I have yet to meet a person or a family that is free of baggage. Big bags, duffel bags, backpacks or Coach bags, you name it, we all have baggage.
As we are coming off of the season of the holidays, aka family gatherings and such, I might venture to guess that some of our bags may be heavier than usual as our family of origin often pushes a button or two on our already overflowing bags.
This doesn’t mean we are all walking around in a sea of depression (although, sadly there are many who are), but it is rare to find someone who doesn’t have a story; a story laden with some emotional baggage. I recently met a new client. This man is successful, handsome and has a lovely family. He shared his story with me, which was quite heavy. As he walked out of my office slipping into a snazzy leather jacket, it dawned on me that anyone that saw him walking around town would not think that this is a guy carrying around such a hefty duffle bag filled with pain, conflict and sadness .
I work with teenagers who frequently talk about the “popular” kids at school. One girl labelled the spot in her high school where the popular kids hang out as the “benches” (it was “Jock Corner” at my high school); she talks about the well-dressed girls who always look like they are happy and have it together. I am forever trying to imprint in their brains (and mine) that we compare “our insides with others’ outsides”. Many teenagers feel lonely or inadequate and see the perky girl who bounces through the halls as seemingly baggage-free. That bouncy girl that looks happy may be depressed, suicidal, abused or struggling with an eating disorder. We all have baggage; whether it is apparent on our outsides or not.
One of my biggest challenges as a therapist is to help people embrace the idea of learning to love and accept themselves. I try to help my clients see that healing their insides can boost their perception of their outsides. The teenagers especially hyper-focus on what is wrong with their skin, hair, body or teeth. I, on the other hand, urge them to shift that attention onto their inner strengths: how are they kind, when do they support their friends, who do they make laugh and who can they trust?
One seventeen year client old is constantly trying to climb the rungs of the popular group despite the fact that these girls can be catty and exclusive. I asked her what it would be like to have a really good friend; someone who is kind, fun, funny and trusting. She said that would feel nice. I asked her what it would be like if this friend was not popular; if you enjoyed being with this friend, trusted her and she made you laugh until your stomach hurt, but she lacked the popularity sash across her front?
I challenged my client to observe the people in her classes. Think about the important qualities in a friend and if she thought there might be someone that she would consider being friends with despite their place in the popularity hierarchy. For the record, my client is beautiful; she has long cascading blonde hair, a beautiful figure and stunning features, but sadly she does not recognize this beauty in herself, but she has reported to talking to a few nice girls in one of her classes.
We all have baggage; the popular kids, the beautiful people, the intact families and the super wealthy. It can be a little wristlet or an oversized trunk, but we all struggle at some point because no one has a perfect existence, it’s part of this game we call life. The next time you think that your neighbor continues to skate through everything unscathed, remember that they have bags in their attic as well.
I wrote this last week before the tragedy in Newtown, CT. I have struggled to write or post anything unrelated to to the horrors that occurred because I don’t want to detract from their experience. Sadly, as I re-read this post, I saw that it could be applicable. I do hope that if anyone is feeling stuck in the depths of darkness or struggling with any thoughts of suicide that they will reach out to me, another practitioner or use the resources listed below. Warmly, Laurie
A few weeks ago my son was rejected from a college. This was the first he had heard from any college and it was a lousy way to begin the process. He was devastated, as was I. It wasn’t his first choice school, but that “rejection” be it in your mailbox, or these days on your computer, is one loaded word. My son is a sensitive kid with a sick sense of humor. I share this because in the midst of his anger/fury/sadness/fear he announced that he was going to “drink a bottle of bleach”. Although he was kidding, the therapist in me NEVER takes any suicidal talk lightly.
Twenty-four hours later, he was notified that he was accepted into his safety school. Ahhh….relief! He would not be spending the next 4 years in my basement, he has somewhere to go. He was elated, proud and just darn happy.
A week later, he was then notified that he was accepted to the first school, yes, the one that originally rejected him. What? It turns out that he had accidentally made two accounts when filling out his application online. He had called the school and asked them to delete the first account which, unbeknownst to us, they failed to do. His first account with incomplete application was rejected, his second and proper account was accepted. Relief and sanity ensued.
And, yesterday, he was accepted to his first choice school! Joy, joy and all joy! (except for enormous tuition payments).
