Sunday, June 9, 2013

Till Death Do Us Part . . . ish.

Photo by bigjom
 Here we are in the month of June.  The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and couples all over are spending tens of thousands of dollars to create the ultimate perfect nuptial experience. 

What I like is that in recent years I have seen an increase in clients who come in for pre-marital counseling.  It feels wrong on some level to poke around with these couples and try to find the issues that could be their ultimate undoing.  What's scary is that it's not hard.  Oftentimes they have been living together for some period of time and are already bickering about money and the division of household responsibility.  So, I try to set the stage for future work.  At least they already have the phone number.  The young people I see tend to fall into one of two categories:  either they are from horrific families where there was nothing but conflict and have no idea about healthy relationship skills, or they are from families where there was NO conflict because everyone liked everything pretty much the same way . . . and they have no idea about healthy relationship skills when there IS conflict.

I wondered, as I thought about this blog, why June? Here's what I found out:
  • Once upon a time it was considered lucky to honor the Roman goddess of marriage by celebrating a wedding in the month named for her.
  • Apparently, the druid spirits were busy getting frisky in May, and nobody wanted to risk getting them angry by interfering earlier in the spring.
  • When the weather started getting warmer, it was time to think about your annual bath. By June, you were still pretty fresh.
  • Always practical, if conception occurred immediately, babies would be born in early spring. What that meant, ladies, was that we'd be up and around in time to help out with the harvest instead of lounging around caring for an infant or waddling around inconveniently pregnant.
Read about some interesting roots for those romantic wedding traditions here

Here's my favorite stock
image couple,
demonstrating bliss.
In history, marriage was practical.  It was a business deal between men, generally, and had to do more with keeping track of who owned the camels and the fields than who loved whom.  I remind myself that divorce is a relatively recent phenomenon in the world, and that for centuries, young people may not have even had the freedom to choose their own spouse.  Historically, brides may have been abducted, forced into marriage, and have had no recourse to get out no matter how bad it was.  Then again, historically the relationships were different and women did not expect much from their husbands besides bringing home the bacon and being generally less than abusive.  If you happened to wind up with a husband who was kind?  Well that was just a bonus.  Back in the day, marriage was all about commitment and responsibility.  It was just what you did to keep the community going.  That being said, the community tended to take action when someone was acting in an abusive manner in a marriage.  There were consequences for infidelity (for women that is . . . in many cultures men were expected to do what is now considered "cheating") and abuse that aren't there today.  There were things that you just DID NOT DO because good people didn't.  And frankly?  People had a better sense of community and were more interested in treating each other well.  Because if you beat your wife, and you had to depend on your wife's brother for something you needed, you might not be treated well in that transaction.  Yeah it has selfish motives.  But we're animals.  We want to survive. 

Seriously. There's a hundred
pictures of these two.
 These days, the idea of marriage has become a romantic fantasy.  It's not.  Marriage is not that first giddy year of relationship where everything is hearts and flowers.  That's courtship, which is another relatively recent phenomenon.  Marriage is where the rubber meets the road.  It's choosing to compromise and work together as a "we" rather than two "I's."  Marriage is a choice.  And a responsibility.  Today, we have more choices.  We don't HAVE to get married.  Women can own their own stuff and don't need a man to bring home the bacon.  We don't HAVE to stay married to someone who is abusive, or even annoying.  However, we lack the necessary skills to create a partnership.  Some marriages are abusive.  Most marriages that end in divorce don't quite fall into that category.  The biggest culprit I see for divorce is disrespect.  Over time, couples who once would go to the ends of the earth for their love now will not go to the end of the couch.  Disrespect builds out of resentment, resentment builds out of misunderstanding and poor communication.  By the time couples come to my office in trouble?  We're in relationship ICU on a ventilator, and the couple wants a band-aid in the first session to fix it without having to do anything hard. 
Photo by Johnathan Fitch

We live in a throw-away society where it's easier to just start over than fix what's broken.  People get married, get stuck, get sick of each other and get divorced in hopes of moving on to find that ONE PERSON with whom there is never any conflict and live happily ever after. 

Bad news. That's not the way it works.   5 years later, a lot of them are back in my office with a new partner, in exactly the same relationship.

So I'm going to write about the 3 things in traditional marriage vows that, in my humble opinion, keep a marriage going.  If you can do these 3 things, you've got it nailed and you can start planning for your 50th anniversary.  Stop doing any one of them and you're toast.   

Stay tuned.

*images courtesy of 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

How to effectively ignore the fact that you have a body.

This is going to be one of those "do as I say, not as I do" posts. (Just ignore the fact that it took me 2 weeks to finish it)

It's month end.  As I write this, I really should be finishing up my billing for the month so that I can get it out in the mail tomorrow.  Instead, I'm reflecting on what a crazy week it's been and how tired I am.  I worked late last night, you see.  My choice - I own it.  I had a couple in my office who was really in the thick of doing some great work and my last session ran long.  I love those sessions.  After that, I started working on billing.  Long story short, I haven't gotten enough sleep over the last few days and my body was quite assertive this morning about letting me know all the ways that's not ok. 

As usual, animals do a better job.  When they are
tired, they sleep.  Go figure. 
Bodies do that, you know.  They're designed to give us the heads up that we're running on empty.  Ideally, we would listen to this alert, and get some rest, but NOOOOOOO.  What do we do?  Keep going.  Going harder most of the time.  So even with my years of clinical experience, and practice paying attention to and (mostly) respecting what my body tells me, my first reaction to my gritty eyes and heavy eyelids this morning was "I wonder if they make some kind of drops that make your eyes not feel tired??"  Then I chuckled at how my first reaction is to find some way to ignore my body so that I can keep going. 

