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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Stories

So I was having dinner at a Thai restaurant with my tennis mom and her family, and one of them asked me if I believe that everything happens for a reason. Which I do. Now. But that wasn’t always the case. Before I struggled with how to make sense of accidents and cancer and infant deaths. And to be honest, I still do. So now I try to stay focused on making sense of my own path, which is hard enough.

Then the conversation turned into a very pointed inquisition about what I believe to be true about God and the nature of the universe. Which I thought was weird, because what the heck do I know? Clearly these people have not been reading my blog.

Afterwards we came home and watched The Lego Movie, which was awesome! Just like the theme song says. That may seem completely unrelated, but I think it happened for a reason. Because the basic line of questioning was, how do you know that what you believe to be true isn’t just some made up story?

Emmet is an ordinary construction worker who is so average that no one can say anything that stands out about him. But then he finds The Piece of Resistance, which is the sign that he is “the special”–the one who the prophesy foretold is destined to save the world. It turns out that the wise old man Vitruvius made the prophesy up, yet it was still true that Emmet was chosen as the hero by some higher power.

The Lego Movie is also a made up story. So is Avatar, The Matrix, and Kung Fu Panda–my 3 favorite movies. They’ve all made tons of money, and I think this is because they all have a message about how understanding our destiny and the nature of the universe requires a leap of faith in ourselves.

I’m no theologian, but I believe that God is ok with whatever story makes sense to us, as long as it brings us closer to him.

I think this doodle looks like legos.

Joy and Pain

I finally saw The Fault in Our Stars the other day. I thought that the movie was true to the book but wasn’t long enough to include all the scenes that I loved. But I guess no one else would be interested in a 10 hour movie.

One of the things they left out was the discussion of whether we need to experience pain in order to know joy. In the book Hazel repeatedly says she doesn’t believe this: “the existence of broccoli in no way affects the taste of chocolate.” I thought that this was such a compelling argument that for awhile I forgot all of the research I’ve read that supports the joy-pain connection.

Hazel worries about how her death will hurt the people who love her. She is afraid that her parents won’t have a life after she dies. She pushes Augustus away because she doesn’t want to be a grenade. But Augustus cannot be dissuaded: “you don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you.”

This whole joy and pain thing is actually why I have so much trouble with endings. I look forward to having the summer off but by the 2nd day of summer I start obsessing about how my vacation is running out. I suffer from existential anxiety about death and aging. Even coming to the end of books like this one is difficult because I don’t want to have to say good-bye to characters like Hazel and Augustus.

When I read the book I didn’t fully appreciate Hazel’s obsession with knowing what happens to the characters at the end of “An Imperial Affliction,” which ends in mid-sentence because the narrator dies of cancer. But after watching the movie, I understand. Hazel wants reassurance that life will go on for her parents after she dies.

I’ve always thought that life was kind of cruel in this way. My heart may be broken but the world doesn’t seem to care. Life goes on, despite my pain. It’s kind of insulting, really.

But now I think it’s a good thing. Life isn’t like a book or a movie that begins with joy but ends with pain–and wisdom. Life is more like a series of stories, where we have more joy–and pain–ahead of us. More people to love. More summers to look forward to.  More books to read. So I’m looking forward to the next installment.

I think this doodle looks like lightning bugs.

Mental Hygiene

Negativity is like a virus. Even if you are vigilant about taking your meds, challenging irrational thoughts, praying, meditating, and practicing self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion, it just takes one negative comment–one careless psychological sneeze–and you’re contaminated.

I’ve had 3 people sneeze on me today. In an effort to avoid contaminating you with too much negativity, I’ll just tell you about the most egregious of the 3 incidents.

I had my follow up appointment with my psychiatrist today. Thank goodness I only have to go twice a year. It’s a 3 and 1/2 hour drive round trip for a 30 minute appointment, and there’s very little about that 30 minutes that is therapeutic. While my psychiatrist knows his drugs, he’s not a particularly good therapist, to put it mildly. Which is OK, I guess, because I have a therapist. But I have to talk about something.

