Adjusting to the Coronavirus Crisis

Photo credit: Adam and Krisdee Donmoyer

Funny I should have written my most recent blog about First You Adjust, Then You Readjust, Then You Maladjust. I clearly had no idea what was just over the horizon.
Last week, I received a phone call on Tuesday from one of my very best friends, telling me her mother was in hospice. Then on Wednesday, I went with her to see her mother, and as my friend and her sister and I were talking, we heard background noise on TV about the coronavirus pandemic, causing COVID-19. This wasn’t the first I had heard about the pandemic, but in my mind it brought this issue marginally closer to my actual life. It was affecting people in Europe, and people on cruise ships. And we casually speculated as to why it got its start in China. The next day, Thursday, my friend’s mother passed away, and news of the pandemic had already sped up to the point where I was unsure if it would be wise to attend her service that was scheduled eight days off.
That Sunday, my husband and I went for a late breakfast at our local Tee Jaye’s and were met with a bunch of teary-eyed waitstaff who had just been informed that all restaurants were closing at 9:00 that evening. Kind of a shock when less than a week prior, everything looked pretty normal.
In regards to my business, I have switched to offering to counsel my clients by phone or FaceTime, and may also look to internet sites that are HIPAA-compliant. While it is good to have alternatives to face to face counseling, I do not see these as adequate substitutes. I have spoken out before about the importance of face to face counseling, except when there is no other option. The alternatives are less problematic once a relationship has been established, but they still fall short.
A very trite expression keeps running through my mind: Buckle up, Buttercup! We are about to go through some very interesting times. And it may be rough on the state of our mental health.
To date, most of my clients have opted to reschedule appointments for later, partly because this crisis has created such havoc in their own schedules that they cannot keep their original appointments anyway. But my feelings will not get hurt if someone says “I will just wait till you are ready to see me face to face again, Thank you.” After all, that personal touch has been a point of pride for me.
I realize that there is as yet no order for mental health facilities to close down. This is a personal decision, based partly on having a spouse who could suffer horribly if he became infected, and partly on my learning over the years that when we vaccinate or take other similar measures, it is not just ourselves we are protecting: It is for the benefit of anyone who may come in contact with us.
What to do with this extended crisis time? Some among us will be working about five times more and harder than usual—medical personnel, delivery people, policy makers…while many others will have unexpected time on our hands. Everyone needs to come to their own conclusions, but I will share one thing that helped me several years ago during an extended period of unemployment. First, every day, I had a time set to get up whether I needed to or not, to reinforce the importance of a schedule. And secondly, every day I had a goal. It could be unbelievably trivial, such as Make sure there is enough orange juice. But it was important to me that when I went to bed one night, I had some goal in mind for the following day. We do, after all, need to feel we matter, that there is significance to what we do.
Some of you will journal, some of you will blog, some of you will keep your thoughts to yourselves. But once we get to the other side of this, I will be curious to hear what works for many of you. I will be curious to hear what best sustained your mental health through what promises to be a rather drawn-out crisis.

