How to Grieve, How to Live

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You might think that grieving is not an uplifting topic. But there are ways in which that is precisely what it is.

We start with the pain of loss, specifically a loss of something of value. If you lose a penny, you won’t much care. But if the loss is of something of great importance to you, you will care greatly. The pain of loss points to the value of the thing that you have lost; and the value you place on a thing points, at least potentially, to the pain to which you are vulnerable.

What are the things we value? A job, a relationship, friends and family, a promotion; our physical-self, which can be defaced or damaged… many things: money, status, a good name, a pet, and power, too. Take your pick. You decide what is important and whatever is inside the basket in which you put your emotional pain or your vulnerability to such pain — that item has value.

Grieving involves opening yourself to the pain. Now, you might think, “It must be only a recent loss that causes the hurt.” But the heart has no clock attached to it, no timer reading off the digits of distance between you and the loss; so, if you had a difficult childhood, you might still be holding the pain inside even though it is decades old.

Not only must you open yourself to the pain, but you must do it with a witness, a listener, someone who cares and who is present, who is “there for you.” This is necessary to reattach you to human contact — to life, to intimacy — rather than closing off and pulling away from people. And in this sharing — this openness, this talk and tears and gnashing of teeth — the pain eventually subsides. It’s a little bit like kneading dough — you continue to work it until it changes. The story of your feelings will be repeated by you, if necessary, dozens of times in different ways, until the emotions are changed and the excruciating intensity of the loss passes.

How long does this process take? Six months to a year would not be unusual, although it can be longer. The first anniversary of the loss is often especially hard; so are birthdays and holidays in the first year and sometimes beyond. But if you do not do the grieving “work,” the process can be extended and a sense of melancholy or a lack of vitality can follow you relentlessly.

To grieve doesn’t mean you will forget what you have lost. And, indeed, if it is a loved one, certainly you will never forget and you will never be untouched by the memory. There is a dignity in this. We honor the loved ones who are lost in this way and perhaps they live, metaphorically speaking, inside of us. As the Danes say, “to live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.”

But “how” to do this grieving — that is the problem. If you have lived your life trying to be tough, you will find that the toughness might prevent you from doing the emotional work that will allow the grief to end. If you maintain that “toughness,” you might find yourself living as if you are numb, or displaying a sunny disposition totally at odds with what is felt deep inside, in the place where you have buried your hurt. And if you have deadened yourself enough, you will have a hard time “living,” since you will be closed-off to feelings. Joy, abandon, and spontaneity will be harder to achieve. Instead, the time ahead of you would be better called “existence” than “life.”

But perhaps you are afraid that if you allow all the pain to come out, you will be overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. And, indeed, this can happen, at least temporarily. Or perhaps you are afraid of what others might think of you if they see you without your typical emotional control, and you are afraid of their negative judgments.

And so, grieving involves having the emotions without the emotions having you; accepting them and not struggling with them; metaphorically speaking, it is like driving a car with the radio on, but not so loudly that you are overcome by it. In other words, you will have the emotions but still be able to drive — still be able to lead your life.

To do this you must open the pain in a place that is safe and in a way that it is neither deadened or perpetually out-of-control. You must hold the hurt not too tightly and not too loosely, but gently, since it is precious; not walling the emotions off or letting them carry you away from active life for days at a time. Part of this is simply allowing yourself to be human, to honor the injury, not judging or trying to change what you feel (the change will happen by itself if you allow it), but permitting yourself to do what our mammal relatives do — to lick your wounds (metaphorically speaking) and accept the support of others, whether they are friends, lovers, relatives, or therapists.

And, in the end, if you have grieved and have the courage, good luck, and time to continue the human project that we all have been given, you are likely to heal enough to venture forth into the world, again putting yourself into the things and people you hold dear, risking injury once more, not hiding from the dangers that life brings, but also experiencing what is good in life — all the things you still value.

You will be alive again, and the grieving process will have led you there.

The above image is The Grieving Parents, Kathe Kollwitz’s 1932 memorial to her son Peter, who died in World War I.

What To Expect From Your Partner When Your Baby Arrives

Sometimes the idea of a baby is a little different from the reality of a baby. Ask a parent. But the reality doesn’t comprise only the feeding and care of the little one. It also involves changes in the relationship to the spouse–the person who contributed half of the genes that make up your tiny new person.

Mostly I’m talking about a first child here, since the newness of the event and a number of other parts of it are things for which one cannot  prepare.

Let’s start with the sheer exhaustion you will feel. Babies are demanding creatures and will disrupt your sleep and test your stamina. Whatever schedule you had now must be altered to fit your child’s needs. How will you and your partner divide the new responsibilities?

