Day 60 – I Hate This

Photo credit Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

It is Day 60, also known as May 14, 2020, and here is what I hate about this.  About Isolation.  I have said before, I am one of the lucky ones.  I have a nice place to stay, am not facing potential eviction or starvation, and I live with someone I enjoy being with.  I am married to my very best friend.  It doesn’t get better than that.

But having gone to graduate school to become a mental health counselor, then taking continuing education courses and doing my best to stay abreast of the latest developments in trauma treatment, I would really like to be able to make more use of my knowledge.  And above all, I would like to be more available to my clients.

Online counseling is a growing field, and I have not grown extensively with it.  Of course, I did not see this coming.  Or did I?  I have heard for years that we could get brought down by a pandemic, and I felt that was probably true.  I mean, we all know there are gene mutations and we have had other viruses crop up.  My first memory of that is Parvovirus in dogs.  That was followed by MERS, SARS, Ebola in humans…  With these viruses ultimately controlled at least to the point where they did not threaten the entire American population, I convinced myself this was for medical people to deal with.  So I didn’t think further, in the sense of not considering how a new and unstudied virus could impact day to day life.  I knew all about quarantines from times gone by, yet neglected to think it could happen to us.  In 2020.

And here we are.  I can still learn more about online counseling.  I have the tools:  FaceTime, a Zoom account…and my telephone works just fine.  I have been outspoken, though, about my preference for face to face counseling, and that preference has not changed.  My clients have expressed similar feelings.  Though a couple of clients have taken me up on doing a couple of phone sessions, they are mostly showing zero interest in using technology for their sessions, preferring to just wait this out and see me then.  That is fine with me; I would likely make the same choice.

The problem is exacerbated in a way I did not predict:  The stress of living with this pandemic creates emotional problems for everyone.  Though this may be an oversimplification, it appears to me that everyone is either isolated and bored, or has a minimum work week of 80 hours.  There doesn’t appear to be much in-between.  It is definitely taking its toll.  And just when everyone would like to talk to their counselor, assuming they have an established counseling relationship—that counselor cannot see them face to face due to the risk of spreading disease.  After all, many people have the virus and are asymptomatic, so we never know if we could be infecting someone, and that would certainly violate the directive of Do No Harm.

Here is what I can do:  I can remind you that if you are feeling stressed or if you are having trouble focusing and/or getting things accomplished, this is a normal reaction.  If you obsess on hearing every little COVID-19 story, this is also a normal reaction.  Probably just about everything you may deride yourself for is a normal reaction.  This is a traumatic situation, after all, and trauma responses vary from situation to situation as well as from person to person.

If you are feeling extreme depression or anxiety, and/or an urge to hurt yourself or others, please go to your nearest emergency room.  Or at least call a hotline.  Or call me.  (Disclosure:  Since I don’t have other people backing me up, you may have a wait time before I return your call.)  Some people will be pushed past their limits by this crisis.  Do not be ashamed if you are one of them.

There is an excellent Centers for Disease Control web page, cdc.gov, with info about dealing with COVID-19.  It gives the Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, or texting TalkWithUs to 66746.  Also, since domestic and intimate partner violence increases during these crisis times, please be aware of the National Domestic Violence Hotline (also listed on cdc.gov), at 1-800-799-7233 and TTY 1-800-787-3224.  

You do not need to be ill or have someone close to you suffer from COVID-19, in order to be affected.  This is a worldwide crisis, and being affected by it does not make you a weak person.  Repeat after me:  “I am not the problem; this crisis is the problem and I am doing the best I can.”

Day 47

Rainbow = Hope

It is Day 47, and Governor DeWine has announced a slow opening up of Ohio’s businesses. It is really not clear to me whether my office is considered one that can re-open yet, but I am thinking not, because the Board’s web page indicates the Stay at Home orders are extended through May 29. The advantage of self-employment is that, while I do not have the option of bringing clients in before the state allows that, I do have the option of waiting a little longer. I keep hearing from various sources that it really is not a good idea to open up before there has been a two-week period of COVID-19 hospital admissions going down in number. That has not happened yet.
Meantime, I do not want to leave people in the lurch. This is a time of increased mental health challenges, after all. If you tell me that this whole pandemic scenario does not bother you, you are either unbelievably resilient or you are lying. I am going to vote for the latter, because everyone has their limits.
Front-line workers are especially vulnerable. They go into the field in order to help others, and from what I am reading and hearing, these situations are so intense that they often leave the front-line worker instead feeling helpless. I have already read of a couple of suicides of these workers in the crush of this pandemic. This is horrific, and I am so sorry, for the loss of these lives and for the impact their suicides are having and will continue to have on their entire communities, especially those who worked alongside them and those who knew and loved them in their personal lives.
At the moment, I remain open to connecting with clients via phone, e-mail, and internet. At the same time, I realize that I might just tough it out if I were the one needing to talk to a counselor. I am personally a huge proponent of the face to face, and of course that is just not tenable right now. Even without state restrictions, I would not advocate that someone risk this disease in order to talk with me face to face. It is difficult, especially without widespread testing, to even assess what the risk is to any individual. I could be an asymptomatic carrier for all I know; any of us could.
Bottom line: This is scary, and it will continue to be. People are showing huge courage in its face every day: Young people, older people, and those in between. People living with families they adore, people living alone, and people in abusive situations. My greatest prayers go out to those living with abuse, as it gets far worse in isolation.
As a people, we are going to survive this. As a people. As individuals, some of us will succumb, and that is a huge loss.
What kind of world will we emerge into? Things are going to change, probably some for the better and some for the worse. And we won’t all agree about what is better and what is worse. But it will definitely be different. This is not the kind of crisis that leaves anyone untouched. This is a time when we will learn a lot about resilience, when those of us with the best support systems will be able to pass that support along, to give others a hand up.
I have joked that I have to survive this because I want to see how it ends. Hopefully, we can both give and receive emotional support within our communities in the meantime. No one should be expected to navigate this alone.

