I have struggled with the words. The tragedy last Friday morning in Aurora, Colorado left me without breath, without sense, without energy. As many of us try to pick ourselves up after this devastation, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. There is no understanding of this senseless act, and healing has just begun. I am floored by the outpour of love and support that has enveloped Aurora and its surrounding communities and this gives me some sense of hope that light will shine again. What do we do in times of crisis? We cope in the way we know best. We come together, or we isolate until we can face the light. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and we all experience loss uniquely.
If you or someone close to you is affected by this tragedy, please know there are many sources of support, many of them free or low-cost. Please contact me at email@example.com for more information. I am here to support you.
I wanted to share a poem that I wrote about this tragedy, as it helped me release some of my pain and I hope it might provide some encouragement for others.
A Poem for the Victims of the Aurora Tragedy
A violation of personal safety
An explosion of broken boundaries
Chaos, fear, pain, then silence
To the victims
To their families
To their loved ones
I hold you
The words dissipate
The wounds are deep
Yet a community embraces
Each and every one
Light and hope are passed around
Like bread at the dinner table
Take a piece
Let it fill your belly
As it nourishes your soul
It empowers your body
This energy fills our limbs
So that we may embrace
So that we may come together
So that we may stay together
So that we may hold one another
So that we may breathe
the healing has already begun
So many of us wrap our identity around the things we do, the accomplishments we achieve, and the trophies we receive — in terms of school graduation, career success, or athletic competition. We, as animals, thrive on a healthy sense of competition, as it keeps us motivated and pushing forward towards our goals. Athletes, in particular, know this sense of purpose very well. The faster you run, the better place you will get. The better you dive, the greater team you will join. It can feel authentically validating to be acknowledged for your hard work and perseverance, and it can feel absolutely devastating to land in second place. Your time and your place can solidify themes of who you are — your identity. In addition, how you look physically (strong, solid, agile) can contribute in significant ways to your ability to achieve in ways that align with the identity you have created for yourself.
This obsession with perfection, size, and achievement can be an invitation to an eating disorder.
What happens when you retire from your sport(s)? Or are injured and can’t compete anymore? When your life is your sport, how do you cope? There was an article in the Denver Post last week entitled “Body obsession fills void left by sports” which chronicled the lives of several retired athletes (and by “retired” I do not mean AARP eligible; I mean in their mid-20s). One gymnast “who, since the age of 7 had devoted herself to gymnastics and without it felt a loss of identity”, developed bulimia as a means to have a new fixation: her body. Sports such as gymnastics are very vigilant about body size, shape, and weight. To succeed at the highest levels, you need to be thin and light. For some of us for whom that does not come naturally, that might lead to restricting food or purging it in order to maintain or lose weight.
Not only do these athletes not have the expectation to look a certain way in order to support their identity, they shift their entire lives to find a new meaning for who they are….which may seem daunting and elusive. Who am I if not a figure skater? Whether the eating disorder was developed during the years of training and competition, or if it was adopted after retirement, these types of questions are the challenges that we must all face as we walk the path of recovery. The eating disorder may try to mask or take away parts of who we are — and the beauty of recovery is rediscovering those parts of ourselves — but the initial confrontation of “what if there is nothing else to me?” is quite overwhelming.
The article states that “at least one-third of female college athletes has some type of eating disorder”. Think about how big that number is! What contributes to this? For one thing, the competitive nature of women (and men) in sports can contribute to the feeling of needing to be “the best” — and this can also blend into social spheres. The best athlete might also be the most popular girl on the squad, and we all know how important that might feel when making new friends in college. You might get compliments from coaches, family members, or mentors who notice the “hard work” and support it.
It appears that life after sports can leave a void and can create a feeling of loss. Loss of that team environment and cohesion that the athlete thrived in for so many years. If a member gets an injury and cannot play the sport, “she may feel like an ‘outsider’ and unable to contribute to the team anymore.” States Veronica Sykes, “I needed a new distraction, and I was able to fuel all of that angst into running — the same thing that made me good at my sport made me want to get really skinny.” Another aspect of risk in life after being an athlete is the distance that may come between former athletes and their colleagues and coaches. After retirement, people tend to split up and get out of touch. This can be a dangerous time for eating disorder development, as women may be searching for their identity and feel a lack of support and community.
This is a population that needs intervention and attention, as the environment of competitive sports can lead to an expectation to be perfect in life outside of that arena. It seems to me like a key point in self-care for retiring or active athletes is identity. Who are you without your sport? What parts of yourself can you nourish in a healthy way so that you don’t feel lost and separate? How can you boost your self-esteem and self-concept in affirming and positive ways? We all can ponder these questions and maintain awareness about the triggers of eating disorder and how to begin intervening.
Yesterday marked the 10,000th visitor to www.katedaiglecounseling.com! I am overjoyed with this milestone and encouraged by the lives that I have been able to touch. I am inspired to reflect upon what this might symbolize for the mental health community: people care about mental health issues! Whether it is interest in ADHD, body dysmorphic disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, what it means to be lonely, how to respond to bullies, or numerous other topics, my blog posts have been fodder for many searches and I hope that they have provided some insight, some information, or at the very least, something interesting to read
Thank you for choosing to read my writing; it means the world to me. It is my goal to continue researching and reflecting upon relevant mental health issues in the community — ideas are welcomed!
I am going to take a two week vacation from my blog and will be back to writing the week of August 1st. In the meantime, feel free to peruse the topics on this site and leave feedback. I look forward to conversing with you again in August!
We have all experienced the feeling of loneliness. We have all been alone at some point in our lives – it is part of being human. Some of us fear it; some of us crave it. What is the difference between being lonely and being alone? How did we come to label these feelings as “good” or “bad”, and why do we place judgment on their roles in our lives?
Feelings and emotions have immense power over the way we see ourselves and our world. What might be painful for some of us can be a welcomed emotion by others, due to the way our experiences and perceptions have shaped our lenses. For you, being by yourself at night is a relaxing and rejuvenating solo activity that allows you the time and space to wind down from your day. For another person, being alone at night may be the most low and sad place to be, as it can elicit feelings of depression and anxiety. The differences between these two interpretations of “being alone” can be due to our personalities (extravert or introvert?) or perhaps linked to an experience we have previously had when we were alone (maybe we tend to reminisce over a broken relationship when we are alone and that causes us to feel despair and decrease our self-esteem). Also, the state of being alone can provoke emotions that are dependent on other factors, such as if we had a good day at work or if we got into an argument with a loved one.
