Abuse Isn’t Always Ended By Leaving

Upset baby

Suffering child

“Just leave!” It’s that simple, right? Wrong. Approximately 50 percent of women who are murdered by their partners are in the act of leaving or have left within the past few months. Fortunately, most abusive situations do not end so tragically, but it should be very clear that leaving does not necessarily end abuse. Sometimes that abuse is actually exacerbated. This especially applies if you are dealing with someone whose attitude may be “Oops, I can’t hit them any more. Guess I’ll have to start dragging them into court instead.”
The Power and Control Wheel has been well publicized for several years, highlighting patterns of abusive behavior. Seek out any web site for abuse victims and you will find that wheel prominently displayed. What is less known, and far more recent, is the Post Separation Power and Control Wheel. A huge portion of that wheel involves using children as pawns in order to further inflict harm on a mom or a dad who simply wants to be a good parent, to proceed without interference.
I have seen the court system used to exact revenge on people who exercised their right to leave. The very system that is charged with watching out for the best interest of the children, sometimes winds up unwittingly doing the opposite. Parents who previously had no interest in their own children suddenly start petitioning for shared parenting, or even sole custody. This despite the children being attached to the other parent and thriving under that parent’s care. I do not oppose shared parenting; I have seen children thrive in such situations. But it only works when both parents are invested in its success.
According to world-renowned expert Lundy Bancroft, abusive fathers petition for custody at approximately double the rate of non-abusive fathers. This makes perfect sense to me: A non-abusive father who is concerned about his children’s situation will also consider the implications of subjecting these same children to a court proceeding. That father is likely to proceed only if the situation is dire enough to justify involving the children in litigation. That father may say, “Gee, I don’t much like my ex-wife’s new husband and neither do my kids, but he pretty much stays out of the way and he treats my ex well.” That same father is more likely to petition for a change in custody only if he has reason to feel the children are being directly harmed: If the children report missing school because the stepfather and mother are too absorbed in arguments to get them on the bus, or if the mother and/or stepfather drink to excess on a nightly basis and keep the children awake far past midnight, or if there is never enough food in the house…and children are of course in obvious danger in the event there is physical or sexual abuse.
If a noncustodial parent cares about the children’s welfare, that parent will first attempt to mitigate any negative effects from the children’s home environment. Extra court involvement will be saved as a last resort. And yes, that does sometimes need to be done.
The abusive father or noncustodial mother, on the other hand, might think nothing of filing an emergency ex parte motion to have a child immediately removed from that child’s home pending a court hearing, sometimes even inventing false accusations, in order to hurt the other parent. It bothers the abuser not at all that the child also suffers.
The court system should not be used to continue the abuse long after the victim has left. I would love to see every domestic judge in the country become educated and aware, and earn to use their power to stop this. I know, laws have to change, and it will be an extensive process. But until that happens, too much power will rest in the hands of those who intend harm. Does anyone seriously believe that is in the best interest of the children?

P.S. I tried to post the Post Separation Power and Control Wheel, by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, in Duluth MN, and couldn’t.  If you are interested, you can find it with the keywords Post Separation Power and Control Wheel.

Tattoos and Their Context

bird and empty cage

tattoos as body art

I grew up in an era when tattoos were basically verboten; at least they were severely frowned on in polite company.  The only way anyone of my acquaintance had tattoos was if they had been in the Navy or in prison.  Body art was totally looked down on.  So you can imagine my surprise when it became mainstream.  And it is not just younger people who are utilizing these services.

With the increase in tattooing, there has been a corresponding increase in the quality of tattoos that are available.  Competition among professional tattoo artists today is to do the best job, to show the world that you can be counted on to produce a quality product.  And to do it with clean needles and good quality ink, of course.

There are specialists who volunteer their time to alter tattoos the client has become ashamed of, such as white supremacy symbols, to turn them into angels or other equally pleasant and inoffensive symbols.  Some use tattoos to aid in adjustments to body issues, such as decorating a mastectomy scar and the surrounding area with the beauty of a well considered image—something meaningful to the recipient.  Some do not decorate so much as tattoo an image of the nipple that was surgically removed.  These all strike me as incredibly therapeutic.

