Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hiding in Plain Sight

My wife took our son Halloween costume-shopping over the weekend. They kept me in the loop, messaging me photos of themselves in all kinds of getups: as Wild West Cowboys, chefs in aprons and torques, spooky witches complete with brooms and black hats. They seemed to favor the masks, though-- political figures, celebrity faces, spooky goblins. In the pictures, the masks were so detailed and enveloping that I didn't know whether my wife or my son was the model. He finally settled on a creepy clown mask, which he customized at home with gruesome splashes of fake blood. In his mask, my son could be anyone, a stranger I'd never know or a neighbor down the street. Kind of unnerving to think about. But not all that different from the masks we wear everyday. Whether its the confident face of a businessperson as we enter a sales meeting, or the calm expression we adopt to ease the tantrum of a wailing child, we may adopt different faces to fit the range of experiences that fill our day. And certainly, many of those masks are truly functional, moving us forward or producing a benefit in the end. When we approach our child's teacher to discuss a failing grade, we're most likely to experience a positive outcome from that interaction if we approach the teacher with an expression of openness, seriousness and concern rather than with the outrae we may be feeling beneath the surface. Or if we are considering asking the boss for a raise, we're better primed for success if we enter his office with a pleasant affect and energized demeanor, even if we are fearful about the rumors of layoffs or frustrated by a coworker not pulling his weight. But, just as easily, we may find ourselves adopting a mask that holds us back from taking risks, connecting, or speaking our truth. I've seen couples "put on their best face" for each other, trying to avoid painful losses or minimize the chance of conflict. Similarly, I've worked with teens whose masks of bravado and insolence hide the deep pain of rejection and the fear of failure. But only through authenticity can another truly know And empathize with our experience. We may think its kinder to "smile and nod" when asked for our honest opinions, but we may actually be communicating subtle disrespect by giving someone less than our real truth. Manners, grace and politics will always have their place. But showing the world our true selves is a courageous choice that can bring us closer to one another, and build connections with the potential for deeper intimacy, for a truer knowing of each other and ourselves. That's a treat that will last through countless seasons.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

Our practice resides in a part of Chicagoland with many benefits: beautiful homes, excellent schools, relative proximity to downtown attractions, vibrant shopping and dining options. But alongside these positive attributes comes, at times, a focus on material success and financial, academic and occupational achievement. Although I am a proud social worker and strong believer in equality and parity in opportunities and options for all folks, I am far from a Marxist. I believe in capitalism, self-responsibility and working hard for our goals. However, I am consistently faced with young clients struggling beneath the burden of the achievement-oriented philosophy so rampant amongst most of America. In some of the communities I serve, kids in middle school are already more aware of the impact of ACT scores on their educational opportunities than I was when I took my ACT at 17. I've heard young clients describe anxiety and somatic symptoms created by a belief that taking less than 4 honors or AP classes will doom them to a second-rate college. And, sadly, I have counseled some parents who have vehemently defended their focus on Junior achieving straight As as a reflection of their inherent parenting responsibilities. Perhaps my perspective is a function of my age, or of the current prediction touted by the media that no longer can future generations expect to do better socioeconomically than their parents. But it seems to ring true, time and again, that academic and professional achievement is not the only road to a happy, fulfilled life. Should a child choose to be a clerk at the electric company rather than an electrical engineer, is he or she doomed to a life of physical and emotional squalor? Or is it possible that a life rich with rewarding relationships, a solid spiritual life and a desire to improve the world can be a path just as desirable? Indeed, no parent looks forward to their children struggling in adulthood. But any counselor can recount ad nauseum story upon story of people whose emotional,spiritual and relational struggles were as devastating to them as living on a paltry paycheck. Our responsibilities as parents includes not only offering our children the finest educations and career exploration opportunities we can find, but also to guide our children into developing the life skills of relationship-mending, spiritual development and emotional resilience. I'll admit, it's easy for me to adopt a laizze faire attitude toward my child aiming for the Ivy League. After all, when my adolescent son scored a 50% on his biology exam, his (completely non-ironic) response was, "Hey, that's halfway to 100%!" Still, I'd like to think that, even if my child dreamed of a career in the operating theatre rather than the Broadway venue, I'd still try to communicate the importance of less-material trappings as being vital to his happiness. Achievement may be one road to happiness; our children can benefit from being shown that other paths can lead to their own happy ending.

