanted babies and I wanted them NOW!
I suspect my Mom never wanted to be a mommy either. I’ll never forget what she said when I called to tell her I was pregnant with her first grandchild. “Just don’t expect me to babysit!” Which was strange as she was living in Kansas and I was in North Carolina. But then she never liked my husband. It was something we could agree upon later.
I picked a man with good genetics who turned out to be nothing but a mooch. I jettisoned him right after my second boy was born and never looked back. But I shouldn’t be too harsh. I did get two very healthy, smart sons out of him. (Maybe someday he’ll show the slightest bit of interest in them.) So, in the end, I felt compelled to reproduce. And it’s a good thing.
They say we’re reaching a point in many countries where there are too few babies being born to replace the current generation. It’s an interesting turn of events because when I was young, we had an entirely different concern – over-population. In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb forecasting the dire situation when our race ran out of resources. Birth control was our only hope.
But, like a lot of forecasters, Paul simply took current conditions and drew them out to ridiculous lengths. (Ice-free north pole, anyone?) Commentator Nicholas Eberstadt wisely pointed out that the population was not growing because we were breeding like bunnies, but because we were no longer dying like flies.
It’s true. You don’t have to go back too far in our history to come to a place where you needed 10 children just to make sure a couple of them would still be alive to help you in your old age. Which you weren’t going to have because if you were a woman, you’d likely die in childbirth and, if you were a man, by of a combination of war and overwork.
But a lot of people were swayed by that over-population argument. I heard friends and relatives spouting the nonsense that they were being noble NOT bringing babies into such a world as this. First, the world is a better place for humans than it’s EVER been. Second, you might just substitute “selfish” for “noble” and be nearer the truth for some of them.
Well I did my duty to the race and raised up two righteous, intelligent, hard-working men. Between them they now have six progeny. I believe they all make this world a better place.
1. Weight Loss When my ordeal began two and a half years ago, I lugged around 155 pounds on my five-foot-two frame and was bitterly considering going up a pant size. After chemo and seven surgeries I’ve lost 25 pounds. And because I have no appetite and food all tastes dull, I’ve kept it off. At last I can drag my finger across that dratted BMI chart and rest on a solid square of “healthy weight”. Breast cancer, I couldn’t have done it without you!
2. Hair Loss Yes, it’s a bit disconcerting going bald, but the upside is you don’t just lose the hair on your head. You lose ALL your hair! I got to go for over six months without even thinking about a razor. It’s great never having to worry before pulling on a pair of shorts. And as exciting as it was to feel that first bit of peach fuzz on my scalp, it also meant resuming my regular visits with Lady Schick.
3. Free Perm My hair has always been as straight and flat as a ruler. Once or twice a year, I would endure hours of rolling and chemicals to get a bit of curl. Which would then grow out into my habitual look – lady who needs another perm. Now I have natural curls and I love the heck out of them.
4. People Think You’re Brave Honestly, I don’t get this one. All I ever really do is show up. I arrive at the appointed time, strip down and get up on the gurney. Then I wait patiently while they slide me through tubes, pump me full of chemicals or lop off diseased chunks of my flesh. Sure, it’s no picnic in the park, but it isn’t exactly the thing you’ expect to be awarded a medal for. “For uncommon valor while lying quietly in the face of the enemy” just doesn’t sound heroic. But considering all the things people COULD think about me, I’m pretty happy with “so brave!”.
5. No One Expects You to Volunteer for Anything Before my cancer, Carter Blood Bank was about to drive me crazy with solicitation calls. They loved me because I have B Negative and a vein on my right forearm that might as well be a spigot. But I’ve got no time to drive to Dallas – on a weekday - to donate. I told them that whenever they came to Kaufman County, I’d be there, but that didn’t stop the calls. Once I told them I had cancer they struck me off their list, apparently forever.
6. People Think You’re Strong Strong is not how I see myself except in the sense that I strongly object to chemo, or I vomited strongly for 12 hours after my last surgery. But now all I have to do is show up and people celebrate like I’d returned from the dead. Hey, I’m not knocking it! In fact, I strongly enjoy it.
Well I’ve been reading a lot (big surprise!) and again juxtaposed a couple of articles that really gave me pause. The first was an interview with Gabor Mate', author of the bestseller In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book about addictions. The second was about our growing dependence on our devices and the “online experience”. The article was entitled The Age of FoMO by Sharon Begley.
I’m so behind the times (ask my son) that I didn’t know what that meant. At first I feared it was about our basic lack of civility, something akin to MoFo. Then I looked it up (online, of course) and discovered it’s an acronym for Fear of Missing Out. Being naturally introverted, I’ve never been troubled by this. I enjoy missing out if it means I have more time alone with my thoughts.
Starting with Mr. Mate' and his theory of addiction, I noted that he dismissed the “medical model” that it’s a disease and even the AA model that it’s about changing behavior. He believes that addictions are a response to trauma. The purpose of the addiction is to give comfort, distract from pain and soothe stress. He makes the point that not everybody who’s traumatized becomes addicted, but everyone who becomes addicted was traumatized.
This usually starts in childhood with trauma that is either short-lived (surviving a flood) or endemic (growing up with drug-addicted parents). Our undeveloped brains don’t know how to effectively process the stress and we struggle to find anything that helps. In his work Mate' has seen that the same “incentive and motivation circuits and the same brain chemicals” are at work whether the addiction is to cocaine or shopping. And they are all triggered by stress
In our modern world, a lot of that stress revolves around our digital devices and our inability to be disconnected from them for even a few moments. For many people today, being “offline” is tantamount to being dead! Researchers found, not surprisingly, that people turn to their smartphones to avoid the fear of being unconnected.
Now feeling connected is one of our basic human needs, our first and most important connection being with our caregivers, usually parents. If Mate' is right and a breakdown in that vital, early connection sets the stage for addiction, is it any wonder so many of us can’t stop reading our texts or checking our FaceBook feeds?
One set of researchers even came up with a FoMO scale. They discovered that young men score higher than young women and younger people, in general, score higher than older ones. They then matched the results to how people felt they were meeting three core psychological needs – connectedness, competence and autonomy (feeling that we control our own lives.)
In general, a high FoMO correlated to a low score on the other three. Addicts also score low on those points. Psychologists haven’t yet made “Digital Addiction” a diagnosis, but be looking for it. And put down that phone!
I recently read three articles which, taken together, painted a rather depressing view of the up and coming generation. That, in itself, is nothing new. People have been complaining about “kids these days” since at least Aristotle’s time. But consuming these messages at one meal gave me a mild case of indigestion.
The first was about the loss of the summer job. When I was young, everyone wanted a summer job and competition could be fierce. These days, seasonal employers are having to go abroad to find hands willing to fry funnel cakes on the boardwalk or man lifeguard chairs at the public pool. I used to think kids had just grown lazy. They got everything they wanted without having to work, so why do it? This article took another tack.
The writers, who interviewed and polled young people, found out they had actually done the math. The amount of money a minimum wage summer job generated was nothing compared to the lifelong income gains from doing volunteer work or taking unpaid internships and hyping it up on a college application, provided you actually got into and completed that college
Another article tried to prove, scientifically, that hosting “hate speech” on a college campus damaged young people at the molecular level with horrific consequences. The final article all but proved that was complete nonsense. Honestly, how can just HEARING about Ann Coulter coming to your university compare to, say, being kidnapped by Boko Haram?
It’s true, prolonged stress can have devastating effects on people both emotionally and physically, but simply being exposed to differing opinions hardly constitutes prolonged stress. And you don’t have to go to Nigeria to find it. How about just growing up with a violent alcoholic as a parent? Or spending your early years in and out of hospitals fighting a disease you didn’t ask for, but your siblings claim was the ruination of their lives?
Besides, those summer jobs were never really about the money. They were about making a first foray into the world of adulthood. Few of us honestly depended on those tiny checks to make ends meet, which is one of the fallacies of the $15 minimum wage argument. Sure you can’t support a family of four on less than $8 an hour. But guess what? You aren’t supposed to! Those jobs are for kids! They’re entry level jobs or second jobs.
