All posts by kellen

About kellen

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Life Coach who has worked in the mental health field for more than 15 years. In my years of working with other people I have developed various ideas and opinions which I will be sharing both here and at my blog site, www.kellevision.com. This work is about healing, empowering, and gleaning wisdom from the journey. May you find something here to help you with yours. Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to diagnose, treat, or replace legal or medical advice from a local professional. All references to people, named or otherwise are entirely fictional.

9 Ways to Develop True Self Esteem

Most of us know that increasing our self esteem will help us live fuller lives and have better relationships, but how exactly do you do this?

A lot of people present self esteem development as simply being a matter of doing nice things for yourself.  True self esteem comes from hard work and challenging yourself.  Perservering through difficulties, facing fears, overcoming challenges, making difficult choices and changes.  These are the things which truly develop self esteem.  Here are 9 ways to do that.

1. Finding Meaning

I think a lot of efforts to develop self esteem involve focusing only on ourselves.  Good self care is important and I will examine this further below.  But it isn’t everything.  Human beings are social creatures.  We live in and are affected by the society which surrounds us.  I believe that disconnecting from this and isolating ourselves leaves us empty and contributes to the depression which is so prolific in modern culture.  To truly feel good about ourselves we have to feel part of our community in some way.  We need to feel that we are making a contribution.  The way in which one does this is unique to every individual.  But connecting to and participating in something bigger than yourself contributes greatly to your own sense of self worth.  Find a meaning.  Find a cause.  Find something which is important to you and create it, build it, defend it.

2. Self Care

Developing good self care techniques is necessary not only for developing self esteem, but for maintaining good mental and physical health.  But good self care is not simply a matter of being “nice” to yourself.  Sometimes it requires making some tough choices; i.e. changing your diet, starting an exercise regimen, etc.

3. Self Talk

Pay attention to how you talk to yourself.  If you are delivering a constant stream of name-calling, put downs, insults or negative language to yourself it’s almost impossible to have a good sense of self esteem.  Developing healthy and appropriate self talk is almost as important as developing good self care.

4. Choose Your Heroes Carefully

Don’t let the television determine who your mentors are.  Think for yourself and make your own choices.  I think we are too passive about letting the media choose our idols or heroes.  Beyonce, Brad Pitt, Kobe Bryant and Paris Hilton may be famous and may have millions of dollars, but are they really people we want to learn about life from?  Personally I don’t find that I have learned anything from them or find their stories or words inspiring.  I’m much more enlightened by the stories told by Aimee Mullins, a double amputee who runs track.  While training for a race she realized she was having trouble with one of her prosthetics.  She went to her coach, a tough old guy from Brooklyn and asked to be excused from the race.  She was afraid if she continued running her leg might come off in the middle of the race.  His response?

“Aimee, so what if your leg falls off?  You pick it up, you put the damn thing back on and you finish the God-damned race.”

She handed him her fear and he responded not with pity, but with humor.  And he handed her back courage.

See “Aimee Mullins on Running” to hear her story in her own words.  Turn off “reality TV” and listen to Ted.com for words and ideas that will inspire and enlighten you.  Read the biography of someone you truly admire.  Feed your mind.

5. Choose Your Relationships Carefully

Choose your family

Yes, you can choose whether or not to have a relationship with family members.  Just because you are blood kin does not mean you have to allow yourself to be in unhealthy relationships with them.  If you have a family member who is demeaning or abusive consider what keeps you in a relationship with them.  You may need to make some tough choices.

Choose your friends

You can also make choices about your friends.  If you surround yourself with negative, hypercritical friends this cannot help your self esteem.  I’m not suggesting that you surround yourself with people who won’t tell you the truth and give you nothing but positive feedback – that’s false.  I don’t consider that a friend.  In my opinion a friend is someone who will give you honest feedback when you ask for it, but do it with compassion and kindness.  They tell you the truth, but they don’t attack or belittle you.  They don’t bring you down, just keep you real.  Look at who you spend the most time with and how your interactions with them affect you.  You might need to make some changes.

Choose your partners

If you are in a relationship that is unhealthy you may need to take some time to work on it and make a clear decision to leave.  You cannot lift your self esteem while being disparaged on a daily basis.  Many people stay in relationships which are unhealthy out of a fear of being alone.  It may be necessary to turn and face this fear before you can feel better about yourself.

You may also want to look at the patterns in your relationships.  Do you always pick partners who are needy?  Dependent?  Partners with substance abuse problems?  Abusive partners?  See if there is a pattern to your picking and find what is behind it.  You may need to work with a counselor to learn how to make different choices.

6. Find Your Passion

If you haven’t found what excites you, explore.  We spend an awful lot of our lives working.  If your work is not your passion, if it is only for the money, if it is only because your family expects it of you – think again.  Work that is depressing or unfulfilling sucks an awful lot of energy out of your life.  You spend all day at this.  Choose carefully.  Change if you need to.

7. Stop Dressing for Success and Dress to Express

Express yourself.  I don’t wear what other people think I should.  I wear what is comfortable.  I wear what I feel good in.  I wear things that express who I am as a person.  If you live in a situation where you are not free to express who you really are, you may need to make some different choices.  LIving a lie, maintaining a facade everyday also sucks a lot of energy and reinforces in your mind that you are not “O.K.”.

8. Challenge Yourself

If there is something in your life which is plaguing you, grab it by the horns and change it.  I used to be horrible at managing my money.  But I made some tough choices and some tough changes.  My money is now much better in control and it makes me feel more mature and self confident.  If there is some behavior which bothers you, i.e. procrastination, money management, being on time, being better organized, etc. tackle it.  Getting a handle on something which has been handling you will increase your self esteem and make your life more manageable.

9. Face a Fear

I used to be terrified of guns.  So I found an instructor who specialized in teaching women how to shoot.  I now have a very healthy respect for the damage a gun can do, but I do not fear one, because I know how they work.  I know how to disarm them and make them safe.  I once knew a woman who was terrified of palmetto bugs.  (If you’ve never seen one, imagine a giant cockroach, which can fly and is very aggressive.)  Her fear became so bad it was running her life.  She decided not to give in to it and signed up for exposure therapy (where you are slowly and carefully exposed to the thing you fear until you no longer fear it).  It worked and she feels quite proud of herself for no longer being at the mercy of a bug.  I had another friend who was terrified of speaking in public, so he signed up with Toastmasters.  Now, giving a speech to a room of 500 people doesn’t even daunt him!

So often we are taught to run from or medicate our fears.  This may work in the short term, but it doesn’t develop self esteem.  Self esteem comes from overcoming something, from fighting your way through to the other side and knowing you beat it.  Be sensible about the fear you choose to overcome and be reasonable in how you choose to overcome it, but try it and see if you don’t stand a little taller.

Originally published in 2010

photo by: Amy Wilbanks

Practicing What I Preach

Why can’t I have the same compassion for my family that I have for my clients?  I find I can be very empathic and tolerant of most any religion, political view, parenting philosophy, sexual orientation or type of relationship – in my clients.  I’m not always so patient with family members. 

My mother used to save the "good" china for guests while her family ate off chipped and broken plates.  I understand not putting fine china before children, but this often applies to best of ourselves  as well;  compassion, nurturing, patience, tolerance, understanding, listening, helping and good manners.  We often give the best of ourselves to complete strangers.  And after I do that for 8-10 hours there’s not much left for the people I care most about. 

This is when self care becomes important.  Not allowing myself to become overbooked or overworked to the point that there is nothing left for myself and nothing left for family and friends.  I have to remember to save back part of the best of myself for family and friends.  Then I have to remember to use it!  This is sometimes the hardest part, especially with family.  We are locked in a dance that started decades ago and I sometimes find my feet moving without realizing that the music even started. 

As my mother ages I see her learning away from the liberal views of her youth and more into conservativism.  This includes her religious views.  And this difference in her has sparked more than a few heated arguments when she tries to apply these views to the children in our family.  Unfortunately, I am more like my mother than I care to admit.  (Aren’t we all?)  So we butt heads frequently.  One day after hanging up the phone I realized, "I would never take that attitude with a client!" 

Old patterns die hard and old hurts heal slowly.  But they will never die if I don’t actively work at it.  So this is my New Year’s resolution.  Only two months late. 

 

7 Ways to Look and Feel Younger

I find that feeling "old" is usually about feeling tired, unproductive, stressed or unhappy.  Alleviating these problems alleviates the bad feelings of aging.

1.  Exercise
When I exercise I feel younger and stronger.  It keeps the blood flowing and strengthens muscles, bones and your heart.  I have more energy and move around more easily.  Arthritis has a much harder time taking hold.  Many forms of exercise strengthen your bones and make them less susceptible to osteoporosis.  Exercise also lifts my mood.  I know I’ve accomplished at least one thing today when I exercise.  It’s doesn’t have to be grueling or competitive.  Just talking a walk at lunch makes me feel better.  But I have found the harder I work out the more I benefit in every way.  It lifts my spirits and strengthens my body.

2.  Drink
Water that is.  Being dehydrated causes your skin to be dry and itchy.  It makes you tired and lethargic.  Drinking enough water everyday keeps your body hydrated and protects the health of your kidneys. 

3.  Eat
Eating nothing but sugar, fat and caffeine all day makes me ricochet between sugar highs, caffeine jitters and the crashes when they wear off.  I’m either climbing the walls or slithering around like a slug.  Eating quality proteins, complex carbs and healthy fats provides my body with a smooth and steady stream of energy and keeps my mind sharp.

4.  Expose Yourself
When I was going to college there was a 70-something year old man attending at least one of my classes every semester.  He was a retired Lutheran minister who "audited" two courses every semester.  Auditing is provided by many college and community colleges.  It allows you to sit in on a course without getting credits.  You don’t take tests or complete homework, you merely sit in on the class.  All the good things of a college course without the stress!  He did this to expose himself to young people and new ideas.  It certainly kept him alert and alive and as one of those kids, I loved having him in class.  He brought a different perspective to things than the 50 other 20 year olds who were in class.  We would spend hours talking with him and learning from him.  And he said our the enthusiasm and joie de vivre of our youth kept him alive.

5.  Learn
The other benefit of auditing college courses is that you are challenging your brain, which many researchers believe helps fight off diseases like Alzheimer’s.  The secret is to challenge your brain to learn something completely new or different.  If you never played a musical instrument, learn.  If you never played a sport, learn.  If you’re very weak in math, learn.  If you never learned a second language, learn.  A research study of nuns who specialized in mastering and teaching calculus well into their later years showed that they had a much lower level of Alzheimer’s in their population.  A well developed language ability also seems to correlate with lowered levels of Alzheimer’s.  The research suggests that any intellectually demanding work is the secret.  We used to believe that the brain was static and did not respond to outside stimulation.  We now know this is completely false.  Our brains are very plastic and malleable and respond to what we expose them to.  So sign up for a class and workout that brain.  It will respond to exercise just like your heart, your muscles and your bones.

6.  Love
Humans are social creatures and we need to socialize.  We need to connect with each other.  How much each one of us needs to socialize is unique.  Introverts need more quiet time. Extroverts need more time socializing.  But we all need to be connected.  Call an old friend you haven’t talked to in a long time.  Take time to have a meal with your family.  Meet someone for lunch.  If it’s warm in your area, go to the park with friends or family and just enjoy being outside.  If it’s cold, invite someone over for a home cooked meal and a sit by the fireplace.  Turn off the TV, the cell phone, the computer or the headphones and engage with another human being – without interruption. 

