“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.

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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.