Tuesday, June 12, 2018

If You Love Someone with Depression

As someone who has worked in the field of death and dying for 15 years, I am still mystified by suicide.  Of course, suicide has been much - too much - on all our minds recently.  The CDC recently reported that deaths by suicide are up by 30% since 1990.  And personally, I felt a poignant sense of loss when Anthony Bourdain died by suicide last week.

It's hard to write about suicide in any kind of coherent way, because suicide makes those of us who are left so overwhelmed that we are incoherent.   Those of us living, who lost someone to suicide or who have witnessed dear friends cope with suicide in their family or even who know that someone we admired in the public eye who completed suicide, are left with confusion, sadness, guilt, helplessness, anger.  We are left trying to pick up pieces and make sense of them in our own feeble ways.

I don't want to assume that all people commit suicide because they are depressed.  I know that there can be varying factors - drug use, compulsive disorders, PTSD, some kind of terminal diagnosis.  That being said, I am writing this today primarily for people who love someone with depression, because that comes with its own set of anxieties and vigilance.  It's own long term pain.

It's hard to imagine, for those of us who haven't experienced crippling, chronic depression, what it's like to feel that way every day.  (Though most people have had brief thoughts of suicide or escape from life in some way).  And if someone you care about experiences this sort of depression, they probably aren't sharing the depth of it with you.  I'm surprised about what people carry and hide from those they love.  But if they are sharing it with you, the feeling you get is drowning.  You offer idea after idea, or days of supportive love, love without advice, love with advice, hospital stays, doctor recommendations, mindfulness meditation books and articles from Google.  Sometimes, there's a little movement, but then things seem to move back to the former heavy stasis.  Today, I am writing for us - the witnesses and loved ones.  The ones trying to make sense of this unknowable.

Several years ago, a client of mine with a more come-and-go kind of depression recommended a book to me - Hyperbole and a Half, a graphic novel written and illustrated by Allie Brosh.   She is not only hilarious and insanely talented, but a person who deals with mental health issues too.  She depicts depression in a way that gives me insight as a helper.  After only half-reading this amazing book, I recommended it to a client of mine with deep, treatment resistant depression.  We read it at the same time and we both had an a-ha moment that I will share below, using a frame from her book:

When you are in depression, all the stuff that everyone wants to tell you or ways that want to encourage you, including therapists, feel like bullshit.  When my client and I read this book, I think it provided her some relief to laugh at me.  And also some relief that I finally began to 'get it.'

There are some other good books about depression by people who have endured it, including suicidal thoughts.  The ones I really like are The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer (Not exactly about depression, but he uses examples from depressed periods in his life to talk about trust and vulnerability and relationships), and Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

I wish I could give you an answer that will always work for helping your friend, your mom, your brother, your neighbor with his or her depression.  But you already know that it's not possible. 

When things are impossible, I turn to poetry, music and art.  For me, these help  get to that place beyond rational knowing, but a place I know to be truer than rationality.  So... I'll share this last bit with you...a  song that has a bittersweet place in my life history  - Ripple by the Grateful Dead

I remember riding in the backseat of my former in-law's car one gorgeous, cool, summer evening through the Green Mountains of Vermont.  It was 2000 and my now ex husband and I were engaged.  Life was before us.  This song played on the car CD player and I began to cry quietly in the backseat.  "There is a road, no simple highway, between the dark and the dawn of night.  And if you go, no one may follow.  That path is for your steps alone."  Funny, but as I remember it, I don't think I shared with my fiance that I was crying.  It felt too personal.

Something so exquisite flutters on the edge of our awareness, if we let it.  It has something to do with being both intricately connected with others and all of creation and at the same time our life path is only our own.  Those we have ever loved in our life are on their own path too. 

Whether it is depression, addiction, bi-polar disorder, some combination of mental illnesses - even physical illness -- we on the sidelines hurt because we are limited.  We are limited because this is what it means to be human.  Our love has no limits, but our actions and control of another person  have limits. 

"Limited" is not to be judged bad or good.  It just is.   I'll let the lyrics finish the blog today, because I don't think I could say it any better.  Take care of yourself, all you caregivers.  Take care of yourself, all you who are hurting.  National Suicide Prevention Hotline

Ripple by the Grateful Dead
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
Songwriters: Jerome J. Garcia / Robert C. Hunter  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Something You Never Thought I'd Say: Give Up Hope (On a Bad Relationship)

As a therapist, in some ways my business is hope.  I see the potential in situations and people, potential for change, potential for solutions.  I realize it is not only a large part of the work I do, but it is possibly part of my wiring, so in that way, it might one of the drivers that brought me to this work in the first place.  I am a hopeful person and I am a champion of hope.   It's fun too, when someone comes into my office and doesn't feel particularly hopeful, but something clicks when we are talking and they can see the potential for what their life might look like and maybe the feeling that getting where they want to be, personally, while it might be somewhat painful,  we can sometimes have a lighter touch and even a little fun too while we get there.

So perhaps for someone like me in particular, a tough life lesson has been that sometimes we must give up hope.  Not on ourselves, but in certain relationships in our lives.  I had an old boyfriend for whom this kind of thing was easy - "Fool me once, shame on you" he often said (not to me, but about folks in general).  "Fool me twice, shame on me."  It wasn't hard for him to know his rule and limit with other people.  It wasn't fuzzy for him.

So many others of us find it excruciatingly painful to 'give up on' or walk away from a relationship - even if it's proven hurtful or even abusive over years and years of time.  I see this with adult children and parents who have been cruel and ignorant.  I see this with marriages and partnerships that are abusive.  I see this with 'friendships' that are backstabbing or undermining and I see this with sibling relationships that can be sneaky and mean.  Or some permutation of all of those things.

