Tag Archives: painful goodbye

A Matter of Death and Life

I lost my father when I was 8 or 15 depending on how you look at it.  When I was about 8 he had to have a surgery to repair his heart.  My parents were told that without his surgery he didn’t have long to live.  Because the medical field was still relatively young at that point,  and heart knowledge in its infancy, he had at best 50% odds of making it through the surgery.  He survived the operation, but not without some profound side effects.  He had considerable paralysis on his left side which did improve somewhat in time.  He also could not speak clearly for a bit, and suffered some brain damage.  But more than anything, he lost his will and his fight along with his independence.

Although he had only been able to work part time since his health declined in the few years leading up to the surgery, afterwards he could not work at all.  Nor could he drive.  He was sentenced to a life of sitting around existing on TV, smoking his forbidden pipe and eating.  He really ceased to be a person, much less a father.  And he remained that way until his death.  Ironically, despite his past 15 year battle with heart problems, his only heart attack took his life instantly.

I would say I know loss.  I have said I know loss.  But the reality is I do not.  I know my loss.  Or more clearly, I know that I grew up feeling something was not there, but having not really known what that something was, given my father was ill for virtually all of my childhood, I have really only imagined what I thought it was supposed to be and missed that.

For reasons, I am not wise enough to understand, these past few months I have been deluged with stories from people about their loss.  There are adults who lose their aged parents; friends who lose their peers and most significant in numbers and magnitude, parents who have lost children.  They come to me in hopes of finding some way of understanding what is occurring for them.  I can give them none.  But what I try to give them is some way of finding their way to at least a moment or two of peace as they try to build a life that now has a void.  An unfathomable void.

We all know that death is inevitable.  From the moment we take our first breath we are set on the path towards death. And in all the time in between, most of us live in ways focused to prevent it, deny it, ignore it and for some the magical belief in transcending it.  We have a lot of help from our environment to support these notions:  anti-aging creams, miracle life- saving medical interventions and slogans like 50 is the new 40.  We needn’t even get older, much less die.

Our psychological resistance is an attempt to keep the unpleasant at bay and insulate us from discomfort.  Count me among the masses who don’t want to feel pain.  But I am increasingly aware of the saying “That which we resist, persists”.

The people who come to me to speak about their loss have not been resisting death.  It is thrust upon them like a thief in the night robbing them of their most prized possessions.  In the cases I’ve heard, despite the tremendous burden of guilt these parents bear, no one could have, should have, would have done anything differently to prevent such loss.  If there is resistance, it is only in the form of trying to find meaning in why the tragedy has occurred.  In the end the only answer I can find is simply “Because it has”.  It is part of the human experience to die.  And while most of us envision some sort of life plan for ourselves and those we love where, we live to 110 and die quietly and painlessly in our sleep after a beautiful celebration, that rarely occurs.  Children die at 1 day, 10 years, 20 years.  People die in harsh circumstances and illness.  Sometimes they die while doing everyday ordinary ways.  And when they do, it is painful for those of us left behind to feel their absence.

My father’s body died when I was 15.  I was about 35 when I finally said goodbye not only to him, but to the fantasized version of him I carried around in my head for which I longed.  Grief is personal and everyone has a right to choose their own method and timing of expression.  It is also part of our human experience as natural as eye color and the need to breathe.  Resisting it will not delay it or protect us, but perhaps embracing it for some value that it brings might allow us that moment of peace, for which we search.

The best teacher we have about the value of life, is in fact, death.  It is death that sets boundaries, helps us to prioritize how to use our time, and most of all provides us with incentive for what to value most in our life.  It is an awareness of death that motivates us to tell the people we love what we want them to know and to not become bogged down in people, places and things that we can’t take with us.  When we ignore our grief but focusing instead on the why loss happens, and the push to prevent such, we step out of the current moment of loving what we have right now.  When we think about what we lost from a person’s absence we are choosing not to think about all they have given us prior to their absence and how that has prepared us to live now.

These are in no way intended to be simple commands of advice.  My father’s death immobilized me emotionally for so many years because I tried to insulate myself with trying to understand it rather than experience the grief for what it was.  Perhaps loss of a different type might do that to me again, but I hope not.  What I do know is that death and its resulting grief are not thing to be afraid of, and that because they are part of the human experience, they are teachers, rather than events meant to punish us.  And if they are teachers, then we are students who must be willing to learn.

We cannot learn if we cannot talk about our loss.  If you know someone who has experienced a loss, whether it is a child, their cat, or a relationship, reach out.  Let them speak.  Make an effort to refrain from using your own fear to keep the subject far away from you.  Perhaps if you let them learn, they in turn will become better teachers for you.

 

High Tide

I got divorced in my mid 30’s. I moved out of the house I shared with my then husband in January and hoped by my birthday in March that, my life would look magically like I dreamed it could. That of course,  did not happen. There were times when it was hard to see IF this adventure was going to work out well, much less how it would work. And it was sometimes hard to sit in the period of not knowing while my biological clock ticked loudly drowning out the sound of comfort.

Eventually, however, I met my wonderful husband, married and had two children. At around the same time, I also completed my doctorate. Over a couple of years span, I went from being an unhappily married woman, to a divorced woman, to a happily married mother of two with a doctorate. Talk about identity change!   And despite the odds, I was 40 at the birth of our first son and 43 for the second. Blessed is an understatement.

