Oct 05

The 3 Simple Hallmarks of Well-Being

What do we mean by “well-being?”
Dr. Martin Seligman, the positive psychology guru at the University of Pennsylvania, uses this term instead of “happiness,” as it’s a more accurate and less charged term describing the human state of relative peace and contentment to which most of us aspire. Imbedded in the term is self-compassion as well as both acceptance of self and the process of life as it is, warts and all. Happiness, on the other hand, is a rarer, more dramatic state that comes in bursts but generally doesn’t last. As we all know, a constant state of happiness is an unattainable—and unrealistic—goal. The human condition comes with certain angst, constant challenges and hurdles to overcome—which generally translate into painful opportunities for growth. We might be happy for brief periods of time, but life always comes back at us with a certain vengeance. With the world changing at such a heady speed, it seems that we can scarcely hold our footing.

Well-being, though, is possible.

Seligman uses the acronym “PERMA” to describe what he considers the five aspects of well-being: positive outlook, engagement, relationship, meaning and accomplishment.

It’s a solid prescription. However, we can make it even simpler—and we can work toward these realistic goals outside the therapist’s office. I believe that we can attain a pretty consistent sense of well-being through three initiatives:

Exercise—for body and brain
Family/social connection

It sounds easy. And it is, after a fashion.

Exercise, to start, should not be a dreaded obligation. It can be as easy and enjoyable as walking, provided you do it most days, beginning with a good 20 minutes. From there, you can increase the time/distance to a comfortable, sustainable length. All you need is a good pair of athletic shoes. While walking on a treadmill is fine in inclement weather, I would argue that it’s healthier to walk outdoors—when you can soak up much-needed Vitamin D, enjoy some beautiful, natural scenery and fraternize with neighbors. I walk mornings with my dog and often my husband, and it’s our golden time to hash things out. Since we’re not face-to-face, which is by definition more potentially confrontational, it’s a less stressful way to discuss important family and career matters, make plans and simply spend deliberate time together. For those who like dogs, a dog is an excellent, built-in fitness partner—a good argument for getting a furry companion. We live in a hilly, active dog neighborhood and often join our dog group up at the park on weekends for a group constitutional. This satisfies both exercise and social connection needs.
Beyond walking, the possibilities are endless: running, biking, yoga, Pilates, weights and resistance training, swimming, martial arts, rock-climbing…the list goes on. But I consider walking the foundation, regardless of whatever else you do. The point is to move your body in a powerful way every day. Exercise relieves stress, releases toxins, clears the head, speeds up metabolism and fosters self-esteem. It gets you out in the world. It’s a tangible accomplishment, on a regular basis. And when you are more fit, you have a tendency to eat in a healthier manner. If you walk three miles, or swim a mile, you probably don’t want to sabotage that effort with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. By the same token, if you are well-exercised, you tend to stay properly hydrated and to sleep well.
Exercise is also good for the brain, and it also applies to the brain. Obviously, there are many ways to stimulate our brains: reading, writing, learning a language, doing something artistic or mathematical, playing bridge or other cognitively challenging games, taking a class, taking up a hobby out of our comfort zone. The point is not to spend too much time vegetating in front of the TV or computer, and getting sidetracked with social media.

Family and social connection are critical, and people are different in how much connection or intimacy they want and require. But, as both common sense and neuroscience bear out, human fellowship is a basic psychological and spiritual need. We are literally “wired to connect” and we do not thrive in isolation. Some people have a number of  friends and acquaintances, with their family as their core, while others prefer deeper one-on-one relationships. Significant others—romantic relationships—are part of this need. However, this may not be in the cards for everyone all the time; good friendships and even pets can help fill this void. But being alone, with only virtual connection to others, is not enough.
Making good friends takes some effort. Unless you live in your home town, complete with family and lifelong friends, you must take various initiatives to establish strong friendships. Finding a common-interest group (book group, chess or bridge club, Spanish conversation, politics, hiking, dancing, etc.), joining a religious/spiritual entity or volunteering are all helpful, so long as the experience provides repeated exposure to the same group of people. And speaking of brain exercise, camaraderie helps to keep our brains engaged. Countless studies have shown that people who are isolated are not as vital and do not live as long as those who are connected.

Finally, purpose. Cultivating a sense of purpose is often more critical after the first half of life, when we’re back to ourselves again. As Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis says, we spend the first half of our lives setting up our lives—getting an education, establishing a career, creating a family—and have the bandwidth for little else. While there is some sense of purpose in building the infrastructure of our lives, we are so busy during those earlier years that more deliberate and autonomous purpose is generally off the table. If we’re lucky, we have a job that contains purpose: teachers, nurses, doctors, certain nonprofits, etc. But many of us go to work to pay the bills. In the second half of our lives, according to Hollis, author of Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, we have more time and psychic space to listen for “the soul knocking on the door.” The old existential question, “Why am I here?” takes on a deeper urgency. However, I believe we all need a sense of purpose throughout our lives, whether it be school, career, parenthood, artistic or spiritual pursuits. The point is to invest deeply in something resonant, especially in an initiative that provides an opportunity for transcendence—for rising above ourselves for a greater mission.

In short, challenge your body and brain, make and cherish friends and family, and contribute something of yourself to the cosmos!

