Saturday, November 2, 2019

Surviving the Unthinkable: Finding Your Way As Life Goes On

Thirty-nine years ago today -- November 2, 1980 -- what started as an ordinary Sunday was suddenly and forever a life-changing day.

It began with our usual happy Sunday routine. My husband Bob and I went to the Hollywood Newsstand to buy the Sunday New York Times and assorted magazines, laughing and joking with the proprietor Bernie Weisman and enjoying his usual outrageousness. Then we went to our favorite restaurant, the Shaker Mountain Inn, for a brunch of omelets and muffins. Our favorite server Flo smiled and entered our usual order as we sat down. It was just another sweet Sunday morning in our young lives. Then, suddenly, it wasn't.

Bob was paged over the sound system to take a phone call at the reception desk. Our eyes met, startled. He hurried away. Rooted in place by sudden fear and dread, I watched him from the back as he took the call. He bent over suddenly as if struck in the stomach and then straightened, one hand shielding his eyes. My breath caught. I couldn't move. On his way back to our table, he stopped Flo and talked with her for a moment. She embraced him, then hurried away, reappearing with our brunch order packed neatly in to-go boxes.

Bob came over and put his arms around me, saying softly: "Sweetie, we need to leave. Your mother has been found dead."

He told me later that the phone call had been from my brother Michael, then a fourth year medical student at Stanford. Our mother's longtime next door neighbor Wayne, noticing newspapers accumulating in her driveway, had discovered our mother's body, sitting in a chair just inside the unlocked front door of her home. She had died so quickly from a cardiac arrest that she hadn't even had time to drop the newspaper she had been reading. Wayne didn't remember that I hadn't changed my name after marriage, that I was listed in the phone book and lived only a few minutes away. So he called Stanford Medical School and officials tracked down my brother in his off-campus rented room. Michael had called me at home and got no answer. Then he called our sister Tai, who reminded him that Bob and I were probably having our usual Sunday brunch at the Shaker Mountain Inn. And so he called, tearfully asking Bob to take good care of me.

I was in shock as we drove to my childhood home. My father had died of a heart attack four months to the day before. And now my mother was gone. How could that be? It was too soon. Far too soon. Tai, the youngest of us, was only 25. Michael had turned 32 the day before and I was 35 and feeling suddenly catapulted to a new phase of life. I wasn't ready to lose her. I shook my head in disbelief. I felt suddenly and terribly alone in the world, despite Bob's firm and loving grip on my hand and the warmth of Tai's arms greeting me on my arrival minutes after our mother's body had been removed.

I wondered, as grief engulfed me, how the sunshine could be so bright, how the day could be so beautiful, how people could be going on with their ordinary Sunday lives when my life was suddenly and forever changed.

We all have those moments that turn ordinary days into extraordinarily painful turning points in our lives.

It may have been the loss of a parent or a treasured sibling or friend. It may have been a miscarriage of a much-wanted baby or a beloved child or, perhaps even worse, an adult child. It may have been the death of a beloved spouse or the demise of a marriage through divorce. It may have been the unexpected loss of a job or a career or a cherished goal.

Whatever the shocking loss, a line from a long ago Peggy Lee hit may have come to mind: "I thought I would die....but I didn't."

Life does go on. We do what we need to do: we make plans and persevere and smile politely and sob in the shower and in unguarded moments. We struggle to imagine life without the lost person or job or goal. We may make some bad choices along the way: mine was to adopt my mother's compulsive overeating as a coping strategy and double my weight in 18 months. And we make healthier choices -- to work through our grief, knowing that this loss will always, to some extent, be with us; to reach out to others, sometimes reconnecting with new warmth, sometimes reaffirming love that has always been and will always be with us. We turn to faith or music or sweet memories to soothe our pain. And we go on.

Others may watch us with empathy, with sadness and with wonder. "How do you stand it?" one friend asked a few months later, after my last grandparent, my maternal grandmother, died of a stroke only two months after my mother's death and as a beloved cousin was nearing an untimely death from cancer.

I didn't have an answer. Except that you do somehow stand it. Day by day. You get up in the morning and put on your shoes and do whatever you need to do. Sometimes you don't do it well. Sometimes the tears surprise you once again on a day when everything seemed a little better. And sometimes a moment of lightness and joy comes as a welcome surprise when you've been feeling that your sadness will engulf you forever. Maybe the joy comes from a visit from a dear one who understands. Maybe it comes from a sudden memory to savor. Maybe it comes as you bury your face in the soft fur of a treasured companion animal.

All the tiny steps forward bring some hope and peace. The sadness, the missing, the regrets will always be there, but tempered by new realities. Life goes on with its challenges and its joys.

Thirty-nine years later, a new generation has transformed our family: my sister's child Lex, ten years later, and my brother's children Maggie and Henry, born nearly three decades after we lost our parents. My brother and I are now considerably older than our parents ever got to be. Our lives and careers have had moments our parents couldn't have imagined. We have lived most of our lives without them.

All these years later, so much is gone: Bernie and Flo, the newsstand and Shaker Mountain Inn. Our Sunday routine. Our youthful anticipation and optimism. A decade ago, Bob and I left California for new life in Arizona. We're looking back on a long past and ahead to a shorter future.

We've come to terms with the past. We've all had moments of facing our own mortality. We've imagined the loss of ourselves and all that defines us as we've watched an increasing number of peers pass away. My first lover died nearly a year ago. He was a sweet and gentle man, forever a friend and, in my mind's eye, perpetually youthful. I couldn't imagine him growing old and passing away -- until he did.

