I scooped - or rather, scraped - up yet another offering of poop by my now 4-month-old puppy, and quickly transitioned into a pillar of core strength as I held onto the leash, taught with a puppy lunging away from me attempting to chase a butterfly, while with the other hand deftly tied the poop bag into a knot. Phew! I did it. And I thought, this whole puppernity leave gig is a LOT of work. No more sleeping in (OK, I don't do that anyway), planning my daily schedule keeping the puppy’s needs in mind (thank you dear Lord for the crate!), visits to the vet, taking him and the older dog for walks (no more than 5 minutes per month of puppy’s life, per day, I just learned), taking him to obedience training… It really is like having a newborn baby in many respects.
This blogpost started with me picking up poop, and poop is actually the main theme. Not literally (phew!), but more of a useful metaphor for life. Lately I have found myself sort of obsessed with the concept of a sh*t sandwich. My kids think it’s disgusting, but I admit that I have found myself saying “sh*t sandwich” (without the polite asterisk) pretty frequently while engaging in what I call Parenting. Here is an example:
Puppy makes a sound, I say, “he needs to go out and pee, please take him out,” child continues whatever activity they were doing, puppy pees on kitchen floor, I remind kid that puppy’s peeing inside was human error, and now child must take puppy out and clean up puddle. Kid grumbles. And I say, “this is the sh*t sandwich of getting a puppy.”
It is graduation season, and my firstborn is about to graduate from high school next week (eeeeek!), and I have been privy to several conversations with young adults about career options and college majors. We talk about what they enjoy, what they feel they are good at, what appeals to them. But especially now that so much of my day revolves around poop (of the canine type), I also talk about their version of the sh*t sandwich. What are they willing to tolerate? A couple of them mention law school. So perhaps their sh*t sandwich includes endless reading, memorization of facts, engaging in conflict, tons of stress, long hours, conservative outfits, being in a competitive environment. If all of this seems part of the appeal, then they are probably headed down the right path. If it’s their version of a sh*t sandwich but they can stomach it because they truly feel a calling to pursue law (and it’s not just because their parents expect it), then at least they are less likely to be blindsided by the poopy stuff.
I think it’s especially important to talk about the sh*t sandwich in this day and age when kids are led to believe by their parents, educators, influencers and US News & World Report that there is really only one narrow path to success and anything less is mediocre at best. Anxiety and suicide are at epidemic rates among our young, and while mental health is a complicated topic, I have to ask myself, how many young adults are falling apart because they started off all excited about their course of study, or career or job, and were never warned about the sh*t sandwich? Everyone knows that law school is hard, medical residents have an insane schedule, and professional actors have to wait tables for years on end. But how about the fact that most jobs are mostly a lot of work, mostly not that fun? If I were to write a top 5 list of Sh*t Sandwiches it may look something like this (in no particular order):
I love taking photos and post them on Facebook and Instagram, and people often comment on how good they are. But what they may not know is that for every great photo, there were ten lousy ones. I think of life the same way. For every great entry in the Fakebook or Instagram highlight reel, there were many moments, interactions, and disappointments that were undocumented. The sh*t sandwich. And that’s okay - but let’s be real and acknowledge that we are all going to experience self-doubt, disappointment in others, wondering if we made the wrong choice, being tempted to give up. That is the sh*t sandwich. Put it in the poop bag, tie the knot so you can’t smell it, and toss it in the trash. And then do the next right thing.
The woman, a stranger, turned around and looked right at me, smiled, and then mouthed the words, “I see you.”
You may be thinking, creeeepy. But it wasn’t creepy, it was a powerful moment of connection. We were in church and the pastor had asked all of the women, of all ages, to stand up, and he urged the men and boys to cheer for us at least as heartily as they do their sports teams. So while we were standing there, which to me was a tad awkward, I looked around and marveled at how much of the congregation was female, and that was when that woman’s gaze met mine.
Mother’s Day is like Valentine’s Day. A “Hallmark holiday” that can be either a source of joy and gratitude, or a reminder of what we don’t have. Another opportunity to compare ourselves and our lives to others, or to unfulfilled dreams, or things gone wrong. My own relationship with Mother’s Day has been an evolving one. Some years have been full of joy, not taking for granted the miracle that I had two healthy kids after having had three miscarriages. Some years have been fraught with sadness, having lost my mom to cancer when my kids were 1 month and 3 years old. Some years I have longed for one thing on Mother’s Day: to have some peace and quiet, nobody needing anything from me. “All I want is a weekend at home alone” was often my wish (hasn’t happened yet - and at this point I don’t really want that anyway). Now, my kids are 15 and 18, and the oldest is leaving for college in a few months. My wish for today was, “Please come to church, let’s go to lunch at our favorite diner with vegan options, and then please clean your room.” I used to long for silence and space, and now I still cherish both, but I have learned to create that for myself on a regular basis, as my Self-Care items on my daily To Do List. Just like many people scoff at these Hallmark holidays by saying, “every day should be Mother’s Day” or Valentine’s Day, I have realized I need every day to include Self-Care (which is a work in progress, and some days I am better at this than others). It would be unrealistic and immature of me to hope that my family would know exactly what I want and need, and do it all on Mother’s Day.
I have heard the saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” I think this means, if I expect everyone to do as I say, and as I don’t say but fervently hope, I am setting them and myself up for failure, which will lead to my resenting them for not getting me, so obviously they don’t really love me, and they in turn will resent me for my assumptions and display of dismay and anger. Makes sense to me. So at some point I started to consciously lower my expectations for holidays, weekends, events that had a lot riding on them. And it worked. But I was careful not to confuse lowered expectations with settling for less than I and others deserved. It did not mean being a martyr (which is just a really codependent passive aggressive approach, yuck). For me, lowering expectations actually meant, I changed the way I looked at things. I would set an intention beforehand, such as, be present; be of service; don’t worry about getting anything done; be a good listener; be helpful; give yourself permission to not say anything, or to leave the room, or to go for a run…
A couple of dear friends thoughtfully texted me this weekend to say they were thinking of me, as I faced another Mother’s Day without my mom. “I see you” is what each of these texts basically told me. So many of my friends have lost their moms, or are currently dealing with the heartbreaking situation of witnessing their mother slip away physically and/or mentally. Or perhaps their dreams of being moms themselves have been thwarted. Or they are moms but lost some precious angels along the way, before birth or after. Some of my friends have had to endure life after their beautiful child was ripped away from them due to illness or violence or an accident. How hard it must be for you to see other seemingly intact families celebrate and carry on, oblivious to your pain.
I see you…
As I looked around the crowded church this morning at all of the women, representing all stages and ages, all races and ethnicities, various levels of belief, all sorts of professions and socioeconomic status, I thought about what a privilege it is to be a part of this female tribe. I thought about how lucky I am to have friends who are older than me and have walked through things before me, and are now shining a light for me to follow, and to learn from their wisdom. Our culture may want us to believe that after a certain age (50+?) we are no longer relevant and we are only beautiful if we tug, smoothen, cut, and inject here and there. But I know that is yet one more lie that I refuse to believe.
