Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Tammy Wynette had it right all those years ago, when she sang of the deep heartbreak, loss and sense of failure that can accompany divorce. Over the last several decades, researchers have studied marital divorce and it's impact on spouses and their children. To hear my clients and colleagues talk, most folks continue to believe that divorce is a traumatic experience for all involved, and to be avoided at almost any cost. And certainly, the costs of divorce can be excruciatingly high -- from financial hardship, to chidren's emotional struggles to maintain loyalty to two parents who dislike each other, to moving residences and setting new, painful boundaries with in-laws. Having experienced divorce myself, I know the devastating self-doubt, anxiety for my child's physical and financial future, the losses akin to a death that accompany the ending of a marriage. But, like most of life, I see divorce as more complex than a black and white, "good" or "bad" decision. Divorce can be as gray an experience as any of life's struggles. Rarely is one spouse "completely" at fault, nor is it possible to predict with accuracy how their parents' divorce will impact children in their futures. In fact, many experts purport that it is witnessing CONTINUED, UNRESOLVED CONFLICT between parents, rather than DIVORCE ITSELF, that damages children. When I am working with couples considering divorce, I find that I am most helpful when I can offer a different possibility than most of popular culture contends. In her book "The Good Divorce," Constance Ahrons suggests considering divorce as more of a developmental stage than as a certain trauma. If more than half of us will experience the end of a marriage, couldn't it be helpful to frame that event as a more neutral, developmental experience, one in which we can grow, evolve and deepen our awareness, as surely as we can become wounded, scarred or frightened? Most milestones in life can go in different directions -- for some, puberty is a time of self-discovery and competence-building. For others, adolescence is a field of land mines, filled with the risks of acting out, drug experimentation, negative body image issues. Moving from high school to college can be a time of excitement and stretching, or it can highlight an individual's lack of readiness for independence. Similarly, divorce does not mandate that we label ourselves as failures or that we wait for our children to inevitably choose poorly in their own choice of mates. How could divorce, and the potential healing and growth that can develop post-divorce, be experienced differently if we but incrementally shifted our expectations? Is it possible to consider the end of a marriage as yet another life marker, one which can be crafted into a source of growth and enlightenment, as much as a source of grief and angst? Could we allow ourselves, and the majority who make up divorced folks, to shed the shame long associated with divorce and instead look ahead with hope and esteem? The future is not etched in stone; perhaps we can lighten our load by breaking down the "burden" of divorce into stepping stones that can lead us forward.

Next time: is it possible to use divorce as a POSITIVE step in our spiritual evolution?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Giving Up the Paper Chase

Report cards arrived in the mail today. And while my son's final grades were acceptable according to our family's standards, I couldn't avoid focusing on the "D" and "F" he received on two final exams. Those letters seemed to vibrate on the page, and my son was (momentarily) frustrated that his efforts to prepare for those challenging academic tests were not reflected in his exam grades. But both my son and I know that school has never been his passion, and attempts at tutoring and other behavioral changes have had minimal impact on his grades over the years.

My son attends a respected high school that launches almost all of its students on to further education after graduation. My son harbors the same hopes for himself, though he plans to attend a fine arts college rather than a traditional university. Even so, I struggle with the question of whether I should push him harder to improve his grades. These moments cause me to pause and examine my definitions of success. I want my son to have all the opportunities to express himself, to grow and explore, to succeed in his passions. I want him to develop into a contributing member of society; to become a considerate, caring and responsible adult. But I also hope to not be housing him in my basement when he is 30. Being able to support himself is an integral part of growing into adulthood. And, in our community, the media, and among his peers, college seems to be the undisputed path toward independence and success. But how do we define success? Is it defined by a paycheck, a stock portfolio, or the number of letters after one's name? Is success equated with socioeconomic status, peer esteem, notoriety in one's field? Am I naive to encourage my child to pursue happiness, creativity, spiritual and emotional fulfillment at the cost of being "hire-able"? With our country's skyrocketing health costs, should I remind my child that a job that provides insurance benefits and a savings plan is as vital to his well-being as creative fulfillment? I find myself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. My wife and I make enough money to live in a decent neighborhood, vacation occasionally, and make our bill payments on time. We both are lucky enough to have jobs we enjoy. Are those realities a hallmark of success? Have we ourselves bought into the cultural mindset that happiness is found in security, a high credit score and a regular paycheck? I don't have a clue. We all want the best for our children. We want them to have an easier life, a more supported start, than many of us have had. We hope for them that they find purpose and meaning, and that those things come to them through healthy relationships and work that reflects their talents and spirits. Academic success and further education is one path with a likelihood to those ends. But for my son's sake, and those of other creative, dreamy souls, I hope there are others. For now, I post his report card on the fridge, next to his application to the student film competition and under his end-of-year show choir picture. By the beginning of school in the fall, the grade report will have wedged itself under the neighboring stove, or be torn in half to be used for a shopping list. Maybe, by then, I will know how to guide him toward the surest path to success. More likely? I will join him in learning all the songs for "West Side Story." Those Jets know how to dance!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Resisting Resignation