7.  Listen
We are constantly bombarded with phones, computers, traffic, music and other noises.  Schedule quiet time just to listen to the thoughts in your own head.  Meditate.  Sit at a corner cafe and watch the people go by.  Read a book.  Take a bubble bath.  Stroll through the woods.  Whatever you like to do to quiet your mind and make space for contemplation.  It’s really nice to let your mind just wander around wherever it wants.  It makes space for us to contemplate problems which are plaguing us, puzzle over things which perplex us, develop original ideas or generate unique solutions for old problems.  Contemplation gives your brain the opportunity to see things from another perspective, to redefine old problems in new ways.  Americans can be very goal oriented and may perceive this as "doing nothing".  And that’s exactly right.  That’s the point.  Do nothing.  Leave a big empty space for your mind to wander around it.  You might be surprised with what it comes up with!

Are We Thinking Beings Who Feel or Feeling Beings Who Think?

It seems most Americans like to think of themselves as thinking beings who happen to feel.  But research into the human brain shows that we are instead feeling beings who are able to think.  I believe our failure to recognize this causes untold frustration and the current epidemic of people being diagnosed with depression.

Culturally, we tend to adopt the stoicism of northern Europeans.  In my family it was expressed as, "not showing yourself in public".  This meant one should not get emotional or air emotional issues in public.  We often hear people saying to people in emotional distress, "Keep a stiff upper lip" or "pull yourself together".  I’ve watched someone crying at the death of a loved one while people trying to comfort them by patting them on the shoulder and saying, "there, there, don’t cry".  As a culture we are uncomfortable having emotions in public or seeing other people express them. 

Stoicism considers "negative" emotions to impair logical thought.  Some emotions which might be considered negative include; anger, jealousy, fear or grief.  We are taught to hold in our emotions or to deny them outright.  This is simply not human.  Humans emote.  To deny the very essense of what we are is simply not natural and contributes greatly to modern mental illness

The American culture is actually a tapestry of many different cultures, all of which have their own values and rules.  Some cultures within America may allow a greater expression of emotions while some may be even more restrictive than the mainstream.  All of these influences will affect how tuned in you are to your own emotions and it is important to consider them. 

Families, too, have their own rules about emotions; to what degree emotions can be expressed, which emotions can be expressed and who can express them.  Perhaps Dad can express anger, but no one else can.  Perhaps Mom can cry, but no one else can.  Perhaps no one is allowed to cry because it is interpreted as "weakness", but everyone is allowed to be angry. 

Gender roles further complicate the picture.  Men are typically not allowed to express fear or sadness.  These emotions are considered "weak" and/or "feminine".  Women are typically not allowed to be angry.  This is considered "strong" and/or "aggressive".  The outcome? 

When men are scared or sad they may express it as anger.  (This is called "anger as a secondary emotion" because anger is not the primary emotion, it is being expressed for another emotion, i.e. fear.)  If their anger becomes violent, they are diagnosed with "anger issues".  If they stuff all their emotions until they become a seething volcano, what do you expect?  Repressed anger erupts in violence or turns inward into depression.  If it turns outward into violence, we send them to "anger management" classes.  If it turns inward into depression, we send them to the doctor for antidepressants.  We are violating nature at every turn.  The only way a man can be a fully functioning healthy human is to be allowed to express all of his emotions.  Men should be able to say, "I fear you are going to leave me when you do that" instead of blowing up and being aggressive and controlling.  Then we can honestly, openly deal with the fear which is actually present rather than an angry outburst which is not even the issue.

I have heard many people, including therapists, mistakenly say that anger is always a secondary emotion.  They maintain that anger is never a legitimate emotion, it is rather a substitute for some other emotion.  Anger may even portrayed as a "bad" emotion.  (And if anger is a "bad" emotion, men who express anger must be "bad" too?  What a Catch-22 that is.  You can’t express any emotion except anger, but if you express that one you are "bad".   Not fair.)

I think that anger may sometimes be a secondary emotion.  However, I also think that anger is a legitimate and necessary emotion of its own and serves a very, very important function.  Anger is our self defense.  It is what makes us stand up and say, "Hey!  You can’t treat me like that!"  It is how we detect and protest injustice.  Many people equate anger with violence, hence its bad name.  This is simply wrong.  Anger is simply an emotion.  It can be quiet and sane or it can be violent and scary.  That is a choice.  But anger is not violent in and of itself.  Living without it causes untold problems of its own.  Let’s look at gender roles and women for an example.

Women are allowed to cry and express fear, but heaven forbid they get angry.   When we take away a woman’s anger, we take away her ability to defend herself.  We take away her ability to fight back or express her distress in an honest, open manner.  So her anger gets turned inward and becomes depression, or it seethes out slowly as nagging, whining, bitching or passive aggression.  Women should be allowed to say, "I really get mad when you do that!"  Then her partner can address what’s actually going on.  (I’m reminded of Whoopi Goldberg in "The Color Purple" spitting into her abusive husband’s lemonade.  The situation does not change when she does this.  Since she says nothing, nothing gets addressed.  Change does not occur until she stands up to him and tells him how angry she is and walks out on him.)  

There is such a strong taboo against women being angry that I have often seen women smile the entire time they are trying to deliver a message that they are angry about something.  This dual message ("I’m angry you are treating me this way" and "Everything is lovely") not only confuses people but compromises their perception of the woman as strong and confident.  These are two more things which women are not allowed to be, so the woman smiles to deny them.

What are the effects of denying some or all of our emotions? 

In our brains, the sections which produce emotion are more ancient than the thinking parts.  Feeling came before thinking.  And for a good reason.  Our emotions act as a radar.  Through them we experience the world around us and gather information about it.  They detect "blips" in our world, they produce "intelligence" about what is happening around us and they filter this "intelligence" back to the thinking parts of our brain.  These feelings, or intuitions, are then communicated to the brain where we make decisions about how to react. 

What happens when this information is suppressed or ignored?

The logical brain we are so proud of is compromised.  How can we make logical decisions if our "intelligence" is faulty or missing?  When I was younger I stuffed my emotions, or denied they even existed.  And I stumbled blindly through life making stupid decisions.  Only as I get older have I undone this programming and begun to tune back into to my emotional radar.  How does one do this?  It’s tricky, but well worth the effort.

Tuning Back Into Your Emotions

Emotions are not usually logical or verbal.  They are usually just feelings we experience in our bodies.  Some emotions are expressed as punctuation rather than words.  I may experience a "!" or a "?".  It is a feeling of alarm "!" or an alert that something has happened which does not make sense "?".  A "!" may indicate I should be on guard.  A "?" may arouse my curiosity or alert me to pay more attention to discrepant information. 

The experience of other emotions may be more corporeal.  When I’m angry my gut tenses, my teeth clench, my chest tightens.  Sorrow may be experienced as heaviness in the chest, my eyes tearing.  Fear hits me in the stomach like an electric bolt through my gut and may cause my "hackles" to rise or my skin to tingle. 

What purpose does this serve?  Just to make me uncomfortable?  Yes, exactly.  What???  We want to uncomfortable?  Yes, we should.  This is how we are supposed to work.  But somewhere along the way, Americans seem to have adopted the notion that we have a right to be happy all the time.  This is utter nonsense and denies 90% of the human experience.  Humans are not designed to be happy all the time, else why do we come with tear ducts and a fight-flight-freeze response?  Why should we want to be uncomfortable?  Because discomfort moves us to act.  And lack of action results in feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and ultimately, depression.

Anger tells you something is happening which is unjust.  It should provoke a defensive reaction.  Sorrow tells us we have experienced a loss.  Fear tells us we are in danger.  And envy alerts us to needs or desires.  Jealousy may communicate to us that something, or someone, we love is in danger.  (It may also alert us to our own insecurity.) 

Being in touch with our "negative" emotions can have positive benefits.  I’ve noticed the more I am aware of discomfort the more I am aware of comfort.  When I am attuned to my emotions I’m more aware of how the warm sun or the cool breeze feels on my skin.  I’m more aware of the smell of mint or the sound of wind chimes tinkling.  The sound of laughter and the smell of fresh baked bread are more tangible.  And since I’ve learned to stop and attend to emotive messages I’ve become much more aware of why I act the way I do.  I’m also more aware of why other people act the way they do. 

People who spend a lot of energy suppressing emotions they deem unpleasant, abnormal, negative or wrong end up reacting to things without knowing why.  I see this a lot in trauma survivors.  They suddenly go off on someone, burst into tears or have panic attacks without ever knowing why.  This can make one feel out of control and crazy.  Other people may make derogatory remarks about your emotional instability (i.e. "hysterical", "explosive", "melodramatic").  Psychiatrists may diagnose and medicate you (i.e. "Bipolar Disorder", "Borderline", "Histrionic").

See the actual diagnostic criteria for:  Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder

People who spend a lot of energy suppressing emotions and memories may also end up having dreams or nightmares.  Your body and brain will find ways of getting what they need in spite of you.  If you deny what you feel or know during the waking hours your brain will work on it at night when you are asleep.  Your brain will fight to communicate to its thinking parts emotions it has experienced and memories it has stored.  Somehow it knows these are important bits of information necessary for our survival, even when we try to "outsmart" the process by ignoring or denying them. 

Being aware of all of your emotions is the definition of "mindfulness".  Unfortunately, many people are taught that "mindfulness" means manipulating your emotions to drown out unpleasant feelings and replace them with pleasant feelings.  This is absolutely incorrect.  Mindfulness is being aware of whatever feelings you are having and listening to them.  Responding to them.  Experiencing them.  Knowing and understanding them.  Sit quietly and listen to what they are telling you.  Doing so may be scary or painful if you have repressed a lot of unpleasant memories or feelings.  You may have to start with small bits at a time.  You may have to take a break when it becomes too much.  But only by tuning into and honoring them will ever be at home in your own body.

For more articles on mental health issues please visit my blog at: Kellevision.com.

 

 

The Secret to Ending Homelessness in America

I read an interesting article at the SLO Homeless website, "Absurdity of the Bureaucratic Mindset" regarding the strategies needed to end homelessness and the absurdity of the current measures being employed and I couldn’t agree more.  Providing more affordable housing will not solve the homeless problem.  What will?

I’ve worked in the family dorm of a homeless shelter for more than 3 years now and the the points made in this article will be addressed to homeless families.  But I think the majority of these ideas apply equally to all homeless clients, single men and women as well. 

I sit in meeting after meeting listening to bureaucrats, administrators, social workers and funders talking about increasing affordable housing and providing rapid rehousing programs for homeless families.  What most of them do not realize is that lack of housing is not the problem.  Most of our families have been in affordable housing and have lost it.  Some are actually banned from accessing it again.  So how is more affordable housing going to help them?  I think the problem is much more profound.  I also think that reducing the enormous problems faced by chronically homeless families down to "affordable housing", patting them on the head, telling them housing will solve all their problems and shoving them out into the community without addressing these much deeper problems is insensitive and cruel. It sets them up for another failure.  It views the homeless population as numbers to be reduced instead of addressing their humanity.  It’s easier to throw money at the problem and hope it will go away rather than deal with the actual human beings involved. 