First You Adjust, Then You Readjust, Then You Maladjust

Frustrated

First you adjust, then you readjust, then you maladjust. This is a phrase I heard often during my Al-Anon years, when I was attending that group in order to cope with my then-situation of having a spouse who drank too much. That phrase has stuck with me through the years and throughout numerous situations. It does not apply only to living with or loving an alcoholic. It also applies to abusive situations, and to many of the frustrating situations that life just has a habit of doling out.
When it comes to abuse, a common pattern is that things get worse by inches. First might be a dirty look when you speak a little too freely for the other person’s taste. Next might be the person “forgetting” things that matter to you, followed by a complete discounting. No one ever say “Gee, I think I’ll find someone to smash my face into the wall,” but anyone familiar with the dynamics of domestic abuse is well aware that this is a common outcome after a gradual escalation of disrespectful behaviors.
This also applies if you have a job situation that has turned sour. Many jobs start out well, till the company gets bought out and/or a new boss gets brought in. Or maybe it’s just a change in staff over time. It is confusing to think this same place you loved to show up at in the morning has become a place you dread. And figuring out exactly when that changed can be difficult, but with enough hindsight it can usually be done.
Or, maybe you are living in a neighborhood you love, where your children grew up and you have many fond memories. Maybe this neighborhood is held together by the large number of retired couples who live there. They always opened their doors to you and your children, and you cannot imagine ever leaving. Then one of these retired couples moves into assisted living, the widow next door dies…and on it goes till these people who were the backbone of the neighborhood have mostly disappeared. Next thing you know, some of the places have boarded-up windows, and you feel more like you just woke up in a foreign country.
You could choose to readjust by sticking around and working hard toward bringing the neighborhood back to a home you are proud to claim. Or you could decide to leave, to cut your losses. Or maybe you keep hanging on in hopes something will magically happen to improve things. Meantime, there is a risk you may maladjust, in the sense of getting used to a bad situation even though it could be changed. Of the three, the maladjustment seems most tempting, because there is no effort involved. However, it is not very rewarding.
Facing these decisions is never easy. Sometimes there is nothing we can do in an adverse situation besides cope. You may find a way to continue a relationship with an abuser because your life will be even worse if you don’t; maybe you stick it out with the job that has turned sour because other options are worse; or your attachments to the neighborhood make it worth putting up with the deterioration. The problem comes when you accept these situations as normal, not when you take a hard look and decide to stick it out. Acceptance of the unacceptable is one definition of maladjustment.

The Game of Corner

feeling cornered?

feeling cornered

Dr. Eric Berne, M.D. wrote a book back in 1964 called Games People Play, introducing the concept of Transactional Analysis (the parent, adult, and child ego states) and breaking a lot of problems down into the playing of games.  In these games, the rules are known only to the instigator, who may change those rules at a whim.  The point of his book was to encourage the rest of us to recognize how we were being manipulated, and to call the game.  

Dr. Berne died in 1970, at the age of 60; I suspect had he had a longer life, we would be hearing a lot more about his theories.  When his book first came out, my mother latched onto it like she had just discovered a lifeboat.  I suspect she was more enamored of psychology than I gave her credit for at the time.  Or she was feeling manipulated by someone in her life and loved that this famous psychiatrist had that someone’s nonsense pegged.  Whatever the reasons, I ultimately found myself also drawn to his theories.  If you pick the book up today, you will find a familiar ring to the games he cites:  “Look what you made me do,” “Let’s you and him fight,” “Corner”…. My focus today will be on “Corner”.

I have seen and heard about this game played so many times in so many ways, yet it is almost always successful in frustrating the mark/target or the person against whom this game is being played.  Essentially, if you are the target in a game of Corner, there is nothing you can do that will be right.

The game of corner involves constantly changing the rules, and never clearly stating what those rules actually are.  One example would be a person who complains because dinner is served too late for their liking, so you manage to serve it a half hour earlier the next night and they complain it was too early.

We all know of the person who complains because the house is a mess, then when you go on a cleaning binge the problem suddenly becomes that you are too busy with the house to pay attention to the people in it.  Others will berate you for not having pets, then complain about how those same pets they couldn’t live without—are such a nuisance.

Weight issues are a great platform for a game of corner.  Your partner complains about the healthy meals you serve, to the point where you say “Okay, then you do the cooking.”  They do, gleefully, substituting lots of fried food served with potatoes and gravy for the “boring” low-fat meals of salmon, baked chicken, and assorted fresh vegetables.  This is likely to result in you gaining weight, and they have you right where they want you:  in a corner.

How do you win at this game?  You don’t.  You recognize that you are being played, and you do whatever it is you wanted to do in the first place, without regard to the opinion of this person who has been calling the shots.

This is how you take your life back.

Ruth Van Wormer, a Friend of a Different Generation

Ruth and her husband Marvin

Ruth and Marvin Van Wormer

Ruth Van Wormer was the mother of my best friend Jo, and Ruth was a best friend of a different generation.  Her house was the kind of place we all wanted to spend as much time as possible.  Her husband Marvin was one of the dearest men you could ever hope to meet, a conscientious objector who did alternative service during World War II.  He was a researcher in the Minnesota Starving Study.  This study involved research toward the end of the war, dedicated to figuring out how to feed the large number of people in Europe who were perilously close to starvation  For the rest of his life, Marvin could not stand to see food go to waste.

