Sunday, July 16, 2017

Courage, Part 2 ....Wait, what happened to Courage, Part One???

Courage Part Two  (Maybe in homage to George Lucas, I'll write Part One later)

When I was about 3 years old, my dad wrote and illustrated a book for me.  It was called "Yip:  The Story of a Puppy Dog Who Couldn't Bark."  In the story, this little puppy dog could only sound a small and frail 'yip yip,' so he was named Yip.  A wise wizard, Merlin, told Yip that one day he would find the courage to bark.  And that is what happened - Yip befriended a brave knight, Lancelot and traveled the kingdom with him.  One day Lancelot, in trying to save a lady in distress, got cornered by a fire-breathing dragon.  Yip, to save his friend and the lady, began to bellow a "Bark Bark" and a "Woof Woof" and it scared the dragon off.  Yip found his courage and the dragon was never seen again.


Aside from private practice, I've had two jobs as a social worker.  1)  Counseling abused and homeless kids at Youth In Need and 2) Home hospice social worker.

From the first day I started working in hospice, everyone I encountered, said to me, "That must be so hard,"  with a very sad expression on their faces.  Yet, it took me hardly anytime to learn something about myself and respond this way -  "Not nearly as hard as working with abused kids."  And that is my truth to this day.

I'm not saying that death isn't sad or terrifying.  Death, both facing our own, and witnessing the decline and illness of someone we love is frightening and takes immense courage.   But it is a courage, that knows in its soul, that it is based in love - love of life and many times love of another person.

And, while I have a lot of thoughts about courage, in general and I want to write about the courage it takes to face illness, over come anxieties, and be resilient in more usual ways, I have had a great deal of trouble writing this blogpost, because I just don't think I can write about courage without first writing for and about people who have had to face the ugliest of human nature.  I want to write about their courage and what I think it takes to heal after your life has been touched by hatred, terror, abuse or evil.

A couple of weeks ago I saw the new Sofia Coppola movie, The Beguiled and found myself pondering a line from Nicole Kidman's character.  She is the headmistress of a largely abandoned girls' boarding school in Virginia during the Civil War.  She says,  "Courage is simply doing what needs to be done at the time." And the movie continues to unfold with her 'doing what needs to be done' to keep herself and the young girls and women she is in charge of safe from a man who terrorizes them.

Perhaps you are reading this and you are a rape survivor, perhaps you are reading this and finally escaped an abusive situation - whether it was physical, emotional, or sexual; perhaps you are reading this and have been the victim of a hate crime or another violent crime.  You are reading this now because you did what needed to be done at the time.  You put one foot in front of the other.  Some survivors I know deny this is courage.  Whatever got you here, I can tell you that it is, indeed, courage.

When hate has touched your life, you change.  A couple things I see happen...sometimes you get used to existing in chaos and turmoil and don't know what 'normal' feels like, sometimes you don't know who to trust and who not to trust, sometimes you become depressed, sometimes you feel enraged.  But, what it distills to for me, regardless of how it looks on the outside, is that you develop a sadness in your soul.  If you have had to muster the courage to get away from hate and violence, I think you know what I mean.

At the training I went to in Portland this past Spring, I went to a session on healing from trauma and they showed this clip from Captain Phillips, a movie about the surviving a hostage situation at sea.  And I just want to say that if you are a trauma survivor, this might be sad and hard to watch, though it is a clip about his rescue.  

There are so many things that touch me about this clip, but what I most want to suggest is that the gentleness that the medic uses with Tom Hanks after the violence he has endured, is what I think we need in the aftermath of the courage we must use to escape cruelty.  If we have escaped abuse, violence, or hatred, we have been treated with the opposite of gentleness by another human being.  The antonyms of gentle in the dictionary include 'cruelty' and 'merciless.'  If you have survived such treatment, especially if you endured it over a long period of time, you may have gotten acclimated to being treated this way and this is the damage that must be healed.

About 8 years ago or so, I heard a program on NPR...I could have sworn it was This American Life, but I've tried to find it and can' was about a woman who had either been the victim of a crime or had been coping with some mental illness.  She talked about her need for 'hush' and the peace she finds just sitting at the kitchen table, doing nothing.  Appreciating the  'hush.'   I would love to hear this piece again and if you happen to be reading this and know the source, please let me know.

