Adjusting to the Coronavirus Crisis

Photo credit: Adam and Krisdee Donmoyer

Funny I should have written my most recent blog about First You Adjust, Then You Readjust, Then You Maladjust. I clearly had no idea what was just over the horizon.
Last week, I received a phone call on Tuesday from one of my very best friends, telling me her mother was in hospice. Then on Wednesday, I went with her to see her mother, and as my friend and her sister and I were talking, we heard background noise on TV about the coronavirus pandemic, causing COVID-19. This wasn’t the first I had heard about the pandemic, but in my mind it brought this issue marginally closer to my actual life. It was affecting people in Europe, and people on cruise ships. And we casually speculated as to why it got its start in China. The next day, Thursday, my friend’s mother passed away, and news of the pandemic had already sped up to the point where I was unsure if it would be wise to attend her service that was scheduled eight days off.
That Sunday, my husband and I went for a late breakfast at our local Tee Jaye’s and were met with a bunch of teary-eyed waitstaff who had just been informed that all restaurants were closing at 9:00 that evening. Kind of a shock when less than a week prior, everything looked pretty normal.
In regards to my business, I have switched to offering to counsel my clients by phone or FaceTime, and may also look to internet sites that are HIPAA-compliant. While it is good to have alternatives to face to face counseling, I do not see these as adequate substitutes. I have spoken out before about the importance of face to face counseling, except when there is no other option. The alternatives are less problematic once a relationship has been established, but they still fall short.
A very trite expression keeps running through my mind: Buckle up, Buttercup! We are about to go through some very interesting times. And it may be rough on the state of our mental health.
To date, most of my clients have opted to reschedule appointments for later, partly because this crisis has created such havoc in their own schedules that they cannot keep their original appointments anyway. But my feelings will not get hurt if someone says “I will just wait till you are ready to see me face to face again, Thank you.” After all, that personal touch has been a point of pride for me.
I realize that there is as yet no order for mental health facilities to close down. This is a personal decision, based partly on having a spouse who could suffer horribly if he became infected, and partly on my learning over the years that when we vaccinate or take other similar measures, it is not just ourselves we are protecting: It is for the benefit of anyone who may come in contact with us.
What to do with this extended crisis time? Some among us will be working about five times more and harder than usual—medical personnel, delivery people, policy makers…while many others will have unexpected time on our hands. Everyone needs to come to their own conclusions, but I will share one thing that helped me several years ago during an extended period of unemployment. First, every day, I had a time set to get up whether I needed to or not, to reinforce the importance of a schedule. And secondly, every day I had a goal. It could be unbelievably trivial, such as Make sure there is enough orange juice. But it was important to me that when I went to bed one night, I had some goal in mind for the following day. We do, after all, need to feel we matter, that there is significance to what we do.
Some of you will journal, some of you will blog, some of you will keep your thoughts to yourselves. But once we get to the other side of this, I will be curious to hear what works for many of you. I will be curious to hear what best sustained your mental health through what promises to be a rather drawn-out crisis.

