Advice and Insights for Everyday Mental Health from LiveNLearn, LLC
Author: Amy Slutzky
This blog is about incorporating practical mental health boosters in your everyday routine. I am a wife, mother, sister…I am a counselor, teacher, advocate…I am a sci-fi geek, a public goofball, a faux Top Chef…I can attach dozens of labels to myself; so can you. My life is both unique and common. Read these blogs to make your life a little easier and your mental health a little stronger based on the lessons I have learned.
If you have been frustrated that “Lessons Learned” is not loading fast enough on your iPhone, it’s not my fault. The Uber Powerful Wizards of Technology, see also Apple, recently confessed they were deliberately slowing down our “old” iPhones. This announcement seems tonally appropriate for the time of year where we all take a harsh look at who we are and what we did over the past 365 days to make resolutions to be a newer, better, smarter version of ourselves when the clock strikes midnight on December 31. Umm…why?
The calendar gives us several excuses to create a brand new you: the Jewish New Year, birthdays, or my favorite, the beginning of the school year. Somehow New Year’s Eve cornered the market with the invention of New Year’s Eve resolutions. But, it is just a gimmick capitalized upon by gyms, weight loss programs, the vitamin and supplement industry, and well-intentioned Jewish mothers. Resolutions are a premium form of self-shaming. You spend valuable psychological and emotional energy asking yourself, “What did I do wrong that I need to change RIGHT NOW?” Save your energy for dealing with your kids who are STILL on winter vacation. If someone could make up resolutions, I thought I would invent my own New Year’s term, “the resolution cycle”.
It’s a Vicious Cycle
The “resolution cycle” starts with a time period of emotional self-flogging, harshly judging yourself for a series of decisions you have made. Then, a boost of optimism! This year will get different! With a tweak of your attitude here and some changes to your outward appearance there, you will be much happier in the days to come. It all ends when life does its thing and lands you on a chute instead of a ladder causing you to run back to the old you who knows how to survive those events. This cycle is the reason I prefer not to see clients this time of year when they seemingly need help the most. Who wants to shake up your coping mechanisms, your survival skills, when you are about to spend the next few weeks back in the family jungle that made them necessary?
Good For You, Good “To-Do”
It is easy to beat yourself up regardless of the time of year. The new year should be about celebrating you and setting goals. 2018 will be your best year ever by remembering what you did in the past and setting a path for the future.
No task is too small to applaud: There must have been days this year when you finished the laundry without several cycles of wrinkle release. (I can’t think of those days, myself, but I have much more faith in you, my dear readers.) How about the other small victories: getting your child to complete homework without a fight, getting praise for a project completed at work, getting to enjoy a date night with your partner. These events are all worthy of a celebration. You need to remember these magical confluences of events were actually possible because of you! You figured out a new way to prioritize your time or tapped into a new source of patience. Your 2017 self had some great moments! It is that YOU, not some holiday imposed version of a new you, that will get you through the next 12 months. So, when 2018 bites you in the butt or slaps you in the face, you have the skills necessary to react like a setback is more of a tickle than a trauma.
Vegetables aren’t the only things to finish: Our parents never had to succumb to hiding vegetables in desserts. They simply gave us a choice, eat your vegetables or you don’t get your reward (dessert). While rewinding your internal home videos to applaud yourself, make a note about things that you started but didn’t finish. I’m not talking about things you never started, like past years’ resolutions that are on your internal “Empty and Broken Promises” shelf.
I mean the books you started to categorize and alphabetize but didn’t make it past the first cube in your bookshelf. (Come on, that can’t just be me…) I mean the photos you started to organize in your computer and send to Walgreens or Shutterfly to print but still have your son’s diaper free lap around the kitchen amidst his first day of kindergarten picture. Then, choose which one or two to complete in the upcoming year. Like our beloved iPhone batteries that are drained by background apps, we are drained by the anxiety produced by unfinished tasks. (It’s also a great cheat for next year’s “‘Atta Girl” list.)
Spark Note Summary
We know we should say, “I Love You” as often as possible instead of waiting for Valentine’s Day. Well, we don’t need to wait until New Year’s for healthy introspection. Like switching lanes in traffic, change is never easy and not always good. Change needs to start from a place of strength and proceed in baby steps. Sometimes that even means looking back in order to plan how to move forward. You know, just like how I’m going to have make sure to back up my old iPhone before giving into my husband’s resolution to get the new one.