Being a writer, I want to tell stories of finding courage.  But, being a therapist, I also want to offer thoughts on healing.  I wanted to say that our culture has become too harsh, cruel and merciless in many ways.  But when I say "our culture", this depersonalizes something that feels highly personal, if you have had to survive such treatment.   A person treats another person with cruelty.  A group of people can be merciless with other people.

To heal, I believe we need gentleness.  We need to treat ourselves gently, we need to treat others gently.  We need to find our version of hush.  This might be small things at first.  It might seem inconsequential, but it's not.  Maybe it starts with listening to classical music instead of rock music.  Maybe it's sitting on your porch for a few minutes each day and listening to the birds.  It might be watching Modern Family instead of CSI.  The gentleness will get bigger and broader from there.  The gentleness will not only be with these 'little' things that we fill our time with, it will be with our hearts and souls.  The world may hold cruelty, but we can choose gentleness.


It's been a long, challenging process to write this blogpost.   I'm given pause to wonder why, when I was only a toddler, my dad chose to write a book for me about courage.   Really, Yip:  The Puppy Dog Who Couldn't Bark, is a story about speaking up when something is wrong.  Finding your courage to speak, even when you are afraid.  I think it's about doing what needs to be done at the time, and I'm going to keep doing it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What It Feels Like for a Tomboy

I took my son to a new climbing gym this past week.  Over the years, I've climbed with him a few times, but in the past 6 or 8 months, he's really gotten into it and it seems like it's a sport that is sticking.  At the different places we've been in the past, there are various 'rules' about who gets to belay and what is required.  About half the time somebody who wants to belay can get a demonstration from an instructor and take a 'test' immediately after and then belay that day.  The other half of the time, you have to already know and pass a test without demonstration.  The main thing about being a belay is to tie the appropriate knot to keep your climber safe from falling.

To set up the story further - I suck at mechanical stuff.  Tying a knot, though ridiculously apparent for some people, is not at all apparent for me.

You might see where this is going; I wrongly assumed that this would be one of the more 'lax' gyms. Here I am... getting ready to take my belay test, with my impatient almost 14 year old son standing there, probably not exactly thrilled to be with his mom anyway.  And the gym manager is standing there too.  Then, the manager calls over two trainees - both male.  They are all standing around staring at me waiting for me to tie a knot.  And I don't remember how.  And oh, did I mention? I have this weird harness thing strapped around my thighs and groin.  It's getting more humiliating by the second.

I feel myself starting to get flushed, upset. I say, "Guys, give me some space.  I can't remember with everyone standing around staring at me."  So they walk away, leaving me in a mental fight with a rope for about ten minutes.  Feeling embarrassed, frustrated with myself, overwhelmed.   Yet, I know when to give up.  So, I do.  I return the equipment to the guys.  And I say, "I totally get that safety is first, but you have no idea how overwhelming it is as a woman trying to do something that I'm not good at with four dudes, who know what they're doing, staring at me.  It was just too much."  And I started to cry.   Not sob, but tear up.  And they were so nice about it - "You're right - we could have been more sensitive to that. "

And for many people this might have been a totally embarrassing moment.  But for me it was total progress.  I felt so good about it.

I don't know what it's like to be a boy/man, but I do know what it's like to be a tomboy.  I know that I was raised to be tough.  To be valued for being tough.  To bait my own hook, to run the fastest mile and do the most sit ups, to brush off any hurt as 'no big deal.'  To swallow my own fears and feelings to take care of my baby sister, to successfully fight off a potential child molester and not tell anyone, to not make anything a big deal, to not inconvenience anyone.

Many choices and circumstances in my life since I was a kid reinforced this thing of me not feeling my own feelings.  Or moving really quickly through my feelings.  It's some combination between my innate personality, the way my significant relationships reinforced these qualities, and it's a muscle that's fully developed in my vocation.  My work, whether in hospice or private practice refines this because a great skill in my work is to totally imagine myself in someone else's shoes - it's not so much how I would feel about my client's life, but imagining how he/she feels about their own life and beginning our work from that place.  And in hospice, I even prided myself on not really crying - I'd let myself get teared up, but I was incredibly cognizant that 'this was not about my feelings.'

Some of my girlfriends, are what I could call 'princess girls'.  I'm guessing that from childhood they have been valued as the precious people they are, and doted on.  And when they said, "I don't like it" or "That won't work for me", they learned that people will listen and change to accommodate.