Yet somehow, impossibly, life goes on. We dry our tears, cherish our memories and take one step at a time back into living lives filled with moments of joy and sadness, searing losses and enduring love.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Why Would Anyone Get Therapy?

Her decision was a quiet one. But the family fallout when my mother, suffering from stress and a mild depression, announced to those close to her that she had decided to go to therapy was far from quiet. There was a cacophony of unsolicited opinions.

"You're kidding, right?" said her old friend Jackie, peering over her rhinestone-trimmed sunglasses with a mixture of incredulity and ill-disguised disgust. "Look, we all have our problems. I have my three divorces and my grown kids driving me crazy with their antics and demands for money. But at least I've never felt the need to see a shrink."

My father, the major source of my mother's stress, weighed in with "That's just crazy... You got a problem? Talk to me. It's a lot cheaper than going to some stranger."

But Mother went to see a therapist anyway and found considerable comfort in what turned out to be the last year of her life.

Even though it has been nearly 40 years since her fatal heart attack, I still remember her quiet determination to get counseling and the peace she said it brought her to share her feelings with someone who would listen and care.

The bond she built with her young therapist -- Dr. Jim Alsdurf -- was warm and enduring. She was still seeing him for therapy when she died. When her heart stopped, she had just finished wrapping a gift for Hannah, the baby girl Jim and his wife Phyllis had recently welcomed. And, not really understanding the boundaries of the therapeutic alliance back then, we asked Dr. Alsdurf to give the eulogy at Mother's funeral. How very California of us to have her therapist give the eulogy! And how gracious he was to go along with our request, speaking eloquently about the emotional legacy she was leaving us.

Through the years, my own perceptions of therapy have changed from skeptical to embracing the process, first as a patient suffering from grief after the sudden heart attack and stroke deaths of both parents and my grandmother within a devastating five month period when I was 35. And then, in my forties, after years of writing articles and books in the areas of health and psychology, I decided to go back to school to become a psychotherapist myself.

In my work as a therapist, especially at a clinic for those with medical problems who saw me for depression and anxiety secondary to their injuries or illnesses, I initially saw a lot of the suspicions and attitudes that had attended my mother's announcement.

One patient in particular stands out in my memory for her resistance. Marianna was a Romanian immigrant and was so angry when her cardiologist referred her to me that she refused to speak English during our initial session. Her young adult daughter had come along to act as an interpreter and mom-wrangler. Every time I would ask one of our standard intake questions, Marianna would stand up and shout in English: "Stupid question! You're stupid!!" Her daughter would tug at her sleeve and say "Mama! Sit down! Listen to the doctor!" This process was repeated many times in our interminable 50 minutes together.

"Well," one of my fellow therapists who had overheard our exchange through our thin office walls, said, leaning into my office after the mother and daughter departed. "You probably won't see HER again...."

But they surprised us all by coming back the next week. And, free of the intake protocol, I asked Marianna what meant the most to her in life besides her wonderful daughter. She stopped scowling at me. Her face brightened. "My doggie," she said.

I smiled. "Tell me about your dog."

And that was the beginning of a lovely and memorable therapeutic experience. We bonded initially over our shared love of animals and I was able to help her in the months and years ahead to deal with the fear and anger she was feeling over the precarious medical condition that eventually led to her death. Her daughter still keeps in touch more than a decade later.

Times have changed considerably since my mother decided to go into therapy or since I faced initially resistant clients like Mariana. But the stigma still exists in some societies. That was what Princes William and Harry addressed not long ago in a video made to promote mental health in the UK. They talked about the ways that grief over the loss of their mother, Princess Diana, had lingered through the years, prompting Harry's wild risk-taking behavior in young adulthood. Prince Harry said that he finally sought therapy after some urging from his brother and sister-in-law and that it had made a real difference in his life.

Many who have never had therapy think that seeking professional help is a sign of weakness. But it isn't. As Fred Rogers once remarked: "It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it."

Yes. I know that on a personal level and as a mental health professional.

But many are still skeptical and ask a perfectly reasonable question: Why would someone choose to seek therapy rather than simply talking with family and friends?

Why indeed:

A therapist will be listening to you with a different perspective. While a family member or a close friend may have a great understanding of your situation, it's possible that he or she may share your frustration in not knowing what to do or may be suffering from battle fatigue, having been through this crisis with you before. There are many times when someone dear to you is the best person to help you resolve a crisis. But sometimes he or she wants to help but doesn't know how. That's when a therapist comes in. The therapist, who is new to your situation, who is not being affected personally by your situation and who, as an outsider, may be able to see certain things with greater clarity, can be a great help in this instance.

A therapist is legally bound to keep what you say confidential -- with a few exceptions. In general, by law, what is said in the therapy room stays in the therapy room. What you tell a therapist will never hit the gossip circuit. A therapist won't rat you out to your loved ones -- with two major exceptions. If you are feeling suicidal and demonstrate a likeliness to act on these feelings, the therapist is bound by law to report this to your loved ones and to make sure you have a way to be safe, perhaps by hospitalization for a time. The other instance where a therapist has to break confidentiality: if you pose an imminent threat to someone else. You might express a lot of angry feelings about an ex-lover or ex-spouse without triggering any alarms, but if you appear to have a violent plan of action, the therapist has a duty to warn that person. Otherwise, anything you say in the room with a therapist will be between the two of you.


A therapist has skills to see you through a crisis. A therapist can provide you with the safety you need to vent painful feelings and to hear your thoughts without judging or criticizing you. He or she can sit with you in your pain, help calm you through a panic attack or period of anxiety and give you the support you need as you work through overwhelming grief.

Ideally. Some therapists are more skilled and empathetic than others. Some have their limitations and preferences. For example, some therapists work best with children and adolescents while others feel more comfortable working with adults. Some do well with depressed patients, but not with agitated, angry patients.