First You Adjust, Then You Readjust, Then You Maladjust

Frustrated

First you adjust, then you readjust, then you maladjust. This is a phrase I heard often during my Al-Anon years, when I was attending that group in order to cope with my then-situation of having a spouse who drank too much. That phrase has stuck with me through the years and throughout numerous situations. It does not apply only to living with or loving an alcoholic. It also applies to abusive situations, and to many of the frustrating situations that life just has a habit of doling out.
When it comes to abuse, a common pattern is that things get worse by inches. First might be a dirty look when you speak a little too freely for the other person’s taste. Next might be the person “forgetting” things that matter to you, followed by a complete discounting. No one ever say “Gee, I think I’ll find someone to smash my face into the wall,” but anyone familiar with the dynamics of domestic abuse is well aware that this is a common outcome after a gradual escalation of disrespectful behaviors.
This also applies if you have a job situation that has turned sour. Many jobs start out well, till the company gets bought out and/or a new boss gets brought in. Or maybe it’s just a change in staff over time. It is confusing to think this same place you loved to show up at in the morning has become a place you dread. And figuring out exactly when that changed can be difficult, but with enough hindsight it can usually be done.
Or, maybe you are living in a neighborhood you love, where your children grew up and you have many fond memories. Maybe this neighborhood is held together by the large number of retired couples who live there. They always opened their doors to you and your children, and you cannot imagine ever leaving. Then one of these retired couples moves into assisted living, the widow next door dies…and on it goes till these people who were the backbone of the neighborhood have mostly disappeared. Next thing you know, some of the places have boarded-up windows, and you feel more like you just woke up in a foreign country.
You could choose to readjust by sticking around and working hard toward bringing the neighborhood back to a home you are proud to claim. Or you could decide to leave, to cut your losses. Or maybe you keep hanging on in hopes something will magically happen to improve things. Meantime, there is a risk you may maladjust, in the sense of getting used to a bad situation even though it could be changed. Of the three, the maladjustment seems most tempting, because there is no effort involved. However, it is not very rewarding.
Facing these decisions is never easy. Sometimes there is nothing we can do in an adverse situation besides cope. You may find a way to continue a relationship with an abuser because your life will be even worse if you don’t; maybe you stick it out with the job that has turned sour because other options are worse; or your attachments to the neighborhood make it worth putting up with the deterioration. The problem comes when you accept these situations as normal, not when you take a hard look and decide to stick it out. Acceptance of the unacceptable is one definition of maladjustment.

Respect for Children’s Boundaries

Determination

Don’t mess with me

At a baby shower I attended recently, I made the remark “Kids can have boundaries” and was met with “Well, duh!” No, I did not feel insulted; I felt encouraged. After all, I came of age in an era when children’s boundaries were not given the respect they deserved. Though my own family fortunately did not follow this pattern, it was not at all uncommon to see a young child publicly instructed “Give your grandpa a kiss,” or “Give your Aunt Helen a hug.” There was no thought that the child had any say in the matter.
Yes, I realize children are not entitled to free rein in whatever they do: They are children, after all. But among the zillion things we do expect these same children to accomplish before they come of age, is the concept of saying No to unwanted touching and/or sexual advances. It does make more sense, it seems clear enough to me, to start this training early, to encourage our children to develop an awareness of what these boundaries mean to them. That includes saying Yes or No to the same person at different times, depending on their feelings at the time.
Can you imagine a world where there is never an implication that “This person said Yes to me last week, so of course I just assumed they were okay with having sex the next time I was interested”? Or a world where there was no Incel movement because there was no feeling of entitlement to hear the word Yes just because?
I am so encouraged to see the awareness that has developed in the past couple of decades—not just regarding overtly sexual behavior but also anything that makes a person uncomfortable. One boundary violation that did occasionally occur in my childhood was excessive tickling. “Look, she’s laughing so she must like it” was the general attitude. Laughter in response to ticking is a reflexive response; it does not necessarily indicate pleasure. That helpless feeling when you are being held down and tickled is not something I would ever want to repeat. It bothered me to the point that, once I was raising my own child and he would actually ask me to tickle him, I could not bring myself to do it. Too many memories of how helpless that once made me feel.
What better training can we give our youngest generation, than to simply say “Would you like a hug?” and for that child to know we will accept their answer without complaint. We are no more entitled to hugs from every child we think is cute, than any of us are to sexual favors from other adults we may be attracted to.
Of course there are all manner of non-physical boundaries too, which are a topic for another day. It is one area where I have witnessed a major increase in awareness, along with a need to start teaching that respect for both self and others at an early age. That is some progress I can get behind.

