A New National Holiday

Special Lesson: Professional counselors are careful with self-disclosure. Only when the benefit is to enhance the therapeutic relationship is the boundary crossed. This blog is personal, but the hope is the conversations that ensue help enhance all of our relationships.

I have a vivid memory of being a child and asking my parents where they were when Kennedy was shot. It was a common assignment for children of Boomers. We had it easy! There was ONE major event noteworthy enough for all students to explore. If replicated today, my son’s assignment is more like a multiple choice test, the Challenger‘s explosion or the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I publish, today is September 11. My TV and Facebook are littered with memes telling me not to forget or always remember. As I’m told to be respectful and solemn, all I can feel is frustration that there is no “lesson learned”.

Never Forget….

My 9/11 story starts with a routine drive to my job as the HR manager of Borders Books. I heard a snippet on the radio with key words “plane” and “New York”. I changed the channel and shook my head.

La Guardia has two runways, each 7,000 feet long, compared with those at JFK Airport, which are up to 14,000 feet, and Newark Airport, where they are up to 11,000 feet.

I grew up in NJ with the Manhattan skyline outside of my window. It was common to hear a broadcaster in Chicago appalled about a plane crash in New York; they simply didn’t grow up knowing how short the runway is at LaGuardia. So, I went back to the offices and started to count cash for the registers while brainstorming a snarky comment to deliver to a coworker with whom I bet on Monday Night Football. As I started wheeling the cash drawers to the register, that same coworker was walking towards me asking me if I heard what happened. Nope. I was not going to let him beat me to the punchline. I quickly quipped some friendly antagonistic comment and tried to wheel to the front of the store. This coworker was a better friend than I gave him credit for because he took me by the shoulder, took me to the stockroom, and put me in front of the TV we use to sneak peaks at football games. I sat on two crates grasping at a box of tissues watching in disbelief with the rest of America for the next few hours.

Me and my big brother

I wish watching the landscape of my childhood be destroyed was the only way I passed the time that morning. It took me an hour or two to realize that neighborhood that I watched crumbling was where my big brother went to work daily. Thankfully, he was late to get off the subway that day. Not too late, however, not to be stuck in a nearby building watching the day become soot-covering night. The cell phones weren’t working as everyone with loved ones trying calling out or calling in. I learned from my mother that he had reached his then-pregnant wife just long enough to say he was safe but stuck. I remember musing that my brother, who is 6’1″ with a personality twice the size, must be going crazy thanks to a small case of claustrophobia. He made it home safely hours later, but I don’t need a running news story to remind me what it felt like to watch in fear that I was going to be the oldest one in my family if those terrorists won.

Always Remember…

Shortly after the building were cleared, the next line of heroes went to Ground Zero. In the same breath, our country banded together and started the two decade trip of falling apart.

EMS salary info from the Bureau of Labor
  • I remember how the Patriot Act went after my library card in case I recently checked out the Catcher in the Rye.
  • I remember how while saying “thank you” to EMS and firefighters with our mouths, we let them collect government benefits to offset the poverty that defines the working poor.
  • I remember how my best friend’s stepfather (who through time and space has always been an extra parent to me) grabbed his old pipe fitter tools and went to help adding mesothelioma to Agent Orange on the list of unreimbursed lethal consequences of his patriotism.
  • I remember how the prevalence of children experiencing PTSD from the perpetual news coverage hit record highs as parents accidentally traumatized a generation who didn’t understand that planes weren’t constantly flying into buildings.
  • I remember how we reached into our country’s history of ethnic hatred to be afraid of Muslims, or anyone we thought looked like one.

Spark Notes Summary

My husband and I are friends whose son, one of their four, was born on September 11. He is the living symbol of what we should remember. Barrett is always happy and optimistic. He loves to spend the morning with his mother dancing to Britney Spears with freshly painted nails before taking the afternoon to go fishing and learn gun safety with his dad. To truly honor and respect what was lost, we should make September 11 National Barrett Day. The holiday would be centered around celebrating our best selves and accepting the beauty of seemingly contradictory ideas. Feel free to decorate your home with pink dollhouses and fishing poles as you carpool with your neighbor to the EMS parade featuring the men and women whose pay has met their esteem.

