Grammy’s Tackle Serious Societal Issue! Domestic Violence

I did not watch the whole of the Grammy’s but I did see the speech that a survivor made and then the performance of Katy Perry directly after. She chose a song from her latest album that I already love, called “By the Grace of God”, which is about the subject of reaching a point of suffering where you don’t know if you want to go on any more, and the song is about the choice of deciding to “Stay”, and what that means. I confess to being a big Katy Perry fan. I like her sense of humor balanced with serious topics related to self worth. On another post, I quoted the words from her song “Wide Awake” another big “message” song. This performance was especially beautiful and minimal, just Katy in a long white dress singing with shadows in the background. A very good choice, as she can easily choose big showy stuff that is fun and crazy and what she is known for as well. This song needed no extra “dressing up”. I applaud her for writing many very therapeutic songs about self love and self respect.
Here is the link to the whole thing:

New Topic: Our Very Emotional Relationships with Our “Companion Animals”

This post will swing back to the more psychological, relationship exploration type of topics, away from the identity and artwork topics I’ve been posting about lately.

Of course this is a very personal topic for me, and I will include my own experiences in here. I have been thinking about posting about this for a few weeks now. I forgot what inspired me to think about this, although I think of my own dear departed doggie daily.

In fact, I have to start with my personal experiences in order to reflect upon this topic…

This morning, by chance, I had a DVD from the library, “Lassie” the movie. I think there may be several versions of this movie. I don’t remember seeing the TV show but I knew about the character Lassie of course. As we hadn’t yet watched it, I put it on and watched it with my daughter. I am very emotional about animals of all kinds, but especially dogs are near and dear to my heart. I was tearing up off and on throughout the movie. The main kid character is a young unhappy boy who misses his dead mother. Of course Lassie attaches to him and even leads him to his mother’s diary in one of the closets. Anyway, the story begins with loss, Lassie’s loss of his former owner, the sheep farmer, and then the boy’s family takes him, and the loss theme shifts to the loss of the mother. At some point towards the end, after a couragesous act of saving the boy, Lassie drifts into dangerous waters and is assumed dead. I knew somehow she wasn’t dead, but I cried anyway. At the end the boy finds her and hugs her and says, “I love you.” Maybe this movie was trite but it certainly touched me.

I have always been aware of the different kind of relationship we have with animals than with other people. Growing up I did not have a “real” pet. I had turtles, fish and at one point, a hamster. For one day I had a cat, that my older brother got me, thinking somehow we could hide it from our mother. The cat found a good home, but for a day I was exstatic to have a real pet and immediately got attached to the little kitty.

Anyway, in my adult life I had a small dog that I got when I was about 24 or so; at the time I was nowhere near “ready” for the responsibilities and everything that go with having an animal, especially a small dog. But it did not matter. Love was in the house and stayed there no matter where I went for almost 17 years. This little dog, during healthy times between 11 and 12 pounds, taught me more about a certain kind of love than anyone in my life could have. It is indescribable, this love between a dog or cat and their “owner”. I will talk mostly about dogs, only because I know more about them. At the moment I am at a loss for words. That moment when the boy sees Lassie through his classroom window and realizes she is alive and has come back to him and runs out to hug her, is a picture worth a thousand words. The way a dog sits when s/he knows you will sense his/her presence, that look on the dog’s face as s/he waits for you to notice him/her; this is very special. A dog will wait full of love and anticipation and solid concentration in a way that is hard to describe. It is not the same thing as your child waiting for you to come home. It just isn’t. Whenever there is a big family that has one dog, there is usually one person that dog especially picks, even if she plays with all the kids and gets walked and fed by everybody, there is one person whom she will be focused on the most, just as in the movie, Lassie senses that the boy needs him the most, even though his younger sister was the one who found her and pleaded with dad to keep her. And that love bond just will not break. It is the strongest thing in that dog’s life, and when he is separated from that person for too long, he suffers in a way that is difficult to describe. This is an inter species relationship that is based on mostly non verbal exchanges. I confess that when my little doggie was alive, I had a million special names, terms of endearment for him. And I do catch myself saying these nonsense love words I made up then to my daughter. Not because she has replaced him or that I link them together in some way; in fact I don’t know why. I guess saying these silly words while holding or hugging her is a way of remembering my doggie while at the same time making her laugh or enjoy them herself. I readily admit that my relationship with my dog was very far from what the famed “Dog Whisperer” says is the proper way to treat dogs. He was my “baby”…

A dog’s life span ranges from about 10 to 18 or so years. For some people who grow up with a dog or dogs, the dog is a part of their childhood. Although my dog died when my child was around 2 or so, she still remembers feeding him chicken, what he looked like and she somehow understands how sad it was for me to lose him. Losing him was her first very early experience of death. It was a bittersweet parting as he had been sick for too long and was at the stage where he really had lost his mind to brain cancer. But I knew he still knew who I was. Sitting with him and saying goodbye to him and watching him be put to sleep was one of the most painful experiences I have ever had. However there also was relief that his suffering was at an end, and a feeling of guilt that maybe I had let him suffer too long. This dog also symbolized for me a certain long span of my life where I developed into a “person”, found myself as an adult, went through many different experiences, but always with him at my side. With time I became better at taking care of this very dependent being. He taught me how to think of someone outside of myself, to care for another completely dependent being…

There is something to be said for the structure of a dog’s life and how it helps humans. If you live alone, you cannot stay inside all day, no matter how you are feeling. I have heard many depressed patients comment about how they were lost to human contact, could not function in any way, but managed to get out of bed several times a day to take their dog out for his walks. And no matter how isolated and alone they might be, they were not ever alone at home, as they had their dog sticking to their side, loving them throughout this difficult period. I remember reading that elderly people with a dog or cat tend to be healthier both physically and emotionally than other elderly people living alone. A dog forces you to go outside, breathe fresh air, walk, exercise, and at home, he will stay at your side whether you have forgotten to take a shower or eat but still remember to feed him. I am sure there are many animals out there who have stopped someone dead set upon suicide in his or her tracks. The animal says to you, “I love you. You can’t leave me. You are my LIFE.” When no body else could stop someone from ending their life, the animal companion is there to save the person from himself. Not always successfully, but very often a dog saves his owner from himself and from all kinds of self-destructive behaviors.

