Adventures in dating: ghosting

MobilePhoneLove

Returning to the dating scene after a ten-year absence has been enlightening. I am not altogether unfamiliar with the struggles of dating because so many of my clients are swimming laps in the dating pool. Just as often as not they are fighting to stay afloat and not drown in the deep end of the pool where the water is dark and chilly. And the lifeguards are too busy checking out the hot-bodied swimmers to notice somebody going under and hoping for compassionate rescue.

BWGhostWhich brings me to my recent adventure in dating: ghosting. For those of you unfamiliar, ghosting is when someone suddenly and inexplicably cuts off all communication. It can happen at any stage of the dating cycle, from the first date to months and months of dating and significant intimacy. This isn’t about sending a message on a dating app and getting no reply. It’s about actually meeting someone in person, usually for several dates or longer, and then they completely disappear. As if by alien abduction. Or being kidnapped by the Sandinistas…minus the ransom note. Or, given my known love of all things Harry Potter, they disapparate and never reappear.

I met a guy recently who seemed to be a good fit. We are both mental health professionals. We work within a few miles of each other. We have several real-life friends in common. We emailed and texted for hours a day, days at a time, until he couldn’t take it anymore and insisted we finally meet in person. It was a great first date with three hours of talking and laughing. There might have been some kissing. I’m too much of a gentleman to share details, but I will say there was no sex. More texting and talking later that night and the next day, and plans for a date the next night. GayCoupleOnCouchWhich he cancelled abruptly a few hours beforehand citing a head cold. In July. In Texas. Me being me, I give the benefit of the doubt based on my own experience with Texas weather and sinuses that view life here as a form of torture reserved for enemy combatants and prisoners of war. More so because he was so apologetic and hopeful for a rain check. A few more days of talking and texting about life and shared interests. And then it happened. He disappeared into the ether of the universe, never to be heard from again. Thinking perhaps he took a turn for the worse and somehow this dubious head cold might have worsened into a near-death experience I did check on him a few more times, even offering soup or a drug store run. No response at all. I think perhaps his disapparation skills are not strong and he vanished into non-being, which is to say everything according to Minerva McGonagall. He’s out there somewhere.

When a friend explained I had been ghosted I was appalled. Not just because this happened to me, a seemingly nice guy who could be considered a “catch” by some standards. No, I was appalled at this practice in general, and even more so that a fellow mental health professional that should know better chose this cowardly approach.

According to a 2014 survey, 26% of women and 33% of men have both ghosted and been ghosted. A 2012 study from the University of Kansas showed that while ghosting has become more common in the past decade, it is ultimately the worst possible way to end a relationship. This is not news. We have studies dating back forty years about avoidance (the psychological classification of ghosting) being a shameful and potentially reckless way of ending things. Most studies frame this in terms of the ghost being tracked down and confronted, creating a far more traumatic and potentially embarrassing interaction than a politely worded and appropriate ending ever would have been.

ManNoFaceI am not going to invest any effort in tracking down this person for a confrontation. What he did was inappropriate and hurtful, but having a drama queen fight in a public space is not going to change anything. And let’s be serious…do I want the last image somebody has of me, and those watching us, to be me as a screaming shrew venting my hurt and anger? I try so hard not to end up on Jerry Springer, and taking that “high road” often encouraged of us requires me to look beyond a moment that will in no way be cathartic and focus my energy on improving me.

Right about now you might wondering if we are going to delve into the psychology of ghosting to try and understand why somebody ghosts a seemingly nice person. Sure, we could talk about ghosting as a way to avoid one’s own emotional discomfort. We might conceptualize ghosting as a preemptive strike against assumed and expected rejection. We could even wax poetic about cycles of perceived and realized rejections fostering a fear of real and genuine connection that makes it impossible to avoid ghosting. But I’m not going there because quite frankly I don’t care why it happens. What I care about is how to move past it.

Banishing the Ghost

This is not about you. Yes, that is hard to accept. Our first inclination is to assume if we were better in some way we would be too irresistible to ghost. The problem with that is it puts all responsibility for a match or a mismatch on us and alleviates the responsibility and accountability of that jerk. If he/she/they does not have the courage to deal with the discomfort of a friendly “no thanks,” they are not capable of a genuine relationship and should not be swimming in our dating pool. That is on them, not you.

OnlineDatingDating is a numbers game. You will not be a good fit for every person you meet where there is unilateral or bilateral interest. Sometimes it takes spending time together to know it’s not a good fit. Otherwise we could simply fall in love with anybody and everybody. You date a lot to find a good match, and hopefully that match leads to love. And hopefully our odds are better than the lottery.

Feedback1Feedback loops are important. Remember the lifeguards too distracted by the hotties in the shallow end of the pool to notice we’re drowning in the deep end? They are not good feedback loops. The guy/gal/enby who just ghosted you is not a good feedback loop. Your friends and family are good feedback loops. They know you. They respect you. They love you. And that’s in spite of everything you see as potential shortcomings for a mate! Trust the people in your life when they tell you it’s not about you. Because they are right. You are wonderful and valid and deserving of love. Allow your friends to serve as a mirror and reflect back all that is wonderful about you. Make sure you allow yourself to see it.

Self-care is critical. Go for a 10-minute walk around the block. Get a massage. Pamper yourself with a manicure or a facial. Meet friends for happy hour. Meditate. Read a book. Take yourself on a date.

