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.”

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.

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?

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.

Finding a Counselor/Domestic and Intimate Partner Abuse and Violence

Walking Away

Walking Away

Domestic and Intimate Partner Abuse and Violence continue to be a major societal problem, sometimes even resulting in the victim’s death. Despite massive increases in awareness and education, people continue to be victimized on a daily basis.
As a mental health counselor, I see people with numerous complaints who fail to recognize the pattern of abuse until they see the Power and Control Wheel (featured in the DV section of my web page). I also see that rare individual who has committed isolated acts of abuse and sincerely wants to stop (and quickly succeeds).
I am talking, rather, about the probably 99 percent of cases that fit the profile of someone who insists on power and control, and many will stop at nothing.
Many victims receive needed assistance through local domestic violence shelters, 24-hour hotlines, support groups, and victim advocates. Some will elect to engage the services of a professional mental health counselor.
Not every counselor or psychologist is an expert on domestic abuse, any more than all can be expected to specialize in bulimia or post-partum depression. It is essential to find someone who understands the dynamics and has the ability to work with the trauma that often results. Some helpful hints in choosing such a counselor include:
Ask them about their specific background in this field.
Inquire about how they will respect your specific belief system.
Run like the dickens if you are told that you need to stay and work it through, for religious or other reasons.
Avoid joint counseling if you have the tiniest inkling that what you say in session may be used against you later, or if you have even the smallest apprehension. Misguided attempts at couples counseling can further endanger the victim.
Ask yourself if you feel you are being taken seriously. This is essential.
Do you feel you are being treated with respect?
Will you feel comfortable sharing your secrets? (If the answer is No, that does not impugn the professional. But you will do your best work if the two of you are a good “fit.”)

I would love nothing more than to work my way out of a job, as regards working with abuse victims. Every time someone gets the help they need, we move a bit closer toward that goal.