Spiral

 (Reposting by popular request.  Happy New Year, everybody.)

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spiral framed 2

She’s a new client, looking around my office.

“I like your pictures,” she says.  “But what’s that?”

She points to the rusty bedspring on my wall.

“A metaphor,” I say.

“For what?”

“Recovery.  It’s the recovery spiral.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Most people think of recovery as a linear process.  They think you start off down here, at All fucked up, and recoveryclimb straight up to there, Perfectly fine. 

They think there’s a straight line between those two points, and that any deviation from that line – relapses, setbacks, mistakes — means some kind of failure.”

“Doesn’t it?”

I shake my head.  “Not if you see recovery as a spiral.”

“Emotional growth means moving in a circle.  The points of the circle are the issues or problems we’re working on — parents, money, work, sex, feelings, communication, control, whatever.  And you go around and around the same circle, facing the same issues over and over.

“But each time you go around you’re a bit higher on the spiral.  Meaning you know a bit more than the last time around.  And you’re a little bit stronger.  And you have more resources, both inside you and outside.

“And that’s recovery.

“If you’re lucky, there’s no end to it until you die.  There’s no There there, no Perfectly fine end pointJust learning and growing as long as you live.

“So when someone comes to me all discouraged and says Oh god, I fucked up or I’m so embarrassed that I’m still struggling with this I show them the spiral and explain what it means.

“And then I ask, ‘What do you know now that you didn’t know last time you were here?’

“And they can usually find something.  And then they can think of their relapse as a lesson, not a failure.”

She frowns, looking at my wall.

“Where can I get a rusty bedspring?”    

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The John E. Trahan Memorial Fund

 

 

The John E. Trahan Memorial Fund

 

John E. Trahan (33) was a loving and devoted father, husband, son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, cousin, friend and coworker, and all he has left behind in this world are both devastated and heartbroken. 

Almost 20 years ago, at the age of 14, John was struck by a car while out riding his bike in Rocky Point, NY, where he lived most of his life. This accident left him without a spleen and with a weakened immune system. When John suddenly became ill with an infection this December, no one could imagine how quickly things would progress, and that his life would be taken away in just a few days. John passed peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, on December 14, 2017. 

John leaves behind a beautiful, young family. His wife Trish and he were busy building a wonderful life together with their four children Declan (4), Mason and Hadley (2), and Harper (5 months).  The sole provider for them all, John worked steadfast as an ambitious,  well-respected CPA. 

The outpouring of love and support for John’s family during this time of grief and mourning has been overwhelming, and they are all so thankful and comforted in the knowing that John touched so many lives with his kindness and good heart. 

This fundraising effort has been started in hopes that it can help John’s wife Trish and their four children in the difficult months and years that lay ahead without him; that it can help to alleviate some of the stress of financial burdens and let Trish focus on continuing to raising their children as planned. 

To donate, click here.


Everyday monkeytraps: Changing me

1.

I feel inadequate.

2.

This is an uncomfortable feeling, so I try to change myself.

3.

When I try to change myself, another part of me rises up to resist the change.

4.

The parts that resists change is usually stronger than the part that wants it.

5.

Being unable to change feels like failure.

6.

I feel inadequate.

 

~ From Monkeytraps in Everyday Life:

A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).


One handcuff

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Besides weekly therapy, she paints, plays piano, is active in the peace movement, attends a support group and wonders why she’s still depressed and anxious.

I tell her it’s because she goes home every night to a loveless marriage to a alcoholic husband.

Another woman comes to individual sessions every Monday and group every Wednesday and can’t understand why her self-esteem and her  confidence aren’t improving. 

I tell her it’s because she spends every Tuesday and Thursday with her narcissistic parents who abuse her emotionally and drain her psychologically.

A man who divorced his wife eighteen months ago sits on my sofa and rages endlessly at his ex for her selfishness and for not loving him adequately.

I tell him he may be divorced legally, but emotionally he’s as married as ever.

All three live in prisons of their own creation.

Because hanging onto an invalidating or abusive or toxic relationship while telling yourself you’re “handling it” is an exercise in denial.