Everything must now be planned out, so if you were a spontaneous, in-the-moment sort of person before, you will be thrown off your game. Do you want to go to the movies? Who will watch the baby? Are you breast-feeding? Will you leave some milk behind while you are out? Do you feel good about the person who is watching the infant? Is he/she conscientious and responsible?

The job of going out with the baby is not less demanding. Packing all his/her stuff, bundling him up, carrying or pushing him around, and trying to concentrate on driving or shopping or friends or your spouse at the same time.

Then there is the question of your parents and your in-laws. Do they want to be very involved with your new-born? How will you and your spouse feel if they are around more often? Will they be supportive or critical of you as new parents?

Of course, in order to go out, you must have a few dollars in your pocket. Most new parents have only a few–the mother (yes, its still usually the mother) has, at least temporarily taken time off from work. And now there is baby furniture and clothing and food to buy and baby sitters to pay for. Fewer dollars tends to mean more tension in the marriage and more decisions to be made about how to use those dollars.

New parents also face an increased sense of responsibility. After all, you have a little one who is entirely dependent upon you for everything–his life, safety, financial well-being, his clothes, food, and not least, his emotional health. Are you doing it right? Are you harming him/her? These concerns are enough to make nearly anyone insecure.

And, with the demands and responsibilities of this new life, you will necessarily have less time for each other and less time for yourself and your friends. Not surprisingly, especially among insecure men, jealousy can come into play. In an unexpected turn of events, the adoring sex-bomb he married just might have eyes for someone else–his own child! And, the needs of that kiddie will tend to come first. Moreover, if you have parents staying with you, your sexual spontaneity can be further diminished by their proximity. Later, you might also hear the phrase, “Not now–wait until the baby is asleep,” or later still “Not now, the kids might hear.” And one or both of you might occasionally find yourself thinking, to your surprise, that a nap sounds a lot better than sex.

In the time following the birth, the wife often feels less attractive, especially if her weight doesn’t come down to her pre-pregnancy number and the bags under her eyes reflect the sleeplessness of her new duties. Will the husband be understanding about this?

Heard enough? I haven’t even mentioned the differences in child-rearing styles that you will likely discover when your baby gets older.

Now that I’ve made the case against springing for a new off-spring, I will say something else: it can be one of the most wonderful times of your life. A time when you and your spouse pull together, find out new things about each other and about life, and glow with the love that only a child can evoke from you. If you are not dazzled by this new life, a life that you and your partner created out of nothing, a life that is different from any other one that exists now or ever existed, then you are missing one of the most wonderful experiences possible; it is a kind of falling in love, just as overwhelming as the romantic kind, but different.

Sure its a challenge, but what worthwhile tasks are not? It can be intense, delightful, joyous, worrying, demanding, and frustrating all at once.

But if you do it close to right and have a little luck, you will look back on your time on the planet knowing that it was the most important and rewarding thing you ever experienced.

Self-Defeating Behavior and the Path to Loneliness

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What price would you be willing to pay to feel that you are special? I will tell you a story of one young woman who has paid that price and then some. She is an example of how we sometimes defend our self-image at the cost of our happiness.

The patient of another psychologist, I knew this woman for about 20 years, filling-in for her therapist when he was on vacation. Gloria (not her real name) had a tragic early life. She was victimized by her parents’ verbal and physical abuse and neglect, and became an easy target for schoolmates. Gloria was unlucky, too, in that she was born with slightly less than average intelligence. Making things even worse, her body was naturally graceless and her facial features were less than attractive. But, Gloria could be sweet and socially engaging, willing and able to approach strangers and make conversation despite a long history of rejection.

Even with all her disadvantages and misfortunes, Gloria, now a middle-aged woman, might still be able to have a good and pleasing social life except for one thing: she believes that she is the world’s unluckiest person, the record-setter for having received the greatest misfortune in the history of the planet. Moreover, she feels compelled to report her tale of woe to those people she begins to get to know, very early in her relationship to them. This has the predictable result — they shy away from her, leaving her feeling rejected once more, and adding to her claim that she has been the most ill-treated human in recorded history.

I am not being facetious here; I once asked her to compare herself to various victims of misfortune including those who had been tortured, suffered in natural disasters, lived in concentration camps, or been plagued with disfiguring and painful illnesses. She assured me that her lot in life was far worse than any of them; and, that it was only fair and reasonable to expect people to be sympathetic to her and give her some of the understanding, sympathy, and support she had always been lacking.