TextBreak the cycle. The point that most struck me in the 2014 was that so many people had both ghosted and been ghosted. Don’t be a jerk! Be honest. If you think you might not be able to do an in person rejection, it can be as simple as a candid text, email, or a brief phone call. You don’t have to have some boilerplate response, but being honest about a lack of long-term potential is honorable and compassionate. Even when it’s done through text it’s better than just disappearing.

Keep dating. Remember that finding love is a numbers game and you have be willing to put yourself out there. I promise that hiding out at home is not the answer. Nobody is going to randomly show up at your door asking you to fall in love….and if that happens I promise it’s not someone you want in your life! Get out there in the big wide world of possibility and allow yourself to be vulnerable and possibly even find love.

Rinse and repeat.

GayCoupleHoldingHands

I am a racist.

OppressionA few weeks ago I came out of a closet. I declared openly and unabashedly that I am a therapist in therapy. I explained why it was important for me to come out of that closet, and why we need more conversations where stigma and shame are replaced with pride and support. Now it’s time for me to come out of another closet. Turns out I’m racist.

Yes, you read that right. I. Am. A. Racist. This was quite a revelation for me and I hope you will not immediately close the window and rant about me on social media. Instead, I hope you will read this sordid tale of self-discovery and insight and allow me to confess my sins. Go ahead and refill your drinks, pop some corn, and grab a pillow. This is a long one.

emancipate-1779132_1920I attended the PolyDallas Millennium 2017 (http://www.polydallasmillennium.com/) this past weekend. The theme was about power, anarchy, and equality in polyamory. Ruby Bouie Johnson is the owner and producer of this highly successful annual symposium, and as a minority woman she is always sure to include a focus on social justice and equity across racial lines. As expected, many of the offerings this year focused on black power and equality.

RacismSpending my entire life in the South, racism is not a new concept for me. Like most white people, my narrative always includes the caveats of having black friends and never once engaging in any form of discrimination. I take pride in being what I perceive as fair, open minded, and socially justice oriented towards the plight of all minorities. I like to think that my personality, my upbringing, my education, and my career speak for themselves in terms of inclusivity.

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #1: I’m a complete and total moron when it comes to truly understanding the history of systemic oppression and placing that in context for today’s events and the future of a group of people struggling mightily for anything remotely fair and equitable.

Three days ago I sat in a room where I was one of the few white faces participating in a discussion about polyamory, rehabilitation, and the black American. Throughout the heated discussion I took copious notes about books and articles to read, podcasts to download, history to learn, and concepts to consider. Page after page of notes, furiously scribbled so I could keep up with back-and-forths that would rival Wimbledon.

And then came my moment. I opened my mouth and highlighted my ignorance. I freely admitted that I never considered myself racist but had to acknowledge that I was not doing anything to solve this problem on a larger scale. I asked for guidance. What could I do? Where could I start? Day in and day out how could I make a difference?

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #2: Why was I, an educated individual capable of higher order research, asking a group of people to generalize centuries of experience into a racial primer that I could easily digest? One person very correctly stated I could not have gotten to this point in my life without learning out to pick up a book and read. “Read Baldwin! Nothing has changed since Baldwin coverthen!” James Baldwin. A brave pioneer in the modern civil rights movement who lectured all across the South on racial inequality as a member of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). A writer so prolific in his reporting of racial strife that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1963, corresponded with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John Kennedy, and had a larger FBI file (nearly 1,200 pages) than any other writer in that shameful era of illegal surveillance. Aside from the Baldwin reference, I have at least a working knowledge of Google, Amazon, and Ebsco. How condescending of me to request that a group marginalized by my majority take the time to condense their rich history into a Reader’s Digest version for my comfort and ease of understanding.

It was at this point that Ruby, who I consider to be a friend and mentor, said quite emphatically “You are a white person in America! Of course you’re racist!” I was taken aback. First time I’ve ever been called a racist. My blood started to boil and I could feel myself bowing up for a fight. A fight that I most assuredly would lose.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #1: I kept my mouth shut and listened. I quickly realized that Ruby’s perspective was a valid one whether or not I liked it and whether or not I agreed with it. It was her lived experience. And I needed to hear it.

 

This was a valuable lesson in active listening. If I want to understand anybody at all, I have to listen to their stories and resist the urge to interject my own story or compare it to my narrative in a battle of who has overcome the most. One of the ways white people really screw up this conversation is trying to prioritize pain. There is no hierarchy here. All pain is valid. Acknowledging your pain and suffering does not negate mine. The reverse is also true. But ranking it to show that I have somehow suffered as much as generations of people systemically oppressed? Oh wow….not a good idea. That is not comparing apples and oranges. It’s more like comparing apples and Toyota’s.

In many conversations this past weekend and since, one thing has become very clear. White people love to hide behind the false mask of “I don’t see race, I see people.” After all, I give to the NAACP. I support local black businesses. I might even date a black guy. So I don’t see color. I see other people. I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one. When we say we don’t see color, what we’re actually saying is that we don’t understand the role that race plays in American society. We have been dehumanized by the system of oppression to the point we can lie to ourselves and others when we oh-too-comfortably say “I don’t see skin color” or “I’m colorblind” or “Love is colorblind.”

Don’t believe me? Ever watched someone you know move away from a black man on the street? Or shift their purse across their body? Or lock their car doors? Or avoid certain restaurants or certain parts of town? Or post meme’s about drug testing welfare recipients? Or #BlackLivesMatter right beside #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter? Or laugh at a racial joke and later feel guilty about it….or not feel guilty about it? But we don’t see skin color, right?