Earlier in my life, I think I might have been hard on princess girls.  Kind of like, "can't they just power through it?" Or "must be nice to have someone clean your car off when it snows."  But truthfully, I guess I was a little jealous.  It is a sad thing to have to be strong all the time.  To not feel that it is ok to ask for help and when you ask for help not expect to receive it.

When my son and I drove home after the climbing gym (he still climbed with an auto-belay and he and I both bouldered too), I told him about talking to the guys at the gym about my experience.

My son said, "Mom, you felt micro-aggressed."  He's kind of judge-y about that, being a sort of emotional libertarian and almost 14 years old and knowing everything.

I said, "No."  And I paused for a long time because I tried to think how I really felt.  It was both about being female and about being specifically me and the way I have walked through this world.  "I just wanted to tell them how I felt.  I don't want to pretend like things don't hurt me anymore.  Pretending that has actually started to hurt me more.  Maybe guys feel like that all the time.  If that's true, that's not right."

I guess there is a good side and a down side to possessing either quality.  Someone who holds or hides their feelings, suffers - sometimes you get separated from your own feelings and don't realize you have any anyway, sometimes your expectations of others are so low that you don't know a good relationship from a bad one, sometimes you just feel silenced.  But the other extreme is isolating as well.  If you always expect others to accommodate you, do you really know what it's like to be in a relationship?  Perhaps it's hard to take pride in yourself because you don't develop a healthy amount of toughness and stamina.

Isn't it funny that you can live with yourself your whole life and not know things about yourself?  I actually didn't even know that I held my feelings inside or didn't ask much of others until the past 5 to 7 years.  As I've been starting to share this with friends, they say, "that's so weird!  You are a therapist!"  or "I would never think that about you."  But I know it's very important, because when I talk about it, it makes me feel really sad and at least half the time, I start to cry.  I actually grieve for the time I've spent not sharing or always putting my feelings on the back burner.

One great thing about my job though, is that it helps me understand that in whatever places in my life that are painful or where I am growing and changing, many other people share some of the same struggles.  And I think that's why I write about it - maybe you are a caregiver, a tomboy, a tough guy.  Maybe you got the message to suck it up or that your feelings were not as important was someone else's feelings.

Here is a challenge from me to you - try something different.  Be willing to be a little embarrassed.  Be willing to look not exactly tough.  What you will find is that it feels really good to feel that other people care and want to listen or help or even put your feelings first.  I'm finding that just speaking up makes me feel different, a little better somehow...not exactly like a princess, but maybe something a little like that.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

1) You Are Doing a Good Job as a Parent 2) And, How to Talk with Your Kids about Sad Stuff

Driving my kids to and from various camps in rural Missouri the past couple of weeks, I've been grateful for two advances in technology - Google Maps and deodorant.  I think about both of those things frequently on these camp drives, and it brings me a sense of peace.

One thing I'm not grateful for is the proliferation of advice on parenting that just seems to snowball in the years since I've been writing this blog.  With every parenting question, you can find 50 different articles with nuances of advice and so much of it just makes parents more afraid, walking on eggshells, insecure that they have totally f****ed up their child/ren already.  Today, I am writing with anti-advice 'thoughts' (for lack of a better word) and I'm hopeful that if you follow my blog, you will forgive me as I am being kind of hypocritical because I just complained about parenting advice online.  Oh well.

The reason I'm thinking of it more intently right now, is that personally, I've been confronted with a few sad, worrisome, and even tragic situations in my community in the past couple of weeks - children and adults I know who are directly dealing with death, disease, grief and violence.  I've been asked by several parents - "how do I/we talk to our kids about this?"

Here is what I've come to believe about 'saying it right' to our children:

1) If you are worried about saying it right, you are probably not going to say anything to your kids that is damaging.  You are already consciously, intentionally putting the emotional needs of your child/ren as a high priority.  Please don't be so anxious about yourself.  You are a loving parent and you're going to do a good job.  No matter what 'advice' I give after this...(you might ignore the rest, in fact)...this is what I want you to know - if you are worried about doing the right thing and consciously trying to do well by your kids during a crisis, you are a good parent.

