Friday, November 23, 2012

The Happy Family

The new version of Anna Karenina is out.
That means that Tolstoy's best line will be on everyone's lips:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is 
unhappy in its own way.

Not that each individual is happy in a happy family. But we focus so much in therapy about how to get through the holidays, we almost forget that there are happy families.

There are happy people.  Not that they couldn't use a little therapy (smiley emoticon here).  Everyone could.

In therapy we refer to these people, these families, when we talk about what not to do, or why what one person wants to do is the opposite of what people in happy families do.

There are many combinations of unhappy childhood.

For example (Obviously composite players, not particular people ever seen in therapy, at least not by this therapydoc): 

Two people meet at a bar, fall in love and marry.  Jim neglected, Sally sexually abused, both can only guess at what a happy childhood might look like.  They can get it on television, but in reality, it must be fiction.  Sucked into one for whatever reason, they become very confused.

These two have therapeutic issues need both individual and couple therapy.  They work hard, but will never be buying a house in the suburbs. Their marriage has been turbulent, a difficult climb out of almost all of the isms, sexaholic-ism, foodaholism, and the usual, drug and alcoholism.

But they trek out to the suburbs for the holidays, let Jim's more functional siblings do the planning.  Both of Jim's brothers, despite the same upbringing, overcame their biggest ghost, the absence of nurturing parents, and put themselves through school.  They rose above the poverty, drink moderately. Not that they can't be obnoxious under the influence.

Jim, the black sheep, isn't close with them, but still likes to get together once a year.  He likes having a drink, eating in a good restaurant, even if he feels a little out of it.  His sibs and their wives have made all of the decisions about where to go, who is invited.  As their more functional families grow, more and more people are coming to holiday parties.

Although Jim doesn't mind it, this is a little overwhelming for Sally who is shy, who really doesn't even understand why so many people have to be there.  (You see, says the therapist, in happy families, everyone is included.)

Sally hates it.  She hates that there's alcohol, and she hates that it is at an expensive restaurant, and she hates that there are so many children.  She sees Jim's family as condescending, and controlling.  The big fight in therapy is about going at all.

Jim is willing to wave the white flag, to tell his family that he and Sal are taking a pass this year, but Sally keeps the argument, a marital therapy discussion, going.  No, she wants to go, but she wants to be a part of the planning committee and Jim's brothers and their wives won't let her into that circle.

Have you tried? is the question the therapist always asks.  Have you talked about this with them?  

Well, no.

In happy families they do that, the therapist will say, they discuss things like this.  And if the answer really is that you won't be joining them this year, then it will be okay.  The holidays have to be personal, meaningful.  Why bother joining in if it only stirs up resentment?  Find another solution.  Maybe meet with each family separately, visit during the afternoon.  Get to know new-comers, even sibs in smaller, more intimate settings.

On the other hand, the communication idea is still relevant.  Until a person has at least tried to express needs, desires, issues, problems, these will continue.  The relationship, the resentment will continue. It is called maintaining a bad system, not good for anybody.

This could be the recipe for a happy family, expressing needs, desires, issues, problems.  Not that it's an easy recipe, and recipes by their very nature are as good as the ingredients.  So those missing communications ought not be sarcastic, snarky, accusatory or blaming.

Have fun.  It's a little late for Thanksgiving, but we're nowhere finished with The Season to be Jolly.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

What to Do About Differentiation

A young Julie Andrews, 1959 nostalgia. The Sound of MusicHow do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down.  She's always late, except for meals. She's a nun and she's happy, maybe that's the problem. But Maria charms the sisters, they get her, and everyone sings about it, which is why some of us would prefer life to be more on the order of a musical.
Maria in Sound of Music

Differentiation-individuation, is considered to be a developmental milestone, key to mental health.

At first, we're symbiotic, at one with our nurturers, especially that one who gazes down at us at the breast.  Then we slowly grow psychologically apart.

Young children are enamored, in love with their parents (if we are nice), and they like how things are done in their families of origin (again, assuming we're nice). The family way-- habits, beliefs, traditions-- serve as a compass, a map to a child who is essentially looking for order in a chaotic world.  The world, to children, is sheer chaos.

Exposed over time to different ideas, to different people, it is expected that children will change, individuate, become the people they should be, the thing closest to who they have to be, to the person that nobody else really knows.  The child will become Me, myself. He, himself.  She, herself.