Thus, Gloria pursues with a vengeance the comfort and affection that she believes she has coming to her. Her sense of entitlement to this, her insistence that her fellow-man should and must provide this, drives people away from her in her striving for the love she has never had. Of course, her therapist points out to her the self-defeating nature of this strategy, the need first to establish relationships based on something other than the other person’s willingness to listen to her sadness and anger. Gloria doesn’t accept this, unfortunately. The world and the rest of the human race owe her this hearing (so it seems to her), the sooner the better, and it is only fair and just to expect them to deliver what she wants.

Gloria is smart enough to understand that people she hardly knows might not have much patience or interest in accepting her premature self-disclosure. And so, you might well ask, why does she continue to do the same thing over and over with the same bad result? Why doesn’t she try something different?

After much consideration of that question, here is the best answer I can provide. First, Gloria is so desperate and needy, so starved for affection, that it is difficult for her to restrain herself from lunging at the thing she desires whenever she first sights it. But, more importantly, I think the one thing that Gloria values above everything in her life is her self-appointed status as The Most Unfortunate Person in World History.

Now, you might say that you wouldn’t want to hold that particular title. But, think about it. I suspect that this designation gives Gloria the only form of distinction she could every expect to achieve in life. Without it, she is simply a sad, angry, lonely, unattractive, unaccomplished, anonymous person; but with it, she is something special, someone who stands out from the crowd, a noteworthy individual, one in six billion, the leader in her class. And the self-nourishment she receives from licking the wounds attendant to this awful position in life almost certainly provides her with some amount of solace.

I’m sure Gloria would deny the psychological explanation I’ve just provided for her self-defeating behavior and I cannot promise you that it is accurate. But I would ask you this. Do you know people who persist in self-defeating behavior despite all the advice, therapy, or wise counsel offered by friends, relatives, and therapists? Have you sometimes wondered why they do so?

Often the answer isn’t “logical” in that it doesn’t “make sense” intellectually. But, it just might make sense emotionally, as I believe it does for Gloria. If, somewhere deep inside, she doesn’t really believe that she can achieve the life she wants, her behavior suggests that she has found a method, however self-defeating it is, to give herself some of the sense of status and recognition that life hasn’t and probably won’t provide to her.

Gloria was dealt a bad hand in life. Her response to that deal of the cards is instructive. She seems to have chosen a sort of fantasy, a story about herself that compensates her for her misfortune, just as it simultaneously fuels her continued loneliness. But be careful should you wish to dismiss her behavior as “crazy” too quickly. We all do self-defeating things in life.

Before you condemn her, check yourself out in the mirror.

The drawing above is called Africa Lonely Kids by Myfacebook. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Making the Same Mistakes Over and Over: How to Learn From Childhood

There are few perfect childhoods out there. Indeed, it’s the nature of childhood to have some tough times. You are small, you don’t know anything, everything has to be learned for the first time. No wonder its a challenge! The adults tower over you and the big kids can belittle you, push you around, and trip you up. Literally.

So what do we do to survive childhood? Well, we figure out some strategies to deal with the problems that we face. For example, if you have an angry parent, you might learn to be sensitive to signs of upset in someone else, know when to keep your head down, try not to ruffle feathers. On the other hand, if you had a parent who only gave you attention when you were helpful and solicitous, doing things like looking after your younger siblings, you could have learned how to take care of others and seen that quality as, perhaps, one of your only virtues.

Often, the solutions that were necessary early in your life don’t work very well in the “older” (which is to say “current”) version of you. Being sensitive to possible anger in friends, lovers, and coworkers could well find you cowering unnecessarily, accepting half-a-loaf because your are afraid that if you speak up, you will get none. Being a care-taker as an adult might get you some initial approval, but it can prove unsatisfying when the person you are with expects that you will do all the caring and give all the help in the relationship, but doesn’t think to give much back to you.

It’s a little bit like this: Imagine that you were born in Alaska, learned to wear heavy clothes and multiple layers. It was a solution that was necessary and one that worked. If you continue to live in Alaska, you will find success if you use the same solution forever. But, should you move to South Florida and operate by the same set of internalized rules, now you will have quite a problem!

Childhood solutions only are useful to adults if you continue to live in circumstances similar to your childhood. But, by definition, most of us live in different circumstances. We are not any longer so small and defenseless, so unworldly and innocent. We now have much more capability to change the world around us. Unfortunately, some of us don’t know it.

Are you doing the same things that you did as a kid, using solutions that haven’t solved anything for a while? Are you suppressing emotions because that  was a good strategy in an uncaring childhood home? Are you still afraid of situations that resemble your early life challenges? Do you still avoid difficulties, never having figured out how to face them?

