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.


Aug 25

The Post-Mommy Abyss/By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S

When our youngest child, Sam, was a high school sophomore, I became superfluous. He got his driver’s license and the family’s battered old Toyota, and peeled off into the teenage cosmos. Jesse and Owen were away at college. I was left without a job.

While I had spent the child-rearing years doing volunteer work and working part-time in my husband’s photographic studio, I lacked my own, autonomous agenda. My primary agenda, as a mother, was supporting my family members’ agendas. Now I had to face myself. What was my agenda?

I’d been itchy for some time, wondering if my brain still worked. Years before, I had been a contender: a newspaper and magazine reporter with a real career. I wrote profiles of all kinds of people, coaxed the most recalcitrant subjects to talk, and fancied myself a practical psychologist. I traveled, lived in Miami and New York. Now here I was, an 18-year gap on my resume, in a city where 20-somethings ruled. I was old, technology-deficient.

What kind of career, I wondered, would offer autonomy, part-time opportunities, enough complexity to fuel my growth, minimal technology and meaningful work? I already knew the answer: psychotherapy. Once again, I’d be getting people’s stories, albeit with a different, more compassionate objective. I had fantasized about this for years. So I applied to grad school.

St. Edward’s University embraced me, swallowed me up. But Michael, my husband, protested. He was used to having me around; he wasn’t traveling much anymore. We had to forge a new dynamic. I forced myself to wake up at 5am and write my papers before my husband and son emerged. I sacrificed my favorite Netflix series at night to get all my reading done. I spent weekends hitting the books. But I relished every moment. I remembered how to study. And this time, I was laser-focused.

School was the easy part. Next came the dreaded national exam, the search for a supervisor who could sponsor me under her umbrella in private practice, and the whopping 3,000 internship hours I had to log. Finally, I had to find a place to work on my own.

That was a decade ago. My reinvention took a few years. Today, I work at the very tranquil Austin Counseling Center, five minutes from home. I share space with a good group of like-minded therapists. We occupy the floor above a classical music school, and hear only trilling piano notes as ambient noise. I bring my elderly Bichon to work as an unofficial therapy dog: a canine Xanax. I go home for lunch. I take Fridays off.

The best part? The children witnessed my new becoming. They are proud of me. And all three have settled here. We host family dinners on Sundays and otherwise try not to intrude. We are in the in-between: that nether-world between being parents and grandparents.

But we stand ready.


Aug 16

The Empty/Emptying Nest

The Emptying/Empty Nest: Part I

By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S

Many of us baby boomers are in the throes of launching our young adult children into the world. Whether the launch involves going off to college, getting first jobs, beginning serious careers, relocating to another part of the country, or simply moving into their own places, our older children are striking out, now, into an economy that is more robust than during the 2008-09 recession. Back then, many young adults had no choice but to continue living with mom and dad, or to boomerang back home post-college. At the very least, many were still receiving financial support.

What would have been an often poignant transition for parents, especially for primary caretakers, became a transition of another sort: how to deal with strapping, often frustrated, young adults in the house, in terms of shared chores, house rules, financial responsibilities, common consideration, and general expectations.

But now, it seems, our Western culture—which encourages children to leave home pre-marriage —once again prevails. Even boomerangers are beginning to move out. Jobs are more plentiful, and there seems to be a trend among millennials to live collectively, with multiple roommates, in order to achieve autonomy.

Parents, meanwhile, are grappling for equilibrium. When our children leave home, our lives change dramatically. We must begin to redefine ourselves. Whether or not we have careers outside the home, the absence of our children in our daily lives is a loss, and for many, a big one. It forces us to take stock, to re-evaluate our life purpose, to think about who we really are, beyond parenthood.

What now? is a common, albeit silent refrain. Who am I now, and how am I going to justify my existence? Obviously, this is much more visceral for primary caretakers, generally mothers who have given up their own, autonomous lives in the service of family. Such parents must often recreate themselves altogether.

How does one deal with a huge resume gap? How does a woman transition from the domestic, family life to the working world after a considerable absence? Inevitably, for women who have had the luxury to stay home with their children, or who were able to work part-time, getting back on the serious career horse requires further training and education. Often, tech skills are not up to snuff. The learning curve—in all arenas—can be daunting.

Beyond the practical, the issues of carving out a new identity are also psychological and spiritual. Whereas contribution, meaning and purpose are “built in” to child-rearing, we must come to terms with how to address these needs now that we are no longer essential in the same way. For the affluent, who don’t require a second income, volunteer work can become a fulfilling pursuit. But for those who must return to work, how do we even begin to find meaningful work? What if we don’t have the resources to pay tuition or training/certification fees? We can be faced, at midlife, with the prospect of unskilled labor—an occupation that is anything but resonant.