Not that others aren't on our minds.  But nobody else knows or understands our personal conflicts, or needs, as well, certainly not beyond adolescence, that stage of life that sets us up for identity. Parents think they know their children, but think, usually, is as far as it goes.  We might be right, too, but we can't dictate, can't enforce our reality, how we feel someone else should live, on anyone else, not even our children.  Not when they are of age to make decisions themselves.

We might be hurt about differentness, we might feel rejected.  It is the risk we take when we take on the job of parent, even the job of friend.  As parents, no matter how empathic we may be, our children still have their own feelings, thoughts, and self-awareness, to the degree that one can be self-aware.  That self-awareness is comprised of many aspects of self, all that enters into personhood.

Personhood, much different than childhood, even adulthood, which are stages of life.  The stages never end, whereas personhood sort of coalesces, congeals, even as it changes along the way.

Those of us with all kinds of dogma in our heads, with many shoulds, go bonkers at this, that our kids might not walk the walk, whatever that might be.  It is where lines are drawn in the sand, where the shoulds become the battleground.  You should be this, you should be that.  Messages aren't only from family.  Shoulds come from everywhere.

I'm at the pool, election day.  At the end of a lap I stretch at the wall, stop to catch my breath.  A woman in the next lane sees me and waves.  I know who she is, but we've never talked.  She's all excited.  "We're voting today! Obama, right?!"

I must look puzzled.

"It was you.  We talked yesterday.  About voting Obama, right?"  That expectant look.

We never spoke outside of today.  Actually, this is our first conversation.

"People mistake me for a lot of people. Sorry.  Not me."  And it's off the wall, literally, for another lap.

Disappointed looks abound with wrong answers, when we're not who we are supposed to be.  Not that I ever tell anyone who I'm voting for; nobody's business, right?

But psychologically speaking, the reason that you can't talk politics or religion and still keep the conversation at the party civil (ah hem, these are coming, holiday parties, just smile) is that if you disagree with people, they get upset, feel threatened.  If I'm not just like you in my thinking, then one of two things might happen:

(a) I might push you to rethink your own beliefs, always a pain for both of us,
(b) We can't merge, enjoy our sameness.  One of the things that makes us close is having things in common.  So it follows that if we have things different, we won't be close.  Not that it should be that way, just saying, just is.

So what do we do about differentiation?

Certainly if it is simply a matter of socializing at that party, we smile and celebrate it.

When it is a teenager who is drinking to oblivion,  his parents might want to take him to rehab.  But a family therapy is probably what is needed, especially if they are tea-teetotalers.  They need to understand why the need for over-kill, the need to drink to excess.  The family needs to explore this.  There is often a secret tucked in here somewhere.

Often the problem is that when it is stressful to differentiate even just a little, then differentiation goes viral, gets extreme. If a kid can't drink at all, and he really wants to drink, then it is likely that when he does, he will overdo it.  And if a kid comes from a family that doesn't drink, it is likely that the family has chosen that path, tea-totaling, in order to differentiate from a family that drank too much, their own alcoholic families.

Something like ninety percent of children of alcoholics will either become alcoholics (won't differentiate from alcoholic parents) or won't drink at all (will differentiate to an extreme).

Wise-man once say:  Moderation in all things.

So what do we do when the course is unclear, doesn't look healthy?  What do we do when the course of a child clearly isn't copacetic to the family ways, is clearly different, perhaps even verboten?

Well, fighting it won't usually work.  The human being trying to become himself, once set free, is likely to stay the course, continue to become himself, no thanks or commentary necessary, thank you very much.

Accepting this from a child, even a friend, might not be possible.  We can't always fake how we feel about people, and we are our behavior.  We can't always join, open our arms, accept, and we don't have to.  Just because someone makes a choice, everyone doesn't have to come along for the ride.  They lose out on the ride, is the thing, and the child, the friend, will lose people he adores, never meant to harm, just being himself.

But it isn't our job, as therapists, to insist that people accept the unacceptable, no matter what that might be.  It won't make them happy, accepting the unacceptable.  Acceptance has to be one's own, it is a form of individuation, a process.  It isn't possible, when you can't, to simply follow the lyrics of a  sixties song,

Come on, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.  