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #3: You know I love Harry Potter right? “I must not tell lies.” I must stop lying to myself and the world around me that I do not see skin color. This is not a harmless lie. In fact, it is quite harmful. I absolutely do see skin color and it’s time I acknowledge it and respect it. Otherwise I will remain forever ignorant of the role that race plays in society.

Eldridge quoteWhat happens when I tell the truth? I am forced to confront a very harsh reality shared by Eldridge Cleaver. “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” His statement is frequently parsed. No, parsed is a white man’s term to avoid accountability. Cleaver is misquoted on a daily basis because most people forget the first sentence – “There is no more neutrality in the world.” He is absolutely right. There is simply no way to remain neutral on this issue.

Here’s the big one for us white people: we were NEVER neutral on this issue. We’ve had skin in this game since we first loaded slaves onto a ship and whipped them into submission on land we stole from the Indigenous Americans. It was NEVER possible to remain neutral. We have been too comfortable in the middle pretending we aren’t the problem and avoiding responsibility for finding a solution. We have been too complacent for too long, and that has made us complicit. We are the oppressors. We are the ones who benefit from oppression.

questionHere’s a thought exercise for you. Two kids grow up in a poor neighborhood side by side. Jane is black, Sue is white. Neither have much in the way of resources. They attend the same schools until they graduate. Both work two jobs to pay for college where they study business. They work at the same restaurant. Jane is a line cook for minimum wage. Sue waits tables and with tips averages $12/hr. On the weekends they both babysit. Well, Jane babysits and Sue is a nanny. Jane gets minimum wage, Sue gets $10/hr. Sue graduates college on time, and Jane needs an extra year because of funding. Sue is immediately hired as an entry-level manager. Jane is hired as a secretary for $10k/year less. Both came from the same neighborhoods, worked the same jobs, and earned the same degrees. Yet Sue clearly had the advantage. When Jane wonders about equity, Sue shakes her head and says “I’ve suffered just as much and look what I was able to do with it!”

handcuffed-1251664_1920In this thought exercise, which is based on people many of us know, Sue clearly benefited from racial inequity. She directly benefited from the oppression of another person and was never able to see it. Why? Because we are white and we do not have to see it! We get to avoid it, deflect it, lie about it, or remain ambivalent. It’s in our best interest to maintain this system for our own advantage. After all, for one person to have an advantage means another person has a disadvantage. This is not a level playing field. We are not neutral. Now imagine generations of such disadvantages in daily living and opportunities for advancement. What would that look like for your grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and their great grandchildren? I wonder if that’s what the first slaves thought about when they were stolen from their homes and shipped to this country. I wonder if they had any idea what would happen to generations of their progeny who are now my friends and neighbors and colleagues.

So if I can’t be neutral, I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution. Sure, ethicists and philosophers might caution such dichotomous thinking and even cite the logical fallacy of contraposition. But here is the starkest reality. Because I do directly benefit, I am complicit in doing nothing to stop this oppression. And having said that, it’s time to stop calling this oppression and start calling it what it is: white supremacy.

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #4: White washing racial inequity as anything other than white supremacy so I do not have to feel bad about my advantages and do something that makes the world equitable and just. White washing allows me to continue to receive unfair and unjust benefits while denying my role.

So now that I acknowledge my role and my mistakes, it’s time to do something about it. Where do I begin? With more listening! Fortunately as a therapist I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love to hear about their lives and experiences. So I’m going to start there. I’m going to listen more and talk less about me.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #2: I will actively seek to understand the lived experience of others by asking them to tell me their stories. This is an active process, and not simply listening when somebody chooses to speak. I will insist on learning more.

MLKAnd once I have listened and absorbed and processed, and run through that cycle a few more times, I will then speak. I will have uncomfortable conversations with my peers. As Goody Howard put it, “you need to call in and call out.” For me, calling in is more about accepting that we will screw this up a lot and we need to be lovingly reminded of what is reality to keep us on track. Calling out includes publicly pointing out oppressive behavior so that the person knows they are wrong, and the people around them know it too. Putting into psychobabble, calling in is about using a personal connection to help someone gain insight and awareness for personal growth and change. Calling out is relying on a social learning paradigm to very publicly teach a much needed lesson to a bully and their supporters.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #3: Calling in and calling out will become part of my daily routine. I will have uncomfortable conversations. Certainly this blog entry has been uncomfortable. Talking to my friends last night was uncomfortable. But the more resolute I became the more comfortable I grew.

As you can see, I was able to identity a FEW of my mistakes and some INITIAL steps I can take to do things better. Because right now I am a racist, but I don’t want to be. I want to be better. I want to do better. For me and for those around me. Because I can. Because I have power. Because until I do I am a white supremacist.

I cannot make any trite and cliched promises about my ability to negotiate grand changes in the oppressive system. I do not have enough knowledge…yet. I do not wield enough power…yet. I am not that important…and never will be. All I can ever do is keep educating myself by listening and reflecting and making active changes in how I approach the world. Oh my fellow white people, please join me. Let’s stop being racist.

racism-2099029_1280

 

 

 

 

Dear diary…life is hard.