Whatever the particular situation, primary caretakers whose children are leaving home would do well to prepare for this transition well ahead of time: researching possibilities, assessing

requirements, making a list of personal and professional contacts, attending workshops or seminars, volunteering for an entity they admire, and which might offer future job opportunities, and above all, taking time to contemplate and identify a new life purpose. Creating or joining a group of like-minded women in similar situations can be hugely empowering. Seeking short-term therapy or career counseling are other useful initiatives.

Taking charge, instead of being hijacked by the empty nest, is practicing self-care and resilience.

*Emptying/Empty Nest Psycho-educational and Support Group beginning Fall of 2016

Coming Next—Part II:

How I Faced the Post-Mommy Abyss


Mar 23

Making the Bed

Most of us have a morning ritual that kicks off our day: drinking coffee or tea, eating breakfast, feeding the dog, reading or listening to the news, exercising, even meditating. But among the things I do in order to begin the day in the right spirit, making the bed is by far the most important. Why should such a mundane task rank so high?

It may seem trivial, but the habit of making one’s bed every morning is anything but. When done in a mindful manner, this task can have the effect of starting the day with a clean, orderly slate. When I am making my bed, moving from one side of the bed to the other, pulling up and straightening the covers, smoothing out the bedspread, fluffing the pillows, I feel as if I am “making the bed” of my mind—ordering my thoughts, acknowledging my emotions, soothing my psyche. I am focusing on the details in front of me, and in so doing, I am allowing my mind to take a break from “monkey brain” and concentrate, instead, on the matter at hand. When I am finished, it’s a no-brainer to pick up stray clothes, shoes or towels, putting them away in their rightful places. Seamlessly, I move on to the kitchen. A domestic chore that was once a headache, an odious task that I found almost impossible to face, becomes easy by association. Well, I think, the bed’s made…I may as well clean the kitchen, too. And I imagine how happy I’ll feel when I come home, at the end of the day, to an orderly house.

Even once I was in the habit of making my bed, the kitchen was a more formidable obstacle. Generally, I couldn’t even begin to clean up the mess until I had first emptied the dishwasher, which brought up resistance: a dreaded “pre-task” that requires bending over uncomfortably, again and again. It was only when I was able to install thoughts of gratitude—gratitude that I even have a dishwasher, and dishes to put into a dishwasher, and a kitchen to house the dishwasher, etc…not to mention the pretty Greenbelt view from my kitchen window—that I was able to begin. Now that’s become a habit, too.

Of course, all this goes back to my childhood, and my mother. When I was growing up in Memphis, I recall what a big deal it was when we finally got a dishwasher. I must have been a teenager by then. I remember Mother feeling guilty when Daddy bought it, like it was too fine a possession, something she didn’t deserve. Before that, Mother washed everything by hand without complaint. She was a stay-at-home mom—a common occupation in the 50s—and she saw keeping house as her job. When it came to the beds, she first pulled back all the covers to the foot of the beds, allowing the sheets to air out for several hours before making them. My main chore, as a little girl, was emptying all the waste baskets in each room into one can for efficient disposal. I adored doing this; it made me feel important, and helpful. I was Mother’s mini-me.

Now my mother is gone and even my own motherhood, in the daily, kids-underfoot sense, is past. It has occurred to me that I don’t even have to make the bed anymore. It’s only my husband and I in the house and, to his credit, he could care less. Also, if I asked him, he would happily oblige. I make the bed because I can. It’s an exercise, not in rigidity and compulsivity, but in gravity—gravity of the spiritual kind. This chore, and the others that follow, bind me to this life, this Earth. They tether me to myself.


Feb 20

Rapprochement at BurgerFi

By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S
We have a family tradition of gathering on Sundays at BurgerFi in South Austin. BurgerFi, a small and seemingly little-known chain, happens to make some of the best burgers in town: grass-fed, hormone-free, organic beef that simply tastes better than most burgers I’ve tried. The place is located at Mopac and Slaughter Lane, in the Alamo Slaughter shopping center.

This Sunday-evening tradition began as a way to integrate our three adult children, our nephew and their partners—all in their 20s—with my elderly mother-in-law. Our idea was to avoid subjecting the “kids” to visiting the “old people’s home” where their grandmother lives. I sympathize: I remember being that age and hating the thought of visiting the Trezevant Manor in Memphis, where various relatives and later, my own mother, ended up before they died.

