Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Truth About Abusive Relationships

The news came from New Hampshire.

The story took my breath away: While voting in favor of not increasing the penalty for domestic violence, which causes many thousands of injuries and deaths annually, Mark Warden, a Republican New Hampshire state representative, remarked that "Some people could make the argument that a lot of people like being in abusive relationships. It's a love-hate relationship....People are always free to leave."

The truth about abusive relationships is much more complicated.

But one thing is certain: no one likes being abused.

So how and why do people get caught in abusive relationships that they find so hard to leave?

There are a number of reasons.

It isn't always easy to anticipate or to recognize abuse:  It's pretty clear that there is abuse when there are physical bruises, broken bones, knocked out teeth.

More often, however, abuse can be chronic and low-level -- a shove here, a slap there, tears, apologies and then the cycle repeated.

Sometimes the abuse is emotional and perhaps so subtle, yet so pervasive, the spouse can't link her growing feelings of worthlessness and depression to abuse. This is when seemingly minor criticisms, inattention, disrespect, sharp contradictions, dismissive words and gestures, disinterest, discounting, isolation and possessiveness can all add up to the crushing of a spirit.

The emotional abuser may withhold affection or attention, pouting or maintaining an angry silence for hours or days at a time. He (or she) may slowly, but steadily, isolate the victim from family and friends, discouraging visits and phone calls, reading and criticizing emails and texts. The abuser may humiliate the victim -- making fun of him or her, constantly criticizing and correcting, controlling with threatening or contemptuous looks, gestures or body language. Abusers often blame their victims for their own setbacks or unhappiness.

It isn't always easy to recognize abuse in these behaviors, especially when it all starts slowly and builds momentum. The victim, particularly when blamed, may try desperately to please or to soothe the abuser. And when the abusive behavior occurs in an endless cycle, despair and hope are so intimately entwined. Following abuse, the abuser often expresses feelings of love and remorse. He promises that life will be different. Then tensions rise and the abuse occurs again. But the hope that grows during the times in between abuse can keep the victim from seeking help or making life changes.

Escaping abuse isn't as simple as walking out the door.

Sometimes, the abuser has so battered the victim's self-esteem and initiative with fists or with words, that he or she feels powerless to change. And if someone has been controlled over time, she may lack the financial or emotional resources to leave and start over.

Sometimes, a battered spouse is fearful of the violence escalating if she tries to leave -- a realistic fear in many cases. Studies have shown that the time of greatest peril for a victim of abuse is during and just after leaving the abuser.

Abuse of any kind-- physical and emotional -- can lead to hopelessness, fear and inertia. The abused spouse walks on eggshells to avoid further violence, either physical or verbal.

Sometimes a moment of truth comes when the focus shifts: one former patient of mine said that she found the energy to leave her husband when a friend asked her how she would react if, instead of beating her, her husband were beating their 5-year-old daughter. The friend then asked how she felt the violence at home was affecting her daughter. "I couldn't seem to stand up for myself," she told me. "But I felt I had to protect my daughter!"

Abuse can be devastating, even when it doesn't leave visible bruises.

Although physical abuse is what most often comes to mind when one thinks of domestic abuse, verbal/emotional abuse is much more pervasive. It is more subtle than physical abuse, but can have devastating results. It is, in a very real sense, a form of brain-washing that causes a person's sense of self-worth to disintegrate.

. Abuse can be cyclical -- with phases of hope and reconciliation. From a distance, such hope looks like delusional, wishful thinking. Up close, it can be like sunshine after a storm.

. Abuse can be emotionally disabling: It saps hope and confidence. It can put one in a financially and physically vulnerable position that makes escape seem impossible.

. Abuse can be isolating. One aspect of abuse is to isolate the victim from family and friends and make the person feel even more alone, more hopeless and less inclined to reach out -- because she feels that no one is there for her and that she has no options but staying put.

. Abuse can cause tunnel vision: the focus is on the needs and wishes of the abuser. The victim may feel guilt over the thought of leaving him or her, putting herself last, believing the abusive blaming comments that are hurled her way.

What can you do when someone close to you is feeling trapped and abused?

1. Offer an empathetic ear and emotional support, even if your friend seems resistant to change. 
The first step toward positive change is not running out the door but recognizing that what is happening is abuse.

It can help to reassure the victim that she is loved and valued and that she doesn't deserve to be treated abusively.

It can help to suggest supportive counseling (and help her find low-cost or no cost services).

It can also help to offer respite: an hour, a day, a weekend in a setting where she is treated with love and respect. Such respite can help to heal a crushed spirit enough to imagine that life could be different.