Ruth was the world’s best cook, bar none.  (My apologies to anyone else whose cooking I also love.)  We could appear by surprise at dinnertime, and she would come up with a delightful meal on the spur of the moment.  She also sewed all manner of clothing and decor, including a wedding dress for a classmate of Jo’s who proceeded to elope before the dress was finished.  (The marriage didn’t last much longer, as I recall.)  She must have sewn Jo’s wedding dress too, though I honestly cannot recall.  She was a master at knitting and needlepoint.  I still have the knitting needle case she needlepointed during her best years.

Helen Winnemore’s, a long-established shop in the German Village area of Columbus, was the beneficiary of her love for artistic paraphernalia.  Her children and then her grandchildren inherited some wonderful decor, and can think of her every time they look toward those items.

And what a conversationalist!  She was so wise, and versed in so many topics.  When I called to talk to my age-mate Jo, there were times I almost wished Jo would not be there, because I would wind up having about a 20-minute fascinating conversation with Ruth.  

As the adoptive mother of her two children, Ruth became an outspoken advocate for all children.  She was an integral part of the team that started the day care center at North Broadway United Methodist Church, which is still thriving today.  She told me with pride how one mother came to them explaining that she and her husband had checked out 17 day care centers, and if her child could not be accepted that that particular one, she would not be returning to work.  The other 16 just didn’t meet this mother’s standards.

Ruth left this world so many years ago that I cannot recall the exact year, though I can pinpoint it to the early 1990s.  Her husband and her daughter Jo followed during the ensuing years.  I miss them all.

There was one problem that hung over Ruth for most of her life, one that made many people instantly think less of her.  She never could manage her weight.  This beautiful woman suffered so badly due to body image issues.  Her doctor was always telling her that if she didn’t lost weight, it would be an early grave for her.  She lived into her 80s, so I am guessing she won that argument.

In her later years, Ruth had a smaller appetite, and a smaller body.  In those years she looked frail to me; it just always felt like Ruth’s previous set point was the weight she was intended to be.  However anyone chooses to regard her weight, it did nothing to detract from the beautiful person she was, inside and out.  It did nothing to detract from the powerful positive influence she had in so many lives.  It took nothing from who and what she was.

But it brought her underserved sadness and frustration.

My hope is that we can one day—soon, I hope—live in a world where people come in all shapes and sizes and everyone can just be the size they are.

Time to Talk Politics

Angry Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi yelling at Donald Trump

Yup, it’s time to talk politics.  I have studiously avoided political blog posts, because I would like to think that is not the main reason anyone comes in for counseling.  And I have zero interest in changing anyone’s views on the subject.  Yet it has become so overwhelming in the past couple of years, that I feel a need to address it.  Mostly, people come into my office with whatever issues they are dealing with at the time, and those issues tend to mostly not be politically based.  By the time a client has completed whatever therapy they have come in for, I usually have no clue what that client’s political leanings are.  And that is fine.

Unfortunately, though, with the current administration, it is being reported by many therapists that their business has taken a leap due to the problems people are suffering as a result of the political fallout.  People suffering from sexual abuse problems are being triggered by constantly seeing images of a chief executive who has been credibly accused by several women of exactly that.  Those who have concerns about immigration issues are inundated with images and information about families being forcibly separated at the border, then confined in for-profit prisons with a history of abuse.  And the children involved will suffer lifelong trauma.  A number of those children will never be reunited with their parents, since there was initially not even a good system to identify which child belonged with which family.  Rising inequality has reached even greater heights than before.  The LGBTQ rights that were so hard fought for, are now under threat.  That is only a smattering of the issues, and for many these issues make day to day life much more difficult.  In a number of cases, these ongoing issues lead to huge feelings of helplessness.  At best, they are constant background noise for those of us who are outraged.  And yes, I am outraged.

When I was in graduate school, we were encouraged to avoid discussing politics with our clients.  That was post-9/11, barely; I actually started grad school one week before that attack.  So, post-9/11, but before we ever dreamed this country could face the issues we are facing today.  I grew up in somewhat of a golden era, and could not imagine that things would not continue that way indefinitely.  Consequently, I was gobsmacked.

