It’s Not Going to Happen to Me

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It’s not going to happen to me.

“Why?”

Well, because I’m young. Sure I smoke, but so did my grandfather and he lived to be 97. Sure I eat a lot and I’m overweight, but so does my mom, and she can still do cartwheels. Besides, I’m a good person — bad things don’t happen to really good people. And, I have a strong relationship to God. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen. He’s on my side.

OK, I don’t know if it is a He or She, but I’m goddamn sure about God being on my side. I’m a spiritual guy. No, not the kind that has to go to church all the time, but God knows my heart is in the right place. I even gave 50 cents to a homeless guy a couple of years ago. Besides, I’ve been lucky all my life. And I’m careful, I have very good judgment. I look both ways before I cross the street. I plan in advance. Not to  mention, I’m really smart. I always got good grades in school. And before anything bad happens, I’ll see it coming and get out-of-the-way.

OK, sometimes I lie to the boss, sometimes I do a side job for cash so I can avoid paying taxes, but who doesn’t do that? The government would waste it anyway. I’m clever. I’ll never get caught.

Sure, there are some things I haven’t taken care of yet, some stuff I need to start, some projects I need to finish. But, crap, I’ve got time, plenty of time. There’s always tomorrow or next week. What’s the rush?

If I really wanted to stop smoking I could stop, but I enjoy it. And even if I do trip myself up somehow or some way, there will always be other chances. What’s more, I’ve got people looking out for me. If I were in trouble, they’d warn me and I’d change course.

The bad things that have happened to me have been someone else’s fault. I’ve recovered. See! I’m as good as new!

What’d you say? You said I drive too fast? Heck, I’ve got terrific reflexes, great hand-eye coordination. I’ve never had an accident, not even a traffic violation. I know what I’m doing.

Yeah, I drink, sometimes too much, but I never drive when I’m tipsy. How do I know? Well, I can just tell. I know myself. I don’t make dumb choices. OK, sometimes I have unprotected sex with people I have just met, but I don’t have sex with those kinds of people who would have AIDS or herpes or something. I guess I wasn’t always faithful to my last girlfriend either, but, I mean, who is? Jeez, I’m a man, I have needs, I have urges. I just do what other men do. What’s wrong with that?

I’m smart. I’m good. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK.

It’s not going to happen to me.

What you’ve just read is an imaginary conversation, not intended to resemble the words or attitudes of anyone living or dead, and certainly not the gentleman pictured. The top image is called Smug Santa, taken in 2008 at the New York Santacon by istolethetv and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Princess Merida.

Be Prepared: Reactions from Friends, Family, and Lovers When You Get Therapy

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Sometimes the standing ovation is a long time in coming.

Sometimes those expected to be most supportive of you are just the opposite.

Sometimes those you think are on your side are actually working against you.

When even your family dog looks doubtful, then you are really in trouble!

Who am I talking about?

A few of your friends and relatives when you enter therapy; especially, if you begin to make significant progress.

The Boy Scouts of America have it right: be prepared.

Therapy still carries a stigma in some quarters. Men, in particular, tend to believe that they should be able to handle problems without a “crutch;” that talking too much about “feelings” is not the thing that a “real man” does. For these people, going to a therapist is thought to be a moral failure — a weakness of the will.

Parents, too, can be threatened by an adult offspring’s decision to enter treatment. The public stereotype of counseling is that you will be required to explore your childhood and that, before long, you will blame your parents for everything.

An exaggeration, of course.

But, the more likely that your problems do have something to do with your parents, the more likely that they might discourage your efforts to engage in treatment.

On the other hand, unsupportive parents can use your decision to seek professional help as evidence that you are “broken.” Your need of counseling can be counted as “proof” that there is something wrong with you (as opposed to themselves or to your siblings who have not sought this kind of assistance).

But what if you suffer from alcohol or drug abuse or addiction? Surely everyone would want you to overcome this, wouldn’t they?

Not so fast.

You probably have friends and family who “use and abuse” substances, as well. If, in the course of treatment, you try to cut-back or become abstinent, little approval will follow from this group. Rather, you will find yourself with as many or more offers of drinks and drugs, as well as pressure to resume the same behavior as before, lest the change be seen as an indictment of this group and the habits of its members.

Comments like, “what, do you think you are too good to have a drink with us?” or “it’s only one drink,” or “geez, it’s really great weed; you’d really love it,” or “let me buy the drink” are commonplace. This is why such relationships inevitably either break down or the person attempting to change himself “falls off the wagon” due to social pressure and criticism.