 It's also important to encourage your friend to put herself first. This can mean refusing to engage the abuser by begging, arguing back or apologizing. It can also mean stating firmly that she will not be treated with such disrespect and to walk away. She needs to hear over and over that she is not to blame, that she doesn't deserve the abuse, that her life can be better.

2. Explore ways of escape and encourage a step-by-step process (unless there is an immediate threat to her life).  It's important to know that the time of leaving and separation can be the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. She may need to go to a safe home/shelter where the abuser wouldn't know to look. In the meantime, she can prepare quietly for escape: gathering essential items in one place, saving up cash, having a packed suitcase hidden in the home or car or at a friend's house, keeping the gas tank filled and/or the cell phone charged, having numbers at hand to call for help.

3.Understand that simply saying to a friend "So get out! Leave him!" may be asking too much, too soon, and making your friend feel judged. Be supportive of emotional realizations, baby steps toward freedom and new resolve after backsliding. A pattern of abuse that has taken place over a long period of time has an impact on the victim that can be slow to change. A victim may leave her abuser, only to return -- once, twice, many times -- when he promises to change.

Do abusers ever change? Only if they deeply desire to do so and engage in intensive therapy to discover and deal with the difficult issues from their own past that are leading to the abusive behavior. Some abusers have personality disorders that are deep-seated and hard to treat. The abuser has to want to change his abusive behavior, not just to change the consequences of that behavior -- e.g. being left by a spouse. It may take some time before the victim recognizes that the abuser may not be willing or able to change and that the only way to make a positive difference in her own life (and the lives of her children) is to leave.

It's so important that we make an effort to understand the complicated nature of leaving an abusive relationship. One friend told me 25 years ago that "I'm going to die if I don't get out of this relationship" yet was unable emotionally and financially to escape until three years ago after two previous unsuccessful attempts to leave.

4. Know that your friend is trying to make a decision about a major life change under a great deal of stress and with diminished reserves. This may take time to accomplish. On one level, people are free to leave. On another level, it isn't that simple.

We need to learn how to support friends and family facing abuse in ways that are truly helpful to them. We need to understand the price they may pay for leaving -- and for staying put. We need to understand the heartbreak of hopes dashed, of love turned ugly, of the fears and dreams of new beginnings.

Sometimes a new beginning is quite literally a lifesaver. And sometimes it comes too late.

Personally, painfully, I know this well -- which is why a chill ran through me when I read the New Hampshire representative's words "People like being in abusive relationships.....They're always free to leave."

My father never hit my mother. But he maimed her spirit with emotional abuse throughout their 38-year marriage. She dreamed so often of how life might be if she could leave and start anew. But she always put others first: she worried about his health and that he couldn't manage without her and worried that her children would suffer in a divorce, even though we begged her -- from our childhood on -- to leave. As time went on and his health worsened, she quietly began to hope for a better life after his death.

Her new beginning came suddenly when our father had a heart attack one hot July afternoon in 1980. But by that time, our mother's spirit was too crushed to enjoy her new freedom. She died of a heart attack four months to the day after he died.

One moment still stands out from the days of grief that followed: Aunt Evelyn, my mother's closest sister and her life-long best friend, squeezed my hand as she looked down with anguish at my mother in her coffin. Her voice low and uncharacteristically harsh, she said, to no one in particular, "He killed her. He killed her as surely as if he had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger."

And, sadly, she was right.

I gave Aunt Evelyn's hand a squeeze in return. "I know," I said, as tears glistened in our eyes. "I know."

Friday, January 29, 2016

Old Friends, New Discoveries

It came as a chance remark recently.

Liz Canfield, a friend of mine for more than 40 years, mentioned casually how grateful she was to be receiving a pension from Austria as it enables her to help her daughter with some recent unexpected  expenses.

A pension from Austria? I knew that Liz came from Austria originally, but, with children near my age and a Christian background, I had assumed she had immigrated before the war or come soon afterwards in an ordinary relocation -- if there is such a thing.

"Why do you get a pension from Austria?"

"Because I'm a Holocaust survivor..."


How could I have known Liz for so many years and never known something about her life that was so...huge?