That's what medications are about, by and large.  We take Sudafed so we don't have to feel the symptoms of our cold.  We take Advil so we can ignore pain and inflamation.  We take Tylenol to reduce fever . . . even though fever often has a very important function in fighting off illness.  We pride ourselves on getting to work when we feel awful.  A couple of years ago I took my daughter in to the doctor with a nasty sinus infection.  She had had a cold.  But for 2 weeks, she'd been coughing all night and running around with dark circles under her eyes.  Yep, he said.  It's a sinus infection all right.  I WENT to the doctor because I was ready to circumvent nature and use Western medicine.  I would rather have had my daughter stay home from school, rest a lot, drink fluids and let her body heal.  Unfortunately, the public school system does not seem to share that opinion.  And so, I sought antibiotics.  Imagine my surprise when I was told that "we don't treat sinus infections with antibiotics."  I agreed.  And I asked for a note excusing my daughter from school and schoolwork for the length of time she would need to let her body rest and heal because I was unwilling to continue to ask her to go to school looking like something out of "Night of the Living Dead."  I got the prescription. 

Antidepressants?  Anti-anxiety medications?  Same thing in my book.  They allow us to ignore the messages our body sends about needing to develop better coping skills, find better life balance, and deal with "negative" emotions.  That being said, we have to live in the world we're in.  Jobs don't respond well to a request for time off to regain life balance.  That happens in other countries better than it does here. 

So while we may choose to seek "better living through chemistry," it's important not to lose sight of what we are doing.  The more you learn about how your brain and body work, the more able you are to take "symptoms" as information and address the root cause rather than continuously have to mask symptoms and keep going until our bodies give out and we finally HAVE to listen.  Of course by that point the problem is bigger and takes longer to fix. 

LISTEN to your body.  Regularly, but especially when you're feeling symptoms, sleep. eat well, drink a lot of water.  If you have to turn to something outside your body to get through a tough time, do it.  Don't lose your job or relationships because you can't function.  Don't fight taking an antidepressant on principle, but don't get dependent on it either because sooner or later, your stress level exceeds your medication's ability to cope too. Use medication to function until the crisis resolves, and then build coping skills and self-care to keep from getting back to that place again.

Take home message?  Early identification and attention to the information our bodies are happy to give us without fear or the need to label emotional experience as "WEAK" or "CRAZY" leads to overall better functioning and a less crisis-oriented band-aid approach to treatment! 
(might this apply to government too???  ponder.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Hi, my name is Karen . . . I recently made it 3 days without a Diet Coke. 

This may not seem a significant achievement for many of you, but Diet Coke is the absolute bane of my existence.  I'm a hard core addict.   I have a collection of international Diet Coke cans.  I have one that I brought back from Italy. Then when I went to visit my sister in Germany, one of the highlights of the trip was a jaunt into France (!!!!!) where my brother in law found me a French Diet Coke to keep my German Diet Coke company on the trip back to the states.
This is what 4000 gallons looks like. 
  I started drinking Diet Coke in college.  Since then, I figure I have probably averaged about 2 of them a day for the past 20 years.  Now, this is a rough estimate, but I imagine that my unrestrained intake in the earlier years is compensated for by the "one a day" years.  I feel fairly confident in the realization that I have consumed close to 4,000 gallons of the stuff.  Holy Cow. 

Last week, (ok 3 weeks ago now, since I got sidetracked from my blogging) I attended a lecture given by Bill Kelley of Dartmouth University entitled "How the Brain Forms New Habits:  Why Willpower isn't Enough" or something like that.  I commented to my colleague as I sipped my post-lunch Diet Coke that no doubt by the end of the day I would have all the tools I needed to kick the habit, and so he should take a picture of my very last Diet Coke.  He's a psychologist.  He didn't take a picture.  I did learn more about him in the few minutes we chatted during the breaks than I have in 13 years of sharing office space, which I find fascinating. 

During this lecture, I learned several things:
First, I have learned a lot about neuropsychology in the last couple of years.  I remember vividly attending a lecture with Dr. John Arden a few years back and taking (not kidding) over 40 pages of notes. I just love this stuff.  It was kind of neat to recognize a lot of the information presented last week as "stuff I already know." 

Yay pairing Diet Coke with strong
man hands.  No that doesn't strengthen
the connection at all.
More important, I learned about the workings of Dopamine as a chemical motivator in the brain, and its role in the formation of habits.  I learned that Dopamine has nothing to do with how much you like something, but rather with how rewarding it is to your system.  Rewarding doesn't always mean "YAY THAT MAKES ME FEEL GREAT!" either.  It is rewarding, for example, when my kids turn the Wii on, and it makes that crazy dinging sound at an amazingly loud volume no matter what the actual volume of the TV is.  I holler "TURN THAT THING DOWN!!!" which I don't think they really have to do but they appease me anyway and the dinging stops.  That's rewarding.  The same way that Pavlov's dog salivated to the ringing of a bell once upon a time.  The cue (the bell) has nothing to do with the response (salivation).  But drool the dog did. 

Strategy:  Stop calling it Diet Coke and
start calling it by its given name.
So, the first time you experience something, and it's rewarding, you get a little bump of Dopamine in your brain that says "ooh.  do that again."  From then on, the dopamine bump comes from the CUE - just the THOUGHT of Diet Coke makes me want to do it again.  Then for extra added fun, consider this:  dopamine production is of course the common denominator in all drugs of addiction . . . including sugar and caffeine.  So your brain says "ooh.  do that EVEN MORE."  It doesn't even matter if you enjoyed it.  The chemical reaction taking place without your conscious knowledge or permission strengthens the habit.

Oh.  And in writing this article I found a blurb that part of the chemical reaction in processing phenylwhateveritisamine creates L-Tyrosine . . . which is a vitamin you can BUY that's supposed to help with stress.  So I get the dopamine bump with the cue.  And another dopamine bump with the caffeine and sugar.  Then until today I've always thought that "Diet Coke makes me feel less stressed" was all in my head.  It's not.  It's the triple threat.  Unfortunately, I have this pesky obsession with healthy living, and don't want to live my life from one chemical to another.  How come broccoli can't do all that stuff right that very instant??? 