…to de-clutter. Fa la la la la, la la la la. And to teach our children values…ya ya ya ya ya, ya ya ya ya! Whatever the Scrooge equivalent is for Hanukah, you are reading her blog. My husband is thrilled I am no longer forcing our family to buy my son educational or sensory toys for the holidays. After five years, I’ve lost the battle. In the next few days, my house will be filled with Paw Patrol, Mickey Mouse Roadsters, and some other random toys that help Target and Amazon make their fourth quarter sales quotas. So, to warm my cold holiday heart, I will take the opportunity to share some holiday hints that are not on a Pillsbury cookie sleeve or Pinterest post.
Pay It Now, Pay It Later, Pay It Forward
Parents are always looking for a way to direct the moral compasses of their kids. We are successful in teaching the rules of morality, holding doors open, saying “please” and “thank you”, and taking turns. But, these successes are only in one-on-one relationships. Without fail, my clients consistently ask me how to teach their growing children how to be moral members of a group, their family, their school, their community. The answer is to set up a system of “paying” for things now, saving for later, and donating to others.
When talking about a lifelong lesson, it is best to start young. Here is how the morality code system works for toddlers, the youngest age you can effectively begin to mold morality. Consider each step using the commodity of toddlers, toys.
Pay It Now – Setting priorities: Every parent has suffered through the nightmare of turning down the wrong aisle in Target and landing smack dab in the sightline of the seven aisles of toys. At that moment, we all become Monty Hall and make deals with our toddlers. Getting one of the toys asked for during that shopping trip is a great experience for our young ones because they needed to decide which toy was too special to leave on the shelf.
Pay It Later – Understanding patience: Psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of providing children the opportunity to achieve goals just beyond their reach with the help of a caregiver. He called this the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. Most of us practiced this theory instinctively when our infants’ hands couldn’t entirely grasp their spoon off the feeding tray, so we propped it up for them to snatch it. Buying, or better yet, allowing doting grandparents to buy, toys they are targeted for the next age bracket achieves the same goals. Toddlers love “work-for” toys targeted for big boys and girls; parents love watching them learn how to wait for gratification.
Pay It Forward – Learning empathy: The best trick I learned from another mom was the concept of a bag or bin of “non-sharing” toys for playdates. The idea is for your child to identify toys that are so important and special that nobody else is allowed to touch them. (When you “pay it now,” they have already internalized that decision-making skill.) Parents can take this one step further, especially during holidays and birthdays, by working with your child to sort through toys that no longer hold interest or develop advanced skills. A quick car trip to the Salvation Army or donation to CASA gives our little ones big feelings of empathy and pride.
Spark Note Summary
The reason why parenting is unanimously considered the hardest job is because its goal is to make the world a better place, one moral person at a time. We cringe at words like “bully” and “apathy” and lose decades of sleep hoping they don’t apply to our kids. The earlier we start to teach our kids what good morals look like, the earlier they will know what good morals feel like. And aren’t those warm feelings what the holidays are all about?
Based on a high level of interest and comments on social media, this is the first of a THREE PART series of articles on bullying.
For years, I thought it was just me.
My fellow teachers and I would gripe to each other that we felt the faculty ACTED like the kids we taught.
Body shaming? Check
Forbes recently published an article which shared the research from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 75% of workers are the subject of bullying in the workplace. One of the reasons bullying in the workplace occurs is because the office is physically and socially designed the same way our schools are.
Schools Teach Offices How to Judge Others
Location, location, location: School tracks, advanced placement or remedial, is a well-known example of institutional bullying. Kids’ labels on their schedules and transcripts easily translate to “dumb” or “gifted”. But, as someone who has walked the halls of dozens of schools, there is also geographical bullying. Special ed classrooms are most often clustered at the end of a wing on the bottom floor while the AP classes enjoy the natural light and open windows of the top floor. Anyone think offices are different? Who doesn’t mentally decorate the CORNER office or the one on the top floor, the offices synonymous with power and status?
Darwin Did It: Strength, agility, and strategy help predict who wins in a fist fight. Friendliness and sensitivity seem to predict who loses that fight. Not according to Social Darwinian researchers who concluded that personality traits of bullies were adaptive skills of survival just as much as physicality. Researchers gave children identified as bullies, students involved in three or more referrals for name calling, aggression, or defiance, the Eysenck Personality Inventory — Junior. Results showed that bullies had pro-social traits like friendliness and sensitivity. Not a surprise when you consider that bullies are only successful if there are bystanders to cheer them on. Bullies were also measured as passive aggressive, dependent, and “histrionic”. (Histrionic on this personality inventory is defined by suggestible or easily influenced by others.) Climbing up the corporate ladder calls upon the skill set of the bully.
