Thursday, February 22, 2018

Toxic Relationships - How to Recognize Them, Whether It's Your Wife or the NRA

Watching Dana Loesch, an NRA representative speak with the survivors from Parkland, FL in a CNN forum last night was profoundly upsetting for me.  When I have a reaction like that - from my gut - about someone in the news, I know it is about something deeper than that for me.  It was not a reaction to the topic (which is deeply upsetting and understandably so), it was a personal reaction to Ms. Loesch's presence.  So I ask myself, "What is really going on here?"  "Does this person remind me of someone in my life?"  "Does this situation remind me of something I know or remember from another time in my life?"  "What is this REALLY about?"

Here is my answer:  What most upset me was Ms. Loesch's sincere eye contact and 'empathy' with people like Emma Gonzalez, one of the student activists, and her expressive face and generally attractive persona with surviving parents from this and other mass shootings.   This triggered in me deep feelings of warning - "Do not be fooled by her sincere face and eye contact!" I wanted to shout.  "Do not be drawn in by her pretty hair and controlled voice!"  "Do not be thrown off by her compelling name-calling of 'madman' or 'crazy' to describe the shooter!"

As a psychotherapist, I sometimes see the results in individual lives of relationships that are marked by manipulation, control and emotional abuse.  I myself, at one time, was in this kind of relationship.  I feel a fierce protectiveness for people who I am afraid might be thrown off or manipulated by rhetorical techniques and deep denial.  And, as a social worker,  I look at the bigger systems that may perpetuate abuse.  I think we need to do a better job of being empowered to recognize when we are being bamboozled, gaslighted, and controlled - without losing our own compassion, our own generosity of spirit and our own ability to listen.  We must be brave enough to make an assessment and walk away from those who would do us harm.

Here are some things that an abuser might convey, but never use these exact words:

1) I want you to feel guilty.
2) I want you to feel sorry for me.
3) I want you to be afraid of me, even 'just' emotionally afraid.
4) I tell you I value you or love you, but I treat you badly.
5) I want you to never have or get 'more' than I have or get.
6) I 'listen,' but I never compromise.
7) I pout and punish if I don't get my way.
8) I want you to question yourself and your perception.
9) I sneak to get what I want.
10) I lie to get what I want, but my lies always have a kernel of truth so they're hard to disprove.
11) I want you to think everything is normal - 'no big deal.'
12) I don't want to really know you.
13) I trick you by asking leading questions
14) If we fight, I keep you in the fight until you are exhausted.  I won't let you leave until you give in.
15) I am entitled to what I want.
16) You are entitled to nothing.
17) God/Righteousness is on my side.
18) Money is on my side.
19) I ask leading questions to get you to answer the way I want.
20) I should not be accountable for my words or actions.
21) I create a common enemy who is worse or scarier than I am - this could be your boss, my mother, our next door neighbor, so you don't pay attention to my misdeeds.

If you look at the above list and think, "This is my brother."  Or "This is my wife."  Or "This is my minister" or "This is my coach," you are in a toxic, emotionally abusive relationship.

Here are some aspects of healthy relationships:
2) Generosity of spirit and emotion
3) Compromise
4) Accountability
5) Respect
6) Care/Kindness
7) Curiosity
8) Listening
9) Humility
10) Room to change and grow
11) Connectedness with other people
12) Balance
13) Non-judgemental
14) Feeling of comfort and being emotionally safe
15) Equality
16) The inside of the relationship (the way it feels) matches what is looks like on the outside (how others probably perceive the relationship)

When I look at these lists, I think about what I saw and felt last night from watching Dana Loesch.  I felt that the outside didn't match the inside.

Whether it is in a public forum or in your personal life, pay attention to your gut instinct.  Ask yourself questions and answer yourself honestly.  Beware of wolves in sheeps clothing.  When the outside doesn't match the way it feels on the inside - this is a big warning!

You don't have to know all the answers.  You don't have to do it alone (leave the relationship, confront the person, fight the power).  But you have the right to be treated with respect and to speak your mind.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Paradox, Poetry, and Healing Our Big, Little Selves

In the two weeks since I last wrote, I started several different blogposts - about sex and intimacy, about talking with your teenager, about why it's hard to say 'no', about Valentine's Day and being single, and now this one.  It's been difficult to focus my attention on one thing because so much has happened to shift what I think is meaningful to write about on any given day.  So while I think all of those topics are interesting and I will probably revisit them.  We've had another mass, school shooting in the past week and there is much talk about mental health - something about which I am supposed to be an expert.  It seems the most pressing thing.

In times of great sadness and fear, when the weight of being human and the call to do something to help presses on me, when it feels that I don't have any ideas or energy left, I often go to poetry to comfort me.  And this week, I found myself with a poem that I've loved since I took my first writing workshop with Colleen McKee, a St. Louis poet, in 2006.  It's from a book called The Writer's Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux and it taught me about how to bring a character to life and how poetry can be written in simple, straightforward language.  It's by Susan Browne, who I think is a Buddhist.


When my mother meets God,
she says, Where the hell have you been?
Jesus Christ, don't you care about anyone 
but yourself?  It's time you wake up,
smell the coffee, shit or get off the pot.

You must have won your license in a fucking raffle.
You're grounded, and I don't want any back-talk.
In fact, don't talk at all until you can say something 
that is not a lie, until you can tell the truth.
You know, the truth?  Something in sentence form
that comes out of your mouth and is not a lie.
Could you do that for me?  Is this possible 
in my lifetime?  Don't ever lie to me again 
or I'll kill you.  And get off your high-horse.