If my mom was still around, and was healthy, I know she would be doing all sorts of community service and creating beautiful clothing, and going to the gym 365 days a year with her gold Reebok sneakers. I am sad she is not here to watch my daughter embark on living out her dream in fashion, which she inherited from my mom, and to take in my son’s beautiful, kind spirit and playful sense of humor. And, I am grateful that I can truly understand how hard it is when a friend loses her mother, how untethered we feel.
I see you…
A meditation teacher I had once used to say at the end of the weekly class, “Have the week that you have.” In other words, let go of expectations, accept what is. Instead of “Happy Mother’s Day” I would like to say, I see you, on this Mother’s Day. And you are beautiful, and strong, resilient, wise, and you have everything you need, right inside of you. And, no matter what, you are loved beyond any human comprehension.
Tonight we have a graduation party. For our puppy. Except he isn’t exactly graduating because he is 3.5 months old and apparently it is recommended he keep taking this weekly class until he is 6 months old, at which point he then moves up the next level. So far he pretty much obeys Sit, Leave It, Let’s Go (for walking). He has done pretty well, especially since he is by far the youngest in the class. I wanted to start off on the right foot especially because everyone tells me labs are brilliant, and I know from having an older dog and two teenagers, the work you put in on the front end is worth every bit of effort. In our first class, we went round the room and shared our puppy’s name and something interesting and one of the owners shared that her puppy is bilingual. A part of me immediately felt the need to teach our puppy at least another two languages.
Our oldest kid is graduating this month too, but unlike the puppy, she is really done with high school. She got to experience three high schools on two continents, and she is more than happy to move on. We moved to the DC area when our kids were going into 8th and 11th grades and it was in some ways a total culture shock. For one, this area has a great amount of wealth, which in practical ways means many of the kids have Uber accounts and credit cards in middle school (which means, a certain disconnect from parent interaction and oversight). The other thing that really hit me was the amount of emphasis on achievement, or rather, over-achievement, which has created an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety on local youth.
I decided that our first year here, my main priority was going to be to do whatever I needed to do to be the calm, safe presence and protect the calm safety in our home, as my husband transitioned into a new job and my kids figured out how to survive and find their new sweet spot in their new schools. So I didn’t throw myself into things, instead deciding to have a BS year (Be Still). Of course, this was not exactly executed because of my need to be doing interesting things, but for the most part, I took a listening stance. I wanted to see what was going on here, where there is most need, what is the culture like, etc.
Not long after we moved here, I met someone who does college admissions coaching. I had never heard of this, but apparently it’s a Thing here, and other areas. They have different levels of coaching (i.e. price points) but we are basically talking, thousands of dollars to have someone give your kid a checklist with structure and accountability, and help them with their essay (all things their high school counselor and website provides, FYI). I asked this person why she had gotten into this and she said that when her oldest was in middle school, she felt like some of her friends weren’t motivated enough, and that this type of coaching would help the kids make better choices now, if they were already thinking of college and how important it is to be doing well as early as middle school.
As I listened, I thought, OK, part of me thinks that makes sense. Our choices can definitely help us or hinder us further down the line. But part of me thought, that is terrible - to stress our kids out so early about college! Of course, I was also thinking that based on what I know of mental health, when kids are doing stupid stuff, for example drinking in 7th grade, it’s not because they lack vision and focus as much as, there is a good chance they are hurting because of trauma, family conflict, etc., and making poor choices are a way for them to escape discomfort. In my years of coaching, and of working with people with addiction, I have never heard, “I really wish someone had put more pressure on me to achieve and be a better student.” If anything, I have repeatedly heard, “I really wish my parents hadn’t pressured me so much to do well in school/sports/music/my weight… I wish they had asked me what I wanted, and listened to the answer, even if it was, ‘I don’t know, but not this.”
I totally get the urge to give our kids the best we can to set them up for “success” and provide the most opportunities. Remember that moment I described above, where I felt a twinge (shame? Competitiveness? Inadequacy?) because my puppy only understands one language? And that is for a freaking puppy. So I totally get it when it appears, thanks to Fakebook, lawn signs, local newspaper announcements and features, school parent forums - that everyone else’s kid is receiving awards, recognitions, getting recruited, getting “verified” on social media, turning down Ivy League offers. It’s no wonder so many kids are spending their summers in Kumon tutoring, SAT prep courses, un-fun summer camps. It makes sense that so many parents are making their kids get a special plan so they can have special accommodations for test-taking (before you get all worked up, I know, some kids do need these, but definitely not to the extent that we are seeing, especially in affluent areas where parents have figured out how to game the system). That whole college scandal we just witnessed? I just see it as an extreme version of what so many people are willing and wanting to do. It is so easy to judge when we are not in the position or have the temptation to do something. But if we dial it back and bring it back to our own context, may that maybe look a bit more like our reality? For example:
A little while ago, a mom was anguished over her high school aged son, who is in treatment for substance use disorder and depression. Apparently he had just relapsed. She was miffed, saying, “We gave him everything! We could tell when he was really young how much talent he had, so we gave him the best coaching, got him on the best teams, etc. Now we give him this great treatment program and this is what he does?!” I thought, “Did you ever ask him if this was what he wanted?” I imagined what it must be like to be this young man, feeling that he has disappointed his parents who see him as unfulfilled potential, someone who “wasted” all of his opportunity. I thought, how hard for him to carry his parents’ burden this way - no wonder he feels compelled to escape.
I know how hard it is, probably one of the hardest parts of parenting, to know what our kids are capable of, and to watch them flounder, or be distracted, or have priorities that perhaps don’t match our vision for them. We parents are excellent at two things: future-tripping and catastrophizing. So it seems like we are being super helpful when we sign them up for all of the things, make sure they get 10,000 hours in at least one of them, and freak out if they trip up. In complete transparency, I have to check my own mindset and motives every day. Last fall, our 9th grade son was involved in 4 sports at the same time. I know, right now you are thinking, “and you are telling me to CTFD???” (CTFD= Calm The F-k Down). Bear with me. He was finishing up a summer Triathlon program, doing a brief Learn To Row through his high school, on an in-house hockey team, and checking out his high school hockey team. I knew this insanity was temporary and I allowed it as he wanted to do this, and I was curious to see where it would go. When he decided to prune a couple of things, we talked about how sometimes it is wise to know when a season has ended. Our culture loves to vilify quitting (unless it’s smoking or heroin), but I think it’s an important value to teach our kids, especially if we are going to teach them about self-care.