So how can loneliness and being alone be healthy for our mental health? I want to try to shift your perception of these states of being. We tend to label loneliness as a negative thing, something that we want to avoid. Why? Because it forces us to be with ourselves and to be present with the emotions we feel inside. If we are mean to ourselves or have a harsh self-perception, being alone can feel terrifying and miserable. When alone and without distraction, people who suffer from addiction or other types of mental health issues like eating disorders can feel out of control. Those who have survived a trauma can fear being alone because they might engage in self-harming behaviors or have a flashback to a horrible memory. Behaviors we use to cope with pain can be intensified when we are by ourselves because there is no one to judge us (except for ourselves).
Because of these reasons, and the fear we have of our pain only getting worse when there is no one else around, being lonely is a state we fervently avoid. Some people avoid this state by constantly surrounding themselves with others, even if it is not healthy. I think that being lonely is an opportunity for us. An opportunity to look inside and direct relate to what we are feeling. There is no one else around, and only yourself can keep you company. Why not make friends with that person? Sure, we may have judgments about ourselves or negative perceptions and it can be uncomfortable to “sit” with these feelings. However, if we do not connect with them directly, the negative self-image will only intensify. When we are alone we have the chance to change that. We can look within and commit to loving the person we are, and we can promise ourselves to change some parts of ourselves that are self-harming.
Have you ever been lonely in a crowd? I think that this can be a more intense feeling of loneliness because we feel we “shouldn’t” feel alone when surrounded with so many people. It can make us wonder what is “wrong” with us. However, I think that if you have this feeling it is something to really take a look at. Why do you feel lonely? Perhaps you are with a group of people that you do not connect with, and your emotions are telling you this. Perhaps you are sad about something, such as a troubled relationship, and are not feeling ready to connect to others — listen to what your soul is telling you and try not to judge yourself for whatever it says.
A friend reflected to me that “if you don’t know yourself, then loneliness is a dreadful place to be.” When you know — truly know — yourself, you might feel lonely but it does not stop you in your tracks and take over your entire day. You might notice it, even welcome it, and ask what it is trying to tell you. Perhaps it’s saying that you need MORE time by yourself so that you can replenish the reserves of your spirit that have been depleted. If it is telling you that you are very sad, listen to that as well. Don’t let yourself stay there too long — ask for help. Communicate your loneliness to a loved one or to a journal, acknowledge what its message is, and believe that it will pass. Embrace the state of being alone!
Sunday is Father’s Day, a day that brings many families together to celebrate the value and gifts of fathers. This may be the first Father’s Day for a new dad, or it may be a yearly occasion of togetherness for a grandfather and his children and grandchildren. It also can be a time of reflection, loss, and mixed emotions as many fathers and children come to terms with the separation they have with each other. An article in today’s Denver Post describes the increasing challenges and diversifying roles that American fathers inhabit in today’s modern society. The statistics are staggering: nearly one half of the country’s fathers under age 45 state that they have had at least one child out of wedlock. The percentage of fathers living separately from their children is nearly double what it was just a few years ago. Why is this?
First, I think it bears meaning to look at what we expect from families these days and traditionally. We are no longer a society of traditional families in the form of father, wife, 2.5 children, a golden retriever and a white picket fence. Today, families are formed in such diverse capacities that each individual person defines family in his or her own unique way. A client once told me that she considers family to be not so much along blood-lines, but to be those people whom she has met on various walks of life that have shown her trust, honesty, love, and acceptance. Same-sex families are increasingly becoming more prevalent in society, as well as mixed-generation families all living under the same roof.
So what role does the father have in the family these days? The answer is complex. With the economic woes that we continue to experience, many adults — women and men alike — are working not only one but two or three jobs in order to put food on the table. The “breadwinner” is traditionally thought to be the father, while the mother stays at home with the children. This is changing as gender roles blur lines, but men feel even more pressure than before to provide for their families as times get tougher.
According to the Pew study cited in the article, men who struggle to provide monetary assistance to their families often become stressed and absent, leading to estrangement from children.
Beth Latshaw, an assistant sociology professor at Appalachian State University who researches changing paternal roles pointed to an economic advantage for college graduates hired at companies with better benefits and family-friendly policies, contrasted with the situation for the larger ranks of low-wage workers.
“As a result, many women now raise children outside of marriage or without a father figure,” Latshaw said.
An interesting point in the article underlines that “as we approach Father’s Day, it becomes more and more apparent that our most valuable and solemn role is to provide childcare to our offspring.” But as more and more children grow up without a father, families and communities become changed as a result. President Obama has been one of the biggest advocates for fathers’ presence in their children’s lives and often cites how it impacted his own life to have a father who left him at a young age. Every Father’s Day, Obama takes special care to highlight the importance of fathers and this year he is focusing his attention on Latino families and men in the military who get to spend limited time with their children.
Education and responsibility for fathers of all ethnicities and socioeconomic classes are paths for healing rifts with children, Obama stresses. Here is a video from his speech on this day last year:
As we approach this symbolic day, I want to recognize the love that fathers and children share for one another. There may be economic, financial, and relational struggles that keep fathers and children apart, but these do not have to change the way that fathers and children bond with one another. Having an absent father, or being a father who cannot be near his children can spark resentment, depression, stress, and anger. Hold on to the hope of reuniting with your loved one if he/she is far away, and cherish memories that you once had with your father or child.
A woman meets up with some friends at a local restaurant and one of her friends that she has not seen in a while compliments her on her radiant skin. The woman recoils and exclaims: “you’ve got to be kidding! My skin is splotchy and pale; I could barely cover it up enough.” Have you ever had this reaction to a compliment or any type of comment on your appearance? For many, it is difficult to accept praise about how you look due to modesty and sometimes self-esteem issues. But for millions of other women and men (1-2% of the world’s population), it is nearly impossible to get dressed in the morning because they “feel too ugly to go out in the world”. A little-known but destructive disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder challenges the ability to function daily for those affected by body image issues, eating disorders, and any other type of mind-body disconnect. When does it cross the line from self-consciousness to life-altering body distortion?
What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)? BDD is a psychological somatoform disorder in which the affected person is excessively concerned about and preoccupied by a perceived defect in his or her physical features and body image. People affected by BDD may focus on one or several specific body parts or features, or he or she may experience a general sense of distress about their physical appearance. This can lead to (or already be connected to) other psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social isolation. Sometimes referred to as “imagined ugliness“, BDD can severely diminish the quality of life of the affected individual and the person’s perception of his/her body part can feel very real to that person.