It is also a part of the reason why support groups for addiction like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) are so important in providing the understanding, back-up, and encouragement that is lacking elsewhere.

Even if your treatment doesn’t involve alcohol or drug abuse, you may discover that parents or lovers will try to become “back seat drivers” of the ongoing discussion between you and your counselor. Some of them will wish to know all the elements of your private conversations, including the most intimate details.

This can be a problem. People frequently go to therapists because they have issues that are tremendously painful or embarrassing to confront. It can be hard enough to open up such matters with a psychologist without the knowledge that you will be debriefed at home. If your partner or parent “requires” you to talk about those delicate subjects, it can discourage you from speaking to the therapist about them, or even engaging in treatment at all.

Sometimes mom or your spouse will go so far as to suggest that your revelation of family secrets and any negative commentary (about them) to the therapist is a personal betrayal of your family bonds and obligations.

For the record, there are many times when therapeutic conversations must be absolutely confidential and free from the review of other interested parties. Your therapist knows this and will not divulge information without your clearly directed permission (unless you are dangerous to yourself or others). You should not feel compelled to make regular reports to spouses, friends, parents, or other relatives simply because they want you to.

And what if you do change, with or without the encouragement or support of the people closest to you?

They do not always welcome those changes.

If you have been docile and passive in relating to loved ones and you now become assertive and independent — not willing to “go along in order to get along” — people who used to manipulate you will be frustrated. Should you now be capable of standing up for yourself, saying “no” — refusing to be hostage to others’ disapproval or direction — you must expect that there will be “push back.”

“You’ve changed — you’re not as nice as you used to be. Therapy has made you selfish. I liked the way you were before,” and similar comments can be expected.

If they can, some of these alleged “friends” will make every effort to have you retrace your steps and resume the second-class status that has been yours historically. If, however, you withstand their efforts to restore the relationship to its previous terms, some of them will adjust to the “new you” and accept the change as a good thing for you, or a least something that is tolerable.

Others, however, will end the tie they have with you, or diminish their contact and availability to you.

Yes, you will be rejected. And, the rejection can make you wonder whether all the time, expense, and therapeutic effort were worth it. Grieving will be necessary.

But, if you can persevere, you should be able to find new friends who are healthier for you and less self-interested, while at least some of your old friends will stick around and be more enjoyable to be with.

It can be quite a disappointment to find that some of those you hoped would be most happy for you and encouraging of your growth are the least supportive.

But, as the old saying goes, “with friends like that, you don’t need any enemies.”

Opt for change and hold your ground. If you cling to your dysfunction in order to keep these pseudo-friends, you have chosen their needs over your own.

The best of your friends and family will want what is best for you.

Always.

The apparently disapproving visage of Brittany Dog is the work of Uber Phot. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever Became of Miss Pancake?


Most of us are prone to judging people by what they look like or how they sound — how they pose and shape themselves for the camera of our perception and insight.

Many clever people can put on a good “show” and lead us to believe that the surface of things really does suggest something stable, decent, and worthwhile below the sight lines.

But, as Miss Pancake’s story suggests, sometimes what you think you see isn’t what you get.

The foundation underneath the surface makeup may not be nearly so pretty.

Indeed, outer beauty can suggest a fantasy, something that is very much “made up.”

Miss P was born in 1927, the youngest of her parents’ four children, both immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Along with many other Eastern European Jews, they saw America as a land free of the most obvious forms of anti-Semitism and a place of great economic opportunity. Her father, as the story goes, traveled to the USA in 1912 from Rumania, after a brief stop in England.

Only one problem: he missed his boat to the USA. Its name? The Titanic, or at least, that is what he told everyone.

He went by the name Leo. A tall, dashing, easy-going man with a wicked smile, able to speak at least a little of several languages. His wife Esther was quite a contrast: homely, stocky, with a prematurely lined face; an argumentative woman who never mastered English and never met a person she could trust.

Leo, a Chicago house painter who was hospitalized and nearly died during the 1918 influenza epidemic, made a good living in the 1920s when money was easy to come by and as easily spent. But he was also unreliable, alcoholic; an embarrassment to his kids when he was loaded. Still, a funny, voluble, charming sort of inebriate, never mean-spirited. And always warm and affectionate with children.