2) Kids do not understand the broad implications of words like Cancer or Divorce or Hospital.  They don't have the range of life experience to instantly know that Divorce can mean living with new people like stepparents and stepsiblings and divided Christmas holidays.  They don't know that Cancer can mean dad getting treatments that make him nauseated or lose his hair or that he might not be able to coach baseball.  They don't have the thunderous realization that any change means months of uncertainty and change of routine.  They don't know what it means to have to make a 'new normal.' This general understanding creates great fear in adults, but our kids can be more in the moment (the way we know we are supposed to be, if we listen to our yoga teacher).

It's ok to answer questions that we know the answers to and it's also ok to say "I don't know yet."  Or "when I know the answer, I will tell you" or "I am not ready to talk about that yet."

3)  Kids will remember feelings we convey more than exact words.  When my ex and I first separated, my youngest was in first grade.  The very night she learned of it, she cried at the dinner table and asked me, "Are you and Dad going to get divorced?"  "I don't know," I answered. "But I do know that no matter what happens, we are going to be ok."  When I think about my lowest, most frightened moments, what I've longed for is someone to tell me "it's all going to be ok."   I try to honestly convey that tension to my kids - "hey - I don't know all the answers, but I do know that hard times enter all our lives and hard times also pass."

4)  It's ok to show your sad and scared and angry feelings to your kids, but don't lay them on your kids to fix.   You can say, "I am sad today.  I'm so glad I have grandma to talk to."  Or, "I am worried today, but I know tomorrow will be a better day."  You can cry in front of your kids,

5)  You can make mistakes and then give your kids the great gift of modeling to them that you own up to it.   All you have to say is, "I've been thinking about it and I don't think I said, x, y, or z in the way I wanted to."  Or, "I just want to check in with you about when we talked about X - I wondered if I wasn't a good listener. I am sorry."

Our culture seems to have idealized childhood somehow - to be imparting to us parents that we are supposed to keep our kids in an idealized bubble of childhood that is all and always baseball and apple pie and playdates where everyone gets along.  Yet, we are doomed to fail if this is the unconscious standard we hold ourselves to.  Even if bad things don't 'happen' from the outside, our kids deal with inside struggles too - ADHD, anxiety, not making a team, being left out.

In my work, I ponder with people about 'why do bad things happen?'  I notice, in particular this can be a disheartening question for people who believe in a loving God - how and why could a loving God allow bad things to happen?

I believe in God (as I've said, I don't care if people call God God or Nature or Love or Energy...or me, it's not important).  I know and believe there is a great, loving Mystery that is way beyond my human understanding.  One thing I can understand about that Mystery is what it is to be a loving parent.  To me, a Loving Parent embodies some part of that Mystery.

In one way, as loving parents, we wish we could prevent our children from ever having to know or feel any pain in life - anything bad or scary or cruel.  But, then we would protect our children from Life itself.  It would be no good.  We would control our children and they would not ever be truly free; they would never truly live.

We are parents and we can't protect our children from everything.  We shouldn't.  We can be there - imperfectly.  Not saying it 'right', but doing it right... because we do what we do with love.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

How We Can NOT Panic When We Realize Life is Random and Everything Is Totally Out of Our Control

At the beginning of the ending of my marriage I took a trip alone to Sedona, Arizona.  It was one of those symbolic things that divorcing people do...sort of supposed to be self-care and also "I can do this" empowerment (but I was white knuckling it the whole way).  One of the hardest parts for me, I remember, was not wearing my wedding ring.  I got on the plane, sat next to a family (of course...rub it in my face, World), and I thought, "What are they going to think of me?!"  Like I was a serial killer - a middle aged lady with no wedding ring on.  "How scandalous!  What is her deal?," I imagined might be some of their thoughts.  Wearing a wedding ring is a story to the world.  It puts you in a box of people we know something about.  "She (or he) is married.  Someone thought they were nice enough to marry.  They must be pretty nice.  They probably have kids.  They are probably a normal person."   I felt exposed and vulnerable without my wedding ring on.

Anybody who has ever lost a person, a job, a relationship, moved, lost one's health, even lost files on the computer (which seems upon writing it, silly, compared to the other losses I mentioned, but a loss these days, nonetheless) - deeply understands that loss makes us feel vulnerable.  I know a man who said that losing a family member at a young age introduced randomness into his life.  And what feels more vulnerable than the intimate knowledge that bad things that happen are often random?  That we are now exposed to randomness and vulnerable to pain at any time?

Or more truthfully, that we were vulnerable the whole time before the loss and didn't truly know it.