Spark Note Summary
The reason there is bullying at work is because your offices are designed the same way your schools are. Bullying is not “boys will be boys” that have a slug fest or “girls will be girls” that tease and exclude. It is literally a social construct. Schools and offices are designed to feed into our natural instincts to compete for survival. The good news is trite but true: knowledge is power. You can take a mental ride in a Dolorian, armed with the information gained here, and choose a new, better way to navigate the halls of life. The best way to survive and be the fittest, is always to live the lessons you have learned.
Young adult literature is my guilty pleasure. (OK, one of them. I’m a sucker for the Real Housewives of Wherever You Are.) When I worked in a bookstore, I got the same questions as when I was an English teacher: What do you recommend for a young person who is a good reader? When that girl was me, I was “forced” to read the classics, Little Women, or adult fiction, like the Clive Cussler series. The good news is the stories we love in the movies originated from young adult books. The bad news is the content is not something that is emotionally or psychologically friendly for tweens and teens to read alone. I’m here to help.
From Cover to Cover
Our fears are ignited with the first sentence of the book, “The monster showed up just after midnight” (1). In a little more than 200 pages, Conor found out how to stop the monster and free himself, “And by doing so, he could finally let her go” (205).
On the surface, a monster born from a yew tree, taunts Conor during the nights after the cancer killing his mother tortures him all day. Conor isn’t as afraid of the monster as much as he is the nightmare that wakes him nightly. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness teaches parents what Conor learned in school: “Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell” (23). Conor’s true fear is one we all share, regardless of age: having the courage to speak YOUR truth aloud without shame.
Who? Conor is dealing with getting beat up by bullies in middle school while his mother is getting beat up, again, by cancer. He gets help getting back and forth to school from his grandmother and less-than-helpful advice from his estranged father.
The monster is the character who provides the best guidance for navigating the anger, fear, and powerlessness that Conor faces as the cancer steals his mother.
What? Jewish folklore explains the reason Jewish people tell so many stories (guilty) is because nobody knew the true name of G-d, so their stories were prayers that granted miracles. The monster explains he will disappear after three stories are told: the monster will narrate the first two stories, and Conor must tell the third story, his nightmare, to the monster. Conor learns some lessons about the human condition to help his relationship with his grandmother and father. Rather than his grandmother being good or evil, we all learn with Conor that the world is gray. Our judgement of others as good or evil reflect our morals. The monster’s second story follows the lesson of “The Hangman,” doing the right thing when you are not personally affected.
When? Traditionally, developmental psychologists only address common markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. By the time we meet Conor and his mom, we are beyond learning about life before and after cancer. The line is drawn between before and after the “little talk”. BEFORE Conor was being bullied and stopped being friends with Lily, he didn’t need to think about processing his mother telling him she may not survive the latest experimental treatments. AFTER their “little talk”, Conor had no privacy because everyone knew he was going to lose his mother.
Where? A Monster Calls lives where children do, at home and in school. It doesn’t take long for the monster to wreak violence in both settings. He destroys parts of Conor’s grandmother’s house. He beats up Harry, the school bully, who has been punching and kicking Conor for weeks. The more Conor tries to be invisible, to live nowhere, the more the monster causes destruction everywhere.
Why? There is a purity in children because they do not understand nuance. Asking “why” isn’t annoying repetition. It’s taking a firm stance in what you know to be the truth. Some parents use a child’s insistence of understanding to reminisce ye olden days where children were seen and not heard. Conor’s nightmare, the story he tells the monster, the story he needs to tell in order to accept his mother’s death, is the perfect example of the damage of silencing children. Conor tries to get control of his heart and home to help his ailing mother which summons the monster. Conor tries to be perfect, tries to be invisible, which causes the monster to destroy places and people. Conor acts out to earn punishments worthy of the guilt he feels in his nightmare. But, being visible is not the solution to being invisible; for Conor, the nightmares became more frequent. Telling the monster his nightmare, sharing HIS truth aloud, chased the monster away.
Patrick Ness finished this novel for another author, Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could decide where her characters would go. Ironically, the poetry of a story about disappearing due to death reminds us to make sure our children don’t feel invisible. We need to indulge in their passionate arguments about why a purple sky makes sense in their 6 year old drawings and why they are certain they are in love in their 16 year old relationships. Our insistence on teaching them “the truth”, will create monsters that will stop them from sharing their truth.
