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Showing posts from 2009

You Can Go Home Again

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For better or worse, we first learn about making and keeping relationships in our families. During our formative years, our parents establish patterns with us; patterns of connection and separation, of independence and dependence, of give and take, that literally shape our developing brains and how they work for the rest of our lives.

The problem, of course, is that this is a very imperfect process. Our parents have inherited their own patterns from their own parents, families and culture and combined them into their own style. Very few of these emotional patterns are conscious; we rarely notice or examine them.  This automatic process is why family emotional patterns are so often repeated generation to generation. When they work for us, they help us develop into caring, connected, loving human beings. When they don’t work well, we can be shaped by anxiety, demands, rigid roles and expectations, and inflexible rules for behavior. Of course, most of us have a unique, messy combination …

Not So Fast

I'm not sure I have anything useful to add when it comes to discussing the extra-marital affairs of Tiger Woods. The whole wide world has been writing and talking about him, and I will say I am now officially bored. (I'd rather talk about actor Meredith Baxter, Alex Keaton's "Mom" on sit-com Family Ties, who disclosed the same day Tiger came clean, that she is now officially out as a lesbian. She was afraid to talk on national TV, but did it anyway with Matt Lauer on the Today Show. It turns out she got overshadowed in the media by Tiger's failures, and I'll bet she is glad, glad, glad!)

Three observations about affairs, though:

1.  Affairs are not about sex. They're about chronic anxiety, and people taking that anxious energy out of the marriage (triangling), creating a new relationship that they believe can soothe or contain their emotional muddy water. Affairs don't and can't. 

2. It's very difficult to repair a marriage after a part…

Instincts and Drives: Powerful Stuff

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Human beings regularly ignore the fact that we are mammals: warm-blooded, live-birthing animals who share a lot of DNA with beings as diverse as chimpanzees and elephants.

When it comes to thinking, we win, hands down. At least, most of the time. But we often forget how deeply we are designed to do certain things, like eat, sleep, defend, or mate.

The deer in this photo is dead. It killed itself by head-butting a 640 lb. bronze elk statue in a Wisconsin backyard. In the rutting season, deer will defend territory, attempting to secure mating rights and sending the less powerful males on to other acreage.

I post it because I found it an astonishing image. Mammals, driven by the powerful brain chemicals of hormones, will do a lot of strange things. Like head-butting a statue to death.

Research proves again and again that human beings underestimate the power of instinct and arousal on their own behavior. This one fact of mammalian biology may help us understand why we keep doing what we do…

What Exactly is Closure?

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Convicted mass murderer John Muhammad was executed this week in Virginia. He and a teenage accomplice went on a three week killing spree in October, 2002, that left 10 people dead and a whole region of the country afraid.

Reports of the execution included select comments from some of the victims' survivors. Many spoke about getting or not getting, a sense of "closure" with his death. I have been wondering, as I often do when people use this popular emotional term, just what they mean.

I think that closure, in this context, has come to mean this: I can't forgive, and I can't forget. But at least I have some sense of justice done, and that closes the book on that nightmare. I can sleep at night without endlessly spinning on the fact that the one I love is dead, and the one who killed her is alive. I think that closure in the case of state execution may be a soft, acceptable term for vengeance.

But people say they find "closure" when some hidden secret is …

Secondary Trauma

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Lord, have mercy.

We have endured another mass shooting in our nation, this time on a military base. It will take time to sort out the details of this horrible crime, but we are impatient to know: was this an act of terrorism? The shooter is a Muslim, and some have reported that he shouted to Allah as he fired his weapons. There will be a good deal to learn of this man in the weeks ahead.

Of great interest to me: he is a psychiatrist who worked with soldiers suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental health professionals of all kinds who regularly work with trauma survivors often find that hour after hour of listening to people recount horror is traumatizing. Without regular and systematic debriefing of their own work, therapists lose their own resilience and begin to suffer a secondary PTSD. They begin to show symptoms of chronic anxiety, restlessness, easy startle reflex, difficulty sleeping, intrusive images of trauma, and hypervigilance in the same way soldiers …

How To Marry Well

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The best marriages are made by people who begin their relationship as friends and use friendship as their marriage model.

Do you know how to make and keep a friendship? Listen and talk, share work and pleasure, respond to a friend's bids for attention, and get some attention back? Laugh and enjoy each other, be flexible when things don't work out, fix your disagreements, stay loyal but open to other people in your friend's life?  If you do, and can keep these skills going with people your own age, you already know how to sustain a marriage.

The dramatic stuff of romantic attachment, the wash of sexual attraction, the focused desire for only that one partner: that biological experience, which is the core of nearly every popular song or relationship movie made in the last 50 years, is a piece of human experience, too. But it is crushingly brief. Most of us will only sustain that brain and body phase for 12-18 months. After that, we begin to readjust to a steady attachment th…

Pastors are a Bridge

When I first began my private mental health practice, I knew one thing was certain: I needed to meet as many area clergy as I could. Today I had the pleasure of having coffee with an another local parish pastor. Thanks, C!