Sep 07

What IS Therapy, Anyway? Part 2

Once clients have addressed their original, presenting issues, it’s time to move into deeper waters. Inevitably, new challenges will continue to emerge and it’s important to explore the unconscious processes that are fueling self-defeating thoughts and behaviors—and causing depression and anxiety. Although few clients pursue long-term analysis anymore, therapists generally spend some valuable time exploring early attachment and family-of-origin issues for patterns and clues to their clients’ psyches.

An example: a female client who had a domineering mother marries a domineering man and in addition, takes a one-down position in most of her other relationships. She can’t say “no” and is a people-pleaser. She accommodates herself into oblivion and becomes depressed. A therapist can help her see that she is playing the same role she had in her original family. As a child, she had no choice; to stand up to her mother was not safe. But now, as an adult, she must stand up and develop a voice in her own life if she is to thrive. The therapist re-frames her depression as a powerful wake-up call, an opportunity to take charge of her life. Human beings unconsciously choose the familiar, no matter how negative, until they can gain the insight to act on their own behalf.

Then there is the question of meaning. This is twofold: the meaning clients assign to different experiences/situations; and life meaning—what makes their lives meaningful. When clients confront obstacles or have any kind of experience, they automatically assign a meaning to them—usually, positive or negative. But such “meaning” is subjective and doesn’t exactly represent reality. In the same way, the life stories clients tell therapists emerge through such a subjective—and often distorted—lens. The therapist’s job is to challenge the meaning they are assigning to particular experiences (especially if it’s causing a roadblock), and eventually help clients deconstruct their life narratives and re-create them in a more objective and empowering manner. Clients who were abused, neglected or bullied as children, for example, can begin to heal once they’re able to perceive themselves no longer as victims but instead as resilient human beings—survivors.

Finally, regarding life meaning and purpose, there is the ultimate existential question: Why are we here? Do clients have a passion that gives them a compelling reason to live? This is not about hobbies like hiking or gardening—though these pursuits can certainly promote well-being. To paraphrase the late Viktor Frankl from his concentration camp memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, man comes to the meaning of his life in three ways: through good deeds or meaningful work, through love and relationship and especially through what he calls “transcendence”—transcending oneself to help others. He said that he and others survived the camps by reaching beyond their own misery to lift up their fellow prisoners. That is to say, they had a purpose greater than themselves.

Contemporary spiritual leader Rick Warren says virtually the same thing. In his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, his first line embodies this philosophy:

“It’s not about you.”

When I work with clients, we generally confront this spiritual material once we have been working together for a while`. And admittedly, life meaning and purpose become more critical for clients as they move into middle age and beyond. As Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis says in his book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, humans spend the first half of their lives growing up and setting up the structure of their lives—pursuing an education, establishing a career, building a family. People often don’t have the bandwidth for deeper meaning and purpose—beyond family and career—until they have settled into their lives and perhaps even launched their children. Obviously, therapists have to meet clients where they are developmentally. When individuals are in the second half of their lives, says Hollis, they are more contemplative and hence more receptive to the “soul knocking on the door.” When the same angst keeps coming up again and again, they must eventually answer the summons if they are to move forward.

Although some fortunate people have meaning and purpose built into their jobs (think: doctors, nurses, teachers, writers, artists, etc.), many others must find a purpose outside their 9-5s. Obviously, marriage and parenthood—families—serve much of that need for many. But when human beings are older and back to themselves, so to speak, they must find or create meaning and purpose all over again. Changing careers, retiring and pursuing a long-forgotten talent, traveling and volunteering are all possible avenues. A hero in this vein is former President Jimmy Carter, a brain cancer survivor at 93 who is still volunteering, building houses for Habitat for Humanity. He is the very definition of Frankl’s “transcendence of self.”

Again, regardless of life stage, therapy can empower people to stop running maniacally on the psychic hamster-wheel. Instead of recycling the same thoughts and behaviors, committing to this deeper work can liberate clients to jump off the wheel and out of the cage.

Sep 04

What IS Therapy, Anyway? Part 1

What goes on in a therapist’s office is a mystery to many who have never pursued psychotherapy. First-timers are often nervous and uncertain, not knowing what to expect. A common misconception is that therapy is some sort of cathartic, secular confessional, or that the therapist will magically “fix” the client—cure depression, anxiety, grief, social isolation, relationship and career difficulties.

Instead, a therapy session is more like a compassionate conversation. Regardless of the techniques or modality utilized, therapists work first to establish trust and rapport as a vehicle for getting to know the client through active listening. Since clients are the experts on themselves, the therapist’s role is to support clients in taking an honest look at their lives and the thoughts, feelings or issues that are getting in the way. The therapist is trying to determine how accurately clients perceive themselves and their world, how they operate in their lives—and where they might be getting stuck. Shame is often a roadblock and can become a powerful defense. Since people generally don’t see themselves as others see them, the therapist functions as a kind of gentle mirror for the client—a reality check. Over time, the therapeutic relationship itself can become a microcosm of how the client behaves with others in the larger world.

