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Is The World On Fire? Fires, Floods, & DACA

6 Sep

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I came home from cool, rainy Alaska to witness a fire that looked like Armaggedon. Ensconced in work and the beauty of a rugged landscape, I had no idea that LA had become an inferno and that the hills of Burbank were engulfed in flame. My uber driver and I were stunned at the apocalyptic scene before us as we drove along the highway from the airport. I grew up in California so I’m familiar with wild fires consuming the state, but I’d never witnessed anything of this intensity so near. It seemed as if the whole town was on fire. All you have to do is google Burbank fire images to see the magnitude of Mother Nature’s Force. I’m not certain who took this photo and posted it on the Internet but this is indeed what it looked like.

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Three days later, through the incredible efforts of the Burbank, Glendale, and Los Angeles Fire Departments, the fire was contained. The LAPD also did an extraordinary job in the united stance, keeping people and most homes safe.

It was a reminder of how important our neighbors are. When tragedy hits, we need people around us. But even when there is no trauma, we need each other. The older I get the more I value basic human connection. It’s important to know our neighbors. Don’t just wave. Invite folks over for a drink or bake them cookies. Chat when you pick up the mail and bitch together about the ghastly heat and how your football team always loses.

Our relationships with those most geographically near are important. But that neighborly spirit should be applied in a national, international, and universal context as well. We are not meant to live in an isolated, nuclear-family bubble, or as an isolated being all on one’s own. We’re meant to care and connect with those beyond our immediate tribe and existence.

I was touched that while away for the last few weeks, my colleagues, students, and hotel staff were my family. I was equally moved that when I came home, I saw and heard from people who are like family. Family doesn’t have to be biological. Deep down, we’re all related and while we may feel more close to some over others, we’re all interconnected. Those little encounters in the grocery store, at the yoga class, and while out on a walk over time start to comprise one’s community and one’s life. Who is sick? Who just had a death in the family? Who needs a hand because a fixture in the house just broke? We need each other. We need company.

The Houston floods bring this all too close to awareness as well. In a deluge, suddenly your house, your pets, and your stability can be gone. The only stability comes from the connections we forge with one another even if brief and temporary. We are one spirit and body. Deep down there is no separation if we lift the veneer of superficiality.

This other picture circulated on the Internet. I don’t know the original source of the photo but who of us hasn’t felt like this cat? Cold, wet, exhausted and pissed! I commend this cat for his fighting spirit but no one should have to brave it alone forever. At some point, this cat deserves a safe landing. I hope he finds a good neighbor who can look out for him even though he obviously knows how to fend for himself. We need each other.

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It’s Not Always A Mental Illness!

7 Jul

I have worked in the mental health field for twenty-three years. I know the terrain extremely well. And although I am grateful that public knowledge of mental illness has increased, I grow weary when I frequently hear every societal problem attributed to mental illness.

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Not everything is a mental illness!

Sometimes we’re distraught because we’re going through something tough. Perhaps a death in the family, a divorce, or job loss triggers a challenging period. Or maybe we’re anxious because we haven’t learned to manage stress well and we’re going through significant life changes without much social support. These types of things greatly influence mood state and to a certain degree are a regular part of life. Human beings suffer terribly and we are all challenged by how to develop resiliency.

I invite us to consider the concept of mental wellness. How do we learn to function whether we’re ever given a mental health diagnosis or not? We all need to address mental wellness no different than we look after our physical health.

Mental health exists along a continuum. It is comparable to physical health. For instance, if I have a runny nose, am fatigued, and don’t feel well, I meet the criteria for a cold. After two weeks, when the symptoms have cleared, I no longer have the diagnosis. But if I have diabetes or a heart condition, I might have the diagnosis my entire life and then I learn to manage the symptoms. Mental illness is no different. Sometimes we’re given a diagnosis at one point in our lives but later, we may no longer meet criteria. With another illness, the diagnosis might persist. Or, we may never meet criteria for a diagnosis. Nonetheless, we still need to develop basic coping skills and to manage our emotions and stress in a healthy manner.