A typical scenario, much worse than what we're talking about, happens when an adult with a mild developmental disorder, perhaps high functioning on the autism spectrum, makes a partner choice that is seemingly wrong.  This person who is independent yet not particularly worldly, is an easy mark, apt to be conned.  Others easily take advantage of a seeming lack of sophistication.  One can be swept off to marriage, one that isn't acceptable to the family, perhaps even swept off to another country.

If the parents don't accept the union they may lose touch with their child forever, although the calls for money are likely to break up the monotony.

The therapeutic approach to a disaster in the making, even to lesser disasters:
You can't accept the relationship, that is understood . But maybe at one point you might want to accept, might want to see your kid.  Stay open to that.  And in the meantime, burn no bridges.    
This burning no bridges idea, in general, is a good one.

And make no assumptions, not ever, about the way people will vote.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Whose Mind Is This Anyway

I’m trying to swim on a Friday morning but intrusive thoughts are dampening the fun. Is it too much to ask to exercise and relax (to me this is one in the same), to pretend that this is an outdoor pool, that it is a warm and sunny day, and that the pool is all mine?

In reality it is full of lap swimmers and we’re all indoors and it is in the forties and cloudy outside, although it is supposed to warm up to fifty by noon.

Impossible, this imagined pretense about sun.  The list of things to do, for all intents and purposes, is full of unwanted, intrusive thoughts, and it expands with each splash. I am grateful that it is a list, not a conversation, that it isn't a script, one that will never be enacted, but probably should be, in vivo, a manifestation of conflict, that thing that keeps the analysts and Woody Allen in business.  

The to-do list, for us sandwich generationers, is endless.  It is only 9:05 but my day started at 5:15, almost four hours ago.  I dropped FD off someplace and am scouring the grocery store.  Thirty minutes pass and at the automatic checkout, things go well.  The system works, no need to call for a store manage for "unwanted items are on the belt." My self-esteem is much improved.

By eight o'clock two grandchildren are in my car, on their way to school. The angst of having no grandchildren in town has magically dissipated, as if it never was, since our daughter and her family moved from California to Chicago months ago. Change can be good, you know.

I drop the older boy off at the school his uncles attended at his age and wave from the car to  the principal at the curb.  The once young rabbi now sees me as old.

I sing Frere Jacques with the three-year old on our way to my apartment. We park and lug up the groceries in a cart at the service elevator (he pushes the up button).  Moments later he is mixing his second breakfast, baby pancakes. He doesn't start school until nine.  The pancakes go in a plastic bag because he won't eat a single one.  I test them.  They are excellent.  He will leave them in his schoolbag where his mother will notice them and toss them, maybe, late at night or perhaps the following day when she packs new lunches.  As in therapy, for a three-year old, life is all about the process, not the content.

In the parking lot at the nursery school he swipes his index finger on each and every car we pass, holding my hand with his other hand.  I tell him his finger will be dirty and it might end up in his mouth which isn't cool, eating dirt.  He stops drawing on dirty cars, seems to understand this word, cool.  

He marches merrily inside the community center where his teacher has all children wash their hands before breathing.  She tells me it is Picture Day.  Did his mother fill out the form?

I know what is in his backpack and there is no form for Picture Day, no check.  I only have a few dollars in my wallet, nothing else.  I text his parents:  Do you want pictures?  There is the matter of the form.  Yes!

The answer doesn't matter.  Clearly the other grandparents in this family will want them.  It occurs to put a reminder in my phone to revisit SnapFish or to look for some other service like it to print copies of good digital pictures.

My son-in-law chimes in from work, texts that he will give me a check, to stop by. He’s excited at the prospect of school pictures.  We arrange the pick-up.

Before leaving, Conference Day sign up catches my attention.  I scribble his parents in for a 6 pm, the latest time still available, hoping it will work for them.  The evening for this nursery school teacher is otherwise full. That there is a need for conferences about a 3-4 year old is interesting.  Don't these teachers work a long enough day?  And must my grandson progress?

It is time for me hit the pool, same building. Almost immediately, mid-first lap, intrusive thoughts attack, those things to do, that second shift stuff of life that is really first shift for me, discretionary time before office hours.  Details gather, no, pummel into my brain.  To control them I begin a mental post for this blog, this very post, thinking that by doing so, at least the verbiage is productive.

But surely most of it will be forgotten, my voice lost before hitting the showers.