Running around the world
like a goddamn maniac, creating havoc.  You have lost
the good sense you were born with.  Shape up or ship out
I can't believe we're related.

My mother lights a cigarette, pitches the match
through the strings of a harp, inhales profoundly,
letting the smoke billow from her nose.
Her ruby lips press together in a righteous grimace
of disgust.  She never stops watching God.

I've really had enough this time.
What do you take me for?  A fool?  An idiot?  A patsy?
Some kind of nothing set down on earth for your convenience,
entertainment? A human punching bag?  For your information
I was not born yesterday.  I know what you're up to.
I have been around the block a few thousand spins of the wheel.
I have more compassion in my little finger
than you have in your entire body.  I am a mother.
I care.  Maybe you don't care, but I do.  Care.
Do you know what that word means?  Bring me the dictionary
and I will tell you what the word care means.  Never mind.
How could you find a dictionary in that dump you call a room.
The whole universe of care down the toilet
because of your dirty socks.  Do I look like a maid?
Did you think the purpose of my existence was to serve you?
You are barking up the wrong tree.  We need to get something 
straight.  I am not here for you.  I am here for me.
But I care.  Can you possibly, in your wildest imagination,
hold two ideas in your tiny mind at the same time?
This is called paradox.  Par-a-dox.  We need the dictionary.
No, we need to talk.  What do you have to say for yourself?

"I'm sorry," God replies.

You're sorry.  Well, that's not enough.  Wash that sullen look
off your face or I"ll wash it off for you.
And quit looking down.  Look at me!

God lifts his heavy head,
falls into the fierce love
of my mother's green-blue eyes.

Grow up, she says.

What comforts me about this poem is that it reminds me that our human condition is a paradox.

People might not think poetry is practical, but it is.

When we are straightforward and realistic, when we engage in political and civic thought and discussion, we are 'fighting' about whether this problem we have in our country is guns or mental health.  It is both.  We have to hold two ideas in our minds at one time.  More, even.

When we look at our technology, our phones, social media, the immediacy of all the information and opinions available to us, we wonder "Is this good or bad?"  It's both.

We ourselves are paradoxical - look at the mom in this poem.  What Susan Browne shows is that her mom can yell and cuss and berate, but something about her particular mom comes through - fierce love.  I don't think every parent who yells and berates also conveys fierce love, but this one does.

One of the most difficult things about being human right now is that there are many forces in the world that want to dumb you down.  To reduce you to your simplest form.

They want you to be smaller than your are - to think smaller than you are, to feel more petty that you are.  These forces are in the media, in social media, in the things you are addicted to or nearly addicted to, in the people who might be in your life.

At the end of the poem, the mom tells God to "Grow up."  That makes me laugh, but I think it's what embracing paradox is about.  There are moments in the media coverage of the aftermath of the shooting in Florida last week, where I see that the students are more grown up than many of the adults who also have a media platform on these issues.

I guess that's the paradox and wisdom of this poem too.  In some sense it's playful and simple, and in other ways it's very grown up and complex.  Sometimes people will say to me, "I read your blog and it seems like you've got it all figured out."  I don't.  I am trying, I make mistakes.  My kids might write funny poems about me one day, because I'm kind of weird.  But, I try to both play and be a grown up.

One of the things that has enhanced my weirdness is working in dying and grieving for so long.  And believe it or not, I am going to bring up back to paradox with a little anecdote about a makeup/skincare party I attended on Friday at a friend's house.  I don't always sit around thinking deep thoughts.  Sometimes I think about makeup.  This particular line of makeup is supposed to be natural and carcinogen-free.  That is it's mission.  I found myself thinking - "Ah, so what.  We're all going to die.  I'm not opposed to wiping some carcinogens on my face.  Especially if they reduce fine lines and wrinkles."  This was not what I was supposed to be thinking.  I was supposed to be fearful of dying and spend $80 on face cream.  And I'm not opposed to that either, in theory.  What I am saying is - I think often about how the time we get is limited. 

We are small, but we are big.  In what you do, in what you say, in how you love and who you love. We all will be dead one day, but it matters.  It is everything. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Social Media + Outrage = Masturbation; Or, Thinking it Through Before We Post

Last weekend, I read an article that popped up on my Apple News about a Dane Cook (age 45 and a celebrity, kind of) and his girlfriend, Kelsi Talor (age 19).  This article was from People magazine and presented their romance as if it were just another storybook romance of famous people for public consumption and celebration, such as Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel.  I felt very weird inside of me and that feeling was anger.  My anger is usually a slow burn.  I'm like, "What is that feeling?  Something feels yucky.  Oh, that's something really gross.  Is it gross?  Yes, it is gross and upsetting.  Is People magazine tone deaf?  Are really supposed to read this and think - 'cute!'???  Hello!  #metoo!"  I was, for me, outraged.

I thought about it for about 10 seconds.  Maybe I'll post this on my fb feed and just see what other people think.  I did.  I said something like, "Does anyone else find this disturbing?"  And I went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, there were some comments.  Mostly, stuff like, "Yes. Ewww. Gross."  And one friend, a Professional Naysayer was like, "Maybe it's possible they are happy and fulfilling each others needs."  I am shorthanding that.  Then, he said, "what would you tell them if they came to you for therapy?"

At that point, I fought my desire to shoot back a further outraged response (not at my friend, I would expect no less - but a clarification about how this 'relationship' is an abuse of power) and I went on a run.

