Tuesday, September 23, 2014

When our child is in crisis

Being a parent is a miraculous thing.  There are moments of pure unadulterated happiness.  Your 5 year runs to the door after your long day at work, screaming with glee "Mommy's home" and flings his arms around your legs for a hug even before you can shut the door!  There's that moment when you watch your baby girl take in the wonders of the flower garden, smelling the flowers and trying to catch a butterfly, and you realize how intermingled your joy is with hers.  The day she first rides her two wheeler without training wheels and your heart expands with pride as she yells "Daddy, look at me, I'm riding my bike!"
It's wonderful, it's hard, hard work.  There are the nights when all the kids have the flu and you're washing bedclothes all night as they take turns vomiting.  Or the late night homework projects that you both work on til midnight.  Exhausting, but it's still wonderful, because it is the natural order.....what life and the human race are about.

Until it isn't.  

Ask any parent who has gone through trauma with their child -- mental illness, chronic illness, serious medical conditions, trauma.   Or the unthinkable, the death of their child.  It feels like an invisible hand ripped open your chest, and tore your heart right out, then said "Ha! Now live with this excruciating pain for a while" (or months or years).  Everything else melts away.   Work doesn't matter.  Relationships don't matter.  You can't read the news or care about the RedSox anymore.  You hyper focus on your child's problem.  You find the strength somewhere to do what is necessary.  You climb into that ambulance, you sit by the bedside of your child with tubes and machines hooked up, and pray for the least worst outcome.  You drive your child to the psychiatric hospital that looks from the outside like a haunted mansion from a gothic novel, and you're filled with unbearable fear, while hoping they can keep her safe and help her heal.

Then you have to go on, somehow. You have to work and make a living, even though you want to spend every waking moment protecting your child, from the mishaps at the hospital, from the cruelty of the other kids, from themselves.  You have to keep making dinner for the family and find some way to sleep at night.  You have to deal with an equally traumatized spouse and somehow not kill each other because no one thought to do laundry.  

If the situation is long term, the stress a child's protracted mental or physical illness has on the family is excruciating.  The other kids need attention too.  They need you to go to their games, and arrange play dates, and care about playing ball in the back yard.  I swear, most parents I know are miracle workers, because they manage most of this too.  But the other kids notice that your attention is rote, that you're distracted or worse.  Sometimes they develop  symptoms too.  They don't do it consciously, but their developing psyches do what they need to survive.

I've watched many parents reach deep, deep inside themselves for the strength to keep the anxiety at bay, so they can function productively for all their children and themselves.  Usually they are doing something to relieve the stress......going to therapy, writing a blog, keeping up with exercise even when timing seems impossible, having weekly coffee or lunch with a trusted friend.  They are doing what the plane attendants always tell us to do. "Put on your own oxygen mask first, before you help your children put on theirs".  (Because if you pass out from lack of oxygen while trying to help them, you all die.). This is counterintuitive to most parents.  From the time our baby is born we put out own needs second.  The baby is crying, I must get up and feed her. Going back to that nice dream isn't even an option that enters your head!   But taking care of yourself during your child's illness or crisis is ultimately what will give you the strength and clarity to do what your child needs and what your family needs.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Psychological pain

Emotional pain has no regard for race, gender or social status.  It's strikes the famous and the homeless, young and old.  Many of you will recognize the description below:

You wake up before the sun, not with the sleepy urge to press the snooze button, but with a jolt of dread, or angst, or deep sadness.  It's physical and acute.  When you feel it, it's unmistakable and seems inescapable.  You're sure no one would understand or care.  All you want is for the pain to go away.  The worst part is that it's invisible to the rest of the world.  If you're lucky someone in your life is tuned in to you enough to see the strain on your face or the distraction.  But most won't, because it hides itself well, deep in your gut, in the lump in your throat or the invisible vice around your head.  You go through the motions of living, but it feels like you're operating on 2 cylinders instead of 4... or maybe even 1 cylinder.   Thoughts of running away, going back to bed, or even "checking out" float through your consciousness.

We've all felt this way some time.  For many it's a recurring misery.  For an unlucky number it's almost constant. It can be triggered by awful life situations, or almost nothing.  Either way, it's just as real and painful.

The way out is slow and counterintuitive.  Move, get out from under the covers, out of your isolation.  This requires incredible will power because the pain has it's own muscles fighting you.  Exercise can help.  Therapy can help.  Medication can help.  Support groups, DBT, yoga, mindful meditation can help.  Coffee with a friend can help.  Mostly, there's no magic, instant cure, but some relief from the acuteness.  The road to recovery seems possible.   Staying alone in your pain may make it fester and grow.  Sharing it can be a huge relief.  It takes time and hard work to manage or overcome these feelings.  It is a sign of strength to seek help, not weakness!