The Feral Children of Fortnite®

I confess. I’m a gamer. Not WAS a gamer…AM a gamer. I didn’t grow up this way (unless you include a stubborn determination to beat Mario Bros on Nintendo). In fact, it wasn’t until college that I fell deeply in love with computer games. Picture this: it’s a hot summer day in Chicago. My boyfriend, his crew, and I hit the sand beach volleyball courts of the North Shore park districts for hours. After a quick round of showers, we all gathered in an apartment lugging 90’s Apple computers, an ethernet hub, a duffel bag full of cords, and a 6-pack. That is where I was when the Bulls grabbed championship after championship, and I watched live coverage of the deaths of Princess Di and Mother Teresa. Needless to say, when families try to convince me that gaming is ruining their children, I work hard to remember I’m an objective professional. Fears of Grand Theft Auto® and Call of Duty® have come in and out of my practice without a mental note much less a blog. Fortnite® is different

Out of the Mouths of Babes…

My husband and I still sneak in some gaming time, but neither of us has ever played Fortnite®. So, I conducted some field research to learn about the basics of the game. Here is what I’ve learned from a 14-year old expert gamer and a 25-year old social gamer. Fortnite® resembles what children of the 80’s would call a Wrestlemania Battle Royal combined with the Hunger Games.

Wrestlemania’s Battle Royal

Players are randomly placed on a map with resources. These resources can be cool, high powered guns, or lame, pile of wood.As the timer signifying the outer layer of the world disappearing ticks down, the player must gather resources to survive. Resources can only fill 5 slots of a player’s cache. Concurrently, a player can erect structures or barriers while trying to kill their way to the center. Confused, yet? I’ll give you the cheat sheet: poor randomized placement on board? DEAD; poor randomized gift of starting resources? DEAD; poor strategy balancing defense and offense? DEAD. This is how our children are having fun.

Out of the Mouth of a Family Therapist

The mental health profession studies the effects of gaming constantly. But, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders, DID NOT add gaming to its latest version in 2013. Research continues investigate whether excessive video gaming has the same effect on developing brains and neurotransmitters as substance abuse (making gaming an addiction) or obsessive compulsive behaviors (making gaming an anxiety disorder. When the experts’ research comes in, therapists will know how to help families navigate this modern maladaptive behavior. Let’s not wait for them.

What Gets Lost When Your Kids Try to Win

I mentioned some basic ways a player’s game can be cut short in Fortnite®. Here is what MAY be happening to your player when that happens.

  • Self-efficacy: Sometimes used synonymously with self-esteem, self-efficacy is the belief that you are a powerful individual who can solve problems and accomplish tasks. It is also the best way to combat anxiety and depression. The random placement of player and allocation of resources work in direct opposition to healthy development of a strong sense of “I can do it!”
    The final straw…

    This randomness also feeds the “It’s not fair” button vital to moral development.Children playing Fortnite® cannot be talked out of their honest assessment that falling off the shrinking map after the game placed them on a board with no good resources making fighting to stay alive harder than peers is unfair. They are right! It is unfair. But, providing more examples of how the world (fictional or real) is designed against them sends the message that tweens and teens are powerless.