Some common goals I work toward with clients are pretty straightforward:
-becoming more honest with themselves and hence more self-aware
-getting to the root of their shame
-embracing their “true” or core selves
-reframing depression and anxiety as “wake-up calls” to address their emotional/spiritual immune system
-gaining insight into the various and often dysfunctional roles they play (and how they relate to the roles they played in their original families)
-challenging themselves in order to grow
-becoming more reciprocal in relationships
-developing or deepening empathy for others (learning to see things from others’ perspectives)

-learning to establish appropriate boundaries

-developing a clear voice in their own lives without bulldozing others
-practicing self-compassion

Christopher Peterson, author of A Primer in Positive Psychology, outlines similar tasks in regards to psychological health:

“-Acceptance of self
-Accurate perception of reality
-Autonomy (freedom from social pressure)
-Environmental mastery
-Growth, development, becoming
-Integration of personality”

It is important to note that addressing the aforementioned tasks is virtually impossible in isolation. Neuroscience bears out that it is the relationship between therapist and client that is especially critical in therapy—more important, according to several studies, than the modality used. Since our brains are “wired to connect,” having a trained and empathetic ear—a trusting relationship—is critical in clients’ motivation to make positive changes. This harkens back to Attachment Theory, which holds that our earliest attachments with parents or other loving caregivers provides the template for later relationships. For clients who have experienced compromised attachment, the therapeutic experience can serve as a sort of healing “re-parenting” or corrective emotional experience. To wit, human beings thrive in connection with others.

As clients gradually begin to trust, they can let down their guard and begin to shoulder personal responsibility for their own thoughts and actions. Blaming the world and others for their unhappiness or failures is as unproductive and misguided as taking on what is not theirs to bear. Therapists can help clients identify their strengths as well as self-defeating patterns, focusing of what they can control—themselves. And they can teach clients to forgive themselves and practice critical self-compassion.

Once they feel deeply seen and heard, once their shame has been addressed, clients can begin to heal themselves. The therapist essentially joins them on the journey and guides them in accessing their own, innate resilience.

Aug 17

The Poignant Dichotomy of Old Age

Every Thursday, my husband and I drive 10 minutes to my mother-in-law’s well-appointed retirement community to have dinner with her at 4:30. On those days, we have to make sure to skip lunch so we can be hungry at an odd time of day. Although the helpings are small—suitable for the elderly residents’ diminished appetites—the food is actually pretty good. These visits mean the world to Gran, and sometimes she invites a gentleman friend, whom I’ll call Joe, to join us.

Gran is 89 and Joe, 92. Gran, like many of the residents, has become more insular, cocooning much of the day in her apartment, half-watching game shows and playing solitaire on her bed. Conversely, Joe functions as the unofficial ambassador of the place, a lively, genteel presence who is more full of life than most people half his age. A former Air Force pilot—and afterwards a successful businessman—Joe is sharp and alert and remembers your name after a first meeting. He’s curious about everything and asks a myriad of questions about your work, your life, your stand on various world issues. He serves as head of the facility’s hospitality committee, participates in most of the activities and is also the community’s official bridge guru, offering lessons twice a week to newbies and those who want to become more sophisticated players. He’s even gotten Gran to continue playing bridge twice a week, the only activity in which she participates.

After a dinner there, I am always struck by the contrast between these two models of old age. To me, they perfectly illustrate psychologist Erik Erikson’s final, psycho-social stage of life: Integrity vs Despair. Each of Erikson’s eight life stages contains an inherent conflict that must be addressed, hence the “vs” indicating polarities. In Integrity vs Despair, for example, individuals inhabit the final stage of life—when one looks back, takes stock—either with integrity that they have truly lived, loved, engaged and contributed, or despair that they have not addressed their existential imperative.

Undoubtedly, Joe occupies the side of integrity. He is upbeat, intellectually curious and proactive. He is, in a word, engaged. So many of his fellow residents seem tired of living. Indeed, the population of the community, which includes those with dementia, oxygen machines, walkers and scooters, seems unequally divided between integrity and despair. To be fair, some of the residents who appear to be on the side of despair have some sort of cognitive decline, if not dementia; but there are some who are lucid and intact and simply seem depressed. This is no surprise: many of the residents have few or no visitors; they have undoubtedly suffered painful losses, including a loss of purpose. They are, after all, near the end of their lives.

We often see Joe, on the other hand, with yet another female companion—often an “outsider” from another retirement community—on his arm, squiring her about. Since he has a car, he gets around. His lifelong success with the ladies is evident in the dining room; when we are eating together, a procession of tottering women invariably stops by our table, speaking, squeezing his arm or winking at him.

While it’s true that we are born into this world with different temperaments, different aptitudes for resilience—not to mention the complicating matter of Nurture or, as Warren Buffett says, the “ovarian lottery”—we do have agency in our lives. Once we reach some level of maturity and self-awareness, we can intentionally change the way we think and feel and live. We can make the choice to be grateful, to look on the bright side, to reach out to others for comfort and camaraderie. We can even choose to make the world a better place for our fellow human beings. Creating life purpose, a necessity for well-being, is entirely up to us. Viktor Frankl, in his concentration camp memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, calls this “transcendence.” He and many other prisoners survived, he said, by lifting up their companions. After the war, he carried on this spiritual quest as a psychotherapist, helping others find the meaning in their lives.