Tattooing is no longer the result of someone’s poor decision making while drunk and in a blackout.  (Or at least that is how people explained bad tattoos back in the day.)

I still don’t have any tattoos and probably never will.  But that is no longer out of an aversion to the practice.  So many years have passed without my body being inked, and I have dealt with enough bodily changes as it is.  But my attitude toward others getting them has changed dramatically.  Sometimes clients explain to me the significance of their tattoos and it helps me to better understand their situation.

And sometimes I just enjoy good art, whatever the canvas.

Here is what came as a shocker:  For some individuals, these tattoos have a dual purpose.  The pain involved in the tattooing process sometimes satisfies the desire a person might have to cut or otherwise self-injure.  Who’d a’ thunk it?  It it socially accepted, no one labels you crazy, and you get to choose a nice design and decide where you want it on your body—sort of a permanent monument to overcoming your emotional suffering.

Note that I am not taking a stand on this; it’s just an observation.  But it does seem to help some people avoid self-injury.

Now if only we can have a world with so little emotional pain that there is no temptation to inflict physical pain on oneself for relief.  If we can have a world in which people only get tattoos because they are eager to use their bodies as a canvas, to display their most meaningful art.

Politics in Everyday Life

protest sign in crowd

protest: We Are Better…

Having grown up in a very political family, I often tried to downplay the issue of politics. Then I came to the realization that it really cannot be avoided. Moral issues tend to have a political side to them, as was present to us so dramatically in the recent crisis of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border of this country. Just about every professional organization weighed in on that—including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychological Association, numerous medical and pediatric associations…you name it. None of these associations exists for political purposes, but in this case there was no denying the link.
Prior to becoming licensed as an LPCC, I did my internship with adopted children who had attachment issues, which are most commonly caused by abuse or neglect in the first two or three years of life. Children with this disorder tend to be indiscriminate in who they will show affection to, many of them will tell obvious lies with a straight face, pit their parents against one another, manipulate situations, and demand control at all times simply for the sake of control. Why? Those early years are when they decide if the world is a safe place. Though all parents and caregivers make mistakes, the generally healthy pattern for an infant is that when the child cries or shows distress, at least one adult attempts to comfort that child, to meet whatever need arises, be it food, changing, or simply wanting to be held. This comfort has recently been snatched from so many of these younger migrant children.
The older children are unlikely to develop Reactive Attachment Disorder, but they will have long-lasting symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. We did this to them. I don’t mean you and I individually, but we are part of the country that did this to them.
And this is very political. Very.
Though I have no intention of engaging clients in political discussions, sometimes the problems that bring them into my office have a political basis. Women’s equality, domestic abuse, GLBTQIA issues, racial and religious differences, the views of different cultures, working with the differently-abled such as children with autism or extreme Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or with physical problems, listening to someone who is wrangling with obtaining much-needed healthcare while every other developed country has universal health care…How can this not be political?
You may go to demonstrations and call your congressional representatives or you may not. I don’t care. But I can no longer pretend that it is possible to go through life on this earth without being political in some way.
I have exactly zero interest in making any attempt to change your party affiliation or your political views. And I will hold firmly to my own, which are intricately connected to my own moral center.

Reporting Sexual Assault

What I have to say does not apply only to sexual assault; the principles apply more widely than that. But it is the focus.
Filing a complaint about sexual assault is scary; as making noise about any way you have been offended against can also be. At best it is a nuisance; at worst, you get to go on trial, in a sense, as if the whole thing was your fault. Actually it can get worse than that. You can get hostile questions and then have to go out into a world that feels perfectly free to intimidate and threaten you because you opened your mouth instead of keeping it shut.
I wish it was easier, because way too often the onus is on the wrong party. But it’s not. Reality steps in, in the sense that we have to live in this world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. (We can work to change it, though; that is an option.)
You have no doubt already said “Stop that” or “That’s not okay” to the offender, as well as attempting to physically fight that person off. Maybe you bargained with them to get them to leave you alone. Now it is time to bring in backup in a sense, to decide whether to involve someone else, someone with a bit more authority.
Law enforcement is frequently involved. Unless you are dealing with an exceptionally astute officer, there is a very good chance they will just sit on the report unless the offender has a record of convictions, or unless you can present some physical or witness evidence,
At this point, please do not give up. Please be aware that you may well be the first person to complain about this particular offender. But guess what: If you don’t report an offense, then it legally never took place. So please consider reporting it anyway. If you can bring yourself to. Because people seldom offend only once. There will likely be another victim, and another…And sooner or later, someone with enforcement powers will have to pay attention, someone will have to realize that two or three or 20 people are unlikely to maliciously concoct the same story about the same person.
If you can find the courage, think seriously about making sure there is a paper trail. It took decades with Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, but the attention those cases eventually garnered will likely make future reports more likely to be attended to. Hopefully.

