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Creativity and Healing: Let The Little One Inside You Sing

Physicians, medical students, psychologists, poets, and other helpers, healers, and writers interested in the healing power of writing hugging a giant Cypress tree at the “Healing Art of Writing” conference in San Rafael, California, July 18, 2012. The guy in the light print green shirt looking away is the gifted John Fox, author of one of my favorite books on this subject, “Poetic Medicine.”

Why do we feel so satisfied when we engage our creativity?    Why is singing, writing a play, cooking a wonderful meal, designing a building or outfit, composing a song or sonata, capturing a particular moment in a photograph, or coming up with a new idea, method, or a way of looking at things in the brainstorming session at work so fulfilling?  Why does using our imagination feel so wonderful? Why does making the metaphor that perfectly describes something by comparing it to something else feel so gratifying?  Why do people make art anyway?  Why do people write?

A man is struggling to go on after losing someone he loves.  A beloved wife.  I ask him to try a simple writing exercise, and he runs with it.  He is not a “poet,” but he produces poetry, beautiful and true.  He has turned pain into beauty, and he finds the process satisfying, cathartic, healing.

Or take my own experience.  I was already a writer when I lost my son in 1994, and yet afterward I simply refused to write for a number of years.  I refused because writing was what I did before, and that life seemed over.  But the problem was I was cutting off my most available path to self-healing: my writing, my own creativity.   It was only out of sheer desperation that I began writing again three years later.  It turned out that the process of writing (my novel, Saving Elijah) was the very thing that helped me free myself from the prison and the merciless solitude of my sorrow.  Writing that book saved my life.  Everything I write now contributes in some way to my own self-healing process.

And it isn’t the applause we might crave at the end of our creative process that drives us, or that heals us.  It’s the process itself.  A writing mentor of mine always says, “Writing is a process, not an event.” This is, of course, true of all creative acts.  If you’re worrying about how what you’re doing will be received, your desire for acclaim, or your fear of rejection, you simply aren’t in the process.

I was recently honored and thrilled to be a part of an extraordinary gathering in San Rafael, California called The Healing Art of Writing.  The conference drew physicians, medical students,  psychologists, social workers, poets, a musician or two, and other helpers, healers, artists, and writers interested in the healing power of creative expression, in this case writing.  Just being in the presence of so many people accessing their own creativity or learning to facilitate creativity in others to heal was incredibly moving and healing.

Why is the creative process so healing?  I’m convinced that when we engage in creative expression–through writing, art, coming up with that new idea, or in whatever way we can–we feel healed because we have moved back into or toward our original state of creative bliss, a state from which we gradually separated in response to the reality of life and the demands of a sometimes harsh world.

Consider my grand daughter.  She’s two, and her creative spirit is still completely pure.   Every moment of every day she is deep into her own creative process, she lives in a wellspring of pure joy at her own imagination and creativity. When she walks down the street, she doesn’t just walk, she claps, dances, or skips, and she sings or tells herself a story at the top of her little lungs.  Her song might be one she’s making up or one my daughter taught her, and her story might be about the moon and stars, or Elmo, or a purple cow.  She doesn’t care that cows are black and white, in her mind and creative imagination they can also be purple. Everyone on the street smiles, as if to acknowledge how adorable she is, maybe to share in the knowledge that children are such creative little souls who unlike the rest of us can live so in the moment, so in the creative process, unconcerned with outcome.  Watch my granddaughter now as she becomes angry and has a tantrum when you tell her to do something other than the incredibly creative thing she is doing at this very moment.  She doesn’t care that you might be trying to save her life when you insist she stop clapping and hold your hand because you’re going to cross the busy street. All she knows is that you’ve interrupted her creative process, her joyous in-the-moment creativity.

You can see the effect this kind of interruption has as a child gets older.  Few ten or fourteen-year-olds would skip and dance down the street singing at the top of their lungs, for fear of the outcome, the rejection.

A loving, nurturing, encouraging environment in childhood supports a person’s ability to appropriately access his or her own creativity as a source of self-healing. I always feel so sad when I sit with people who were subjected to a non-nurturing, restrictive, neglectful, abusive, traumatic, or rigid environment that stifled their once-brilliant creativity, and even made them lose their ability to connect back to it as a way of self-healing. Some are virtually paralyzed by self-condemnation, just as I was after my son died.  Some cannot even begin imagine their lives differently.  They continue to think the condemning thoughts and feel the hurtful feelings others have foisted upon them, a process that destroys rather than creates.