Realizing that trying to control life while paddling in water is ridiculous, the brain's executive manager (we all have one, some are better than others) proceeds to the cognitive strategy that works best for her, a stopping technique.  When one is not doing backstroke, a good thought stoppage technique is to clap one's hands as loudly as possible.

The chosen intervention is word review, using new words in sentences, words and sentences direct from the Kaplan GRE Vocabulary I-phone ap.  You are never too old to learn words like abjure, abscond.  This works, stops the obsessive thinking.  The reason it will always work is that the brain cannot consciously parallel process, cannot comprehend two sentences at the very same time.  When you try to hear two people talking at the same time, no matter at cocktails or a business conference, you will fail to comprehend either.  

Starving, I go home and have breakfast, oatmeal that is now three hours old and doesn't taste good.  I bake some cookies because these will taste better, and we are expecting guests for the weekend.  By evening I will be too tired to do anything productive like this.  My machetainista (rhymes vaguely with bucket-rain-ist-uh, short for my daughter-in-law's mother) is a much better baker than I.  Hopefully having one of my cookies will boost her ego.

True cookie people all agree that once a cookie has cooled off it isn't as good anyway, perhaps isn't worth eating.  Take this as a health tip.

Also, one of my married sons will be visiting and he likes cookies.  He is coming to collect his collectibles, rooms full of them at my old house, the one his sister now occupies.  He finally has the space for his stuff, a real home of his own.  If you wait long enough, there is progress in life.  You may find a place for your stuff.

Or you may get rid of it.

The subtext to much of this is that I am worried, am becoming more than a little upset.  Six weeks ago the condo two floors directly above us flooded, something about a refrigerator hose, and each of the units below, all the way down to the first floor, suffered water damage.  I heard our bedroom wall crack, watched as water seeped in, kept seeping for days.  Management has known about this from the start, informed us that it isn’t safe to sleep in a potentially mildewed, moldy bedroom.  They moved some of our furniture into our guest room while we vacationed in a far-off land. 

But nothing was done to fix things.  I suggested to the building manager, at first gently, then a little more assertively, that this is not cool, the crack in our bedroom wall, losing a bedroom.  We are overcrowded and I wear a mask, try not to go inside that room, and I worry about my clothes.  Some of them are now in FD's closet in the guestroom. We are elbowing one another constantly, arguing over space under the bed.  Shoes have to go somewhere.

For weeks the response has been, We are waiting for insurance.  

This key word, insurance, makes me feel guilty.  There are people who lost their homes in a hurricane and here I am, worrying about a crack in a bedroom wall.

How can anyone make any kind of move in life without insurance?  Apparently it is impossible.

When I suggest that since the condo association must wait for insurance, they will also wait for rent, (we are test-case renters, an experiment) I get a new response: Next week for sure.  Monday!  But this must have been a dream.
Condo flood

Daily I visit her, the building manager, to remind her that this is not what I signed up for, moving into this place.  She gets that deer in the headlights look when there are any complaints from us, must always consult the board, has never had anyone rent here before.  Procedure is fuzzy.  I do not tell her that I am considering starting a blog to satirize condo living, Someone Was Seen...

Conflict is not my style, however, so I take some of my newly baked cookies, still warm, and put them on a paper plate, cordially bring them down to the building manager. 

“Is this a bribe?” she asks suspiciously. But she has something of a smile going.

“No!  Heaven forbid!  I remembered you like a good cookie, thought you might think of me as you chew. They aren’t my best, are a little too soft.  Rush job.  Lots to do today."

“You know,” she says, “butter is the answer to everything, makes cookies crunchy.”

I agree (would I argue?) but must go.  No time to talk ingredients.  Toodaloo.

The race is on.  In one hour, the following, erased:

1.  Pick up check for Picture Day from s-i-l.  Admire amazing new office.

2.  Shoot over to BBB (Bed Bath and Beyond) to get the canister for Soda Stream (device that makes carbonated water, favorite drink of old Jews).

3.  Drop in at Office Max to find carbon paper.  They still make it!

4.  Drop off the Picture Day check to the nursery school administrator.

5.  Take pic of Conference Day schedule on classroom door so daught can switch hers with someone if necessary.  Shoot it over to her.

6.  Pick up afghan from the cleaners that machetainista crocheted for us. Looks like new. (Add bring in down jacket to to-do list).

