Tuesday, June 5, 2018

the sins of the father

He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished; He visits the iniqiuity of the fathers upon their children to the third and fourth generation
~ Numbers 14:18

June is PTSD awareness month.

We are all probably already familiar with the acronym PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) used frequently in conjunction with the well-known traumatic impact of war.  It used to be called shell shock and is now also associated with men who have witnessed or survived violence in the line of duty; police officers and fire fighters, for example.

But did you know that women are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD?  Sexual violence accounts for some, but not all, of it.  Most is due to the Tragic Trickling Down Effect (TTDE?) of trauma in families; the sins of the father are visited upon their sons, but also (and especially) upon their wives and daughters. This is called intergenerational transmission.  Traumatized people traumatize others.  Most often women and children.

Yes.  There is a connection between PTSD and family violence.

It's not that hard to understand.  When oppressed by violence we want to fight back.  When we can't, all that fight gets bottled up inside.  When triggered by some mundane situation causing frustration, it bubbles up and explodes as anger and aggression... Who gets the brunt of those urges do you think?

It is a fact that the risk of being violated increases proportionately to your social status and power.  If you are a female handicapped minor (or elder) of color, your chances of being abused are much higher than that of a white able-bodied adult male.

It is easier to take your angries out on someone less powerful than you.  Sick but true.

Since we are raising awareness this month, we should talk about C-PTSD, which is the more complex response to long-term trauma not limited to crime or war. C-PTSD results from being exploitated in a relationship where there is a discrepancy in power, between parents and children, or men and women.  When a person is chronically bullied, abused or abandoned by a parent or loved one on whom he or she is emotionally dependent, the victim (or "survivor") displays many of the symptoms that a war vet, police officer or fire fighter would, while also frequently being affected at the level of one's identity and self-esteem, one's core sense of self.  Again, war and crime aside, the weaker members of society are most affected by C-PTSD, and the perpetrators most often men.

This month, while raising awareness of the impact of violence on soldiers and others who have voluntarily stood in the line of fire, let's not forget the less heroic survivors of the same insidious dynamics of human suffering: the less powerful who, daily, without choosing it, are victims of violence everywhere-- women, minorities, children, the handcapped and the elderly.

The test of civilization is the way it cares for its helpless members
 ~Pearl S. Buck

Friday, May 4, 2018

love, love me do

Abandon hope, ye who enter here
~Dante, Inferno

The other day an old friend broke down while talking about his alcoholic parents. They'd been dead for several years but the grieving, he said, was bad today.

He had loved them faithfully despite their wretched characters and abusive behaviours, over many years, in fact his whole life.  He never stopped loving them or hoping they would get sober.  He felt compassion for the good people he knew they had been behind the disease consuming them, and he forgave them.

But today he grieved.  Deep, gut-wrenching grief.  He had waited his whole life for his love to be reciprocated.  It never was.  His parents couldn't.  They were under the influence of a substance they loved more than him.

As the loved ones of addicts, we can be patient and wait in love but, if we attach to recovery, or expect our love to be returned one day, we may end up living a life of hope that ends in bitter disappointment.  Better not to hope and just accept things as they are, with a guarded heart, investing more only when our loved ones are available to love us back.

Here is a famous passage from T.S. Eliot's East Coker that says it well:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Eliot's poem points to the light in the darkness of a waiting heart.  Eric Berne would second that, for he claims that, in unrequited love, the person who loves is the lucky one, even if she gets nothing in return.  I'm not sure how lucky she is but, yes, there is certainly a light shining in every loving heart, and warmth and promise in that.  Not so the unloving heart that expires without reciprocating!  Tragic as my friend's loss may be, that his parents' love was unavailable because of their addiction is, by far, worse.

Monday, April 9, 2018


Many of us whose loved ones struggle with an addiction get so caught up in what's going on for them that we forget about ourselves.  We put their needs first, and think and talk obsessively about them, what they may be doing, thinking or feeling...

As our own needs are progressively eclipsed by our loved ones' addiction, we find ourselves riding the emotional roller coaster with them, becoming just as unstable as they are.

Talk about folie à deux!

When we come to therapy, to Alanon-- or to our senses-- we are urged to "get a life!" and take care of ourselves.  We start thinking and talking about ourselves.  We learn to identify and respect our own needs.  We draw some long-overdue boundaries.  We start to recover our sanity.

But here's the thing:

The disease of addiction is so insidious and our involvement with the addict so irresistible that, even when we begin to make new choices, we may still weigh the pros and cons in terms of how it will impact our loved one's addiction!

How many times are the changes we make in recovery really motivated by the desire to influence the addict?  Are we secretly hoping to force him to "hit rock bottom" so he or she will seek help and get fixed?  That is not making choices for ourselves.

Addiction is a sneaky devil.  What a pity it would be, after all our work to extricate ourselves from the insanity of the disease, to let it slip in the back door...