When I was in college, I got really bored with how my room looked. Changing the colors of my comforter or posters was not enough to make my restlessness go away. So, I rearranged my 3 pieces of furniture each quarter. This is a bigger deal than you think. As a smart control freak, I prepared for each move by cutting Post-It notes to represent each piece of furniture and placed it on a graph paper blueprint that I had drawn to scale. (No, I’m not kidding.) I have repeated that behavior in the 7 places and 6 classrooms I’ve lived in since then.
But, that doesn’t mean I’m good at accepting change or easily ready to make changes to myself. Anxiety and depression are characterized by the overwhelming feeling of being stuck, being unable to change how things are now in order to make things better later. Change is not easy. Maybe that is why there are just as many steps to change as there are to grief.
Cracking Open the Window to Leap Through
Grad school provided me with two memorable frameworks with which to approach counseling. My homeroom-esque class with the best professor and mentor a loud, know-it-all needed (shout out to the one and only Dr. Victoria Junior) came with an introduction to Johari’s Window. In my practice, it is common for clients to reach out for help for problems that border panes 1 and 2. My clients know there is something not right but just can’t quite articulate the problem. In order to crack that window wide open, we work to crawl, walk, run, retreat, and regroup through the stages of change. (The names of the stages are mine, not the clinical terms.)
Problem? What Problem? There are not enough examples, videos, PowerPoint presentations, or tantrums to get you to see there is a problem. The bad news? Your loved ones must continue to beat their heads against the wall and fill the air with their voices despite its apparent lack of efficacy. The good news? Something is getting through at a subconscious level that is prepping you to proceed to stage two.
Oh, That Problem? It’s Not a Problem. Deaf ears are now more like selective hearing. You have gotten the message that there is something in your lives getting in the way of an angst-free existence. But, at this stage, the problem is YOURS; your loved one believes it is manageable.
OK, My Problem is a Problem. Time to buy colored pencils, Post-It notes, and erasers.
Lots of erasers. You are ready to put a plan in place. We have one stage left before the plan is put into action, but we have a plan!
I Did It! Despite the fact that change has been working, albeit at an uncomfortably slow pace, it is clear to everyone that you are making new choices. New behaviors are obvious and should be applauded by all onlookers. Don’t be surprised if physical exhaustion accompanies all of this psychological and emotional change.
That Worked..Kinda. Although change may vastly improve your physical and mental health, it is not always easy to maintain. People need to meet the NEW YOU. You need to see how the new you interacts with your old friends and family. An occasional appearance from your stage 1, 2, 3, or 4 self is to be expected, not shamed.
Spark Note Summary
Just because you seek out doing things differently, doesn’t mean you are ready for a change. Anxiety and depression don’t start overnight or disappear in the daylight. There is a process to learning how to see your problems even before you start to address them. Your best friend on this journey is time. Just ask Gandhi, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
As a proud sci-fi geek, I have watched every superhero movie. In the first Avengers movie, the good guys are fighting enemies from outer space while battling inner demons. (More real life than sci-fi.) The Hulk is known for having incredible anger issues and admits that his secret to controlling his Hulk-bearing anger is that he “is always angry.” He is not alone; anger is always lurking in all of us. Being full time parents, employees, spouses, friends (just writing the list is making my Hulk side wake up) spreads our resources too thin to stay calm. Anger may be unladylike, but it is common and lurking (not far) below the surface of every woman I know. We are running too fast, giving too much, and getting too little. So, our Hulk comes out as a matter of survival.
Your Brain on (Organic) Drugs
There are a flurry of chemicals generated in your body at all times. That is why all of our well-named mental illnesses used to be under the umbrella of “chemical imbalance”. Chronic mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder, are diseases where your body naturally does not produce the neurotransmitters or hormones necessary to live a healthy, productive, focused life without medication to restore the natural balance. But, we are immensely powerful. We can change our body chemistry and trip ourselves into these conditions. Anger is one of the strongest catalysts for this problem. But, before I discuss how to treat anger, and prevent mental illness, it is important to have a quick rundown on these important chemicals.
Dopamine is your natural high. It motivates you to get to the gym because of the impending reward of a piece of cake on a cheat day. It moderates your euphoria into more acceptable happiness.
