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?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More on Double Binds

Ever notice that your style of thinking changes in the shower? I dunno, maybe more meandering kinds of thoughts that allow for ideas to be generated that wouldn't happen else where?

Happened to me yesterday. I was thinking about yesterday's post on double binds when I suddenly was drawn back to spring days where puddles are present, but it is cold enough that there is a thin layer of ice on top.

Remember those ice covered puddles...and when you step on them a little, they crack and then there's an air bubble...and when you step on them a little again on the other side of the puddle, it cracks again and the intersection of the cracks makes a really cool design? Or when you smash the ice, the water comes spurting out? There were all sorts of neat experiements to have the water ooze out slowly from the side, or spurt out suddently from a little hole. I loved those puddles. I loved playing in those puddles.

But when you're a kid playing in puddles, it's messy stuff. My pants would get dirty. And my dad would be disgruntled at my lack of ability to keep my pants clean, and frustrated at all the laundry I was creating for my mother.

Wondering how this connects back to double binds? It does. It's coming:

My dad would say, "Why did you get your pants dirty again today?" It was a question, which generally requires an answer.

However, there was no way to respond to this question that would satisfy him. If I tried to explain the lure of the puddles, then it seemed to him that I was simply indicating flagrant disobedience. If I tried to explain that I made an effort to tuck my pants into my rubber boots and play carefully, then it seemed to him that I was making silly excuses and that was worse. If I resorted to the age old fallback that children use all over the world in situations like this: "I don't know", then he would be angry that I wasn't talking, or wasn't making an effort to respond to his question.

But parents all over this country, all the time, ask questions for which there is no right answer--it's not really a question at all. The parent doesn't want an answer--there is no answer that can satisfy at that moment. But because it has a question mark at the end, an answer is expected. The kid can't win.

I remember reading something where a parent asked, "Why did you eat a cookie before supper when I told you you couldn't?" (another cultural classic). And the interviewer said, "Wouldn't it be great to be able to say, 'Part of me knew I wasn't supposed to, and part of me couldn't wait because they smelled so good, and they are always so yummy, and I couldn't stop myself'?" And the parent would recognize the problem with impulse control (and don't most people, even grown ups, struggle with this?) and then have a conversation about wanting to do something even when you're not supposed to do it, in a way that maintains the connection, rather than breaking it?

I gotta go...I think my kid has his hands in the cookie jar. Pray for me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Double Binds

D'ya ever notice how, in the Canadian political system, the "loyal opposition" is loyally opposed to everything? I realize it is their job to challenge what the party in power is doing and keep them on their toes...but this morning on the way to work, I listened to an interview about how the government is reversing it's position on some budgetary decisions. The government is being roundly criticized for changing the policy...though just a short time ago, it was criticized for ramming policies through without listening to the other parties and being sensitive to the feedback.

I suspect you can relate to being in a position where you just can't win. In fact, not only can you not win, no matter what you pick to do, you lose.

You know what I mean. A wife who says, "Be really really honest with me" but also says, (and maybe not in actual words, but in her responses says, "Never be critical of me". Or a husband who says, "Say something", but then minimizes or ridicules your efforts to speak up, or now states you're dissing him by responding. Or a parent says, "Speak up" and when the kid responds, he's told, "Not so loud". Or a kid who tells a parent to back off and give her space, but then comes home and asks for a ride to the mall, give her $20 and says she is panicking because her assignment for school is too hard and she needs help...and the parent knows that if s/he sits down to help, it's only moments before accusations of control begin to fly around.

It's crazymaking, really. To be set up to fail. Lousy.

There's no way out of a double bind...everyone loses...but the one issuing the double bind has the control. And while the control helps a person feel powerful, it's also a lonely place to be. Trust me, clients have taught me that. They may have the control, but it's a usually a strategy to compensate for the fear. The big tough guys will have trouble admitting it, but fear of vulnerability is a powerful thing.

Protecting yourself from vulnerability is lonely though...very lonely.

"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom"
Anais Nin

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The connection

"The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved- loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves." Victor Hugo

One of the greatest privileges of working with couples who are in various stages of marital crisis, is the chance to work with them to create an environment where a person can experience in new ways, so much so that it might seem like that, for the very first time, a person "gets it" that s/he is loved.

