One week from today I’ll be on a ship en route to the Caribbean. I’ve never been on a cruise ship before, nor have I been to that part of the world. This is both exciting and anxiety inducing. I’ve watched as the final schedule for the writing and workshop portion of this event comes together. It is going to be an amazing trip, but I am definitely going to come home tired. I will have hiked in new places and spent hours working to make sure that the attendees and their families are happy with their trips. I’ll have almost no access to the internet while I’m gone, but I may write up blog posts to put online when I get back. Or I might spend my writing time on fiction. I don’t know what thoughts this trip will unfold in my head.
Between now and my departure I have much work to do in order to get my house, my business, and my kids ready for me to be gone. I’ve arranged to import a responsible adult, but I have instructions to write so the adult will know who needs to go where and when. I also have to pack. Oh, and there is also my son’s Eagle Scout board of review and two Parent Teacher conference days along with all the regular things. It is going to be a busy couple of weeks.
“I’m scared of earthquakes.” Gleek launched into this statement almost before she cleared the door to enter my room. Her face was pale, wide-eyed, and a little teary.
“Okay.” I said putting down my book and scooting over so there was room for her next to me on my bed. “What makes you scared about earthquakes today?” I always ask questions when my kids are mired in anxiety. Additional information helps me figure out which flavor of anxiety we’re attempting to manage. It matters because sometimes the anxiety needs to be laughed at and sometimes it needs to be sympathized with.
“I’ve been scared for days. My history teacher says there is a huge fault here in Utah and it is sixty years overdue for an earthquake. And now I’m scared that the earthquake will come and knock down our house and destroy everything.”
So we talked at length about earthquakes. I grew up in California and lived in the Bay Area during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which knocked down a section of the Bay Bridge and collapsed a long section of the Cypress freeway. That quake had more than a dozen aftershocks over the next two years. I also remember the Livermore quake and its aftershocks. I was able to tell her what an earthquake feels like and that humans are much smarter about building structures that are earthquake safe. I told her about many different earthquakes and how mostly it was just an interesting (if unnerving) experience with little or no damage done. Then we talked about her anxiety disorder and how it makes her more afraid than she needs to be. Yes an earthquake might strike, but beyond some basic emergency preparedness there is nothing we can do about it. We certainly shouldn’t let our daily lives be affected by fear of earthquakes.
Gleek acknowledged all of this and said “Usually when I’m scared of things and the scared won’t go away, I have to talk it out.” I loved hearing the self awareness in her voice. She has grown so much and has developed a solid set of coping strategies. Her fourteen year old strategies are worlds better than the ones she was employing at twelve.
This is a thing I need to remember when Patch responds to stress by becoming uncommunicative instead of engaging with me to figure out where the stress is coming from. When he finally spoke with me (after missing his bus) we were able to determine a specific problem that could be easily fixed. Patch is still acquiring good strategies. I just need to put structural support in place and give him time.
Gleek wound down from her outpouring of earthquake fear. Oddly, the most comforting thing I said was that sometimes I’d only know there was an earthquake because I’d see the lights swaying on the ceiling. Gleek now has plans to hang some things from her bedroom ceiling so she’ll be able to see if there is an an earthquake and get under her desk. On one level she knows that this warning system does little to protect her from the real possibility of an earthquake, but it is a small tool she can use to quell the anxiety. “See the hanging things aren’t moving. We’re fine.”
The other thing I’ll do is go have a word with Gleek’s teacher and let her know that while I understand she has the responsibility to teach about hazards in our area, maybe she could do so in a way that isn’t going to trigger anxiety for the anxiety prone kids.
I recently read an online article from Amanda Palmer talking about her creative life and her impending motherhood. My life has been so different from hers. I dove into parenting while still in college, so adulthood and motherhood were all tangled up together. For a long time all my creativity was absorbed into my parenting and homemaking efforts. It was only later that I began to create in ways that were shareable outside the walls of my house. Palmer’s fears about the impact of motherhood on her life are valid. All anyone can say for certain is that what comes afterward will be different than what came before.