I worked (nearly full-time) for most of my college years. Yet I never once thought that I should be able to settle down and live comfortably by waiting tables or delivering pizzas. But all those “menial” jobs taught me something, something that you don’t get in the rarified air of a corporate internship. They tested me, toughened me, exposed me to things I never dreamt existed
Now there’s nothing wrong with volunteer work. Lots of people do it. And lots of those people work full-time as well. Maybe our kids are just a little lazy, a little wimpy.
People know that my politics stand distinctly right of center. What they don’t know is that I used to stand distinctly left of center. But my politics really aren’t any different now than they’ve ever been. What’s changed is the swinging pendulum of political thought. Today we’ve gone so far left, even old hippies like me can seem alt-right.
(Not that I was ever REALLY a hippie. I washed and shaved too much. And spent my time reading and writing, not doping and listening to blaring music. But your sons see ONE picture of you in bell bottoms wearing John Lennon glasses and you’re pegged for life.)
I don’t understand why people have such a hard time dealing with change. I read a study once concluding that we all think whatever times were like when we were growing up is the way they should be forever. So we’re continually alarmed when anything changes. Despite our amazing intelligence as a species and the fact that the only constant in our lives IS change!
We shouldn’t panic. All that’s really happening is that things are changing “back”. The pendulum swings, our lives circle (possibly the drain). Throughout our development we pass through many stages, we play many roles. Shakespeare was truly elegant when he wrote that we are all actors, who strut and fret away our brief time on stage. We worry about change when we should be embracing it.
One of the phrases I use (over and over) in counseling is “If you want your life to change, you’re going to have to start doing something different.” Usually people just want to have more money or make someone ELSE change. The first one demands education and hard work. The second is completely impossible. (You can either accept that person as he is or let him go.)
But many people don’t want to work hard and go to school! Sorry, that’s what it takes. As a small business person, I work all the time. And I’m always going to school, either for my license or to learn new software or negotiate an “upgrade” in some insurance company’s claim entry process. And then there’s the piles of stuff I read. The truth is that the minute you stop changing, you start decaying.
A perfect example of our unwillingness to change, even when it can truly benefit us, is the recidivism rate for criminals who go to prison. (As opposed to the criminals who run our country and just go home to their mansions, but that’s another story.) Many convicts barely get out before they’re back. I’ve heard more than one tell me he just didn’t know how to live on “the outside”.
Then there are those people whose anxiety and depression force them into another type of prison – staying in their rooms with nothing but the TV for company. The antidote for fear of change is, of course, faith. The basic belief that you CAN handle it and, ultimately, things will be okay.
I had a good mom. She taught us a wealth of skills and provided excellent nutrition. She was into health food long before it was a thing. I just thought everyone ate wheat germ and had two vegetables (one green, one yellow) for dinner each night. A brisk walk was a daily tradition I never questioned. I grew up healthy and strong.
But people these days are so very sick in body and spirit. I believe that’s because they never spend much time nourishing their bodies or spirits. I’ve begun to ask more about what my clients eat and it’s often total crap. Hot dogs, burgers, pasta, pizza, sugary drinks. No hint of a vegetable that’s not breaded and deep-fried. So lately I’ve begun to harp on the importance of good nutrition. I’ve even done a little experimenting.
As you MAY remember, I put in a vegetable garden every spring. And most years I get way too much of something I like way too little. But this was a good season. My freezer is full and there’s more coming. So I’ve started cooking up my extra produce and giving it to my clients. It’s astounding to witness the affect good, natural food has on someone’s mood.
First of all, the very act of giving food is a primal expression of love. The receiver can’t really help but feel cared for. Then when the food is specially made by someone who actually grew it. Well, that’s a thing most people don’t experience anymore. Food has become unvarying, impersonal, mass produced. It’s lost its magic.
It’s not like I’m some kind of gourmet cook, either. (Ask my sons.) But, thanks to my mom, I CAN cook and so that means I can create a pretty decent meal out of what’s available. Most of my clients can’t cook at all and so they have no idea how easy – and cheap – it can be to make something healthy and tasty.
The other day I boiled down a few pounds of bruised tomatoes with some onions, salt and fresh basil. Then I poured it over cooked elbow macaroni (whole wheat) and mixed it up. It didn’t look like much without the red food coloring of bottled pasta sauce, but the taste was heaven. My client reported that he started eating it and couldn’t stop until he’d finished the entire pan.
He reported that his “taste buds woke up”. He said he didn’t hurt so much. Of course a lot of that could have been my suggestion that his pain was caused (in part) by inflammation, the result of eating too much processed food. Let us not forget that the placebo remains the most effective medication in our arsenal.
Still it just can’t hurt to eat better. It’s all part of nurturing yourself. If your body is a temple containing a small spark of God’s divinity, how are you taking care of it? Try to keep your spark alive and well.
Before you go ballistic, remember that we’re all going to die of SOMETHING. And, despite the fact of my having cancer, the odds are still greater that I’ll die in a car accident. (Ask anyone who’s ever driven with me.) What I mean about the cancer is that I’m pretty sure I’ll be fighting it until it wins.
Oddly enough, I was going to entitle this column “Vindication At Last”. You MAY remember the trouble my surgeon gave me (the day of my surgery!) about not wanting to remove my “healthy” implant. This was unnecessary surgery, she admonished me. She was just going to lop off the “nodule of necrotic fat” and leave well enough alone. I argued (quite strongly) that she do what we had agreed upon and she finally gave in.
Well Monday she called to apologize and give me the good news that the lump was cancer as well. She offered me “kudos” for insisting on having the double. I was so jubilant to be proven right for once that I forgot this was not really good news. What it meant was that the cancer is very aggressive, it likes to eat fat and I’ve got plenty to spare.
So, more chemo for me. I’ll be having a “port” put in so as to have easy access to the poison which is going to be stronger than the last round. (Yea!) In preparation for this, I spent another day at the hospital being shot full of “markers” and “dyes” and slid under huge machines for various scans.
The tech for the CT kept telling me to “take a breath and HOLD IT!” with such an unvarying intonation, I wondered if it were part of the machine. The tech for my bone scan kept asking me vaguely concerning questions like “Do you have trouble with your feet?” And “Are you being treated for arthritis?”
When I said, “No, why?” She waved it off. “Oh nothing. It is not about the cancer.”
Ah yes, there’s that. So I won’t know anything for about a week. I’ll have my port put in next week, which will require anesthesia and someone to drive me home. And I’m going to be seeing a new oncologist, who allegedly “took the most interest” in my case when my surgeon presented it at her latest conference. Hope she gets a paper out of it.
Nice to be able to give all these medical professionals someone to practice on. Oh well. As I said, we’re all going to die of something. And I am blessed to have a good husband, good friends, good insurance, a comfortable home and a job I can do sitting down.
Many people concentrate on the bad things in life and thus aren’t paying attention to the everyday miracles of life and the opportunities they hold. Never forget that every day is a gift. Even the ones when you learn your cancer is getting worse.
One of the hardest things about my last surgery was that call I got the night before from my stepmother. My 88-year-old father was in ICU with double pneumonia. When you’re 88 that’s the kind of thing you die from! She told me he was scared and that he couldn’t talk to me because he was on a breathing apparatus.
At that moment, driving home from work having mentally prepared myself for (yet) another hospital stay, I felt as though God had finally given me more than I could take. But, as usual, I was wrong. For one thing, my stepmother was there with my Dad. Thank God for her. She always calls the ambulance whether he wants it or not.
And thank God for my husband, who was going to be there with me for my entire procedure and recuperation. Still, I went under anesthesia not knowing if my precious father would be “on this side of the sod”, as he likes to put it, when I came out. For that matter, I didn’t know whether I’d even come out! Times like those are when Faith is a mighty powerful resource.
The definition of Faith is believing in things you can’t see or can’t know. In a way, becoming a father is, itself, an act of faith. You just don’t have a lot of control over what’s going to happen, even though fathers-to-be are now encouraged to be part of the process, going through Lamaze courses and masking up in the delivery room. God help them, they now know that they SHOULD be changing diapers and making bottles. You’ve come a long way, fellas!
