midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the tag “counseling”

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.

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The Bailout

In my short time as a counselor, I’ve encountered parents who profess virtual powerlessness in the face of the behavior and choices of their young adult and mature adult children, from their late teens to late 20s.

The child rules the roost, while the parents, frayed, demoralized and depressed, submit to the child’s willful and controlling ways. I feel for the parents and their conundrum. It must be a weighty burden to worry ceaselessly about your child, indulge the illusion BailoutStampthat one can control their child’s fate, bail out the child at every turn, and feel eternally responsible for the child’s life choices and outcomes.

At the core of this feeling of parental helplessness is confusion over protecting a child – from danger, failure, mistakes, homelessness or even projected death – versus enabling behavior that avoids individual responsibility and experiencing consequences. Intentions may be good; results are not. Such smothering and shielding behavior on the part of parents contributes to the arresting of the child’s growth and development. Twenty-five-year-olds essentially are frozen at 15, having learned how to game one or both parents to their advantage and escape accountability. The longer the pattern continues and the parent remains the bailer, the less motivation the child has to change.

Sometimes, one parent contends, their spouse is to blame for their own helplessness, because the spouse is over-protective and unable to let go. One parent claims to try endlessly to set their stunted child free, but the other parent overrules them, shuts them down and continues down the same corrosive path, as the spurned parent becomes relegated to anemic bystander, tilting at windmills. But this is just an excuse to forgive the method the child uses to manipulate the parents to get what they want, just like the child learned as a little kid. While the parents will blame the child – “He just refuses to get a job, what can you do?!” “I can’t believe how she talks to her mother! She has no respect!” – the parents are the ones who fail to unite themselves and stick to any set of boundaries, rules or principles that would render their child’s behavior ineffective and counterproductive.

Fear, guilt and a desire to control immobilize the parent from allowing their child to make their own choices, accept responsibility, experience consequences, learn from mistakes and live their own lives. The result is a pattern of co-dependency that is difficult to break. The child never breaks away from at least one parent, while the other parent may become a spare part, suffering in self-imposed silence or virtual exile. The child depends on the parent to coddle and protect, providing safe haven from having to grow up and contend with an uncertain and uncaring world, from taking a risk, from self-determination. The parent depends on the child’s feigned incompetence and irresponsibility to feel needed, helpful and good about himself/herself, to validate their duty as a parent by doing “anything” for their child, to fulfill the role of protector and savior.

Adults in their 20s who are capable of living independently are essentially rewarded for their “failure to launch.” They don’t need a job because their basic financial needs – shelter, food, electricity, water, health care – are provided, as are wants such as cable TV and a car. So they don’t bother to seek one; holding a job would require taking individual responsibility. They don’t attend school because they have no motivation to set goals. They live at their parents’ home because it’s a safer bet – all the accountability is heaped on the parents — and easier. The unavoidable hassles and conflicts with the parents and turmoil in the household are just part of the bargain. They bum money as needed, claiming it is for one purpose while in some cases the parents providing the money know all along it is for drugs or alcohol, and resent giving in, but give in they ultimately do to maintain the dependent relationship.

Young adults living with their parents is a prevalent U.S. social trend: The U.S. Census Bureau found that more than one-third of people aged 18 to 34 lived under their parents’ roof in 2015; 10 years earlier, the percentage was about one-fourth. Nearly 9 of 10 who had lived with their parents in 2014 still did a year later. Indicating a rise in parental bailouts, the survey ominously found that 1 in 4 young adults aged 25 to 34 living in their parents’ home neither attended school nor worked.

I am grateful and proud that my kids are heading toward independent lives, on schedule. My 22-year-old daughter graduated college and is teaching in France. My 19-year-old son is attending college, majoring in computer science, and working part-time for UPS in logistics. If one of them holed up in my basement and refused to crawl out into their own life, I can’t be sure what I would do. I would hope I wouldn’t cave in and cater to dysfunction, irresponsibility and manipulation, but until you walk in someone else’s shoes…Thankfully, I don’t think my kids will give me the chance to wear those shoes.

One school of therapy posits that all human motivation is intentional, that all behavior is purposeful. Human behavior seeks to shape the world to satisfy at least one human need. For adults who have failed to launch, that need often is self-preservation. The anxiety and doubt of relying on oneself breeds dependence and escape from responsibility. Their behavior sends the message that the world is a scary place that expects something from us; the goal is to remain safe and preserve ego. If you don’t attempt, you can’t fail. Parents who are too willing to satisfy the need become the enablers, the practitioners of the bailout, who perpetuate their adult children’s prolonged adolescence.