So I get cues . . . like . . . morning.  Gas stations.  Eating food.  Being tired at work.  Driving.  All of which have been associated in my little brain at some point with the amazing deliciousness of Diet Coke.  Which no doubt in addition to caffeine and "sugar free" sugar which my body reads as REEEEEEEEEAALLY sweet sugar, contains traces of crack.  All of which stimulate the production of Dopamine. 

No wonder it's so hard to give the stuff up.  I once asked my amazing therapist if she could hypnotize me to believe that Diet Coke was really disgusting.  Like dog poop.  She said no. 

So we're back to will power.  I KNOW my goal is to ingest less and less of this nasty stuff.  None would be AWESOME.  I've tried setting rules for myself, like I can only have Diet Coke on Fridays, or only when I go through the drive through when I'm in a hurry.  I don't keep it at home.  Ever.  If I am at home and want one, I have to put on shoes, load up my kids, and drive "in to town" to get one.  This is a deterrent, but sometimes not enough of one. 

I do ok for a couple of days.  I carefully monitor my self-talk and support myself in driving to work without stopping to buy one.  I set myself up for success by making a wonderful jug of hot tea before I leave the house, so I have something to drink on the way in to work. 

But then life kicks in.  Sometimes I'm tired.  And the reality is, when I'm sitting in my office seeing client after client after client after client . . . my brain gets a little fuzzy and a Diet Coke honestly does help.  So I try substituting.  Coffee, tea, even tried caffeine pills.  But sometimes I want something a little sweet . . . so I keep fruit in the office. 

All this stuff takes effort.  And when I'm already depleted because I didn't get enough sleep, and my kids were hellac  - shall we say less than cooperative - that morning, and I'm swamped with trying to be the kind of therapist I want to be to both the clients IN my office and the ones who are having an unscheduled rotten day and need some extra support . . . sometimes it's just easier to stop at the gas station and give myself a treat that takes zero effort, makes me feel GREAT within minutes, and is an opportunity to say YES to myself when the NO list piles up too high.  And my addiction is back on in full force.  Let me just say out loud that as I listen to my "addict" clients, it has not escaped me that their behaviors around their substance of choice are NO different than my behaviors around Diet Coke and chocolate. 

So what am I going to do about this? 
    Strategy:  post this picture on the mirror in my bathroom. 
    And the dash in my car.
    And my office.
    Heck.  Maybe a tattoo. 
  1. IDENTIFY what my body is trying to tell me with the craving.  For example, craving chocolate can be a sign of magnesium deficiency.  Pretty sure craving Diet Coke is a sign of a sleep and rest deficiency.  I have a bottle of L-Tyrosine at home.  I'm going to start actually taking this supplement and see if my Diet Coke cravings diminish. 
  2. PRACTICE the positive behavior I want to do:  I will start picturing NOT drinking a Diet Coke, and pairing it in my mind with things like a healthy pancreas, healthy body, healthy life.  When I DON'T drink one, pat myself on the back and say "Look At YOU!!!"Now if I could just figure out how to make man hands a part of that visualization . . .  but I digress.
  3. SUBSTITUTE for the habitual behavior: I will continue make tea for myself so I have something to drink in the car.
  4. SAY YES:  I will give my body what it's asking for in healthier ways instead of creating more deprivation:  I'm going to nurture myself in other ways whenever I can so I don't feel so depleted.  At work, if I reallly am struggling, getting caffeine and a little something sweet from a healthier source.  Coffee has way fewer chemicals than Diet Coke, and I like it kindof watered down.
  5. BREAK the habit:  I'm going to white-knuckle it past the gas station and tell myself all the reasons I don't need a Diet Coke and remind myself that I won't still be craving it in 5 minutes. 
  6. REWARD myself for successes AT LEAST as much as I beat myself up for "failures."  I'm going to congratulate myself for making it 3 days before I relapsed. 
  7. REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS for progress:  I'm going to recognize that kicking a habit is HARD, whether it is smoking, Diet Coke, stress eating, exercise or crack - and I'm tired.  I have a more than full time job and 2 amazing more than full time kids.  Not that "falling off the wagon" after 3 days is acceptable, but it is better than never getting on the wagon in the first place. 
And yes, I drank a Diet Coke while writing this. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Apparently, I'm allergic to help.

A friend of mine recently noticed that I am, as she so kindly put it, "allergic to help." 

I have been allergic to help for a LOOOOOOOONG time.  There are too many examples to list.  Here's my favorite.  Once upon a time, I volunteered myself and my horse to ride in a leadership clinic with some Cowboy from Virginia  winking.  After an amazing and enlightening day, I vividly remember preparing to take my gear back to the trailer.  Purse over my shoulder, bridle and helmet looped over my arm, carrying my saddle.  I believe I was about to grab my horse's lead rope as well (Hellooo - I'm an endurance rider. We don't make more than 1 trip) when the Marlboro Man asked if I needed help.  He'd just met me.  He had no idea.  As usual, the phrase "Nope!  I got it!!!"  popped out of my mouth before he'd even finished the question.  You see, I never need help.  Not ever.  And the more I need it, the less likely I am to admit it by golly unless I'm paying attention.  Well, the Cowboy folded his arms, looked at me a little sideways, leaned against the round pen, shook his head and said "My grandfather would not like this." 

I stopped dead in my tracks.  Looked at him blankly for a long moment . . . and handed him my saddle.  And said "Thank you."

A while ago, I had a conversation withy my mother that probably saved me years of therapy.  We were chatting about the past, and she commented that she used to really look forward to my coming home from school when I was in first or second grade. 

Me being me, I couldn't let that go.  "Aww, that's sweet!"  I responded . . .  "Why?"

My mother proceeded to explain to me that she had 2 babies at home at the time (ages 3 and infant), and that when I came home, it was nice to have someone to talk to . . . and here's the part that saved me therapy time . . . I never needed anything.  I would have been about seven. 

