Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Selective Memories: Letting Go of the Pain

I was looking for something else in a garage cabinet when I spotted it: a small box of mementos from a long-ago workplace. For many years, I have remembered this eight-year work experience with a shudder and, more often than not, an avalanche of dark ruminations.

But what I found in the box told a different story.

These mementos painted a much brighter picture of my experiences at this graduate school of psychology. There was an award given by students to the faculty or staff member considered most helpful and inspirational, along with wonderful comments from the students who had nominated me in the first place. There were printed out emails from my boss, telling me how much he valued my efforts and enjoyed working with me, notes from faculty, colleagues and students thanking me for my help. There was enthusiastic feedback from students of the Publications Seminar that I team taught with my boss for several years. There were cards from students for my birthday, or bemoaning my leaving or just because. There were cards and notes from my co-workers given to me on my last day there, many telling me how much I meant to them and how working with me had positively impacted their lives.

How could I have forgotten?

How could I have forgotten that most of the people I knew there gave me nothing but respect and warm friendship? How could I have forgotten how many genuinely nice people there were, some still in touch, some still friends? How could I have let a few bad experiences crowd out the many good ones in my memories of this workplace?

It made me wonder how often many of us find our days darkened by dwelling on negative instead of the positive memories.

How often do we push aside the warm memories of a former love, a previously cherished friendship or a past work experiences in the wake of a painful breakup or one or two really awful conflicts or outcomes? So the pain stays with us and the whisps of memories -- an act of kindness, a sweet understanding, a moment of delicious authenticity -- drift away.

There are times, of course, when remembering bad old times in work, school or relationships can influence life in a positive way, if this leads to behavior or attitude changes, if it makes one pay attention, take less for granted or stop destructive behaviors.

When I remember difficult work situations or mistakes I have made in work and in relationships, I sometimes wince at the vivid memories and wish I had been wiser or more patient or kind. Viewed this way, the old pain can be a learning tool, a way of determining how these dark memories played out in real time at difficult life junctures, what role I played in exacerbating the situation and what such experiences have to teach me about discretion or consideration or just plain common sense.

But ruminating about painful memories, roads not taken and mistakes made in the past and allowing these to dominate your thoughts can overshadow positive experiences, perpetuating the pain and keeping you from resolving those troublesome issues of the past.

So as often as you might remember a certain workplace or love relationship or school experience as unrelentingly negative, take a deep breath, close your eyes and remember: what was good about it? What and who could make you smile? What have you learned or accomplished that might not have been possible had everything gone according to your plans and expectations?

When you stop and think, even the most unpromising workplace or tumultuous relationship may well have contributed greatly to the person you've grown to be.

My own personal ultimate workplace hell on earth was a psychiatric hospital where I toiled briefly in the early 1990's as a research co-ordinator after receiving my non-clinical Ph.D. There was a nasty social worker who made fun of my weight on a daily basis. There were so many pink slips in paychecks every week -- if the hospital's patient census had dropped -- that people were afraid to go pick up their checks. There was back-biting and snarling, little team spirit and a workplace culture so feral that it made our inpatients look like the saner ones among us.

And yet, when I look past all the fear and nastiness and pain, I see a truly pivotal time: a time when I realized that I had a knack for working with patients, when I decided to go back to school for a clinical degree so I could be a psychotherapist. And there were people there... besides the supervisor who fired me because I wouldn't agree to research and write a Master's thesis for her... there were clinicians who encouraged me to join their ranks, a boss who was wonderfully kind, patients who taught me more than they ever knew.

When we let ourselves remember those moments of growth and discovery, of decency and kindness, of roads taken and choices made that suddenly make sense, the laughter between moments of pain...what a difference it can make.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Re-discovering My Inner Sissy

Despite a shy, somewhat solitary childhood, I don't consider myself a fearful person.

Even though some residual shyness lingers within, I am pretty brave about stepping out of my comfort zone.

I can give a speech to a ballroom full of people without breaking a sweat.

The Today Show once asked me to be the voice of reason between a producer of television action series and a religious-right pastor screaming at each other about the impact of television on children as Matt Lauer kept an uneasy order. No problem.

During my clinical internship, a patient pulled a knife on me. I didn't betray a flicker of fear, though my heart was pounding. I told him to put the knife on the table. He did. I took it and dropped it into a file cabinet beside my chair, pushing the lock. Then I looked him in the eye and asked in a level voice: "Now what was that about?" He smiled sheepishly.

