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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Blues (Little Miracles)

I have to say that not everybody is down now. But lots of folks are. So this post is especially for you if:

*You are missing or grieving someone you loved and lost
*You are feeling less than jolly, and don't know exactly why
*You think that everyone else is happy, joyous and free
*You are not where you want to be
*You are not with who you want to be with
*Your are not feeling good about who you are, what you do or how you live
*You wish that at least during the holidays you could feel well and good, but you don't

So what to do? Well, first things first. Grace. Tis the season after all. Begin with yourself. You feel how you feel. And trying not to feel how you feel may make matters worse. So maybe give yourself a little leeway.

Second: Agree to nourish yourself. Eat good food, drink warm drinks, take vitamins, cream your skin, listen to music, take a walk. Rest. Credit yourself for each and every step you take. You can feel lousy and still take care of yourself.

Third: Talk. Whenever possible, to a good and loving ear. You don't need correction or cheering up (well, maybe a little cheering up would be okay). You most likely could just use some genuine attention and understanding. You can turn towards "fixing" things later.

Fourth: Kindness. To yourself, to another. Nothing fancy. Maybe just a good word of appreciation to someone, a compliment, or a warm smile. And then try it in front of the mirror.

I suppose that I often land on the side of "easy does it." I am all for taking the right kind of action to move forward in life, to pursue better feelings and improve relationships. But during this season of miracles, maybe it's the small things that count. You can go for the biggies later.

You may get your own little miracle of relief from your bad feelings and find some faith that good things are coming. Sometimes in crunch times, it's really okay to just let yourself off the hook and tackle the rest later.

If what you really wish for can't be, then for those who suffer from emotional pain, doing that, especially this week, may just bring the right little miracle.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sitting Still

Sometimes in the midst of emotional pain, especially hurt and anger and grief, some folks get antsy. I often get asked, "Why does this still bother me so much?" or "Shouldn't I be over it already?" The need to get past the feeling, to move on, is urgent and strong. And they are off and running. Brain and body on rev. Especially at this time of year, when everyone is so very busy. Buying, and partying, and running from task to task to get ready.

For those who are hurting, all of this running around can be very productive. Too busy to think. And a lot gets done. I am all for distraction. It's a good day then, if you take care of your responsibilities and have not given way to whatever emotional pain is following you around like a kite at your back. If you keep on keeping on.

But then again, there is the idea of just sitting still. Of stopping the middle of all the rush. I know that sometimes sitting still can feel impossible. Especially when you are busy. Both practically and emotionally. A thousand thoughts racing through your mind, and a thousand things to do. And what if you stop and you can't start again? And what if you don't really know how to do anything but rush? And what if you stop and all the bad feelings you have been running in front of come slamming up against you like a herd of elephants? What if it's raining what if's?

So I think that you will be okay. I think that at first it will feel really strange. To just pick a quiet spot and sit down comfortably, and close your eyes, (or keep them open and take in the scene), and just be. For, lets say, five whole minutes. No TV, computer, book, magazine, mail, telephone, blackberry. For those of you who are practiced at meditation or yoga, this is easy. But for lots of folks, this feels like climbing a mountain.

I am not going to write too much about what to do with your five minutes of sitting still, other than to say that once you do it, you may be surprised at what you learn. Of course you could do almost anything. Travel to an exotic place, list your gratitudes, listen to the sound of your breathing, let your thoughts tumble. You may find out that they are more bearable than you imagined, and more gentle than you thought. Or you may find that things still hurt, but that you are in one piece and in this very moment, you are in tact.

It's good, I think, to check in with yourself. To slow down in the fast race to get to somewhere else. Could be that being in the moment is better than you think, and that pause, even brief, is restful and restorative.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Reckless Driving (Lies, Fears and Messages to Self)

Last week my friend called to tell me that she was pulled over on the BQE (the Brooklyn Queens Expressway - a very fast, very crowded, not in such good condition highway that runs up and down the west side of Brooklyn with a sometimes view of New York City to the west). It was dark and she was rushing to a wedding and was lost. In an effort to turn around, she accidentally ended up on a sidewalk. She thought it was a turn off. When she was trying to get back on the road, two cops blocked her in and checked her out.

They eventually let her go, with a ticket for reckless driving. "What," she asked me, "exactly was I doing?" So we unpacked it a bit. "Start talking, " I told her.

So she tells me that the wedding she was headed to was the marriage of the daughter of her long time and very best friend. And that earlier that day she had spoken to her friend who told her, "Don't be late. You are always late, and for this, you better promise to be on time." To which my friend replied that of course she would be there on time. Wild horses...

"Why did you agree?" I wanted to know. "Well," she draws, "I know that it's important to be on time. I am working on this. I didn't want her to be critical again. I hate that."

And then my friend goes on to tell me that the wedding was in fact on a Tuesday night, the night that she has to stay late at work. And that she needed to stop home first to change and set up the babysitter for her four kids. And that when she was leaving (with still plenty of time) the younger one had a meltdown and she wished she could have stayed to soothe him since she had not seen him all day. And that she really did not think it would have been all that terrible to get to the wedding in time for the ceremony, and miss some of the reception since her friend would be busy with all the guests anyway. It would have given her an extra half hour of breathing room.
Okay, so what's my point. That she was driving recklessly on purpose. Sort of. Yes. That she was operating under her own set of lies and fears, and she ended up a half an hour late anyway. And it was a message. From her self to her self. From her self to her friend. That something somewhere was off kilter.

What were the lies and fears? Maybe that her friendship depended on her being on time. Or that what her friend thinks is the truth. Or that her own reasons and decisions are not good enough. Or that she has to do what other people say she should do. Or that she is a bad person if she says what she needs or does what is reasonable for her.

The trouble is this: we often take it out on ourselves. Sometimes intentionally, and sometimes "accidentally." We don't always know that we can slow down, think it through, consult a neutral good ear. We can tend to jump from one assumption to the next. And then turn onto sidewalks that in our confusion look like off ramps.

So what's the message? It's worth it to know and say your truth. And drive safely.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Lot vs. Enough

Sometimes in my office folks will say to me, "I have talked about this a lot already!" Sometimes this is a complaint, meaning they would like to be able to move on, and talk about a new topic. Other times it's a question. They are wondering if I am tired of hearing about whatever it is they are talking about. (Which I am usually not because I am trained to listen for as long as need be. And even if I were, then so what? I can keep listening anyway. Though I always like hearing what people think, or think I am thinking).

What is really being asked, at times, is, "when will I get over this?" Or: "When will I be sick of talking about this already, and ready to move on?" So sometimes I encourage people to say something new, or different, even about the current problem or hurt. But lots of times you just have keep talking until you have said enough.

A lot is not always enough. And vice versa, enough is not always a lot. Sometimes you do have to say a lot to get to enough. When it comes to grief, or betrayal, or anger. Ditto for difficult relationships, love, disappointment and fear. Sometimes it takes a lot of talking until you know, until you feel, that it's enough.
And not just "I am sick of this problem already!" or "Nothing feels different yet." or "Talking just drags up all the bad feelings." Enough is enough when relief comes quietly through the door of your heart and you can breath better. When you don't find yourself living in the eye of the storm anymore.

This can take hours, or days, or months or years. It takes as long as it takes. That's not to say that there is not progress in life in the meantime. Of course there can be forward movement, good times, good decisions. New insights, sure. New ideas, yes. And breaks in the hurt, definitely.

And even when enough really is enough, there can be times where the need to say more, to talk more, comes up again. And then you say more, until enough becomes enough again.

If I sound like I am making a case for obsession, or for not letting go, or not moving on, or not "getting over it," as they (whoever they are) say, I am not. I am making a case for living life, for forging forward when you hurt and don't know how, or don't feel like it, or don't want to. And talking about things to a good ear for as long as it takes. This, I think, is better than some of the stuff that we do, some of actions we take that end up making matters worse. For ourselves or others.
I vote for words. And lots of them. Speak them. Write them. Pray them. Until you are done.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


It's not new. Though I think it's really worth a mention. Whenever I write about depression, or grief, or anger or pain of any kind, I always have in mind how hard it sometimes is to push ourselves over the hill to do whatever may help us to feel better. Even when we are fairly certain it will help.