So remember that no matter what field you’re in, or where you are in your life, or what trauma you’ve experienced, you always have the power to connect to your original state of creative bliss, and even use the process of creating as a way of self-healing  That little child is still in there, singing blissfully at the top of her lungs.  All you have to do is find her.

Next post: Ways to find her.

Offending the bereaved: Thoughts on the controversy around the upcoming DSM V proposed “grief guidelines”

Michael Max Dorf, a month or so before.

Who would have ever thought there could be a controversy around grief?

In the last few months, in my other (non-writing) life as a therapist, I have heard the devastating stories of several people seriously traumatized by their past contacts with the mental health system, people with a lasting legacy of pain from being (probably wrongly) prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs or placed against their will on a terrifying psych ward. I’m definitely not a conspiracy theorist, one who says things like “everything happens for a reason,” or assigns existential “meaning” to every happening, and so I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that I’ve heard so many stories like this lately. I obviously recognize that many dedicated people in the field are doing work that manages to be both life-saving and compassionate, yet these awful stories also underscore the need for folks setting the parameters in the field–the task force considering changes in the upcoming edition of the “bible” for clinicians, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (so-called “DSM V) to the various “diagnoses” around grief–to at least try to get it right.  It seems to me that those of us working in the field who are honored every day to do this work, to witness people’s deepest pain, have a duty to at least speak out when it appears that a grave and possibly for some folks dangerous injustice is being contemplated.

Partly because of the experience I mention above, and partly as a response to a wonderful “Open Letter to to the DSM Task Force” posted by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore on her own website (which I’m linking to here) , I’d like to add my own voice to all those professionals and offended bereaved people weighing in on this disturbing and upsetting controversy.

As readers of this blog surely know, I too lost lost a child, my son, Michael, who died in 1994, and I’ve been living with, and thinking, studying, and writing about grief ever since. (Let me assure the reader that I’ve also done lots of other things, including recover my sense of humor.)  My writing inspired by this includes a highly acclaimed novel, “Saving Elijah,”  published by Putnam in June, 2000.  After that I (eventually) went back to grad school to get a second masters degree in social work, mostly in order to work with the bereaved, even though I already knew from experience what one bereaved human being needs from another human being.  More recently I’ve been working on a kind of memoir, which I’m calling, “Excerpts: Complicated Grief.”  Included in the memoir is a recounting of the day I first heard in grad school that we were to label grief that lasts longer than two months (now according to all accounts of the upcoming DSM V apparently further reduced to two weeks) as pathology, call it “complicated,” call it a “disorder.”  Even twelve years after my son’s death, this felt like an accusation.  How could it not?  How could they not see that this is damaging to the very people it purports to “help?” It was as if feeling the terrible sorrow I had felt, sometimes even still felt (still sometimes feel now), wasn’t “normal.” Yet I knew full well that it was “normal,” both from my own experience and from talking to scores, even hundreds of other bereaved parents.

I’ve written the memoir in the second person, and it moves backward from the present to the day of the loss, in an attempt to show how grief can (while still being “normal”) reverberate throughout every corridor of a life, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, sometimes as a source of wisdom, sometimes as source of pain or anxiety, but always present.

It opens on what would have been my son’s 21st birthday.

October 22, 2011, seventeen years after. Stand at the dryer, slap in wet clothes, try to form an image of a strapping young man turning twenty-one today.  See only a sturdy toddler.   Like a failed magic trick.

Go to the cemetery, brush away leaves, place stones on the brass and marble marker. Stand in the thick, humid air.  Say Kaddish,  forget the last part.  Try to remember Michael but conjure up only bones in a tomb, shreds of boy and turtle, earthworms, fecund soil.  Say the word fecund aloud, the hard k sound rattling the teeth. Remember your husband falling into the grave. Wonder why you  come.  Get back into your car pursing your lips as if tasting something moldy. Think of old metaphors, new similes. Grief always comes alone to a child’s grave. Grief is no longer a thundering, hissing monster.  Grief is hollow now, like the blunt thud of rock on stone…….

The core problem comes in my view from the pathologizing of the normal human emotion of grief by calling it any kind of a disorder. And so whether you call it an “adjustment disorder related to bereavement,” and give it one year before you dial it up into an even more serious “disorder,” or whether it becomes “major depressive disorder” at two months, or at two weeks, seems to me secondary to the fact that it is called a disorder in the first place.

A child’s death?   At two weeks you’re still in shock. You’re just getting started at two months. Maybe. Actually, it seems to me that it would actually be “abnormal” for a parent who lost a child to not feel overwhelmed and debilitated by sorrow (and to experience many of the attendant symptoms that echo but are not the same as those for depression) at two months out, let alone two weeks out. I would venture to say this is probably true even at one year.  I remember visiting a friend of my mother’s who at age 100 was still talking about her fifteen-year-old son’s death in a car accident fifty years before as if it had happened that day. Personally, I would still call hers “normal” grief. And so the learned people figuring out the DSM seem to have had it backwards all along, and now seem to be doubling down on having it backwards.