This blogpost is not about overtly about #metoo or this couple or the actual words I used to respond.  It's about the process of how and why we try to argue or connect on social media.  It's about our relationship to outrage.

And, I don't know about you, but I'm getting so tired of outrage - even my own.  Everybody is outraged about everything.  Newscasters are outraged.  My facebook feed is full of outrage.  Sometimes something outrageous just catches my eye and I read it just to make myself mad.  In October 2017 Yale neuroscientist, Molly Crockett published a paper on Outrage in the Social Media Age, which basically said we are getting inured to outrage.  It's like junk food snacking.  We go get an outrage fix when we are not even hungry and the findings are that we are less likely to 'do' anything positive to make the changes in the world we are so outraged about.

Ok, so back to the moment last weekend when I am going out for that run I mentioned.  I am thinking of these very acerbic things to say about how I will charge Dane Cook my D-list celebrity rate of $500 an hour to make him NOT into a narcissist anymore.  And then I start fantasizing about how I could have like a D-list celebrity reality therapy show like Dr. Drew used to have that Rehab show.  And then I think, "Why D-List?  Why NOT A-List??"  Then, I get out of that fantasy and start thinking if I really post that snarky comment what will be the result of that? And how people will think it's funny and I will probably get a lot of likes.  But is that really the kind of thing I want to say?  Do I enjoy "cheap shots = Likes?"   Also, do I have the energy for this shit?  Because...look, Katy, you've got to go to work today and also you are taking kids to a play tonight and having another kid spend the night.   So, no...maybe I won't go snarky.  Maybe I will just make a mature comment and make sure I end the discussion somehow.  And then my run was over.  And that's what I did.  So here were my steps:

1) Pause and go for a run
2)  Fantasize about the mean, snarky stuff I want to say
3)  Think ahead about what the results of my actions might be and why I might want or not want to say those outraged words
4)  Assess whether I have the energy for those results
5)  Make a decision based on how and where I want to spend my energy on a given day and how I want to represent myself in the world.
6)  Choose a more measured, less outraged response that also establishes a boundary (which was, "I probably am not going to make any more comments on this post because I have a busy day.')

In the end, I actually think outrage in these online formats is a lot like masturbation.  The tension we've built up is our righteous indignation about WHATEVER.  It wants release.  And 'luckily', through social media, we've developed communities of largely like minded people.  So when we are outraged on social media, we have a build up of tension and then a release of our tension and then we have the added reinforcement of our online community going, "yes, yes, you are so smart. I love this!"  (Did my analogy just get super-gross/weird?!?)  There is a lot of ego involved.  And it's not an experience where there is genuine connection and communication.  I think masturbation is a good thing, but it's not the same as good sex, which  ideally is about communication and connection and the other person as much as yourself.

In part, I think that's why most of the social media 'arguments' about politics and social issues I see and participate in often feel so frustrating and empty.  There is often no real relationship.

I know I am being purposefully provocative even when I make this analogy, but I will give a more serious example.

Another discussion I recently was involved in had to do with race and politics in a local election.  I knew I was stepping into a volatile area and trying to make a nuanced point and therefore I knew I was opening myself up to criticism.  I received the response I anticipated and I felt slightly attacked.  And I really thought about how and why I tried to put myself out there and what it felt like to be schooled in the ways I was.  It actually tapped into a deep pain inside me.

The pain was that these people, even friends, online, can't and don't know all my life experience.  The way working in death and dying all these years has developed certain 'muscles' in me.  The way it has made me practice mercy day in and day out.  To see that suffering, loss, physical pain, tragedy, courage and love are not owned by one group of people - not rich, not poor, not Democrat, not Republican, not women, not men, not black, not white.  Everyone deserves to be seen and have their humanity seen.  And these people online can't and don't know my own painful life experiences and how they make me tender and vulnerable in specific ways.  It's on ME to know these things about me and make good choices about how to take care of my own tenderness.   And all that being said, I am not more RIGHT than they are. I have just developed a certain way of experiencing the world.

What I think we need more of in this world is genuine connection.  I think we need to be responsible for how we go about seeking connection.  The change we want in the world and in our own lives starts with pausing and thinking it through.  The peace, justice, love, courage and beauty we want will start in person, one on one.  The real revolution will not be televised.  Or posted. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Should I Take the Hint and Let Go of the Friendship? Grief, Friendship, and Ambiguous Loss

An old friend from high school recently contacted me and asked me to write about grief from this perspective: letting go of old friendships not out of conflict, but out of attrition; the way social circles can narrow as we get older.    The grief that comes with that.  The uncertainty.   The way social media can make us feel simultaneously connected to old friends, but can also reveal how our lives have moved on, and cause us to question if the friendship is real, true, and mutually felt.

What I am talking about is an idea in grief counseling called ambiguous loss.  You can read lots on the internet about ambiguous loss.  There's even a Wikipedia entry on Ambiguous Loss .  To shorthand it, it means that it's a loss without closure, a loss without answers, a loss (sometimes) without the understanding or acknowledgement from others. Ambiguous loss, to me, most often takes the form of a changed relationship, rather than a death.  In theory, you are still here in my life.  In practice, you are gone.  This happens in marriages.  This happens with parents and adult children.  This happens in friendships.  This happens on Facebook.

Specifically, my friend wanted to know my thoughts on grieving very old friends - close, childhood friends - friends that would always be there.  But with the passing of time and the space of living in different places, these friendships appear to have been let go.  There is the added cognitive dissonance of seeing all about them on social media.