The other night I re-watched the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks which is such a great movie. I highly recommend going back to view it if you haven’t seen it in a while. What I was most struck by this time around was a soliloquy Hanks gives near the end. Upon realizing that his fiancé had married someone else after she believed him dead, he describes to a friend how he was dealing with the loss of her in his life now that he returned to civilization.

“I was never going to get off that island. I was going to die there totally alone. I was going to get sick or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when and how and where it was going to happen. So I made a rope and I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, of course, you know me. And the weight of the log snapped the limb of the tree. I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew somehow that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing even though there was no reason to hope. And all of my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I kept breathing. And one day that logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail. And now hear I am. I’m back in Memphis talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad I don’t have Kelly. I’m also grateful that she was there with me on that island. And I know what I have to do. I’ve got to keep breathing. ‘Cuz tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring.”

It can be excruciatingly painful when relationships end, and even more so if they are not of our choosing. They might be family, romantic, platonic or even loss of a job or other significant structure in our lives. In the aftermath of realization that we are now without that, which we once held dearly, it can be difficult to see into the future of how or if anything is going to work out for us. We are often so attached to what we lost that it is difficult to cultivate a vision forward of what might be possible.

What I love most about Hanks thought is that, he relinquished the need to know what or how and instead began to focus on the most basic of tasks in the present moment. He started with the baby step of just breathing. He stopped trying to control and insisting and instead agreed to live with whatever he had in the moment. And when the next moment brought him something new, he lived with that moment.

I’ve always felt when looking at my own story that something similar happened. After my marriage ended I dated a lot. I agreed to go out with people that I knew were a bad fit but I wanted to make something happen even if by sheer will and persistence. When I quit however, and decided that my life was pretty full just as it was, I met my husband shortly thereafter. He was indeed my sail. And now here I am, talking to you.

Are you on an island without hope? Remember, tomorrow the sun will rise and you never know what the tide may bring in. Until then, just keep breathing.

 

 

Talent or Delusions?

Talent or Delusions

I don’t watch a lot of television. Except lately that seems a little less true. Last year I got a bit hooked on America’s Got Talent for a while. I was hooked until I discovered that talent was defined as a guy willing to get hit in his privates with baseball bats and the like and somehow  endure the pain.   After that,  I pretty much decided there were better things to do with my time. But the other night the TV was on and when I went by I saw this little old lady dancing and it caught my eye. I recognized her from an article I had seen a few weeks back. Her name is Tao Porchon-Lynch and at 96, she is the worlds oldest yoga teacher and apparently dancer on America’s Got Talent as well.

She is a sight to behold for sure. It’s admirable. I’m happy for her. But I don’t aspire to be her. I have neither a wish to be Debby Downer or self-deprecating, but realistically speaking, Tao is an anomaly, not the new poster child for 96 is the new 46. Yes, people are living longer than our predecessors, and I hope to be among that crowd. That said, the reality is that living longer doesn’t mean we are all going to be capable of doing in our 80’s and 90’s what we did in our 20’s and 30’s or even our 50’s and 60’s.  Why hold ourselves to this as the baseline standard?

I’ve been reading “Being Mortal” by Atul Gwande. It is a phenomenal book. But don’t pick it up unless you have time to read it in a relatively short period of time. The first half of the book is pretty tough to take in because it doesn’t sugar coat the harsh realities of aging. The goal is not to depress us, but rather to wake us up to accepting the inevitability of death. The author’s wish for his readers is that we live out our end with autonomy and agency rather than abdicating that responsibility to the medical community. Gwande, a physician, asserts that our society has turned dying into a medical war and people are often “sustained” and kept safe to achieve a quantity of life.  Further, He believes this strategy comes at the expense of achieving quality of life.

In our society, old age is something to be dreaded, feared and managed. I’m as guilty as the next guy. Yes, I’m used to my hearing aids, but I don’t embrace my aching joints, the lines in my face, or even the ever exposed “blonde” roots near my scalp. That said, I can contemplate at least intellectually that I’m logistically closer to death than I am to my birth. Emotionally, and perhaps this is only because I don’t consider having to confront it any time soon, I feel reasonably at peace with the prospect. I have lived a life I feel content with and have had the luxury of far more than I ever anticipated possible as a young girl. Still with the responsibility for my own young children, I’d like the opportunity to stick around at least long enough to ensure their launch into the world.

Beyond that point, I hope to have the presence of mind and the ability of body that will allow me to bead when I want to, eat and sleep when I want to, and to hang out with people or be alone if I choose. I hope as most people do, to not spend my last segment of life either hooked up to life support or in a nursing home. But the point is, most people currently in those conditions, also prefer not to be.

My mother died in a nursing home. She didn’t want to go into one and I knew that when I put her there. I felt I had no other option. She broke her hip and became immobilized. I work, have a family and neither, she nor I, had the funds to hire round the clock care for her. This is neither confession nor persuasion of justification, but rather an illustration of how these matters so often transpire. They happen because of the lack of a viable alternative.