What people do not seem to realize is that homeless families are not your average family who has had a setback.  They do not enter the shelter, get another job and leave the shelter system.  Nor is their stay in a homeless shelter their first, or their last.  The majority of them are cycling through the shelters over and over again.  We set them up in affordable housing and provide supportive services to them, yet they are unable to maintain it and return to the shelter – again.  Imagine how it feels to fail again and again and to keep returning to shelter where you are told you will again receive help with affordable housing.  The families know this will not work.  They know the problems they face are much deeper and more serious than simply getting access to affordable housing.  Seasoned homeless families will work very hard to delay attempts to move them into housing and try to remain in shelter.  They know what their caseworkers don’t.  An inability to access affordable housing is not the problem. 

Research shows us that homeless children grow up to raise homeless families of their own and indeed, most of our homeless parents grew up in nomadic families who moved through the shelter system when they were children.  But bureaucrats never look at names, just numbers.  So – if our shelter shows that we house 200 families per year for 5 years people think that we housed 1000 different families.  That is not true.  We probably housed 500 of the same families over and over and 500 new families.  And most of those 500 new families are only new to us.  Most of them have been in other shelters in our city or shelters in other cities.  I have one mother of 3 which has been cycling through the shelter system since 1999.  She has used up all resources for transitional or affordable housing.  For the majority of the homeless population, homelessness is a lifestyle, not an event. 

The media tends to portray homeless families as average, middle class, working Americans who have lost their jobs or faced some other financial crisis.  This is inaccurate.  The behaviors of the average homeless family which comes through our shelter varies greatly from your usual working class family.  They typically come from chronically homeless, nomadic, dysfunctional and chaotic families of their own.  And this is the pattern they replicate in their own families. 

When a middle class, working family does happen to enter a homeless shelter their behavior is so out of the ordinary that you can spot them a mile away.  I am thinking of a family which recently stayed in our shelter.  The staff called them "The Perfect Family" because of their extraordinary behavior.  Extraordinary, that is, for a homeless shelter.  What is this behavior?  Neither of the parents are in the alley trying to score drugs or dates.  Both of the parents display responsibility for their children and pay very close attention to them.  Both parents are working – full time.  The children are taken to school or daycare everyday.  The family is not breaking every rule in the shelter.  They get up, eat breakfast, get dressed and leave for the day.  They come back in the evening before curfew, eat their dinner, take their baths and go to bed.  We hardly know they are here.  This is "abnormal" behavior in a homeless shelter.  What are the behavior patterns of the typical homeless family? 

Chronically homeless families come from very, very dysfunctional family systems.  I believe this is the source of their homelessness, not affordable housing or low income.  These highly dysfunctional behaviors are handed down, generation to generation and this behavior prevents them from maintaining housing.  I do not want to blame the victim, but I do want to face reality.  Research studies have looked at housed versus homeless families living at the poverty level.  Both groups struggle with the same limited incomes, the same lack of employment, the same lack of resources.  But one group manages to live in and maintain affordable housing and one group does not.  I have worked with people living at the poverty level for more than a decade and they maintain their housing.  It may be affordable housing.  It may be in the projects.  But they maintain it.  We do not see them in the homeless shelters.  Chronically homeless families display a pattern of behaviors which seem pervasive and profound and these behaviors are the root of their homeless problem.  These behaviors also create "barriers" which make accessing future housing difficult.  What are these behaviors? 

When we look at the histories of chronically homeless families we see that they typically do not:

  • Pay their bills
  • Maintain employment
  • Follow rules or procedures
  • Avoid criminal activity
  • Take their children to school
  • Have stable relationships
  • Have familial support
  • Interact well with others
  • Keep appointments or manage time well
  • Follow through with referrals for services
  • Maintain affordable housing, even when they are placed in it with extended supports

When social workers try to place these families in affordable housing they often face the following "barriers":

  • Recent criminal charges including substance abuse, assault, domestic violence or theft
  • Poor credit histories
  • Poor or non-existent employment histories
  • Current warrants due to unpaid parking or traffic tickets or failure to appear in court for various charges
  • Truancy charges
  • A history of evictions
  • A history of unpaid utility bills

My purpose here is not to blame the victim, but to talk openly about the severe dysfunction I see in chronically homeless families.  Unless we identify the true problem, we will not be able to form a lucid solution.  Homeless families typically do not function well on any level.  Children are frequently truant from school and display numerous behavioral and developmental problems.  Dorm rules are constantly broken and there seems to be a pattern of oppositional behavior and issues with authority.  Relationships are fleeting, intense and severely dysfunctional including domestic violence, substance abuse and exploitation.  Social interactions are impaired.  Most homeless families have burnt all their bridges with every social service agency and within their own families because of their severe dysfunction.  Most of our families have problems functioning within the rules of most any system in which they participate.  They display impulsive, short-sighted decision making and most of them have no idea where they are going when they leave the shelter.  They do not seem able to think or plan ahead.  The majority of them do not maintain stable employment because of impulsively walking off the job, getting into an altercation with the boss, failing to report for work or other such reasons.  Many of them display unrealistic ideas about what is required to maintain independent housing or to function in general.

What are some of the issues which contribute to these behaviors?  I am not certain.  My colleagues and I discuss this frequently.  We have been watching this population for several years and are trying to formulate a theory as to what contributes to repeated homelessness.  Personally, I believe there is a mindset which the chronically homeless have which the housed do not.  What are the elements of the homeless mindset?  I’m still trying to work this out in my mind, but here are some of them which I see frequently:

  • An external locus of control –
    • the belief that they have no control or responsibility for their choices, actions or behaviors but are the victims of circumstances  
    • the belief that the causes for good or bad events in their lives are totally outside their  control or responsibility
  • Sense of entitlement –
    • the belief that the world owes them something and they should be able to collect immediately
    • the belief that they should be taken care of by others, by the government or by social service agencies
    • the belief that they should be given things they have not earned (i.e. free housing, clothing, food, etc.)
    • the belief that others should "help" them (i.e. by paying their unpaid bills or appealing their housing denial)   
  • Impulsivity
  • Poor boundaries
  • Emotional immaturity
  • Need for instant gratification
  • Dependency issues
  • Predatory/antisocial behaviors 
  • Pathological relationships

Below, I have addressed some of the factors which I believe contribute to this mindset and their possible causes.  I have also addressed some of the factors frequently cited by others as contributing to homelessness and my thoughts about them.  I will also discuss the part that our current social services system plays in fostering these behaviors. 

I would like to open a dialogue between people who are or have been chronically homeless or who work directly with the homeless population about these proposed factors in hopes of identifying the actual problems and developing real solutions.  Our current strategy of throwing free services and money at them and providing more affordable housing is clearly not working.  Please feel free to provide comments or feedback. 

Highly Dysfunctional Families of Origin

When completing histories with homeless families it is very, very rare to find a homeless mother who was not sexually abused in some way.  Most were molested by a family member or members.  Some were raped.  Most homeless, single mothers did not complete high school due to pregnancy, leaving with a boyfriend to escape the family of origin or simply running away.  Child Protective Services was often involved with the mother’s family when she was a child.  There is a very high percentage of substance abuse and domestic violence in homeless mothers’ families of origin.  Physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse are also quite common.

The effects of this kind of upbringing are discussed below.  The immediate effect is that most chronically homeless families have absolutely no familial or social supports on which they can rely when they are in trouble.  This is vastly different from the average working class family which the media portrays as becoming homeless.  I have known several working class families to have suffered a loss of employment or health crisis which cost them their housing and ruined them financially.  But they did not come into the shelter.  They had family and friends who would take them in until they could get back on their feet.  Chronically homeless families have no such support system.  They never did.  Their families of origin are often as dysfunctional, if not more dysfunctional, than they are. 

Example 1:

Imagine a homeless mother of three small children trying to move in with mom who is a raging heroin or crack addict.  Grandma may use the children for her shoplifting schemes in order to buy her drugs.  She may take the children’s Social Security numbers and transfer her light bill over into their names, then not pay it.  (I have several homeless mothers who have past due utility bills because a family member did this to them when they were children.  One homeless mother has a $5000 electric bill because of her mother.  And the electric company holds her responsible for it.)

Example 2:

Imagine a homeless family of four (mother, father and two children) moving in with Granddad who drinks heavily and gets very violent.  Now Dad has to protect his family from Granddad and in doing so winds up with an assault charge on his record.  With a recent assault on his criminal history, getting someone to rent to the family is now very difficult, if not impossible. 

Given these choices it is easy to see why chronically homeless families choose the shelter over family. The shelter is actually safer, more nurturing and sustaining than Grandma or Granddad. What are the effects of having been raised in such a dysfunctional family?

Arrested Development

I would estimate that this one element contributes to the majority of the behavior problems we see in the homeless shelter.  A vast majority of our clients seem to have endured some sort of trauma(s) during their childhood which has(have) halted their emotional development.  The result is immaturity, impulsivity, dependency, a sense of entitlement (that someone should take care of them rather than being responsible for themselves), an external locus of control (seeing problems as existing outside of themselves and therefore being outside of their control and/or responsibility), immature relationships and emotional lability.  These factors result in behavior which appears erratic and irresponsible.  Clients will not keep appointments because their boyfriend (whom they met in the alley 3 days ago) needs them to go somewhere with them.  They miss curfew for the same reason.  They lose jobs for erratic attendance or simply failing to show up at all.  They fail to pay off old bills because they assume someone else will do it for them (and some social service program usually does) or they see something they want now and impulsively purchase it.  They enter into relationships just as impulsively and typically make very poor choices in partners, often ending up with abusers, drug addicts or worse.  They live in the here and now and appear unable to plan ahead.  When asked about their planned destination when they leave the shelter, most are unable to grasp the concept or give a canned response they know you expect to hear.  They have no planned destination.  Their only goal is to get into the shelter and stay as long as they can in the safety they find there.  For many, the shelter is the safest place they have ever known.

Now imagine handing over money or free housing to someone who is this emotionally immature.  You can imagine what happens.  The money is immediately blown and all of the rules of the housing community are broken.  The new boyfriend or girlfriend moves in with them (in violation of the lease agreement) and adds their own pathological behavior into the mix.  If the new partner has a drug problem, the client gets evicted for having drug activity in the unit.  If the new partner is violent, the client is evicted for numerous calls to the police, damage to the unit and/or the disturbance caused to the community.  The client then returns to the shelter with an eviction on their record and unpaid utility bills.  Social workers jump in and find programs that will pay off their utility bills (so they do not learn to clean up their own messes or take responsibility for their poor choices).  They then mount an appeal with the housing authority casting the client as a victim of their partner’s bad behavior (instead of encouraging the client to take responsibility like an adult for their poor choices) and get them back into housing.  Or they find another community to accept the client despite the eviction.  The pattern then repeats itself.  A year later, the client returns to the shelter again with more utility debt and another eviction.  The pattern continues this way until they have burned so many bridges and have so many barriers that housing becomes untenable. 

Predatory/Antisocial Behaviors

First let me define the word "antisocial" as used by psychologists.  Someone who is antisocial is not an introvert.  When a clinician uses the word antisocial they are referring to a specific pattern of behaviors that shows a callousness for others, predatory behavior, lying and manipulative behavior, a lack of remorse and more.  For a complete description of antisocial behaviors please see the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder.  For every person in a homeless shelter with dependency issues we seem to have an predator waiting for them.  Half the population seems to be working or receiving some form of assistance and the other half seem to be trying to hook up with them to take advantage of that income.