I certainly agree that what people who have suffered loss need is (as Dr. Joanne says), human connection, caring, and compassion, or as the Lancet said: Time, Compassion, Remembrance, Empathy.  I believe it’s an insult to think that a pill could be any kind of substitute for that. I remember a good, well meaning friend wanted me to take medication, but even though I was suffering mightily, walking around in my bathrobe (not only figuratively) for three years, I somehow knew that it would do no good at all to try and mask the symptoms, because a certain amount of tears needed to be shed.  Luckily no clinician suggested medication.  I’m not sure what I would have done, given my state of mind, if one had.  The idea that we can “medicate” away the pain of grief isn’t about the bereaved, it’s about those who are uncomfortable with being witness to pain. As Rumi says,

We are pain and what cures pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours. I want to hold you close like a lute, so that we can cry out with loving. Would you rather throw stones at a mirror? I am your mirror and here are the stones.

In other words, the healing from the pain is in the pain.  So it is.

My favorite definition of compassion is the Buddhist one: “Willingness to be close to suffering.”  That’s what I do, what all of us who want to help do, we open our hearts to someone’s suffering.  We witness.  We don’t try to fix it.   I always say: Be present. Be humble. Be patient. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen

It seems to me that this isn’t only about the pharmaceutical industry, it’s even more about the insurance industry, which seems to be in the business of not paying for whatever it can possibly get out of. (And not just in the area of grief.)  In this case the insurance industry seems to want to get out of any paying for anything other than that which has medication as the first line of treatment, and which labels grief a “mental illness,” or a “disorder” of some kind (an outcome that can stay in a person’s record forever, with terrible, terrible consequences).

It’s a sickening conundrum, it puts people who want to provide support for the bereaved who seek it in a terrible position, and of course it puts the bereaved in an even worse position.  Aren’t we trying to help them?  Surely we are. And one of the things we must do to help them is “normalize” what they’re feeling.  Yes, I wailed at the top of my lungs in a hospital room, but so would you.

As clinicians, we have the “V” bereavement code, but insurance generally doesn’t pay for treatment if you use this as a diagnosis. To receive payment from insurance, it has to be a “disorder.” And so to get insurance to cover our effort to help people make their way through grief, we are actually forced to call it some kind of disorder, even when we know it isn’t.  (This is, by the way, actually true for many situations, for example anger management.  Insurance won’t pay for people looking for help with “anger issues” unless you slap on a some kind of a “disorder” label.

Some, no doubt, will think I’m a hopeless idealist, or a radical left winger for believing that Americans, the “richest” country on earth, ought to provide universal health care that enables people to get the health care they need, no matter what their financial or job situation.  I don’t care.  I still must speak the truth as I see it.  And there simply ought to not only be health care for all, there should be some other terminology that acknowledges the debilitating nature of what I’ve called “big time grief,” and also provides coverage for people to get the proper, compassionate psychological support they need in difficult times.

All of us can be hopeful that the outcry from the grief community around this issue will, like the outcry to de-pathologize homosexuality in the 1970s, result in a de-pathologization of grief.  From a practical standpoint, under our current disaster of a health insurance system, we are required to diagnose some kind of “disorder” or there is no insurance coverage for clinical services.  In the absence of a complete rethinking of the whole system (oh, for such an outcome!; let’s just hope the misguided politicians won’t succeed in their threat to repeal the so-called “Obamacare” coverage for everyone), we can only hope that whatever happens, good clinicians (and particularly psychiatrists with their ready-meds) recognize that the DSM is at best an imperfect guide, and can tell the difference between grief and either adjustment “disorder,” or major depressive “disorder,” whatever must be recorded as a diagnosis to get coverage.

I invite you to share your grief story as a comment.

Inspiration: What I loved and learned in Austin, Texas, at SXSW

Actor, inspirationalist Jeffrey Tambor adding a little human-to-human interactive to the mostly computer-interactive festivities at SXSW in Austin. For examples of his inspiration, see below.

