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.

Abuse – It’s Not Just Intimate Partners and Family

upset-pixabayMaybe, as opposed to abuse, it would best be referred to as “not-so-benign neglect.”
We know about intentional bullying, and I have written about abuse from intimate partners. There is a Power and Control wheel that is widely available, and several lists of signs of a potential abuser. It is of course more difficult to leave an abusive relationship with someone whose life has become entwined with your own.
Often, however, the abusive situation is institutional and totally impersonal. No one is specifically out to hurt you; they just don’t care. Take, for example, gargantuan companies that are known for low hourly wages combined with “flexible hours” and a refusal to provide employees with full time positions.
As a self employed business owner, I have more control over my schedule. But I recently experienced major frustration over the neighborhood in which my office was located. There has been a huge project involving digging up a lot of the streets around the Square, as anyone living nearby is well aware. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the storm sewers to be separated from the sanitary sewers, and this entails digging about 10 feet down. So it’s no quick and easy project.
Here is where the institutional abuse comes in: The needs of people who work on the Square are often disregarded. Employees and small business owners are doing their level best to keep customers happy. But far too much is out of their control.
Parking space has been an issue. It changes constantly as traffic is re-routed around the latest construction. This could be reduced to a minor annoyance, but that has not happened. Signage has ranged from woefully inadequate to nonexistent. So everyone figures it out by guess and by golly, and keeps making the best of it. It is very hard on morale, and I feel it is neglectful at best, to keep expecting the downtown workforce—along with anyone intending to conduct business there—to spend huge amounts of time figuring out things that could be explained with good signage. They lose business every time someone decides to go elsewhere because it is just too much to navigate.
I got a reprieve that I was not looking for. My landlords wanted the space back, and I was put on notice. I wound up in Granville, and despite the effort and expense of moving, I do like it there.
It is also unfortunate, though, because I previously loved my old digs. Downtown Newark will be beautiful again in a few years, once it is finished. It may look better than it did before the whole project started.
Even though no one had it in for me personally, I feel a bit like someone who was kicked out of an abusive relationship. I am relieved, but also puzzled that I didn’t leave sooner, of my own accord.

Divorce Counseling

gavelBack before the earth cooled, I had a marriage that was bringing me more distress than happiness. I knew there was no point in counseling, because I knew my then-spouse would not take part. Then he did attend one session; it did not go well. At this point, I decided I was on my own to figure things out.
I knew wrong. At that time, my sister wisely suggested that I could go alone and get counseling about whether to stay in the marriage. There were still a few hiccups. But by the time the divorce was in process, I wound up seeing a counselor who so impressed me that I still keep him on my referral list, 30-plus years later!
Anyone going through the breakup of a marriage should have two counselors: your counselor at law, otherwise known as your attorney, and a mental health counselor. Most of us know we can’t handle the legal intricacies (unless it is an exceptionally simple matter, and even then I am a believer that an attorney should prepare the paperwork). But when it comes to our own mental health, it is far too easy to say “I’ve got this.”
The reality is, this is a very stressful time. Even if you have mutually agreed on the split, there is a lot of pain involved, not to mention soul-searching, anger, sadness…take your pick, it’s a tangle of emotions. And it is easy to wear out your support people while letting off steam while dealing with those feelings.
I am not questioning anyone’s sanity, though utilizing a counselor may make holding onto that sanity a bit easier. I am suggesting that at such a stressful time, it is good to have a backup system, someone who will listen to you without feeling burdened.
When you are going through a divorce, you may find you suddenly have a few new “friends” hanging around who are actually vultures, feeding on your misery. A professional can help you keep these people at bay.
This process can also smooth the path for your dealings with your legal counselor, your attorney. Things go so much better if you can be calm and rational when you are preparing your legal case. The less time and money devoted to ranting instead of preparing your case, the better.
One common result of stress and/or trauma is: We act stupid. Exceedingly, uncomprehendingly stupid. Not always, but we are prone to that. Have you ever heard about people who go on very public rants, such as using Facebook, to badmouth their soon-to-be exes? This really doesn’t help anyone’s legal case. However, there is a place you can say any mean thing about that person you want, without exposing other loved ones to all that vitriol. (There is an obvious exception here: We are required to report if you express an intent to cause anyone harm, including yourself. So please, utilize your time to ensure that you don’t have a desire to cause injury.)
There is no shame in seeking help. No one thinks twice about hiring an attorney, and I am an avid believer in taking an equal interest in your own emotional survival while you navigate this process.