A question I've asked myself is, "why?"  Why can some people know their own limits and walk away and why is it so difficult for others?  What are the personality traits or beliefs that keep us stuck with people (who might say differently, if asked) but who would probably push us under the water if the boat capsized, simply to stay afloat themselves?

To paint it in very broad strokes, I think people who stay 'hopeful' in hopeless relationships struggle with two main issues:  

1) Not enough self-esteem, OR
2) TOO much confidence

And despite this difference, they have one big thing in common

An Overdeveloped Sense of Responsibility

People who don't have enough self-esteem take on responsibility in this way:  "It's probably my fault that this relationship is bad.  If only I were more perfect, more understanding, didn't lose my temper, were more supportive, etc, etc, this relationship would be feel the way it's supposed to.  Maybe I deserve this kind of relationship.  Maybe this is how all relationships are.  Maybe this is the best I can do."  This person also may believe that their mother or spouse or brother could have an adverse effect on others and uses their sense of responsibility to 'protect' other people.  For example, "If Mom berates me, at least she's not berating my younger brother."  Or, if Wife is going to be so unpredictable, at least I'm here for the kids and can manage it from the inside."  People who don't have enough self esteem are hopeful in their own way, but hopeful mostly that they themselves will make some change and be 'better' or 'more worthy' in ways that will automatically make the other person kind, attentive, listening, and cooperative.

In psychology, there is an idea called 'repetition compulsion.'  It basically says that our primary caregivers may have messed up in some ways that wounded us.  Our psyche carries a compulsion to repeat the pattern of 'hurt' in order to fix it, heal it, make it better, but what we so often do is just repeat the hurtful parts without the healing.  This is something I  think about with 'hopeful' clients in hurtful relationships - particularly when I see that in their core they do not feel worthy.

People with too much confidence have the underlying belief, "I can change this situation, because I am just that caring, tenacious, strong or clever."  For example, if I am seeing the Overly Confident spouse, I hear this person saying every other time I see them, "I think it's better this week." There is always some solution or 'new' way they've tried communicating, asking, or interacting with their spouse and they are hopeful they have finally been heard and understood and their spouse is finally on board with kindness and partnership.  Often after this hopeful week, they come back in discouraged the next time - the new solution they tried worked for a little while, but the same old mistreatment crept back in again.

OR, the Overly Confident Person tells me, "I have a new approach.  I am just going to focus on my self care and my well being and less on theirs.  Things feel better this week."

Now, these are both resilient characteristics and healthy things to try.  Working on varied ways to communicate.  Figuring out your partner's Love Language and trying that.  Trying softer approaches or more direct approaches.  All of that is great!  The first 50 times.  But Overly Confident people in bad relationships can think of thousands of permutations and try all of them.  Also, great to focus on self care.  But if your partner is truly selfish or your friend is generally mean or your dad is most often blaming and cruel, self-care while in the relationship will be a mechanism for coping, but perhaps not a step toward thriving.

If you find yourself falling into one of these categories (low self-esteem/overly developed self-confidence) and find yourself in long term unhealthy and hurtful relationships, you may also find you have core beliefs that make you overly responsible.  In fact, as I was writing this, I remembered advice I was given at a young age that profoundly impacted me in a mostly negative way - "Never burn any bridges, because once you do, it's too hard to build them again."  On the outside, that would seem like sage advice, but for me, the way that hooked into my personality, I felt that holding people accountable was burning a bridge.  That creating boundaries was burning a bridge.  That confronting someone I loved who was hurtful could burn a bridge.   I internalized that as "The health of relationships is my responsibility and I should protect relationships from conflict."

Some other deep beliefs that might influence people to take on more than their share of responsibility in relationships are:
1) This person is in my family and you never turn your back on family
2) If I don't keep helping or being there for this person, they might die
3) Men just don't understand these things
4) Women are too emotional, so I have to be the strong, logical one
5) The other person is really too weak or wounded or addicted or in pain in some way, so it's right that this feels imbalanced.
6) I made the commitment, I have to stick to it

If you find yourself having any of these core beliefs when you think about a relationship, you might benefit from looking up information about co-dependence.  Taking on the full responsibility for the health of a relationship is co-dependent.

So, to go back to the beginning, here is what I am proposing.  If you find yourself resonating with what I wrote above,  I think it's time to give up hope.  Yep.  I said it.  Give up that hope, put it down and walk away.

Ok, I know it's not that easy and what I really mean is this:

How would it feel to really internalize and accept the information that you have in front of you:  Nothing that you do or don't do is going to make this relationship any different.  This IS the relationship.

Now that you've accepted reality, what would it mean to let there be space in that relationship with your mom or your friend or your boyfriend?  Could you imagine not working so hard to make things better or peaceful or satisfying for you in the context of that other person?   Maybe you don't have to cut them off, maybe you just need to not call and check in on that person so much.  Maybe you need to say 'no' to some of that person's unreasonable demands.  Maybe you could spend that energy on relationships where there is a healthy balance of give and take.  And if you need to cut that person off and it feels really scary, maybe you remind yourself that life doesn't need to be dramatic with grand statements like, "I'm never speaking with you again!"  You can make these changes and shifts in any way that feels like you are being true to you.

I heard an interview on Krista Tippett's excellent podcast, OnBeing recently.  She interviewed the poet, Nikki Giovanni, who spoke about having a dad who wasn't so great.  She said (to paraphrase), "I learned from him that the quality of the love depends on the quality of the love-er."  This seems like an important thing to remember.