No You Are Not Crazy

Happy does not equal crazy

I’m not crazy; I am joyous, and different

Since I don’t know you, or at least I don’t know everyone reading this page, maybe I should qualify that. Because yes, some people are truly crazy. But not most. And my office sees absolutely its fair share of patently not-crazy people, who just need a chance to spout off. It is not unusual for me to hear “If my favorite uncle was still alive…” or a cousin, or a grandparent, or a best friend. Often, people come into my office just wanting that chance to spout off. Or to tell their story. Frequently they are in no need whatever of advice. And they are definitely not crazy, by any definition.
This really needs emphasized from time to time, because there is still sometimes a stigma attached to seeing a counselor.
Some people use the barstool method of telling their story, which is not totally awful, so long as they don’t have so many drinks on that barstool that they forget everything that transpired. Bartenders do tend to be good listeners, though they are not necessarily trained to recognize when problems might require actual intervention. If their therapy does not involve some drinks, those bartenders may have difficulty meeting their monthly rent. And if it involves too many drinks, they need to cut someone off and hire a cab to get them home safely.
My own counseling, obviously, does not involve any drinks, and you pay a set fee. Which helps take care of ambiguity.
There is also the friend method of storytelling. Good friends listen, and they don’t judge you. For a huge number of issues, that is all you will ever need. Here’s the catch, though: Sometimes a problem is so huge, or there are so many of them, that you need to talk more than a good friend is interested in listening. It can damage a friendship when the demands get too extensive.
Counselors? They are your professional friends in the office, and they will ignore you outside the office (though if you speak to them first, they will be glad to respond.)

Most diagnoses in this field are a reflection of a normal response to an abnormal situation: Your best friend has been spreading rumors about you and/or a neighbor has threatened your family? Anxiety sounds like a pretty normal response to that. Your dearest friend was killed recently in an accident? Bereavement. You were setting out on what was supposed to be a nice vacation and wound up witnessing a murder? Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
Do you see a pattern here? Diagnoses make the insurance companies happy. And they do create categories that help make it easier to formulate a plan. But none of these situations in any way implies a client is crazy. And neither are you. At least I highly doubt it.

Sexual Boundaries and Nuances

What to decide

Decisions: Yes or No

Way back in my much-younger, dating years, I received a rather strange lecture. I had accepted a date with a nice enough young man, who invited me to dinner at his house. My thought: “How nice, he will cook for me.” His? “I’m getting laid.” Mind you, he never in any way acted aggressively toward me. Since it was instantly clear that our agendas didn’t match, he made no attempt to physically push my boundaries.
He did, however, surprise me with what he said: “I don’t understand why you didn’t assume that if I asked you to dinner at my place, you wouldn’t accept the invitation unless you were interested in a sexual involvement.” He was flat-out confused that I had not jumped to that conclusion the minute the invitation was issued.
Now let’s view a similar (but nonsexual) situation, through a similar lens. Suppose you promised your best friend a ride to a football game, and they just assumed that included a hamburger and drinks after. You would hopefully not feel guilty saying No, even though this friend might say you were obligated. That thing you initially promised—that is all anyone had a right to assume.
Now suppose you or someone you know simply changes their mind at the last minute. Should they be expected to follow through with a bad idea? It is fine to change your mind, whether sex is involved or it is as simple as not wanting to spend so much time with this person. Please feel free to say No whenever the situation warrants. When it is sexual, however, there is a whole new dimension to deal with
Suddenly you have to consider all kinds of peripheral factors: Is this person dangerous? Are you risking injury when you change your mind? Or are you dealing with a true gentleman, or lady, who will respect your wishes? Changing your mind, even at the last possible minute, should not be dangerous. But this is the world many women live in, where they have to weigh potential consequences, even in situations that initially appeared innocuous.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if no one was interested in a sexual relationship that wasn’t truly desired by both partners, if the immediate response to sensing hesitation was “It looks like you are having doubts. I don’t want this if you don’t, so please take some time to think it over first.” And then maybe propose a game of cards, or Jinga.
This whole issue is way too complex to cover in a short blog such as this one. But there are a few things I would hope people consider: 1) “No” is a complete sentence. If you care about someone as a human being, you will respect that. 2) It is wise to be mindful of your surroundings, to try to avoid situations that leave you feeling cornered. That does not make it your fault if someone takes unfair advantage, but it is certainly easier on anyone to not have to navigate dangerous situations. 3) How are we raising our children? Hopefully we teach them mutual respect as opposed to entitlement. Our children need to learn early on to honor the boundaries of others, and to expect their own boundaries to be honored as well.
The #MeToo movement started with some real horror stories, and some abuses are blatant. But it is important to realize that the spectrum is very nuanced. There is a lot to navigate, and no one should be criticized for being victimized. That is simply not fair.