During previous eras that involved conflict, people found ways to go on with life despite the conflicts and/or stresses, and they will do the same today.  There will be those among us who devote every spare minute to activism, others will do their best to bury their heads in the sand, and most of us will fall somewhere in between.  But it adds an extra layer of stress for just about everyone.

In the event it matters to you, you now know where I stand.  If you are asking me to cheerlead for our current administration, you have come to the wrong place.  If you want to process your own personal issues with me, you have come to the right place.  And if you are one who is bothered by today’s political scene—we will not solve that in therapy, but you can at least feel secure I the knowledge that my sympathies are with you.

Respect for Children’s Boundaries

Determination

Don’t mess with me

At a baby shower I attended recently, I made the remark “Kids can have boundaries” and was met with “Well, duh!” No, I did not feel insulted; I felt encouraged. After all, I came of age in an era when children’s boundaries were not given the respect they deserved. Though my own family fortunately did not follow this pattern, it was not at all uncommon to see a young child publicly instructed “Give your grandpa a kiss,” or “Give your Aunt Helen a hug.” There was no thought that the child had any say in the matter.
Yes, I realize children are not entitled to free rein in whatever they do: They are children, after all. But among the zillion things we do expect these same children to accomplish before they come of age, is the concept of saying No to unwanted touching and/or sexual advances. It does make more sense, it seems clear enough to me, to start this training early, to encourage our children to develop an awareness of what these boundaries mean to them. That includes saying Yes or No to the same person at different times, depending on their feelings at the time.
Can you imagine a world where there is never an implication that “This person said Yes to me last week, so of course I just assumed they were okay with having sex the next time I was interested”? Or a world where there was no Incel movement because there was no feeling of entitlement to hear the word Yes just because?
I am so encouraged to see the awareness that has developed in the past couple of decades—not just regarding overtly sexual behavior but also anything that makes a person uncomfortable. One boundary violation that did occasionally occur in my childhood was excessive tickling. “Look, she’s laughing so she must like it” was the general attitude. Laughter in response to ticking is a reflexive response; it does not necessarily indicate pleasure. That helpless feeling when you are being held down and tickled is not something I would ever want to repeat. It bothered me to the point that, once I was raising my own child and he would actually ask me to tickle him, I could not bring myself to do it. Too many memories of how helpless that once made me feel.
What better training can we give our youngest generation, than to simply say “Would you like a hug?” and for that child to know we will accept their answer without complaint. We are no more entitled to hugs from every child we think is cute, than any of us are to sexual favors from other adults we may be attracted to.
Of course there are all manner of non-physical boundaries too, which are a topic for another day. It is one area where I have witnessed a major increase in awareness, along with a need to start teaching that respect for both self and others at an early age. That is some progress I can get behind.

Paying It Forward Matters

supportive

Hand in Hand

I once bought my father a plaque that said “Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” Bringing sunshine into the lives of others, paying it forward…however you word it, it refers to passing along the good we receive in this world. I have always been a fan of the concept, since long before we used that phrase.
In my years as a younger single mom, my parents helped out in so many ways, and I felt so bad that there was no way I could ever repay them. I was told “Just pass it along” and I took that suggestion very seriously. That likely has a lot to do with my choosing to work in the counseling profession once I had the opportunity. Years earlier, a good friend of mine who was a career social worker told me “You are already doing this for free; you might as well get the education so you can get paid for it.”
One of my own personal ways to pay it forward, was to provide a listening ear whenever people came to me with their problems. And I tried to always have a kind word, to offer some encouragement. I didn’t always follow up with these people—who can, really?—but I felt it was safe to assume they would pass on kindness to others in whatever ways they saw fit.
So imagine my horror when I saw the results of a couple of my “projects” and the people “paid forward” more bad than good. It felt like my best efforts had just gotten sucked into a black hole! I am not sure I realized prior to that, how very important this concept is.
Not to worry. In the scheme of things I would consider it a mere annoyance. And I would likely go to similar efforts even if I could foresee that negative end result. It was a good lesson in doing what feels honorable and then letting the chips fall where they may.
After all, there are way too many extreme examples of people doing the right thing and never seeing it paid forward in their lifetimes, sometimes for nefarious reasons. One prime example is Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands during the later stages of World War II, and later died in a concentration camp. He of course saw that he was saving lives at an unprecedented rate, but in the chaos of the war he probably was seldom able to learn the final outcomes of his heroism. Yet the results of that heroism will benefit many in generations to come, and I am trusting that many others will feel the need to live a good life as a testament to his moral courage.
I do like to believe that the goodness we all spread in this world will be multiplied, that there won’t be someone—or at least there won’t be too many people—putting a stopper in it and deciding the giving ends with them. Maybe I will do well to hold onto that belief. Because being kind to others feels so good, and being unkind feels so awful—that I am way too selfish to change my ways.
That’s right. I do these things because I am selfish. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s a good kind of selfish, in my humble opinion.
And you know what? Someone who behaved badly in the past could accidentally turn their life around. There is always that hope.