Being Mortal is an invitation to consider an alternative to the status quo of how we currently manage aging and death. Instead of ignoring its realities and holding the fantasy in our mind that we will dance at 96, go home and quietly die comfortably in our sleep, we can make decisions in our life and our death. We can think about and discuss what we are and are not willing to endure when we inevitably become too frail to enjoy life as we know ourselves to be. This includes contemplation and some frank discussions with those who may be the executors of decisions on our behalf. It is not enough to simply say “I don’t want to be in a nursing home.” It is imperative that we make known what we individually consider quality of life to look like for ourselves and consider what options available best achieve those goals.

Would you trade a being gravely ill for 3 months of chemotherapy in order to live 4 months more?  If you have a heart attack or a stroke, what measures do you want to help sustain you? For those of you who are younger, what if you were in an accident? Would you be willing to stay in a coma indefinitely? How damaged of a body are you willing to live in? There are no rights or wrongs. Stephen Hawking has lived so many years in a body unable to move or even speak and has continued to make enormous contributions to the world. These are personal decisions for you to make. Don’t let someone else determine what you should or should not endure, be it family, children, and least of all institutions that do not know or understand your individual needs.

Now that I can hear, can you?

First, another thanks and round of applause to the wonderful comments I’ve received the past couple of weeks.  My readers are incredibly awesome and insightful people!  Not everyone posts their comments publicly- but they are all fantastic!

I learned a new word this week. I mean really learned it instead of just having heard it before and tried using it in a sentence. The word is “ineffable”.

Maybe you already know what it means. The dictionary says “too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.

But I realize now that it is the word I haven’t been familiar with enough to describe the experiences people often share with me. A feeling, a condition, an experience so great or extreme that they find it difficult to capture in words.

In a blog a few weeks ago I tried to describe someone’s physical pain. This week someone described the tragedy of losing a loved one far more prematurely than expected. Others try to describe to me a fear of a situation looming, the dread of lingering past betrayal. Sometimes they try to describe a longing for something that seems out of reach, a lover or a child to name a few. For the record, the longing for chocolate is not ineffable. Rather, it is well documented by many including me.

My job is often an attempt to help people describe in words that which is indescribable. The goal is to help them feel understood, to share, if only for a few minutes that someone understands the weight of their burden. No one asks me to take the burden home with me, only to be heard and quite possibly to find a way to manage the feelings with a little more ease or at least grace.

I recall back when I worked in residential eating disorder treatment, the residents were often anxious around fat people. Some were disgusted, others literally terrified. It was as if, sitting next to someone fat put them in danger of catching the same. I find people’s reactions to intense feelings much the same. They grow impatient when listening to another, or worn down when they have to hear the same thing more than once. I believe this is most likely due to either not wanting to have to think about the same situation potentially occurring in their own lives like a contagion. Others may have a sense of inadequacy from not knowing how to respond appropriately. Of course, there are situations where we simply don’t care about the person or the subject, but these are not the ones I’m thinking about in this blog.

It is our human nature to want to be understood. Words; the construct of language is perhaps our best attempt to unite us. But what happens when words cause us more distance because of their inadequacy? What happens when the experience is ineffable?

Maybe the simple demonstration to not speak, but rather just to stay with another is an alternative. What might happen if we allow someone to describe something so ineffable to us and we don’t leave? What if we simply reached out our hand to theirs or put our arms around them. Maybe the best we can do is hand them a tissue. Don’t underestimate the value in simply being present with another who is in pain. Sometimes the value lies in the fact that they can see us sitting in our own discomfort and our willingness to stay as a model to help them tolerate something within themselves. Maybe it simply will make them feel less alone.

Someone recently introduced me to a video called “It’s not about the nail”. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s worth the 2 minutes or so watch. It’s another way of addressing the power of listening. And maybe, through the practice of listening to others with compassion, we will become more willing to do the same for ourselves.

 

Welcome to my dreams.

Welcome to my dreams

 

A lot of people tell me they don’t remember dreams.   Personally, I think it’s a cultivated skill. I have always found my dreams to be rather instructive throughout my life and I have had a handful of recurring ones. Today I’d like to share one of those with you.

I find myself in high school. Usually in this dream I return to a high school reminiscent of my own or the community college, but last night I was actually in my son’s high school. It feels overwhelming. The kids there are nice enough to me, but I can’t get with the schedule. I keep getting lost while trying to navigate the various buildings and I can’t remember where my locker is or which class to go to next. Finally, I look around and say “I’m not doing this anymore. I already have a Ph.D.” Specifically in last night’s dream I went to the office and spoke to the principal. She said “Sure, you can quit, but there are certain types of jobs you won’t be able to get without your high school diploma.” She described the jobs to me and none of them were things I would ever want to do, so I left and never went back.

Now in real life, I did finish high school. But I finished at the semester rather than the full year. And I had just told that story recently which, most likely prompted the activity in my sleep. At various points in life that dream has meant different things to me. But last night’s version is, I think, the result of my contemplating something for someone else. Actually, for three someone elses: 3 women I am currently seeing in my practice.

Here is a quick vignette:

D- a very successful woman in the business world. She can pretty much count on getting 90% of the jobs she interviews for. In her last position, she worked 70 hours a week, and had to replace 75% of the team she inherited in under a year. Her CEO recently joined her on a sales pitch to a customer that if awarded would have raised her team performance considerably. The day after the sales meeting, without any indication of the customer’s decision, D was unceremoniously let go. She was told “It wasn’t enough.”