Often, I tell my kids, “if everyone is doing something, it’s probably either stupid or not right for me.” I admit for a minute I considered getting a college admissions coach for my daughter since it seemed like everyone else here was doing it, and I wondered, what am I missing? Fortunately, she told me that was stupid, so I didn’t. (And she got in everywhere she applied). I remember when she was in 6th grade, I was talking with another parent, who was hoping her daughters would go to an Ivy League school (they weren’t even in middle school yet) because of how many opportunities this would bring them. I replied something like, “I really don’t think that where a kid goes to college ultimately determines how happy and well-adjusted they are adults. I think that if someone really wants to do a certain type of work, using their strengths, and they feel it is meaningful work, they will find their way there and be successful - no matter what school they go to.”
Now, six years later, I still believe that. I heard Dr. Lisa D’Amour say, “Today, middle school is high school and high school is college” in terms of the pressure to achieve and perform. That is crazy - no wonder so many kids are losing sleep and freaking out. As parents, I think we can all agree that our primary role is to keep our kids safe and provide them with unconditional love. I think it would be an excellent thing to ponder on a regular basis, whether or not our child feels like we doing this? We lock the doors, push for safe schools, safe water, etc. - but are we doing our best to nurture their tender hearts and souls?
“The idea that ‘I need to be happy’ or ‘my child deserves to be happy’ comes from a sense that the present moment is somehow lacking. In other words, we see our life through a lens of scarcity, noticing all the things we don’t have instead of the abundant way the universe provides for us. And so, as the Declaration of Independence sanctions, we set off in “the pursuit of happiness,” not realizing that this can never bring us happiness. On the contrary, it’s the breeding ground of discontent and disappointment.”
So, how do we parent in a way that we are connected with our child, see them and hear them and accept them as they are, while also guiding them through this achievement-focused environment? I think that like all things I coach with, there is no one size fits all. Some kids are innately achievement-focused and they thrive under huge amounts of stress, happily taking on five AP classes while starting a new club and leading several teams and launching a foundation to end world poverty while running a marathon to raise money for childhood cancer. We need these kinds of kids, just as we need the kids who are not quite as driven, or haven’t yet grown into their drive. I think as parents it is important to try to tune out the insanity around us with other parents (at school forums and in parent Facebook groups), listen to our kids and allow them to show us what they need, and be discerning. Don’t believe a lot of what you hear about what it takes to get into college, what your kid “needs” to do, and what success means and how to get there.
To learn more about how to help your kids by being a more connected, mindful parent, check out our upcoming workshop: Connected Parenting.
I went from “hell no!!” to “let’s do it” in two weeks. So, now we have a puppy. Bruno is absolutely adorable. I lose myself in his folds of soft fur and his gleeful licks. Since we got him 12 days ago, I have spent hours observing him, figuring out what type of ground-sniff means he’s about to pee, what type of nip means he’s overtired and needs his crate, and mesmerized by his absolute fascination with pieces of wood out in the yard. My “hell no” to “yes” was mostly because it occurred to me that while a ton of work, Bruno would force me to simplify and to hone my focus, bringing it to things that really matter. Like that piece of wood, that acorn, that pile of deer poop.
Mostly, the reasons I said yes have so far panned out. People have come to the house to see him, which has been wonderful. My kids have emerged from their rooms and do their homework downstairs in the kitchen. I am going to guess their screen time has gone down. They have also seen how much work he is, and have stepped up to help as much as their busy student, athlete, musical rehearsal commitments will allow. Last night in puppy training class, Bill and I beamed with pride as our puppy, the smallest and youngest by far in the class, came when called, sat and then stayed. He may not be bilingual like the dog in the corner, but we know it’s just a matter of time.
But it’s not all fun and joy with a new puppy. There is a part of me that is thrilled at my change of heart. That part of me that agreed to the puppy and saw its merits is grateful. The part of me that looks ahead and sees Bruno as a therapy dog helping me in my work with clients seeking better brain wellness, is happy and hopeful. But there are other parts of me that are not so satisfied with the adorable invasion. I am not able to work long shifts any more, as the rehab does not allow dogs, so I am only working there now when therapists need a fill-in for group sessions. I pulled out of a conference last week because getting puppy coverage for 12 hour days was going to be too challenging. The parts of me that cherish independence, spontaneity, freedom, peace and quiet have been extremely challenged the last 12 days. The part of me that wants to be go! Go! Go! Is challenged by the tedium and monotony of essentially having a newborn in the house.
I am very familiar with ambivalence. When I talk with clients, I spend a lot of time exploring their mixed feelings about their goals and expectations. If they are seeking sobriety, we talk about how a part of them may want to be sober because of the way a body and brain and life without alcohol and other drugs is far healthier, more compassionate, more present, and more connected. And, we talk about their part(s) that may feel rebellious, may fear being different (which is always the case with people seeking sobriety, since we live in a booze-centered culture), may fear a life of boredom, isolation, lack of adventure etc. Even if you haven’t thought about sobriety, you have probably at some point considered embarking on a new health challenge, or business-building endeavor. You get the idea, feel super excited, start going, and then the energy starts to fizzle. Maybe something in your life sidelines you for a bit and you lose the momentum, and you never quite regain it. So you once again berate yourself for your lack of willpower, your laziness, your inability to commit and follow-through.
I don’t believe you are lazy or lack willpower. I believe that the part of you that initially felt that excitement and drive, was the part of you that loves to feel in control, organized, determined, successful. But the thing is, when we make a lot of our decisions, especially these big ones that are often tied to our ego, we don’t usually check in with all the other parts of us. How about the part of you that prioritizes your family? When you signed up for Ironman, was that part asked how it felt knowing that your ass would be on a bike more than in a chair at the dinner table or on the bleachers cheering on the kids? When you got pumped about doubling your business income, did you confer with your part that is devoutly committed to community outreach? When you invested $3,000 in a course that guaranteed you would write a book ready to publish, did you consult with your part that would rather sleep than get up at 4am to write before anyone woke up?
Every day, I hear ambivalence, in my brain and in those of my friends and clients. Here are some of the most typical ones:
And so on. I actually don’t believe anyone is lazy. Or crazy. Actually, we are all crazy, just some of us hide it better than others. And I believe we all have an inner self that is kind, compassionate, wise, optimistic, generous, hard-working, committed, loving. But from what I know about trauma, and how it affects our brain health, I believe we learn different ways to cope, to organize the world, and to feel a sense of control. In IFS (Internal Family Systems - I am a certified IFS Coach), we believe that we are all a collection of parts. Some of these parts were developed when we were in certain traumatic situations in our life, and perhaps their go-to reaction to situations is to disconnect, hide, lash out, numb, etc. When we are in situations that feel stressful, or where we have a decision to make, we may feel ambivalent because our different parts are polarized. The part of me that prioritizes simplicity and a peaceful environment feels resentful and exhausted after hours of managing a puppy, an older dog, a coaching business, volunteer commitments, and figuring out a healthy plant-based dinner while getting in my workout, my 2 daily meditations, and my studies. That part is mad it was not given a veto vote during Puppy Decision. Someone observing me may think gosh, she was so happy an hour ago with the puppy, why is she suddenly so exhausted and cranky and regretting having agreed to the puppy? You should have given it more thought, woman! But the thing is I did give it a lot of thought. And I did consult with my different parts. And, even in the midst of a crankfest, if I remind myself that it is OK, I did not make a huge mistake, I just need to listen to the parts right now that are feeling angry and tired, I eventually reach a calmer state. This works with other scenarios from the above list. Whichever of the scenarios applies to you, I guarantee you can (with me, or another IFS coach or therapist) start to identify different parts within you and as you start to listen to them, with compassion and curiosity, you will most likely lessen your resistance and your self-judgment and even self-loathing.