Here's what I imagine happens for many of us:  We have a friendship that used to feel close.  We reach out and notice the person is not reaching back as often or is unreliable.  We feel hurt and talk ourselves out of it - "Oh, he is just busy.  Oh, her mom just moved and she was overwhelmed with that.  Oh, he just got a new job.  Oh, they just had a baby.  Well, we have lived in different cities for 20 years.  Well, do you really expect Jim to remember your birthday when you haven't seen him face to face for 5 years?"    These are our very resilient defense mechanisms to talk ourselves out of being too hurt too fast.  Most of us try to be reasonable adults.

And then we respond.  I put us human beings in two categories of responders:  The reacher-outers and the withdrawers.  When feeling a little abandoned, you might be someone who reaches out more.  "I'll fix this" you think.  "I'll be the 'bigger' person,'" you might say to yourself.  Or, you might be someone who withdraws or at least does NOT reach out.  "Humph," you think. "I'll wait and see what they do next."

And then, whichever way you are, you assess the friend's response or lack thereof.  You collect more data to know if you should be hurt, angry, happy, or grievous. 

In the cases we are talking about today, your friend continues to be more absent than present.  Less involved with you, more involved with other parts of their life.

Here is the next choice you to think about this:

1) Our friendship is over.  I don't want it to be over.  I am deeply hurt.

2)  Our friendship is over and I accept this is part of the natural ebb and flow of life.

3)  Our friendship is over and if I am honest with myself, I am relieved too, because I was ready to put my efforts to other friendships anyway.

4) Our friendship is not over.  It is in a time of 'breathing room.'  I feel somewhat hurt, but I respect my friend's need for breathing room.

5)  Our friendship is not over, it's just that we both have changed a little (or a lot), we have to renavigate a new way to be friends together.

6)  I have no idea what is going on with this friendship.  I would like to check in with this friend and see if everything is ok.

There are no right or wrong choice in how to think about it, but I just want to point out that there are choices.  Other, very individual variables are also at play - what does a close friendship mean to you? What do you need out of that?  Are you an extrovert or introvert?  Are you someone who tends to have very high expectations of those in your life or are you a 'live and let live' kind of person?

After all of these thoughts and questions, now, let us assume that you really decide to let go of this friendship.  That it is too painful for you to continue to hope to be connected when this other person and he/she has clearly moved on or has very little to give.  How to grieve them when they are still there and you still see their happy face on Facebook and Instagram?

One simple idea to consider is blocking them or unfriending them.  If it hurts to see this person, maybe you don't need to see them as often.

But that is only a surface level change.  I'll go a little deeper, if you don't mind:

During the time I first separated from my ex-husband, my aunt, who is widowed said to me, "I think what you are going through is worse than what I went through."  And the very fair-minded, reasonable therapist part of me thought, "We really can't measure one person's hardship or grief against another person's.  It's all relative.  It's all terribly sad"  And another part of me - my non-professional self - thought: "Yes.  What I am going through is worse than death."  And I know I felt this way because like all divorced people with kids,  I knew my then husband would be in my life after the divorce.  I would be reminded daily of the loss of my family as I knew it.

One suggestion from a therapist that I found very helpful was to write a eulogy for my marriage.  I've been to a lot of funerals, as you know - so this was a concept that I had already thought a great deal about.  The best eulogies I've ever heard are the ones that capture some essence of the person who died.  I wrote a eulogy for my marriage, just for myself - what, who and why was my marriage at its best?  What was the most beautiful essence of it?  It was a tangible and cathartic way to acknowledge that and begin to let it go. 

You could do the same thing when letting go of an important friendship or any other ambiguous loss.

I would also suggest reading almost anything by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, who is my go-to role model on acceptance.  We lose people in our life, but they are still there.  We lose who they were to us.  We lose the love, care, nurturing, fun, etc., that we once received from that relationship.  That is sad.  There's no way that's not sad.  It's ok to let it be sad.

My friend who wrote me also alluded to age and the place childhood friendships hold in our hearts and what does it mean to 'let go' of them?  Can I have deep affection and nostalgia for what we once had without the pain of knowing that is in the past? 

I think it depends on what you hope for and need.  Are you relying on those friendships for intimacy and vulnerability?  That might be painful and unrealistic.

But, personally, I've found an unexpected comfort out of these connections on social media.  Rather than thinking of 'letting go' of these relationships, what I experience is a feeling of honoring them.  And maybe that's how I grieve (I wrote a eulogy for my marriage, after all).  I think of a boy I had a crush on in third grade who is my Facebook friend (David Crane, if you are reading this, I'm talking about you.)  David taught me how to do a backdive at Saxony pool and he was really nice to my little sister, so these are good reasons for a third grade crush.  I like seeing his happy family on Facebook even though we are not close friends.  It gives me a good feeling of being connected to summers in my childhood and knowing that people I think fondly of are doing well.  I honor my past, our shared past, and the little bright spot of a boy who took the time to teach me to do a backdive. 

Finally, I would say this...many of our human brains seem to want clear cut answers.  If a friendship or any relationship is toxic, cruel, all take and no give, I say, grieve it and let it go.  But, if it is two people of good will who have just grown apart, I recommend trying to be ok in the grey area.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

See You In Another Life - Grieving Old Lives, Lives Not Lived and Dreaming Our Future Lives into Being

I am barely twenty one years old, and I am leaning into the window of the plane (I always choose the window seat), to see, for the first time in my life, the island of Manhattan.  A ridiculous swath of skyscrapers, the big green splotch of Central Park, the Statue of Liberty.  I'm not in the know with words like Upper East Side or Chelsea or Soho.  But I see it as a three dimensional map of adventure.  Of humanity.  Of life.  It is the sound of the SNL saxophone.  It’s Paul Simon singing “Late in the Evening.”  It’s glamour and dirt.  I love it and I haven’t even landed.

