Sunday, February 28, 2016

Emotional Retirement Planning

Our friend looked wistful when he greeted us the other night. "Ah, the retired crowd...every day a holiday, on a perpetual vacation...I can hardly wait!"

I smiled at his wistfulness. It sounded so similar to what my husband Bob or I might have said a decade ago as we sat through endless commutes, contentious meetings, stressful deadlines and rolled our eyes over office politics.

All these years later, Bob is happily retired and I am happily re-engaged with my career. It works for both of us.

We did a lot of planning and saving in our last 20 working years to make retirement possible. We sought advice from several financial planners and attended retirement seminars. We crunched numbers and made plans to move to a less expensive area.

When we thought of the emotional component of leaving the work that had filled so much of our adult lives from youth to maturity, we thought only of the benefits: no more getting up at 4 a.m., no more commuting, no more office politics. We thought of life as an endless vacation in a spot where we had spent a number of vacation days.

In terms of emotional retirement planning, we simply looked forward to having our time be our own, having more time together.

We have lots of company. So many plan financially but not emotionally for this major life transition.

But planning emotionally can make a major difference. What does it mean to pause and think about what matters to you, what will continue to matter and what goals you might have for the future?


Who will I be without that job title?

For some, the transition to anonymous retirement is welcome. No more titles and no more of the heavy responsibility and headaches that go with those titles. My friend Chuck, who spent most of his adult years as a well-known doctor, is happy living quite differently in retirement. He is a docent at a local television station and an eager participant in a conversational French class that has gone on for two years and introduced him to a whole new group of friends. Even when he has the chance to be interviewed as an expert, he takes a pass. "I love what I'm doing now -- which means sometimes doing nothing at all," he says.

Others chafe at the realities of being retired, suffering from what we call FIPS (or Formerly Important Person Syndrome), boredom or the desire to continue to contribute in some way.

After two years of staring at the t.v. screen and feeling himself growing alarmingly old, one of my neighbors, a former sales executive, became involved in local politics and finds that it has renewed his spirit.

Even when you plan to continue to work part-time or to pursue a passion long neglected, you may find yourself at a crossroads.

While my husband Bob's dream was retirement, mine was to shift my work focus back to my first career and greatest passion: writing. While I had worked for many years as a staff writer and then a busy freelancer, changing times in publishing meant less and less income and the necessity of supporting my writing habit with other employment. For the last 20 years before retirement, I worked primarily as a psychotherapist, relegating my writing to evenings and weekends. When we moved to Arizona, I vowed to make writing the center of my working life again.

However, major changes in the publishing world meant some key decisions: would I be happiest writing primarily for pleasure and possible publication? Or did I envision attempting to recapture the high profile career I had once had?

What has evolved, during six years of blogging and two books published by major publishing houses with another on the horizon, was a hybrid of the above: I decided that, while writing in itself was a pleasure for me and that, while it might prove impossible to duplicate my earlier publishing successes, I wanted to devote my best efforts to working my way back to a thriving writing career. Trying for a high profile career once again has meant much more effort and much less leisure than I originally envisioned for these years. For now, that trade-off feels worth it. Sometime in the next decade, my priorities may change.

What do I want to do instead of the job I'm doing now? Do I want a new career, new or rediscovered hobbies or meaningful volunteer work? Plunging into retirement with no more vision than endless golf and delicious leisure can lead to boredom and loss of purpose in life. While dreams of doing nothing are wonderful when you're battling commutes, office politics and a frantic schedule, they are not sustainable.

What can happen without a plan is what I see so much around me: people listlessly watching t.v. for hours a day; people drinking too much and complaining too much; people expecting adult children and grandchildren to fill the gap that a job and work friends have left with their absence. Too often, they find life feeling meaningless without plans and goals and that adult children have their own lives and responsibilities and can't provide constant or even frequent companionship.

Those with a plan can have rich, satisfying lives of new hobbies and pursuits, new interests, friends and work -- volunteer or part-time paid -- that offers structure and meaning to their lives.

How and where do I want to live? Do I want to age in place or move to a different community? Live near loved ones -- or far away?

Often, it makes sense to just wait and see, settling into retirement and adjusting to that in a familiar place while exploring other possibilities. For some, closeness to family means everything -- and a move away is unthinkable. Others are eager to make retirement dreams happen in a new place -- perhaps in the Sunbelt, perhaps in a retirement haven.

While active adult communities make perfect sense for some people, it's a good idea to spend time checking them out before making a major move. When you find a community that looks like the perfect relocation spot, visit several times in all seasons. Rent temporarily to get a real day-by-day sense of the community before you commit to buying. Ask lots of questions and weigh the answers against your priorities. For example, if you imagine your grandchildren spending a lot of time with you, are they welcome to use the facilities? Or are they restricted to certain limited hours or banned altogether? How would you feel about living surrounded by aging peers? For some, it might mean a sense of camaraderie, a feeling of "We're all in this together!" For others, it may be depressing as the toll of time becomes increasingly apparent.

Bob and I thought we had explored all of these possibilities thoroughly before choosing to sell our California home of 29 years to move to a new active adult community in Arizona that was built with Baby Boomers very much in mind. It's beautiful, has an excellent gym, swimming pools and exercise options as well as offerings in continuing education and any hobby you could imagine. Our initial impression was that it was a friendly place where you could really get to know your neighbors. After a brief stay several years before our move and another month-long one ten months before we left our jobs, we found the perfect house and signed on the dotted line.