S- Another superstar. For her last position, she was courted by the employer. They stole her away from a competing company by promising the moon. They didn’t even know where to put her in their organization they just knew they had to have her. She joined them. Two years later, they still didn’t know where to put her. She never had an opportunity to shine at anything, because it was never really clear what she was supposed to be doing. She often felt like she was overlapping with others in their responsibilities, and they didn’t seem all that thrilled about the intrusion. Finally, the director told her he had made a mistake and they were eliminating her position.

N- Worked in a major institution for 20 plus years. She was the darling of the team. She was thorough and reliable. Not only did N do a great job logistically, but she was deeply committed to the people she served. N was called in to human resources and terminated without warning. Their reason: they claim N did not clock out before going to lunch. N often worked long after she clocked out in the evening in order to get her job done. She would never have gone to lunch on company time.  She was never asked about the incident at the time it supposedly occurred or given a chance to prove her case.

I heard each of these stories in about a two week time span which helped link them together in my mind.

In her discussions about entering the “dark night of a spiritual journey”, Caroline Myss says that anything that stands in your way will be removed for you by the universe. I don’t know if that was the case for any of these women, but I do know that each of them had been unhappy in their jobs and was thinking of leaving, but neither was sure what their next step would be. One could argue that their unhappiness produced substandard work which prompted their terminations. I know that was not the case with any of them however, as they are all hard working women with considerable integrity.

I think my dream was my own minds processing that these stories. For me, they are examples of being in a role that isn’t really right, but doing it because you think you are supposed to fulfill someone else’s rules for you. My declaration that I had a Ph.D. to the other students was a way to say, “I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t have to do this.” And to seal it off, the principal tried to give me advice of the importance of staying, but it was advice from her framework not mine. When I identified that, I was free to leave.

These women became free to leave. I am confident that each will land on their feet, and become stronger and wiser in the process.   Are you hanging on to a role or relationship that you don’t belong in, but one that someone else thinks is a good idea for you? Are you willing to take yourself out of the position or do you have to wait to be asked to leave?

When someone refuses your olive branch

A recent comment is the inspiration for this post: Kate asked “What happens when you reach out to your family to make amends and they don’t accept your olive branch?”

First you say OUCH. Because that probably really hurts. Whether you were the initiator or they were, it probably still hurts. Let yourself start there.

 

Then it’s time for a little soul searching. Did you do/say something that created the distance. If you were, have you given the other person time (as much as they need, not how much you think they should have) to process their hurt? Are you willing to make changes that the other person may be requesting from you? Are you willing to accept that person, as they are, if you have been critical about this in the past?

 

But let’ say you’re okay, they aren’t okay. You stepped out because things became intolerable for you. Or, they left you. Now you reach out because of any number of reasons to reconnect and they are still not willing to play nicely.

I wish I could answer this with a one size fits all happy instruction manual for how to get people to be reasonable. The truth is people aren’t always and that is part of life. But it stinks when you are the recipient.   Unfortunately, I don’t have that tidy little answer. In fact, I’m not sure I have any answer. Perhaps all I really have is compassion.

I recall when I was going through my divorce, I was also working on my doctorate. I had a very wonderful case supervisor, a woman in her late 70’s, full of vigor and wisdom.   Janet had lived a full life, but not one free from tragedy. She was widowed from her first marriage. As was often the case, she was as much my mentor in life, as she was, professionally. One day, I used some of my supervision time to talk about what was happening with the marriage and Janet said, “The longer I live, the more I am aware that some things in life just can’t be fixed.”   It was such a simple, yet profound statement that has stayed with me these many years later. It helped me give myself permission to stop trying so hard to fix something that wasn’t fixable. Something that, in all honesty, had been broken from the start.

I don’t know when the point is for someone to give up. It is different for everyone. But I do know that it is sometimes okay to do that. And I suspect it has to do with when you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you have done your best. It’s when you know that you have taken responsibility for your actions and decisions and made a sincere attempt to allow the other person to express their feelings about your choices. In other words, have you allowed them room to be them, at the same time, you are requesting to be you.

For some folks the most difficult part will be allowing others to be as they are. Other people will struggle with finding the acceptance to look yourself in the mirror and say I did enough. What makes this tricky is to separate the sense of “it was enough”, from an outcome of previously defined success. In other words, if I didn’t achieve the goal of fixing it, then either they or I didn’t do enough. But this is part of being a grown up as Janet said. Even grown ups can’t make everything better just because they wish it to be so. And finding compassion for the self and even for others is one of the hallmarks of maturity. It is also possible to find love for another even without continuing to have a relationship with that person. And that is what helps to make us better humans.

It is possible to love someone based on early times when we had a relationship with them even if it has ended. It is possible to find love for someone based on their relationship to others. It is possible to find love for that person as a human in the world. And all of these (as well as other ideas) are ways to allow ourselves to place emphasis on other feelings we may have for that person, because they won’t allow us back into their lives. At the end of the day, it means we are filled with less negative energy.