When I say, "Give up hope,"  of course, I am being tongue in cheek.  Keep hope in and for yourself, your wisdom and choices.  Stop listening to your brain and heart and instead, listen to the deep gut instinct, the intuition,  I believe each of us has.  There is more friendship, love, and connection for you out there - relationships where you don't carry all the responsibility and you don't need hope, because the love is present and alive and in action.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Race and Religion: This Isn't a Liberal Arts Class, but I am Trying to Learn Here

We don't tend to hear very much from people who are unsure anymore.  Who don't sound and look like they know exactly what they are doing. I suspect we mostly hear from people who are faking their certainty or are too certain for their own good.  Sometimes I get worried that I get into this lecturing mode in my writing too.  Which doesn't really reflect me, because I  connect most deeply with reading, listening to and watching stories about people who are unsure and are finding their way.  So today, I am going to write a little bit about a place I am finding my way.

I think this is going to be a blog about my spiritual path and how it relates to racism.  Let's get started and see where this goes.

I don't know how to talk about racism.  I don't feel like an expert or academic when it comes to race or ending racism.  I do have a gut feeling that the degradation of human beings by other human beings is a cancer on the whole of humanity.  I do know that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship and I see many parallels between the way that relationship functioned and the way white people and people of color function together here in the United States.  I do believe - again this is a gut instinct, an intuition - that healing race relations is integral to healing the world and the earth.  It is part of us, right here, right now, trying to leave the world a healthier, more whole and beautiful place than when we got here.  

Two weeks ago at the Unitarian Universalist church I attend, a guest speaker gave the sermon for Earth Day.  Reverend Daniel Gould, from Missouri Faith Voices, spoke about the joy that is being a member of this human family and our love and care for our Earth, our home, and as he said, "She is groaning."  She needs our love and attention and we must  join together for that mission.  As an African American minister, he was welcomed in particular.  Our mostly white church strives toward social justice and racial equity, but the congregation does not look very diverse.  I noticed a couple of other newer faces in the crowd that day, also people of color - friends of this minister who had come to listen to and support him.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that since my divorce, I've been re-examining my church home.  I've wondered if I would find something deeper for me in a church that might be more 'traditional' in theology.  I have a minister friend who buzzes in my ear that knowing God particularly through the Bible is an important, disciplined part of really knowing God.  (I have a drill sergeant part of my personality that believes that discipline is like really important.  But I also think that part of my personality can get out of balance.  How confusing!)

At any rate, as part of that process, I have been to a variety of churches, including a few mostly African American church services.  During the time I worked in hospice, I also attended several funerals at black churches in North St. Louis City and County.  To me, there is often a different poetry in the sermons I hear in churches with black ministers.  I like that poetry.  It makes me want to cry with joy and understanding.  Is that weird?  I can't describe it fully.  That is a poetry I heard two Sunday's ago from Rev. Gould.  To write this blog, I Googled 'African American religious oratory style' and found many articles explaining the tradition and style.  Here's one The Front Porch Blog

So this week I felt energized about things happening at my church and instead of dabbling in another church's service, I went back to my usual.  I sat in the back row and sat alone, having come in kind of late.  I noticed one black lady sitting on the left aisle several rows ahead of me.  She sat alone.  I was sitting alone too.  Many thoughts went through my mind - I thought about what it must feel like to her to be one of only two or three people of color in this room.  I considered my desire to just sit alone at church and soak in a message.  I wondered what brought her here.  I thought that if I go sit by her, maybe she'll think I'm weird or overeager.  I reflected on the spiritual practice of welcome.  I thought mostly that my greatest wish for my church home (aside from being endowed with millions of dollars) in the past four years has been that we can be in fellowship with people of color, so that our Sunday mornings reflect the healing through friendship and relationship that I feel is key to healing racism.

So I moved my seat.  I sat down by this lady I didn't know.  And we extended the hand of fellowship at that time of the service.  But, after the service I made myself overcome that little shyness that I have (believe it or not, I have shyness sometimes), and I asked her about herself.  I shared that I'd been on a spiritual check-in since my divorce a little while ago.  She shared that she was on that some journey - she'd been divorced a year ago and was checking out new churches and seeing what was the best fit for her.  She'd been one of the ladies I saw sitting in the congregation on Earth Day to support her friend, Rev. Gould.  We talked about places we'd visited and we talked about fellowship, and we talked about some of our own questions and thoughts about race and religion.  Don't get me wrong - it's wasn't super deep, but it was a connection.  And I really regret not getting her number, because I bet we would have fun visiting churches together.

Growing up in St. Louis, we never talked too much about race in my family other than to say racism was wrong and my mother in particular gave us many messages about empathy.  Imagining what it would be like to get on a bus in St. Louis City when it was still dark and being 'bussed' through an hour of traffic to get to a white school far from your neighborhood and home.

There are other parts of my background that maybe factor in to why and how this just feels, by intuition, like these two things are intertwined in my life.  Maybe it's that I went to college in the South.  Maybe it's poetry.  Maybe it's a knowing of personal injustice from my own life experiences.  Maybe it's being a social worker.  Maybe it's something beyond what I can know with my brain and see and feel.

I'm just going with it.

I've been reading books and seeing movies and listening to podcasts written by African American artists.  Recently I've read The Hate U Give and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and next on my list is Their Eyes Were Watching God.  I saw Get Out and Black Panther in the past month or two.   I am sharing this, not to say, "I am doing something so right," but I am a person who believes in the power of stories and I hope that by reading stories from a different perspective, I can more deeply understand another person or people's perspective.