A Walk in the Woods

Sometimes there’s no better elixir than the woods.

Tough week at work? Traverse a path. Relationship problems? Hike a hill. The winter blues? Trek along a river.

Or even when you don’t feel distressed by anything at all, a walk in the woods can only uplift your mood.

I’ve recently had a lot on my mind, having just made a major life change by moving in midlife to a new place away from friends and family and starting a new job in a new FrancesMarionForest_PalmettoTrailcareer. My life is in transition. So last week, I went to explore a really big wood in my adopted home state of South Carolina – the 260,000-acre Frances Marion National Forest.

At the outset of my hike, I did what I am wont to do: ruminated over things that are constantly on my mind, despite my desire to tame the gremlins while in the presence of natural beauty. I know I’m not alone in engaging in over-active self-talk – we all have ongoing conversations in our own heads at some volume – but I would like to tell my voice to just chill out sometimes.

The wood worked its magic. About 30 minutes and two wrong turns into my hike along a 7-mile trail, my self-conversation quieted, I stopped looking at my watch and I began observing – tall stands of forest pines and expansive views of marshlands along the FrancesMarionForest_SwampIntracoastal Waterway. I realized I wasn’t in a rush; I could walk as long as I wanted. Time became irrelevant; I relinquished the nearly constant need to be on the clock. I completed the last two hours of my walk with relatively few conscious thoughts other than what I was experiencing in the moment. It was rejuvenating to be free from intrusive thoughts. By the time I finished, I felt great – relaxed, gratified, naturally euphoric, tired in a good way.

In my counseling, I have often counseled clients who are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety to take a walk in the woods, whether it’s a 30-mile-wide national forest or a trail along an urban stream. The acts of using one’s senses in nature, spending time in daylight and sunlight and being physically active and energized can have healing effects mentally and emotionally. Make those acts a habit, and symptoms can be reduced.

Before I moved, a friend and I, along with his dog, had made a regular practice of riding bikes on a trail along the Patapsco River in Maryland. My friend would marvel at the beauty of the winding river and the hills rising from it, the rocks embedded in the hills and the impressive construction of the century-plus-old railroad tunnels. The ritual would be fully realized if a train ran by while we were resting by the tracks, so we could be awed by its length and wonder what freight it was carrying.

That trail became a sacred place for me and my friend. As I finished my walk in the woods, I thought about my friend and how he would like trekking this forest, and about the incomparable value of a sacred place where time slows down and your head clears up.

Good Money

When I would tell people I got a new job to start a new career in another state and would be moving, one of the first questions they’d inevitably ask was, “How much will you be making?” Or, so as to be less crass, “Will you be making good money?”PileOfMoney

In our competitive, capitalist, consumerist society, it is only natural that money is the first thing that comes to mind when someone accepts a new position. To be sure, why would anyone choose to move more than 500 miles and three states away for a job if not to make good money?

I had three answers for that question, and all had validity:

  1. Yes, of course I would be making good money, because there’s no such thing as bad money.
  2. No, I wouldn’t be making good money, compared to the much better money I had made in previous jobs.
  3. None of your friggin’ business what kind of money!

The answer is not simple. My job as a therapist under a two-year provisional license pays considerably less than my previous positions in public relations. I am at the entry level in the mental health field, where salaries and pay, though variable depending upon many factors, are relatively low compared to many other professions.

However, my job pays considerably more annually than the series of Gig Economy counseling internships and part-time and temporary jobs I had pieced together for the final two years of my counseling master’s degree program after leaving my full-time job. So viewed from that perspective, my new job does pay good money, and I’m grateful for that.

In midlife, we evaluate what we’ve already done and what we’d like to do with our remaining years, which no longer seem infinite. Priorities change, as we shift from the achievement-oriented, ladder-climbing, self-focused goals of younger adulthood to an increased desire to make a contribution to others, pursue meaningful activities and leave a legacy. My change to a career in counseling reflects the internal re-evaluations of the midlife transitional period.

When you realign priorities and make a significant change, there will be sacrifices. For me, one of those was money – good money. I knew that consequence of my decision from the start, when I embarked on the graduate program nearly six years before actually entering the counseling field. But I ignored that inescapable fact at the time.