Pathological Relationships

Sometimes both parents in a homeless family have a drug problem or a mental health issue that compromises the family, but that is not the usual pattern.  I recently looked at my roster of women and children in the family dorm and tried to determine the cause for each woman’s homelessness.  As I went down the roster it became obvious, "a man, a man, a man, a man, a man, etc.".  I took the same roster and asked the family dorm case manager to go down the list and tell me what he thought the cause of each woman’s homelessness was.  I was careful not to give him any further information.  He looked at the list thoughtfully, then started to move down it with the same results.  With few exceptions (one client had a drug problem and one had a mental health issue) the answer for every woman in the family dorm was that they picked out a man who brought them down.  Though I have no single fathers in the dorm at this moment, they have been here in the past and I see the same pattern with them.  An honest, hard working man partners with a woman who has some pathology and this is what brings him and the children to the shelter. 

It is important to realize that single parents contribute to the problem of picking the wrong partner with their own pathology.  The single mothers in the family dorm are not simply victims of the men they pick out.  There seems to be a predominant attitude of these women that the man should "take care of them".  They believe it is just a matter of picking out the right one.  The first problem is that their "picker" is broken.  They do not pick out a good one.  They usually pick out one of the predators roaming the alley behind the shelter.  The second problem is that you cannot sit at home expecting to be taken care of in our modern economy.  That might have worked in the 1950’s, even in the 1970’s, but June Cleaver is no more.  The modern American household takes two paychecks.  Two full-time paychecks.  The third problem presents itself when the man expects to be supported by the woman.  Even if the woman is working full-time and picks out a man who wants to live off of her, women traditionally earn much lower wages than men.  So the family’s financial stability is even more shaky.

This predatory – dependent dyad seems to play out in most of their relationships and I wonder if it is not the source of their alienation from their families of origin.  A person who constantly expects to be taken care of can be quite tiring.  By contrast, a person who is constantly preying on others also becomes quite tiring. 

Mental Illness

Mental illness is often cited as a factor in homelessness.  A significant number of homeless clients suffer from debilitating mental illnesses and many researchers cite the high numbers of mental illness in the population.  However, each researcher seems to define it in their own way.  Some include only the big three Axis I diagnoses (Schizophrenia, Bipolar I Disorder and Major Depression).  Others include substance abuse (since it is an Axis I diagnosis in the DSM IV) which dramatically inflates the numbers of the "mentally ill".  Others include Axis II personality disorders, but only some of them, usually Antisocial Personality Disorder.   Still others include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In my experience, mental illness is a factor in about 10-20% of our homelessness clients and it is a serious problem.  However, it does not explain the other 80%.  These 80% use an unusually high percentage of services and monies devoted to the homeless and they are repeat customers. 

Substance Abuse

The percentage of clients suffering from substance abuse issues is very high in a homeless shelter.  We are literally floating in a sea of alcohol, heroin, crack, methamphetamine, marijuana and anything else you can think of in and around our downtown shelter.  Step out any door and you can buy anything you want.  The problem with saying this is that it is hard to tell which came first, the chicken or the egg.  Having worked with hard core heroin addicts in a methadone program for more than 3 years I found that the majority of them were not homeless and once they obtained affordable housing, they managed to hang on to it, despite heavy and continued drug use.  Even those who were constantly using crack or heroin were not homeless.  So obviously, substance abuse alone is not the factor causing the homelessness.  It may contribute, but I think there are other factors not present in the substance abuse community itself.  I have to wonder if homelessness contributes more to substance abuse than the other way around.

Trauma

There is a very high incidence of traumatic histories in the homeless community, even before they became homeless, usually during childhood.  I believe that a majority of the substance abuse issues in this population are an effort to treat trauma symptoms.  However, this can be said of other populations as well, including the substance abuse community.  Most trauma survivors manage to maintain housing despite their trauma symptoms.   Though trauma symptoms may play a factor in homelessness, I do not believe they are the sole cause. 

Impaired Social Supports

This, I believe, is another major factor in homelessness.  Most homeless clients do not have functioning family support systems.  If they did, the family would take them in and they would not be homeless.  Many homeless clients come from families who are themselves very nomadic, unstable and often abusive.  Some come from families rife with substance abuse, sexual abuse or domestic violence.   Others have been rejected by their families for various reasons.  These reasons often involve their dependent and/or dysfunctional behaviors.  The problem here is measuring the dysfunction of their families of origin.  Since they are estranged from their families, their families don’t interact with shelter staff, so I am unable to assess this accurately.   I can only observe that homeless clients consistently have little to no familial support and I can only speculate as to why that is.  I would be interested in hearing the opinions of others on this matter.

The Enabling and Infantilizing Social Services System

In my humble opinion, our current social services system is a major factor contributing to the homeless mindset.  This is a complicated element to explain.  But I think it is important to make an attempt.  

I see two major problems with the social services system:  1) the system itself – how benefits are applied and eligibility determined and applied and 2) the people working within the system – the mindset of caseworkers and social workers working with the homeless population. 

The System – Administration

The social services system seems to be designed to punish attempts by the poor to achieve independence.  I do not mean in any way to suggest that this is by design or on purpose.  I believe that bureaucrats and administrators mean well when they implement the parameters by which programs are run, but the unanticipated effects are often deleterious to the psychology of the poor. 

Rewarding Bad Behavior

This is a frequent problem within social service agencies.  These systems often reinforce irresponsibility and impulsivity while punishing people who try to work and plan ahead. 

Example 1:

A father of four (two children and two parents) is working full-time for $8.00 per hour.  His wife applies for state funded daycare so that she too can work and contribute to the family’s income.  Their application is denied because he makes "too much income".  So the wife stays at home with the children and the entire family is forced to live on his income alone.  When he loses his job after suffering a heart attack the family quickly becomes unable to keep up with their expenses and is forced to re-enter the homeless shelter to regroup

Example 2:

A county employee who has worked for the county for 23 years is laid off due to funding cuts.  She quickly obtains another job, but when budgeting ahead realizes she is going to be short next month and anticipates having trouble paying the electric bill until her new paychecks start coming.  She goes to the electric company to seek assistance for the one month she will be short and is told she will have to wait until she gets a cut off notice before they can help her.

The first example is only one way in which the state penalizes people for working "too much".  If the father maintained a flimsy part-time job the family might have been better off and the mother would have been able to get the daycare she needed to work as well.  Of course, if she obtained full-time employment the daycare assistance would have again been terminated and the problem revisited.  So maintaining just enough employment to keep the daycare in place becomes the goal.  This also happens with rental assistance, medical assistance and food stamps.  Working "too much" is punished by removal of benefits and the level of what is "too much" is preposterous.  In the city in which I live, I can’t live on $8.00 an hour as a single (and very frugal) person.  I have no idea how the state expects four people to live on that much less to say that it is "too much" to warrant daycare assistance. 

The second case is a clear example of penalizing the client for planning ahead and trying to address a problem before it actually becomes a problem.  Many social services programs seem to "teach" clients to wait until the last minute then create a dramatic "emergency" in order to get help.  This fosters the emotionally immature and histrionic displays in lobbies often seen in social service agencies.  Then the staff rolls their eyes and wonders why the clients behave so badly.  Because that is what we have trained them to do. 

Example 3:

Clients are instructed to sign in to see a caseworker in order to request a bed in the shelter.  Five clients sign in, sit down and quietly wait for their turn.  A sixth client comes in, inquires about bed availability and is instructed to sign in and wait.  She immediately goes into a dramatic (and loud) display complaining of her many ailments, how weak and faint she is feeling and how she doesn’t know if she will be able to wait or not.  Staff rush out to the lobby upon hearing the disturbance and take her back to be seen, ahead of the five people who are waiting patiently. 

Now imagine you are one of the clients waiting patiently.  What have you just learned?  You know it.  Make a big, emotional, dramatic scene and you get put ahead of everyone else sitting and waiting like a sap.  You will see this played out in many social service waiting rooms, but the staff never address their part in teaching clients to act this way.

Giving It Away Free

Now enter the faith based initiatives and have churches giving away monies, services or products and you further exacerbate this problem.  Clients quickly learn that someone, somewhere will clean up their messes for them.  Someone will hand them money to fix their problems.  They learn to be dependent on others rather than working off the debt.  This also prevents them from learning not to make the mess in the first place.  If there is always someone around to pay off my light bill, why not run it up? 

This same problem can be seen with the welfare system.  I recently had an older single father who entered the family dorm with his son after having a heart attack and losing his job.  His family would take him in, but he preferred to handle the situation himself.  He was one of those rare people who had never been homeless before and did not fit into the homeless mindset.  He immediately got a job and went to work paying off bills which had accumulated while he was in the hospital and establishing a savings account.  He quickly worked his way out of the shelter and I don’t expect to see him back.  He was shocked and appalled at the attitudes displayed by the other families in the shelter and talked to me about it one day.  "I blame FDR and JFK" he said.  He explained his belief that the welfare programs initiated by these two presidents and expanded upon by LBJ were the source of some of the beliefs of the homeless families in the dorm.  I think he may be on to something.  Personally I do not think the WPA and CCS programs incorporated by FDR were problematic because people still had to work for their paycheck.  And they wanted to.  But our current welfare system does not allow this.  Benefits are given away free.  As this single father observed, "these people (the families) think the government owes them something, they expect to get everything for free".  I think he might be right.

So what have clients learned so far?  Don’t work too much.  Don’t plan ahead.  Don’t wait your turn or follow procedures.  Expect someone else to provide you with what you need.  What else do we teach clients through social services? 

Don’t take responsibility.  Someone else will fix it for you. 

The People – Caseworkers, Case Managers and Social Workers

I worked as a caseworker in the social services system for almost 15 years, so I do not mean to be unkind or overly critical of caseworkers.  I have been guilty of the following behaviors myself at various times in my career so I know how easy it is to do.  I also want to say that I do not think any caseworker, case manager or social worker does these things intentionally or with any kind of malice, but out of the goodness of their hearts and their desire to help people.  However, our desire to help people has to be examined.  Are we trying to help someone to truly empower and free them?  Or are we helping them to make ourselves feel better?  It’s great to save, "I saved this client from being homeless!"  But that does not empower the client.  That glorifies you.  I think we need to examine the methods and motivations of people working with the homeless community and train them to recognize the following issues.

Infantilizing and Enabling

Caseworkers and social workers have a bad habit of doing things for clients, rather than expecting the client to do it or teaching them how.  I am reminded of the wise saying, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime."  Workers in social services would do well to remember this philosophy as they seem to be geared more toward giving away fishes rather than teaching people how to fish.  I constantly see caseworkers doing things for clients which infantilize them and enable their sense of helplessness and incompetency.  I have seen caseworkers in their office, on their computers, looking for jobs for the client.  The client is not even in the office.  I constantly hear caseworkers talking about what they have figured out to solve the client’s homeless issue without even bothering to consult with the client or find out what their goals or plans are. 

