Thursday, September 7, 2017

For All The Single Ladies. And Men. And Future Helicopter Pilots

We are a family that takes a lot of summer road trips, so it's a nice bookend to this one to have taken a road trip Labor Day weekend.  No, not to relax by the lake in a sleepy Midwestern town.  Not even to relax by the lake in a cheesy tourist town, but to shuttle my son to yet another adventure.  This time, to finish up his open water diving and become scuba certified.  Which entails, for his sister and me, a number of hours sitting at the edge of the quarry playing gin rummy.  And making sure she stays out of the sun because she has become obsessed with Twilight (I know I am a terrible mother and I let her read these awful books and see the movies too), and now she wants pale skin to be closer to her true love, Edward.  But that's another blog.  Or maybe not...we'll see how this one turns out.

Anyway - road trip.  Well, we make the best of it - it's down to a science.  Three songs for one kid (Taylor Swift and Adele are usual favorites with the daughter) and three songs for the son (maybe a little Africa by Toto, maybe some 90s grunge rock or Journey).  Also, A LOT of talking.

Below is a transcript of an actual conversation on this road trip.

(General talk about "what do you want to be when you grow up.")

Daughter:  I've changed from cardiothoracic surgeon to general surgery

Son:  You watch too much Grey's Anatomy

Daughter:  Well, what do you want to be?

Son:  Either a Green Beret, a helicoptor pilot in the army, or a jet fighter pilot

Daughter (incredulous):  Why does everything you want to do risk your death?  Mom!  How can you support this?

Me:  Well, it's not easy for me to support it.  But if this is what makes him feel that his life is fulfilling and interesting, then I have to.

Daughter:  How did this even start?!?

Me:  I remember exactly when it started...when your brother read Hatchet at the end of 3rd grade.  (Side note - Hatchet is a great book!  Also, this is when I had more control over what my kids read.)

Daughter:  I wish he'd never read that!  I wish I could go back in time and make it so he never read it.

Son:  Then you may as well have castrated me.

The END.  (Though I wish I would have thought to say to my daughter, 'that's how I feel about you reading Twilight.)

I shared this story with my best friend of 30 years and she laughed and said, "How dramatic."  And it's true that living with two young teen/ pre-teens is kind of dramatic.

But what it got me thinking deeply about are ways that my son and I are alike.  About what it means to live the life you want, what it means to live freely.  Is it an essential part of all of us to want personal freedom and is that on a continuum depending on how you're wired?  And what are good and not so good reasons to curtail our personal freedom.

I remember seeing a piece of folk art that I loved when my son was a toddler.  These were the days of ear infections and waking up multiple times in the night for bad dreams or to comfort him with his ears.  The piece of art was a Day of the Dead sculpture - a man and a woman skeleton, dressed in colorful, traditional Mexican clothing embracing, kissing - she was dipped back as if dancing.  The whole scene was depicted in a jail cell and the caption said "el amor es una prision."  Love is a prison.  And I remember thinking, "yep."

Being in relationship with other people, whether familial or romantic or professional or friendship does come with some responsibilities for and toward those other people.  But what are the bound of that and who defines it?

I know my son loves me and he loves his sister.  Does that require him to give up his dreams of honor, adventure, glory so that we will feel safer or our minds will be at ease?  What if I put that pressure on him?  Would that be love?

And that's what this post is really about - the beginning of an exploration on the connection between love and freedom.

This translates for me pointedly right now as I began to dip my toe into the water of dating after divorce.  Being 'single' is a state of being 'free' in some sense - a felt measure of being different as an adult in our society (though I am reading that just under half of adults are unmarried).  As a single person, I am coming face to face with how I relate to a certain kind of freedom.  Growing up female, there are many overt and covert messages that being connected in a romantic relationship or marriage makes you safer in the world and a more legitimate person.  (I knew I could bring it back to Twilight!).  But aside from the social notions, in my work, I have often heard widows say that they felt 'untethered' in a negative, free floating, scary way after the death of their husbands.  I myself felt that way at times at the end of my marriage.

