midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “caring”

Midlife and Crisis: An Uneasy Relationship

This essay is the introduction to my new book, All That’s Gone and Still Remains: Reflections of a Man at Midlife, based on the Midlife Dude blog.

Midlife gets a bad rap. What else can be concluded when “midlife” is practically married to “crisis?” Two peas in a pod they are, “midlife” and “crisis.” But are they really well matched?

Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, concluding in a study that creative geniuses underwent changes of style or declines in productivity in their mid-to-late-30s. The term gained traction in popular culture by the 1970s, describing the time of life roughly between ages 40 and 65 when adults become attuned to their own mortality, concerned with leaving a mark before dying, and reflective about whether their first half of life has been meaningful.MidlifeCrisisGuyWithCar

But the term has snowballed from its origins documenting the imaginative processes of artists and poets in an obscure, dry journal of psychoanalysis to represent everything cataclysmic that seemingly afflicts the middle-aged trying desperately to ignore failed dreams and roll back the merciless tide of aging in a culture fixated on youth. Author Gail Sheehy cemented the gloomy view of midlife in her landmark 1976 bestselling book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, referring to decades of life as the “Forlorn Forties” and “Resigned Fifties.”

Time to Ditch Wife for Bombshell?

“Midlife crisis” is more typically applied to males, at least when couched in a derogatory manner signifying an unofficial malady. “Midlife crisis” has come to denote the man who ditches his long-devoted, slightly wrinkling and graying wife for the platinum blonde bombshell 20 years his junior in his office; trades in his practical suburban family vehicle for the candy-apple red Porsche roadster; and transforms from dull and predictable to flamboyant and impulsive, fueled by a surge of drugging and boozing in a pathetic effort to recapture the carefree, raucous days of yore.

For women, the term “midlife crisis” generally carries an undertone that is more forgiving and socially validating, one tilted more toward liberation than debauchery. Sure, some midlife women succumb to vain attempts to recapture youth through medical and cosmetic procedures, or irresponsibly abandon a family to engage in self-indulgent, feel-good, self-destructive behaviors. The 40s decade certainly seems a marker of heightened vulnerability and confusion, as the beauty of youth wanes, marriages grow stale and risk of divorce increase, and children become more independent and leave, diminishing what many women regard as a primary raison d’etre.

Yet, midlife is characterized more as a time of renewal, rebirth and exploration for women. It is seen as an opportunity to shed an old self that may have been contorted to meet societal, cultural and parental expectations and transform into a more authentic, independent, self-accepting, self-confident being, and to reclaim aspects of personality and passions lost along the way. Midlife is viewed as a period of re-evaluation and adjustment, of increased wisdom, strengths, experience and vitality, when old dreams that no longer inspire are abandoned and more genuine desires and talents take hold, a process known as self-actualization, or becoming more fully oneself. Rather than a “crisis” producing angst, depression and dissatisfaction, psychotherapist and author Stephanie Marston declared that  the women she chronicled in her book, If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife, characterized midlife as “one of the best times of their lives.”

What’s the Crisis?

Social science researchers have varied widely on whether any identifiable phenomenon that could be labeled as “midlife crisis” exists; numerous studies have shown midlife is not characterized by pervasive crises. Certainly, there are no commonly defined symptoms and nothing resembling a midlife disorder appears in the Bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Count renowned psychologist Daniel Levinson, author of the 1978 seminal book, Seasons of a Man’s Life, among the true believers. Following a group of working men for 10 years, Levinson developed a theory that delineated adulthood as a series of stages and transitions, each with a developmental task or crisis to resolve to advance to the next with a sense of well-being. Unlike some other researchers who rejected the concept of a “midlife crisis,” Levinson determined that 80 percent of the men he interviewed found the midlife transition a tumultuous struggle and psychologically painful. He bluntly described the existential predicament men face at midlife in Seasons: “Adults hope that life begins at 40 – but the great anxiety is that it ends there…It is terrifying to go through middle age in the shadow of death…and it is a self-defeating illusion to live it in the shadow of youth…”

I believe the stereotypical male version of a “midlife crisis” is overblown, hyperbole, a caricature. In reality, I contend a man’s “midlife crisis” more closely resembles the woman’s experience of re-evaluation, greater self-knowledge and wisdom – at least among those adults who aren’t withering in place – than the stereotypical jerk wearing shiny new bling glinting through an open shirt, cruising in an eye-popping Corvette convertible, ditzy blonde under his arm, toupee blowing in the wind.

