Posts By Katy

Step Outside Box for Self Care

braid

Self-care is a buzzword in the field of mental health and it’s time to question what it means.

Typically self-care seems to mean being alone, reading, taking a bath, listening to music and possibly having a beauty treatment. This ME time is useful when you’re a busy working mom or law student. But a rigid version of “me” time doesn’t speak to most people fighting with loneliness, depression, anxiety.

Many forms of illness circle the brain. The truth is this: women thrive on connection. Even misery loves company, perhaps “miserable company,” but someone bearing witness. Even introverts thrive on it just not on small talk, but on deep essential core connection. As Jean Baker Miller wrote from The Stone Center, many years ago, “We need ‘zest.’”

When we talk about self-care, let’s broaden our definitions and recommendations. A weekend in the sun. A day volunteering. A group yoga class. Reading aloud at a library hour. At a week-long retreat I supposedly filled to the mindful brim with relaxation; instead I heard my brain chattering like teeth in the cold. The only time it stopped was when someone absently stroked my hair, someone with whom I’d talked about feminist issues in third-world countries.

All the yoga, the sharing, the food and light were nothing compared to that unsolicited gesture.

Valentine’s Day and Universal Love

valentines mouse

Just when you thought the holidays were over, Valentine’s Day arrives. Depending on your attitude you either sneer politely at the explosion of pink and red in the card aisle or begin to anticipate, plot and plan.

This sneaky holiday is, I know, a Hallmark event. I know that if you love someone you don’t need one day dedicated to roses, champagne and chocolates. I certainly never enjoyed dressing up during the slushy epicenter of New England winter to freeze quietly at a small table. But here’s the thing: I LOVE Valentine’s Day. Here’s my favorite book on the subject.

Frankly—and I know I may be making enemies—I’ve always loved the holiday. I like making cards. I love sending them. I like the whole pink-red-gold-confetti “here is my heart on my sleeve” gesture of them. A vintage valentine postcard hangs by a pale blue ribbon in my linen closet. A new one reads I LOVE YOU MAMA in letters that straggle across a crimson shape. The table on the night before is spread with sequins, scrap paper and scissors.

Why is this holiday different from Christmas and New Year’s? Both those holidays long outlived their magic for me? Unlike the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, I always felt my heart. Family may be unwelcoming at Christmas and New Year’s has never made sense to me. New Year’s should happen in September redolent with the smell of pencils, fallen leaves and kids buying books or, at least upgrading their iOS?

Valentine’s Day speaks to universal hope. We all have hearts. We all can love. When my daughter was 5, I hung Disney Princess costumes down the banister of our small staircase. Those pastel dresses in yellow, pink and blue were a scratchy mix of tulle and love. I covered the stairs with confetti and hid the 3-inch plastic mules that matched the dresses underneath each gown’s skirts.

I think I heard her gasp that morning.

The heart keeps beating. We sow new traditions without trying. Years later my daughter’s dad lives down the street. This year she will be with him on Valentine’s Day. But I’m glad she says “Mom loves Valentine’s Day.” Glad I’m not bitter. Glad that what is beautiful still moves me, not romantic love but the joy of connection. Hold someone dear and it doesn’t matter what relationship they have to you. Tutors. Babysitter. Old friends. New friends. You may be between loves, but we do not stop loving.

My brother’s heart is recently mended after a week of holding our familial breath. My dead parents lie together forever. Tradition is as old and newly minted as my grandparents waiting online in Ellis Island, the pile of orange life jackets discarded by Syrian refugees. Hope, like love, springs anew.

Hungry For The Holidays

star katy

One population dreads the time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s: people with eating disorders.  

Consumerism explodes at the holidays, so, too, does literal consumption. People with eating disorders, often students returning home from college, are faced with a double-whammy. They have to navigate the usual regression to family dynamics we all feel but also, have to figure out food.

I’ve spent hours these past 10 years planning someone to get through cracker-and-cheese time without binging. Guiding and wondering and counseling someone who has not eaten dessert in years and faces a buffet piled high with pies and cakes.