Now that my new level of pay is a reality, I’m adjusting my life and budget to match. I may not yet qualify as a full-fledged Minimalist, but I’ve moved closer to that end of the scale in my spending, decision-making and thinking.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of making money – good money – or pretend I don’t care. It certainly helps in many ways and I always endeavored to make good money – at least the best I could in any given circumstance. I’d certainly rather be well-off and feel secure than poor and living anxiously paycheck to paycheck. Wouldn’t everyone? Fortunately, I have some financial cushion, enough to allow me to overcome the financial anxieties of making a career change, but far below some golden threshold to claim money doesn’t really matter.

But making ever more good money – however one defines it — isn’t the end-all be-all path to an ever more glorious Shangri-La, as a 2010 Princeton University study concluded. The Princeton researchers found that no matter how much more than $75,000 per year that a person earned, their “degree of happiness,” or emotional well-being did not increase. It also found that, though earning less than $75,000 in and of itself did not cause people to feel more unhappy, it did magnify and intensify negative feelings from life problems they had.

Beyond the practical realities of how I spend and the reduced margin of discretionary money available to save or burn compared to my previous work life, I’ve had to make a humbling mental adjustment: Here I am, in my 50s, peak earning years, with two graduate degrees, making less than half of what I made at my last full-time job, and less than or equivalent to many workers with much less education or years of experience than I have. Yet, I would still contend I am making good money, not bad money.

I gain fulfillment and a sense of purpose and contribution from counseling people and helping them improve their lives. Work is stimulating, rewarding and challenging, which I couldn’t always claim before. I look forward to my future in this new profession, and its many opportunities for learning, growth and entrepreneurship.

For those reasons, I know I can take this to the bank: I am making good money, with the promise of better money to come. When you truly enjoy what you are doing for a living and apply yourself with a passion because of that, the money naturally tends to follow. Good money.

Sweating it out to the End

I was sitting in the sauna after a swim, trying to meditate (and lose a pound), when the thought hit me (a welcome thought, nevertheless showing I don’t know how to meditate): the only thing separating me from graduation with a clinical mental health counseling master’s degree was one more paper, the fourth chapter of a final project.

In the heat, I felt a surge of accomplishment, the dripping sweat an appropriate metaphor for the 5 ½-year graduate school and internship marathon. I reflected on all that had happened during that time – a broken leg requiring surgery and a year of

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These grads, including my son Daniel (left), are younger than me, but I’ll be celebrating the same experience soon.

recovery; turning 50; my mother dying; leaving a seven-year job under contentious and demoralizing circumstances; both of my kids leaving for college – and felt amazed I had arrived at this moment. I had nearly dropped out after the first of my 22 classes and three internships, the path seemed so complicated and daunting.

 

So other than giving myself a pat on the back for perseverance, what can my experience say about sweating it out for a goal at midlife that perhaps could resonate with others?

  • Personal growth and development keeps life interesting. I feel more alive and engaged with new challenges and goals to pursue, and restless when I feel stagnated and mired in routine.
  • It’s never too late to learn new things or set new goals. Changing careers is another matter entirely that involves issues of practicality, responsibility, risk and sacrifice. But those complexities shouldn’t preclude exploration.
  • Moving forward on faith can work out, and could be a necessity for progress. Sometimes pushing through doubts is the only way forward. I still don’t know how my whole counseling endeavor ultimately will work out, but I have faith that it will. Needing a guarantee on an outcome may preclude the journey.
  • Find a way. Don’t let something that seems too hard stop you, if you can creatively discover ways to make it work, even just one step at a time, especially if you believe you might live with regret for giving up on a goal or dream too easily. I feared living with regret, which helped propel me to continue grinding ahead. Sometimes “a way” may seem impossible, but perhaps as likely self-imposed limits make it seem so.
  • Pursuing something new, whether a hobby, pastime, education or career, can bring you into contact with a new community that can enrich your life. The people I’ve met through my graduate program have provided community, enhancing my life and helping me learn.

I’m sure hoping this new counseling gig works out. I entered the Loyola University-Maryland Pastoral Counseling program at age 48. Back then, I couldn’t imagine getting to the end, which has now arrived at age 54. I’m excited to see where it leads. At the least, it will open up a whole new range of opportunities and a greater chance to self-direct my career – possibly in the form of my own business and other entrepreneurial endeavors – as I head into its latter stages. I’m feeling now all the sweat I’ve poured into it has been worthwhile.