A client I was working with the other day had an a-ha moment when I explained this to him and did an exercise with him around his parts. I mentioned that sometimes it is helpful to visualize a board meeting, with each of our parts in a chair. And rather than a hostile scenario where everyone is interrupting each other and there is an obvious hierarchy, we turn it into a scenario where each part gets to feel heard because we pass a talking stick around, like in a Native American council. Each part gets to speak while they are in possession of the stick, and then they pass it to the next person, who then gets to be heard. And like in 12 step meetings, there is no cross-talking, so the parts can be assured that no other part will try to fix them or give them advice. And then, ideally we are in a more calm state and we can recognize which part needs to be making the executive decisions right now, but the other parts feel satisfied they have been heard. A high-powered executive, this client lit up at this idea, which made complete sense to him.
I hear the puppy waking up now, so the part of me that loves peace and silence and writing feels heard, and now the part of me that wants to go hug that bundle of love and take him out to pee and look at daffodils is going to take the reins.
Yesterday I held a talk in my community for adults who were preoccupied with how their (and other people’s) children could best manage stress. Prevention is the best way to solve problems, and I hoped to give the audience insight into, and tools for, preventing further anxiety, depression, addiction, etc in their and other people’s kids. I was pleased with the turnout and I received some great feedback, and overall, I am really happy I put myself out there this way. I plan to hold more similar workshops, but in the meantime, I wanted to write about something that I think contributes a lot to the issues I listed above, both in kids and in adults.
A few years ago, I went to a friend’s house. She had just moved into this gorgeous mansion and had invited me to lunch. It was a beautiful spread of super healthy food of various shades of green (my fave!) and we ate at her dining room table, with heavy silverware, all posh and civilized. After lunch, she asked if I wanted a tour of the house. Of course I did! So she led me through room after gorgeous room, everything super tidy. Then we went upstairs and she showed me all of the bedrooms. They were a mess. Her kids were teens, so it was that kind of mess that teens innately know how to create, and somehow seem to survive in without coming unhinged. Oh wait… Anyway, I was shocked. Not because of the mess (my kids weren’t teens yet so I didn’t know this was super normal), but because my friend never apologized for the mess. She never did that thing we all tend to do: “I am so sorry it’s a mess - I’ve asked him to blah blah blah…” Nope, she took me through each inhabited room on the 2nd and 3rd floors and never said anything about how, well, lived-in they were.
That day, my friend gave me one of the best gifts another woman has ever given me. She gave me permission to not be (as) worried about what others think about my domestic diva-ness. Or lack thereof. (Note: I am a never-ending work in progress). By not killing herself over picking up everything, or fighting with her kids to do so the night before, or denying me the opportunity to see the “real” parts of her new home, or apologizing for the lack of perfection - she allowed me to own my imperfection. I became more aware of when I would do all of the above. I began to reflect on WHY I did all of the above. Did I think someone would feel uncomfortable with my lack of domestic perfection? Did I think they would scorn me? Dislike me? And then I thought about the fact she didn’t apologize, which was actually the most amazing part to me. Because I would certainly have good friends over even if the house was a mess, but I would always barricade the doorway until I had blurted out an apologetic warning. What is that about?! My friend, that day, showed me what acceptance is about. Acceptance of herself, of her kids, of imperfection.
At yesterday’s event I did not tell this story, but I told other stories because I know that I connect best when someone shares a story, and if it’s a personal one, all the better. All I really know in life is my own life experience thus far, so when people ask me things like, “How do I handle it when my daughter is so anxious she doesn’t want to go to school?” or “I am really worried my son is falling behind at school and I am overwhelmed, what do I do?” or “I am terrified that life is so crazy and chaotic that I am never going to feel in control again, what do I do?” - I may not have experienced their exact situation. But I do know that our children are feeling lots of pressure from all kinds of places, and the best we can do for them is to be a non-anxious presence, and guide them from a place of love and acceptance (which, by the way, is the intention I set before each meeting with a coaching client). This is where our own self-care comes in. When we prioritize our self-care, and do the things we need to do in order to feel somewhat rested, fit, purposeful, creative, and connected, we are more likely to like ourselves, which then translates into a person who can show up for someone else with love, acceptance, and the patience to not react to every button-pushing moment.
A few of the young adults I have worked with who are in recovery from addiction (and if you don’t know this, alcohol and other drugs are usually if not always a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, which often include anxiety, grief, anger, loneliness, boredom, frustration, fear, etc), have told me, “Something I love about being in recovery is that I get to talk with people who are being real. We talk about the hard stuff. I finally feel like someone hears me and gets me.” I have often told my kids, “I wish there was AA for you guys and your friends and peers, without you needing to be afflicted with anything, just a place where you know you can show up, share your problems and fears, and know you are heard and accepted and no one is trying to fix you. Because the thing is, this stuff you are going through, I guarantee most of your classmates are going through, and you all think you are the only ones who feel this way. Trust me, Little Miss Popular has a lot of stuff going on and you have no idea. If you all had a space like this, AA and NA would be far less needed, sigh.”
“When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”
This type of connection is powerful and it is a gift. And for people in recovery, it is an enormous source of gratitude. It is such a relief to be able to invite someone in without having to make all of the beds and fold all of the clothes and apologize for anything that would be a “Before” segment of the Mari Kondo show, or to have to relate to someone on that surface level that is so exhausting.
The thing is, one of the reasons that perfection and its pursuit is so pervasive, is that it is yet another socially-acceptable and even revered addiction. (Other socially acceptable addictions are workaholism, workout & diet addiction, and to a large extent alcoholism - as long as you don’t go “too far” with it). What is the definition of addiction? To me, it’s when you do something that you know is stunting your growth, your wellness, your relationships, and yet you keep doing it. You experience detrimental consequences yet you do it again. And again.