I’m thinking much about the impact of parenting on creativity. I think about it often as I contemplate the novel I’m still writing years after I began it. I spiraled down into depression thinking about this over the past year or more as the needs of my children loomed and my creative spaces vanished. I thought about it now during the second week of school where we’d not yet had any emotional crises and I’d had several good work days in a row. I thought about it again after the third week of school where I did not have any good work days and emotional stuff spilled all over the place. I’m not fully able to judge if teens with mental health crises is more problematic for a creative life than infants or toddlers, (I wasn’t trying to maintain a separate creative existence during those hands-on early years) but I can attest the the toll that mental health during the teen years has taken. Though truthfully it was likely my own depression and anxiety which impacted my creativity more than the time taken by my children. Of course, my depression and anxiety were triggered by my children, so it comes to the same thing really.
I wish I had answers for this. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to look back and see how it all went together. From a distance I’ll be able to explain how all the things affected each other and maybe I’ll be able to draw a useful conclusion from it. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe being creative is always messy and complicated by the details of living. Either way, summarizing is not my job now. My job now is to make sure that I don’t hide from my creative work merely because I’m tired. I have to remember that creative time gives energy back to me in a way that down time does not. I have take time each day to pause and listen deep into my soul and ask the question “What is the work I should be doing today?” The answer to that question matters.
As of tomorrow morning half of my children are legally adults. That is just the capstone of a surprisingly eventful week which included a couple of emotional hurdles, school meetings, the news that it is possible for Link to graduate with his class (a thing I’d thought was a lost cause, which now I have to decide whether we should stretch for it. Letting it go had reduced stress), a new diagnosis for one of my kids, planning for an 18th birthday, having to decide to shift a school schedule, a couple of kids missing school because of meltdowns, another kid coming down with a cold, a phone call about a problem with Link’s Eagle Scout paperwork that caused me (needless) anxiety and my 95 year old grandmother being in the hospital again.
At one point during the week I called my sister and said “I need help processing.” She immediately invited me over and we sat for a couple of hours while I spoke all the random things in my head. I’m still processing. Mostly I’ve spent this weekend making sure Link’s birthday went well because I really messed up Kiki’s 18th birthday and Link’s last two birthdays were seriously impacted by Salt Lake Comic Con. We have one more day before we declare the birthday complete, but so far all the things have gone well.
I only have two weeks before I depart for the Out of Excuses Retreat. My big goal between now and then is to put things into a stable configuration so the kids can just do school while I’m gone. There are a lot of To Dos on my list.
“It takes a few tries to find the right therapist. Don’t give up.”
I was told variations of this multiple times by multiple people. They were people who had struggled in similar ways, so I believed them. Except that it was repeated often, in almost the same words. Following this seemingly simple instruction turned out to be very difficult that I began to wonder. Is this just a platitude? A thing we say to offer hope in a hopeless situation? Ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not just a platitude. It is a fact and a necessary process. By the end of this post it will be clear why.
I had no good methodology for finding the “right” therapist. Sometimes I went on recommendations from friends, neighbors, or primary care doctors. Though most of those recommendations were “I’ve heard of this therapist and have a vaguely positive impression attached to the name.” The few times I got an extremely specific recommendation from someone who had worked extensively with that therapist, the therapist was invariably closed to new patients.
I was left with trial and error, which is not a great process for someone who is struggling with feeling hopeless. Unfortunately this mirrors the medication treatment process for mental health as well. So we spent a couple of years trying this therapist and that medicine before switching things around. One kid got better, but not in any way I could relate to the therapy sessions she’d had. Two other kids got much worse. Until lately they’ve been better at least partially because of our experiences with therapy.
I’ve now had direct experience with seven different therapy relationships across four family members. At this point I can tell you far more about how to tell when you have the wrong therapist than I can about finding the right one. It finally occurred to me that this is actually useful information. No one told me what should constitute “not working” and so I stayed in several of the therapy situations much longer than I should have. It is hard to make good judgement calls in the midst of emotional chaos. It is even harder to abandon groundwork that you’ve spent effort, time, and money to establish in order to start over with yet another complete unknown. The thought of having to start over kept me doing “one more session” for weeks. So I’m going to tell you the knowledge I gathered from my experiences. Then I’m going to tell you the stories of how the therapists we had were wrong. From the combination you may be able to glean information to inform your decisions.
