Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sober Living

Abstinence is NOT sobriety. Abstaining from drugs, alcohol or an addictive process like
gambling or sex is the beginning stage of recovery, the foundation to living a sober lifestyle.
Sobriety is the long, challenging, but rewarding journey of living a life of integrity, service to
others, spiritual development and accountability. Many addicts can have periods of being
“clean”, and can fall into the trap of false hope that they ca n stay clean by simply resisting the
urge to use. But treatment specialists know that, time and again, addicts will fall back into their
addiction if they are not learning, practicing and living by the tenets of a sober life. Alcoholics
Anonymous (AA) and many other 12-step groups provide a structure, a community, for addicts
to learn the life skills and develop the spiritual foundation to help them sustain their abstinence
and develop a healthy, truly sober way of living. Being sober includes fostering respectful
relationships, being transparent and honest in what we say and do, and shedding the
self-centeredness that marks the addict’s movement through the world. Only through sobriety
can addicts hope to connect with others, with their Higher Power, and find the strength to make
using truly a part of their past, and not a constant threat to their present. Abstinence allows us to
put on the running shoes, but sobriety gives us the strength, faith and hope to finish the race.

Friday, January 20, 2017

From the Inside Out

We all want to be liked. Having friends, getting positive feedback, knowing people enjoy our company feels ​good. We gain a sense of esteem and value from others’ appreciation of our talents and presence. Many clients have told me that the flattering opinions of others helps them feel they matter. Unfortunately, relying on others to “fill us up” leaves us vulnerable to becoming an empty vessel. We can't guarantee that we will always hear accolades from “adoring fans”, but we can be assured that our ​own voices are constantly available to us. 

The loudest critic resides in our minds. Whenever someone else rejects or dismisses us, it's our own
​self-regard that tells us to disregard that feedback, or to clutch it in a death grip. If a part of us is already doubting that we are smart, or talented, or powerful, we will seize on others’ criticism and begin to give it weight. We are unable to embrace criticism that we don't suspect could be true. To counter these emotional threats, we must practice providing ourselves with the positive scripts that celebrate our successes and note our gifts. We have the most powerful cheerleader within us at every moment. When we can build our inner resilience and confidence by recognizing our own worth, the voices outside become less relevant. Our value becomes an inherent part of us, unassailable by the messages from the world, and we are “filled” to overflowing. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

ME Time -- the second 50 years

“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming...suddenly you find -- at the age of 50, say -- that a
whole new life has opened up before you.” - Agatha Christie

My family is taking every opportunity to remind me that I will soon be turning “the big 5-0.” We
pass a speed limit sign: “Mom, even the sign is warning you that you're going to be 50!” My wife
filled out an AARP application in my name. And asked if I had earned the senior discount at the
movie theatre. I don't mind (much), though, because I'm continuously reminding THEM, that,
come February 9th, they and their needs are going to have to get in the back seat, because life
will be ALL ABOUT ME.

Mine, All Mine

For as long as I can remember, I've told myself that, when I turn 50, I'll have truly earned the
right to call my life fully mine. I have no idea why I chose such an arbitrary number, and not 30,
or 45, or even 15. Indeed, I support clients in owning their lives fully and authentically from the
moment we begin work together, and I wholeheartedly believe we all have a right to live by our
own truth and vision of who we are and what we want. Perhaps it's being raised in a more
traditional family, where the women were expected to be -- and enjoyed -- caretaking their
families. Maybe it's my “nurturer”personality -- for years, I didn't sit down, eat, or wrangle the
rights to the remote control until everyone else had their turns. And I don't regret the decades of
putting others’ needs first. I gained fulfillment, purpose and a sense of achievement knowing my
efforts helped my family members feel cared for, supported, and celebrated. But now it's MY
time. Whether it's a nap in the middle of the day, or saying “not interested” to an invitation, I've
given myself permission to do what I want, when I want. My family is used to hearing my
opinions, and they would be surprised if I suddenly censored myself when it comes to claiming
my values or beliefs. But I'm not entirely sure how any of us will react when, for the first time, I
push myself to set my needs squarely before theirs. They tell me I should have done this years
ago, that I never needed a particular birthday to dawn in order to assume the universal right to
meet my own needs. And as much as I am anticipating saying “I'm not doing that because I
don't want to,” I wonder if I'll hesitate when my choice impacts the comfort or preference of
someone else. What I do know is that I'm excited to find out. I'm pretty sure that this blooming is
going to be FABULOUS.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Recovery celebrates the gains people will experience when they let go of their addiction.
Improved health, restored dignity, healed relationships -- the gifts of recovery are innumerable,
and each day of abstinence brings even more peace and possibility to the addict’s life. Rarely,
though, do we acknowledge that recovery is marked as well by deep and profound loss.

Hidden Losses
Clients in recovery must say goodbye to habits, places and people that may have been the most
important parts of their lives for years, even decades. Many report that their drug of choice was
their “best friend”, the only constant source of support and relief they may have felt they had.
They can no longer spend time in the places they frequented when they were using; their using
crowd can no longer be the folks they count as their closest intimates. Even letting go of the
routines that accompanied their addiction -- the sound of the lighter against their cigarette, the
ritual of sharing drugs that accompanied most social gatherings -- are losses that may haunt
recovering addicts for months, even years. Despite the countless benefits people will
experience from choosing abstinence, their sadness and grief is as real and valid. Allowing
recovering addicts to own, feel and speak about their losses communicates an understanding
that change, no matter how positive, is always accompanied by e ndings. In this new beginning
of sobriety, people need to know that they have the right to grieve what they are leaving behind.
Despite the “friend” of addiction being an eventual killer, addicts often feel wistful about this
necessary cutoff. Embracing recovery means bidding farewell to meaningful touchstones of the
past, in order to enjoy the promises of a sober future.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Making Room for Grief 

Grief can stop time. We can be brought to our knees, unable to believe we will ever move beyond the gaping hole of loss that has forever changed the landscape of our lives. Enduring profound loss is one of the most painful of human experiences. But almost as excruciating is being witness to the grief of someone we love.