At this moment, I don't have a big life lesson to share with you about all of this.  This is a snapshot of something I am doing.  I don't have answers to either how to end racism or where my church exploration or spiritual searching will end up.

I am sharing this in part to 'practice what I preach'  (maybe I should have been a minister?) - meaning in this case that it's ok to not know exactly what I'm doing and I would like to encourage you to explore places in your life that you are leaning, but you don't know exactly what you're doing either.

When I don't know exactly what I'm doing, I check in with myself in a couple of ways...I ask myself if my gut instinct or intuition is leading me in a certain direction or to take a 'next step.'  I also talk with people I respect and care about to check in.  I think I'm a pretty good communicator, so I try to communicate honestly where I'm at.  I try to be open to what happens next, where the next step leads me.

Maybe writing this is a step - maybe it inches me closer to something I don't even know what it is yet. 

Maybe it's time to shut up now.  There's so much talking in this world.  The next step I know is trying to listen.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

There Are So Many Ways NOT to Be Lonely, But So Many People Feel Lonely — What’s Up with That?

One of the funny things about being a therapist and also writer is that my clients (not all, some) read about my life in my blog and some of them ask about me (which a tiny bit is against the rules of therapy, but not like you’re going to jail or anything). Mostly two things are of concern. They either want to know how my dog is (I wrote about the cancer in her skull a couple months back. She’s doing well. Still running!) Or, they want to know if I’m dating anyone. The clients who ask about dating tend to be women who are my age or older and I think they ask from a genuinely caring place. Like I do for them, they want good and happy things for me. I think they don’t want me to be lonely. If they themselves are lonely, they may also look to me for hope or comfort.
I asked a friend recently what I should write about next in my blog and one suggestion he gave was, “the lies of loneliness.” Aside from being somewhat poetic, I liked thinking about that idea — does loneliness tell us lies? Is loneliness itself a lie? What exactly is the feeling of loneliness? What are the types and textures? What are the cures?
I want to start by saying there is one type of loneliness that is different from all the others, and it may relate back to the last thing I’m going to write about, but I want to mention it first because its characteristics are so different. That is the loneliness of chemical depression. I have not ever had a depression like that, but I work with a few people who live a great deal of their lives in deep and nearly intractable depression. One of the hallmarks, to me, of that type is a pervasive sense of alone-ness. No matter who is there in the room, who calls or texts, what person sits next to you at dinner, you feel disconnected, flat, and so alone. The main problem here is chemical depression and that’s not what I want to write mostly about today, but I want to acknowledge that the persistence and heaviness of that loneliness exists and hurts.
Most people have other forms and sorts of loneliness and often, I’ve found, that what their loneliness drives them to do, or the cure they think they find leads to more loneliness and here is where it’s worth investigating.
Here are some things I have observed about loneliness, which might be what my friend called the lies of loneliness:
1. When people feel lonely, it’s not always romantic loneliness. Though it often is. Or they often think it is. Even when partnered or married — even when you look on the outside “in love” — people often experience loneliness.
2. Loneliness is very close to emptiness. It might be worth asking yourself if you feel lonely or you feel empty.
3. When you feel empty or lonely, it hurts a lot and your brain and heart are going to urge you to fill up that space with a bunch of junk. It’s up to you what you want the quality of that junk to be — some common choices I’ve seen are: more relationships. More sex, but not in relationships. Social Media. Food. Alcohol. Drugs. Binging on Netflix. Sleep. Workaholism. Working out-aholism. ‘Helping’ others.
While I think some of these things are good for a weekend, I hate to see people get stuck here for months or years. Some are more destructive than others, but none will alleviate the loneliness in a deep or lasting way. (And often lead to more feelings of loneliness and emptiness).
It’s been a long time since I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau and it’s possible that I never read it sophomore year in high school, but just skimmed it (it blends in with Moby Dick in the ‘classics, but kind of boring’ category). But what I remember and what stays with me is that this man chose to live alone by a pond and be close to nature. He tried to be self-reliant. It was somewhere around 1854. He did not have TV, cell phones or computers. He had a pond, some plants, the weather. It probably sounds like a lonely, empty living hell to a lot of people, but I think he was on to something. When we feel lonely or empty, we often need less not more. Whatever it is in us that says we need more, more, more is probably the biggest lie of loneliness that I see.
Here’s a real life example. I tried Match.com last summer in large part because some of my friends encouraged me to ‘get out there’. In fact, one of my good friends said, “You are single. You should embrace this time in your life.” And I thought, “That’s probably true! Why not?!” (This is what my mom calls the Tigger from Winnie-the-Pooh part of me — “Tiggers love to bounce into tall trees!” And once I’m up in the metaphorical tall tree, I’m like “Tiggers do NOT like to bounce into tall trees.)
What I learned was that online dating is not for me. Here’s why: it’s a lot. It’s more, more, more. Men. Messages. Trying to suss through whether the men are nice or sleazeballs. More messages or winking (ugh). I shut it down after a few weeks and it’s hard for me to imagine that I would ever do it again. This sort of filling up my time and brainspace did not feel fun or even adventurous — it felt like too much…but that could just be part of my wiring. I did ask myself if I felt lonely. The answer to that was, “not really.” I realized that while, I have moments of longing, that is different than loneliness, for me. Longing, for me, is witnessing how beautiful and amazing it is to see two people falling in love. Or to hear a man read a poem to his wife of 40 years that he wrote all about what it’s like to love her for a long time and how their love changes with age. (This happened to me this week.) And there are moments where I hope and wish for those experiences in my life. To me that is longing, but not loneliness or emptiness.
Maybe I’m saying that if you think you might feel lonely, don’t be afraid to feel it and know that feeling in a deeper way. Loneliness may not be how you really feel and when you let yourself feel it, you may realize more accurately what you want or need.
3. There is a difference between general loneliness and being lonely for a particular person. Loneliness for a particular person is more like grief. To me,grief is a helpful way to feel and think about metabolizing that sort of loneliness. If the person you love died and that’s why you are lonely for him/her, it may never fully go away, but it will feel different — perhaps less heavy and perhaps less sharp and perhaps less pervasive as time goes on.
4. If you were recently dumped or you are getting the cues that a romantic relationship is on the downhill slide, you may feel excruciatingly lonely. However, I often think we go through something I call relationship ‘withdrawal.’ I think it takes a few months of not being in contact with someone, not hooking up with that person, etc., to not feel ‘lonely’ for them anymore. If you think it is in your best interest to move on, try to stop yourself from having contact with them. (This would be a good time to fill that space with the least damaging thing possible and I recommend The Walking Dead.)
5. Loneliness tells you that you will always be alone. When parents are anxious about their kids, I often say to them, “What if I could tell you that I have received a message from 2050. That message is: Your kids turn out great. They are well-adjusted, productive, and healthy — how would that change your parenting?” Loneliness makes us super-anxious, Many people have an underlying thought/lie, “This is it for me. I guess I’m dying alone.” If you feel lonely right now while you’re reading this, it is my sincere belief that you will not always feel lonely. Life circumstances change, luck changes, we try out a different grocery store or take piano lessons. If you are truly lonely for romantic love, and not empty from some inner emptiness, the best you can do is try to enjoy where you are and who you’re with and what you’re doing in ways that bring you a sense of well-being and health. One thing I know for sure is that when we are coming from a place of hunger, we often eat crappy foods. And what I mean is, if you are depleted, hungover, secretly hating yourself, the relationship you might find yourself in is not the one that will make you less lonely in the long run.
So this brings me to my final observation and it is this…A deep longing that seems utterly human and perhaps universal is the longing to be seen, deeply known, and loved for the very person we are in our core. To me there is something spiritual about this. I had a friend in college who was really smart (he’s a neurosurgeon now!) and also a conservative Christian (I am not…nor am I a neurosurgeon). We used to write notes and letters and talk about C.S. Lewis and Greek Civilization. He told me to read Mere Christianity, which included (I recall) a passage that each of us has inside, a God-shaped hole that we try to fill with many things that are not God. Yet, the only thing that will ever really satisfy us is God. Just an idea to ponder.
Maybe it’s blasphemy in our Hallmark channel world, maybe it seems on the ‘meh’ end of hopeful, but here is my truth: I’m not sure there is any one person out in the world that will see us, know us, love us fully in all of our parts, in the depth of our selves, over the course of all our lives (though I believe anything is possible.) I do believe that we search for this deep connection in conscious and unconscious ways. In the end, it is Whitney Houston (I Will Always Love You) and Stuart Smalley (I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, etc.) and is something internal rather than external. Often we are lonely for ourselves. The world gets us away from ourselves and sometimes gives us messages that we aren’t worthy or enough or intrinsically good and loveable. We are all of those things and we are good company.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

