Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Stranger Among Us

Our family is about to wrap up our last college visit this weekend. Our son is polishing his college applications and researching potential scholarship opportunities. For the most part, our venture into the college search has been marked with open communication, shared excitement and anticipation of the new experiences ahead for my son as he launches into his next phase of life. But most recently, my usually affectionate, talkative, connected kid has shown us a different persona -- curt, isolated, ripe with comments like "I can't wait till I'm OUT of here!", and "You won't know ANYTHING I'm doing when I'm away at school!" Wait...what???

The Push and Pull of Separation 
Luckily, my sanity -- and training -- kicked in relatively quickly. After I reigned in my carastrophic thinking ("Is he doing drugs? I know it, the last time he'll speak to me is when I drop him off at college! Doesn't he realize I'm the COOL mom?? We'll see how he likes being grounded until graduation!!") I realized my son is doing exactly what he's supposed to be doing: he's separating. The developmental task of separation/individuation happens to allow children to discover who they are in relation to where and who they came from. This phase can include rebellious behavior, exploration of new or alternate values and interests, and a greater investment in peer relationships over family. When an adolescent pulls away from family influences and moves toward new experiences, people and ideas, he is building the "muscles" of self-identification. I thought back to myself in high school -- my shaved head, punk rock preferences and surly posturing were no doubt concerning to my parents. But, like most people, I mirrored most of my family of origin's values and belief systems once I fully arrived in adulthood. And I am fully aware that my son's pushback is mild compared to the challenges many parents face with acting out adolescents. My greatest hope for my son has always been that he believe enough in himself to launch into the world with authenticity and confidence. If the cost of that is a few eye rolls, exaggerated sighs and reminders of just how "uncool" my rules and requests are, I'm willing to pay that price. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

ADHD -- It's Not Child's Play

Often first diagnosed in childhood, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition that often lasts into adulthood. Symptoms of inattention or restlessness may appear in both kids and adults, but adults with ADHD may exhibit a very different presentation than what most people think of when they hear the term "ADHD." Due to maturity and a lifetime of social conditioning, adults may not be "bouncing off the walls", but instead may struggle with inability to focus, low frustration tolerance, forgetfulness and disorganization. Relationship and social problems may haunt these adults, as those they interact with may mistakenly ascribe their distractility or lack of follow through as being indications of disinterest or unwillingness to be accountable in the relationship. Adults with ADHD may be able to tolerate the frustrations they experience at work, but decompensate in the "safe zone" of their home or intimate relationship. Thrill-seeking behaviors, substance abuse, contact with law enforcement and overspending are not necessarily emblematic of character deficits. Rather, for adults with ADHD, these acting-out behaviors may have developed initially as coping skills to manage frustrations or their need for stimulation. If you or a loved one was diagnosed and treated for ADHD as a child and are experiencing some of these symptoms, pursue an evaluation with a therapist or psychiatrist trained in diagnosing attentional difficulties. And since some individuals learned to compensate exceedingly well in childhood, many adults with ADHD go undiagnosed for decades, suffering unnecessarily the stress, low self-esteem and vulnerability that accompanies this disorder. Treatment may include medication, executive skills coaching, neurofeedback, and brain training via computerized teaching tools. ADHD is highly treatable, and the creativity, intelligence and resourcefulness of many of these individuals can easily surpass the deficits of the disorder if treated correctly.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Water, Water, Everywhere

On our recent family vacation to the beach, I experienced the intense feelings of relaxation and release that I get every time I'm near the ocean. The waves, the salty air, the damp sand between my toes -- I'm never as calm and centered as when I am near water. Perhaps it's the pull of our ancestors -- we come, ultimately, from the sea, and the human body remains anywhere between 85-50% water throughout our lifespans. According to different religions and cultures, water represents purity and fertility, an acknowledgement of our striving for truth and our urge to procreation. It symbolizes movement and transition, an understanding of the constant changes and growth that marks life. Water is used for blessing and sanctifying the beginnings and the ends of life. Water feeds our bodies and our souls. The next time you are near water, consider the ways it soothes, nurtures, moves and sustains you. As W.H. Auden wrote, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water."

Monday, August 22, 2016

Go Gently

Take the gentle path. -- George Herbert

We celebrate achievement. We encourage effort, determination, "giving it the old college try." We are impressed when someone overcomes adversity, and we appreciate a good "coming-from-behind-to-win" upset. But what if true peace, accomplishment and esteem is best reached a gentler way?

Easy Does It
Being gentle with ourselves and others is not a manifestation of laziness or an indication we don't care. Rather, approaching our problems, efforts and relationships with care and quiet is a loving gesture, a stance that projects trust and hopefulness. Effort is not bad, but neither is waiting. Easing into change can be more productive than forcing. Forgiveness and gratitude provide healing and grace that anger and resentment cannot. Moving gently affords us the time to see and appreciate our environment, to let the wisdom around us seep into our bodies and our consciousness. Going gently, with awareness and openness, can bring us results steeped in the deepest layers of truth and allow us a stamina for more demanding aspects of life. Approaching life with gentleness can soften us, and others, providing a fertile landscape for growth and enlightenment. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Beware the Anti-Mother!!

I can imagine the movie poster for the film about my life: a hideous, giant monster, with fangs and claws dripping blood, terrorizing the young children in her path with punishments, recriminations and selfishness. "Attack of the Anti-Mother!" the poster would proclaim. Kids would cover their eyes and other parents would simultaneously be outraged at my horrific parenting and grateful that their transgressions could never be as catastrophic as mine.