For a few years I worked on at a psychiatric unit for the holidays. I loved Christmas there; we kept the spirit of it well in that old wooden-raftered building in the woods. Surrounded by snow and bowed evergreens, the small group of patients and staff were polite and hushed on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Day. Insanity seemed to have taken a small vacation. We were an isolated group out there, needing the containment of the hospital or the distance from our families to stay sane.

The lines between patient and doctor changed as we clustered in the snow for a rushed cigarette or marveled to see our footprints appear in each luminous dusting of the night. Fellow travelers, we were all at this inn for the night.

I’ve frequently thought about renting an inn for the holiday season. We crave community but one that is compatible. What if we could be assured that behavior,) around food at least, will be regular? What if the focus were on talking, thinking and doing rather than consuming?

Hiding food, eating leftovers, doing the dishes, midnight refrigerator raids can turn holidays into a desperate time. Patients return in January like tired anthropologists out in the field for too long. They often want to punish themselves by binging and purging relentlessly; some are worn from trying to appear  cogent when they are starving in plain sight of their families.

From where I sit, holidays haven’t changed much in 20 years.

Few people in America eat because they are hungry. We eat because we are bored, sad, angry or anxious. We browse the bright refrigerator shelves looking for something that will not be found there. Food is everywhere–now in pictures on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and more. Surrounded by this overload to the senses we are supposed to buy ‘zen’ or ‘mindfulness’ as easily as purchasing a yoga mat. It’s not that simple nor that easy.

Breaking bread with people with love is wonderful. Proust knew that a Madeline brought back childhood. Holiday smells and tastes are the same. But hungering for childhood is not the same as eating it. Whatever we want will be there today, tomorrow and next week. Remind yourself as you eat:

Do I want this or is this rather a socially condoned binge?

We confuse feeling full with filling ourselves. Try connection instead. Interview your grandparent. Pretend you are an anthropologist visiting our culture. Observe the family traditions and taboos. Stay in touch with your outside life. Use the nearest Starbucks or the public library in your town as place to regain perspective. Step outside your family into nature and be absorbed in something larger.

Invite a family member to make a new tradition with you. My brother and I started going for a walk after a particular tense Thanksgiving. We stopped at a lovely hotel with a piano bar not far from where the Boston Marathon ends. We went inside and sat down. Two newly-minted adults breaking free.

Holidays are not a cage that holds your family rules and a bowl of food. They must be recreated and reinvented to hold meaning.

The most cherished Christmas holidays I made was in Mexico. All I had in that tiny town was a Walmart and my ATM card. But I had my then-husband and our daughter. The small village was thrilled by the new Walmart and buzzed with activity on Dec. 24. Dazzled by the sequins on the swimsuits, the toothbrushes that lit up, the candy in exotic flavors I went up and down the escalators in a daze. We scattered mango chips and guava candies that night for the reindeer.  Christmas morning we opened stockings on the roof in the morning after our daughter trundled up the spiral staircase.

We ate that day, of course, but it was the newness of Mexico that drew my small family close like a small silk sack. I was reminded of the holidays at the psychiatric hospital. We make our happiness when we can and where we find it. We cannot capture it with things and we cannot consume it. Make it new.

“In the Name of What?” Finding Common Language

 

katy rose

 

 

 

 

 

I never understood the Shakespearean phrase, “beggars description.” I understand it literally of course. Some experiences or feelings defy words.

These past two weeks have been intensively and sadly divisive. Grief, fear and shock have been fought over as though they are desirable currency. Who is entitled to these tarnished coins? Who can feel important feelings? The answer: anyone who does.

After the attacks on Paris from terrorists, some of my patients wondered if they “should” feel anxious about terrorism because their peers were not. College freshman feared they were not brave because they had nightmares. Some raised the issue of greater losses elsewhere and felt we “should” feel more for other countries. 

Many others were simply concerned about a science midterm or Thanksgiving break. Evacuating Harvard Yard made it hard to reach a professor with office hours. The omnipresent drone of a circling plane activated PTSD from 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks. I sat in my office like a shaken sphinx. I was full of questions. What was normal? What was pathology? Hard to know. I could not promise security to anyone. I could not reassure a patient that we were all safe. All I could do was continue to listen to each person’s response to another attack on the world. The responses were wildly different. None, however were hard to understand.  