  • Empathy: Despite the amount of hits on Google, Empathy Deficit Disorder, is not a real, psychological condition. Empathy is a learned skill. It is developed over time organically, as the brain branches out, and behaviorally, as you increase your social interactions. (This would be a great transition to a rant about social media or acceptable amount of screen time for children, but that’s for a different blog.) What makes Fortnite® dangerous, is it’s design that attributes tremendous amount of value to everything..and nothing. Let me explain. A player starts the game with some level of advantage or disadvantage of location and resource randomly. There is no skill or strategy, no concrete or intrinsic value, from the moment the game starts. Trying to win means determining how to blend building defensive structures while attacking other players. The immediacy of conjuring a wall or detachment of killing an opponent make it impossible to build value into using those methods to win.
  • Emotional regulation: Do you know why you can’t explain to your child why to accept the loss that came in 4 minutes when they lasted 4 hours in the game yesterday? You are talking to a feral animal. Yes, they know nobody is really dead. Their brains, however, do not develop the ability to put things into perspective until they are in their college years. (Talk about unfair!) Their brains are being fed stimuli from the game that trigger survival responses. “Hurry or you will die!” is the message of the game. Are you surprised when your sweet little boy or girl cannot interact like a human after gaming? Their brains are still on high alert! You may be offering to cook dinner, but their primal brain is thinking you ARE dinner. When Katniss won the first Hunger Games, she got to live in a fancy house away from the poor village. That wasn’t because she was a winner. It’s because even in fictional worlds, survivalists aren’t expected to return to normal life.

Spark Note Summary

The treatment plan for Pervasive Fortnite® Personality Disorder (not a real psychological disorder…unless my colleagues use it for future research), is ironically what makes the game so dangerous, TIME MANAGEMENT. Help your tween and teen transition back into the real world by giving them tasks that are designed to be routine and control breathing. Chores like setting the table, activities like jigsaw puzzles, or completing their reading minutes for school will bring the humanity back to your home.

A Reaction to Another Tragedy

Despite my better instincts, I have been reading a lot of the posts about yesterday’s school shooting in Florida. The posts are the same as they have been for every awful violent event that we have watched. The ones that shock me the most are the ones that echo the reports on television that blame the school and the parents for not intervening before it was too late. As a teacher with 15 years experience and a professional counselor with extensive experience treating kids who had behavior problems in school, here is my plea….

Understand that this shooting is nobody’s fault.

Nobody could have known that this child would become a mass murderer. Getting in trouble at school, to the point of expulsion, is not an indicator of the capability to commit horrific acts of violence. As someone who ran an alternative school for students that were all considered “undesirable,” I can honestly say that “bad” kids are not de facto terrorists or mass murderers.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” – Maria Teresa

The shooter in Florida is protected by confidentiality. So, we will never know what the school or his parents did to help this boy. You may not like that protection for him, but it is the same law that protects you. I worked as a court mandated counselor for juvenile delinquents. We worked with the kid, his/her parents, and their peers to help heal the traumas that enabled poor decision making. We were lucky their treatment was court ordered because it was difficult for well-intentioned parents to get past internal shame and external judgmental communities to get help for a child who was headed in the wrong direction.

It’s natural to demand answers. It’s admirable to spin our wheels to find out what we can do to prevent such tragedies. I share your anxiety about sending my son to school every day. I implore you:

Smile, don’t spy, at your neighbor.

Support, don’t shame, those who act differently and need help.

For more help about how to talk to your children about these issues, check out our blog post, A Minute of Action.

You Don’t Need a New You for the New Year

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

A perfect example of the “resolution 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 love Reader’s Digest! This gem is entitled, “I will be happy next year if I can…”

    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.

‘Tis the Season…

…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. moral compassWe 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.kids in playroom

  • 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. zpdHe 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.) kid donatingParents 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?

Why Does It Still Feel Like High School?

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.

Gossip? Check

Body shaming? Check

Bullying? 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.

A Monster Calls: Let Our Kids Answer

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

Click here for the link to Amazon to read reviews.
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 yew tree in Conor’s backyard becomes the monster.
    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.

…And How?

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.

Summer Is Not the Only Thing Hot

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.

Breaking News: The Monkey House Smells Terrible

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.

The Long Goodbye

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 The West 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.

Connect Four

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
    Jacob listening to Papa’s wise words (Papa, 96, Jacob, 7 mos)

    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”.