And clients learn this.  A constant scenario I witness in our shelter is this:  A client comes to the caseworker with a problem, let’s say an unpaid electric bill of over $500.  No apartment will rent to them unless they can turn the lights on.  So they present this unpaid bill to the caseworker then sit back to see how the caseworker will get it paid for them.  And this is their attitude.  What are you (the caseworker) going to do about this?  It is the caseworker’s problem, not theirs.  I truly believe we have taught them to think like this.  And this keeps them helpless.  Their fate lies in the hands of others.  And every time we fix a problem for them we reinforce the idea that are not competent enough to handle it themselves.  We also find solutions for them we would never employ for ourselves.  If my electric bill were overdue I would not run around town looking for someone else to give me a handout to pay it.  I would economize or work overtime or work a second job in order to get it paid off.  I would call the electric company and work out a payment plan.  But this is not what we teach our clients. 

Putting It All Together

Now combine all these factors.  Homeless families raise homeless children who grow up to raise homeless children of their own.  The familial pattern of homelessness is passed from generation to generation.  These children grow up watching their parents navigate the social services system which punishes attempt to maintain full-time employment and rewards infantile behavior.  It also enables clients by treating them like children and rewarding negative behaviors.  Combine this with the fact that most homeless children experience numerous and often recurring traumas which impede their emotional and maturational development and leave them mentally "stuck" in a form of arrested development that leaves them emotionally labile, impulsive, reactive and hampered by magical thinking.  This determines the types of relationships they form, namely bad ones, which further hampers their attempts to live a fully functional life. 

Solutions?

I’m not sure what the solutions might be.  I am constantly searching for real solutions which address the real problems and I’m open to any suggestions anyone has.  I’m not trying to provide a pat answer.  I’m trying to educate people about the real problems contributing to homelessness so we can discuss real solutions and stop throwing money at the problem and disempowering homeless clients. 

I think counseling should be provided liberally.  Teach people how to fish.  Teach them how their maladaptive behaviors impair their ability to function.  Stop rewarding bad behavior.  Stop giving away money.  Stop cleaning up their messes for them.  Stop giving away free stuff. 

What I would propose instead would be an earned benefits program.  If you want housing from the city, you provide labor for the city in return for your housing.  If you need food stamps from the county you work for those, and so on.  City and county governments have many, many jobs that require little physical labor, education or training.  So even people with minor physical or mental handicaps would be able to do something.  At the mental health system where I worked we had a developmentally disabled client shredding confidential documents.  She just shredded day in and day out.  She saved us from doing a boring job and kept our files cleared and our offices free of shred boxes full of papers.  She was very proud of going to work everyday.  She was proud that she was able to provide a service everyone appreciated – and she was greatly appreciated.  She also enjoyed participating in the "real world" just like everyone else.  We also had another program many years ago which providing a boarding home environment for schizophrenic clients.  In return for room and board the mental health agency contracted with local businesses to provide janitorial services at night when the offices were closed.  Schizophrenic boarders were driven to the various sites in a bus and cleaned the offices late at night.  They loved this work.  They could peacefully go about their work without having to interact with people (which is very stressful for most schizophrenic patients).  They worked at night (when hallucinations are often the worst).  They were able to work with other mental health clients who understood their symptoms and didn’t disparage or make fun of them for having them.  These are just two examples of how a program like this might work. 

If government agencies required that people work for their benefits, labor costs for running the city would be reduced.  Formerly homeless clients could clean parks, clean office buildings, pave roads or file papers.  The city would also save not only on the costs of their labor, but would not be required to provide them with standard medical benefits (they currently utilize the city’s medical clinics and that would be included in their earned benefits package), nor would the city have to pay them retirement.  Working shoulder to shoulder with people who do have regular medical benefits, retirement and higher paying positions would motivate homeless clients to want to obtain a regular position within the city offices and eventually work their way out of the earned benefits program and into regular work and housing. 

Once homeless clients are assigned jobs, they would be provided with counseling to address the behavior problems that interfered with their ability to maintain employment.  If they failed to come to work due to a poor work ethic, substance abuse problems, domestic violence or other relationship issues, etc. instead of getting fired – again – and having another black mark on their work history, they would be required to participate in counseling or group work to address it.  This would help permanently resolve problems which contribute to the homelessness and prepare clients for a successful return to the work force instead of merely paying off their bills and throwing them back into society to repeat the same behaviors and create the same problems which bring them back into shelter.

This is just my one of how to address the actual problems facing homeless clients.  I would like to hear others.  

 Read more about homelessness and mental health issues on my blog at:   www.kellevision.com.

 

Helping and Human Kindness on the City Bus

Riding public transportation to work can not only reduce your carbon footprint, it can provide one with interesting observations of human behavior.  In watching people riding the city bus, I immediately become aware of a culture of helping behavior that I don’t see in other places.  I experience a sense of camaraderie and community and feel more joined with humankind on the bus.  This is great contrast to the battle against my fellow citizens I engage in when I try to fight my way through traffic to drive to work.

I can’t say this happens in every town or city.  I can only post my own experiences.  I would love to hear from other people using public transportation to know if this is local or universal.  When I ride the bus I find myself joined together with my fellow passengers and even the bus driver.  We work together to get everyone where they need to go.  This is a great divergence from when I drive my car to work.  Then I feel as if I am in a battle against the other drivers, fighting to get where I am going and fighting to protect myself from them and the traffic in general.  The bus experience is quite different. 

Helping Behavior

One day an elderly woman with a cane attempted to rise from her seat just as the bus driver hit the gas.  She lurched forward to fall, and would have, except every hand around her reached out to steady her and a call went out, "Hey!" to the bus driver to ease up until she could right herself.  He carefully steadied the bus and with the help of many hands she righted herself – without a bump or a bruise.  There was no ill will toward the bus driver.  It was simply assumed, correctly, that he wasn’t aware that she had stood up.  We all worked together with the bus driver to steady her and then continued on our merry way.  With the exception of the outcry to the bus driver no other words were spoken.  None were necessary.  I have witnessed this many times with elderly passengers, and also with children who suddenly found themselves lurched forward or backward.  Every hand reaches out to catch them and return them safely to their parent. 

Passengers with disabilities are handled with equal care.  A blind gentleman gets on at the same place every morning and departs at the same place downtown.  The bus driver opens the door and asks, "1M?", referring to the number of the bus.  I never thought about it.  A blind person cannot read the lighted panels on the front and side of the bus which identify it.  The bus driver does think about it.   The blind man enters, tells the driver where he wants to get off and the other passengers quietly guide him to an empty seat.  Again, no words or spoken or gratitude required.  It’s simply something that is done.  He and another passenger discuss what kind of music they are listening to in their headsets as we continue on.  One day when we reached his stop the driver was distracted by traffic and forgot to let him off.  Another regular passenger knew he got off at that street and gently prompted the driver that it was time to let the man off.  Once again there was no criticism or ill will toward the driver.  He so cosistently remembers to let the man off every morning everyone assumed it was an innocent oversight – and so it was. 

I see this happen in a lot of situations.  When a passenger pulls the cord to indicate they want off at the next stop and the driver passes it by the passengers unite again.  Everyone sends up a unanimous but gentle "Hey!" to nudge the driver and he immediately stops and lets the passenger off.  If someone is trying to exit through the back door and there are too many people blocking the driver’s view so he cannot see them the call rises up, "Back Door!".  If a passenger is late for the bus and running to catch it the call goes out, "Hey, someone’s coming!" and the driver stops to wait for them.  But these calls to the driver do not feel like admonitions.  They are the passengers and the driver working together to make sure everyone gets where they are going.  The drivers do not take offense and respond immediately.  The passengers are not being criticial, they are merely trying to help out.

Passengers seem to have a lot of good will toward the bus drivers, and rightly so.  Most of the drivers are very compassionate of their passengers and work very hard to take care of them.  They answer endless questions about routes, schedules and how to get from one place to another with patience and detail that amaze me.  If a drunk or disorderly passenger gets on who disrupts travel or makes the journey unsafe the driver will intervene to have the person removed from the bus to keep the passengers safe.  Yet the same drivers show an amazing amount of tolerance for slightly inebriated folks who aren’t causing problems, homeless passengers and mentally ill passengers who might be acting out their psychosis but are otherwise harmless.  The drivers seem to take special care of the elderly, the disabled and children.  My morning driver picks up a young girl going to school every morning.  The driver greatly dislikes having passengers stand behind her when there are available seats and will gently shoo them away – except for the young girl.  Every morning when we approach the girl’s stop the driver looks for her.  "Where is my student?" she asks if the girl is absent.  Or, "there is my student" when the girl is there.  The girl quietly takes her place directly behind the driver’s seat and they move off in silence.  When we reach the school the driver lets her out and quietly waits until the girl clears the school yard fence.  I wish the girl’s mother knew how carefully her child was watched over by this driver. 

Passengers also work together to help each other reach their destinations.  You can ask most anyone on the bus; how to catch another bus, where the transfer terminal is, where to get off to get to the HEB (our local grocery store chain) or any other business along the way.  At Halloween a young couple was trying to locate the costume shop, "Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds".  (Yes, it is as cool as its name.)  I saw four different people on the bus help them find the right street.  No thank yous were necessary.  It is simply what is done.  It’s a given.

The Regulars

As I continued to watch the regular passengers I noticed something else.  New passengers on the bus may be somewhat talkative, trying to learn how to use their bus pass or get the right route.  But once they learn the system they seem to divide into two categories:  introverts and extroverts.  There are introverts and extroverts in any population.  But in other populations they are not usually so aware or so courteous of each other.  The bus population seems to accomodate both gracefully.  Introverts can be easily identified because they have something attached to them to identify them:  a book, a laptop, a puzzle book or headphones.  Extroverts are missing this paraphernalia.  Introverts are drawn to introverts and extroverts seek extroverts.  As an introvert, when I enter the bus I scan for someone with introvert paraphernalia, sit down next to them and open up my book.  I see other introverts doing the same and usually find someone with introvert paraphernalia sitting next to me.  I assume extroverts do the same because I see them seeking out and sitting next to each other to chat.  Regulars who are extroverts will even try to save the seat next to them for their friend that gets on at the next stop so they can catch up on the latest news. 

Now here is the interesting part.  Both introverts and extroverts cohabitate peacefully on the bus.  Extroverts chat, but they do so at a level that is very quiet and peaceful to an introvert – at least for this one.  As I’m riding along I’m aware of quiet conversations bubbling all around me like a brook, but their words are not loud enough to jar my senses or disturb my reading.  A babbling brook of language ripples around me and soothes my strained nerves.  And everyday is different.  This afternoon there was the usual strong undercurrent of English with rivulets of Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish and German.  This quiet stream of dialogue washes over me and lulls me into a calm and quiet place.  Unlike extrovert "yakking" which usually grates on an introvert’s nerves, the extroverts on the bus seem to be modulating their conversations to a peaceful hum.  It actually contributes to the calm instead of disturbing it.  

