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.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Say What You Gotta Say

Communication issues are a core reason people seek therapy. Whether couples seek counseling to learn how to resolve conflicts or individuals desire to learn assertive, effective ways to share their feelings, therapy can help people develop the skills to speak their truth. But often clients will say, "it won't matter what I say. They won't listen to me." But being heard is not the only endgame of speaking our truth.

Truth Connects Us 
We cannot control whether people listen to what we say. Whether or not people do what we want or respond favorably to our requests, our feelings and opinions still deserve to be aired. Not because we can guarantee the end result, but because we respect ourselves and the other. We demonstrate respect for ourselves when we give our feelings the weight they deserve. With our expression of our thoughts and feelings, we show  others that we respect them enough to be honest and authentic. We become empowered when we resist censoring ourselves. Our courage to be authentic gives others the encouragement to be as real themselves, With genuine conversation, truth-sharing and empathetic expression of our wants and needs, we gain more than being heard, even more than getting the response we want. We develop shared respect, deeper understandings and genuine connections.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"It Is What It Is" -- But IS It?

First used in sociology, the concept of social construction pertains to the ways social phenomena are created, institutionalized and made into tradition by humans. In more everyday language, we name objects, customs and behaviors based on how we see their functions in relation to our times. For example, we see a ballpoint pen and think "a writing instrument." But to our ancestors thousands of years ago, the slim, cylindrical object might be used as a tool to dig in the dirt before planting seeds, or as a "drumstick" to create rhythms when struck against a hollow gourd. Similarly, in modern times, aboriginal people of the rain forest would be unlikely to need an ink pen in their nature-based lives. How we use things guides us in naming them, as does where we are in history. Now, apply this idea to the labels we speak and think everyday. Man. Woman. Teenager. Success. Health. Goodness. Work. Play. Marriage. How do we define what makes up our world? Does the meaning of these words change across cultures, or even within our own lives, as we grow and change? Do we assume everyone uses these labels to mean the same things? By questioning the meaning, appropriateness and effectiveness of our morals, expectations and social rules, we allow for the evolution of greater understanding and compassion to occur. When we pause to explore whether an idea or custom still serves us, we enact the freedom that allows us to embrace new possibilities. Some things in life may remain unchangeable: gravity, nighttime following day, carbon as the basis of human life. But so much that we believe just "is", in reality, is what we choose to call it and how we choose to see it in this moment in time. What is more accurately could be called what could be.