Of course the medical evidence and studies abound about the benefits of exercise. The mind, the body, the soul, all are recipients of movement. But walking I find is in a category all it's own. Deep strides, or a meandering stroll, fresh air on your face, in your lungs. Your eyes to the sky. You can clear your head. For those of you that are already sold, you know what I am talking about. But for those of you who think about walking and just have not gotten out the door yet, or for those of you who have not tried it, or who put it in the category of "have to exercise" or tedious chore of the day, I am suggesting you give it a chance.

There are of course all the facts about how it lifts vital hormone levels in your brain, and how it gets your blood going, carrying better mood lifting chemicals throughout your system. Maybe that's the science of it. I suppose I am not really so interested in that part, though I am a believer. The part that I find worth writing about is the relief part. The part where you can actually walk off pain, frustration, anger, fear. Okay, it does not disappear, but I can almost guarantee you that if you get yourself to go out and stride, you will, after a time, feel better.

It's like shaking off dust that you did not know was there. Certainly, for pent up hostility and anger, it's great. But I am thinking more along the lines of thinking. Of having a rolling space to let your thoughts tumble, to let you head clear. To think. Or to just stare at the sky and remember that there are things bigger and more vast then what you can see. Explanations that go beyond. And calm that can come forth.

The trick is getting yourself out the door. And for this I say can only say what everyone else says. You just have to do it. Do it and you will see. You will see that it's one easy, free, access able tool for soothing your tired weary heart.

Walk. Breath. Rest. Think if you want to, but get outside and go. No offense to the treadmill or elliptical. But there is no substitute for space. If you can get to a park, great. If not, any sidewalk will do.

Forrest Gump fans may recall that he had to run the whole country (sometimes, you gotta run too). Sometimes I hear about pain so great that it seems like it would take all 3000 miles to walk off the hurt. Betrayal is up there with the worst feelings. Forrest had to cover a lot of ground. But we don't have to do all 3000 miles in one shot. We may get relief in bits and pieces.

And I find that giving yourself permission to wander is a way of finding yourself amidst all the confusion.

You will most likely come back a little lighter, a little safer and a little more contained, which I think is a good thing. I think we all need a little wind in our hair, and, on lucky days, sun on our face. These are the good and simple things in life that can hold us until things get better. And carry us along right in the moment, when things seems upside down, but may actually be okay in some meant to be, but not yet known kind of way.

Walk on!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gratitudes, Attitudes and Platitudes

"Grace isn't a little prayer you chant before receiving a meal. It's a way to live." ~Jackie Windspear

I know it's a bit predictable at this time of year, but I can't help it. I am thinking about grace and gratitudes. I always feel a bit of a tug when I do this, as if I am being disloyal to the problems of life. Or to whatever pains or griefs might exist. And whenever I suggest thinking about, or writing down a list of, or saying out loud, all the things that you are grateful for as a way to ease emotional pain or lift a mood, I get a crinkle on my face, maybe even a wince, as if I am not really understanding or tuning into, or honoring the hurt. But I really do believe that paying deep attention to gratitudes is useful.

One: It gets you out of yourself. Even if you are thinking about what you yourself are grateful for. It's not such a bad idea to take a break from hurt when you are hurting. There is no rule that says that you have to be absorbed in your hurt all the time.

Two: Everyone has things to be grateful for. At this moment, your eyes are working. Your lungs too. Your heart is beating and you have a computer. If you are willing to stretch yourself a bit, come up with an A to Z list. I know that when you are hurting, it's not something that comes so easily, but if you want some relief, this is a good path for sure.

Three: You do not have to feel grateful to be grateful. Feelings are not facts. They are important, but they do not have to call the shots. You can recognize goodness and light and positive things in the world, and in your life, even if you feel the overall picture is dark.

Four: Being gentle with and gracious to yourself may be one of the hardest but most important ways to get from bad to better. There may be a million reasons why being gracious to yourself seems impossible, but I think it's the right way to walk. I am not saying that you don't have to take stock of yourself and your life, and take responsiblity, but I am saying that a little grace goes a long way. And a little grace is a great thing to be grateful for. And gratitude is a gracious thing.

Gratitude takes willingness and practice. My experience is that it's worth the trouble. You will not end up dishonoring your grief, or giving in to false cheerfulness, or trite "look on the bright side, honey." You will end up with a realistic stance that life is mixed. And that swimming around only in the bad feelings, and the frustrating or disappointing facts is really only one side of the coin. You can round out the picture a bit, while you are waiting for better days. You can help better feelings to come by pointing out whatever facts you can reach for that suggest that the good stuff can exist as well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Here Comes the SAD

Sometimes low can get lower. Your mood goes from good to okay, or from okay to shaky, or from shaky to gutter. It does help to know why whenever possible. When we just know that the mood-o-meter is registering a zero, one thing we can do is take a look inside. And outside. And really study what is effecting our feeling state.

So of course you can scan through the usual cast of possibilities: interactions with people (anything bothering you about a particular relationship or conversation?), job or school pressure, money worries, hormones? What things are on your mind that you are aware of, or could become aware of, that affect how you are feeling?

It does take a bit sleuthing sometimes. Reviewing the events of the day, and taking a few moments to study what feelings we were left with and what thoughts we had.

And then for those of us who are living in parts of the country that are cooling off, and getting browner and darker, instead of staying a steady 8o degrees of sunny delight., there is the added possibility of Seasonal Affective Disorder . AKA SAD.

I really do believe that the weather effects us, the temperature effects us, light effects us. For some folks, it's really business as usual, but for those who are sensitive to environmental factors, we need to take extra care of our psyches.

There are lots of gadgets and ideas out there. Sun lamps, electric blankets, hot tea. I think anything that nurtures and warms the body is good for the soul.

So I am just putting in a plug for knowing what you can know about yourself at any given moment, especially during low points. And then giving yourself permission to tend to your mood. You can stay in it, or you can try to bump it up a bit. But you do have choices. You can honor sadness without becoming hopeless. You can honor anger without becoming destructive. You can tend to yourself, and to others, without sinking into SAD for the season.
And you can check out my fellow blogger's post on the topic for some good words and ideas.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

When You Just Can't or Lightening During the Day

When the world says, "Give up, "Hope whispers, "Try it one more time."~Author Unknown

There are some days when you just can't. Can't go to work. Can't go to class. Can't be calm. Can't feed your body. Or can't stop eating. Can't deal. Can't stand it when..... Just Can't.

Like lightening during the day, the negative voice is there, flashing away. Telling you that you can't. If you pay close attention, you will hear it. The feelings are the thunder. When they are big and heavy and overwhelming, then you know that the lightening, the voice, is hard at work in your head.

Most of the time, we just go about our day. Or we don't. We stay stuck in the muck of the bad feelings. But if we are willing to stop, and then to pay attention to the thunder, and then to listen to that voice, we will begin to hear what is really going on in our head.

Can't. Can't. Can't.

And then we can talk back. We can change the can't. The other day I was walking across the street at a crosswalk on a slightly busy residential block. When I started out there was a car coming down the block, but at least a few hundred yards away. As I started out, the car sped up. And then, of course, so did I. It blew by me. As I got to the other side. I started feeling pretty bad. Somewhere between mad and sad, frustrated and resentful.

Voice: You can't stand it when people do that! You can't even cross a street peacefully. You can't catch a break today!

Reality: I don't like it when people are not paying attention the way I want them to (but I can stand it). I can cross the street just fine. Best to pay attention to the cars though. My legs are working, the air is fresh and the leaves are looking lovely.

I am not suggesting that we all turn into Miss Cheery Sunshines, or dismiss our feelings. Quite the opposite, I am thinking we can honor the feelings by paying attention to distortions. I am thinking that we can pay attention to the can'ts, and rewrite them. It goes along way. But if we are not willing to consider that there are ways out, ways up, then we may stay stuck.

There are real sadnesses in life, of course, and there are many frustrations and disappointments, but the can'ts make things seem a lot more hopeless. Sad is sad. You may not like feeling sad, but you can stand it, and take good care of yourself. You may not always know what to do, or how to do it, but you can learn.