My experiences are not universal, some of what I say here may not apply in your situation or may be wrong for you. Listen to your own instincts, which can be hard in the midst of emotional chaos, I know. Listen anyway. Only take the pieces of advice that help you. Discard the rest.
It should only take 4-6 sessions for you to build a rapport with a therapist and start doing emotional work that is beneficial. If you don’t feel these things, move on.
It is not rude to abandon a therapy relationship. You don’t have to apologize or even explain. You can say “this isn’t working” or you can simply cancel your appointment and go elsewhere. Therapy professionals will not be offended or hurt. They understand that some relationships just don’t click.
Your therapist should never make you feel judged. If you feel judged you are not safe to find out what you really think and feel.
If you’re helping someone else with their therapy, how they feel about the therapist matters more than how you feel about the therapist.
It is normal to sometimes resent your therapist, but if that is happening week after week, it is time for a different one. Resentment is a sign that you feel attacked, which means you don’t feel safe with the therapist.
It is easier to have a regularly scheduled appointment than to have as-needed appointments. If you need a non-regular schedule, don’t leave the therapist’s office without scheduling your next appointment.
A sign of a good therapist is that they’re willing to change tactics when one is not working.
One of the reasons it may take several tries to find the right therapist is because you don’t know what you need until you start dealing with one. It is an iterative process.
There are different methodologies in therapy, what helps one person will be ineffective with another. Sometimes the therapist is a mis-match because they’re most comfortable with a methodology that doesn’t work for you. (IE: cognitive behavioral therapy when what you need is PTSD focused therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy.)
The financial cost matters. Sometimes a therapist can be wrong for financial reasons, because high cost can give your brain yet another argument not to go. This stinks, but it is true. Many universities have low-cost clinics where their grad students get to practice being therapists.
The therapist should be respectful of the anxiety and emotional energy that goes into admitting help is needed. One who doesn’t answer phone calls or drops you as a client is the wrong therapist, no matter how good they might be when you actually have an appointment.
Therapist #1: For Gleek. The therapist was young, a grad student. I thought this would help her build a relationship with Gleek. But all the sessions ended up with me and Gleek together sitting on the couch. The therapist spent most of her time dissecting the parent/child relationship rather than digging in to find out the inner workings of Gleek’s thoughts which Gleek hid behind a shield of chatter. I came away from most of those sessions feeling resentful and judged. It is likely I was projecting my own self-judgements onto the therapist, but she wasn’t sensing or solving that. The therapy relationship ended because the therapist graduated and moved away.
Hindsight: The therapy format was wrong for what we needed. It was set up to treat the parent/child system and ended up giving me lots of parenting advice that I already knew and had already applied. The next time I set up therapy I specified individual therapy.
Therapist #2: For Gleek. She was a woman in her fifties with a long practice dealing with children. I deliberately sought that out because I wondered if my reaction to the other therapist had been an inexperience problem. This therapist was recommended to me by Gleek’s church leader, specifically because the therapist did art and play therapy. I found the therapist good and easy to talk to, but Gleek became increasingly resistant to going. “I don’t like how nosey she is.” Gleek said. Ultimately Gleek was doing so much better (because of medication and changes at school) that the therapist and I agreed we could stop therapy for a time.
Hindsight: This was a similar problem to the one with therapist #1. We had different visions for what the troubles were. I probably could have had a meeting with the therapist and re-calibrated the treatment, but starting over was less work and Link was more likely to cooperate. Continuing to make Link go to a therapist he didn’t like would have damaged my relationship with Link.
Hindsight: She was a good therapist, but her business running skills interfered with my willingness to go to her. My next attempt at therapy for me will be an office with multiple therapists and a full time secretary who handles appointments.