Contrary to popular belief, mental illness isn’t the root cause of all sociological problems. It is actually the other way around. Sociological problems can put people at risk for developing mental illness. There are only a cluster of diagnoses whose etiologies are based in pure biology and genetics. More often than not, mental illnesses emerge from a combination of factors such as trauma, genetic predisposition, environment, social isolation, family dynamics, relationship ruptures, abandonment, and abuse, etc.

If we want to reduce mental illness statistics, we also need to address bigger cosmic factors that contribute to it. We have to stop pointing fingers at “mental illness” as the cause for all and start looking at the impact of how we treat our fellow humans. TLC goes a long way in influencing mental wellness. So does social justice.

On the same token, just because we have risk factors doesn’t mean we’ll develop a mental illness. Likewise, even if we aren’t exposed to primary risk factors, we could still be vulnerable to developing a diagnosis. We could have all the support and advantages in the world and still live with schizophrenia or severe depression. Mental wellness is a complex issue because we humans are complex. We’re a unique blend of body, spirit, intellect, and emotions. We all have different temperaments and life experiences.

Finally, one of the greatest mythologies about mental health is that people with mental illness are all violent. It has become very vogue to explain every catastrophic event that occurs as a by-product of mental illness. If a crime is committed, we immediately assume the perpetrator had a mental illness. If a child or teen acts out, he or she must have a mental illness. Because who in his or her right mind would commit a crime if sane, right? Well, crimes are committed all the time by people who do not have a diagnosis. In fact, only four percent of gun homicides can be attributed to those with a mental illness. What then compels people to violence? Why do we hurt each other? Is it greed, entitlement, poor impulse control, no moral compass, ignorance, or evil? Who knows. But not everything is caused by mental illness alone.

But one thing is certain. We can all work on our mental wellness. We can challenge ourselves to engage in basic acts of self care. Exercise, get enough sleep, breathe, socialize, and relax. Explore feelings and get in touch with our inner selves. See a therapist or join a support group. Laugh. Reach out to others. Connect to something that endows life with meaning. Because we all need to feel like we have a purpose and like we’re in relation to others. That part isn’t rocket science. It’s fundamental to humanity.

 

 

Emotional Heroism

3 Aug

This horse and I had a couple of moments. They were only a few moments but life is comprised of moments. It is the moments that make or break us.

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Studies show that the bond between humans and animals directly impacts our evolution as a species.

Specifically, exchanges between owners and their pets release high quantities of oxytocin, which profoundly impacts mood state and biochemistry. The process is highly similar to what occurs  between infants bonding with adults. When owners and their pets observe and are observed by each other, oxytocin releases that fosters feelings of calm and increases concentration. These are the opposite impulses that tear us apart. Excessive aggression, dissension and isolation become lethal for civilized society.

Linda Kohanov, a pioneer in the field of equine therapy and its effect on interpersonal relationships speaks specifically about what animals can teach humans regarding how to interact in ways that preserve vs destroy the herd. Horses are animals who wield enormous amounts of power yet still take care of their own. Kohanov writes, “Using power well is not a soft skill. Even so, it requires a sophisticated integration of leadership and social intelligence to channel potentially explosive forces into a focused and benevolent source of energy” (from “The Five Roles of the a Master Herder, p.4).

Linda recently spoke at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. In the audience were people with vested interests in how horses enhance humanity’s humanity, including a much beloved actor from a much beloved t.v. show. Probably more than anything during Kahanov’s talk, I was struck by a term she called “emotional heroism” to describe the act of keeping one’s heart open even while knowing that the inevitable result is heartbreak. She uses the term to describe when an owner has to make the excruciating decision to euthanize an animal or when bonding with an animal may result in some other painful separation. She also mentioned this concept in conjunction with the risks entailed in various stages of relationships. For instance, within a herd, animals play different roles including nurturer, sentinel, dominant, leader and predator. All animals play the different roles at times to ensure the herd’s well-being. We humans have much to learn from what animals know about how to look out for one another. Likewise, learning to embody these roles fully is not for the faint of heart.

To be connected to others requires presence. It is a dance of interaction. Of the observed observing the observer. It also demands that we drop our social masks and be authentic. Horses can read through the bullshit we put out and so can most people. Horses are straightforward. They step away from you if they don’t like you and walk towards you when they do. What you see is what you get. They will also show deep concern for you if you are in pain and will invite you to play if you want to join them.