Of course good fathers have always been active in the care of their children, from the mundane to the sublime. The most important thing they can do is to pass on righteous values. Many of the teenaged boys I counsel have no fathers in the picture, or the ones they have aren’t very good role models. I encourage those boys to look away from the past, even the present, and to concentrate on the men they are to become. And that means becoming the kind of father a boy, or girl, can look up to.
So my surgery went fine. I was up and working around the garden way before the doctor said I could. (I had to laugh at the booklet of exercises she gave me insisting that some “activity” was crucial for my recovery. Let’s see. Pushing a stick out in front of me to the count of ten, or wielding a hoe for a few hours. That enough activity for you?)
And everything is okay, for now. I’m probably going to have to have chemo again which is worse than surgery by a long shot. But hey, I’m still on this side of the sod, and so is my father. There simply aren’t enough ways I can tell him all he’s meant to me. I love you, Dad!
One of the complaints I hear from my clients is how their medical care is sliding from “just okay” to “getting kinda scary”. Boy, can I relate. As some of you may recall, my breast cancer came back in a big way and I had to pretty much diagnose it myself. I went to the “oncologist” complaining about pain, redness and hardness and she just made me an appointment for six months.
I went to see the reconstructive surgeon who promptly sent me to the cancer surgeon who did a biopsy to confirm what I already knew. It’s back! Of course she doesn’t fill me with confidence either. When I told her that there was no way I was going back to the same oncologist who essentially kicked my can down the road, she assured me she’d find someone else.
So I was all set for surgery. I’d cleared my schedule, my husband had gotten medical leave approved at his job and I’d spent a morning at the hospital getting all the tests done for my pre-operative check. Then, on the morning of the procedure, I got a call from the surgeon telling me I hadn’t gotten my CT and bone scans done.
“No one told me to!” I exclaimed.
“You were scheduled for them on May 15.”
I looked at my appointment book. I’d worked a full day, nothing there about any tests.
“Nobody told me and no one called when I didn’t show up,” I complained. Good Lord! It’s not like I drive to Medical City a couple of times a week and just walk around, knocking on doors to see if anyone wants to perform an exam. If I needed those tests, SOMEONE should have told me.
She hung up to make some calls. My husband promptly had a nervous breakdown and insisted I get with another doctor.
“Look, honey,” I said. “I want this stuff out of me today if possible. I really don’t have time to find another doctor and go through all this again. Let’s just see what she has to say.”
She called back and whom had she been on the phone with? The oncologist! Both of them AND the reconstructive surgeon were of the opinion that I only needed my right implant removed and the other left in.
“That’s not what we decided at our pre-op meeting!” (Which you insisted I have face-to-face and was only two days earlier.) “I want them both out. I’m done with all this!”
“But your bra will fit better if you have at least one implant. Then we can get another one done later.”
“No more implants!” What was she, deaf? “And I couldn’t care less about my bra.”
“But with no breasts, your stomach will look larger.”
“I DON’T CARE!”
“Well, I guess we’ll just go ahead with what we discussed then.” So she DID remember!
Long story short, I had my surgery, I survived. More next week.
Last week I complained about the failures of our institutionalized education system such as turning science into a religion and snuffing out free speech in the name of tolerance (!?!). I’m sure that didn’t sit well with the many talented educators, professional and non-, who give their very best to our children. They stand bravely against the flood of political correctness and serve as outposts of reason and fairness.
We rely on public education way too much and get involved in it way too little. Besides, children get most of their education AWAY from school, watching how their families act and their communities function. That’s where they learn honor, honesty, strength and courage. It’s also where they learn cowardliness, cruelty, pettiness and sloth. Going to some building every day is just a small part of it.
I liked school and got good grades, but I have very few memories from those days. In one the Kindergarten teacher was lining us up. Imagining something I had seen on the Keystone Kops (my Dad loved the old comedies), I shoved the kid behind me hoping the rest would go down like a row of dominos and hilarity would ensue. I ended up in the corner for recess.
By first grade I was somewhat tamed and was able to recite “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by memory for our Christmas pageant. We were allowed to call it Christmas back then. Now you take a chance of being sent to ISS if you even mention Christianity except in the proper context i.e. "brutal, oppressive Christian invaders".
In short, school was just a place I went to be “taught”. I “learned” elsewhere. Sure, I spent a lot of time reading books and committing my flights of fancy to paper, but I also got a practical education in living that could only come from parents who were children in the Great Depression. By the time I was a teen I could cook, sew, wash, garden, perform first aid and wield a hammer, saw and paint brush.
I woke up every day with a clear idea that there was work to be done, even if it was only going to school. In short, I produced. The idea of lounging around and consuming all day was for rich, idle people in penthouses or on tropical beaches. I could never get the hang of just “hanging out”. It was too boring. As I tell my (similarly) socially awkward clients, I prefer interactions that involve an activity. I want to accomplish something.
A key element from the book I mentioned last week (“The Vanishing American Adult” by Ben Sasse) is that we need to nudge our children (and ourselves) away from lives of pure consumption and challenge them to do more. We must put them to the test – of survival, character, resolve and, yes, some book learning. We must go back to creating functioning adults instead of prolonging a wasteful, purposeless childhood into old age.
I’m currently reading a book by Ben Sasse called “The Vanishing American Adult”. Basically it’s about how, despite spending more per student than almost anywhere else in the world, our institutionalized education system continues to churn out high school graduates who can’t decipher the instructions on a package of raman noodles and have no clue about how our country (much less our world) came to be.
And those are the ones who DO graduate, in many places less than 60%. (Thankfully, they can all quote the results of every episode of The Voice.) Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, our politicians continue to insist that all we need is more spending and we will surely get better results. They believe it, so it must be true.
In the psych business we call this “confirmation bias”. Basically it means we tend to only pay attention to things we already believe. I’m certainly guilty. For example, any time I read something about the climate assuring me the science is settled, I quickly skip to the next article. You see, science isn’t a consensus, it’s a method. And according to that method, science is NEVER settled, but always one experiment away from being completely upended.
You can’t get climate change fanatics to hear this, even when faced with the undeniable fallacy of their predictions. According their patron saint (His Holiness Al Gore), the Arctic was supposed to be entirely ice-free two years ago and California was in permanent drought. News flash! There’s still a butt load of ice in the Arctic (ask the crews of the Russian ice-breakers stuck in it) and California is in danger of washing into the ocean. Using the scientific method, the "warmers" would willingly admit that their models were wrong and would alter them. Not happening.
Another example are the tolerant, inclusive college kids who refuse to allow a conservative speaker on their campus even though he was invited by a large group of fellow students anxious to hear him. They protest the proposed “hate speech” by cussing people out, beating them up and setting fire to a Starbucks. That speaker is a fascist, they “reason”, and so ANY means of stopping him is justified, even fascism. They don’t see the hypocrisy because of, you guessed it, confirmation bias.
Luckily I got through the education system before it was completely ruined. I can proudly admit I never took a TAAS test and yet I emerged from high school, went straight into college and full time work (at roughly the same time) and never looked back. That just doesn’t happen much these days, as Mr. Sasse points out so well in his book.
Today our kids come of age knowing how to do only one thing – consume. Food, entertainment, resources. They’re woefully unable to produce, something our ancestors got started when they were still in short pants. As education has lost depth and breadth, it's shrunk into a limited world view which is more religion than reality. More on this next week!
People who’re in business for themselves never really stop working. There’re always irons in the fire, deals in the making, loose ends to tie up. The misperception is that someone who is “his own boss” has the ultimate flexibility to slack off whenever he wants and savor the best of whatever he produces. Wrong.
Farmers, for example, don’t get the pick of the crop. That goes to market. They get the ugly stuff, the bruised tomatoes. Actually, any time I go to the farmer’s market I always ask for the bruised tomatoes (at a discount). They make the best chili. But back to the point, farmers work all the time growing food and then get the rejects for their tables.
Bakers eat the stuff that didn’t rise enough or got a little burnt. Butchers get the “fully-aged” steaks. The cobbler’s kids never have new shoes and the seamstress’s children are always missing buttons. When something is your job, you just look at it differently and the same thing goes for counseling.