Midlife Challenges

Midlife requires leaps of faith, acceptance and tolerance of uncertainty. We encounter the realization that our careers may have hit a ceiling, and re-evaluate whether the work at which we might have labored for decades provides meaning or nourishes our soul anymore, or ever did. We pause to question whether the race for success, advancement and achievement, as defined in young adulthood, is worth chasing anymore. If we haven’t already experienced job loss through no fault of our own, we are prime targets for downsizing and early retirement packages because of our age and salaries. We have to run ever faster to avoid becoming obsolete in the face of rapid societal and technological changes, the province of the young.

We grapple with the financial pressures of mortgages, college tuitions, accumulated debt, material acquisitions, increasing health care costs and looming retirement. We question whether our marriages are satisfying or have gone flat, whether the grass may be greener. We groom our children and ultimately set them free – except those suffering from Failure to Launch Syndrome — experiencing some sense of loss entering the childless phase. We may be sandwiched, caring for ailing parents while parenting our own kids. Mounting midlife challenges can be associated with high levels of stress, anxiety and sadness, which can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, deterioration of physical and mental health and acceleration of aging.

Through it all, we face choices, the biggest of which is whether we will transition at this crossroad toward reimagining and reinvigorating a life with new possibilities, purpose and contributions through continued growth and development, or whether we will hunker down, circle the wagons, kick like a mule, pull the covers tight, switch on autopilot and hang on mightily to the status quo, resigned to becoming a member of the walking dead until the nursing home comes calling.

Giving Back vs. Giving Up

Psychologist Erik Erickson captured this dichotomous phase of life in his preeminent Stages of Psychosocial Development theory, identifying midlife as the period of Generativity vs. Stagnation. Adults entering their second half of life would either help guide the next generation through socially valuable work, creativity, productivity and loving relationships, or would stagnate in a pool of self-centeredness and ineffectiveness. Those who do not associate change with growth but rather with loss, being passed by or failing are destined to weigh on Erickson’s Stagnation side of the scale.

I have dealt with many of midlife’s rites of passage. I have lost jobs multiple times; changed careers, requiring a return to school and sacrificing years of experience and money to start over in an occupation that stirred my soul; moved to experience a new environment and culture; divorced and remarried; faced the challenges of parenting teen-aged kids and watched them leave home for independent lives; cared for an ailing mother, and lost her; observed a colleague succumb to the ravages of alcohol and depression; experienced a major health setback and long rehabilitation; and strived for self-fulfilling goals involving creative expression. I believe I’m heading down Erickson’s path of Generativity; if I wasn’t, I imagine my life would be crushingly bland and I would be miserable.

These essays, compiled upon my entry into and over the course of a clinical mental health counseling graduate program from my late 40s to mid-50s, provide commentary from a personal perspective on these and other midlife issues, and seek to relate my experiences broadly to others going through similar midlife transitional phases and events. These writings reflect the opportunities and challenges, risks and rewards, hopes and fears, and triumphs and setbacks I’ve experienced and observed in midlife.

In tone, the essays are inspirational, triumphant, motivational, hopeful, wistful, prideful, contemplative,  inquisitive, wondrous, melancholic, depressing, upsetting, mournful, resigned, disappointed, critical, self-questioning – in short, the kaleidoscope that the midlife passage presents to our minds, hearts and souls.

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The Fog of Mental Illness: I Know There’s Another Person in There Somewhere

Of all the midlife tasks I’ve encountered, caring for my ailing mother was hands down the most difficult.

That includes two job layoffs; getting fired from another job after seven years because of a personal conflict with a boss; a dispiriting divorce; a career change necessitating a six-year slog through graduate school; and a devastating injury requiring more than a year of rehabilitation.