It's about giving yourself a chance to learn what you can yes do. Not what the voice tells you that you can't. And then to look up at the possibilities.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bed Dread and the Day Ahead

O bed! O bed! delicious bed!That heaven upon earth to the weary head.~Thomas Hood, Miss Kilmansegg

Or not.

Some mornings some people wake up with a racing heart, and a feeling of being entombed under a wall of heavy concrete. Even the idea of getting up seems too much to bear. The day ahead seems so awful and daunting that it's hard to imagine even putting a foot out front under the blanket. Sometimes it just seems impossible to even want to think about getting up.

Add to that if it's cold. Add to that if it's dark out. Add to that if you did not sleep well. Or at all. Add to that if you are sad about something. Add to that if your mood swings from the trees like Tarzan. Add to that if you hate your job. Or hate your school. Or don't feel like you are particularly connected to anyone in particular.

And then there is the opposite of not wanting to get out of bed. Not wanting to get into bed. It's not the bed itself that's the issue usually. It's the sleep thing. If you have trouble doing it. Falling asleep. Staying asleep. Resting.

Different versions of bed dread. So there is the usual cast of suggestions for each side of the issue. Can't get up? You are suppose to try to find something in your mind to latch onto that is good. Some detail of the day you could look forward to. Anything. Even if it means getting some sun on your face, or watching the leaves fall. A stretch, I know, but when there are warm blankets between you and the cold world, you gotta give yourself a chance. Sometimes you just must tell yourself that all you need to do is get to the hot shower. You can dive back in after that if you don't feel any better. You can tell yourself that you are some stellar star for heaving yourself up when brain tells you that you can't. And that somewhere in the day, your efforts will be rewarded. And that you dread is not a fact, just a feeling. And feelings pass. The next right thing.

And the usual suggestions for sleeplessness. You've heard them. Write a list of all that's on your mind and put it in a drawer. Give yourself permission to rest, if not sleep. Forget the sheep. Try imagining redecorating a room, making up a good juicy fantasy. Take yourself to a tropical paradise for the night. Talk to G-d. Or get up. And don't go back until you are falling on your face. Read. Forgive yourself.

Truthfully, I did not mean to be talking about sleeping better. Though we all know that it's the cure for many an ailment. I really just meant to offer up some nuggets about how much we deserve to rest. Not just physically, but mentally. And that the two really do go together of course.

I think that somewhere is our psyches, especially when we are hurting about something, or in the throws of some addiction. Binging, cutting, purging, drinking, we just forget how to stop. Just stop.

And then the cycle. We get bed dread of one form or another. We can't get out: too much panic and mood drain. Or we can't get in. Too much too much. No way to settle.

It has to be that way underneath all the tricks of how to get up, and how to sleep, lies our beliefs about rest, and about life on rev, and about how we deal. If the backdrop of bed dread is our unquiet mind, then we have to cooperate with the small piece of our intellect that just knows that somehow someway we have to practice restfulness. That we don't have to solve all of our stuff, we don't have to have answers. And that really either which way, we don't have to be afraid to be calmer. We can manage with whatever comes our way. We can push ourselves gently to get up when we don't feel like it, and to lie down when our brain says to keep going.

And we can talk it. If we just can't figure out how to get restful, we can talk it out until we figure it out. That and some good deep breaths can go a long long way.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Give a Little Bit, Do-Overs and When You Can't Fix It

"Give a little bit
Give a little bit of your love to me
Give a little bit
I'll give a little bit of my love to you
See the man with the lonely eyes
Take his hand, you'll be surprised"

Goo Goo Dolls

I have been thinking a lot about regret lately. And how sometimes we get a chance to make right our wrongs. And sometimes we don't. I don't really believe that there is ever one side to any story. When things go haywire in a relationship, more than likely it was symphony of feelings and character and glitches in communication. And of course words or actions that were meant to communicate one thing and ended up communicating something else entirely.

Sometimes we can make amends. We can mend fences and heal hurts. We can unpack what happened and offer apologies, and move forward. Or just offer apologies. And sometimes we can't. Either the timing isn't right, or the damage is done. And we don't get a do-over.

So what helps? Well, I think a few things. I think that knowing how we contributed to the problem helps. And giving ourselves an honest, and gentle, once over to understand how we may have acted or reacted that may have caused more trouble. I am not saying that if you get mugged it's your fault. But I am saying that it helps to know what you were doing in a bad neighbor at night to begin with. So that's thing one. Know your self.

And thing two (on a potential list of, oh say, a hundred things), is to forgive yourself. Lots of times we are driven by fear, or by beliefs and feelings that are not necessarily facts, or by the unconscious reflex of protecting ourselves from something. We usually are not evil seeking. Self forgiveness is the light at the end of the tunnel.

And thing three, when you can't have a do-over, and you can't make an amend, is to practice kindness. I pretty much think that when someone is depressed, upset, hurting, lost, angry, there is not really an inclination to go be charitable. In fact, we usually want to be taken care of in some protective and comforting way. Generosity to the universe is not usually on list of things to do.

But that's what I think. I think that it helps to give. I could say when all else fails, and when you least feel like it. Give. Give something, do something, kind for someone, somewhere. And maybe even before all else fails.

It's like forcing yourself to whisper when you feel like yelling. Not that I don't think that you can yell safely when you need to. But sometimes a trip out of self, and into the realm of kindness can go along way toward soothing a bruised soul. Doesn't mean the kindness can't be to your self as well. Definitely. But the universe needs you too.
And it comes back at you eventually. Try it, you'll see.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Have you ever been yelled at? Okay, probably. Do you yell? Truth is, sometimes I outright recommend it. But only when you are alone, safe (fine in the car, but not while driving, okay?), and won't scare or harm anyone. It's a great emotional release, and can really bring on relief. Just so long as it is not directed at anyone. So I am all for private yelling for medicinal purposes. Let it loose! But....

For those of you have been yelled at as children, or get yelled at as adults, you know all too well the scars that yelling leaves. Even without name calling and threats, being yelled at, or around a lot of yelling, can induce extreme fear, anxiety, hurt, lonliness, and anger, not to mention shame, self pity and deprivation.

I have listened to many stories from my therapist's chair. Histories of emotional abuse. Even from otherwise pretty good parents. Some studies actually conclude that being yelled at, verbal abuse, is actually more damaging than physical abuse. It's no surprise to me that people who come from homes where there is a lot of yelling tend to be much more anxious than those from homes where there was less volatile communication.

So there are many reasons why people yell. Not rocket science. And some of us are drawn to the drama and the rev. Controlling one's rage takes a lot of effort for some people. Yelling at someone is like a big chewy emotional binge. It's like saying I am out of control, I don't care about anything but me and I am going to blow all my stuff right on you. Because you deserve it. And it tastes downright righteous in the moment. Then the backlash of humiliation bloat starts up and it bite back. For some, this leads to more yelling. What a trip.

Honestly, having listened for many years to both yellers and yellees, I can tell you that there is no good end of the stick. The yeller feels lousy usually for losing it, and the yellee is left wtih all of the above and then some. Or is so used to it that their system shuts down in protest and they just sort of turn off. Problem is, that the turn off usually lasts a long time, far longer than the yelling. Pretty damaging and distancing effect on the relationship.

Not to mention a small child.

So here I am again with my plug for talking. Words and more words. But not loud ones. Not cannon balls. If you grew up being yelled at, you might recall the effect it had on you, and most likely still does. And if you are a yeller now, well, I will tell you that I do get the need for relief. But not at the expense of everyone else. Or even the one who pushed the button.

I am not sure what made me think of yelling today. Just perhaps that someone told me recently that whenever she cried as a child, her father would bark at her. At least it sounded like a bark to her. He would, loud and sharp, say, "BAH!" And she would curl up into her self and want to disappear. It has taken her a long time to heal from this. A long time to be able to cry safely.