 

Sand Castles

Between the reports on the recent tragedy in France, and some personal stories of loss that I’ve recently heard, I am again reminded of the fragility of life. Most of us walkabout our everyday lives with the naïve sense that tomorrow will come and go according to plan. We hear about an event where that was not the case for someone else and we stop, give pause, and pick up right where we left off.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this. It’s what helps us get through the day. One of my favorite comedians Karen Mills has a funny bit about the absurdity of not taking that approach. Mills said she tried once to take Oprah’s advice and live every day like it was her last. The problem was it made her family too depressed because she ended every phone call with a dramatic “Goodbye, I’ll miss you”.

So how do we instead, find the balance between telling everyone goodbye as if it is the last time, and not living with such obtuseness that life won’t last forever? I appreciate the following quote from Pema Chodron:

“We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

Not only is the quote beautiful, but instructive. Chodron suggests that we should play to our fullest ability, but not cling. These are the thoughts I try to remember when I crab about the shoes my boys leave in the foyer or the mud on the carpet left behind by the dog. It doesn’t always make me feel 100% better, but it does make me at least think. And when I force myself to think about the value I place over one set of my choices (children and a dog) over a things that I have (a clean or not clean house) then, I am by definition, engaging in the act of mindfulness. Regardless of what I ultimately choose, it is more likely done from the position of self- choice rather than numb reaction. I can only hope that when it is time for my sand castle to wash back into the sea, there will be a comfort in knowing I built it myself, it was the best castle I could have built, and I enjoyed it fully.

 

Who is the chief architect of your sand castle? Do you recognize the work? Are you enjoying it?

 

 

The Safe Appeal of Disorder

 

 

 

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Let me state clearly at the start that this blog has zero to do with a political opinion. It is merely a political event that introduced me to a thought.

In the recent news stories about the conflict in Gaza, I heard a quote that really grabbed me. It comes from former prime minister of Israel Golda Meier.

Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us. I thought it was such a powerful quote. And it got me thinking about other areas in life that it might be useful. Of course my mind naturally wondered to my work and the conflicts I see for people I work with. So I changed it to this:

Until you love yourself more than you fear imperfection, disorder will remain.

You can quote me on that.

A person with an eating disorder will abuse themselves to any length in order to achieve a body that they believe will gain them acceptance or legitimacy. The result is reliance on a chaotic system of eating and exercise that not only precludes any other area of their life, but often results in malnutrition, injury, and even self-abuse.

A person who lacks confidence in their ability at work will ignore their personal boundaries and work themselves to oblivion at the expense of their personal life or personal self in fear of having that inadequacy exposed.

A person who ignores themselves to help others in order to win status is forced to function at the mercy of everyone else’s beck and call. It is easy to get caught up in chaos and frenzy only to realize that one has little to show for all of their efforts. They may find themselves in middle life feeling empty of anything to measure their life by, especially if the people they have served have outgrown the need for them.

A person may remain in an unhappy or even harmful relationship with another because they do not feel deserving of happiness or peace. As a result such a person may deny their needs on any level in order to tolerate remaining in the relationship because they fear they are unjustified in the eyes of others to ask for more.

So what does it mean to love oneself? And how does that eliminate disorder?

Loving oneself means to make decisions based on self care as a priority over decisions that lead to approval or acceptance from others if the actions required for either are in mutual conflict. So, if I have to decide to eat because I’m hungry, or not eat because I feel too fat and unacceptable to others, self love means to eat- but eat well and appropriately for the highest level of self care- drowning one’s self in a container of ice cream is not self care.

It means if I have to choose between going to bed when I’m exhausted or reading email from my boss because I’m trying to get promoted, it means go to bed. Sleep well and then be prepared to work to the best of my ability tomorrow.

I’m confident that I’m not sharing any new earth shattering news with anyone here. We all know these things. But we get afraid. And then we get busy. Out of our fear we fill our lives with a million things that we think, or at least hope will make us happy and fit in. And then those things fill our time and our psyche to such extremes that we are too saturated to even think about what is good for us, much less find the time to implement those strategies. But as Meier so eloquently brought to light- we always have a choice. And until we value one thing more than another, change will not occur.

 

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Significance

 

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Recently I wrote about depression prompted by the suicidal death of Robin Williams. I did not know until Thursday, a client I worked with over many years had also ended their life a few weeks ago.

Although I had not seen “C” for a few years, we usually shared a phone call about once a year. As our birthdays were only a few weeks apart, she usually initiated contact by wishing me happy birthday. However, the last time I spoke to her was a couple of years ago. I understand at the start of a relationship that my job is to ultimately say goodbye to people. I give them the tools that they will hopefully continue using, to improve and enhance their lives, long after they no longer come to my office. I’ve been blessed that many continue to update me over the years, even if it is a brief text or announcement of a life event. I am both grateful for and humbled by these messages.

I had been thinking about C a lot lately and decided to leave her a voice mail. A day or two went by without a return call, and that was unusual. And then I received a message from her sister asking me to return her call. My initial sense was C had likely passed, but I attributed it to one of her many health problems. I was wrong.

C and I were the same age, and thus grew into middle adulthood concurrently. She watched me through a variety of life changes including motherhood and maturing as a therapist. I watched her perform as a creative and gifted genius whose talents never ceased to amaze me. She made cuddly toys for each of my boys at their birth. My shelf displays a treasure box she made to commemorate my marriage. Proficient in any artistic medium, C could also fix things, grow things, and understand difficult concepts far more easily than most. She gave of herself and her resources unselfishly, perhaps at times to her own detriment. The world lost one of its jewels in her passing.

