Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Blog has moved

Our new blog address is here

Change comes in many packages and sizes.

Many of us despise change. Much of the work that is done with clients is discovering the part of them that will resist the very change they seek help for.

-A client who asks for help with procrastinating on homework, and on further investigation, really doesn't like the course she is taking. If the procrastination is reduced, she'll be doing homework she doesn't want to do and isn't really interested in--why kind of fix is that!

-A couple wants help reducing the conflict in their marriage. But as tensions decrease, they find themselves sharing more deeply and intimately--which has its own terror. Suddenly, the conflict seems attractive--it's connecting at a safe level.

Suffice to say, resistance to change isn't just about wanting to stay stuck in an ugly place. It's about difficulty letting go of the underlying adaptive process that has something that looks like it's not working actually serve a valuable purpose.

All this thought about change comes up because I have been learning more about how websites work, and I "took the plunge" and transferred my blog to the same web address as my website. I really liked the look of the other blog, the usability of the features of blogspot. But I'm working at being open to the change, and finding ways to embrace it. I think it will be a good decision in the long run. We look forward to see you over there--please change your bookmark to the new location.

How will you make your change decisions that you are facing?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Osborne House--35 years strong

I was at Government House today to attend a reception celebrating the 35th anniversary of Osborne House. Osborne House is a women's shelter providing a 24 hour crisis line and emergency short term housing for women experiencing domestic violence.

The politicians gave wonderful and humourous speeches, the board chair gave a recount of the early days of starting up--no government funding was used to start Osborne House. It was created against all odds and now receives strong governmental support. However, the real stars of the show were two women who are passionate spokeswomen for the organization as past participants in the program. They told us of the difficult past they left behind when they went to Osborne House for help, and the tireless staff that provided input to them. One of them, a retired teacher, now does "payback", working in their programs and providing a face and voice to the value of the organization.

She was humourous and strong, clear and bold--a survivor.
The other quietly read a moving poem read on the first anniversary of her new life--confidence and new life oozing out of her.

I was fortunate to end up sitting during dinner with one of the pioneers of shelters in the province, who shared memories of starting a shelter in rural areas. Her city pioneer joined us for dessert, and they laughed at the stories they told. Out of date facilities, ceiling leaks, broken toasters, a dumped bottle of curry in the Thanksgiving stuffing one year...lots of laughter. Bold conversations with politicians, long travel up north, long hours fundraising to make it happen. Lots of strength.

Osborne House is 35 years old. It is the second oldest shelter in Canada. Since the 1970's, the murder rate of women in domestic situations has been cut in half.

50% --that's a lot of lives saved. Yippee for women's shelters...that's huge.

50% as many still being killed--that's a lot of lives still being lost.

In the old days--just 40 years ago, there was no where to go, nothing to do. Too many women who "walked into doors", or "fell down the stairs".

There was a hope shared this evening--that in 35 years from now, Osborne House is not needed. That intimate partner violence be a relic of the past. That Osborne House will be transformed from women's shelter to senior's housing.

The pioneers of women's shelters were confident, outspoken, courageous women who advocated for what they knew was needed...may those of us who follow in their footsteps continue the battle to eliminate the fear of domestic violence.

Stand up. Speak up. Get help. Give help. Talk. Give. Now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

With appreciation

Last week was Administrative Assistant's week--a chance to formally recognize all the behind the scenes work that makes our practice happen.

The work in the counselling room is the "main course" of the therapy experience. Melanie is the appetizer and dessert. Before a person is in the room with the therapist:
  • s/he had to get information from the website--Melanie updates it.
  • s/he has to call and find out information--Melanie answers the phone
  • s/he has to provide information so the therapist can prepare for the client--Melanie captures the information
  • a new client needs to be welcomed--Melanie is right there.
  • s/he may want to change an appointment or be reminded of the time--Melanie does that too
  • the therapists need copies of things, a supply of books to provide to clients--Melanie does this
  • then I need help with bookkeeping, connecting with suppliers, preparations for the new office--Melanie, again
If you've got the impression that she makes it all possible, you're right. And she does it with a smile. It's fun to come to work because she welcomes us as we come in the door. She is a calming soothing presence on the phone, and provides good information, returns your calls, and looks for the answers and gets back to you if you stump her with a question (and that doesn't happen often). She lets us think that she likes us--and that's a good feeling--and I think she really does, too. Melanie is a gift to Bergen and Associates and the people we serve. If you gather that we are a little fond of her, you're more than a little correct.

I treated her to a special afternoon last week. It was fun to spoil her and remind her of how we value her.

I remember hearing someone say a long time ago that encouragement and appreciation are fuel to a person's soul.

Fuel up someone today!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Perspective 101 - as taught by Donald, age 7

So life has had a few more downs than ups lately--the most and recent obvious one is the rather large and purplish toe on the end of my left foot. The toe that doesn't really bend--or at least without serious discomfort. The toe that is really a small part of my body, but was to have played a rather significant role in the half marathon on May 2nd. This would be the half marathon that I, rather proudly, must say, ran 11 miles on Saturday to prepare for--without collapsing. (Though with more stiffness the next day than I really care to admit). But Sunday I did an ungraceful unintentional pirouette on the stairs that has me hobbling.

So, in the middle of this painful toe thing... (Did I mention that there were more than 25 people ahead of me in line at the minor emergency clinic--and that's before priorization. I'm no fool--sprained toes are well down the priority list--it might have been Thursday before I was seen. Forget that.) Anyways, in the middle of the afternoon with this painful toe thing, as I have a half hour of time to kill, an almost empty computer battery, and some electronic marking to do, I stopped at a local KFC for a soda and an electrical outlet. I hunkered down to the grading, and then he came.

He. Donald. Age 7. Adult teeth--too big for his little mouth, and in various stages of arrival that gave him this curious, beguiling grin. He hopped up in the chair across from me and started talking. It seemed he'd driven in from the out of town for some medical appointment. While what I thought were his grandparents were ordering their food, he chatted with me--whether I wanted to or not. (I did not want to) Told me about his school (didn't like it), favorite subject (gym), and a recent field trip into Winnipeg (I didn't quite follow that one). Told me that the people were his mom and dad, not grandparents (Oops on my part). His mom grinned at him and I as she went to the table, not seeming at all surprised at Donald's choice to visit with a stranger. A while later he scampered off for his chicken and fries...freeing me to work (or so I thought). Letting me get back to the work that I so needed to get done (or so I thought).

Donald came back a few minutes later. After a few more random disclosures, he told me that his "real" mom had died when he was 2, and his "real" dad had also died in a violent tragedy, which he nonchalantly described. He couldn't remember his dad, but sorta remembered his mom. He told the tale of how CFS had placed him with his current family. Then he told me about the sister he had with this family. He wants to be a taxi driver when he grows up. He asked me some questions about my computer and my family. He showed me how a person plays badminton. The work I had to do suddenly seemed insignificant as the two of us talked openly with each other in a refreshing and innocent way, he more honest than any adult.

Suddenly, my toe seemed something to giggle about. The marathon--a minor missed opportunity that will come again. The other "downs" lately...chump change compared to the challenges little Donald has and will face. He didn't seem to be aware of the courage he had to face the day, or the pluck he demonstrated in choosing to visit with a stranger, or the matter-of-fact way he faces his life. The conversation changed from an annoying interruption to a life lesson and a new friend.

Half hour over--time to move on. I stopped by his table on my way out to greet his parents, and compliment Donald with them on his charming demeanor. And I headed out to my car. I had the engine running and was about to pull out when I saw him running up in my rear view mirror. One word, with outstretched arms: "Hug". A quick embrace, and he was gone again.

I had a fun evening gait is neither comfortable nor quick, but there was an unexpected lightness to it. Thank you, Professor Donald.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

To Think About

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
Carl Jung

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

Earth Day is a reminder to all of us to stop and realize that we are consuming the world's resources and spitting out garbage much faster than the earth can sustain. We are all in trouble, and it's getting worse fast.

I think we are a fairly earth-friendly business. Talking creates no pollution, in fact, it slows people down, helps husbands and wives connect in a low-tech, high-touch sort of way. Good old fashioned human connection--laughing, enjoying each other's company, going for a walk is "green". People who are centered and grounded are able to make wise decisions thoughtfully with discussion--as opposed to impulse decisions which piles up the "stuff" (and racks up the credit card) as an ineffective means to fill the emptiness or calm the restlessness inside. Consumption goes down as people are satisfied with who they are and are calmly able to make choices that feel good, rather than be compelled to consume, rat-race, and spin around in eco- and soul-destroying ways.