So what does this have to do with our kids? Well, as I pointed out yesterday, we, the parents/primary caregivers, are our kids’ first and most profound influencers. Studies have proven that when our kids are in certain situations with substances, and there is a choice to be made, their parents’ attitude toward substances will be the strongest filter for the decision. This is the same filter through which many of their attitudes and choices go through, even though they may not realize it and even though it seems like they are not listening to us or all they do is fight us. So, as their primary influencers, if in our actions, we are showing them that we are only satisfied with perfection - with our house, our car, our clothes, our skin, our hair, our weight, our work performance, our friends, our Instagram posts, etc. - it must be terrifying to them when they know (or believe) they are incapable of perfection in our eyes.
We do not do this on purpose. As I pointed out at the talk yesterday, I don’t think any of us gets up and says, “I am going to be Little Miss Perfect today!” I think what we do is we get up, and we do what needs to be done, throughout the day, to keep things going, to put out fires, to avoid the fires, and to (on the good days) look presentable and do a pretty good job. And what we may not even realize is that we are not creating moments to connect with friends and peers, or with our family, in ways that are a tad more vulnerable. Unless we are on a retreat with our friends, or in a self-help meeting, we are probably not often sharing some of our deepest fears and daily frustrations. Not because we don’t want to show that side of ourselves as much as, we don’t want to be debbie-downers or the annoying complainer. And that is probably a good thing, by the way (constantly complaining without trying to change anything is a total turnoff for most healthy people). But it can get to the point where we have erected barriers to real connection, because we may not even realize that we have now created this appearance that we are doing super awesome all of the time, that we never make mistakes, that we can single-handedly take care of what needs to be done. We know that nobody is perfect, that the perfect mom down the street probably has unresolved daddy issues or hates her cellulite, but maybe we are not even aware that others, especially our kids, fear that if they are real with us, we will not like them any more because we obviously worship perfection, and their imperfection is something we would reject and want to fix.
So, you know how on that job application, when you were asked what your greatest weakness was, and you wrote, “Perfectionism” because you believed it was a weakness that your prospective employer would love? Perhaps it is time to update that part of you (your inner critic?) that misguidedly hides behind perfectionism to avoid vulnerability. Notice when, in your day, you are doing what needs to be done, and in that moment, hit the pause button. Does it really need to be done? Does it need to be one exactly like that? Will life unravel if some things are done half-assed or not at all? And when you do this, share it with your family over dinner. Revel in the shocked looks on the kids’ faces when you admit you told your boss you refuse to answer emails after 6pm, and you are no longer going to police their rooms each week. Drop an authenticity bomb next time you go out to lunch with friends who normally stay on the surface. It’s amazing what happens when you share, “I am really scared my sophomore is not making any friends.”
Welcome to the Real World :)
This week at rehab, I felt God. I was completely clean and sober, so it’s not what you think. In fact, this week marked three years since I have touched alcohol. I go to a treatment center for alcohol and other drugs twice a week, because I felt called to bring whatever wisdom and skills I have picked up along the way as a Life Coach, Sober Coach, and Yoga instructor, to people whose collection of choices, whose dis-eased brains and bodies, have brought them to seek recovery. I absolutely love this work. Every day, before I walk in the door, I pray to God: “Please help me get out of your way, so that you can speak through me, so that I may be a bridge for these beautiful people to reconnect with their healthy, powerful selves.” Often, the clients tell me how much they appreciate my coaching - yes, even after they have been grumbling through my planks and hamstring stretches, or after I have in my blunt manner reminded them that it is up to them, today, to rewrite the story of their lives. But in reality, I get as much from them as they do from me.
During each 8 hour shift, I witness first-hand, miracles in the making. It is an intense environment. Underneath the external comforts - a chef to prepare healthy meals, art therapy, private therapy sessions, guided mindfulness, fancy interior decor, loving therapists and other staff - there is the knowledge that this is life or death. And while we can help the clients in incredibly profound ways, they need to make the effort. They need to do whatever it takes. And many of them do. Because I only work there twice a week, I get to see the transformation the way grandparents who only see their grandkids sporadically see the astonishing growth that parents don’t notice as they see their kids every day. Sometimes the transformation is physical, especially if someone was detoxing when they first arrived. That detox phase, especially from heroin, is brutal - I wish everyone could see it, and think of it before popping a painkiller (opiate). The mental and emotional transformation is beautiful to behold, as a client who once was timid is now sharing with the group, or who started off resistant, having been “forced” by a judge or a parent into treatment, has gone from hating the world as expressed verbally and through body language, to “I really want this. I need this.”
This week, as I have reflected on what these last three years of first hesitatingly testing the waters of removing, for a “bit,” alcohol from my life, to now, three years later, having zero desire to ingest a substance that recently was declared by the World Health Organization to be dangerous in all quantities, for every person, I was filled with awe. I have learned the incredible power of transformation that comes by basically just doing the next right thing. It is so simple, not easy, but just doing this, over and over, creates enormous change. And the thing is, everything is changing, Nothing stays the same. And as John Maxwell stated in the podcast I listened to the other morning during my run, if we are not preparing, we end up repairing.
We all have really great examples before us (sometimes in the mirror) of what happens when we live on autopilot. Addiction, depression, heart disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases, cancer, chronic pain, the cycle of abuse, financial disaster, Alzheimers - none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of suffering develops because we don’t know what we don’t know, or we don’t act on what we do know. At this point, we know that we become what we have eaten, drank, smoked, feared, and identified as over and over, for days, weeks, months, years. Our children are a reflection of all of the above too, as they are the canaries in the coal mine. The other day I was hanging out with a young woman who is newly in recovery, and I pointed out that her choices and her mother’s choices and her grandmother’s choices are having a direct impact on her children. I shared with her how, pain that is not transformed is transferred. “You have the choice, today, to end the cycle, by working on transforming the pain. Do the next right thing, today. And if it works, do it again tomorrow. Everything you do has a ripple, a compound, effect.”
I was also talking with another person, who is still in the early stage of change (contemplation), about the proverbial rock bottom that many people wait for before figuring out what the next right thing is and then embarking on their personal transformation. “You do not need to become a trainwreck in order to start to change. You can choose, right now, today, to not drink. You do not need to waste more money, put more poison in your organs, or crash a car. You can choose, today, to try out a new lifestyle that will make cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and further heartbreak far less likely. If nothing else, at least you know you did your best.” By the way, this applies to anything - you do not need to have a diagnosis, a catastrophic health event, a bankruptcy declaration, a divorce, employment termination, etc., to pivot your choices, your attitude, your life.
Three years ago, I had no idea that my “break” from the most popular, glamorized, money-making, addictive, statistically harmful drug in the world would lead to where and who I am today. In fact, if you had told me so I would have run in the opposite direction. Just like when I ran my first 10k, if you had told me that a decade later I would be doing my first Ironman, I would have told you you were absolutely nuts. In fact, I may never have had the cojones to do the 10k. Future-tripping to an Ironman would have been so overwhelming that my “who the hell do you think you are?” part would have taken over. In terms of alcohol, the part of me who is great at justifying the comfort zone, would have said, “you are only doing what everyone else is doing. Do you really want to leave the herd? I mean, nothing catastrophic has happened. You are an athlete, a coach, you have good self-discipline, you just need to set some more limits.”
