Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"Papa, you can s--k my d--k."

     A door opened across the day room and through it came Sam Papa, followed
by at least a dozen adolescent patients. Sam had been leading group therapy. He 
was scowling, and making a beeline for the exit. They must have given him a tough time. Just as he was about to open the door, this little kid started shouting at him. He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and he had blond hair and a big nose. He was obviously continuing a confrontation he’d had with Sam; then he hurled his greatest insult. “Papa, you can suck my dick.”
     Sam stopped in his tracks. He froze, and so did everyone else. Then he turned around, looking furious. Slowly and deliberately, he crossed the room toward the little guy, who was now cowering. Sam was intentionally intimidating the bejesus out of the kid. I thought he was scared that Sam would hit him. I didn’t know what Sam was going to do, but I did know he wouldn’t hit a patient.
     Sam grabbed the boy by the lapels of his shirt and as he did, he went down on one knee. Finally they were nose to nose. He looked him in the eye “If I thought for one moment that it would do anything for your mental health, I would get down on my knees, right here, and suck your little weenie.” With that, Sam let the boy go and walked off the unit.
     After Sam locked the door behind him the silence was deafening. No one moved. Then—I couldn’t hold back any longer—I started laughing. That triggered laughter throughout the day room. The boy who’d been the focus of Sam’s wit first thought that we were laughing at him. Then, realizing that the moment had passed, he started laughing with us. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. Laughing at himself was healthy. I looked at Charlie and I caught him looking out of the corner of his eye at me. I was glad I was staying.

Excerpt from Bedlam, 2008.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Disney Dad

         Last year I did a workshop for Father’s of Daughters.  I was explaining the value of saying “no” to children.  I was making a strong case for it, when I was interrupted with a comment. 
“I know what you are saying, but I’m a Disney Dad.  I don’t say “no” to my two daughters.  I don’t think I’m capable of saying “no” to them.” 
This was too important to not confront it:  “First sir, I don’t believe you.  If you saw your child, no matter what age, putting their hand on the hot burner of the stove, I totally believe you would say “no” with some vehemence.  How old are you daughters?”
“I have an 11 year old and a 13 year old.” 
I believe that it is a parent’s responsibility to teach their children the word “no.”  “If you don’t use it with them, they won’t know how to use the word “no.”  I suspect that you want both of your daughters to be familiar and comfortable with the word.  If you know how to use the word “no,” they will be able to use the word “no.”  It won’t be too long from now, when some boy asks your daughter if he can put his hand under her shirt.  When that happens, I believe you want her to know how to say “no.”  
He looked shocked.
“I want you to go home and practice saying “no.”  Say no to her staying up beyond her curfew.  Say no to requests to take her to the mall or get a new cell phone.  Practice saying the word no so that she learns the word and knows how to use it herself.” 
We provide discipline for children so that as they grow, they can discipline themselves.  The purpose of discipline is for our children to learn how to self discipline.   

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Power in the Family

I am writing a statement about power in the family for our book on Parenting.  In the process I came across something Virginia Satir told me in 1985.  "There is a family myth that only one person in a family can have power.  Each individual has their own type of power."  I find this to be a powerful statement.  As a therapist I frequently get lulled into focusing on the power of the father, or the mother, or the identified patient.  When in actuality, I need to recognize that each of them has their own unique type of power.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Whitaker's Advice to Couples in Trouble

A psychiatrist friend of mine, trained with my mentor, Carl Whitaker, M.D.   We shared a bond having both had the privilege of being close to Carl.  We often shared stories about Carl’s more extreme ideas.  One day, my friend took me aside to talk.  He had a very serious tone to his voice.  He told me that his marriage was in trouble.  They had tried, on their own, to work out their differences, but had thus far been unsuccessful.  Both he and his wife wanted the relationship to work and were desperate to save the marriage.  Finally, they both agreed that they would impose on Carl and ask him for his thoughts and recommendations.  
He reminded me that Carl was considered the grandfather of family therapy.  He was internationally recognized as an expert in marital relationships.  This was a great opportunity for my friend to obtain advice on his marriage from the ‘master.’
“And what do you think he said?”  I didn’t have any idea what Carl Whitaker had told him.  I had long since given up trying to second guess Carl.  He always surprised me.  “Do you know what he said, do you know what he said?  He said fight it out.  I waited for a moment to see what else he was going to add, but that was it.  With all the information and wisdom he has, all he could tell me was to fight it out.”  
My friend was very disappointed.  He was obviously expecting a more thorough and extensive response.  I don’t think he took Carl up on his recommendation, because I heard later that the couple had separated.  The more I consider the advise, the more impressed I am.  In its simplicity, Carl had captured the heart of what strengthens couples.  If a committed couple can tolerate the anxiety of fighting out their difficulties (in a fair way), interact on such a passionate and meaningful level, and resolve the conflict, the relationship has to grow in intimacy.  If they can’t tolerate the kind of intimacy that comes with fighting, it will be very difficult for the relationship to grow.   