Oxytocin is your natural love potion. It is the neurotransmitter that fills your body when you first kissed “the one” and when you first saw the baby you loved from the inside out (literally) for 40 weeks. It helps you heart things on Facebook based on empathy.
Epinephrine lets you lift a car off your loved one and run away at Flash-esque speed when you feel threatened. The reason this hormone is the life-saver for those who suffer from fatal allergies is because it triggers your fight/flight response by providing a surge of adrenaline.
Anger Is An Alarm
It means the dopamine and oxytocin are running low and being replaced by epinephrine. Or, in more common terms, you’re are being overrun by the need to survive. Your emotional boundaries have been triggered by one, or a combination, of the following emotions:
Selflessness: Women are driven by the dream of “having it all”. In trying to pursue that dream, we forgot to read the fine print: YOU are the first one to get nothing. There is a limited amount of emotional and psychological resources in every one. Once you red-line on that fuel, anger will let you know that there is nothing left for your partner, children, or employer before you do something wonderfully indulgent (think double-digit minutes in the bathroom with the door closed, for example) to start.
Loneliness: The last time I saw my closest friends, my crew, was at a wedding almost one year ago. Before that, we got together to mourn the loss of a parent. We have been friends for more than 20 years, so our bond is solid. But, it is ludicrous that we can only find time to connect when a milestone is reached. It is hard to maintain your identity separate from your roles in work and home. Feeling like you are alone will easily wake up the Hulk, the original spokesman of anger.
Exhaustion: When you wake up at 5 am and run around until 11 pm, there are precious few minutes to stop your brain and fall asleep. Sleep deprivation can cause a myriad of physical health problems. The effects on mental health are glaringly missing from the everyday conversation. Your brain needs 25 years to be fully grown. The last area of growth, the forebrain, is where your executive functioning thrives, the ability to multi-task, prioritize, and organize. See also: the Mom-brain. That quarter-century of development can be undernourished if you don’t get enough oxygen/sleep/relaxation.
Spark Note Summary
Doctors get sick. Lawyers get sued. And, moms need to be “mommied.” Mommy shame is pervasive in social circles. It is also a bellowing megaphone in our own heads: we have internalized the message that we MUST be the best, achieve the best, and raise the best without applause or affirmation. Trying to win that impossible trifecta would make anyone gear up for survival. So, the choice is to admit you are human or continue to be Mrs. Hulk.
We love going to zoo. Even as an adult in his late 30’s, my husband used to go to the zoo with his father. Anyone who has ever been to any zoo worth its peanuts knows the monkey house is a must. The monkey house is a magical place: it has the ability to trick your senses within minutes. The monkey house smells awful! In the first 5 minutes, you are overwhelmed by the smell, nearly to the point where you can taste it. But, zoo magic takes effect, and the smell seems to disappear.
It’s amazing what we can get used to or accept as normal. It’s common knowledge that we are being tracked with every click on our smart phones, scan of our rewards cards, and search on our laptops. The grocery store knows which coupons to give me the same way Facebook introduces me to a dozen pages that are close enough to the irreverent, 80s nostalgic, underdog, and teacher-focused other pages I have liked. Technology is designed to make life easier by bringing us all of our likes faster. But, it is so effective in keeping contrary opinions and points of view so out of reach that we stop growing.
Facebook is the easiest way to illustrate my point. My friends and I share similar values. So, when they post interesting stories or articles, of course I “like” them. GAME ON. I am automatically able to “like” the source. That clearly gets another thumbs up. After a very brief period of time (imagine sun cycles, not lunar cycles), feeds I have never heard of are banners between every 3rd post. My cultural ADD clicks in causing me to dole out more “likes.” My global village is now just a cul-du-sac of like-minded people. Sounds good, right? Too good. The problem is we have limited our capacity to develop to our full potential without any exposure to contrary opinions.
Growing Up is a Lifelong Journey
Developmental psychology has many different theories and models. Like the delicious cheese counter, theorists come from different countries and emphasize different aspects of aging. What they all agree on is growing up isn’t limited to children and requires HEALTHY CONFLICT.
Cognitive development: In order to increase intelligence, we need to adapt. Our physical bodies know this when our blood thins when we move to Florida to retire from the cruel winters of our New Jersey childhood. Our minds adapt by creating categories, challenging the criteria for the categories, and broadening the category. As a toddler, my son called everything with 4 legs a puppy. Great job, Jacob! You were creating a category of animals. As he went to the zoo, all of the puppies transformed into lions, giraffes, rhinos so each DIFFERENCE made the animal category expand.
