Thursday, December 31, 2015

My New Title

Today my oncologist referred to me as a survivor.  I can’t begin to convey the feeling that came with that label.  It is an incredible way to finish the year.  

Saturday, December 26, 2015

How Aunt Dorothy Saved my Life

I was never close to my Aunt Dorothy.  She always treated me well, she seemed nice, she even gave me cool Christmas gifts; but that’s not the same as close.  I was therefore surprised at my mother’s funeral, when she walked up to me, waited until she had my full attention and then told me the wisest thing I have ever heard regarding grief.  I have read books, attended countless workshops, and talked with some noteable experts on grief.  None of them contained the brilliance of her thinking.  Her words are enshrined in my heart.
“William, hold onto her as long as you need to, then let her go.  Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to move on before you’re ready.  Don’t set a time limit on your grief.  Hold onto her as long as you need to, then and only then let her go.”  
She was right.  You can’t put a time limit on grief.  It ebbs and flows throughout your life.  While you may not feel anything at a gravesite, a tune on the radio can trigger tears.  You may not feel anything for a long time, then a holiday or anniversary may unleash a wave of sadness.   
Grief is an unavoidable part of life.  I do believe that avoiding grief can physically hurt the body.  Keeping that kind of pain within you will damage your body over time.  With that one little comment my Aunt Dorothy may have saved my life.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Letter

No matter how much you work on some issues, they will still come back to haunt you.   Sometimes current events will trigger you.  Sometimes an anniversary or a holiday will trigger you.  Sometimes divine providence interrupts the tranquility.  The result is that you have to work through issues that you have worked through before.  Such is the reason I haven’t been writing for the past couple of months.  I have had to wrestle with an old issue yet again.  
Fall has always been a delicate time for me.  My mother died on September 25th, my parents anniversary was October 25th, my Mother’s birthday was November 25th and Christmas was always the big holiday in our house.  In succession, these events would emerge each year to require that I feel the loss.  Early in our marriage, my wife pointed out that if I didn’t allow myself to feel the sadness during Autumn, I would get sick by Christmas.  
One of the complications of my mother’s death was that just prior to her getting killed she visited Connecticut.  I was finishing my internship, the only thing that was holding me here.  During her visit she asked me if I would return to the family home after my training.  I could complete writing my Masters Thesis from the farmhouse in Rochester as well as I could in Connecticut.  I knew she was lonely and wanted my companionship, but I wasn’t about to move home at the age of 26.  I declined and I knew it hurt her.  I think she took it personally.  It was only a few weeks later that she was killed.  Along with all the other emotions that accompanied her death, I was overwhelmed with guilt that I had not moved home.  I reasoned that if I had been there, maybe she wouldn’t have died.  Maybe I could have saved her.  
This question has haunted me over the years.  I knew I wasn’t responsible for her death, but did my absence contribute to her demise?  I also became angry with my father who had died 6 years earlier.  Maybe if he hadn’t have smoked those damn Camel straights, he would have been there to protect mom.  Then during my grief I realized that if I had been there I might have died also.  Murderers don’t like to leave witnesses.  I rationalized my decision, while also acknowledging that moving home at my age, would not have been healthy.  But the feeling that I had let her down by not moving home had stayed with me.  For 39 years I have carried this small guilt.  
We have been in the process of cleaning out all kinds of stuff that has accumulated over the years.  It was on Sunday September 20, 2015 that I pulled out another box, from under the stairs to go through and see what could be tossed.  In the box, I found my mother’s purse.  I don’t know if I had ever looked in it.  It still had her car keys and lipstick.  Mostly it was filled with bank deposit slips for accounts long gone.  Then I came across a letter.  It was a letter from me dated September 20, 1976.  I had written the letter exactly 39 years to the day that it was returned to me.  I opened it and read.  
The letter described the work on my thesis.  It described my plans to seek employment.  But it also told her how much I loved her and that she shouldn’t take it personally that I didn’t want to live with her.  I needed my independence and to find my own way.  My not returning home was about me, not about her.  
She would have received this letter only hours before she was killed.  Before she died, she knew that I loved her dearly and that my not moving home was about my trying to grow up.  Reading the letter, finally after 39 years, absolved me of the guilt I had been carrying.  While it totally let me off the hook, it also triggered my grief again.  At times, during the next few weeks, I felt the devastating pain just as strongly as when she first left me.  For several weeks, I had to return to mourning the loss of my mother.  
I no longer avoid these feelings.  Over several weeks, I let the pain roll over me and through me.  It slowly ebbed away and I again feel grounded.  It took some time for me to recognize this experience as a “great gift” as my son called it.  The fact that the letter came back to me exactly 39 years later impressed me that the Gods wanted me to pay attention and work through another piece of my grief.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Maternal is as Maternal does