There is a matter of fit when you're choosing a therapist. It's okay to hold out for just the right therapist for you.

Therapists have different personalities and strengths. My brother Mike, a medical doctor, and I were comparing notes not long ago on the early days of our professional lives, when, as interns, we were assigned patients. Reflecting back, we found that our respective supervisors, at widely separated facilities, had matched us both with a lot of really angry patients. We looked at each other and laughed. We grew up with an angry, volatile father and, as a result, we both developed a certain comfort around angry people. We learned not to fear anger. We could stay calm and help patients to sort out the myriad of feelings behind their surface volatility.

There are times, though, when a therapist proves to be the wrong fit for a client before a word is spoken.

When I was working at the medical clinic, a young woman came into my office, stopped and stared at  me and then sat down at the edge of her seat, decidedly uneasy. I asked her what was making her so uncomfortable.

She looked down at her hands and her voice was a near whisper. "You," she said. "You look like...you remind me of someone...I'm sorry...I can't work with you."

I quickly assured her that that was okay, that the most important thing was that she feel comfortable enough with a therapist for a session to be helpful. I praised her for her honesty and courage in speaking up and asked if she would like me to refer her to another therapist. She nodded. She worked wonderfully with my colleague Linda for some months after that.

You owe it to yourself to speak up if something doesn't feel right with a therapist. Psychotherapists are a varied lot. Some are warmer than others, some more cerebral. Some spend a lot of time in listening mode, interjecting occasional questions or comments. Others, who utilize more behavioral based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) may be more directive, focusing on skill-building interventions. Others may tailor their therapy very specifically to your needs whether you need guidance in one session or a listening ear in the next.
There are times in therapy when it's uncomfortable to talk about certain things or when you may leave feeling a little worse than when you did coming in. But if you always feel worse or feel that you can't be honest with your therapist, it may be time to move on.

How do you know that you might benefit from therapy?


  • When you have been feeling depressed for awhile and even loving reassurance from your friends and family doesn't seem to be helping.
  • When your anxiety is interfering with your life
  • When you feel overwhelmed with grief, even some time after a major loss. Friends may have sympathized but now say you just need to get over it. Family members may be locked in their own grief experiences and unable to help you. Or you may be grieving a beloved companion animal who was very much a family member to you -- but no one else seems to understand the magnitude of your loss.
  • When you're trying to deal with an issue or make a decision that you're reluctant or embarrassed to share with anyone you know and want to talk it over with someone who will not pass judgement or spread the news to the universe.
  • When you and your husband are at odds and need someone to be there for your relationship and not take sides.
In such instances, therapy can be a blessing --whether you choose to go for a few sessions or for months or even years.

How do you find a therapist? A good place to start might be to ask your primary doctor for a referral or a friend you know who has been in therapy. Another good place to look: Psychology Today Therapist Finder. This online tool lists therapists in your area and gives full page reports not only on their education and licensure, but also information about how they approach therapy, what kinds of therapy they offer, the insurance companies they work with and contact information.  Reading through that, you can get a fairly good idea what to expect going in.

The decision to get therapy or not is a very personal, sometimes painful one. But if you make the quiet decision to try it, perhaps despite some disapproval from those around you, you will find that it can make a wonderful difference in your life.



Monday, August 12, 2019

The Power of "No"

I recently had a defining moment in an unlikely place: at a local establishment called The Riverbottom -- across the mostly dry Gila River from Florence, Arizona's huge state prison complex. It's a popular watering hole with amazingly good food. Most Friday nights, the Riverbottom is filled with a strange but congenial mix of real cowboys, heavily tattooed bikers and elderly locals in baseball caps and polo shirts, all enjoying the live entertainment.

I was there with my friend Marsha on a blisteringly hot July night to hear a former neighbor give one of his memorable concerts, Hank Gooday, a Superior Court judge, moonlights as a country/rock singer with an avid local following. His music inspires people to get up and dance, even in extreme heat.

                                                 

Marsha and I noticed a local cowboy who was dancing with his wife and smiled at their obvious ease with each other. Minutes later, after his wife sat down to rest, he came over and asked Marsha to dance with him. I could hear her sigh, but she got up and took a turn around the dance area with him. Then he asked me. And I said "No." There was a shocked silence all around.

Taken aback by the looks I was getting from the other women at the table and his leaning in to me, I tried to be polite. "I appreciate your asking me," I said, smiling. "But no. I don't want to dance."

He didn't move.

I made quick excuses: "My knees hurt. I'm too old for this..."

He smiled. "My knees hurt, too, and you don't look a day over 53."

I laughed. "You silver tongued devil! But I still don't want to dance. Dance again with your lovely wife. I really enjoyed watching you two."

"We've been married for 37 years," he said with a shrug. "I can dance with her any time. Aw, come on, just one dance..."

"No," I said, folding my arms. "Thanks for asking, but no."

When he walked away, the other women at our table looked at me, shocked.

"I think you were very rude not to dance with him," one said.

"You hurt his feelings," another scolded.

Marsha was laughing. "You really did call him a silver-tongued devil!" she snickered. "But I don't understand. It wasn't a big deal just to dance one dance with him."

Yes it was... for me. Because it was expected that I'd say "Yes" despite my discomfort. Because women are supposed to be nice and comply, to politely go along with another's agenda.

Hell with that.

My disinclination to go with the flow appears to be trendy. There have been a number of recent articles in the New York Times and professional journals about our society's expectations that women will invariably agree to requests.

In her New York Times opinion piece, Jessica Bennet talked about starting a "No Club" which she described as "like a book club but for learning to say 'No'."