When something bad happens in my life, the last thing I want is to be counseled. Even by other counselors. I know I’ll just hear them say all the things I would say, the things I HAVE said over and over, and it will become so clear to me that those things don’t really help very much.
So last week when I found out that my breast cancer was back, I reflexively reached out to all my friends and family with an email blast. Bless, them, they faithfully delivered the sympathy and good wishes I craved. But then I discovered that I really didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
Truth is I’m not sad, I’m not mad, I’m not even scared. What I am is disappointed. I thought I was through with all this stuff. Now I’m beginning to suspect that I’ll never be through with it until it’s through with me and I’m, well, through.
Strange how I started having pity parties before the tests had even been run and well before the results were known. (ESP?) Now that everyone knows, I just want to pretend like it isn’t happening. Maybe that’s because this time around I have a much better idea of what’s going to go down. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t like it! One bit!
Shivering under a thin sheet in a frigid surgery suite waiting for that shot of oblivion. Waking up sick with oozing incisions and familiar parts missing. Struggling to stand and walk. Fighting the pain, the boredom. Measuring and recording fluids that seep out of various tubes. Lying still while poison drips through my veins. Watching all my hair fall out.
Not this again! People want to know what they can do, how they can help. It’s pretty simple. All I want is to know you’re there, to know you care. I don’t want to talk about it. Too much like work.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a wonderful organization that has lifted thousands of people from lives ruined by addiction into healthy sobriety. Still, I have a beef with them. That’s their prejudice against having a good, old-fashioned Pity Party. For those of you lucky enough to have never thrown one, a pity party is when you mope around feeling sorry for yourself and blaming everyone else, even dumb luck, for your woes.
Now why would I, a mental health professional, stand up in favor of this (arguably) unhealthy activity? Because sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered! It has to do with how we view and deal with our emotions, a counselor’s stock and trade.
Starting in early childhood, we are taught that some emotions are “good” and “acceptable” and some aren’t. For example, we are told to “cheer up”, “be thankful”, “get over it”. Emotions like happiness, gratitude, love and empathy are encouraged, even demanded by parents the world over.
In contrast, emotions like anger, fear and sadness are shunned. The minute they raise their ugly heads, we are told to stop feeling them. We are even threatened with more pain if we don’t cease and desist. (I’LL give you something to cry about!) Sound familiar?
I believe that ALL emotions are “good” and “acceptable” in that they all deserve attention and respect. As I say (over and over) in my sessions, “Feelings are never right or wrong. They simply are. And the more you try to deny them, the stronger they become.” But that doesn’t stop people from trying to stuff them into some deep, dark hole, hoping they’ll never resurface.
Problem is, they always do. Sometimes at the worst possible moments. A typical example is a child who was physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by a parent. As an adult, he’s adopted a survivor mentality which necessitates forgetting about the past and concentrating on the future. He may even have bought into the idea that he must forgive in order to be free of the past.
If only it were that easy. Those stuffed emotions don’t go anywhere. They swirl around in the unconscious, gaining in toxicity and poisoning the present in ways that are sometimes hard to grasp. For example, anyone who suffers from anxiety attacks is reacting to past trauma that has never been dealt with. The same thing holds true for people with explosive anger.
So wadayado? Well, you have to bring that past trauma into consciousness and work through it. Preferably with someone like me, a Licensed Professional Counselor. And one of the best ways to re-experience your pain, anger and sorrow is with that Pity Party. Cry for the child you were. Rage at that parent who betrayed you. Let it all out.
Like a violent storm, it will pass and pretty soon, sunshine will break through in your life again. Me, I like to mope on the couch, eat chocolate and binge watch Forensic Files. Works like a charm!
I consider myself a very private person. People I know would be surprised to hear that. They’d probably laugh in your face, and who could blame them? After all, I publish the most intimate details of my life in the newspaper (for God’s sake!). And the friends and family (who haven’t blocked me yet) get another heaping helping of my inner process when they read my painful attempts at romance fiction.
I’m constantly being told (especially by my kids) that I should “dial it back”. People are “concerned” for my reputation. They worry what “others” might think. They’re “embarrassed” for me. They think I give a flip. They forget that I have absolutely no shame. Even though I AM a very private person. You see, there’s a difference between being shameless and being outgoing.
For example, I have no problem reading in front of the congregation (beyond the amusing effects of my nearly-terminal dyslexia) but I just can’t commit to joining the women’s group. Or put another way, I have a hard time letting people in, but I have no problem stripping to the waist in front of them. Maybe that’s because I do it so often these days.
Truthfully it started when I was young. I was a sickly child who had several life-threatening surgeries before the age of 11. I was naked in front of rooms full of medical staff more often than most children my age. Many of whom never had to pee in bedpan. I got used to being poked and weighed and to having all my vital statistics announced and analyzed.
It only got worse when I had my sons. Childbirth is an undignified business. It’s truly amazing just how many different substances can spew from your body in a 24 hour period, all to be weighed and analyzed. There’s no point in playing coy. After a while you get numb to the parade of medical professionals messing around between your legs.
Then there was the breast cancer thing. Just when I thought I might go a few years without needing an IV drip, throwing up on someone or having a catheter inserted. Or removed. And don’t get me started on all the before-and-after photos the plastic surgeon took. They’re floating around somewhere in my “electronic medical record” waiting to pounce.
But if someone did see them, I wouldn’t die of embarrassment. I’d just empathize with his discomfort and assure him that my earlier work was better. You see, that’s just my body. It is what it is. Oh sure, I try to get some exercise, eat some vegetables and stay on this side of obese on that dratted BMI scale. I’ve even been known to style my hair and wear new(er) clothes from time to time, but that’s the extent of it.
I learned early that my body is fragile and unreliable. Like dust. What’s amazing is that it holds together as well as it does. What it holds is who we are. Which is confidential.
I subscribe to a bunch of magazines and newsletters which I prefer to get in their paper versions. (Makes it easier to take them into the tub. But don’t worry. I recycle.) Most of these end up on the coffee table in my waiting room and are evidence of my very wide range of interests. Those specifically devoted to counseling are a diverse lot.
Psychology Today is aimed at the general public. Its cover articles almost always deal with sex, or some currently “sexy” issue, like narcissism. It’s packed full of the kind of stuff people click on when surfing the net. Quick takes, heavy on interpretation and light on research. This one I leave in the waiting room where it’s regularly swiped along with Entertainment Weekly. (For some reason, Archaeology Review stays put.)
My favorite is Psychotherapy Networker. Clear and insightful writing makes it a joy to read. And it covers a wide range of issues I find myself actually dealing with on a day to day basis. This one stays on my bedside table the longest. This one I keep and refer to later.
The worse of the bunch is Counseling Today. Most of its articles read like senior essays and almost all are aimed at counseling students or school counselors. There are a couple of recurring items I enjoy on private practice and risk management. Other than that, it’s alternately boring or infuriating. It quickly ends up in the recycle box.
In addition, it’s obsessed with the LGBT(QI+) community. Lay out the issues side by side for the last five years and I doubt they go more than three months without this subject being the cover story. Seeing as LGBTs make up only 3% of the population, this can only be seen as blatant bias on the part of the editor.
I have, and have always had, LGBT clients. In general, their problems have very little to do with their sexuality. They come in with the same issues all my clients do – relationship conflicts, parenting challenges, anxiety, depression. They might talk about being bullied in school, but they’re just as likely to fondly recall their first high school sweetheart, the one who cemented their sexual identity.
Being habitually skeptical, I question the motives of those purporting to defend these individuals from “persecution”. I wonder if they have not simply raised up another victimized minority in order to cash in on grant money and the proceeds from “sensitivity trainings” for corporations terrified of lawsuits. I don’t see how labeling someone a victim helps him.
With every issue I’m tempted to write a letter to the editor, but I don’t want to appear “insensitive”. Sadly, I’ve allowed myself to be cowed by the PC crowd on this subject. Just like the women in the restroom at Disneyland who were afraid to say anything when a big, hairy-chested man walked in and just stood there, watching them. Has it really come to this?
