Another great life lesson

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Most of us have seen or heard about Ted Williams, the man with the “golden voice”, who was homeless and panhandling when a local journalist filmed him.  He truly does have an almost perfect announcer’s voice, and since then the video has been seen by millions on youtube, Ted has appeared on several television news/talk  shows, and he has been offered many opportunities in advertising, sports announcing, etc.  During several of Ted’s interviews, when asked what message he has for others, he said that “everyone has a story”, and “don’t judge a book by its cover”.  Yes, we all saw him so differently once we heard his story;  a life of love, loss, drugs, alcohol, disappointment, pain, and redemption.  He became more than a homeless person.  He became human, and worth our compassion.

I am not alone in trying to always remember that everyone has a story.  I have spoken with other women and men who share that they too teach their children that we should never assume we know someone else’s story .  It is easy to conclude that someone is nasty, rude or angry because they are not a nice person.  It is much more challenging to give them the benefit of the doubt, allow them to be in the state they are in because they may be facing something much more upsetting than what we see.

Reminders of this important lesson can at happen anytime.  For me, one of these times occurred when I was not even there.  The lesson was brought to me by a very close friend and a stranger.  My friend had been driving within about ten miles of a family member’s house.  She got a call from that house telling her to come home right away, that someone in her family was having a medical emergency.  Naturally, she did what anyone would do in her situation.  She sped home, as quickly as she could.  As a result, she drove aggressively, pulling closely in front of other cars, and neglecting some “rules of the road”.  One of the people who she pulled in front of apparently became angry (as we all have in this situation), and went so far as to follow my friend for the next few miles all the way home.  He or she probably wanted to yell, swear, possibly even hurt my friend.  When both my friend and the other driver pulled up to the house, what they found there was an ambulance.  My friend didn’t stop for even a second to talk to the other driver.  She had been aware that they had been following her, and aware that they saw what she was in such a hurry for.  I often think about what this stranger must have thought and felt.  I can’t imagine that the lesson was lost on them.  I like to think that it changed what they assume about people forever.

Sometimes the story helps explain, as the ambulance in the driveway did.  Other times, the story gives us insight, understanding, and helps us to be patient and compassionate.  We may not know the story when we are trying to make sense of people, but it helps to just remember that we all have one.


A Grandmother and a Boy

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During the last few weeks, I have been given the opportunity to think about difficult life events.  I say “given” because I realize now that this time of introspection has been a gift.

My grandmother, who is 97 years old, has been greatly challenged and thereby, challenging.  Her poor and deteriorating hearing, eyesight and memory are magnifying her myriad difficulties in daily living.  It has been so sad watching her decline emotionally, to the point where she is lashing out at those who love and care for her the most.  I am left grieving the loss of the grandma that I knew, and the fear that this is how I too may spend the last few years of my life.   I am looking at my grandmother’s relationship with my mother, my husband’s with his mother, my friends’ with their parents, etc.  And I feel defeated.  I have been asking myself what it is all for.  We love our children with more intensity that we could ever have imagined.  We jump through hoops, fall down in total exhaustion and keep jumping for them.  And in what seems like a blink of an eye, they leave for college, work, boyfriends and girlfriends, friends, adventures, travel, seeking more and different than we can give.  Eventually, they will come back, so to speak, and we will spend holidays and maybe even vacations with them and their spouses and children.  And if we don’t screw it up by being too overbearing, interfering, opinionated, etc., we may be well loved and cared for by our children and grandchildren when we are old and needy.

What we want more than anything though, is to hold onto our children while they are still young enough to need us.  Those with adult children who no longer live at home all say that we should appreciate the time that we have with our children.  It goes by too quickly, and these are the best years of our lives, they say.  And I believe them.  I think about it all the time.  I grieve the loss that is out there, waiting for me.  I am anticipating the sadness and devastation that will plague me when my children have moved on.

I lost the grandmother that she once was, and I know I will lose my children as they are now, and once were.  But thankfully, I have been reminded that I do not want to hold on too tight.  I ran into a friend last week.  She was enjoying a rare Saturday evening out with her husband.  My husband and I were happy to sit down in a beautiful bar for wine, dinner, and light conversation with another couple.  I have gotten to know this friend relatively recently, but feel a strong connection; the kind of connection that wakes us up, invigorates us, the kind we hold dear.  She and her husband have three beautiful children.  I see them at the bus stop every day.  I am watching them grow, knowing I too will cry when her youngest goes on the bus for the first time,  a couple of years from now.