Liz Canfield

She told me that her father had converted to Christianity in his youth and that she and her siblings were baptized into the Christian faith. But her grandparents were Jewish and so her family was considered Jewish by Nazi conquerors who marched into Vienna when Liz was 15. Her memories are of fear: a neighbor being beaten by storm troopers, elderly Jewish men scrubbing sidewalks with toothbrushes as soldiers looked on, dressing up in clothing that resembled Hitler Youth in order not to stand out and keeping her head down as she walked quickly through the city to visit her grandparents -- grandparents she was to lose in the gas chambers of Sobibor. Although she, her parents and her brother and sister eventually made a harrowing escape from Austria -- first to Holland, then to the U.S. -- the memories of terror and of loss remain.

"You're interested in hearing all this?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," I replied.

I told her that my interest in the Holocaust had its beginnings in my childhood as I read stories of unspeakable horror and survival that made my own troubled childhood seem mild in comparison. I told her that I had long been fascinated to hear how people found ways to keep hope alive when all felt so hopeless and how they went on to have full and productive lives after such experiences.

She reacted to this mention of a less than idyllic childhood with surprise. "I never knew that," she said. "I never guessed. How did you grow up to calm and...."

We both stopped, stunned, that in so many years, so many conversations, these details had never come up. What did we miss? What questions could we have asked each other? How could we not know?

The answers seem to be in secrets we keep and questions we don't ask -- both for a variety of reasons.

In some ways, this news about Liz is so congruent with the choices she has made in her life that I wonder how I could not have guessed before.

She has spent decades as a champion of freedom: a health educator and activist who has worked tirelessly in such causes as civil rights; women's rights and reproductive freedom; HIV research and funding; gay, lesbian and transgender issues and marriage equality. Our paths first crossed more than four decades ago when I first interviewed her for a magazine article and she later introduced me to the young doctor -- Chuck Wibbelsman -- with whom I would write "The Teenage Body Book", my most successful book. I have long admired her commitment to a variety of freedoms and her fearlessness in facing down bigotry and hate. But now I can see her many years of courage and dedication with a new perspective and appreciation.

 I find now that she wants to talk about her past. Her silence over the years has been out of respect for others' desire not to know. "Some very close to me don't want to know what happened back then," she told me. "It isn't easy to hear..."

And yet some stories need to be heard. Liz is 93 and all too aware that the voices of those with direct experience in the Holocaust are becoming rarer and fainter. She has given testimony to Spielberg's Shoah project and participated in lectures with other survivors at schools and community centers. And she is sharing her thoughts and experiences with me because we can't be allowed to forget that time -- especially now with new terrors, fears and hatreds so prominent in headlines and touching all our lives.

It's a delicate balance for all of us. There are the secrets people keep at least in part because, like Liz, they feel others might find what they would like to say hard to hear. And there are secrets simply too painful to revisit with another. There are the questions we don't ask because we respect another's privacy...or because we are afraid of the answer.

And sometimes the backstories of treasured friends remain unshared because these seem unremarkable and unrecognized as pivotal in their lives. One friend, whose family moved repeatedly when he was young, realized only after exploring his childhood in therapy how these moves affected his sense of self. "I attended seven different elementary schools and three different high schools," he told me. "I was always the new kid, always an outsider, always a loner. And it influenced me to this day. I am very good at friendly banter, but I trust very few to get close."

Many backstories are not nearly as dramatic as the experiences Liz recently shared with me, and they're not always stories of triumph over tragedy and success despite steep odds. Sometimes we see a friend, an acquaintance or co-worker who is emotionally broken by his or her past, signaling distress by withdrawal, by a curt or unfriendly manner, by outbursts of anger and frustration over incidents that seem minor.

In such instances, there may be little to do but to understand that these actions have roots in a troubled past that you may never know and that the person is doing the best he or she can at the moment.

The same is true of friends who harbor painful secrets that need to stay buried, unrevealed and undiscussed, in order for them to function in daily life. One friend, who has indicated vaguely that she endured sexual abuse in her childhood and adolescence, is adamant that she doesn't feel ready and may never feel up to discussing it -- even with a therapist. In such instances, we need to respect another's silence.

We don't need to know details in order to treat another with love and kindness.

We don't need to ask questions that probe too deeply into another's pain, unless the friend expresses a desire to disclose and discuss a painful past. But there is so much we can learn by trying to understand someone whose formative past remains a mystery, by listening when a friend needs to talk, by sharing life histories, by celebrating each other's strengths and achievements that spring from living complex lives.

And when we suddenly discover that a friend has something unusually traumatic or dramatic in his or her past, this information can be illuminating, giving one a whole new way of seeing and understanding a treasured friend.