Expressive Therapy

Sbux1Every morning on my way to the office I stop at the same coffee shop. One of the joys of this type of routine is seeing the same people over and over, and developing some form of bond. For sure I have a few favorite baristas, and there is one in particular where we have developed quite a flirtation. She writes love notes on my coffee cup, and sometimes not-so-loving but enticing notes that make Sbux2me smile or even blush. (Yes, I’m still gay…or mostly gay…and that’s another post for another day.) Nice way to start the day. I also see the same customers over and over. The mechanic from down the street. The nurse from the nearby clinic. The retail manager from the mall next door. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only caffeine junkie trying to get a fix.

Lately I’ve noticed this same guy every morning. I’m intrigued by him. He sits at a table right outside the front door. He has a stack of books that truly is just over a foot tall. Various books with no clear theme. Yes, I glance at the titles each day because I’m just that nosy! He also has a notebook where he is furiously scribbling notes. Some kind of journal. I haven’t been nosy enough to stand over him and read what he’s writing. My curiosity does have appropriate boundaries most of the time. But from the open books in front of him I imagine him to be capturing his thoughts on what he’s reading. Possibly he’s researching his own book. Perhaps he’s reading for deeper meaning and making a life plan. Maybe it’s a form of bibliotherapy, which is a fancy psychobabble term for reading books that encourage us to think and heal.

harry-potter-1640525_1280I love to read. All the time. People who know me well understand I have quite the love affair with the Harry Potter series. First it was from the perspective of an adult who didn’t quite get the hoopla of a children’s book. Then I read them and enjoyed every word. Then I reread a few years later for escapism. Afterwards I started to appreciate the psychology of this magical world. Books are written about it. Classes are taught about it. Entire fandoms have sprung up around it. I revisit the entire series every few years and always find something new to think about. This year it’s quills and parchment.

In the HP canon, Harry attends school at a time when computers are establishing dominance in educational settings and ballpoint pens have been around for a century. And still Hogwarts relies on quills and parchment for schoolwork, and the wizarding world hand writes letters for delivery by owl. Surely email is faster for keeping up with family and other wizards around the globe. Carrying quills and ink every where you go? Geez. Seems like a pen in the pocket or purse would be more practical. But is practicality really the best measure of an experience?

fountain-pens-1828646_1280I don’t use a quill and have never seen actual parchment. I collect fountain pens. Right now I own just under a dozen. I’ve recently started journaling in a lovely Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere. I’ve also started writing letters and cards on a daily basis. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time finding reasons to break out one of my pens and hand write something. Anything at all. Which is really a big deal for me because I have the most atrocious handwriting. I hate it. It’s the reason I’ve avoiding hand writing anything I could for the past twenty years. And now all of the sudden I cannot put down the pen. What happened to me?

notepadI discovered a new connection between my mind and the paper when I use an actual writing implement. For me it is the fountain pen. For Harry it is the quill. Writing something out by hand requires deliberate thought. It is an active process. When I see the stranger at the coffee shop writing in his notebook, he is truly thinking about what he wants to record because there is no backspace. There is a reason so many authors and poets and speechwriters compose in longhand. JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel in longhand. Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oats. Neil Gaiman. They all write longhand.

As I said I have taken to journaling. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day. It’s a form of expressive therapy that focuses on my internal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It’s an attempt to make sense of the past and the present so I can better see the future. Journaling helps me process what is going on in my head so that I’m more active in my own therapy sessions. It has allowed me to uncover themes to the events in my life, and my role in those events. I can revisit something that I know has a meaning even if it hasn’t become clear yet. Sometimes my journal is like Dumbledore’s pensieve…a place to record excess thoughts and examine them later to spot patterns and links.

travelers-notebook-2245970_1280Sure, I could keep a digital diary on my computer or my iPhone or iPad or whatever device non-Apple users prefer. But I’ve found true joy in putting pen to paper and what it means for me to transfer my thoughts through a physical act. Deliberate thoughts where introspection leads to a new insight or just the release of pressure from clearing my mind. Sometimes I write a paragraph, and sometimes I write several double-sided pages. Maybe it’s all one topic, and maybe it’s a bit more jumbled steam of consciousness writing to just “clear the cache.” Certainly a blog like this is a journal, but what I write here for public consumption is not nearly as deep or personal as what’s in my little black book.

What have I learned so far? For a long time I have really hated myself. My thoughts and words and actions have been centered on so much self-loathing and self-sabotage that I marvel at how I’ve gotten out of bed some days. My view of myself has been so harshly negative for so long. Some of it dates back to childhood hurts related to being bullied in school and my family of origin. Trauma has played a role. Some of it is tied to failed relationships and rejection. And most of it is simply tied to daily life events that affect us all, but that my distorted view allowed to spiral out of control in a repeating cycle of self-destruction.

Brain KeyMost of all I learned that I’m far more culpable than I wanted to admit. I am usually the architect of my own unhappiness. I have been one of the worst for taking care of myself despite what I advise clients. I learned that I have a creative side that wants to burst free and see the world. That I love deeply and passionately and have much to give others. That my view of the world, sometimes healthy and sometimes not, is perfectly valid so long as I use it to shape my life into something meaningful. That I am actually a fairly interesting person who deserves happiness and joy. And that I alone am responsible for making that happen.