Because I have chronic sleep issues due to my night-owlness, I confessed that I’ve been struggling with regulating my sleep cycle now that I’m not working. Every time I tell him what time I go to sleep and wake up, he makes this judgmental face that looks like he just sucked on a lemon. Then he proceeds to tell me what the research says about the importance of waking up at the same time every day, especially when you have a history of depression. How I need to get morning sunlight, I shouldn’t take naps, I need to be more disciplined, blah blah blah.

I am not good at constructive criticism, but I did manage to say that I’m trying. That I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about sleep. So much so that it probably interferes with my sleep. He can read my blog if he wants proof.

But I wish I could say something more honest. Something like, you make me feel like crap when you make that stupid face and give me a lecture on sleep hygiene that I already know by heart because I am a clinical psychologist, in case you’ve forgotten. Every time I see you, you just give my inner critic ammunition to tell me how I’m failing at sleep hygiene and that I suck. You are supposed to be helping me with my mental health–not making it worse. Oh, and by the way, your waiting room smells like mold and you need to clean your freaking office and water your damn plants. It doesn’t reflect well on you that your plants are dying! 

But I don’t want to come across as being too negative.

Does anyone ever give their doctor honest feedback when they do something unhelpful? I try to imagine what my reaction would be if a client brought to my attention that my facial expression conveyed blatant disapproval of what a terrible job they’re doing of trying to get better. It would be a shock, no question. But I don’t want to convey disapproval and judgment, so I think I would want to know. I think I would try to be more aware of my facial expressions. But as I mentioned in a previous post, we are terrible predictors of how we will act in the future. So maybe I would just be pissed off.

Maybe I can think of this as an opportunity to practice constructive criticism. Maybe I’ll talk to my therapist about it and see if she thinks it’s worth it to say something. Not what I wrote above, of course. But something.

Or maybe I could just tell him that my latest blog post is dedicated to him so he should read it. That would be hilarious!

I’ll let you know what I do. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to do your part in preventing the spread of negativity. Please remember to cover your mouth before your criticize. (And not in that passive-aggressive way where you cover your mouth while you fake cough and mumble something critical under your breath, either. You know what I’m taking about.)

I think this doodle looks like germs.

Constructive Criticism

I have trouble giving constructive criticism. I prefer the passive-aggressive route: just avoid the person altogether, or put their call on speaker phone and do my blog homework while they’re talking.

I know this doesn’t reflect positively on me as a psychologist. When I have a client who has problems being assertive, I have all kinds of good suggestions. And they usually take my advice. Which is a perfect example of why I often think my clients are more courageous than I am.

Part of the problem is that I can’t stand hurting other people. If it’s a choice between being annoyed by them or hurting their feelings, I choose to be annoyed. Because I can take it. But all those annoyances start to add up after awhile. Like being bitten by 1000 mosquitos. And I’m allergic to mosquitos, too. That’s why I have to keep reminding myself to pick me.

The other obstacle is the whole hyperempath thing, combined with being highly self-critical. When I think of how I would feel if someone were to tell me that I brag about myself a lot, I would be mortified. I’d probably never speak again.

Sometimes the other person is so sensitive that they, too, will obsess about it for the rest of their lives. We can never have a conversation again where the person doesn’t think about it, apologize for it, justify their behavior. It’s painful. It feels just as bad as when they were annoying me, except now I feel guilty, too.

That’s why I prefer to be so attuned to how other people feel that I can sense their annoyance and figure out why without them having to say a word. Which, admittedly, isn’t a great strategy–especially when you’re prone to depression. Because afterwards you have replay every social interaction over and over, trying to figure out where you offended the other person.

I can do it when it involves tennis. Especially when it involves wasting someone else’s time by being late, not showing up, etc. I may not think my time is valuable, but I won’t tolerate someone in my group or on my team who wastes other people’s time. But sometimes I still obsess about how I did it. Maybe if I had said it differently, I wouldn’t have hurt their feelings.