Over the weekend, after a bumpy, scary plane ride in stormy weather, I found myself in Austin, amidst a gathering of about 80,000 geeks, hipsters, techno-geeks, networkers, web designers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, advertising types, actors, writers, directors, film and music enthusiasts and others who came for an incredible event called South By Southwest, techno-affectionately dubbed SXSW Interactive.  It originally started as a film and music festival, but the computer/interactive/startup folk (mostly young people who live, breathe, sleep, and worship at the ALTAR OF TECHNOLOGY), may have in the last few years actually overtaken the film and music folk. I went to support my entreprenadorable husband, Bob Dorf, who with his co-author and partner, Steve Blank, have just released their amazing, erudite new book, a step by step guide to starting new businesses called, THE STARTUP OWNERS MANUAL, which was making its debut there.  They hardly needed my support.  Literally thousands came to hear Steve speak, and to buy the book and get both of their autographs.

Yes, I was a hanger on, an extra, an overwhelmed but fascinated older-person, a wife.  And yes, given my own sensibilities as a writer, therapist, middle aged woman, seeker-of-calm-and-clarity, and only (so far) half-assed dabbler in the techno-arts, my take on the thing and my focus–not to mention my ability to cope with or even understand some of it–is no doubt quirky.  And yes, I do wish all that young brain power could be harnessed toward enterprises that will feed the hungry instead of enterprises like making websites for brides-to-be. Nevertheless, I had a blast soaking it all in, and I mean the soaking part literally since it was freezing and raining all weekend until the sun finally came out on Sunday and the festival started to take on the feel of a real party, a college campus on steroids.

I had a blast because of Austin itself, in which I didn’t see even one ten-gallon-hat, which seemed to me to have literally nothing to do with my vision of the state of which it is the capital, and which aggressively lives up to its motto, Keep Austin Weird, even I suspect when the hoards of youthful techies aren’t in town.

I had a blast because the whole event was part circus and part business meeting, and any time you can use circus and business meeting in the same sentence that’s okay with me.

Fran and Alison at the Museum of the Weird in Austin

I had a blast because I got to hang out all weekend with my friend Alison, Steve’s wife; and of course with my brilliant husband and his brilliant co-author, Steve Blank; and in the beautiful but reputedly haunted Driskill Hotel with a guy named Oren Jacob, filmmaker and “technologist,” who did a lot of the work on the wonderful Pixar film, “Toy Story,” (among others) and is working on a start-up (www.toytalk.com)that I suspect will revolutionize interactive toys for kids; and in a seriously weird Austin restaurant at a table with a guy who funds documentary films about important, profound subjects at the National Endowment for the Humanities; and with a crazy Jordanian cabdriver who kept swerving the cab as he pointed out the window at various freak shots, and shouting, “LOOK AT THAT! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?”

I had a blast because so many of the young women there were dressed in clothes you’d have to call Hipster-Mismatch-Strange. (As opposed to Tory Burch and Kate Spade, where I live.)  What do I mean by that?   Okay, so picture a skinny twenty-five year old, maybe with dreadlocks, wearing boots, striped leggings, a polka dotted skirt, a paisley shirt, maybe a fur vest.  Now picture another skinny twenty year old with pink hair, a pierced nose and tattoos, wearing red sneakers, green pants, and a sleeveless orange and blue striped dress over the pants. Now multiply that by hoards of girls, each one making her own little Hipster Mismatch Strange Statement and you’ve got it. (Okay, so let’s not even talk about the attire at Woodstock.)

I had a blast because I loved the session by Danah Boyd about the culture of fear in this interactive age, about bullying and fear-mongering by governments, and about the positive vs. negative consequences of our increased ability to connect.  Even though she offered no real conclusions I was happy to see that serious people in the generation that grew up in this teched-up culture are looking at this very scary, upsetting phenom.

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the techno-geek session I attended called “The Secret Lives of Links,” although the guy who presented was quite lively and had great slides. I guess I went because it sounded sexy.

I loved the talk by Rainn Wilson, he of “The Office” fame, who also did a very weird turn as the funereal love interest of the mother, Ruth, in my favorite television show of all time, “Six Feet Under.”  Rainn was talking primarily about his hot and wonderful website, www.soulpancake.com, in which random people post soul-stirring, important questions, such as: “You have five minutes to address the delegates at the General Assembly in the UN.  What do you say?” and “Will technology be used to save or destroy us?” and “Does religion need to be destroyed for spirituality to flourish?” …. And then random others offer answers.  As an example of the power of the internet to stir creativity and self-expression, Rainn’s website is a wow.  I’m thinking on my question right now.

Most of all, I was deeply moved by the combination seminar-theater-stand-up-disguised-as-an-acting-workshop given by the well known character actor, Jeffrey Tambor, (www.http://www.jeffreytambor.net/) who dispensed laughter and wisdom by the bucketful, mostly while “directing” a scene between two young people (possibly actors) who seemed to have been chosen just because they showed up, whose lines were basically:

He: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

She: “Yes, yes yes, don’t tell me no, you motherfucker.”