I Took A Pledge to Help End Racism. Step One: I Am Asking You to Listen.

Most people who know me know, that in the past couple years, I've become kind of a church slut.  I've been attending a number of denominations, and I'm finding it difficult to commit.  Please don't judge!  (Maybe I have unreasonable expectations, but that may be another blog).  I love the social justice focus of the Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ, I love my personal history with United Methodists and much of the theology, I love the ritual and pomp of the Catholic church, and I read a number of Buddhist writers (not a church, I know).  I am inspired by Jewish stories and wisdom.  I wish I could combine them all into one thing and throw a little Hinduism too.  Yet, one thing I did commit to when sitting in the Unitarian Universalist pews the other week was signing a Pledge to Help End Racism. 

Here's some background:  My city has been in a process of transformation, protest, conversation, rage, avoidance, and effort since Michael Brown's death in 2014.  St. Louis is talking about race and racism in more honest and open ways than I can remember in my life.  It has been a particularly passionate topic in my small community within the city/county and permeates everything from the school board to friendships to facebook.  I've tended to be in a more personal than public role, because that's where I feel comfortable.  Going to coffee with people, talking in kitchens with friends, attending community events, putting a Black Lives Matter sign in my yard.   And in the UU church I attend, racial equity issues are addressed from the pulpit almost every week - hence, the action item - sign a "Pledge to Help End Racism."  Like you, I wonder, how can I do that?  I am a working single mom with many worries, hassles, concerns, interests, and passions.  Do I have the energy or courage for such a thing?  Who the hell am I to think anything I might say is helpful in this literal landmine of emotion?

But I am going to take the opportunity to try to say some things and I hope that people who read this will grace me with the generosity of knowing that I am taking a risk.  This is a topic that angers many people and causes people on all sides to shut down.  I know I am not going to talk about this in all the right ways from a political correctness point of view.  And I am going to take a stance that some people dear to me will want to argue with me about.  I am asking that you pause before you make assumptions or respond.  I am a strong person, but I am gentle.   And in talking about this, I am talking from my heart, which is certainly as tender as yours. 

I believe racism exists and is one of the great wounds that prevents every system in our lives from being all that it can be.  Racism  hurts people in every facet of life - our schools, our hospitals, our neighborhoods, our businesses, our friendships, our churches, our families, our prisons, the arts.  This wounding leads to more wounding.  It goes on and on until many people of good will feel hopeless and afraid - what can me done?  This is too big or I am too angry and I am not willing anymore.