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We are becoming disembodied as a culture staring into our little screens and taking selfies of ourselves instead of looking out at the world around us. Increasing disparities in power and social isolation bring pressures often with little relief. So there is no shame in looking to nature for solace and sanity. It may be the thing that leads us to a higher evolution than we’re currently headed towards as a people.

 

Just Breathe Through It

18 Jul

Many of us have been in a yoga or exercise class where the teacher serenely says, “Just breathe through it,” while we’re swearing beneath our breath because they have us holding some ridiculous position or are asking us to do endless crunches that make our stomachs burn as if on fire. “I don’t want to breathe through it!” we often scream in our heads. “I just want this *&&^%$ pain to stop!” What do the teachers mean when they say, ‘Just breathe through it,’ like a bleeping mantra? What is the breath and why is it so powerful?

While breathing seems so simple, it’s actually something we resist when we are scared or in pain. For some reason, we’d rather not “breathe through it.” We’d prefer to avoid it – whatever that it is – and breathing makes us feel it.

The irony is that the feeling is there whether we surrender to it or not. If we hold our breath thinking we can by-pass pain, we’re actually deluding ourselves. It requires a considerable amount of energy to keep something down. In fact, pain magnifies when we suppress it. Like damning up a river, once the floodgates open, the feelings will flow forth in full force.

If we weren’t breathing, we’d be dead. Yet if we invite the breath in more consciously and more fully, we ease the process considerably.

Why is a woman in labor told to breathe, breathe, and breathe! Because she’s pushing new life into being. When she holds her breath, she makes things more difficult for herself and the baby. When she breathes, she can push more easily.

All of this sounds nice but when we’re going through excruciating times, we’re like the woman in labor who wants to tell everyone around her telling her to breathe to “f— off!” Transformation is brutal work and sometimes the labor is so long and tenuous it feels like we will die. When the healing needs are global how do we breathe through rape, violence, illness, betrayal and injustice? It’s hard to go all yoga-zen in these moments. How do we as humans endure?

On a practical level we need to actually breathe versus intellectually reflecting on it. We don’t have to engage in fancy complicated breathing exercises. We can simply imagine our breath coming in and out like an ocean wave – back and forth, back and forth. There is nothing to control, fix, stop or judge. There is nothing we have to “do.”

When we “breathe through it”, we can feel the breath’s power to cleanse, sustain and revitalize every aspect of our being. In fact, the words breath in Hebrew (ruach), in Greek (pneuma) and Sanskrit (prana) are synonymous with the words “spirit” or “wind.” This indicates a link between our breath, being, and the divine. Our breath is the life force that helps us fully embrace and enjoy the moment. It is also the conduit of transformation.

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Are We Our Stories?

13 Jul

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The other day I posted a narrative about my mother’s incarceration on my blog. It’s an old story. Many people in my life are familiar with it. And like that news story that airs too many times, the story can grow very old.

Why then do we tell our stories? What is the point? It is to our benefit or detriment? In the telling do we transcend our narratives or reinforce them?

These are fundamental questions in the world of psychotherapy. Narrative matters. It’s important to communicate and unburden traumas. It’s important to share and to be witnessed. In fact, the primary solace of narration often comes from having an audience. We no longer are fully alone in our stories that caused pain and made no sense.

Yet retelling a story over and over can paradoxically reinforce it.

It’s a super fine line. Some feel adamantly that we share until we no longer need to. Period. It’s no one’s business to tell us when we’re to be done. And it’s certainly no one’s business to tell us what we do or don’t feel because our stories are etched into the landscapes our psyches. Those traces remain.

Freud wrote of repetition compulsion where people keep enacting aspects of the trauma with the hopes of mastering it yet often don’t. However, in play therapy, repetition compulsion in children’s play usually gives way to new narratives. Kids eventually get bored with the old “play” and create something new.

Is it possible though to start identifying with the narrative to the point where it defines our lives and limits possibilities? Is it easier to keep telling the same old story because it’s familiar and has become our identity? Do we do this because it’s too terrifying to face the blank page and not know what the hell the story is? What if the new story is terribly boring? With nothing juicy or dramatic?

Who is the auteur of our lives and who decides the story’s end?

There needs to be a story arc and we get full creative license to shape it.