It’s worth taking an inventory of your early life and, even more importantly, your current life.  Look frankly at what did or didn’t work as a kid (and what does or doesn’t work now), asking yourself whether youthful difficulties produced a way of being that isn’t helpful. If you keep using failed solutions, you will likely continue to experience failure. Most of our problems are patient. They wait for us to recognize them and then to solve them. They can wait a lifetime.

Is that how you want to spend the rest of your life, making the same mistakes, accepting less than what might be possible and good for you? If you are willing to wait in that way, don’t call a therapist; you are too patient and not sufficiently motivated to change. But if you are beginning to be aware of how unsatisfying your way of living is and have the courage to face that fact, do call. That’s what therapists are there for.

“Not Invited,” “Picked Last,” and Other Small Tragedies of Childhood

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Unless you were an unusually charismatic or talented child, you know what it feels like to hear about a party to which virtually all the other kids were invited, and realize that you weren’t; or to be the last person chosen for a team of your peers, and chosen only after even the marginally talented athletes were picked. And then, if worse than that is possible, to be assigned to play right field, the spot on the baseball diamond where you were expected to inflict the least damage to your team.

Or, if you are female, you might remember trying to join a group of girls engaged in conversation, only to find them falling silent upon your approach, and then being told that the conversation is private.

Humiliation, embarrassment, sadness, and chagrin, call it what you may, that feeling lingers. And it lingers long enough, dear reader, that you are just now probably thinking of an example of it from your own life.

Bummer.

Most kids don’t want to stand out from the group, but want to be a part of the group. And to be the last one chosen, or not to be invited at all, makes you stand out in the worst possible way. Your secret is out.

Until the moment of your “unchoosing,” you probably only suspected that you were a lousy athlete or an unpopular person. Now, not only do you know it for certain, but so does everyone else.

It can even happen to adults. I’ll give you one rather singular example. The event occurred at a staff meeting of a psychiatric hospital. The psychology section was having an election for the offices of President and Secretary. Two people were running for the former office and only one for the latter. It was the custom to ask all the candidates to leave the room when the vote was about to be taken, since the election was done by a show of hands.

The Presidential election was quickly completed. Now came the vote for Secretary, presumably a formality, since the only person who wanted the job was unopposed on the ballot.

But things were not so simple as they seemed. The candidate for Secretary wasn’t well-thought-of by his peers. And so, someone nominated the just-defeated candidate for President to run against the solo petitioner for the unfilled office. Sure enough, the previously unopposed gentleman was defeated.

It was the only time in my experience that I ever heard about or witnessed someone lose an election in which he had been running as the sole office-seeker moments before. And you can imagine how this turn of events must have struck the man who had left the room thinking that his ascension to the office of Secretary was just a formality. Playing right field would have felt good by comparison.

No, no one wants to stand out in that way. You don’t want to be the kid who brings the worst gift to your friend’s birthday party. You don’t want to wear clothes that are different from those of your friends, or outdated, or too big, or too small, or too worn. You don’t want to be the kid whose mother cuts his hair. And, if you are female, you don’t want to be the only one who “isn’t allowed” to wear makeup or lipstick, or have one’s hair done in the latest style.

Clearly, all the psychic injuries inflicted during childhood don’t happen at home. It’s a wonder that there isn’t a medic on the playground to deal with the walking-wounded. The resilience of little children indeed must be impressive to permit us to survive and flourish despite the hard experience of our youthful innocence.

So, the next time your son or daughter comes home looking a bit sad, perhaps you will find a way to encourage him or her to recount just such a fresh defeat on the playground that is sometimes also a battleground or a forge in which a young personality is shaped. And, if they do, remember your own hard time when you were your child’s age. It just might make the moment a bit more poignant and allow you to “be there” for your precious offspring in the best possible way.

The above image is called Rejection by Mjt16, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Choose a Therapist

Most of us are not at our best under pressure. Similarly, when depressed, anxious, or otherwise stressed and in crisis, the patience and clarity of thinking needed choose a therapist might well be in short supply. So here are a few pointers, things to consider, when you decide to consult someone for psychological assistance:

1. Ask a friend if he or she is able to recommend a therapist with enthusiasm. Also be sure to request that your acquaintance explains “how” the therapist was helpful. Not all counselors are equally adept at treating every problem, so your friend’s recommendation should be carefully considered in light of whether your issues are different from your friend’s. You might also ask your physician for a recommendation. A good way to phrase the question is, “If you needed to get a therapist for someone you loved, who would you choose?”

2. Internet searches of various kinds can help find a good person. Various organizations list therapists who perform a certain type of therapy or work with certain types of problems. An example would be the Association For Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies: www. abct.org/ The National Register of Health Care Providers in Psychology is another such group: http://www.nationalregister.org

3. Some information about the therapist is usually available on web sites such as those mentioned above. If the therapist has a web site of his own, you will usually find out a good deal more.