My long-time friend Maurice Sherbanee, for example, has always given a positive spin to his cosmopolitan background. He was born in Iraq, spent his adolescence in India and his young adult years in Japan before immigrating to the U.S. He celebrates the cultures and the languages he has embraced besides his native Arabic. But, for the nearly 50 years I've known him, there has been a sense of melancholy behind the good cheer that I never truly understood until lately. Not long ago, his niece Rachel shared the family's story: the terror they faced as Sephardic Jews in a land increasingly hostile to them, fleeing for their lives to India at the beginning of World War II, then making a new life for themselves in devastated post-war Japan as they waited to be admitted to the U.S. The immense sadness and fear of being stateless and rootless had a major impact on their family -- and is echoed by the countless refugees streaming out of the Middle East today.

Knowing a little more about his family's background helps me to better understand and honor Maurice's strong loyalty to his family, even when certain family members have been difficult, and why he has been so adamant about values rooted in a long-ago past.

New revelations about an old friend add to the richness of our understanding and new appreciation of a friend who is braver and more complex than we ever realized.

In sharing experiences with another whose life has included more tragedy than we may ever know, we can learn important lessons in compassion, in courage, in finding hope when life feels hopeless, in  embracing life despite its pain.

If we watch closely and listen, we can learn a great deal about affirming life's beauty by seeing someone who has been touched by hardship and tragedy embrace life as Liz Canfield has, living with incredible joy, passion, generosity, grace and love.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Wonder Years

"Sometimes I wonder about myself," a friend told me recently after having a tough time with that day's crossword puzzle. "I can't think of answers as quickly anymore. I wonder if I'm losing it..."

While this friend wonders about cognitive losses, others our age wonder about other unknowable aspects of aging:

Wondering if savings will last a lifetime....or not.

Wondering how long health and mobility will last.

Wondering what will happen if and when we lose the capacity to live on our own.

Wondering how one would cope (and hoping never to find out) with the loss of a spouse.

Wondering how to make a difference now that life has changed so much from the hectic working and family raising years.

Wondering if this is all there is....

These days, we wonder a lot of things and so many of these thoughts anticipate pain and loss. So many are simply unknowable.

And while we can't know the challenges that life will bring tomorrow, next month, next year or five years from now, we can do what's possible to ease our fears. We can safeguard our health and mobility with good self-care: healthy eating and regular exercise. We can stimulate our minds with daily challenges -- learning new things, reading, crosswords, puzzles, good conversations instead of vegging out in front of the television set. We look for positive ways to make a difference -- with grandchildren and by volunteer work in the community, through church or other organizations that help those in need, by working with animal rescue or for other causes that are meaningful.

And we can engage in another form of wonder. Instead of focusing on the negative "what if's", we can look at what is and celebrate everything that's good about today.

Think about your own life in all its complexity -- and wonder.

And you might be thinking: Isn't it a wonder that:

Today, I'm fine. I feel reasonably well. While I'm not physically the person I was at 25 or 30 or even 40, I'm doing well for my age physically. Maybe I'm even better now emotionally, having weathered so many of life's challenges and knowing that I can survive pain, disappointment and loss to celebrate each day as it comes.

Today, there is enough of everything I need. Okay, maybe I don't have everything I want. But I do have everything I truly need.

Today, despite any physical limitations I might have, can be filled with the joy of touching the life of another with a smile, with gratitude, with kindness.

Today, I have many opportunities to make my own life -- and those of others -- better, healthier, more rewarding.

Today, I can experience the pleasure of generativity: encouraging a younger person to follow a dream, to take a risk worth taking, to believe in himself.

Today, I can look back on a life well-lived. I can hope for many more good days. But if my life were to end tomorrow, isn't it a wonder to know that, overall, my life has been good.

Today, my beloved spouse is here beside me. I won't miss the chance to tell him or her how much s/he is loved and cherished.

Today, I'm here. Too many people I've known have not had the privilege of growing older.  What a wonder that I've lived to see today and what a perfect day it is to learn, to grow, to celebrate and to love.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Holiday Expectations vs. Reality

One of the greatest causes of holiday blues is a lingering, stubborn insistence on wishing for holidays  to be as they were so many years ago.

You may think longingly of the time of dreamy innocence, of your childhood Christmases where you counted the days until Santa came, sang in the children's choir for Christmas Eve services, enjoyed the day with extended family so loved then and now so missed now.

You may think wistfully of your children's childhood holidays, the effort you took in making Christmas special for them, delighting in their excitement and innocence.

Or you may think of your first married Christmas and the joy you shared of so many firsts to come, so many plans, so many dreams.

None of us can go back and experience the holidays in quite the same way as we did as children or newlyweds or young parents. And, if you think about it, maybe you wouldn't want to.