And perhaps another story. More of an image really. Of a friend of mine who used to sit at the top of the steps and listen to her parents scream at each other at the bottom. She says that she had an old Raggedy Ann doll that she used to bury her face in until they stopped. I asked her why she listened, why not go to her room and shut the door. There was no where not to hear, she said, and at least she knew that as long as the noise was going, there were both still alive. She always thought one of them would kill the other. That's what her child's mind really thought. She thought that if she kept a vigil, no one would die. Lots of terror.

I listen to the yellers as well. I know it's about anger, frustration and fear. But same deal. Gotta talk it out to someone safe. Either which way. Gotta heal it. It can make or break whole worlds.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Eye Candy and Holding in Pleasure

Even in the midst of some really bad pain, we need some good pleasure. I am thinking lately about simple pleasure. Like picking out flowers at the florist, or walking with your face tipped up toward warm sunshine. Or a really warm bath. A good cup of tea, maybe. The comfort of a good blanket. New pajamas. Old boots. A old fashioned written note to an old friend. Good tunes. A long slow walk. Hand cream.

People often tell me that they are hurting so much that they are not able to feel pleasure. They don't even want to feel pleasure. All there is, is the hurt. The emptiness inside them, and the hurt. Or the constant thinking and rethinking about the loss they have suffered, or the person who has hurt them.

Sometimes it's not a person, or a loss even. I often hear about general unhappiness, a discontent with life. With one's self. And confusion about if and how things could ever feel better.

Sometimes it's part of depression, the inability to feel pleasure. Sometimes it's the take over of the eating disorder, the anxiety, the brain on rev. All human parts get so caught up in the pain that the eyes don't see green trees, the ears don't hear music, the lungs don't recognize cool fresh air.

I don't mean to sound sappy. I work with a lot folks in all different stages and experiences of irritability, restlessness, discontent and emotional pain. And I am a big believer in feeling what you need to feel, as uncomfortable as it is. I am a believer in talking and talking and talking out pain. Talking out anger. Talking out fear. I am not one to tell someone to move away from a feeling. Unless it's time. Whenever that may be.

But I do think that we can have both feelings. Pain and pleasure. Some folks have become so good at feeling pain, that they have no idea how to feel pleasure. Sometimes the resistance to feeling pleasure is deeply rooted, not conscious even. Or Especially.

A friend of mine recently told me that she cannot eat candy without sneaking it and feeling horribly guilty. She has no food, eating or weight issues, other than this. When she was a little girl, she tells me, she recalls being out at the mall with her mother. They walked by a candy store and her mother pointed to the elaborate display, made a horrible face, and said, "Yuckkkkkkk!!!! I hate this stuff."

From then on, my friend says, she is not able to enjoy candy. She cannot hold in the good feeling she gets from eating it. Loyalty to her mother? A wish to please her by being like her? A fear of being different from her? Well, many guesses. But my friend cannot entirely shake her association of candy to yuk. To the idea that she should not get this kind of pleasure.

I think we can start small. And simple. We can know that we don't have to go for fancy ideas of rapture. We don't have to heal deep wounds. I think that pain will always out shout pleasure if we don't make a deliberate choice to allow ourselves to have both. No dishonor meant to the pain, but we can punctuate it with moments of relief. We can practice holding in pleasure the way we hold our breath. We can train ourselves to feel it. Moment by moment. Inch by inch.

I really think so.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Great Scale god (Or Instrument of Self Destruction)

Ruler of internal universes across lands far and wide. Focal point of countless obsessions. And final judge and jury on self worth, progress, beauty, success and value. Not to mention dictator of permission to eat, commander of starvation and excessive exercise. And last but not least: sedative and relief injection, or more likely, instrument of extreme mental (and sometimes leading to physical) torture.

In all my years of working with eating disorders, from anorexia to food addiction, and all shades of grey in between, there is one very common denominator and that is the scale. I am shamelessly un-techie, so I only recently learned that there are actually digital scales that will calculate your body weight to the tenth of pounds. I am, alas, so dismayed. I get it though. I am no stranger to the mighty scale g-d. Few women are. Nor do I take lightly the enormity of the compulsion to weight one's self. And of course I am well aware of the complexities of eating disorders and the cultural and personal demands that influence body weight, body image and our relationship with food.

If you are suffering from any version of scale worship then you know exactly what I mean. If you get on stark naked, (and some women remove their earrings as well) and the scale is up, the number is higher, even by, now days, a 1/4 pound, then the voice in your head takes off. "You are a pig. You are a cow. "(name calling fest) "No food for you today. You must run six miles after class." (Dictation fest). "You are a horrible rotten piece of nothing and cannot accomplish a thing in life. You can't even lose a stupid pound. (Attack fest of worthlessness).

So there it is. Your value, your self esteem, your entire ability to feel good is wrapped up in a machine. It calls the shots of your mood, your value, your faith in the universe.

Of course if the number is lower then calm can set in. For the moment. "Good. Okay. Now you can keep going. Now you can breath. For now. Don't think you are off the hook."

For some, there is no number low enough.

I know that the scale is a distraction from life. For some it's better to focus on the numbers than on whatever else is going in life. What ever other pain and problems may be beyond the bathroom door. And I know that it is real, the addiction to the scale. And that to kick it takes a whole lot of effort, on top of some recognition that the value of life and self are not dependent on what the number under your feet is.

I have known women who get on the scale 60 to 100 times a day. A day. The feelings of dread, panic, loss of control just gurgle and froth and threaten to take over. And I know that to be caught in scale rip tide is as frightening as it is painful.

So here's what I think. It starts with being willing to think about what is really valuable in life. And continues on to being willing to digest the idea that your worth is not connected to that number. And that you do not have to hurt yourself with the scale anymore. Not even under the guise of helping yourself. I am not saying that you should not care about your weight, or that if you are stuck in this swamp that it's an easy climb out, I am saying that it's worth some pause.

It's worth a bit of distance maybe. And some grace. Always some grace. Perhaps someday you can study what this is all about for you. Most folks don't register at Macy's for self destructive scale obsession. But in the meantime, I do think it's possible to be comfortable in your own skin without a verdict from the metal box each morning, noon and night. If you take the scale out of the equation of your life, then what? That's the question. Then what?

Maybe better days. Maybe more grace. Maybe new ideas. Maybe a lighter life, even.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chocolate Covered Jalapeno Peppers

My 12 Step pals like to say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I think that we can apply that to people. Going to back to the same relationship or person over and over again thinking that this time it will be different, or that this time you won't (or s/he won't) make those same mistakes again is pretty much like going back down into a dry well for water. You know there was not any there the last time, but maybe, just maybe, since it rained, there is some hope for a cool drink. And you seem to remember how good it tasted when you got that sip once upon a time. And how pretty the well looks from the top.

I think that sometimes we try so very hard to get our needs met by someone who just can't meet them. Either they don't want to, don't know how to, or are not the right choice for a variety of reasons.

Or our needs are not meet-able. Not by that person alone. And not by the process of wishful thinking, cajoling, various types of manipulation, tears, threats or gifts. And we have to do the difficult task of taking a look at our side of the street and seeing what it is we need to do differently.

And sometimes the well is just dry because the well is dry. Not because we are undeserving, or unlikeable, or undesirable. Just because. But that means that we have to protect ourselves by not going back into situations that we sort of know really don't yield good emotional health and wellness for us.

A friend of mine continues, for the last twenty years, to pursue some serious TLC from her mother. Whenever she is upset about anything, she calls up her mom and tells her tale of woe. Only to be told what she has done wrong and how she never knows how to handle herself. This leaves my friend in a bit of a state each and every time she does this. Somehow, somewhere in my friend's mind is the image of a soft loving woman with wide arms who smells like honey and cinnamon, and who will hold her and tell her how wonderful and smart she is, and how she can overcome any adversity. And who then dispenses sage advice that saves the day. Where this wonder-mama came from she does not know. It is not the women on the other end of the phone. But time and time again she dials with hope and hangs up with despair.

I once asked her why she does this. She says because sometimes her mom says really nice things to her. And sends her sappy birthday cards. So she keeps thinking that there is some cool water in that well.