4. What kind of therapist are you looking for? There are many choices. Clinical Psychologists are doctoral-level professionals (Ph.D. or Psy.D) who typically have completed four years of training beyond their college Bachelors degree and had additional instruction and supervision in the form of a year-long internship, often within hospitals or clinics. In most states psychologists cannot prescribe medication, but have received more graduate training in psychological evaluation (testing) and therapy than is typical of any of the other disciplines who perform therapy.  Psychiatrists are physicians trained in medicine, who also receive specialized training during a psychiatric residency. They can and do prescribe medication and a number of them also do therapy. Clinical Social Workers generally have a Masters Degree obtained in the course of two years of post-college study, in addition to practical experience and a history of supervision. Marriage and Family Therapists usually also have a Masters Degree and may have a similar amount of training as do the social workers, although their education is not identical to that group. All of these disciplines encourage and sometimes require therapists to continue their study via post graduate course work, supervision, and reading.

4. What kind of therapy do you want? In part, that might depend on what kind of problem or problems you have. Psychodynamic psychotherapists will tend to pay much attention to early life issues including unresolved feelings toward one’s parents, and the potential impact of additional events that occur during the growing-up years in an attempt to free you from repetitive patterns of behavior that might have started at that time. Cognitive behavioral therapists use CBT to focus more on present day concerns, attempting to help you take steps to alter the automatic and self-defeating thoughts that influence your mood and fuel your depression and anxiety, as well as assisting you in changing your behavior. They spend much less time on early life events as a rule, and do not usually consider “insight” into the causes of your troubles to be crucial to assuaging your emotional pain. Marriage and family therapy aims to treat couples and family systems, usually meeting with the marital pair or family group rather than with one person at a time.

5. Try to determine how much experience your potential therapist has with a given kind of problem. Some therapists specialize, for example, in treating alcohol and drug abuse and are certified in this field (CADC or certified alcohol and drug counselor). If you have anxiety issues, on the other hand, ask your therapist how many people he has treated with this condition. Similar questions might be asked of someone who you wish to consult for the treatment of depression or schizophrenia. Don’t be afraid to ask. Any reasonable professional in the health care field will welcome your making an informed decision.

6. Other factors might be considered. How active do you want the therapist to be? Some tend to direct the therapy, while others are more comfortable listening to you and responding to just those issues that you believe are important. Some people choose therapists based on gender, believing that they will feel more comfortable with one or the other sex. Age of the therapist is important, since it tends to be correlated both with professional experience and life experience. If you believe that not everything in life is learned in a classroom, you will probably want to see someone who has a few gray hairs and who has been married with children.

7. Financial considerations often enter into the choice of a therapist. MDs are usually the most expensive people to see and Masters level professionals are the most economical. Ask your therapist about what he charges for his services and what portion, if any, of his fee is covered by insurance. Some communities have public mental health agencies that offer therapy at a heavily discounted price, although they often have long waiting-lists. A portion of therapists will discount their fees if you can make a good case for such a discount.

If you go through your insurance company, it is likely that they will steer you toward a practitioner who has a contract with them and has agreed to discount his fee to you. Understand, however, that the discount also typically benefits the insurance company, since they will have to pay less money in benefits if you choose a provider who is in their network. Therefore, their recommendation comes with a degree of self-interest.

Be aware that (as the old saying goes), sometimes “you get what you pay for.”

8. Some people choose not to use their medical insurance to pay for counseling. They make this decision because they have concerns about the impact of a mental health diagnosis on their future ability to get life or disability insurance, and the possibility that having a “pre-existing (mental health) condition” will complicate their medical coverage should they ever change jobs or go for a period without insurance and then attempt to obtain it again.

9. Remember that the most important element in obtaining a therapist is getting a person who is accomplished, talented, experienced, and a good fit for your therapeutic needs. You should also have a sense that he really cares and wants to help. While some of the other considerations mentioned previously might be important, if the therapist can’t help you, nothing else really matters. When you meet the therapist (see my blog post “What to Expect in Your First Therapy Session“) he should be able to convey expertise, compassion, and competence, as well as giving you a sense of hope. Don’t settle for less.

What to Expect in Your First Therapy Session

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Going to therapy for the first time takes some courage. You are about to talk about some very personal things to someone who is a complete stranger. What can you expect?

1. First of all, expect to be at least a little bit nervous at the beginning. But even before you get inside the therapist’s office, you will have to fill out some paper work. You will also receive a written description of the therapist’s practice, including such details as whether the therapist accepts your medical insurance and how he handles that. Additionally, he will give you information about how your medical records are safe-guarded and the extent to which those records are confidential.