It is worth noting, then, that before we reach that final stage of life—hopefully, well before—we have the opportunity to choose which side of the Erikson dichotomy we intend to embrace.

Apr 25

When Our Bodies—and Time—Betray Us

Recently, our daughter, Owen, 28, followed by her older brother, Jesse, 30, got married within two months of each other. While both were joyous celebrations—and a long time coming—I experienced a massive crash after the festivities. And I’m not just talking about the emotional kind. My right hip went out. Suddenly, the hip simply didn’t work right; putting any weight on it resulted in wonky instability and an excruciating, ice-pick-to-the-joint bolt of pain. The MRI was ugly.

Admittedly, I overdid it on both counts, topping off the frenzied wedding preparations with hours of reckless dancing at the receptions. My hip was already hurting but damn it, I was going to chug a glass of wine, pop some Advil and rock out!

Not surprisingly, I’m now using a cane on good days, crutches on bad ones. I can no longer walk the dog, my favorite pastime and main source of exercise, forcing Michael, my reluctant husband, to take over.

“You’re the dog person,” he reminds me daily as I gimp to the pool. He feels particularly unmanly walking little Buffett, our fluffy Bichon, around the neighborhood in sight of “real” men walking huge Labs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Great Danes.

At first, I was attributing my crash to an unexpected, delayed reaction to the empty nest, the poignant realization that with each of our adult children’s milestones, my husband and I are fading. Also, I’m no doubt experiencing a normal come-down from a high. But since I’m now relatively crippled, and the “kids” are moving so definitively into their grown-up lives, I suspect that this double-whammy is a symbolic transition into another life stage that I have stubbornly refused to acknowledge. My body is weakening, and I feel demoralized— shocked, really. This doesn’t jibe with my identity. I can see my husband and children looking at me askance, treating me a bit too delicately. Who am I now, anyway?

Could this be depression? I am not a depressed person; I might be sad for a day or two, but I never live there. This time, I’m not so resilient; it’s out of character.

Unlike my husband, who cratered after the kids left for college, moping around the house and peering mournfully into their empty rooms, I was afire with a reinvention of self: in graduate school on the road to becoming a psychotherapist. At last, I was getting back to myself, freed up from the mind-numbing, domestic duties of motherhood. I could think again, and have intellectual discussions. I could write academic papers and give sharp Power Point presentations. I was, once again, a contender!

And now, I’m happily engaged in my profession, in a private practice with a group of like-minded professionals. In terms of the weddings, I was delighted. I love my new son- and daughter-in-law, both of who have been part of our family for many years. Even better, they all live here in Austin, as does our youngest, Sam, and his girlfriend Abby. What’s to pine about?

And then I began to sort it out. Our children’s marriages are monumental life events for us as well as them. When our children marry, our roles shift. We are sidelined in a way that may seem subtle at first, but which becomes more concrete over time. We are no longer the ultimate authority, the buffer between them and the world, the essential caretaker of their identities. They are, in a word, launched. It’s another dreaded time marker, of—dare I say it?—growing old, or old-ER.

That’s how it should be, right?

But my hip is another matter entirely—the first physical domino, I fear, of many to fall. What’s next? In favoring the bad hip, am I wearing out the other one? And what about my knees? I am not accustomed to being compromised. After a second medical opinion, I just received the grave news: hip replacement. Already? I have gone out of my way to stay fit, eat right, get eight hours’ sleep. But there’s no arguing with osteoporosis and now, osteo-arthritis.

When the children were young, I used to picture myself as the Sun—radiant, powerful, even indestructible—with the smaller planets of my children, and even my husband, orbiting around me. Now I fear I’ve become a faint, distant star, light years away, losing my brilliance as I die a slow, inconspicuous death. Get out the violins!

There is good news, though: the modern “anterior total hip replacement,” a much less invasive procedure in which the surgeon enters through the front of the hip, bodes well for a speedier and complete recovery. In a matter of weeks, I would presumably be confiscating Buffett’s leash from Michael and hitting the greenbelt. And in a couple of years, Michael and I should get another shot at significance—of the grandparent kind.

So I refuse to be trapped in the “tyranny of now,” in the words of Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. Instead, I have every intention of tapping into the “power of yet!”

Apr 24

Jesse/Wedding Speech

It is not easy to describe one’s child. As parents, our perspectives are skewed by blind love, fear, frustration, hope, tenderness, anger, forgiveness, joy, and our own narcissism. After all, aren’t our children reflections of ourselves?

But here goes.

When Jesse (on right in photo) was born, and the doctor placed him in my arms, I took one look at his bright blue eyes and his beautiful, squished face and had an epiphany that changed my life: I get it now, I thought. THIS IS THE MEANING OF MY LIFE!
That epiphany returned twice more, with Owen and Sam, and it has never left me.

At the beginning, Jesse and I were alone against the world. Two days after his birth, Michael had to leave for a photo shoot. There we were, baby Jesse and I, in a rough loft in lower Manhattan, above a Greek souvlaki vendor warehouse that cranked up at dawn, and dispatched dozens of garlic-y Greek push-carts out to the street masses. It was a colorful neighborhood on the West Side, just off Canal Street. Jesse graduated from Snugli to backpack to stroller before we moved to Brooklyn and welcomed his siblings, Owen and Sam.