Which brings me to more on the topic of animals and therapy. While an animal can be a stronger “anti-depressant”than any medication, s/he can become the focus of the therapy session. Many people acquire their animals in a breakup. Sometimes the person will enter the relationship and the animal will go to him/her, even though the animal was the girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s. And so the breakup happens, and the dog or cat is suddenly yours, as for some obvious reason, you are the one best equipped to take care of it. And it can be hard to have an animal that is associated with a difficult loss in your life. At the same time, this animal is with you in very lonely times and you are not alone, and love has not left the house; instead a different, more steadfast love, is there…

I am not suggesting that an animal can “replace” a romantic relationship, but it is very different to suddenly find yourself single and alone and to find yourself single and with a companion that was there during the relationship’s ups and downs and is still there.

Animals in the therapy session: Many people come to therapy and at some point talk about their relationship with their animal. In some cases, it is because of the above mentioned situation, that the person is aware of “inheriting” the dog or cat a, part of the breakup, and so the animal comes into the session in that perspective. Often the focus on caring for the animal outweighs his symbolizing that failed relationship. Living with this animal you are already involved in a relationship that cannot fail, and you are in complete control, which can be somehow therapeutic.

Another way an animal enters the therapy space is when that animal himself is sick, physically or psychologically. There is nothing more difficult than caring for a being who is suffering yet cannot communicate in words. Babies and small children at least let you know when they are hurt. Many animals are stoic to a fault so by the time they make any noises you know it is really bad. I’ve had patients with their own trauma recognize that their pet came to them also traumatized. I have seen people endure bites and all sorts of weird and scary difficult behaviors from their animals because they know the animal is sick. After all, many loving people aquire their animals as a rescue. I always place as much importance on my patient’s discussing their relationship with their animals as with another person. People sometimes feel silly talking about their dog or cat in therapy, but I always emphasize how central this relationship is to their life.

The worst way an animal enters the therapy session is when s/he dies. I’ve seen people who cannot cry in front of me finally let go and weep when their animal dies. For some people, this is their first experience of the death of a close family member. Even if this is not the case, there is always a mourning process that is usually very painful. Dogs and cats are not built to last as long as people, so when you acquire one, there is this knowledge in the back of your mind of loss. I was very often aware of the precarious part of that relationship with my dog, and that he would not be able to accompany me throughout my life no matter how strong the bond. At times when my dog was older I felt the weight of this feeling that I held his life in my hands and it was my job to prolong it, a job doomed to failure. I also had many tears shed talking to friends about feeling “not good enough” in terms of giving him the best life possible. I guess at times I took this relationship too seriously. And there are times when your animal can feel like a burden; it is only natural to feel this way about a being completely dependent upon you.

People treat the loss of their animal in all sorts of ways. Some get a new but different breed of dog or cat pretty quickly following the death of their animal. People sometimes wrongfully assume you are “replacing” the dead animal, but this is never true. There may be a longing for the presence of a dog or cat in the house to fill that empty space, to comfort you in your grief even to distract you from it. Others may wait a very long time to get another animal they know they will eventually lose as well. The shadow of this next loss mat overshadow how much you miss that special kind of connection you can have with an animal. Of course there is no right answer. No matter what, the loss of an animal requires that you look at your life and where you are on your personal journey when you lose that loved one.

I remember someone thinking after I lost my dog that I had my little girl to “replace” him. If course thus was not true. I did have to continue taking care of her as much as before, but that is different. For me losing him involved losing a certain part of myself. How much that tiny presence in my life taught me about love and how to love. I will carry that with me for the rest of my life. And I do hope one day long from now at a very different time, I will again have a dog. The relationship will not be the same as with my first dog. It’s like a first love, he defined me as much as I defined him. I know that won’t happen again, and that I will not need it again. I will continue to miss him no matter what. It is a heart ache, but I wouldn’t trade that heart ache in for anything…

Silence and it’s Many Meanings

Unfortunately I already wrote a beginning to this blog 2 times, and it got erased both times, so I’ll try again.

Silence. Quiet. Breath. Pregnant pause. Calm. Peaceful. Meditative. The silent moments in a therapy sessions, filling the room. Hearing the noise in your head when you try to quiet the mind. Death. Sleep. Dreaming. Awakening. Feeling words in your head but they can’t come out. Non verbal communication. Silent witness. Silent treatment. Quiet art making, uncomfortable silence, an angel just flew through the room. Silent meditation retreat….

These are just some associations to the idea of silence. It can be deeply relaxing to be silent with someone or incredibly uncomfortable. Both children and adults at times choose on purpose to stop talking. In some cases, as a result of some kind of trauma, including deaths, accidents and all kinds of abuse, a child or adult can become “selectively mute.” S/he has not stopped being able to talk, but has “chosen” to stop saying anything out loud. The younger the person, the less control they tend to have over it. Adults in group settings report noticing that they have decided not to say anything for whatever reason, often to see what happens if they do not talk, and whether anyone notices. In a group therapy setting, a good group therapist will notice this pretty quickly and note it to the group and the person without putting pressure on him or her to say anything. In 12 Step groups, members will just wait until the new person feels comfortable enough to talk. The positive effect of this, is that the person will feel accepted and ok to just sit there and be welcomed and supported without having to say anything, which is often too scary for them. Usually the effect is positive, and the person will continue attending meetings because they feel no pressure to do anything but just show up, and often eventually after many meetings, this person will suddenly be moved to share with others. The same may be true for group therapy. Usually the group therapist asks the members to “just show up consistently” and the rest will take care of itself. In fact, when I was in one of my early jobs in my career doing a weekly group with my caseload, I forgot what this group was called, but every case manager did the group once a week, anyway, I got very concerned with coming up with ways to “fill” the group, with talk about some topic, or special music or other types of ways to hold the group. I still remember my supervisor saying, “You’re trying too hard, which is why you are finding this group stressful for you. Just show up and the group will be fine with that. Try to work less.” It was some of the best advice I ever got about leading/facilitating group therapy; I did what she said, and felt more relaxed with the group, and they probably felt more relaxed with me. Group art therapy is especially holding and comfortable for people who don’t like to talk in front of others that they don’t know well, especially when very intimate and personal issues are being shared. The good thing is that the silent member of the group can still communicate a lot nonverbally about himself or herself in the art work.