2. The therapist should greet you, bring you into his consulting room, and sit face-to-face with you. Therapists generally want to convey “openness.” It is therefore rare for a therapist sit behind a desk, with you on the other side.

3. After a few “ice breaking” words, the counselor will ask you why you have sought treatment. If you already told him some of this on the telephone, he will want you to fill in the details.

4. Don’t feel that there is a particular “correct” order in which to tell your story. Simply tell it. Initial sessions should generally allow enough time for you not to be rushed. The therapist has probably scheduled at least 75 to 90 minutes to spend with you.

5. If it makes you feel better, it is entirely appropriate to bring an outline of the topics about which you wish to talk, and to consult this outline or read directly from it whenever you need to.

6. The counselor is likely to have some questions for you. He should want to know about your background, not only about the concerns that exist in your life at the moment. Unless he knows about that background, he won’t be able to fully understand how you came to have the current difficulties and whether they represent a repetitive pattern in your life.

7. Among the topics you might be asked about are such things as a description of your parents and their approach to rearing you, relationships with siblings, the educational and social history of your school years, whether you changed residences with any frequency as a child, past and current health concerns for you and your family, the presence of any traumatic events in your life, your dating experience, the place of friends in your life, work background, alcohol or drug use, current medications, present family relationships (spouse/children), financial concerns, and past or current depression or anxiety issues.

Additionally, expect to be questioned regarding any evidence of mood fluctuations, sleep, digestive problems, headaches, caffeine use, suicidal or homicidal thoughts or actions, attentional problems, hyperactivity, hallucinations, delusions, hobbies, religion, how you feel about yourself, whether you are able to be assertive in your life (say “no” or ask for things), diet and eating/weight problems, obsessive thoughts, compulsive actions, and what you hope to get out of therapy.

Of course, there may not be time to touch on all these areas in the first session.

8. You should not feel that you must talk about topics that are too uncomfortable for you. A sensitive therapist will give you permission to cover only the ground you wish to, and a sense of control over the progress of the session, so that you don’t become overwhelmed.

9. The therapist might well ask you what challenges you’ve had in life and how you have managed to overcome them. This kind of question helps the therapist and you to know what strengths you have and to help you remember that you have surmounted past difficulties and therefore can rely on those strengths to help you surmount the current problems.

10. By the end of the session, the therapist should provide you with some feedback about what you have said. In part, this is to help you and the therapist know if he has heard and understood what you have been saying, and whether his initial impression of you seems appropriate.

11. The counselor, to the extent that he offers interpretations of the material you have presented, ought to let you know that this is a first impression and therefore not necessarily perfectly accurate. Any good therapist needs to hear your concerns about him personally, his ideas, the therapy approach he is recommending, and his effect on you. Such a person will not be offended by your concerns and actually wants to hear from you what feels right and what doesn’t feel right about the therapy process.

12. The counselor will normally allow a good deal of time to answer any questions that you have of him and his approach. It is not essential that you make another appointment at that time, although most people usually do. If you already believe that this therapist is not the right one for you, it is perfectly appropriate to say so and to ask him for a referral to another professional.

13. By the end of the session you ought to have a sense of direction and at least an initial treatment plan as articulated by the counselor. The therapist is likely to remind you of the importance of regular attendance and that your dedication to your own healing is essential to obtaining the results you want. Therapy, unlike medical intervention such as brain surgery, requires effort and activity on your part. It is also essential that you have the courage to look at yourself honestly, recognizing that in order for your life to be better you will have to be willing to change some things about yourself.

14. At the end of the first session you might feel exhausted, in part because talking about big emotions is hard work! You are likely to be less anxious than you were when you came into the session. You may feel some amount of relief at having talked about things that you have rarely if ever discussed before. If the therapist has done his job, you should have a sense of hope.

15. In the days following the first psychotherapy encounter, you might well find yourself still processing the material you discussed. This can be unsettling, but it is quite normal. Additionally, a person new to therapy can feel that he has said too much and made himself too vulnerable to the therapist, especially if he (the patient) is a private person. Some people will therefore not return to therapy after the first session. If you have this hesitation, however, remember that it is in your interest to persist despite your discomfort if you sincerely wish to change your life. Good luck!

The above image is the entry to Sigmund Freud’s office at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, Austria. It originally was posted to Flickr by James Grimmelmann and was sourced through Wikimedia Commons.

Homecoming

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Most of us invest a lot in the idea of home. Even if we don’t think about it, home claims us. It is the place where some of the most intense experiences and feelings occurred.