Some of this was a bit tough to accept. After all, who wants to learn that no matter what happens in life we are ultimately responsible for our happiness or lack thereof? Getting over trauma requires an investment to be healthy again, and fair or not we have to do it. Moving past a failed relationship requires owning my part in the failure. Acknowledging positive qualities and traits is healthy and realistic, and good for me even when I want to discount myself. Seeing all the potential in life helps me set and achieve goals alone and with others. Yes, it’s been quite a journey and there is no end in sight. As long as my hand can hold a pen, I will be journaling to better understand myself.

Journaling just for me requires a level of honesty I was not ready to accept at first. I had to strip away the pretense of what I imagined a journal to be. This is not “Dear Diary, today Johnny called me a fag and everybody laughed at me. Still I think he’s the cutest boy in school.” This is real. It is deep. It is meaningful. It has helped me see the world and my place in it in a far more realistic way. I love that. And now I’m off the journal some more…

books-690219_1280

A Therapist Comes Out

ComingOutNo, I’m not coming out as gay. I already did that some 20 years ago. And yes, I realize Pride was last month. But still I’ve decided to come out of another deeply personal closet. This one might actually be a bit harder than when I thought I was going to shock my parents about sexuality … though they were not the least bit shocked and if anything were a bit underwhelmed by the revelation. I am coming out of the therapy closet. I am a therapist who sees a therapist for my own mental health and well-being.

DepressionIt would seem like a therapist should have no trouble admitting that he sometimes needs help just like anybody else. In my mind, I can easily accept that at some point in their lives nearly two-thirds of American’s will qualify for a mental health diagnosis like anxiety or depression or ADHD. I encourage people to live genuine and open lives where shame and pretense are cast aside. And now it’s time for me to do the same.

Years ago I was diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Like many people, I tried medication with limited success. I wasn’t ready to work on the “real” issues and thought taking a magic pill would solve all my problems. It did help to an extent, but since I avoided dealing with the root causes of my depression it was bound to relapse. And it did. Several times in my adult life. Recently I started a course of psychotherapy to unpack the longstanding issues that fuel my depressive states. I want to better understand myself and the things that have happened in my life so I can make lasting changes. I want to cast off the chains of depression and emotional oppression so I can be the happiest and healthiest version of me. I deserve that.

Depressed WomanMy fear in coming out as a working professional with a depressive condition is that clients would think I was unfit to do my job. After all, who in their right mind would go to a depressed therapist? Well to be clear, I have periods of depression that are cyclical in nature. They are not so debilitating that they prevent me from attending to my daily needs, going to work and doing a good job, socializing with my friends, and enjoying many aspects of my life. Does that sound at all familiar? A “mild” depression where you are living life, just not your best life?

I was fascinated with the notion that mental health professionals are supposed to be these perfect creatures living blessed lives of flawless grandeur. And when my clients ask, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, how therapists get through their day without having somebody to talk to, I would give a standard answer about “being trained to compartmentalize and maintain boundaries.” That is a true answer. We are well trained to compartmentalize the things we hear and to maintain a professional distance to avoid a vicarious traumatic reaction to the struggles and stresses of our clients’ lives. But come on! We’re still people! We have feelings too!

So here I am, coming out of the therapeutic closet and seeing the world from the eyes of my clients. When I attended my first session with a counselor who specializes in treating mental health professionals, I was quickly assured that I am not alone or some anomaly. In fact, he said something that gave me pause for several minutes: “the best therapists have their own therapists, and it makes them better at their jobs.” I’m pretty sure I’ve said things that caught my clients off guard and helped them see themselves and their struggle in a different light. Or at least I hope so. With that one sentence I knew I was doing the right thing.

Why come out of this closet at all? Why take the risk of alienating current or potential clients by admitting that I also seek help? Because mental illness in America has been far too stigmatized for far too long. How can I in good conscience encourage people to accept mental illness as a variation of the human experience and be ashamed of my own struggles? I care not for hypocrisy, so it seems to me that if I want to encourage a shift in how we view those seeking help I need to change the way I view my own need for help.

Therapy 5What have I learned so far? Nothing groundbreaking. Nothing that I didn’t already know from my own professional training. And yet I’m learning more about me than I could imaging because I wasn’t open to the possibility before. I’m solidifying goals for my life. I’m unpacking a lot of hurts that impact my self-esteem. I’m learning to better care for myself and reach out when I need support. I’m discovering just how passionately I care about some issues and how I can help make my world and the world around me a better place. I’m learning to see the best in myself so I can be the best version of myself. All the same things I do with my clients, I’m ENJOYING for myself.

And I feel great! I’m no longer scared to say that I have a therapist. He helps me care for myself and better myself. I am living a healthier and happier life, and working towards being the best me that I can be. And I know that I am a better therapist for it. Not just because I have a better understanding of what it’s like to be “on the couch.” But because I have a better understanding of the change that happens when you take care of you.

LifeIsGood

Surviving Your News Feed

social-mediaIn light of recent geopolitical events, many of us are wondering how to move forward in our daily lives. Sure, some were ecstatic with the outcome. Others were ambivalent. And there is a large percentage of people who are genuinely scared for what happens next in America as a whole, but also to individuals who might be living on the fringe – our marginalized compatriots who are segregated by race, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, gender, gender identity and expression, and socioeconomic status to name but a few divergences.

If you’re anything like me, you’re checking your social media several times a day. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Pinterest. Snapchat. Tumblr. And who knows how many more you might have. Leading up to the election and inauguration, many of us went on a rampage of “if you think ____ then unfriend me now!” and ourselves choosing to unfollow, unfriend, and outright block those who in opposition of what we know in our hearts to be the best for all of America.

