Category: Suffering

If I got a dollar every time…

Say I got a dollar every time I heard the following words:

  • “But other people have it worse.”
  • “Yeah I’m depressed and anxious, but I have privilege so I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m not sure I deserve to be in counseling.”
  • “I’m worried I’m taking your time away from people who need help more than me.”

How much $$$ would I have at the end of a year if I faithfully put a dollar in a jar each time I heard a variation of these words?

Enough to go out to a great dinner. A really great dinner.

We often wish we could decrease stress and depression and anxiety by reminding ourselves of the hard stuff that other people face. But that’s not how it works.

I’ve written on this blog before about what I call “privilege syndrome” — the belief that if we have privilege in some way, it can be easy to feel guilty or judgmental about the ways in which we struggle. And this is common.

I wish that privilege could buffer us from anxiety. I wish that knowing about climate change or homelessness would mean that people with secure housing and middle class incomes could be immune or invisible from stress or depression or trauma.

But the brain and body don’t work like that. While those of us with stable housing or relationships may be less likely to experience trauma or stress, our nervous systems aren’t designed to tease out nuances of privilege. The body just experiences a flood of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline. The body just knows we’re depressed or anxious. The body knows we don’t feel okay, even if we try to use our intellect to convince ourselves we should feel differently.

And the research shows that judging ourselves for our responses and reactions don’t actually do much help.

Instead, I try to help clients cultivate neutrality or even self-compassion for our experience. It’s only by accepting what’s here – the pain, the suffering, the fear, the sadness – that we can begin to move through these difficult feelings. It’s only by acknowledging what’s true for us – whether we like the truth or not – that we can begin to move forward.

Abortions: When the Political Is Personal

It’s hard to turn on the news in Atlanta right now without hearing about the new anti-abortion bill that’s been passed in Georgia or anti-abortion legislation in other states like Alabama. This legislation fires up people of all beliefs and backgrounds. But it can also be triggering—if not outright re-traumatizing—to women who have made the difficult choice to have an abortion.

And most of the women who find themselves stirred up by all the talk about abortion will likely stay silent. Talking about abortion is still taboo even though an estimated one in four women will have an abortion during their lifetime. For many women, a past abortion is a secret they don’t share out of fear of judgment or because of judgment they impose on themselves. As a result, there can be tremendous shame, guilt, and unresolved grief—often leading to isolation, depression, and increased anxiety.

Grief? Yes grief. It’s totally normal for women who have abortions to need to grieve. Unfortunately it’s also perfectly normal for women to believe they “shouldn’t” need to grieve. But abortion is complicated for many women, a difficult choice at a difficult moment in their lives. Grief is normal and natural.

We know that the antidote to shame and unresolved grief is speaking our truths—the messy, complicated truths—to safe people in safe places. As abortion continues to be a political issue, I sincerely hope that all who have actually experienced an abortion are surrounded by comfort, love, and support. You are not alone.

Surviving Grief During the Holidays

It’s that season. You know the one – the one where there’s upbeat Christmas music playing in stores, and it seems like everyone’s talking about The Holidays (Christmas, New Years – and, less often, Kwanzaa and Hanukah). It’s a special time of year! we’re told. A time for cheer! And parties! 

And the holidays sometimes really, really suck for people who are living with grief and loss. Those with grief don’t usually get a lot of attention at this time of year, or ask for it. (Who wants to say “oh, I’m decorating the tree thinking about my dear friend who died!” or “Hanukah feels different without my mom”). And yet, there’s a large group of us who are mourning someone who was important to us. And we’re more at risk for depression if we’re grieving and feeling isolated when we’re “supposed” to be feeling cheerful. 

I think it’s worth acknowledging that this particular time of year is chock-full of landmines for those of us grieving. Grieving is different for everyone, but a recipe you love might also be a recipe you associate with someone who’s died. The person you called first thing on New Year’s Day may no longer be around. Or, you might have had a terrible relationship with your cousin, but feel immensely guilty for not missing her. Did I already say this can really, really suck? It can be super stressful, even when we’re trying to be brave or have fun or appreciate what we do have.

Here are some great tips about surviving the holidays while living with grief.

And I want to plug the terrific book It’s OK That You’re Not OK. I don’t get paid to do so; I just sincerely loved this book and found it useful.

Take good care – especially now. Self-care is not a luxury when grieving; it’s a necessity.