I use the term “caring” loosely. I’m not the greatest caregiver – at least that’s what my first wife concluded.

I was the typical “sandwich” during midlife, raising kids while becoming a surrogate parent to my parent.

My mother tested my love, patience, tolerance and temper, down to my last nerve. And I have to acknowledge, when my mother was in her greatest times of need and was in her most depressed, ornery and bedeviling states, it was not me who truly was her prime caregiver and manager, it was my patient-as-a-saint second wife. I just tried – sometimes unsuccessfully – to follow her lead with an open heart and mind.

Now that my mother has died, I feel a little more freedom to tell a deeply personal family story, significantly abbreviated. I recognize most people wouldn’t air their family’s laundry, would keep it tight in the family, in the shadows. As a counselor, it’s part of my job to bring mental illness out of the shadows, to reduce the stigma. My mother had mental illness.

My mother’s depression occurred during various stages of her life, manifesting later in her life as bipolar disorder, meaning she cycled between depression and manic, or hyper, behaviors. The combination of mental illness and accumulating physical ailments, including intractable rheumatoid arthritis, fueled each other, contributing to an unremitting downward spiral in my mother’s final years and resulting in her sudden death from an undetermined cause at age 73.

Depression first hit my mother full force in her 30s, coinciding with her divorce. From my ages of 11 to 15, my mother suffered from several bouts of severe depression requiring a couple of months-long hospitalizations. When she was home as a single mother during that period, often she was barely functional, leaving my younger brother and me to largely fend for ourselves. There were times I was convinced she would die as a young woman, as her lack of appetite and insomnia caused her to wither away physically and treatment did not seem to work.

She eventually recovered later in my teen years, entered the workforce and went on to live a reasonably productive and stable life. She was a beautiful – but complicated (aren’t we all?) — person. She was a good friend to others, my number one supporter, and cared for me deeply. She wore her passions on her sleeve, such as politics. If not for her, I likely never would have run for political office, of course as a Democrat, the only party for her.

But she also carried demons from childhood that inhibited her life, and were amplified when her mental state was out of balance. Her parents were critical of her; she was never good enough, a “bad girl.” Her self-esteem suffered, compounded by her feelings of shame because of her family and home’s relatively impoverished condition. Her parents also were overly worried and fearful – neurotic, my mother would say – and as a result, over-protective. My mother responded in a positive way – by rebelling, asserting her independence, being stubborn, acting willfully, behaving in sneaky ways, including probably fibbing, to avoid her parents’ disapproval, and satisfy herself.

While those traits likely served her well during a challenging childhood, I believe they may have made her harder to deal with in later adulthood when mental illness flared, though dealing with anyone with bipolar disorder can be a nightmare regardless of personality characteristics. My mother had long periods of stability, stretching many years. But when in the grips of a bipolar episode, the illness was ferocious, grabbing hold of her like a rag doll and dragging her around at its whim. She was a wild card – we never knew what we would get from day to day.

During one manic episode, we had to literally restrain our mother from chasing police cars down streets in Washington, DC, so convinced she was that they were heading to Capitol Hill to intervene in a terrorist attack and she wanted to be part of the action. Without intervention, we were sure she would end up injured, abused, jailed or dead.

What many people don’t understand about dealing with people with significant mental illness is how difficult it is to get the sufferer help. Hospitalization is strictly voluntary, except in cases where it is evident the person is a risk of harm to herself or others, a standard that is quite difficult to prove to law enforcement.

During my mother’s two serious manic episodes in later adulthood, when her behavior was wildly erratic and mood swings drastic – essentially, like dealing with a person possessed by another being — we struggled mightily to get her to voluntarily commit to hospitalization so she could be stabilized. She resisted stubbornly for weeks on end, at times perversely turning those who loved her and were trying to help her into her enemies, behaving belligerently toward us and targeting us for biting comments, as if mental illness obliterated her filter and her subconscious assumed dominance.