Yet, in my singledom, I am also reacquainting myself with another part of me, a part I hadn't truly felt since I was a kid.

A funny thing about me is that I spent a couple years of elementary school going to the library at recess rather than going out to play.  It was never a big deal to anyone, including me, my friends and teachers.  It wasn't about being socially rejected or rejecting others,  it was just my preference.  I didn't like the stuff the kids played and I didn't like feeling obligated to certain friends/groups, so I just took myself out of the situation and some great memories are the books I read, like The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and no joke - Born Free by Joy Addams.

And as I continue to think about it, I am interested in other choices I've made in my life that reflect a preference for independence...I am self-employed, I participate in individual sports like running, rather than team sports.  I am a writer, which means that something I do for fun is sit a number of hours and think about how to use words to tell stories or write poems.

When I was married, I rarely considered whether I had a need for independence or what freedom meant to me.  I think that was partially my particular marriage, partially the way I was brought up, and partially the time of life I was in - with young kids, freedom can seem laughable.

But I am in a stage of life where I have more choices.  I look at my kids and I am in awe of all the choices before them.  What language do you want to take?  What sport do you want to focus on?  Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to be when you grow up?  Do you want to get married?  Do you want to have kids?  What songs do you like to listen to on road trips?

I want them to be free to make the choices that are theirs, not socially prescribed or overly-pressured by norms.

When you find yourself divorced at mid-life, one of the things many people say to you is, "Don't worry, you'll find someone again."  Or, "You're still so young, you won't be alone forever."  It feels kind of scary - like the story of the world for you is that you will only live a fulfilled life if you are attached in this way.   But this is also the world's way of loving you like an overprotective mom -  "I love you so much, I don't want you to be alone."  "I love you so much I don't want you to go into the military."  Basically, the same thing.

Yet, in the beginning, it wasn't only pressure from others.  Some of my friends can attest to my own moments when I first knew my marriage was ending - those untethered moments when I asked, "Do you think I'll ever be loved?  Do you think I'll ever love someone else again?"  As time goes on, "Will I ever find love?" doesn't seem like the right question.

To me, though I'm looking at it through the lens of being single in a married world, I think the questions are deep and important for all people - in what ways do I live the life I want?  If I am living for someone else or by others' expectations, why am I doing that?  Do I want to keep doing it?  What choices might I make so that my life feels like it belongs to me?  What choices will feel more true to myself?

I am delighted for my kids for the smorgasbord of choices ahead, and my deepest hope is that life has given them the freedom to explore and learn who they are and honor who they are by choices that reflect that.  And change when and if they need or want to change.  We don't have to be the same way always.

That is the life I am building for myself too.  And anymore, I don't take on the role of my own overprotective mother.  I am having adventures, like my son.  I am appreciating my choices.  I am trying my best to be loving to myself and also to others.  I am being true to me.  I turn 45 in a couple days.  And you know what? It doesn't feel scary, it feels good.  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How to Have An Enemy: May The Force Be With You and A Preppy Mom

I wish everyone could know my mom.  She has certain things she says and certain stories she tells and she always tells them in the same way.  She is very theatrical, 100% sincere, and believes wholly that our purpose on this earth is to love one another, help any one in need, and leave the world a better place.

From the time I was a kid and was aware of the political climate of the 1960s (and I was very aware of that political climate - we listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, possibly daily) - I asked my mom if she had been a hippy.

"Well,"  she'd say,  "I never looked like a hippy on the outside.  I never dressed like a hippy.  But, I FELT like a hippy on the inside.  You know, you don't have to dress in a way that brings attention to yourself to believe those things.  I protest in my own way."

What she meant by this, is that overall, we lived in a pretty conservative community, and I would say that in the 1980s my mom dressed quite 'preppy'.  But anyone who knows my mom, knows she is not politically conservative.  She speaks up and believes she can work for change from the 'inside' the establishment.   In the late 1980s, there was even a rumor about her that she wanted to distribute condoms at the high school.  Scandalous!