I am on a journey that seems both destined and totally improbable.  I am a girl from the Midwest.  I’ve never been on vacation anywhere but the Lake of the Ozarks and Florida.  I’ve never eaten in an Indian restaurant.  I’ve never had a friend whose second language in English.  I’ve never been overseas.  This is why the trip seems improbable.  Yet, here I am being flown to New York City to stay in the Waldorf-Astoria for one night, attend a fancy event, and be flown the next day to Washington, D.C. for a ceremony where Lady Freedom will be helicoptered over the Capital and placed, having been reguilded, at her rightful place on top of the dome.  This all to hang out with a friend of mine.  A boy friend, but not boyfriend.  A maybe in the future friend.  A you should probably think about marrying this guy friend.  A I’m not ready for this friend. 

When I land at the Laguardia airport, I’ve been instructed on getting a cab and I do it, as I do a lot of things.  Acting as if I’m not scared, as if I know what I’m doing, until I am not scared and I know what I’m doing.  Getting my purse settled and coat next to me in the back seat, I look out at the grey, low sky.  The speed, smell of the people, city, cars, buildings, the general mutedness of the colors and vague dirtiness of all the people and machines working, working, working.  It is all exactly as I imagined.  Both how it looks and how it feels.  I’ve never carried something in my imagination before that turns out to be so exactly and also more exactly than I imagined.  I love it.  I light a cigarette in the backseat, as I hurtle toward Park Avenue, because this is what you do in New York City, sophisticated things,  gritty things, risky things.  This is where I am destined to be.  This is someplace - what does it feel like?  As if I'd been here before. 

I am sure you're not surprised to know that I ended out dating this young man for awhile.

It's a funny thing that happens when you are in a relationship at a young age.  Maybe at any age?  My dreams got mixed up with his dreams.  I forgot about New York City and how much I loved it.  He was from the East Coast and had a life in Washington, D.C.  When I moved to D.C. after college and we started dating, for that chapter of my life, I made D.C. my dream, and all the things that I imagined in a life with him there, fitting into his life.   As young people do, we broke up.  I re-imagined my dreams, but somehow felt that NYC was beyond me at the ripe old age of 24.

When we are young, we all have big and little ideas, plans, hopes, and dreams of what our lives might be like.  And inevitably we make certain choices.  Going to social work school and being a therapist in private practice was definitely one of my dreams.  I am living that.  I don't live someone else's dream of a life in D.C.  But I also don't live one of my dreams of some kind of adventure in New York City.  

I hear the wistfulness of clients who feel certain paths are closed to them - the man who dreamed of being a pilot, but gave that up for a more 'practical' career that allowed him to be more available for family.  The woman who didn't marry her adored college sweetheart because she thought she was too young, but wonders if that would have been a happier life than the marriage she ended up in.   The woman who never pursued her theater career because she became a mother and pursued the dream of family life instead.  I think, by middle age, we all have versions of our life that we we realize are closed to us.  They are in the past.

Another way our dreams or versions of our life can end is through life events that are not of our choosing - a divorce, a death, a sick family member.  I have a friend who got divorced in the past year and he said, "It was like I had a painting that was almost complete - like a paint by numbers and many of the colors were filled in.  It wasn't done, but I knew what it would look like.  When my wife wanted a divorce, the whole painting got ruined.  I don't know what life is going to look like now."  I think of that painting as their shared dream.  The dream of the life and family you have with that one person.  In a divorce or death, that version of your life has to change whether you want it to or not.

During the time my marriage was ending, I felt much the same thing.  I would pray out loud, sobbing to God, "I don't want this."  I just wanted my life I had.  It was like a temper tantrum with God - make this go away!  But as time has gone on, I feel differently.  Another friend of mine used to call me "Picket Fence Katy" very shortly after my divorce - teasing me that I better get married again because he saw me as a 'picket fence type.'  I laughed, but I also had something that was a secret to even me in those early months.  I know that I look like a Picket Fence Katy, but I also know I have a New York City Katy in me.  When my 'painting' got torn up at the end of my marriage, I began to see that I have many dreams, still.  There are several versions of what my life might be that feel joyful and beautiful to me.  

I have a bias - which is that I see things through a lens of grief.  As we begin a new year, as 2018 gets under way, many of us take stock of where we are at.  What we want to begin, begin again, or things we want to stop in our lives all together.  If there are versions of our life that we are wistful for, I think we need to acknowledge and grieve them.  Grieving them means allowing ourselves to feel sad and even angry.  It also means we need to be clear with ourselves where we made choices.  

Acknowledging our choices keeps us from becoming bitter.  So, take stock - did I make those choices for me or did I make them for someone else?  If I consistently make choices that sacrifice what I dream for my life, what toll is that taking on me?  What else can I imagine?  When I look back on my life at the 85 years old, what do I want to see?  Am I doing those things?  If there are pursuits like being a pilot or an artist or a BBQ champion, are those things really closed to me just because I'm over 30?  What can I do to make my life MINE and how can I do it in a way that I feel integrity with myself?

On my most recent trip to New York City with my sister and mom to celebrate my mom's 70th birthday, we were walking down Broadway to see a show.  Typically, my sister led the pack - she is from the East Coast now and walks fast and purposeful.  I lagged behind at the back, looking around at all the people.  Still mesmerized by the beauty of all that humanity.  A street musician came up to me - he had dreadlocks and a guitar.  "Hey, hey," he said.  "Hi," I smiled probably shyly - I know I'm supposed to me careful of people in the big city.  