Then, miraculously, the pain subsides, for an hour or a day.  And when it's gone for even a day, you forget how bad it can get, and you laugh at someone's joke, or marvel at the stars on a clear night.

Monday, June 2, 2014



Life twists and turns in directions one might never imagine, and transitions can be emotionally charged even if the new path is one you choose.  We all expect to have lots of feelings during the "negative" transitions, like a break up, death of a loved one or pet, or loss of a job.  But the emotions that often come with more "positive" transitions can blindside us.  When supposedly happy changes evoke sadness, fear, anxiety, nostalgia, or even anger, you aren't crazy.  All change comes with some mix of emotions.

"He finally asked me!  I'm getting married!  Yea!  Whoa, I'm getting married.....?  I'm scared."

"We're moving from our cramped apartment to our dream house!  Why am I feeling sad?"

"I got a promotion and a raise.  Why do I feel guilty instead of elated?"

"The windfall I've waited 40 years for finally happened.  Why don't I feel happier?  Why don't I feel anything?"

It's important to honor the whole range of feelings that go with life transitions.  Usually the more negative feelings about "happy" events don't stick for long if you don't try to brush them away or stifle them.  Acknowledge them, honor them, have a good cry.   It's okay.  It's actually more normal than totally positive feelings about life transitions.  Humans are complicated beings with messy emotions.  Thank goodness.  It's what makes us interesting and unique.

Letting yourself feel the whole range of feelings, regardless of how "illogical" is important.  It helps them begin to dissolve, making room for your satisfaction and gladness.

A life transition can evoke all manner of historical feelings for us, even those we are sure we "worked through" and put to rest long ago.  Fear of the unknown can be powerful, compared to the comfort of the known.  Something happy can evoke the opposite feeling alongside the happy one.  Take the examples above.  The happiness of getting engaged can bring up fear of losing the one you love, or fear of being trapped.  Moving can evoke nostalgia for the life or place you are leaving behind, even while loving the place you are going.  You may be moving into a new place and new life, but losing the old familiar one.   Promotions can bring up fear of failure, or embarrassment about being promoted above your peers.  Winning the lottery, settling a lawsuit, getting an inheritance can evoke all kinds of feelings associated with childhood, self esteem, and even challenge your world view. (Is it fair that I'm so lucky, when people are starving in the third world?)  Money carries all manner of feeling with it.  We each have a lifetime of assumptions, and attach all kinds of significance to money or the lack of it.

Embrace all your feelings about the transition.  Try not to let the negative ones hold you back from what you know is a positive move forward.   Taking a well thought through step forward, even if it seems into the unknown, keeps life interesting.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A few words about healing.....

The healing process from childhood sexual abuse can be long and arduous.  In fact I tell my clients they will have to walk through the fire to get to the other side.  This, of course, is terrifying.  "But remember, " I tell them, "you experienced this stuff first when you were smaller and much more vulnerable.  You can certainly survive remembering it".  That isn't to say I think all abuse survivors need to recover their memories.  For most, the memories simply need to be taken out of the box they've been stored in for so long and experienced, or felt about, mourned, raged for, etc.

One thing that concerns me is that abuse survivors might take from the press, or from the many documentaries about child abuse, that recovery is illusive at best, and rarely achieved.  I wouldn't do the work I do if that were true.  Recovery, or "healing" can certainly happen.  And this is what it looks like:  It is when the abuse becomes part of the fabric of a person's history.  It no longer has the fire or the urgency it had when you were trying to suppress it, or minimize it's effects.  It no longer has the power to bring you to your knees weeping as it did during the intense "working through" phase of therapy.  Just like the scar that won't tan, or the arthritis in a long ago broken bone, it will be there, leaving you with some left over reminders, but you will be whole in spite of it.  I often think of my recovered self as being three dimensional, where I formerly was two dimensional.  Yes, I still get anxious at certain times of the year, and prefer to sit with my back to the wall in a restaurant, but I can live with these residual reminders.  The more serious effects of the abuse have resided.  I've watched others move on too.  They are taking the time to enjoy life, or are marveling at their new found emotional repertoires (when they used to experience only one or two emotions).

So my message to survivors beginning the healing journey is to take the documentaries and news stories for what they are.  They are promoting a message that doesn't present the whole picture.  And "whole" can be pretty good.