The Great Depression was the ruin of Miss Pancake’s family. Nothing unusual there, since 25% of the country was unemployed. Failed banks, bread lines, “hey buddy, can you spare a dime?” Our heroine might have remembered the terror of bill collectors coming to their door and everyone inside pretending not to be home. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy household anymore and left for Winnipeg, Canada, where he had some relatives, conveniently forgetting to take his wife and children along.

But Esther was tenacious and knew that Leo was her only meal-ticket, even if the meals he could buy were now pretty meager. She followed him to Canada, where Miss P’s older siblings remembered the fear that their classmates had of someone from Chicago, the city of Al Capone and his friends. Eventually, they returned to the USA with Leo coming along for the ride.

Esther was the powerhouse of the family. She could brow-beat her husband Leo, who never made a decent financial recovery from the loss of his painting business and whose alcoholism was always an easy target. And his late night carousing left the four children as fair game for Esther’s mix of claustrophobic love, suspicion, and withering criticism as she played one child against the other, leaving them all unhappy.

In spite of it all, little Miss P grew to be a beauty. Tall and leggy, buxom, with full lips and a toothy smile, she was quite a dish. You can see the beauty queen above as she looked in her hey-day.

But as the last one left at home when all the other children had moved out and gotten married, Esther held on to her like grim death. No one was ever “good enough” for her, at least according to her mom.

Miss P was witty, bright, and could play men to show her a good time. She worked as a legal secretary in a big deal La Salle Street law office for a wealthy and prominent Chicago lawyer at a time when such a job had a measure of prestige, before women had much access to the practice of law or medicine beyond being helpful to a male who did.

Miss P. could be generous, even if that devotion always had strings attached. She played the role of confidant to many of those she targeted, eagerly attentive until she figured out how she could use the information they were revealing to her — a tactic she had doubtless learned from her suspicious and manipulative mother.

So long as her beauty and charm lasted, Miss P enjoyed the company of well-to-do men who would shower her with gifts. But, as the bloom came off the rose, her life became stranger and stranger. For a number of years she continued working as a legal secretary. Finally, she decided that there were other ways to make a living than working for an employer who expected you to show up every day and collected your Social Security and withholding taxes.

At some point she was also hospitalized at a state psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia. She was a reluctant patient, to be sure; not patient enough to wait for a medical discharge, she escaped through an open window.

By now Miss P had alienated all but two of her relatives, both nephews.

She would sometimes promise them that when she was gone they would inherit her estate, but it was hard to imagine that she had much of one. Nonetheless, they extended themselves to her out of their sense of obligation and good will more than any anticipation of a posthumous payoff; when she got cancer on her nose and sometimes needed help in getting to the doctor, they were there for her.

It is hard to characterize what Miss P then did for a living, but scamming people comes to mind. It seems that this took several forms. Variation One involved buying articles from one store, presumably on sale, and then either reselling them for more than the purchase price or returning them to another store in an attempt to retrieve the retail, non-sale price. Eventually some stores wanted no part of her business, having gotten wise to her scheming.

Variation Two required her to buy used merchandise or find things that others had discarded. I’m not sure to what extent this depended upon her ability to “dumpster dive,” but I’d be surprise if she didn’t claim some goods this way. Then she would run advertisements in places like The Reader, a free weekly newspaper that permitted ads she didn’t have to pay for.

On one such occasion Miss P sold some used stereo equipment that didn’t work to someone who, understandably, thought it did. When he called to complain and wanted a refund, she retorted, “Who do you think you’re dealing with? This isn’t Marshall Field’s!”

Variation Three had to do with her residence. Although she often rented apartments, sometimes she lived in the lobbies of posh hotels, washing up in the ladies room and sleeping in the lobby chairs, while her goods remained in storage. Again, eventually some of the establishments got wise to her.

Perhaps the most lucrative variation, however, might have been various nuisance law suits she filed against alleged “wrong-doers,” including the multiple land-lords she had over the years, perhaps against physicians who treated her, as well. These sometimes resulted in significant settlements.

In 2001 she soon expected to be between apartments and asked one of her nephews to pick up several suit cases, presumably all her worldly goods that weren’t deposited in a storage facility, and to hold them until she was settled in another rental unit. He dutifully did so, bringing the suitcases to his suburban home.