I’m jealous of my older brother for several things, none of which include his being older. Mostly I resent the fact that he knew, seemingly from birth, what he wanted to do with his life (become a physicist) while I floundered around for years trying to get a clue. I remember one day, when we were both still teenagers, asking him the point of studying physics.
“So we can figure out what holds the universe together,” he replied.
“That’s easy,” I quipped. “Gravity.”
“But what’s gravity?”
“Who cares as long as it works?”
Clearly, I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. But I have as an excuse a nearly terminal case of dyslexia. As I’m sure you’ve gleaned from multiple internet postings, you can turn letters around and upside down and even reflect them in a mirror and still make sense of them. The same thing doesn’t work for numbers. Unable to do the math, I didn’t follow my brother into the Sciences, but instead studied the Arts.
The other day I was lying in the bath reading about black holes and realized that they’re merely gravity taken to a ridiculous extreme. Everything is sucked in and disappears. Where does it all go? To another universe, or just to another place in this universe? Then it occurred to me that the book in my hands was something like a black hole.
Words written years ago, by someone who may now be dead, were being sucked into my mind, as if from another universe. Then I wondered when I even THINK about the past, do I create a sort of gravity that draws information into the present? When people talk to each other, do they make temporary worm holes (if you will) between one mind and another?
This could explain all that paranormal stuff that never seems to make it onto the recording. Everyone has a story of a time they just knew something terrible was happening and a phone call confirmed the horrible truth. Of course the skeptics point out that we only remember the times when it worked and forget the (possibly thousands) of times we were dead wrong.
Still something must be going on. Studies have shown that we “see” things before the information actually gets to our brains. A theory holds that this is a basis of what we call intuition, or gut feelings. Some scientists even think we have a second brain in our guts that communicates with our other brain without us ever being aware of it.
Psychologists have postulated different levels of consciousness since the field began. What if all those different layers actually existed in separate universes and were drawing information back and forth across the void by virtue of mighty gravity? What if there IS a “cultural memory” from our distant ancestors that we can access?
What if…. But by then the bath had gone cold and it was time to get dressed and get going.
When I went to college the first time (back in the good ol’ Paleolithic) I took a bunch of courses in education. Which is fortunate because I’m constantly having to teach my husband a thing or two. I swear it’s like having a kid around. All day it’s “Why?”, “Why?”, “Why?” Occasionally prefaced with “I don’t understand….”
I have to answer him or he just keeps at it. (Of course when I ask “Why won’t you wear your hearing aids?” all I get is a scowl.) No matter what I say, it leads to more questions. In exasperation, I point him to the internet, but he’d much rather hear it from me. Which begs the question, if he wants my opinion so badly, why does he so rarely follow it? But I digress.
This being Holy Week, many of his (incessant) questions revolved around Jesus and Christianity in general. One of his favorite inquiries runs thus. “If God wanted us to know His will, why didn’t He just write it down for us?” I counter that He did that with Moses, but the lettering was barely etched in stone before the Israelites were back to worshipping a calf.
“Then why didn’t Jesus write a book?”
“We don’t know that He didn’t,” I answer. But my favorite explanation (which is pure conjecture, I admit) is that Jesus didn’t write a book because He didn’t want anyone to be able to say “This is the one, true book of Jesus!” because pretty soon everyone would be making the same claim. If He never wrote a book, then no one could profess to own it. Or know exactly what it said.
That, of course, leads to more questions. “Why didn’t Jesus just make the Pharisees see the truth? If He could bring people back to life, surely He could do THAT! Then He wouldn’t have had to die.”
“He didn’t want to FORCE people to believe in Him. He wanted them to do it on their own. And He HAD to die because He was the Lamb of God. The sacrifice. The sin offering.”
That leads to a long, circuitous conversation about Judaic law and free will and before I know it we’re right back to Eden and the knowledge of good and evil. The other day I found myself screaming that if Satan (in the form of a serpent) had tempted an ant to eat of the fruit, that ant would’ve had a conscience and become a moral being.
My husband’s eyes were wide as saucers. “Look,” I said much more calmly. “Jesus didn’t come as a conquering king riding a noble steed, He came as a servant on a donkey. That’s why He washed His disciple’s feet. That’s why He allowed Himself to be crucified. His message was service, sacrifice, love.”
“But then why….”
“Love,” I said, pressing my finger against his mouth. “And if you value mine, you’ll shut it.”
And so he did. Finally!
I’ve written before about the hypocrisy of our nation when it comes to drug use. On the one hand, we label it a moral failing and a scourge. One the other hand, we push drugs like nobody’s business. Most magazines contain many multi-page ads for cholesterol pills or anti-depressants. TV shows are filled with commercials touting fixes for our high blood sugar and low libido.
Now we have an “epidemic” of opioid abuse. Most of these addicts began their journeys with a life-threatening accident or surgery. Their doctors gave them medications to ease their pain, and when the pain didn’t let up, they took more and more. They went from doctor shopping, to robbing people’s medicine cabinets to finally buying drugs on the streets.
But they aren’t really “on the streets”. There’s a highly organized network of buyers and sellers who all know just when the next prescription is scheduled to drop. Those medications have been resold long before the pharmacist finishes counting them out. There’re even waiting lists and bidding wars.
So how did something that does so much good turn so many people into addicts? Well, it has a lot to do with the mechanics of addiction. Seems our human brains are especially good at forming the connections that make us crave certain activities and substances. And it turns out that anything can be addictive. (Like exercising or coffee.)
As I deal with clients who are caught up in the throes of recovery, I often thank God that I don’t have what they call “an addictive personality”. The closest I came was when I was fighting cancer and had what was termed “a bad outcome” from my breast reconstruction surgery.
I’ve always been someone who had a high threshold for pain, but this was like nothing I had ever encountered (and I’ve had two babies, the “natural” way!) Suddenly I found myself counting the hours until I could have my next pill. And the moment the second hand hit 12, I was pushing that button for the nurse.
I cried when the doctor wanted to discharge me because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to control the pain at home. But gradually, as I got better, I stopped watching the clock and, eventually, simply forgot to take the pills. Others have no such luck and begin the slide into addiction.
Now there’s talk about the benefits of medicinal marijuana for the management of opioid addiction. All I can say is, “About time.” Our government, in its “wisdom” classifies pot as more dangerous than cocaine or heroin. This has a chilling effect on the researchers who want to test pot as a treatment for many disorders.
Now that the ban is beginning to lift, it seems that marijuana can be very effective for things as various as pain management, addiction, seizures and anxiety. And they say it isn’t “physically” addictive. But then neither is chocolate, and I truly can’t imagine my life without it!
In my office I have groups of family figurines in four flavors – Asian, Black, Hispanic and White. When writing this I gave a lot of thought as to the order I was going to list those races lest I seem, well, racist. I finally decided that the fairest way was to simply put them in alphabetical order.
My original list was Black, White, Hispanic and Asian. Black and White first because I’m used to that phrase, as in black and white thinking or black and white TV. Next I added Hispanic because they make up over a third of the population here in Texas. And then, almost as an afterthought, I listed Asian. Though there are more Asian people in the world than any other “race”, I rarely encounter one so they came in last.
My listing reflects nearly 60 years of negotiating racial politics. The kids I see, however, have no such limitations. They happily select dolls based on factors that have nothing to do with race. They always group them into families, however, a family being, at least, a momma and her babies. Sometimes daddy joins the group and, occasionally, grandma or grandpa. What matters most is the sex of the dolls, not their race.
One boy spent a lot of time selecting dolls and setting them up on the table. When he was through, he happily announced that he had created a family. It was the epitome of diversity. When I asked him why those dolls were a family, he didn’t hesitate for a minute and answered, “Because they all have red shirts.” A fact, I must admit, I hadn’t even noticed.
It didn’t matter to him that the pale, yellow-haired mommy was watching over a black baby and a Hispanic toddler. Or that daddy was an elderly Asian man with graying temples. They all had red shirts and so that meant they belonged together. If you ever wonder whether racism is learned or innate, there’s your answer. It’s definitely taught.