We get to decide where plots are headed. Unlike with the original stories, we have so much more power and control than we realize. By deconstructing our narratives, we move into the imaginal realm and transcend ourselves. We get to become.

In fact, we are NOT our stories. We are not even the characters we play. These are all aspects of ourselves, which is why people so readily relate. They see parts of their experiences too. Yet as soon as I’m done writing a complete story, from beginning to end, or after playing a character, I have moved on. I’m looking for the next story.

Prison of Shame

12 Jul

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary for a 5th felony DUI she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. She had asked me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in.

I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a challenge. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

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Incarceration is like a death in the family. The person leaves and then suddenly resurrects upon release. I went through this process with my mother five times, until she actually died for real.

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Wrestling with Waiting

6 Jul

Most of us have done a fair amount of waiting. It’s a part of life. Yet there are times when waiting starts to feel like we’re living in a &^%$# production of “Waiting For Godot.”

There are so many ways in which we wait. “Your time will come,” people will say while one waits for a job, or a meal, a paycheck, or a diagnosis. We wait for good or bad news, for the traffic to lift, for the storm to clear, or for that lucky break. We wait for others to change or for love to finally arrive.

Waiting becomes harder for us in today’s instant gratification culture. We can no longer tolerate standing in line at a store without checking our phones or making calls. When we arrive at the counter, we nod to that checker as if he or she were a mere servant inconveniencing us and then we promptly ignore him or her.

The most excruciating period of waiting I ever had was the seven days in-between receiving a suicide note from my mom and the news that she was dead. July 11th – July 18th, 8 years ago.

How do we wait and is there any benefit in the process? Is there a way out of existential angst or are we relegated to it like a form of purgatory? Can we sex, drugs, and alcohol our way out, or do we chin up like a little tin soldier? Do we collapse and fall apart or scale the mountain to greatness?

In yoga, the space between the breaths is viewed as quite significant. It is the transition point. The point were inhalation gives way to exhalation and then gives rise to inhalation again. That is the practice. Learning how to sit through the transitions of felt sensate experience without repressing or collapsing. It is its own Gethsemane. We typically endure alone while the disciples sleep. We die and are reborn in each impasse if we allow ourselves to breathe through it. It is the road to Spirit and to Grace.

It’s not fun to feel. But it is this arc, this wave that gives rise to desire, to momentum, to action, and to transformation. It is what ultimately brings joy. Without it, there is no art. No creation. No change. And no intersection.

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Trauma and Recovery

16 Jun

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The amount of trauma in this world is overwhelming. Our reactions to it vary depending on the hour. Sometimes we’re raw in the moment, flooded with affect; other times we’re completely numb. That is the nature of trauma.

Two weeks ago on my drive to San Diego to see clients UCLA was on lockdown because of an active shooter on campus. I listened to news of the murder/suicide on NPR while thinking of people I know who work on campus there. A week ago I was thinking about a high news profile rape case. This week on my last drive to San Diego to see clients, I thought about Orlando.

I changed my backdrop on FB this evening to one of myself walking into the ocean with my board not out of sensitivity in regards to this week’s tragedy but because in the light of the unspeakable, the only peace I feel comes when I think of the ocean’s foam and salt that attempts to purify the chaos of human plight.

Judith Herman’s classic, Trauma & Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, although written in 1992, is still a great introduction to how the soul can be ravaged by trauma. For all of us impacted by trauma and who care about the recovery of the human condition, it is an important read. She writes, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until stories are told…. The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma” (p.1).

“Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force… Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning” (p.33).

Because of this rupture we must all find a modicum of control, connection and meaning. Because of the unspeakable, we must learn to be silent and to listen when others need to speak. We must also learn to tell our stories and to have the courage to eventually disrupt the narrative and create new stories.

As Gloria Steinhem once said, “The personal is political.” Likewise, the political is personal.

When the UCLA story broke, I wrote a blog post that I then deleted. I was too struck by how many shootings have intersected with my teaching work during the last few years: I’ve been involved with communities impacted by the Gabby Gifford shooting, Sandy Hook, the Boston marathon bombing, the Aurora incident, and the list goes on and on.

So I think of the sea. And beauty. And people’s longing to connect and heal. And the power of the human spirit to endure in the wake of the unbearable. In the wake of what not should be.