The wonderful Jeffrey brilliantly coaxed the two to do it as themselves, as bad asses, by yelling, in French accents, as femme fatales, by putting in three “naughties,” as comedy, as tragedy, and with a gun.   He even got them to sing it.

Among the many memorable bits of advice Mr. Tambor dispensed and I wrote down (since my memory isn’t too great) were:

“We’re here to be the enemy of the status quo.”  (This brings me back to my hippie roots, of course. I miss that.)

“The problem is that most of us want to be good.” (This reminds me of my favorite quote in life, from Huxley’s classic dystopian techno-vision, Brave New World, so much of which seems now so prescient: “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Enjoy everything, adore everything.” (Well, we can try, on the theory that everything, even that which is awful, can be looked at a learning experience.)

“If someone goes after your confidence, call them out.” (Not sure this applies to the average person, who could easily be fired for it, but I like it anyway.)

“Confidence is the game in life and art” (I wanted to ask him if that applies to writing too, but I didn’t have the guts.)

“Do what you want. Don’t be scared that people are going to be mad at you.” 

“I get up in the morning with the vultures at my head, and I always make my bed before I do anything else.” (By which he meant he chases away the vultures who attack his confidence.  Hmm. I’m glad to hear that even a highly successful actor with a long and distinguished career has those circling vultures too.  It’s a little more difficult for me to rid myself of them, but at least I strive to be a bed-making vulture-chaser.)

Being a person whose confidence wavers moment by moment, and one who has sometimes worried that people are going to be mad at her, I was not only moved, I fell in love with the fabulous Jeffrey.

How to calm and become clear

Take a look at this.  It appears to be a photograph taken by a photographer  standing (or maybe kneeling) inside that house looking through the windows at the sky and ocean at a particular moment in time. But since it’s actually a photograph of a painting created by an artist who was presumably (although not necessarily) standing inside that house at a different moment or moments, within this picture both the consciousness of the photographer and the artist and each of their perspectives and moments are present at once.

I love this photo because it helps me remember to maintain perspective.   Sometimes I forget this and become caught up in my own nonsense.  I suspect you do too.  The photograph of the painting reminds me that suffering binds us up in our own egos, as mine did spectacularly when I was so bereaved over the loss of my son, even now occasionally when I get depressed, mostly over egocentric things like ambition, failure, success, etc.  The painting reminds me that even though each of us lives inside our little lives, bound by our egos and our particular place and time, we are all are a part of the sand of a vast universe of which we are absolutely integral and which is also utterly indifferent to us.  How do I know this?  I’m not a religious person, and in fact I loath so much of religion, feel it’s responsible for much of the trauma that occurs on our planet, and recoil in horror when governments allow or promote faith over science.  (I always wonder why would God give humans these big brains with which we could eventually discover, measure, and categorize the universe in scientific ways, and then want us to ignore or discount all we’ve learned in favor of what humans believed by “faith” before there was science. Makes no sense to me.)

And yet, I have actually had several transcendent moments in my life.  One occurred when I was writing.  I was sitting at my desk working on my third novel, the one that means so much to me, because I believe that writing it, the process of writing it, saved my life after losing my son, yanked me from the prison of my own suffering ego.  I was struggling mightily with plot and character, and with the idea that I could never write a novel about a woman recovering from grief over the loss of her son since a woman who loses a child never “recovers.”

Suddenly I felt as if time had slowed to a virtual crawl, almost stopped. I could hear the ticking of the clock, and see every corner of my office and item on my desk, and then all at once  I felt as if I had separated from my body, moved beyond my office and my desk, and yet I was simultaneously sitting there, inside my body and my own consciousness, listening to my clock ticking, and also looking at myself from outside my body, from someplace else and everyplace else, and from both inside and outside every other consciousness in the universe that has existed or will exist. A feeling of complete calm and knowing came upon me. It was as if I had transcended the boundary of my own ego and achieved God consciousness.  Some might say I was having a breakdown.  Maybe I was.