The Silent Treatment. Who has not used that with a romantic partner or parent? It’s so nasty and effective. If you’ve been on the receiving end of the silent treatment, you probably felt very hurt and upset. It’s very hard to deal with a loved one refusing to talk, especially when there is probably a lot to talk about and both people involved feel hurt and angry… Often the “Silent Treatment” can really be toxic and put a stop to any kind of positive form of processing and communicating, as both people move further away from each other, unless the silence gets broken.

Silent Retreat: quite the opposite of the above paragraph, as going on a Silent Retreat with a meditation group can be very eye opening for the individual. Choosing to be in a structured situation of complete silence for a week or even a weekend can be very powerful. People notice their inner voices that won’t shut up because as they are quiet, they become highly aware of their mind, which is usually very noisy, as all our minds are full of noisy voices, often critical exacting voices constantly commenting on what we’re doing and what’s wrong with it. When you choose to be silent for so many days, you become extremely painfully aware of your different “Selves”. It becomes like peeling an onion, and the more time you spend, the better you can be at quieting your mind so you can become more aware, more awake, more present to the here and now, and get out of your “Noisy Mind”. Some people choose one day of the week to be quiet all day, as a kind of day of rest and way to get in touch with where you’re at and Be Here Now…

There is another kind of noise in our world that we can choose to shut out and it is not necessarily sound though sometimes it does involve actual sound. Try a day with no TV, no internet, no texting, phoning or emails, no radio or outside info from the outer world. You don’t have to stop talking all together to become more present to your inner state and to what is going on around you. This is what vacations are truly for, to take a break from your life and all the “noise” in it and get relaxed and calm to be in a state of mind where you can accept yourself and even get to know yourself better.

Mindfulness and Art Therapy

I started writing this post a while ago and somehow two paragraphs got erased so I’m starting over again. Maybe it makes sense due to the topic. Computers can really test how mindful you are. Especially to be mindful about saving and backing up stuff but even more so to be able to let go of your attachment to your stuff when you lose data…

Anyway I randomly picked up a book about meditation by a Yoga/Buddhist meditation teacher and therapist. Michael Stone’s “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.” He talks about replacing the word enlightenment with intimacy and realization with relationship. “Little by little, we step into our real life, the one that’s always been here, because the present always finds us in our bodies, even when we are lost.” (page 24) I pick this sentence because I can easily connect this idea to the art therapy process itself as a way to get back into our real lives and be in the here and now in our bodies. I think that is one of the connections between mindfulness and art therapy. The here and now of the therapy session is all about intimacy and relationship as well as connecting to our bodies.

Of course there are many moments in any kind of therapy where we disengage from our true self in the moment and fly off somewhere into stories about the past or predictions about the future. However, the process of art making in art therapy keeps us back in the here and now through the use of the art materials no matter what one chooses to make. There are those special moments in the session when a quietness settles into the room as I sit with a patient who is intently working on their art project. I have had a few rare patients who are mostly quiet throughout the session, for many different reasons. For some, this is their first experience of being at peace with themselves, of allowing for a calm being in the here and now, and slowing down to just be with the materials, me and the art making process. True healing can take place in these quiet moments of therapy. For people who have survived a lot of early childhood trauma of one kind or another, feeling safe enough to be in the room in the here and now and to be able to focus on something tangible and concrete like the art materials helps a lot with the process of letting go as well as being able to be in one’s body and not dissociate. The dissociation is a learned behavior that has worked for the person in the past as a way to get through times when they feel themselves shutting down due to overstimulation of some kind and overwhelming feelings as well. Slowly the act of making art in a safe space with a therapist as witness and collaborator of “the moment” can take the place of dissociation. Finding new methods to soothe oneself is a key part of the healing process for all of us.

However, the majority of the people I work with tend to talk during the art making process, and some choose just to talk with me and find the art making to be too scary or associate it with their insecurities and perfectionism and shame. So no matter how the session proceeds, there will still be these moments of real intimacy in the here and now, which is the stuff of mindfulness. With a few people I have been able to meditate with them for part of the session and then discuss what came up while they were attending to the breath and the body. Some take up my invitation to engage in making a mandala after meditation with me and then see what their energy looks like and what was going on for them during the meditation.

This author, Michael Stone, and others for that matter, like to refer to “failing” at meditation, the idea that you will of course fail at it and go off into your head and then witness that you “failed” and bring yourself back to the breath, the body, the moment. Especially people unfamiliar with the meditating process can be easily put off by the fact that they “can’t” do it because as soon as they start to focus on the breath they go off into their head and it’s too frustrating to constantly notice and bring oneself back to the breath. Many people mistakenly think that the object of meditation is to achieve some kind of special state of mind that they could never get to. A lot of meditation involves feeling uncomfortable and fidgety or spaced out and then having to bring oneself back into the room. I have done some walking meditation groups and have found the walking meditation to be very helpful with this. Just being able to stand up and focus on each step and be moving the body very slowly helps with awareness and being in the moment.