So many people still experience embarrassment, resistance and fear when it comes to seeking therapy for relationships, emotions, or behaviors, they stall when it comes to getting help. They may talk to their friend or family member. They may occasionally tell their physician about how they feel. But as they get ready to reach for help, they may also talk to their pastor.

Most pastors are great at emotional triage. Trained in basic listening skills, taught how to manage themselves in emergencies, experienced at handling emotions at funerals, parish clergy are the go-to folks in many people's lives when it comes to figuring out what to do when the going gets rough. I am honored so many people trusted their lives to me over my years in the parish. I learned early …

The Adolescent Effect: Part 2

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Parents of adolescents don't have much fun.

Fun, for many parents of teenagers, is something they watch their children have. Fun at school, fun at the mall, fun on the playing field, fun at parties. What used to be happy times as a family with pre- and elementary school children has transitioned into good times  for the teens, and being the ones who not only pay for those, but also drive the kids to and from these teen-centered events. Having given up weekend after weekend, night after night, to manage my children's sports, music, church, school and friend events, I feel like an event planner. Always making things happen, invisible to the guests, never getting to sit at the head table or get out on the dance floor.

This is what many middle aged parents find when they get to the second decade of their children's lives. A child centered life, but with no emotional reward. No smiling toddler looking back at you as they climb up the slide. No proud 10 year old eager to show y…

The Adolescent Effect : Part 1

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As our children are neck-deep into adolescence, I'm trying to pay attention to what this developmental transition does to our family relationships.

We are pretty early in the game. Son is 16, daughter is 13. We have gotten here relatively unscathed, moving through most of middle school with solid parent/child connections, positive opinions of one another and every body part accounted for (not counting wisdom teeth, sports injuries or general repairs). But lots has changed, and what has changed is worth noting.

1.  We know less and less about our children's lives at school. Moving from a single class room in elementary school into the maze of middle and high school meant an immediate and dramatic change: I don't know my children's teachers. I have gone to what passes for parent-teacher conferences in our district only to spend about 10 minutes per subject talking to each teacher about my child in their class. A few of the teachers stand out in their effort to talk to me …

The Recession and Mental Health Care

The recession has kept people who need care out of therapy.

That was the consensus of a small group of private practice therapists I met with Monday. We are a interesting and somewhat diverse group of folks: three licensed psychologists, three LMFTs and a social worker. Each of us has an individual private practice in the southwest Twin Cities, and we meet every month or so in each others' offices for support, case consultation and resource sharing.

As our meeting was coming to a close, one of us looked around and said, "I think people are coming to therapy less often, and when they do come, they are worse." All of us agreed. We are seeing that in our new clients: more severe symptoms of anxiety and depression; people who need medication taking themselves off and showing up in therapy; couples who might have been helped out of their patterns two years ago, making appointments like a "Hail Mary" touchdown attempt and often not even showing up to their first sess…

This is What I Do it For

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After three years of private practice, I'm beginning to anticipate its natural rhythms.

There are some months that I have a steady schedule, and the phone rings with some regularity with requests for information and appointments. These months tend to follow the school calendar and extend into early summer. And then there are weeks that the phone stops ringing, current clients miss appointments and don't return my phone calls, and the calendar starts to have big holes in it. These weeks coincide with major religious and national holidays, and the last weeks before Labor Day.

I now understand why therapists have traditionally taken the whole month of August off. Remember Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss in the 1991 comedy, "What About Bob?" (The busy New York City doctor rents a home in New Hampshire for the whole month of August only to be followed there by his newest, most eager patient, Bob.)

So while I have some unwelcome time on my hands, I have been reading. And …

Returning

It's been awhile since I was up north, to Duluth and beyond. I'm going to visit today.

I worked in northern Wisconsin for 12 years as a pastor of three different parishes. I loved many of the people I served, but none more than the friend I am going to see. We have held ourselves together through teenagers (hers), a wedding (mine), work system nightmares (both), cancer, deaths and funerals, births (my children, her grandchildren) chronic health problems, educational endeavors (both of us), aging and the general pressures of time and distance. We love looking at the world together, and from quite different points of view. We are blessed to have found each other and to have remained friends for over two decades. 

Who in your life is the same kind of gift of God, a similar lens through which you see yourself and the world more gracefully, more lightly than you do alone?

Give thanks to God for them. Cherish your relationship enough to go out of your way to stay connected. Oulu i…

Fear and What's Possible

Today is 9/11. The bells toll, and the wars continue.

In an email from our school district, we have been informed that the H1N1 virus is up and running. Several children have tested positive, and we are all encouraged to be alert and aware. NPR reported this morning that a single vaccination (instead of two) may be all that is needed to immunize adults, allowing more vaccinations to go to more people this fall.

In listening to the media coverage of this story, I've learned that in an average year, fully 36,000 people die from the seasonal flu virus. That's an average of 720 people per state. Do you know any of them? The predictions for this winter imagine up to 90,000 deaths from H1N1. That would be an average of 1800 deaths per state. The primary difference being many of those deaths are predicted to be our healthy, robust children.

I want to be ready. I will get my family immunized. But in the meanwhile, in the midst of the preparations, I have been wondering: what's t…