 And that's the crux of what I'm wanting to share today - it's that we are always vulnerable and that perhaps there is a healthy humility we can cultivate that will help us in our day to day life, but also when the chips are down.

12-Step Programs like Al-Anon and AA begin with a concept of being humble (the word they use is 'powerless', but I interpret it this way - "Alcohol is bigger than we are."  I think the idea ripples out from there and is more expansive than addiction  -  "My grief is bigger than I am, alone" or "My depression is bigger than I am, alone", "My rage is bigger than I am, alone"  "My cancer is bigger than I am, alone", "My resentments is bigger than I am, alone", "My child's anxiety is bigger than I am, alone."

I'll give you an example of a time I wasn't humble in the face of something big.   I was a couple years into my work in hospice and had gained enough experience to just begin to think I 'knew something.'  I visited a patient for the very first time - it was a beautiful late Spring day and the house was near one of the city parks.  It was a changeable weather day, though and a storm would soon be rolling in - tornadoes were predicted.  I met the adult daughter, who was taking care of her father.  He was bedbound, but rousable.  She could still get him to the bedside commode - he was strong enough, when awake, to help her a little. But she wondered how long he had, really.  Her brother would like to come in and say goodbye, but he lived out of town.  Did she need to call him to come in today, she wondered?  I listened to the man's breathing - it was not rattling.  He breathed shallowly, but at regular intervals.  His color didn't look terrible.  I said, "While I can't be sure, I don't think your dad will die today.  I think you would be okay to wait another day for your brother to come in."  Her dad died within 24-hours and her brother had not driven in from out of town.  I felt terrible and responsible and I felt ashamed.  I talked with one of our 'old' hospice nurses about that - one of my favorites - a salty, hilarious Irish lady.  She said, "Katy, that is hubris.  To guess when someone will die is hubris."  I never did it again.  Not that way, anyway.  I always told my patients and families that story, too.  Death is bigger than me.  Death will always be bigger than me.

I am grateful every day and for so many reasons that I had the opportunity to work in hospice.  Selfishly, I realize that through experiencing and observing so much loss, I was somehow that little bit more open to the changes I've needed to make since that time.

What do we do after we wake up to that fact that we are small and vulnerable?  Do we just give up, roll into the fetal position on the kitchen floor and cry?  Yes!  Well, yes, we do that for a little while and then we get up and we ask for help.

Many things are bigger than me and I am humble before them.  But, I also have a team.  I have a loving, imperfect, crazy team of friends and family and poets and church people and neighbors and for me, even God (though I know not everybody goes in for that.)  And, while you might think I'm extroverted and so sure, it's easy to ask for help.  No, I'm only kind of extroverted, and I'm also kind of introverted, so it's not always easy to ask for help.  Plus, I'm a perfectionist and a caregiver and all these other things that you might know about me from reading this blog.

But now, when I don't know what to do or my brain is like the old 'bird's nest' in my fishing pole - a mess of confusion, I am sure about something.  I am sure that I need to ask for help.  So, I ask myself this:  "Who knows more about this than I do?"  "Who might have some insight into this?"  "Who is a good listener?" "Who will encourage me?"  "Who lifts my burdens?"  And then I make a phone call (or three) or send an email or say a prayer.  And more or less, this is what I say, "Will you help me?"

This doesn't mean everything gets wrapped up with a pretty bow.  My kid's say one of my negative personality traits is my timing and bluntness - I am honest and blunt with them and sometimes tell them some cold hard fact of life right before bedtime, and they are like, "Mom, your timing sucks."  So here's my cold hard fact, and much like I'd say to my kids.  Shit happens.  So, ask for help before shit happens, that way when it does, you don't have to overcome your pride and false ideas of control to do so.

And then, you will get help.  And sometimes you'll get help, but it won't be in the form or timing you want it.    Be humble and ask for help anyway.  It will help you remember that we are all in this together.  And it will help you remember something else, I think you know, deep deep down, if you really let yourself listen.

It's all going to be okay.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Happy Life? Close Relationships...yes, please. Jerry, thank you.