In my humble opinion, I am one of the most maternal men you will ever meet.   As maternal as I am, I’m not in the same ballpark as my wife.  She could spend days with our infants without a single complaint.  I could handle extended hours at best.  She has always had this internal ability at mothering.  It was an instinct that was built into her.  She knew what our children needed before I could even recognize the question.  But everyone has their limits and before long we had to have a talk about her getting a break from infant babble.  We finally worked out an arrangement that one night a week, I would stay in with the baby and she could go out.  This worked for us.   Many years later that negotiation came back to me as an intervention.
I was working with a nice young man, Elliot, who was in the rehabilitation program for substance abuse.  He was married with 6 boys, all under the age of 10 years old.  One afternoon we had a family session with the entire family.  I only had to cope with those boys for one hour, but they almost sent me over the edge.  His wife was great and loved her husband and the boys with all her heart, but she had a legitimate complaint.  She needed help with those boys.  He explained that he would do his best to stay home and help her.  But eventually, he would reach his breaking point and leave.  On the streets he would meet up with ‘his boys’ and he would end up using drugs sending him back to the bottom again.  Elliot was frustrated, his wife was frustrated and the boys were out of control.  His wife certainly was not going to like the idea of his attending 12 Step Self-Help groups 5 nights a week.  
It was nearing the end of the hour and I felt that my only accomplishment had been to keep the boys from taking a crayon to my wall.  The office had not been totally destroyed, only partially.  I was disappointed in how the session had turned out, when I remembered how my wife and I had negotiated a similar problem.  I told them of our experience.  I suggested that one night a week, Elliot stay home and watch the kids and the wife go out for the evening.   She brightened up immediately.  I insisted that this would only work if Elliot was encouraged to go to 12 Step groups on the other nights.  It took the rest of the hour for them to work out the details of the negotiation.  But they both went away satisfied that they would get their needs met.  Elliot left the rehab. program the following week and he didn’t return in the years that I worked there.    
               Despite our limitations as fathers, we can make our contributions.  Elliot could handle the overwhelming responsiblity of the boys for one night a week.  One night a week out, was all the wife needed to keep her sanity.  She could then encourage Elliot to attend 12 Step groups to continue his healing.  

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sometimes You Just Get It Right

It was August 30, 1975.  We were going to see the Rolling Stones.  I was accompanied by my college roommate, Jim, and two wonderful women who went with me to SUNY @ Geneseo.  The concert was at Rich Stadium, where the Buffalo Bills play football.   We were all totally excited.  We were in the stadium by the early afternoon.  It was a beautiful, warm, sunny summer day,  a perfect day for an outdoor concert!  I don’t remember who was the first warm up band, but I remember Sheryl Crow being the second act.  She was still not well known.  When we heard her, we knew she was going to be a great star.  
The Stones were incredible that night.  The music was amazing.  Jagger was outstanding as he danced across the stage.  He was Jumping Jack Flash, the Midnight Rambler and an unsympathetic devil all in one.  Keith Richards’ on lead guitar was brilliant.  Hearing him live, you came to appreciate all that he added to the sound.  Billy Preston was playing keyboard for this tour which just added to the fullness.  There was a frenzy that ignited when they performed Midnight Rambler.  This had to have been before the Altamont disaster.  Jagger took off this big, white belt that he was wearing and he repeatedly whipped it on the stage in time with the music.  It had a dark eroticism to it.  It totally electified the audience.  Later, they sang “Wild Horses” acappella.  They all grouped around Jagger and sang back up to his lead.  It was beautiful, powerful and impressive. 
The 1975 concert ended close to midnight.  Fireworks marked the finale.  Then there were 100,000 people exiting the stadium at the same time.  It was the only time in my life where I was in such a tight crowd of people that you literally couldn’t move other than to go with the flow of the mass.  It was scary.  By the time I got home and to my car, it was almost 3 AM.  
In the fall of 1975 I was lucky enough to be driving a copper-colored Ford Mustang hatchback.  It had 360 hp and was gorgeous.  I had spent the day before filling the car with my most important possessions.  At 4 AM, I got in my little Mustang and drove off to Connecticut.  On Monday I started an internship at Elmcrest Psychiatric Hospital in Portland, Connecticut.  I was 25 years old and I would never again live in New York State.  This was farewell to my childhood home.  It was a wonderful way to leave.  In my way of thinking, the Rolling Stones gave me a send off to my new life.  