Book Review – Beartown

ice hockey

hockey player

The novel Beartown by Fredrik Backman was a most pleasant surprise for me. I picked it out because I had read a couple of his less recent novels, with lighter subject matter. Fredrick Backman does not stick to one formula in his writing; he is consistent in developing his characters for a deeper understanding of his story line.
Beartown features a small lakeside town that has been losing businesses and population, and feels its best hope for the future is its excellent hockey team. Which of course gives rise to a culture where talented hockey players, especially the best players among them, are neither held to the rules of the rest of society, nor able to function so well there if they do not succeed in making a career of this sport.
As we are led through the psyches and backstories of the various characters, we gain an understanding from several viewpoints, of the type of culture that can turn talented athletes into dangerous narcissists, a culture that will support that person and destroy victims mercilessly. Facts cease to have any importance in the face of expediency. While the bulk of the town turns viciously on the victim in this saga— support does have a way of coming from some very unexpected sources. Not because anyone is acting out of character, but because individual people are far more complex than we often give them credit for.
Aside from the fact that he resides in Stockholm, Sweden with his family, I know nothing of the professional background of Fredrick Backman. What is evident throughout the pages of this novel, however, is his clear understanding of the psychology involved as well as the repercussions that extend throughout the town.
Despite the far-ranging and permanent impacts, healing also emerges from more than one unexpected source. Again, because people are complex creatures. The reservoir of our character will be both exposed and intensified in the wake of tragedy. We all decide for ourselves whether this will be a good thing.
Meantime, I highly recommend this book—or any book by Fredrick Backman.

Enabling is Not Always a Bad Thing

Crutches as walking aids

Walking aids

I once knew someone who thought any type of enabling was such an evil, that he would openly criticize people for using walking aids: Canes, crutches, walkers…True, these can be regarded as enabling, but only because they enable people to get around without injury. You know, without breaking every bone in their face because they left the cane behind even though they knew their balance was poor. So on that note, I will tackle the topic, to the degree that I can in 500 words or less.
My own first introduction to the term enabling regarded to covering for the alcoholic behavior of a loved one—spouses calling in sick for their hungover spouses, parents covering for their children’s drinking and/or drug use. In this context, the term involved taking on responsibilities that truly belong to someone else. Here’s the thing, though. I am a firm believer that enabling is not always a bad thing. As in walking aids—I know. But there are other situations.
Suppose your grown child has started down a treacherous life path, and suppose this grown child has children who will wind up in foster care if you don’t step up to the plate. Are you going to suggest that you are enabling your child’s unfortunate choices? Of course you are. But, far more importantly, you are providing a secure home for your grandchildren. That, to me, is a far higher value.
Not all grandparents are in a position to raise yet another generation of children, and I want to make very clear that it is a choice, not an obligation. But there are far more important factors in that decision than whether you might be encouraging naughty behavior on the part of that child’s irresponsible parent.
There are plenty of times values come into conflict: Your child was injured as a result of taking a stupid risk. Will you refuse to get them to the medical care they need? From that viewpoint, medical people enable on a daily basis; to refuse to do so would be a violation of their hippocratic oath. Suppose a child has simply put off till the last minute studying for a critical exam? Will you refuse to tutor them, or is it more important that you provide them the assistance they need, to ensure their best education? People devote entire careers to providing food, clothing and other services to those who are in need—and some of that need stems from bad choices. Surely goodness no one reading this will suggest that we have an obligation to turn our backs on needy people. A higher value would be to meet them where they are.
So, let us just give some thought to what is most important. If enabling is the only problem, maybe it is a good time to stop. But whenever anything else is in play, let’s consider the whole picture. Let’s try to not get totally hung up on that one aspect.