So, on this Earth Day, turn off the TV, don't drive to the video store, shut the computer, and connect, face-to-face, in a meaningful way. Enjoy life, don't consume it. Relish the moment, rather than fritter it away.

At Bergen and Associates, we try to be earth-conscious in all sorts of ways. One of the side effects of people becoming more connected with themselves and their partners, is becoming more connected and aware of our earth.

We also put our earth consciousness into action.Our clients often like to drink some water before or during the session--it's always nice to have something to hold or fiddle with when the situation is a little nervewracking--and we use these compostable cups from Eco-Products. They are a corn cup product that look and feel like plastic cups, but will compost in 8 weeks--EIGHT WEEKS!! I won't lie--they aren't cheap.

But our earth is worth it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring and New Beginnings

I love spring. It is my favoritest time of year, without a doubt. Spring is a time of new beginnings, and "firsts"...let me tell you about some.

This last week, Jennifer Heinrichs officially began providing therapy on our team. We are thrilled to have her. She comes to us from the Aurora Center, and is very highly regarded there. She will be working out of our Pembina location...starting slowly as she finishes up a few things, and then will be ramping up in a few months. She works effectively with individuals, couples and families. Those who have worked with her say she is exceptional at connecting with people, and really effective at helping clients engage with her and with the work they want to do. We're thrilled to have her on board.

Then, today I was at our new Smith Street location, getting it ready. The office, as you can see in the "before" picture to the left, was painted in a vibrant tangerine red, which while beautifully vibrant in some settings, just didn't seem conducive to therapy. The interior designer suggested a soft beige go on that wall. To say I was "concerned" about painting a light color on top of that red was understated. But the good people at Benjamin Moore put out this paint which is guaranteed to cover anything with 2 coats. The picture on the right is the "after picture" just after the first coat. Amazing coverage!! The furniture needs to be put in place, and the pictures and shelving need to be hung, but it's already looking great. The place has this urban warehouse feel to it--the far wall is good old fashioned solid brick--that feels relaxed and sophisticated all at the same time. We are going to be ready for the beginning of May, right on schedule!

After painting, I came home, realizing that despite the rain, I had better do something about the yard...I was thrilled to find the trees budding, and after the layers of leaves were raked up in the front garden, there were little tiny shoots pushing up from the ground. The barely-but-definitely-there shoots were SO exciting to see. One of my favorite sights of all time, really.

Other firsts too--first baseball throwing session (we won't talk about that too much--I'm a funny picture in trying not to close my eyes while I'm catching it--makes for fairly ineffective ball catching) and the first barbecue of the season. But mostly, the buds and shoots caught my eye. Our logo, which you see on our website is a seed growing from the mud and dirt...a metaphor for how painful and difficult relationships/ experiences provide opportunities for growth.

I'm exited about this next the earth comes alive in newness and freshness. It invigorates me to see the buds--the potential of life just waiting to happen. I'm excited about the next months at Bergen and Associates--as the potential of new therapists and a new location gives us greater potential to help people see the possibilities of new life for themselves.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Being Surprised by Joy

I woke up this morning prepared to grind through the day--an all day workshop with a meeting downtown that I needed to scramble to during the lunch break. I had a heaviness about me...a Friday that was going to be loooong (followed by an equally long Saturday at the workshop--no weekend for me).

On top of that, I forgot my cell phone and had to go back home to get it. I check my email quickly, and came upon a video. It's a delightful video where Susan Boyle, unemployed, in none-too-fashionable clothes tells Simon Cowell and the others that she wants to be a famous singer. The 47 year old self-profed never-been-kissed woman is clearly object of ridicule as people roll their eyes at her dream. They are laughing AT her...and then their jaws drop when she opens her mouth and sings in soul-shivering beauty that had tears rolling down my face. The judges admit with shame that they had prejudged unfairly, and have little trouble aknowledging that she's awesome. She's giddy with delight. The audience giggles nervously feeling foolish for having judged her.

I realized that the tears were a reflection of the joy. It was wonderful to see someone who has struggled and hasn't always felt esteem in the eyes of others succeed big. There's a part in each of us that feels vulnerable and not accepted--my inner geek felt like one of my own "made it". And if she can make it, then others can make it. If she can make it, there's hope for all of us.

So, I skipped out the door to class, an unexpected lightness in my step. The day was interesting, but I knew it would feel long--sitting for hours on end trying to take in reams of information would be exhausting. Then...another surprise...

Behind the speaker was a window. We were on the second floor...outside the window was a back lane, and 1/2 a block away at the end of the lane was a school yard. Suddenly it was flooded with children laughing and playing, running back and forth, chasing balls and each other. I couldn't hear them but I could imagine hearing the sounds of children enjoying recess. They came out at lunch and again in the afternoon. The delight of watching children enjoying the spring weather was spectacular...those times were little treats that helped the day fly by.

But the joy wasn't over yet. Tara Sheppard, one of our therapists, is going up north to present a workshop next week to workers at a women's shelter. The work at a women's shelter is hard...the stories that are heard are full of pain and trauma, the women that desire help come with huge needs, and sometimes the fear in them has them resist the very help they ask for, and the resources available are often exceeded by the need. It's tough to work at a women's shelter. One of things we wanted to do at the workshop was have the staff feel a little pampered and cared for. Care for the caregivers, y'know? Melanie, our receptionist, went out shopping to buy some supplies that would allow the women to feel a little special. The good folks at Shopper's Drug Mart caught the vision and ran with it. They gave us little samples of all sorts of things...enough for each of the staff to have little lotions, face mask stuff. COOL!! The kindness towards people they will never meet--heartwarming. I could just imagine the faces of the shelter staff next week. How neat is that!

I feel like I was the one rolling my eyes at the day, and now it has had the last laugh--the long dreary day that it was supposed to be was replaced by one that will be remembered for it's pleasures.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Different Kind of Love Song

One of the wonderful parts of my life is the chance to see couples come in and work through stuff...couples committed and in love with each other. Couples who have a connection with each other that has them decide to work on things, because not working on them is not an option.

Couples who are committed to each other
who extend grace
who receive mercy
who engage in the struggle to forgive
who pull in the same direction
who don't ask if it will work, but how it will work
who wink at the other, choosing not to scowl
who wrestle with the tough stuff, to make something good even better
who have every plan of growing old together.

Having the opportunity to witness that makes me shiver, all the way down to my toes, with joy. That why this song brings tears to my eyes.

Walking her home, by Mark Schulz

Let me know if you can watch without tearing up!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sometimes a fresh idea makes all the difference!

Allison the turtle was a turtle in trouble.

Allison, you see, only had one flipper. A shark attack had left her with three stumps. When a turtle has one flipper, there is only one option, really--circles, and more circles.

The guy, Jeff George, at the turtle refuge at South Padre Island was clear--
turtles with three flippers can get released back in the wild,
turtle with two flippers can probably make it in the turtle sanctuary


turtles with one flipper...not much hope. They are generally euthanized.

They tried prostheses with Allison--but there wasn't enought residual stump for them to work. She is a one flipper turtle...take it or leave it.

One of the young interns remembered something though. He recalled his days as a kid...rowing with one paddle in an inner tube. Think about it, use your imagination--circles, only circles. Like a one flippered turtle.

But put a kid in a canoe, and rowing with a single paddle is doable.

The difference--the length of the canoe, acting as a rudder.

This intern thought "outside the box", and let go of the prosthesis idea. He worked with a wet suit that had a rudder. They played with the positioning and size, and one day--VOILA!! Allison is a coordinated turtle that goes where she wants in the tank, feeds herself, and decides when to dive and when to surface.

She still only has one flipper.

But ...
someone with a different perspective helped her with some different possibilities. Take a look:

The interview I heard talked about how the handlers continue to marvel at how Allison has "perked up", how she revels in her mobility. She is a new turtle with her rudder--and the single fin isn't so much a problem any more. Reminded me of some moments I've had with clients, when a comment or question helped them see the issue through fresh ideas...they practically bound out of session with fresh energy, ready to tackle life in a new way. It's fun to watch...

kind of like it is fun to watch Allison.

Everyone needs some help once in a while to solve a tough situation in new ways. Ask around. Ask for help. Try a fresh idea.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Discipline and Freedom

The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating--in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

The Way I See It # 76, Anne Morriss as seen on a Starbucks cup.