She nearly torpedoed the sale of her house, a project on which her family had worked for months to get her into a better situation, where she would be safer physically, less isolated socially, and perhaps even receive care on site. She made the Realtor a target of her ire, as she did numerous medical and therapeutic professionals, out of frustration and distrust, believing they had consistently failed her or attempted to deceive her.

It was incidents and behaviors like these and more that caused my fuse to burn short and my temper to erupt more frequently than I like to admit. Even though I knew it was mental illness acting and talking, not my real mom, my frustration and despair at my seeming inability to influence a change or make a difference sometimes overwhelmed me and made me feel despondent and helpless. Counterproductively, I often relieved my anger by taking it out on my mother, feeling terrible afterward.

At the time she died – alone in her new apartment, with no one aware – she had come out of a manic phase and was stabilizing mentally and emotionally. As much as she fought in later adulthood against receiving professional help and being hospitalized – surely the result of wretched hospitalization experiences in her 30s – I believe she realized deep down that she needed help, that she couldn’t conquer the illness through sheer strength of will, that the people who cared about her had her best interests at heart. Because each time, after dragged out, emotionally exhausting battles, she did submit to voluntary hospitalization, and got better.

Unfortunately, her last go-round with the disorder must have taken a huge toll. She never got the chance to fully recover and get back to a normal life. We’ll never know what impact her mental illness had on her ultimate physical demise.

Unfortunately for me, my memories of my mother are clouded by that final intense, dramatic chapter, by the veil of mental illness shrouding the real person, when, try as I might have to be forgiving, accepting, patient and understanding, I was not always on my best behavior and didn’t always hold my tongue, just like my mother. And, perhaps worst of all, I never had the chance to apologize, forgive or say goodbye.

Listening

A follow up to my post on Facing the Music (from May 17, 2017, re-posted below), describing my invitation to have an authentic conversation with my young adult daughter Rebecca to hear her perspective on growing up in a family of divorce and the mistakes or oversights I may have made during those crucial years of development:

Time was running short, but I didn’t want to be a typical “all talk, no do” phony dad. I made my overture for an honest conversation just before I went to the beach for three months to teach tennis. Now I had less than two weeks back home until Rebecca traveled to France for a school year to teach English, and she was busy preparing and doing things with friends and family.

There seems never a good time to have difficult, uncomfortable and potentially distressing conversations. They’re easily avoided, and that’s what many people do, DiscussionTimeburying the hurt, anger, disappointment, sadness or other negative emotions until one day they boil over and surface in a torrent, providing release for the emotional-baggage carrier and a knockdown punch for the recipient of the pent-up emotions, unaware of the depth and intensity of feelings. I’ve been on both the unleashing and receiving ends of the bubbling emotional volcanos, and it’s never pretty.

A few days before Rebecca jetted off, we found ourselves together at home, and I broached the topic. Understandably, Rebecca was ambivalent about getting into an emotional conversation about past wounds and frustrations before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. But she started talking, and I listened and asked questions.

I can’t reveal the content of what we discussed about our relationship and family life, and the complications and challenges Rebecca faced as a child, along with her younger brother, whose parents separated 12 years ago when she was 9 and ultimately divorced. It’s too private.

But I can say that at certain times I could have handled things better, that I was caught up in myself, that I made some mistakes, and that I was sometimes unaware of – or didn’t want to acknowledge – how much the kids observed, heard, knew or perceived, even at relatively young ages. Listening to Rebecca’s perspective and looking back, I can say how challenging it was for me to balance the needs, feelings, happiness, stability and security of my kids with my own needs, desires and emotions, and to try to lean toward selfless rather than selfish.

Divorce and eventual remarriage created some circumstances that ultimately were going to cause some distress for Rebecca individually and in our relationship, no matter what I did or said. The complexities of a marriage breakup and the constantly evolving aftermath can’t be fully grasped by a child, whose experience can be like that of a pinball ricocheting within a constrained environment. I experienced the pinball game as a child, and certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on with my divorced parents, and now so has Rebecca.

The beauty of our conversation was that Rebecca was able to tell me some things about what transpired from her perspective, what she experienced and how she felt honestly, and I was able to listen while squelching the default tendency to be defensive or critical.