In many ways, we have not been disappointed. We love the wide, open spaces and traffic-free country roads. It's hard to beat the workout facilities here. We absolutely love our house, a place we would never have been able to afford in California. And we've made some wonderful friends here.

But some initial impressions can be deceiving. The community tends to be more clique-ish than friendly, populated by an alarming number of aging mean girls. As we age and envision a time, hopefully in the far off future, when we won't be able to drive long distances or at all, we worry about the remoteness of our location. We've found that getting to know neighbors really well isn't always a positive thing. And the difference that six years can make at this age is often alarming.

When we first moved here six years ago, the neighborhood was bustling with excited, healthy, active people. Now we've seen deaths, life-threatening and life-limiting illnesses, descents into dementia and all the less enticing aspects of growing older. And we've found that we're not all in it together -- that some people become quickly disabled while other people, often older, thrive. And even among those who thrive, life can change in an instant.

And we've found that we miss the people we left behind in California -- from family to long-time friends to the special next-door neighbors we took for granted -- much more than we had anticipated.

In quiet moments, Bob and I agree, all things being equal, if we had it to do over, we would choose to stay put in our little California ranch house that was close to everything and everybody. But having made the choice to leave, we focus on the positive and on what we love about where we are. And we admit that, had we not made the move, we might be wondering about that road not taken, about whether life might have been better in a new place. It's a quirk of human nature to wonder. But, most days, we give heart-felt thanks for our six happy years of retirement and career re-invention and tell ourselves that how and where we've chosen to live was simply meant to be.

As you do your emotional retirement planning, you may quickly realize that it's impossible to plan in advance for every eventuality. But it can be important to consider the following:

Expect a sense of disorientation as well as exhilaration post-retirement. Joe, a long-time friend of mine was exhausted from 40 years in a demanding profession and was thrilled when he was able to retire. He loved having more time to travel and to relax. But, at first, he admitted that during quiet times at home, he didn't know quite what to do with himself. He re-focused his life on making new plans and dreams: starting a part-time business, volunteering for an animal rescue organization and strengthening ties with lifelong friends.

Aim for enhancement, not deterioration. Life is not over. It's just different.  For some people, especially those for whom retirement was not entirely voluntary, stepping away from work that has filled their adult years may feel like an ending and the start of a steep downward slope toward deterioration, disability and death. Instead of sitting passively in front of the television set, decide what you want to learn and how you want to grow.

Our friend Theo is a man of many accomplishments. A retired social worker, he is both intellectually and emotionally intelligent. He is one of the most physically fit people in our community with an awesome daily exercise schedule. Watching him dance -- he's an expert at jazz tap -- is a wonder. But he confessed one day that he had always had a dream to learn to play an instrument and, for the past five years, Bob has been giving him informal guitar lessons. Now they have weekly jam sessions, both loving the process of making music and sharing this special interest with each other.

Bob has an insatiable desire to learn. He has not only taken a long list of classes at our Arizona State University extension here in the community, but he has also immersed himself in online classes in everything from physics to the classics. He has read every play Shakespeare wrote, tackled Ulysses, and is currently reading a college text on physical geography, learning everything he can about weather. He eagerly works on a daily crossword puzzle and has newly discovered the joy of jigsaw puzzles. His days are filled -- from dawn to the wee hours -- with learning, exploring and enjoying new subjects and pursuits.

Know that there are phases of retirement.  This is important to keep in mind during emotional retirement planning.  When one retires, there is a honeymoon phase, a settling in phase, and a facing limitations phase. For some, this can be telescoped into a few years. For others, the active, settled phase goes on for years.

During the honeymoon phase of retirement, the sheer joy of not having to live a life dominated by clocks -- alarm clocks, time clocks -- sets the tone. You thrill in the luxury of not having to get up pre-dawn, of being able to dress casually every day of the week, of going to movies in the middle of the day any day of the week, of having more time to spend with grandchildren, friends or beloved pets. Seemingly endless possibilities for travel, adventure, learning and leisure are a constant delight.

Then there is the settling in phase. You may still be delighted and grateful to have reached this time in your life, but life resumes some semblance of normal. There are bills to pay and actual life in retirement is more expensive than you imagined, even in your careful planning. Root canals, car transmission repairs or home appliance failures seem to happen in expensive clusters. You may find you like travel, but don't choose to travel as much as you had planned, perhaps for health reasons, perhaps for financial reasons or perhaps because you find your interests changing as life goes on. As you settle in to your new life, you find a mix of what pleases you, what you have to do, and dreams for the future.

Then comes the phase where you face limitations and make a whole new set of adjustments. Maybe illness or disability has caused your focus to narrow, your world to become smaller, by necessity. We've seen this start to happen with a number of our neighbors. Doctors' appointments began to crowd out lunch dates and travel plans. The golf clubs gather dust in the garage. And there are hard questions: how long will I be able to live unassisted? Does this home and this environment make sense for me anymore? You may find that, as your health changes, your priorities, plans and dreams may change, too. It isn't all depressing and all downhill. It just is. One can learn to live fully, open to new people and new experiences, in this phase of retirement as well.

As with the earlier phases of retirement,  life can be both sweet and challenging as feelings of loss and time limits co-exist with feelings of joy and new discovery.

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."