What are the effects of BDD? Lowered self-esteem, obsession over the body part/feature, and consistent attempts to “fix” that body part through cosmetic or plastic surgery can be results of this disorder. But most of these attempts only bring on further emotional pain. According to the criteria in the upcoming fifth version of the diagnostic manual for mental health disorders, to be diagnosed with BDD a person must fulfill the following criteria:
One of the most distressing impacts of BDD is how alone the person can feel who is suffering from the disorder. When others do not see or believe that the “defect” is valid, the person can feel misunderstood, alone, and as if he or she is different from everyone else. Social isolation can intensify the feelings of being “ugly” or “separate” and can be linked to methods of self-harm as a soothing mechanism — and also as a form of self-punishment. Eating disorder and cutting behaviors typically link to a distorted body image, and when paired with BDD, these conditions can spiral out of control and potentially be deadly. Bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa can be qualified with feeling fat when in fact the person may be grossly underweight (more common in anorexia than bulimia). Losing weight and changing one’s physical appearance ultimately have the same goal: to find happiness with oneself, albeit in a dangerous and distorted manner. Therapy can help people with BDD and eating disorders find that the happiness they are looking for is not physical, but inner acceptance of his or herself as their naturally beautiful selves.
The most common areas of concern for people with BDD include:
Symptoms may include:
How is BDD treated? Art therapy can inspire healing. One creative way to realistically see the self includes having the affected person draw on a large piece of paper how they envision their body to look. Then, have the person lay on the paper inside of their outline, and draw how the person actually looks. This is often an eye-opening experience to see that the focus of BDD is in reality not as ugly or fat as the person thinks it is in their minds. Other helpful therapeutic approaches include somatic and body-centerered psychotherapy as well as psychoanalytic therapy that looks at some aspects such as early trauma or neglect that may have triggered BDD.
Here is a video that depicts what it feels like to live with this disorder:
It is no little known fact that eating disorders are the number one most deadly psychiatric illness in the world today. This is significantly due to the emotional turmoil and devestation that these illnesses wreak on victims and their families, but the severity of eating disorders’ effects is directly related to the physical implications of these disorders. I have written before about the increasing dangers of varying forms of eating disorders: morning anorexia, night eating syndrome, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia. Now, another relatively “new” form of eating disorder is becoming more prominent and it is most scary because it is linked with diabetes, a physical condition that can severely impact your life. The toxic concoction of an eating disorder and diabetes can spin recklessly out of control.
What is diabulimia? Diabulimia refers to an eating disorder that is present in people with Type I Diabetes, in which the person purposely gives him or herself less insulin than they need for the intent of weight loss. And while diabulimia is not a term that is medically or clinically recognized in an official sense, the dangers of this type of eating disorder will most likely make it a focus of clinical attention in years to come. By not administering insulin, the body of a person with diabetes will go into a state of starvation resulting in the breakdown of fats and muscles in the body and putting the person in a state where he or she cannot process sugars — so that the sugars are passed through urine instead of being stored in the body in the form of fat or muscle. Continual insulin-deprival results in rapid weight loss and puts the body in a state called diabetic ketoacidosis — a life-treatening condition.
One of the reasons that diabulimia is so dangerous and also so enticing at the same time for those prone to eating disordered behavior is the fact that it can result it very rapid weight loss. It can seem like “having your cake and eating it too” (pun intended!): you could eat as many fats, sugars, carbohydrates, and other delicious foods as you would like, and not gain any weight. What a dream! Right? Wrong. While the body is not storing fats and sugars during a state of diabetic shock, it is also starving the person’s cells of glucose which is needed to produce energy and forcing the body to turn to other tissues in the body for energy sources. Dr. Ann E. Goebel-Fabbri, a psychologist in Boston, states that “about 30% of diabetic women use insulin restriction for weight loss purposes at some point in their lives, though this does not necessarily mean that they have a full-on eating disorder.” She also points out a shocking statistic: women who have Type I Diabetes are 2.5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than other women.
The higher risk put upon women with diabetes is complex, as it may be compounded by the type of treatment they need to receive to manage their condition which includes being taught to be very aware of their calorie intake and their weight throughout their lives. Points out Dr. Goebel-Fabbri: “Somewhere this gets lost in that translation, and women who would be at risk for an eating disorder anyway develop a greater concern and a greater preoccupation with weight, along with rigid ideas about eating. It’s a slippery slope.” And this slippery slope can turn into a deadly fall. Once the attention to calories and weight turns into obsession, it is very difficult to climb back up that mountain. Eating disorders not only grip our physical selves but they begin to take over our emotional state and it can feel that a consequence of diabulimia such as blindness or amputation is not as important as weight loss.
We all grow up and live every day in a diet-obsessed society that convinces us that we would be “perfect” if only we fit into the rigid ideals that are forced upon us. For someone with diabetes, this focus on food and physical appearance is a necessity for keeping your body healthy and strong. You must read food labels and count calories and fat — in a way that is not about taste and enjoyment, but more focused on limiting the types of foods you can eat. Losing weight rapidly is a tell-tale first indicator that someone’s body is not digesting insulin and they might have diabetes, and it paradoxically could also be a sign of an eating disorder. It can be very challenging to separate health from societal pressure to look a certain way — and when you have an “easy out” to getting thin and have to carefully monitor your food anyway, why not control your insulin levels? Control is what eating disorders are all about.
I am concerned about the growing prevalence of diabulimia — it is said to affect thousands of the 1 million women with type I diabetes. In my opinion, it has the power to destroy lives like no other eating disorder because it is linked to a physical condition that dictates our energy levels, our bodily function, and can lead to much more serious conditions if not treated properly.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you are well-aware that tomorrow is the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Whether you are getting up at 1am (MST) to watch it live, are attending a viewing party that night, or have no interest whatsoever in this event, it’s nearly impossible to avoid all of the hype. The dress! The ceremony! The bridesmaids dresses! The ring (or absence of ring)! The vows! If you have been married, or live anywhere where marriages occur, you know how much of a crazed circus that wedding planning can be. This is wedding-mania to the millionth degree and if you think that you’ve had enough already, can you imagine what the bride and groom are going through? I am not going to write about my opinions and anticipation of the royal wedding and dive into the gossip pool that is churning ever more manically. I want to take a moment to think about the effect of the pressure, expectation, and tradition on this modern couple, and to shed a light on the strength that it takes to endure such scrutiny.
