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.

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.

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.

Politics in Everyday Life

protest sign in crowd

protest: We Are Better…

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

Reporting Sexual Assault

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

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.

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?

Healing Childhood Trauma

angry child-b&w“The further back the story, the deeper the pain.” That was a principle behind narrative therapy, the retelling of your own story in the process of healing; I heard this in a speech several years ago by John Savage, author of “Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry”. It is not often that someone’s exact words will continue to stand out so many years later. Whatever the therapy: narrative, cognitive behavioral, reality therapy, EMDR…that principle applies. “The further back the story, the deeper the pain.”
If an early childhood experience continues to bother you, do not discount it. Your body, and your psyche, are giving you a message. There are ways to make your peace with traumatic experiences, to go on with your life, to integrate the past in a way that benefits your future self.
There are a number of factors at work in the processing of trauma, one of which is the ability to make sense out of what happened. In children so young that they do not yet have good language skills, this becomes far more difficult. They have memories in pictures sometimes, and there are body memories. The lack of a narrative makes it more difficult to process what has occurred. Some people are helped by listening closely to the stories those around them; for others that is not a feasible option.
Fortunately, far more attention is being paid to healing childhood trauma than in times past, thanks in part to research showing that these traumas can even affect epigenetics, the process that determines which of your genes will be expressed and which ones will be turned off. It can impact others in your circle who sense your pain, and it can impact future generations.
It is never too late to start down your path of healing. Suppose you are 95 years old and have only a few months to live, wouldn’t it be great to spend those few months enduring less emotional pain?
When people decide to move forward I often hear “This stops now” or “It ends with me.” And it can. With the right help and direction, lives can be reclaimed and thoroughly enjoyed. It happens every day.

A Nation in Need of Comfort

1028641_rainbow_in_the_backyardThere have been so many tragedies this past month or so, that it feels we are a nation in mourning. And in shock. Police officers being murdered on two different occasions, the tragic attack in Nice, France that left so many dead… When I drive down the street and see American flags, some are at half-staff and some at full height. It has occurred to me that with so many tragedies, it is difficult to keep up with knowing at what height the flag should be displayed. It is up to the President of the United States to determine when and for how long flags are lowered, and keeping abreast of those proclamations—well, it requires a lot of attention.
If you are a law enforcement officer anywhere in this country, or if you know or love an officer, I am very sorry for your loss. Though law enforcement is not my specialty, it is clear that the loss of any officer in such a brutal way, is a loss to the entire law enforcement community. No one should have to fear being ambushed on or off the job.
We are a nation in shock. In mourning. In anger. In confusion. In trauma. A lot of us may not know what to think. But none of it is good.
And a lot of us feel powerless. What is one person to do against the possibility of a next assailant? I am sure a lot of people are puzzling over this. And I do have an answer. No, it does not involve prevention, though I would love to have an answer for that. And anything that could prevent a disaster would be publicized far more widely than this blog ever will.
We are in serious need of comfort. Let us, please, go out of our way to be kind to one another. It won’t fix things, but it can make them more bearable. And you never know, maybe the person on the receiving end of your smile or kind words is in more dire need of your kindness than you will ever know. Maybe they will feel inclined to follow your example, to be a little kinder themselves. Maybe we can start with a smile, a comforting word, a sincere compliment, holding a door open, letting someone ahead of us in traffic…
This just feels to me like something that can’t hurt, and just may help some people find some joy in the midst of all this sorrow. So let’s get started.