Day 26

Counting the Days

Day 26.  I have been keeping time more by the number of days since restaurants, bars and several other businesses were shut down.  Of course it doesn’t all stem from just one day; my memory is that the first big clue this pandemic was being taken seriously in Ohio was when spectators were not allowed to attend the Arnold.  Most of us started self-quarantining (or at least spending a lot more time at home) after restaurants and bars were ordered closed—for sit-down service anyway—at 9:00 in the evening on Sunday, March 15.  Most of us who are not considered essential workers, anyway.

We now have a temporary culture where it seems everyone is either working 80 hours-plus per week, or they are at home with very little to do.  And in the background, there is little change in the number of people are getting sick and/or dying of the same causes that existed prior to this pandemic.  Yet their funerals are having to be postponed and loved ones are having to do their grieving without an immediate funeral and without having lots of people around for support.  

Who knows what kind of world we will come into when this pandemic no longer rules so much of our lives?  It will be interesting.  About one thing I feel certain:  It will not be the same, and it should not.  The way things were has led to the way things are now.  I have always been a believer in learning from my mistakes, and I am hoping that our leaders learn from this crisis, that they emerge with better ways to prevent the spread of diseases for which no cure currently exists.

There are some behaviors that have emerged from this crisis, that are well worth holding onto.  We are not new to rising to the occasion when there is a crisis, and it uplifts me when I see these kindnesses.  Many people have organized to sew non-medical masks for those who need them, especially grocery workers and others who have regular contact with the public.  Others have provided meals for people who cannot earn income due to the restrictions.  I was especially heartened when I saw that several nursing home workers right here in Licking County actually moved into the nursing homes to be available to their residents, and to ensure those residents were not subjected to the risks of having a rotating staff who spent time between shifts…well, doing what we would normally do, most of which involves exposure to the outside world.

Here is my greatest hope:  Let us emerge into a world that is more consistently kind.  That has gotten us through the bad times, and it will make the good times even better.

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.

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.

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?

Talk It Over, Already

Talking statues

Statues in conversation

Some of my worst mistakes can be traced to my unwillingness to discuss a potential decision with someone else, to seek feedback, or at least to hear my own words reflected back to me. What stopped me? Embarrassment? I like to think I won’t again pass up the opportunity to reflect and share with others what I am considering—especially when it comes to dealing with any enigma. So if you want to do better than I did? Talk it over, already.
See? It doesn’t always require a professional. In many cases, a nonjudgmental friend can be helpful.
About that word nonjudgmental? That doesn’t mean your friend (or counselor) won’t call you out if they think you are wrong. Disagreeing should not mean the end of a relationship. If it did well, what would we do for friends? Because we are all wrong sometimes. Or at least need to consider a different viewpoint.
Let’s say you are trying to decide whether to pursue some higher education. You want to know if it’s a good idea as well as how to pay for it. One example from my own life involves when I first started wanting to pursue a graduate degree, but I had no clue how to pay for it. Did I go to the financial aid office? Um, no. I just stewed over it. (No, this oversight did not ruin my life.)
Let’s say your friend knows little or nothing about the benefits or costs of higher education. They can still reflect back, ask logical questions…they can lead you to deeper thinking, propose the questions you could be asking in pursuit of your decision.
It does often help to know someone with a specific expertise. Are you looking for financial advice? If you don’t want to reveal your finances, you could still get some general advice from a person whose expertise you respect.
I remember the time when someone told me the secret to their small business success was that they never borrowed money, that they had no debts. At the time time I was hearing this, several other voices were telling me to take a risk and go deep into debt: a thought that made me very uncomfortable. I picked the no-debt route for the small business I was running at the time, and have never regretted that decision.
You are not the only one who will benefit from your friend’s acting as a sounding board. Has anyone ever come to you for advice or counsel? Even if you weren’t interested in that role, I am guessing you were flattered. We all need to feel we matter, and providing moral support and a listening ear is one of the best ways I know to get that reinforcement.

The Last Straw in Relationships

breakup at park bench

the last straw

(Note: Before reading the following—this is important, critical even—if you are in a relationship involving abuse, DO NOT leave without proper safety planning. The most dangerous time is in the act of leaving.)