We are always waking up to ourselves and our bodies. Even powerful emotions can bring one into the here and now which explains why some people report that they cry at the end of a yoga class or some other meditative practice. Being in touch with the real feeling of love for those you are most intimate with only happens from time to time for most of us as we are mostly preoccupied with what we are doing, what we are going to do next or what already happened.

The art therapy process can involve many fluctuations between moments of awakening and then sort of going back to sleep and just talking around oneself. This can be more noticeable for people during the art making process that they “went off somewhere” and then became aware of coming back into the room. As therapists we are also mindful of when we tend to disappear or get into our heads or leave the room when with different people. And the moments when we awaken together with our patient are the most treasured moments that are usually what keeps us going in this very challenging kind of intimate relationship work…

The Other Face of Facebook: Facebook in the Therapy Session

A day or two ago, I witnessed the miracle of Facebook. One of my college friends, in fact, one of the first people I met in my new dorm my first day at college over 20 years ago, had a baby girl. The announcement of this great birth appeared in her Facebook status within the first day of this baby’s life, with the amount of hours of labor and her name and weight. 115 “Likes” and 110 comments within six hours of this status posting! But for Facebook, I would have no idea where my former classmate lived, much less, have been able to participate in witnessing her marvelous pregnancy and the birth of her first very healthy child. This is the wonderful power of Facebook, and a big reason for why I confess I check in almost daily to see the “News Feed”. Many other wonderful pregnancies and births are going on, not to mention little children growing up before our eyes through Facebook photos…

So, the wonderful world of Facebook is truly a great way for people to see each other’s kids, and for aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents to participate in the lives of these children, no matter where they live.

There is also grade school, high school, college and graduate school classmates to keep in touch with so easily! In fact it turns out the most friends group people have is from high school…

The other great reason I like Facebook is to be able to casually post a photo of my latest art work, whether just a weekly scribble drawing or a more serious work in progress and get instant positive support! For us therapists, once we’ve navigated the issue of making sure we’ve looked carefully at our “privacy settings”, Facebook represents a place we can “let our hair down” and be people, as goofy and weird as we want to be…   Or you can figure out how to live comfortably with a professional and personal presence on Facebook by joining professional groups, starting your own Artist page or Therapist page or starting your own Professional group…

Of course there are many pitfalls and huge complicated issues that arise from Facebook. Sometimes the whole six degrees of separation thing means one has to block a friend’s friend because they are or were a patient. Or my patient comes in and says she saw my happy birthday post to my old supervisee who happened to be her supervisor recently. Not too big a deal, as it was a week where my profile picture was an artwork and not a private photo. The world of art therapy is small…

Far more difficult than privacy issues we therapists face, are the issues our patients are bringing in to therapy that often involve Facebook in some major way. First of all there are parents. Many parents are young enough that they want to be on Facebook for their own social reasons and secondarily to keep an eye out on their young adult children and get to “peek” into their lives. Some parents are on Facebook purely to peek into their young adult or even older adult children’s lives. Sometimes this isn’t too complicated and only requires the child “educating” their parent about Facebook parental etiquette. That means telling your parent, don’t make a comment on every one of my posts. In fact, try not to make your presence known at all on my posts and I won’t “block” you from seeing them. Simple instructions, followed well. Done.

Not so easy if Mom is using Facebook to spy on you. “What were you doing out so late partying when you called me earlier freaking out about your English paper due tomorrow?” and, “I thought you quit smoking (or insert “drinking”, “gambling”, etc? What’s up with that photo of you from last night? Woops. Forgot to set blocking Mom from that particular revealing photo…

“It’s Complicated” is actually a relationship status you can post to your profile and put the name of the complicated person you are in this mess with up next to it. Not a good idea if you’ve met each other’s parents and are on Facebook with all of them. Most difficult scenario with a parent is the following one. The said “child” over age 20 is going through messy breakup or even messy divorce. Suddenly that 2 am drunken weepy phone call to Mom late at night right after she dumped you by email is seeming like a really impulsive move now that it’s 6 weeks later (an eon in modern relationship breakups and makeups) and she has posted pictures of you together after you and your mom agreed she was the scum of the earth and had been mistreating you the whole time you were dating. Oops. So you go into therapy and talk to your therapist about how you decided to block your mom completely and defriend her and then she called you hysterically crying upset that you would treat her that way. Which one is more high maintenance now, the girl who took you for granted and dumped you and then realized she couldn’t live without you, putting you through torture, moodswings, extra therapy sessions and bad phone calls to your parents, or the mother who now is too thorouhly involved in your love life, such that you have to figure out in therapy how to manage her Facebook presence in your life without her knowing you are keeping her out of the loop so she doesnt call you again crying? And in between all that you had to confess in therapy that after your girlfiend dumped you, you checked her Facebook wall about twenty times a day to see if she was hanging out with other guys/girls or what she was doing. (There is a whole different post I need to write about cyber confessions in therapy — “I knew his password, so I broke into his emails and read them for a week to see what the hell was going on in his head after the breakup…”, “After that asshole blocked me from his Facebook and defriended me, I signed in to his page to spy on his Facebook wall and chats…” etc.)

With some patients, we have had to talk about Facebook addiction and treatment which involves “breaks” — take a day off where you aren’t allowed to go on Facebook at all. Take a week off going onto your partner’s or soon to be ex’s or ex’s page. No peeking at all.

Re-set the boundaries with mom and dad. Translates as, keep him or her as your Facebook friend but block him or her from all photos of your wonderful reuniting with the girl or guy that your parents never want you to mention much less see again. Yes you can manage each post and each photo separately, thus blocking mom from only the ones you don’t want her to see. The challenge in therapy now is beyond Facebook pages. How do you “delete” the 5 am crazy phone calls you made to mom or dad when you were ready to jump out the window from finding all the terrible things this “awful” relationship was putting you through while you secretly start over with the same person who has gone from awful to adorable love of your life again within the last month or two, or worse, you moved out and back in all within about 4 months time and can’t bear telling your parents because of their obvious and predictably bad reactions? And now you have to go home for the holidays and pretend to be still sad about it or deal with everyone in your family (yes, I forgot about grandpa and the siblings who know all about it and who have seen those new photos on Facebook of you back together.) Damage control first, arrange with all of them to keep it quiet and do not mention any of it to mom or dad during the holiday visit. Second, what do you do when you are baking with your mom and she starts casually asking if you’re meeting any new people, or if she found out, how do you steer her away from the topic of how you are throwing your life away in this relationship, how disappointed she is in your terrible choices, and worried sick as well. “And how could you even think of defriending me on Facebook!” she will definitely bring up, still hurt about it.