The lovely Princess Diana is one of my personal heroes. I remember the day she died and could not fathom that it was really true. While she was a devoted mother, loyal friend, and committed activist for many charities, she also was someone who did not hide the way that the scrutiny was affecting her, and I admire her greatly for that. She opened up about her struggles with bulimia and self confidence issues, and she became an icon for being real when so much around you is hidden, secretive, or forced upon you (she also became an amazing fashion icon!!). There is much talk about the toll that being a princess took on Princess Diana and much comparison of her to Kate Middleton in this arena as well as just about every other. It is a tragedy that Diana is not present to see her son get married but also to be a confidant of Kate’s, giving her advice and lending her a helping hand through the exciting but grueling process of becoming a princess.
It is a new time, and William and Kate have long established their relationship and so the assumption is that the struggles that Diana faced will not impact Kate in quite the same way. I hope this is true, and it appears from her poise and candor that she is a confident and independent woman who can withstand even the harshest scrutiny. She’d better be ready for a long defense, because the media is already zooming in on ways that Kate might be “feeling the pressure”. There are figures of celebrity and honor, such as Helen Mirren and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the latter of which will be marrying William and Kate on April 29th weighing in with words of caution. Mirren quotes that “I do feel for Middleton, the stress of all that must be so huge and my heart goes out to her.” The Archbishop has spoken of “his hope that Prince William and Kate Middleton can live their lives in the full glare of the spotlight without coming under the kind of pressure that was experienced by Diana”. He also notes that “since Diana’s death, the Royal family has not had a popular and telegenic female lead, a role that Kate seems born to fill. But with popularity comes pressure.”
And that pressure has already begun. Celebrity blogs are unleashing a tidal wave on Kate’s physical appearance, not stopping until they are convinced that “Kate has stopped eating before the wedding.” With all that Diana endured in terms of pressure that led to eating disorders, I am dismayed to see how the press has no sympathy and appears to have learned nothing from Diana’s distress. Kate and William have shared their anxieties about marriage with ABCnews, citing the typical nerves of “wanting everything to go right”, and Kate sharing that she certainly has a lot to learn about joining a royal family but that “she is willing to work hard to learn quickly”.
As many of us dreamed of when we were little girls, the idea of a modern-day fairytale coming true, where an actual princess is crowned and she and her prince are swept away in a carriage — that is something that dreams are made of. And with tomorrow’s big celebration certainly comes much happiness, joy, and hope for the world in its entirety. I am personally looking forward to watching the big day (and though I too dreamed of being a real-life Princess Kate, I am grateful that it is not me walking down that long Westminster Abbey aisle with millions of pairs of eyes on me!) and I wish the very best for this couple who exude love and whose marriage will unite the entire world tomorrow morning.
We all wanted to be famous when we were younger, right? A ballerina? In the circus? A movie star?
When you are a movie star, athlete, politician, musician or any other type of public figure, fame comes hand in hand with the spilling of your intimate life’s details. While there is much excitement in fame and success, unfortunately there is no privacy in it, as everyone wants to know what jewelry you’re wearing and who you are going out to dinner with — so that we can get a respite from our own stressful lives. Fame is stressful and brings many challenges to it: intense scrutinty on all of your choices, from morsels of food to statements made about current events. I admit I could not handle the pressure of being in the spotlight all of the time and I empathize completely with the struggles that celebrities go through as they try to cope. I have written blogs about the message of truth and hope that many celebrities have spoken about their own struggles with eating disorders and related issues. I believe that when celebrities tap into the power of their fame to encourage wellness, health, and to show that they are real people just like the rest of us, they are doing a service to millions of people that is uniquely in their capability.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Catherine Zeta-Jones opened up about her current struggle with bipolar II disorder and her decision to check herself into an inpatient facility for treatment. She stated to the press that she “wants to take away the stigma around mental illness”, and ABC News consultant Howard Bragman hopes that Catherine’s public announcement of her condition may encourage others to seek help for their own mental health: “I think it will create a teachable moment in a dialogue among health care professionals, among normal people.” I strongly commend Ms. Zeta-Jones for deciding to take care of her mental health — a type of health that is often discredited or pushed aside in terms of severity, attention and treatment. However, millions of people world-wide suffer from various types of mental health conditions and there continues to be a stigma associated with admitting that there is a problem. As a colleague recently told me, “if I had diabetes, I would go to the doctor and get treatment for it. Why not get help for a mental health condition as well?”.
What is bipolar disorder? Why is there a “I” and a “II”? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder, which is also referred to as manic-depressive disorder, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. And while we all have ups and downs occasionally, symptoms of bipolar are “severe”, and could result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. This is a treatable condition, affecting approximately 5.7 million adults currently. Early signs of bipolar disorder may be intense mood swings — very low depression to a “manic” or “hypomanic” state, which refers to high levels of energy, excessive moodiness, irritability, impulsivity, or reckless behavior. Another recent public occurence that might indicate the prevalence of bipolar are the odd, irrational, and impulsive behaviors of Charlie Sheen.
Bipolar I disorder is differentiated by more frequent mood swings from depressive to manic. This is typically identified by manic or mixed episodes that last at least seven days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, the person also has depressive episodes, typically lasting at least two weeks. The symptoms of mania or depression must be a major change from the person’s normal behavior. Bipolar II disorder, which is what Ms. Zeta-Jones was diagnosed with, is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes shifting back and forth with hypomanic episodes, but no full-blown manic or mixed episodes. Given the stresses that she has had in her life lately (her husband Michael Douglas’ very public battle with cancer, his son’s sentence to a five year prison term for dealing drugs, and Mr. Douglas’ first wife suing him for proceeds from his recent Wall Street film), it is completely understandable that she is dealing with mood swings. Doctors note a genetic component to bipolar disorder, which can be triggered by stressful and traumatic circumstances, such as those that Ms. Zeta-Jones has been facing lately. A note: I find it interesting that, for example, when someone like Mr. Douglas is diagnosed with a physical health concern such as cancer that this is openly grieved and addressed, whereas with a mental health condition such as bipolar there is typically more secrecy and avoidance of letting this struggle become public.
What is the cost of publicly announcing a mental health struggle? What is the benefit? I believe these are topics that are regularly discussed among celebrities and people with lots of influence. I hope that we can continue to embrace the normalcy of mental health issues and address the fact that most of them are treatable and can co-exist with a vibrant and happy life. Celebrities are part of our key for raising this awareness (whether they want to or not…) and I am impressed with Ms. Zeta-Jones’ candor about her personal struggle and anticipate the advocacy that others will continue in her footsteps.