Growing into Motherhood 
While this description is (I hope) quite an exaggeration compared to the reality of my mothering, the truth is that I never really planned on being a parent. I wasn't one of those kids who enjoyed playing "house", or loved holding babies or couldn't wait to teach my offspring how to throw a ball or ride a bike. And my gag reflex is instantly triggered at any and all bodily fluids. I was somewhat bewildered at my lack of "mother lust" -- growing up I was more interested in books and writing than hanging out with kids my age, and as I grew older, I fantasized more about the kind of career I would have than how many kids would fill my house. I didn't especially enjoy being a child. Always a serious person, I was also acutely invested in justice from the youngest age, not a very productive stance for someone under 4 feet and lacking in all power whatsoever. When I did think about parenting, antiseptic images of family vacations and my kid's acceptance to Harvard dominated my vision. I avoided considering (YEARS. I meant it. YEARS.) sleep deprivation, before-school frantic rushing, learning disabilities, divorce. And of course, my life as a mom has included more harrowing, anxious, self-doubting experiences than the rest of my life combined. But, to my absolute surprise, it has been a part of my life that I have enjoyed, savored, and grown from more than any other. Getting to really know this other little person from day one, to love so completely and unconditionally another being that my own happiness and even safety ceased to be my focus, to revel in the miracles abundant in every stage of development, has gifted me with a blessedness and grace I could have gotten no other way. Now, I am FAR from a perfect mother, and my catastrophic nature kept me from rolling the baby dice more than once, but, most of the time, I feel pretty good about the job I'm doing. No doubt, my work as a therapist has afforded me a view of some of the most sorrowful and painful moments a human can experience. My kid's development, and my efforts in that direction, have been thankfully free from some of those more egregious scars. And I've always been a consciously grateful for any good mojo that comes my way. But now, as I anticipate my son's final year at home, I can't imagine my life without mothering as it's center. I am a softer, wiser, better person for having taken this path. Who knew a step I never considered taking could be my life's greatest joy?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

It Is What It Is

Radical acceptance is the process of making the choice not to fight against "what is," but to lean into the reality of an experience with awareness and curiosity. This challenging task has its roots in Buddhist teachings, but the result of avoiding unnecessary suffering is a benefit everyone can enjoy.

Accepting Our Experience 
There is much in life we have little control over -- the traffic jam impeding our journey to work; our partner's surliness; our boss choosing a co-worker for a position we covet. But our lack of control rarely stops us from fuming, brooding, fretting or grieving over the reality in front of us. We think about how we could have garnered a different outcome, or rage over the unfairness of our "loss." We look for opportunities to sneak past the obstacles. We respond with similar frostiness to those who offend us. And while we may assume these reactions are instinctual and unavoidable, we truly have choices. And those choices offer us freedoms from negative, toxic or harmful emotions. If we instead embrace the time in a traffic jam to catch up on a phone call with an old friend, or pop in a favorite CD to enjoy some "car dancing," we'd likely feel much calmer when the cars ahead of us started moving again. If we choose not to assume our partner's bad mood is because of something we did or said, and instead allow them the respect to their own experiences without judgement or the attempt to change them, we may feel a freedom that comes with staying on "our own side of the street." If we refuse to give into bitterness or jealousy toward our colleague, and instead commit to supporting them in growing into their new role, we afford ourselves the luxury of directing our energy stores to those things at our job that can move us forward. Radical acceptance does not mean we don't hold others or ourselves accountable, nor does it curtail us from trying to change or improve situations when we can. Rather, by relaxing into radical acceptance, we allow ourselves the relief that comes from loosening our grip on what, in truth, was never in our control to begin with. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fear and Violence

When violence occurs, we may assume feelings like hatred, rage, or vengeance motivated the destructive acts. But more likely, fear is the impetus behind acting out. When humans feel threatened or at risk, our fear can propel us to lash out in an attempt to protect ourselves.

Fearing Fear Itself 
We may like to believe that we are "different" than people who behave violently. We are more civilized, intelligent, self-controlled. We are rational and logical. Perhaps. But we all feel fear. We fear being outcast; we fear conflict and expressions of anger; we fear falling short or disappointing others; we fear physical and emotional pain. These feelings are universal to humanity, and we can recall instances when we ached with the pain of each potential threat. While most of us don't react with physical violence when we are afraid, it isn't difficult to imagine how a deep, pervasive and constant sense of being unsafe could leave someone vulnerable to striking out. Violence is never the answer, but fear will always be with us. We have the responsibility to respond to our fears -- and others' -- in a way that heals and doesn't hurt. And that starts with acknowledging our fear. Far from being shameful or weak, feeling fear is a protective response leftover from our reptilian ancestors. Fear wakes us up to threat, calls us to be aware and ready to fight, fly or freeze to survive. Without fear, our species would not have lasted long on this planet. Respecting and appreciating what fear has to teach us, without hurting ourselves or others, can promote deeper understanding and empathy for what it means to be human. By accepting that we do and will experience fear, we provide ourselves with the opportunity to choose our path, rather than react with impulsive action. Violence is a learned behavior; the experience of fear is not. When we can understand what triggers fear in others, we can approach them with options that offer safety and freedom to choose from a place of empowerment. When we identify our own fear triggers, we increase our empathy for one of the most tender of human experiences. Embracing fear is a path to knowing, and holding, and protecting each other.