Really its just chocolate covered jalapeno peppers. Underneath the goo is the gook. Why she does this? Maybe it's familiar. Maybe somehow she gets something from getting hurt or disappointed. I know that sounds quaky, but think about it. We sometimes need the feeling, or it's a familiar role we play. Or makes us feel a certain way that we think we need to feel. We don't sign up for this. It's part of our unconscious function, I think. But still and all we do sometimes subject ourselves to disappointment and pain.

Sometimes, we just have to walk away from certain people and certain relationships. After a fair amount of trying, or enough insanity, we have to just call it a day. But, okay, my friend is not going to get rid of her mother. (Though some people do have to minimize contact). But she can stop going back for more of the same. How? Well, I think it comes down to acceptance. And to not taking things too personally sometimes. And to trying to figure out the difference between fantasy and reality. And between wishes and possibilities.
It is our job to stop behaviors and relationships that end up hurting us. Stop walking into dangerous neighborhoods if you know you might get mugged. I am an eternal optimist. I think that most relationships can be worked out if we are willing to accept what we can't have and focus on what we do have. And take care of our needs in safe places where we are likely to get more of what we need. And to know that there is nothing wrong with needing what we need, but we may have to tolerate a little living without getting sometimes. Going over and over again to the same source for something we never get, is our problem, not theirs. And we can do better for ourselves when we realize it.

And then we can open new doors and find new wells

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I used to wonder if you could actually die from this: lack of touch. I have worked with people who live alone, or who have been hurt and are frightened by touch, and keep others at a safe distance, or who have no one in their life who can give them a good hug, and gentle hand squeeze, an arm around the shoulder. The effects of this body isolation are unknown, but my hunch is that it creates a deeper level of loneliness and a disconnect with the world in some way.
One woman I know who lives alone is older and does not have a lot of contact with peers or family. But she has a cat. She told me once that every morning the cat licks her until she wakes up. She thinks that this is keeping her alive in some way. Her physical self being gently tended to is spiritual. She says it's the closest thing she has to human touch, besides her weekly manicure. And she says that it helps in other ways. It gives her the feeling of being connected, belonging, and appealing. She likes being lick-able.

What's your TQ? Touch Quota. How much touch do you need? What kind of touch? When, why and where? I recently came across some new research from a Utah study that supports the idea the right kind of touch produces chemical changes that benefit our bodies as well as our minds and spirit. Massage, cuddling a baby, even a good handshake can give us a good vibe, and a kind of contact that reminds us that the body can be a conduit of easy simple pleasure and good feelings.

I know some couples who make it a point to hold hands each night as they fall asleep, or cuddle up closely together. I know parents who make it a point to give their kids a hug each day, or a gentle shoulder squeeze, or back rub at night before bedtime. Safe touch rituals can go a long way in communicating trust, love and acceptance.

Of course I know that for some of you touch has been abused, or misused, and does not convey the good feelings. And it is not invited even or especially when you need soothing. Some people prefer to be left alone when they are upset, or sad, while others want to be held, embraced and warmed. Of course it's so personal.

In the world of psychotherapy, it's pretty much the standard rule that clients and therapists don't touch each other. The idea is to use words in the therapy room, and touch is an action. For some it is intimate and not to be mixed into the work of therapy. The way should always be clear for the client to say anything and everything they might need or want to. Touching can get in the way of this.

Sometimes we have to create appropriate touch opportunities. Getting a massage or a manicure. One widow I know took up square dancing once a week so that she can get some fun and light touch, without too much contact. Just enough for her TQ to be satisfied.

I think just knowing what you need and finding safe "touchees" can help. A parent, a friend, a partner who is open to giving a hug when you need one. And to be willing to ask for what you need. It's not a cure-all or even a band-aid, but it helps.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


I have to admit from the get go that I have been more of a "keep talking" therapist than a "what's your goal" therapist. I always believed deeply in the value of telling your story, your pain, your fears, hopes, worries, doubts, burdens, angers, whatevers! to an understanding ear. I believe so much in the importance of putting things into words, not actions. At least not until the action has been discussed, understood, thought out.

And I have always trusted that unquantifiable feeling of relief at being heard, understood, not corrected, criticized, blamed, denied, argued with or cheered up. Not that I mind being cheered up, but only after I've been listened to well enough.

It's not that I don't work with goals. Or think we should have them. In fact, I do. It's just that I think they have to be well thought out, and that they can evolve. And we can't set ourselves up for failure. I like to talk about and study goals as a way of understanding what we want. For example, I have a friend who is always criticizing her husband. What he wears, how he eats, how he talks. She corrects him frequently. He of course is not happy about this, and their marriage is on the rocks. I hear her doing it a lot. And I see him looking a bit helpless and a lot annoyed. She told me that she knows she is on his case, but she thinks it will make him a better husband. That's her goal. I asked her if it was working, and she said no, not really. It was actually making him worse. Time to rethink the method. Or the goal. Maybe on some level she wants to make him miserable, to let him know how miserable she feels, or maybe she wants to annoy him because she is angry with him. I think some talking will help figure it out.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about goals when it comes to eating disorders. I know that for those of you who are struggling to put food in your mouth, your goals are a bit cloudy. Some of you have the goal of getting the scale down as low as possible. Some of you have the goal of staying alive. Some of you have the goal of being able to eat as much as you want and not gain weight, or of getting out of the binge-purge tornado. Sometimes, the goals are in conflict with each other. That's when the talking comes in handy. Some really good discussions about what you are doing and why. And what's in the way of moving forward.

A lot of people think of goals in terms of money, or degrees, or achievements. Which is valid of course. I am thinking of goals in terms of life, and relationships. Is your goal to hurt yourself? If so why? Is your goal to hurt someone else? Get revenge, get your point across? If so why? What do your actions mean?

Is your goal to nourish your body and soul? Or to attack? To grow or to wither? To learn more about yourself? Can your goal be to learn to agree to being worth nourishing? Can your goal be to learn about how to be angry without hurting yourself, or how to get relief without punishment?

I think sometimes we are afraid to fess up to our real goals for fear that they are sinister, or misguided, or impossible. Or that they mean we are bad in some way. I think that's stopping short. If we can let ourselves think about our goals, and why we have them, we might get some good insight into what's working in our favor and what's not. And how to have more of what we really want.

Sometimes when someone has hurt us, our goal is to hurt them back. We might not want to admit this. Even if we do, we may also not really want to hurt them, but want to reach them in some way, and make things better.

Back to needing to talk to someone who gets it. Goals are not so simple, but when well thought out, they can shed light on our actions, help us learn about ourselves, our feelings and our needs. They can be guiding lights to our psyche and a chance to unpack our ideas and help us to move forward in our relationships with others, as well make great progress in our relationship with our self.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pain Box

Some people have Gd boxes. Literally a box that they keep somewhere private. They write down all their problems, hopes, dreams, angers, prayers, and they put them in their Gd box. An exercise in letting go, having faith and feeling less alone. Some say this helps ease the heavy of burden of too many wishes and frustrations. And the straining to control what cannot be controlled.

Then there is what I call the pain box. That's a private place inside the heart where pain is kept. Although I suppose that you could actually have a box in your closet as well. But the one I am thinking of is that place where bad feelings, memories of bad feelings, painful memories, live inside you. Its where you send the thoughts and feelings, events and ideas, that hurt.

I recently had a long chat with a dear old aunt of mine, who turned 85 this week. She has more energy than most people half her age, and is one of those annoyingly, (though really so sincere) chipper people who are slogan happy and say things like, "don't worry, be happy," and then do a little cha cha with their hips. My Auntie did not have a hard life. She did not have an easy one either. Somewhere in the middle, I suppose. So I asked her what her secret to staying so chipper, so unburdened, so alive at 85 was. A question that many seniors get asked many times. So Auntie tells me about keeping things in their place, perspective, and not having the difficult stuff take over. She talks, in essense, about the pain box.

It's like this. All the bad stuff is always there. But it does not have to be up and walking around all the time, front and center. It can go into the pain box. And you can close the lid and go about your day. Sometimes, when the time is right, you can open the box and look around. You can cry and pace and wring your hands. And then you can close lid again and go back to your business. And sometimes you can open the box and pull out the things inside and show them to someone who you trust. You can tell that person all about your pain, for as long as they can listen and you can stand it, or until it does not feel quite so painful anymore.

