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Monthly Archives: February 2014

How to Save a Life

A few years ago a client told me that I saved his life. Well, he didn’t tell me directly.  He told my colleague when he was drunk at a gala. But he told her to tell me. Although I’m not sure he remembers doing so. Still, I was humbled by this. I knew therapy was important to him, but I didn’t think his life was in danger. But then again, even when clients are in therapy, they don’t always tell you the full story.

Once I had to cancel a session with this client and he stopped coming in for about a month. Apparently he got depressed because he felt like I had abandoned him. A professor contacted him because he had also stopped going to class. When he came back to therapy, he told me that his professor saved his life. That was the first time I really understood how much therapy means to some clients, even when they say they’re not sure they want to be there.

Last week I went to a threat assessment training, and the first case that the presenter discussed was a student who had to go to the police department because she told her roommate she was suicidal. While she was there, she asked for a piece of paper and a pen. She drew what appeared to be a bunch of random doodles. But later when they looked at the drawing, they saw that she had embedded the word help three times.

This, too, reminded me that people may say they don’t want help but their actions tell you otherwise.

Before I started blogging, I thought blogs were just another example of our narcissistic culture in that journaling, which is supposed to be a private experience, was turned into something that you shared with the world and everyone was free to comment. But now I realize that blogs can be a way for people who have never had a voice to connect with people like themselves.

My favorite blog is by Nelly N. She writes passionately and honestly about her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other things. She shares her most painful experiences so that other people who suffer in silence will realize that they are not alone. And it works.

A few days ago the student group that I advise had their annual eating disorder panel. It consists of students in recovery who are brave enough to share their story. On our campus, people with eating disorders are blamed and judged more harshly than any other disorder. Not surprisingly, no one wants to admit to having one publicly.

Every year, at least one student seeks treatment after attending the panel. And the next year, those students volunteer to speak on the panel so that they can help someone else who is alone with their eating disorder. Sometimes they use the opportunity to speak as motivation to get better.

We don’t have to be able to leap tall buildings to save someone’s life. Sometimes heroes are ordinary people who take action when someone needs help.

                    

God’s Will

It feels incomplete to talk about blame and free will without also talking about God’s will.  This one is the scariest of the 3 to write about, but I’m committed to being honest, so I’m making myself do it.

When I was in high school, my best friend’s father died of a heart attack in his early 40’s.  During the funeral, his best friend broke down crying while giving the eulogy.  My friend’s mom calmly took his place, saying that she believed her husband’s death was God’s will so she was at peace with it.

That really bothered me.  I was glad that it gave her comfort, but I could not fathom how God could want someone to die.  If deaths are God’s will, how can it be a sin to commit suicide?  Or murder, for that matter.  Or acts of terrorism.  All of these deaths would just be a part of God’s plan; these people were simply fulfilling their roles.  In fact, sin wouldn’t even be possible.

There is someone in our tennis community who is reaching the end of her battle with cancer.  Although I did not know her well, I was struck by how positive and kind she was when I met her last year.  She was in the midst of chemo at the time, and she was my opponent on the court.  And she kicked my ass.  Which was both impressive and upsetting, given my competitive nature.

I have been praying for her and her family, but I struggle with what to ask God for if death is, in fact, part of God’s plan for her.  I know some people don’t believe in God for this reason.  Or if God exists, they don’t want to worship a God who would allow people to suffer.  I wouldn’t go that far.  It is clear from the life of Christ and the teachings of Buddha, and probably most religions, that no one is immune to suffering.

I accept that, but it’s still hard to tolerate.  I try to imagine what it would be like to be her or her loved ones, but I can’t.  My brain won’t let me go there.  It’s too painful.  Too much to bear.  I can’t envision surviving a loss like that, even though I know that somehow I would if I had to.

I do my usual prayer.  Because we’re allowed to ask, even if we don’t always get what we want.  God, if at all possible, please let her have a miraculous recovery.  And then I say a more realistic prayer.  Please minimize their suffering to the extent possible.  Please  surround them with love, to mitigate the pain. 