"There's a lot wrapped up in the word 'No' for women, beginning with the fact that women are expected to say 'Yes' and feel guilty when they don't," she wrote.

Vanessa Patrick, a professor in the business school at the University of Houston, noted in a recent study that "the ability to communicate 'No' really reflects that you are in the driver's seat of your own life. It gives you a sense of empowerment."

She found in her study that saying 'I don't' rather than 'I can't' establishes more conviction in one's decision.

Still, it's far from easy. Even when declining with courtesy and conviction, the blowback can be harsh.

I recently said "No" to a speaking engagement after the organizer made a major change in the approach to the subject. I had agreed to a serious discussion of some emotional issues we face as we age. But she was envisioning a light-hearted party of sorts with sweet treats. I told her that I wasn't comfortable with that and suggested that we find a compromise. Otherwise, I told her, I would be compelled to say "No". Her reply was vitriolic and she cancelled my appearance on the spot.

My overall reaction was relief. I'm just starting a new psychotherapy private practice in this area. While this talk wasn't meant to be a promotional gig, I still didn't want to do anything that might detract from my image as a mental health professional. There have been times in my professional past -- many years ago -- when I agreed to give a speech or endorse a product or a concept that I found embarrassing or that made me uneasy because I needed the money or the publicity or because I was afraid that my agent or others would be mad at me if I said "No."

No more.

It feels good when actions are more congruent with one's convictions and desires. Most of us have been raised to please, to give higher priority to another's wants or needs. There are, of course, times when that needs to happen. But there are many other times in our lives when saying "No" is necessary and empowering.

So what do we need to remember about saying "No"?

Saying "No" is living intentionally.  There is a freedom in giving yourself permission to say "No" to requests or options when you want or need to. Letting yourself be ruled by "should's" is incredibly stressful. There are times, of course, when we all have to do things we don't want to do or spend time with people we'd rather not be with for professional or personal reasons. But whenever possible, saying "No" can free us to live authentically and with considerably less stress.

"I knew I had finally grown up when I could say 'No' to others without being witchy," my late friend and former college roommate Cheryl Rennix once wrote me. "Those of us who grew up in a certain time, in the dysfunctional families of our early years, were obsessed with being nice, with pleasing others, with ignoring our own wants and needs. Being a real grown up means taking charge of your own life -- and that means feeling free to say 'No' sometimes."

Saying "No" doesn't have to be nasty. It can be kind but firm. Saying "No" with grace and kindness is an acquired skill that many of us -- including myself -- are still learning.

There is a learning curve, to be sure, in learning to be firm -- not leaving any room for negotiation -- while being gracious. You may find yourself sounding a bit like a pleasant broken record -- "I appreciate your offer, but that won't be possible for me." or "I won't be able to join you on that day, but thanks for thinking of me."

One of the most stressful -- and problematic -- ways to say "No" is the hedge ("Well, I might. I don't know. Let me think about it and get back to you..."). In this instance, you're stressed about possibly agreeing to something you really don't want to do and the other person feels caught in limbo.

Another habit those of us who struggle with "No" tend to have is the resentful agreement. People pleasers always say "Yes", but they often don't please themselves -- or others -- if their compliance is grudging. Or if they pull out of agreed upon plans at the last minute with a lame excuse. Saying "No" upfront can be kinder to yourself and to the other person as well.

Saying "No" doesn't mean negativity. It can mean being honest and true to your own convictions. It can mean leaving room in your life for positive events and people. It can mean building trust -- with your true intentions and actions closely aligned. Saying "No" when you must makes the times when you say "Yes" ever more meaningful.

I recently said "Yes" to another speaking engagement organized by the same person who disagreed so vehemently with my serious approach to what she had hoped would be a light-hearted event. She recently offered me another date and topic --a serious one. I said "Yes" immediately.

And if a man I know and love asked me to dance, I'd melt into his arms in a minute!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Comfortable Invisibility


I had no idea just how lucky I was to have been born with an ordinary face and body until a gorgeous friend pointed this out to me some years ago.

"You're so lucky that you've never depended on your looks for anything," she told me, tapping her beautifully manicured fingernails nervously on the table top as we sipped iced tea in a cafe near her movie studio workplace. "You don't have to worry about losing your looks. What do you have to lose? I'm not meaning this in a negative way. I think it's a real positive that no one notices you one way or the other even now. So getting older and looking your age won't be such a shock."

I was in my early forties then, she in her late thirties. I noticed she was drinking a bit, adding whiskey from a bottle in her purse to her iced tea. "I really fear getting old and losing my looks," she said.

I nodded, sensing her anguish over those first faint crows feet, and felt suddenly grateful that, indeed,  I wasn't and had never been a beauty.

My very ordinary looks had been an issue when I was growing up. My mother, for whom looks loomed large, was enormously disappointed in me.  She kept hoping that my appearance would improve as I grew up.

"Maybe you're just going through a homely phase now," she'd say, looking me over appraisingly. "When you're 16 or maybe 20, maybe you'll be beautiful." But that magical transformation never really happened.

My father was more focused on my getting good grades, a good education and gainful employment. But he kept a practiced eye on my weight, insisting that I step on the scale as he watched every Sunday when I was in my teens. He scolded me when my weight soared to 112, even though that was perfectly fine for my height and build. "Your mother weighed 108 when we met," he would say, ignoring the fact that even then I was two inches taller than my mother.

So I grew up fretting about my weight, feeling ashamed that I wasn't pretty and, at the same time,  was alarmed and unsettled when I got occasional unsolicited male attention. While I treasured occasional attention and compliments from men I knew and liked, I cringed going by construction sites and didn't have an inkling of what to do if a male stranger hit on me. Part of me always thought he must be joking.