I am here to ask you to be willing.  I am here to ask you to be willing to listen.  

I'll digress for a second and hopefully bring it back around.

When the night isn't too busy with driving kids around to various sports and practices, I like to cook dinner and listen to podcasts.  The podcast I am most intrigued by right now is the podcast from San Quentin prison in California, which is a look at life 'on the inside'.  Ear Hustle  The most recent episode provoked many thoughts in me for many reasons - it was called Dirty Water - a conversation between Sara, who had been a victim of sex trafficking and killed her trafficker and LA, who was a trafficker himself, serving time in San Quentin.  It was a conversation about the wounding of sex trafficking and a practice of restorative 

justice. In case you aren't familiar, restorative justice is defined this way in Wikipedia:

Restorative justice is an approach to justice that personalizes the crime by having the victims and the offenders mediate a restitution agreement to the satisfaction of each, as well as involving the community. This contrasts to other approaches such as retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation.

Victims take an active role in the process. Meanwhile, offenders take meaningful responsibility for their actions, seizing the opportunity to right their wrongs and redeem themselves, in their own eyes and in the eyes of the community.

In addition, this theory looks at crime as something that happens against an individual or community rather than the state.  The dialogue between offender and victim is supposed to foster victim satisfaction and offender accountability.  

In this episode of Ear Hustle, I was intrigued by the act of both talking and listening as an act of justice-bringing.  Sara and LA listen to one another.  Toward the end, Sara asks LA a question and deeply listens to his answer.  She is not berating, but she is honest - she does not hear some key aspects of him holding himself accountable for his crimes.  But they don't leave angry - they say, 'maybe we can talk and listen more on down the road.'  There is justice and generosity in that.  
These problems, like racism, or violence against women are so big, we forget where we have the power to make a difference.  In so many ways racism is a crime against an individual or community.  I believe that the beginning of healing most injustices in our society at this time, not the least of which is racism, is through individual or small community response.  The very beginning of this  - and it's so do-able  - is to cultivate our ability to listen.

We are not very good at it anymore.  I wonder if we ever were, but now seems particularly bad.  And listening means not just listening to the words that are said, but understanding the feeling and true meaning behind the words that are said.  

I know that for the sad, unjust or hateful things that have happened in my life, it is a gift to be believed.  For me to be able to tell what happened and how it hurt me and for someone to listen and not tell me that I should think about it or feel it in a different way.  This is, in a way, one thing a therapist does.  Even more healing, might be for the person or persons who hurt me to listen to me tell my story and hold themselves accountable.  That would feel like the beginning of justice.  I think it would restore me in many ways.

Defensiveness is an enemy of listening and probably an enemy of peace and justice.  When I went into people's homes as a hospice social worker, often they were understandably defensive.  I was in their space.  I represented something awful and I asked nosy questions.  I think I became skilled at disarming people, in a way.  I didn't want them to be defensive.  I wanted to work together with them to find ways to alleviate suffering.  To disarm them, I listened to them.  And I believed them.  Even if they told me to go away (which sometimes they did.)
Maybe that experience is what dictates my approach and I know it is effective.  Listening and believing other people from a non-defensive position is healing.  Healing for the speaker and healing for the listener.  And in healing, there is dignity, and in restoring dignity and agency there is justice.

I would like to live in a world where we aren't afraid of one another and angry with one another.  I believe that there is enough love, power, and money to go around.  You getting doesn't mean me giving up.  As a white person, I am trying to be accountable for the ways I may personally have perpetuated racism, or just by being part of the system of history and community that I am, I am in a fabric of racism.  That is hard for me to say, I'm noticing - even as I write it.  And I write it not out of being under the sway of some 'liberal media' bias or white guilt or anything like that. I am writing is because, as hard as it is to say, I believe it to be true.  

So this is a little thing that I am doing.  It is not the only thing, but one pebble in the water.  

When I started writing this blog this morning, you know, I didn't realize tomorrow is the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's death?  But he is someone I admire for many reasons and I have absolute awe for the poetry of his words.  So I will leave you with these, because  in all of us there is a seed of light, and one way we can grow that is by listening to one another and granting one another the dignity that we also want to be granted:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

This is Not Normal, OR Quirky Kids and One Idea about Reducing Social Isolation

My daughter and I participated in the March for Our Lives this past Saturday.  While we know and love several gun owners, we also think the safety of our kids and society in general should be addressed in a variety of ways, which would include more regulations on the way guns are procured and who can get them.  In a discussion of good will I have on an ongoing basis with a good family friend, he let me know that he is most concerned about the mental health issues facing anyone who might use guns for ill and how can we better address that aspect (since I am a mental health professional).

It makes me think of one of the signs at the March on Saturday, it read:  This Is Not Normal.

Well, what does that mean?  What is not normal?  The number of students killed in school shootings in 2018 so far?  The number of deaths by suicide in which a gun was used?  A President who, to put it mildly, seems to have disdain for women?  A population of people who are so angry and afraid of one another that they can't speak and listen like grown ups?

You guys know me - I am a big advocate of paradox.  As a therapist, I am often one to say, "There is no normal."  There are so many variations of brains and bodies and hearts and souls and that is one of the most beautiful and astounding aspects of being human.  But also, sometimes it helps to have some kind of range.  I had a therapist who used to repeatedly ask me, "If we were watching the movie of this, what do you think the audience would be saying?"  (Her implication was that the audience would be like "oh shit, this is NOT normal.")  It helps to have perspective.