Later on, while working as a therapist in a psychiatric clinic, I confronted a rampaging new patient who was screaming and throwing chairs in the waiting room. I put my hand on her arm and asked her what she was so afraid of. She crumpled into tears in my arms.

But mention the word "snake" and my courage deserts me. I shake and fan myself with trembling hands, aghast that one may be nearby.

I revisited my fearful persona the other day when Bob poked his head into my writing casita. "I just went to take the trash cans out to the curb," he said. "And there is a rattlesnake in our trash enclosure. Between the trash cans."

My heart raced. I buried my face in my hands.

"I'm going to get the hoe and kill it," he said.

"Ohhhhh...." I said, cringing.

I would like to say that I sprang up, putting my fears aside, to help my spouse do battle with the rattlesnake. But no....I stayed rooted at my computer, creeped out in my casita with the door firmly closed. I considered locking it and drawing the drapes just in case Bob came to show me his trophy. But he didn't. He merely asked if I would like to come take a look. I shook my head vigorously.

"I don't want to because I can't then un-see it!" I muttered.

Nodding, he gathered the snake up, put it in the trash can and wheeled it to the curb.

Then, hoe in hand, he search the yard -- back and front -- for more snakes. There were none.

And I stayed holed up in the casita for a few more hours, feeling a little ill, a little faint and very foolish and ashamed of myself. Okay, so a rattlesnake, a viper, is especially scary. Most reasonable people would steer clear of one. But I would have been nearly as creeped out over a harmless snake.

We all have our limits, to be sure.

Pat, my friend since childhood, reassured me via email -- as I sat rooted in the casita -- that lots of people fear snakes. She never did because she had some as pets when she was young. "Is it because you think they're slimy?" she asked. "Or you're afraid they will bite you? Snakes aren't slimy at all. They feel very muscular and leathery...and they usually just want to get away from people."

I shuddered: "I just find them repulsive."

Pat wondered if it might be a behavior I learned from my mother. I thought about it. My mother, who grew up on a Kansas farm, was pretty down to earth and fearless when it came to creatures of all types. And I couldn't have learned my fear from my brother, even when he pulled one of his most memorable pranks ever when we were both in our early teens and still living at home

I was sitting in a chair by the fireplace, happily reading, when I felt something brush against my cheek and slither over my shoulder and down my arm. It was a five foot python -- a huge snake that my brother had just bought with his paper route money and brought home as a pet. I levitated instantly from chair to mantel, screaming myself into an altered state of consciousness and scaring the snake -- whose name was George -- nearly as much as he scared me. He wrapped himself around a leg of the chair and wouldn't let go.

And that was my last sighting of George for his entire tenure at our home. I refused to go near his cage at the back of the yard, even though my sister Tai, ten years younger, would happily tag along after Michael and watch as he fed live mice and rats to George. Just the thought of that snake, not to mention his feedings, filled me with revulsion.

But I obviously had this fear before... or Michael would never have introduced his pet to me in quite that way.

I'm just hard-wired to dislike snakes.

There are a few other contenders -- like the lizards dashing across my path most days as I walk from our house to my casita or the skunks who wander through our yard at night on their way to the golf course across the street. Have you ever noticed how skunks undulate as they walk? Disgusting!

But snakes -- only snakes -- cause me to melt down to utter helplessness.

Pat told me that she overcame her fear of spiders by asking the science teacher at the school (where both were teaching) to tell her more about them and, the more she learned, the less afraid she became.

I don't want to learn more about rattlesnakes. I just want to avoid them.

Which is a trick here in the Arizona desert.

Snakes, lizards and skunks, oh my! They are native to this little area of paradise.

To be honest, though, this was the first rattlesnake we've seen on our property in our five years here. So it isn't a constant threat.

And maybe an occasional melt-down over a snake is okay.

Maybe letting my inner sissy loose over something like a snake lets me be stoic in the face of things more out of my control but of deep concern, those bigger, scarier things like the chaos in Washington, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the threats of nuclear war or global warming...or, more immediately, the life-changing and life-threatening illnesses we see in neighbors all around us in our over-55 community.

Maybe the more minor, if heart-fluttering, fears are just a reminder that, as brave as we think we are about most things in our adult lives, there are areas of vulnerability.

"I'm sorry I was such a sissy about the snake," I told Bob later. "I'm sorry I wasn't more helpful."

He grinned. "It's okay," he said. "No reason to be ashamed. I couldn't bear the thought of getting up in front of a big crowd of people to make a speech..."

We all have our fears..and our areas of strength, our brave selves and our inner sissies. Being in touch with both is, at once, reassuring and humbling.