[In a serendipitous coincidence, my graduation is the same day as my daughter Rebecca’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Read about my decision of whose big day to attend.]

‘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.

 

No More ‘Working for The Man’ Just for Health Insurance

pic_0123On the eve of the first Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) mano-a-mano showdown in Congress – well, at least the participants were in the same boxing ring – I re-emphasize my position that after all the overinflated chatter is aired and convoluted schemes are floated, the only real, efficient, cost-effective and sustainable solution is a single-payer health care system (Medicare for All, universal health care coverage).

I’ll give the Republicans a chance, with their Repeal and Replace initiative (or Repeal and Posture, or Repeal and Delay, or Repeal and High-Five) and monitor the trends and see where we are a few years after implementation. As I advocated on my sister blog site Sirenian Publishing, the Democrats should not participate in crafting an Obamacare Replacement, so it will be a pristinely GOP invention without Democratic fingerprints and can be evaluated as such.

Why discuss Obamacare in a midlife blog? Because I’m one step away from needing health insurance through a system like Obamacare, and I may need that program or something similar in the future as I grapple with transition and living authentically in midlife.

In my transition to a new career as a mental health counselor, I eventually had to leave full-time employment to meet my graduate program’s internship and class requirements. And with that move went my health insurance. I was lucky I have a wife with an employer-sponsored plan that I could join. But we all know how tenuous are jobs – and the potluck health insurance that may come with them – in today’s economy.

I’ve written about joining the Gig Economy since my transition, working multiple part-time, temporary, or entrepreneurial jobs with no health insurance or other benefits to cobble together an income. While I may sometime again have a full-time job with health insurance benefits, I plan to stay a member of the Gig Economy for the rest of my career by establishing an independent counseling practice. And I abhor the thought of health insurance posing a major barrier to venturing out on my own. A single-payer health care system, or perhaps an Obamacare-like system, could remove that impediment for me and many others with an entrepreneurial bent who no longer want to be obligated to ‘working for The Man’ just so they can have health insurance.

I wrote extensively about the merits of a nonprofit single-payer system and the tribulations of Obamacare in my political memoir about my campaign for Maryland delegate, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Get Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, as advocating for a more equitable, less costly health care system was a cornerstone of my campaign.

Read more about the looming health care battle below…

Sirenian Publishing Blog Post: No Democratic Lifeline for ‘Repeal and Replace’

New Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said if congressional Republicans, in conjunction with President-elect Donald Trump’s exhortations, vote to repeal Obamacare, Democrats won’t participate in crafting a so-called “replacement.”

“If they repeal without a replacement, they will own it,” Schumer told The Washington Post. “Democrats will not then step up to the plate and come up with a half-baked solution that we will partially own. It’s all theirs.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Schumer’s approach and urge Democrats to stick to that plan, instead of capitulating to the Republicans and trying to modify or soften whatever plan the GOP hatches once health care coverage is thrown into uncertainty, or worse, chaos, and millions potentially suffer.

To do so would be akin to the Democrats turning over ownership of a marginally inhabitable building to the Republicans, who level it with a wrecking ball and wander aimlessly through the rubble, only to have the Democrats return with hard hats and shovels and mortar to salvage the wreckage, with the promise, “We’ll help you rebuild from these ruins, but we gotta warn ya, dollars to donuts, this building will be condemned.”

As I advised Democrats previously, Do The Opposite, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza. The GOP will expect Democrats to come running to save the day for people who may be losers in the Obamacare tug-of-war. Then they will become complicit in whatever is enacted. Then they can be blamed for screwing up whatever plan Republicans wanted to enact in the first place, which of course will be the reason said GOP plan isn’t working as effectively as touted. Don’t do it. Let the GOP plan ride; measure the results.

I argued in my political memoir detailing my campaign for Maryland state political office, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, that Obamacare is largely a piece of legislative manure that leaves the foxes – the health insurance industry – guarding the henhouse, but that it’s certainly an improvement and does a number of good things for people who need health insurance.

“Obamacare is a Rubik’s Cube—lots of turning, spinning, head-scratching, reverses, glitches, bad moves and confusion,” I wrote in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “Historic and groundbreaking yet torturously overwrought, the law certainly does some good, but adds yet another layer of preposterous bureaucracy and complexity and supposed ‘consumer choice,’ which really is massive consumer overload and confusion, onto a preexisting byzantine miscreation, and will become another cement-hardened convention impossible to undo.”