We got through it with our relationship intact and expressions of love for each other. I’m hoping our conversation helps set a foundation for our future adult relationship, one in which we can be open and honest with each other without fear that we will be jeopardizing our relationship by revealing our feelings and with knowledge that we love each other unconditionally regardless of any conflicts, hurt feelings or differences that can be addressed and resolved.

So many relationships between fathers and adult children barely break the surface because of the dread of churning what lies beneath and what digging will uncover, or because of an inability, unwillingness or lack of desire to go deeper. Stoicism and emotional avoidance are drilled into males. I don’t want that type of relationship with my kids as they grow into adulthood. I want them to know and understand me, with all my attributes and faults, as I do them. I want us to be able to know and share our emotional selves. The only way to do that is to be emotionally available and vulnerable to them, and to show that I care about and want to know how they feel, and can handle it when they lay it on me.

One takeaway from our conversation is that whatever mistakes I made as Rebecca was growing up, I believe that she accepts my apologies, forgives my transgressions, acknowledges that I have tried to be a good and caring father and doesn’t expect me to be perfect. Our conversation was a good start toward setting the standard and expectation of our relationship for the future. I’m glad we each took the risk of having it instead of avoiding it.

Facing the Music (Midlife Dude Blog Post from May 17, 2017)

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and presence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive:  I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications.  It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids. 

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

Facing the Music

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and adam-reb_foyeweddingpresence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive: I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications. It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids.

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

Overcoming Perils of Divorce

I’m a child of divorce who has wound up raising two children of divorce of my own.

Children of divorce face many more challenges in their development as kids and in adjustments to adult life and adult relationships than children from intact families, as found in Judith Wallerstein’s landmark 25-year study, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.familyatthanksgiving2016

But so far, at least from what I can observe on the surface and by traditional markers of success, my kids Rebecca and Daniel are showing strong signs of overcoming the perils of divorce.

[Disclaimer: Father’s unabashed bragging on kids to follow.] Rebecca, 21, is set to graduate from the University of Maryland in May, with a 3.7 GPA and multiple honor roll appearances. She’s run marathons. She’s ventured into the world, spending a semester in France and traveling extensively throughout Europe. She has loads of friends, and has formed and maintained an intimate relationship, dating a solid young man for four years. She has an internship with the French Embassy and is planning to teach English in France after graduation.

Daniel, 18, earned straight As in his first semester at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), taking advanced courses in computer science, biology and math that would have pummeled me as a freshman. He earned multiple Advanced Placement (AP) college credits while in high school, setting him up to graduate college within three years. He has maintained and thrived in a job while attending college and just celebrated six months in a relationship with a lovely girlfriend.

Psychological, social or emotional problems connected to growing up in a divorced family could surface as they advance into young adulthood, progress deeper into their own relationships and reflect more on their childhood experiences. But to this point, I’m thrilled and grateful for their demonstrated resilience and ability to adapt, thrive and make good decisions.

I will also take some credit for their positive adjustments, and give a good deal to their mother Theresa (not the Mother Theresa), for making a commitment to positive, caring and mutually respectful and cooperative parenting, despite the challenges we each faced due to the dissolution of our marriage. Both step-parents, Amy and Bernard, also deserve credit for being consistent, stable and positive influences, in roles often fraught with conflict that can become destructive and divisive.

For half or more of their childhoods, the kids split their time – week on and week off – with each parent. There was unavoidable upheaval – my ex-wife and I each moved twice and sold the kids’ primary childhood home. But we never lived more than 10 minutes apart (until last year when Theresa moved to Texas), and the kids were able to continue attending school in their same district without disruption.

As parents, we cooperated in financial matters, and though we were weaker financially as separate entities, the kids weren’t deprived of things they wanted to do and didn’t suffer materially. We were each committed to continue saving for the kids’ college educations despite the split, and now that is paying off big-time.