It seems to me we are in the midst of a sea change in the world, perhaps not unlike how things might have felt in the 1960s.  We have North Korea.  Our president speaks, writes, hires and fires without thorough information or long term understanding and deep respect for consequences .  We have neo-Nazi's openly hating.  We have an opiod/heroin epidemic and our friends and neighbors are dying.   We have violence in the streets and distrust of our police force.  We are so attached to our phones that a recent study showed that newborn babies are connecting to their mothers' foreheads instead of their eyes.


There are many people today who are afraid evil is winning in this world.  I've been alive for almost 45 years, and it certainly feels to me that, in the tenor of the air, there are powerful forces at work.  Speaking of the forces, here's the open to 1977's Star Wars: Star Wars Opening Crawl

The movie begins...'It is a period of Civil War.'  After 40 years, I find myself appreciating the themes and characters that makes Star Wars timeless.  For instance, perhaps it's not a coincidence that Confederate monuments and what they mean are the source of renewed conflict.

In every facet of life - whether it's fighting cancer or fighting racism - under threat, human nature is to fight and defend.

So many of us were taught that you fight, but not resolve conflict.  Why fight unless you intend to 'win?'  You fight to decimate.  You fight to humiliate.  You fight to, metaphorically, kill.  I even see it within groups of people that overall agree with one another.   We get on social media to vent or discuss a topic and it turns into nitpicking, backbiting and name-calling when someone is not liberal enough or liberal in the 'right ways.'  I am sure this happens on the conservative side too, but I just happen to generally run in more liberal circles.   A friend recently screenshot-ed a facebook post to me in which another person stated that if you are not publicly, on facebook, speaking out against the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, this person says they have no use for your friendship.

I've been noticing we have some noisy warriors out there.  We have a lot of talkative and opinionated rebel fighters.

My daughter and a friend were talking from the backseat of my car about a third friend who they feared was talking behind peoples' backs and becoming manipulative.  "How can we stop this?" they wondered.  The little girl in my car suggested that they 'catch' the third girl talking behind someone's back so they could 'prove a point.'

I said, "Listen, girls - when you don't like someone's behavior.  When you begin to feel that you have an enemy, you always run the risk of becoming like them.  You complain about this person manipulating, but you're thinking about entrapping her to prove a point.  Now, who's manipulative?"

To take this to the extreme - whether it's politically or personally, at church or at work, if you believe you have an enemy, if you have a person you despise, in what ways are you becoming like them?

In this political climate - at least for liberals - I wonder if some are becoming judgmental and intolerant and even hateful at times  - the very qualities they criticize.  And they're doing this to people who are of good will even 'on their side.'  It's like every X-wing pilot thinks everyone in the resistance should be an X-wing pilot (that is so nerdy, that I even wrote that sentence.)

Princess Leia did not look like a rebel fighter.  Han Solo was not jedi.  R2D2 was not Chewbacca.  Everyone does not have to look, talk, and sound the same, to be working toward making the world a better place.

My mom will never, ever look like a hippy.  But she will always fight injustice in her own ways.

And, is she the one supplying your kids' high school with condoms?!  The truth is out there.

Monday, July 31, 2017

My Name is Katy, and I am Codependent in our Political System

When I was listening to the news coverage of Donald Trump's speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree last week, I reached my wit's end.  I don't know why this was the moment.  People might guess that it's because, from my privileged white woman position, I didn't feel the need to speak up until it 'hit home.'  The Boy Scouts.  But, really there are many reasons I haven't been public about an administration, and let's face it, a government -including both Democrats and Republicans, who, frankly exhaust me.

Here is why I am speaking up now.  I am a recovering co-dependent.  And as a therapist and as a spiritual person, I believe that all the world - all of the universe - is inter-connected. I believe what makes us healthy or unhealthy in small systems like families and large systems like governments are inter-related.  I believe each of us possess gifts and qualities that, in excess or when misused, can turn negative and damaging to ourselves and others.