I received an invitation to a cuddle party some years ago, and I admit my first reaction was confusion mixed with a bit of skepticism. Is it like an orgy? a rave? a combination of both? I did not attend, but it seems that since that first interaction with the term, I have been hearing more and more about cuddle parties and their rising fame. So, to set the record straight so that your mind doesn’t wander quite like mine did, a cuddle party is “a safe and structured workshop on boundaries, communication, intimacy, and affection. It is a drug and alcohol-free way to meet fascinating people in a relaxed environment.” Hmmm…..sounds suspiciously similar to the goals that I work with client to achieve in therapy. This made me curious about the effects of cuddle parties and how they are similar/different to the outcomes in talk or other forms of therapy.
Are cuddle parties a form of therapy? The jury is out on that one. The official cuddle party website, which organizes cuddle parties all over the country states that “this playful and fun environment has been a place for people to rediscover non-sexual touch and affection, a space to reframe assumptions about men and women, and a great networking event to meet new people”. The site even suggests that cuddle parties could “restore your faith in humanity”. It seems that cuddle parties can offer a non-judgmental, open, and free space for people to let go of assumptions and physically heal through touching another person. I like this idea, because it seems that our culture has an obsession with “having lots of space”. Whether it is through building huge houses or driving monstrous SUVs, we appear to give off the message that “bigger is better” and “please don’t get too close”. So, I wonder, what happens when we get THISCLOSE?
A cuddle party (also referred to as a cuddle puddle — so cute!!!) is a group experience where one-on-one pairings are referred to as “cuddlebuddy relationships”, and kissing can sometimes occur. At each meeting, the attendees decide on the rules and regulations of that cuddle party. These might have to do with specific forms and places of touch that might be off-limits. Through this collective rule-setting, members can learn about setting personal and group boundaries and can experience the therapeutic powers of intimate connection without the expectation of sex. It also can be an exercise in communication between people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, and spiritual types.
This make me wonder: when we get pleasure and joy through physical connection, how do we determine our limits, wants, needs, and hopes? For some who have a history of a sexual trauma, being physically close with someone they do not know well could be triggering. However, learning that intimacy can be safe and can bring peace might also be a piece of that member’s personal healing journey. Physical intimacy certainly brings out our vulnerabilities: whether it is about body image, sexual attraction, or scars left from previous relationships, some type of sensation occurs in our physical and emotional self as we allow others to get into our personal space. This sensation is what we must take a closer look at to determine its meaning in our lives.
As I was doing research on cuddle parties, I took note of the comments left on sites and videos featuring this innovative event. Some commented that these were “glorified orgys” and that “they should get naked and go home” (this reminds me that cuddle party members are not naked and often wear pajamas or other comfortable clothing). Others were “touched by the affection. For those of us who might not have received many hugs or much affection growing up, cuddle parties offer the healing and acceptance we have been longing for”. And the most poignant: ”It is kind of sad. Human beings are not getting what they need in the modern world; the sense of touch is so important”. Sometimes we just need a hug!
What is your consensus? If you are curious you can join a cuddle party today at the Denver Cuddle Party Meet-up.
Take a look at this YouTube video montage about the first five years of cuddle party culture. I feel that as with every thing that might be a bit new and “different”, the more that we talk about it, educate ourselves, and open our minds, the greater rewards we can reap into our personal selves. Hug a stranger!
This week is a very important week for raising awareness and spreading educational resources about eating disorders. February 20-26th are seven days set aside to “finally talk about it”. As talking about eating disorders is scary for many of us who have connections to these deadly disorders — a loved one possibly developing one, a person who is currently struggling with one, or someone who is in active recovery — the thought of really “talking about it” can bring up anxious feelings. Why? Because, as mentioned in my previous blog posts, eating disorders are complex and seductive mental health disorders that threaten your physical and mental health, as well as affecting close relationship ties. It’s hard to tell someone that you have been restricting food or bingeing and purging. It’s hard to hear from a loved one that they have been experiencing out of control eating and feel they cannot stop. This can bring up so many mixed feelings: shame, guilt, and worry.
So, this week, we’re going to open the door to talking about eating disorders and we’re going to offer numerous resources and activities that can help erase the stigmas of eating disorders. Because you know what? We all have some connection to eating issues. Whether it’s being on a diet, exercising to achieve a goal, or trying to change the way you feel by using food to cope, men and women world-wide get it. We don’t all develop eating disorders, but we all have personally felt the effects of controlling food (type and/or amount) or know someone who has. And it we all do just one thing, we can really change the world.
The National Eating Disorder Association has a link with events and activities that are going on in your area. If you live in Denver or in the surrounding areas, the Eating Disorder Foundation is hosting a Candlelight Vigil for those wishing to join in a community gathering recognizing National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
The Fourth Annual Candlelight Vigil will be held to honor those taken by this terrible illness, those who continue to struggle,and those who have found their way to the light of recovery. It will be held at 6:30pm at the Wellshire Inn at 3333 So. Colorado Blvd, Denver, 80222.
Here are some resources for eating disorder awareness: Males and eating disorders; People of color: eating disorders affect us all; Athletes: a coach’s guide to eating disorders; and I t’s Time To Talk About It: an essay by Jenni Schaefer, eating disorder ambassador.
If you do just one thing, you can save a life. Find out more about eating disorders at: www.katedaiglecounseling.com.
Don’t shake the baby. I am sure you have heard that phrase before, as it is used by multiple mental health and physical health organizations to spread the word about the dangers of shaken baby syndrome. For new parents, the birth of a child is a momentous event that changes their lives forever. With the new arrival comes joy, adjustment, stress, sleep deprivation, and possibly financial or family dynamic stressors. It’s an overwhelming period where parents learn for the first time how to take care of another being that is utterly and completely dependent on them for survival. That’s a lot to handle. We all know that babies cry, and that sometimes they cry for long periods of time and we might not be able to understand why. This crying, when compounded by sleep deprivation and any other type of new parent stressor, can seriously try a caregiver’s patience. If that patience wears out, the result can be Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). What is SBS? SBS is a form of Abusive Head Trauma that occurs when a frustrated caregiver viciously shakes, slams, hits, or punches a child’s head, usually to stop them from crying or to get the child to respond to the expectations of the caregiver. One of the scariest things about SBS is that there may be no outward or physical sign of the trauma, as the brain may incur the greatest amount of damage. Another disturbing fact about SBS is that the shaking may appear to have the desired outcome: while the baby may cry more initially because of the shaking, he or she may then stop because their brain is damaged. An estimated 1,200 to 1,400 cases of SBS (and these are only those that are reported) occur in the United States each year. One in four children will die from it, and those who survive will need medical and mental health attention throughout their lives.