Hoarding and its Effects

clutter

clutter

I am in the middle of reading a most excellent novel, “The House We Grew Up In” by Lisa Jewell, which focuses on the family dynamics of a mythical hoarder. As far as I have gotten in the story (which isn’t very), the author clearly has a grasp on the psychology and patterns of hoarding. It’s sad, really, that oftentimes hoarders are so intent on keeping an overabundance of possessions that they drive away—or retreat from—the actual people in their lives. Their primary relationships because those with their possessions.
In this particular novel, Mom—who is exceptionally creative—is the hoarder, and when her children are younger she insists on their preserving all the wrappers from their chocolate Easter eggs, firmly believing that those squares of foil will help her to remember and rejoice in the memory of those Easters spent as a family. Her house is very cluttered during those years, but following a tragedy the hoarding escalates dramatically.
This is reflective of real life; there is always a trauma, or at least some basic anxiety behind hoarding.
Since the advent of TV shows featuring hoarders, much attention has been paid to this syndrome. Some of us fear we have become hoarders, when actually we have saved a few sentimental items. Others among us actually do hoard to a dangerous extent, then point to the examples in these shows to prove to ourselves that we’re not “that bad” and don’t have a real problem after all.
Like anything else, it’s best to nip it in the bud. If you know and love a hoarder, don’t delude yourself that you can clear their home out and everything will be hunky-dory; there is often a great deal of anxiety attached to a hoarder not having enough things in his or her space.
I grew up with a hoarder, and thought it was extreme. Then I learned about the levels and found that what I lived with was only a Level 1 out of 5. Level 1 hoarders never allow the exits to be blocked: If you can access the nearest exit in case of fire, you are not considered that bad a hoarder. Level 5 is so extreme it often leaves houses looking ready to topple from all that stuff.
To be diagnosed as a hoarder, it has to interfere with your day-to-day functioning. So…if you have enough money to just rent a bunch of storage spaces, or to have a gazillion-room house with certain rooms devoted to keeping the junk, then you do not meet the threshold for a DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) diagnosis. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
Like any other issue, hoarding affects the entire household and often affects friendships outside of the family unit. Sometimes people are so intent on keeping their “treasures” that spouses or significant others find themselves unable to stay.
Like any other issue, this deserves to be recognized and dealt with, and when the hoarder starts to heal, the benefits will accrue to their loved ones too. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Grounding, Self-Soothing, Calming Techniques

Reading is grounding

When people go through tough times, we often tend to re-live them without wanting to—to feel and behave as though the event is occurring in the present, whether it is happening now or occurred years ago. Trauma tends to hijack the brain. When you want to talk to someone about an event, to process it, it is helpful to be able to feel calm enough first.
This is often referred to as grounding, or self-soothing. Children often learn fairly early on what will help them. You have no doubt seen children tuning out an unpleasant event. Or you’ve been that child. Sometimes we forget that skills, or perhaps we never learned it in the first place.
When we are calmer, more centered, more grounded, we are far more able to attend to whatever needs done in the present. And we are better able to process disturbing events.
Successful grounding techniques vary from person to person. Essentially, it boils down to whatever helps you to feel calm in the present moment,. I have a few pointers:
First, breathe. Deeply. This is essential to any form of calming.
Next, remember that you can utilize any of your senses in this endeavor. Even taste. Some people are centered by popping a peppermint and sucking on it. Others respond better to smells: A favorite cologne, fresh flowers, an essential oil such as lavender. (Lilac is a favorite scent of mine; it reminds me of my grandmother.) Sound is a good sense to utilize: Some listen to music, others use guided imageries (some of which can be found on YouTube.). Some people become grounded by what they see: Maybe a favorite picture, or the snow outside your window, or a loved one’s face. Touch can be extremely calming: Hugs from loved ones, or maybe the feel of a familiar blanket. (Remember how many kids love their blankie?) Some people keep cotton balls in their pocket so they can palm them.
Then there are physical poses; yoga is a wonderful grounding technique. I especially like the Child’s Pose, where the forehead touches the floor. Just sitting in a chair, feet on the ground, paying close attention to your surroundings. Feet should be on the ground, energy envisioned as moving head to feet instead of the reverse.
Some people force themselves to concentrate, making lists, working puzzles, doing serious reading…
With a little experimentation and a little practice, you can learn to be more comfortable in your own skin even when life seems intent on preventing that.

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.

Yarn Bombing: Sharing the Joy

yarn bombed bike & stand

Did you knit that bicycle?