It’s like handcuffing yourself to the bumper of a truck, then telling yourself you’re actually free because only one hand is handcuffed.

One handcuff is enough to keep you trapped.

Forever.

More than enough.

 

 


Trap.

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Song:

What’s the use of wings


Everyday monkeytraps: Avoidance

1.

I’m scared of X.

 

2.

Because I’m scared of X, I avoid it.

*

3.

Because I avoid X, I never discover what X is really like.

*

4.

I’m scared of x.

 

~ From Monkeytraps in Everyday Life:

A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).


Everyday monkeytraps: Anxiety

 

1.

I’m scared all the time.

 

2.

I’m ashamed of being scared all the time.

 

3.

Because I’m ashamed I hide my anxiety.

 

4.

When I hide my anxiety it grows.

 

5.

When I hide my anxiety nobody knows I need reassurance, so nobody reassures me.

 

6.

I’m scared all the time.

 

~ From Monkeytraps in Everyday Life:

A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).


Noted with pleasure: The empathic envelope

Often our first thoughts are, “How am I damaging my child?” “What irreparable harm have I caused by this action?” ” What’s the one right thing to do?”  We picture our child in twenty years on a therapist’s couch or in a support group complaining bitterly about us or — with a little imagination — exposing to millions our toxic parenting on some “Donahue ” of the future.  With all these concerns, parents are in danger of becoming parent-therapists, not parent-people; child-bearing technicians, not human beings.  And the absolutely central fact that parenting is learning how to connect with kids is being lost.

Fortunately, when you get past all the “shoulds” and “should nots” in childrearing connecting is not such a complex and mysterious business.  I think the same dynamic exists in all families where parents stay connected with thier children, and where children grow into healthy adults.  regardless of age, economic group or whether the family is intact, the most successful parents I have met over the years have one thing in common: they attempt to provide for their children what I call an empathic envelope. 

The empathic envelope is like a container around your kids and your family, a boundary between your family and the outside culture.  Theoretically, as the parent, you are in charge of this container.  It is made up of your values, your expectation, and your ways of being with your children.  It is the feeling you get visiting someone else’s house and immediately experiencing the difference between your family and theirs: the values, the kind of language that is allowed, the habits and the rituals they have.  Forget for a moment whether you agree or not — every family just feels different.  And this differentness is a crucial fact of life for your children.  It gives them a sense that they belong somewhere, that they are held by their parents in a safe and secure place:  “This is my house, I know what to expect.  I belong.”

~ From Parenting by heart: How to stay connected to your child in a disconnected world by Ron Taffel with Melinda Blau (Addison Wesley, 1992).


Noted with pleasure: A box of monsters

 

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It is helpful to realize that when we are stuck, blocked or hurting, there is usually a very good reason.  And because there is usually a good reason, we would be wise to uncover it at a pace that is in keeping with our ability to integrate what we discover. What may appear at first to be a jungle of useless weeds maybe weeds that stabilize a steep slope.  When we uncover these painful places in ourselves we might view our discovery like an archaeologist wanting to understand the significance of the find while being careful not to destroy the site in the process of excavation.  Or as a wonderful Jungian analyst once told me, “We have to unwrap the psyche slowly, Donna.”  When we have just found a fox full of monsters, we may need to let the monsters out of the box one at a time lest we scare ourselves to death.  Maybe we need to listen to what each of these monsters has to say.  At first we might be able to take only brief peeks at this box of monsters without succumbing to terror.  This is not a call to examine every facet of our personal archaeology or to become mired in it, but a suggestion that we gently let our insight unfold in a way that can be endured.

~ From Bringing yoga to life by Donna Farhi (Harper SanFrancisco, 2003).