I dislike paperwork. No, that's too kind. I rather despise it.

If someone had told me how much paperwork would be required to be a therapist before I started, I might have reconsidered my decision.

I dislike it so much that when I sit down because it is time to do it, I find myself looking for one more little distraction before I hunker down. Or, I look to find myself a reward that I can give myself when I get a good chunk of it done.

Hence, videogames. Just solitaire or a game of Scramble with a friend on Facebook. Twister is a good one too.

The problem was, was that I often I didn't do "just one"...I got sucked in, and spent too much time doing these games instead of getting down to the job at hand and getting it done. Then I'd be frustrated with myself when, a while later, I still didn't have my paperwork done, was no closer to the end of the day's work, and I was running short on time.

Lent is a time when one can choose to abstain from something--a time when one can become connected with sacrifice or suffering, and free up time to focus on matters spiritual. This year, I chose to give up solitaire and all manner of computer video games. I'm not under the illusion that there was any suffering happening because of it, but I did have a sacrifice--I could no longer fool myself in the way I had been.

I'm not proud to realize how often my impulse was to go to a game rather than face the task I needed to do. I was sobered to see how often I would have gone to a quick round of something rather than tuck in to the job. But I had the freedom of getting work done quicker, which allowed me the feeling of accomplishment as the tasks didn't hang over until later, and the choice to use the saved time in any number of ways. The liberation of this commitment was more remarkable than I anticipated.

This time of Lent, then, was a complex time interwoven with spiritual growth, honesty with myself over something that I had rather been fooling myself about, and the satisfaction of maintaining discipline toward a set goal achieved. I did it. Not one video game for the entire period of Lent.

Lent ended today. I still haven't played one. Tossed the idea around a couple of times I or don't I? While my commitment has ended, and my original goal achieved, I'm thinking that the advantages to maintaining my "electronic solitaire fast" outweighs the lure.

I still don't like paperwork, but recognize it as a necessary responsibility for the privilege that I'm allowed to walk with people through the most important work in their lives. If someone had told me how much paperwork would be required to be a therapist before I started, I might have reconsidered my decision.

I'm glad no one told me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cup wisdom

Seen on a Starbuck's cup (The Way I See it #198)

You can shower a child with presents or mondy, but what do they really mean, compared to the most valuable git of all--your time? Vacations and special events are nice, but so often the best moments are the spontaneous ones. Being there. Every moment you spend with your child could be the one that really matters.

Reminds me of a mom I know who asked her child what was their favorite moments of the last year. The top two answers:
1. riding bikes (last spring) to McDonald's on a Saturday morning for pancakes
2. playing Monopoly.

Presence--availability, accessibility, responsivity--is what is important to provide a child with memories of security in childhood.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Suspicious of Grace

This video is a testament to our culture:

Watch and giggle and think.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

It takes a crisis to raise a village

I was listening to someone talk about volunteering north of Winnipeg in the sandbagging efforts. She talked about what a great time she had. She specifically talked about how a group of strangers so very quickly came together to do the job, and that there was "none of the awkwardness" which so frequently arises when in a situation that you are unfamiliar with the people and surroundings. Interviews in the media have people enjoying themselves, marvelling at all the good food that others have brought, and "feeling their muscles" knowing that all the energy went to good use. They've seen exhuasted and overwhelmed people cry with relief as busloads of people come to help save their home.

I was listening to an interview with a Hutterite woman, who came with a vanfull of fellow Hutterites from an hour's drive away to help. The interviewer asked her something to the effect of, "So, what would you tell people when they might ask you about why you and the others have come from such a distance to help out when you're clearly safe, and you're helping other strangers? What would you say?" (opening the door to some profound wisdom, a mini-sermon, or a commercial of some sort for the Hutterite lifestyle) The woman said simply (in that wonderful accent she has):

"Vell, da people need help, and ve can help"

She didn't understand the question like a fish doesn't understand water.

She experiences the value of working together, the comfort found in facing adversity together, the fun and laughter of many hands tackling the problem. She knows, from the inside out, the value of community.

Pity, it takes the risk of imminent flood for the rest of us to figure this out. Even more of a pity that many of us will forget until the next crisis comes along.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Contemplating the End

I sat with a dear friend yesterday--someone who is over 80, and has many friends and family, but no direct descendants. I had my laptop on my knees, and we discussed what would happen after she died. With no children to plan the funeral, who would do what? I wanted to give her the opportunity to have input into her affairs after she no longer was around to speak to the situation.

It was an odd conversation that had moments of "the shivers"--open casket vs. closed? It also had moments of laughter--no lilies on the casket 'cuz she's allergic, and please, don't spend too much on the casket--it's just going in the ground anyway. What would she wear in the casket? Well--it depends on the time of year, y'know--have to dress for the season. And she didn't want me to write down a specific outfit just yet--because she is going to buy a nice summer outfit this season. At first--no salami at the funeral lunch--because she's never like salami--but then, she remembered, she wouldn't be there, and if others liked it, then it would probably make sense to have some with the other cold cuts. We talked about reviewing and updating her choices of songs, scripture, and so on, annually for years to come as she continues to grow and evolve as a person.

Then I started recording her life history--something that may die with her unless it is recorded. The stories of her childhood, the memories of her parents that cause her eyes to redden even now as she thinks about them. The images of her childhood scrolled through her mind as she reflected on those years. Things she hadn't thought about in a long time--things nobody has asked her about for a long time.

It was the oddest afternoon, punctuated by nervous giggles, odd comments about the surreal nature of the conversation, and huge belly laughs. There were times when it felt like we were planning a party, and other times when we contemplated life's meaning, living out values, and leaving legacies. And I left, honored by her trust, and her candidness, and her ability to handle having a conversation about death--something that is inevitable for all of us. We all deny death, somehow leave it out of conversations and our reality. She's got guts...and a sense of humor about it all.

I remember reading Robert Fulghum who talked about the value he took in sitting at his own still-empty grave plot regularly, to develop perspective, goals, and to ground himself in reality that freed a person up to live..."Don't get lost here. Know where you are going."

I'll remember our conversation yesterday. I'll remember it when I will have tears in my eyes at her funeral. And it will be an ongoing reminder to me that there is a bigger picture that I need to be aware of--it's easy to forget that when the garbage isn't taken out...AGAIN! Oh, that the perspective would free me from majoring on the insignificant things in my life that sometimes threaten to take over.

How many of us are willing to do that?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bergen and Associates is Growing

I have exciting news that I want to share. Bergen and Associates is developing a second location!

We have realized that we are outgrowing our current space, and we want to provide quality therapy services for the community that request it. It's really no fun having to send people away who are asking for help.

Beginning at the beginning of May, 2009, we will be expanding to a downtown office at 143 Smith Street.

View Larger Map
Some clients find their evenings are full with activities or family time and would like to fit counselling into their workday. A client who work downtown and would like to be able to incorporate therapy into their day can walk for a just a few minutes from their downtown office. Daytime appointments will be available between 9 and 5.

Rod Minaker, one of our therapists from our Pembina location will be working at our downtown Smith location. He's excited to be a part of the expansion, and pleased that his carbon footprint will be smaller as the downtown location enables him to take public bus.

I met with the interior designer today and we planned out the room to have a similar approach to bold soothing colors, comfy furniture, and a warm feel that will embrace the clients throughout their therapy. Clients will be able to pay by credit, debit, cash or cheque. Clients will be able to book with our administrative assistant, Melanie, or online with myself for either location. I'm really looking forward to putting the space together and I'm thrilled to be offering our services to more of Winnipeg.

A thought

Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain

May your feet find a rhythm, may your soul find the music, may your heart find the joy--no matter your situation today.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

happily married?

John Gottman, author and renowned respected scientist of attachment theory, states that people who stay married live four years longer than people who don't. Further, couples that are happily married (as evidenced by numerous scientific measurements over the course of two days and a night) show a greater proliferation of white blood cells in response to a foreign invader that those whose response to their spouse was neutral or negative. He says (I suspect only partially tongue in cheek) that if people spent a portion of their time working on their marriage instead of the StairMaster that they would get more health benefits.

