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In This Moment

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I’ve always been reluctant to tell people what kind of music I like, because it’s pretty mainstream. In fact, I’ll make that #11 on my list–my preference for Top 40. Some of my friends have criticized me for what they consider my poor taste in music: it’s so unoriginal. So superficial.

And it’s true that the lyrics usually aren’t profound, but sometimes they still touch upon universal feelings. That’s why even the sappiest of love songs can be appealing when you have a broken heart.

Yesterday on my drive home the song “Daylight,” by Maroon 5, came on the radio. Every time I hear this song I think of one of the long distance relationships I was in during high school. My boyfriend went to college 5 hours away, so we didn’t see each other often. And when we did see each other, I was so anxious by Saturday about him leaving on Sunday that I couldn’t enjoy our time together. No amount of reasoning could stop me from obsessing.

That’s what happens when you have an anxiety disorder. The things that other people find difficult, like saying good-bye, are intolerable. Adam Levine can still hold her close for one night, even if he’ll have to go in the daylight. I, on the other hand, would obsess about how sad I was going to be when that moment came and would end up ruining the whole evening.

Despite the intensity of my negative feelings, I have often chosen relationships that have been characterized by a high level of drama. Which doesn’t make any sense, I know. You would think that I wanted to be miserable. But love is like a drug–especially in the early stages–what with all the obsession and longing and all. Even though the cons outweigh the pros, you get addicted, anyway, because it’s not a rational process.

My relationships were like an addiction in that I craved connection, but no amount of contact was ever enough. And I would experience withdrawal during even the smallest periods of separation, yet I still preferred long-distance relationships.

That’s why I’m proud of myself for not being in a relationship. I’m learning how to tolerate my fear of being alone. And I’m learning how to live without the addiction of drama. And my behavior doesn’t seem as crazy and contradictory–in relationships, at least.

Other things have helped with my anxiety, too. I resisted meds for a long time, even though people begged me to take them for their sake, if not for mine. But I have to admit, even though I don’t like taking them, they make my anxiety bearable.

I also have a therapist who I can call when I’m freaking out. I meditate, which has helped me tolerate my feelings. And I practice mindfulness as often as possible.

One of my favorite mindfulness mantras is any sentence that begins with “in this moment.” In this moment, I am anxious. It’s hard to breathe. I am in pain. But in the next moment, I will feel differently.

And I always do.

Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don’t make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don’t have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA’s, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don’t schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don’t see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It’s just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I’m burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I’m being honest with myself–more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Losing Control

I am seeing a couple of clients whose lives revolve around not losing control of their emotions. They both have a parent who is very out of control–addictions, emotional outbursts, marginally functional–the kind of people who seem beyond hope. “Black hole people,” as my client calls them. These clients fear that if they let their emotions out, they will get lost in them like their parents.

This is a common fear. Most people think that having feelings makes you needy. Weak. Crazy. It’s better to do whatever you can to avoid feelings altogether. Ironically, it is the things that people do to control their feelings that brings them to therapy.

Eating disorders are a good example of this. Every client says that their eating disorder began as a way to have control. They can’t control any other aspect of their lives, but they can control what goes into and comes out of their bodies. Stuff down their feelings with food. Numb themselves by restricting and exercising. Get rid of feelings by purging.

At some point they lose control over this strategy. They think about food, exercise, bodies, and weight all day long, every day. They eat in isolation. They lose friends because they are constantly lying and hiding. When it gets really bad, a dean forces them to come to the counseling center. But no one can help them until they are willing to let go. Until they are willing to feel, to be vulnerable.

We all have ways that we try to control our emotions. Mine is to help other people. I don’t have problems. I don’t need anyone. I’ve got all the answers; I don’t need help.

A client recently asked if I had any flaws. I told her that I have all kinds of flaws. She seemed relieved. I almost told her about my blog–but I’m not ready to go that far.

So what do we do with all of these feelings if we don’t suppress them, deny them, or push them away? How do we keep from falling into the black hole?

One of my favorite movies is “The Matrix.” By the end of the movie, Neo realizes that all of his fears are an illusion. He has to die first to realize this, but once he is outside of the matrix, his fears no longer control him. Feelings are the same way. Your feelings are a part of you, and you are larger than any of your parts.

Sometimes you have to let go before you can discover that you have control.

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.

 

Addiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about addictions lately.  Even before Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death.  I have never been the addictive type.  My history is so clean I would have made a great political candidate, if I didn’t dislike politics so much.  But Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru, says that everyone is addicted to something.  So I’m trying to be honest with myself about what that might be.

At times my hobbies have been like addictions.  When I first started knitting, I would crank out so much stuff that I made all my Christmas gifts in a month and still had scarves to give away.  Same thing with making jewelry.  I sold a lot of what I made, but all my profits went towards buying more beads.   And I can sing Karaoke for hours.  I hosted a small Karaoke party over the summer and we sang for 6 hours straight.

But knitters tend to be fanatical bunch.  Jewelry makers can be, too.  And for a Filipino, my Karaoke usage is average, at best.  Plus these hobbies tend to go in phases.  I’m in a knitting phase now.  I would describe my interest in these activities as obsessive rather than addictive.

The next addiction candidates would be tennis and sugar.  These two things are a consistent presence in my day-to-day life, and I cannot imagine living without either of them indefinitely.  Giving them up would require some kind of intensive inpatient treatment program, and even then the probability of relapse would be high.

But playing tennis and consuming desserts has not significantly impaired my functioning, and I’ve been able to cut back.  I am only playing 3-4 times a week to prevent injury.  And I don’t eat 3-4 desserts a day any more.  So I would classify myself as a heavy user but not an addict.

As I was thinking about this post, one of my FB friends messaged me and asked me to write something about codependence.  And that’s when it hit me:  I am addicted to unhealthy relationships.  Ostensibly because I want to help people, but needing to be needed is a form of addiction, too.   In the post on solitude I talked about how ashamed I feel for tolerating so much crappiness to avoid being alone.

Based on my experience as a therapist, I know that many people have the same problem.  Often clients come in for a relationship addiction.  Their friends and family are sick of listening to them.  They know they should break it off, but they can’t.  They live in secrecy because they’re still in contact with the other person.  If someone came up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, they could probably make a fortune.

I guess in a way I have completed my own self-imposed detox program.  And for the first time in 30 years, I did not use another relationship to ease the pain.  I rank this accomplishment right up there with defending my dissertation.  Maybe even higher.  Because after my dissertation I got depressed because there was nothing left for me to accomplish.  But as far as relationships are concerned, it’s all up from here.

Interestingly, I started this blog right before the breakup.  It wasn’t conscious, but I guess at some level I decided that the energy I was investing in my relationship would be better spent writing.  And blogging helped me tremendously during the breakup process.  I don’t think I could have made it this far without it.

So until someone comes up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, I would highly recommend intensive blogging as a treatment strategy.