But then, as I started to learn more about the science, the health effects, and testing it all out on my favorite guinea pig (me), and simultaneously meeting more people who also wanted to live this way, and deepen their self-awareness and let go of their ego as much as possible - I realized that those parts of me that wanted to protect the status quo had given way to the part of me that lives in love, joy, real connection. The part of me that is a rebel, adventurous, risk-taking, is thrilled to be up front and center because she is the one that reminds me every day, “I GET to live alcohol-free. I GET to pause and respond, rather than react. I GET to hang out with friends who work every day on their own self-awareness and therefore show up in a way that is real, accepting, and loving.” As I often point out at the rehab, being clean and sober is the ultimate act of rebellion.
“There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.” - Albert Einstein
I witness miracles all around me every day, and in them, I see and feel something that is far greater than me, than us. I am so grateful to be aware of this, and for the invitations I receive each and every day to hit the pause button and soak it all in. We are all invited, every single moment, yet so often we are so busy looking for the wrong thing we don’t even realize the invitation is right in front of us.
You left a warm, predictable world and were born into an existence where you relied on other humans to keep you safe, warm, nourished and alive. These humans did the best that they could with what they had at the time. They told you stories, and without questioning, because you did not know any other way to be, why would you, you absorbed the stories and you made them your own. You did your best, every day, with what you had, to keep going forward. You learned to crawl, to walk, to giggle when you were tickled and to scream when you needed something - physical or emotional nourishment. You learned that some things hurt - falling off a bike, touching a hot marshmallow, a bee sting. You learned that people help us, hurt us, lead us, teach us, punish us, love us, abuse us, disappoint us, thrill us, challenge us, bore us, protect us, react to us, guide us, run away from us, trust us, need us.
Along the way, you started to learn how to be in the world. Like a baby bird who first tumbles out of its nest, and gingerly begins to take its first steps, and learns to fly. First a few flaps of the wings, then longer flights, looking for food, moving with the gusts of wind. You, too, learned to adapt to the environment you were moving through - at home, at school, in all of your activities, with people you thought of as friends, acquaintances, enemies. Now you look back and realize you were a master chameleon, adapting to the environment in a way that kept you safe. Sometimes blending in so you looked and sounded like everyone else, sometimes invisible because there was, is, comfort in blending in with the background view and noise. Somewhere along the way, you may have lost touch with who you are, because you were so busy becoming what others thought you were, who they wanted and needed you to be, who you thought they wanted and needed you to be.
And then one day, you started to wake up. You started to get this feeling that something wasn’t right. You started to feel that maybe this stuff that you were doing, or not doing, saying, or not saying, thinking, or not thinking, maybe this was not how you wanted to be. Maybe your body started to give you hints - you were more tired, more achy, got sick more often. Maybe you had noticed that no matter how much you ate, you were still hungry, no matter how much you drank, you were still thirsty. Maybe it was a void you were trying to fill with physical things - but a soul-level hunger cannot be sated by ice cream, chardonnay, forbidden lust, pills, JImmy Shoo or Pinterest. So you started to explore the idea that maybe, just maybe, those things were not working any more. At one point, they were working, and you know this, because you are here today. The masks you created and wore, the coat of armor you enveloped your body and heart in, the stuff you built around you like a wall to avoid intimacy - into-me-see - it all worked. Because you are here, maybe broken, maybe a heart that has been pierced, maybe a soul that has been suffering - but you are here.
And in showing up today, you are taking the most powerful step in recovery. Because showing up is the hardest thing to do and you are doing that. You are showing up, for your body, your mind, your soul. You are showing up for your sisters in this room, for your loved ones back home, for your community and the world. Because the world needs you to show up. The world needs you to choose to remove the masks and the armour that no longer serve you. The world needs you to step into your power, the power that comes through acceptance. Acceptance that, who you are today is because of who you were every day leading up to this day. The power that comes through surrender. Surrendering control over other people, over the past, over the future. The power that comes through knowing, that today, you can choose to do the next right thing, knowing that if you do that, and only that, the rest will fall into place. And you are not alone, you are never alone, because it is through whatever brought you to your knees, and to this place, that you are showing up ready to connect, to discover, to remember, to recover. It is in this state of willingness that you realize that you are finally, in this moment, and only in this moment, home.
This morning, when chatting with a group I work with on embracing a substance-free life, I stated, “sometimes people in the news inspire me to be more like them, but sometimes, they inspire me to NOT be like them. I don’t ever want to be the kind of person that people look at and say, here is an example of how NOT to be.”
Life is full of teachable moments. People and situations often help me to work on my own personal development, and they also give me plenty of material in parenting and coaching. The other day I was out with a friend and her ex-husband called. She showed me the Caller ID. It said Teacher. She explained to me that a very wise person had once instructed her to name people in her phone who challenged her patience and overall equanimity as “Teacher.” This way, when she saw their name (“Teacher”) pop up, rather than anticipate a negative interaction, she immediately reset her intention to a more neutral state.
The news these days are full of teachable moments. And my children, bless their hearts, are a captive audience because I still feed them (usually). So while they chomp on veggies, they get to listen to the podcast episodes I have yet to air. Yes, they roll their eyes. We often disagree. The boy fidgets and kicks his sister. Sigh, it would be much easier to just talk about whatever other people talk about who have calm, peaceful, family dinners every night. Right, as if. I have a 9th grader and a 12th grader so my ability to control them is dwindling. I must pour all my wisdom into their precious heads as quickly as I can! Anyway, these are some points I see as valuable lessons to discuss with our kids. Feel free to use them at the dinner table (and as I tell my kids, feel free to throw me under the bus if it gets you out of an awkward situation: “I know this is annoying, but this weird lady Susanne wrote this - what do you guys think?”).
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
A few years ago, while out running with my dog, I was attacked by another dog. The physical injury was nothing major (thankfully, the attacker had had its rabies shots), but for a few days, I was weepy, reactive, on edge. I was unusually sensitive and every little thing set me off. I was not a fun or nice wife or mom. And I could not understand it. I figured it had to do something with the dog attack but it didn’t make sense to me, since it had not been a major attack. I still ran another half mile afterwards, figuring it would help me calm down. I called a friend of mine who is a professional dog trainer and he assured me that what I was feeling was completely normal - I had PTSD, which is normal from an animal attack - and there was nothing I could do about it. Just just give it time, he said, and eventually the adrenaline and cortisol flooding my body would even out. Unwilling to be weepy and reactive indefinitely, I figured running would help. But that did nothing. (I ran with pepper spray).