When my networking group met at a Granville coffee house this morning, we found ourselves right across the street from a “yarn bombing” site. For those unfamiliar with the concept of yarn bombing, a group of unknown people make a stealth “attack” sometime before sunrise, and decorate trees, railings, benches–you name it–with their knitting. There is even a world yarn bombing day, and apparently this is it. At least according to the notation they included on some of their work.
It puts smiles on a lot of faces.
I still knit a little; I did a lot of it in my younger days, even worked in a yarn shop and taught classes. We didn’t yarn bomb in those days, mostly followed patterns and made afghans and outfits for ourselves and our families. I do like the whimsy of the yarn bombing.
Mobility equipment is a favorite target of mine. If you are going to be stuck with a walker, or crutches, or a cane, why not have some fun with it? A wheelchair would look great with some creative knitting on the armrests or across the back. One friend of mine covered her medical boot with black knitted piece featuring a pink flamingo on the front and the word “Ouch” across the back. Me? I just use up scrap yarn to decorate canes and walkers. Got my start with my own crutches when I had foot surgery. A young girl told me I should call it “crutch cozies.” Smart kid!
If it makes people smile or laugh, and not in a hurtful way…well, I’m all for spreading joy. It’s only one way out of many. Personally, I kind of hope the Granville yarn bombers manage to stay anonymous; they are spreading kindness in their own unique way.

“Chasing the Scream” – rethinking addictions

drugs of abuseDid you spend the past several years being told that the only solution to anyone’s drug or alcohol issues involved a 12-step program? Were you told that addictions left unchecked are always fatal? Yeah, me too. Then along comes a journalist who turns that on its ear.
Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” refutes just about everything we thought we knew about drugs and treatment, and documents every bit of it meticulously. Mr. Hari spent years conducting in-depth research in numerous locales all over the world.
For decades, I was told that anyone who quit without a 12-step program was practicing “white knuckle sobriety,” that it was simply a “dry drunk.” Any lack of apparent struggle was explained away by stating that this person was never an addict. The reality is, one-size-fits-all programs, though an ideal solution for some, have failed many.
Regarding the larger picture of the drug war, Johann Hari cites the drug war’s history, from its beginnings spearheaded by Harry Anslinger a century ago, to current policies in several countries along with their successes and failures. Some countries have enacted helpful policies, but they are not widespread enough. We all know about the murders in places like Mexico. And a huge number of overdoses occur because–I hadn’t previously considered this aspect–illegal drug use takes place in private, with no medical professionals around to supervise dosage and ensure that the drugs aren’t cut with who knows what. It could be shoe polish for all we know, and people shoot that into their veins right along with the drugs.
Vancouver, British Columbia, is the only city on this continent, as of the date of the book’s publication, that has a controlled area where people can use under medical supervision. The irony of this decriminalization is, a number of people actually reduce their usage when they can indulge openly; some even quit completely. These policies have drastically reduced the number of drug-related fatalities. Many of these addicts have become successfully employed, now that their time is not occupied by the illegal activities involved in seeking out and paying for their substances.
If you know anyone who has struggled with addiction, or if you just have a personal interest in the topic, I highly recommend this book.

Feelings Matter

10849834_10204283008649005_4656505680773991841_nHave you ever been walking down the street on a day when it felt like your world would end, and a total stranger said “Smile; it can’t be that bad.” How would they know? Yeah, it can be that bad. And you have a perfect right to your feelings. While sadness is no excuse to be rude to others, I personally don’t see a need to appear totally cheerful 100 percent of the time. That is simply not realistic. Maybe you just had an ugly spat with someone dear to you. Or you learned your best friend has Parkinson’s. Maybe it’s just a pile of smaller things that have taken their toll. Whatever you feel is genuine.
This stranger may feel he or she is doing a genuine kindness to suggest you smile. Or they may just be uncomfortable with your sadness. But how they feel is their problem, not yours. Just as how you feel is not their issue (unless you choose to share it).
All your feelings matter. And they all need to be acknowledged, even the negative ones. If we don’t find some way to honor our negative feelings, we are too likely to keep them inside. Which leads to flattening all the emotions, good and bad, and can even lead to a general feeling of melancholy.
Infants and young children’s emotions have a tendency to “turn on a dime.” They may be laughing, then suddenly in tears, or vice versa. But there is no question about what they are feeling; it’s right out there. Then they get a little older, and they sometimes show frustration by acting out, and the adults in their world have the dubious privilege of interpreting this behavior.
If you are reading this, you have presumably reached adulthood. Which is certainly no guarantee of having it all figured out. All those years you were a child and figured that once you were 18 or 21 or whatever, you would always know what to do. But one thing is simple, though not always easy: Honor your feelings and those of others. Feel free to talk about them with someone you trust. When you can get the negative feelings out of the way–sadness, frustration, anger–in constructive ways, the happiness will be so much greater. Try it; you might free yourself to feel as playful as the little guy in the picture.