He was an exuberant child. His energy was such that at two, he insisted upon helping with the chores and laundry; by 4, he was washing his own clothes. He rarely sat still, and was interested in everything—particularly animals, the outdoors, water, and sports. It was a relief when we moved to Austin, a natural paradise. He entered Forest Trail in second grade and quickly began making lifelong friends—many of whom are his groomsmen today: Jeff, Austin, Tyler, Matthew and Evan…and later, Matt and Jack. The group has swelled and morphed over time, and though their lives have diverged, they are still something of a posse.
Jesse’s resilience became evident early on. When my brother George gave him an old canoe, at 11, it became an obsession. I’ll never forget the day, at Emma Long Park, when he stepped into the canoe before we could join him and the current swept him away. Michael and I were frantic on shore, dialing 911, no Jesse in sight. Thirty minutes later, we spotted a smiling, triumphant Jesse, motoring back against the strong current. Somehow, he’d started the recalcitrant old motor and saved himself.

While the teenage years were—shall we leave it at memorable—the boys finally began to grow up. Jesse started setting serious goals for himself; he ran two Austin marathons, a Big Bend ultra-marathon, went skydiving, and joined Matthew for the grueling Texas Water Safari, a sleepless, 260-mile canoe race from Hell. When Matthew became delirious and had to quit, Jesse soldiered on alone in the middle of the night.

He discovered CrossFit in Vietnam, of all places, where he was spending a college summer in Ho Chi Minh City. A close family friend set him up with an internship at Highlands Coffee—the Starbucks of Vietnam—and Jesse was living alone with no language skills. CrossFit became his haven. Once he returned to the States, he took up CrossFit in Fort Worth, where he was attending TCU. Upon his graduation with a business degree, his passion continued back in Austin, when he started coaching, and then became part-owner, at Westlake CrossFit. While there, he became determined to travel to an ashram in India with some Canadian fitness colleagues to teach CrossFit to the children at the ashram’s orphanage. He set up a challenge for himself to complete 500 burpees as a fundraiser for the purpose. For those who don’t know, burpees are tortuous jumping jacks dropping to push-ups in a single motion. Although he nearly collapsed from the effort, he raised the money for the trip. Later, he and those same colleagues sponsored a gifted Indian youth from the orphanage to travel to America for a CrossFit certification.

Amanda entered the picture when the two met at Nick and Whitney’s wedding. Jesse proudly introduced us to her at Chuy’s on my birthday. It wasn’t long before this grounded, pretty blonde, formerly a cheerleader at Katy High School, became a fixture. She graduated from Texas State with honors, and soon plunged into the fitness business with him. She became his anchor. In the almost seven years since we’ve known her, she’s become a cherished family member, integral to all family gatherings and vacations in Port Aransas. She faithfully shows up at our BurgerFi dinners on Sunday nights, where she has adopted 89-year-old Gran as her honorary grandmother.

Meanwhile, Jesse has embarked upon another adventure. With Central Athlete in downtown Austin, he is working hard to introduce a new fitness concept to Austin: individual program design and remote coaching. It’s a high-tech enterprise, complete with apps and fitness software that support reciprocity with the coaches and keep clients accountable.

Now it’s Jesse’s turn to become accountable—to Amanda. As of tomorrow night, Michael and I will have a beautiful new daughter—this on the heels of welcoming Kemper, Owen’s husband, into the family. Our clan here in Austin—including nephew Charles, as well as nephew Stephen, his wife Ethel and daughter Hannah—is growing. Michael and I are grateful. Our children are truly bonded; they hang out together—rock-climbing, swimming in Barton Creek, sharing meals.

And as our roles with our children start to reverse, it is Jesse, our firstborn, who is now taking care of us: making sure we stay fit, monitoring our diets, keeping close tabs. We can thank him for teaching us, his parents, the hardest of lessons: that our job now is to step back, embrace and accept.

I love you both!

Mar 11

I Am the Cosmos*

Our daughter Owen got married a few weeks ago. It was, by all accounts, a joyous occasion. It was the one cold, damp evening of the month, but her happiness was so contagious that it didn’t make a whit of difference. Everyone partied on until the wee hours—outdoors, mind you, in the limestone, twinkly-lit courtyard of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center—oblivious to the stinkin’ weather.

Yet there was the inevitable “crash” after the festivities, complicated by my right hip going out (too much wedding prep, three hours of reckless dancing) and the poignant realization that with each of our adult children’s milestones, my husband and I are fading into the distance. In five weeks, our eldest son Jesse is following matrimonial suit, and our youngest child, Sam, has settled into a serious relationship.

The bottom line: they don’t need us much anymore.

Now what, I think to myself. I’m hoping this is just a normal come-down from a high, but since I’m now walking with a cane, post MRI, and the “kids” are moving so definitively into their grown-up lives, I suspect that this is a symbolic transition into an older age that I have stubbornly refused to acknowledge. Could this be depression? I am not a depressed person; I might be sad for a day or two at times, but I never live there. This time, I’m not so resilient.

When the children were young, I used to picture myself as the Sun—radiant, powerful, even indestructible—with the smaller planets of my children, and even my husband, orbiting around me. Now I fear I’ve become a faint, distant star, light years away, losing my brilliance as I die a slow, inconspicuous death.