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When Does Grief End?

My wife Catherine, taught me an important lesson about grief.  It was the fall after our daughter was born.  She had a very serious look on her face when we sat down to talk.
“Every year during the fall, you get sick.  Now that we have our daughter that has to change.”  I really didn’t understand what she was talking about.  She could see it in my face.  “William, every year at this time, you get sick.  When you get sick, I get sick, and the baby will get sick and we’ll have a miserable Christmas.  It has to change.”  I was still confused about what she wanted from me.  “Let me put it this way, your mother is here in our marriage and she’s fucking with us.  Get her out.”    
This was a challenge.  At this point, my mother had been dead over ten years. I was sent to the basement (exile) to “work” on this issue.  At first I didn’t think she knew what she was talking about.  But she knew me well and I knew she believed it.   
My mother died in late September.  The anniversary of her death was always a powerful time for me.  My parent’s wedding anniversary was in October, my mother’s birthday was around Thanksgiving and Christmas was our big holiday.  Fall was filled with emotional anniversaries.  In September I would start to avoid my feelings.  Clearly, the cork was put in the bottle with the anniversary of her murder.  As Fall proceeded I would get more and more depresssed.  I bottled up the sadness I had from all those family times that I used to celebrate.    I would get more and more depressed and numb, until I would get sick.  Catherine was right.
Then I had a memory of an experience I had shortly after her death.  My brother and I had decided to rent out our farmhouse in Rochester.  We should have sold it then, but neither of us could consider parting with it.  I was given the job of going up to the house, cleaning it and preparing it for sale.  
I knew that this was going to be tough.  I knew I would have to clean up blood.  When I arrived at the house, I steeled myself to the task at hand.  If I allowed myself to feel the sadness, I would never be able to complete the job.  So I turned off all my feelings and went about my cleaning.  By the time I left there, 8 hours later, I was sick as a dog.  I felt like I was coming down with a flu.  But I needed to get back to Connecticut, so I jumped in my car and started driving.  I was outside of Albany, when I finally had to pull over.  Once again, I felt the hurt.  It was the familiar pain that accompanied losing my mother.  It was excrutiating.  I believe I sobbed for over 15 minutes.  It was deep and cleansing.  It took me a while, before I could regroup and get back on the road.  But by the time I reached Massachusetts, I was totally healthy.  My body had washed away whatever it needed to.  
I knew what I had to do.  In order to get my mother out of our family, I had to spend some time with her.  Each Fall, I had to allow myself to mourn my mother.  I needed to cry and feel the loss.  Some years I would pull out pictures of her and that would open me up.  Some years I would write her a letter and tell her about my life.  To this day, I can still find tears if I think about how much my kids would have loved their grandparents and vice versa.  That thought will always be a trigger for me.  
For several years as fall would approach, my wife would remind me that my mother was sneeking back into our lives.  Would I kindly get her out?  For more than a decade, this was our ritual every year.  In fall, I would start taking time to think about my family, my childhood, my mom and dad.  Eventually, I would open the flood gates and have a good cry.  Once I opened up to the tears, I wouldn’t get sick.  
I don’t know when I noticed that Catherine stopped bringing it up.  Eventually, it was no longer necessary.  While the pain will always be there, as time and my family healed me, my mom’s death lost its power over me.  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Great Mothers

Sometimes great mothers end up in my office.  I call them "Great Mothers."  Great mothers are the ones that can juggle their responsibilities to the children, the husband, the home and a job.  They don’t question their duties, but go about them effectively and with love.  They are comfortable making dinner, while feeding the baby, kissing their husband hello and checking their schedule for the next day.  You wouldn’t think that great mothers would end up talking to a therapist. 
It has to do with the development of the family.  Juggling everything for everybody works when the kids are small.  But we all need to learn to do things for ourselves.   The more you do for maturing children what they can do for themselves, the more you handicap them.   Adolescents need to learn how to take care of themselves.  This is a slow process that continues until the child is launched.  When problems occur during teen years, great mothers revert back to doing the things that worked before, namely fixing things.  Now, these efforts backfire.  What the child really needs is enough support to handle the problem themselves if they can.  The message the child gets is that they can't handle their own life, so parents will control them.  Parenting requires that the adult continually be changing as to how they raise their child.  This is a difficult shift for some mothers to make.  It requires that the parent watch their child fail, hurt, face disappointment and generally struggle through the chaos.  As parents, we hurt when our kids are hurting, so we want to spare them.  Further, adolescents are now much more capable of doing permanent damage to themselves or others.   Now matter what the age of the child, parents will want to protect them.  The basic job of parenting is to teach the child to take care of themselves.  This means that mom needs to change how she does things.  In order to change this pattern, mothers can start by finding one thing a week, that they are doing, that their child could do for themselves and give it up.  When the pattern is broken for the first time, parents tend to apply the process to other issues.  As they learn to adapt, great mothers again become great mothers.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