I’m sure I said things I shouldn’t have and made mistakes, especially early in the breakup. Challenges arose throughout our co-parenting in relation to family gatherings, which became emotional and tense. We weathered them, though it may have left a mark on the kids. Overall, however, I strived to be respectful and positive about Theresa, and not pollute the kids’ minds or attempt to influence them negatively or turn them against their mother with whatever hard feelings I might have had. And for good reason, because I knew Theresa was a good mother, and the kids knew the same, and anything I did to tear her down would reflect badly upon me and prompt the kids to resent me. To my knowledge, Theresa behaved the same toward me, and I’m grateful for that.

I believe these efforts, which had to be conscious, thoughtful, consistent and enduring, have helped ameliorate the effects of divorce for Rebecca and Daniel. And those potential effects, according to Wallerstein’s 25-year study, are considerable and lasting:

  • A harder, unhappier and diminished childhood, including adjustments in contact with each parent, relocations, losses of friendships and activities, decreased influence of parenting, higher anxiety, and worry about one or both parents
  • More acting out and less protection during adolescence, a result largely of inconsistent and unenforced rules and standards, and assuming greater responsibilities for themselves
  • Higher chances of sexual promiscuity among female adolescents
  • A belief that personal relationships are unreliable, and even the closest family relationships can’t be expected to last
  • Observations of second parental marriages that typically proved less stable and enduring than the first
  • Feelings of loneliness, bewilderment and anger at parents
  • Scarring memories of witnessing violence during the breakup and aftermath, and repercussions of abandonment
  • Less planning for and lower chances of college enrollment, and inadequate financial support from parents once enrolled
  • Diminished capacity to love and to be loved within a lasting, committed relationship in adulthood, a fear of failure and feelings of pessimism based on their childhood experiences, and a desire to avoid the emotional pain

Though impacts are inevitable, I am hopeful that my kids will avoid or minimize these impacts through their own strengths and abilities to deal with their childhood divorce experience in healthy ways, and through the knowledge that their parents – all four of us now – care about them greatly and always will be there to support them. So far, it looks like that’s the track they are traveling, and I am confident that they have the tools and fortitude to stay that course. Hopefully, they will break the familial pattern both my ex-wife and I experienced as kids, and bestowed on our own.

Thoughts on Struggle, Resilience, Gratitude and Grace

Counseling has given me a new perspective on struggle, resilience, gratitude and grace, at this time of year when we may slow down enough to think about these phenomegracena.

I’m working as a therapist intern at a mental health agency in Baltimore that serves low-income clients. Many have substance abuse problems. Some have been drug dealers. Some have spent time in prison. Many have been victims of crime or domestic abuse; some have perpetrated violent crimes.

Some have been homeless or evicted with no place to go, and some are on the verge of homelessness. Some are shunned by their families. Some were criminally abused or neglected as children.

All are struggling mightily, yet they have resilience. They want better. They want to overcome. They don’t quit. The question, however, is always: How motivated are they to change? When I think about resilience I’ve had to summon to face challenges, it doesn’t compare.

Many of our clients are on the margins of society, nearly invisible. Many have dropped out of the job market. Some want to return, but it’s a struggle to re-enter. Some have become isolated or reclusive, out of distrust or fear of failure, rejection or disappointment. They want independence, but it’s a struggle to get there; many have to lean on others for help. It’s easy to see: Once you fall into a hole, the climb to emerge can be arduous.

They are grateful for people who care about them, whether a therapist, a social worker or a friend or family member who stuck by them during difficult times when others didn’t. They are grateful for sobriety, kids and grandkids, and new chances.

Our clients inhabit a world and have lived through experiences with which I had no familiarity until my counseling internships. For the clients who have let me into their worlds and taught me about the enormous challenges they both inherited and created themselves, I am grateful. They have blessed me with a real-world education that books and classes can’t approximate. I hope I am providing a certain kind of education for them in return.

As for grace, Gerald G. May, M.D. described “living into grace” in Addiction & Grace:

“Living into the mystery of grace requires encountering grace as a real gift. Grace is not earned. It is not accomplished or achieved…It is just given.