Social development: Experts, the Most Knowledgeable Other (MKO), is essential for social development. My best friend was my pregnancy sherpa, my MKO, who guided me through the unique experience she survived one year prior. How else would I know about the best cream to use on my parts sore from nursing and my son’s parts red from diapers? It takes time out of your bubble, and maybe your comfort zone, to find your MKO.
Attachment: As parents, we know the bond between us and our children is vital to making our children feel safe. Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms are notorious for not letting their children develop INDEPENDENCE because the children are too sheltered and unexposed to different people and experiences. Data tracking through rewards programs and social media are the Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms for adults. Inappropriately attaching to strangers without the process of developing a relationship is as big as a problem as not bonding to anyone. (You all know where this is going…) Collecting followers on social media closes you off to growing and developing relationships that have a healthy GIVE AND TAKE.
Moral development: Ask any of my students from my 15 years in the classroom…they were educated in the benevolent dictatorship of Mrs. Slutzky in which I owned the air they breathed. Kids rely on consistent rules from authority figures. Their decisions are based on avoidance of consequences from breaking those rules. But, even at a young age, children progress to the next stage of moral development. Interacting with peers in different social settings cause HEALTHY CHALLENGES to the “rules”. It becomes okay that absolute rights and wrongs don’t exist. Grammy is allowed to give Jacob a cupcake for lunch despite the rule that “sweets come second”. Learning how to adapt when there are new interpretations of right and wrong, shoes off when you go into a house, eating burgers with a fork, is a proud sign that our children are using their own compass to navigate new situations. Why, as adults, have we gone backward?
Spark Note Summary
There are times when surrounding yourself with like-minded, cheerleaders who support you without exception is vital; low self-esteem days and tragic life events happen to us all. But, spending too much time in your bubble is similar to the NEXT 5 minutes in the monkey house; reality is suspended. The answer is not to avoid the monkey house or convince yourself there was no palpable stench. You CONFRONT the discomfort, readjust your expectations, and smile for surviving with a (now) bigger bubble.
This is the first time I have stolen a title for my blog. But, I’m in good company. Patti Reagan “stole” this title for her 2004 memoir about her father, President Reagan. Her mother, Nancy Reagan, coined the term “long goodbye” in 2002 to describe the last years with Alzheimer’s sufferer, President Ronald Reagan. I first saw this term as the title for an episode of TheWest Wing, my favorite political drama. The episode aired in 2003 and focused on the relationship between the White House Press Secretary and her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Television’s allows America to show us who we are so we question if that mirror is accurate. I haven’t seen or heard of any show that has committed itself to exploring the diseases associated with aging. I’m sad to say that our treatment of loved ones aging is accurately mirrored in pop culture; it doesn’t exist. The Alzheimer’s Association advocates for the more than 5 million Americans living with the disease. I’m hoping this post helps their caregivers who provide 18.2 billion hours of unpaid assistance to their loved ones.
It is natural to disassociate ourselves from thoughts of loved ones dying, one of our nation’s biggest fears. Fear puts us in survival mode. We are ready to run, fight, or freeze. We just want to be left alone. But, the consequences of asking your aging parent to deal with this part of life alone are profound. (Consider this: the worst penalty that can be imposed on a criminal short of death is the same technique used in torture, isolation.) It is hard to talk about the end of a wonderful journey. It is hard to get in the car and spend time with someone who may or may not know who you are. But, you can use these tips to increase your chances of smiling when you make the effort.
The key to maintaining a meaningful relationship with a loved one who memories are slipping away is to personalize each minute. I love how A Dignified Life introduces the concept for caring for loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s, a Best Friend. Best Friends are the living photo album, memory book, and memorial candle who can bring about meaningful moments with someone who is just beyond reality.
Folly: Gathering intel is fun but requires a level of dissociation from the detective. You cannot presume to know what is important to your aging parent based on what was prioritized in your home. Religious observances, for example, may have just been a marital compromise. My grandparents were very observant Jews. They walked to temple, had separate dishes for meat and dairy, and even a separate kitchen for holidays that required cooking in a separate oven. But, my grandmother used to sneak me out of the house to share pork-filled wontons and other Chinese foods. Additionally, getting older ironically awakens the young, mischievous sides of us. In fact, based on the shrinking brain and decreased efficacy of neural pathways, the elderly act just as impulsively as adolescents.Stories like this one of mischief and mayhem are great ways to wake up a sleeping brain.