I know it's not as easy as just closing the imaginary lid, but it's an idea that can help in getting through the day, and not letting the pain take over all the time. In fact, some folks look forward to opening the box at a certain time of the day. Just knowing that they can keep their pain close, visit it, feel it, and then put it away a bit helps get them throught the day.

So Auntie has a pain box. And its contents are private. Not secret. But private. She shares them at the right times, with the right people. Otherwise, the lid is closed. She also told me that when the box is closed, she looks for laughter. She thinks that laughing is a necessary part of the day. She says she lives one day at a time, and focuses on the good things in life. And she tries to be kind to strangers.

I tell her that I know all that already. Isn't there something more? She says yes, but I will have to wait for her 90th birthday to find out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I recently came across the speech that JK Rowling gave to the Harvard Graduates of 2008, titled "The Benefits of Failure." So many times we are in the dark, lost and not sure which road to take. Tempting to just stay in pajamas and wait for another day. We somehow think we are suppose to know what we want. And how to get it. And even if we do know, we are not sure we can risk screwing up, being disappointed, disappointing someone else. Sometimes we are scared of success as well.

Especially when your mood is in the gutter. When things are looking really dark. Seems like it's really not worth whatever collosal effort it would take to say, get out of bed. But sometimes it pays to push yourself. Even if it's just, well, especiallly if it's just, to do the next right small thing. Like go to class, or go to work, or take a long walk, or get to your 12 step meeting. Whatever it is that you are dreading having to do. A lot of the time, it's the dread that's the most dreadful. Once you are up and out, things are a little less awful.

So what does this have to do with failure? I am not sure exactly. I've just been hearing a lot lately about desire. And about frustration. And about not being able to be where you want to be, or be with who you want to be with, or have things you want to have. Or get rid of things you want to get rid of. And I am really understanding that it is all very painful to bear. So painful, in fact, that attempting to take a step out of the comfort zone and into action, and risk failure, is just not worth the effort. Except that it is. I know that sometimes you have to be in the right mood to do something. I also know that sometimes the right mood may come in about twenty to thirty years, so you need to push yourself a bit. Gently. But push. Small things count. Hot showers, long walks, writing, reasearching options, writing graditude lists. Every effort counts. Even when you really have your doubts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


"Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its color."
W.S. Merwin, "Separation"

If you have lost someone or something you loved, needed, depended on, or were attached to in some significant fashion, then you know that grief shapes you in the most profound ways. We suffer small losses all the time. We lose control, we lose our dignity, we lose our common sense sometimes. When we fight with a parent, a friend, a boyfriend, we can lose our way. When we change locations, schools, job, there is sense of loss as well.

There are big losses, little losses and old griefs that get ripped open when new ones hit. And then there is impending loss. If we think we might lose someone we love. If they are sick. If the relationship is bumpy. If we have to move away or move on for some reason. One of the hardest parts of loss is trying not to lose ourselves in the process. Grief can make you feel crazy. It can fill up all the cracks in your day with foggy hurt and longing. You can begin to think that you are losing your self, in all that pain.

Sometimes the pain seems so unbearable that you need to escape. Part of you wants to hold on to it because its a way of being close and connected to what you lost, who you lost. And part of you needs some relief. The truth, as I see it, is this: There is no escaping. You will move in and out of the pain, the anger, the fear, the shock, the regret, the longing, the tugging in your gut. And you will eventually move closer to peace. To life on life's terms. To some form of acceptance that what ever is lost is lost, and that you can and will have to create some sort of way of hobbling forward with your broken heart, on to better days.

I don't think that you ever really forget, or "let go," as people say. I think the missing parts just become part of your new self in some way. And you somehow let new things into old empty spaces. Time does shape things. It passes and passes and passes and you one day realize that the ache has dulled a bit and you can tilt your head toward the warm sun and breath somewhat better.

In the meantime, I was reminded by someone recently, that you can and most certainly should. decide to take good loving care of yourself. Especially when you least feel like it, or most feel like hurting yourself for relief. You can take long walks, have long talks with someone who will just listen. Warm baths, hot showers. Some quiet time in a garden somewhere. Lots of water, may seem silly, but agreeing to hydrate yourself is very loving. Tears are fine, and is laughter. Lots of rest, too. Sunshine. Fresh air. Deep breaths. Time alone. But. Not too much time all alone. Write. Write. Write. Poems, journals, lists, memories. Pray. Whatever words you can find, tell them to a Higher Power. And read. Anything that helps you to know that you are not alone in the universe and that if you can get through each day still in tact, then you are doing great.

Sometimes, when we have lost someone particularly close to us, we can think that they are such a major source of our happiness that we will never feel good again. We can think that without them as a source, we will be forever empty. I think this is both true and untrue. We have to be careful not to idealize what we lost, as we mourn it. And we have to know that what was good and unique is a tribute to that person or relationship. And it always will be, but that other sources of joy will creep back into our lives and we must let them.

There are so many other feelings that can complicate grief, like guilt and fear and regret, so I say, easy easy easy does it when you are going through. Be gentle to yourself. Go a day at a time, and you will, when the time is right, see a lift in the fog.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Great Gaping Holes

Sometimes the hole is just oh so big. In 12 step programs, they call it a G-d shaped void. That vast emptiness inside. That feeling of being all alone. And hungry. Not physically. Maybe its a grief. I hear so much about this feeling when a relationship ends, or when someone close is gone. I hear about it when it seems like everyone is moving forward to great things, and it feels as if you are the only one who is spinning in circles with no end in sight. Or when you feel like just about everything and anything you do is a big waste. Or you are thinking that there is really no point. That the bigness of the ache could really be deadly.

Many times, it seems as if no one in the universe can understand that kind of pain. And certainly no one can get you out of it. The idea that "this too shall pass," is of little help. It's like trying to imagine not having a headache when you have a migraine. It feels like what is at any given moment is what will always be.

I think that one of the things that can trigger the vast empty feeling is when we think we have screwed up royally. Many people have such a loud demanding inner critic that they do not permit themselves any mistakes. They don't know how to forgive themselves. One of my pals always tells me that we are allowed five mistakes a day. Ten if its raining. She reminds me that "easy does it" is a much better mantra than " you f-ing idiot."

And some of us have leaky psyches. Even when we hear good things about ourselves, or have a good encounter, experience, or get a compliment, we are suspect. We hold it in for a short time, maybe, but then we forget. Oh, but a mistake, a criticism, a bad word...that we remember. That sticks.

What to do? Well, there is always analysis. Learning about how it came to be that your default setting is emptiness. But in the mean time, I think there are few good tricks. Keeping up on your gratitudes, giving yourself permission to acknowledge the things you do right, the character traits that you have that are good. (Small things count, like getting through the day, showing up at work, class, or for a friend. Eating. Driving safely. Brushing your teeth.) Pray. Breathe. Walk. Smile at yourself and one other person at least once a day. Random acts of kindness to others is a good way to go, too.

Great gaping holes don't get filled quickly usually. Especially if you are coping with addiction, eating issues, emotional pain, or grief. But you can fill up. I really do think so.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jelly On Your Toast (Civilian Comments)

Do you ever find yourself marveling at how clueless some people are when it comes to your hurt? Or your eating disorder or addiction? I am not, for the moment, talking about mean people, bullies, or the general population. Or your family. Though certainly there is a lot to talk about there alone. I am talking about friends, mostly, who are maybe well meaning at best, clueless at worst. And they make accidental comments that can nick you right in the heart, or feel like a gong in the chest.

Words so light, that fall so heavy. Like asking someone who is the throws of her eating disorder what kind of cereal she likes, or if she wants jelly on her toast. Or telling someone who gets hit by a parent to just hit them back. Or asking out loud in front of a group of people, "hey, what's that gauze wrap on your arm for?"