I then taught my regular yoga class. As usual, I did the class along with the students, breathing with them, moving with them, connecting with my body, my breath, and the community in the room with me. At the end of class, I was shocked at the realization that for the first time in days, I felt peaceful. I felt rebooted. I was back to myself.
This experience began my journey into yoga as something more than an effective way to strengthen and stretch my body while increasing proprioceptive awareness (i.e. important stuff for someone who at age 40 was training for her first Ironman in 10.5 weeks). I now understood why several people in my classes had told me that after each class, they felt a reprieve from their depression and/or anxiety. I became determined to learn as much as I could about yoga and mindfulness as a way to heal the mind and psyche from PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction. I devoured books on the subject and finally, this past weekend, I took an intensive training course to become a certified teacher of Trauma-Informed Yoga (DEEP gratitude to Maryam and Heather at Beloved Yoga).
For three very full days, we dove into neuroscience, learning about the brain and how it is affected by trauma. We learned about the different forms and levels of trauma.
“We enter this state - let us call it a survival mode - when we perceive that our lives are being threatened. If we are overwhelmed by the threat and are unable to successfully defend ourselves, we can become stuck in survival mode. This highly aroused state is designed solely to enable short term defensive actions; but left untreated over time it begins to form the symptoms of trauma.”
We may have witnessed or been victims of a violent attack, or have been raised in a chaotic household, or been molested over a period of time, or fought in a war. We may have experienced deep loss of love, of financial stability, of a sense of belonging. In fact, if our parents, and/or their parents, experienced trauma, this can affect us today.
“Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.”
Trauma affects the central nervous system. The human brain and central nervous system begin to develop at about three weeks’ gestation - leading experts to believe that any trauma experienced by the pregnant mother at this point is having an impact on the developing brain. The central nervous system basically takes in cues from the environment via the senses and these cues are interpreted by the brain. A traumatized brain is sort of like a toddler - impulsive, reactive, makes no sense to those of us with common sense. For someone who has endured trauma and has not engaged in healing and recovery, chances are, the rational part of the brain that makes wise decisions (we would hope), and the emotional part of the brain that among many other important things supports relationships through empathy, trust and attachment, get hijacked by the part of the brain whose sole purpose is to ensure survival, no matter what.
“An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.”
Do you know any kids who seem to be unusually oppositional, defiant, or completely shut down? Chances are, their brains and central nervous system are merely responding to situations that are activating what at some point worked for them during a traumatic situation or phase in their life (including in the womb). Yes, think of the implications of this - as we castigate and medicate such kids, rather than addressing their behavior in a trauma-informed way, in the school system, the medical system, the family. Do you know people who suffer from anger issues? Who struggle with depression? Anxiety? Sleep disorders? Chronic back/neck pain? Autoimmune disorders? Addiction? There is a very good chance that if you ask them to sit down and write out their life story, there will be trauma there. All too often we dismiss trauma because we had “a great childhood with very loving parents and everything we needed” or “sure, stuff happened, but life is tough, it’s just the way it is.” Simply the act of sitting down and writing out our story and sharing it with someone else, can be enough for us to realize that wow, that was not healthy, or normal, or that was actually very painful. Perhaps our parents were in the military and we moved every couple of years; perhaps our parents got divorced; perhaps our sibling had a chronic or fatal illness, which impacted our sense of safety, maybe even left us, the healthy one, feeling neglected. Perhaps our parents have the news on every day and we are bombarded by images and sound bites about school shootings, potential nuclear wars, rude celebrities making poor choices of word and action. These and plenty of other events and situations can absolutely affect the way our brain is wired to respond to current stressors.
The good news is that yoga is an amazing way to promote healing and essentially bring the brain back online. Phew!!! Yes, it turns out that yoga is not just for bendy-wendies and hippy-dippies in their Lululemons sipping chai and smelling like a vegan restaurant. It turns out that doing warrior poses, focusing on our breathing, and doing this with others can have an incredibly powerful effect on our brain. We used to, not too long ago, think that we are pretty much stuck with the brain we have, but we now know about neuroplasticity, which means the brain is able to heal and change (interesting tidbit: the Yoga Sutras, which have been around since about 300-500 BC, pretty much state this fact). We also know that “the body keeps score” (the title of Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s seminal book), so a practice that combines mindful movement that is linked with reconnecting the parts of the brain that have become disconnected or imbalanced is an effective way to heal from Post Traumatic Stress Injury (a more empowering way to think of what traditionally is referred to PTSD - so I will now refer to it as PTSI).
“The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind - of yourself. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed."
Explaining how yoga can help with brain and body imbalances would take too long for this already lengthy blogpost, but in a nutshell, working with a trauma-informed instructor can help you learn tools for those inevitable times in your day and life where you feel triggered, helping you become less reactive, more even-keeled, less irrational, more tranquil. Which is what happened to me when I felt restored after my post-dog-attack yoga class.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Our class was privileged to have Detective Jennifer “Missy” Elliott talk to us about her own experience with mindfulness in dealing with her job-related PTSI (remember - that is now what we are calling PTSD). Missy had been dealing with debilitating back pain and nobody was able to help her, but a really smart doctor prescribed therapeutic yoga. She reluctantly agreed to give it a try, which is how she met one of my instructors this weekend, Heather. One day she was on the job, at an extremely stressful situation (investigating a murder-suicide), which was a regular occurrence in her line of work , and she realized that she was unusually calm and non-reactive, to the point that a colleague pointed it out. It dawned on Missy that the practice she had learned to heal her back pain had had a powerful effect on her ability to deal with the daily stress she had endured during her decades of law enforcement work. Missy recognized the implications of this and began to spread awareness about the devastating effects the daily encounters with and witnessing of the horrible violence and suffering has on law enforcement personnel, as well as other first responders (EMS, firefighters, ER staff, etc). She has spoken of the lack of support police officers and other first responders receive in processing this stress. She enthusiastically shared her experience with mindfulness and encouraged police departments to embrace mindful practices as a way to support their employees. More police officers die from suicide than in the line of duty, and she knew why, and she also knew she had found a tool to prevent these avoidable tragedies.
1 in 4 Police officers has thoughts of suicide
2.3 times more police officers die by suicide than by homicide
Unfortunately, Missy’s efforts have not resulted in the changes she had envisioned, and as I sat there listening, I thought about the stories in the news about police officers acting in ways that showed they had dehumanized a suspect to the point of attacking them in rage, or fear. From a brain point of view, these police officers were most likely suffering from an amygdala hijack. They very likely could be loving fathers, decent husbands, serving their country in a way that upheld citizen’s safety. The media, and media consumers, may like to paint these “killer cops” as a monsters, but from a trauma-informed point of view, I do not find it surprising that when they are in these intense situations, performing with brains that have absorbed layers and layers of violence, pain, suffering, grief, gore, evil - and often (usually, apparently) having zero meaningful support from their supervisors and leaders (which is absolutely unacceptable and MUST change!), these officers react in a way that can result in tragedy. I thought about the angry public who demonize these police officers without pausing to investigate what it must be like to grow up wanting to be a police officer, usually to keep the good guys safe and put the bad guys in jail, not knowing that they would be signing up for a life of layered trauma and very little if any framework to process it and release it. (Imagine the stigma they must encounter if they show any vulnerability!). It is no wonder that the rate of suicide, addiction, divorce, domestic violence, and depression are so high among law enforcement officers.