Noted with pleasure: On perfectionism

When I was twenty-one, I had my tonsils removed.  I was one of those people who got strep throat every few minutes, and my doctor finally decided that I needed to have my tonsils taken out.  For the entire weekend afterwards, swallowing hurt so much that I could barely open my mouth for a straw.  I had a prescription for painkillers, though, and when they ran out but the pain hadn’t, I called the nurse and said that she would really need to send another prescription over, and maybe a little mixed grill of drugs because I was also feeling somewhat anxious.  But she wouldn’t.  I asked to speak to her supervisor.  She told me her supervisor was at lunch and that I needed to buy some gum, of all things, and to chew it vigorously — the thought of which made me clutch at my throat.  She explained that when we have a wound in our body, the nearby muscles cramp around it to protect it from any more violation and from infection, and that I would need to use these muscles if I wanted them to relax again.  So finally my best friend Pammy went out and bought me some gum, and I began to chew it, with great hostility and skepticism.  The first bites caused a ripping sensation in the back of my throat, but within minutes all the pain was gone, permanently.

I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles.  They cramp around our wounds — the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliation suffered in both — to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out.  So those wounds never have a chance to heal. 

Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp.  In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us.  They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways.  They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.

~ From Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott  


Noted with pleasure: The other education

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Like most people, life had given her one sort of education.  She had gone to school.  She had taken such and such management courses, worked her way through various jobs, and learned such and such skills.  She had come to possess a certain professional expertise.

But now she was beginning her second education.  This education was an emotional one, about how and what to feel.

This second education did not work like the first one.  In the first education, the information to be mastered walked through the front door and announced itself by light of day.  It was direct.  There were teachers to describe the material to be covered, and then everybody worked through it.

In the second education, there was no set curriculum or set of skills to be covered.  Erica just wandered around looking for things she enjoyed.  Learning was a by-product of her search for pleasure.  The information cam to her indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards, and through the vents of her mind.

Erica read Sense and Sensibility, The Good Soldier, or Anna Karenina and she would find herself moving with the characters, imitating their states of mind, and discovering new emotional flavors.  The novels, poems, paintings, and symphonies she consumed never applied directly to her life.  Nobody was writing poems about retired CEOs.  But what mattered most were the emotional sensations portrayed in them.

In his book Culture Counts, the philosopher Roger Scruton writes that

the reader of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” learns how to animate the natural world with pure hopes of his own; the spectator of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” learns of the pride of corporations, and the benign sadness of civic life; the listener to Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony is presented with the open floodgates of human joy and creativity; the reader of Proust is led through the enchanted world of childhood and made to understand the uncanny prophecy of our later griefs which those days of joy contain.

Even at her age, Erica was learning to perceive in new ways.  Just as living in New York or China or Africa gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so, too. spending time in the world of a novelist inculcates its own preconscious viewpoints.

Through trial and error, Erica discovered her tastes.  She thought she loved the Impressionists, but now they left her strangely unmoved.  Maybe their stuff was too familiar.  On the other hand, she became enraptured by the color schemes of the Florentine Renaissance and Rembrandt’s homely, knowing faces.  Each of them tuned her mind, the instrument with a million strings.  She had some moments of pure pleasure, when she could feel her heart beating faster and a quiver in her stomach — standing in front of a painting, or discovering a new installation or poem.  There was a time, reading Anthony Trollope of all people, when she could feel the emotions of the story in her own body, and was alive to the sensations produced there.

“Mine is no callous shell,” Walt Whitman wrote about his body, and Erica was beginning to appreciate what he meant.

~ From The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement by David Brooks (New York: Random House, 2011).

 


Noted with pleasure: The long bag

Let’s talk about the personal shadow first.

When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality.  Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche.  A child running is a living globe of energy.

We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball.  They said things like “Can’t you be still?”  Or “It isn’t nice to try to kill your brother.”  Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.  By the time we get to school our bag is quite large. 

Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.”  So we take our anger and put it in the bag.  By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we we known as “the nice Bly boys.”  Our bags were already a mile long.

Then we do a log of bag-stuffing in high school.  This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age.  So the student’s paranoia about grownups can be misplaced.  I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players.  Any part of myself that was a little slow went into the bag.  My sons are going through the process now: I watched my daughters, who were older, experience it.  I noticed with dismay how much they put into the bag, but there was nothing their mother or I could do about it.  Often my daughters seemed to make their decision on the issue of fashion and collective ideas of beauty, and they suffered as much damage from other girls as they did from men.