A version of this was published in the Connecticut Connection.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thank you Mark Twain

I learned an important lesson about writing when I visited the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Connecticut.  During the tour, they took us to his writing room.  It was a beautiful room with an elegant pool table in the middle of it.  In the left corner was his writing desk and next to the writing desk was what looked like a mail box with a number of cubbies in it.  I asked about the interesting structure.  Mark Twain would generally be working on a number of manuscripts at a time.  Each cubby contained a different project he was working on.  He would work on a particular subject until "the well would run dry."  He would then put it away and work on a different topic.  Later in time, when he came back to the original subject he would find that the well was again filled with more to write.  Knowing this gives the author permission to leave one subject and move onto another.  

I often found that at 2 AM in the morning, I would be empty of things I wanted to write in Bedlam.  I would go to bed feeling drained.  However, the following morning, not only would I know where I wanted to go with my writing, the actual next line would be available in my head.  I have to give permission for my writing to follow the pace of my spirit.  

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Teaching Feminism to Little Boys

Teaching Feminism to Little Boys

Carl Whitaker, M.D. often asked the question, "Of what value is a father?"  Appreciating this question, I have posed it to groups with whom I work.  Over the years, I have been impressed with the inadequacy of the answers I have received.  When you ask this question to single mothers, they will tell you, adamantly, that fathers are totally useless. 

In answering his own question, Carl postulated that the value of a father to a little girl is that this may be the only male in her life that will love her without any sexual complications.  Whether or not you agree, his point is worth considering.  However, Carl's answer was incomplete.  I was left with the question of what value are fathers to their sons.  What can a father teach boys that a mother cannot?

Recently, my wife inadvertently provided me with an answer.  She and another mother were talking about when they first had sons.  They were committed to raising mature men who were not chauvinistic.  Evidently, they had made a pact that they would raise their boys to respect women and treat them as equals.  They agreed that they would make sure that their boys learned to take their own dishes to the sink, to help around the house and to treat women respectfully, etc.  I was impressed with their plan.  As a result I started thinking about how boys learn feminism.  Feminism, in my definition, is recognizing the equality between genders without assigning a role to either gender.  

I remember asking a friend if he had the "sex talk" with his 14-year-old son.  His son is handsome, athletic and intelligent.  As a result, every night he was receiving multiple phone calls from girls.  My friend was becoming concerned about the possible effects of this barrage son his son.  

At first, when I asked him about whether he had talked with the boy, he seemed a bit embarrassed at the question and then he admitted that he had not.  Strengthening his position, he asserted that he did not need to have the talk.  His son learned about the facts of life in school.  Talking with his son would be redundant.  Initially, his explanation seemed adequate.  Then I recognized the fallacy of his thinking.  I reasserted that the talk was not to explain the mechanics of sex, which I was sure the school did an admirable job of communicating.  His job as a father was to communicate his values around sex, women and relationships.  The school, while very useful, could not instruct his son regarding attitudes and values.  Expanding on this, I recognized that his son could learn about sex from the school, from a talk with his father, and most importantly, from watching his father's relationships with women. 

Thus I became aware of one major value of fathers to their sons.  A mother's ability to teach her son how to respect women is limited.  The most powerful lessons come from watching how Dad treats Mom.  These lessons are learned unconsciously and become deeply embedded in the son's psyche. 

If Dad doesn't help around the house, whatever Mom does to make her son contribute will be less effective in the long run.  The son learns that men do not participate in household chores.  If Dad does not help around the house, no matter what Mom does, the likelihood is that when the son is married he will not help around the house.  When the father helps with cleaning, dishes or laundry, the son is more likely to become a man that shares in the household chores. 

How Mom responds to Dad shapes the interaction and influences the lesson learned.  If Dad is abusive, but Mom refuses to tolerate this behavior, watching Dad change or leave or grow is a great opportunity for the son to identify the kind of man he will become.  Conversely, if Dad and Mom can disagree, have a healthy fight and conclude with a mutually agreeable outcome, the son learns that it is okay to hold his own and stand up for what he believes in within marriage.  Frequently, families will assure me that although the father was absent, this had little or no impact on the children.  If Dad leaves, life's lessons carry on.  Dad still provides a message for his son.  The child learns that it is okay to leave.  Without Dad at home, boys will often seek out a male role model in the form of a grandfather, teacher, coach, or in the peer group. 

It is important not to underestimate the huge influence fathers have on their children.  Verbal directions can reinforce or discourage behaviors, but it is the actual behavior of the father that is the primary education.  Ultimately, the most effective education is two parents working together.  

Reprinted from the Connecticut Connection, Summer 2005