Now before my mom calls me, let me explain that I get it.  I TOTALLY get it.  When I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and trying to get things done and one of my kids asks for something, I have to work really hard not to heave a deep sigh before stopping whatever I needed to do to take care of whatever they need me to do.  The take-home message is that my mom never intended to send me the message that it wasn't ok to ask for help, but I was a pretty capable, independent kid and as a result, I was inadvertently rewarded for doing things on my own, and got the message that asking for things wasn't ok because it bothered other people.  Which I then took too far because kids do that. 

Here's the point:  at the time I had this conversation with my mother, I was struggling mightily with my issue of being totally overwhelmed (and this was BEFORE I had kids) and not having the skills to ask for help.  I would go ridiculously out of my way NOT to ask for help in fact, and would take great pains to keep anyone on the planet from ever discovering that I might possibly in any way not have everything all together.  As a mother of 2, I would have had to give that up anyway, as it is no longer possible for me to even maintain the illusion that I have everything even remotely together.  See how I've grown?

Every issue you're struggling with in your life, you learned somewhere.  Now this isn't "blame your parents" day on the blog, but odds are you learned it there.  Remember that whatever you learned, it may not be what they intended  to teach you.  When we learn things so young, we don't have fully functional reasoning brains yet, but we develop habits.  I can imagine my 7 year old self, seeing my mom doing 27 things at a time, and figuring there was no good reason to bother her with whatever I wanted, and figuring out how to do it myself.  When I was 4 I decided to clean the bathroom one day.  Trying to help.  Pretty sure mom would have been happier if I'd asked for help that day, as I ended up getting stitches in my thumb.  Or when my friend David and I decided to try out the glue-making technique we'd seen on PBS and mixed flour and water and added it to the play doh. 

When you identify what you learned, and what habits you created with your kid brain that you've carried into your adult life, it's easier to let go of them.  You're no longer locked in to the belief that if you ask for help you're horribly inconveniencing people, and they will be unhappy about it.  You can just ask.  And they can say yes or no.  And then you move on.  Shockingly?  People often say they will be more than happy to help.  It's amazing.  You should try it. 

The corrolary to this of course is be careful what you're teaching your kids.  They tend to learn it despite your best efforts.

Above all, don't forget to have a sense of humor about your bad habits.  That way you can smile when your friends laugh at you when you still do them.  UBKZ

Monday, April 15, 2013

Boston: Trouble . . . and Grace.

While I was in my office meeting with wonderful hurting people who want nothing more and are working their guts out to free themselves from pain and learn how to navigate their lives, someone else blew up a piece of MY world.

Purposefully.  Willfully.  Viciously. 

I'm having a lot of feelings today. 

I wish I could say one of them was shock.  I'm not shocked. 

Fear.  I'm afraid we are going to see more and more of this.  I'm afraid that we will soon learn what "those poor people in the middle east" have lived through for a long time. 

Dread.  I'm dreading the onslaught of hateful angry posts all over the internet that pour gasoline on the flames.  Short-sighted, inaccurate, self-serving LOOK AT ME drivel that makes a mockery of the devastation in Boston today.  I plan, for the first time in my FB career, to use the "mark as spam" button liberally.  I will not engage (probably :)  ) in debates with people who aren't interested in doing anything but arguing.  

Disgust.  At the climate of complacency rampant in this country (of course probably not one person reading this fits that description because you care enough to read) that is so worried about infringing in the slightest way on anyone's freedom that responsibility has been lost.  Think about asking "SHOULD I" rather than "CAN I."   How bad does it have to get before we start asking "how can I make it better?" rather than "what's in it for me??"  Sure we can go to the Supreme Court and fight for our RIGHT to this and that . . . but what about our RESPONSIBILITY?  To EACH OTHER? 

Grief:  At the innocence lost to our nation's youth - and heck ME . . . I had a 10 year old in my office recently concerned that his family and pets could die at any moment.  He should be making mudpies, riding his bike and tugging on girl's pigtails, blissfully unaware that such horror exists.  I will allow myself to move through the grief.  The horror.  The disbelief.  I will not bury it, justify it, or rationalize it, nor will I let it engulf me. 

Resolve.  Tomorrow morning I will come back into my office.  I will encourage others not to react in fear and anger.  I will focus on what I CAN do to make a difference. Tomorrow, I will comfort those in need.  Tomorrow, I will use kind words even when I'm frustrated . . . and even if someone tailgates me on the highway.  Tomorrow, I will find warm ways to reach out to people and connect.  I will make eye contact with strangers . . . and smile.  Tomorrow I will raise my head high and be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  That is what I CAN, and furthermore SHOULD do. 

Tonight, I'm going to hug my kids.  Really, really tight. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

It won't suck forever. Really.

I get it. 

You're discouraged.  You're disappointed.  Someone has broken your heart.  You feel trapped, powerless and out of control.  Whatever is going on, right now, things just suck. 

It won't suck forever.  Remember that.  I know.  You don't believe me.  It's ok.  Hear me out.

Today's world is HARD.  We are overloaded, overstimulated and overwhelmed, mostly without adequate skills to manage our emotions.  We get taught from day one NOT to feel - or at least not to tell anyone about it.  We end up feeling alone and lost.  People act really shitty and think it's their right.  You're not making it up.  Sometimes things really do suck. 

Don't give up.  Wait a week.  Or a day.  Or an hour.  Recognize that not every minute is horrible, and that horrible is relative.  Don't fall for the trap that there is some way you can rig your life that everything will be wonderful and happy all the time.  There are significant moments, both happy and lousy, scattered throughout a whole lot of pretty darn boring.  That's the way it's supposed to be.  You've been sold a bill of goods in movies and TV that everything is exciting and dramatic.  It's not.  Remember, they're condensing several days, weeks or months into 40ish minutes.  People don't watch TV and movies to see reality.  It's drama.  Life isn't like that. 