I was shocked and saddened by my reaction to news of yet another school shooting. Before outrage, grief or compassion for those who lost their lives or someone they loved, I felt a moment of hopeless, powerless RESIGNATION. When did I become anything less than hysterical about the senseless loss of human lives? When did I stop feeling terrified at the thought that random violence could, indeed, erupt anywhere, anytime? When did my empathy for the victims of violence get preempted by a fear that we may be losing the fight to treat some of the most damaged, most dangerous members of our society? Regardless of one's position on the gun control debate, most people would agree that using weapons to vent our anger or wreak vengeance for society's slights against us is an extreme response born of hopelessness, rage and mental illness. As mental health providers, we often sit with people as they experience the range of human emotions, some of them incredibly painful or scary or toxic. We teach our clients tools to use to cope with overwhelming feelings, challenging situations and dysfunctional relationships. But like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, we invariably see some of our suggestions pushed aside, or discover a client who we thought was capable of certain growth is unable to move beyond a certain spot. Usually, we take these realities in stride; we know that growth and change can have their own timetables, and that each client has the right and responsibility to choose a life path, free from our preferences or values. But when mental illness causes the death of an innocent person, or even the suicide of a violent offender, we are left with more questions than answers. Could we have done more? Was this violence predictable? Is the fix in stronger laws and punishments or in prevention efforts? These complicated realities don't fit neatly onto any one path or rhetoric or politics. They certainly will not be eradicated by the passage of a law or the emergence of a new drug on the marketplace. But what I do know for sure is that we cannot grow complacent, we can't pass off these tragedies as the new "reality" of living in an age abounding with technology, violent video games or permissive parenting. We must be willing to continue the dialogue about how to best help people with severe mental illness. We need to make it easier, cheaper and less stigmatizing to seek out help when we are troubled. We must invest more in research and testing to determine why some people choose violence and how to mitigate the vulnerabilities to these choices. We must never lose our outrage, our belief in our world's right to live peacefully and without fear, our compassion for those who struggle, are hurting, who want to give up.I know it is I. The moments when I feel most powerless, most unable to imagine something different for my world, that I must summon Thr strength to resist resignation. Be the change you would like to see in the world, Gandhi said. For me,mthat means touching my grief, feeling my sadness and anger, choosing not to dehumanize a suffering soul who makes a horrible choice. It may be a minute step, it may not create more than a ripple in the Universes energy field, but it is a choice I CAN make. And in choosing, I move from the shadow of powerlessness into the light of my own power.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Love Thyself as Thy Neighbor


"I do not trust people who don't love themselves and yet tell me 'I love you.' There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt." Our practice manager posted this quote from Maya Angelou in our lobby, and I find myself ruminating on it whenever I pass by the iron frame in which it's held. While loving others seems as natural and essential to us as breathing, I find many people struggle with the practice of loving themselves. I hear folks say they feel self-centered if they treat themselves lovingly, or they worry they will miss signals that their families or friends are in need of nurturing, if their focus is on the self. I try to teach my clients the difference between "selfIST" (i.e., my needs/desires/feelings are AS IMPORTANT as others' needs/desires/feelings) and "selfISH" (I.e., my needs/desires/feelings are MORE IMPORTANT than others'). In the former viewpoint, we strive to honor both realities; in the latter we diminish or dismiss what's valuable to the other in favor of what we want. Similarly, many therapists use the "oxygen mask" analogy to reinforce the importance of self-care. On plane trips, the flight attendants instruct us to put on our OWN mask first, before aiding children or elderly people around us. The logic is that we will be of no use to anyone else if we are not at full functioning. Undoubtedly, there are other reasons why people lack self-love: shame issues that lead us to believe we are broken or unworthy, lack of positive modeling of self-compassion. Regardless of the reason, self-love remains key to our own healing and growth. Without this positive self-regard, a true communion with others, our world, and the Divine is built on shaky ground. How can we believe fully in someone's love for us if we doubt our own lovablity? How can we accept the gifts of adoration from our significant others if we fear we may not completely deserve it? Self-love is not narcissistic or egocentric, it simply recognizes that, like all beings, we are worthy and valuable simply because we ARE. Self-love is essential to accepting that we are made of the same stuff as the stars in the heavens. When we glance up at the night sky, in gratitude and wonder for the awesomeness of the Universe and it's creations, we might want to send up some thanks for our unique, lovable selves.