The other day I posted an article from Inc.on my personal facebook about a groundbreaking, Harvard study, following the emotional health and well-being of hundreds of men (primarily) .  It's a pretty famous study, mostly because very few studies span 75 years - literally, generations.  Here's a link to the actual study (not the article I posted on facebook.) 
Harvard Second Generation Study

The catchy part that makes this fodder for TED talks and facebook feeds is what looks like the conclusion (at least for this generation):  it's not wealth, success, fame or power that makes people happy, content or healthy over a lifetime.  It's the quality of their relationships. 

After I posted the Inc. article, a friend responded to the link on my timeline, enthusiastically agreeing and saying, to paraphrase - Yes!  When we find that special person in our life, who we can tell everything to and who loves and supports us no matter what...that is the key to happiness! 

I found myself with two totally different reactions to this innocent and energetic reply -

1) My therapist self, says No, let me explain more:  It's not finding the one elusive soulmate (if that even exists) - it's about cultivating genuine connectedness, affection and support in our varied relationships.  Friendships, sibling relationships, the person we serve on the non-profit board with, our parents - all of these relationships can be of high quality and emotional intimacy.  This broad, loving community is what makes a healthy and happy life. 

2)  My emotional, non-logical self.  My 'Jeez I Just Got Divorced and I'm Starting Life Over Self,' says - Oh my gosh, what about that one special person?!?  I don't have one.  What if I die miserable and unfulfilled.  What do I make of this soulmate thing?  Should I get more cats or is that like a sign that I TOTALLY WILL die alone?!

Ok, so that 2) kind of jumps to conclusions and I have to reign her in.  But who can blame her.  We live in a culture of the romantic myth.  I don't mean to say that all romance is a myth, but what I mean to say is that most people I know (not all), have the hope of going through this life with someone they love.  And in pursuing this goal, we often put the cart before the horse.  Or maybe we have the horse and the cart, but we don't keep it hooked up in working order.

To that end, here's another something - the most downloaded article from the New York Times in 2016

Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person

One of the things Alain de Botton (a teacher and philosopher) says is, "Partly, it’s because we have a bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get close to others. We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?”"

He's very funny to listen to and read, and I'd also like to flip his question the other way.  In our search for emotional intimacy, I think the most important question is actually, "Do I know how I am crazy and can I convey that honestly to someone else?" 

Part of the reason our relationships - be they friendships, romances, marriages, boss/employee relationships, may not feel as fulfilling as they might is because we don't know our own selves well enough to say what we want, what we need, or who we are.

I work on this in my own life.  Recently, I called my sister with some problem or other.  My sister is a wonderful fixer - she is solution focused and creative.  She has a passionate way of communicating.  When I called her, I prefaced the problem - "I need to talk about something, but I need you to just be gentle and not offer any solutions.  I just need support in this moment."  She was awesome.  She was a cheerleader.  She was a listener.  And she was gentle.  Is was just what I needed in that moment.

I think we need to stop questing for others to be perfect for us and we need to stop expecting ourselves to be perfect in relationships.  If most people would like to look back on their lives from a ripe old age and feel that life was meaningful, more or less content, and sometimes even happy, I 100% believe that will correlate to the quality of our relationships.  But the first quality relationship is the one with ourselves.  How well do we know ourselves and can we share that without shame in our closest relationships?  Not only that, do we allow room in our lives to grow and change or for our partner, or siblings, or parents or children to grow and change.  Certainly what we need and who we are at age 30 is different in some way(s) than who we are at age 65. 

To wrap up, and share a little more that makes me crazy in the Alain de Botton kind of way is that I have a part of me that is totally sappy and sentimental and at the same time a part of me that is very subversive and even cynical.  Some things that masses of other people seem to like can totally get on my nerves.  Like the movie Forrest Gump.  Or Jerry Maguire.  I hated Jerry Maguire with a passion (except for Cuba Gooding, Jr.).  Remember Tom Cruise said, "You complete me" to Rene Zellweger?  I did not find that romantic at all.  So to that end, mostly when I write these blogs, I want there to be some measure of thought-provoking and some measure of 'let's not take ourselves too seriously.'  So here you go:  Get to know yourself and keep the lines of communication open with yourself and those you love.  Speak truthfully to people who are important to you.  And be wary, very wary of anyone who says this to you: 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Strange Lady Rubs My Leg and Some Things I've Learned About Touch

On Thursday last week, I drowsily sat in a large, afternoon seminar in Portland, Oregon.  I was in a room full of strangers taking in a lecture, What Is Complicated Grief.   The lady I sat down beside appeared to be about 70 years old, a very 'put together' looking lady.  I guessed her to be from the South, which she was - Atlanta.  We peaceably listened to our speakers.  About a half hour in, I felt a hand on my knee and it was not mine.  It was hers.  Yes, her hand was on my knee and she began gently caressing my leg. 