I'm going to share some of the qualities I see in myself and the patterns in my own life I  work to change or moderate.  And maybe this will spark some thoughts in you.

If you are not familiar with codependency, here's a little primer.  Being codependent might also be called being an enabler.  If you are an enabler in an addicted relationship, you protect the addicted person from the consequences of their behavior and you are frequently in denial.   Here's a decent resource if you're interested in some basics...

I've found that co-dependents come in a few flavors (I have a nerdy part of me that really wants to research this right now, but I'm just going to speak from my own experience).  There are martyr-ish co-dependents who take on all the work in a family and feel taken advantage of, but keep taking on more work.  There are bossy co-dependents, who are going to TELL YOU JUST HOW TO RUN YOUR LIFE AND EXACTLY WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING.  Then, they get mad when no one takes their advice, including people who are addicted.  And finally, there are the 'hippi/Buddhist' co-dependents'...the 'live and let live' people.  They might think something like, "Listen, man, people make their own choices."  I hope you heard that in your head like Janice from the Muppets.  But a constant diet of non-intervention leads to no boundaries and other disasters.

In excess, I tend to fall in the last category.   How can this be?  I'll tell you the things I've learned about myself that I think contribute:

A.  I am rather happy by nature.  I have written about that before.  Of course, I have down days and even down weeks.  I have a dark sense of humor and I am pretty realistic about the state of the world, but even in negative circumstances, I can find gratitude and joy.  Those things are still in the mix for me, even when the going is rough.  Not necessarily bad, but maybe too easy to blow past problems that need addressing.

B.  I am optimistic by nature.  This can be both big picture and small picture.  In the big picture, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, "The arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice."  That is my gut instinct too.  In the small picture, it's harder to describe - maybe it's just a belief that most people are generally good, so things are bound to be at least okay on any given day.  If you are a cynic, please feel free to roll your eyes.  I can't see you.  Again, there's a fine line between optimism and denial.

C.  I value peace and dislike confrontation.  This is probably the biggest one that leads to denial and enabling.   So many times in my life, when someone has pushed or ignored my boundaries, I've thought, "It's not really worth it to say something."  Or, "It's not really a big deal."  Or "I can handle it."  Or, (the optimistic part kicks in...) "Things will probably get better."

Why?  Because (and I'm not saying this is right, good, or helpful), I've valued short term peace over long term peace.  I didn't have the long view in mind...which is that ultimately, when you allow someone to push or break your boundaries again and again, you actually don't have peace.  You have submission.

So it is not for Donald Trump to change that I say what I say.  And it's not for our government, lobbyists,  media or anybody else that I write this.  I write this for me:  Donald Trump's government does not represent my values or the values of this country - Liberty, Equality, and Justice.  This is not okay with me.  This is wrong.  The way our most vulnerable citizens are being treated  - immigrants, transgender people, children, people who are sick, people who are poor - robs them of their Liberty, Equality and Justice.  This is wrong.  Our entire system is disabled and dysfunctional (not just one party or one person) in ways that are wrong.  Lobbyists?  Term limits?  I know the people we have elected can do better than they are doing.  There are answers out there, but people are probably going to have to make sacrifices.

Listen - I know very well that I just wrote this and I put several hours of my life into it and not much is going to look different tomorrow.  But part of me living my life fully is not doing the things that feel comfortable, the things I tend to do - to make peace.  To fall into my 'defensive optimism.'  I want things in this world to get better for everybody - especially the vulnerable.  And maybe my little voice in the wilderness helps make one or two people braver.  Who knows where that might lead?

I'll leave you with two more parts of me - the deep and the silly.

From the Upanishads (Hindu sacred text)
As is the human body
so is the cosmic body.
As is the human mind,
so is the cosmic mind.
As is the microcosm,
so is the macrocosm.
As is the atom,
so is the universe.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What It Feels Like for a Tomboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's all going to be okay.