Gottman's research is solid and based on research involving thousands of couples. He states with confidence that he can predict whether a couple will divorce by watching and listening to them interact with each other for 5 minutes.
These aren't couples who don't fight--rather they are couples who are able to understand, honor and respect each other and their marriage.
They aren't couples who don't make mistakes, but they are couples who know how to fix them.
They aren't couples who don't ever get mad, but they are individuals who can take responsibility for their behavior and work to actively repair the relationship.
They aren't couples who don't yell at each other, but they are couples who are able to sustain a connection, and continue to give signs of wanting to continue value and continue the relationship.
Couples with positive marriages are ones where the spouses are good friends with each other, who can extend and receive "repair attempts" which prevent negativity from spiralling out of control.

Gottman says the slide down towards destruction starts with criticism, moves to contempt, progresses to defensiveness and eventually gets to stonewalling.

Marriage counselling doesn't teach communication--men and women come to counselling knowing how to talk. Marriage counselling works at the connection--helping people find ways to reestablish between each other, and to find ways to be able to offer and accept it when the negativity puts people in places where they don't trust the other's intentions as safe and loving.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Water water everywhere--musings of a therapist

Like much of the rest of the city, I have become one of those people who rushes to the basement on first entering my house. I feel just slightly closer to my ancestors who were farmers...I grew up hearing people talk about going to take a walk around the land, or check out the I find myself getting my rubber boots and jacket on and grabbing my flashlight for one last loop around the yard to check out my land.

It's frozen over now, and so we've a bit a repreive here, but for several days, I and my kin spent a chunk of every day chopping (yup, got out the axe) passages in the ice piled high to create a little path for the water to escape to the lower parts away from the house--the city sewers. Before that, we were shovelling the water over the banks. The shovelling worked for a few days when it first started to melt, but on the weekend, the rising waters made shovelling seem rather like trying to empty a bathtub with a spoon. That is to say, somewhat effective, but not efficient.

There was a significant level of satisfaction to create the path in the ice bank to the street...though, it didn't come immediately. We worked for probably half an hour without a drop being drained, chopping, clearing, scraping over and over. Even at first, we weren't sure how much water would actually leave.

Two days later, what we had come to know as "Lake Bergen" in front of the house, had significantly reduced in size, due to the human made "River Bergen" which, over the course of time, made itself wider and wider, and more effective at draining the water.

Seems to me that life can be like that. Clients come telling us how very hard they work at a situation--lots of effort, but are concerned or even terrified at the lack of significant movement on the issue. Hearing oneself talk about it, getting another perspective, processing the issue through a different lens and looking at it, with the support of another in a fresh way potentially allows the way for a whole different strategy.

Often, after a first session, it's a little like the axe is starting to create the path, but nothing can drain yet...that's when a skeptic can say, "See, I knew this counselling thing was pointless...what good can talking about it do?"

But the fun starts when new understanding comes, new strategies start being used in neat ways...and then the water starts flowing. Clients come in saying, "I came for help in one area, but I'm loving what is happening in another area in my life that I haven't even talked about"...the path becomes wider, and things happen, even without deliberate effort.

--An example of what happens in a therapist's mind when spending time with puddles and ice for hours.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Working to Escape Life?

The Winnipeg Free Press had a fascinating article yesterday that stated:
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Kellogg's instituted a six-hour workday in its plants to take up the slack of too many people and not enough jobs, he says. Within two years, workers were accomplishing as much in six hours as they had in eight because they were less tired and more efficient, he says, and the policy was so popular -- even with its accompanying wage reduction -- that remnants lasted into the 1980s.

This fit with my experience, that when people feel good about their lives, they are more able to be productive. However, the extent to which that impacts on work performance and the length of time Kellogg's held on to parts of that in a culture that pushes for longer hours still surprised me.

The end of the article was enough to make a therapist stop and notice:

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, work hours declined dramatically in industrialized Western nations, he says, with one scholar in the 1930s offering the sunny prediction that people would be working just three hours a day by the 1980s.

Then consumerism kicked in, Hunnicutt says, encouraging consumption and discouraging leisure in order to pay for it. Now, he believes our identities are so entwined with our work that leisure time is seen as a frill or worse -- a daunting stretch of nothingness that forces us to face uncomfortable questions about who we are when we're not yoked to our jobs.

"The security of work gives us that meaning, that identity," he says.[bolded words my emphasis]

Something to think about...working hard as a way to manage anxiety about identify. One doesn't have to wrestle with who one is. One doesn't have to wonder so much about what one's values could be (to figure out how to use leisure time consistent with those values). One can then fill endless empty hours that would otherwise be filled with television, movies or video games, which for most begin to seem empty after a while.

The article suggests that the recession has people examine thing they otherwise would not--leisure and work balance, for example. Shame that it takes something as radical as a recession to create the conditions to allow that to happen.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Have you seen this video?

I saw it for the first time on Friday. It's got it's cute moments, but look for the patterns and the way one part plays off the next part. There is a sort of rhythm, almost predictability to the argument--the husband and wife are dancing to the rhythm of the music.

During couple therapy, the therapist listens and watches for the learn the steps and the intentions behind the moves of each as well at the attributed meanings of the moves by the other. While a fight to Beethoven's fifth symphony seems more of an old-time sketch, there is some profoundness to it. Underlying factors drives behavior--often in ways we have no conscious awareness of...the music is inaudible but powerful as it choreographs the conflict in the relationship. A therapist seeks to discover the tune and release the couple from it's beat to allow them to relate to each other in freeing and present ways.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Before it's too late

I was at a workshop today on couple therapy.

One of the topics that came up was the reluctance of one partner to hear the other spouse's pain...and do something about it.

A therapist mentioned the painful picture of having a couple come into therapy after one spouse says: "Enough". Enough of the distance, enough of trying to make the partner hear of the loneliness. Enough of pleading, trying to make something happen. The exhausted, burned out spouse says: "Enough. I'm not doing this any more. I'm done." And means it.

Suddenly the partner hears it, and understands the seriousness of it. The partner "gets it"--big time. Kicks into gear, books the counselling appointment, and in horror and shock at facing the death of a marriage, begins to plead for the marriage. Comes home from work on time. Fixes the things that have been on the "to do list" for months. Actively participates in childcare, shows up at games--all the things that have been complained about for years. The imminence of divorce propels action in frenetic ways.

Only it's too late. When "enough" was said, it was too late. The last chances were already offered and pulled off the table.

When one therapist said this, there were sad smiles of knowing all around the room. We've all seen these couples. The sad part is when it happens, the spouse that wasn't accessible and responsive really is sincere about wanting to make the marriage work (and has wanted to be married all along). Statistically, this spouse is most often male. The distancing isn't about being a's about the challenge of being intimate with someone in a culture that ridicules it and makes it difficult, it's about pulling away from someone who makes you feel like you are never enough and can never measure up. It's turning away from something you feel lousy at, to move towards an area where you have competence--like your job or the hockey team. So often, these men value and love their wives, and want a good marriage, but don't know how, and they pull away from the uncomfortable feelings...

...and don't realize that this results in pulling away from your life's love in ways that seem intolerable to her.

If your wife emails this post to you, or calls you over to read it while she's surfing's not too late. Listen to her (or him if it is your husband that wants you to know this). "Get it" now. Hear how desperate your spouse is to connect with you in a meaningful way, and dare to figure out how to make this work for both of you

...before it's too late.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Struggling with Self Esteem

It was cold--really cold--outside yesterday. Although this time of year I'd rather be running outside, it just didn't seem realistic that I would actually get my body outside in the frigid temperatures, so to the indoor track I went. I musta looked might goofy giggling to myself as I ran around on my own around the track...the latest story about Dave going to the dentist on the Vinyl Cafe podcast made it difficult to run in a straight line at a few points.

The story was over before my run was, so I then chose to listen to a podcast of an interview Mary Hynes did with Anne Lamott. It was quite interesting...Anne is an accomplished author of a dozen or so best selling books. She has some interesting insights (e.g. "The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty") which she talks about in refreshingly candid ways.

She is open about her low self esteem and the struggle, despite repeatedly writing best sellers, that she has when she sits down to write. She has trouble believing that she can possibly write anything that anybody might want to read--she doesn't believe in herself. She talked about the little stickie she has on her computer that tells her to just get something down. It's a small way of comforting herself that it doesn't have to be great, or even good--an initial draft just has to start somewhere. That releases her from the endless excuses that can arise (e.g. I must call the periodontist for an appointment next month before I sit down to write a word) that alleviates the anxiety that comes along with not believing in oneself.