But the election is over. The President has been sworn in. Now we have to move forward with our lives and that can be hard to do when we feel beholden to the social media onslaught that can be psychologically damaging. How do you stay connected and sane? Is there a way to use social media without spiraling into a depression with every post on your friends’ walls? Here are a few strategies that make my life easier. Hopefully some of these will work for you too.

Have Good Boundaries

lineinthesand.jpegBoundaries. Not walls. Not fences. Just boundaries. Know where your line is when it comes to devoting time to social media. I remember my dear sweet Aunt Robin always had a retort about answering the phone. “It’s there for my convenience and mine alone.” I think maybe that’s a healthy way to view social media platforms as well. Unless you are a paid blogger or paid activist, this really is hobby work. Limit the amount of time you are willing to spend sitting in front of a computer looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes. Not only is this about the grand total of time, but the number of times a day you check your feeds.

Stephen Covey, famous for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, divided tasks into quadrants. I cannot share the rubric here for copyright issues, but you can easily Google this. Covey believed that we should devote most of our time to Quadrant II. Without a doubt social media for most of us falls into Quadrant IV, which is the no man’s land of wasted time and wasted life. He never advocated getting rid of these activities completely, but rather taught that we prioritize our time so we don’t get trapped in the abyss of hours gone by. Surely we can all agree that much of our social media time would qualify.

Digital Disconnect

With my clients, we talk frequently about a “digital disconnect.” This is another form of good boundaries but with some escalation. Take fixed periods of time where you “log off” of your social media presence. A good starting point is a two-day weekend. Maybe from there build up to a seven day “cleanse.” If that suits you well, consider a full thirty-day abstinence. I have no doubt that when you log back on, you will see things through a different lens.

Consider the Source

I admit that I have been one of those people who share snopes.com and other fact checking sites to refute various posts and memes. I don’t know at what point we decided as a society to blindly trust so-called facts on the Internet and give up our willingness to critically analyze a situation. I fear some of us never learned that skill, or maybe we have become complacent because if our friends post it then it must be true right? In research terms this is known as confirmation bias. We select data sources that confirm what we want to be true and discard other sources of information that might prove us wrong. This is very easy to do in social medial because we surround ourselves with likeminded “friends.” What would happen if liberals also watched Fox News or conservatives logged onto Politico.com every day? At the very least our preconceived notions might be challenged enough for us to consider where we get our information.

truthometerAs a cautionary tale of what happens when we remained ill-informed, we need only look at the recent lambasting of Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway when they tried unsuccessfully to pass of misinformation as “alternative facts.” Or the frequent reactions by liberal and conservative news outlets to the tweets of the now President when his facts are not quite accurate (attack at the Louvre, NY Times falling readership and apology for coverage, threats of cancelling federal funds to universities based on their selected speakers, etc.). Just because somebody said it, tweeted it, memed it, or shared it does not make it true. Fight to keep untruths and partial truths out of your psychology.

Maintain a Schedule

We are creatures of habits, some good and some not so good. We take comfort in the safety and familiarity of routines. I get up at the same time very day of the week. I have the same coffee beverage every morning while reading the news. We enjoy the same Friday night pizza date every week. Routines are good. Routines give us a sense of stability. Keep going to gym. Keep meeting your friends for happy hour. Get those regular massages. Exercise every day. Make sure you get plenty of sleep. Take your vitamins. Allow your routines to shield you and to make you feel more confident in your daily living.

This might be a good time for a reminder about healthy sleep hygiene. My clients always chuckle at this because of my vision of beds. Our beds have two purposes: sleepin’ and sexin’. When you climb into bed your brain needs to know you’re either about to sleep or about to sex. If it’s clearly not a romantic or sexual interlude, you will be training your brain to “shut down” so you actually fall asleep. And if there is some fun about to happen….well enjoy! Our beds are the not the place to watch TV or binge watch Netflix, read, eat, study, text, chat, etc. As comfortable as it might be to do things on a pillow top mattress under our favorite blankie, it sends the wrong message to our brain and disrupts the routine we need for good rest and rehabilitation. Sleepin’ and sexin’. And if neither happens in the first fifteen minutes, leave the bed and come back later so we don’t train our brain to the routine of staring at the ceiling.

Get Involved

getinvolvedMy clients have been asking for weeks how to feel better about the future in these seemingly uncertain times. One of the best things you can do is get involved! Political activism can actually be good for your psychology. It is future oriented and action oriented. It involves you as an active participant rather than a political victim. Join your local political party. Join a national organization. Attended rallies and marches. Call your representatives. Host fundraisers in your home (it’s never too early to start raising campaign funds). Write letters to the editor.

A secret to involvement to feel better is scaling it for your life. If all you can do is write a check, it’s enough. If you can only find time to write a letter to the editor or make one call to Congress, it’s enough. There is no minimum standard here, and in fact starting small might make it easier for this to become habitual. The point is to do it because it engages the logical part of your brain (frontal lobes) just as much as the emotional side (limbic system). None of us really wants to be slaves our amygdala! Emotional overload leads to anxiety and depression. Getting involved can ward that off.