This is not dramatization. It happens all the time. As does the addiction to checking up on your too attractive boyfriend who gets too many likes on all his photos and comments… Jealousy redifined, or jealousy obsessions now have a new Face, and plenty of new places to find fuel for the jealousy.

The other Facebook therapy topic is just plain old addiction. Complaints of spending way too much time playing “Farmville” or some other Facebook game, or even worse, just spending countless hours on Facebook and not too sure what you were even doing. This one goes with other internet addictions, porn being a typical one. Almost worse than porn which at least involves some kind of “goal”, is the hours on the internet people spend and cannot account for and have no idea what they were doing, but one minute the computer was on and suddenly four or five hours of time has gone by and nothing to account for it. This usually happens when someone has a paper or thesis or work related activity due.

Which brings me to Facebook at the workplace. At a party recently, someone told me about a new form of work interview “prejudice”. That some people are complaining that at a job interview they were asked why they do not “do” Facebook, that there must be something wrong with them. I was astonished, but she had actually heard this from several people. This one goes with the big question, do you friend people you work with or your boss? Do you friend the babysitter? Are you Facebooking while at your workplace and do you do this on the sly or in full view of everyone?

Blocking, unfriending and defriending…Do you really want to stay friends with some ex from years ago? What about the friend you have stopped speaking to or the cousin you suddenly regret friending. Turns out according to a recent article in Huffington post,

“Offensive comments” and a lack of knowledge about a person are the top two reasons people unfriend on Facebook, according to NM Incite’s research. People were also more likely to be disturbed by the nature of the content friends shared, rather than the frequency of it: 23 percent said they unfriended people over “depressing comments” and 14 percent unfriended over “political comments,” while just 6 percent unfriended because someone had posted too frequently.

Wow. I was quite surprised, actually shocked. Nobody said they unfriended because they got in a fight with someone or broke up with someone, the two top reasons I would have guessed for unfriending. And what about obvious reason number 3, “Woops, I am so regretful that I friended Mom and Dad…” Why do people have such a low tolerance from a single depressing sentence in a Facebook status, when, last I checked, most close friends include long depressing phone calls, coffee, dinner or drink sessions, as a major part of friendship, that they know this Friend has been there when they were in tears, so of course they will be there for this Friend through countless depressing but worthwhile hours.

Another interesting topic is the content of status posts. Everyone on Facebook has at least one friend who posts just to say what s/he made, had for dinner or even put a photo in of the meal. In one case my gourmet friend posted several photos of the many courses of an elaborate meal and the menu; it went from the mundane to a work of art in progress to see this gourmet meal unfold. But there are those posts that sound like the person needs to let everyone know s/he just sneezed. What is involved in the psychology of the everyday ordinary aspects of life being “glorified” or at least expressed on the “news feed” of Facebook? Just raising the question…

There is also the Facebook “love/hate” relationship. One week you’re on and reading it daily and posting. Then suddenly something happens and you get a bout of  what I like to call “Faceebook overexposure”. “Suddenly I felt really weird and decided I hated Facebook and did not want to be on it, so I am leaving Facebook.” This is often accompanied by a goodbye post, which often sparks a lot of comments from friends suggesting/begging the person not to leave Facebook. Sometimes this is enough to get you hooked again. Or a week later, the soame person reports that s/he returned to Facebook, so easy to get back on with the sames profile and friends all saved and waiting for your re-conversion to Facebook. Some people treat Facebook like a messy on again off again relationship and then finally call it quits with it. There are other people who actually are totally internet savvy and may even have great websites and/or blogs or other internet presences who might even work in publishing or publicity or television other internet related fields who never go near Facebook. What kind of personality is completely immune to the Facebook bug. I have a few friends and relatives whose spouses are on Facebook but who themselves are not going to go near it.  And I cannot figure out any one characteristic that these people who share the Facebook allergy have in common. Someone’s got to do a survey on that topic: what makes a person immune to the magnetic pull of Facebook?

Yes, Facebook has become a therapy “topic” and is here to stay. Now it’s time for me to edit this post and then, of course, post the link to it first to Facebook and only after that, on LinkedIn…

Art Therapy as Food

The holiday season is here and that means trouble for people with any kind of eating or food issues. Holiday dinners and tons of holiday parties which seems so cheerful and fun for some, for others can be big triggers. If you’re in some recovery process of relearning healthy eating and trying to follow a good schedule of meal times and eat nutritionally well, this is a time of many challenges. It’s a good idea to try to be flexible with yourself and allow yourself to eat more and eat things you don’t normally consider healthy rather than fall into the trap of self-punishment or get caught up in obsessing about food and body. It’s also a great time to focus on the non-eating activities of the holidays. Make your own wrapping paper or make your own cards. Make a holiday card to send out to family and friends. Make a fun photo or art calendar for 2012. If you like singing focus on the songs and sing a longs at the parties you go to. Enjoy dressing up if you like doing that…If you go to O.A. meetings talk about this season and your struggles with it tripping you up and any worries you have about getting into old bad habits/and/or destructive behaviors… Just a few suggestions for this time of year that itself is a big trigger for many.