There's this thing called "habituation."  It's hard-wired.  We can't NOT do it.  From the time we're babies, we pay attention to something new.  Over time, it gets boring, and it doesn't pique our interest anymore.  It would take greater and greater levels of happiness to achieve the same feelings over time.  Similarly, we habituate to hard times too, so even if whatever stressful thing that's going on keeps going on for a long time, our brains get used to it and it doesn't seem so stressful.  The thing is, most of the time, stresses come and go.  You have a fight with your friend.  In a week, either you've both forgotten about it, or at the very least you've gotten used to avoiding each other in the hallway.  Think about things that have happened that were awful and you thought they'd never end.  Then they ended.  And you were ok.  That doesn't mean it didn't suck.  It just means it didn't suck forever. 

A guy named Ken Baldwin jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1985.  He reports that as soon as he let go, he realized that "everything in [his] life that [he] thought was unfixable was totally fixable - except for having just jumped."  I can tell you I hear this story over and over.  A 20 year old guy who got dumped by his girlfriend and decided to hang himself.  As soon as the rope got tight, he remembers thinking it was a bad idea.  He's pretty glad his grandparents heard him.  Another kid in his 20's who tried suicide a couple years ago and can't really remember why he even wanted to do it.  A 17 year old girl who overdosed and cut herself who is now 25, finishing school and pretty darn happy with her life.  I could go on and on.

Any animal caught in a trap is tempted to chew off a leg to get free.  It's pretty normal for any one of us to consider suicide from time to time as a way to avoid having to actually go through whatever crappy thing is happening at the moment.  There's a big difference between really wanting to die and just wanting the pain to stop.  You want the pain to stop.  I know.  Me too.  The thing is, a lot of people don't know that they have choices other than feel miserable, or think about suicide.  If someone were to give you another option that made sense, you'd probably take it. 

That other option is about TOOLS and SKILLS.  No offense to parents and other people in your life, but LOTS of people don't have those skills.  We have skills for avoidance.  Numb out with TV, video games, alcohol, drugs, sex, sometimes over-achieving, dieting, whatever keeps you from feeling the pain.  Yes.  Learning new skills and getting through it is hard.  The more you practice, the easier it gets.  So where would you learn these skills?  TV?  We covered that.  Friends?  Their skills might not be any better than yours, and they might be the ones causing the problem in the first place.  Parents?  That's hit or miss.  If you have a great relationship with parents who have great skills, you're probably not thinking about killing yourself (though that's not always true either).  And yeah, when you feel hopeless at the end of your rope it's hard to be really motivated about learning a whole bunch of new coping skills.  You don't have to do it alone. 

So many people are scared to go see a therapist, but therapists are great coaches and can give you a short-cut to feeling better.  Therapists aren't there to judge you, or lecutre you, or boss you around.  Don't waste your energy feeling ashamed, weak or embarassed.  They won't see you that way.  Yes there are bad therapists.  Most of them aren't.  If you get a bad one, walk out of their office and right straight into someone else's.  I'd be surprised if you find 2 bad ones in a row.  Call your local community mental health center.  Google "THERAPIST (your zip code or city)."  Talk to your parents, if that's a safe thing to do.  Talk to a teacher.  Talk to a friend.  Talk to a friend's mom or dad.  TALK TO SOMEONE.   Know that it doesn't always take a lot of money to talk to a professional.  Call a hotline.  1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE Somewhere, there is someone who will listen.  Remember, you're not calling to tell them you're going to kill yourself.  You're calling to tell them you want another option.   

You can do this.  It will be worth it because it won't suck forever.  I promise. 


Click here to like our Psyched-IN! Facebook page for daily bits of humor, inspiration and helpful tips for navigating this complicated and stressful life!!

I have to say it does crack me up to run around asking people to like me.  On some level it's quite uncomfortable.  But then again, isn't that what we all want?  The desire to be appreciated and approved of drives us to bring our best selves into relationship . . . and creates a great deal of anxiety if we give too much power to the opinions of others.  It's all about balance.  Keep that self-esteem knob on the inside where YOU are in charge of it. 

So today, remember to have good self esteem.  Like me on Facebook because you'll get something out of it.  (And I do get really excited with new likes and comments!!)   But first, like yourself.  Because you're worth it.  :)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Movie Review: Hope Springs

By the time most couples are in my office, at least one person has at least one foot out the door.  No one wants to hear "I'm not sure if I want to be with you anymore."  It hurts.  Suck it up.  The price tag on your pride is HUGE. 

It's scary to leave your ego and your defenses at the door and really roll up your sleeves and do the work of unraveling the damage you've done to your relationship over years.  And the expectation is it will be better in weeks.  Not gonna happen, my friends.  This process takes time. 

I'm here to say it's worth it.  Think of how much time you've invested in this relationship and how many people will be impacted if it ends. 

The only dealbreaker is one or more of the parties involved categorically refuses to make any concessions, won't own any part of the problem and doesn't really care if the other party leaves.  Other than that?  Anything can be overcome.  Affairs, abuse, lying, addictions, distance, money . . . two people on the same side of the table working against the PROBLEM (assuming the probematic behavior STOPS) instead of two people treating each other as the problem can get through it. 

A client recently turned me on to this movie.  I thought it was a really nice snapshot of what marriage counseling looks like.  Now in my office I tend to be less focused on sex, per se, and more on communication, but I think this movie did a nice job of demonstrating the process of having to buck up and discuss some really uncomfortable subjects, put on your big kid pants and get over yourself for the good of the relationship, which is ultimately for the good of the individual.  It demonstrates the role of communication, assertiveness and limit-setting.  I'm way more fun than that therapist though.  Just sayin'.  

I've got a few posts in the works about couples counseling.  Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Practice WINNING!!