Here are the thoughts that went through my mind, in order. And thinking these thoughts took about .5 seconds.
1)  This is strange
2)  We are in a 'touchy feely' profession - maybe the topic is causing her to need some connection?
3)  Am I being molested?!?
4) I think she's asleep

There are so many moments in my life, when I feel like Steve Martin from The Jerk.  When he is working as an attendant at the gas station and a sniper begins shooting at him.  The bullets hit the oil cans behind him.  Punctured of course, they begin spilling out on the ground.  "These cans are defective!" he cries.  "There's something the matter with these cans!"  It takes him an inordinate amount of time to figure out that SOMEONE IS SHOOTING AT HIM. 

I feel like I'm a slow learner, too.  After all "the logic" I went through to reach my conclusion about why this strange woman was rubbing me, I put my hand on the lady's shoulder...'ma'am,' I said, 'I think you must be falling asleep.'  Well, that jarred her awake.  And she felt a little embarrassed.  'My husband is at the conference with me and usually sits by me at all the sessions.  I was falling asleep and just automatically put my hand on his knee, but it turned out to be you!'  We had a good laugh about this and it became a funny touch point through the conference because she told her husband too and whenever we ran into one another there were the expected humorous remarks, like, 'am I going to need to separate you two?!'

It really wasn't embarrassing at all.  In fact, it made me think how sweet and comforting it is just to have someone familiar to sit by and rub their knee. 

A second story in the past couple weeks about the power of touch is a little more personal.  Our beloved 18 year old cat experiences a big decline in health, had to be euthanized.  Deciding to have a vet come to the house seemed like the most loving choice, because Emmylou hated going to the vet.  In fact, in her younger years, I couldn't ever take her, because her upset mewing unnerved me.  So, when it became apparent that these were her last days, I looked into several in-home vet choices (all of which looked very reputable and caring) and went with an organization called, Lap of Love. 

My son is almost 14 years old.  As a little boy, though he snuggled, he was always squirmy like me.  He didn't want anyone to hold him for too long - he wanted to move and go.  And after fourth grade, he has been decidedly un-snuggly and very stoic by nature.  He is not one to express tender emotion at all.  Except when it comes to the animals.  After those parenting moments when you think, 'is my kid going to turn out ok?', I'll see him with Emmylou or the dog and know that he has a gentle soul underneath his no-nonsense exterior. 

But I was surprised when he wanted to be present for 'the end'.  And not only that, a profound moment occurred that I could never have planned.  I sat on the floor with the cat and the vet and she'd given Emmylou her first shot - the shot for pain and anesthesia.   If you've ever been with an animal at that time, they sort of give up their energy then - they become very limp and lifeless and it was then that the tears for me, started.  My nose was running and I wiped my nose on my shirt and it was getting to be a little gross, honestly, so I said to my son, 'Would you hold her while I go get a tissue?'  Yes, he would.  So he got down on the ground and held her little head and shoulders in his hands and stroked her.  When I came back, it was almost time for her to get the final shot.  'Do you want me to hold her now?' I asked him - I thought maybe he wouldn't want to hold her as she died.   'No, I'm ok,' he said.  So he held her and just petted her gently, and I held her little paw.  And we are so crazy in my family that even my ex-husband was there in the room and the dog and my daughter were upstairs because that 's what they wanted.  But more than any of what could have been weird family dynamics, in my view something much more significant happened.   I saw that Emmylou was held at the end of her life, by someone who does not give out his love easily, but loved her very much. 

I guess my relationship with being comforted and loved through the power of touch transformed through both becoming a mother and witnessing what it means to simply hold someone's hand as you sit by their sickbed.  Though, my mom reports that as a kid, if she or my dad tried to get me to sit on their laps and snuggle, I'd sit for a very short while and then say, "too tight."  And even now, if I'm with a natural born hugger (rather than a convert like me), I can feel that my hugs are about 2 seconds shorter than theirs would be.  But, I keep working on balancing my squirminess and desire to move with my willingness to be vulnerable in that way.  It seems to me that hugs and physical touch and care are some of the most beautiful parts of being a human and I don't want to miss out on any of it.