I mentioned some art activities in the above paragraph but this post is meant to try to focus on art therapy and the question, Why is art therapy so effective at helping people with eating disorders as well as body image issues, food and exercise addictions, obsessive thinking about food, weight, body, etc.? Unlike other types of “obsessions” and “addictions”, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, when a person has issues around food and eating, s/he cannot simply avoid food, grocery stores and restaurants for obvious reasons. Triggers are everywhere and food and meal planning are necessities for becoming healthy. One has to change one’s relationship to food altogether and then rigorously watch out for and identify triggers and then have a plan for how to deal with them. For re-learning how to eat, how much to eat, what it feels like to be full, etc., cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can work very effectively to help a person manage their day to day life and find the difficult balance between being observant and watchful of one’s behaviors and familiar feelings or lack of feelings that trigger self-destructive behaviors around food and exercise. Just being able to call your therapist or some other helpful person when you feel challenged and scared you’re going to “relapse” is of course very useful. I have had many patients who reported that calling me when something difficult came up was very helpful or even knowing that s/he could call was also helpful. Speaking up when you’re feeling vulnerable is always helpful and can really get you through some bad moments if you know whom to talk to and can get in touch with him/her.

So where does art therapy fit in? To battle an eating disorder like bulimia or binge eating or anorexia and other related issues, one needs to learn more than ways to avoid unhealthy behavior. Besides becoming armed with ways to identify triggers for unhealthy behaviors and learning to identify one’s feelings rather than using food to literally stuff one’s feelings or cut off from them, you have to learn ways to notice when you feel a self-destructive impulse coming in, what was going on in you and what can you substitute the unhealthy behavior with, ie. learning about self-soothing. Any disorder or issue involving dissociating, getting out of one’s body, etc. can be very much helped by activities that bring you back into your body. A major part of the art therapy process in working with trauma of any kind involves using art making to learn or relearn self soothing.

Art making in the presence of a therapist or in a group with an art therapist can be healing in many different ways. There are many different forms of art making that are soothing to most people. Being given a blank piece of paper or a canvas has been shown to actually increase anxiety and trigger self-criticism in many people. So one must pick particular art making activities that are able to decrease anxiety levels and can even help a person get back in his/her body. Making a mandala with oil pastels or watercolors, which involves tracing a circle or filling in a circle that the therapist has already pre-made for the session is a very popular and tremendously healing activity. Not only are mandalas soothing, as a symbol for the self, the mandala can give one information about one’s feelings about oneself. How you treat the boundary of the circle is of course important. I have found that having people do the mandala with their non-dominant hand can release a lot of worry about how it will look and decrease perfectionistic tendencies. For some, the lack of control of the non-dominant hand becomes too frustrating to be therapeutic, but this seems to be in a minority of cases. Making the mandala on black or colored paper is also a useful way to reduce anxiety and increase excitement about the task, just by being stimulated by the color of the paper or soothed by its darkness. Mandalas are very useful for identifying one’s body energy in the here and now. For example, I have done workshops involving doing a quick mandala at the beginning of the session, followed by some form of meditation exercise, and then a much longer time to make and complete a second mandala. People are always pleasantly surprised to see that their energy at the beginning (often more chaotic or too controlled or else a minimal effort to complete the picture without much satisfaction), has completely changed from the meditation and the art making at the end of the session. The two mandalas can be compared and give a person an actual blueprint or “emotional x ray” of what was going on in their bodies at the beginning of the session, and how changed their energy feels by the end of the session, usually descriptions include “more grounded”, or that the picture feels “more whole”. At some points in treatment or recovery or self-care, it can be useful to do daily or weekly mandalas and then write a few words about one’s feelings and thoughts. put it away and look at your mandalas later as a group to see what changes may have occurred.

Other soothing art making activities involve collage, beading, and decorating boxes as well as making dolls or decorating and covering/painting pre-made dolls. For some people painting is incredibly soothing. The metaphors of art therapy in direct relationship to food are interesting in themselves. The materials and the media are a different form of food which can literally be used for symbolic filling up. If the art therapy session is highly structured with some form of directive and structured around time to make art and time to process, this structure can help a person feel more regulated and grounded. Most impulsive unhealthy behaviors are performed when one is not grounded in one’s body and in some kind of anxious or compulsive state or fughe state. Meals in themselves are what structures the day for many people, and when there is no structure to when one eats, one can get easily caught up in feeling out of control. There are many art directives that are helpful for all sorts of aspects of recovery and regaining a healthy lifestyle as well as a healthy relationship with one’s body. Identifying and making pictures of different forms of hunger: emotional hunger, mental hunger, physical hunger and even spiritual hunger. Just describing and identifying these states is helpful. However as in most cases with art therapy, having an image to play with, observe and help organize oneself is highly useful. It is a great tool for measuring progress in therapy; to have something tangible like a body of work over time — what better way to actually see self transformation/

Of course there are all kinds of directives and activities (the art therapy “menu”) specifically geared around confronting and dealing with eating issues. I have named only a few above. Positive self image collages are another great art activity that is fun, non-threatening and promotes thinking good thoughts about oneself. Making affirmation boxes, a great transitional object for you to bring home and add to on your own. For some people that I have worked with, doing a body tracing by lying on the paper and having the therapist trace around your body and then filling it in in any way with whatever materials there are at hand is very useful in working on these difficult body image issues. Again, this is even better if you are in long term therapy and do one every couple of months or so to be able to compare the different images and notice what has changed for you. This is one of those activities that is best done when you have come to trust your art therapist and are ready to grapple with difficult feelings, even trauma memories, that can surface while filling in the body tracing. This is a prime example of why our training in working with trauma is so important. It is also a great activity to do with pregnant women in a group or individual session.