Studies find that about 60% of victims of SBS are male, and that families who are living at or below the poverty level are at increased risk for this type of trauma. It is also estimated that the perpetrators in 65%-90% of cases are males, more commonly the child’s father, stepfather, mother’s boyfriend, or caregiver, and the perpetrator is commonly in his mid twenties. SBS is classified as a form of child abuse. It is very unfortunate to learn these statistics, and it makes me wonder what type of circumstances influence them. For families that have few resources and limited financial or social support, the stress level could be higher and education about the effects of SBS and other ways of coping with parental stress may be in short supply. There is no excuse for any type of child abuse, however we have to look at all angles: often times, perpetrators of child abuse are victims of abuse themselves who, for a variety of reasons, do not know any other way of reacting.
The lifelong effects that a victim if SBS will incur are devestating. When a baby’s head is shaken and its neck muscles are not strong enough to withstand the strain, the child’s head rotates around its neck. A violent movement such as this shakes the baby’s brain back and forth within its skull, possibly rupturing blood vessels and nerves throughout the brain and tearing brain tissue. This can also cause bleeding and bruising to the brain. If a baby’s head hit a solid object such as a bed frame, this may cause its brain to swell. Signs of SBS can include: irritibility, lethargy, disrupted eating patterns, vomiting, seizures, failure to thrive, altered breathing, deformed pupils, and increased size of head. This abuse is also fatal in some cases, with estimates ranging from 15%-38% mortality in infants.
What can we do to prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome? Treatment needs to focus on the victims of this abuse, but also on the abusers. Counseling and education for those who have shaken a baby can heal wounds in victim and perpetrator, and can possibly heal families. We can help a perpetrator understand what else he or she can do when their baby is screaming and give them other options for responding. The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome offers resources for victims and for parents who are stressed by their baby’s crying. It helps parents understand what might be causing their child to cry, and gives them tools for soothing their child in healthy and nurturing ways. There is no shame in reaching out for help if you or someone you know has shaken a baby. It is possible to stop destructive behavior in the middle of its cycle, and there are many resources and counselors available to aid in this process.
Have you ever heard of laughter yoga? I had not yet heard of this increasingly popular trend, but I love yoga and love to laugh, so I thought I would research it (and soon try it out) to see if it’s a positive addition to my own and my clients’ self care. I was intrigued to discover that this type of yoga (wherein the participants ‘self-trigger’ laughter during practice) involves a physical type of laughter that is not necessarily related to humor or comedy. What? How could you make that happen, and what motivates you to continue laughing without an object to promote it? I learned that the concept and exercise were developed by the Indian guru Jiten Kohi and physician Madan Kataria, respectively, and that Kataria has written a book about the subject entitled Laugh for No Reason.
The health benefits of yoga are no secret and the meditation and peace that it brings through community and practice are unique rewards of this ancient tradition. Along the same vein, laughter has proven to be healthy in many ways. In this sort of yoga, laughter is initiated in a group setting with engaged eye contact, a sort of childlike playfulness, and ‘laughter exercises’. Sources say that fake laughter has no choice but to become real. The reason behind it is that the body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter, and so it causes your mind (which can tell the difference….up to a certain point) to become one with the body. This brings to mind the mindfulness and body-centered exercises I am currently using in the therapy group I run, and solidifies the notion that body and mind are one. The deep breathing associated with yoga is increased and intensified with laughter yoga and facilitates a breathing rhythm that is unique to this practice. In a chicken-or-egg conundrum, you tend to forget why you started laughing or which practice you started first, and the benefits of laughing impact us all both physically and psychologically. Sometimes, if you are like me and can tend to focus on negative things sometimes, it may make a whole lot of sense to ‘force’ yourself to laugh and then reap the rewards that may have seemed so far-fetched and out of reach. The laughter – and the positivity it brings – becomes contagious and more natural. Practice makes perfect!
So who does this, and where? I was amazed to find a ‘global movement for health, joy and peace’ at www.laughteryoga.org, where groups bring laughter to the workplace, act in shows that laugh all the way through, and go on spiritual retreats all in the name of laughter yoga –all around the world! More locally, I found Denver Laughs, where I learned that there are more than 125 Certified Laughter Yoga Leaders in the Denver area! This organization describes laughter yoga as ‘a body-mind combination of simple laughter exercises, deep breathing and relaxation techniques from Hatha yoga to enhance health and happiness.” It states that it is a grassroots movement that has more than 600,000 members worldwide. There are clubs in every part of Denver and the metro area that do plays, ‘happy hours’ and other laughingly fun events. There is even a Denver laughter yoga meet-up group!
On my search I also found the American School of Laughter Yoga where you can become a Certified Laughter Yoga Leader or do professional development classes. In light of all of the dreary and dismal news reports (and yes, I know many of my blogs are about these types of subjects), I am excited to find this happy-to-laugh movement that combines mental health and physical health in an effort to promote peace and wellness. We all could laugh a bit more, don’t you think?
Happy New Year from Kate Daigle Counseling! It has been a wonderful year and we wish you all a healthy, safe, and bright 2011! Stay warm and hug the ones you love ~
I will be taking a week off from my blog for the holidays. I will resume writing on Thursday, December 30th.
Happy holidays!! I wish you and yours a restful, joyous, and peaceful holiday!
Families go through numerous transitions and life cycles as the years progress. Reality brings happiness and hardship. Unfortunately, numerous families break up due to parental conflict and disconnection. This type of distress often brings uncertainty and change for children involved in a family break-up, and children cope in any way they know how to try to make sense of their parents’ split. In the early 1980s, Richard A. Gardner coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) to describe a disorder in which a child, on an ongoing basis, belittles and insults one parent without apparent justification. This can be due to a combination of factors, including encouragement from one parent (almost always in the process of a child custody conflict), and the child’s own effort to criticize the targeted parent. PAS is up for review to be included in the Fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), due to come out in 2012.
The Denver Post ran an editorial yesterday describing the personal effects of PAS on a family system and wondering about its justification for being included in the DSM. The editorial focuses on a 46-year-old father of two adolescent girls who “desperately wants a relationship with his two girls” but “feels that their mother has brainwashed them against him”. In court, the girls told the judge that they had been sexually abused by their father and their fabricated testimony appeared “rehearsed and prepared”. The evident devastation of the father (who states that his ex is “executing a campaign of denigration” against him) is almost as upsetting as the fact that the girls appeared to be “genuinely terrified” of their father and he did not know why.