Besides, my mother-in-law, or “Gran,” as we call her, adores cheeseburgers—and she doesn’t get out much. She allows herself such indulgence only once a week, and only if I split a cheeseburger with her. I can’t neglect to mention the accompanying “Cry and Fries,” a deep-fried mix of giant onion rings and thick, skin-on fries that is the required side. Gran asks that I cut one onion ring in half for her; she doesn’t skimp, however, on eating the fries. Weather permitting, we gather on the patio outside at a large picnic table. We often bring our dogs as well. We eat, and catch up, while the sun is setting.

But there’s more method to this innocent madness. Since our children and nephew have all launched, with jobs and houses of their own, they are trying their best to separate and individuate, according to their adult imperatives—not an easy thing to do pre-marriage and children. If they hang around our house or see us too much, they fear regression, and infantilization. I don’t blame them.

So they come willingly, and happily, to BurgerFi. This practice, I realized, is a kind of rapprochement. The term, borrowed from the French, officially means “a re-establishment of cordial relations,” as between countries or entities in conflict. But in psychology, it means returning, intermittently, to the secure base of one’s parents, or caregivers. The concept of rapprochement grows out of Attachment Theory. The idea is that throughout our lives, we often practice a certain rapprochement with our original families as a way to refuel, redefine and re-launch ourselves. We begin this process as toddlers; when we are learning to walk, we venture farther and farther from Mom, eventually even briefly toddling from the room where she is, but quickly returning for comfort and reconciliation. In connected families, rapprochement is a lifelong process.

Although I often miss having my children in my daily life, or even underfoot, my husband and I have embraced our BurgerFi evenings with aplomb. After all, it’s time we moved on as well.


Dec 22

The Cosmos Barks

If one is stuck, and struggling with life, choosing a good therapist—one who’s a good fit and who, in the words of my old college English professor, “speaks to your condition”—is paramount. Recently I had to make such a choice. As a therapist myself, with many colleagues in the field, the search was especially fraught. Anonymity and confidentiality are difficult in a city like Austin, with its sunny, outdoorsy arena and small-town feel.

I was considering this, and despairing a bit, as I sat on the steps of a building where I had arrived too early for a meeting. The doors were still locked, and so I waited. Presently, along came a gentleman with a large, fluffy Bichon on a leash. I sat up straighter and took note because the dog was the image of my own dog. Bichons are generally much smaller than the one I have, and this Bichon, too, was unusually buff. Not only that, but the man himself looked vaguely familiar. We struck up a friendly conversation and he introduced himself: it was a name I immediately recognized. He is a well-respected therapist whose web page I had seen, and liked, when trolling for someone to see. He was gentle and warm, and I liked the instinctive way he related to his dog.

I asked the dog’s name.

“This is George,” he said. “He’s a rescue, and he has terrible separation anxiety, so I bring him with me to work.”

My heart skipped a beat. My late father’s name was George, and so is my older brother’s. And I take MY Bichon, Buffett, to work with me to allay his separation anxiety. He hops up on the couch with clients and snuggles up next to them. Usually, I can feel the anxiety lowering palpably in the room.

I greeted George, letting him sniff my hand, and the man and I continued to chat, mainly about dogs. Then, since he had keys to the door where my meeting was being held, he offered to let me in.

That was the end of the exchange. But the following day, after sleeping on it, I called him and booked an appointment. And now, every two weeks, George joins me on the couch.

Sometimes, the universe speaks, albeit with a small, unexpected bark.


Dec 22

Rearranging My Face

Whenever I allow myself to conjure my mother, who died in Memphis on Christmas Day 2013, I think of Pond’s cold cream. I say “allow” because her absence is still so wrenching that I cannot linger there. When I feel the need for a “visit,” I hole up alone in my private space—one of my children’s old bedrooms that I converted into a Room of My Own, complete with Mother’s mahogany, leather-topped desk and pictures of our young family, circa 1955. I sit there in silence, letting memories wash over me.

I often remember her bedtime ritual. After brushing her teeth, she cleaned her face elaborately with a cotton pad and Pond’s cold cream, then wiped her forehead with alcohol before applying these sticky, band-aid-like triangles to her forehead just above her nose, between her eyes. Three prominent, deep wrinkles—her worry lines—marred her otherwise smooth face. She bought boxes of these questionable wrinkle-aids at Wiles Drug Store, our neighborhood pharmacy, which was most famous for its soda fountain and homemade, hand-packed ice cream. There was not a night I remember that she failed to engage in this compelling practice. Naturally, as a child, I joined her: dipping my fingers into the jar of velvety cold cream and, in kind, smearing it all over my make-up-less face.