Yet that was the moment when the whole plot of my novel emerged.  I had been suffering with grief for years, then suffering to write a novel about that grief for many years after that.  The “ghost” of the novel, who is kind of a personification of the psychological process of grief, came to me in that moment of transcendence.  The ghost (or demon, really) would pose all the ego-laden questions to the horribly suffering mother that any bereaved mother asks herself, all the questions I had been asking myself for years, the where did I go wrong, what did I do to deserve this, am I going crazy, questions. He would engage her in a kind of review of her life, mock her place in the world, her right to be here, her sanity; he would mock all, just as I had been doing in missing my boy, wondering whose fault it was, and hating myself and everyone else, and the universe that would do such a thing to me, in fact.  All grief, all suffering, all of it, is bound up in “I” –the ego.  But from that moment on…well, it was as if I was channeling the ghost and his dialogue.  It was as if both he and his dialogue had already existed somewhere in the universe, along with everything else that exists, will exist, or has ever existed. It was as if my transcendent moment–and it was only a moment–had allowed me somehow to gain access to him, and this access took me relatively swiftly to the completion of the book. Which vastly decreased my suffering.

When we detach from our suffering egos, we become calm and the path and the way becomes clear.

Gratitude: Five Things that Made My Week

1. I’m grateful for the study that came out this week that showed that  approximately 50% of Americans who get government aid in the form of social security disability, child and dependent care tax credits, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and student loans, believe they don’t. (To read more click here.)  Apparently the guy I saw on television at a Tea Party rally a few years back carrying a sign that said GET YOUR GOVERNMENT HANDS OFF MY MEDICARE wasn’t just some lone guy with a marker and a misguided brain. It’s not that I’m so happy that so many Americans seem to have swallowed the nonsense being dished out by the Republican party for the last thirty years.  But at least I can try to be hopeful that SOMEONE, ANYONE, will be able to educate these people, to use this new, actual data to help these Americans find their way again, and to maybe stop voting against their own pocketbooks.  I realize this is probably a naive hope, since faith-based beliefs are obviously not subject to actual facts but I can hope if I want to.  Seriously, folks.  The other night I was watching the hilarious Jon Stewart, and I actually heard his guest, Bruce Bartlett, who was none other than Ronald Reagan’s budget guy, call the current Republican party insane!  You can’t make this stuff up.

2. I’m grateful for Jon Stewart.  Any time. Always.  The guy is a comic genius.  (Bill Maher is also a genius, albeit slightly more disturbing one.)

3. I’m grateful for the wonderful Paul Anka. Now THAT man could croon.  We met some friends at a fantastic, authentic Italian restaurant in the Bronx, and every so often during the meal, the waiters would present someone with birthday cupcakes, while on the speakers on at top decibel there would be the memorable opening strains of Anka weeping out,”Did you have a happy birthday? Even though I wasn’t there.”  Okay, so I’m old.  But for atmosphere, this musical choice was a winner.  To hear this classic on youtube, click here.

4. I’m grateful that my two-year-old grandaughter, after trying and trying, was finally able to balance a spoon on her nose.

5. I’m grateful that after putting up a new tab in my blog (Need Advice? Just Ask Me.  Click the tab above to check it out.), I’ve received my first letter.  I’ll post that, and my answer, soon.

Survival Tip of the Day for Moms

Survival Tip for Moms:

Don’t assume that your daughter’s path will be the same as yours and then try to foist that opinion on her. We’re all entitled to learn our own lessons, take our own journey.
A great question from a Daily Muse reader. Just Ask Me. 

Survival Tip of the Day: Take off those glasses, duckies.

Ducky

Are you walking around with your head in your armpit…ahem…your wing?  Do you wear chronic rose colored glasses? Automatically give people the benefit of the doubt?  Dismiss your gut reaction in favor of your head’s reaction?  Make excuses?  Assume that everyone else thinks like you do?

Here’s something I first realized a long time ago:

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably IS a duck.

In other words, trust your instincts, your eyes, your gut. I first learned this little truth upon being disappointed yet again by a boyfriend I thought I could change into someone else. I relearned it many times after that, mostly recently with a plastic surgeon I think of now only as “Plastic Man.”

I walked into Plastic Man’s office in a state of hysteria after having been given the breast cancer diagnosis.  Out of all the doctors I could have chosen to perform the surgery, I chose THAT GUY, when the truth is, he showed me his true colors the first moment I met him.  For one thing, he didn’t show me a scintilla of compassion.  In fact, he gave me the creeps, and struck me as one of those really arrogant assholes I’d unfortunately run into before (having had more than my share of experience with doctors.)  But my head took me away from my gut: I figured I could take whatever he dished out, as I’d already been through everything there was, the worst of the worst.   I’d figured I’d already interviewed two other plastic surgeons, and it seemed like it would be hell to interview even one more.  I decided you don’t pick a surgeon on whether you like him or not, or whether he likes you, offers you a scintilla or a barge load of respect, feels sorry for you or doesn’t.  I decided all that mattered was SURGICAL SKILL, and this guy had a long, impressive resume.  Worst of all, I decided that he’d eventually realize what a fabulous gal I was, and eventually his inate niceness would come through…. Well, let me tell you, that last one did not happen.  Not by a long shot.   I got one hell of an infection, and as things went downhill Plastic Man showed me not more compassion but less.  He acted like I was a pesky fly who kept landing on his cheek and he kept trying to swat away.