This man is not alone. There are men and women in broken families who experience the effects of PAS every day — and, as the article describes, there are also millions of children who experience the strain of two warring parents. In the family spotlighted in this editorial, the writer states that the mother purposely did not take the children to their father even though he was awarded joint custody and turned them against him so that the girls refused to see him when they had the chance.
Think about the emotional effects on each member of the family in this situation. You may know a family that has gone through or is going through similar issues. As a child in a family that is splitting up, so much is already tragic, already horrific, that to have a parent feel that he or she needs to demonize the other parent and turn the children against them exemplifies the emotional harm tremendously. This might put the children in the middle and force them to choose — who loves them more? who is the better parent? who would it be better to live with? These are questions that may have no clear answer …and are definitely not questions that children should have to consider at this tumultuous time. Putting the serious emotional consequences on the children aside, I have to look at the emotions that each parent might be feeling. What the editorial did not spend much time on was the way this affected each parent individually. PAS may be defined as a syndrome that a child experiences in a broken family, but I also believe that the syndrome throws the targeted parent into a role of defending him or herself against their own children while they are experiencing the destruction of the family system they have built. The personal feelings this role might scramble include guilt, shame, anger, fear, sadness, loneliness, and despair.
And what of the parent who drives the targeting? Behind the defenses, behind the army-building, there must be a terrified parent who fears losing his or her children as well. For some reason, instead of stating this or exploring why he or she is creating a sense that there is a “bad parent” in the family, the automatic response is to turn the children against the other parent. I wonder if there is evidence as to if certain types of family breakup scenarios encourages PAS more than others? Is it more likely to occur when one partner has strayed? If one partner has taken more of an involved role in the upbringing of the children? If one type of parenting style is more likely to lead to PAS than another if the family breaks up?
There is much controversy about including PAS in the upcoming DSM V. Some argue that it will help get more insurance coverage for families experiencing this issue and that it will bring more attention to the severity of it in court. Others have difficulty even understanding what PAS is and why it is considered a “syndrome”. I tend to agree with the author of the editorial: ”the key is education.” Educate the courts, educate parents, educate professionals about the effects of Parental Alienation Syndrome and perhaps it will be eradicated before it even has a chance to be included in an official manual. Tell me: what do you think?
As an eating disorder therapist, I have taken a keen interest in E!’s six-part documentary “What’s Eating You“, airing on Wednesday evenings. This series features two individuals each week and follows them for an hour through their decision to seek treatment, some inside looks at therapy sessions, and efforts they are taking towards recovery from an eating disorder. I have found the series fascinating, and very real — featuring a range of people who are affected by eating disorders and not just the “stereotypical” upper middle class white young woman. The subjects have been male, female, married, parents, and have been a variety of ethnicities.
I have to admit that when I first heard about the series, I worried that it would be the type of show that glamorizes and shines lights on EDs in ways that are not prone to recovery– but perhaps prone to “giving ideas” to viewers. This was a common reaction amongst other blogs and therapists with whom I have consulted about the series. A popular blog wonders if the series is giving an incomplete or overly simplified picture of what an eating disorder is, and what treatment and recovery can look like. I have to say that I appreciated that each client was not “recovered” by the end of the episode (two new people are featured each week), and that the sometimes years-long struggle to find peace and healing was depicted for the most part, realistically. Other positive aspects of the show include involving the families in treatment (imperative!), visiting doctors and nutritionists, and showing the high probability of relapse and ambivalence in recovery.
Other factors of the show worry me. I am viewing this from both a personal and clinical perspective. As a human being, is it healthy for me to watch a show that reveals what eating disorders do to impact relationships, physical health, self esteem, and families? Is it encouraging me to not go down that road and to be grateful for my own health, or is it putting (perhaps subconscious) ideas in my head about what I could do to lose weight and “fit in” and “be popular”, if that is what I’m longing for?
For years there has been talk about the Pro-ED websites, which give susceptible men and women ideas for how to “successfully” develp an ED. I am going to write a whole blog post about those sites next week — but is there any commonality to tv shows that depict what EDs are truly about? You could argue that What’s Eating You is aimed to help folks get resources if they are going through similar issues, but I could very easily see someone watching the show who is fragile, depressed, and lonely, and they might feel like this “coping mechanism” could free them from their pain.
I have watched all five episodes that have aired so far, and have noted the different treatment approaches by each of the therapists featured on the show. Some adovcate for inpatient treatment, some recommend an outpatient philosophy. This is true of therapists in every city in the country — we all have different ideas and reasoning about what is best for our clients. Consulting doctors, psychiatrists, and nutritionists is essential, of course. Yet viewing the choices that the therapist make and that the clients make causes me to wonder (again): what is the best treatment for an eating disorder?
The sixth and final episode is set to air this Wednesday, and the previews of it terrify me. I have not seen it yet so I cannot judge, but it appears that the episode is about people who have learned their ED behaviors from their mothers — and in line, blaming the mothers for the devestation of the ED in their lives. This is the WORST message to send to viewers, because an assumption that mothers cause EDs already exists and this may exacberate it. From a clinical approach, this is a negative message to send to all families and individuals affected by eating disorders and proves to worsen the epidemic, not lessen it.
Final note: After watching last week’s episode, I was left with many conflicting feelings. This may be because I have so much knowledge about EDs, but it also may be because the episode was very emotional and triggering. I encourage anyone who may have emotions stirred up by this show (even if they can’t quite put a finger on what they are or mean) to talk to someone — a friend, family member, therapist. That may be one of the best results of the show.
Kate Daigle Counseling had its Open House yesterday, November 7th, and it was a invigorating and rewarding day for the practice! I want to extend a personal thank-you to all that attended and showed support.
Here are a few pictures from the event:
Other pictures of the office can be found on all of the pages of Kate Daigle Counseling’s website.
Upcoming events with Kate Daigle Counseling:
-Blog post topics: Surviving the emotional roller coaster of the holidays; PTSD, mental health and War Veterans; the implications of the FREED Act; helping children of divorce cope; the mystery and debates over Autism; the healing presence of animals in therapy; radical acceptance; the stages of grief; men and eating disorders; unlocking the reasons that drive self-harming behaviors; and many more! Please write to me with new ideas that you would like me to write about in my blogs.
-COMING IN DECEMBER! Body-centered therapy group, held weekly at the office of Kate Daigle Counseling. More information about this will be coming out VERY soon so please keep your eyes open!
-Seminars in schools, recreation centers, and with parent groups: Kate offers talks about the symptoms of eating disorders, some of the causes, and how you can help a child/parent/friend/family member who might be dealing with an eating disorder or other form of emotionally destructive eating pattern.
Thank you for your support of Kate Daigle Counseling!!