Thanks to the Haeberle Family for this pic!
  One of the charming things I am often known to say is:

"You're either a therapist or you're not.  If you're a therapist, you'll be a therapist whether you're a licensed, practicing clinician, or a mechanic, or a landscaper, or an accountant . . . or a Cowboy.  If you're not a therapist, no amount of schooling can help you."  And then I write my student loan check. 
Recently, I was whining about how my life does not allow the time I'd like to get outdoors and ride my horse.  It's frustrating because there isn't a sense of continuity - like I'm making progress.  I ride 3 days in a row, and then don't get to touch a horse for 2 weeks.  My treasured friend the "non-therapist" sent me an email later that day, describing an endurance ride.  He talked about maintaining my steady trot all day, then seeing an opportunity at the finish and riding for it - picking up a faster gait and passing the leader to win the ride!  YAY!!!  His point was that I could ride in my head any time I wanted, that it WOULD improve my performance to practice in my head, and that it was more than vital for me to keep that part of me from getting buried under the rest of the junk in my life. 

What he didn't realize is that he made me think about more than that.  As he described my finish, all I could think about was the possibility that in that wild dash for the finish, my horse would probably shy at that Wal-Mart bag and toss me off into the bushes.  Then I started to wonder how other people I admire in this sport manage to pull off that race for the finish.  I've seen them do it.  It's totally exciting!!!  It occurred to me that these people probably practice between rides.  I bet they get out there with their friends and race just for fun, which teaches the horses how to do it.
Then, because I am so unfaililngly me, I started thinking about the larger implications for life, and the need to practice winning.  We tend to think about the worst case outcomes of whatever we're doing.  In doing so, we practice losing.  We practice failing.  We even practice giving up.  We practice all the things that won't help us win AT ALL.  Kids practice winning in their heads.  They even practice in their play.  They tell us they can be superheroes, or cowboys, or doctors.  When they are little, we call it cute.  When we get bigger, we call it daydreaming, and tell ourselves to get our heads out of the clouds and face reality.  We kill those winning visualizations with efficiency and finality.

I'm here to tell you to get out there and get your head in the clouds as fast as you can.  Your brain will naturally want to focus on the squeaky wheel, so don't worry - it will get plenty of grease.  Make a decision to practice winning in your head whenever you're faced with a problem.  In the meantime, I'm gearing up for my first ride of the season which is, coinciedentally ON MY BIRTHDAY!!!         

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Borrowed Talent :)

Take a few days of, take a few weeks to catch up!! 
 Thanks to NM for allowing me to share these beautiful words.  Enjoy!

foto76 -
Ebb and flow
Highs and lows
Life and death
Delicate breath
In and out
In and out

Like the waves
On the shore
So hard to say
How many days more
She will hold on
She'll fight for more dawns
In and out
In and out

Delicate breath
Life and death
Highs and lows
Ebb and flow

The Great Awakening
The spirit of love was there, alive and full of light
Even during times of darkness, the light shone so bright
Until the fall, into the deepest darkest darkness…that seemed to have no end in sight
And came so close to extinguishing that spirit of love light.
markuso -
So dark and cold in that place
It froze all except God’s grace
Eons came and went it seemed
Until the soul again could dream
A dream with hope’s faint light at first
But soon it came again into full burst
A great awakening was taking place
A magical thaw that one could taste
For although the light and spirit was threatened
The mystery of life and laughter was beckoned
As the Creator filled with love again
The cracks of the broken heart so it could mend

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A follow-up to the flooded post.

♥.Max ♥.
 What I forgot to say is that being caught off guard or scared gets you flooded really fast.  Getting ready for ride season gets me back to thinking about getting on chubby, fresh horses who have been on vacation for the last few months.  I'm hoping to ride my main man Max this season, and he's the king of the lateral move.  He's a spooker, that one.  Probably because he grew up with an inexperienced rider who was learning right along with him and was pretty scared.  (That would be me, for the record.  Sorry Buddy.)

I think back to my post on supporting him when he's afraid of something (Click here to read it).  Let me tell you at the moment when you're trotting happily down the trail and then all of a sudden you're in a ditch, there's not a lot of love for your horse.  That same thing can happen anytime we're low on energy.  We get stuck in traffic.  We come home and the basement is flooded.  Someone is late for a meeting.  Our boss lays on another project when we're already swamped.  Something unexpected has happened. Your amygdala kicks into high gear and triggers that good old fight or flight response. The threat is already gone by the time we get up, so the flight option doesn't make any sense because there's nothing to run from. That leaves fight. We get MAD.
  Here's 2 really good reasons to get a handle on anger in response to fear:    
1.  It hurts you.  The physiological response of anger takes a toll on our bodies.  Our heartrate increases.  Our digestion changes.  You've heard this from me before in writing about the Amygdala Hijack.  The more often you rev the engine on that old jalopy, the faster the parts will wear out.  Same is true for your body.  Sure you feel powerful, all puffed up with riteous indignation, but you're hurting yourself.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  Anger has very little practical place in today's civilized society.  Yes.  If someone jumps out at you with a knive, get angry.  If someone snatches your kid, get angry.  If a lion pounces on you while you're jogging (which happens here in Colorado), get REALLY angry.  Yell and scream and pound your attacker with every ounce of adrenaline-charged strength you've got.  But recognize that those are actual life-threatening circumstances that call for an actual life-saving response.  How often does that really happen?  
2.  It hurts others:  I'm thinking especially about when my kids scare me to death.  It sure gets their attention when they're about to run out in front of a car, but THEN IT NEEDS TO STOP.  The temptation is to keep right on yelling at them until the adrenaline has run its course.  From a strictly biological perspective, it serves to hopefully extinguish the behavior a-la Pavlov's dog.  But there's a fine line between effective anger and just plain VENTING.  When we have said what we need to say and then keep saying it, it cheapens the message.  Others have a finely tuned sense of appropriate emotional response, and when we go over the top, they are no longer thinking about the error of their ways, they are thinking you are a jerk.  Now we only tend to do this to people when we feel we can get away with it.  We typically don't open up that stream of unbridled self-expression (That's Terry Real's term, not mine) on the boss because there are consequences.  But I see it all the time in my office directed at spouses, siblings, and especially children.  Ladies and gentlemen you do not have the right to be abusive to ANYONE.  No matter what they did.  It's tempting and we all do it.  When you do, apologize. 
It cracks me up how many photos
this guy has!
Yes, that's right, I said apologize.  To your spouse.  To your sister To your co-worker.  And most importantly TO YOUR CHILDREN.  Apologizing teaches kids HOW to recover from screwing up royally.  It teaches them that apologizing doesn't give away your power or make you a wimp.  It doesn't invalidate your point or somehow give the other person the advantage.  It teaches kids that they deserve respect.  YOU respect your kids, and your kids see you respecting other adults, they learn SELF-respect.  Kids who don't learn self-respect either learn to be a doormat or learn to be entitled.  Neither one is pretty. 
Frankly, apologizing sucks.  Because you really do have a point, and it probably has at least some validity.  Letting go of that point and preserving the relationship is often so unpleasant that it serves as an inhibitor of future violations of the boundaries of others as well.  Now don't go to the other extreme and be a doormat either.  Just take a deeeeeeep breath and make an assertive statement about the issue at hand.  Oh.  And if the issue at hand is that whatever happened just triggered YOUR particular hot button?  You can say that too.  And you can take a time-out until your highly developed pre-frontal cortex is firmly back in command in your head. 
I think soon I will write a blog on how to apologize.  It can be complicated to preserve your self-esteem and a relationship at the same time. 
No, you're not a bad person when you lose your temper.  You're a person.  A human person who got hijacked by your amygdala.  Forgive yourself.  (That is not the same thing as justifying your outburst).  And then replay the situation over and over in your head . . . only CHANGE your behavior.  Practice NOT losing your temper, and see what happens next time! 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Flooded. The word of the day is Flooded

