Category: Suffering

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.


A More Realistic (and Hilarious) Pain Scale

I always laugh a lot at the hilarious pain scale (and explanation that creator Allie Brosh gives) on her now-inactive blog Hyperbole and a Half. Brosh is a depression survivor and her blog (and book of the same name) are often gut-splittingly on target. While our society often is more quick to recognize physical pain than emotional pain, cool neuroscience shows that emotional pain often registers in the same brain regions as when we, say, stub a toe or break a leg. In other words, emotional pain is still real. And painful. picture-22

Beyond Upset? 8 Small Things To Do Right Now

  1. First Things FirstFirst: Don’t make major life decisions in the middle of a crisis. If you’re feeling an impulse to make a big change right now, notice that impulse and then do yo
    ur best to sit on it for a few weeks.
  2. Undercommit. During times of challenge, you’re allowed to be a little flaky. I recommend sentences like “I’m a tentative yes for this” or “I’d like to, but I need to think about whether I can do this.”
  3. Limit your exposure to information you may find upsetting. Set a timer to remind you to stop compulsively reading whatever is making you panic. There will be plenty of time to read and learn later on. It’s not selfish to choose to opt out for a while.
  4. Get outside. Once there, move your body. Slowly is fine. Less slowly is also fine.
  5. Eat. At regular intervals. The best you can.
  6. Sleep. At regular intervals. The best you can.
  7. Find comfort. Take comfort. Give comfort. Cookies, TV, books, friends, and food are all good starts.
  8. Figure out a small way to use the power you have in a tangible way. That may mean doing something kind for someone else. That may mean volunteering. That may mean writing a letter to the editor. Be careful not to overextend yourself! Refer back to #2.

Newsflash! Self-Compassion and Self-Improvement Aren’t Enemies

Self-compassionI’ve been thinking lots lately about everything that gets in the way of self-compassion. For most of us, it’s much easier to feel compassionate toward others — especially children — than it is to feel some gentle kindness or understanding toward ourselves. When it comes to relating to our own imperfect selves, we’re impatient and critical. I’m an adult; I should have fixed this by now. I should have known better. I need to be accountable.

Newsflash: We can be accountable for our actions and offer compassion toward ourselves at the same time. We can look with a critical eye at something we’ve done that’s flopped while also trying to cultivate an attitude of compassion toward ourselves. We don’t have to pick between self-improvement and self-compassion. We can work toward both.

Self-compassion isn’t a ticket out of responsibility. It’s an attitude we can cultivate that allows us to learn from our mistakes more easily, with less getting caught in a useless web of beliefs about how terrible we are.

“Not Rich, Not White, and Seeking Therapy”

“Not Rich, Not White, and Seeking Therapy”

I was concerned but not incredibly surprised to read the findings of the article “Not Rich, Not White, and Seeking Therapy” in The Atlantic. It’s a quick read, but gets into how hard it can be to access counseling if you don’t sound rich and white when you call therapists to make an appointment. In other words, it shows how much the odds are stacked against people of color and people who sound working class — even with therapy. Here’s a quick quote:

“If [the researcher’s] experiment were to play out in the real world, an identifiably black, working-class man would have to call 80 therapists before he was offered a weekday evening appointment. A middle-class white woman would only have to call five.”

As a white woman who’s anti-racist, I’m appalled. The field of therapy has to do better. We have to do better. Everyone deserves access to high-quality healthcare for physical and emotional concerns.


No Feeling Is Final

No feeling is final.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words “No feeling is final” are prominent on the wall of my counseling office these days, scrawled on an chalkboard that could as easily be used for grocery lists or ye-olden-days math problems.

At the center of despair and pain is often the terror that we’re stuck where we are — doomed to feel what we’re feeling until we die. Everything feels permanent in these moments. Everything feels locked in and locked down.

If it’s hard to believe Rilke’s words today, that’s fine. But do know that I am convinced that there is more out there for you than what you’re experiencing right now. Life can be better. Things can change. No feeling needs to be final.


When Clients Cry, I Think…

When Clients Cry, I Think…

Unlike pop culture’s idea of therapy, I do not exist to make people cry. I don’t get excited when someone sheds tears. I don’t think, ‘Hurrah, now this is therapy!’

Instead, I feel compassion for the pain I see before me. After all, tears are one way we show our suffering.

But there’s something else to remember, too, next time you cry. Neuroscience is teaching us that we have the best chance of being happy when we can easily go into and out of our thoughts, our physical sensations, and our emotions.

For most of us, our thoughts are easy to go into but can be hard to shift away from. (“I can’t stop thinking about…”) When we bring our attention to our bodies when we’re stressed, we may notice a clenching or tightness in our chest or gut.

And then there are emotions. Most of us try to avoid our emotions – especially the ones that are painful and confusing. We’d rather do just about anything else to avoid them, including overeating, numbing out through alcohol or drugs or TV, or getting really, really busy with work or family or friends.

But we can’t block some emotions without also potentially blocking out others. We can’t decide to just feel happiness, joy, and gratitude without also allowing ourselves to experience sadness, grief and anger. I wish it was different, but the brain doesn’t work like that.

So when I see a client cry, I don’t think Hurrah! But I do feel glad for that particular person that they are allowing themselves to feel what needs to be felt. It’s only when we can be with all of life – the painful and the pleasurable and everything in between – that we have the best chance of health and happiness.