But I am not lying down for this (except when I’m resting my hip). I am swimming laps and otherwise doing water therapy, continuing my vocation as a psychotherapist, de-cluttering our house, faithfully attending my spiritual group, and trying to keep up social contacts. I have to admit, though, that my heart is not quite in it. I am going through the motions, but I’m burdened by coming to terms.

So I am trying to take my own therapeutic advice: sitting with these feelings, this sense of loss, and allowing myself, even assigning myself, to grieve. A part of me considers this a selfish process as in a way, what I’m really grieving is my lost youth, or at least my relative youth. I’m grieving my loss of significance, my loss of agency in the younger world of technology, and the loss of my old self-image as a kind of life force. None of this is admirable: me, me, me. Yet it IS human, and sometimes we have to burrow into ourselves in order to emerge anew.

For the time being, then, I’m burrowing. I simply have to keep the faith that eventually, I’ll see a faint light in the distance—that distant star, blinking, brightening, finally surging back to life.



*reference: Titled borrowed from the late musician Chris Bell/Big Star

Jan 01

Peacocks and Poachers

Today was one of my assigned swimming days at Gold’s Gym. I am working with a trainer to rehab a hip plagued by osteo-arthritis—swimming laps two or three days a week, and on alternate days, struggling through an isometric and hip-strengthening workout.

For me, swimming is easy and Zen: I find it meditative and restorative, and my body tingles pleasantly for the rest of the day. It’s the only time I feel I can breathe properly, a technique I could never master in yoga, where I generally seem to hold my breath. A Pisces (okay, okay, but I AM something of a fish), I learned to swim as I was learning to walk, so I got the breathing down early.

I strive to get to the pool early enough to swim before the pool is hijacked by one of the aqua aerobics classes, which means I really need to get there no later than 8:30. This morning, I was happily on schedule. As always, I wore my bathing suit under my clothes for maximum efficiency. When I arrived, there were only two other swimmers in the pool, one in each lane, leaving room for just two more. We swim two to a lane. I staked out my spot, placing my goggles on the ledge of the lane in order to claim it. The gentleman swimming there alone politely scooted over to make room.

But as I started to lower myself into the pool, a tall, burly man, who looked right at me from across the pool, jumped in at the opposite end, claiming my lane. I’m certain he also saw my festive purple, four-footed cane, which was standing on the ledge of the pool right by my goggles. He then proceeded to swim aggressively toward me, as if I didn’t exist, splashing dramatically as he thrashed forward with macho movements. (Needless, to say, a skilled swimmer scarcely causes a splash!) Recognizing his ”type,” I simply sighed and moved over to the adjoining lane to share with the other swimmer. But I was angry—still am.

As I was trying to drift into my meditative state, I kept becoming distracted by this ridiculous peacock in the other lane, continuing to agitate the water as he did a posturing, exaggerated version of the crawl, a pathetic display of his “manhood.” The unfortunate adjective “dick-swinging” came to mind. I began to imagine his poor wife, no doubt a submissive, beleaguered mouse — if he even HAS a wife — having to deal with such an insecure brute. This led me to ponder all the recent incidents of piggish men in the news, entitled men in positions of power pushing women around and sexually harassing them: Fox News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, President Trump…the list goes on.

Back to the obnoxious swimmer. Such behavior is now sadly rampant in our culture–a lame explanation, but no excuse. Naturally, I began to fantasize about meeting the man face-to-face afterwards as we both left the gym. I confront him in the parking lot. No doubt he wouldn’t recognize me without my sleek pink swim cap…but I’ll wager he WOULD recognize my conspicuous purple cane–even if he pretended otherwise. So, what could I possibly say? I’m not a confrontational person, but as I’ve gotten older, I care a lot less about what people think. And I’m a lot more real. I AM a Southern girl, however, born and bred in Memphis, where I was conditioned from the time I was a girl to be genteel and yes, solicitous of men. (You know, the old honey-as-opposed-to-vinegar philosophy which admittedly, I can still strategically embrace.)

I imagine that his car–a showy Black Porsche that looks decidedly cartoonish in relation to The Hulk–happens to be parked right beside mine, leaving me no choice but to man up.
“Bless your heart,” I say sweetly as I open my car door. “It seems you left your manners at home today.” Whereupon, I blithely toss my cane onto my backseat, rev the motor of my funky little Honda Element, and lay some rubber.

Dec 13

What’s Your Story/St. Edward’s University Commencement Speech/Masters in Counseling Graduates

What’s Your Story?
Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

I’m telling my story today as a vehicle for giving you guideposts, or a kind of road map, through internship to full licensure.
Ch. 1: Honoring Your Roots

Everyone Has a Story

Each of YOU has a story about how you found your way from your previous life to the St. Ed’s counseling program. Whether you enrolled right after college or later on, you came to the MAC program with dreams of forging a new, perhaps more congruent path.

I was no different. All my life, I’ve been interested in people and their stories. Even when I was young, my friends came to me with their problems and I was always a willing ear. I grew up in Memphis, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where storytelling is an art form. An English major at the University of Tennessee (the REAL UT!), I began my career as a journalist, signing on as a copygirl at the Miami Herald. For the next 16 years, I worked as a newspaper and magazine reporter in South Florida and New York City, where I finally got my dream job at LIFE Magazine. At the time, it was a perfect fit: I captured people’s stories for a living.