Several weeks later, however, when she asked that the goods be returned, Nephew #1 relied on Nephew #2 to deliver them. Miss P claimed that two suitcases were missing. A manipulation? A delusion? Who could tell? Phone contact with Nephew #1 didn’t jog her memory about the number of pieces of luggage she left with him, nor cause him to confess to the charge of theft that she was leveling against him.

Given how far gone she was, by now she probably believed her own preposterous story.

It wasn’t too many days before a police car appeared in front of Nephew #1’s home. Miss P was in the back seat. The officer rang the bell, only to find her nephew’s wife alone at home. He questioned her about the allegations and was satisfied that nothing untoward had happened, confiding to her that Miss P was, in fact, a pretty strange bird.

The officer wanted to leave, but the alleged criminal’s spouse insisted that he first search the premises, to satisfy himself and Miss P that nothing of her’s was in their home. But the beauty of paranoia is that evidence or its absence counts for nothing. Our heroine simply believed that whatever had been stolen from her had been sold before she and the police arrived.

Still, you’d think that with the police’s failure to find anything, Miss P would have been at a dead-end.

No one got off so easily once Miss P had targeted him.

Later in the year, claiming indigence, the Circuit Court of Cook County waved the filing fee that normally would have been required of Miss P to file suit against her relative. With Nephew #2 in attendance for the bench trial along with Nephew #1’s wife, Miss Pancake claimed $1200 in damages for the personal property that she alleged to have been “wrongfully detained,” namely, “two marble tables, one statue, nine pieces of luggage, one carry-on bag; and clothing.”

She lost.

Twelve days later her motion for a new trial was denied.

The judge in her suit was her next target. Our beauty queen completed a form entitled “Request For Investigation of a Judge or Associate Judge” that she submitted to the State of Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board. In it, she alleged that Judge Good (certainly not a good day for him):

…has a disability. He cannot read or has eye problems. He should use glasses. Also, he (sic) is known by Daley (Center) employees that he never reads evidence. He just judges people by appearance only.

Incoherently specifying various abuses she suffered at the hands of the judge, including being discriminated against as a senior citizen, she complained that the judge had stated in open court that

…he liked the defendant because he was rich. Then, he also (said,) “Boy, lots (of) money.”

Two years later, no longer able to sue Nephew #1, Miss Pancake sued his wife over the same property, with the same result, although this time Miss P’s kinsman hired an attorney in the hope of ending the repeated confrontations with his aunt once and for all. This time Judge Plenty, obviously sensitive to the plaintiff’s peculiar and disjointed communications, requested that she be assessed as to her capacity for self-care by the Cook County Guardian’s office.

Nothing came of that assessment, other than, I suspect, a good deal of nervousness on her part at the possibility that she might lose her independence.

A month later, our inexhaustible protagonist consulted a private attorney of her own in an effort to continue the pursuit of her personal property, but that man wrote her to say she had no case, and that (having failed to persuade Judges Good and Plenty) she had exhausted all legal remedies with any reasonable likelihood of producing the compensation that she was seeking.

And that is the way Miss Pancake’s relationships with her family ended.

No contact with anyone ever again.

Time passed.

Nephew #1 would read of her death in the obituary column of the Chicago Tribune. A little investigation revealed that she had become a ward of the state and died of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Who would have thought that the story of the beautiful and clever Miss Pancake would end this way?

The moral: don’t judge a book by its cover, candy by its box, or a pancake by its package.

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The photo just above is of Good & Plenty candy, taken by Glane23, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Anger Anyone?

Some of the very logical or morally upright folks out there believe that you should never get angry. Never ever.

I’m not one of those folks. First of all, we are all human, and to be human means to have emotions. Second, it is hard to imagine a humanity capable of defending itself, the spouse, and the kids, who can’t get in touch with some needed anger when we or our loved one’s are imperiled.

When danger appears, we are built to fight or flee. The sympathetic nervous system readies you for action. Adrenaline starts to pump, the big muscles of our body receive more blood as the heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, the pupils widen (the better to see danger, my dear!), and sweat gland activity heightens to keep you cool in the event of a major exertion of energy (as well as to make you slippery, so that an aggressor can’t get a firm grip on you).

All of this has been “selected for” in the Darwinian sense: if our ancestors hadn’t successfully fled the tiger or defeated the enemy with the help of these physiological changes, we’d not be here and their genetic line would have stopped.

The same logic suggests that the female of the species historically tended to choose males who were capable of defending her and the kiddies, especially when pregnancy and child-rearing made them particularly vulnerable. But, since the female couldn’t always depend upon the male when he was out hunting and gathering, she needed some anger too.