Healing Their Hurts 

When we love someone, we want to protect and shelter them from pain. We try to heal their hurt, or, even better, keep them from being wounded in the first place. But our instincts can be misguided, even hurtful, if we truncate the course of someone’s grief process. Rather than easing their pain, attempting to curtail grief can create a sense of minimizing the loss. People who don't feel they have the right or “permission” to grieve as deeply or for as long as they need to report feeling shame and guilt, and experience anger and resentment toward those who may have communicated that their grief is unwarranted. Even the best intentions -- an attempt to encourage a grieving person to “forget” their loss or to imply that the loss is “for the best” -- can cause deep pain and confusion. People who've lost a loved one, a job, even a coveted dream, most need validation. They need to hear that their feelings are valid, real and deserved. We must communicate that they have every right to their sorrow, to express it in ways that feel right for them, and that grief has no prescribed end date. Grieving people need to know we will remember with them, not push them to forget. Paying witness to another’s grief can be a powerful gift of intimacy and healing, confirming the value of the lost person, relationship or experience, and reminding us all of the preciousness of time and connection.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


I started my morning in a muddled daze, having spent a sleepless night tracking the results of the presidential election. Considering the outcome, I'd expected to respond to the reality with a sense of outrage, of fear, of concern for all the potential changes that await our country and that, in large part, remain unknown and untested. But as I moved into the first hours of the day, I found myself feeling strangely calm, almost at peace, in the face of more questions than I had answers. Where was this peace coming from? How could I feel sadness and grief, unhappiness with the election results, but still be able to observe a larger sense of quiet and contemplation that was larger than I am? When I allowed myself the space to analyze my response with critical awareness, I realized that the sense of calm I felt was coming from a sense beyond my feelings: I was responding from a place of faith. Not faith in the,religious sense of the world, necessarily, but from a choice to believe in what I have always thought true. Namely, in the ultimate innate goodness of humanity as a whole. In the benevolence of the universe. That everything comes full circle, and that, cliche as it may seem, this, too, will pass. As I believe in the constancy of nature, of fall following summer, I continue to believe that my only true movement forward is to embrace that faith that all will be well. That love is bigger than hate. And that love is a choice that is always available to me. I don't know if tomorrow I will awaken with that same sense of possibility and, dare I say, hopefulness. But I know I can count on the option to choose love. I hope, with all my mind and all my spirit, that love is the courageous risk we are all willing to take.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Shirking the Stigma of Mental Illness

Even after more than 20 years in the mental health field, I continue to hear stories of clients stigmatized by the inappropriate use of psychiatric diagnosis, of people waiting years, even decades, before seeking treatment. Some of my clients have hidden the fact that they are in therapy from their family members. Despite the gains we have made as a culture to dispel the negative stereotypes of mental illness and seeking treatment, many people still fear being judged as "weak," "crazy" or "incompetent" for pursuing counseling and/or medications to treat and help alleviate their symptoms, when in fact, resilience and strength are the real core characteristics of individuals brave enough to seek help when they are feeling their worst. I am familiar with the internal struggle clients experience when they must push against these unfair judgements, because I carried those judgments against myself years ago when I was first diagnosed with postpartum depression and prescribed anti-depressants. I'd already been in the social work field for several years, and was regularly attending therapy, which I considered a kind of "weekly visit to the gym" for my psyche and spirit. But after the birth of my son, a crushing depression characterized by nearly ceaseless crying spells, paralyzing self-doubt and a sense of hopelessness about the future frightened me enough to ask my doctor for a psychiatric referral. I was lucky -- I was quickly assessed by a competent physician, prescribed medication that I tolerated well and found helpful in lifting my mood, lightening the darkness that seemed to be clouding my life and provided me with a more realistic perspective on my life and this new chapter in it. I quickly returned to my "normal" level of functioning, and realized that I had likely suffered from a mild depression for as long as I could remember, including throughout childhood. The range of mood, positive outlook and hopefulness I felt once my medication was properly dosed were experiences I'd never had before. I continued to see clients and work with adolescents and adults with a range of life challenges. But my experience with depression -- and even more significantly, with psychiatric treatment and medication management -- offered me a level of empathy and understanding that increased my skills as a clinician. Years passed before I was brave enough to share my diagnosis amd treatment experience with clients. In many instances, it was a "game changer", as clients reported feeling like I "really  got" the totality of their experience.  But I also eventually realized that my depression is simply a thread in the cloth of my life, no bigger or more important than the threads I call "book lover", "amateur chef", "devoted mother", or "unapologetic disco fan." My depression is not a flaw, weakness or shameful secret. It's simply part of me, and likely always will be, like my brown eyes or love of crime novels. When I could embrace all the parts of me, my life and experience without judgement or labeling, I knew I could authentically encourage clients to do the same. We still have a ways to go to see mental illness as we do cancer or diabetes: as a medical condition that occurs irregardless of the character of the patient, and as worthy of effective, timely treatment and compassionate, supportive care. We would never blame a cancer patient for their disease, but rather celebrate their strengths in the face of a debilitating illness and unknown treatment outcomes. I look forward to the time when we approach people living with illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with the same empathy, compassion and admiration.