I'm not sure how someone who doesn't believe in herself dares to be so open with others about that fact (most people who struggle with self-esteem hide that fact, often quite effectively--leaving another to feel that this is a uniquely awful and lonely position to be in), but it is an interesting listen to hear her talk about her struggle so candidly.

One last strategy she is familiar with using to cope with who she is and her place in the world: three prayers, very simple ones.
One in the morning that says, "Whatever", releasing her expections and opening herself up to possibilities.
One at the end of the day that consists of "Oh well", confessing the shortcomings of herself and others, and releasing them.
One to be used periodically during the day: "Oh, WOW!" as one looks and finds moments of beauty and wonder.

She is an advocate of simple...this holds promise for us all.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Transforming Destructive into Constructive

Anger Management is a cultural cliche in our society, where suggesting it is a way of chiding a person and often, hearing someone has taken it is the source of a joke. Hollywood has had all sorts of fun with "Anger Managment" in various ways.

TDC is our anger management program. We've been running it for just over a year now--two Friday afternoons of three hours for a total of 6 hours. Rod Minaker is a therapist that has developed our program based on a well established understanding of what a person benefits from exploring as part of managing anger more effectively.

Rod just recently finished a session of anger management. When asked on the feedback forms, "How would you describe this course to a friend?" the answers were:

"Life changing. Amazing. My own little secret"
"Would advise them to experience it!"
"Very useful, Related to everything"
There is something quite wonderful about working with people who facilitate growth in people to allow them to have reactions like that. Thanx, Rod.

There is something quite wonderful knowing that in even 6 hours, people can learn about themselves, feeling able to "control my feelings before it escalates", "believe in myself", "like myself", find ways of "letting things go", "moving foward" . Thanx, clients, for taking a chance and allowing TDC to affect your soul in ways that can help you grow. We appreciate the honor of walking alongside you.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lessons from a Bathtub Drain

I took a shower today, and with immense satisfaction noted that immediately after I turned the water off, the tub was glistening empty. Normally, that's not something that most people take great pride in. But I have reason to be proud.

I have long hair. (These next couple of paragraphs may not be for the squeamish). So, when I wash it, inevitably, hairs are shed, and make their way towards the drain. Some time ago, the water was increasingly slow to drain...recognizing the hair issue, I would unscrew the plug and with tweezer, pull this disgusting blob of hairy yuck up and throw it away.

And things would get sorta better. For a while.

And then it would happen again.

So I would make a deliberate effort to clean out from under the plug regularly. Regular maintenance and effort, I thought would cure the problem.

I thought wrong.

It's an unfortunate thing, really, when the tub doesn't drain quickly...when the water sits in the tub for a while, soap scum and whatever else builds up around the tub (I told you this part wasn't for the faint of heart). Not being someone who has the time or energy to give the tub a full scrub after anybody in the household showered, I took to keeping the shower curtain closed to hide the ugly effect.

Oh, yeah, that hides it, but doesn't really fix it. I know, I know...but I had to do something. Hiding seemed a reasonable option.

The problem began to get rather ridiculous, and I realized that my under the plug maintenance was important, but no longer significantly effective...the problem clearly lay deeper. (OK, right about now, you can probably start catching that this is a metaphor--I'm a therapist--give me a break!)

So, I brought out the "big guns". I used some Drano...not a lot, 'cuz I have a sneaking suspicion that this stuff is toxic to wherever it ends up. And then after that was flushed away, I plunged. Several times. I was thorough, cuz I wanted this thing to drain properly.

It worked.

I still occasionally clear out the just-under-the-plug gucky stuff, but generally the whole thing drains like a charm.

Oh, and I'm not embarrassed when the shower curtain is open. Feels great.

As I was standing there admiring the draining qualities of my tub today, I had pause to think about my clients who come in, confused with why something has bothered them so much. They are clearly distressed by something upsetting, but even in the midst of it, it seems out of proportion to what is happening.

Therapy helps a person connect with and make sense of the deeper issues that get bumped and reinjured with a current assault of some kind. A misunderstanding at work triggers huge uncertainty about one's value, and triggers feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, and failure. One might fear getting fired, and lose sleep at the same time recognizing that the boss is making comments that suggest your continued overall positive contribution to the company.

Counselling can allow a client to explore, with the assistance of skilled counsellor to provide knowledgeable support and facilitation, the understanding of the deeper wounds that activate those powerful feelings. Once those are understood, a therapist can help a person to transform and heal those wounded parts and release the power that they have over a person. A person has the innate ability to do this, but having someone join for the journey provides added understanding and insight. It's a privelege to watch someone transform their anxiety over a great number of things to being able to giver themselves powerful postive messages that are genuinely meaningful and be able to feel truly notice that which evokes anxious feelings and to have a completely different perspective which allows that anxiety to feel less intense and not hijack a person's experience.

How well is the water draining in the drain of your life? Want some help with flushing it clear?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Years ago I happened to be at the school yard in the morning on the first day of school in September. The bell had rung about 5 minutes before...the excitement of the first day of school that had the hard top vibrating only a short time ago was now in the school. However, the fire alarm rang. Suddenly the playground was unexpectedly flooded with people again. Not being a teacher or involved directly at the school, I pulled off to the side to get out of the way. On one end of the school yard was utter chaos...the children in the lower grades were, well, to put it politely, chaotic. Actually, many were completely losing it.

I'm not sure if it was grief that the school would burn down before they had a chance to even experience 1st grade, or if it was terror from what that very loud sound was, and wondering about their personal safety. The first grade teachers--well, they weren't doing so well either...they couldn't line the children up to do a head count, and there was this sense of hopelessness that the class lists in their hand were virtually useless because there hadn't even been an opportunity for the teachers to learn the students' names--if someone was missing, how would they ever figure out who?

The other side of the school yard, where the bigger children were, was completely different. They were more or less organized--they knew about fire alarms and knew that every alarm they had ever known was a false alarm. They were more or less in line, cuz they literally, "knew the drill". Of course, they saw this as an opportunity for an extra 15 minutes of summer vacation--they were laughing and joking--quite content to visit for as long as they could before they filed past.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a condition that follows the experiencing of something that is traumatic to a person. We are all unique, and so 2 people could be in the same car accident, with one person experiencing the event as traumatic and the other being nonplussed by the event.

Usually within 3 months, but sometimes much (even decades) later the symptoms of PTSD begin to appear...there is an intrusive reexperiencing of the event. This might be in nightmares, or with uninvited thoughts during the day. It might be when the situation is similar (e.g. walking down a sidewalk when robbed while walking home from work), or during an anniversary (e.g. having trouble at a certain time of year, or day, or time of day similar to the original trauma). This is disturbing, even alarming--and can be so distressing that a person can begin to avoid certain situations that might trigger that reexperiencing. At times, the reaction can appear out of proportion to the trigger. For example, a person who has been choked with rope may get agitated even seeing someone with a scarf around the neck. There is sometimes a "hypervigilance" where the sufferer becomes a detective waiting and watching and expecting the trauma to reoccur. Often a PSTD sufferer will say that their head knows it's safe, but their body doesn't get the message (e.g. a person who was assaulted in a high risk country with significant security issues still anticipates being "jumped" while walking down a Winnipeg street)

The person can become disengaged with people around them, as the inner feelings of fear are hugely distracting and managing them takes an enormous amount of energy. They may "put up a wall" to avoid being affected by triggers. They may pull away so as not to have others affected by their symptoms which feel so overwhelming.

Sleep is often affected. A person can have difficulty focusing, or concentrating. Other reactions can happen as well...increased irritability, impulsiveness, guilt, altered appetite, accompanying depression.

Therapy can be helpful to help work through the trauma of the experience and work to have a client understand their body's reactions and what they can do about it. Over time, the traumatic reexperiencing and other symptoms of PTSD can diminish. Part of this process is understanding bodily sensations of PTSD and knowing how to handle them...

In essence, one of the goals of treatment for PTSD is to help a person handle the re-experiencing like a grade 6 kid, and not a grade 1 kid at an unexpected fire drill. In both cases, there is an automatic complete response--filing out and waiting on the school yard, but the older kids are able to understand what it means and what to do with it in such a way that they can handle the reaction much more effectively.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Walking Wounded

I was having a conversation today about the news story of Stephen and Isabelle Allison, a young couple moving to Winnipeg with big dreams and ambitions. They happened to sit towards the rear of a certain Greyhound bus last summer and their move to Winnipeg hasn't been anything like they expected. They witnessed the brutal killing of a man, imprinted with images that have been indelibly printed like photographs in their brain...perhaps still frames of images with the color red appearing starker than the rest of the frame. The feeling in the pit of their stomach, vaguer now, but reminding them of the terror that immobilized Isabelle, watching the horror, and anticipating her own death as she witnessed unspeakable brutality.