I also have two baby dolls who have no sexual characteristics at all. One has brown skin and a blue onesie. The other is white and wears a pink onesie. To the kids, the doll in blue is the boy and the doll in pink is the girl. And they make their selections based solely on that criteria no matter what race they may belong to.
Somewhere around the age of 10 everything changes. Suddenly, race matters. I’d love to know just how that comes about. Do their parents patiently instruct them on the differences, or do they pick it up in school? At some point, ugly names start being attached to a particular race. And by the time they’re teenagers, they’re officially prejudiced. Many are being bullied because of their race.
And so it begins. They start by being oblivious to skin color or eye shape. All too soon it becomes the only thing that matters. So much for “maturity”.
Before they started spending every waking moment glued to a screen, kids used to play outside. In fact our parents insisted on it. Some unlucky kids even had mothers who would lock the door behind them. My parents never went that far, but I do remember being told repeatedly to vacate the premises.
And play we did. From the minute we got home from school until dinner time all the neighborhood kids were outside. (Back then you didn’t start getting homework until you were in junior high.)
Now that I’m counseling kids, I notice that a lot of their problems stem from the fact that they never play anything but video games, inside and alone. So some of what I’m really doing in “play therapy” is exactly the kind of stuff we used to do outside all those years ago. I’ve come up with a list of four classic kid games.
First, there’s “chase”. I play this one with my granddaughters. At some point I announce that “I’m comin’ to getcha!” and they run off, squealing with delight. I search for them (purposely ignoring their wiggles and giggles) then haul them back into the living room where I “capture” them with pillows. Of course they soon “escape” and run away again. They’ll do this until I’m too exhausted to play anymore. A common variation of “chase” is “tag” which we used to play all the time.
Second there’s “hide and seek”. I played a variation of this game with my sons where I did the hiding. At some point they’d open a door or peer under a blanket and discover “Monster Mom”, a demon who would chase them back to “base” which was usually the couch. Then it would start all over and go on, again, until I was too exhausted to continue.
I was the best hide and seek player ever because I was exceptionally small and light. I could climb into the very tree tops, invisible from the ground. Once I crouched under the overhanging leaves of some day lilies until the “seeker” gave up and called me out. I’ll never forget the shock on his face when I seemed to appear right out of the ground!
Third there’s “house” or “fort”. You simply string up some sheets, prop up some sofa cushions and hunker down. Once my younger son had the entire block in our back yard because he found some old curtains and wove them between our bushes. It lasted for hours.
Finally, there’s “war”. There are endless variations of this game: “cops and robbers”, “cowboys and… Native Americans”, “spacemen and aliens”. You team up and engage in a pretend battle with gruesome death scenes and selfless acts of courage. Today’s parents would never allow this, but in the play room it’s called “aggression release” and it’s a vital part of the work.
Hmmm. I wonder how many kids would really need therapy if they could just play outside all the time again.
People in America used to be a lot thinner. I like to look at old pictures and movies. Even in the street scenes you rarely see a woman wearing more than a size 5. (I can only assume that 11-inch waists were the norm.) Old TV shows reveal the same thing. The “fat guy” role could now be played by any average American in line at WalMart.
On a more personal level, I look at old pictures of my family and realize that we didn’t share an ounce of fat between us. And we were solidly middleclass citizens who enjoyed three square meals a day. Now I eat one meal a day and it’s a constant struggle to keep my weight below “obese” on that dratted BMI chart. What happened?
Well, back then I used to walk a lot. I thought nothing of walking two miles (one way) to hang out with a friend. I also rode my bike and ten or twenty miles wasn’t too far for me. Then I went off to college and regularly lugged twenty or thirty pounds of books up and down the “Hill” at KU. Now I’d have them all loaded on a “notebook” that would weigh less than my lunch and I’d be walking no further than my computer to attend class.
Huge portions, high-fructose corn syrup, sedentary lifestyles, fat genes. Pick a reason. We’re all just heavier than ever. That’s why I was so happy to read about the Egyptologists working on newly discovered batches of mummies. Seems that photo-shopping is nothing new.
We’ve all seen the hieroglyphic panels showing slender-waisted queens performing sacrifices and six-pack toting kings battering their enemies with clubs. That’s the official story chiseled on the monument. But mummified remains don’t lie. And from what I’ve seen, some of those royals could have been buried in piano crates, if they’d had pianos back then.
Seems the Egyptian elite were saggy and in poor health. They had clogged arteries, arthritic knees, double chins. Just like us, they spent a lot of time sitting around and eating. I imagine that after a hard day of accepting tribute, passing judgement, reading entrails and checking on the progress of your latest statue, the average god-king liked to just kick back with a few friends, have a brew and consume an entire roasted crocodile.
But even then, they knew they were fat. So woe betide the artist who portrayed them in all their corpulent glory. In their portraits they are always young and taut. Some art historians try to tell us that was just the “style”, that the art was more “symbolic” and the figures were “architypes” not meant to be seen as realistic.
Bull hockey! You conquer a bunch of nations, haul back loads of booty, wield the power of life and death over an entire river valley AND speak with the gods? You’re simply not going to let some two-scarab scribe paint you with a beer belly!
Lots of people take lots of abuse because they’re afraid to stand up for themselves. I see this constantly in my practice. A parent, sibling, boss or even child will consistently display rude, insensitive and insulting behaviors which my clients feel helpless to rebuke. Usually there’s some sort of emotional blackmail going on.
For example, parents of adult children use the (alleged) inheritance as leverage to boss everyone around thus making the siblings compete for favor. Adult children also frequently use the grandchildren as leverage to make the parents obey. I hope to never again hear the phrase “She won’t let me see my grandkids!” wailed in my office. But I will.
And, of course, bosses are, at best, trying to get as much work as they can for as little pay as they can get away with. At worst, they are using their employees as guinea pigs on which to work out their own deep-seated emotional problems. Bullies never grow out of it. They just get jobs at the DMV.
Then there are the more public protesters. I’ve already made my views clear on when actors use getting an award as a platform to air grievances. (Though I’m tickled that Hollywood consistently makes a mess out of their biggest awards show of the year. And they supposedly know so much?)
So I’m always impressed when ordinary folks get together to protest something, basically because I’m too lazy to do it. I just write checks (and columns.) When I see news reports of people marching against social injustice on the streets of downtown Dallas, I'm never tempted to join in. What I think is “Where would I park?” and “Where would I find a restroom?”
What I NEVER think is, “A good way to protest this injustice would be to turn over a police car and set fire to a Starbucks.” It takes a professional rabble-rouser to come up with those techniques. And he would have answered my above questions by bringing me there on a bus and arranging for Port-A-Pottys.
The first lesson for everyone to learn is that you can’t change people’s behaviors. You might be able to influence them, but you can’t change them. You only control yourself. It can be scary, but the best way to deal with emotional blackmail is to call the offender’s bluff.
“Okay, write me out of the will. I’ll truly enjoy watching my meth-head brother blow through all the wealth you spent your entire lives amassing in less than a year. What a legacy!”
“Okay, don’t let me see my grandchildren. I’ll just save up all the money I was going to spend on their birthday and Christmas presents and treat myself to a spa vacation, since you won’t be counting on me to babysit anymore.”
What you don’t do is just take it. At least let the offenders know that what they’re saying or doing is hurtful and you don’t like it. Then ignore them or get another job.
As I’ve noted before, being a counselor in private practice is a lonely position. You rarely have anyone to talk to besides your clients. And, as busy as I am, it’s a special treat for me to even get lunch, much less share it with another practitioner. That’s why I usually jump at the chance to rub elbows with my colleagues.
Of course every time that happens, several things become painfully clear. 1) I’m old. 2) I need a haircut. 3) My clothes are five years out of date. (Okay, 10 years.) 4) I’m the only person in the D/FW area who wears earmuffs. Surrounded by a bunch of bouncy, fashionably-dressed 30-somethings gushing about “mindfulness” and “life coaching” I look like I’m only there to refill the water glasses.
The other day it occurred to me that I’m the Columbo of counselors. For those of you not as old as me, Columbo was a TV show from the 70s starring the wonderful character actor Peter Falk, may he rest in peace.
