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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Sexual Assault and Title IX

Fear and shame

Feeling cornered

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Having taken what might be referred to as “the scenic route” to finish college, I kept a sign with this motto in my hallway. Fortunately, I had the advantage of a supportive environment. And I was never subjected to events that can ruin the educational experience and make it nearly impossible to graduate, in the way that sexual assault frequently does. I was always cognizant that good luck had followed me.
When I first started college in the late 1960s, I was aware that some of my classmates had been sexually assaulted. I don’t know how I knew; it was just a sense I had. I also had a strong sense that there was no point in reporting this to school authorities because the female would be blamed, for things like being out past the authorized hours.
Yes, we actually had curfews back then, when we were expected to be back in our dorms. And no, the males did not have those same restrictions. Mercifully, this practice died out shortly afterward. Apparently the theory was that if the women were dorm-bound by a certain time, no one could get hurt. In the realm of rape prevention, that is what took the place of Title IX, which was enacted later, in 1972.
Thanks to people speaking out in numerous ways, attention has been drawn to the high number of campus rapes that, once reported, have gone un-investigated, as well as high-profile cases like that of Brock Turner receiving a minuscule sentence despite DNA evidence because the judge didn’t want to interfere with Turner’s precious career plans. Never mind the extreme damage done to the victim.
This is one thing Title IX enforcement is supposed to prevent: A culture in which convicted rapists are treated like “good old boys” with their rights being protected more than those of their victims. So I am really curious, or more like furious, that Betsey DeVos has taken it upon herself to discount the long-ignored victims in favor of those who have been accused. While a proper investigation is always in order, we need to remember that for pretty much as long as our history goes back, the rights of sexual assault victims have been so thoroughly trampled on, that the majority never report the crime. (As I sit here trying to recall the people in my personal life—not clients—who have told me they have been raped, I cannot think of a single one who pressed charges.)
I would love to embrace an era in which everyone understands and honors the concept of consent. Since that is unlikely to actually occur, can we at least have a culture where this crime is investigated and prosecuted like any other?

Being Believed

emotions-Tino SmithAn acquaintance of mine (No, mot a client) sought counseling after suffering abuse that would rival stories more likely to be heard from oppressed women in third-world countries. The counselor’s response? “You read too much; those things don’t happen.” I’m amazed this person kept trying till they found someone to take them seriously.
In contrast, when I survived an abusive situation several years ago and attended a support group, I was immediately believed. That was incredibly therapeutic.
To be fair, there is the occasional person who lies about being abused, usually with some ulterior motive in mind such as gaining a legal advantage. These people make it more difficult for true victims, and should be ashamed of themselves. The overwhelming majority, however, are far more likely to understate the extent of their suffering, and are not at all prone to exaggeration.
This need to be heard, and believed, applies to a plethora of situations and/or experiences. For those who have never heard of Re-evaluation Co-counseling—yes, I am aware that that is the overwhelming majority of the population—it is a movement instituted by Harvey Jackins and is geared toward non-professionals. In a nutshell, 2 or more people share their stories with one another, process the attendant emotions, and ultimately reach resolution. The theory is that processing of the emotions, what Freud referred to as catharsis, is necessary and sufficient for coming to terms with an individual’s angst.
The part I find interesting is, a group member may not wish to share their actual story. They are sometimes told “Then make a story up; it will have the same emotional content.” (Sometimes I wonder if histrionics who invent lies for attention have this end in mind.)
Memory can be a funny thing. Often people will recall the gist of an event but details will get confused. Memories are frequently “chunked” with other memories. Essentially, when the details of a story turn out to be inaccurate, this does not mean a person is lying; they are giving you their own best and most honest recollection.
As a counselor, it is not my job to grill a client regarding the accuracy of their recollection. My job is to help them process the event and help them develop the best possible coping skills and help to make peace with their own unique traumatic history. This starts with listening to, and believing, their story.