Come Together...Right Now

The Beatles were onto something with that idea. Coming together as a community, for a common good or a shared goal, creates benefits that go beyond the efforts extended by the group. Feeling a sense of belonging, of having a "tribe" helps us feel less isolated, lowers anxiety and stress, and provides a sense of identity and purpose. Community can be found anywhere; indeed, expanding our definition of community allows us a more unique and broader menu of opportunities to connect with our fellow travelers on this planet. Some communities are more formal and structured, requiring dues or membership, like a union, a sorority or the health club. Others orbit around a shared interest, like a book club or knitting circle, and others around a shared purpose, including a church's lay ministry team or a group of Meals on Wheels volunteers. Even our workplace can be a place of community, despite it's potential politics and perhaps "bottom-line" mentality. Who recalls the early days of their working life, when the "newbies," often the younger folks in an organization, would regularly meet for beers after work to offer each other support and attempt to navigate through the confusing, overwhelming and sometimes frightening new world of corporate America? Feeling like other people "get" our experience helps us feel known and seen, and therefore more empowered in our lives. Now, I'm the last person you'll see at a PTA meeting, and my job is draining enough that I often balk at opportunities to volunteer that require more than writing a check. But I find myself smiling more through my workout after I use a few minutes pre-elliptical machine to chat with Joe and Bob, two 70-ish retirees who frequent the park district gym the same hours I do. Bob will fill me in on his grandkids' latest sports achievements, and Joe will gently rib me about STILL not following up with his financial advisor to ensure my retirement is well-funded.("You'll be us before you know it!" he says, curling s thumb in his and Bob's direction. "Hopefully with more hair!" I tease back, nodding at their bald pates.) I never see these men anywhere but the gym, despite our shared commitment to some level of fitness and the likelihood that we live in the same town and drive the same streets. But instances like these are potent reminders of how small, seemingly inconsequential connections can bring a sense of "sharedness", of how intertwined our lives truly are, if only we adopt the lens to SEE them that way. This is an age of Skyping and IM-ing, of quick tweets replacing long chats. Still, if we choose to open our eyes to the ways walking through the same door as another can highlight our "sameness", we can recognize that we are never really very far apart at all. The Fab Four were truly sages before their time.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Behind the Shadows

October brings thoughts of children in costumes, overflowing bags of candy, vibrant fall leaves, the crisp taste of apple cider. But October also commemorates a more ominous phenomenon -- this month is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The past decades have brought the reality of domestic violence out of the shadows and into the national consciousness. Most people know, or have heard of, someone who has survived domestic abuse, and movies, television, print and digital media regularly provide information or portrayals of family violence. Services for survivors of domestic violence exist in most metropolitan areas, and shelters for victims are present, though sometimes purposely invisible, throughout the country. But despite the increased awareness of domestic violence, may people are unaware of the signs that domestic violence may be occurring in the lives of friends, coworkers, and loved ones. Following are examples of behaviors that signal the presence of domestic violence:

1. Fear of one's partner
2. Yelling, humiliation, criticism
3. Being forced to participate in sexual behavior against one's will
4. Physical abuse (including pushing, shoving, grabbing, restraining, slapping, kicking)
5. The THREAT of physical violence
6. Threats to hurt/limit contact with one's children, friends or family members
7. Attempts to limit one's contact with friends or family
8. Destroying belongings or property
9. Controlling the movement and freedom of a partner
10. Excessive jealousy or possessiveness
11. Limiting one's partner's access to money, phone or the car

These are only a few examples of physical domestic violence that can occur in relationships. Many others exist, and the emotional abuse that inherently accompanies violence can be so subtle as to be difficult for the victim to feel confident that emotional abuse is actually happening. Historically, women have been the main victims of domestic violence, but men and children can easily fall prey to this abuse as well. Violence is ALWAYS the choice of the person perpetrating it. But information and awareness of the forms violence can take can help us to identify this dynamic in our own lives or those of people we care about. Help is available through doctors, mental health professionals, law enforcement, and domestic violence hotlines and shelters, to name a few. If you suspect you or a loved one are experiencing domestic violence in a primary relationship, seek help. Visit the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence website at, talk to your physician (who legally must keep your information confidential), a clergy person, counselor or trusted friend. Perhaps someday the month of October can be associated only with the joy of jumping in a pile of leaves, apple-picking and bonfires.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One Step at a Time

Twelve-step programs are a well-known, and some argue, an essential part of the recovery process. Whether a
person struggles with alcohol or drug addiction, eating disorders, co-dependent relationships, or process addictions like gambling or sex addiction, 12-step programs can provide guidance, education, support and a sense of community crucial to behavior and lifestyle changes. Accountability, spiritual connection and service to others are components of this tool in recovery. Members are encouraged to get a "sponsor", an experienced member with significant time in recovery and a willingness to guide new members through the steps and into a life of sobriety and recovery. Progress through the steps of the recovery group can take months or years to complete; each individual is encouraged to go at their own pace in order to get the most understanding and benefit from the work of that step. Members learn that recovery is never mastered, and the work on the steps never ends. An appropriate progression through the 12 Steps often includes an individual finishing work on the twelfth step, only to begin over again with Step One, as new insights and emotional truths can come to awareness with each cycle through the steps. Recovery from addictions or compulsive behaviors is considered a lifelong undertaking. Twelve-step programs can be a lifesaving component to recovery, offering people opportunities to share their experiences, gain strength and cultivate hope for a healthy, vibrant life.