No holidays, even those you remember so wistfully, were ever totally perfect.

Think of the time when your family was young and growing  and you were feeling torn between wanting to please parents and in-laws by showing up at their celebrations while wanting to create some family traditions of your own.

Think of the times during your childhood Christmases when fancy dresses grew scratchy, large family dinners were so very long and Santa didn't always bring you your fondest wish.

But life went on and what you choose to remember from those times are the best moments -- the excitement of the holiday, your mother's pies and cookies, the delicious feeling of being embraced by family.

Life may be very different now. You may have passed the pleasure of hosting the family holiday meal to an adult child with bittersweet feelings  -- feeling a special time in your life passing while enjoying being a guest. Or you may find yourself alone this holiday season. Maybe you recently lost a beloved parent or spouse. Maybe your kids are grown up and scattered nationwide. Maybe there has been a family rift that hasn't healed in time for the holidays.

There are so many things that can make this holiday seem less than merry if you're busy looking back.

What would happen if you let yourself simply be in the present?

Now is the time to notice the signs of the season all around you: the special music, the crispness in the air, the Christmas cards in the mailbox, the scents and sights of holiday treats, the warm wishes that surround you if you listen.

Now is the time to make or honor new traditions. Since the tragic death of her lifelong friend Jill, my friend Mary has made lunch with Jill's husband, now in failing health himself, a Christmas tradition. She visits him bearing his favorite guilty pleasure -- a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken --and they spend the afternoon together, revisiting the past, enjoying the present. My friends Bob and Dale host an "Orphans Holiday" dinner for friends who, like them, have no family nearby. Another friend Mike volunteers to bring cheer and tasty treats to homeless shelters. He says that this has become such a cherished tradition for him that he can't imagine spending the holiday any other way.

Now is the time to make this Christmas your own, to do what pleases you. Maybe you want to watch holiday videos. Or spend a day bundled in a quilt, reading a fat novel and eating leftover Chinese food right out of the container. Maybe you want to organize a special dinner with friends -- a potluck or a party at a restaurant. Maybe you want to spend this Christmas doing for others -- helping to feed the needy through your church or other charitable group or helping to distribute toys to sick or disadvantaged children. Maybe this quiet holiday season is the perfect time to give a loving little animal a forever home by adopting a cat or dog from your local shelter.

Now is the time to let modern technology link you to loved ones -- with Skype or FaceTime visits to share holiday cheer.

Now is the time to feel the inner peace of gratitude --for all blessings of your life, however small, however far away.

Warmest holiday wishes to all my friends in the blogosphere. However and wherever you're celebrating -- with a crowd or whether you're alone this holiday -- I send you my love and best wishes for a wonderful 2016!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

When a Loved One Has Habits Hazardous to Health

The email from a dear friend arrived a few days ago, filled with concern and frustration. Her significant other had just had a horrifying blood pressure event that temporarily disabled him and landed him in the local hospital ER for most of Thanksgiving Day. She said that, despite high blood pressure and diabetes, he ate all manner of junk food from pizza to bakery treats. Despite the recent scare, he seemed unconcerned about his future health and resistant to her help and suggestions.

We chatted about this online for awhile and reviewed possibilities. For a long time after our conversation, I thought about her situation and how similar it is to so many other couples I know as friends or have seen as patients.

How do you help a loved one stop self-sabotage? How do you intervene when you see someone you love mired in an unhealthy lifestyle --whether he or she is eating or drinking all the wrong things or in line to set a couch potato record? What do you do when a partner rejects your healthy suggestions either directly or through passive resistance?

State your case and then step back. Don't nag. It reinforces stubborn resistance.  Express your observations about an unhealthy habit or habits and your concern about how this might impact his or her health. Keep your tone loving, not judgmental or carping. Let your partner know that your concern comes from love, from wanting him or her to have the longest healthy life possible.

Give subtle encouragement: meals that are healthy yet delicious -- spaghetti squash or spiral veggies instead of pasta, fruit in place of pie.  There are celebration meals, of course, when only pie or cake will do. But for everyday meals, keep the sugar and carbs at a minimum and maximize your use of vegetables. If you're the usual cook in the family, that is fairly easy. If you share cooking duties with your spouse or he or she does most of the cooking, volunteer to cook more and choose healthy alternatives to your usual favorites. Make it more convenient to grab a healthy snack -- a piece of fruit, cut up vegetables with hummus or a healthy dip. Banish the old junk snacks -- the potato chips, cookies, crackers and candy -- and see how you and your spouse do without these, one day at a time.