Another fascinating thing is watching people become regulars.  If they are introverts they may start off talking, but they quickly pick up on the wonderful opportunity the bus provides to indulge their introversion.  People who began empty handed soon start sporting the traditional introvert paraphernalia and gratefully sink down into one of the bus’ seats to relish the next 45 minutes of indulging their own thoughts.  Whether they are writing, reading, listening or puzzling they guard that intellectual space.  They purposefully sit next to another introvert in order to keep the quiet around them.  I remember watching a woman who sat next to state employee who could talk non-stop.  She listened patiently morning after morning.  One day she did not show up and I later found out she began going at a different time.  But she was different now.  She came braced with a Suduko puzzle, buried her head in it and enjoyed the time on the bus languishing in her puzzle.  People on the bus seem to become aware of the pleasure of wandering around in your own head, devoid of the hustle and bustle of modern life and its constant demands upon our attention.  I know I personally resent having to drive to work now.  I look forward to the 45 minutes it takes to get to work instead of resenting it because I get to sink into that interesting book I haven’t had the time to read.  I also have time to think, ponder, wander and dream.  I sometimes take notes on articles for this blog.  I sometimes turn on the mp3 and just listen.  I sometimes open the book (to send off those introvert vibes) but just stare out the window and daydream.  What used to be an exercise in extreme frustration (driving in rush hour traffic) has now become the most mentally healing part of my day.

Dealing with Problems

The bus is not Nirvana and problems do arise.  But problems are few and far between.  In fact, everyone on the bus shows a great deal of tolerance for everyone else, as long as they are not making the bus unsafe.  Then the driver and passengers unite again – to restore safety.  I once saw a man trying to start a fight with another passenger and becoming more and more irate.  The bus driver stopped the bus and refused to move until he got off.  The passengers gently, but unanimously, joined with the driver in asking the man to get off.  One spoke up and said, "You know you don’t want him to call the police, man.  Get off the bus."  I was surprised at the lack of intolerance or self-righteousness with which the event took place.  No one disparaged the guy, called him names or got ugly with him.  No one was loud or aggressive.  They simply came together to let him know that he had stepped over the line.  After the man got off, no one was snickering or making rude comments.  No one judged him.  They quietly went back to chatting or reading or listening to their music.

Another incident involved a cell phone user, of course.  A young woman got on the bus yakking on her cell phone.  An older woman near the middle of the bus had been chatting peacefully with her fellow passenger about the Pecan Street festival until the cell phone user got on.  The older woman’s rather bizarre makeup, dress and speech patterns indicated some form of mental illness, but she was pleasant and cheerful and her seatmate appeared to be enjoying the conversation.  The cell phone girl starting chatting loudly about various mundane topics including the fact that she was on the bus, where the bus was on its route, what she was going to cook for dinner, etc., etc.  The normal hum of the bus was interrupted by this mind numbing dialogue conducted at full volume.  This chatter apparently annoyed at least one other patron.  I know that because the mentally ill woman suddenly started screaming, "WHY DON’T YOU STOP YAKKING AWAY ON THAT DAMNED PHONE???  NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR THE BORING DETAILS OF YOUR PERSONAL LIFE!!!   I CAN’T EVEN HEAR THE THOUGHTS INSIDE MY OWN HEAD OVER HERE!!!)  The chastened cell phone girl stood, stunned, then ended the call and sat down.  I looked around to see covert smiles of gratitude from other passengers being sent over to the mentally ill woman.  For my own part I was jealous.  I wish I had had the courage to say what she did.  Not to scream it, perhaps, but at least say it.  Mental illness can be rather freeing, you know?  The mentally ill woman had the courage to say what everyone else was thinking and by speaking up had ended an annoyance.  Quiet conversations resumed, music in headphones was turned back down and books were reopened.  And an entire bus quietly smiled to itself.  She was Queen for a Day.  At least on the 1M. 

You can read more of my articles about mental health issues on my blog at:  www.kellevision.com.

 

 

Laughter Really is the Best Medicine

My video collection is inexplicable, unless you understand its purpose.  The only movies I actually purchase to keep are those which are safe and make me laugh.  I know no one dies, there is no violence, no animals are killed or harmed in the viewing of this movie and it makes me laugh.

Now I have a fairly warped sense of humor, but that’s OK.  These movies are not for other people.  They are for me.  When I’m going through a stressful period, when I’ve been exposed to too much pain at work, when I’ve heard too many horrifying details of the trauma some of my clients have experienced, when I’m too tired to think, or when I’m feeling really down I put in one of these movies.  I know the lines by heart.  I know nothing awful is going to flash on the screen.  I know they are not going to scare me or make me sad.  I count on them to comfort me and make me laugh.  They are one of the forms of self soothing I use.  I can be very serious and focus on the negative too much and this provides balance.  I use DVDs of stand up comedy the same way.  But I forget to mention this.   In some ways it seems too simple, and it is.  But it works.   

 

I’ve found this same technique works for clients.  One woman was going through a very painful divorce which left her racked with grief.  She sobbed and sobbed, which is good.  She needed to get it out and I would never want to thwart the expression of feelings or use any method to deny them.  Feelings are to be felt.  But sometimes you’ve felt all you can and need a break from the pain.  This client had a favorite old comedy series that she had watched as a child.  Fortunately, these days, you can buy these old favorites in complete sets.  She did.  And she watched one show after another as a way of comforting herself.  It worked.  It soothed the heartache of her loss and enabled her to face the world again. 

If you don’t have such a collection you might want to think about starting one.  It’s important to remember that you are buying these for you.  What makes each of us laugh is very individual and personal. 

For more articles on self care and mental health, please visit my blog at:  www.kellevision.com.

 

 

6 Holiday Wellness Tips

Staying grounded during the holidays is difficult for most everyone. Financial stressors, substance abuse issues (yours or someone else’s) or a history of trauma can only exacerbate the problem. Add to that the fact that old family roles kick in during family gatherings and well-adjusted, normally sane people suddenly find themselves acting like 5 year olds. How do you maintain your peace of mind and stay balanced? Here is a list of suggestions for maintaining your mental health during the holiday season.

1. Maintain your Self Care

If you have a regular exercise routine, a healthy diet or a relaxation program that gets you through the rest of the year, the holidays are not the time to forego them. In fact you often need them more this time of year. Eat as healthily as you can. Maintain your workout or relaxation regime as best you can. Use suggestion #2 to save time for these very important practices.

2. Just say "No"

Maintain your boundaries and your sanity. The holiday can be a great time for getting together with friends and family. However, too many parties or gatherings can leave you exhausted and compromise your self care.

Things you might think about saying "No" to:

  • Attending every single holiday invitation you receive
  • Being pressured to eat or drink too much
  • Buying presents for every single person you know or ever met
  • Buying expensive presents that break your budget
  • Being pressured into bypassing your self care (exercise, diet, relaxation techniques, etc.)
  • Attending family gatherings which deteriorate into drunken brawls, finger pointing contests or other dysfunctional patterns

You may even want to create a holiday gathering of your own and forego dysfunctional family dynamics. We don’t often think of it, but many people have been cast out of their families of origin. The gay and lesbian community is one community which has been very strong in creating their own healthy families and having their own gatherings. We should all learn from their example. "Family" doesn’t have to be biologically relevant.

Individuals who are newly sober might be compromised by a family which drinks heavily. Individuals who have experienced childhood abuse or violence within their families may not feel safe returning to them if their abuser or molester is still present. If attending a family gathering is not possible for any reason, don’t miss out on the season. Create your own community and have your own gathering that is safe, supportive and healthy.

3. Maintain moderation

Eating, drinking and partying too much can wipe out the good health you strive for the rest of the year. Be mindful of how much you do of each and try to maintain moderation. It’s not necessary to taste everything or drink as much as uncle Fred. Do what is best for you. Refer back to #2, learn to say "No".

4. Drink up

Water, that is. It’s cold out there and most people have their houses nicely heated this time of year. Combine that with the stressors of airplane travel, non-stop shopping, overeating and increased alcohol intake and dehydration can be an issue. Keep drinking your water to stay hydrated and energized.

5. Stay connected

If you have a support system that helps you get through the rest of the year, don’t abandon it now. Exchange phone numbers or emails if you are traveling and determine ahead of time the best method for getting, or giving, support during these next few weeks.

6. Get real

Every year I watch as people motor off to the Normal Rockwell family Christmas they have created in their heads. And every year I watch them crawl back to work totally disillusioned and depressed. Get real about your family’s dynamics and how Christmases really turn out. Having more realistic expectations will keep you from having that great let down on December 31st and allow you to develop strategies for having a Christmas that is more realistically likely to happen.

See more articles about mental health issues at my blog: Kellevision.com

Dealing with Addiction During the Holidays

Though we often think of the holidays as a time of giving and sharing they can also be extremely stressful. This stress can lead to an increase in substance use or a relapse by someone in recovery. What are some of the symptoms of a problem in a family member? In yourself? What can you do to protect your own sobriety?

Family dynamics are often at the heart of holiday stress. Add to this the hustle and bustle of trying to organize and fund festivities and the stress climbs even higher. To a former addict or alcoholic holidays can prove to be a difficult time. They may face a lot of guilt about embarrassing behavior during previous holidays or family events which was caused by drinking or drug use. Family relationships may be strained because of their behavior while using drugs or alcohol. Trying to fit in during family events in which others are drinking or using drugs can also be stressful. None of these reasons are an excuse to destroy a family event by being so high or drunk that you create a scene or start a fight. But they are factors to be aware of.

If a family member has a history of disrupting Christmas dinner because of their addiction there may be a lot of fear from everyone else that this will occur again even though they are now sober. So people are entering the dinner expecting a problem which may not even occur. There may also be a lot of resentment toward the now sober person for previous events which were ruined due to their substance use.

If the person’s role in the family as the scapegoat was largely cemented by their drug use – and they are now clean and sober – there may be a panic in the family system as everyone anticipates having the scapegoat role transferred to them. The sober person may find themselves being sabotaged by family members who actually hope they will relapse so the blaming and finger pointing can resume. So the family may say they are happy the person is getting control of their substance abuse while working to undermine it at the same time. And this is done unconsciously, making it even harder to address.

Being aware of all of these feelings and owning them is an important factor in changing the family dynamic.

What can you do if you have a family member who is using or has a history of using?
What can you do to protect your own sobriety during the holidays?

For the Family of a Substance Abuser

Can the Self Righteousness

Everyone has their “addictions” and human foibles. I’ve literally watched someone who weighed 300 lbs. and was stuffing the 3rd piece of pumpkin pie into his face go off on a relative for their drug use. Before you decide to fill yourself with self righteous indignation and stand in judgment of others, check yourself. If you’re not perfect, ease up on everyone else.

Do You Want to be Right, or be Happy?

I actually read one article this year which recommended drug testing relatives. Oh my gosh! What are you, the police?? What possible purpose could that serve? Is determining the chemical in their bloodstream going to accomplish anything other than to prove that you were right and they were wrong? What is in someone else’s bloodstream is not the problem. The behavior is the problem. If someone is stumbling around, falling over things, slurring their speech, talking too loudly and getting aggressive – what difference does it make what is causing it? If you want to be right, go ahead, administer drug tests and wave them over people’s heads in self righteous triumph. But if you want to be happy, focus on the behavior.

Most addicts with whom I have worked don’t realize how impaired they are. Their denial allows them to convince themselves that they are pulling it off, that they are “O.K.”. Giving them kind, but honest feedback about how they appear usually works quite well, without getting into a debate about what is causing it. Use words that come naturally to you, the language of your family. And try to give constructive feedback without blaming. Do not have this conversation at the dinner table or in the middle of the living room. Take the person aside and talk to them privately to avoid embarrassing everyone.

“Hey man, I’m kind of worried about you. You’re look really sedated, your speech is really slurred and you’re stumbling around a lot.”