But for all the early shame and sadness of not being a beauty in a family and society steeped in lookism, size-ism and chauvinism, I've been happy, overall, with my unremarkable face and body. I've found joy in developing my mind, my talents and social skills. I've found great pleasure in friendships with men that might not have been possible had I been a beauty like my friend. And I've come to accept and even celebrate my body as it is: decidedly imperfect, but blessedly healthy so far. The comfortable invisibility of mid-to-late life has been just the thing for me. I feel so much at ease out in a world where I go largely unnoticed.

There are many advantages to growing older, comfortable with the invisibility of age.

When we are noticed, it's for our kindness or wisdom or strength of character.

Instead of anguishing over slight (or imagined) physical imperfections, as we did in our teens or twenties, we can laugh at our larger, very real ones. Not long ago, I had a delightful time over dinner with Tim Schellhardt -- one of my dearest friends since we were teenage college students -- when we laughed heartily over the great varieties of wrinkles and sags our faces and bodies have achieved in the past few years. And there are times when my husband Bob Stover will look at himself in the mirror and ask "Who is that old man?" And then he'll start laughing. Reaching a point in life where we can laugh at ourselves with abandon is a great blessing.

Times are changing, too. The women of my parents' generation were very conscious of maintaining a certain look. My Aunt Molly and her friends wouldn't have dreamed of leaving the house without full make-up ("I have to put my face on.") And many colored their hair into advanced old age. That all seems less common now. Many of us feel free to forget about makeup most days and let our hair transform into varying shades of silver or white. My natural hair color when young was a very dark brown. I'm delighted with my head of white hair now. And, of course, the women of my generation and those younger are more likely these days to be valued for a variety of traits that have little to do with physical beauty.

As the years go by, I have come to love the freedom of public invisibility, eluding the evaluation on the attractiveness scale by others and giving myself more latitude as well. Who I am inside is emerging more visibly on my face and in my spirit. Many of us feel more at ease with our bodies and ourselves as we age. These days I focus on health, with wiser food choices and daily exercise. I watch my weight in an effort to stave off diabetes, cancer and dementia. I dress for comfort. I'm happy with the person I've become. And I live every day with gratitude for my health and good fortune in surviving to see old age.

And in such peace and acceptance, there is a kind of beauty.

I see it in my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, a cherished role model since I was eight years old and she a 23-year-old teaching nun just arrived from Ireland. Though Rita has not been blessed with good health the past two decades, her luminous spirit, filled with kindness and generosity and love in living, nonetheless makes her appear decades younger than her 89 years. The beauty of her face and spirit transcend the physical, delighting and inspiring everyone who knows and loves her.

I'm growing to discover my own kind of beauty, something noted recently by a newer member of our family.

"You are beautiful," my Thai-born sister-in-law Jinjuta, 36 years my junior, insisted, as she touched my face and smiled. "I hope someday I can be as beautiful as you."

Who knew that beauty would come with age and quiet acceptance of the passage of time? The beauty we all discover with age is much more profound than physical attractiveness. It is the growth of our essence that can shine brightly, ever more luminous with time.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mother's Day Reflections

"Happy Mother's Day!!"

I hear it from supermarket cashiers and from my favorite person at the McDonald's drive-thru as she hands me my unsweetened iced tea.

It's just a reflexive greeting, I tell myself, feeling a stab of equally reflexive pain within.

But I don't show the pain. I just smile and say "Thank you! And Happy Mother's Day to you, too."

Mother's Day is always a bit melancholy for me. My only pregnancy ended in miscarriage 44 years ago. And my mother died 39 years ago, when I was only 35. I've spent a lot of Mother's Days feeling out of step with the world and reminded, with each cheery greeting, of my losses.

I'm not feeling sorry for myself. Not exactly. I'm just feeling wonder at the diversity of life experiences I see around me and times of wistfulness as I imagine roads not taken and loved ones taken too soon.

Many people have bittersweet feelings on Mother's Day for a variety of reasons.

There are people who have complicated relationships in their adult children and those who are actually estranged, for whom the silent phone and empty mailbox are stark reminders of their painful differences. There are parents who have experienced the unimaginable pain of losing a child they loved and nurtured well into childhood or adulthood. There are those who live far away from loved ones. And there are mothers who love their children immeasurably but still, in quiet moments, wonder what might have been.

Maybe it's simply human nature to wonder.

A friend I'll call Betty interrupted a successful career to have and to nurture her four children. And they're wondrous children -- now successful, kind and caring adults with children of their own. When I fantasize about the children I might have had, I imagine clones of these fabulous four. And yet, at least in part, they are who they are because of Betty's sacrifices.

Could I have made such a sacrifice? In truth? No. I saw my mother walk away from a career she loved to raise the three of us and, as much as she loved us, she had terrible regrets and much marital unhappiness. I vowed that my life would be different. And it is. But still I wonder at times about that road not taken.

So does Betty, as proud of and totally in love with her family as she is. What if she had been able to resume her career? By the time she was ready to go back to work, the opportunities simply weren't there for her. She wonders what life might have been like if she had completed her Ph.D. I did complete my Ph.D. And I find myself thinking that, at this stage of life, the love of a family means so much more than any collection of degrees or years at work.

Those of us who are not and have never been mothers find many ways to feel connected.