Be Emotional

But, we are emotional creatures and our limbic system sometimes does get the better of us. It is important to allow yourself to feel your feelings. Let it happen. Be open to emotional expression. Vent to a friend. Go for a run. Schedule a massage. Call your therapist. Just be. You cannot completely suppress the feelings or they will build up and overtake you at some point. We’ve all seen friends who kept choking it down until there was an explosion of anger or frustration. Hell, we’ve been that friend! Accept that you are going to have feelings about all the things happening in your life. All of your feelings are valid. Yes, they are ALL valid. Feelings are not what define you as a person. How you respond to those feelings is where irrational behaviors might come in to play and that’s when you should reach out for some help. But short of that, feelings come and go. It’s part of the human experience. Let it happen. It’s good for you!

Positivity and Future Orientation

positivityOnce you’ve had those emotional “breakdowns” or accepted those negative feelings, it’s time to move forward. This is a great time to remind yourself of all the good things in your life. Yes, even when it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket you still have good things in your life. We need to maintain our sense of gratefulness. I find it helpful to make lists of things I am grateful for and to thank people for their contribution. Who wouldn’t love to open the mailbox and receive a handwritten thank you note for being a meaningful contributor to someone’s life? Writing that note encourages positive emotional expression. Since it uses emotion, memories, and rational thought, we are engaging multiple parts of our brain in a positive exercise. A little boost of serotonin and dopamine to improve our mood and outlook.

Being grateful for what you have is an easy way to help you decide what you want to have in the future. If you love meeting a friend for coffee, do that more often. If family reunions fill you with love and hope, make plans more frequently with relatives you might not see so often, even if you’re limited to phone calls for those far away. Spend time with those people you love – your family of origin and your chosen family. Focus on activities that bring you joy and happiness, and do as many of them each week as your schedule allows.

Find Your People

It really does take a village these days to be healthy in a pluralistic society and make meaningful civic contributions. Find your people. Find your tribe. This is especially important if you are part of a marginalized group. Reach out and be supportive. Reach out and ask for support. Build alliances because change takes time and continual forward momentum. It is exhausting. You cannot do it alone. There has never been a more important time in our living history to connect with those who support us, and hopefully even build bridges to bring new people into our tribes to grow our spheres of influence and emotional support networks.

Take care of you. Take care of one another. Love freely and openly. Just be.

Be at peace. -wp

 

A Day of Remembrance….and a Call to Action

Since the election, I have worked harder than I thought possible, with back-to-back sessions until 9 and 10 at night. I have supported friends and clients as they cried in anger, fear, rejection, despair, and anguish. So many of my transgender and gender diverse clients are scared for the future, their own and ours as a society. When you live your life in constant and genuine fear about your safety, your health, your relationships, your job, your children, your neighbors…..and everything else that makes up our daily existence, it is not an overreaction or overdramatization or distorted thinking to be terrified of what is coming down the pike. It is the reality of those pushed to the fringe who are trying to survive. Trying to stay alive. It is scary and it is sad. Tears, tears, and more tears. Though it all, I remained steadfastly resolute so that my clients had a safe space. Compartmentalization is a wonderful skill as a therapist to avoid burn out and emotional reactivity. But it takes a toll. For me that toll was this weekend.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) began after the 1998 death Rita Hester (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/11/20/the-trans-murder-that-started-a-movement.html). Rita was murdered in Boston. She was savagely attacked in her own apartment and stabbed twenty times. She did not die right away. She died of cardiac arrest as soon as she arrived at the hospital. The following year, Gwendolyn Ann Smith organized a memorial for Rita that has grown into an international event in more than twenty countries. At each event, the names of those who were murdered the previous year are read or displayed. This year’s list included nearly 90 lost souls from the past twelve months.

candleheartAs I participated in my first TDOR, lighting a candle on in support of transgender and gender diverse people everywhere on behalf of mental health professionals, I was speaking out. Not just about the past twelve months, but about the coming twelve months. And the twelve after that. And so on. The candle I lit on behalf of mental health professionals represented our commitment to do all we can to prevent violence, end oppression, and heal those who are hurting to build communities of love and unity.

As the ceremony progressed and I had time to reflect on the past two weeks and the spirit of the room, I started to have a very emotional reaction. I knew immediately it was a release of all the feelings I had been dealing with for two weeks. I delayed my own reaction to the election and our future so that I could remain available to my clients, my friends, and my family. I had let it build and build and build. I had been holding it back for as long as I could….until I couldn’t.

238When I saw the names of those murdered across the globe (https://tdor.info/), I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I sat there crying and crying, trying my best not to actually sob. Each name that flashed across the screen brought out another tear. And another. And another. The most painful reaction was every listing of “unidentified woman” or “unidentified man.” The nameless who were killed and disposed of without anybody even realizing they had been taken from this world. Where are their families? Their loved ones? Their friends? Who has not yet noticed somebody is missing from their life?

Sad as that was, my reaction only got worse as I let my mind wonder. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Hester the night she died. I tried to imagine somebody entering my home, the safest space I have, with the sole intent to kill me. What it must be like to feel the knife slice through skin over and over and over. Feeling cold steel cut into muscle, cut through arteries or veins, pierce vital organs. Tearing through nerve endings and flooding my brain with pain signals. To see another person looking into my eyes as they stabbed deeper and deeper out of nothing but hatred and malice. And then they leave me there. In my living room, bleeding out. How terrifying would that feel to me to know I was dying, all alone, just for living my genuine life. What would those last few moments of consciousness reveal to me? What would be my last thoughts and feelings as the life drained out of me and I slowly left this plane of existence?