Triggers: I love fires. I went to overnight camp since I was 5 years old. My husband and I expressed our love in front of a fireplace. Whereas most of my friends share the warmth and comfort of a fire, it would be a mistake to think everyone has positive memories or impressions of huddling around a campfire. My father-in-law was badly burned as a child when trying to stamp out an innocent fire in the alley behind his apartment. It may make sense to share this story of how his son fell in love as a way to remember who I am or enjoy the shared experiences of finding love. Except, sharing the intimacy of the memory would nearly guarantee a traumatic response from my father-in-law. Taking the time to learn which memories are painful is just as important as learning which memories are pleasurable.
Labels: My father loved to create nicknames for us. I loved to create nicknames for my students. Uncovering nicknames (not teasing, shameful name-calling) from childhood are helpful to grab your loved one out of their isolating zone. My father-in-law used his legal name, Harvey, all through school. But, he used his middle name, Scott, as an adult. This piece of family history is helpful insomuch a using the childhood name is more likely to create bonding moments.Aging works in reverse chronological order, the newer memories are the first ones to go. Our favorite possessions also have their own fond names. My mom and I had sequential license plates starting with the letters “LF” when I got my first car. We used them as proud monikers for the “lead foot” bestowed upon us by HER father, the man who urged everyone with a new car to open up the engine early to train it in case a need ever arose.
Visitors: Grandchildren are a gift. My mother insists that being a grandmother
is intensely different and deeper than being a mother. Unfortunately, grandchildren and aging parents do not match. The increased energy of the child in combination with the quiz questions, “Who is this?” or “Don’t you know who this is?”, make someone in the throes of Alzheimer’s or dementia angry, sad, and frustrated. In fact, mislabeling a child, calling your daughter by your name, is a common source of agitation for caregivers. Correcting your loved one becomes a common source of agitation for the aging. Where your mother may have missed a generation, she still knew the child was family. It is best to agree with your mom and chat about a memory you have shared. More often than not, she will recognize your daughter before the story is over. It’s also not a time to find beautiful albums or frames for those little ones. Memory-related disease does not necessarily mean there are other health problems. But, poor eyesight is a given for all who age. It can be frustrating to be surrounded by pictures you cannot see.
Spark Note Summary
We have become a generation of avoiders and hoarders. We want to hold onto to our loved ones as long as possible…over there. Those years do not have to be wrought with anguish, for the loving or loved. Take the decades before diseases of aging rob you of your loved ones to learn how special their lives have been. That way, the “hello” has much more impact than the “goodbye”.
Welcome to the first book review from Lessons Learned! From time to time, we need a brain break, a way to escape the facts of our life by exploring fiction. Books can be a great way to learn some lessons while relaxing. My first recommendation is Scrawl by Mark Shulman. Before you raise your eyebrows, or close the blog, let me prove how a book marketed to tweens and teens has a few lessons for all of us to learn.
From Cover to Cover
As we read the first line in the novel, we read the first journal entry of Tod’s detention journal: “Think about a pair of glasses for a second.” 230 pages later, Tod’s journal ends with an exchange between himself and the guidance counselor who has been reading and commenting in his journal for the 5 weeks he was in detention: ” ‘Was that all that kept us from getting kicked out of school?’ And you smiled back at me. ‘Yes.’ ” What we learned between the first and last pages, is how we all judge without knowing, watch without seeing, and speak without listening.
Who? The book is formatted as a journal written by Tod, a bully, who is serving detention under the supervision of Mrs. Woodrow, a guidance counselor. But, the more you read, the more you question what you know about bullies. For example, Tod explains his environment to Mrs. Woodrow by explaining, “Every neighborhood downtown has its own violent Neanderthal troglodyte hell-raisers” (8). He also plays euchre at lunch with his friends. Euchre, not poker. And, helps his blind lab partner. Questioning your facts on bullies, yet?
What? Punishment. The journal is a punishment for getting caught. (You don’t learn what he got caught doing until the near-last page…and I’m not spoiling that for you.) Tod’s friends are outside completing their more typical, juvenile delinquent punishment of picking up trash under the supervision of the head custodian. But, who hasn’t inflicted punishments upon themselves? True story: my mother accidentally ran a red light. (It was one of those that is only for a small strip mall.) When I pointed this out to her, she literally pulled HERSELF over! This is not a serious example, but it is a serious issue. Instead of listening to me, listen to Tod: “The more important you treat yourself, the more you’re worth” (41).