Arguing in Public

Arguing couple

Couple arguing

Have you ever been in a public place, having a pretty good time while minding your own business, and the peace was shattered by a couple people, or maybe an entire group, breaking into a boisterous argument?  Did you ever wonder why they didn’t keep it private?

I have come to the conclusion that there are actually times when keeping arguments in the public eye serves a purpose—sometimes a protective one. 

There is at least one valid reason for being very public with arguments, and I was recently exposed to that scenario.  I was walking out of a steakhouse in the middle of the afternoon and a woman zipped past me.  A couple minutes later I realized she was being followed by the man she had apparently gone in with.  Let’s call them Hannah and Fred.

Hannah kept Fred in her sights at all times, would not turn her back on him, and—notably—she would not go indoors with him.  (It was maybe 80 degrees outside and sunny, so no danger from the weather.)  As I walked into a store, they were facing each other down, probably eight feet apart.  I overheard Hannah’s “No way am I going to get in that truck with you.  You’re crazy!”

When I came out a few minutes later, they were still arguing.  Their expressions showed that not much had changed, though Fred was apparently beginning to realize that something had to shift or Hannah was going nowhere with him.  By the time I started to drive away, they were actually walking side by side.  They looked none too happy but at least he appeared to have calmed down enough that she probably felt safe to get into his truck.

Safety:  That is a reason some fights are kept public instead of private.  It would likely not be recommended by Miss Manners, but it does take priority over courtesy.  There can be a benefit to staying highly visible.

When I was a child, one of the first safety rules I learned was “Do not get into a car with a stranger.”  I recall once walking to school in the rain, and a sweet-looking elderly couple offered me a ride, to which I of course said “No, thank you.”  These people were probably exactly the dear hearts they appeared to be, but it had been ingrained in me to not put myself into such a vulnerable position.

Once we grow up and start developing relationships with other adults, we sometimes forget to protect ourselves in that same way.  They are not strangers, we think, and we then hop into the car with someone who is familiar but may not be trustworthy.  And of course sometimes the greatest danger comes from the very person we have come to love, who has become our most intimate partner before we see the dangerous side of him or her.

Safety planning can be very involved.  Part of it comes from observing and knowing what to expect of that person we have come to fear.  Hannah knew, do not get into a vehicle with Fred while he is still hot under the collar.  Once he has calmed down, it may be okay.

Hannah has also realized, it is far better to be publicly embarrassed than it is to risk being in a moving vehicle with Angry Fred, and to be out of public view and therefore have no chance that anyone can intervene in her behalf.

At least that is my best guess; I haven’t confirmed this with Hannah.

Witnesses can be a very good thing.

Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

photo credit Marcea Lancu

Credit: Marcea Lancu

Cognitive dissonance is often used to call attention to something we would really prefer to ignore.  Have you ever listened to someone prattle on about the partner who is “ever so loving” except when they are threatening your friend’s safety or emptying their bank account?  Or when they are belittling a friend?  To the point where you are ready to say “Well, you say this person loves you.  Is that behavior loving?”  And you of course hope this cognitive dissonance will get your friend thinking about whether this is truly a beneficial relationship.  It is definitely useful, and we need to pay close attention to it.