We delight in nieces and nephews, knowing that an aunt's love can mean so much. Every Mother's Day, I think back with love and gratitude to Aunt Molly, my father's younger sister, who was a a pivotal person in the lives of my brother, sister and me. And she was a professional writer, the best of mentors. She never married or had children of her own. But we claimed her as our own, feeling fierce and loving bonds with her. We used to call her our "third and best parent." And for years after our parents both died of heart attacks in 1980, we used to celebrate Aunt Molly on Mother's Day. She joked about feeling like an imposter as we took her out to brunch. But she wasn't an imposter. She was our love. After she died in early 2004, I found a picture I had never seen, framed and tucked away in her nightstand.


                                                                 
Aunt Molly and me back in the day 
                                                    

It was the first picture taken of us together. I was a fragile premature newborn -- tiny, with a full head of hair and she was a 28 year old unfamiliar with babies. We both looked uncomfortable but curious to know each other. We were fortunate enough to know and love each other for nearly sixty years. Now that photo sits on my desk -- where it makes me smile as I remember this very special person who blessed my life. And I try to relive these memories in visits with my very young niece and nephew today -- though Aunt Molly's shoes are truly impossible to fill.

                                           
Niece Maggie, 9, and me in December 2018

We celebrate our friends who are mothers-- and enjoy loving and cheering on the new generation and, in time, the generation after that. I deeply love some children of friends, get tremendous satisfaction watching their lives unfold with professional successes and personal happiness.

I recently celebrated with Mary Kate Schellhardt, the daughter of my dearest friend Tim, when she turned forty -- not with the dread some of us once felt at reaching that milestone, but with a sense of celebration of her maturity and life experiences and anticipation of wonderful adventures to come.

                                           
Mary Kate and me celebrating

And I'm thrilled to wish Carrie Goyette, the daughter of my treasured friend Sharon Hacker, a very happy first Mother's Day! Carrie has wanted to be a mom since she was a toddler. I used to watch with amazement as she played so seriously with her dolls. But Carrie waited a long time for her dream to come true -- a long time before she found true love in David, a longer time -- and a heartbreaking journey through miscarriage and infertility and exhausting IVF regimens -- before she held Hayden Hope Goyette in her arms. Her baby was born smiling. She knew, somehow, how lucky she was to have Carrie and David as parents.

                                                 
Carrie and Hayden Hope Goyette

We have the time to reach out to children who need care and attention from a non-parental adult. Ryan Grady, my husband Bob's third Little Brother in the Big Brothers program, came into our lives when he was nine years old. He was smart, quirky, opinionated and fun. He enjoyed singing and dancing to original Broadway cast albums -- much as I had when I was a child. "I'm your kid!" he would say, wrapping his arms around me. "I wasn't born to you. But I'm yours!" As a young teenager, Ryan helped me to prepare for the oral licensing exam to become a psychotherapist. As he fired practice exam questions at me, he made the quiet decision to do this, too. And he has. Now 35 and a licensed clinical social worker, he is a successful therapist and agency administrator and, even though he is not our biological child, we couldn't ask for a better son. He calls several times a week. He asked Bob to be his Best Man at his wedding two years ago. We visit back and forth between his home in L.A. and our new place in Arizona. He just left a sweet message on my cell phone wishing me a happy Mother's Day and expressing his enduring love. And that means so very much!

                                         
Bob and Ryan during Ryan's most recent visit to us in Arizona

Yet I have moments of wistfulness as families come together to celebrate the day and the times when people talk so casually about "my daughter" or "my son." Or roll their eyes talking about their parents. And I want to remind them what a precious gift they have in family -- in their children, in their parents, in the time they have to enjoy, annoy and love each other through all the good times and the challenges every family experiences.

They're so blessed -- and so are we, those who have no children but are, nonetheless, surrounded by love. Some of us may live alone, some with a loving spouse and/or some splendid dogs or cats, enjoying nieces and nephews and the children of our hearts, bound to us by love if not biology-- as we celebrate loving connections of all kinds, not just today, but every day of our lives.





Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Ditching The Baggage and Living a Life

A few days ago, I had a sobering conversation with a beloved longtime friend who is fifteen years older than I am.

Bound by love and cultural imperatives, he cared for his mother for sixty years after his father's death. She lived to be over 100 years old, guarding her place in her son's life fiercely against all girlfriends who came and then went, adoring the man, but discouraged by his mother. So he never married. And since her death eight years ago, he has lived alone in the Los Angeles home they shared for many years. I haven't seen him in some time though we've been in regular touch from a distance since I left California nearly a decade ago. We both talk about how we would love to get together, maybe for lunch, the next time I'm in Los Angeles. But the logistics are proving difficult.

His health is deteriorating rapidly and he is facing major surgery. His uncertainty on his feet, despite using a cane and, occasionally, a walker, has increased to the point that he hesitates to go out except for medical appointments. At the same time, he is too ashamed of the condition of his home to enjoy a take out lunch with me there.

"Oh, if you could see my kitchen now, you would just vomit," he says with a shudder I can almost feel over the phone. "It's a mess. Everything is a mess. My stuff has just taken over."
This was beginning to sound familiar. My parents were hoarders -- ashamed at one point to have anyone visit, then passing beyond that clear-eyed assessment to the delusion that there was absolutely nothing the matter with the house. It was a small house that took us two years to clean out after their deaths nearly forty years ago. Rooms were filled to the point of impassibility with treasures from the past -- many rendered worthless, even as keepsakes, because they had been chewed by the rats that ran through the house, the attic and the walls. My husband Bob, brother Michael and I filled over a dozen truck-sized dumpsters and countless trashcans, often recoiling in horror at the rats and the wreckage of our parents' lives.

