Thursday, November 10, 2016

Love>Fear


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. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

"Our culture is quick to dismiss quiet, ordinary, hardworking men and women. In many instances, we equate ordinary with boring or, even more dangerous, ordinary has become synonymous with meaningless." -- Brene Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't) 


As I near my 50th birthday, I'm aware that many of us at the midline of our lives become reflective of our journey thus far, while also looking ahead to whatever achievements or dreams we still plan to pursue. I'm finding, however, that the future I look forward to will be marked, I'm hoping, with "smaller" moments, a slower pace, a focus much more on "being" than "doing." And this thought jars me, at least initally. In my first few decades, ambition and material comfort and building a family and a career kept me moving, always anticipating the next necessary step to achieve my goals. I gained esteem and competency by acknowledging my efforts and their impact, and by making the most of the "big" moments in my life (i.e., graduations, marriage, a promotion, having children.) And yet, those milestones were hardly extraordinary, and I found they rarely defined or sustained me for long. I know I'll never be famous, or cure cancer, or run a sub-four-minute mile. My face will never grace currency, nor will my name be recorded in any history books. But I've discovered the "ordinariness" of my life's days are graced with such wonder and bounty that I can't imagine any material honor could rival. And I want more of "those" kinds of days. The days of enjoying languorous sunsets; of my elderly dog's soft muzzle -- and even softer eyes -- settled comfortably in my lap. The meals I love cooking, filled with colors and aromas and shared with the people who matter. The softness of my beloved's neck, or the achingly sweet sound of my near-grown son snoring softly in the next room. No longer do I believe my life has to be unique or exemplary or "larger-than-life" to be worthy, important -- to be overflowing with meaning. I know now that contained in every "ordinary" moment is the totality of magic that makes all life truly a miracle. 

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.