  Shortly after I started Syracuse U., I met a wonderful young woman named Laurie.  She was from Palmyra, N.Y., so when we first started dating I affectionately called her Palmyra.  She and I seemed to fit together really well.  She lived across the park from my dorm and before long one of us was crossing that park every night.  It has been many years and I don’t remember much about her.  But I do remember that we had started falling in love.  Then she did something, that at my age, I couldn’t tolerate.  I think now that it was my failure, not hers.  Whoever is responsible, it finished us.
We were in my dorm room studying.  Studying was something that I wasn’t good at, but doing it with her made it easier.  I remember she was lying on my bed and I was sitting at the desk with my feet up.  We were comfortable together, just being; when I noticed that she was making my bed.  
“What are you doing?”
“I’m making the bed of course.” 
“Okay, why are you making my bed?”  
“I’m practicing for when we are married.”
That was all she had to say.  She scared me with those words.  In my head, I knew that it was over.  I would break up with her before the end of the week.  I don’t remember how I pushed her away, but I remember that I did.  I could make a case that when she said those words, she was actually sabotaging the relationship.  At the time, I totally convinced myself that it was all Laurie that destroyed what we were making.  I now know that I ran away.  I had other options.  
Once in a while, I get back to Rochester and Syracuse via the New York Thruway.  When I pass the roadsign for Palmyra, I always wonder what could have been.  

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Lesson in Depression

     When I was in graduate school I learned a lesson about depression from a very dubious source.  One evening I was looking for something to do and I strolled over to a dorm to see a girl I knew.  I arrived too late and she had already gone out for the evening, but her roommate Marilyn was getting ready to go out.  
     It’s important to know that this was 1974 and at the height of the women’s movement.  It was also a college that was 70% women.  The women on that campus, felt very empowered.  I knew that Marilyn was going out to find a man to bring back to her room.  Being a friendly fellow, I decided to inquire as to how she went about this. 
     “Marilyn, when you go into a bar, how do you pick out a guy to bring back?” 
     “That’s easy William, when I go in, I look around for the most depressed guy in the bar.  He’s the guy I go after.” 
     “Really!”  I didn’t understand her thinking.  
     “William, you should understand this.  It’s Psychology 101.  A depressed guy wants to be happy.  He believes if he makes me happy, I’ll make him happy and take away his depression.  He makes a great lover, because he will stand on his head in order to please me.”
     Immediately I recognized the wisdom in her thinking.   She taught me an important lesson about depression and people pleasing.  People pleasing, is a curse for most people.  People pleasers have little confidence.  However, there are some advantages to people pleasing.  One of them would have been running into Marilyn, when you are depressed and sitting in the corner of a bar.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Spirituality and Fibrilation

I consider myself very spiritual.  I’m not very religious, but I am spiritual.  Religions dictate what is acceptable behavior.  Whereas, spirituality dictates from within.  Spirtuality is the belief that we are made up of energy, inside a physical body.  Pierre Chardin once said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are  spiritual beings having a human experience."  My family history is filled with spiritual experiences.  They have had a huge impact on my thinking.
My Grandmother was the first to influence my belief in spirituality.  She was old and wise and loved me.  She would talk to me about life and death.  She told me about the death of my grandfather.  My Grandfather had leukemia and died in the hospital.  She had just visited him.  She sat down in her bedroom and looked over toward the door.  There, in the doorway she saw my Grandfather.  He looked healthy and strong and smiled at her.  He was only there for a moment and he disappeared.  The phone rang.  He had just passed away.  He died a moment before he appeared in the doorway.  I believe that she saw him.    
My other experience was with my father.  Three days before he died, his heart went into fibrilation.  Fibrilation is rapid irregular contractions of the heart muscle.  Treatment requires that they shock the heart, once to stop it, and then shock it again to restart it.  After the event, the doctor explained to us what had transpired.  He assured us that my father was totally unconscious and would not have felt anything nor would he remember anything.  
The following day Dad was again conscious and alert.  “The funniest thing happened to me yesterday.  I was in bed when all of a sudden I felt really strange.  A buzzer went off and the staff started running around me.  Then, they shocked me.  I felt this incredible jolt of electricity going through my body.  The next thing I knew, I was up in the corner watching them.  I could see myself as they all ran around me.  Then they zapped me again and I was back in my body.”  
I remember my mother and I looking at each other in shock.  He had told us that his spirit left his body and then re-entered it.  I suppose we should have doubted him.  Others would tell us that his experience was just electrical stimulation in his brain.  But my mother and I had no reason to doubt him.     
These two experiences stick me with a belief in the spirit.  When the closest people in your life describe having experiences out of their body, it is compelling.  For me, it helps explain life.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Enabling: First Installment