Paying It Forward Matters

supportive

Hand in Hand

I once bought my father a plaque that said “Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” Bringing sunshine into the lives of others, paying it forward…however you word it, it refers to passing along the good we receive in this world. I have always been a fan of the concept, since long before we used that phrase.
In my years as a younger single mom, my parents helped out in so many ways, and I felt so bad that there was no way I could ever repay them. I was told “Just pass it along” and I took that suggestion very seriously. That likely has a lot to do with my choosing to work in the counseling profession once I had the opportunity. Years earlier, a good friend of mine who was a career social worker told me “You are already doing this for free; you might as well get the education so you can get paid for it.”
One of my own personal ways to pay it forward, was to provide a listening ear whenever people came to me with their problems. And I tried to always have a kind word, to offer some encouragement. I didn’t always follow up with these people—who can, really?—but I felt it was safe to assume they would pass on kindness to others in whatever ways they saw fit.
So imagine my horror when I saw the results of a couple of my “projects” and the people “paid forward” more bad than good. It felt like my best efforts had just gotten sucked into a black hole! I am not sure I realized prior to that, how very important this concept is.
Not to worry. In the scheme of things I would consider it a mere annoyance. And I would likely go to similar efforts even if I could foresee that negative end result. It was a good lesson in doing what feels honorable and then letting the chips fall where they may.
After all, there are way too many extreme examples of people doing the right thing and never seeing it paid forward in their lifetimes, sometimes for nefarious reasons. One prime example is Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands during the later stages of World War II, and later died in a concentration camp. He of course saw that he was saving lives at an unprecedented rate, but in the chaos of the war he probably was seldom able to learn the final outcomes of his heroism. Yet the results of that heroism will benefit many in generations to come, and I am trusting that many others will feel the need to live a good life as a testament to his moral courage.
I do like to believe that the goodness we all spread in this world will be multiplied, that there won’t be someone—or at least there won’t be too many people—putting a stopper in it and deciding the giving ends with them. Maybe I will do well to hold onto that belief. Because being kind to others feels so good, and being unkind feels so awful—that I am way too selfish to change my ways.
That’s right. I do these things because I am selfish. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s a good kind of selfish, in my humble opinion.
And you know what? Someone who behaved badly in the past could accidentally turn their life around. There is always that hope.

Talk It Over, Already

Talking statues

Statues in conversation

Some of my worst mistakes can be traced to my unwillingness to discuss a potential decision with someone else, to seek feedback, or at least to hear my own words reflected back to me. What stopped me? Embarrassment? I like to think I won’t again pass up the opportunity to reflect and share with others what I am considering—especially when it comes to dealing with any enigma. So if you want to do better than I did? Talk it over, already.
See? It doesn’t always require a professional. In many cases, a nonjudgmental friend can be helpful.
About that word nonjudgmental? That doesn’t mean your friend (or counselor) won’t call you out if they think you are wrong. Disagreeing should not mean the end of a relationship. If it did well, what would we do for friends? Because we are all wrong sometimes. Or at least need to consider a different viewpoint.
Let’s say you are trying to decide whether to pursue some higher education. You want to know if it’s a good idea as well as how to pay for it. One example from my own life involves when I first started wanting to pursue a graduate degree, but I had no clue how to pay for it. Did I go to the financial aid office? Um, no. I just stewed over it. (No, this oversight did not ruin my life.)
Let’s say your friend knows little or nothing about the benefits or costs of higher education. They can still reflect back, ask logical questions…they can lead you to deeper thinking, propose the questions you could be asking in pursuit of your decision.
It does often help to know someone with a specific expertise. Are you looking for financial advice? If you don’t want to reveal your finances, you could still get some general advice from a person whose expertise you respect.
I remember the time when someone told me the secret to their small business success was that they never borrowed money, that they had no debts. At the time time I was hearing this, several other voices were telling me to take a risk and go deep into debt: a thought that made me very uncomfortable. I picked the no-debt route for the small business I was running at the time, and have never regretted that decision.
You are not the only one who will benefit from your friend’s acting as a sounding board. Has anyone ever come to you for advice or counsel? Even if you weren’t interested in that role, I am guessing you were flattered. We all need to feel we matter, and providing moral support and a listening ear is one of the best ways I know to get that reinforcement.