One of my favorite memories of childhood is watching TV with my dad. It began when I was six or seven and we would watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents on our tiny black-and-white TV. We progressed to watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show, MASH and both Bob Newhart comedies. But Columbo has a special place in our hearts.
He was a detective for the LAPD investigating crimes committed by the rich and famous. He would pull up to the mansion in a wheezing, primer-splotched 1959 Peugeot. He wore a baggy, stained trench coat, scuffed shoes, a loosened tie and a rumpled shirt that looked like it had never seen the inside of a dry cleaner’s.
When presenting himself at the door, a sneering maid or butler would direct him to the servant’s entrance in back. The mansion owners would display a similar expression of distaste. But, of course, they had to cooperate with the police in order to play the role of innocent victims, so they would welcome him in and patiently relate their well-rehearsed stories.
One of Columbo’s favorite ploys was to show up unannounced at some sparkling gala or country club banquet to go over “a few facts concerning the case” thus thoroughly embarrassing his suspects. And just when they thought they were finally rid of him, he would do an abrupt about-face to ask about “just one more thing” which would invariably punch a huge, gaping hole in their alibis.
Columbo always solved the crime because he was just wickedly smart and also because people underestimated him. They dismissed him as harmless, even pitiful and thus let their guards down. That’s me. I don’t want my clients to be so intimidated by my appearance and psycho-babble that they don’t feel comfortable opening up about their problems. How else can we work together?
And I’m pretty sure that if he hadn’t been working in balmy LA, Columbo would have worn earmuffs, too.
Psychology has always straddled an uncomfortable position somewhere between the “hard sciences” and the “liberal arts”.
On the science side, as much as the brain imagers try, they still haven’t been able to pin down an area of the brain responsible for any given thought pattern. And as hard as the gene splicers try, they still haven’t isolated a “depression gene”. (Despite what you might have read in the popular press.) None of the “scientific” studies are ever conclusive and just seem to raise more questions than they answer.
On the arts side, most of the psychological theories proposed over the years seem to have more to do with the personality of the individual therapist than with any real techniques. Once the “great man (or woman)” has passed on, other practitioners have a hard time carrying on the work. They invariably come up with a “new” theory based on THEIR personalities.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about other counselors is that they “just sat there and didn’t say anything”. Or, worse, “spent the whole time typing into the computer”. Believe it or not, there are theories that stipulate that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do. It’s a holdover from Freud’s “free association”. You let the client ramble and just add in a little “hmmm” or “tell me more about that” from time to time. Gradually they catch on.
On the other hand, I also get an earful about how the last counselor “just talked about herself and her problems” the entire time. This is known in the business as “self-disclosure” and it’s either the best or the worst thing you can possibly do, depending upon whom you ask.
Of course, the insurance companies demand “evidence-based interventions” which essentially means you walk your clients through a series of exercises and send them off with homework every week, despite the fact that nobody completes it. Then they hit you up with the greatest dodge ever concocted to deny more services:
If your client is getting better, he doesn’t need you anymore. And if he isn’t getting better, you aren’t helping and he doesn’t need you anymore. What’s a counselor to do?!
Well, as has been proven time and time again, no theory or treatment is really any better than the others. What does matter is a little thing we call “the therapeutic relationship”. In other words, how well do you and your counselor get along? Not just do you like him or her, but are you feeling better? There’s only one way to find out. Ask.
Inexperienced therapists invariably get frustrated when a client isn’t “making progress”. But it’s incredibly difficult to alter lifelong behavior patterns and multi-generational family dysfunction. Change is measured out in teaspoons, not bucketsful, and relapse is the rule rather than the exception.
But I believe in talk therapy. I see people get better every day. So I really don’t care how it works, just as long as it does.
The paradox of "children’s counseling” is that the ones I end up working with the most are their parents. This should come as no surprise because the bulk of counseling is teaching effective communication, whether with a single person trying to do better at work, a couple trying to stave off divorce, or a family caught up in the heck that is CPS and court-mandated therapy.
I face every call from CPS with a mixture of grief and relief. Grief that yet another family is enduring so much trauma. Relief that they’re going to be REALLY motivated to show up and the State is picking up the tab. Of course, that first appointment is always tough. Everyone’s upset, most of them don’t want to be there, and no one really believes I’ll be able to help. So the first thing I have to do is determine what’s going on. In the psych trade we use the term “the identified patient”. Families generally agree on just who “the problem” is, but, in another paradox, that person is usually not causing the upheaval. He’s just the one who’s reacting the most. He’s like the wet spot on your ceiling. You know there’s a leak somewhere on the roof, but exactly where is anyone’s guess. Just patch the ceiling and another drip will show up somewhere else.
Thus begins the slow and painful process of convincing people to let go of their old patterns of behavior and try something new. An example is parents who set ironclad rules (usually based on their own childhood experiences) and accept no variation based on the ages or circumstances of their children. Worse than that is parents who set rules which are only occasionally enforced.
I chuckle when I hear parents count. “Heathcliffe! Get over here now!” Heathcliffe knows that “now” can mean any time from “right this minute” to “never”, so he doesn’t move an inch. Parent starts counting. “One! Two! Heathcliffe you get over here now! Three! Four!.” I watch the child’s face as he gauges from his parent’s expression and tone what the magic number is this time.
In contrast, I tell parents to forget the counting. You give the kid one. “If you choose not to come over here right now, you choose to have no TV (or video game or ice cream) tonight.” Then for heaven’s sake stick to it! You only have to enforce the rule a few times before the kids learn you’re not messing around. You don’t have to yell or get mad. You just tell them how it’s going to be.
Ironically, children with firm, fair boundaries are happier and less anxious than the ones who get away with murder. Being the center of attention all the time is stressful. Never knowing when Mommy’s finally going to go ballistic is scary. Understanding the rules, and that they WILL be enforced, frees kids up to do what they do best – play, explore and have fun.
This is a possible answer to the question, “What happens when you drain the swamp?” Once the dark waters are siphoned off and the career politicians and all their lobbyists are sent home to look for real jobs, what’s left is a huge, soggy mass of red tape like the algal blooms that blow up periodically and suffocate every living thing.
With all the changes in the insurance industry, I’m getting to be an expert on red tape. It’s a truly remarkable substance capable of expanding a few keystrokes worth of data collection into a year-long ordeal of incompetence, generating reams of paper and uncounted hours of telephone time.
Case in point. Last April I started on the process of becoming a provider for a (government) health plan which shall remain nameless. I sent in the requisite forms and waited. And waited. Every phone call I made was 30 minutes of a recorded voice telling me how valuable my call was and that someone would be with me shortly. That someone invariably told me they had never heard of me and to send in more paperwork.
After several months someone actually looked at my paperwork and told me I had to go through “credentialing”. I asked how long that would take. Between three and six months. Now mind you, I’ve been a provider for a lot of insurance companies for almost ten years. And I’m part of an online credentialing service that checks all my references and licenses so other people don’t have to. Exactly what was going to take half a year to verify?
I gave up and wrote them off. The client I was trying to get approved for found someone else and I was pretty busy already. Then last week I got an encouraging fax asking me to re-date and initial a couple of pages of a contract and re-submit my service address. The same address I’ve had for over three years and was on all the piles of paperwork I had already sent in. No matter. I eagerly complied and faxed it off.
The next day I got an exasperated call from someone at the company telling me I had neglected to put my phone and fax number on the paper and that I needed to fax it in again. The tone of the voice mail suggested I was a complete idiot wasting their valuable time. I called back and left the following message.
“I got your call and I’m pretty confused as I’ve sent you this information half a dozen times and it hasn’t changed. The phone number is the one you called to leave your message, and the fax number is the one you faxed the documents to, so you obviously already know what they are. None the less, I will send you this information, again, when I get back to my office on Monday.”
Tell me again how national health is going to make everything so much better?
Lots of sad faces out there as of late. Winter blues, post-Christmas financial strain, election overload and just the accumulation of everyday stressors are turning our country into a cabin full of unhappy campers. I have to admit, I’ve been one of them. Fall-out from the end of NorthStar has impacted many of my clients leaving them, and my business, in the lurch. So after moping around for a few weeks, I decided to take action.