I am no theologian, but based on the story of Adam and Eve, one thing is for certain: God wants us to have free will.  We, too, have the power to say no.  We can choose not to follow God’s plan.  We can choose not to love God, or not to love at all.

In the midst of tragedies, the people involved always say that they are humbled by the outpouring of love and support from people they don’t even know.  That it does mitigate the pain.  So I will continue to pray for this member of the tennis community and her family.  If love can ease their pain, then I will choose love.

Free Will

When I was in college, one of my fellow psychology majors asked me if learning about psychological theories made me question whether we had free will.  It did not.  Although his question did make me read through the theories again, just to make sure I understood them correctly.  But I was still convinced of my free will.

In my last post I used the example of an alcoholic father to illustrate how difficult it is to sort out blame and responsibility.  If alcoholism is genetic, and his parents were alcoholics, and all of his friends drink, what chance does he have of living a sober life?  How much of his behavior is in his control?

What if you have someone who is depressed with no family history of depression and no apparent cause, and she can’t get out of bed to make it to class.  Is her depression real?  Does she deserve to fail?  What about if she refused to go to therapy and start meds?

I mentioned in my last post that these problems require forgiveness.  We have to forgive ourselves for having the disorder.  We may have to ask for forgiveness from people whom we have harmed.  And we may have to forgive people who have added to our suffering.

When I’m depressed, I think everything is my fault.  In the midst of an episode, I am angry at myself for not being able to function.  I don’t think I have an excuse to be depressed.  In those moments, it’s hard to forgive myself for not being able to control everything.

I also mentioned that there is always some part of the problem that we can take responsibility for.  It may not be the alcoholic dad’s fault that he is prone to addiction, but he can join AA.  He can stay away from friends who pressure him to drink.  He can see a therapist.

I believe that knowing our limitations allows us to have more freedom.  In my work, clients often try to convince other people that their suffering is real.  I tell them that they have limited control over what other people think about their disorder.  However, they don’t have to blame themselves.  They can take control of what they can control.

Some people think that going to therapy is a sign of weakness.  In reality, therapy increases your degrees of freedom.  And I want to make sure I capitalize on all the freedom I can get.

 

Whose Fault is It?

I love playing games.  One of my favorites is the Blame Game.  Even though any couples therapist will tell you that you’re not supposed to do this, I’ll use every piece of evidence of every argument I can remember to prove that it’s not my fault.  I have no doubt this has contributed in part to the demise of some of my relationships.

However, even though I don’t like being at fault, I also blame myself for everything.  I’m one of those people who takes too much responsibility for problems.  Maybe that’s why I am also willing to do more than half of the work to try to “fix” the relationship.

The whole blame and responsibility thing is even harder to sort out when you throw in mental illness.  Lets say, for example, that you have an abusive alcoholic father.  Is it his fault if he hits you while he’s black out drunk?  Is it his fault that he has an addiction-prone brain and can’t just have one drink?  What if he had been sober for a year but relapsed because a buddy guilt-tripped him into going to a bar to celebrate his new job?  What parts of the alcoholism are his responsibility?

In my work, the Blame Game is the most problematic in a sexual assault.  It is often the case that both parties were drinking.  However, when friends are assigning blame, the perpetrator is seen as being less responsible because he was black out drunk.  The victim is seen as being more responsible for allowing herself to get that drunk.

And when the victim comes to therapy, she also believes it was her fault because she had been drinking.  The perpetrator usually doesn’t come to therapy.  In rare cases, the victim will bring the sexual assault to our judicial system to get the perpetrator to take responsibility for his behavior.  And the victim almost never wins.

The two most common disorders we see in the Counseling Center are depression and anxiety.  These are disorders where the person takes too much responsibility for their problems.  If they can’t will themselves to get out of bed and go to class, it’s their fault for being lazy.  When I suggest that a client try meds for her panic attacks, she often says no.  That’s a cop out. She should be able to do it on her own.

I don’t claim to know the answers for how much blame a person should assume.  I do know that the split in assigning blame is rarely 100% to 0%.  There is always some part of the problem that we can take responsibility for.  And when we take responsibility for our part, it usually makes things better.