Just a final thought - I was looking up quotes about hugs to wrap up this blogpost and many of them, as you can imagine, are pretty cheesy, but I'll leave you with the one below.  Hope you get or give a good hug today.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Getting on the Floor to Die and Other Improvisations

When I worked in home hospice, we held a small memorial service every Wednesday after our staffing meeting.  We dimmed the lights, we lit a candle, we said a prayer, and we had the opportunity to share memories or feelings about our patients who died in the previous week.  Recently, I stumbled upon a story from a young nurse that I'd written down in my journal from 2008.  This nurse talked about a very poor man, her patient, during the memorial one week.  He became very restless in the last couple of days of his life - which many people do.  Some people hallucinate or become agitated.  Sometimes we think this is due to physical pain, sometimes we think this is due to emotional pain.  But this man, in his restlessness, kept getting on the floor.  His sister and her family were caring for him and they felt incredibly frusturated with what seemed to them like his 'misbehavior.'  Almost like a toddler who won't stay in bed.  Almost like, "why, after all we are doing for you, won't you stay put like a good boy?"  The nurse pondered it over those couple of days - something about this man touched her. 

After two days of him awkwardly and half-comatose finding his way somehow, to the floor, the nurse had a burst of intuition.  "This man wants to die on the floor," she thought.  So when she was next there and he was on the floor, she got on the floor with him.  And she held him for an hour; put her arms around him right there on the floor.  And he died.  She was right -  he wanted to be on the floor to die and she was able to hear the message he couldn't speak.  To look at the evidence before her and honor it.  You're not supposed to die on the floor - maybe that seems to lack dignity.  But in my time in hospice, this is one of the most loving stories, one of the most diginifed stories, I heard.

Improvisation is what comes to mind. It reminds me of a This American Life segment from 2014  A woman and her husband (who are comedic actors by profession) are caregivers for the wife's mother, who has Alzheimer's.  The mother says things like, "Look at those monkeys in the backyard."  And instead of saying "there are no monkeys in the backyard," the couple learned to use their acting/improv skills with her.  The husband replies, "Pretty early in the season for monkeys."   He says to her, "If you see any more we'll try to catch one and bring it in."  She replies, "you can't bring monkeys in the house."  "Well," he says, "You can if you put pants on them."  She laughs.   Improvising vastly improved her quality of life.  And theirs.  They didn't argue and get in power struggles with her.  She could even access her sense of humor.

In improv comedy, there are a couple of rules: 1) Step into their world (your fellow actor) and 2) your only answer is "yes, and...". 

Lots of things happen in life that aren't 'supposed' to happen and aren't part of our life script.   When life deviates from our play, sometimes we step out of reality with reality.  For example, people aren't supposed to die on the floor.  For another example, I was not supposed to get divorced.  But supposed to is not the same as reality.  Now, I have to improvise.  I got divorced.  Yes, and... 

When we say 'no, but' to life, we are usually in for a period of deep frustration and even grief.  Here are some other examples I see of times we tend to say 'no, but..'  rather than, "yes, and...": 
when our child is having social or educational problems at school,
when our adult child makes a decision we disagree with,
when our brother owes us $200 from Christmas,
when our sister gets drunk and drives home from the work party,
when someone we love gets diagnosed with cancer.

How would our reactions change and even be more helpful if we said, "Yes, and" to the reality of those situations?  Would we say and think differently?  I think we would.  I think our power struggles would cease.  I think we feel less like we were beating our heads against the wall.

As I'm writing this, I'm even thinking that improvising applies to good things that present themselves to us, that we try for various reasons to deny - things that feel like a risk - a job change, a move, falling in love.  We are often overly and uselessly confused giving life a 'no, but,'  when the evidence points us to 'yes, and...' 

Look, I know life is complex and the signs aren't always as clear as the man who kept getting on the floor to die.  Sometimes we need a helper-  a friend, a nurse, a counselor, a sister, to help us look at the evidence of our lives and understand where to find the Yes, and...  This is when we can ask for help - when we can literally ask, or write down our thoughts, or pray or meditate and to our best to enter the world as it presents itself to us.  It's do-able - we just have to pay attention and let go of our 'supposed to's'.

And finally, it's important to remember, that if you bring the monkey in the house, it's much better for everybody if he's wearing pants.