 

 

 

 

“We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.”

I spent the weekend immersed in suffering. It’s a weird thing to say, but I’m not sure what else is there to say after a long weekend in Washington D.C. spent at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian.

I’m grateful for the time at these museums, the time to learn and to remember and to witness. It’s so easy to think that we alone have suffered and are suffering, that our suffering is context-less, that this moment will last forever.

But these museums provide an urgent reminder of not just atrocity and genocide and collective trauma, but that times change (for worse and for better) and that people can survive hardship and fight for dignity and impact the world in positive, beautiful ways. These sites remind me that we must not forget our shared humanity and the ways that our suffering is all connected. We suffer when we act in ways that strip the humanity from others or from ourselves. We suffer when we can’t see ourselves or others as fully human. (And yet, so often, it can takereal effort to see one another as fully human!)

I’m reminded, too, of the 1987 slogan of gay activists in the midst of the AIDS crisis: Silence = death. I saw that echoed in a quote from historian John Hope Franklin on the wall at the African American History and Culture Museum: “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.” 

So much of counseling is learning to speak outloud the unvarnished truth – as painful and difficult as it sometimes may be. The unvarnished truth can be freeing, and powerful, and can guide us into discovering what’s next. Speaking the unvarnished truth about our experiences and life in therapy can be a brave, life-saving act – an act that protects our humanity and the humanity of others.

 

 

The Hardest Things To Talk About Are Sometimes the Most Important

It’s easy to circle around the hard things: Death, shame, our heart’s disappointments. They can feel too intense to name directly: abuse histories, experiences with sexual assault and harassment, death and loss, abortions and miscarriages. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves: the ways we’ve messed up or been let down, our regrets and fears, our shame and sense of unworthiness. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves. They can be overwhelming. We worry that if we let ourselves feel the feelings, we may get too immersed in them to find our way through.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the #metoo movement and #whyIdidn’treport. I’ve been asking the question: How is that I haven’t known until now that some of my beloved friends and family members have been assaulted? How is it that even in intimate relationships, these things go unspoken – and unasked about?

Asking takes courage, though of course it takes more courage to name outloud, to ourselves and others, the hardest things we’ve experienced. That’s why I have so much respect for all who continue to share their stories of surviving trauma, including assault and abuse.

We need these stories to be out in the open. The hardest things to talk about are sometimes the most important. For healing, we need to be able to hold each other with compassion and support – and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. For a more just society, we need to call out abuse and abuse of power. We need to address barriers to naming these difficult truths out loud – barriers that are significant to all people, and barriers that are often most profound for women of color.

I am continuing to work to make workspace a safe space, for all stories, for all aspects of self, for all experiences that have led us to this moment. I am working to ask and to listen to your stories, even the ones that are hardest to tell.

 

 

 

 

Taming and Treating “Privilege Syndrome”

 

At some point, with many clients, comes an earnest variant of the same question: Who am I to have pain – or see a therapist – given that so many other people suffer in visible, heartbreaking ways?

I call this the Privilege Syndrome. The reasoning usually sounds like this:

• If I don’t live in a less-developed country where I only have access to one meal of day, I should be happy. (But I’m not.)
• If I have money, I shouldn’t feel depressed. (But I am.)
• If I have a job, I shouldn’t be annoyed with my work. (But I am.)
• If I don’t have to represent my race on a daily basis, or live in fear of violence, then I shouldn’t complain about the challenges I do have. (But I do.)
• If I have a loving family, I shouldn’t be lonely. (But I am.)
• If others respect me, I shouldn’t live in fear of rejection. (But I do.)
• If I haven’t survived one or more traumas, I shouldn’t be suffering. (But I am.)
• If my life looks good on paper, I should be happy. (But I’m not).

How lovely that so many of us know that other people also struggle! How terrible that we deem ourselves not worthy of struggling and suffering because of our privileges!

From a mindfulness perspective, Privilege Syndrome is all about getting caught in a mindstate of comparison, or what I and many other mindfulness practitioners call Comparison Mind. The good news about Comparison Mind is sometimes it makes us feel superior to others! But the bad news… well, you know all about the bad news of comparison. We end up feeling inferior and unworthy – and then judge ourselves for feeling so bad.