Suggest a constructive solution that doesn’t blame.

“Would you like to go lay down upstairs for a bit?”
“Do you want to go home and get it together and come back later?”

If they are too impaired to be at the Christmas dinner, they are too impaired to be driving.

Offer to give them a ride or get them a cab. If they are from out of town, help them navigate the public transportation system in your area.

Let Bygones be Bygones

If past Christmases have been disturbed by someone’s drug use, but they are now trying to get it together, try to find it in your heart to let it go. Don’t keep throwing in their face “what happened” when they were 17 – when they’re now 45 and have been clean and sober for 3 years.

This does not mean you continue to tolerate the behavior.

If a family member has a history of substance abuse which disrupts the holidays and they appear to be under the influence, stay in the present. Talk about what is going on right now and deal with that. Hitting them over the head with, “you always”, “you never”, “this always happens” and “every time you…” serves no constructive purpose. First of all, they are impaired. Do you really think they are going to remember this lecture when they sober up? Second of all it only fuels the fire and does nothing to address the situation. Deal with the situation in front of you right now. Give them constructive feedback about how they appear and work together to find a solution: they leave and come back later, they leave and come back tomorrow, they skip the festivities this year, they go for a walk and clear their head, they go upstairs and sleep it off, etc.

Avoid Blaming

I think a lot of family members feel like a substance abuser messes up the family gathering on purpose. In most cases, this really is not the case. Because of the emotional stressors I mentioned earlier, a former alcoholic or addict can be really stressed about going to Christmas dinner. They may sabotage themselves by resorting to old methods of dealing with emotional stress; alcohol, drugs or prescription medications. They may think, “I’ll just have one to calm my nerves” and they have absolutely no intention of getting drunk or high. They are often trying very hard just to “act right” and not disrupt or disappoint everyone. But one pill or one drink becomes five and off we go. Recognizing that it is a weakness rather than a conspiratorial plot to destroy the dinner you worked hard to prepare will help you avoid resentment and hostility and focus on solving the problem while still being conscious of everyone’s feelings.

Don’t Enable

If they are impaired they need to leave. Don’t allow the family to sit and sweat bullets about what Uncle Fred is going to do next and if, or when, he is going to be so drunk that he becomes violent. If Uncle Fred is drunk, he needs to leave so everyone else can relax. Be kind about addressing the behavior, but don’t put up with it. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. This is the family Christmas dinner. Protect it. If it has been ruined every year by someone being drunk, stoned or high just say “No”. Say it with understanding and kindness, but say it.

If You are the Former Alcoholic or Addict

Be Aware of Family Dynamics

Is there a scapegoating function being perpetuated by your former substance abuse? If so, the family will be highly motivated to keep you in that role. It’s important to realize that they are not doing this on purpose. Family patterns are handed down from generation to generation but people are totally unaware of them. It’s important to recognize the dynamics to understand how they might trip you up. The Christmas dinner is not the time to educate the family on these dynamics. Just be aware of them, how they might play out and what effect they might have on your sobriety so you can make choices about how to address them.

Take Responsibility

Whatever happened before, you did it. Own it. If you have thrown up on people, started a fight or passed out in the cranberry sauce, acknowledge it. Apologize and move on. Don’t make excuses for it or try to deny it. The family gathering was disturbed by this event and you are responsible.

Stay in the Present

However, regardless of what happened before, this is this Christmas and you are sober right now. Bring your family back to this point as many times as you have to. “I am not doing that right now.” “I am perfectly sober right now.” Keep bringing them back and don’t allow it to become a blaming or guilting contest.

Realize their behavior may come from fear. They may not be telling you what you are doing right now, they may be telling you what they fear you will do. If your instincts tell you this is the case, try to confront the fear. “Could it be that you are afraid I’m going to get drunk and embarrass everyone like I did last year?” If your family uses humor as a coping technique this would be a good time to use it. Put the fear on the table. Then address it by keeping it in the present. “But I’m absolutely sober, right now.” Then negotiate a compromise. “O.K., you’re afraid I’m going to get drunk. But I’m not drunk right now, right? What if you tell me if you sense that I’m getting drunk at any point in the dinner and I will be happy to leave. Will that work?” That keeps them focused on what you are doing right now and lets them know that you have agreed to leave if a problem erupts. If you stay sober, which you will, you stay at the dinner. Problem solved.

If your family refuses to address the fear and refuses to keep it in the present and let the past go, they may be heavily invested in keeping you in the role of the family drug abuser for some reason. If this is the situation, you may just have to excuse yourself from the gathering. Do not allow yourself to be kept in that role.

Be Aware of Saboteurs

If your family needs you to be a screw up for some reason, they may use ingenious ways of sabotaging you: “Just one drink won’t hurt.” “What are you, a holy roller now?” “Ohhhhh, you think you’re better than us now??” First realize that this is not consciously done. Whatever their reasons for needing you to be a drug addict or an alcoholic they would probably be the last ones to realize it. Getting them to own their motives or behavior may be impossible for this reason. Whether they can or will take responsibility for it, the Christmas dinner is probably not the time to try to hash it out. If you are being sabotaged try not to take it personally, but do not allow it to continue. Just say “No” to sabotaging. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Excuse yourself and have a Plan B.

Have a Plan B or an Escape Plan

Decide what you will do if things start to go awry. Look at what possible reactions your family may have to your sobriety. If there is a potential for any type of sabotaging or blaming, decide ahead of time what you will do. Decide how far you will let it go before you leave. Don’t leave with a lot of fighting, blaming or finger pointing. Just tell them quietly you think it would be better if you leave and quietly leave.

Ask a friend or family member if you can join their Christmas dinner if your family gathering becomes untenable. You may have a support group you can attend. You may just want to go home and practice self soothing techniques to get your peace of mind back. But have some kind of back up plan so you don’t get caught off guard. If you plan to go to home you might want to check yourself. Loneliness is a big problem this time of year. If you are an introvert, going home to self soothe may be a good idea. If you are an extrovert, you may want to have a backup plan that involves being around other people.

Plan Ahead

If your family drinks or if you think drugs will be present at the gathering decide ahead of time how you will handle it. If alcohol is the problem, take your own beverages so you know you’ll have something non-alcoholic available. Decide how to establish a boundary with your cousin who is still using should she invite you to join her. Take a friend who is also in recovery who can support you and help you realize insidious family dynamics which might threaten your sobriety. Be very aware of which self soothing techniques help to calm you and arm yourself with them. Take a time out if the stress starts to rise. Excuse yourself to take a walk. Invite a “safe” family member who is supportive of your efforts to join you on the walk. This eliminates speculation that you are going to the liquor store or going to score. Practice good self care throughout the holiday season.

If you don’t know what I mean by self care or self soothing you might want to take a crash course in these two concepts. Here are some articles which might help.

“Building Sellf Esteem through Self Care”
“Satir’s Mandala: The Components of Happiness”
“Self Soothing Techniques”

You may also want to review the entire section on Self Care to see all the articles.

Remember to HALT

Not allowing yourself to be emotionally compromised in ways which put you at risk of relapse is important. Stop and take a breath if you are:

1) Hungry
2) Angry
3) Lonely
4) Tired

Breathe. Also be aware of boredom, guilt, fear or stress. Stay in touch with your feelings if you are tempted to relapse and see what is going on. Keeping Satir’s Mandala in mind at the holidays can be a great coping mechanism. If you have worked hard to fill every one of those areas you will be much less likely to relapse. If you attend your family gathering and a lot of painful emotions erupt, check the mandala. What has been compromised? What needs to be replenished? Know which techniques you personally use to replenish them. See the self soothing articles for ideas if you need help.

Don’t Take a Holiday from Self Care

See the Self Esteem through Self Care article for a list of basic requirements to maintain simple mental health. These apply to everyone whether they are in recovery or not. Be sure you continue good self care throughout the holidays. This is when you need it the most! Check yourself. If your self care starts to lapse you may be sabotaging yourself or allowing others to sabotage you. Don’t beat yourself up, just fix it. If you start eating a bunch of sweets and carbs, stop going to the gym and stop doing your daily meditations – and these have kept you sane in the past – don’t beat yourself up for having lapsed. Just get back on the treadmill and congratulate yourself for catching it and fixing it.

Learn to Relapse

Some hard core AA folks may ream me for this one, but I think it is important. Many times, someone will have a simple slip. They will stop and have one beer, or take one pill, or one hit. There is now a chance for a choice. Do they continue or stop? Unfortunately many addicts and alcoholics have very black and white thinking. They are either perfectly clean or totally messed up. If they have a little slip, they immediately think, “F— it” and go on a binge.

Learning to stop this behavior, and this kind of thinking, can really save you. If you relapse, own it. “Dang it. I did it again.” Stop and listen to your body, your feelings and your thoughts and see if you can identify what tripped you up. Congratulate yourself for stopping after 3 beers instead of 20; or 4 pills instead of the entire bottle; or one night, instead of an entire weekend. Get back on the horse. Check your self care. Correct anything which has lapsed. Practice self soothing to soothe whatever hurt caused you to relapse. And get back on track.

Forgive yourself, but take responsibility. Find the loophole in your self care strategy and plug it. Then move on. Stay in the present. Learn from the mistake and figure out how to avoid it in the future.

If you have a hard time with this you may be a perfectionist. If you tend to beat yourself over the head for not being perfect, please read my article, “Progress not Perfection” which gives you a new way to think about things which may be more conducive to getting better and staying sober.

See other articles on mental health at my blog: www.kellevision.com.

Dealing with Addiction During the Holidays

Though we often think of the holidays as a time of giving and sharing they can also be extremely stressful.  This stress can lead to an increase in substance use or a relapse by someone in recovery.  What are some of the symptoms of a problem in a family member?  In yourself?  What can you do to protect your own sobriety?

Family dynamics are often at the heart of holiday stress.  Add to this the hustle and bustle of trying to organize and fund festivities and the stress climbs even higher.  To a former addict or alcoholic holidays can prove to be a difficult time.  They may face a lot of guilt about embarrassing behavior during previous holidays or family events which was caused by drinking or drug use.  Family relationships may be strained because of their behavior while using drugs or alcohol.  Trying to fit in during family events in which others are drinking or using drugs can also be stressful.  None of these reasons are an excuse to destroy a family event by being so high or drunk that you create a scene or start a fight.  But they are factors to be aware of. 

If a family member has a history of disrupting Christmas dinner because of their addiction there may be a lot of fear from everyone else that this will occur again even though they are now sober.  So people are entering the dinner expecting a problem which may not even occur.  There may also be a lot of resentment toward the now sober person for previous events which were ruined due to their substance use. 

If the person’s role in the family as the scapegoat was largely cemented by their drug use – and they are now clean and sober – there may be a panic in the family system as everyone anticipates having the scapegoat role transferred to them.  The sober person may find themselves being sabotaged by family members who actually hope they will relapse so the blaming and finger pointing can resume.  So the family may say they are happy the person is getting control of their substance abuse while working to undermine it at the same time.  And this is done unconsciously, making it even harder to address. 

Being aware of all of these feelings and owning them is an important factor in changing the family dynamic. 

What can you do if you have a family member who is using or has a history of using?
What can you do to protect your own sobriety during the holidays?