Therapist #5: For Link. This was the therapist we were assigned after therapist #4 went badly. I’d considered changing away from grad students, but decided to give it one more shot. By this time I’d been told the advice about giving a therapist 4-6 sessions to connect, so that was the plan. Right around session four, the new therapist ran aground in almost exactly the same way as the prior one had. Link wasn’t opening up. He’d give answers, but they were mostly shrugs or “I don’t know.” This therapist met with me separate from Link and hammered out a new plan. He started playing games with Link. The whole goal was to connect first and then gradually use that connection to teach Link how to connect without games. Then they could get at emotional issues. It was a brilliant plan. I approved. I think it would have worked. Unfortunately about a month later the therapist made a personal decision that took him out of the grad school program. He worked to hand us off to another therapist, and was as conscientious as he could be, but it was still a big blow to Link and to me.
Hindsight: Not much useful to offer here, except that this process can be hard in unexpected ways.
Hindsight: Link needed an older brother/ role model and a young female therapist was not going to work in the same way. An older, motherly or grandmotherly woman would probably be fine. Any future therapist selections for him will keep this in mind. I’m also likely to try a therapist with a different approach, such as dialectical behavioral therapy instead of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Therapist #7: For Patch. I think we began seeing this therapist before Link’s good therapist quit, but I’ve put her last on the list because she’s the only one whom we’re still seeing. She’s a grad student at the same clinic as Link’s therapy. She and Patch hit it off right away. It helped a lot that I recommended that games be part of the therapy. (Having learned from Link’s experience that this can foster connection.) I can tell the therapy is working because Patch doesn’t resist going. Often he is excited or happy to go. Also the therapist usually brings me in for the last few minutes to let me know what they talked through and what would be a good focus for the week ahead. I know that they really are beginning to dig down in and untangle some of the emotional knots that Patch has been carrying around.
Hindsight: This is how you know when therapy is working, life feels easier. It is subtly easier so that you may not even be sure if it being easier is because of the therapy.
I don’t have many concluding thoughts, except to say that writing up this post helped me to see why it is sometimes necessary to try multiple therapists before settling. Each therapy relationship helps you learn more about what you need and want in a therapy relationship. It is not a failure to need to ditch one therapist and try out another one, it is a refining process. I wish I’d known that when I first started, it would have made the process easier.
It is always the little things that surprise me as my kids are growing up. Or maybe they are big things, but the key is the surprise. In stories these are the surprising yet inevitable plot moments where the audience first gasps and then says “of course, how could it be any other way?” This time it was an email.
“Link needs to register for selective services before his eighteenth birthday.”
I blinked at the email, in a sort of shocked pause. My boy is too young to have to register for the draft. Except he isn’t. Not anymore. It is only about two weeks until he is a legal adult and many of the rules change. One of them is filling out a form that registers him as a young male eligible for the draft should our country have a major military conflict and need more soldiers than it currently has enlisted.
No one has been conscripted or drafted into the United States Military since 1973, the year I was born. There hasn’t been a draft in my lifetime. The odds that my son will be called upon to fight my country’s battles are negligible. Our country has enough strong and good volunteers who fill those roles. But staring at that email, I had a moment of fear. For a moment war loomed and I felt connected to generations of mothers before me who sent off their sons, and to mothers now, who still do because their sons and daughters volunteer. My son is not a warrior. He doesn’t even like to play violent or bloody video games. And if he struggled and nearly broke when faced with the challenges of high school, I shudder to think what boot camp would do to him. I spent a long moment picturing what going to battle could do to him physically and mentally.
After a moment, the shadow of fear passed. I filled out the form to register him. This is one of the responsibilities of being a citizen, along with jury duty, and paying taxes. Yet when I hope and pray for peace in the world, there is just a slight bit more fervor in my prayers. I know that my family and I are very fortunate in the peaceful existence we’ve lived. It is good for me to face the fact that not everyone gets to choose a peaceful life.
It was the final day of the annual Perseid meteor shower. If I’d wanted the full display I should have gone out at 1am that morning. Instead I found myself laying on my back staring at the sky while the clock ticked over into the next day. Three of my kids and I were spending the night at a cabin in a state park. We were far away from city lights. The night was clear. All we needed was for the Perseids to cooperate and trail a few lingering meteors across the sky.