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Saying it out loud

- Happiness is the sum total of gratitude in a day
AA expression

There is something to be grateful for in every moment. Too often, however, we let these moments slip by, allowing our attention to settle on what we don’t like, or the many things we wish to change. Then happiness becomes quickly elusive.

One way to get ourselves out of that rut and claim our happiness is by saying out loud the things we appreciate right now: “What a beautiful snowfall!”

Immediately our hearts are lifted.

They say to put your money where your mouth is; to walk the talk. That’s how you put theory into practice. When it comes to happiness, the opposite is just as true: put your mouth where your money is. Talk the walk.

By expressing what we are grateful for, happiness is.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Go with the flow

A friend recently asked me about listening and I said I'd give him a few pointers.  I thought of an acronym GWTF. 
Here it is:


G is for GET: let them GET their feelings off their chest.  Feelings are like a river, so let them flow!  You don't need to do anything other than GET out of the way.  Make room.  Be receptive.  Most of the time all we need to untangle our feelings is someone willing to GET them. 

W is for WITH/HOLD: WITHHOLD (refrain from) expressing your own point of view, feelings, opinions, comments or reactions, especially negative ones (criticism).  Do HOLD the person with your quiet presence, your eyes, your arms.  Show them you are WITH them. They will feel held and heard.  That is doing a lot!

T is for TIME: take the TIME they will need to get out all their feelings.  Don't rush them, interrupt, stop them or give advice, especially when you feel like you have to do something.  Don't. You will merely block their flow.  And the more you do that, the longer you will be there! Be a conduit not a dam, and the river will come to rest all by itself.  Give it TIME.

F is for FEELINGS: if you must do something, FEEL.  Feel what they feel.  Picture yourself in their shoes.  Guess what emotions they might be experiencing.  You can even say (when they have stopped sharing) "you must FEEL X, Y or Z".  Let them correct you if you are wrong and don't take it personally.  Remember!  It is not about you.  If all else fails, nod sympathetically and say "uh-huh" or "I hear you".

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

don't shoot!

Much of the work I do consists of helping people identify their emotional triggers.  I try to get them to go from reactivity to reaction.  My motivation is largely due to the tragically pervasive outcome of not owning reactivity: shooting the messenger.  This is so distressing to me, especially when the messenger is a loved one, turning love into murderous hate in a heartbeat! Ironically, the real messenger usually turns out to be ourselves, the stories we're telling ourselves that drown out what our loved ones are really saying.

Say your girlfriend raises her voice and pleads, "Please don't go out again with the boys tonight!"  You hear her trying to control you when, in fact, she is earnestly asking you to stay with her.  You pick up the tone but not the content of her message, triggered by your own childhood story which comes projectile vomitting forward as the voice of your own wretched mother giving you grief and making you feel bad for wanting to play.  You experience this as a personal attack and, before you know it, you shoot back, "You're a control freak!" and leave slamming the door.

Say your son has forgotten his homework again and he just sits there staring at you when you ask why. He shoots you a glance that reminds you of your father's silent treatment when he tried to get the upper hand on you, and you shoot back, "Wipe that smirk off your face! You should be ashamed of yourself."

I hear examples every day... I have shot back myself... a switch is flipped and we see the very ones who love us most as threats, treating them like enemies when, most of the time, they never say half of what we hear coming from their mouths.

It is so damaging.

In a nutshell, we need to stop and reflect, slow down, and hear the stories in our heads, owning them before acting them out on someone else.

How do you stop violence?

When you get triggered, don't open fire.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

enabling, disabling and re-engaging

Anybody can be angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person to the right degree at the right time for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not easy

Today I met a mother whose college-aged daughter had become belligerent and rude. When the daughter asked for something like a glass of water, the mother either complied, bringing it to her with a "Here you go, dear," or denied the request explaining that she was just too tired to get up from the couch at the end of her long day.

In the first scenario, the daughter rarely thanked the mother and, sometimes, didn't even acknowledge her.  The mother felt invisible, like her daughter was acting all entitled.  But if the mother did not comply, the daughter pressured her relentlelssly, sometimes even treating her to a litany of explosives which criticized and demeaned her.  The mother was appalled at what she perceived to be her daughter's lack of empathy.

She knew, "I'm an enabler" but her alternative strategy, to disengage, seemed to be doing more harm than good. What to do, she wondered...

The mother came from a family where you either cared for others or looked after yourself. She never learned how to engage needy others without enabling them. Not surprisingly, the mother's two gears for dealing with her daughter's requests were: enabling or disengaging. Lo and behold, she created a monster!

But there is an alternative.

The mother could make her service to others dependent on their respect. She could do this by enabling civility, at the very least by inviting them to say "please" and "thank you" before and after doing something for them.  This disables rudeness without disengaging, a pretty simple way to turn this mother's situation around.  She may not be able to control her daughter, but she is always in charge of herself.