Addiction and enabling go hand in hand.  Working with addiction, without working with the family is cutting my own throat.  As long as there is someone supporting the addiction (consciously, or unconsciously), the addiction will persist.  Carl Whitaker believed that if you can stop the enabler from supporting the addiction, you’ve done your job.  In reality, it is half the job.  You still have to contend with the addiction. 
I think Enabling has gotten a bad rap.  Enable actually means “to make able,” and that sounds like helping to me.   Helping is not a bad thing?   Helping others is a virtue.  Then how do we distinguish between helping that is positive versus negative.  My favorite illustration comes from parenting.  If I pick up my 1 year old when he falls, I’m being a good parent.  However, if I pick up my 21 year old every time he falls, I am doing him a great disservice.  He needs to  learn how to pick himself up.  
Enabling is doing something for someone that they could do for themselves.  If you are picking up your 1 year-old, you may be doing something for him, that would be difficult on his own.  When you pick up your 21 year-old, you are cheating him from accomplishing something that he can do for himself.  
A great example came at the end of a family session.   A young man who was addicted to substances had completed the rehab. program and was about to be discharged.  We were having a final session.  Near the end of the session the mother asked me if she could pose a question:  
“He has asked me to buy him a car.  He says he’ll need it to get to meetings, therapy and a job.  Do you think I should buy him one?”
“Have you ever bought him one before?”  
“Yes, many times.”
“Excuse me?”
“I think I have bought him six cars over the years.”
“Where are all those cars?”
“He cracked them all up.”
“Then I would consider buying him a car like playing Russian Roulette.  One of these cars is going to kill him and you don’t know which one.  Drive him to his first meeting, let him raise his hand and ask for rides from the people in the A.A. meeting.  They love to help each other.  Buying him another car would be like putting a gun in the hand of someone who was suicidal.” 

She probably bought it for him.  Unconsciously, she was killing him, but neither of them knew it.  She may not have been able to resist buying it.  It was wired in to her to help her son.  Remember, enabling is generated by love.  Helping our children is built into every specie.   What person wouldn’t want to help their loved one.  
I don’t like the term “tough love.”  It has too many negative connotations that go with it.  I avoid the term.  However, the person enabling the addiction needs to be motivated to change.  Acknowledging that enabling is generated by love, is tolerated by most family members that enter my office.  
“I know that you love him/her.  Don’t stop loving them.  I just want you to think of a new way to show it.  The way you have been showing it isn’t working.  It contributes to killing your loved one.  They need you to find a new way to love them.”   