Besides the structure and the helpfulness of particular directives, non-directive forms of art therapy also work well. I have had patients with eating disorders who enjoyed having choices of what to do and figuring out on their own what they liked, being able to explore my art studio and feed themselves. What can replace walking into a deli or grocery store hell bent on buying certain foods to fill an empty hole inside that one is barely aware of?  Walking into the art studio/office and taking in the visual stimulation. The atmosphere may be overwhelming at first, but the excitement of just picking out a material and playing with it is hard to describe in words and hard to pinpoint in terms of feelings. I get the same feeling in art supply stores, but there is a big difference between an art supply store and an inviting healing creative space. (I knew I was on the right track with my studio when  a father who had no interest in art making suddenly picked up a piece of cardboard and started painting! freely with all sorts of colors; his kids who had been focused on their own projects of course rushed over and asked for cardboard so they could imitate him!) As an art therapist, I can say that there is nothing like the satisfaction of having a patient who has been talking to you for months suddenly out of the blue pick out some art materials with no encouragement, suggestions, or pushing from me. It is delightful to witness!

Certainly the art materials and art making can just function as a good distraction from obsessive thinking about food and body. Havi ng an hour of respite from one’s own intrusive thinking is not only worth while but provides hope that this experience can be repeated, both in the studio and at home. So there is a lot to be said for allowing for discovery and choice of media, especially with people who are very aware of how “in control” they feel from moment to moment. In some cases, consuming the therapist’s materials can replace bingeing. There is a delicate balance between feeding oneself emotionally and spiritually in a session and working on mindfulness, versus mindless consuming and using of art materials that can be perseverative and imitate unhealthy behaviors outside of the studio. I try to stay mindful that any substance or activity has healing properties when used in a mindful prescribed manner versus when the material, activity or person is abused or addictively consumed to fill an empty hole. As therapists, we can sense sometimes during, sometimes after a session, whether the session has been a healing one or a “filler”; it is not so bad to have some sessions be fillers once in a while anyway.

This is only a mere blog post, not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the merits of art therapy for  people with eating disorders and related challenges. Please feel free to share your experiences as a therapist or patient…

As a side comment, I was thinking tonight about the challenges of being a therapist and eating healthy meals. A lot of us work through the dinner hour and come home exhausted and starved with no energy to cook a proper meal. It can become a major family issue; how to have meals with partner and/or child/children all together and at regular meal times. I try to have extremely moderate goals, such as, let’s try to have a family meal at least once a week, not too great I admit, but I get home late several evenings a week and then there are other schedules besides my own to accommodate. This is going into a new related topic, probably good for next week’s post…

Post from 11/23 about Family and Holidays

With Thanksgiving coming tomorrow and the 2011 holiday season beginning, many people are confronted with dealing with their family issues, past traumas, and other related struggles. This post will address some of the challenges that arise for some adults especially during this season… This post could have also been entitled: Is it OK to take a break from your “family or origin” or even choose to cut off all forms of contact with specific family members or limit forms of contact with them?

There are many adults living in the New York area who are faced with a more complicated family situation, the question being, “Do I accept my family’s invitation to go home for the holidays?” Many people only see there families around holiday time. For some, this is their favorite time of year. A lot of people love cooking their favorite dishes, going to their parents’ o difficult r other relatives’ homes to visit, seeing family members they don’t see often, etc. For some, holidays bring up positive memories. however, unfortunately for many other people that we therapists work with or know personally, this time of year is extremely stressful, and can trigger unpleasant, even traumatic memories.

For many people, this time of year brings on the onset of seasonal depression or what I would term “holiday depression”. For some people who are in the hospital due to mental or other medical illnesses, the depression is around missing the holidays with their families. Then there are the folks whose families live far away. For some of the latter group, the question arises: do I go home for the holidays or skip it this year and find an alternate way to celebrate in New York, perhaps with other friends who have made the same choice, or even ignore the holidays altogether? Sometimes, people need to be able to pose this question to themselves and contemplate their options without feeling guilty or like a bad son or daughter. It can be liberating to simply pose the question and realize that you have choices and that going home to see your parents/relatives is indeed a choice and not a mandate…

For some, for many reasons, their relationships with one and/or both parents or parental figures, is a complex, difficult, emotionally challenging and conflictual one. In this post I will be addressing and discussing the challenges this group of young adults and adults face. Whether you are 20 or 40 or in your fifties, you may be facing this challenge. There may arise a question such as, “Do I want/need to deal with x person(s),with whom I still harbor a lot of anger and pain, right now?” Other relevant more extreme types of questions may include, “Do I have to even remain in contact with this person? Can I limit contact with him/her? Can I cut off contact altogether with this person for an unspecified amount of time?”

First of all, feelings of guilt and shame need to be put aside for the questions to arise and be addressed. You may need a kind of permission from a therapist or friend to even allow yourself to ask these emotionally laden questions, and then ultimately, you will need to give yourself permission to pose these questions to yourself. Journalling about the feelings that come up can be helpful. For those who may simply want to take a time out from their family member(s), it is important to know that this is a choice for you and an option to consider. Check in with yourself as to what comes up for you when you imagine going home for the holidays. If you are noticing feelings of dread, anger, sadness, guilt, wanting to avoid thinking about it, it may be a good idea to try out visualize yourself choosing alternate ways to spend the holidays, such as going to visit someone with whom you have a good relationship, visiting a partners’ or friends’ family, or even just staying here… It is almost another complex topic to discuss the questions around limiting or cutting off contact from family members, especially parental figures, however, I have noticed that the holiday time affords the opportunity to face and deeply with this very complex emotional issue.

Since this post has become longer than expected, I have decided to address this question in the next post. Please feel free to comment on these topics, either personally or if you are a therapist, from you personal or professional experiences…

Most Recent Post about Black Friday from last week

It is Black Friday in more ways than one. If you tend to get depressed during this season and it hasn’t hit you yet, this is usually a day when it hits after you wake up from the Thanksgiving food coma to all the holiday decorations and frenzied gift shopping going on. There’s no avoiding the holiday marketing blitz. Anyway this post is for all the people out there who suffer from seasonal depression or holiday depression. If you’re wondering why you’re feeling so blue, here it is, the holidays and family issues; past traumas for many traumatized people often involve something about their family of origin and the holidays. The weather in NYC has definitely been weird and unseasonal which helps some people and all the weather changes can make others more depressed. One minute it’s light out, then it’s barely 5 pm and dark night.

