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.

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.

Parental Alienation Is Real: (or, Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex)

angry-b&wYes, parental alienation is real. The DSM-V (the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that thick book your therapist pulls out in order to define the answer to What’s your problem?)–that tome that is utilized by everyone in the mental health professions–specifies that certain behaviors are considered psychological abuse of a child. (Previous editions only acknowledged physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect of a child.) These behaviors include berating the “alleged offender” (usually the other parent) in the child’s presence, and telling the child that person will harm or abandon them. This is done skillfully and often at the hands of alienators (targeting parents).
Fortunately, most parents do not alienate their children from the other parent, at least not intentionally. It does occur sometimes by accident, as parents may be careless about the words they utter when the children are within earshot. And there are many instances of low-level alienation that tend to work themselves out with time.
Some children are amenable to becoming alienated; others are not. Thank goodness for the invulnerability of those others.
If you have a friend whose children inexplicably reject him or her, please do not reassure your friend that children always come around. Some do; some don’t.
If you or a friend sees the beginnings of inexplicable rejection, I highly recommend reading “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine. It is basically a workbook, an excellent step-by-step guide for parents who need to both recognize and counteract whatever is going on. Some suggestions sound counterintuitive; don’t give up before you read the explanations.
Some children are alienated by the same person who abused their mother (or father). There is a major element of control and sometimes revenge. The children are frequently so hateful to the targeted parent that it is tempting to just give up. Please don’t; your children need both parents (absent one or both parents being an actual physical danger to them).
Some of the signs of potential parental alienation that have resonated with me are:
When they complain about how awful the targeted parent is, the complaints are often over miniscule issues, such as “She/he wouldn’t buy me the $250 shirt I wanted.” Sometimes the children will blatantly lie about the targeted parent. They feel no compunction to treat this parent with even basic courtesy, such as thanking them for huge gifts. (And don’t think this won’t carry over to how they behave in the larger world.) The words they use in their tirades are often the exact phrases that have been previously used by the targeting parent.
A favorite scheme of targeting parents is “erase and replace,” meaning that children are often taught that Dad (or Mom) no longer deserves that title. Children are made to call the new stepparent Dad or Mom, and to call the actual parent by their first name whenever the targeting parent is around. Vacations are often planned by the targeting parent in direct conflict with the target’s court ordered parenting time. Or the less-favored parent is invited to come to school events and then made to sit far away from the child and to not be acknowledged in any way. Sometimes the targeting parent manages to “one-up” every gift from the targeted parent: Dad saved his money to take the child to the play she always wanted to see, so Mom then takes her to New York to see the Broadway version.
As you can see, this teaches children to be manipulative. It is clearly not good parenting. But there is hope.
Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine have done excellent research. I highly recommend “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” as a guidebook to minimize and counteract the negative messages your child may receive.

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.

Not-So-Dear Abby and Trauma

Soothing touch

This past October 22, “Dear Abby” published a letter, to which I responded on uexpress.com/dearabby on October 29.  She has not published my response or any response with a similar sentiment, which is sad, because it is some good free advice.  Because it is well worth sharing with anyone who reads my web page, here goes:

 

Dear Abby,

 

I am writing in response to “Concerned in the Midwest” whose wife is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from abuse by her previous husband.  You suggested counseling, and I agree.  I am a mental health counselor in Ohio, so it’s pretty clear I would be in favor of counseling.
“Concerned” states that his wife flinches or panics if he brushes her hair from her face or makes a sudden movement; this is a typical PTSD reaction.

 

The bad news is, many (maybe most) people will not seek counseling no matter how badly they need it.  The good news is, there are things a person can do without the aid of a counselor, that can help to de-sensitize them to whatever makes them flinch.

 

“Concerned” might, with his wife’s express permission, let her know he is about to brush her hair back from her face, then couple that with a hug, or a kind word…After doing this several times, always with his wife’s knowledge and full agreement, his wife is likely to not feel so threatened.  This is based on the plasticity of the brain, the fact that the brain is continuously re-wiring itself, so that this woman’s beloved husband brushing the hair back from her face now is likely to be experienced as pleasant, and does not (or at least not as much) trigger the traumatic memories of her abusive ex.  (If this instead makes matters worse, it is important to quit immediately, to do no harm.)

 

It’s worth a try.  If this couple was in my office, I would surely be suggesting this.

 

Thank you.