My campaign for Maryland state delegate in 2014 was largely based on advocating for accessible, affordable health care for all – universal health care, single-payer health care, Medicare for All – whatever you want to label it. My call was for a system that covered everyone, regardless of employment status or personal wealth, one that constituted a right rather than a privilege, and that reduced the corporate profit motive. It was for a more humane system that would put Maryland – and ideally, ultimately, the rest of the nation – in line with the rest of the democratic, industrialized nations that provide all their citizens basic health care at about half the cost or less per person than the U.S., and achieve better health outcomes on many common measures.

Numerous grassroots and health care organizations continue advocating for such a system, and several state legislatures have made attempts to establish one. But entrenched, opposing, big-money interests are strong – hence, Obamacare was the best we could get.

Wendell Potter, a health insurance public relations executive turned industry critic, nailed the dynamic in his insider tell-all book Deadly Spin, as I quoted in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “The health insurance industry is dominated by a cartel of large, for-profit corporations…[T]he top priority…is to ‘enhance shareholder value.’ When that’s your top priority, you are motivated more by the obligation to meet Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations than by the obligation to meet the medical needs of your policyholders.”

I still believe a single-payer system is the only real, equitable, sustainable solution to the ongoing health care mess. Perhaps a failed “replacement plan” full of tired old ideas like Medical Savings Accounts and insurance sold across state lines and free market competition that can be laid squarely at the feet of Republicans could stoke a revival of a single-payer revolution.

Of course, that will bring out the critics and naysayers who will charge that single-payer is an un-American, “socialist” system, an asinine argument. What is Medicare? What is Medicaid? What is Social Security? Socialistic! For that matter, what are our police forces and fire departments and public schools and state universities? Socialistic! We all contribute toward them because these systems and institutions are deemed to be beneficial to society collectively. American rugged individualism is a great concept. But in some aspects, like outstanding health care and the overall health of our citizenry, we are all in this together, and will be stronger as a nation for that.

So, as Schumer said, no lifeline. There could be regression and pain in the short-term, but maybe it could turn the tide for the long-term.

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.

Is the Grass Greener?

I typically believe the grass is greener on the other side, just over the next hill. It may be self-delusional or wishful thinking, but it’s my nature, however torturous it can be, to believe there’s something better.

Such thinking can be the curse of people who are never satisfied with life and what they grassfield_greenerhave, always seeking, never arriving. Or it can be the motivation that leads to risk-taking, improvement and growth.

I have been seeking greener grass in my career through a marathon five-year journey, and now that I’m on the brink of making a transition from public relations to mental health counseling after what will be 22 graduate courses and two years of internships — and one collapsed full-time job along with its reliable income under all that weight — I am pretty confident that the fescue indeed will be brighter.

I also have been thinking that as I launch my new career in 2017 – which will include, ideally and ultimately, my own independent practice – that a new geographic location may offer greener pastures than the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis where I have been stationed for 28 years, business-, lifestyle-, scenery- and culture-wise.

My thinking is that the time to make a geographic change would coincide with my career transition, or at least relatively early in my new career, before becoming established in one place.

I also will be 54, far into midlife, by the time I graduate the counseling program. If I go somewhere else, I want to be young enough to become engaged in the fabric of the new community occupationally, socially, civically, recreationally and other ways, not just to live out retirement (which I don’t know if I will ever want to reach anyway).

I have already had people advise me against moving, telling me essentially that the grass is not greener, that the desire for something fresh and new is merely a cover for a compulsion to escape.

The idea of moving is complicated by several factors, primarily family concerns. Some factors I believe are manageable: I don’t have a big fear of change; the move wouldn’t necessarily be irreversible if it didn’t work out; I believe I could make new friends and keep old ones with some effort; I am confident I can earn a living and be successful starting a business, though research is needed.

But family, that is the hardest one to gauge. I’m a new empty-nester. Both of my kids are attending Maryland colleges. My daughter will graduate the same weekend I will in 2017. She may go to France to teach English; she may follow her boyfriend to an engineering job in Texas or beyond; or she may stay in Maryland. My son will have at least two years left. My extended family is small and scattered.

My wife’s family and her roots are in Maryland. She doesn’t want to leave. I understand. Many would argue that factor alone should kibosh the whole idea. And perhaps it will. Or perhaps there could be room for compromise and negotiation as events unfold and more is discovered.