Turn the situation around and ask for help yourself.  Instead of focusing on your partner's health challenges, share your concerns about your own health with special requests -- e.g. to eat out less and enjoy more home cooked meals, to take an evening walk together, to join a gym. Encourage your partner to try new ways of eating and exercise routines along with you -- to enjoy more time together, more healthy food adventures together and the prospect of a healthy future for both of you.

Ask how you can help.  If you want to help your loved one build a healthy lifestyle, ask him or her how you can best help. While we might assume that facts, statistics, news reports and charts as well as regular lectures and occasional nagging would be most helpful, what would feel most supportive to your loved one might be something entirely different. You won't know unless you ask. Your loved one might do better if you share your concern and then back off, supporting positive results and letting go of the need to oversee or control the outcome of his or her efforts to change. He or she might appreciate it if you keep trigger foods out of the house (it's amazing how many spouses criticize the other for eating too many sweets but keep these around for themselves because they don't have a weight problem!).

Make a gentle, but startling observation: there are some things worse than death. Some people who overeat all the wrong things and skimp on exercise get defensive when spouses tell them that they may be shortening their lives with unhealthy habits. Perhaps in denial about how fragile life and good health can become as we age, they reply with stubborn bravado that they'd rather die happy with chocolate in hand or joke that a healthy lifestyle doesn't make life longer, just seem longer. But, for many of us, the prospect of a disabling health catastrophe can be more frightening than death. To be rendered helpless by a stroke, by COPD, by heart failure or diabetic complications, to be dependent on others to perform the most routine of daily tasks from bathing to using the toilet, for example, can be torture for someone who has been proud and independent.

I see this in a friend's husband who has become an invalid via a perfect storm of ailments. He was once a powerful corporate executive who traveled the world. He ate, drank and smoked excessively and was too busy to worry much about his expanding waistline. Now his wife and a full-time attendant change his diapers, bathe him, lift him from bed to wheelchair and feed him soft foods. Not all of his disabilities are a result of his previous lifestyle, of course. Some may be genetic, some just plain bad luck. But the fact is, he has lived quite a significant portion of his later years with a very poor quality of life. He is frustrated, humiliated and profoundly sad at this turn of events.

It may help to remind your own loved one that becoming helpless with prolonged disability can make for very poor quality of life and, in many cases, this can be prevented by wise choices now.

I just got another email from my friend with the stubborn significant other. She reports that, by mutual agreement, the junk food is gone, they're walking several miles a day and vegetables are a larger part of their daily meals. She says that they're both feeling better and more optimistic about the future.

None of us can know what the future holds for us, but it makes sense to tip the balance in our favor with healthy habits now so that we and our loved ones can live fully and in good health for as long as possible.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living With Gratitude

Lying in bed last night, listening to a steady rain pounding on our tile roof, I felt a wave of gratitude for shelter and warmth, something I never take for granted.

This is the time of year when we give thanks -- for family and friends and a wonderful holiday meal.

But, whatever our circumstances, there is so much else that can inspire gratitude.

What makes you grateful? What makes you feel blessed?

I am grateful for advancing age, even as I complain about everyday creaks and pains, even though my gait is slower and a bit unsteady, I am grateful for having lived longer already than my parents, who both died in their mid-sixties. I am glad to be old rather than young in an era that seems less kind, less socially mobile, than when I was growing up.

While the 1950's and 1960's were far from perfect, especially for people of color and women, there seemed to be more hope. We were convinced that if we worked hard, got an education and skills, we could get a good job with benefits and maybe a pension. Companies tended to keep their promises back then. We didn't hear much if anything about extended unpaid internships and legions of contract employees with no benefits and no job security. We could put ourselves through college, even a private college, with a good financial aid package and a willingness to work campus and summer jobs.

That is impossible for young people today who are emerging from college with crippling student loans and, in too many cases, lean prospects for steady work. My heart goes out to them as I think with gratitude of my own college and work experiences. Getting through school with parents unable to help me financially wasn't easy, but it was possible.

I am grateful for friends of all types and descriptions -- for those of many years like Mary Breiner, Tim Schellhardt, Jeanne Yagi and Pat Hill who feel like family to me and newer ones I'm just getting to know, for friends nearby and those at a distance, including some wonderful blogging friends I've never met face-to-face but treasure nonetheless. I feel blessed by all the friends in my life, rejoicing in the warm connection.