Sometimes no one is to blame.  This one is really hard for people to accept.  How can you play the Blame Game if it’s no one’s fault?  But let’s say a typhoon hits the Philippines and causes mass destruction.  Whose fault is it?  There is power in blame because it gives us the illusion of control.

But there is also power in forgiveness.  We can forgive the other person for wrongdoing, even if they haven’t accepted any responsibility.  And we can forgive ourselves for our role in the problem.  And forgiveness is much more freeing than blame, regardless of whose fault it is.

 

Wants and Needs

The other day I had a session where I was talking to a client about wants and needs.  She said that she knows that she needs to allow herself to be taken care of, but she doesn’t want to do it.  I thought that was interesting.  How can you not want what you need?  But then after I thought about it some more, I realized that there are all kinds of things that people don’t want to need.  They are usually the things that bring people to therapy.

Most people don’t want to need other people.  That would make them dependent, and dependency is bad.  It’s a sign of weakness.  There is even a diagnosis called dependent personality disorder.  Excessive independence, however, is not considered a problem.  In our culture, you can never be too self-reliant.

While I have certainly seen clients who depend too much on others, more frequently I see people who are afraid to rely on anyone, like this client.  Which is strange, because in the animal kingdom, humans have the longest period of dependence on their parents.  And even as independent adults, we still need other people to have babies, to have jobs, and to survive.  Even hunters and gatherers relied on one another.  I don’t think anyone would consider them weak.

Despite this knowledge, I have to admit, I don’t like to rely on other people, either.  I don’t ask for help unless absolutely necessary.  And the flaw that I am most of ashamed of is my need to be in a relationship.  That’s why I’m so proud of myself right now for being alone.  But the truth is, while I’m not in a romantic relationship, I’m not really alone.

The other thing that people don’t want is to feel.  Usually they come to therapy with the hope that I can help them stop feeling.  This includes the feelings that accompany disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as normal feelings like sadness after a breakup or loneliness–because that makes you weak.

Like dependency, feelings are also necessary for survival.  Without feelings, we would have no signal to figure out what is causing us pain.  Without feelings, we aren’t able to empathize with other people.  Without feelings, we would be classified as reptiles in the animal kingdom.

I don’t want to be a reptile, but I do get frustrated with the intensity of my feelings.  Sometimes they reach the level of depression and anxiety.  And then I feel other people’s feelings, too.  That’s a lot of feeling for one person to tolerate.  And some people do find my feelings overwhelming.  I’m too needy. Too sensitive. Too much.

Or maybe they were too reptilian to be able to empathize with me.

I often have to tell clients up front that if what they want is to stop needing and feeling, I can’t help them.  Sometimes they transfer to other therapists, which I understand.  Who wants to be told that they have to accept being human?  But most people stay.  When I point out that only robots have the luxury of not needing or feeling, they acknowledge that they don’t want to be a robot.

But it’s surprisingly hard work, this being human stuff.  It requires a lot of self-compassion, self-acceptance.

Which is why I started this blog.

The Me Generation

Everybody’s talking about the Me Generation–including me, because the students that I see in counseling are a product of this generation.  These are the kids who have grown up in an era where no one keeps score in sports.  Everybody is a winner, which is why everyone gets a trophy just for showing up. 

These kids have also been told that they are special and brilliant and deserve great things, whether they’ve earned them or not.  Some researchers argue that these messages are creating a narcissistic epidemic in which today’s youth are superficially connected, attention-seeking, vain, and materialistic. 

And there is some evidence for these claims.  After all, “selfie” was the 2013 word of the year.  People can have hundreds of followers without doing anything particularly interesting.  And the rising popularity of Twitter is evidence that every random thought that someone has throughout the day is newsworthy.

Perhaps it is because I am not a product of the Me Generation that I have been reluctant to participate in social media.  I didn’t want to get caught up in competing over who has the most friends because I knew I would lose.  And as much as I am interested in getting to know people, I don’t really care about when someone is going to the gym or what they had for dinner. 