It is not guilt that motivates my thoughts now, but profound sadness. I know in every corner of my heart that C pushed me to grow in the ways that, allowed me to sit with her struggles to the best of my ability and then some. C and I engaged in many conversations over the years about her contemplation of suicide. She postulated that if she left the earth, no one would care. My response was always that it would matter to me. Through my discussion this week with C’s sister and reading tributes made on her behalf, it’s clear I was not the only one who felt this way. I can only hope that she now knows the words were true.

I am often annoyed when others use public forums like Facebook and Twitter to announce snippets of personal tragedy. They feel like impersonal drive by shootings that seek attention with little regard for the reader. I have tried to thoughtfully assess whether or not using this forum puts me in the same category and I can only hope it does not. The purpose of this blog is to use the stories I know to convey information about the challenges of life for both my clients and those who invest their time reading my entries. Therefore, this post is not an attempt to process my own grief, for that will take far longer than can be digested in these few minutes. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the relationship between a patient and therapist, although contained within professional limits, does not fail to imprint the therapist, as well as, the patient. I often say I love my job. Perhaps a more accurate description is I love the people I am fortunate enough to know in ways they often don’t share with the rest of the world. And it is an honor I am humbly aware of when I am chosen to be that person.

There is yet another important piece I hope to convey. Although I don’t love his writing style, I think the message in Mitch Alboms “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” is important. Simply stated, it is common for us all to consider small occurrences and encounters in life as insignificant. Yet, because of our interrelatedness, you may likely have a profound effect on someone’s life without knowing it at the time. You. Yes You. And because of that, please do not underestimate your significance here in this world. I’ve found that others rarely note the flaws that you may believe are so prominent once we move past the age of playground taunts. Many of us see your worth and your gifts and want to love you if you will allow us. But you have to be willing to stay in order for that to happen.

I heard a story about a man that presented what he hoped would be a useful lecture to a group of teens. It was new material for him however, and he was unsure of how they would receive him. At the lectures conclusion, the group exited in a processional line. One girl thanked him and handed him a slip of paper as she passed it to him adding that he could have it, she no longer needed it. The man later retrieved it from his pocket and discovered to his surprise, it was a suicide note. If you are mindful enough to realize the impact others have on you, don’t hold back from telling them so. You may be the impetus to tip them on the side of being able to see their significance as well.

As always I appreciate and welcome your comments. If you found this helpful, I hope you will pass it on to someone else and suggest they subscribe. Take care.

 

 

Life below the surface

 

 

 

For an audio version of this post, please click on the link below:  if you are listening on a smart phone you may need to scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the sound icon

I took a fairly hard stance when Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose. I tend to be somewhat unsympathetic about stars and drugs. And yet,  I find myself with a mixed reaction to the death of Robin Williams. Actually, it seems incomplete to say the death. It’s more accurate to include the phrase suicide in the death of Robin Williams.

After prolific musical artist Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, Don McClean wrote his classic melody “American Pie”. The chorus lyrics include “the day the music died”.   Given the widespread media coverage on Williams, it seems August 11 is a day many people will associate as the one the laughter died. Although I personally sometimes failed to appreciate his comedic talent, Robin Williams was truly a genius. He was also an outstanding dramatic actor. I wrote a post a while back that I will publish at a later date about his role in Good Will Hunting.

Robin Williams was also a man. One I know little about, other than what he puts in the public eye for us to interpret. He was vocal about his chemical dependence and struggles with depression. And despite what he now has taken away from us to enjoy, the reality is he never owed it to us. It wasn’t ours to keep.

Depression is a complicated thing that we sometimes over simplify. Many people use the word with an almost flippant regard. “Oh that was a depressing movie”. Or, “ I’m so depressed about this”. People that suffer from migraines understand there is an enormous difference between a headache and a migraine. People who have experienced clinical depression understand it is not like the feeling of being “bummed out” or sad.

I was a therapist treating “depression” for a number of years before I fully understood what it was. Or at least my version of it. I have had loss and less than optimal times in my life and always managed to “pick myself up by the boot straps” and move along. Until my 2nd pregnancy that is. I attributed my mood shift to my hormonal havoc, but I experienced a full fledged clinical depression. My intellectual functioning and emotional state simply would not line up. I was happy to be pregnant. I was relieved to be pregnant after nearly a year of trying. But I found it impossible to feel joy, or much of anything beyond a jagged numbness. Fortunately for me, the depression lifted almost immediately after giving birth.

Most of what I recall was the inability to feel motivated to do much of anything. Every action seemed labored and unworthy of the effort it required. The promised payoffs provided little to no incentive. Even my beautiful toddler at the time could not propel me to be excited about anything.

I once had a client who attempted suicide. Her description included a firm awareness that she would take her life at the end of a particular evening. She had dinner with a friend, and reported that, all the while she carried on a normal conversation, she was calmly thinking in her own head “only ___more hours until I kill myself”.

Depression hijacks your brain. The things you want to think, the things others tell you to think don’t have much impact. It’s kind of like the flight attendant yelling at the hijacker “You know, if you just put down that gun and take your seat, we’ll all have a much more enjoyable flight”. The hijacker isn’t interested in what the flight attendant has to say.