The Long Tentacles of Domestic Abuse

For six years, I taught college psychology classes. Every one received a unit, at my insistence, regarding the signs of a potential abuser, about how domestic and intimate partner abuse is almost always driven by the abuser’s desire for power and control. I often listed the people I knew personally who had lost their lives to this scourge. (No, I didn’t know any of them well.)
Somehow, I failed to mention one person: Thane Griffin. I had been listing female victims of intimate partner abuse, and Thane Griffin was a man murdered by another man he had never met. Yet he was arguablystock-photo-shallow-depth-of-field-image-taken-of-yellow-law-enforcement-line-with-police-car-and-lights-in-the-56280433-1 a victim of this type of abuse, and was one victim in a high-profile murder spree in November, 1995–the shooter was Jerry Hessler.
Mr. Griffin had a daughter, Laura, who had apparently refused so much as a first date with Hessler. She ultimately married and moved to Hawaii with her husband. Laura’s parents, Thane and Sue Griffin, continued to reside in Ohio, where Mr. Griffin was ultimately gunned down in the doorway of his own home.
Thane Griffin was the fourth victim of fatal gunshot wounds. The other three were a woman who had ended their relationship, the husband she had later married, and their baby girl Amanda, who she was holding in her arms in an attempt to protect her. Hessler made an attempt on the entire family of another woman who had broken up with him over a decade ago, and at least two people suffered non-fatal gunshot wounds that night; details are available on the internet.
Hessler had been hospitalized numerous times for mental issues involving threats of violence, yet these victims were ultimately unable to protect themselves despite being on the lookout.
Laura Griffin would likely have been murdered had she become involved in a relationship with this man. When he didn’t get his way and she was out of his reach, he murdered her father instead. This is how far the worst of these abusers will go.
Mercifully, most cases don’t end like this. Most targeted or potential victims find a way out, though it may involve some scary and difficult times. Even top experts cannot predict with certainty just who will “snap,” who will ultimately kill.
Is there a point to this, besides just making your hair curl? Yes, and it is pretty basic: If someone isn’t ready to leave a bad situation, please be aware that they may know–not always consciously, but on some level–that they are dealing with someone whose anger could be lethal.
Never, ever advise a friend in danger to just leave willy-nilly. Make sure they have a safety plan; domestic violence shelters are very good at that. Suggest they call their local shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). There is no shame in needing help.

This column is in memory of all victims, but I especially wish to honor Jean Ann Dodds, Paul Thane Griffin, Emily Suzanne Rykwalder, Joyce Elaine Agriesti, Susan Henslee, Mary Pat Kington, and Kathleen Curtis.

Open Letter to Janay Palmer Rice

Elevator photo 2014 09 16Dear Janay Palmer Rice,

I am sorry you have felt humiliated by the media attention to your husband’s violence toward you.  Hopefully, you will come to learn that no one can shame you:  They can shame only themselves.

When it comes to the thought of leaving someone you have only recently married and with whom you have a child:  He can likely convince you that the courts will grant him full custody and leave you unable to protect your child.  According to Lundy Bancroft, abusive fathers do petition for custody at twice the rate of non-abusive fathers.  An excellent attorney is essential to protecting your interests.

What message is your highly-publicized abuse giving to others?  The media is loving that this story has so much traction.  Others  who are currently being victimized (this includes some men–and not all abuse is in traditional male-female relationships) are watching your case to assess if they can safely leave.  Some are still deciding, balancing the good with the bad.  They, and you, need to realize that absent a minimum of a year’s participation in a program designed specifically for domestic abusers, the bad will only get worse.  (I am not referring to Anger Management programs.  An abuser’s anger is perfectly managed, and directed laser-like at the victim.)  It ends in death with alarming frequency.

Maybe your protests to the media indicate simple posturing in order to keep yourself alive; it would make perfect sense.

If a man is strong enough to play professional football, surely he knows his hands are potentially lethal weapons.  It puzzles me that prosecutors seem to have made no mention of this.

The most dangerous time for a victim is in the act of leaving.  I would never wish for you to leave without an airtight plan, for your safety and that of your child.  You can’t just grab your things and go.  That is way too risky.

Your being well-known will not prevent your local shelter from hearing your story and working with you.  Or maybe you have a different way out.

If you don’t take some self-protective action, I worry that you could turn into the next Kasandra Perkins.  Remember Kansas City Chiefs Linebacker Jovan Belcher’s girlfriend who was shot in front of their 3-month-old child before he turned the gun on himself?  Please, do not let that be you.