"Come listen to me play."  

"I can't," I said.  "I'm going to a show."  My mom and sister had slowed down, my sister looking back and rolling her eyes - she is like "Here's my Midwest sister talking to someone on the street again."  

The guys looks ahead at them, "Aw, c'mon.  Just for a few minutes."  

"Nah, I can't - I have to go."  

He looks straight into my eyes - "You.  Me.  Another life."  He smiles.  I smile.

"Another life."  I say and walk away.  

Hello, 2018.  We are here.  We have choices before us.  We have lives to lead.  Some paths are closed, and that may be sad, but it is okay.  More paths are open than you may let yourself see.  This is the time to let yourself see them, this is the time to take some risks and make your life your own.  And if you hear the opening music to Saturday Night Live in the background, it's no accident.  That's my dream of the future, turned up really loud.  


To shift gears - I want to thank my friends and readers for sharing my last blogpost.  I typically have around 400 readers and that blogpost had close to 2000.  As you know, I am working on a book about grief and life and it's kind of a mixed up memoir and self help book and I think it's coming along well and will be interesting and funny and good.  Part of the way I will be able to get a publisher for that book is to demonstrate that I have readership and interest in what I write and your sharing my writing or subscribing to this blog genuinely helps.  

I also have a responsibility to you as readers, which is that this platform of blogger is kind of out of date- I will need to change to a more media savvy platform in the next year sometime and I will do that - I hope you'll bear with me through the changes.  And I will keep you posted on progress.  The beginning of this blogpost today is actually the beginning of one of the chapters of my book, so you continue to get a flavor for what I'm working on.

Thank you all for your continued  support.  A friend recently wrote me with a request for a topic for me to write on - I will do that and I appreciate the feedback or suggestions any time!  

All my best,

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Before You Hang Out with Family...Letting Go of Resentment

In writing a guest column last week for the Webster Kirkwood Times, I called my Dad for a refresher on an old family story.  The one where my dad and his brother had a 7 year feud in which they literally did not talk during that time.  My grandma spent holidays divided.  My sister and I didn't get a chance to know our young cousins.  After these years passed, my dad showed up at my uncle's work with a bottle of vodka, shaking a 3 foot link of metal chain, "Ebenezer. Ebenezer.  Marley is here to see you," my dad called from the reception desk.  According to him, they sat down and drank that bottle of vodka together and just chatted.  Reconciliation.

During our phone call, I asked my dad - "Did either of you apologize?  Did anyone say, 'I forgive you?'"

"That wasn't necessary," was his reply.  And that might have been true - I don't actually know all the details behind that feud, but dad's side of the family is known to have tempers and pride.  And I do agree that sometimes apologies aren't necessary if both parties feel they've let pride get in the way of an overall good relationship.

But something I've been thinking a lot about in my own life and as my clients talk to me about the sometimes fraught feelings of all the traditions around this time of year, is anger, resentment and forgiveness.  What is the relationship between these things?  How do they effect us?  How could we let go of long term anger and resentment if we wanted to?  Or should we?

I'm going to walk through a made up scenario to illustrate:

My brother takes the last cookie from the plate of cookies.  I'm thinking it would've been nice for him to ask me if I want the last cookie.  I don't say anything, but I make a mental note.

He does it again and it irks me further.  I say, 'Hey, dude.  Please ask me before you take the last cookie - maybe I'd like it sometimes.'  He says, 'Ok, good point.'

He takes the last cookie again.  Now, I'm really resentful - you did something that hurt me and I gave you the benefit of the doubt.  You did it again, and I assertively spoke up and asked you not to.  You agreed.  You did it again.  I am left to think:  A)  You don't give a shit if you hurt me  B) You do give a shit, but you just forgot about my request.

I do a few other things - I start trying to protect myself.  Maybe I don't make cookies anymore.  Or maybe I decide I don't like cookies in the first place.  Maybe I throw the plate of cookies at the wall and smash it to try to scare him out of ever taking the last cookie again.  I develop defenses for myself and I develop a story about my brother - that he is selfish or that he is clueless or that he is really, really hungry and can't help himself (poor thing).  Maybe I read into the story and blame myself ...'he takes the last cookie, because I leave my hair dryer out in the bathroom and it gets in his way.  Maybe I am a little to blame.'

But, his actions, my story and my defenses all create long term resentment.

And despite this silly example, in our real relationships, these developments cause us immense pain.  They sound like this:  "No one ever protected me."  "My mother chose her new husband over me."  "My wife doesn't appreciate all the sacrifices I make for her and the kids."  "My mom uses me as a workhorse, but doesn't care about me for anything else."  "My husband ignored me for years and now that he's retired, he suddenly wants all this attention."  People come into my office and say, "How am I supposed to let go and forgive the pain of this?  I believe the other person will never fully acknowledge all the pain they caused me and even if they did, I don't think I could forgive it."

Here's what I have seen - in a couple of cases.  A couple only.  The other person is confronted and fully and sincerely acknowledges how they've hurt the first person.  In those cases, I witnessed genuine forgiveness and the relationship moving forward in a new way.  But, mostly, I've seen either half-hearted apologies and then a return to the unfair dynamic with more resentment building up or a defensive, denying reaction, which further hurts the first person.

So this resentment is a terrible burden and we need real ways to help alleviate it.