Words can hurt. Words can heal. Depends on how and where they are said. And by who. Absorbing the blow of hurtful statements (in these cases) can take a bit of resiliency training. I think there are a few ways to go: first you can allow yourself the full on recognition that what was said hurt you. That you were impacted. You can give yourself a few moments (or more) to reflect on why it hurt and what thoughts it triggered. Did it launch a really bad negative thought parade in your brain? (Like: "see you would like cereal but you can't cuz you are fat, and you won't stop and you better not go out anymore and everyone is staring at you and no one understands, they all know you are sick, they don't get it, they don't care and this is awful and you know you want to eat and you are pig anyway). This may sound harsh, but I am all too familiar with negative self attacking thought parades that lead to more bad feelings, and that usually lead to more self attacking behavior.

Relief seeking, but self attacking too. For a lot of people, brain default mode is to have a reaction and then have a reaction to the reaction. Like feeling hurt, and then feeling guilty for feeling hurt. Or feeling angry and then feeling guilty or frightened of feeling angry. Maybe we get it on a brain level, that people say dumb things. Everyone can be clueless at times. But we get disappointed that they don't know better, or seem so well when we feel so crazy. Our expectations are often out of whack, and usually our hopes are too.

Point is, that somewhere between honoring our experience, recognizing and validating our own feelings, and giving the clueless some slack for being clueless, relief can be found. They are not terrible. You are not terrible. And someday you will be able to have jelly on your toast.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Safe Places

"In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina. Can't you see the sunshine? Can't you just feel the moonshine? Ain't it just like a friend of mine? It hit me from behind. Yes I'm gone to Carolina in my mind" James Taylor

It's that time of year. For many of you, it's back to somewhere. For some of you, it's into "no-man's land," that after college, before job, grad school, new kind of life space that is not where you were and not where you are going to be. It's a time full of transitions and translations. Taking stock of your memories and experiences and making sure to hold onto them and carry them with you back to, or forward to where you are going.

Transitions can highlight overwhelming feelings. Even when the transition is a seemingly good one, like finishing school or going on a long trip. Sometimes transitions can be overstimulating, meaning that we get flooded with a ton of feelings all at once and the whole body, brain included, psyche and soul just go into rev.

Rev is one of those states where eating disorder or self injury stuff can fly. Rev often means a call for a sedative or mode of escape. Rev can lead to hurt and hurting.

I am thinking about where else to go when you are in rev mode. And I was thinking about the loveliest of places that I was very recently visiting. I was thinking how great it would be if I could bottle that feeling of tranquility and safety, of calm and faith, of total peace and ease and comfort that I had when staying in this lovely oasis of green trees and blue skies. And of a billion stars at night.

I was thinking too of how many times in my office I hear people express the need to send their mind on vacation. Without a substance or a self hurting act. And then I was thinking about going to Carolina in my mind.

There are real safe places. Quiet places. There are places that you can go to just sit and be, to calm the rev, think about the transitions, cool your self off, or get away from a bad situation or difficult person. Some of my favorites: parks, libraries, museums, book stores, a quiet tree lined street off the beaten path. I like quiet places that I can go to just sit, or wander gently.

And then there are the places you can create in your mind. If you can't actually take off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or find an empty corner in your local library, you can create a safe place in your mind. You can decorate it, and stock it full of comfy furniture, or babbling brooks. And you can go there anytime without going anywhere.

It is a way to keep the spaces that you have visited where you have felt well and whole present and accessible and usable. Make them your safe place. Keep the idea that you can take yourself somewhere whenever you need to.

A lot of the time, when I hear about emotional pain, confusion and rev, I hear how hesitant some of you are to create a place for yourself. And to try it out, before you try out other avenues for escape. I am not saying its a magic solution, but it can help. To go to Carolina in your mind.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Body Shopping

Used to be that going to the beach was really a day at the beach. Sun, sand, waves, the amazing smell of the ocean (and french fries) and what mattered was how to get a great tan without getting fried, and how to blot out the people around you so you could float away into the golden universe of vacation.

But now, I hear, its about body shopping. Not that this is new. Truth is, I've known about it for a while. And certainly, there is nothing new about women comparing their bodies to the bodies around them. Happens all the time everywhere. Dressing rooms, pools, grocery stores. Competitive creatures that we are, and well trained by society and every message at every turn, to attain the perfect body, women are still as consumed as ever with perfecting our look. What I really find awesome though, is how completely absorbing this habit can be. Its like the great blinder, it allows those who do it to forgo any pleasure at actually being in the day, in the warmth of the sand, the ease of the ocean air and be totally focused on the shape, size and structure of the bodies around them.

So here is how I've heard body shopping defined: It is the habit or art of looking around you for the body or bodies that you would most like to have, that you envy, covet and crave. When you find such a body, you can first fill up with jealousy and awe, and then you can start to think really hateful self pitying thougths about your own body. You can make this the most important idea in life. Her good body, and your terrible one. You can assume that everyone on the beach, and in the universe for that matter, knows that your body is awful, and that other bodies are much much better.

The whole world of course, notices this and thinks that nothing in the world matters except the look of the body. Forget that you can hear great music with your ears, or the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore. Forget that you can see all the way out to the horizon where sea meets sky and the blues and greys and whites are so pure that it almost hurts, and forget that you can smell saltwater and feel sea spray and walk on two feet with sand squished between your toes. Or that your heart is beating, your lungs are filling up on without you having to remind them, and that your knees bend so you can walk without stiffness.

What a thief body shopping is. Most women do it to some degree. Some of us have agreed on some deep level to let body shopping take over as our guide to feeling good or bad. If our body rates better than most, we are good. If its worse than most, we are bad. Our measuring stick is not what's inside us, but whats around us.

We size each other up and down, and sooner or later we lose. Its not a day at the beach to live like that. We miss out on so much. Just wondering, what if. What if the next time we start to indulge, we could just thank our liver for functioning so well, and take a deep breath and enjoy our lungs, and look at the sky and think: wow.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Vampire Love, Comfort and Guides

Lately I've been hearing a lot about Stephenie Meyer and her books on vampires and love. I have to admit that I have not yet read them... though I am hoping to. But I am thinking a lot about the themes that come up in my office that are connected to these books.

Love, for one. And pain. And decision making. Oh, and growing up, dealing with difficult parents, and having someone to protect, and comfort you, and someone to consult with. Just to name a few.

No wonder lots of you are gobbling up her books, escaping into dreamy desperate love and connecting to the agony of difficult decisions. And maybe, looking for clues about how to live life and get through when its all so crazy sometimes.

The thing about hurting is this: it helps to be able to say it all out to someone reliable. Not someone who will (oh, forgive this) bite you. Talking to someone who you can trust not to tell you that you should "get over it," snap out of it," "forget about it," someone who will really give you a solid dose of understanding, goes a long way. Of course, finding such a someone is not always easy. It has to be someone who has the ablility to tolerate their own feelings of discomfort and yours as well. Someone who is willing to take a seat next to the part of you that is aching, and just be with you for a bit.

Lots of times people who are close to you are in a hurry to fix your pain, fix the problem or make it go away. Sometimes its out of love, sometimes fear, and sometimes, just not knowing what to do. Sometimes its other things that get in the way. They may never have been listened to well themselves, and don't know how. Either way, you may not get the understanding and guidance that you might want or need.

What to do? A few things. Know that its very human to need someone to trust, guide and comfort you. But you may not be able to get all that from one source. You may have to look to a few different sources. But look. Consider all your options: a teacher, a peer, a parent, a counselor, a therapist, a religious leader, a family friend.

And consider telling them what you need: a good ear, some understanding, some comfort. And advice only when you ask for it. You may have to be willing to train someone, but it will be worth it.

And if you are not finding a human so quickly, you can create your own comfort guide. You can dream up in your mind the ideal guide, a protective angel, a loving counselor. Give him or her all the best traits you can imagine. And let them only say good, kind, loving and reassuring things to you. Guides are positive, and direct you toward safety, grace and life. They remind you that you are valuable and good and that things can get better.

