Archives for the month of: December, 2012

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, December 2012]

When I was a child, during a conversation with my grandmother, I was surprised when I asked her about her favorite holiday, and she said, “I don’t know, but it sure ain’t Christmas!”  Like all kids, I looked forward to Christmas, not just for presents, but for the excitement.  To hear she DIDN’T like it was disconcerting.  At the time, my grandmother laughed it off, explaining it was the monetary cost.  But looking back now through the eyes of a counselor, I think she was speaking to something that often gets covered up by wrapping paper and tinsel.

Christmas is hard.

True, it isn’t one big, long sequence of despair.  But it’s an event wrapped in rituals, ceremonies, be they religious, secular, cultural or familial.  Society has expectations during Christmas, as do individual households.  We have demands placed on us to perform, a certain way to feel.  The holiday season is like a wedding.  We all want it to go perfectly, and yet it often doesn’t.  There’s always someone who can’t make it home, a gift that couldn’t be found, or an old argument that breaks out.  One bad moment spoils a perfect evening of caroling and gifting.  Isn’t it a painful accusation when somone says, “You ruined Christmas?”

So the expectations placed on us–on our moods, on our feelings, on our thoughts–can be very stressful.  The message is that we’re supposed to be happy, positive, in the spirit of giving of ourselves.  Even when we just don’t feel that way, as when we’re already stressed, and the holidays are taxing our remaining coping energies.  The requirement to be happy can be especially hard when we’ve lost someone.  Being pressured into smiling for others can remind us of how much we miss those who don’t share the present moments with us now.  Is it any wonder rates of depression go up and many suicides occur around Christmas?  And don’t we all know someone who died during the holidays?  I’ve heard dozens of such patient reports, relatives who died “on Christmas.”  This is not coincidental.  My suspicion is that the mindset being forced on them was just too much to handle, particularly if they were already ill or depressed.

Add to these considerations the need to expend scarce money, or spend time in public where harried shoppers, surly retailers, traffic congestion and other realities bear little resemblance to the “good will to all men” of the Yuletide message.  Such logistics too often fall short of the ideal.  This makes me suspect that many of us have guilt at Christmas time, because that disparity leaves us feeling less joyous than the season demands.

What to do?

I think we must treat Christmas like any other stressor.  That involves first drawing on outside resources.  Remember, most of us aren’t handling Christmas all by ourselves.  At heart, it is a group phenomenon.  Hopefully, we have a few family and friends out there, and if called upon to share, they’ll probably confess to being a bit frazzled by the season too.  The sharing can be therapeutic, and offers renewed bonding.  A burden shared is a burden halved, as the conventional wisdom states.  This real-time emotional connection is what most holiday enthusiasts will tell you it’s all about anyway.  Finally, keep Christmas in perspective.  True, the day is going to come, with its rituals and expectations.  Whether that is positive or negative, there’s no escaping it.  Nevertheless, it isn’t stress that kills, but how we handle it.  If the holidays are particularly hard for you, cultivate a “this too shall pass” expectation.  After all, year after year, you can always count on December 26 to follow afterward.  Much of the hoolabaloo comes to an end then.

If all else fails, be like me and look forward to New Year’s as the relaxing “after party!”

Click Here for January 2013

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[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, November 2012]

Mental illness is often defined as “normal” thinking and behavior carried to extremes, to the point of harm.  When you consider it, are we not expected to be anxious before a big event?  Depressed at a funeral?  Confident in ourselves when we do something well?  These examples only become a problem when they show up in the wrong environment or if they hang around long after circumstances have changed.  That’s where we get anxiety disorders, major depression or narcissistic personality traits.

I was thinking recently about ways culture can suffer from the same afflictions.

Consider that we Americans are highly focused on independence and individuality.  We pay lip service to the opportunities afforded by an education, and lampoon shmaltzy celebrities for thanking “my mama” for their achievements.  But you might notice that those celebrities are doing their thanking on special occasions only.  On a day-to-day basis, Americans really more often lionize and idealize “self-made” figures, those who flunked out of school (Edgar Allan Poe, Picasso) or simply had no need for it (William Randolph Hearst, Bill Gates).  Supposedly, these people pulled themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, took on the world with little but ideas or dreams, and achieved “success” all on their own.  Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck said it best, when he established that making money required him to be “smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies.”

Oh, come on.