So when my friend asks me about mental health and helping people on the fringe - adults, kids, white, black, and mostly male, I think it takes a lot of nuanced and mature thinking to parse through it.

Another friend talked to me recently about her "quirky kid."  She worries about her kid who is not 'diagnosable' and does not look different on the outside but relates to other people in a different way.  My friend worries about her kid being socially ostracized.  She worries about her child's boundaries and vulnerabilities.  She worries about her child's current and future struggles.  And my friend has gotten her kid every intervention known to parent-dom.  This is not a kid who hasn't had support, love and resources.  This is not about getting the quirkiness out of her kid, this is now about helping create a world where the child's quirkiness may have a place.

What is or is not normal?  How do we relate to those who are not 'normal'?  As adults?  As youth?  What do we model to our kids about this?

It seems like being 'normal' is the lowest bar in kid-dom.  In kid-dom, a lot of people actually want to be better than normal.  I remember in 7th grade, a girl I looked up to a lot was just COOL.  (Yes, Stephanie, it's you.)  She could write bubble letters without practicing, her jean jacket collar stayed up at just the right angle, her hair always looked good and the song lyrics she wrote on her folder were effortlessly perfect.  I had to study and practice and really, really think about all that she did to get even a fraction as cool as she was.

I think about how this kind of dynamic permeates through to adult life.  Some people are cool, some people don't care and are still cool, some people try and are not cool, some people don't care and just really don't care.   We have PTSD from being kids, in a way - no one wants to have cooties, but we also often remember the kid with cooties.  It's a terrible part of 'normal' childhood and it probably continues on in a muted form to adulthood.

In the end, I think both of my friends are worrying about social isolation - one very personally, and one from more removed point of view.  What can be done to prevent social isolation?  To 'treat' social isolation?  I don't think it's right or realistic to think everybody should 'just be friends.'  We can't force genuine relationships.

As I've been writing this, I've been going over in my mind how 'quirkiness' is seen in adult world and I am relieved to notice that there is a wide range of quirkiness that I think just doesn't matter in adult world and/or you can certainly find friendships even if you say...love poetry or something really weird like that.

But what I think continues to trouble adults and I also remember it from being a kid, is how to relate to people who have different boundaries.  Perhaps different physical boundaries - they touch or talk close up, they might talk too long in meetings or after church service, they might not have typical hygiene, they might seem angry or sullen but have outbursts that they want others to acknowledge at times that aren't convenient.  I think these are the kinds of quirks that even wise adults struggle to understand and have compassion for.  But I think this is the challenge we are asked to undertake now.  Both for our selves and to model for our children.

We need to be empowered to be both courteous and straightforward.  To ask more questions and voice our own needs and wants in a compassionate way.

For example, if I interact with an adult who is talking too close to me, it would be very difficult, but I actually think I need to say, "Could you please take a step back."  Or to say to the colleague who is might be having a monologue at 5pm, "I need to get home now, the end of the work day isn't a good time for me to talk."

I think when we become more comfortable saying what we need or what boundaries are ok for us, we also model this for our kids and we take away the stigma or fear.  Sometimes I think we humans act ugly toward others when we are afraid...afraid we don't know what to do or how to handle a situation.  I think being ignored and brushed over might be the worst part of social isolation.  Honest, compassionate communication is a form of connection, to me.

When I worked in hospice, I learned that you could just about say anything to a person, it just depended on how you said it.  I talked to people about everything - from how they pooped to how their body would shut down when they died.  I know we can do better with one another, but we have to be willing to look at what makes us uncomfortable.

Maybe it is looking at our own fears, our own shortcomings, our own lack of knowing the answer.

Here is something I do know  - I'm not so worried about 'normal.'  I think it's a better tool to use to ask, "If we were watching the movie, what would the audience be saying?"  I think the audience would know that many factors contribute to gun violence and social isolation is only one of those factors.  I think the audience would also know that social isolation is the result of yet again, many factors.  Sorry everybody...this is a complex world.

One aspect of social isolation is our aversion to our own weirdness and our own fear that we don't know how to address other people's weirdness.   That's ok.  We can work with that!

My bubble letters may never be the right amount fluffy, but I am going to keep practicing compassionately and courageously setting boundaries, knowing that honest communication is one way I can show deep respect for another human being.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, Or Why You Can't Really Rescue Anyone

As I've been working on my book about loss and grief and what we make of these experiences, I thought I would periodically share that writing with you.  Some of the book is about hospice and death and dying, but some is about loss and grief in a more general sense.  A bit of what I have below is reflective of that:

I fell in love with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I read it for the first time the year I knew my marriage was falling apart.  Despite poverty, cruelty at the hands of other children and adults, and a father who died by 35 from alcoholism, Francie’s recollections of the Brooklyn of her childhood hold exotic details like free Christmas trees that are thrown at children who are strong enough to catch them on Christmas Eve, or ferry rides in the Summer sponsored by the Democratic party machine, or what it feels like to read a book all day on the balcony of your apartment as you watch the people of the neighborhood shuffle about in their Saturday routines.

Maybe the neighborhood, the streets, the creeks, the town of your childhood is magical?  Maybe it’s a universal – because even if it’s terrible (like in The Glass Castle, etc) – it’s magically terrible? 

I feel that magic when I think back on my childhood, which was not terrible or wonderful in any extreme way – but it was my childhood and my neighborhood  – a suburban subdivision where kids ‘popped wheelies’ on their bikes freely in the street, where the Sno-Cone man drove around in a dirty old car and ‘ripped off’ kids for 50 cents a cone.  Where we crossed a creek on the way to and from school, and once – a jaguar got loose from the zoo, so none of us were allowed to walk home that day.