7.  Drop check off at auto mechanic, have the following conversation:
“Gary, you must hate me!”
“I love you,” he offers back.
“It’s so late!  I’ve had the check in my purse for weeks!”
“No problem!”  
He's smiling like he means it and the smile carries the morning.

8.  Back at the apartment, switch to biking clothes.

9.  Ride over to mother’s apartment.  She is going to a dinner tonight and needs help putting on jewelry.  This takes only ten minutes and she is unbelievably grateful but perseverates on the dangers of riding a bicycle to work.

10.  Ride to work.

11.  Ride home in the dark, scare a raccoon, maybe.

That night, picking up my mail at the house, my daughter shows me her Google calendar, how she has different colors that remind her of her many things to do.  My work calendar is about all I can take, adding things to it would probably mean someone gets double booked.  The Reminder Ap on the phone works best for me but means I am always, forever, tied to the phone, can't tell my left shoe from my right without it.  

Still, it is better to rely on this, to know that it is there, with an ever-changing list of things to do, than to give the never-ending list attention while swimming. If the errand isn't on the phone then it probably isn't very important. Lightning will not strike, either (cognitive-rational thinking) if something isn't done, is lost in the shuffle.

Now if only there were an ap to eliminate obsessive dialogue.


Post script: The maintenance engineers are working on the bedroom!  Eitherthis had to do with no rent, or maybe, just maybe, somebody is worried about the blog.  

Friday, November 02, 2012

How to Have an Afffair

I wanted to read more about the Congressman caught in his second affair last week, but couldn't remember any details. So I Googled affair and half-way down the first page found, "How to Have an Affair,"  subtext, "And Not Get Caught."

Turns out the Tennessee congressman's name is Scott DesJarlais. It is an ugly story, probably only half true.  (My mother-in-law tells us that we should believe only half of what we hear, and in this she is probably correct.)  We can only hope.

Google landed on How to Have an Affair, however, and crazy thing is I had no interest in reading the article, assumed it a teaser for an e-book.  I'm all about the affair being between two committed partners, preferably married partners, but not necessarily.  This is satisfying, too, and less time-consuming.

The usually tepid, if sometimes torrential, intramarital love affair has no beginning and no end, mitigates conflict naturally, and is not as rare as people who have extramarital affairs seem to think.

No need to elaborate much on the benefits, but marriage has  many inherent stresses, and the intramarital affair buffers stress, as it is designed to do.  The sense that one has a dedicated-to-exclusivity-with-a-vengeance  life-partner, one who works at love (because this takes much work) under any and all circumstances, even if it doesn't feel like love all of the time, even when communication seems to indicate the opposite of love, even when a person has no clothes on, perhaps even more for that, is highly rewarding.

It is more rewarding still if one can whip a lackadaisical partner into shape, not literally, not unless that is what he or she desires, rather can shape said partner into the role, for lack of a better word, of true partner. Meaning get him or her to wash and put away dishes, serve once in awhile, perhaps fix a broken bicycle or hire someone to fix the doorknob.

I prefer reading about this sort of thing to reading about behavior that jeopardizes this sort of thing.

It doesn't take tremendous imagination to see why people still want to have extramarital affairs, however, and do so, and to see why they don't want to get caught, although wanting to get caught is likely the impetus for the affair in the first place.  Why would anyone want to get caught?

Still working out cutting school is why, or not cutting school, not having pushed limits enough as children.Or still working out the identified patient role.  Children misbehave, they act out, to get caught.  They want to draw their parents into therapy, at least get them to talk to one another, to bond, if necessary, over the problem at hand, their errant child.

Being a problem child can be about expressing frustration over bullies, abuse, difficult teachers, learning disabilities, Pediatric Bipolar Disorder, Diisruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, or a host of other childhood issues, but it isn't always.  Often it is about looking to fix their broken families, expressing the pain of the family, or merely needing more time and attention.

As the saying goes: Any attention beats no attention, even negative attention.  Negative attention being an angry response or punishment from a parent.

So getting caught is the objective.

And we get better at it, acting out to get caught, as we age and need to individuate, to be our own persons.  We do it by stretching parental limits, by saying, "You're not the boss of me," and breaking rules,  getting away with breaking all kinds of rules, especially the ones that matter most to their parents.

Fast forward.