Building a Support System

best friends

Me with my husband, who is also my best friend

I have found that people with a good support system tend to resolve their problems more quickly. Which of course makes perfect sense, because—well, it is important to be able to “run things up the flagpole” with someone you trust, to be free to spout off a certain amount and to obtain their sage opinions, all with the security of knowing that having a problem will not cost you this person as an ally. But what to do if these wonderful people do not inhabit your world?
A lot of people rely on family and extended family members for support, and this is about as good or bad as your own individual family system. Others create their own family-type systems, their own communities. And it is not some instantaneous process; it requires time and attention.
The word “frenemy” comes to mind. The biggest drawback to a “frenemy,” as I see it, is the lack of dependability. But there are times that these very same people can be an asset: Maybe one of these people is a lot of fun to go hiking with, or you like the same music, or you like doing yoga together. But you have little to nothing in common when it comes time to share your feelings. So long as you are aware of the limitations, these people can fill a role in your life as well as you filling a role in theirs.
Then there are those you would treasure as your closest friends. You don’t know who they are when you first meet them; this builds over time. What you do need to know is, what qualities are you looking for? What would be a deal breaker? As you build trust with this person, gradually at first, are you being respected? Does this person treat you and others with courtesy and kindness? Are they thoughtful? Dependable?
Here’s the rub: If you are feeling alone in the world, you will need to stand on your own for just a little longer, long enough to nourish each friendship. And you will need to do your share too. Is this someone you would want to call on you when they are in the hospital, when they have argued with their siblings, when they are going through a breakup?
Friends are so precious. They have your back, and you have theirs. And it will break your heart when they move away or worse—when they die. If you have both chosen well and been fortunate, you will not regret having let these people into your world. Your world will be a richer place for their having stopped by, and you will feel the better person for having nurtured the treasure of their friendship.

Denial Does Have Its Place

Yes or No

Reality is an interesting thing. Some of it is great, some not so much, and someof it is downright awful. The awful parts are what lead to denial.
It’s true, we need to live in this world the way it is instead of the way we want it to be. And I am a big believer in facing problems head-on. But denial does have its place.
I know, I know, lots of people are constantly saying denial is awful. And sometimes it is. Sometimes people stay in dangerous situations, to the point where their denial of that reality winds up getting them killed. They stay in loveless relationships, whittling away the time they could have spent seeking joy, instead making excuses to avoid facing change or facing reality. They ignore overwhelming debt till they wind up with no resources whatever.
But there are times when denial is not so bad. When you first get a piece of awful news: a close friend has died, you have just been diagnosed with a serious illness, you are being sued…of course you need to deal with those realities. But you are likely to deny them first, and that is your mind’s way of protecting you from the initial horror.
Any major tragic news will have repercussions; there will be numerous aspects to confront. If your friend has died, there is the funeral service to deal with, as well as offering sympathy to others in his or her circle. Should you send flowers or a donation and if so, where? Can you face removing your friend’s phone number from your contacts? (I often take years to do that last bit. It feels so cold to just hit “delete.”) Who will you talk to when it’s your friend you really wanted? How many days will you wake up having to remind yourself that person is no longer a part of this world? How will you find comfort in the midst of the sorrow?
Initial denial, though it may be for as little as a few seconds, can buy you the time to start considering and dealing with the various aspects of your tragedy. Then you can take a deep breath, seek out your best support, and start facing whatever awful blow you have been dealt.