Then I got pregnant; before I knew it, my husband and I had three children, five and under. I quit my job. I held down the fort in Manhattan and then Brooklyn while my photographer husband traveled for work. But eventually, the expense and logistics of the city became overwhelming. And without a career, I was a nonentity in New York. Seeking a softer life, we moved to Austin. Motherhood sped by in a blur. It was the experience of lifetime, but left me with a 20-year gap on my resume.
By the time our two older children were in college, and the youngest was a high school sophomore, I could see the empty nest approaching. I was getting itchy to reclaim my own life, and volunteer work was no longer cutting it.

Three of my volunteer jobs were critical, though, in my decision to apply to the MAC program: working with the homeless and writing the newsletter for the local non-profit, Mobile Loaves and Fishes; doing pet therapy with my Labrador Retriever; and serving an 8-year stint in the Stephen Ministry at my church. A Stephen minister is a lay person trained over the course of several months to function as a spiritual support to a congregant in crisis, meeting weekly with the individual, much as a counselor would. Those experiences fit; in the words of my old Southern English professor, they “spoke to my condition.”

Ch. 2: Choosing St. Edward’s

For me, St. Ed’s was one of the great experiences of my life–an incubator for a new beginning. Small and nurturing, the MAC program became a family. All my professors had something unique to offer, and they practiced what they preached by working as therapists in the real world. They woke us up. They made us laugh. And many of the friends and colleagues I made in the program will be life-long. They have changed me for the better.

Ch. 3: Finding a Mentor

Grad school, it turned out, was the easy part. Then the real adventure began. The licensing exam, 3000-hour internship and crafting of a new career required an entirely different mindset and a more sophisticated bandwidth. I was fortunate to secure Sunny Landsdale as my supervisor. Another intern and I talked her into taking us under her wing in private practice. She renewed her supervisor credentials, cleaned out a storage room in her offices and allowed us to furnish it as our counseling space. We were in business, with no clients. Then a friend referred a colleague to me, and I had my first client. That client referred someone else. As time went on, I realized that what I was doing felt oddly familiar. And then I made the connection: both journalism and therapy have to do with a fascination with the human condition, and in both cases, with getting someone’s story–albeit with different agendas. I could do this!
Building a caseload, though, took time and creativity. Serendipitously, another veteran therapist, Mark White,  asked me to co-facilitate an ongoing psycho-educational parenting group. I had met him during my volunteer days, when I wrote a profile of him as one of the founders of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. He, too, mentored me. Some of those group members became my individual clients.

Ch. 4: Building a Foundation

During this period, I spent my free time doing everything I could to establish myself: creating a website and a Psychology Today profile, and writing regular blogs; networking with established therapists by taking them to coffee; attending professional meetings; giving free presentations on relevant topics at the community library; becoming certified in EMDR and Trauma First Aid; and reading what I hadn’t had time to read in grad school.

Ch. 5: Being Creative: Carving Out Your Niche

But the real turning point came one day when I was swimming laps at the Town Lake YMCA. It occurred to me that a pro bono counseling program would be ideal for the Y’s healthy mind-body-spirit mission. I proposed the idea and the Y management jumped on it. Within weeks, the program took off and I had to recruit another intern, Marvi Haynes, to help me. The Y cleaned out its Pilates storage room upstairs. We scrounged up some furniture from home and WalMart and hung up our shingle. We counseled Y members ranging from homeless individuals to CEOs. Within two years, between Sunny’s umbrella practice and the Y, I had logged my 3,000 hours.
Ch. 6: Joining a Tribe

Once fully licensed, I left Sunny to office with a group of like-minded colleagues from St. Ed’s and Capital Area Counseling. Known as the Austin Counseling Center, we share space and camaraderie on Westbank Drive. I am five minutes from home. Three of us are supervisors, and we offer interns office space in which to begin seeing clients. Frequently, with appropriate clients, I take my dog to work as a canine xanax. He cuddles up next to them and palpably lowers the anxiety in the room. Meanwhile, the Town Lake YMCA counseling program—strategically located downtown, overlooking the hike ‘n bike trail–is still flourishing. We offer Y members two pro bono sessions and then a sliding scale. Many become long-term clients. Unwittingly, the Y counseling program has become a powerful marketing vehicle.

At last I had reached my goal: a career that offered autonomy, complexity and meaning, and one which I could pursue indefinitely.

Fast forward to 2016-2017: Since I was an intern, things have changed.
Supervision costs have escalated, and it essential that you have a financial plan in place and a stable site at which to do your internship. Also, if you’re planning on going into private practice, no matter your marketing expertise, consider taking insurance. Austin is a young city, and most clients need to use their insurance for therapy.

Ch. 7: Staying True to Your Story

So I ask you: what experiences in your life can inform your new profession? What are your roots? What connections do you have that might prove useful? What are you good at, and what do you love to do? What sets you apart?
Perhaps you have a business background, or a facility with languages. You might have experience in healthcare, teaching or pertinent volunteer work. Maybe you’re a parent, part of a couple, or have experience in the LGBT arena. You might have navigated a serious illness, or a trauma.