Our father had died in July 1980 and we rushed to help our mother clean the place and get rid of the rats. Only she wouldn't. She claimed that the rats didn't bother her and that she needed to go through every rat-chewed magazine and newspaper in the place. When we would throw stuff out, she would bring it back into the house. At the same time, she started taking a home decorating course at a local community college. The class was limited to six students because each week, the class would meet at one of the students' homes to make decorating suggestions. The visit to my mother's home was scheduled for the last week. I was horrified. My mother was oblivious to how an outsider would view the place. "I think French doors in the dining room would be so cute!" she said with a smile, pointing to an area obscured by piles of trash. She died of a heart attack four months after my father's heart attack death -- and several weeks before that scheduled class visit.

Compulsive hoarding is not uncommon. According to a recent report in The Washington Post, up to six percent of the U.S. population -- or 19 million people -- could be categorized as compulsive hoarders. They fill their homes with prized possessions that include a lot of what most would consider junk: old newspapers, food packaging, shampoo bottles and old clothing. The stuff of their lives takes over living spaces and can cause impairment of functioning in a variety of ways -- from social to occupational to financial. Some hoarders, unfortunately, collect animals in numbers that make it impossible for them to care for the numerous pets properly, impacting lives well beyond their own.

Why do people hoard? Some psychologists believe that hoarding can be triggered by trauma. Some recent studies have revealed that there may be a genetic component to the disorder. Brain imaging studies showed that hoarders had lower-than-average activity in brain areas related to emotions but spiked when they had to entertain the thought of getting rid of their possessions.  Hoarding is considered to be an aspect of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can start in childhood and/or run in families. While cognitive-behavioral therapy targeted at hoarders can be very effective, the challenge is to get through to a hoarder, helping him or her to see the ways that all the excessive stuff may be limiting or even threatening the hoarder's health or life.

My friend, who endured horrific trauma as a very young Holocaust survivor, is experiencing limits to his social life and his options as a result of his hoarding behavior. But he's not completely on-board with the necessity for change. He realizes that, at his age and with his medical problems, he really shouldn't be living alone.

So what's the answer? A live-in or daytime caregiver? Not a chance. A move to assisted living? He sighed. "I can't imagine being squeezed into a tiny room," he said. "I couldn't have my stuff. And it's my stuff that keeps me alive." His stuff, he tells me, includes more than 200 suits, 16,000 DVDs....

Could he donate some? I hear him wince. Could he give some treasures to friends and family? I tell him that I would very much like to have some pictures from his career, some specifically meaningful to me. He sighs. "It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack," he says. "I know I have them, but I have no idea where..."

He is resistant to the idea of help in clearing out the clutter. "People would see this as trash to be thrown out," he says. "I see it differently. Having my stuff all around me keeps me alive, it really does."

There are many who harbor the same delusion that it's the stuff in our lives that keeps us going. The truth is: the stuff can hold us back, make us pause when we need to charge ahead, weigh us down when we need simplicity and lightness in our lives.

And what keeps my friend alive is not his stuff....but his talents and passions which he still pursues and the loving circle of family and friends who cherish him, especially his niece who, like me, lives far away. She has hinted that she would like him to move in with her. He won't hear of it. "I love her so much and I don't want to intrude on her life," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do, frankly. I don't want to be a bother to anyone."

I want to tell my friend how much he is loved, how much his niece enjoys having him with her, how quickly and willingly friends and family would be there to help him to organize, prioritize and begin to let go of some of his life-limiting possessions if only....

I want to urge him to let go of the baggage, to ditch the stuff. But I know that for him and for other hoarders, it's not that simple. Those who rush in to clean up the clutter may cause more anxiety in a hoarder and trigger even more accumulation. Achieving real change in a compulsive hoarder can require intensive cognitive behavioral treatment. One can locate a therapist specializing in such treatment through organizations like Children of Hoarders, Inc. (childrenofhoarders.com).

I want to encourage my dear friend to treasure his relationships above all else. But I know that he does, loving sweetly and generously all the days of his life. And I know that hanging onto his stuff is, for him, an intrinsic part of hanging onto life, a life that is becoming increasingly fragile and tenuous.

And my heart aches for him.

Many of us cling to bits of our lives, especially as we age. It can be hard to let go. I struggle as I slowly let go of the pieces of mine that are, increasingly, superfluous. I'm feeling a greater need lately to let go of treasures that might bring pleasure to another or that could be useful to an unseen stranger through a local charity. The bits of my life that still remain, however, do not interfere with daily functioning. These items are confined to plastic containers concealed in garage cabinets and in a walk in closet, that is, I'll admit, decidedly overstuffed. I need to whittle it all down significantly and I will. I'm feeling an increasing need to let go ...of the stuff, the physical and emotional baggage of my past. Everything I do let go -- whether it's a piece of clothing, a lingering regret or an old grudge -- makes me feel a little lighter.

I both empathize with and worry about my old friend. I want to see him, to help him, to let him know I truly care. I want him to know he's not alone. I want to reach out in ways he can tolerate. I try humor, though I'm not really joking.

"Well, let's see," I tell him on the phone. "We can always get lunch at a drive through and eat in my car."

He laughs, but with an edge of infinite sadness.  "We'll see," he says softly.

And my heart sinks with the sudden awareness that I may never set eyes on or have a chance to embrace this dear friend again.

Monday, March 11, 2019

10 Surprising Facts About Why Parents and Adult Children Become Estranged

Being estranged from a beloved adult child can bring feelings of loneliness and terrible isolation. You watch others enjoy close relationships with grown children and grandchildren and wonder what went wrong and why? And you feel so alone.

But you're not alone.

When I wrote the post "When Parents and Adult Children Become Strangers" back in 2012, I had no idea that it would become day after day, year after year, my most popular, most read, blog post ever with hundreds of heart-breaking comments and observations from both parents and adult children.