Medication is kind of like an Air Marshal. It can step in with authority that none of the other passengers have the skills to use. But even medication doesn’t help everyone. Some hijackers are resistant to even Air Marshals.

Therapy? Yes it helps. But not just the therapy that takes place in someone’s office. Depressed people often find themselves curled up in an emotional ball protecting their vulnerability from the world. Yet, what they most need is to be touched by as many supporting structures as possible. Ironically, the thing they feel least like doing, “talking” is the most helpful during depression. And they need to be “doing”, even if it just begins as going through the motions. At very least, doing, keeps you from drowning in the sea of one’s own negative sense of hopelessness.

Doing allows for the world to be a little larger than the black hole of one’s own depressed mind. And similarly talking provides not only an unburdening, but also a way to feel some sense of another person’s non depressed energy to remember what it feels like, during times you feel zapped of vitality. It can also be a way to see one’s value as worth more than a depressed person might be able to conjure up on their own.

Part of the dilemma however, is that non depressed people don’t usually want to hang out for very long with depressed people. This is usually painfully obvious to the depressed. And so Instead of seeking contact, they are more likely to retreat behind a façade or to their private hell where they can suffer silently.

Being with a depressed person doesn’t require us to solve their problems. Nor, does it require us to take their problems on as our own. More often than not, it harkens us to just be there in that space with them for a few moments without judgment or insistence that they change. Think of it as providing just one glass of water on a long path for a weary traveler. You don’t have to be an endless fountain and quench all of their thirst, simply provide enough for that leg of the journey. The traveler may still elect to end their journey prematurely, but they will do so with the knowledge that someone tolerated them as they truly are before they leave.  Sometimes that is the most needed and effective gift we can provide to another human.

 

Thanks for stopping by.  I’d love to hear your comments.  If you found this helpful, please pass it on and suggest someone you know subscribe.  Until next time- Take Care

 

The Money Pit

To listen to the audio version click the link below- on a smart phone you may need to scroll down to find the sound icon- you’ll also need to return to the website if you would like to leave a comment- or you can  email it to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

…I’ve realized that loss creates an opening in our lives.  We can fill that space with fear, panic and anxiety.  Or we can let it be open for creating something new, something that didn’t exist before.  It can lead to something far better.  To experience something new, we have to let go of what’s old.  We have to remain calm in the face of setbacks.—art of being unmistakable

 

The house my husband and I owned prior to the one we currently live in was a house I really loved.  It had an open floor plan, a huge kitchen and a pantry, so large that when our oldest son was a toddler, he called it the “food room”.  There was an abundance of cabinets– so many that I could be careless about the space, never really filling them to their capacity.

It also had a Jacuzzi tub in the master bath that could easily be operated with a little button on the top of the tub and a sizable walk in closet.  It wasn’t perfect.  The lot was TINY and the next door neighbor had two GINORMOUS dogs that frequently rushed the fence in a threatening way whenever we went in our back yard.  And, it was in St. Peters.; a fact that did not please my husband.

One day he came home announcing that he would like to have a little more room to use for his business.  He wanted an out building or perhaps enough land to add a building.  And then, as if someone magically waved a wand, about 10 weeks later, we were living in the house where we still remain today.

I don’t exactly mean it happened by magic.  But rather that, it happened incredibly quickly.  We looked at houses for a couple of weeks, saw the one we wanted and bought.  We went home and put our house up for sale, and moved the closing to about 3-4 weeks out.  It wasn’t as if I wasn’t an active participant.  In fact, on a couple of the days, I went out with the realtor on my own and saw houses my husband did not.  When we walked into our final pick, I fell in love with a staircase.  I imagined it decorated for the holidays.  My kids fell in love with a pool.  My husband fell in love with 3 acres at the end of the lane.  Everybody had something to love….

Until we moved in.

Day one of the move I went to work.  I returned home to find my refrigerator in my new kitchen.  Only it wasn’t where refrigerators normally go.  It was stuck in the middle of the kitchen more or less.  It seemed it was a little too large to fit in the spot where it was supposed to go.

Not to worry my husband said “we’ll buy a new one.”  The only problem however, was that the spot for a fridge was made for a size that apparently no stores in St. Louis carried.  No problem my husband said.  ” I’ll cut the above cabinet out a bit and have it cut down.”  The only problem however, was that when the former owners retiled the kitchen, they grouted the cabinet stabilizer into the floor.  No problem my husband said.  I’ll cut it away and the top cabinet will come out with the stabilizer.”  The only problem however, is that once the cabinet was removed, it showed a large hole that had been caused by an obviously leaking shower from the bathroom above.  A hole that appeared to have started growing mold.

No problem he said, and I began to feel like Goldie Hawn in  “the money pit”, just not as cute.

My response was to cry.  And cry I did.  I cried that day, the next one and pretty much most of the ones after that for about 3 months.  And when I cried I said “what have we done to our lives?

the furniture didn’t fit

I had no idea what living with a well and sewer “off the grid” meant

deer ate everything and anything that resembled a flower

there were bugs everywhere since we live in woods, not to mention a snake or two

the sprinkler system groaned at night as if a dying body was living under the front porch

frogs croaked so loudly outside the window it was hard to sleep

the jacuzzi tub was small and to operate it, you have to get out of the tub to turn on the switch

the pool heater broke

every room was painted with sponge painting

and….. did I mention it has a really pretty staircase?