My life has been spent putting words to feelings­. I have been a  writer. I have taught others to how to write. Now I use words to cast a net over someone else’s experience. I search for a “common language.” The best words I can hear are “me too.” But there are never “no words.” If someone says “I don’t understand” or “I can’t imagine what you’re gong through” I feel alone. I want to say, well then—”try.” So this week, like others, I tried. Even when I urgently wanted to talk about the situation of the world, I tried. I listened when active listening was especially hard to do.

I’ve rarely met a situation where I can’t find words. These past two weeks I had to hunt for them a bit. The older I am, the more I find clichés comforting. A stitch in time saves nine. One swallow does not a summer make. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Old poems worth memorizing came back to me this week: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say ice.”

In the carpool I explained these proverbs and poems to seventh graders. I quizzed my calm daughter on their meaning at night. What was I suddenly trying to transmit? Nothing she wants to hear— yet. Understanding, as John Green wrote about falling in love, happens like falling asleep, slowly and then all at once.” In therapy, months are spent visiting an experience or  a relationship until suddenly, you see it from above. An X on a map. A discovery of perspective. 

Insight comes as a flash of brilliant green after months of words dry as cicadas. Someone across the world says “I am Paris.” Someone else answers. “I am America.”

“You too?”

“Me too.” 

Anxiety and Children’s Books: Or Fear Itself

miss clavell

Waking one morning with a feeling of alarm. I suddenly remembered the image of Miss Clavell who ran the orphanage in which the insouciant Madeline was tucked.

Hair straying from her bun. Miss Clavell sits upright in a white nightdress—the emblem of maternal terror. In that old house in Paris, one stately with rhyming lines, children have returned for decades to enjoy Madeline who is not “afraid of mice, winter snow and ice and to the tiger in the zoo…says pooh-pooh.
Both children and parents seek and order there. The children are numbered and cared for. Madeline makes every fear comes out right.
 
I identify with Miss Clavell. She who wakes in the night and knows “something is not right.” She doesn’t think this, she knows it. That is the feeling of true anxiety. It is not a feeling—it feels like a truth on the border of consciousness. Something terrible about to be remembered.
 
Similarly my daughter re-read a book about three gophers trying to find their home approximately several hundred times. There was nothing spectacular about the book (“May We Sleep Here Tonight“).  It was a prolonged tale of suspense as rabbits, raccoon, gophers all open the door to a snug cavt of person will this be and systematically pile into bed, seeking shelter from a storm. But the question looms whose house is this? 
Each time the door opens, the bell rings, the whiskers twitch or noses quiver.
 
And, indeed, it turns out to be the home of a huge bear. Fears are confirmed. Animals that had snuggled now scuttle to the bottom of the bear’s huge bed in hiding. But the bear, because this is a children’s book, turns out to be jolly and comforting. After preparing hot soup all around the final page of the book shows the bear in bed with all the animals, enormous paws wrapped round them. Even the bear needs comfort too.
 
Who wants to be Miss Clavell in the middle of the night, who wants as John Berryman said, to wake up wondering who is missing? Recently my daughter told me she didn’t want to grow up. At first I feared as mother—therapist too—this was she start of some pathology. But then I realized, who does?
 
If children are afraid the outside world may be frightening and practice at mastering it—adults continue this. The fear of losing a precious person, the fear of feeling that fear holds many people in its paws. That is, as Delmore Schwartz wrote, “the heavy bear who goes with me.” The mother’s fear that something essential is missing; the daughter’s fear that she is not good enough—the fear of feeling a fear we cannot withstand links so many patients that I see. And I, as Miss Clavell, fear that ‘something is not right’ and count the days or times or tasks. To miss that fear would be a consequential relief. MY hope for my child and others is that they are not accompanied by that early morning call to arms. That fall into the preverbal state of aloneness where we need our mother but have only a cry to bring her forth.
 
A lifetime of anxiety has left me quite aware of waking to a world, which seems suddenly not level. Perhaps this experience drew me to become a psychologist, feeling that the need to reassure or undo the ravages anxiety causes is a great gift.