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Doing the Dishes with Love

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I consulted with several doctors for their opinions.  I wanted to know how I got cancer and how to get rid of it.  Generally, they all had the same treatment plan, but none of them could tell me how I contracted prostate cancer.  
This was a time of a lot of self reflection.  I was faced with my own life and death issue.  Anyone who has ever experienced this moment knows what Tim McGraw means when he says, “live like you are dying.”  It changed how I was thinking.   I spent considerable time going inside and looking at myself.   I wanted to face my demon.
I took responsibility for getting cancer.  I was told I was wrong.  I was told to accept it.  They said, “shit happens.”  I did not believe that for a moment.  In my thinking, my mind, body and spirit had to be aligned to let in cancer.  I recognize that I am not responsible for the biology I was given, only what I do with it.   I used therapy to work on it.  I talked to the cancer in my body.   I had dialogues with it.  I asked it where it came from.   A memory came back I had buried.  
My early 40’s was a tough time.  We were raising kids, I was trying to make a career, we had a house to maintain and it was a huge amount of work.  After the kids were asleep and my wife fell asleep, I still had to bring up the wood for the wood stove, set a fire that would last all night, feed the cats, turn off all the lights, lock up the house and finally do the dishes.  Through my immaturity, I became resentful that I didn’t have my own time to work on my own stuff.  When you are a therapist, and you give all day, you need time by yourself  to recharge the batteries.  I would stay up later and later to have time by myself and then I was getting less sleep and then I was more angry.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my family.  I loved them with all my heart.  I was angry at the circumstances of my life.  I was angry with me.  
I can remember thinking, “Is this it?  Is this all there is?  If this is it, I don’t want to do this for 40 more years.  At that very moment I gave myself a message that I didn’t want to live.  I believe that this was when I let the cancer in.  
I knew I had to change my attitude.  If I was to survive I had to change my perspective on my life.  I could no longer afford to be resentful of doing the dishes and all the rest.  One night I decided that if I looked at those dishes and felt resentful, I would leave them for the next day.  But if I could do them with love, I would clean up the kitchen.  Over time, this commitment to only do things with love, grew.  I applied it to other aspects of my life.  I quickly realized that I was doing the dishes more often.  When I approached them with love for the family, it was easy to zip through them.  
I doubt that there are any, oncologists that would agree with my diagnosis.  Andrew Weil, M.D. once told me, “It’s easy to get cancer, harder to get rid of it.”  Getting rid of it meant working on my body, my mind and my spirit.  I know that I needed medicine to conquer my cancer, but my spirit had to believe in it and want it.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stop Bending my Finger

For seventeen years, my principle responsibility was Director of Family Services in a substance abuse facility.  The experience shaped what I know about addiction.  Addiction can be very difficult to understand.  I want to use the next few blogs to talk about addiction.  Why would someone take a poison, hoping to make things better, when it only makes things worse?   
The word addiction comes from a Latin root meaning “to dictate?”  This makes sense. When someone becomes addicted they are owned by their addiction.  The addiction tells them what to do.  The classical definition of addiction is: “slavery to a pernicious habit, especially that of certain drugs.”  
However, I found that this information is relatively useless, when sitting across from a 10 year-old who wants to understand mommy’s behavior.  I needed something more to help the child understand.  In his/her mind, “if mommy loved me more,” she’d be able to stop.  “Why isn’t my love for mommy enough?”  
Addiction is not about logical behavior.  Continuing to put a poison in your body, expecting things to get better, is not logical.  Addiction is about feelings and emotion.  People use drugs to feel better and they work.  If you put a drug in your body, for some period of time, you may feel better, or at least you won’t feel your pain.  Addiction is about feelings and sensation, not about being rational. 
Therefore, using a kinesthetic (sensory experience) explanation captures the essence of addiction.  I use two metaphors:
“When we ask your mommy to stop using drugs, it would be as if we asked you to stop breathing.  Can you imagine what your first reaction would be?  Are you crazy?  I can’t get along without breathing.  I need breathing to live.  I couldn’t possibily stop breathing.  That’s what it’s like when we ask your mother to stop using drugs.  Inside she feels like she wouldn’t survive without using her drug.  We know that isn’t true, but that’s what it feels like to her.”
The second example actually incorporates the horror of addiction.  I tend to use this with older children:
“Imagine for a moment that I was to take your pinky and started bending it back.  Imagine that I just kept bending it and bending it.  After a while, the only thing you would be thinking about is how to stop this fool from bending your finger.  You wouldn’t be thinking about your parents or your friends or your school work.  The only thing you would be thinking about is how to stop the pain in that finger.  That’s what it is like when your parent gets up in the morning and they are addicted.  The addiction makes them uncomfortable and all they can think about is how to stop their pain.  It isn’t that they don’t love you.  They love you just as much as they ever did.  But they can’t think of anything except how to stop their pain.  The problem is that the only thing that will stop their pain, is more of the drug that caused them the pain.  They go on using, day after day, in order to keep the pain away.”
If using more of the drug is what will make the pain go away, how does anyone ever get away from the drug.  Recovery from addiction requires feeling the pain, facing the hurts you experience and you gave to others.  Recovery forces the addict to stop running away and feel their hurts.  That’s why it is avoided by so many addicts that never get recovery.  The pain caused by the addiction is not as profound as the pain they experienced in their life and family.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Understanding Carl Whitaker