I also don’t like to have unauthorized pictures of me floating around in cyberspace because I’m afraid I’ll look fat in them.  Plus I don’t know how to strike that pose that all the young people do that’s supposed to make you look more attractive.  Because I don’t like pictures of myself, I’ve only posted about 3 selfies, and they were all with someone else.  That’s more like a selfie+1.  Which is not as narcissistic, if you ask me.

However, my blog has forced me to participate in social media, and I have to admit, it’s not all bad.  Yes, it allows narcissists to have a bigger audience, but it also gives the introvert an opportunity to have a voice.  And sometimes it can accelerate positive social change.  Before, there might have been one person on the playground strong enough to stand up to a bully.  Now, there can be millions of them.

Personally, social media has allowed me to stay in touch with people who I would have never heard from before FB.  And I have connected with people through blogging who I would have never met otherwise.  Plus, if Pope Francis can take a selfie, it can’t be that narcissistic.

Critics of the Me Generation claim that all of the unconditional acceptance that psychologists recommend is to blame for this narcissistic epidemic.  I don’t think that’s accurate.  In a previous post I talked about the difference between self-esteem and self-worth.  Self-esteem is about accomplishments and self-worth is about inherent value.  Focusing on trophies, appearance, and success are ways to instill inflated self-esteem, but not self-worth. 

Instead of telling kids that they are all winners, we should be telling kids that they are still worthwhile, even when they lose.  Even when they become old and gray.  Even when their 15 minutes of fame are up. 

Until that happens, we haven’t truly taught the next generation what it means to believe in themselves.

The Best Valentine’s Day Gift

I’ve gotten a lot better at this being alone thing.  But the one thing I have dreaded is today, Valentine’s Day.  The day that singles people everywhere are told that they suck.  It’s the first time in a long time that I have no one to celebrate it with.

Despite all of my declarations about how I was no longer going to subject myself to the media’s brainwashing after the Aqua-Fresh toothpaste incident, I still want to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Yes, its a made-up holiday, but so what.  It’s an excuse to eat chocolate, go to a nice restaurant, give and receive gifts.  It’s a chance to celebrate, and I’ll take any excuse I can get to celebrate.

But I’ve been trying to put this disappointment in perspective.  When I was married, both husbands forgot Valentine’s Day one year, and that really sucked.  So it’s not like being in a relationship guarantees that you’ll have a good Valentine’s Day.  To be honest, most of them haven’t even been that memorable.

In fact, the gifts I remember the most are the ones from my dad.  When I was younger he always bought a heart-shaped box of chocolates for my mom and me.  I had the smaller box, of course.  And last year he gave me this beautiful necklace with a gold heart pendant that says “For my daughter” on one side and “You are my pride and joy” on the other side.  What guy can compete with that?

And the best card I’ve ever gotten was from my baby brother, Romeo.  I was 16 at the time, and I was talking to a friend on the phone, lamenting the fact that I wasn’t going to get anything for Valentine’s Day—not even a card.

Then for some reason I was talking about my fears of death and getting old, which I told you about in a previous blog.  Romeo was playing on the living room floor, seemingly oblivious to my conversation.  But when he heard me talk about getting old, he stopped playing and said that he was afraid of getting old, too.  He was 9 at the time, so maybe the fear of aging runs in my family.


A few minutes later, Romeo came running down the hall, telling me that he made a card for me.  I had forgotten how quickly you can make a card when you’re a kid.  It was made with blue construction paper and a red crayon.  There were some hearts and a Happy Valentine’s Day on the front.  And inside he wrote that I didn’t need to worry about getting old and that he loved me. Or something to that effect.  I wasn’t able to read it very clearly, what with the tears and all.

After that I understood why parents prefer the cards that their kids spend 5 minutes making over the cards that their kids spend 5 minutes buying at Hallmark.  I have received many Valentine’s Day cards since then, and that one is by far my favorite.

Maybe it’s good that I was alone on Valentine’s Day this year.  My solitude has given me the opportunity to realize that I’ve never been alone on Valentine’s Day.  I’ve always been loved and always will be loved by my family.   And there’s no better gift than that, really.