I can’t say that her frown lines ever improved, but the sticky triangles definitely had a placebo effect, which was more to the point. In the morning, I often joined her in the bathroom I shared with my parents as she peeled them off delicately, inspecting her face in the mirror before rinsing with warm water and applying powder and lipstick. When her lipstick was down to a nub, she spent weeks wielding a small brush, digging deeply into the tube, to salvage the remnants. I felt privileged to witness these private, feminine ablutions. To me she was lovely, wrinkles and all. The lines gave her character. She wouldn’t have been “Mother” without them.

Unlike my older siblings, I inherited her worry lines. I lived with them for years, a slave to my heredity, before addressing them. As time marched on, I began to notice in family snapshots that they were becoming more and more pronounced and that furthermore, I often wore the same dour expression that Mother generally exhibited in pictures. I was, in a word, becoming my mother. She was terribly camera-shy and believed, in keeping with her unacknowledged beauty, that vanity was ignoble. She had a horror of calling attention to herself and strategically kept the focus on others. Even her best friends complained that she never talked about herself, or her family. And I have yet to find a photo of her that captured her essence.

As she grew old, having finally moved from our home on Rozelle Street into the Trezevant Manor, I began to grieve her. Not only had I chosen to leave home, and Memphis, at 18, but I had chosen to distance myself otherwise. I did not understand her—why she had neglected to explore her talents and capitalize on her intelligence, why she had not, in a more empowering manner, stepped into her life. And I took it as a personal affront that she was hidden, unknowable, even with me.

So after she died, I began rearranging my face. I tried not to frown. I practiced smiling, or keeping my expression pleasant when I was driving, working, reading or grocery shopping. When someone aimed a camera, I became conscious to appear alive and engaged. I tried to erase that shy, somber expression, that non-ownership of self—on behalf of both my mother and myself.

Eventually, I took the ultimate step. I made an appointment with my skin doctor for Botox. “This is for you, Mother,” I mumbled under my breath as the toxin did its work. And yet…whenever I look in the mirror, there she is, still.


Apr 02

Armadillo

Armadillo

By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S

I was already feeling fragile, having slept fitfully, rattled by disturbing dreams. Some part of me couldn’t shake a feeling of dread.
I forced myself into my morning ritual, firing up my IPad, New York Times app, coffee by my side. The top story hit me in the face: a German airline crash, in which 150 innocent people had died when the plane slammed into a mountain. A young German co-pilot, it seemed, had deliberately downed the plane. There were rumors he suffered secretly from depression. As I tried to make sense of the tragedy, my husband walked in the door from an early-morning workout.
“When you walk the dogs, head right, not left,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“There’s an armadillo in the road. It’s been hit by a car.”
“Is he dead?” I never refer to animals as “it,” as I believe them to be sentient beings.
“No,” he said. “Still alive.”
“We have to do something!” I said.
Michael grabbed the big walking stick we had bought from Mestizos on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, and we headed to the top of our cove, turning left. There, by our neighbor’s mailbox, was an enormous, regal armadillo, upside down, like a beetle on its back. His underside was pink and tender, and his clawed feet and pointed snout were twitching. Faint squeaks emanated from his bloodied mouth. After a few failed attempts, Michael was able to push him toward the curb and flip him over. In those few seconds, I prayed that once righted, he would scoot away, battered but intact. But no, his beautiful, ribbed shell was cracked, and he was bleeding from his abdomen. He could barely hold up his head, and trembled with the effort. I knew he was doomed. I am not a cryer, but a sob escaped my throat. It felt as if it had exploded from deep within my gut, where it had been lingering since my mother’s death more than a year ago.
I felt out of control. I had no way to put the animal out of his misery. We don’t keep guns, and even if we did, I could not have pulled the trigger. So I called Animal Control, and then the neighbor in question, warning her not to take her young children out front.
I got ready for work. But before leaving, I fought with my husband: old business, regressive detritus of marriage, came spewing out of us both. My emotional immune system was weak, out of whack, and so I devolved into old neuroses and defenses.
Though AnImal Control had removed the armadillo by the time I left for work, I thought of the poor, innocent creature for the rest of the day. Here this noble, prehistoric species has survived millennia, only to be run down in suburbia by unconscious human beings. I thought of the hapless plane-crash victims, obliterated in an instant by one of their own kind who had lost his way. And I realized that I, too, was painfully off-course, my armor cracked.
I made a pact with myself anew that I would wake up, cast off the old script, and—in the words of psychotherapist and spiritual writer Thomas Moore—“enter my fate.”