Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Stories of Our Lives

"Despite the habitual turning away, the 'now' is always better than the story about it...Because there is no way to engage with, move on from or handle the to-ing and fro-ing of a story."  -- Geneen Roth 

I got stuck on this passage in Roth's Women, Food and God. So stuck, in fact, that I misstepped on the treadmill and nearly catapulted off the back. I read and re-read it, feeling like the words were identifiable, but the meaning was beyond my grasp. Then it sunk in. There is NOW. And then there is our STORY about NOW. 

Anxiety is a sign that we are either revisiting the past ("why did I have to say that to my boss?") or projecting into the future ("have I ruined my career? How will I ever find another job? What if I end up destitute and homeless?") We spend untold hours ruminating on our mistakes, and negatively predicting future outcomes. All of this cognitive energy prevents our presence in this moment. And in this moment, we are absolutely fine. We may be sitting on the couch, snuggled in comfy clothes, listening to soft, doggy-scented snores. We may be cutting an apple for our toddler's snack, or folding laundry or paying bills. Whatever we are doing in this moment, we can be present to it, or we can be creating a story about it. This moment is rich with sensation, emotion, thoughts and beliefs. We can feel this moment in our bodies, through our breathing. The story is unnecessary, and yet, when I reflect on troubling moments in my life, events that still squeeze my heart with regret or pierce my gut with fear, I realize my memory is less about how I truly experienced the event and more often about what I've told myself about it. My story distances me from my truth. It lays a gauzy film over what I felt and thought and did, making the essence of the experience more like a waking dream than a lived event. My stories can be exciting or frightening, morbid or hilarious. But whatever they are, they communicate only a version of the truth that is so much less than the actual realness of those moments. Inside the "now", I can feel and taste and smell and intuit the wisdom and grace that surrounds me. My story, no matter how fantastic, can never come close. My story can, and should, change over time, with insight and new life lessons that allow for new perspectives. But this moment, this now, is meant for me to live. I can leave the storytelling to someone else. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex

When I first started working as a therapist, I expected to hear about people's proudest moments, their deepest shame, promises that had been broken, dreams and relationships that had turned sour or died an agonizing death. I was (semi-)prepared to hear about profound pain and loss. What I didn't expect was to talk so much about SEX.

NOT Just the Birds and the Bees

My clients have educated me as much as I have them. Over the past 20 years, I've helped couples create ethically open relationships, learned about the searing pain caused by sex addiction, and been schooled about the difference between consenting BD/SM behavior and fetishistic activity. I've aided clients in discovering their long-buried sexual identities, and helped clients rediscover their sexual energy after years of it laying dormant. Clients share fantasies, desires, and fears that either fuel them or create great fear. I have developed an appreciation and respect for the range of human sexual feelings, behaviors, and energies. Many believe the human sex drive is a manifestation of the life force; I've certainly witnessed the courage and power within many clients as they have striven to develop their sexual selves in healthy and dynamic ways. As happens so often, I am humbled and privileged to be a witness to the strength and creativity my clients demonstrate. I can only hope I provide them with a safe and respectful space for them to discover their best and fullest sexual selves. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Investing In Resentment

Resentment can be defined as holding onto pain, anger or the wrongdoing of another. In the recovery movement, letting go of resentment is part of the foundation of sobriety. Most of us can't imagine WANTING to sit with resentment; it's discomfort is the emotional equivalent of rubbing sandpaper on sunburned skin. I can easily identify the behaviors of others that create my resentment, but when it's my own choices that fuel my internal wrath, my awareness is sometimes less than crystal-clear.

On Mother's Day, we got invited to my mother-in-law's for brunch to celebrate the day, and to my brother's for dinner to fete my mom. Both houses are an hour apart, and nearly as far from our own home. That meant I would be spending my Mother's Day largely in transit between two points, and while I love both the moms in my life, I had also been looking forward to wiling away the afternoon on my couch, reading a trashy novel and eating junk food provided by my loving family. To be clear, neither my mom or mother-in-law "required" my appearance. In fact, they would've signed off on my hedonistic plans with complete support. But my sense of propriety or guilt, habit or belief about what was the "right" choice to make, led me to decide to spend the day meeting what I believed was everyone else's needs over my own. Which, not surprisingly, led me to a state of exhaustion and resentment that I didn't do what I wanted to do. I couldn't blame my wife, my mom or mother-in-law for my emotional state. I couldn't hold society's expectations that we spoil our mothers on Mother's Day to task for MY decision. Ultimately, how I spent my day was my choice. By not being conscious and present to my decision, I denied my moms my full participation in their celebrations as much as I denied myself some R&R. I need to accept the mantra I tell my clients: to value our selves equal to others is not selfish, it's self-ist. I won't wait until the next holiday to listen to my feelings and respect my own needs alongside others'. I've felt the burn, and I'm ready to drop that rock. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Peeling Back the Label

Labels help us understand what's before us. Without labels, grocery shopping would be impossible. How would we know which can contained the green beans, and which housed the creamed corn? How would we  know which pair of jeans would offer the right fit, if a little white tag wasn't nestled in the waistband? Imagine searching for the latest best-seller at the bookstore without the headers of "Biography", "Cookbooks" and "New Fiction" pointing the way? Labels make life run more efficiently, save time and reduce confusion. And they can be hurtful and reductive.


Labels can be limiting. They can reduce a person or an experience to a bite-sized morsel of information, when, in reality, a platter wouldn't hold the whole truth. For example, for centuries society has labelled humans with two genders: male and female. Yet I work daily with folks who are transitioning from one gender to another, or even discarding the notion of gender altogether. In our binary, either/or world, how do we acknowledge or understand someone who is rejecting labels that have categorized our "reality" for as long as we can remember? Similarly, clients diagnosed with conditions like bipolar disorder or depression can often be regarded as their "label" rather than their personhood. Certainly, certain characteristic are shared by all people with schizophrenia; otherwise, the diagnosis couldn't be consistently applied. But each person's experience, wisdom and consequences with an illness is unique and particular to him. Some labels conjur up positive feelings or associations, while others engender fear or rage. Labels provide a starting point for conversation, an entry into someone's internal world. When it comes to people, labels don't guarantee what's inside. We enrich ourselves, and respect others, when we are willing to go beyond a label to truly understand and empathize with another's human experience.

Monday, May 4, 2015

NOT Child's Play: When Adults Were Ill as Children

Most of us have weathered childhood health issues like chicken pox, broken bones, stitches and tonsillectomies. And other than some faded scars, we probably have few continuing reminders of those early afflictions. But for some adults, especially those who have experienced severe or chronic childhood illnesses, like cancer, juvenile diabetes, or cystic fibrosis, the impact of those experiences continues to play out in their grown-up lives and bodies.

Experiencing a severe or chronic illness as a child can have long-term, adverse effects.  Some adults missed out on significant developmental milestones as their peers, not being able to attend prom or get a driver's license due to hospitalizations or limited mobility. Depression, anxiety and strained family relationships can continue for years after a childhood health condition has resolved. Occasionally, clients will report unresolved trauma symptoms related to medical procedures or conditions they experienced decades before.  Others become aware that their coping or relationship skills have been stunted by extensive time away from the childhood millieau of school, sports and play dates. Counseling can be instrumental in helping adults address and move past these obstacles. Therapy can be a safe place to access stored grief, resolve trauma, obtain psychoeducational training to develop delayed life skills and recognize resiliencies that enhanced survival. If you struggled with health concerns as a child and experience any of these challenges, consider contacting a therapist to bring  healing to  your mind and spirit as well as your body.