It is a humbling, earth-shattering moment to witness a breakthrough where one spouse dares to open up vulnerably and courageously about the level of love that s/he has for the other. (Not easy to do when hurt and pain are what brings them to counselling!) And the other person dares to believe...risks believing, at a heart level, that the love that was expressed was genuine, authentic and expressed freely without obligation.

The freedom that comes with knowing that one is loved allows creativity, excitement and generosity that is truly fun to watch. Being loved is a drug that creates a natural high.

Have you given your loved one a "fix" today?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Celebrating--a time to recapture hope

Gotta hand it to those Americans...they sure know how to throw a party. I watched some of the highlights on the news and on you-tube--the closing song on Sunday's concert led by Beyonce choked me up a little and I'm not even American. But what teared me up was that if I was American, this has been a week of recognizing progress and recapturing hope.

The recession is affecting the global economy, with every sign that the US is more affected than Canada. Times are tough. People are losing their jobs. Mortgages are foreclosing. Business is sagging. Retirees are watching their nest eggs lose value. Some might say that life is too serious to take time to party. Goodness knows, we Canadians are much more understated in bringing in new government--it is a sorry non-event, to be sure.

I'm not of that opinion. The Americans are really taking time to aknowledge what the Inauguration of President Obama signifies. The country is partying about what this means--no illusion that there still isn't work to do. But that work will be done another day--today is a day when people are saying, "I really do know that anything is possible", elderly African Americans are shaking their heads in wonder at the progress made, and honoring the cost that was paid.

In our house, we crave celebration. We have a celebration plate enscripted by Maya Angelou: "Live today as if it were created just for you". When someone has accomplished something, that plate is put at their place at dinner, and we fuss over them. During "birthday week" (who says that birthdays should be confined to a single day?), at our house we celebrate "Birthday Boxing Day" (the day after the birthday, of course) with the left over cake for breakfast.

Celebration allows for stock taking--a time to look back with delight at progress made, and recognize the achievements. Celebration is a time to build people up, encourage each other, choose to "see the cup as half full" and go wild with joy over that. Celebration is a time to let loose and have fun...and during tough times, celebration is more necessary than ever. It provides, as Obama's book title says, "The Audacity of Hope".

I remember during one very dark period in our lives, when there was little to celebrate...the members of our household made a choice one evening to celebrate each other, and to celebrate making it through the day--a real accomplishment. We put on the tunes, and cleaned up dinner with whooping and hollering and dancing up a storm--dish towels were waving, the path to the dishwasher had loops and spins. It reminded us we were alive, and gave strength to the next day. The darkness is long gone, but the joy from that day remains.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Gentle Kindness

I was picking up some supper today at The Greek Market. Once I had my yummy lemon potatoes, veggies and phyllo wrapped delights, he asked me, "Is that all?" I looked around and decided to throw in a couple of freshly baked crispy-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside rolls, explaining that I was going to see a friend who had cancer treatment today, and the steroids she took to control the side effects were going to have her be extra hungry. He mentioned well wishes, and disappeared briefly while I signed the receipt...returning with a wrapped dessert that he popped in the bag, and said, "Give this to her for me."

It touched me. He will never see her, or know who she is.

But I do. I saw her face light up at the kindness (and for the yummy anticipation!)

Today in the city, the second murder of the year was discussed in the news, a fatal car crash in the north end took two lives, and schools and a university reel from the recent discovery of a mass murder plot uncovered. I heard of people's pain--serious, difficult stories of people dealing with tough stuff.

In a moment, the heaviness rolled away as I witnessed the kindness of a stranger towards someone he will never meet.

The world needs gentle and generous kind spirited moments. I know that today I was blessed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The other side

Warning: spoiler about Gran Torino movie...don't read it you're going to see the movie.

I have still been thinking about my last post about the dichotomy between our conscious belief about equality of humanity and actions which suggest an unconscious racism...talking with a friend who is about to enter into a transracial adoption and discussing the implications of it, listening to children (with a variety of skin color) cheerfully bantering about skin pigment in a way that suggests they have not yet understood the grave implications of being a visible minority. All this still sorta swirling in my head as I got talked into going to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino.

I'm not a typical Clint Eastwood fan, but it was a pleasant evening out with friends. I have to admit that while there was a wry, dry humor that made me laugh, there were probably more awkward moments than there were chuckles given the entire encyclopedia of racial slurs that Walt, the main character, spewed on a consistent basis.