I am grateful for family: for my loving husband Bob Stover, by my side for 40 years now, in good times and bad, in closeness and in distance, in challenge and in growth; for my two beloved, inimitable siblings Mike and Tai and their families, my wonderful cousins. How blessed we are to have shared memories, quiet understanding and enduring love.

I am grateful for the pain and challenges of the past. I've learned so much from the love relationships that didn't work out, from some jobs that were so trying, I fought tears to and from work, from the disappointments that were inevitable -- the articles or books that didn't sell, the friendships that didn't last, the dreams that never came true. I'm convinced that I learned more, grew more, from these disappointments and setbacks than I ever did from success. I tended to accept successes -- especially early in my life -- as simply my due. The times of pain and disappointment caused me to look within, to rally resources I didn't realize I had, to find new paths and new ways of being.

I am grateful for daily companionship of pets -- from Hughey, a big white, gentle duck and my most dearly loved childhood pet, to little Ollie, my three-legged black kitten. I feel blessed by the memories of animal companions no longer with me -- cats who made such a difference in my life with Bob: our first cat Freddie, the miraculous duo Gus and Timmy, the latter of whom, with a later cat Marina, became a therapy cat and the subject of my book "Purr Therapy: What Timmy and Marina Taught Me About Life, Love and Loss." Those cats are all gone now -- Gus left us just a year ago. Each loss is unique, each cat irreplaceable. And our current four -- Maggie, Sweet Pea, Hamish and Ollie -- brighten our days with purring, cuddling, kisses and eccentricities that make us smile.

I am grateful for the blessings of my life -- a great education, having several professions I love, and a reasonable level of success. I'm not exactly famous and definitely not rich. But I feel very fortunate to have worked and still work doing what I truly enjoy. I don't take that for granted for one minute. I've had enough day jobs to know the difference between a job and a calling.

I am grateful for the culture in which I came of age: middle class, then with our family struggling financially after my father lost his job and could never get another, in an affluent community and learning to live with being different; Catholic schools in elementary and high school, complete with stodgy uniforms and strict nuns. In elementary school, our class size hovered around 60, always presided over by a nun just off the boat from Ireland, with a stout ruler and a talent for sarcasm that made any physical punishment pale in comparison. No one seemed to worry about tarnishing our self-esteem. But there were some nuns -- like Sister Rita and Sister Ramona -- who cared deeply and who made a tremendous difference in my life -- and the lives of many others. They were strict. They expected a lot. They let us know that the world didn't revolve around us. But they gave so much love and encouragement as well. They taught us to work hard, to show up, to honor our promises. And I have been grateful at many points in my life for such early expectations.

I am grateful to have lived long enough to see the technological revolution and to enjoy everything from personal computers to virtual reality, tablets and smart phones, blogging and podcasting. I think sadly how much fun and how much opportunity my parents missed by dying in 1980 or even that Aunt Molly, who died in 2004, never lived to see and experience.

I am grateful just to be...grateful for each dawning day. I've always greeted a new day with gratitude -- probably since being terrorized by the childhood prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep" with its provision for "if I should die before I wake.." But this gratitude has a keener edge, a greater depth of knowing these days.

Only a few weeks ago, my husband Bob and I were talking with our friends Joe Shea and Marsha Morello in the supermarket parking lot, laughing, teasing, making plans to get together. Now sadly, so suddenly, Joe is gone and Marsha overwhelmed, devastated, by his unexpected death. It all started with a fall in his home, a broken hip, then a stroke as he lay in the hospital. And we are left longing to help her to heal and missing him so much.

I recently spoke on the phone with Ruth Woodling, my only surviving college roommate who is an attorney in Atlanta and just had a festive birthday. The other three -- Cheryl Rennix, Lorraine Scace and Lorie Caldwell -- died many years ago in youthful midlife. Speaking with Ruth and sharing our experiences reminded me how just much the other three, all wonderful, amazing women, have missed.

And there are other friends whose health is failing, who are nearing the end of life...and, even as we watch and hope for better days and more time for them, we're increasingly aware of the fragility of all our lives.

So each day that I wake up healthy, with energy and with hope, or, someday, a day when I simply wake up, is a day to give thanks.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Two Wonderful Books For The Gift-Giving Season

It's fascinating to see how much wisdom, humor and growth can come from adversity.

We've all experienced this to varying degrees: living through something we thought was catastrophic and completely overwhelming. Now, looking back, what resonates most is the way this event, while perhaps still painful in memory, has led us onto a new life path.