At its best, “There’s no place like home.” At its worst, there is no place as destructive. I’ll address both sides, in order.

Home is a place of firsts: the first place we lived, the first day of school; our first friends, first love, first victories and failures.

One of my earliest and best memories comes from a time before my brothers were born and therefore, from my first five years. My folks and I were traveling from a “drive-in” movie (a place where you watched movies from your car, parked in a giant lot in front of an enormous movie screen).

I was small enough to lie across the back seat of the car (no seat belts then). Sleepy after a long day of play, I half listened to my parents’ conversation. The rhythm of the car and the sense of safety that comes from the childhood illusion of parental omnipotence and perfect benevolence made me feel as good as I probably ever have. And, of course, we were going to the refuge we called home.

If you think about it, there are probably nearly as many songs about home as about love. And stories too.

Remember Homer’s Odyssey? Odysseus is side tracked on his return from the Trojan War. Over a period of 10 years he escapes the Cyclops, the Sirens, and all manner of trial and nemesis to get back to Ithaca, his kingdom. There, his wife Penelope waits for him, fending off the advances of suitors who want her (and Odysseus’s estate) for their own. His son, Telemachus, also waits for his father’s arrival. When Odysseus does reach Ithaca, he must do battle with the suitors and succeeds in defeating them with the help of his son.

Isn’t that what we all want? People who remember us and will always be there for us? People who have unending faith in us? People who love us and still exist, even with the passage of great spans of time, in a place called home?

If you don’t fancy the classics, think of The Wizard of Oz. Its pretty much the same story, with a young woman, Dorothy, as the heroine. Swept away from home by forces out of her control, she searches for allies who can help her in finding the “Wizard of Oz,” who reportedly has the capacity to transport her to Kansas. And, like Odysseus’s various nemeses, she encounters an evil witch who makes her life miserable. Dorothy must survive many trials to get back where she belongs.

Most of us, properly motivated, might write an autobiography of our quest in search of something worthwhile and the hurdles we overcame to reach a happy ending. The average life can have a heroic quality.

In the end, Dorothy finds herself on the family farm in Kansas, where Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the people who love her reside. And, of course, the movie ends with her words, “There’s no place like home.”

When we are comfortable, we often say we “feel at home.” In baseball, our goal is to score more runs than the opposition. And how do we do this? By crossing “home plate” more often than they do. If we do it at one blow, its called a home run. Sports teams routinely play better on their home field, supported by their loyal fans, stand-ins for family. And a part of our heart breaks when the stadiums of our youth are torn down, replaced by different “modernized” venues.

We go to “homecoming” at high schools and colleges, and to class reunions to see the old friendly faces who attach to us by the memory of home. Of course, these places age, but still we care about them.

Home is a place most people idealize. Parents are rarely as good as we retrospectively imagine them. The “good old days” tend to get better with age and distance.

Unfortunately, the home (and the family therein residing), can become a concept that is (like politics) “the last refuge of scoundrels.” In corrupt families the idea of loyalty is placed above morality and decency. One member of the home “covers” for the other’s hateful, abusive, or illegal actions. In such situations, the authority of parents, in particular, will trump any possibility of fairness.

Denial reigns in this group of blood and bloodied relations. Pity the individual who sees things as they are. He is usually treated as an outcast.

Home and family have such a claim on us that we do not always see the dark side. Family members who are cruel or dishonest hold to the illusion of a loving group for fear of being exposed. Equally, however, the other members, usually children, are comforted by the illusion to the point of moral blindness. Nor do they wish to put themselves in the line of fire by looking behind the curtain. Unlike the Land of Oz, the person unmasked is not as benign as “The Wizard.”

The loyalty, love, and attachment automatically attributed to “family” are special only to the extent that there is some approximation of the fantasy to the reality of the particular environment in which you live or to which you return.

When not the case, home is worse than a den of thieves.

Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming, lifts the veil on such a place.

Watch if you dare.

The photo above is called Celestial Tide by Kurt Nordstrom, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Father’s Day

Father’s Day can be complicated.

Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all.

Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine.

And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure.

But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple.

While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in July 2000, soon to be followed by my mother in February 2001, and our family dog in November 2001: a tough 16 months.

The experience taught me what Hamlet’s uncle Claudius knew when he said to his wife (Hamlet’s mother), “O Gertrude, Gertrude, when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

“When will dad be OK again?” my children asked my own wife. It took a little while, but eventually time and the loving support of family and friends did the job of healing.

But being healed isn’t the same as being indifferent and, as I said earlier, I still miss my father.

If you saw the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married” with Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage, think back to the scene of her time-travel from middle age to age 16; specifically, to the moment when she talked to her deceased grandmother on the phone, now suddenly back to life.