Walt is an elderly war veteran with signs of serious health problems whose racism could make your toes curl. It is a movie--it was over the top. It was offensive really, and I squirmed in my seat on behalf of all humanity as I was in my seat...and then, as is prone to happen in the movies, Walt experiences a sort of renaissance, when the Hmong neighbors befriend him. He finds himself connecting with them, and enjoying their company. He finds himself wanting to protect them from the gangs that alternatively attempt to coerce membership into their gang, and wreak their violence on the neighborhood.

Ultimately, Walt, the fellow who was offensive to the end, decides to end the threat of violence to the family he has come to love. He prepares for battle--and shows up at the enemy house...he reaches into his jacket as he says a "Hail Mary" and is shot repeatedly by the group. He has done it...the neighborhood was watching the threatening men are now incarcerated and unable to continue their destruction.

It was a curious and wonderful flip on the study in the previous post--overt conscious racism in tone by a man whose actions showed a selflessness and love for those visibly different from him. The family saw through the offensive (and horrifyingly thick) veneer to the real man underneath. When "push came to shove", Walt, as his core, is a man of honor, who was willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for those he'd had for so long scorned, but had come to love as family. The irony of this movie given my headspace was striking.

I heard an interview on the radio about this movie which had stated that this could well be Clint's last flick...and that the way he went out is perhaps a powerful symbolic statement that he is making.

Doing what is necessary to make this world safe for others is an aspiration that, this week, is one I can't miss--when life smacks you in the face with a message, you listen, y'know?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Confronting a harsh reality

There is the way we want to be, the person we portray to others, and that is often the person we believe ourselves to be. We can fool ourselves into believing that is who we really are.

I see clients who tell me that they are a certain way--they tell me this with conviction--they believe it. However, their stories don't back it up. They might say, "I NEVER YELL. HOW CAN PEOPLE ACCUSE ME OF YELLING??!!" And they don't see it.

I've heard several interviews on studies that have been done around unconscious racism. People say they speak out against it, confront it, condemn it, and would dissassociate themselves from those who are overtly racist. The evidence suggests otherwise.

When in an situation where a disgusting, overtly racist term was used, NOT ONE person who was observed spoke out against it. Furthermore, when asked to choose a partner, the "white guy" was selected more often. Whether a mildly racist, extremely racist, or benign comment was made--NO DIFFERENCE was noted--at least in the experiment when the subjects weren't aware they were being tested. Actors were used to play the part--either of being not racist, mildly, or extremely racist.

The story was different when the situation was observed on video or read about--then people had definite reactions to be deliberately "anti-racist" regarding how they would react if it were them. Many said they would speak out against it, even more said they would avoid choosing person who made a racist comment as a work partner.

This has me thinking soberly about my own self perceived nobleness. Am I naive to think that I would be the sole "outlyer" in the statistical analysis. Are you? Can any of us be so arrogant as to say that we would be unlike all the others in the study and act on our stated values?

Do I act on my real values in I dare? If I allow the deepest parts of me to speak up, do I hear things that express values and opinions that I'd rather not have, that are not politically correct?

It has challenged me to be more candid with myself about potential blindspots in my own life. What would I easily say is a value of mine, that, when "push comes to shove", I wouldn't follow through on? Our actions speak louder than our words...I'm going to listen to what I'm really saying.

I think that is the first step--recognition of the truth. Then I'll have to figure out what to do with it!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Pain of Divorce

Morning radio typically does not make me weep. However, I found myself wiping my eyes as I was driving to work the other day. The show was previewing and discussing the documentary, "How to divorce and not wreck the kids".

The show is looking at effective ways couples can work to separate in a way that is child centred--with the general idea that if it is done well, the children won't be adversely affected. The counsellor comments to the little fellow, "Sometimes kids feel like it's their fault that their parents separate?" The little boy quickly responds, "No I never thought it was my fault." It was clear that the parents had explained it to the children effectively, and the children understood that this was about the grown ups.

The heartbreaking part was the unsolicited postscript that the boy added, "I sorta wanted it to be fault because then I could do something about it.". That honest plaintiveness was hard to hear.

While the documentary accepts the inevitable fact that approximately 50% of marriages end in divorce, there is this jarring dichotomy. The video features 3 couples who work to surmount their own personal resentments and pain in the separation and find ways to optimize the situation for the children. The general message is that children "whose parents put aside their differences and manage to work together grow up to be just as well adjusted as children of intact families".