Flooded, in a psychological sense, means overwhelmed, but at the subconscious, nearly neurological level.  All your little nerve endings are set to "TILT."  In my head, it's like being inside a popcorn popper filled with ping pong balls.  Total overstimulation. 
I know it's been a while since I've written about brains and horses.  Let's get back to the brain.  Remember our friend the amygdala?  Remember how it's a light switch - either off or on?  Guess what happens when we get flooded???!!!  Yep, you guessed it.  Total fight or flight response trigger.  Your brain says that much stimulation must be a swarm of ants or locusts or something, so you better get the heck outa Dodge!!

This guy looks familiar

Going back to the anger issue:  What's that instinct called:  FIGHT or flight?  How often, when we get overwhelmed, do we run screaming from the situation?  I always chuckle at that picture in my head.  I think it would be AWESOME to haul a** out of my kitchen a-la-McCaulay Culkin in Home Alone when my kids are bickering.  Unfortunately, most of the time running away isn't socially appropriate.  So, what's the other option besides flight?  Yeah.  FIGHT.  Ahh, my favorite useless emotion, ANGER.  When we get overwhelmed, our lizard brain kicks into high gear for self-protection and we lash out.

I'm thinking of all the different times this comes into play. 

  • Kids.  Most often for me, it's when both of my kids are talking to me at a time.  It goes nuclear when they are bickering, I am trying to do something else, or it's the end of a day where I've already seen 12 clients.  Or I'm tired.  Or I'm stressed.  Feels like my head is going to explode.  Ugh.  The results are not necessarily ones I'm always proud of.  (See:  Therapists are human too)
  • Arguments.  When one spouse is an internal processor, and he/she marries an external processor.  The words feel like machine-gun fire.  In the heat of the moment, the internal processor gets FLOODED and explodes.
  • Traffic.  You're late.  You're picturing all the negative consequences of being late.  The person behind you honks.  You flip them off and scream words you've never said before. 
  • Frustration.  You're already doing 16 different things, and the person who comes and asks for thing 17 (even though they have no idea they are number 17) gets snapped at. 
Everything about being flooded makes us want to scream STOP!!!!!!!
I think it would usually be better if we did.  Lashing out in anger never solves anything.  More on that to come. 

In searching for a photo to represent how that ping pong ball scenario looks inside my head, I was taken on a walk down memory lane to remember one of my favorite childhood shows: Captain Kangaroo!! Youtube this. The Captain never once ripped Mr. Moose's antlers off for dropping ping pong balls on his head. He always responded with assertiveness. Good job PBS!

Learn to recognize being flooded.  Take a breath.  Take a break.  Take a time-out.  Take a mental vacation.  DON'T blow up, because the blow up isn't really going to be about what you're blowing up about, it's going to be about being flooded.  Remember the amygdala hijack?  A sudden, intense emotional response that later seems out of proportion to the situation?  Don't Do It!  Besides, if you blow up, then you have to apologize (more on that later too) and any valid point you MIGHT have been making gets lost in the anger game.  (How's THAT for motivation!?!) No one has to listen to you if you're "pissed."  Don't make it easy to be disregarded.  At least make others work for it.

Hey!  This is the same guy!

This article brought to you today by the Denver Colorado "Blizzard" of 2013 and my kids who went out and sledded for a while, but were mostly trapped in the house.  They are tucked in bed now, and I am pleased to report that only once did crazy mommy come out, and that was when my 9 year old argued with me about whether her little animal avatar could get married on her online "Animal Jam" game.  That MIGHT have been one of those battles I could have saved for later . . . but it seems wrong for her to be planning a wedding.  I'm willing to take the chance that I over-reacted there. 

Anyway, the plan for today was for me to go into the office, see a couple of clients and get a whole bunch of work done in a nice, quiet, understimulating environment.  Right.  That happened. 

Note to self:  It would have been a better idea to not even TRY to get work done, give up and have a great quality time game day with the kids and call it good.  Tomorrow is a snow day for at least one kid . . . I'll try again. 

Photos courtesy of

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

From "Riding with Empathy"
on Facebook.  They have LOTS
of cool horse stuff!
It's HERE!  It's HERE!!  The holiday that's all about celebrating relationship!  Yay!!!  Therapist does the happy dance!
Enjoy your day, folks. 
Keep your amygdala under control and your self-esteem strong. 