Give yourself the freedom to bring some company into your weary heart. It helps.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Down Dark Hallways

Why do we go? Over and over again I hear folks tell me that they go to places that they know are not safe. I am not talking about real places even, though that too. Certainly that. But to cyber places and mental places. I have been thinking most recently about ruminating and perseverating. About going over and over again in our mind a particular event, memory or idea. Trying to grind our fists together to reverse time, or work out a problem or change history. Or figure out why someone acted or spoke the way they did.

How is it that we pursue relief by excessive thinking? And hurt ourselves at the same time.

The twelve step folks will tell you that this is downright dangerous; thinking that we can think our way out of something on our own. Thinking that we can control something or someone, or get relief by obsessive reviewing in our mind by ourselves.

Some of us, being altogether too human, recoil at the idea that we may have made some mistakes along the way, that if we were wrong, then we are worthless. (five mistakes a day says a pal of mine - ten if part of the time we are awake). So we review, rethink, revisit ad nausium so as to try not to have been wrong. Or to punish ourselves if we think we were. Often times self name calling goes along with this kind of mind wringing ("you idiot," "what were you thinking?" "Dummy," "screwed it up again, " or worse, and you know what I mean!). We take ourselves down over things. And we forget to build ourselves back up.

Some of us go to cyber hell. A friend of mine just got divorced, and before the ink was dry on the papers, her ex-husband remarried. She knew it was coming, but still. Of course the new couple has a web page and a blog of their happiness and joy. So what does my friend do? She checks out that blog almost everyday. She saw the blow by blow of the honeymoon (para sailing at sunset in Hawaii), and lots of very cuddly pics of the newly wed bliss. And my friend goes into convulsions of emotional angst. She thinks about all the times that he promised her a vacation and never would plan one. She remembers all the things she thinks she could have done to keep him from leaving (the "if only I had just...), and she remembers what a louse he was (in her opinion), and she signs onto the computer and looks at him now and puts logs on the fire of her pain.

Down the dark hallway into dark dark rooms.

I am not suggesting we don't revisit painful experiences and reflect on our role, and our lives. (I am a therapist after all!), but I am suggesting we don't go alone, and we don't stay too long at any given time.

And that we leave a trail back out of the woods so that we don't get totally lost. A few crumbs of truth, like that we can move forward, that our value is still intact, that while we are shaped by grief, loss, disappointment, regret and anger, we don't have to be ruled by it. That feelings are not always facts. We can agree with ourselves that we will leave room to meditate on the positive, recall our strengths, accomplishments, gratitudes (yes, we all have them, you can come up with at least a few in each category!)

A little grace goes a long way. Especially to hurt souls.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Serious Stuff, This Pain

Its amazing how badly we can hurt. How deeply we feel things. I have heard many descriptions of emotional pain over the years. I have had people describe where in their bodies they feel things, what color the pain is.

I ask. Does it ache, or throb, or sting? Or feel like a gong in the chest? Or all of the above.

Do you forget about it for bit, only to have it come back and stab you in the middle? Or does it start to percolate somewhere in your lungs and spread through your limbs? Does it feel like its following you around pinching you from behind?

Forgive the drama, but if you hurt, then you know what I mean. You know that in the quiet of the night, and bright of the day, if you are wounded in your soul, there is sometimes no good enough description. The closest we can come is to talk about the heavy cloak of darkness and the wonderment that we can even go, barely, about our business.

And why is it that when we feel our lonliest, we isolate the most? Somehow in the midst of the hurt, we hide. We retreat to that place in our mind where we can be alone with our sorrow. Sometimes wanting someone to rescue us and sometimes wanting to be left with our righteous certainty that no one in the world would understand us.

All sorts of thoughts go flashing through our minds, like lightening during the day. Its there, but we don't see it. We hear the thunder though.

Whenever we have a really bad feeling, its usually preceeded by a thought. The trick is to slow our brain down and recall what thoughts are flashing, and flashing so fast that we dont see them, and causing all the pain.

Sometimes its the "voice" (more on this is future posts). The negative, self attacking thougths that get us. The big ones are usually to the tune of "You are worthless," "You are an idiot," "You screwed that up so badly," "Why bother?" "You can't stand this." Etc. Sometimes the messages and name calling are a lot worse than that and abundantly present. Like a bad tape that just goes on playing forever. (for more on the voice, check out the book The Deadly Diet by Dr. Terry Sandbeck).

And sometimes the pain is from an event. Or things that have happened to us. Being left, hurt, critisized, misunderstood, mistreated. We can unpack it of course. Trace it back to the source. Like remembering who punched you and why. Sometimes the voice jumps on the bandwagon too. Like when you remember that your partner has just left you, and as if thats not bad enough, the voice chimes in with how you will never have love again, must've deserved it, can't manage a relationship and are just an all round screw up. More pain, just layers and layers of it.

Another source of pain is thinking we have made a mistake that is unforgiveable. Many people feel their worst when they think they have screwed up. A good friend of mine says that we are allowed to make five mistakes a day. Ten if we are awake. And not attack ourselves for it. No self flagalation over messing up. A tall order for those among us who really excel at the art of self attack.

Whatever the source of the pain, an event, a mistake, the negative voice that won't shut up, we have options. We have tools and choices and the possiblitiy of tending tenderly to our black and blue psyches.

Somewhere in the heaviness of it all, we have to know that its serious stuff, this pain. That we have to honor it, consider it, and tend to it. In whatever ways we can. Stay Tuned.

Stuck and Unstuck: Starting Points

"It doesnt matter how long we may have been stuck in a sense of our limitations. If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it does not matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week or ten thousand years. We turn on the light and the room is illuminated" Sharon Salzberg

Stuckness means that you have not yet understood well enough what it is that keeps you from moving forward. Perhaps it has not been talked about deeply, not everything has been said, or said enough.

I have always believed that our stuckness is there for a good reason. Often people tell me that they want to move forward, to feel better, to get out of the problem and into the solution, but that there is something in the way. They don't know what.

Sometimes it helps to unpack the possibilities. In therapy speak, to figure out the "secondary gain," of whats keeping you from doing what it takes to do what it takes. I often recommend making a "guess list". Talk it out with someone safe, or write it out. What do you get from not moving forward? Why are those things important? What are the possible next right things to a therapist?, say more to the one you have?, go to a 12 Step meeting?, write a letter?, research information? etc.... and then guess at what might be in the way of doing those things...fear of failure, fear of people, fear of change, fear of being disappointed, (lots of times its fear of something, more on this in future posts).

Sometimes its anger. We want someone else to change, or we think that if we make the move it will be admitting defeat, or fault.

Or that if we move away from the problem then we will be nothing without it. We will have to face some kind of emptiness, void or loss. What will replace it? Who would we be without it?

How much in a hurry are you? Can you study things for a bit? Or is it urgent? What if it takes some time? Often there is someone else in picture who is pushing (or shoving), demanding a solution faster than one can happen. I find this a lot when I work with teenagers and young women. Parents want it fixed now, yesterday. No one wants to suffer or see someone they love suffering. But forcing action is not always the way to go, sometimes a gentler approach yields a better outcome.

We need to be ready to be unstuck. And to grace and study the stuckness. The movement will come when its time. And light will be light, no matter how long it was dark.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hope Forward: Getting Through Emotional Pain and Moving Forward


Stay tuned for stories and thoughts and tools on recovery, bearing the unbearable and making life when you feel like death.

Over the last 20 years I have been listening to the stories of emotional pain, trauma, trouble and addiction. While many people come in to consult on a particular problem, or to learn more about what they want in life, and what's in the way of them getting it (and how to move forward), there are many who, in one form or another, and for many different reasons, hurt their bodies.

As a way of coping with the persistent and unbearable currents of hurt, grief, distress, frustration, anger and anxiety, many of you ritually cut, burn, binge, purge, and bang your heads into walls. This blog is for anyone suffering from emotional pain of any kind, but most especially for those of you who are living life, thinking about death, and hurting yourselves with food, razors, matches, and other weapons of self destruction, masquerading as tools of salvation and relief.

Truth is, I know there is a way out. Its not fast or easy, but I believe that the work it takes to get there is worth it. I do a lot of listening, and now its my turn to offer up some of the things that I know help, and some ideas about recovery, and finding your voice and a life you can and want to live. So Stay tuned!