Please watch the trailer for this documentary: Code 9
Obviously, yoga is not a magic cure for all of our individual, societal and global imbalances and dis-eases (or is it...?). But I do believe this world would be a vastly different place if each of us took ownership over our individual and collective attention to how our body feels, grounding it into the earth, connecting with our breath, gazing inward, and being mindful of what enters our brain and our gut (our "second brain”), and what we send out via our words and our energy. There is growing evidence that Post-Traumatic Growth is not only possible, but it is vital to our world. It is like a superpower.
“With wisdom, patience, openness and practice, all effects of trauma can be healed. We have the tools… And yet out of the dark seeds of trauma can emerge a healing fountain of wisdom, compassion, resilience, and strength. In the multidimensional healing of ourselves, we rise to the highest levels of our potentials as human beings and become a shining beacon of light for others and for the world.”
If you would like to learn more, I urge you to check out the following resources. YOU can make a difference.
Mindful Policing: The Future of Force
The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment (Babette Rothschild)
The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina
How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, MD
Lost Connections by Johann Hari
The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, PhD
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris, MD
Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace B. Pert, PhD
Videos and documentaries:
How childhood trauma affect health - TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris, MD: https://ed.ted.com/on/iOyQVfhd
Code 9 trailer and film: http://www.thecode9film.com/
Recently, I had the privilege of taking a friend to see an endocrinologist as she needed an adjustment in the medication she is taking for her autoimmune condition. I waited for her in the waiting room and as we rode down in the elevator after her appointment, I asked her if she liked the doctor. My friend hesitated and then quietly said, No. After some prodding, she finally admitted that when the doctor saw the evidence of her drug addiction, which is healing now but still a relatively fresh track record on her arm, the doctor’s demeanor instantly changed. The doctor’s words and tone felt condescending, judgmental, shaming.
When my friend shared this with me, I was horrified. I think she was still in shock, and I think that being so early in her recovery, she is like a timid little bird who is not quite sure of her footing, her view of the world, or most of all, her view of herself. I know enough about the disease of addiction to know that nobody gets to that level of self-destruction (and other-destruction) because they were blessed with good things and relationships and genes and all that stuff. Chances are, they are struggling with some level of trauma, and chances are pretty high they have inherited pain and suffering that their parents, grandparents, and other ancestors endured and never transformed - so they transferred it to the children they raised (or abandoned). In recovery, we build ourselves back up, and this is done with the help of people and a network who operate from a place of compassion. Ideally, this compassion eventually seeps into the blood and soul of the person in recovery, and one day they start to believe that they are worthy. But it is a long process, and my friend is in the early stages.
“Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance use is the addict’s attempt to escape distress… Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious. They are emotional anesthetics.” - Gabor Maté
As we rode in the car I was driving, I helped her process what had just happened. I explained to her that the contempt she had just felt from the doctor was unprofessional, and my friend deserved better treatment. I said, “if you had told her that you had diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease, I am pretty sure she would have treated you with more dignity. The fact that she didn’t is a reflection on HER, not YOU. In medical school, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, which states that they will first, do no harm. Unfortunately, doctors still are not taught about the disease model of addiction, nor are they taught, or given refresher courses, on how to treat someone who struggles with this awful disease.”
A friend of mine is a nurse in an ER that is on the frontlines of the disease epidemic in the U.S., and she is horrified by the way the doctors and nurses treat, and speak about, the patients who come in with every level of injury, disease, and overdose due to addiction. These medical professionals are exhausted, and understandably frustrated, especially when the “frequent flyers” show up - again. And again. I get it. It must be incredibly triggering of every medical professional’s fear that no matter what, they cannot fix this person. And they are on the front line of a medical establishment that is absolutely inadequate when it comes to addiction and other mental health dis-eases. So, their lack of compassion is in many ways understandable - it is a side effect of caregiver burnout.
And medical professionals are just one segment of the population that is ignorant and ill-equipped to effectively help people in active addiction, as well as in recovery. I have Fakebook friends (just a couple, phew) who share stories in the media that effectively shame people with addiction. Every time I see one of those posts (eg couple overdoses in car, kids in the back seat) I am deeply saddened. How can this be helpful? Again, I return to what I stated earlier - when a person becomes this sick, it is something that is beyond their control. And it is rare that someone is shamed into changing, and I am quite sure that shame does not lead to positive change in systems or in society, but rather, builds up and strengthens everything negative, from the individual to the global levels.
“We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” - Brené Brown
As we drove, I explained to my friend, that she is basically a Recovery Ambassador. I told her that next time she goes to a doctor, or interacts with anyone, really, she has the opportunity to educate them. Not in a shouty, emotional, indignant way, but from a place of compassion. I do believe that we are all doing our best, and it’s important to always see the other person’s point of view, and consider that their perspective is shaped by their experience up to that point. I told her, “You may be the only person in recovery that someone meets, and you have the chance to show them that you are human, and smart, and worthy, and dignified. And, you have the right to hold people accountable when they are not giving you the same respect and compassion that they might if you revealed you had a more “socially respectable” disease.” I have said this in different forums, that I believe that one of the reasons there is such a fear and misperception of people with addiction and other mental health dis-eases, is that the tradition of anonymity means that most people are not aware that millions of people can, and do, recover and lead incredibly productive, joyful lives. Imagine if the only way we heard about cancer is by obituaries and other stories of the horrors of cancer relapse. Instead, we have all kinds of events and media stories celebrating cancer survivors. I dream of the day when the millions of people in recovery, who are today contributing in meaningful and successful ways to the world, are also mentioning their recovery status along with “CEO/surgeon/coach/mother/lawyer/teacher/senator” etc.
I believe that change begins with you, and me, and trickles around and upward and downward. So, if you are reading this, and you are a medical professional, an educator, a parent, a sibling, a law enforcement officer, a first responder, a neighbor - whoever you are - you can be part of the change. Great change happens with tiny steps taken on a consistent basis. It happens when we become more self-aware. And when we do that - pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions - we may realize how much of what we think, feel and do is based on fear.
When that doctor saw my friend’s track marks, she probably thought, “Oh shit” for all sorts of reasons that boiled down to fear. Which is no different from what drives medical policy, insurance policy, public policy, DARE programs, zero tolerance programs at school, and Fakebook shares. So, once we admit that, we can talk about it, and that is where change starts to happen.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.