For the Family of a Substance Abuser

Can the Self Righteousness

Everyone has their "addictions" and human foibles.  I’ve literally watched someone who weighed 300 lbs. and was stuffing the 3rd piece of pumpkin pie into his face go off on a relative for their drug use.  Before you decide to fill yourself with self righteous indignation and stand in judgment of others, check yourself.  If you’re not perfect, ease up on everyone else. 

Do You Want to be Right, or be Happy?

I actually read one article this year which recommended drug testing relatives.  Oh my gosh!  What are you, the police??  What possible purpose could that serve?  Is determining the chemical in their bloodstream going to accomplish anything other than to prove that you were right and they were wrong?  What is in someone else’s bloodstream is not the problem. The behavior is the problem.  If someone is stumbling around, falling over things, slurring their speech, talking too loudly and getting aggressive –  what difference does it make what is causing it?  If you want to be right, go ahead, administer drug tests and wave them over people’s heads in self righteous triumph.  But if you want to be happy, focus on the behavior. 

Most addicts with whom I have worked don’t realize how impaired they are.  Their denial allows them to convince themselves that they are pulling it off, that they are "O.K.".  Giving them kind, but honest feedback about how they appear usually works quite well, without getting into a debate about what is causing it.  Use words that come naturally to you, the language of your family.  And try to give constructive feedback without blaming.  Do not have this conversation at the dinner table or in the middle of the living room.  Take the person aside and talk to them privately to avoid embarrassing everyone.

"Hey man, I’m kind of worried about you.  You’re look really sedated, your speech is really slurred and you’re stumbling around a lot."

Suggest a constructive solution that doesn’t blame.

"Would you like to go lay down upstairs for a bit?"
"Do you want to go home and get it together and come back later?" 

If they are too impaired to be at the Christmas dinner, they are too impaired to be driving.

Offer to give them a ride or get them a cab.  If they are from out of town, help them navigate the public transportation system in your area. 

Let Bygones be Bygones

If past Christmases have been disturbed by someone’s drug use, but they are now trying to get it together, try to find it in your heart to let it go. Don’t keep throwing in their face "what happened" when they were 17 – when they’re now 45 and have been clean and sober for 3 years. 

This does not mean you continue to tolerate the behavior.

If a family member has a history of substance abuse which disrupts the holidays and they appear to be under the influence, stay in the present.  Talk about what is going on right now and deal with that.  Hitting them over the head with, "you always", "you never", "this always happens" and "every time you…" serves no constructive purpose.  First of all, they are impaired.  Do you really think they are going to remember this lecture when they sober up?  Second of all it only fuels the fire and does nothing to address the situation.  Deal with the situation in front of you right now.  Give them constructive feedback about how they appear and work together to find a solution: they leave and come back later, they leave and come back tomorrow, they skip the festivities this year, they go for a walk and clear their head, they go upstairs and sleep it off, etc.

Avoid Blaming

I think a lot of family members feel like a substance abuser messes up the family gathering on purpose.  In most cases, this really is not the case.  Because of the emotional stressors I mentioned earlier, a former alcoholic or addict can be really stressed about going to Christmas dinner.  They may sabotage themselves by resorting to old methods of dealing with emotional stress; alcohol, drugs or prescription medications.  They may think, "I’ll just have one to calm my nerves" and they have absolutely no intention of getting drunk or high.  They are often trying very hard just to "act right" and not disrupt or disappoint everyone.  But one pill or one drink becomes five and off we go.  Recognizing that it is a weakness rather than a conspiratorial plot to destroy the dinner you worked hard to prepare will help you avoid resentment and hostility and focus on solving the problem while still being conscious of everyone’s feelings.

Don’t Enable

If they are impaired they need to leave.  Don’t allow the family to sit and sweat bullets about what Uncle Fred is going to do next and if, or when, he is going to be so drunk that he becomes violent.  If Uncle Fred is drunk, he needs to leave so everyone else can relax.  Be kind about addressing the behavior, but don’t put up with it.  Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.  This is the family Christmas dinner.  Protect it.  If it has been ruined every year by someone being drunk, stoned or high just say "No".  Say it with understanding and kindness, but say it. 

If You are the Former Alcoholic or Addict

Be Aware of Family Dynamics

Is there a scapegoating function being perpetuated by your former substance abuse?  If so, the family will be highly motivated to keep you in that role.  It’s important to realize that they are not doing this on purpose.  Family patterns are handed down from generation to generation but people are totally unaware of them.  It’s important to recognize the dynamics to understand how they might trip you up.  The Christmas dinner is not the time to educate the family on these dynamics.  Just be aware of them, how they might play out and what effect they might have on your sobriety so you can make choices about how to address them.

Take Responsibility

Whatever happened before, you did it.  Own it.  If you have thrown up on people, started a fight or passed out in the cranberry sauce, acknowledge it.  Apologize and move on.  Don’t make excuses for it or try to deny it.  The family gathering was disturbed by this event and you are responsible. 

Stay in the Present

However, regardless of what happened before, this is this Christmas and you are sober right now.  Bring your family back to this point as many times as you have to.  "I am not doing that right now."  "I am perfectly sober right now."  Keep bringing them back and don’t allow it to become a blaming or guilting contest.  

Realize their behavior may come from fear.  They may not be telling you what you are doing right now, they may be telling you what they fear you will do.  If your instincts tell you this is the case, try to confront the fear.  "Could it be that you are afraid I’m going to get drunk and embarrass everyone like I did last year?"  If your family uses humor as a coping technique this would be a good time to use it.  Put the fear on the table.  Then address it by keeping it in the present.  "But I’m absolutely sober, right now."  Then negotiate a compromise.  "O.K., you’re afraid I’m going to get drunk.  But I’m not drunk right now, right?  What if you tell me if you sense that I’m getting drunk at any point in the dinner and I will be happy to leave.  Will that work?"  That keeps them focused on what you are doing right now and lets them know that you have agreed to leave if a problem erupts.  If you stay sober, which you will, you stay at the dinner.  Problem solved.

If your family refuses to address the fear and refuses to keep it in the present and let the past go, they may be heavily invested in keeping you in the role of the family drug abuser for some reason.  If this is the situation, you may just have to excuse yourself from the gathering.  Do not allow yourself to be kept in that role.

Be Aware of Saboteurs

If your family needs you to be a screw up for some reason, they may use ingenious ways of sabotaging you:  "Just one drink won’t hurt."  "What are you, a holy roller now?"  "Ohhhhh, you think you’re better than us now??"  First realize that this is not consciously done.  Whatever their reasons for needing you to be a drug addict or an alcoholic they would probably be the last ones to realize it.  Getting them to own their motives or behavior may be impossible for this reason.  Whether they can or will take responsibility for it, the Christmas dinner is probably not the time to try to hash it out.  If you are being sabotaged try not to take it personally, but do not allow it to continue.  Just say "No" to sabotaging.  Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.  Excuse yourself and have a Plan B.

Have a Plan B or an Escape Plan

Decide what you will do if things start to go awry.  Look at what possible reactions your family may have to your sobriety.  If there is a potential for any type of sabotaging or blaming, decide ahead of time what you will do.  Decide how far you will let it go before you leave.  Don’t leave with a lot of fighting, blaming or finger pointing.  Just tell them quietly you think it would be better if you leave and quietly leave.

Ask a friend or family member if you can join their Christmas dinner if your family gathering becomes untenable.  You may have a support group you can attend.  You may just want to go home and practice self soothing techniques to get your peace of mind back.  But have some kind of back up plan so you don’t get caught off guard.  If you plan to go to home you might want to check yourself.  Loneliness is a big problem this time of year.  If you are an introvert, going home to self soothe may be a good idea.  If you are an extrovert, you may want to have a backup plan that involves being around other people. 

Plan Ahead

If your family drinks or if you think drugs will be present at the gathering decide ahead of time how you will handle it.  If alcohol is the problem, take your own beverages so you know you’ll have something non-alcoholic available.  Decide how to establish a boundary with your cousin who is still using should she invite you to join her.  Take a friend who is also in recovery who can support you and help you realize insidious family dynamics which might threaten your sobriety.  Be very aware of which self soothing techniques help to calm you and arm yourself with them.  Take a time out if the stress starts to rise.  Excuse yourself to take a walk.  Invite a "safe" family member who is supportive of your efforts to join you on the walk.  This eliminates speculation that you are going to the liquor store or going to score.  Practice good self care throughout the holiday season.

If you don’t know what I mean by self care or self soothing you might want to take a crash course in these two concepts.  Here are some articles which might help. 

"Building Sellf Esteem through Self Care"
"Satir’s Mandala:  The Components of Happiness"
"Self Soothing Techniques"

You may also want to review the entire section on Self Care to see all the articles.  

Remember to HALT

Not allowing yourself to be emotionally compromised in ways which put you at risk of relapse is important.  Stop and take a breath if you are:

1) Hungry
2) Angry
3) Lonely
4) Tired

Breathe.  Also be aware of boredom, guilt, fear or stress.  Stay in touch with your feelings if you are tempted to relapse and see what is going on.  Keeping Satir’s Mandala in mind at the holidays can be a great coping mechanism.  If you have worked hard to fill every one of those areas you will be much less likely to relapse.  If you attend your family gathering and a lot of painful emotions erupt, check the mandala.  What has been compromised?  What needs to be replenished?  Know which techniques you personally use to replenish them.  See the self soothing articles for ideas if you need help. 

Don’t Take a Holiday from Self Care

See the Self Esteem through Self Care article for a list of basic requirements to maintain simple mental health.  These apply to everyone whether they are in recovery or not.  Be sure you continue good self care throughout the holidays.  This is when you need it the most!  Check yourself.  If your self care starts to lapse you may be sabotaging yourself or allowing others to sabotage you.  Don’t beat yourself up, just fix it.  If you start eating a bunch of sweets and carbs, stop going to the gym and stop doing your daily meditations – and these have kept you sane in the past – don’t beat yourself up for having lapsed.  Just get back on the treadmill and congratulate yourself for catching it and fixing it.

Learn to Relapse

Some hard core AA folks may ream me for this one, but I think it is important.  Many times, someone will have a simple slip.  They will stop and have one beer, or take one pill, or one hit.  There is now a chance for a choice.  Do they continue or stop?  Unfortunately many addicts and alcoholics have very black and white thinking.  They are either perfectly clean or totally messed up.  If they have a little slip, they immediately think, "F— it" and go on a binge. 

Learning to stop this behavior, and this kind of thinking, can really save you.  If you relapse, own it.  "Dang it.  I did it again."  Stop and listen to your body, your feelings and your thoughts and see if you can identify what tripped you up.  Congratulate yourself for stopping after 3 beers instead of 20; or 4 pills instead of the entire bottle; or one night, instead of an entire weekend.  Get back on the horse.  Check your self care.  Correct anything which has lapsed.  Practice self soothing to soothe whatever hurt caused you to relapse.  And get back on track.

Forgive yourself, but take responsibility.  Find the loophole in your self care strategy and plug it.  Then move on.  Stay in the present.  Learn from the mistake and figure out how to avoid it in the future. 

If you have a hard time with this you may be a perfectionist.  If you tend to beat yourself over the head for not being perfect, please read my article, "Progress not Perfection" which gives you a new way to think about things which may be more conducive to getting better and staying sober.

See other articles about mental health on my blog: Kellevision

 

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