There’s no doubt that the belief that the grass could be greener can complicate life and cause angst. But it’s also a belief that gives those prone to seeking an excitement about the unknown, about a new experience, about what could be around that next corner, over that next hill. Will it be emerald green, or drought-baked brown?

Joining the Gig Economy

I am a member of the Gig Economy.

I didn’t plan to join. It just evolved.

Giggers don’t count. We’re under the radar. The U.S. Bureau of Labor can’t find us for all its employment reports. We’re a step above underground. We exist in the netherworld between employed and unemployed, worker and slacker. Above all, we are free agents, with shallow allegiances, if any.

Nothing is secure. Nothing is long-term. Nothing is permanent. But then again, that applies to most traditional jobs nowadays, except for government employment. Those who convince themselves otherwise are fooling themselves.

If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. In my circumstance, sometimes even when I do work, I don’t get paid. There are no benefits – except the ability to say “yes” or “no” to anything, and to make your own choices, agreements and schedule. No paid vacation, no sick leave, no retirement savings programs, no health or life insurance. Not even any guarantee of hours or certain amount of pay per week.

Income is unpredictable. One thing that is predictable is that Giggers will constantly be scrambling for income, replacing one lost or concluded gig with another.

An October 13, 2016 CNBC report said employment in the Gig Economy is growing “far faster” than traditional payroll employment, according to a Brookings Institution study. An author of the report said the data showed a trend indicating a “potentially seismic reorganization” of the economy and employment arrangements.

Until a year ago, I counted. I was included in the Labor category “Employed.” For the previous 10 years, I held two traditional jobs, with a salary and benefits. As long as I showed up each day, I could get paid the same, whether I surfed the Internet all day and took two-hour lunches or hunkered down and grinded on the corporation’s mission. Not anymore.

At the same time I began the two-year internship portion of my interminable master’s degree program in counseling – a minimum 12-to-15 hour weekly commitment – my full-time public relations job started going south because of institutional disarray. My employer and I soon ended our union. I was suddenly without the safety net of the full-time, permanent gig, except for the frayed, patchwork, hole-ridden net of the Gig Economy.

I fell back on teaching tennis, which I had done during other periods of unemployment, and ramped up my hours as a counseling intern at an outpatient mental health center, something that was impossible to do while working full-time and which significantly aided me in meeting my master’s degree requirements. But my income was in the toilet.

I landed a great gig for the summer, between academic semesters and internships, as a tennis teacher at a resort in Bethany Beach, DE. But like many gigs, it was short-term,

bethanybeachconcert

A gig at the Bethany Beach, DE Bandstand, where I had a summer gig as a tennis teacher.

offered no benefits, and produced an unpredictable income stream. For the time I taught on court, I made decent money. If I wasn’t teaching – waiting around at the club for the next paying hour or bumped out of teaching because of too little customer demand and my low ranking on the pecking order of tennis pros – I made minimum wage. I taught a good amount over the summer – but also spent much time earning $8.25 per hour. The job ran parallel with vacation season, late May to Labor Day.

 

At 4 p.m. on Labor Day, the gig was up and my income ceased. Now I’m cobbling together an income from three sources – another counseling internship, where I’m lucky I get paid at all, but only at half-rate and only when erratic and inconsistent clients show up; a writing tutor job at Loyola University, where I’m a student; and itinerant tennis teaching. I’m working erratic hours seven days a week. And I’m still searching for more work – more regular and consistent tennis teaching to maximize income for my still-available, Swiss-cheese hours.

The nature of membership in the Gig Economy is to be in a constant state of searching and scrambling for the next gig, the most reliable gig, the best-paying gig for the time we must devote to it. We can’t rest, lest the hour glass runs out. We have to see beyond the horizon, because everything ends or fizzles out. We have to be chess players, thinking three or four moves ahead.

But membership in the Gig Economy has its advantages. I’m much happier with my work than I was at my last job. I have flexibility and control over my schedule. I have variety. I’m not bored at anything I do. I can move on when I feel like it with little angst. I like the direction I’m moving. I’m more free and self-directed.

I may hold other permanent jobs in the future, likely in a counseling capacity. But I’m also pretty certain I will be retaining membership in the Gig Economy for the rest of my working life in one form or another. It’s just a matter of putting all the necessary pieces together. I am a free agent, and I like it that way.

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