Neither Stephen and Isabelle are doing what they set out to do in Winnipeg. They are the walking wounded, not able to concentrate sufficiently to take courses, not able to maintain normal routines that jobs require, and struggling with finding meaning, purpose and safety as they endeavor to move on.

The interview with the couple states they received compensation to cover their material losses, and six sessions of counselling. Six.


The woman I had the conversation said, "If one of them would have had even one slash on part of their body, on a leg maybe, then they would have gotten so much more care and attention. A physical cut would have received extensive treatment. But the wounds they have are so very real...but invisible...and so they are not recognized and not treated."

The conversation perked my ears up...I got an email yesterday about a videoconference happening today out of the University of California at San Francisco by the PainCARE center on, "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Pain". I couldn't watch the conference as I wasn't near a viewing site, but I found some of its promotional information compelling:

In recent studies:
· 51% of patients with chronic low back pain exhibited symptoms of PTSD
· 50% of patients experiencing chronic pain after motor vehicle accidents showed evidence of PTSD
· Nearly 50% of women with chronic pelvic pain reported a history of sexual or physical abuse with roughly 1 in 3 of those screening positively for PTSD
· Psychiatric casualties from soldiers serving in Iraq were estimated at 300,000 as of November 2007, a significant number of whom also currently have chronic pain
· Patients with chronic pain, IBS, depression, and anxiety disorder in one urban, hospital-based primary care practice accounted for more than 90% of all cases of PTSD
· In this same urban primary care practice, 25% of patients met the criteria for current PTSD, yet only 11% were identified correctly in the medical record.
The numbers are staggering and should concern us all – regardless of our respective areas of practice.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a significant factor that is often overlooked as we look to understand what a person is struggling with. Physical problems like pain in the joints, muscles, headaches, bowel pain are connected to PTSD. Emotional problems of anxiety and depression result from unresolved trauma in a person's life. Relational problems develop as the symptoms of PTSD ripple throughout the relaltionships in a person's life.

I had coffee with a friend this morning who was in a serious car accident..she walked away from the accident, but the car was demolished. She finds herself anticipating disaster, bracing herself at intersections for another collision, and now has less reserve for the normal ups and downs of her life...small things are irritating and potentially overwhelming, she's tired, and finds herself noticing things and dreading some things in ways she is not familiar with. Her doctor diagnosed her with PTSD--this was a relief because she had understanding for what was happening in her body and mind.

I read an article reviewing the research on pain and PSTD in the Psychotherapy Networker the other day (it was an October issue, but better late than never, right?!), recommending sincere and effective collaboration between physicians and therapists to work in their areas of expertise to help people with that which they struggle:
Cummings estimates that at least 60 percent of physicians' patients seek treatment for conditions with major psychological components, such as stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, digestive difficulties, eating disorders, nausea, headaches, and certain kinds of arthritis, that are usually more treatable with therapy than medications. Physicians are so eager for the kind of help therapists can provide that therapists who've integrated themselves into medical settings get substantial boosts in their caseloads and incomes.
While physical symptoms need good medical care, they may also need good psychological care. And with trauma of the magnitude of Stephen and Isabelle Allison, psychological treatment will need to be more than lip service. Six sessions--that's lip service.

More on PTSD in a couple of days.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I love you

Being a therapist, I find ways to expose myself to different ideas, so my home page on firefox has a variety of news feeds and quoteable quotes.. This one caught my eye:

I love you.
It's not a weight you must carry around.
I love you.
It's not a box that holds you in.
I love you.
It's not a standard you have to bear.
I love you.
It's not a sacrifice I make.
I love you.
It's not a pedestal you are frozen upon.
I love you.
It's not an expectation of perfection.
I love you.
It's not my life's whole purpose (or your's).
I love you.
It's not to make you change.
I love you.
It's not even to make you love me.
I love you.
It's as pure and simple as that. Anonymous

It struck me as significant because so often there is an agenda to loving someone--and that is accompanied by feelings of disappointment, anger and betrayal when someone doesn't deliver the (hidden) expectations. So often, a person isn't even aware of these expectations--they catch both by surprise.

Love lavishly, freely, joyfully.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

In Praise of Gangs

There's been talk in the news lately about money in the government budget to fight gangs. Gangs are seen as the source of much crime including the proliferation of drugs, financial crime with money laundering, and violent crimes against each other, where innocents can get caught in the crossfire.

I'm all about reducing crimes, but I'm "pro gang". I don't think we can get rid of gangs. We all have a built in desire to belong, to have people who consider us their "homey", to go where you are accepted, respected, and cared for. I realize that gangs are dangerous places...but they can also be safe places--they endeavor to take care of their own--we are created to want to belong.

My kids are involved in gangs. The gang leaders encourage them to shoot, to drive hard, and to not give up in the pursuit of their goals. They are told to hit, and are given techniques to do so. They learn defensive strategies to protect their territory. The gang leader yells at them to go harder, push more. Their fellow gang members egg 'em on--encourage 'em, and go nuts when they get a good steal, or block somebody.

I love it, and I love the lessons they are being taught.

Their gang leaders, you see, are coaches. And their "gang" is centered around basketball or volleyball (depending on the season).

I was sitting behind a coach yesterday. Overheard:
Coach: Sit down guys. It's respectful to let others see. You don't sit now, you don't play later. I mean it.
Coach: Hey, boy. Gonna offer me some of your chips?
Boy who is eating potato chips: Ummm...yeah. Sure. You want some?
Coach: No, I don't. But I appreciate being asked.
Boy (vaguely confused): You sure you don't want some chips?
Coach: Nope. Really--offering is consideration and respect--part of being a team. How's school goin'?
Boy: OK
Coach: Good. How's your grades?
Boy: They're OK too. Science is hard, man. The teacher--I just don't get it sometimes when he talks.
Coach: You gotta work for it, man. Hey...Billy gonna try out for the team next year?
Boy: Think so. He wants to play.
Coach: Hope so. Hope he wants it bad. He's gonna have to work hard y'know. We don't let no lazy guys make the team.
...and on they go.

This is a gang any parent would be proud of to have their child belong.

Not every kid is a sports kid. Bands can be gangs. So can dance classes, youth groups, chess clubs, photography group, drop in centres and so on. Families can be gangs--a place where it's hip to belong; where a kid feels safe and accepted and welcomed; where a kid knows that someone's got his back.

My kids are gang members...and they are turning from good young men into better young men for it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Respect by bullying?

An odd thought, right? Maybe even repulsive?

Christopher Nolan, a renowned Irish author, died last week. Christopher wasn't just any author...he had to write because, he said, "my mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed; my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down into my lap."

Christopher wrote his books with his head...literally. He had a band around his head that had a pointer coming out of it, like a mosquito's stinger, and his mother held his chin while he would enter letters on a typewriter. Painstaking work. He had severe cerebral palsy from oxygen deprivation at birth...unable to move or speak, except for some limited neck movement. Oh...and apparently, incredibly expressive eyes.

He was brilliant, and won major awards for authors.

What engaged me about Christopher was the attitude he and his family had about his disability..."My folk are grand, when it comes to helping a fellow in a fix. They stood by me, never pushed me, never asked anything of me, never became too protective of me and, most of all, they accepted me just as though I was able-bodied."

And then the line I loved the best, "I was wanted dearly, loved dearly, bullied fairly, and treated normally". His sister can recount amusing childhood squabbles that details the normal sibling rivalry, which apparently, his mother dealt with as any mother does. Christy, as his family called him, loved being treated as a normal kid.

While his parents accomodated his disability--his parents read to him of the great writers for hours on end as a child, they didn't pity him.

It reminds me of times when I have heard clients express relief that their boss yelled at them again after a death in the family, rather than tip toeing around mediocre work--life was back to normal. Or a husband snaps at his wife when she is late, after months of over accomodating her because of guilt for her finding pornographic pictures in his computer--and they both smile with relief...that their relationship has reached a level of healing that can support honest reactions.