“But living into grace does not depend upon simple receptivity alone. It also requires an active attempt to live life in accord with the facts of grace [which]…are simple: grace always exists, it is always available, it is always good, and it is always victorious…

“The risk, of course, is to my addictions; if I try to live in accord with grace, then I will be relinquishing the gods I have made of my attachments…I must make conscious efforts of will; I must struggle with myself if I am going to act in accord with those facts. Living into grace requires taking risks of faith.”

As we enter a new year, I hope and pray our clients are able to recognize grace working in their lives and find the strength to take the risks of faith to live into grace.

5 Basic and Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned about Parenting

As the younger of my two children closes in on his 18th birthday, I offer five basic parenting principles that I view as important in raising well-adjusted, self-sufficient, industrious and confident children.

I didn’t invent them, and by no means was I always exemplary in following these practices — I had to learn, and still am learning, from my own mistakes and bad habits — nor are Parentsmy 20-year-old daughter and high school graduate son perfect or devoid of flaws or insecurities. Neither are your classic All-Americans or stereotypical overachievers. But they are on good tracks in their lives, have done quite well for themselves, and, importantly for me, rarely caused me any worry, grief or stress that more troubled children can cause parents.

I also have realized these aspects of positive parenting in my counseling masters’ program and associated internship, where I saw the havoc wreaked by destructive or neglectful parenting.

  1. Express caring, love and pride often. Parental expression of the positive emotions toward their children can have a lifelong impact on their self-esteem, self-image, confidence, security, well-being and overall feelings about themselves. As long as these expressions of positive emotions are genuine and backed up by actions, I don’t think you can overdo it. On the flip side, parents who frequently express destructive emotions and feelings, such as anger and disappointment, or who excessively criticize children through mocking, condescension, belittlement or other abusive behaviors, cause their children great damage that they invariably will carry into adulthood and will have tremendous difficulty in undoing.
  2. Promote independence; let children make their own choices within reason and accept responsibility and consequences. A relatively new phenomenon in parenting is the “helicopter parent” – those parents who hover over their children and try to protect them from any wrong move or negative consequence and cushion or fix any disappointment, failure or mistake. Kids aren’t fragile; they’re resilient. But when you hover too much, they don’t use their resiliency muscles and they atrophy. As a result, it seems there’s a trend toward a large generation of young adults that has trouble breaking away from the safe cocoon of over-protective or over-indulgent parents. The sooner kids are given responsibility for their decisions, the more they will take ownership over their own lives and the less they will blame others or external forces for whatever doesn’t go their way.
  3. Show up…and be present. There is no better way to let kids know you care about them, and to help them feel attached, secure and loved, than to show up all the time, every day, unless circumstances absolutely prevent it. Show up to elementary school concerts, dance recitals, athletic events, birthdays, sleepovers (not to stay overnight, but when pickup is needed), and all other activities important to your kids. When you show up, provide encouragement and positive feedback, even if you find fault with their “performance” or “effort.” Separate the child from the action. In other words, don’t let a child feel unworthy because he didn’t perform well. You can offer constructive criticism or advice after the positive words, lending your wisdom and experience to aid learning, but not to tear down or damage confidence. And when you do show up, do your best to be truly “present,” not distracted or off in your own distant world. Kids will know when you’re paying attention.
  4. Model good behavior and caring, respectful relationships. Kids will model what they observe in the most important relationships in their life – those with their parents. Their behavior, manners, work ethic, diligence, emotional regulation and respect for others likely will pattern after their parents’. If they see their parents treating each other and other family members poorly or disrespectfully, they likely will display aspects of that behavior themselves within the family and with others.
  5. Live a disciplined life. As psychiatrist and well-known author Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, undisciplined parents breed undisciplined children who carry bad habits and behaviors learned in childhood into adulthood. These problems stemming from a lack of discipline that are hard-wired during childhood often are extremely challenging to break and can dog individuals for a lifetime, causing dysfunction that can damage individuals’ self-functioning and ruin relationships. Undisciplined, out-of-control parents usually live chaotic lives in unstructured environments that rarely produce disciplined children.

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