           I first met Carl Whitaker when I was an intern at Elmcrest in 1975.  I had no idea who he was, other than he was billed as the “Grandfather of Family Therapy.”  He lectured in the morning,  did a demonstration with a real family, then finished off the day talking with the audience.  As a 24 year-old student of psychotherapy I was flabbergasted.  He was the most grounded and grown up man I had ever met.  He talked about being a person with the clients.  His demonstration was amazing.  I felt totally in sync with what he was saying.  When he was done, I was surprised to find how many people didn’t understand him, agree with him, or like him.  They didn’t get Carl Whitaker.      
              Many people don’t get Carl Whitaker.  He spoke in primary process.  He talked about the family in ways that would take you there.  This meant that he spent a lot of time in the right side of your brain.  Sometimes I accused him of doing hypnosis and putting us in a trance.  But he denied knowing anything about hypnosis.  His style of talking wakes up the unconscious.  
              One time he asked me if I knew why I could do “his stuff?”  I didn’t have a clue.  I just knew that I understood him.  He said, “It’s because we don’t need them.”  He went on to talk about how we both grew up on farms.  We were isolated on the farm and we learned to be with ourselves.  I don’t know if he was accurate regarding me.  But this was a man that was at peace with himself.       
            I had monthly supervision with him for ten years.  I attended all of his conferences that were close by.  And I know that I captured him as a foster grandfather when he did a therapy session with my brother and I after my mom was murdered.  I was honored when I got a call asking me to be a moderator for Carl at his next workshop.  The job was to sit with Carl on the stage and interpret what he said for people that didn’t understand him.  I agreed with some reservations.  The idea scared me, but I agreed because any time I got to spend with Carl was special for me.    
                The night before the workshop I had a nightmare.  I dreamt that when Carl lectured, I didn’t understand anything he said and I was totally embarassed.  The feeling of fear stayed with me into the day.  I told Carl about the dream when I arrived.  We both chuckled at first.  Then he was more direct.  “No one is going to remember what happens here today.  You are going to be up there with me.  Just enjoy it.”   It was a great thing for him to say to me at that moment.  I went on the stage with the sole expectation that I would enjoy the day.  One more time I would get to work with Carl.  
               Then my worst fear came true.  I didn’t have a clue what Carl started lecturing about.  It was something he thought of at 4 A.M., that didn’t make any sense at 9 A.M.  I laughed at myself and recognized that my mind was just living out my dream.  But then when he took the break at 10, numerous senior clinicians were coming up to me asking me what the hell he was talking about.  No one else understood him either.  
               Creativity results in you having both good and bad ideas.  That morning, Carl’s creativity took over.  His thoughts that morning may have been absolutely brilliant, but I'll never know. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Post Infusion