I’d give a lot to have a moment like that with my dad.


My father was a good story-teller. One of his favorites was about his time as a star Chicago Cubs pitcher.

He wasn’t, of course.

Somehow, all the records of his “career” in the major leagues had been “lost,” or so he told us. He also informed me and my brothers that he’d been able to pitch nearly every day, and was so reliable and dependable that his teammates called him “Rain or Shine” Milt Stein (able to pitch, “rain or shine”). We all came to value this funny tale and, in fact, had my wife and I had a male child, the boy’s middle name would have been “Rainer,” as in “rain or shine,” in honor of the newborn’s grandfather.

Another story he told frequently was based in fact rather than imagination.

Twenty year old Milt Stein had a tough time in 1932, the depth of the Great Depression. He could find little steady work, though he had enough to eat thanks to living with his parents. Finally, he landed a full-time job at the opening of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. His boss told him that he could work every day if he wished (although he didn’t have to), but work and money were so dear that he did — 170 consecutive days from May 27th into November.

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It was a few years after my dad died when I first realized that these two stories were actually different ways of telling the same morality tale: my dad was “Rain or Shine” Milt Stein, reliable and hard-working, both on the imaginary playing field of his “major league” career and at the World’s Fair performing a real job.

I don’t even know if my father was aware of the connection between these stories.

Dad was an intelligent, but uncomplicated man. If he had lived in a more prosperous time he’d certainly have graduated college. But, as things turned out he worked as a postal supervisor, raised three boys, and was married to the same woman for almost 60 years.

When I was very little, my father played a game of make-believe with me. In those days before everyone had some sort of recording device, he used our floor model vacuum cleaner extension as a pretend microphone for a radio show he fashioned out of his imagination. We would take turns speaking into the nozzle as he interviewed me.

I guess my career in interviewing people goes pretty far back.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2f/Blue_vacuum_cleaner.svg/200px-Blue_vacuum_cleaner.svg.png

I owe my love of baseball, a sense of fair play, and a strong work ethic to my father; and the fact that years later, each night at bedtime, I would reach into my own imagination as he did with me during our “radio show,” to tell my young daughters a story; a different one nearly every night, especially with my first-born.

Dad was not a perfect man or a perfect father. His three sons all saw too little of him because of his dedication to work and the shadow of the Great Depression on his view of matters financial. He deferred to my mother too much for our well-being.

But it is Father’s Day, not the day to get into his shortcomings.

In 1985 Milton Stein’s youngest brother, my Uncle Harry, died suddenly. I’d not been very close to my uncle, so that loss didn’t much affect me except for the fact that it made my dad’s mortality palpable to me: if Harry, my father’s youngest brother could die, then surely my father would, possibly soon. The family history of heart disease had killed Harry, and my dad had narrowly escaped alive from his own heart attack at age 47, over 25 years before.

In the wake of Harry’s death, I asked my “old man” (now genuinely old) if he’d be open to doing a videotaped history of his life, with me as the interviewer — the “radio show” with the roles reversed. He complied readily.

I still have the four hours of video that my father and I created together. Much of it is filled with the detail of his life, but at a few points my normally controlled dad let down his guard.

Most moving of all was his recollection of returning to the USA from WWII service in Europe. He hadn’t seen my mom for about two years. He called her as soon as he was situated on American soil.

As I’ve detailed elsewhere (Love Letters), the catch in Milton Stein’s voice and the tears in his eyes as he recalled hearing the woman he ached for — the love of his life — would have been unforgettable even without the video evidence.

I’m sure that you can tell I have a soft spot for my dad.

And, lucky me, I have two wonderful daughters who will make me feel like the most important person in the world on Father’s Day.

But, I’m even luckier than that.

They make me feel like it is Father’s Day every day.

The photos above are all of my father, with the obvious exception of the vacuum cleaner, made available from the Open Clip Art Library; and the poster from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, created by Weimer Pursell, silkscreen print by Neely Printing Co., Chicago; both sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first picture of my dad is probably from some time in the early to mid-1930s. The second photo looks as though he was a teenager when it was taken.

The night time snap-shot probably took my dad by surprise while he was on a date, before he met his wife-to-be (my mother). It was likely shot by a street photographer, who would have handed my father a numbered envelope that identified the negative. Dad would have had to mail the envelope to the company with payment in order to get developed copies of the picture.

I recall seeing such photographers in downtown Chicago at least as late as the 1960s. Now, of course, just about everyone carries his own camera/phone.

The final image is of the young Stein family in late 1959: my mom and dad and, left to right, Jack, myself, and Eddie.