If things don't look like you want them to look today, think about looking forward and planning to spend the next 365 days creating NEXT Valentine's day.  Relationship not where you want it to be?  Focus on SOLVING the problem, not complaining about it.  No relationship?  Put on your big kid pants and go find one if you want it.  Kiss a few frogs and see if one of them turns out to be a prince/princess.  Don't feel like you're in a place to want a relationship?  ACCEPT that .  HONOR that.  Be where you are.  You can get to where you want to be. 

Wishing you Love today.  Yes, love from another, whether it's a goldfish, offspring or life partner, but love from yourself most of all.  Without loving yourself, you can't accept love from another (ok maybe the goldfish or a dog) in a healthy way.  Love yourself.  Be content.  You can do both of those on purpose.

Check out Riding with Empathy on Facebook 

Friday, February 8, 2013

I gave my love ... a cactus.

I have to say I really admire the cactus. 

Cactus lives in a harsh, unforgiving environment.  For the most part, it receives very little water or nourishment, but when it rains, the cactus must be able to store up as much as it can to make it through the next dry spell – and who knows how long that will be.  When the rain comes, and the cactus has replenished its reserves, it flowers.  If things are really good, it can even bear fruit.  Good thinking for the designers of the cactus to make those awesome succulent leaves that can stockpile sustenance.  Sharing a habitat with the cactus are many other hungry and thirsty critters who could use an easy meal.  So the cactus has armor.  And spines.  And the critters leave it alone.  And it survives. 

Prickly Pear Cactus
Photo by Art Poskanzer
A fact to which I do not often admit is that I grew up in South Texas, home of the Prickly Pear Cactus (also the jumping jack cactus which, in addition to the attributes listed above, is constantly set to “attack” mode.  I was on the receiving end of this the assassin of succulents on an endurance ride in El Paso once.  Yeowch).  I have lived in Colorado for nearly 20 years, so I do not consider myself a Texan anymore (really didn’t consider myself a Texan during the 23 years I LIVED in Texas, but that’s another story).  However, when you’ve been gone from somewhere for 20 years, the memory of all the reasons you don’t live there start to fade, and you wax nostalgic from time to time as you consider reclaiming your heritage.  Thus, on one September car trip back to the land of my birth, I decided that it would be super fun to make prickly pear preserves.  I stopped by the side of some lonesome Texas Highway, and used a newspaper to pluck a bagful of the richly colored magenta fruit from its spiny home.  Now nature wants these little beauties to mature right there on the plant, not get eaten by some hungry deer or bird before the seeds can grow on their own, so they have spines too.  Each one of these fruits must be peeled prior to cooking.  May I please tell you how MANY spines these suckers have, and how incredibly fine they are.  It took me WEEKS to stop feeling like I had shards of glass in every single finger.  The preserves never really set, and were more like syrup, but were tasty and made great Christmas gifts that year.  Take home message?  When you’re having to put all your energy into just staying alive because pickin’s are slim, you develop some pretty high-level defense systems. 

On the other hand, let’s look at the orchid.  Delicate stems, fragile leaves, gorgeous flowers with ornate, colorful petals.  No shortage of food and water in the rain forest.   The survival of this lovely depends not on being tough, but on being attractive.  The orchid needs to bat its shy, demure eyelashes at every bug that comes by, just begging to be pollinated and cross-pollinated.  If by chance the orchid is trampled or eaten, there are 30 more in the same zip code who now have a better chance.   

Perhaps you’re wondering at this point if you’re reading the wrong blog.  How did we get from mental health to horticulture? 

WOW!  This orchid is called "The Dove."
Is that gorgeous or what?
Image courtesy of image*after
There’s a great analogy for relationship here.  We are attracted to each other like bugs to an orchid.  (Imagine how romantic I am in my real life J)  Our avatar eyes meet across a crowded internet chat room and it’s kismet . . . we are drunk on the sweet nectar of the first 3 to 6 months of a relationship.  We make sure to have the exact recipe of attention and adoration that makes the other swoon.  It feels great to lavish the other with thoughtfulness, consideration, respect.  We promise it will be this way always, that we will not repeat our past transgressions of too much pruning, or too little, short attention span, too many plants in the greenhouse . . . we are the rain forest and there’s plenty to go around.  And then life kicks in.  Truth is we are not in the rain forest after all, and it takes actual work to care for a plant, as it does to nurture a relationship.  The world of addiction treatment has a saying (which I may or may not be quoting accurately because I remember it from Sandra Bullock in "28 Days" which is a GREAT movie by the way) – “when you get sober, get a plant.  If it’s still alive in a year, get a pet.  If in a year the pet is still alive, then you are ready to think about a relationship.”  I think this can be true for most adults in general.  I’ll save my “evils of society in general” soapbox for later, but will say that we don’t exactly value the concept of “high maintenance” these days.  There’s a reason that describing someone as a “hothouse flower” isn’t really a compliment. 

Also keep in mind that most of us come to the relationship arena with particular wounds and sensitivities.  By the time we get to our 20’s, 30’s 40’s . . . we’re the scratch and dent models, so unless we’re careful, we find out that that lovely orchid has developed some thorns.  Pretty sure with millions of years of slowly changing climate, we would see that orchid turn into a well-defended cactus.  Put that in the pressure cooker of the relationship and you can see the transition in mere months.

I use stock photos for this blog. 
I searched "Orchid" and this photo came up. 
It made me laugh so I thought I'd post it. 
Image courtesy of David et Magalie
If you want a low maintenance relationship, take home a cactus.  Be aware though that though your cactus might not nag and micromanage you to get its needs met, it has spines and isn’t especially cuddly.  Don’t treat it like a cactus and then blame it for being a cactus.  Similarly, if you want an orchid, be ready to put in the legwork.  If you treat your orchid like a cactus, don’t be mad at it for wilting and eventually dying.  You get out of the relationship what you put into it.