Anyway, for those of you who are therapists, you’re probably noticing that your patients at your job or in your practice are often more depressed than usual. Some people really forget what’s going on and are bewildered at the sudden onset of a deep heavy blackness, a sense of sadness or inability to be interested in much, or just feeling sleepy all the time. It definitely helps to remind people that this time of year is a real challenge for many people. For many, just knowing why they are feeling this way helps a lot, at least in terms of giving themselves a break and not heeding any blaming voices they are hearing in their head, such as “Get over this now. You have no reason to be so down in the dumps…” It’s a time to be nicer and more forgiving to yourself if you are feeling depressed in any way. It’s OK to spend more time on the couch watching whatever DVDs, movies, TV shows etc. to get out of your mindset. Wasting time is OK. Sleeping more is OK too.

Some people who really know they suffer from seasonal mood swings actually choose to take medications during this time and find it helps a lot. Many anti-depressants can really work well if you take them for a few months just to give yourself a boost at the onset of holidays and winter. For others, medication is not an option for whatever reason. If so, try other kinds of anti-depressants like light to moderate exercise, which is shown to help the depressed brain. Or restorative yoga and meditation. Some people just can’t get themselves motivated to do these things either. All the heavy foods at holiday parties does not help either for those sensitive to foods effect on mood.

I mentioned in another post that this is a time of year for family, good and bad. For those who have a lot of trauma from family issues in the past or present, and who notice they feel worse after being with or talking to family members, taking a break from them is a good idea. You can limit or cut off contact without having an exact plan of how long to do it. In extreme cases, some people need to give themselves permission or get permission from their therapist or friends, to do this. Some people can be triggered by even a short text or email or something on Facebook. If you know this is a trigger for you, you can find out how to block email addresses and phone numbers. If you can’t block a phone number and don’t want to change your phone number, it can be helpful to put down as the contact, “Do not answer” or other such labels that show you right away who is calling but serve as a gentle reminder that you can choose to ignore the call. Somehow seeing a word or sentence instead of a name can really help you to stop yourself from getting into a conversation you know will most likely end in tears or shouting or feeling completely cut off, depressed, angry or any other types of feelings that you don’t need to put yourself through right now when you have enough stress just getting through the day…

There’s a lot more to be said about this topic; anyway I hope this post helps people with holiday depression or seasonal depression to take better care of themselves, be less hard on themselves and work on more soothing self talk, which is a whole topic in itself. Try to notice when the negative voices rush into your head and put a big red stop sign to them…

What about you? How are you? How are your patients doing???

Post from 11/23 about Family and Holidays

With Thanksgiving coming tomorrow and the 2011 holiday season beginning, many people are confronted with dealing with their family issues, past traumas, and other related struggles. This post will address some of the challenges that arise for some adults especially during this season… This post could have also been entitled: Is it OK to take a break from your “family or origin” or even choose to cut off all forms of contact with specific family members or limit forms of contact with them?

There are many adults living in the New York area who are faced with a more complicated family situation, the question being, “Do I accept my family’s invitation to go home for the holidays?” Many people only see there families around holiday time. For some, this is their favorite time of year. A lot of people love cooking their favorite dishes, going to their parents’ o difficult r other relatives’ homes to visit, seeing family members they don’t see often, etc. For some, holidays bring up positive memories. however, unfortunately for many other people that we therapists work with or know personally, this time of year is extremely stressful, and can trigger unpleasant, even traumatic memories.

For many people, this time of year brings on the onset of seasonal depression or what I would term “holiday depression”. For some people who are in the hospital due to mental or other medical illnesses, the depression is around missing the holidays with their families. Then there are the folks whose families live far away. For some of the latter group, the question arises: do I go home for the holidays or skip it this year and find an alternate way to celebrate in New York, perhaps with other friends who have made the same choice, or even ignore the holidays altogether? Sometimes, people need to be able to pose this question to themselves and contemplate their options without feeling guilty or like a bad son or daughter. It can be liberating to simply pose the question and realize that you have choices and that going home to see your parents/relatives is indeed a choice and not a mandate…

For some, for many reasons, their relationships with one and/or both parents or parental figures, is a complex, difficult, emotionally challenging and conflictual one. In this post I will be addressing and discussing the challenges this group of young adults and adults face. Whether you are 20 or 40 or in your fifties, you may be facing this challenge. There may arise a question such as, “Do I want/need to deal with x person(s),with whom I still harbor a lot of anger and pain, right now?” Other relevant more extreme types of questions may include, “Do I have to even remain in contact with this person? Can I limit contact with him/her? Can I cut off contact altogether with this person for an unspecified amount of time?” First of all, feelings of guilt and shame need to be put aside for the questions to arise and be addressed. You may need a kind of permission from a therapist or friend to even allow yourself to ask these emotionally laden questions, and then ultimately, you will need to give yourself permission to pose these questions to yourself. Journalling about the feelings that come up can be helpful. For those who may simply want to take a time out from their family member(s), it is important to know that this is a choice for you and an option to consider. Check in with yourself as to what comes up for you when you imagine going home for the holidays. If you are noticing feelings of dread, anger, sadness, guilt, wanting to avoid thinking about it, it may be a good idea to try out visualize yourself choosing alternate ways to spend the holidays, such as going to visit someone with whom you have a good relationship, visiting a partners’ or friends’ family, or even just staying here…

It is almost another complex topic to discuss the questions around limiting or cutting off contact from family members, especially parental figures, however, I have noticed that the holiday time affords the opportunity to face and deeply with this very complex emotional issue. Since this post has become longer than expected, I have decided to address this question in the next post. Please feel free to comment on these topics, either personally or if you are a therapist, from you personal or professional experiences…