I have been under the weather since Sunday afternoon. It started as “allergies”, and has now progressed to a full blown chest cold. I am not accustomed to having to slow down my daily pace due to unforeseen sickness, and it has really made me look at the way that I make choices and take care of myself (the short answer is: often, not very well!!).
When we are forced to “stop and smell the roses” (bad metaphor…I can’t smell anything!), we must take a look at our lifestyle choices in ways that we might feel we don’t have time for in our daily busy schedule. For instance, sleep has been an important factor in trying to battle this body-invading cold. I realize that I often glaze over the healing powers of sleep, because somewhere along the way I got the idea that taking naps was a “waste of time”. By listening to my body’s strong urges to get some rest this week, I have benefitted from the rejuvenating and invigorating healing powers that something as natural as sleep has gifted me. I was also forced to call in sick to an important job this week, and I went through the usual feelings of guilt that typically accompany my saying “no”. However, when the reason that I needed to say no was to take the time to relax and give myself a break, why must I feel guilty about that?
This leads me to wonder why self care has gotten so far down on my list of time-worthy tasks. As a counselor, I have learned through coursework and through the guidance of teachers and supervisors that self care is a MUST in this profession. Burn out, soaring levels of stress and anxiety, and decreasing levels of mental health are only a few of the consequences that may occur when therapists do not offer themselves the same care and affirmation that they gives their clients. It seems simple: in order to be able to help clients find their way to happiness and change through acceptance and support, a therapist should be able to model those very qualities him or herself. But all too often, we overlook our own needs in the face of demanding jobs, competitive markets, and devaluing our own desire for peace. This week I have found that in order to get past this and to move forward with my career and my life, I must take the time to care for myself. It is ironic in a way, that my body should physically break down before I notice this, and that when I push myself too far it definitely lets me know that I need to slow down.
Why can’t we slow down and listen to what we need? Not only therapists, but doctors, lawyers, health care workers, teachers, parents, and anyone who meets high demands each and every day — we all struggle to put our self care high on the list. I think that a big piece of this puzzle is being able to listen to your body. As I have written before, the mind and the body are deeply connected and they will tell us when we need to turn our attention inward. Last week a friend was celebrating her birthday and when I called her to wish her a happy birthday, she told me that she was having a good day but that her shoulders were very tight and tense. I suggested that she get a massage, and it took me several minutes of convincing her that she deserved to do this (her body was yelling at her to get one!)….not just because it was her birthday but because her muscles were carrying all of the stress that she was feeling. We don’t have to wait for the “excuse” of a special day to allow ourselves a kind break.
I think that sometimes self care can take on the pretense of feeling indulgent or selfish. I argue the exact opposite. When we are in the helping profession, it may be unethical to meet our clients in a state of anxiety, stress and tension. What would we be modeling to them? Not only is it healthy to take baths, take vacations, go out for a celebratory dinner, or whatever else you like to do for self care, our jobs require that we do these things because of the challenging subject matter that we work with every day. We are in our profession because we live to help people, to listen to their stories and to support them in finding peace and love in their own lives. However, we cannot help them to the best of our ability if the problems we hear each day weigh us down.
So, as I have learned this week (it took a debilitating cold to teach me!), it is a necessity that we engage in self care activities. We must put ourselves as a priority and be comfortable with saying no when need be. Schedule at least thirty minutes of self care each day. Read a book that you love, take a walk with your partner, go to the park and admire the changing leaves, take a hike in the mountains, go out to dinner with your sister. Our families, clients, partners, and most importantly – YOU – depend on it!!
…I’m going to go spend some time with my dog now
As a family therapist, I thrive on the family communications that most would not even notice: the body language, the eye contact, who sits by whom, who speaks to/for whom, and so on. The actual words take second place to the intense signals sent between family members…and even more so if certain family members are unable to be in attendance. With so many people in the room and their stories, connections, backgrounds, and hidden agendas filling up every inch of space, how is a therapist to see it all clearly? I admit: when I first started seeing families, I felt a high level of anxiety as I tried to keep track of all of the dialogue (verbal and nonverbal) in the room and tried to get a picture of the family’s story while honoring their culture and presenting problem. I still feel that today, but the anxiety is lessened and the energy is more focused on getting each member’s viewpoint, reading the multiple forms of communication, and adopting a curious and open stance. I have learned that often the person that is “identified” in the session as “needin’ fixin’” is often the unknowing recipient of a mixture of all family members’ struggles, concerns, and personal issues. Whew – how exhausting! As I was reading an interesting family therapy blog, I started reflecting on the author’s point that the family member who is “identified” as the problem might suffer low self esteem, guilt, and depression based on the unconscious projection of the family’s issues on one or two members. Thus, the family gets more dragged down by the new issues created by placing this weight on that family member.
I decided to write about this topic today based on a recent episode I watched of the TV show “Brothers and Sisters”. This show, centered around the cycles of the Walker family, is the poster child for family struggles, transitions, love, and heartache. I admit that almost every time I watch it, I cannot hold back the tears and I think it is because of how connected and committed this family is. Granted, it’s a TV show and it exaggerates normal family processes, but I believe that everyone could find some part of the Walker family that he or she can identify with. I love the diversity of this family and how it is defined not only by blood connections but by creating new definitions for what “family” means to each member. The most recent episode made me think about how families react to tragedy and how each family strains to get back to that “balance” or homeostasis that they had (however functional or dysfunctional it might have been) before tragedy struck. As the Walker family tries to cope with enormous loss, each member isolates and creates barriers between other members and it is up to one family member to confront his family about the distance created between them as they struggle to cope. He tells his mother that he misses her meddling, overbearing, over-involved, controlling self, and that she “was the best mother ever” when she was embracing her natural tendencies. Since a lot of the show is focused on the mother’s boundary-breaking in her childrens’ lives, I found it interesting that in the wake of crisis, what this family really needed to heal was for them to re-balance, and to find their old ways again.
So, in family therapy, I wonder how it is decided what is healthiest for the family? Are their normal, regular, comfortable, dys/functional cycles and patterns helping them or hurting them? Would going back to those patterns help a family in crisis or did the patterns themselves help to initiate the crisis? And can crisis ever be a good thing? I think it depends on how one defines crisis, family, normal, and healthy. It is different for everyone, and a family therapist’s primary job is to get those definitions from each member and to see how those definitions function within the family system. It is also crucial to observe how each family member reacts to change in the system and how each member strives to regain that balance. Family therapy is challenging — for the clients and the therapist — but it is essential in a society that is growing and embracing all types of family structures.