The reality is, sometimes there’s no way you can give negative feedback without hurting the person. And it’s not really my job to make sure that no one ever feels pain. Sometimes pain is necessary. It lets us know that we need to change something. And if something’s bothering me enough to tell them about it, then I am definitely hoping for change.

Sometimes I wish I could be one of those people who are so oblivious that they don’t care that they’re annoying. Someone who can dismiss criticism with some rationalization. Or someone with a really bad memory for negative feedback. But I can’t. I’m me. Empathic, sensitive, guilt-ridden me.

Perhaps I can think of this as yet another opportunity to practice self-acceptance.

Interventions, Part 2

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert gives multiple examples of how we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the studies. How people who are paraplegics from car accidents and people who win the lottery both return to their baseline level of happiness after about a year.

I often tell clients the same thing when they’re catastophizing about what will happen in the future. How they’ll be flipping burgers at McDonald’s because they got an F on their chemistry exam. How they will never find love. How they will be depressed for the rest of their lives. We don’t know what the future holds. We know that we don’t know, but we still act like we do.

So how are we supposed to make decisions if we’re so terrible at predicting the future? Gilbert recommends that we ask someone who has made a similar decision and find out how they feel about it. Psychologists say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Still, there are no guarantees. Ultimately important decisions often come down to a leap of faith.

A few weeks ago I shared my anxiety about having to do an intervention. I asked for advice from my psychiatrist, my therapist, and from God. They all said I had to do it. But I couldn’t make myself do it. Because based on the two suggestions above, the forecast looked pretty gloomy. But a promise is a promise.

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s “No Man Is an Island,” and he says that God is involved in every aspect of our lives, guiding our every step, trying to move us closer to where we need to be. I wasn’t sure if I believed that, but it was comforting to think that it might be true. That perhaps God was moving me closer to this conversation, even though I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I decided to blog about it because that always seems to help. One reader said that perhaps the opportunity would naturally present itself. She was right; I got my opportunity. I did my part, expecting that my concerns would be completely dismissed, but they weren’t. My words had an impact. Things are in motion, moving in the direction they’re supposed to go. And I am thankful.

When I pray for courage, I feel like God tells me that if I do my part, He will do his. And while that has always been true, I’m always still afraid to take the next step. Will it happen this time? Was I just lucky before? Will God really be there on the other side?

Sometimes it takes awhile, but I usually take that leap of faith. I may not know what is on the other side, but I know I can’t stay stuck on this side forever.

Why I Have a Superhero Complex

When I was a kid I remember going to K-Mart with my dad, trying to get him to buy me a toy, as usual. We passed by the jewelry section, and he said he needed to buy something first. He had promised one of his patients that if she lived he would buy her some jewelry. He said that he didn’t expect her to live, but since she did, he wanted to keep his promise.

I never forgot this incident because it impressed upon me what a good doctor my dad was. I could imagine him talking to this patient as he made rounds at the hospital. I could see him greet her with his unmistakable laugh, reassuring her that she was going to get better. All of his patients loved him. I wouldn’t be surprised if she got better just for him.

My dad was equally dedicated to his family.  During his periods of depression, the thing that plagued him the most was his fear that he had not spent enough time with us because of work. I was shocked when I heard this. My dad attended every tennis match, awards ceremony, and piano recital we were in. Even now, although we all live in different cities, we try to get together for birthdays and holidays because being together as a family has always been a priority. He has his faults, but failing to spend time with us is definitely not one of them.

Above all else, the reason my dad was a dedicated doctor and father is because this is how he has chosen to serve God. I must admit, it bothered me to hear this when I was a kid. Kind of like when the flight attendant tells parents to put their oxygen mask on before helping their children. As a child, I didn’t want my dad to love God more than he loved me. But as an adult, I appreciate how admirable it is to live your life with that level of commitment.