Pay attention to what you see and feel, rather than what you you hope or wish to see and feel.

Survival Tip of the Day

Basic psychology I learned with some rats:  Behavior that is reinforced will increase.

IE: Behavior  +  Reinforcement = More of the Same

IE: 1 + 1 = 2

  • If you allow someone to take advantage of you, to continually violate reasonable boundaries, that behavior will only continue and probably increase.
  • If you enable bad behavior, that behavior will only continue or increase.
  • If you continually rescue someone, that person will continually behave in ways that require you to rescue her (or him).
  • Take a stand. Stick to boundaries.  Refuse to rescue or appease.

Just Ask Me Advice: Help! I Can’t Stand my Family at the Holidays

Reposted by  — from The Daily Muse, November 23, 2011 — 1 Comment
Help! I Can't Stand my Family at the Holidays

Dear Fran,

As Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself once again stressed and sick at the thought of traveling home. I’m kind of the black sheep of my family, and don’t feel like I fit in anymore, if I ever did. The biggest issue is my brother, who’s ten years older than I, and his wife, who hs a knee jerk opinion about everything, from politics to how children should be raised.  Plus, their 13-year-old daughter is a total brat.

Truthfully, my brother is a brat too, but in my father’s eyes he can do no wrong.  Both of them played college football, and we have always had a kind of male-oriented household.  While my younger brother is thinking about going to law school after college, my older brother has joined my father’s business, and the two of them live in their own world in which only their opinions and needs count.  Even though I went to a good college and now have a great husband and career, they all act like that was just expected and truly don’t seem to care.

With barely a break for dinner, they will spend Thanksgiving ay immersed in whtever football game is on, drinking beer and hollering at the TV.  Last year my neice sat in a corner, texting on her phone, ignoring the constant nagging of her mother.

Worst of all, my father and older brother kind of pick on my husband because he’s not a sports guy.  My husband tries to fit in, and always feels oblgated to join the rest of them in the football thing.  Inevitably, my mother and I end up alone in the kitchen doing the dishes, and my mother quietly complains about how unhappy she is with my father.

As I grow older, I find it harder to find common ground and even have a decent conversation, let alone avoid any judgment or squabbling because of the crude way they talk, sometimes even calling people racist or sexist names.  I envy my friends and even the holiday movies full of families gathered around dinner tables happily feasting, and enjoying being together after moths apart, when all I feel is embarrassed, disgusted, and stressed.

Alone

****************************************

Dear Alone,

Let me begin by saying that I sympathize. I too grew up in a family in which my father favored my older brother, and I felt dead last in a field of two. It took a very long time to understand how this has impacted my life, my choices, and my emotional stability. In the long term, I suggest you go to therapy or undertake an honest self-analysis to try to understand how this has potentially impacted you.

But here’s my advice for the short term: First of all, stop being embarrassed and envious of all those “happy” families. Truth is, every family out there has its own unique imperfections. Things can look pretty good from the outside, but the ideal family dynamic is not something I have seen in reality very often. And I’d say that most families have at least one member who isn’t all that happy to be home, or thinks she doesn’t fit in, or feels like some kind of black sheep.

I also want to dissuade you of the notion that there is anything wrong with being the proverbial black sheep; it sounds to me as if you’re lucky you got out of there! Now I admit I’m not a football fan, but given the evidence showing as much as a 22% rise in domestic violence calls to the police on Thanksgiving Day, I can’t help mentioning here the disgust I have with the whole “drunk and hollering” milieu.

Try this: Meditate to calm down. Look at Thanksgiving as a kind of yearly sociological experiment. Talk to your husband about your feelings and frustrations, listen as he explains his, and support him in doing what makes him feel comfortable. During the weekend, observe carefully, learn from everyone’s behavior (including your own), and become stronger in your convictions.

Be grateful for all the wonderful things in your life, and maybe even suggest that everyone in the family take a turn before the meal saying what they’re grateful for. Also try to focus on the family members with whom you do, or could, have positive relationships. Continue to be there for your mother, and be kind to her—it sounds to me as if she has a lot of regrets. Foster your relationship with your younger brother, who sounds thoughtful and approachable, and reach out to your niece, who, despite her aloofness, may be a struggling young girl who could benefit from your influence in her life. Perhaps bring her a little gift, maybe a puzzle or a game you could play together. Plus, your husband might be grateful for the escape from the rest of the family and join in.