Usually, getting bullied, hit, or criticized hurts. Once in a while, it is celebrated because it means you are one of the gang, accepted, normal, and respected as being able to hack it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An End Run on Anxiety

It seems like man's best friend is also a kid-who-is-struggling-to-read's best friend, too.

I heard an interview today with someone from the Humane Society describing a program where dogs help kids learn to read.

I perked my ears up when I heard this...cuz dogs can't read!

The guy says, "It's hard for some kids to read to grown ups or even to other kids. But it's not threatening to read to dogs".

Apparently, they give a dozen kids at a time a chance to come to the Humane Society a coupla times a week for 8 weeks to read to volunteer dogs who come by to be read to.

Sounds hokey right? Not so much, actually.

The results are amazing...some kids increase a grade level in reading.

The more he spoke about it, the more I could imagine how a dog, who will wag his tail with all efforts, and will provide the unconditional positive regard to the child no matter what lowers the risk and increases the safety for the child. When the child is less nervous, performance improves as all the energy can be directed productively towards the reading, without all the static that anxiety creates inside a person.

I love the creativity of this strategy to learning to read...finding novel (pun intended!) ways to help a student focus on the learning task, and not be distracted by the pressure of performance anxiety. Who woulda thunk that dogs could help kids read?

Might be a lesson there somewhere for all the grownups who are feeling the pressure...recession is raising our blood pressure.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


The issue of forgiveness is big in the counselling business.

To say that some of our clients have been a little hurt is like saying the pope is a little Catholic. There are times when an important part of what I do is bear witness as a human being to the horrors of allow a person to speak out loud the terror, agony, and excruciating pain rendered at the hands, voice, or actions of another.

When I talk about it with people, the topic of forgiveness is not a hypothetical one that is up for debate in some ethical or theological discussion. It is a rubber-hits-the-road issue that has to be dealt with.

Some thoughts about forgiveness, from The Shack (this is the last time I write about the book--promise). It was a fresh experiential take on the topic that gave some helpful insights.

"Forgiveness is not about forgetting...It is about letting go of another person's throat"

"Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive; that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly."

"...forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established"

"....but should they confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation"

"...forgiveness does not excuse anything. Believe me, the last thing this man is, is free"

"It was wrong and anger is right response to something that is so wrong. But don't let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck"

Important distinction:
Forgiveness is free and freeing.
Trust is earned.

A slow fade

I was recently at a water of those fun ones with water spurting out of all sorts of places, hoses to spray, slides to slurp down on, and a lazy river to float on. There was a large bucket at the top of one of the roofs of the play structure and I would look on it for several minutes at time. At first nothing happened as it would fill with water--it was a laaaaarge bucket, and so nothing happened for what seemed like a long time.

And then, almost imperceptibly, it would start to tile
just barely
to the side.

and if one watched very carefully, one could see
a very gradual
increase to the tilt.

and if one continued to watch,
for longer
the tile would increase
and the rate would get faster

and, all of a sudden,
the bucket would rapidly tilt,
and the large bucket would dump
A LOT of water
on whomever was below.

Quite a lot of fun to watch new unsuspecting water park patrons get doused.

The slow filling, slow tilting and sudden dumping of this bucket was rather mesmerizing for some people (including me).

As a therapist, I am plagued with seeing metaphors in life...and this was a powerful one. I work with clients who
are horrified to find themselves "suddenly" in a very difficult place in a marriage,
are reeling from being caught in a longstanding behavior that they've always struggled and been ashamed of themselves
are kicking themselves for neglecting a relationship with a child because of all the many times when "just this once" they needed to attend to something else that felt like it needed to take priority

It reminded me of a song I've heard by Casting Crowns, "It's a Slow Fade", some of which goes like this:
It's a slow fade when black and white have turned to gray
Thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid
When you give yourself away
People never crumble in a day
It's a slow fade

Reminds me of the principle of "presence"...being aware in the moment of what is happening at all levels inside of you and in your environment. It's so easy to "give in" to something when it is dissonant with our values and with what we want, as we mindlessly do what is easy instead of what is valued. And the song is right...a price is paid.

The bucket dumps all at once...but it fills slowly. Are you aware of, and do you approve of what is going in the bucket of you?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Aretha Franklin spelled these letters in a song that most of us can hear in our heads just as we spell the letters ourselves. While these words are often associated with deference given to authority, or something you have to provide to those who are older, wiser, stronger, or more intimidating, I think of respect differently.

"Respect is love in plain clothes." Frankie Byrne

I love that quote. Respect as a way of relating to people around you all the time in a non-flashy, understated but important way. Respect as a way to love. That a way of loving is respect. That occurs to me sometimes when a sarcastic comment is on the tip of my tongue as one of my kids didn't do something as requested.

One of the ways to love is to resist that subtle (or not so sublte!) disrespect that can come so easily when you're irritated with a loved one.

May your love disguised in the plain clothes of respect today.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Brokenness, not Selfishness

This post might not make sense unless you read yesterday's post. In it, I talked about how a person can see that they are "giving" to people in a self destructive way and don't understand it. I suggested that underneath that there is another level in which the giving behavior really serves a purpose to the self. That in some way, it is an adaptive strategy to protect, preserve or build up him/herself.

Please don't jump to the conclusion that I believe that selfless acts are really closeted selfish acts.

A while ago, I had water in my basement. A friend came over and spent about 90 minutes trying this and that, looking in the ceiling about which pipes came from where, had me turn on and off various taps at various times. Then he spent about 15 minutes replacing a short piece of pipe and after the mopping up, the problem was resolved and the water was gone.

Understanding the source of the leak led to the ability to develop the right strategy to fix the pipe. He had to find the place where it was broken to most effectively fix it.

The strategies a person develops to get through life feeling OK about oneself, like altruism-to-the-point-of-damage, are designed to help a person cope with another part of themselves that needs that support...what counselling does is help a person get to know the part that needs support and understand what is going on.

It is then that adaptive strategies can be found to meet the needs of the brokenness of that part in such a way that it feels good to the person--and that usually helps the people around the person as well.

It's not about blaming or finding fault, it's about understanding the inner dynamics of a person and using that information to grow in life-giving ways.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Look Deeper for Understanding

I work with a lot of wonderful people--people I admire and learn from. People who teach me about themselves and about life, and as I tell them about what they have taught me, they also learn.

Often people come to me asking with curiosity--actually, by the time they are talking to me about it, is isn't curiosity, but frustration at a level that is about to blow up big time--but they talk to me about their pattern of taking care of others. They find themselves doing almost anything not to hurt anyone--which may include of hiding a mountain of their own feelings, or going to a lot of extra work to pretend to enjoy something which they don't want to do, or any number of other difficult things. Or they help others--being "helicopter parents"--hovering over their children in exhausting ways (and then bitter when the children aren't as appreciative as desired). Or they bake a cake for everyone's birthday at the office, or bring casseroles to anybody who's lost a family member, or ____(maybe you can fill in the blank).

Now, I'm all about making a positive difference in the world, but this kind of taking care of others is a sort of compulsion, an exhausting routine that feels rather like a hamster on a wheel that can't stop. This isn't sustainable--except somehow it has been.

Almost invariably, behavior that is very "other focused" in an exhausting, life-sucking way, is done to protect and preserve looks like it is for others, but it works to help a part of you that needs something from helping others.

-Like making sure that nobody is ever angry with you, because you can't stand disapproval from others in a way that makes you go to enormous lengths to ensure you never hurt anybody's feelings. (Imagine how tricky that is when you have people who can misinterpret and be hurt despite your best intentions!)

-Like helping others lots and lots, so that they will give you lots of messages that you are special and loved--because you need a regular current infusion of them to assure the ugly parts that feel unlovable inside of you that they can make it another day without being crushed.

-Like letting others take advantage of you and "walk all over" you, because to stand up for yourself means that you might lose the people in your life who are there because of all the benefits of taking advantage of you...and the rejected and lost and ugly parts inside of you would have all the reinforcement that you are an unlovable person.

Hit a little close to home? I think there is some of the above in all of us. Brings up the question of, "If a good thing is done for an unhealthy reason, then is it a really good thing?"