The truth is that we increase our suffering when we can’t acknowledge and accept our own pain and heartache. When we dismiss or minimize our own pain because So-and-So has it worse, we are acting from a faulty belief that suffering is reserved only for others.

The only “cure” for Privilege Syndrome is to learn to accept and honor our own suffering – no matter our privilege – while also acknowledging the suffering of others. When we can work toward the end of our suffering and the suffering of others, we stop comparing ourselves. Instead of landing in Comparison Mind, we access compassion. Instead of being better than or worse than others, we’re simply with ourselves and with others. That is connection. That is healing.

 

We Need to Talk – and DO – More about Suicide

I’m not into fashion (obviously, my clients would say) but the suicide of designer Kate Spade was big enough news to enter my orbit last week. I was still reeling from

the news, as I do with any news of a suicide, wrestling with the same questions as everyone else – namely, how can someone look so successful and yet feel so terrible as to take their life? – when chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself.

It’s so easy to believe that loads of money or fame or professional recognition should or would inoculate any of us from isolation and despair. But these tragic deaths are reminders that depression and suicidal thoughts don’t just hit those of us down on our luck. Financial wealth is not a guarantee of happiness or ease. Fame is not a guarantee of happiness or ease. Depression is real, and needs real treatment. There are myths about depression that are widespread, but it’s important to know the facts. 

The writer Andrew Solomon’s book about depression, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, chronicles his experiences with depression and those of others – as well as looking at various treatments and interventions. For clients, the stories Solomon tells are a reminder that depression – as terrible as it can be – doesn’t have to stay a stagnant part of life. Things can get better.

Separating Suicide Facts from Myths

My heart has been hurting these past few weeks as I’ve been following a terrible story unfolding in the news. A teen was suicidal; his girlfriend urged him, via text messages, to actually kill himself. He did. She’s now been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Everything about this story is awful, and this tragedy likely could have been avoided. Many people experience thoughts of “I just want this to end” at some point in their lives, and we know that most people who survive suicide attempts and live to recover from depression end up incredibly glad that they are alive.

Based on my professional experience, I want to mention a few specific points that are important for us all to know:

  1. If you think a loved one may be depressed or suicidal, it’s always, always, always worth getting them evaluated by a therapist or at a hospital. Here’s a good resource on identifying warning signs. There is no reason to wait. 
  2. No matter our age, depression and anxiety almost always cloud our judgment. For teens, add in a still-evolving sense of self, lack of control (here’s a great YouTube video my teen clients often like on the subject) and a still-developing brain and it’s a recipe for potential trouble. 
  3. You don’t need to tiptoe around the topic of suicide. It’s okay to say “have you been having suicidal thoughts?” This will not plant the idea of suicide in anyone’s mind and it may be a relief to have someone ask directly.
  4. The suicide case that I started this post with is the exception, not the rule. Many of the teens I’ve counseled over the years have risked important friendships by telling a parent or teacher when a friend has been depressed or suicidal. On the whole, teens, like adults, typically do the right thing — even when it has the potential for major social consequences.

Grief Before They’re Gone

It’s become clear to me that it’s time to say a bit about anticipatory grief, that sort of pain we feel when someone we love is dying. This is different from grief we feel when someone is already gone; rather anticipatory grief is what we experience when we’re fully aware that a loved one is mortal, and dying, and that we’ll likely be here without them after they die.

anticipatory griefAnticipatory grief carries with it all the usual emotions of regular grief — including anger, guilt, anxiety, denial, bargaining, and sadness, to name a few — but is complicated because the person is still here, in some form or another. We can’t have the same relationship as before, and acting like everything’s “normal” can be a huge strain. We can’t imagine living without them, but we know things will not get better or easier. We know that dying leads to death, and the anticipation of this can be terrible – worse, even, than the death itself.

It’s an honor to get to support people who are experiencing grief. These are some of the most difficult, lonely moments that life brings us, and a time for deep reflection about who we are and what’s most important. It’s a privilege to walk with people through the desolate landscape of grief and help them find their way back home to their own precious life.

 

The “Hilarious” World of Depression

Hilarious World of Depression

I’ve just listened to the first two episodes of The Hilarious World of Depression, a podcast series that interviews comedians about their struggles with depression, anxiety, and related mental health concerns. Weird combo? Yes. Does it work? From what I can tell, it sure does.

But you can judge for yourself. I’d love to hear what you think the podcast gets right — and wrong — about depression.