However, the video itself challenges this as one child experiences "tummy aches", another cries at transition times from one parent to another, still another "bottles it up until bedtime and cries himself to sleep". The effects of divorce can be substantially mitigated by effectively working collaboratively towards solutions that will benefit the kids. No question on that.

However, it seems to me that this glosses over the pain that divorce creates for many, including or even especially, the children. There are certainly times when the pain of staying together is greater than the pain of dissolving the marriage.

However, society needs to not sugarcoat the pain and long lasting effects of divorce on the children.

The documentary itself points out that most of these marriages end in first 14 years. As a therapist, I find it important to find ways to help marriages maximize their chances of success. One way we do this at Bergen & Associates is the premarital package that couples can use. A few couples, with sober second thought, decide that they'd rather not get married. Many couples use the sessions as a chance to look at the patterns in the relationship which could turn into destructive ruts over the years. And each couple becomes familiar with reaching out and talking with somebody who can provide a compassionate third ear. The last session in the package happens in the first six months AFTER the wedding so couples can feel what it is like to work through a challenging time.

Preparing couples for the inevitable challenges ahead, and helping them anticipate and plan for those challenges is one way that we, at Bergen and Associates, work to help future children grow up in healthy families.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Year Lows...and Highs

I was out running the other day when I met a friend who is a minister in a local church. I asked him how his Christmas was, and he said that while he had enjoyed it, it had been stressful as well because of the number of parishioners had been struggling over the holidays. Others had "held it together" over the holidays as a favor to those around them, and were now allowing things to collapse in their lives.

It's cold, and been cold for weeks. While the days are getting longer, it is still dark more than it is light.

Life is a challenge for many people this time of year. Views to our website as people investigate resources are higher in January than in any other month.

However, a colleague and I were chatting yesterday and commenting on how very fortunate we as therapists can be as we are provided with the opportunity to have front row seats to people as they struggle and wrestle with the muck in their lives, and emerge with feeling more alive, more excited to be alive, and able to laugh with more freedom than before. While many struggled at Christmas, some of our clients who started therapy before Christmas come bounding in now, excited to talk about how this Christmas was different. They had developed some insight about what wasn't working, and found themselves doing things differently, responding to people differently, having different reactions to the old patterns that allowed for delightful change.

As a therapist, I have the chance to stand on what feels like holy ground, as clients struggle with raw pain and despair, and as they begin to leap and dance with newfound freedom. While being a therapist may not be for everybody, it is truly an honor for me.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Whew--family gatherings are over

While many people enjoy the relaxed pace over Christmas, with the chance to go sledding, watch movies, play games, sleep, and generally take a break from the race of the weekly grind, others did not find it as pleasant. Why?

Well, for the same reasons why some long distance truck drivers choose to do long haul work, or others accept the extra jobs at work or coach a team for endless hours. Many people are away from their family for legitimate and worthwhile causes and miss the family while away. Others are away from their family for legitimate and worthwhile causes and are relieved that the pressures and stresses of intimate family life are avoided for a few more hours. The challenges of intimacy with a spouse increase for many exponentially over Christmas week--time when the cracks get wider, the coldness gets frostier, and the loneliness of being with someone and yet disconnected becomes an ache that hurts more when the din of life is muted.

Then, add in the extra intensity of family gatherings. Many get together over Christmas with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents that they see only a couple of times a year. While many of these gatherings are festive celebrations with great food and lots of laughs with sharing of good memories, others don't see them that way. Rather, these gatherings are times when the relatives drink too much and say things they shouldn't. Sometimes these gatherings require pasting on a fake friendly smile and forcing oneself to pretend to be enjoying oneself, when a peson would rather be anyplace else. How does one go to a family gathering and pretend the uncle that molested you when you were a child is no different than the others?

We don't get to choose the family we're born into. And the family that we marry into--well, some wonder how that morphed so far from the original dream.

At Bergen and Associates, January is typically a busy month--it typically is "post family gathering" season, as people come to figure out how to relate to family, how to figure out how they want to related to family, so that this next year doesn't have to have the painful like in the previous year. It is a chance to say "not another year like the last one", as people realize that they want to dare to risk to be open and vulnerable to create a new relationship with a spouse, or dare to stand up and say, "no thanx" to the grandma who is pushy and inappropriate.

Whether it be through personal contemplation, journalling, prayer, or counselling, if you are one of those people who "had it up to here " (put hand up to forehead), may you find a way to negotiate family better in 2009