Like any neighborhood – the characters were known.  There was Mr. R who kept Penthouse and Playboy in the garage and the kids would all sneak in to peek at them (Penthouse was really bad…way worse than Playboy).  Mrs. T, the sweet grandma with a cuckoo clock in her kitchen, the Brooks boys – all three teenagers, who made out with their girlfriends in the summer twilight as they leaned against their cars.   Even the pets were known and sort of collective.  Sinbad was a outdoor cat who technically belonged to the family on the corner.  My mom said he was mean, so I didn’t pet him when I was out playing.  I was just four years old, but in those days, you were allowed to play outside alone for hours at a time – you were allowed to walk back and forth to different friends houses in the summer.  My mom would step out the front door and call my name, alerting me of dinnertime.  “Katy!” she shouted, and I had better come running or risk eating dinner cold and alone.  (It happened once - beef stoganoff, cold.  Gross.)

One summer evening the moms were outside talking as the kids ran around our cul-de-sac – we lived at the very bottom of the street, centered on the circle.  I noticed Sinbad skulking around his yard, looking different, something about his face – did he have a beard? I wondered.  I went to take a closer look.  As I approached, I saw that Sinbad had a baby bunny draped out of his mouth – alive, I thought.   I walked over and took the rabbit right out of his mouth into my tiny open palm.  The bunny limp, panting.  I petted him as I walked to my mom – she would fix this situation, I was sure. 

My mom and Mrs. Green looked at me with surprise and then looked at one another, “what’s this?”

I explained and very certainly said that we needed to save the bunny.  “Yes.  You did save the bunny,” my mom assured.  “What a brave girl you are to take him from Sinbad.  He would be dead, if not for you.  We will put him in our backyard by the irises and feed him carrots and lettuce and he will grow big and strong and have a family there.  Hurray!”  And as far as I knew she put the baby bunny, who we blessed in our nightly prayers, in the iris patch.  And I believed, every bunny in our yard from then on was either my baby bunny or one of his descendents. 

This is how you begin to create an identity as a child.  What my mom reflected was the beginning of something I built on that brought havoc, wonder, beauty, and many miscalculations to my life.  I felt very powerful as a child – I do the brave thing!  I do the things that are hard to do.  Sometimes I even save someone.  

The way we see and define ourselves influences many of our decisions. 

We all have these identities that are bestowed through experience and stories - I find that people who had RESPONSIBILITY as a child take on particular identities as adults…maybe your mother was sick and she relied on you to take care of her and clean up around the house.  Maybe your family struggled financially and you took it on yourself to 'make it.'  Maybe your brother was a druggie and you tried your best to be no bother to make things easier for your folks.  When our story becomes that we can save or protect people (or animals), we take on something that is not ours and it will surely bring us heartache.

I wonder if thinking I am brave is one of the reasons I was drawn to hospice work.  I wonder if on some level you have to have stupid balls to do such a thing.  I knew it wasn’t rescuing anyone, but maybe there was something like that in it.

When I started social work school, my uncle cornered me one Christmas Eve and told me that, 'No good deed goes unpunished.'  He gave me a book, Miss Lonelyhearts, that he said exemplified this, and he told me the story of an imprisoned man who wrote to him (my uncle was a lawyer), saying he was wrongly convicted.  He had done research, he had a legitimate case.  My uncle took the case on, pro bono, and got the conviction overturned.  My uncle 'saved' the man, in some sense.

The man my uncle helped was killed in an armed robbery within two weeks of his release.  The man my uncle helped had been the robber.   My uncle, years later, felt deeply conflicted..."what did my good deed do?"


I don’t know how old I was when I realized my bunny died.  Maybe in my teen years.  And when I matured, I found that there was truth and there was a story.  The truth was that I didn't do the good, brave thing I intended to do.  The story was a kind story, though.  A great story that my mom created for me:  Katy is brave and strong and helps helpless things.  

For me, now looking at this episode from childhood, I wonder what my adult self would do in the same situation.  Was there a greater kindness?  To let Sinbad eat that bunny up with the swiftness of a predator or to let that bunny slowly die in the patch of iris, starving and cold?  Maybe death in the wild is always wild, so there is no ‘kind’ or ‘unkind’; there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it will be over swiftly or it will be over more slowly, but the dying will eventually be done.

Maybe you are reading this and thinking, "Thanks, that's depressing"  My daughter read that last bit and said "Ethics."  But I think one thing I've learned in this life is that it is both scary and hopeful.  If you think you are helping or saving your child, parent, spouse, friend, it can be so hard to know your limitations.  But this is the essential thing.  Don't despair.  Even though it is terrifying, you must let go of running about the world thinking you have more control than you really do.

Some people we love will save themselves.  Some people we love will not.  But, we can never know the ripple effects of all our actions; we don't know what's best, kindest or right in every situation.  I know some people reading this are saying, "Well, I kind of do." (You know who you are. )

Toward the end of my marriage, I remember getting my brain and heart in knots about what would be best for my kids.  I didn't want to get divorced, in part, because I was sure that it would doom them to some dysfunctional fate.  But I also remember standing in the living room and this thought hit me like a bolt of lightening:  God wants me to be loved.  In that moment, I felt the beginning of an idea - that my getting divorced would not hurt my kids.  That seeing me not be loved would hurt my kids.

At the end of my marriage, I so wanted to save my husband, my kids, my family as I knew it and my history, but in the end, I had to rescue myself.

I think that's what belongs to us.  Our own life.  And that's the only thing that is truly and deeply ours to take care of.