First order of business, turn off the TV. It’s amazing how a technology capable of bringing so many of us so much entertainment can end up making us so very unhappy and unhealthy. While an occasional session of binge-watching Snapped and Forensic Files might be okay, once it became a weekend staple, my mood began to slip and my waistline increase. Time to get off the couch.
Second order of business, turn off the computer. My kids already guilted me into getting off FaceBook and, for the most part, I haven’t missed it. But I still spend too much time reading internet news which is, at best, biased and possibly totally fake. (I’ve sort of given up trying to tell which.) I want to be informed, but I fail to see how it’s helping. It just polarizes everyone, getting us all upset about things we really have no control over.
Finally, spend more time outside. Whenever I do, I am amazed at the beauty and complexity of the world. And how it continues to slog along, day after day, without any help from anyone. There’s my pond which is finally full of water and wriggling with new life. There are the beautiful sunrises and sunsets that color the sky, and the antics of birds and animals going about the business of living.
I remember a documentary from years ago about birdwatching where they recorded bird songs in a field just miles from some military conflict. The commentator noted that the birds couldn't have cared less what we humans were doing. Despite the fact that our world was in a major tail spin, they were hopefully calling out for mates and building nests.
And I remember what Jesus said when his disciples were worried about dinner and staying warm overnight. If God makes sure the birds of the air have food and clothes the lilies of the field in gorgeous robes, how much more will he do for us? Sometimes you just have to let go and let God do his thing.
Not that I’m leaving it all to the Big Guy. I’m still going to fight insurance companies and try to find services for my displaced clients, but once I put down the phone, send off the fax or reply to the email, I’m going to stop worrying about it for the day. I have more important things to do, like being fully there for my clients during their challenges. And maybe, just maybe we CAN all just get along.
For Christmas, my husband spent $69.95 to have an Ancestry.com test kit sent my way. I provided the requisite amount of spit and waited. Meanwhile, the website deluged me with offers to trace my family and download old documents. So far I haven’t bitten, but we shall see. Then, I finally got notification that my results were ready.
I know from research done by other family members that we mostly come from England and Germany. But I had still hoped for some surprises. Maybe a little American Indian, Pacific Islander, or even Neanderthal made it into the mix? After all, there’s the official family story and then there’s what REALLY happened. (And DNA don’t lie!)
Anxiously I opened the link and soon realized that I have the most boring DNA in the world. It is 73% Great Britain, 20% Western Europe, and 7% other European. So basically, if you put your finger right on top of the English Channel on any globe, you’ve designated the approximate spot my ancestors have occupied since the last ice age.
Hopes of discovering royalty, intrepid explorers or even colorful rogues vanished the instant I saw that pie chart nearly filled with Great Britain. Now I wonder why I should even bother to get any of the other stuff. I can already tell you what it is. Generation after generation of bookish teachers and preachers sitting in the same place.
Of course, some of my ancestors had enough travel itch to come to America, but after that they pretty much stayed put. No heading off into the wilderness with a rucksack full of dried meat and trinkets for the natives. MY ancestors were more likely to wait until a rail line had been put through which could accommodate the hundreds of pounds of books we simply can’t face life without.
I know from recent family history that we had a few factory workers and even dirt famers in our lineage. But my people could never stay there long. Once given the opportunity, they headed off for the nearest college town where they preached or taught classes and collected books until they shuffled off this mortal coil.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being British. That little island dominated most of the known world a few centuries back. But once the daring ship captains had mapped the unknown and the tenacious merchants had set up outposts. Once the roads had been scraped out and some buildings erected, then and only then were people like my ancestors liable to show up (toting a load of books).
But couldn’t at least SOME of my family shown up in Hawai’i? Or Africa. Or the East Indies? No such luck! We went right from stagnating in the British Isles to stagnating in the USA. Here we became careful, cerebral citizens who didn’t make waves and only rarely reproduced. (My family reunion wouldn’t fill an average living room!) So sorry, Ancestry.com, I don’t think I’ll require any further services.
I hate it when performers step into the realm of politics. And I really hate it when they put on huge galas where they get all dressed up and give each other awards and then, instead of just being grateful to receive recognition for having what amounts to a pretty great job, they use the occasion to blast people they disagree with. (I’m talking to YOU Meryl!)
Now there’ve been a few performers who successfully made the transition to politician. Reagan and Schwarzenegger come to mind. But Arnold wasn’t ever really an “actor”. He came up through body-building competitions and pretty much always plays the same strong man character. And Ronald was just an extraordinarily decent and hard-working patriot who got into public office to actually SERVE the American people.
Contrast this to today’s crop of whiners. Anyone who hasn’t already seen it should watch the movie “Hail Caesar” for an idea of what entitlement and isolation can do to a person of (possibly less than) average intelligence, who just happens to be a big star. It’s pretty easy to decide how the masses should act when you’re safely ensconced behind the velvet rope.
You can jump into your private jet and swig champagne while burning up a bunch of fossil fuels to go protest the burning of fossil fuels in a country where most of the population still heats their meals with cow dung. Then you hop back on the jet confident that you’ve used your “platform” to improve the world.
“Scuse me, but you don’t have a “platform”. You only have the eyes and ears of the world because you ENTERTAIN us. Once you stop doing that, you’re nothing. All you really know how to do is act like someone else. And weren’t you supposed to be leaving the country in protest? (Maybe after the Oscars.)
Now I know that acting isn’t an easy job. But it also isn’t a normal job. These Hollywood elites are so far removed from the nine-to-five world that they have to take time off to study working people just to be able to play one in a movie. Then it’s off to the next role and the next awards show while their “adoring public” are still slogging through, paycheck to paycheck.
And then, every chance they get, they berate us little people for not buying into the utopian dream society they feel we would have it we just start being more tolerant and global. And if we could only make the rich pay more. (Hint to the A-List: You ARE the rich, and your studio heads are the ultra-rich!)
It is the ultimate hypocrisy. For example, they berate us for wanting a wall to protect us from the wholesale invasion of crime and poverty from south of the border, but they have no problem building walls around their compounds to keep out undesirables. In the end, all they do is talk the talk. (Or read the script.)
Now that I’m counseling more children, I’ve become more convinced that personality is established very early in our development. Kids just seem to come into the world with a temperament that changes very little throughout the lifetime. And as every parent is painfully aware, you never know what you’re going to get.
We do our best to provide our kids with what they need in the way of physical and emotional support. We try to impart our values and knowledge. We guide and advise. But what we get for all our effort is basically a toss-up. Every day I see people who grew up in horrible dysfunction but somehow rose above it. I see others who came from secure, nurturing homes who just can’t seem to do right. I think it comes down to a basic division between workers and sliders.
The workers seem to instinctively understand that they need to take responsibility for their own lives. They finish school, get jobs, save money and, in general, get along. The sliders, in contrast, look for others to care for them. They’re constantly in need of rescue in the form of money, housing, transportation and emotional support. While the workers move up, there is really only one way to slide. Downhill.
You can try your hardest, but there just doesn’t seem to be any way to convince a slider to get to work. He (or she) might get serious for a while, but soon enough he’s out of a job and looking for help. For reasons that are never HIS fault, he always needs another chance, a leg up, a fresh start. But no matter how many times you provide it, it never sticks. Soon he’s back with another story and his hand out.
So what do you do when you end up with a slider? You learn to say, “No”. And when you’re saying that to someone you really love, like your own child, it can be heart-breaking. You turn him down, he walks away, and you worry yourself sick. You obsess and second-guess. You feel like the worst parent ever.
But the worst thing you can do is give in. It’s like when your toddler throws a temper tantrum. If you eventually give him what he wants, you’ve just taught him that all he has to do is yell long enough and you’ll fold like a house of cards. You’ve just started him on his path to learned helplessness. Fast forward 15 years and there’s your slider.
Sometimes sliders spontaneously snap out of it. But usually they just burn up every bridge they have and, finally thrown back on their own resources, they’re forced to get to work. What a waste of everyone’s time! One of the beauties of play therapy is that it encourages children to be independent and to solve their own problems. It can help, but sometimes you end up with a slider anyway.