When? Let me be a typical therapist, here, and answer a question with a question: Which events in your life mark the difference between then and now? There are the usual markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. Traditionally, developmental psychologist have stopped there. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. We see Tod accidentally enter the spelling bee only to come in second when a teacher cheats, and we question what we know about bullies. We admire the large statue created by Luz, and we question what we know about the goth/artist. How long does it take, how old do we have to be, for stereotypes to be broken? Changed?
Where? The longer you read Scrawl, the more it reminds me of a house of mirrors where each turn reveals a different, exaggerated version of yourself and surprises you each time. You realize that Tod is more complex than the school bully. You see what he is like at home, a not-surprisingly poor house where he wears layers of clothes to sleep in order to combat the lack of insulation in his “bedroom.” Tod surprises us in the auditorium as he becomes a reluctant accomplice in creating the costumes for the original play written by the stereotypical school freak. In detention, Tod writes much more than is required and is more honest than is expected. reflection.
Why? It is surprising that, as a therapist, I loathe this question word.After reading Scrawl, are we supposed to long for after school specials? Do the readers labeled as bullies feel vindicated? Do we donate more to the Salvation Army in case a ne’er-do-gooder needs to help a friend? Sure, why not. Or, maybe we just needed some perspective on how far we have come. Or, maybe we just needed a way to talk to our children about how to treat others.
How do you take the lessons learned from Scrawl and use them to make yourself stronger? First, let go of the memories of high school that have flooded you for 238 pages. Second, make an impromptu book club with your kids (ages 10 and up are fine) to discuss how they feel about the characters and if anything is similar in their lives. Third, it’s never to late to start a journal. It is infinitely more healthy to get any thought or feeling out than to “suck it up.” Last, start now to be who you want to be regardless of who you were then or who others think you are now. Like scrawling, life can be messy, unconventional, and unpredictable. Enjoy!
Before the costume designers of Star Trek: The Next Generation chose an 80s banana clip for a futuristic visor, LaVar Burton was the host of Reading Rainbow. Each episode had a theme similar to ones that my son has in his pre-K class…space, animals, transportation, etc. Books were read to us by famous celebrities like Kermit the Frog. LeVar Burton took us on “field trips” to a fire house or farm. But, the best part of each episode was at the very end. A child just like me, a cute, book-loving precocious child, would tell us all about a favorite book. These were heartfelt testimonials that always ended with the phrase, “But, you don’t have to take my word for it.” No? But, I do! You love books…I love books! We are virtual book club buddies!
Bibliotherapy is a real, accepted modality for treatment of some mental health issues. It started with the turn of the century when soldiers were given medical books to learn about their injuries. In the 1960s, bibliotherapy became an official modality under the American Library Association, and psychotherapists mainstreamed the practice as an additional tool during more traditional therapeutic treatment. As Lessons Learned begins adding an occasional book review, it is important to understand the mental health benefits of reading.
Pacing: Shakespeare wrote in poetry, iambic pentameter, for his audience to get caught up in the music of his words. Before you twitch into a mess of
horrible memories of school, it may help to understand that iambic pentameter is exactly the same cadence as the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Prose also has an intentional rhythm. Short, choppy fragments mirror the mood of the character. Endlessly long sentences (see anything Faulkner wrote) drone you into a lull; “what did I just read in those two pages that were three sentences long?” Mental health practices of mindfulness and meditation help suffers of anxiety and PTSD, for example, use careful control of breath as a self-healing tool. Being whisked away into an author’s linguistic pacing can have the same benefits.
Empathy: One of the major impacts of bibliotherapy is to see yourself, including your challenges, in a character. It is also extremely cathartic reading how someone just like you works on fighting mental illness without stigma or despite of it. This process, forming a bond with a character that reminds you of yourself, builds empathy. It also allows you to have empathy, not sympathy or pity, for yourself. Now that you are starting down the path of empathy for yourself, you have made the most difficult step in self-care: appreciating who you are without apology. Not sure what the difference is between empathy and sympathy? Watch this remarkable animated short.Spark Note Summary
Bibliotherapists are most often English majors with a depth of knowledge about “who” and “what”. Therapists are most often psychology majors with a depth of knowledge about “how” and “why”. As a woman with a bachelor degree in English Education and a master’s degree in psychology, I am your unicorn. As this blog takes on an occasional book review, have some faith in the magic of some more of the lessons I have learned.