So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice….

Different cultures fill the bag with different contents.  In Christian culture sexuality usually goes into the bag.  With it goes much spontaneity.  Marie Louise Franz warns us, on the other hand, not to sentimentalize primitive cultures by assuming that they have no bag at all.  She says in effect that they have a different but sometimes even larger bag.  They may put individuality into the bag, or inventiveness.  What anthropologists know as “participation mystique” or “a mysterious communal mind” sounds lovely, but it can mean that tribal members all know exactly the same thing and no one knows anything else.  It’s possible that bags for all human beings are about the same size.

We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.

~ From A little book on the human shadow by Robert Bly (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988)


Noted with pleasure: The middle passage

Sculpture: Matteo Pugliese

Why do so many go through so much disruption in their middle years?  Why then?  Why do we consider it to be a crisis?  What is the meaning of such an experience?

The midlife crisis, which I prefer to call the Middle Passage, presents us with an opportunity to reexamine our lives and to ask the sometimes frightening, always liberating question: “Who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played?” 

When we discover that we have been living what constitutes a false self, that we have been enacting a provisional adulthood, driven by unrealistic expectations, then we open the possibility for the second adulthood, our true personhood. 

The Middle Passage is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence of first adulthood and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality.

Those who travel the passage consciously render their lives more meaningful.  Those who do not, remain prisoners of childhood, however successful they may appear in outer life….

Many of us treat life as if it were a novel.  We pass from page to page passively, assuming the author will tell us on the last page what it was all about.  As Hemingway once said, if the hero does not die, the author just did not finish the story.  So, on the last page we die, with or without illumination. 

The invitation of the Middle Passage is to become conscious, accept responsibility for the rest of the pages and risk the largeness of life to which we are summoned.  Wherever the reader may be in his or her life, the summons to us is the same as to Tennyson’s Ulysses:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.*

~ From The middle passage: From misery to meaning in midlife by James Hollis (Toronto, CA: Inner City Books, 1993).

*”Ulysses,” in Louis Untermeyer, ed., A concise treasury of great poems.

 

 


My radar, or my nightmare?

 

After two decades of codependent relationships she’s testing out a new approach with her new boyfriend, Carl. 

We call it “letting Carl lead.”  Instead of straining constantly to control the relationship — fretting, plotting and trying to sculpt it into what she wants it to be — she’s trying to relax, and breathe, and take her cues from him.  If he texts her, fine.  If he doesn’t, fine.  That sort of thing.

It seems to be working.  Thus far Carl has been adequately respectful, attentive and affectionate.  And she feels less nervous and more cared for than she has in years.

But she has a question.

“You say I should listen to my feelings,” she says.  “That they’re like radar, feeding me important information about what’s happening here and now.”

“That’s right,” I say.

“But sometimes feelings lie.  Sometimes I get scared when Carl says or does something that reminds me of Bobby.”  Bobby is her alcoholic ex-husband.  “And I know I’m confusing the two but I’m still scared.”

“Transference,” I nod.

“Right, transference.  Then other times I worry that something bad is happening, like Carl’s secretly judging at me, or is going to happen, like we’ll have a fight.”

“Projection,” I say.   

“Yes.  And then sometimes I get angry at one person, like my boss, and find myself taking it out on another, like my kids.” 

“That’s called displacement.”

“Yes, I remember.  But here’s my question.  These feelings aren’t telling me the truth about what’s happening here and now.  Carl isn’t Bobby, we’re not fighting, and I’m mad at my boss, not my kids.  So how can I tell the difference between radar signals and the feelings that lie?”

Nobody’s asked that before.

“Wow,” I say.  “That’s a really really good question.”

She smiles

“Okay, let’s see.  First, it helps to think of the misleading feelings not as lies, but as memories — leftover reactions to stuff in the past.  Like PTSD flashbacks that get triggered when something here and now reminds you of that old something.”

“Like little nightmares,” she says.