Such exemplars make good anecdotes, ways to illustrate how hard work, perseverance and “good old common sense” can pay dividends better than stuffy “book learning” and educational dogma.  But like mental illness, too much focus on individualism and self-determination becomes a problem.  It plays down outside relationship inputs and interdependence.  At its extreme, it fosters ingratitude.  One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of supposedly “self-made” business people, politicians or even peers, who show little consideration for humbler people, be it in employment practices or public policy decisions.  Yet, are they really so independent?  Even Bill Gates came from an educated and wealthy family, one with the resources to send him to Harvard in the first place, even if he chose not to graduate from there.  The most savvy capitalist needs public roads and clean drinking water to even open a business, let alone to begin seeing profits.

Let me use myself to further illustrate the other side.  I will soon complete my second advanced degree.  I’ll likely never be a doctor, but I have the equivalent number of academic credits and years for one.  These endeavors required thousands of hours of study, research, writing papers and giving presentations.  Those were solely my responsibilities, and ultimately, my achievements.  Sure, I’m proud.  But did I really do it alone?  Nope.  First, twenty years ago, there were my parents, who helped me get to and from classes.  Tutors and study groups aided me with difficult material.  Circles of friends gave me venues to sharpen my critical thinking.  And in the end, my wife’s emotional and financial support is all that makes this upcoming graduation possible.  Every achievement like this is a communal one.

I think each of our accomplishments needs to be recognized for what they truly are; the coming together of so many relationships.  I have to wonder, can it make us more grateful and more likely to want to better ourselves, if we know we don’t do it alone?

Click Here for December 2012

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, October 2012]

This question was leveled at me recently during an evaluation I was conducting.  My evaluatee was a middle-aged woman who was suffering from the death of her 24-year old son.   Understandably, she was angry with people for giving her what she considered to be platitudes: “You’ll get over it,” or “It’s all part of God’s plan,” or “It was his time.”  Harold Kushner, author of the grief book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” pointed out that these kinds of social responses are well-intentioned, but almost always unhelpful.  They are usually spoken by those who are seeking to justify their beliefs or reconcile their OWN ambiguous feelings on why bad things happen.  But such reactions leave the sufferers feeling cheated or patronized.

My evaluatee’s friends and family had already recommended grief counseling, but she was skeptical of professional support.  She described it as a self-indulgent exercise for the weak-minded.  Nevertheless, she asked me if if I thought she should seek it out anyway.  I only had an instant to give a pithy answer.  My initial response was that she was due for a change; clearly her own way of “holding it in” wasn’t working.  She had already given up her job because she was too irritable to deal with the public, her husband had become estranged from her and she was enduring pounding migraines.  Suffering has others ways of revealing itself to those who won’t talk about it.

This unfortunate lady then aimed her real wrecker’s ball question at me:  “What’s the point?  How is talking about it going to do anything to take away the pain of outliving a son?”   To answer her, I had to shake up her understanding of grief counseling.  Let me now summarize my answer for you all.  Once you lose someone close to you, there IS no escape from the pain.  It will be with you always.  To say otherwise is to insult your loss.  Losing a loved one hurts because they ARE a loved one.  You can’t erase the pain without ignoring the love and attachment too.  Would you want to do that?  So the goal of counseling is to learn what to DO with the pain.  How can it be directed, made to serve a worthy cause?  First, keep in mind that wishes and experiences never die.

When I speak of “wishes,” I’m referring to what your loved one wanted from YOU in this life.  In most cases, they wanted you to be happy and productive, not suffering from grief.  Contrary to popular belief, it is never too late to bring wishes to fulfillment.  Grief counseling can help you honor a wish by finding how you can better yourself.  Be what your loved one wanted you to be.  Another way is to finish a project your loved one started.  Take up their cause and see something come of it.

When I refer to “experiences,” it is to acknowledge that your loved one’s entire life is a living piece of history.  Nothing they accomplished can ever be unmade.   Grief counseling here would aim to recognize their eternity in some way.  For example, by keeping a piece of them in your home or on your person.  Some people have a painting commissioned, or a prized possession preserved or even a tattoo with the person’s name inked to their skin.  Whatever acknowledges the loved one’s existence and story and continued place in life.

I don’t know if my evaluatee was swayed.  But I was reminded of the importance of such an enterprise, and that the rebirth of determination in the face of loss can be a beautiful thing.

Click here for November 2012

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