I always say, I try not to be a hypocrite, so I'm just going to share some real and sometimes weird strategies that I have actually used and I hope they will be helpful.

First, you have to work on your thoughts.  Our thoughts are made up.  We can change them.  Thoughts that are true and help in letting go of resentment, at least in my experience:

1)  No one ever promised fair.  Not even God.  Fair is not part of the deal that we are entitled to.  We can CHOOSE to be around people and cultivate close relationships with people who are fair and treat us fairly or we can stay in relationships that are imbalanced and unfair.   Choose fair.  You'll be happier.

2)  Some atrocious injustices can happen in relationships - people are abused emotionally, physically, sexually.  People are deeply neglected.  People are lied to.  We cannot rely on any justice we can see and know unless there is criminal prosecution (which is rare).  Often, we long for justice (this is also related to number 1).  Justice may happen, but the path to justice is long.   Stop getting stuck in 'making' a just situation happen.

3)  Continuing to let resentment about another person cause us pain, weigh us down and burden the happiness we would otherwise find in life allows the person who hurt us to continue hurting us.  Letting it go, even without overt justice, is its own justice.

4)  Letting go of resentment and forgiving does not mean reconciliation.  You don't have to have a 'good' relationship with your brother who takes all the last cookies.  You don't have to have any relationship with him necessarily.  But you can still forgive him.  One way I think of it, is that forgiveness is between me and God.  God and I can work it out on the forgiveness end of things and God can work out whatever happens on the other end for the cookie-taking brother.

So those are thoughts for strategies.

Strategy 1:  Get a life.  Just get a life - be fulfilled by your life.  Spend your time with work and famiy and friends and hobbies that bring you some kind of satisfaction and interest.  You will ruminate less on the hurts of the past.  The past won't seem as weighty.  I remember, after my parents got divorced and I marinated in the hurt for a few years, I said to myself, 'I'm tired of my parents divorce being the last big thing to happen to me.'  I applied for grad school within 18 months and moved halfway across the country.  I don't think we can ever shut the door on the past - it's not a good idea, because it influences us - but getting a life and creating opportunity for yourself puts things in perspective.

Strategy 2:  Fire Your God, if you have to.   A lot of long term resentments remain with us and poignant because we think God should have prevented our brother from taking the last cookie.  My clients have amazing wisdom and great stories, so here is what one of them shared about this.  This client had a sad event happen in her life this year and was feeling angry at God.  She told an older friend about this feeling.  She said, "I am just so mad at God for this happening."  The friend said, "Sounds like you need to fire your God.  See, my God doesn't make bad stuff happen to people.  My God just helps after a bad thing happens."  My client loved this - she said, "So I fired my God and I talk to Joe's God instead."

Strategy 3:  Draw a picture of your anger, rage, or resentment.  If it were a monster, an animal, an environment, what would it look like?  What would it say?  What would it sound like?  Is there anything about it that helps you?  Is there anything about it that you like?  This will help you not be afraid of your anger and resentment.  Human beings have it, and it feels bad inside, in part because we don't let ourselves get to know it.  It won't have more power if you get to know it, it may quiet down.

Strategy 4:  Understand your gifts and attributes.  Write them down and explore them.  Many of our gifts get out of balance.  Maybe we are too patient.  Maybe we are too responsible.  Maybe we are very competent.  Maybe we see the other person's point of view more easily than we see our own.  These are, in balance, nice character traits.  But out of balance, they may keep us in relationship with cookie takers.  Maybe we are 'nice' and don't like to speak directly about small conflicts.   Explore what you might do to bring your attributes into balance.  If you are very responsible, perhaps it is letting go of control and letting others be responsible for things, even if they fail.  If you always try to say things, in a 'nice' way, maybe it is learning some assertive communication skills.

Strategy 5:  Visualize unburdening yourself.  Where does your rage sit?  Where does your resentment reside in your body.  Visualize letting it go, giving it away, burning it - whatever.

I can almost guarantee that no one thing you do is going to release anger and resentment immediately or even create an immediate sense of forgiveness.  These are practices.  In my opinion, most progress is just one little action, thought or change, day after day.  With enough days of practice, something transforms.  It is imperceptible, and then one day you do perceive it.

Finally, I want to make a distinction that my friend, a Methodist minister, made for me - forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same.  Some cookie taking is abusive and reconciliation is not a goal.  This is just a truth in some families.  I also think about the many stories of sexual assault we've heard this year - anyone who has been assaulted doesn't really need to 'forgive' and certainly not reconcile.  But whatever helps lift the burdens on a person who has been the victim of a crime,  I support.  What language that person uses that helps them live more freely, I support that too.

But mostly, as we get ready to spend time with people we love and who also drive us crazy sometimes, it is better to let go of resentment.  To forgive.  To reclaim the good energy that connects us to ourselves and one another and release the yucky energy that builds unnecessary walls both within and without.

I wonder how long my dad pondered extending reconciliation to my uncle.  If it was a whim?  If it was years of germinating?   I wonder if he was afraid that my uncle would reject him and he would be hurt further?  Was my uncle pondering something similar on his end?

The result of their acts of forgiveness extend beyond just them.  I have cousins, whom I know and love.  I've taken an acting class with one cousin.  I've attended the wedding this year of another.  We all send Christmas cards and though we don't get together often, we love seeing one another.