Back to the bleach. In our lowest moments, some of us resort to “all or nothing thinking”. A devastation occurs, a heartbreak, a financial crisis or something equally as traumatic and many teens and/or adults contemplate suicide, some attempt it and tragically, others succeed.
I have tried to make the “bleach” conversation a teachable moment. In one’s darkest hours it is sometimes impossible to see that something positive could happen, in my son’s case within twenty-four hours. I saw a client a few weeks ago for her first appointment. She was very depressed and felt lost and “stuck”. She shared her story with me and I tried to give her some relief from the heaviness that she carried. Later that day on a whim I sent her an email. She responded very positively and said that she had wanted to email me, but hadn’t wanted to seem to “needy”. We had a few more exchanges and I sent her an exercise to practice until we next met. I kid you not, for her second session the following week, she bounced into my office. She said that she was feeling “motivated” and had taken several concrete steps with her renewed energy to help lift her spirits.
What a gift to be able to witness such a transformation. Not all clients experience change as quickly, but many do get their bounce back and find joy and calm after doing the necessary work to address the heaviness and move forward.
I beg you to know that joy can be had. If you or someone you know is in that very dark place, please get help. Twenty-four hours, a week or a few months can feel like eternity, but the darkness can lift and joy is attainable.
See these resources for immediate help:
That was my FB status a bit after I learned about what happened in Newtown, CT: no words. I could not put words to what I was feeling, to what had happened, to the idea of someone going into an elementary school, like the one where my daughter attends and opening fire on small children; children that use words like “bad guys” referring to a character from Batman, not a man in their school.
A blogger friend of mine just wrote that as a blogger, she was feeling a desire to post about the tragedy, “write something profound…and yet (she) can only…pray for the families that have been traumatized”. That friend inspired me to open my WordPress account and click “New Post”.
I have just returned from a dear friend’s home with several other dear friends and their families. We lit the last candle on the menorah and as a group of 15 sang the Hebrew prayers blessing the Chanukah lights. We were celebrating a young man returning from his first semester of college, my son’s acceptance to college as well as being together as a “family” and being blessed with health, safety and peace. I suggested that we also sing the Shehecheyanu which is a prayer that is said during special occasions; when one is thankful for special experiences. It was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes.
I think of the lights that are being lit at the vigils for the victims of Sandy Hook. I think of the lights that were lit tonight in my town at a vigil to stop gun violence. And, I think about all of the candles that were lit in homes all over on this last night of Chanukah. There were some Jewish children that were killed in the massacre; their Chanukah lights were not lit. I pray that our lights somehow shone on their memory.
May all of their memories be a blessing.
If you live anywhere near my little piece of the world, you may have heard about Gabriella Miller. She is in fourth grade and was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of inoperable brain cancer last month. Gabriella was offered a wish from the Make-a-Wish Foundation and has chosen to go to Paris, France. We have all, sadly, heard this story many times: the horrific tale of a child getting cancer and the joy of a “wish”.
Gabriella has put a creative spin on to this all too common and heartbreaking story. She learned that Macy’s has offered to donate one million dollars to the Make-A-Wish Foundation if they receive one million letters to Santa. Gabriella and her team of elves has launched a grass roots effort throughout her community that is reaching all over the nation.
The add-on twist is that Gabriella and her family are Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas. After a letter writing party at her school on Saturday, the family lit the first Chanukah candle on Saturday night (pictured on her Make-A-Wish Facebook page). Their message is that people of all faiths and beliefs can still pause and take a moment to be grateful while writing a letter to Santa (or whomever, there is a non-religious letter template if you prefer to go that route).
What has struck me about this amazing effort is the community involvement for this precious girl. I learned about the letter writing campaign via multiple unconnected people on Facebook, as well as in an email from a colleague who lives in Gabriella’s community. Social media and technology are allowing their efforts to spread and multiply. It warms my heart to see social media working for positive and hope where so often hate and negativity are spread via the world wide web.
I love the fact that her friends, their families and the community can do something concrete to help both Gabriella and so many other children fighting the beast that is cancer. Writing a letter for hope and a “wish” is a great teaching moment for kids. It takes them out of an age appropriate self-centered existence and opens them up to those that are struggling, hurting and in need of more than just the latest toy on the market. This concrete task is also a healthy distraction from the sadness and fear inherent in any cancer diagnosis. The kids that are getting involved with the project can feel helpful and productive. How many times have you heard of a tragedy and wanted to “help”? It is so nice for the kids to have this opportunity to pitch in and feel a part of something bigger and important. I don’t pretend to imagine what Gabriella and her family are going through, but I hope that they are feeling the support of their community throughout this horrid ordeal; they can rally around the letter counters and get some joy from the commitment of their neighbors both near and far as they endure the treatments and side effects of Gabriella’s illness.