This response made me want to learn more about this sad phenomenon -- and after some years, many interviews and lots of research, I wrote We Don't Talk Anymore: Healing After Parents and Their Adult Children Become Estranged (Sourcebooks, 2017).

In researching the book, I discovered some surprising facts about parent and adult child estrangement that I'd like to share with you.

1. You are not alone.  A U.S. study of adult children found that 7 percent reported being emotionally detached from a mother and 27 percent were detached from a father.

2. Fathers are more likely to become estranged from their adult children as the result of divorce, either in the distant past or via a recent "Gray Divorce." Resentment over a long-ago divorce and alienation fueled by parental anger can cause an emotional split that endures into adulthood. A gray divorce between long-married parents can spark conflicts with adult children who feel compelled to take sides or who resent the changes this brings to their own lives. A study of late-life divorce and its impact on relationships between the divorcing parents and adult children found that while fathers are more likely to experience a decline in contact with adult children, the divorced mothers were more likely than married mothers to report an increase in weekly contact with adult children. Newly divorced fathers may find it difficult to talk about their feelings with anyone. And they are likely to remarry more quickly and in greater numbers than mothers. A late-life parental remarriage can be as disruptive to father-adult child relationships as the original divorce.

3. Mothers are more likely to become estranged as the result of continuing demands for closeness or giving unsolicited advice. This kind of estrangement can come from conflicting needs and perceptions about how much contact is too much, what advice can feel like criticism (particularly in the area of child rearing) and what actions can feel intrusive. The mother may feel she's just being helpful. The adult child may have a very different view.

4. An adult child who is at odds with a mother's core values is more likely to become estranged than an adult child who is arrested or involved in substance abuse.  Strange but true! In a study of mothers headed by Dr. Megan Gilligan of Iowa State University, researchers found that clashing values -- such as differences over religion or partner choice -- were major factors in estrangement between mothers and their adult children. The study found that many of the estranged mothers were, on the other hand, quite tolerant of other adult children showing socially deviant behavior. One mother, for example, was estranged from a son who had divorced and remarried, life choices at odds with his mother's Catholic faith, while her two other children with histories of substance abuse, DUI arrests and, in the case of her other son, a myriad of run-ins with the law, remained close to her. In fact, she talked of her often-jailed second son with pride -- "He is my success story!" -- because he was still in his first marriage.

5. Estrangements are more likely to come from a conflict of needs rather than verbal sparring.
This divisive conflict is often the need of the adult child to be independent and in control of his or her own life and the need of the parent to remain closely connected and, ultimately, in control. When tensions rise, the adult child may seek autonomy by becoming estranged from parents. Researchers have uncovered a sobering fact: parents are more emotionally invested in their relationships with their children than their children are with them. This is called the "developmental stake hypothesis" and is consistent across the lifespan. This is important for parents to understand and take steps to safeguard their ties with their grown children by respecting their autonomy and, in the case of conflict, being the first to apologize.

6. Some emotional distance can improve parent-adult child relationships and make estrangement less likely to happen.  The paradox of an intimate yet distant parent and adult child relationship has been pinpointed in several studies, most notably in research by K.L. Fingerman of Pennsylvania State University. She found that parents and adult children who reported close ties still had some psychological distance. She noted that parents tended to stop trying to direct their children's lives and their grown children, in turn, sought to protect their parents from worry, often by not discussing some problems with them. She noted that this distance tended to improve the relationship and could serve as a bridge to a different kind of intimacy.

7. Helping an adult child financially can actually increase the likelihood of estrangement.  Why?
Studies have found that giving adult children money can be an expression of power and control, giving the parent more say over an adult child's life. And an adult child's financial neediness (or irresponsibility) may also spark conflict with his or her parents that can lead to estrangement.

8. An estrangement isn't just between a parent and an adult child.  Estrangements can impact the whole family. We see this in therapy all the time, especially with siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles who get dragged (or insert themselves) into family conflicts, bringing up many feelings, old conflicts and rivalries from the past and complicating the situation in the present.

9. Having a good relationship in your child's growing up years is no guarantee that you'll never be estranged.  Many now-estranged parents lament that they once had close and loving relationships with their children. Sometimes this later-on estrangement can come from changes in the family -- like a late in life divorce -- or from a reluctance to change -- such as parents who insist on being more involved and controlling of a grown child's life than the adult child can tolerate. And sometimes the later estrangement can come from a developing problem with substance abuse or mental illness. This is particularly common with personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, both of which may first become evident in late adolescence or early adulthood.

10. Parents and adult children don't always agree on the reasons for estrangement.  A recent study of estranged parents and adult children found that parents tended to blame the estrangement of sources outside of themselves, such as relationships of their adult children that they find objectionable. Adult children, on the other hand, tended to attribute estrangement to personal characteristics or behavior of their parents -- controlling, toxic behavior or feeling unaccepted and unsupported.

There are many variations of the heart-breaking stories of estranged parents and adult children. Understanding your own narrative -- the reasons, the solutions and what to do if nothing seems to be healing your relationship -- takes time, insight, a willingness to open your mind to another's point of view and to new possibilities in your life. Sometimes it can mean seeking professional help to sort out your feelings.

If you're curious to know more about reasons for estrangement, ways to begin to reconnect, and strategies for healing your heart -- whether or not a reconciliation ever happens --you might want to read my book We Don't Talk Anymore: Healing After Parents and Their Adult Children Become Estranged. It is available in bookstores nationwide and, of course, as a print book and an e-book on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. You can find direct links to these online sites by going to my website www.drkathymccoy.com and clicking on the book title.

And, remember, this book was inspired by those of you who have been reading and commenting on this blog for years!