It was 1997.  I was sitting on the back deck, when I received a phone call from the doctor.  Unceremoniously, he told me that I had cancer and to let him know when I wanted to do something about it.  I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer.  I was shocked.  My wife was shocked.  To be told you have cancer is like getting sucker punched.  The next few nights I spent talking to my Higher Power.
I couldn’t go back to that doctor.  His coldness scared me.  I started doing my own research.  Over the next few months, I elicited several “second” opinions.  I was surprised that none of the doctors could actually tell me how I contracted cancer.  I finally asked one of them if I could have gotten it through voodoo.  He assured me that voodoo had nothing to do with it, but he offered me no credible reason why.  Without any viable alternative, one can speculate that voodoo may have been involved.  
I had a prostectomy at Yale.  It was a powerful experience because in my mind, I was saving my life.  They took out my prostate and I assumed the cancer with it.  However, several months later my PSA (prostate serum antigen test, used to measure prostate cancer) started climbing.  After all I had been through, basically they were saying, “oops, we didn’t get it all.”  I was advised to have radiation treatment.  After 30+ radiation treatments I was again told, “oops, we didn’t get it all.”  I asked what next and was told there was nothing next.  I was to wait until I was really in trouble and then they would poison me with chemotherapy. 
Well this didn’t sound very attractive to me.  In my own sophomoric fashion, I decided to take over.  I felt responsible for conceiving cancer, so I would be responsible for eliminating it.  I remember at the time talking to Andrew Weil, M.D. about my plan.  While he supported it, he also added, “It is much more difficult to get rid of cancer than to get it.”  That didn’t stop me.  I changed my diet, my exercise routine, my spirituality, and my entire view of life.  I started going to Bikram Yoga almost two years ago, which was great for my body.  It got me ready for the ordeal ahead.  But the most important thing that happened was a change in my thinking.  I began to live like I was dying.  The result was that for over 15 years, I kept the cancer growing slowly.  In addition, I did a much better job of taking care of myself.  My family, friends, and especially my wife were an incredible help with this.  But this past summer, it got out of the box.  A number of events happened all at once.  
Sloan Kettering and Hartford Hospital joined forces.  I was approved for a new treatment regime that had been developed by Sloan Kettering.  I would receive hormone therapy and chemotherapy at the same time.  They had found that this was vastly more effective.  We planned to start the chemo therapy after my daughter Kelly’s wedding in October.  
From October through mid-February I received chemotherapy, or as they call it ‘infusion.’  Every three weeks I would get a new dose.  The following week I would feel terrible, the second week a little better, than the third week, almost normal.  Then we would go back and start the process all over again.  The negative effects were cumulative.  It was a horrible ordeal.  The treatment team at Hartford Hospital did their best to make me comfortable.  But most of the time I just felt terrible.  My energy level was gone.  I had constant physical problems.  I started to look like Uncle Festes from the Adams Family.  I see ads for chemicals that cleanse your body and I chuckle.  You haven’t had a cleanse until you’ve had 5 months of chemo.  Its like having a very caustic detergent being flushed through your veins periodically.  I finished the chemo treatments in February, yet the affects are still with me.  I still look like Uncle Festes.  I’m still tired and achey.  But everything is slowly getting better.  Despite my whining, I know that I had it better than many chemo patients. 
I am told that they can no longer find any evidence of cancer.  I am officially in remission.  I’m good for another 10,000 miles.  Now I can focus on healing from the chemo, getting my body back and taking back my life.  
During this period of time, we were relatively isolative.  I did work in the office, but avoided social events.  We were worried about compromising my immune system during treatment.  In addition to avoiding social events, I avoided talking to friends and family.  Much of the time, I didn’t have the energy to do any more than I was doing.  People that knew what I was going through sent me love.  But I still needed to isolate.  This was something I did for me.  I could’t risk any negativity getting in my head.  In the late 90’s when I told people about the cancer, I was sometimes confronted with people who believed it was a death sentence.  Not knowing who would say what, I avoided most everyone in my life except for my clients, my closest friends and my family.  I avoided both the positive people and the negative people in my life.  However, it allowed me to remain confident that the treatment would work.  Everyday I told myself that the treatment was working.  
With chemotherapy behind me, I wanted to let everyone know what happened.  Once my picture appeared on Facebook, we started getting more inquiries.  I might as well let everyone hear what happened all at once.  So, this is also an open apology to those who felt kept out during my ordeal.  I can understand your frustration with my lack of responsiveness.  You have a right to feel left out.  I hope you will understand how I made this decision.  
Everyday feels special.  I acknowledge and appreciate the love that has been around me.  It is a gift I have been given.  And everyday, I will try and earn it all over again.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Junior Prom

                 A week before my son’s junior prom, he brought home a discussion assignment to be completed with a parent. My wife informed me it was my turn.  I read the short story a couple of times.  It was straightforward.  
                 George and Martha were in love.  They were finishing their junior year of high school.  They had agree that they both wanted to wait until marriage before they had sex.  But one night they went to far and had sex.  Martha was really scared that she would get pregnant.  It seemed an eternity until she got her period.  Out of fear that it could happen again, she went to her mother and tried to talk to her about it.  But her mother was too overwhelmed and refused.  She went to her teacher, but her teacher told her that the Board of Ed. had forbidden her to talk to students about birth control.  She went to her doctor, but her doctor told her he couldn’t talk to her about it without her mother’s permission.  None of them would help her.  Shortly, she and George went to the Junior prom.  That night they had sex and she got pregnant.  Who’s responsible?    
                 It was clear to me that George and Martha were solely responsible for their behavior.  The mother, the teacher and the doctor contributed, but they weren’t responsible.  But when I discussed it with my son, he was furious with my perspective.  He insisted that the mother, teacher, and doctor were also responsible.  I was surprised with the strength of his belief.  We rarely fight, so this took me off guard.    
                 Days later I was walking through the pharmacy picking up my medication.  I really didn’t  notice where I was, when my feet stopped.  On my left was the condom display.  I knew why my absent mindedness had brought me to this aisle.  I bought a box and took them home to my son.  When I handed them to him, his face was shocked.  It was worth it just to see his face.    
                 We never talked about it again.  I must admit, I was pleased with myself as a father.  I had given him a message about safety and responsibility.  At the very least, he wouldn’t be able to hold me responsible if anything happened.