So, if you get angry, as you almost certainly do, you have come by at least some of it honestly and through no particular effort of your own.

That said, how do you know when your anger goes over the top? Some people will tell you when that happens, of course, and sometimes the authorities will in the form of police. If you are no longer a child and get into fist fights or find yourself yelling a lot, you’ve almost certainly got a problem, either as an aggressor or as a victim. Alcohol might add to your combustibility since it tends to disinhibit people, making big emotions more likely. For some otherwise mild mannered men and women, drinking turns them to the dark side. As the old Chinese saying goes, “first the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Substitute the word “anger” for the word “drink” and you have an equally valid way of looking at anger. Do you have the anger, or does the anger have you?

On the subject of old sayings, there is an Italian saying that also applies to this issue: “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves.” This means, of course, that revenge is likely to consume you (and perhaps even lead to your demise) just as much as it is likely to succeed in hurting the other party. Lives have been eaten-up and made perpetually miserable by the preoccupation with righting wrongs. Think of the centuries long enmity that exists in the Balkans or the long standing animosity between the Greeks and the Turks. Numerous other examples could be cited. One act of revenge causes the victim to look for his own revenge and back again in a circle without end.

Anger is often the result of a real injury, but the danger is in becoming the thing that you learn to hate because of that injury. The data on the likelihood of child abuse being perpetrated by parents who were themselves abused  is fairly well known. Such a parent is much more likely to abuse his children than a parent who was not himself abused as a child. When I tell people this they often find it puzzling. Surely, they say, the abused child would learn what not to do from the parent’s bad example. But think of cigarette smoking or drug/alcohol abuse. Again, the child raised by an addicted mom or dad is at greater risk of duplicating the parent’s behavior than one raised by parents who are abstinent. Not only does the child have the model of the parent as a bad example in these homes, but, in the case of abuse, the youngster has to deal with the anger and hurt inside of him, which comes from being targeted. As children these kids can rarely succeed in retaliating against their parents, but they can take their feelings out against other smaller children (including their siblings) or against their own helpless children when they have become adults. Indeed, unless the abused child is able to obtain relief from the feelings of anger and sadness that come with abuse (and this usually takes therapeutic intervention), he is likely to carry some of these emotions and their behavioral consequences into adulthood. A good book on the subject is For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. A first class movie that depicts exactly what I’ve described is Good Will Hunting.

Back to the question of how you might know whether you have an anger problem, there are a few additional indicators. Do you (or do people tell you) that you react out of proportion to events that are not seen by others as being that big? Do you find yourself feeling angry or irritable much of the time, or awakened by resentments in the middle of the night? Do you have road rage? Have you every punched a wall or thrown an object due to this sort of upset? If you are an athlete in a contact sport, do you enjoy inflicting pain on the opposition?

Even if none of the above apply, there might be other ways that you express your resentment. Do you intentionally delay or put off tasks that others (a spouse or a boss) want you to do, but you don’t believe are that important? Are you sarcastic to others, rather than direct? Do you grumble in discontent or talk behind the back of others at what they’ve done (or not done) or complain about their personal qualities, but put a friendly face on in front of them? If you’ve answered “yes” to some of these questions, you might just be “passive aggressive,” expressing your ire indirectly.

Again, I’m not saying that all anger is inappropriate. And, certainly, one shouldn’t always turn the other cheek, lest one regularly get taken advantage of. But anger can be a problem for you and for those around you. Like a big dog, it should be kept on a short leash. If you can’t manage that, think about counseling.

A recent review article in The Behavior Therapist by Kulesza and Copeland concludes that cognitive behavior therapy is the current treatment of choice for anger problems. The authors emphasize the need for both training in behavioral skills and the use of cognitive restructuring to insure the best results. Therapy for anger issues is therefore likely to include direct instruction about antagonism and its management; self-monitoring of angry feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; relaxation training; assistance in new ways of thinking about the events that trigger rage episodes; social skills/assertiveness training; direction as to how to think about and undercut anger when it does occur; and practice in being exposed to triggering events so that new skills can be employed and the patient can learn to tolerate or diffuse the emotional intensity and stop short of vehement outbursts.

Among self-help books, one of the best is Stop the Anger Now: A Workbook for the Prevention, Containment, and Resolution of Anger by Ronald Potter-Efron.