“Exactly,” I say.  “Because they feel absolutely real.  You’re convinced Carl’s secretly judging you, for example.”

“I sure am.”

“So what you need to figure out is whether you’re being triggered.”

“How do I do that?”

“With three questions,” I say. 

“The first question is What am I trying to control right now?  Here you step back from your reaction to see if you’ve slipped into a old codependent pattern.  And if the answer is painfully familiar — like “I’m trying to control how someone feels about me” or “I’m trying to avoid rejection or abuse” — that can signal that you’re caught in a nightmare.  And then you take a breath and tell yourself Oh, there I go again.”

“Okay,” she says.  “That’s good.”

“The second question is What’s the evidence?  Here you step out of your subjectivity and look for what’s objectively true.  What’s the hard evidence of how Carl feels about you?  Has he actually said or done stuff controlling or judgmental or abusive?  Is he acting like Bobby did, or are you just scared that he might?”

“He never does,” she says thoughtfully.

“Right.  And the third question is What do you think?  This one you ask someone else.”

“Who?”

“Anyone safe, whose judgment you trust.  Someone who has an unbiased perspective, not contaminated by your personal history or associations or triggers.  You may need to ask it several times of several different people.”

“How does that help?” 

“It’s another way of gathering evidence, of discovering whether your feeling comes from radar or nightmare.  Granted, nobody else is you, and in the end you have to reach your own conclusion.  But other people’s feedback can help.  For example, imagine Carl says or does something that reminds you of Bobby’s anger.”

“Okay.”

“Now imagine you describe what he said or did to ten people, and ask What do you think?  And all ten of them say things like ‘No, that doesn’t sound angry to me’ or ‘No, he just sounds stressed’ or ‘Were you still stressed from that fight you had with your boss?’  How do you think you’d react?”

“I think,” she smiles,” it might help me wake the hell up.”

 


Noted with pleasure: A monster in the dark

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One stormy night during supper there was a crash of thunder and the house was plunged into total blackness.  When the lights came on a few seconds later, the children seemed frightened.  I thought the best way to handle it was to make light of their fears.  I nearly tossed off, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” but my husband Ted spoke first.  He said, “Hey, that was pretty scary.”  The children stared at him.

It sounded nice, his saying that.  I caught his spirit.  “It’s funny,” I said, “when a light is on in a room, everything feels so friendly and familiar.  But take that same room with the same things inn it and put it in darkness and suddenly it becomes scary.  I don’t know why.  It just does.”

Six eyes looked up at me with such relief, such gratitude, that I was overwhelmed.  I had made a very simple statement about a very ordinary event, and yet it seemed to mean so much to them.  They began to talk, all at once, fighting each other for a turn.

DAVID: Sometimes I think a robber is going to come and kidnap me.

ANDY: My rocking chair looks like a monster in the dark.

JILL: What scares me like anything is when the tree branches scrape against the window.

The words spilled out, each child saying aloud the fearful thoughts he had had when alone in his dark room.  We both listened and nodded.  They talked and talked.  Finally, they were done.

In the silence that followed we all felt so loved and loving that I knew we must have touched the heart of a very powerful process.  It was no small matter, this business of validating a child’s feelings.  Did other people know about it?

I began to eavesdrop on conversations between parents and children.  At the zoo I heard:

CHILD: (Crying.)  My finger!  My finger hurts!

FATHER:  It couldn’t hurt.  It’s only a little scratch.

At the supermarket I heard:

CHILD:  I’m hot.

MOTHER: How can you feel hot?  It’s cool in here.

In the toy store I heard:

CHILD: Mommy, look at this little duck.  Isn’t he cute?

MOTHER: Oh, that’s for a little baby.  You’re not interested in baby toys any more.

It was astonishing.  These parents seemed unable to hear their children’s simplest emotions.  Certainly they mean no harm by their responses.  Yet in reality what they were telling their children, over and over, was:

You don’t mean what you say.

You don’t know what you know.

You don’t know what you feel.

~ From Liberated parents, liberated children: Your guide to a happier family by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish (New York: Avon Books, 1990).


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