I lay there with my children, waiting. School would start for them in only a few days. I didn’t know how that would go. We were waiting for that too. Light streaked across the sky and I gasped, just a small, involuntary intake of breath at the sudden appearance and disappearance of light. It had been years since I’d seen a shooting star. I sent a quick prayer after it, almost like a wish.
Please let us grow this year instead of shrink. Please let us have happiness instead of hurt. Please, I don’t know what we need for this year, please help us figure it out.
More lights dashed across the sky. Some faint. Some bright. There weren’t many. Nothing like the display that people had described from the night before. I didn’t wish on them all, but each of them stole my breath for just a moment.
I wasn’t alone with the stars. My children lay with me, sometimes silent, sometimes cracking jokes with their cousins, always exclaiming out loud when lights streaked across the sky. I was glad to have them there with me, watching the lights and the darkness.
Shooting stars did not bring us any answers, just a beautiful moment to treasure.
I wandered through the house and it was strange and quiet. All four of my kids were off at their schools. Howard away at a convention. I paused to think when I last had the house to myself for five hours in a row. I don’t know when it was. Probably before Howard started working from home instead of trekking to Dragon’s Keep to do his drawing. That was eighteen months ago. Last December was when Link started being at home during school hours and my days were regularly interrupted by urgent meetings, surprise school pick ups, emotional crises, and home schooling. This morning they all left cheerfully. And they came home calmly. In between I had hours. I just wandered around in those hours rather than settling to a focused task. Come Monday I’ll try to build a work schedule around having those hours. It is time to proceed as if all will be well.
“How is it not having the afternoon pick up?”
Kiki’s questions were good ones, appropriate to our relationship and to her interest in family at home. Yet I struggled to answer them. I could easily tell her stories about events. I told her about her siblings coming home. I described things that happened. But these questions all asked for evaluation and I was coming up blank. It took me until this morning to figure out why. I’m semi-consciously trying to avoid assigning value to the beginning of school experiences we’re having. The fact that Link came home from his first day of school happy does not mean I should plan on that continuing. Gleek came home and was a little grouchy at my desire for interaction. After being social at school she only wanted to be left alone with her book. Patch was increasingly hard to wake up each morning. These things are mere data points. I don’t have enough information to see patterns yet. Also, I’m trying very hard not to tell myself stories about what the beginning of school events mean. I don’t want to spin small events into huge anxiety as I imagine catastrophic failure of all things education. Neither do I want to believe that all will be well only to be plunged into grief later when reality does not match expectation. Perhaps I’ll be able to evaluate next week, but even then the only point is to make daily adjustments in how things work, not make predictions for the future.
Then it was time for me to go. I had a three hour drive back home. We sat for a moment in silence, in the empty apartment, with Kiki’s things in piles before us. Last year I’d dropped her off into a crowd of familiar roommates. She’d been immediately swallowed up in continuing friendships and chatter. This time we both remembered a little too clearly the hard parts of the semester before. The emptiness of the apartment left space for those memories to bounce around and become worries.
In a small voice Kiki asked “Will you help me assemble my desk and chair?”
He came home carrying his hoodie, not wearing it. At some point he felt safe enough to take it off. I limited my after school questions to three. How was it? Good. Anything stressful or anxious? Not really. Anything exciting? His German teacher. The ease of his answers was as reassuring as the answers themselves. He met my eyes with his shoulders and arms relaxed. One day is not a useful measure to evaluate a school year, but it was a good start.
The kids were all out the door by 7:45 and the house was quiet. The quiet felt empty, substantially different than the quiet of people doing their own quiet things. “I miss summer. I don’t want to go to work today. I miss Kiki” Howard said, echoing my unspoken sentiments. Of course we will go to work anyway, because the work is important and we love the work enough to do it even on a day when we’d rather not expend effort.
The school year has begun. Thus far the only unpleasant things have been in my head. One day at a time we’ll proceed.