Coincidentally, I am friends with one of Gabriella’s teacher. (Off topic tangent, but it is a great story. One of Gabriella’s teacher and I grew up across the street from each other in Boston. I was there when she and her twin sister were born and I babysat them as they were adorable toddlers wreaking havoc in more ways than you can imagine. Private message me for some great stories from the late 70’s). This teacher has shared with me how supportive and caring the students have been. What a tough thing for these 9 and 10 year olds to have to endure, and yet, what an amazing idea to have the entire school involved in the letter writing?
My heart aches for Gabriella and her family. I am so glad that they have so much support and love from their community. If you want to write a letter the details are on this site or simply, just send your letter to:
Dear Santa- “Make-A-Wish with Gabriella”
20899 McIntosh Place
Leesburg, VA 20175
I have always been interested in adoption. I remember when I was a young girl thinking about the few adopted kids that I knew and wondering about their stories. I liked reading books about adopted kids and seeing the occasional movie that would come out pertaining to adoption. Of course, it is no secret that in the late 1970’s the subject of adoption was rarely on anyone’s best seller list.
Fast forward to 2005 when I worked for Prince William County Community Services Board. I attended a conference where Debbie Riley led a workshop on adopted adolescents. Ms. Riley is the CEO of The Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE), and she had just written a book, Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens. I can picture my seat in the front row (a learned behavior, I need to sit in the front row or I will be distracted by everything around me. Geeky, I know, but it works) with Ms. Riley standing in front of the group talking about adoption. I absorbed every word she said and then some. I asked many questions (refer to the previous mentioned “geek”) and was absolutely enthralled.
I began reading all that I could on the adoption triad , attending more workshops on adoption and
harrasssing paying special attention to anyone in my life that was involved with adoption. I have a friend that found his birth mother in his late 30’s. I practically moved in with him to witness his search and subsequent reunion with his birth family. I have another dear friend that has adopted two beautiful girls from China in the past five years. What a gift it has been to be a part of their journey; from being a reference in the homestudy to Skyping with them in China after meeting their second daughter, greeting them at the airport for the two homecomings and now watching the miracle of the girls becoming part of their family.
In my clinical practice, I slowly began seeing more adopted kids, mostly teenagers. Many of my adopted clients come to therapy presenting with depression, anger or school problems. Adoption is just a part of their story. As the treatment unfolds, I weave the adoption into the therapy. Many of the kids are resistant to discussing adoption. The most common response when I gently tug at the adoption cord is “I don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter”. Over time as my clients start to feel more safe with me and the therapy process, the shell begins to crack.
I worked for years with an adopted boy who was very angry and struggled in school. He had terrible self-esteem and was frequently fighting with peers and his family. After some prodding, he would talk about his birth parents and described a “hole filled with fire” inside of him. He was able to label it as rage; rage at his birth parents for giving him up for adoption. The rage penetrated his outlook on himself and his relationships fueling conflicts on a regular basis with both family and peers.
Like many of my adopted teenage clients, this boy felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with him which caused his birth parents to relinquish him for adoption. I ask these kids to imagine a baby; a sweet, innocent and beautiful baby. I ask whether a baby could do wrong, mess up or make mistakes? My clients usually agree that other than a poopy diaper or some crying, a baby is generally innocent. I ask how an innocent baby could cause it’s own adoption? I ask when they were this young, how they could have been “bad” enough to have been given away? I try to make the connection for these teenagers that it was not they who brought on the adoption; the adults in their lives made the decision based adult reasons and adult resources. The adoption was out of their control, nothing they could have done either positive or negative could have effected the outcome ; they were simply the innocent player in this story of their own life.
There are so many emotions that come with the territory: rage, sadness, loneliness and confusion. There is also love, gratitude, appreciation and joy. On some days, my clients can feel one, another or ALL of these emotions at once. It is normal and confusing and again, comes with the territory.
If you have questions or thoughts, please contact me.