I cried. A lot. At one point a friend asked if I was going to be okay, if I could get through the ceremony. It occurred to me as I looked around the room that I was crying harder than anybody else. I don’t think it’s because I was more affected by senseless murder than anybody else. I don’t think it’s because I’m more aligned with a community than anybody else. I don’t think it’s because I’m a more sensitive person than anybody else. I know what happened….I stopped taking care of me and let it all build up to the point it was like a dam bursting, with a river of emotion pouring downstream and washing away all my safety and security.

Two days later and I still have not recovered. I’m still crying. I’m so sad and so angry. I’m so fearful for my friends and all those beautiful souls who are just living their truth. I want to do more and I feel powerless. And that makes me cry all over again.

socialjusticeI will be fine, this I know. At some point I will be cried out and something else will try to take over. A sense of tragic normalcy where I once again feel numbed to news coverage of hatred and bigotry because it has become just another thread in the tapestry of our society. I cannot allow this. I would rather cry every single day than become blasé to cold-blooded murder rooted in hatred and persecution. Instead, I will channel this sadness and anger into action. I will continue to stand up for the marginalized and disenfranchised group of people who have accepted me into their subset of our larger community and shown me much love and grace. I will continue to fight not only for mental health parity but social equity. I will honor the commitment I made when I lit my candle. To prevent violence, to end oppression, and to heal those who are hurting to build communities of love and unity.

What’s Really Wrong With Me?

WWWM

For the past decade I have been conducting psychological testing for various reasons. Sometimes a person wants to know if they have ADHD or a learning disorder. Sometimes we are looking at career options and want to determine if college is a good choice, or maybe if a specific job fits their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA’s). Maybe it’s about a legal matter and making recommendations that are useful to an attorney or a probation department. Most often what I do is a diagnostic study to understand whatever is happening and make appropriate treatment recommendations. It’s the answer to the “what’s really wrong with me and what can I do about it” question.

In the course of hundreds of evaluations, something I’ve noticed is a lack of consistency and sometimes an outright lack of agreement among clinicians. Just this month I was beginning a therapy relationship with someone who disclosed every diagnosis along the Autism spectrum. Last month a client presented with “bipolar, major depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, ADD, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, learning disorder.” What a laundry list! How is it possible for one person to have so many labels? How can one person run the gamut of an entire spectrum like Autism or psychosis? It’s more common than you think, and here are a few reasons why.

Point in Timesign
Any psychological evaluation represents a brief moment in time. Hopefully an evaluator thoroughly reviews your history, including medical and mental health records and prior evaluations. That’s certainly a best practice. It does give us more information (data points) to consider for diagnostic purposes. But even then, your evaluation a single slice in time of what that clinician observed or recorded (testing) on a specific day. Having a bad day? Testing might underestimate your best abilities. Forget your medication? Your mood might be a little more off kilter than usual. Or paying attention might be pretty hard. Leave your glasses at home? Probably going to make it hard to complete testing with speed and accuracy. Or the biggie…did you hold back some information? Sharing all the details is important for an accurate diagnosis.

Even if everything goes just as it should, it’s still entirely possible that a diagnosis can be right in that moment but not really accurate for your daily functioning. Or it might be accurate for problems lasting a few weeks or a few months, but not forever.

bullseyeMoving Targets
Another consideration is that diagnoses can be “moving targets.” There is a lot of overlap in symptoms for various disorders. For example, problems with attention and concretion can be related to ADHD, depression, psychosis, intellectual disability, learning disability, dementia….and on and on. Having mood swings? Could be a bipolar disorder, but it also could be a normal variation of depression or even personality traits. Behavior problems? Might be ADHD, depression, anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, psychosis, personality-related, or a bona fide conduct disorder. See how easily this can all be confused? Yes, we get lots of training in diagnostics (psychopathology), but it takes good rapport and good investigative skills to understand what’s really going on.

This is never more true than with children and adolescents. Symptoms can look very different in young folks. Depression in a teenager often includes irritability, hostility, and acting out. Which can look like an oppositional defiant disorder. Some behaviors could be the result of medications affecting the developing brain. And, quite often, children and teens simply cannot verbalize what is going on the same way you and I can. They try, but they themselves might not understand it in order to explain it coherently.

Treatment = Change (hopefully)
Another consideration is that appropriate treatment really should change diagnostic labels over time. If you are taking medication and engaging in weekly therapy, your depression should get better and eventually that label should go away. Or perhaps your Major Depressive Disorder transitions to a Depressive Disorder NOS and then to nothing at all. ADHD frequently abates over time as the adolescent brain develops into adulthood. But not always, and more and more adults are given a label that traditionally had to be first diagnosed in children.improving together

The biggie here is Autism Spectrum Disorder. With appropriate and consistent treatment (social skills training, therapy, and possibly medication), it is very common for the more severe symptoms related to communication and social interaction to greatly improve to the point it really can be hard to see that a label is appropriate. The same is true for learning disorders. The schools refer to this as “response to intervention” and is now formally measured for those receiving special education services.

Arriving at the right diagnosis can sometimes be pretty straightforward. Other times it feels like I am a detective solving a mystery. The end result will depend on the available information, how willing people are to be open and honest, and the skills of the clinician. It is vitally important that you feel comfortable with the person evaluating you. You are far more likely to be open and honest if you feel safe and secure.

Feel free to contact my office if you keep asking “what’s wrong with me” and it seems like nobody can understand you.