One of my interns is a competitive athlete. She is carving out a niche, at least partially, counseling high-level athletes. An older intern, the mother of two older adolescents, is working with troubled adolescents in the Hays School District. Yet another intern, a brilliant individual on the Asperger’s spectrum, is working with that population, helping young adults navigate college and coaching them in seeking and interviewing for appropriate careers.

Even if you’ve gone straight from undergrad to grad school, there is something in your background that can contribute to who you become in your career. Use your story–all of it. My journalism, parenting and volunteer background continues to be foundational to my counseling career.

The world-renowned writer and psychotherapist Thomas Moore, author of the powerful book Care of the Soul, believes that it is the storytelling itself that is important–not only for us, as counselors, but also for our clients. He says:
“Storytelling is an excellent way of caring for the soul. It helps us see the themes that circle in our lives, the deep themes that tell the myths we live. It would take only a slight shift in emphasis in therapy to focus on the storytelling itself rather than on its interpretation.”
What this means to me is that the stories people tell about themselves, how they tell them and what they choose to emphasize, is where the substance lies–the key to the psyche, as it were. Storytelling, in this way, becomes a metaphor for the true self. It is our job as therapists to guide our clients in shaping their life narratives into empowering, coherent and genuine stories.
And remember: it is our relationship with clients, not a particular technique or modality, that is the chief agent of change.
Ch. 8 Good Luck!

Today I’m here to honor your launching.
So whether you’re working at an agency, a school or other entity, or going into private practice, use your precious time to build a career around who you are. Be creative: talk to therapists who are doing the kind of work you want to do. Beef up your business and marketing smarts. Step out of your comfort zone, think out of the box. Find an internship that will work for you—logistically, financially and spiritually. Stay connected to your colleagues.
Finally, (and I’m big on this) don’t fail to practice, and model, self-care: exercise daily, stay hydrated, eat mindfully, get eight hours’ sleep.

And be grateful…You are entering a profession in which meaning, and transcendence, are built into your work…one of the rare professions in which age is actually an asset!

To paraphrase Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: Man comes at the meaning of his in life in three ways: through good deeds or meaningful work, through love and relationship, and through transcendence of self to help others. His tale of transcendence sets the bar for all of us.

Above all, keep listening. There’s a story there.

Aug 25

Why I Left New York By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S

I was keen to stay home and raise our three children. Happily, in New York City, where we were living in the 80s and 90s, it made more economic sense for me to quit work.

But this choice was fraught: women in New York who leave their jobs to raise their children generally vaporize into the suburbs, and the few who stay end up feeling awkward and isolated in the parks and playgrounds among paid caretakers. Such mothers become invisible. Stripped of a CAREER, a woman loses her identity. The first question anyone asks at a party is, of course: “What do you do?” Motherhood was not a respected full-time vocation; it was not PC.

Fortunately, by the time I had three children, a couple of years apart, we had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, a “softer” borough where I managed to find a handful of other mothers. But as time went on, and our first two children entered first grade and preschool, we could no longer keep up. Because of the marginal neighborhood in which we lived, we had to send the kids to a private school nearby in Park Slope. With a third giant tuition looming, we began planning to move. Besides, I was exhausted from hauling three children—one in a backpack, one in a stroller and one on foot—on daily errands, to recreational activities, and to pediatrician visits in Manhattan on the subway. My husband traveled non-stop, so the child-rearing fell to me. We didn’t own a car. I cannot count how many times the middle child jumped out of the stroller, causing it to upend from the weight of groceries hanging from the handle. A dozen eggs smashed, again.

Our decision to move accelerated one spring when all the residents of our coop building collectively planted a beautiful garden out front. Our once-grand building, the Copley Plaza, circa 1920, had fallen into disrepair. The marble, brass and mirrored lobby was cracked and fading, the doorman geriatric, his uniform askew. The place needed a facelift. But the next morning, the garden was gone: stripped bare, the plants uprooted and stolen. Ugly, cavernous holes and gnarled, errant roots greeted our bedraggled doorman, Albert, as he arrived for work. Although we got back on the horse, replanting the garden—this time, with deeply buried chains tethering each shrub—the emotional damage was done. I’d had enough.

When the children were seven, five and two, we moved to Austin: a cushy landing in 1993. We moved to a tranquil, older suburb, complete with greenbelt. We had a real house, a fenced-in backyard and a school bus stop right at the top of our cove. Public school was now an option. We finally got a dog.

At first, I was relieved. It was PC in Texas to raise one’s own children. Then I began to feel strange, like I’d landed on Mars. Suburbia was so very clean. Lawns and people were manicured. Cars were shiny, fresh from the carwash. The women, solo and clad in stylish tennis garb, piloted giant Suburbans with one hand, clutching a Starbucks latte in the other. When I attended my first Booster Club meeting, the pre-chatter was all about back-splashes. I had no idea what a back-splash was, and to this day I don’t have one.

But I have adjusted. We’ve launched our children and I’ve painstakingly, obligingly, re-invented myself. I inhale the big sky. I eat lots of Mexican food. I hike daily with my dog. And I dream, sometimes, of Brooklyn.

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