Body Image

Your body is fine

Loving your body

Way back when my sister was about 7 years old, our older brother was taking a very pretty classmate to a graduation dance. My sister was so impressed by this girl, especially since she was wearing a satiny dress that my young sister brushed her fingers against and said “Ooh, you feel just like my Dacron pillow.” This beautiful teenagers immediate response was to miss the compliment and apologize for being too fat. (Which she was not. At all.). This happened decades ago, and even then, we (females especially) had conditioned ourselves to constantly apologize for our size, regardless of whether it was an actual issue to anyone else on the planet. I suspect this has changed, but only for the worse.  Body image is a problem for too many of us.
When we are little we just use our bodies for things like running, stretching and playing and don’t think a lot about it. We give them food and exercise on a regular basis, just because that feels right. Assuming we are not raised in a highly oppressive environment, we don’t spend those early years sitting around worrying that we are too fat or too thin. We think often about our next opportunities to exercise, but we aren’t thinking in those terms: It is about climbing trees, swimming, running, bicycling, sledding, skating, building a snowman…So it is fun instead of a duty.
Then teen years and adulthood have a way of taking hold. Not that those are bad years; I certainly enjoyed my teens and the adult years that have led to where I am now. And there didn’t stop being some things I did for pleasure that also happened to provide good exercise: dancing and walking in the woods come to mind. But I also attended classes designed to encourage me to keep moving. Again, that is not a bad thing. Plenty of friendships are made and good conversations started while people roll up their yoga mats. And the ones who stick it out tend to be either very disciplined or in love with that particular way to keep your body moving. I vote for doing it for enjoyment, rather than taking it on as a chore.
Likewise, a great deal of nutritious food is truly enjoyable, yet a lot of the enjoyment is lost if you choose that diet simply for the physical health benefits. I know, we want to enjoy our food and we want to choose foods that will enhance our health, and we commonly can do both. So let’s, let’s enjoy movement that feels good and food that tastes good. And let’s try to not constantly measure and critique our own bodies in the meantime.
One of the joys of getting older is, competing for the best body becomes pretty pointless. We can enjoy our bodies for what they do, for how they serve us, rather than constantly comparing and focusing on where these bodies fall short.
Let’s think like children again. Let’s think like my sister did at age 7. Let’s enjoy the great feeling that comes from throwing our self-consciousness aside. In her book “Some Body to Love”, Leslea Newman suggests writing a love letter to yourself as a step toward becoming more comfortable in your own skin. Let’s start now, can we?

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?

Intelligence Comes in Many Forms

A young man and a dog

Intelligence comes in many forms. The young man in the photo was diagnosed with autism and learning delays at an early age, and was blessed with parents who saw and loved him for his kind and beautiful self. They never failed to nurture his spirit, and his talents. When he was a toddler, his father would lie down and allow the boy to crawl all over him—a delightful way to help encourage his sensory awareness, to help him feel comfortable with touch.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner is known for his theory of multiple intelligences, including interpersonal, visual-spatial, naturalistic, and about five others. Yet we are still too often hung up on that one number in an IQ test—with 100 being the norm and everything else being somehow superior or inferior in comparison. Never mind that just about everyone is a bit uneven in their performance across different areas.
Then there is Emotional Intelligence, written about by Daniel Goleman, who built on the research of Peter Salavoy and John Mayer. It involves the ability to assess and act upon a given situation, to manage one’s own emotions as well as impacting others. For example, when you read of a person who can intuit the point when a total stranger can use a kind word versus when that stranger would rather be left alone. This is especially useful in situations in which we have to react too quickly to systematically reason it through.
We all know or know of at least one person who is tops in a demanding field, something we mere mortals would not attempt, such as astrophysics or molecular biology, yet this same person is totally clueless about interpersonal relations. An IQ test measures that person as a genius, while witnessing that same person in a social situation might lead us to think they are not so smart after all.
But back to the young man pictured: His parents took him through the usual activities—soccer, Olympics, family vacations including Disney World…and like any typical child, he showed an affinity for some things and not others. Through it all, he loved his dog dearly and their cuddle time brought lots of happiness to both boy and dog.
Recently he tried training dogs, and no surprise here, he turned out to be a bit of a dog whisperer, taking first place in a recent competition. Why? As a person with autism, he loves repetition and precision—exactly the traits needed in a good animal trainer. And he has a good sense of how to best relate to each individual dog, such that the dogs he works with are eager to please him.
Temple Grandin, possibly the world’s most famous person with autism, has stated repeatedly that she does so well with animals because she thinks like one. She has been consulted in many instances in which some seemingly insignificant issue has spooked the animals: a two-inch chain above them, people tossing their yellow raincoats over a fence, too rapid a change in light levels for the animals to proceed without fear…She could focus on things the average person ignores, thereby helping the animals to remain calm.
Move over, Temple. We have a new dog whisperer, and he is going to do you proud.

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.

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.