But there is another type of cognitive dissonance that we also find difficult to process, and that is when someone who may not be so close to you has such diametrically opposed qualities that you are unsure what to think.  I once had a young neighbor who was in trouble at school pretty much all the time.  His mother’s excuse-making didn’t make it likely that these problems would end any time soon.  And yet—one day this same young neighbor noticed fire coming from the exhaust of a school bus, and he was the one who raced to the front and banged on the door, hard, to get those kids out safely.  Not the kind of heroism we would expect from “Mr. I’m Always in Trouble at School,” right?  But the reality is, both can be true.

Famously, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame) was a walking contradiction.  He initially brought Jewish people into his factory during World War II for the free labor, then wound up protecting those same people from being deported to extermination camps.  During this entire time, he was a member of the Nazi party.  His life after World War II was reportedly a mess.  All of these things are true, and for approximately 1,000 Jewish people and their descendants—these people would likely not even exist had it not been for Oskar Schindler’s virtues.

Realistically, none of us is as consistent as we would like to believe.  If we feel our past is shameful, we can decide on a better future as opposed to labeling ourselves and giving up.  The good we do need not be negated by whatever preceded it.  We might even devote significant time to making amends.

Most of us tend to seek a certain degree of consistency in our lives.  And part of that consistency can involve putting people in categories with the hope of knowing what to expect from them.  My own experience leads to me believe that few of us are that totally predictable.  There are some things we can count on:  People who go out of their way to be kind will continue to do so, chronic liars and thieves are unlikely to suddenly grow a conscience about their behavior.  And people and life will continue to surprise us.

Parenting – It’s Not a Competition

Kelsey 2019 w dog

Photo Credit:  Anna Dobbs Applebaum

Parenting – It’s not a competition.  What a concept, I know.  Yes, it is a huge undertaking, and yes it is critical to how your children turn out, how they feel secure and loved (or not), whether they grow up with good physical and mental health.  Of course it matters.  Every bit of it matters.  But so many parents see only their mistakes, and spend far too much time beating themselves up over every single one.

I was at a training recently that discussed attachment, among other things.  It has long been known that infants and young children decide whether the world is a safe place, based largely on how their caregivers respond to their needs.  Luckily, most of them decide it is a safe place and go on to live fulfilling lives.

But here is the part that was new and intriguing to me:  Those slight breaches, the times when a parent or other caregiver is distracted or sad or angry—when the parent reaches out again, comforts the child, heals the breach—some breaches are actually beneficial to the parent-child relationship, because the healing is part of the connection.  And without those breaches, what would there be to heal from?  (Okay, I am talking minor breaches, not outright abuse or neglect; that is critical here.)

When my son was tiny, I had a wonderful friend Beth who had a Masters degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key—all the trappings of extreme intelligence and accomplishment.  Beth told me something I will never forget:  The most important thing you can give your children is You.  Yes, You.  Another parent might make more homemade goodies, keep a cleaner house, give the best birthday parties…and that is great.  But that is them, and that is how they bond with their own children.

You have no need to compete.  Hug your children.  Listen to them.  Help them process their emotions, I’m really big on that one.  Compliment them.  Protect them.  Help them feel loved.  If your children feel loved, they are likely to see you as the best parent in the world.  (At least when they are little; teen years may be a bit more challenging.)  Those are the things that will bond you to them.  Doing your best is important; trying to measure up to the standards you think others set is not.

My wonderful friend Becca MacDowell told me a great story about comparing yourself to others.  Becca was a single mom raising two young children, working full time, and had pretty much given up on her attempts to attend college classes in the midst of all that.  She turned on the TV and watched an episode about a single mother of four who had decided to become a doctor.  Of course Becca felt totally inferior, having given up on college courses with “only” two children to raise.  She watched the entire episode, feeling worse at every turn while this woman was regaled for her tenacity.

Then at the end of the show, guess what?  It was casually mentioned that during this entire period of Mom’s medical schooling, she had turned over total custody and care of her children to her mother/their grandmother.  Kind of obliterates the whole story line of raising four children while you pursue a dream, doesn’t it?

The point being, we don’t know anyone’s whole story but our own.  Comparisons can be very destructive.  Are you supportive?  Do you do your best?  Are you there for your children?  

Give yourself a little credit, okay?