He will go, proudly, with his big sister, to school.  And then my friend will put her middle child on his school bus, and wave goodbye.  But he won’t be going with his sister and brother to school.  He goes to a different school, the one that is right for him.  He is learning and growing and he is beautiful.  And my friend is at her most beautiful when she talks about him;  how he inspires her, how his sister and brother love and care for him, and how much he has taught them.  And she gets him forever.  She can hold onto him, and he will always need her.  But its not what she wants for him.  I know that she would give her life for him to walk out the door, fall in love, move away, call irregularly, forget her birthday, argue with his dad, spend too much time with his wife’s family, etc.  And so he is teaching me too.  He is reminding me, through his mom, that the pain and the changes in children and in families are okay.   So I will take my grandmother for the feisty, difficult woman that she has become, and I will be thankful that she was able to make her own way, build a family, mistakes and all.   I will try to embrace my children’s independence and path that will take them away from me.  I will try not to wish for them to stay.  And if I forget, I can to look to my friend and her beautiful boy to remind me.

Do You Live with Passion?

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In the movie “Serendipity”,  John Cusack (John) and Kate Beckinsale (Sara) fall in love within a few hours of meeting,  spend the next several years unable to stop missing one another, and eventually meet again, (by chance?) and live happily ever after.  There is a wonderful scene in the movie, when John’s best friend Dean, played by Jeremy Piven, in awe of his friend’s burning need to find Sara, talks about the only thing that the Greeks asked when a man died; “Did he have passion”.  Interestingly, John had not found Sara at this point in the movie, and has realized that he was engaged to marry a woman who he would never feel the way he does about Sara.   The fact that John doesn’t have Sara doesn’t matter.  Dean is envious of the fire in John’s heart and in his soul.  It is what we all long for, and so many give up finding.  It is passion that drives John and Sara and it is passion that has caused us all to do “crazy” things for love.

We have been passionate about other desires, too.  How many people remember spending hours on end, every day, with a guitar, a set of drums, a sketchpad, notebooks filled with poetry and stories, a camera, books about whales and sharks, etc.  These are the things that gave us the fire and the meaning in our lives when we were lost and confused about the relationships.

I ask all my clients what they love to do in their spare time.  I ask adolescents, especially, what kind of music they like, who their favorite artists are, and I pull up their favorite song online.  I know so well that music is a large part of adolescents’ lives, and I help them honor that and embrace it.  Sometimes I hand my clients a sketchpad and let them draw during our sessions.  If they enjoy it, I ask them to draw at home, as well.  I have many clients who say that they love photography.  And not one has reported to me that they enjoy taking pictures of “everything”.  Their interests are unique, and reflect myriad ways in which they see the world.  I ask them to take their camera with them everywhere during the next several weeks.  Most people are surprised and invigorated by my request.  Why?  Because I have given them permission to take the time to explore and pursue a passion.

We squirm when we hear about people we know who have sought relationships outside of their marriage or otherwise committed partnerships.  And we all know that the new relationships offer excitement, mystery, novelty, etc.   But are these people seeking new relationships, or are they just seeking what they have been missing for so long:  passion.  For many of these people, some attention to the things that they used to be passionate about would bring light and energy back into their lives.

I have not blogged in over one year.  I have been busy with my practice, my family, and my fear of imperfection.  What finally prompted me to write, tonight, on a flight back home after Thanksgiving?  My family and I were having an early dinner in the airport.  We saw an older gentleman, alone, with a walker, and several bags, discussing with the waitress that he could not wait for his soup, as he was going to miss his flight.  The waitress told him he would have to pay the $5.38 for his soup anyway, and if he didn’t, she would call security.  We watched him take out the $5, hand it to the waitress, and then saw him slowly scrounge up the  .38 from his pocket, and leave it on the table.  My heart broke for him.  He wouldn’t have anything to eat before boarding his flight.  I wanted to bring him one of the five turkey sandwiches I had packed for us.  My children encouraged me to do so, but he had already left.  I had the bag of silly sandwiches in a grocery bag, each custom made for every person in the family.  It didn’t take me long to decide.  And as I got up, my daughter noticed that the man left his hat (serendipity:  a fortunate accident).  I grabbed a sandwich, the hat, and chased after the man.  I found him waiting at a gate not far away.  I gave him his hat, and the sandwich, assuring him that it is safe, that I am traveling with my husband and three children.  He thanked me.  What he did with the sandwich, I will never know.  It happened to be the strangest combination in the bag (my son’s order:  turkey, stuffing, and mustard).  But I made the effort, and in that way, I embraced one of my passions:  to reach out, to help, even if I am not involved, or its not convenient.   It makes sense, then, that I got on this plane with new energy and desire to write.

I hope you embrace your passions, even if you left them behind long ago.