But that question is for another day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Another Shack nugget

One more quote from The Shack, about a man and his wife:

"He says she saved his life and paid a high price to do it. For some reason, beyond understanding, she seems to love him now more than ever, even though I get the sense that he hurt her something fierce in the early years. I suppose that since most of our hurts come through relationships so will our healing, and I know that grace rarely makes sense for those looking in from the outside." (italics mine)

Love that line. Grace is such a mystery, such a gift. The extending of it, by definition, undeserved. I have seen grace extended in sessions from one family to another...and it is indeed holy. Doesn't always make sense from the outside, but it pulls my heart powerfully to gaze at the unusual beauty of it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

His face loses emotion like a tide going out...

A number of clients have referred to the book The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young over the last several months as they seek to uncover how to understand relating to God in a world where so much pain hurts so many in such deep ways. Often people have a chance to connect with ideas that seem elusive or parts of themselves they can't quite reach with the help of a book or movie, and so I like to know what is "scratching where people itch".

It seemed like a good idea to read it, and after a friend finished reading the copy she borrowed, she then passed it on to me.

While I haven't gotten very far into the book, there are a couple of passages that speak the heart of things that should be understood. Like this one, describing the protagonist's father:

"Although externally religious, his overly strict church-elder father wa a closet drinker, especially when the rain didn't come, or came too early, and most of the times in between. Mack never talks much about him, but when he does his face loses emotion like a tide going out, leaving dark and lifeless eyes." (italics added)

I've seen those eyes in some of the people who choose reach out for help with us and say, "No more". As they decide that living the way they are is intolerable and they will risk exploring alternatives, and ask someone to come alongside to find ways to stop the dark and lifeless feeling from hijacking their lives.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


I watched a video this morning during a workshop I was attending that was about leadership and group/team development...the video followed a pair of runners during the race. One of the fellows was clearly blind. The other was sighted. Both were clearly trained and seasoned runners.

They ran a race...not a road race, but a trail one...hills, trees, narrow paths, tree roots, steep hills to slide down--a long rugged trail. It was amazing.

On smoother, wider paths, the blind guy would hold onto the elbow of the sighted one, half a step back. On steep "ups" the blind guy would go ahead, and the sighted one would call out constant instructions. On narrow downward slopes the sighted guy would go ahead, and the blind fellow would hold onto both elbows directly behind.

All the while, the sighted one is calling out instructions to passersby as all share the trail..."Pass on the left" etc. There are various times when each are egging each other on--in shorthand (they are, after all, pushing themselves hard physically)--"GO, GO, GO, GO"

One time, the blind guy (he must have a name, but we never find that out), says in the middle of this beautiful nature trail, "What's it look like". The guy who can see, says: "It's beautiful. You should see it."

The video is matter-of-fact, no explanations, no music--only two guys running among many other people. It brought tears to my eyes though--the commitment they had to each other. The blind runner had on knee pads and work gloves--recognition of the injuries he risks as he goes, and goes hard. Put a blind fold on me, and I'm not running hard on a narrow trail in the middle of a forest--NO WAY. The trust he placed in his partner was beautiful.

The actions of the sighted runner were also profound. He never stopped calling out what the next 5 feet held in the journey...he was running hard and kept up constant chatter. He looked out for his partner and helped other runners learn how to pass effectively and safely. He accomodated for his sightless partner's lack of vision completely, but respected him too much to cut him an ounce of slack...he pushed him hard the whole way to keep up the pace.

What made the movie beautiful was the partnership these two had, to allow one to accomplish what would be otherwise impossible. They had different roles, and completed their roles well in tandem with the other person. They accomodated for the disability of one, without pity, condescension or compromise. The focus wasn't on the problem, it was on the race.

And it was accomplished.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Grace is Hard Work

"We are told that people stay in love because of chemistry, or because they remain intrigued with each other, because of many kindnesses, because of luck. But part of it has got to be forgiveness and gratefulness." Ellen Goodman

I saw a couple lately, deeply in love, new again in love, after decades of marriage. It's a perk of my job as a therapist that I get "the inside track" on really cool people with wonderful stories that inspire me personally.

Love that has lasted decades doesn't happen by magic. It is a product of years of hard work, times of "hangin' in there" even when it would be easier in the short term to bail. It happens because each of the couple is secure enough in who they are, and able to have inner resources to extend grace and understanding without being reactionary or inflammatory...or asking for forgiveness when this (inevitably, at times) occurs.

I often ask young couples, when they come in for help, "How do you know what you want? Who has what you are looking for? Who have you watched and learned from, so that you know how you want to be as a couple?"
The answer is important...some couples have trouble coming up with a time or a couple where they have seen it. Others have numerous models of what a loving longstanding relationship looks like.

It takes strength and courage to be grateful and forgiving. But man, to watch it and see it in living color--it's worth it!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Easy Does It

During the recent cold snap, my garage door started acting up. It responded with even less consistency than usual. To get in, we punch in a 4 digit code to get the door to automatically open. When it is cold, it often takes two or three tries. When it is really really cold (as it has been recently), one wonders if it is going to work at all!

It was during one of these moments, where I thought it had stopped working completely, I found myself punching in the numbers very clearly and firmly. In fact, the more it "ignored" me, the firmer I punched these numbers. (Remember, it is fritzen cold outside and I want the door open NOW as the timer on the windchill factor countdown moves towards certain frostbite) One could say I was jamming the numbers.

Along comes the little guy who says, "I think it might work if you just do lightly". Cynically, but desperate by this point, I slowly and gently tapped each of the four numbers in the exact center of the


A real lesson there, which I'm reminded of each time I go to the garage to get in my car. How easy is it, when we feel like someone isn't getting the message, to say it louder and firmer, thinking that volume and impatience will work.

Yeah, right. Yelling really helps people understand better.

Of course it is obvious as you read this...probably not quite so obvious during the last argument you had, huh?

Gently now...go into your difficult relationships with tenderness and the care to state things accurately and effectively.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Naming the Elephants

Funny how a person can be thinking of an idea, and then several cool things happen very soon after that enrich and expand the thinking, y'know?

I was visiting with some friends lately...and some pretty huge stuff has happened in both of our lives--the same tragic events. I'm a therapist--I'm open to heavy and candid conversations--clearly I'm comfortable, that's what I do. I realize that not everybody is like me, and so, I will often "open the door" to deeper conversation, and then wait to see if others choose to walk through. I try to accept that when others choose not to engage, it could be for a variety of reasons.

But this time it hurt.

On Wednesday, I was caching up on an old episode of "White Coat, Black Art" on my ipod as I was running. Brian Goldman was interviewing a pediatric oncologist who works with dying children, talking about talking with them about what was happening. She was a tender but direct interviewee as she named the pain of her job, and went on to describe the conversations. She said that children ask, "How will dying happen?" which can be code for, "How will I know when it is happening?" So she talked about how the staff would let the children know, " Today is a safe day, today is not the dying day" allowing them to relax to fall asleep with the knowledge that they would awaken again. Can you imagine saying that to a child? Can you imagine being in that position?

She states she can do this work because the children are dying, and they will die no matter what--but she has the opportunity to make it better than it might otherwise be. I admire her courage to be so direct with the children, which creates a relationship of honesty, trust, and caring.

Then, this morning, coffee with a friend. She was telling me about the things she was struggling with in life, and that as she was working through them, she was reminded of Madeline L'Engles' book, A Wind in the Door, which talks about Naming. In the book, naming was an important way of validating and loving people. (As a mom who spent hours selecting the right name for a child, I get that down deep) This prompted my friend to "name" that in her pain which was really the issue, and it empowered and brought a measure of healing, just by calling it for what it was.

Alcoholics Anonymous often terms the alcoholism in a family as the "elephant in the room". The drinking and its effects is a large impossible-to-ignore presence in the family, but one that is never talked about.

You've seen an elephant in a relationship...a large issue that is there, pressing people against the walls in uncomfortable ways, people peering over it and under it, shouting over it and pretending it isn't there, even as movements and conversation are inevitably shaped by it.

There's something empowering, respectful, and loving about naming the elephant. Naming disempowers the secret--the elephant shrinks. Naming validates and gives understanding. Naming demonstrates love in courageous ways. Naming confirms experience and shared humanity. Naming opens the door to healing.

And it doesn't have to be so bad. It can be prefaced with, "I'm not sure if I want to admit it..." or "Maybe you won't want to hear it..." or "We might both get nervous if one of us says it, but let's face it, ignoring it is a lot of work, so...". It can be followed with, "....I'm not sure how we talk about it," or "it's really complicated and hurtful to think about working through this."

Naming the elephants takes courage. It generally takes courage to love

What are the names of the elephants in your room? Have you said them out loud? Do you dare?