Ruth Van Wormer, a Friend of a Different Generation

Ruth and her husband Marvin

Ruth and Marvin Van Wormer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it brought her underserved sadness and frustration.

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

Time to Talk Politics

Angry Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi yelling at Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

Arguing in Public

Arguing couple

Couple arguing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witnesses can be a very good thing.

Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

photo credit Marcea Lancu

Credit: Marcea Lancu

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

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

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

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

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

Do It Like a Girl–A Genius Girl

Basic Algebra at age 7

No Fear of Basic Algebra

When I took a recent trip and stayed in more than one perfectly nice hotel, I found myself having difficulty leaning far enough over the sink to be able to see well enough to apply makeup. The only hotel that didn’t have this problem was one that provided a portable makeup mirror. Why is this such a problem? I am a woman of perfectly average height, 5’4”, so it makes no sense that I should have to stand on my tippytoes just to get a good look at my own face. Then it occurred to me: I’m guessing no one asked any woman how this arrangement worked for the people it was supposedly designed to accommodate.
Women got the vote in 1920, and yet we are still not asked often enough for our opinions in male dominated areas, such as the design of buildings. I am not proposing that every third woman become an architect (though we could certainly use more women’s influence in the design of these hotel rooms), but it does seem we could use more programs along the lines of We Code, programs that encourage girls and young women to research nontraditional fields.
The first step is realizing we can do it. And realizing that if we do it like a girl—a genius girl—that is a compliment. The movie “Hidden Figures” depicts three black women who started out as genius girls, who were at the top of their field yet had to constantly prove themselves. They helped pave the way for the rest of us to take our own ideas seriously.
Part of knowing we can do it, comes from breaking a task down into simpler parts, learning step by step and not letting the enormity of the total task overwhelm us. The girl pictured in this blog, my friend’s 7 year old daughter, is doing basic algebra. Algebra? Isn’t that for high schoolers? Well, not the really basic form. She is looking at things like 5 + x = 7. Just subtract 5 from 7 and you have x. Her dad helped her cut it down to its simplest form. This is a child who will not be held back by fear, and who has already discovered that learning is such a joy. I congratulate her dad on conveying that to her, and I hope this early learning stays with her, that she does not become timid as a teenager, that she does not lose her nerve.
This mastery of concepts is beautiful, and our young girls need to be encouraged every step of the way. If we encourage enough girls and women to pursue these nontraditional fields, maybe the day will come when an average height woman can put on makeup in a hotel bathroom without having to twist, turn, and stretch to accommodate herself to some male’s idea of great design.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Taking a Break

Emmet 2017 02 in treeNot too long ago, I became very ill, for a very short time. My fever lingered, though, and I took the opportunity to stay at home, away from anyone I could expose to whatever had hit me. I was lucky; I didn’t have an employer threatening loss of my job and I was not heavily committed to activities in the outside world. But it also felt to me like I should not be out among people while it was likely I was still contagious.
Prior to the advent of antibiotics, it was not at all unusual to see Quarantine signs on homes where one or more family members had a serious illness, and that sign would remain till the danger of contagion had passed. Quarantine in homes is clearly no longer the norm; we have depended on antibiotics to stop diseases in their tracks.
Illness is definitely not the preferred method for getting people to take a break. However, in a country with such a strong work ethic, we do need to fit breaks into our schedules. Maybe we can recall things we did as children: climb that tree, go see the neighbor’s new kitten, chat with the people closest to us about nothing in particular, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, go sit in a quiet corner with that book we have been wanting to read…
We are actually more efficient, more productive, more creative when we allow ourselves enough breaks. So let’s indulge ourselves, without apology. Let’s not wait for an illness or injury to be the reason we are sidelined.
Maybe, just maybe taking a break will make us kinder. Maybe we will even smile a bit more. Maybe we can even laugh like that adorable little boy in the tree.
Maybe enough people taking a break will even make the world a happier place.