While keeping in mind that you aren’t going to change anyone, steer clear of any political debates. I would, however, draw the line at sexist and racist name-calling. Say you don’t appreciate that kind of negativity and ask them to stop.

And finally, if being with your family at the holidays really pains you, it might be time to consider avoiding it altogether. Consider spending next Thanksgiving with your husband’s family or on a vacation with just the two of you. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose how you react to them—and how much time you spend with them.

Best of luck,

Fran

Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski.

“Just Ask Me” Advice #4: How to Help a Friend with cancer

Help! How Do I Help a Friend with Cancer?

Help! How Do I Help a Friend With Cancer?

Dear Fran,

A close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks ago. She’s had surgery and will be undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors say her prognosis looks good, but she has had to drop out of her grad school program for the semester.

We were all absolutely devastated when we heard the news, and it’s been the most difficult thing I could imagine for her and her family. She has been inconsolably depressed, crying all the time, and so angry that her life as she knows it is over. It is so not fair that this happened to such a wonderful person—and all I want to do is make her feel even a tiny bit better.

Our friends have tried everything we can think of—spending days at the hospital, crying with her, talking, bringing games, watching movies, and more. But nothing has helped—even the good news from the doctors that we got last week. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain she’s going through, so I am at a loss as to what else I could say or do that might help even a tiny bit.

How can I help her?

A Friend

Dear Friend:

I am moved by your question. It sounds as if you are a caring, concerned friend who’s doing everything possible to alleviate your friend’s suffering.

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can say or do to magically make things better or to wish her disease away. Your friend is mourning a very grave loss. Calling cancer a loss may surprise you, but a young woman being treated for breast cancer, even breast cancer she’s probably going to survive, is dealing with significant life losses, including loss of health, loss of innocence, loss of safety, (perceived) loss of sexuality, and (at least temporarily) loss of cherished dreams and ambitions.

Your friend is on a journey and needs time to process this profound life experience. All you can offer is your companionship and deepest compassion. The Buddhist definition of compassion is the nearest I’ve come to truly understanding how to handle situations like yours:

“Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Being close to her suffering means being patient with her feelings, not trying to change them. Continue to visit and when you do, encourage her to express her emotions, and always validate their legitimacy, even if they’re scary or make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. Don’t pretend to understand her pain; it is hers and hers alone. And when she’s opening up to you, don’t try to distract her unless she’s begging for news from the outside world or a change in topic.

Also refrain from optimistic assurances—they may come across as empty or invalidating and may further anger or depress her. Don’t, for example, try to reassure her that she can go back to school next year, or even that all will eventually go back to “normal.” Her process might take her somewhere else entirely, and her “normal” may be altered permanently, too.

All that being said, there are some ways you can help her move forward:

  1. Bring her a beautiful journal in which to record her experiences and feelings. She can keep this private, of course, but the writing process itself is wonderfully beneficial. Or direct her to a website like www.caringbridge.org, where cancer patients can write an ongoing journal, share their experiences with a community of concerned friends, and receive support.
  2. Encourage her to participate in a support group with other young women facing breast cancer or other health crises. Individual therapy with a social worker or psychologist might also help. Check out the resources in her area or community, or ask her hospital for helpful and therapeutic resources.
  3. Put together a care package of meditation tapes, green or white teas, a heating pad, aromatherapy candles, books (the young and amazing Kris Carr has a few), tissues, stationery—anything that may be comforting and relaxing to her.
  4. Bring her a book about the breast cancer experience, either a memoir or an instructional book on how to get through it. Hearing from someone else who has been through what she’s dealing with might be incredibly comforting, and help her feel that she’s not so alone.

Finally, keep doing what you’re doing. Be present and humble. Observe and reflect. Allow silence, and don’t judge. No matter how she’s dealing with this, accept her, listen to her, and love her.

Let me end with a life survival tip, which I offer in the most sincere and open way. After I lost my son, I spent years raging at the whole universe, to no avail—except to learn that the universe is 100% indifferent to what seems fair. Knowing this tidbit helped me later, when I received my own breast cancer diagnosis.

I offer this tip to help you prepare yourself for the vicissitudes of life, and to encourage you to be grateful for each moment and every day. To help you help your friend as she begins this journey. And to state a bottom-line truth that is nonnegotiable and endlessly unforgiving:

Survival Tip #1: Life is not fair.

Your friend is learning this truth, and I encourage you to learn it, too. And I wish you both good luck and good health.

Fran

Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com