Who know what might result from your letting go, forgiving, or even reconciling.  I think there must be some magic in it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

My Dog's Life

In June this year, I noticed that my dog, Pearl, a big, slobbery, energetic German Shepherd/Boxer mutt seemed to have a small infection under her left eye lid, so I took her in to the vet.  Vet says, 'I think it's a's are some drops...lets see if we can clear that up.'  So, we used the drops and perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part, but I thought I saw some improvement.  I even took her back for a follow up visit and we decided, 'Yes.  A little better.'  But the vet did say, 'if you don't see it all cleared up in the next month, I want you to go to the veterinary opthomalogist, and she gave me the name and number.

August comes and I actually think her eye looks worse, so we go to the specialist.  My 11 year old daughter is with me and it's about a week before school starts.  Pearl gets a very thorough examination.  And notable silence from the doc.  After about 20 minutes, he sits down and says (in front of my daughter),

'This is not good.  What you have is not an eye problem.  What you have is a skull problem and what is happening is an inoperable tumor which is growing up into her eye on this left side and down into her nasal passage on the left side.  This is not curable and not really treatable.'

 I am aware of my daughter's presence.  I am aware of my hospice background.  I am also aware of the cost of veterinary interventions.  Lots is happening in my head at this moment and I say, "Well, what about radiation?'

He says, 'You could do radiation, but it could cause more discomfort without enough added benefit.'

'So doc,' I say, 'I worked in hospice for almost 7 years.  I know about extraordinary measures and quality of life.  If we did radiation, how much time do you think?'

'Even with radiation, less than a year.  And I wouldn't recommend radiation.  There are secondary issues.'

My daughter and I left the appointment with the dog.  She'd been stoic the whole time, but I know her.  Even at age 5 playing soccer, she was proud.  She would not cry on the field if she got hurt, but wait until half time and then come over to the sideline with me and her dad and cry very quietly, wipe the tears, and get back on the field.

Once in the car, she sobbed.  'I just don't think we should do extraordinary measures,' she wailed.

Me too.

I want to tell you about me and Pearl.  We had a rough start, in a way.  When we got her from the Humane Society, she was a 9 month old ball of muscle and energy.  She'd been turned in because she was ungovernable or some word like that.  But, she was so affectionate.  I'd told my then husband that I wouldn't get a dog until our kids were both out of diapers, because I was cleaning up too much poop as it was.  So, Pearl came to us when our daughter was just over three years old.

Pearl had to be walked at least twice a day.  She sometimes nipped my butt if I stood in the kitchen doing dishes and she wanted my attention.  She was cute, but frankly, she annoyed me.  I liked the cats better - quiet and non-demanding.  They pooped in a box.  So civilized.  Pearl also loved love and attention, which I was giving out like a maniac to everyone else in my house - being the mom of a 3 year old and 5 year old takes a lot of love, patience, and physical presence.  I kind of thought of the dog as belonging to those people, but not me  - I would walk and run her.  I would feed her.  And they could love and snuggle her.

And this very practical relationship lasted for years.  But, as many animals do, including humans, as she got older, she mellowed.  My life changed.  We moved.  I got divorced.  One cat died.  The kids got older.  We moved again.  Another cat died.  And the way Pearl and I did what we did together changed.  The way I was with Pearl changed.

I think I know Pearl in a different way.  I think I understand her quality of life.  Here are some ways we are alike:  We both love to run.  Few things are as pure as being outside in the fresh air and running.  In fact, we both love outside as much as we love running.  We look around and we smell the air.  Pearl smells everything.  And, we like to play - before we run we play a pouncing game, where we both pounce at one another and tease and chase.  I love her in a different way now.  She is not just one more thing that 'needs.'  I appreciate the ways we are alike.  I also appreciate her lovey-ness in a different way.  I see how much she loves everyone.  When children come to our house, she licks them in the face.  When adults visit, she jumps on them and licks them in the face too, if they let her.  She loves nothing better than when one of the kids lies on the floor with her and lets her be a lap dog.  And when she paws me as I sit on the couch (Pet Me! Pet Me!, she seems to say).  I'll love and pet her and when I say, "Go lie down", she does it.  Which I appreciate, too.

I think this phrase is interesting - extraordinary measures.  In bioethics, one way to define the term is when treatment will not cure or alleviate a disease process or when the benefits of treatment do not outweigh the burden of the treatment. 

So many times, we think we know what is best for someone else.  Often I see this when people talk with me about aging parents and their health decisions.   But, when we love someone, we need to ask ourselves, what makes them, them?  Are their decisions reflecting that?  It may not always be an attractive quality - maybe they are stubborn.  Maybe they are private.  If this is their nature, it might also be their quality of life. 

With the holidays approaching, I've had more folks to my house recently and when they see Pearl, they say, "Oh, poor baby I feel bad for her."  Pearl's tumor has covered almost her entire left eye now.  It's red and uneven and a little ooey-looking.  She looks like a badass, in a way.  She doesn't seem to have any discomfort now that she's gotten used to being blind in one eye. 

I say, "Don't feel sorry for her.  She is happy."  She runs just as much as ever.  She pounces more than ever.  She smells the wind and stays outside on an unseasonably warm day, if she can.  She loves her people just as much as ever. 

With an animal, it's poignant - they can't tell you what quality of life is, so you have to pay attention to them.  What makes an animal happy?  How have they enjoyed their time in life?

I am sad we will not have Pearl longer.  But I also don't really know how long we will have her.  I just want her time left to be full of these things that make Pearl, Pearl.  You know what I mean?

What is it that makes you, you?  What do you love?  What brings you joy? 

Spend your time this way.  And if you're unsure where to start, try smelling the wind.  And play chase with a dog now and again.