What ends relationships? Why do we call it the last straw? Often, the final insult, the breaking point, is something relatively minor in comparison to everything that has preceded it. For many, it is the point at which we realize nothing is ever going to change, nothing is going to get better. We can remain stuck in this situation or we can leave, but there is no option that will make it better for us if we stay. We see that can only stand by while it deteriorates further. Staying, we realize, means giving up any hope of improvement.
We often think primarily in terms of intimate or romantic relationships, but this also applies to platonic ones, to professional and business ones—even to family members reaching a point where they become estranged. Think of the employer who has promised you a raise every six months for the past there years, and this time when the raise doesn’t come through you start looking for other work in earnest. You have reached the point where you know this employer’s word is meaningless. It may not even really be about the money, just that you see the lies for what they are. Or it may be your mother who has picked fights with you at every opportunity since you were eight years old (or younger), and this time it is an even smaller than usual argument, but you are now 56 years old and have sudden clarity about how you will spend your remaining years—in relationships that bring you joy instead of chronic conflict. You hang up the phone and decide not to call your mother again, and to keep conversation to a minimum if she calls you—if you decide to respond to her at all.
Partnerships frequently end over long-standing issues, and something has reached a point where you realize you are not partners any more, that you have been carrying way too much of the load for way too long. Or it is something that indicates a shift in your own dynamic.
One story comes to mind for me, which I read in a magazine decades ago; I do not remember the source. A woman reports having been physically abused for years by her spouse; he even broke her jaw. When she was in the hospital, a representative from a domestic violence shelter sought her out and gave her a card, yet the article’s writer returned to living with this man. Until she came home one day to find her son and daughter watching TV, and her daughter had a welt on one cheek. The son said “Mom, she wouldn’t watch what I wanted, so I had to hit her.” This woman packed up and left that day. She was willing to tolerate all manner of abuse, but would not stand for seeing that pattern continue with her children.
Sometimes it is an escalation in an ongoing dynamic. It can be the boyfriend who was verbally abusive, but suddenly it becomes physical. Or it can be the wife who cursed you routinely but always in private, and suddenly she does it in front of friends.
Often, though, it is actually something much lower key than what you have been tolerating on a daily basis, only this time something shifts in you and you realize that there is nothing you can do that will improve this person’s behavior. It may be fifth time this week that your significant other came home with alcohol on their breath; the other four times, they started yelling at you and throwing things, then vomited in the corner and stormed out. This time they just passed out and you had no mess to clean up. But it was one too many, and you spend the remainder of that night making your exit plans.
When is the best time to leave? Someone told me once that it is the time when you no longer want to be with that person, and the message I heard at the time was that it is not wise to decide based on a specific incident. I disagree with that last part, because those specific incidents are so telling. After all, how do we know who and what a person’s true character is if not by how they behave?

Intelligence Comes in Many Forms

A young man and a dog

Intelligence comes in many forms. The young man in the photo was diagnosed with autism and learning delays at an early age, and was blessed with parents who saw and loved him for his kind and beautiful self. They never failed to nurture his spirit, and his talents. When he was a toddler, his father would lie down and allow the boy to crawl all over him—a delightful way to help encourage his sensory awareness, to help him feel comfortable with touch.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner is known for his theory of multiple intelligences, including interpersonal, visual-spatial, naturalistic, and about five others. Yet we are still too often hung up on that one number in an IQ test—with 100 being the norm and everything else being somehow superior or inferior in comparison. Never mind that just about everyone is a bit uneven in their performance across different areas.
Then there is Emotional Intelligence, written about by Daniel Goleman, who built on the research of Peter Salavoy and John Mayer. It involves the ability to assess and act upon a given situation, to manage one’s own emotions as well as impacting others. For example, when you read of a person who can intuit the point when a total stranger can use a kind word versus when that stranger would rather be left alone. This is especially useful in situations in which we have to react too quickly to systematically reason it through.
We all know or know of at least one person who is tops in a demanding field, something we mere mortals would not attempt, such as astrophysics or molecular biology, yet this same person is totally clueless about interpersonal relations. An IQ test measures that person as a genius, while witnessing that same person in a social situation might lead us to think they are not so smart after all.
But back to the young man pictured: His parents took him through the usual activities—soccer, Olympics, family vacations including Disney World…and like any typical child, he showed an affinity for some things and not others. Through it all, he loved his dog dearly and their cuddle time brought lots of happiness to both boy and dog.
Recently he tried training dogs, and no surprise here, he turned out to be a bit of a dog whisperer, taking first place in a recent competition. Why? As a person with autism, he loves repetition and precision—exactly the traits needed in a good animal trainer. And he has a good sense of how to best relate to each individual dog, such that the dogs he works with are eager to please him.
Temple Grandin, possibly the world’s most famous person with autism, has stated repeatedly that she does so well with animals because she thinks like one. She has been consulted in many instances in which some seemingly insignificant issue has spooked the animals: a two-inch chain above them, people tossing their yellow raincoats over a fence, too rapid a change in light levels for the animals to proceed without fear…She could focus on things the average person ignores, thereby helping the animals to remain calm.
Move over, Temple. We have a new dog whisperer, and he is going to do you proud.

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.