The Pain of Living Overweight

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In her new book, Best Friends Forever, Jennifer Weiner’s heroine, Addie Downs, remembers all too well the years that she spent overweight, heavy, fat, and obese.  Addie filled the ever present void in her life by stuffing herself with all of her favorite foods, late at night, when everyone was asleep, after being so “good” all day.  She would eat very carefully during her waking hours, going to school, holding her head as high as she could among the whispers, stares, and demeaning hollers and laughs.  Her best friend, Valerie, was of course, tall, thin, blonde, and  as if that wasn’t hard enough, a cheerleader.  Addie finally hit “rock bottom’ when she sat alone in a booth in a diner, having gone in for just a warm slice of apple pie.  She withstood the stares and insults of a young boy in the next booth, whose mother jumped at the opportunity to insult Addie by way of answering her son’s innocent question about why “that woman is so fat”?  After enduring the torture of having to extricate herself from the booth after getting stuck, Addie begins her life anew.  She has had “enough”, and wakes up the next day with the committment and motivation of a woman who knows this is her very last chance.

Addie changes her life.  She starts by throwing away all the junk food in her house.  She begins an exercise program, and eats the same three balanced, healthy meals for months on end.  It is all worth it, because Addie loses weight.  She begins to live the life she has only dreamed about;  shopping in regular stores for her clothes, being able to walk up a flight of stairs without losing her breath, and, what may be her greatest wish; moving through life without being stared at;  blending in.  And even though Addie is a fictional character, her story is a real one.  Many people have reached their breaking point and turned their life around, chosen to take a different course.  They have committed to changes, again, for the tenth or twentieth, or fiftieth time, and at last been able to persevere as the weight on their bodies and and on their mind begins to disappear.  However, every day, millions of people are tormented by the physical and mental strain of living with obesity.  While stories such as Addie’s are unfolding all the time, so many are barely getting through their days, tortured by the shame, embarrassment, and hopelessness of being overweight.  So many have “hit rock bottom”, and hit that rock so many times and so long ago, that they barely remember what it feels like to live any differently.

When we go to a restaurant, and notice an obese person, or family, eating what we consider to be “bad”, or “fattening”, without a doubt those people feel the stares, hear the comments, whispers, and they are praying for an end to their nightmare. Food  may be providing the only joy they have felt that day, week, or their entire life.  And while they take up more space than cars, doorways, and theater and airplane seats allot, all they really want to do is disappear.   These people are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children.  They need friends, and they need understanding.  The strength to change and to endure all that is required to lose and maintain a healthy weight will come.  There is a top, and light, shining on every “rock bottom”.  Rock bottom isn’t always a sudden event.  It is a slow, gradual sinking.  And the climb out may be slow, and gradual, too.  Every day is another opportunity to take a step or two of that climb.  And every day is another opportunity to help someone, smile instead of stare, share in their joy, wherever they find it.

Hope for OCD

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They check the doors to make sure they’re locked before going to bed.  There is some doubt, so after finally lying down in bed, they check them again. Others wash their hands before and after every meal, and many times in between.  Some need to step with the left foot if they took a step with the right.  There are those we hear about less often:  they think there is a possibility that bumps in the road were actually people that they ran over, so they will turn around to make sure that there are no bodies in the road.  A large percentage of people will claim, at one point in their lives, that they have “OCD”, or “Obsessive Compulsive” tendencies.  The degree of incapacitation as a result of the symptoms of OCD varies widely.

Most people rarely feel that they are suffering as a result of their OCD symptoms.  They easily find ways to hide their checking, repeating, washing, and avoiding behaviors from others.  If they have the compulsion to make sure that they take the same number of steps with the right foot as they did with the left, nobody notices.  If they get anxious by the number six, they can easily avoid six, and any multiple, without much difficulty.

Sadly, there is another end of the continuum.  On this end, OCD sufferers are, in a sense, paralyzed by their symptoms.  They are showering, washing their hands, checking locks and doors, counting steps, sanitizing, straightening, and so much more. Their behaviors are no different from those whose symptoms are easily hidden, who find socially acceptable ways of satisfying their obsessions, and relieving their anxiety.   Here OCD sufferers are in a dark, crushing, pit of anxiety, and the only relief they know for their obsessions is their compulsive behavior.

Recently, this illness received media attention for the success of a treatment which has been used for decades.  This treatment strategy involves exposure to whatever makes the sufferer anxious, and then preventing the individual from engaging in their compulsion.  Simply put, without the opportunity to engage in compulsive behavior, the individual is able to experience the natural decline of anxiety over time.

I have seen this “exposure plus response prevention” treatment bring normalcy back into people’s lives.  I have seen OCD sufferers finally looking forward to waking up the next day, knowing they will be able to leave the house, go to work or school or to a social event, knowing they will be able to enjoy the moment, the day, and the rest of their lives.