My poor husband was beside himself. He tried everything he could think of- short of decorating the staircase for Christmas in August, to make the house seem more enjoyable to me. But what finally came to me was the realization that I was comparing the new house constantly to the old house. Everything had happened so quickly, that I hadn’t really had time to process leaving the old one behind. And as a result, I felt not ready for the new one. I didn’t yet “live” there.

That insight provided a huge relief for my situation.

I started to realize finally that I needed to say goodbye to my old house. It’s where we lived when we had our second son. It’s the first house we bought together and several other important memories. But at the end of the day it was a house, not our home. Our home was where we lived as a family, and that place was now no longer in St. Peters. I began to allow myself to enter the process of saying goodbye. And gradually over a few days, maybe longer, I began to open myself up to appreciating what the new house had to offer our family.

We painted. We disconnected the sprinkler. We had the hole over the fridge fixed. And we got a dog. Our beloved Snickers, who loves running in the woods around our house and chasing every rodent she can find. We met new people; some wonderful people.   We have a life here now and although we probably we won’t live here forever, it gives me great joy for now. My children are growing up here. They will most likely always think of this as the house they call their childhood home. And every Christmas, decorating the staircase still remains my favorite activity.

It’s very hard to enjoy the life you are in if a significant part of your emotional self remains living somewhere else. Are there places or people that you’ve had difficulty saying goodbye? Are there opportunities in your future that you have not yet created space for by letting go?

 

 

Never can say goodbye

for an audio version of this post, click on the link below- if you are listening on a smartphone, you may have to scroll to the end of the post and look for the sound icon

 

 

Put on a little Michael Jackson background music for this one

 

Never can say goodbye-

Today my neighbors moved away.  They are an elderly couple who are moving to Portland in order to be near their children and grandchildren.  In addition to having been really sweet neighbors, Ron and Orlanda were also my landlords for the building where my office is located.

They had a little going away party last weekend and I attended with bittersweet feelings.  On the one hand, I’m sad to see them go.  On the other, I feel confident that it is the right thing for them and their happiness and comfort level.  I saw Orlanda on the road yesterday and gave her a hug.  I had to fight back my tears.  Today I saw Ron while I was on my way to take my son to school.  I thought for a moment of just waving, but I stopped the car and gave him a big hug instead.  And I sobbed.

A short while later I talked to another neighbor Sarah, who lives across the street from Ron and Orlanda.  Sarah and her family have been a surrogate family for Ron and Orlanda since they’ve lived here.  In fact, Sarah offered her home to the Keuther’s last night since their house was empty.  I knew it was going to be a really hard day for Sarah.  We met on the road and cried together for a few more minutes.

 

In addition to missing the company of the Keuther’s who are really lovely people, Sarah and I have something else in common.  We are both orphans.  That was an attempt at a little twisted humor rather than self-pity.  Sarah lost her mom when she was 18.  I lost my dad at 15.  She lost her father about 5 years ago, and my mom will be gone 3 years this July.

Orlanda taught me how to make the most amazing caramel apple pie.  Ron is an incredible word worker and made beautiful hand crafted items including ornaments he gave us at Christmas.   Part of what made today’s saying goodbye for me is more than simply knowing that I won’t see my neighbors again.    It’s also knowing that I no longer have a kind of naiveté about life transitions like these.  The other reality is that Ron and Orlanda are becoming a bit frail, less independent and while I don’t mean to suggest they have one foot in the grave, the reality is they are in the later season of their life.

Maybe it’s my age and colored by the experience of having lost both parents, but I know when I was younger, I didn’t think about these things much.  I hate to be a spoiler in case you haven’t read the book, but in the early part of the “Giver” by Lois Lowry, there is a discussion about how the elderly woman is all excited about her “getting released” party that is about to occur.  It’s a celebration of one’s life and then you are released from the utopian community.  Of course, you learn later in the book that,  being released really means being given a lethal injection because you are no longer needed in the community and you’ve lived out your usefulness.

Ron and Orlanda are pretty vibrant for their age.  In addition to making a great pie, Orlanda is an artist.  Ron get’s up early every morning and walks.  It’s easy to forget sometimes.  Except that Orlanda had a stroke a couple of years ago, and she gets pretty forgetful when she gets tired.  Ron had a bad accident on his tractor a year or so ago and his back and hands haven’t really healed as well as he had hoped.  They are getting older.  They are getting less dependent.

And of course, as I look for these features in them, I am keenly aware that in the big picture, I’m not that far behind them.  On the one hand they have a good 30 years on me.  But my “baby” turning 11 yesterday reminds me how quickly time does pass.

I’m not planning on any self (or other) lethal injections any time soon- I promise!  Nor would I tell anyone that I’m afraid of dying, because I’m truly not.  I have a faith that allows me a comfort that whatever is on the other side will be of comfort.   But that said, I am still a human being, with a human life to manage through every day.  I have children to care for, a house to clean, a job to do and so on.  And many days if not all of them feel like there is more on my to do list than there is time in a day… or in a lifetime to get them done.  And I suspect that although I know that most of the tasks really aren’t that important- I’m keeping the list long enough to try and bet against time.  Because in the end… it really is true…. I never can say goodbye.