As the gift-giving season approaches, I'd like to recommend a pair of books by two remarkable people -- Tom Sightings and Andrea Cleghorn. Both are wonderful writers who weathered crises in midlife and survived, even thrived, to write about their respective journeys. The results are two inspiring books both available at

You Only Retire Once by Tom Sightings is a lively, informative, truly helpful book that is also immensely entertaining. It is a collection of his best blog posts from his popular "Sightings Over Sixty" blog (Sightings Over Sixty: Think About It) Written for would-be or new retirees, it covers information you've always wanted to know -- from whether retirement is possible when you're definitely not a millionaire to making a decision about whether or not to buy long-term care insurance to some insightful pieces on emotional preparation for and adjustment to retirement. 

The inspiration for Tom's blog and this book began with a triple life challenge: his long-time marriage was ending in divorce, his kids were grown up and leaving the nest and he got laid-off from his job. He found comfort in writing -- both blogging and freelance assignments. He is now in a loving relationship and enjoys visits from his children and hers. Life, after all the initial shock and sadness, is good -- and in his inspiring book, Tom shares some valuable insights about retirement, aging and good self-care, both physically and emotionally. A businessman and a professional writer, Tom bases his material not only on his own thoughts and experiences, but also on solid research for a comprehensive guide on making the most of life beyond sixty.

You Only Retire Once  is a must-have for those on your gift list who are dreaming of or actively planning for retirement or those newly retired. And even those of us who have been retired for awhile and think we know everything there is to know about thriving in retirement can learn a lot from Tom's terrific book. It is also a great gift for those who, like me, are great fans of Tom's blog!

The Whipple Brunch by Andrea Cleghorn is fascinating mix: it is, at once, the horrifying, funny, devastating and, ultimately, uplifting story of triumph over truly challenging life events -- thanks to Andrea's amazing resilience and some help from her friends.

Andrea, a journalist and writing/life coach, spent many years as a columnist, book reviewer and travel writer for The Boston Herald. Her articles also have appeared in many national magazines. Not so incidentally, she is also a dear friend of mine, with a shared professional beginning: we both started our careers at 'TEEN Magazine in Los Angeles and, in midlife, both of us decided to take career jogs into helping professions. I went back to graduate school in clinical psychology to become a psychotherapist. Andrea returned to graduate school, getting her Master's degree in social work, and was planning a parallel new career in serving the underserved.

But then life handed her some major surprises: a painful mid-life divorce, the challenge and joys of being a single parent, a devastating fire that destroyed her beautiful 100-year-old house. She, her children and her aging mother barely escaped with their lives while their beloved labrador retriever was lost in the blaze.

And then there was her cancer diagnosis. First, it was a large tumor in her left kidney. The cancerous tumor and the kidney were removed. A few years later, the cancer recurred in her left adrenal gland. Surgery seemed to solve the problem. But nine cancer-free years later, there was another, more dire, diagnosis: the cancer was now in her only remaining kidney and had spread to her pancreas. The only real chance for her survival was a drastic, highly risky surgical procedure called the Whipple, where most of her abdominal organs would be removed and either excised or cleansed and put back together in new fashion. If a patient survives the surgery, there is a very long and hard recovery period. She refers to the Whipple procedure as "The Abdominal Extravaganza."

Andrea faced this pivotal point in her life while dealing with everyday realities familiar to all of us: grown children at a distance, an aging mother who needed her help, the need to earn an income and the blessing of some very good local friends.

The Whipple Brunch takes us on the journey with her -- through the pain, love, tears and laughter that she and her friends and family shared during that time of frightening decisions, painful recovery and re-embracing life.

Before you turn away with the understandable reaction of "Oh, no! Not another cancer memoir! So depressing..." be assured that this is not your typical cancer memoir. It's a celebration of life and of friendship -- particularly the friends who stepped up and helped her when she was truly helpless. They went to appointments with her, were there for her as she struggled to decide whether to risk the surgery, took turns sitting with her in the hospital, visited her mother in assisted living and helped make Andrea's life festive at the most unexpected times -- like throwing a wedding celebration with tiaras and cake in Andrea's hospital room while watching the televised wedding of William and Kate. Celebrations are at the heart of this book. Just before her surgery, Andrea threw a lavish brunch for her friends and called it "The Whipple Brunch." Now, nearly five years later, her friends are throwing another brunch today to celebrate her new book!

It's well worth celebrating: she has an amazing ability to find humor in some of life's most painful moments and the spirit of this book -- so filled with wit and gratitude -- is immensely uplifting.

Both of these books would make terrific gifts for special people on your list this holiday season-- or you might consider giving yourself the gift of You Only Retire Once and The Whipple Brunch.