One of the reasons why I berate myself when I’m not able to function is because depression never stopped my dad from performing his duties. Once he confessed to me how bad things were for him when he was depressed. How it would take him forever to dictate his notes because his cognitive abilities were so compromised. How he would obsess about forgetting some detail and would drive back to the hospital. How there were times when he wanted to give up. But he didn’t. He still went to work every day, came home every night, and made us pray together as a family before we went to bed.

People give me a hard time because I want to save the world. But with a dad like mine, how can I expect anything less of myself? It is a high standard to try to live up to, but if I have to struggle with something, there are worse things than having a superhero for a father.

Escape in the Moment

Back by popular demand, here is another post by my brother, Romeo Barongan, in honor of Father’s Day.

ESCAPE IN THE MOMENT:
A Father’s Day Reflection

I have always dreaded change. Even as a child, my happiest moments were plagued by the knowledge that the more time I spent in the moment, the closer I had come to its end. Lately, the dread of watching my free time evaporate each night with the dawning of a new day, a new shift, & set of new obligations has returned. To offset the gloominess, I have been going to the beach every morning before preparing for the day for no more than 20 minutes. At first, I just did it because I was told that I needed more sunlight & I knew I at least had to go through the motions of feeling better; but truthfully, I didn’t expect any results. But then, after just a few minutes of staring at the peaceful water of the bay with the sun in my face & the sea breeze blanketing me from the summer heat, something happened. I felt peace. All the apprehensions that had kept me up the night before disappeared for just a moment in a place where sand met sea & sea met sky. When I left, it no longer bothered me that my moment of peace was so brief & that obligations still loomed before me; I had a sudden appreciation for the concept of balance.

My morning visits to the beach brought to mind one of my favorite myths from Greek mythology—the story of Icarus & Daedalus. Daedalus is a brilliant Greek inventor who, among other things, creates the Labyrinth that houses the Minotaur of Crete. Icarus is Daedalus’s young adult son. Somehow or another, Daedalus & his son manage to cross Crete’s King Minos. In order to escape punishment, Daedalus crafts wings made of bird feathers & held together with wax. His plan is to escape the island kingdom of King Minos through the air. He teaches his son to fly.


Daedalus, being older & more experienced, warns his son not to fly too close to the water for fear of the moisture loosening the wax that holds the wings together. It would be equally important not to fly too high for fear of the sun’s heat melting the wax that holds the wings in place. The father warns the son to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. Sadly, Icarus becomes too intoxicated with the majesty of flight & soars too close to the sun. Its powerful rays melt the wax, the wings crumble apart, & the young man plummets to the sea. The son fails to heed the father’s lesson of moderation & balance.


While this myth has a sad ending, I think it summarizes the dynamic of fatherhood well. Our fathers push us to reach our potential—they teach us to fly. We, as sons, benefit from their experience & advice. We are given opportunities that we would have been hard-pressed to come by on our own. And finally, we are given guidelines on how to best manage the opportunities we are given. We are taught to strike a balance.


Today, I invite my Father to enjoy his own perfect moment of peace & satisfaction. This day, while only a single day on the calendar, embodies innumerable days collected over the years wherein my Dad crafted two pairs of wings out of feathers & waxed & taught me to fly….Not too high as to touch the sun, & not too low as to dip into the waves, but in a place of balance & equilibrium. Hopefully, I can do a better job of heeding my own father’s advice than Icarus of the myth heeded the advice of his own. 


When I’m tempted to ignore my own responsibilities for a day, I’ll remember my Father’s clock-work commitment to his own profession. Before I mourn the end of a free moment, I’ll remember my father’s example of striving for a balanced life that accommodates both time for recreation & time for focused productivity. On this Father’s Day, I encourage my Dad to live in his own moment of serenity & satisfaction similar to the place I found the day I saw the sand meet the sea & the sea meet the sky. Happy Father’s Day.