If I Were A Tree

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If I were a tree

I’d be a willow tree.

A weeping willow tree, to be exact.

Although sometimes I imagine myself as the small, scraggly tree

growing between the rocks on the canyon wall.

Or perhaps the last pine, right at tree line.

Once in awhile, when I grow weary of the long mountain winters,

I imagine myself as a palm tree.

And sometimes, a glowing yellow aspen tree in the fall.

But I always come back the the willow tree.

Simultaneously weeping at the beauty and ugliness of the world.

My roots digging deeper, trying to stay upright despite the changes.

Branches hanging long in attempt to shelter other beings

from the harshness of it all.

For You, to sit under.

To pause.  To think.  To reflect.

To make your own meaning,

even as darkness sets.

Yes, if I were a tree, I’d be a Weeping Willow Tree.

With tears of grief and joy.

My friend, now I wonder, if you were a tree,

which one would you be?

A Dog and Her Girl: A Love Story

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At least once a week, I’ll cry over Pacer.  The tears are from the purest Love I know.   They symbolize both my deepest gratitude for being blessed to have the best companion I could ever want, and an even deeper grief knowing one day she will most likely leave this Earth before me. (I’ve cried every time I have thought of, written, and edited that line.) The funny thing is that I know she loves me just the same.  She just doesn’t seem to share my sorrow.  It’s like she knows, or at least more truly believes, something I don’t.  Sometimes I swear I can see the Universe through her eyes.  

Pacer close up

One of my only hopes when I leave this world is that I can fully encompass so much Love.  

God is Love.  Dog is Love.  

I am by no means an expert in the history of language, but I can with almost 100% certainty say that it is no coincidence that God spelled backwards is Dog.  If only the religions of the world recognized that, there would be no shortage of compassion.

A little more on our Love story: 

When my then boyfriend and I (we adopted her together) went to pick up Pacer (in Asheboro, NC), I was just about as nervous as I was excited—pretty much how I am going on any mountain adventure.

That little squirt was such a beautiful little determined sass-ball from the start.  She tripped my boyfriend walking up to the car, puked in my lap on the drive home, and had us chasing her around the yard from the start.  

When me and that first boyfriend split (I guess we can call him her Dad), it was never a question of whom she’d go with.  I would’ve stayed in that relationship if I had to, even though we had exhausted all options of working things out.  I’m pretty sure he and I both cried when I left.  Pacer probably licked my tears.  But did she know that we were leaving for good?

Pacer has been with me through several other relationships after that, like the one boy I fell in love with, hard and fast, but between The Pill* that left me with panic attacks, navigating a transition back to being a student, and a whole lot of insecurities, we couldn’t make it work.  I’m not sure how much I cried on mine and Pacer’s trip to Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming (I may have still been in denial), but she remained my constant companion through the very literal highs and lows.  

*I am by no means against The Pill or any other method of birth control.  For me they just didn’t work.  And for any guy reading this, go you for wearing a condom and taking part of the responsibility off your partner. 

Then there was the relationship that ended with a boyfriend coming home drunk and angry, her body under mine in hopes that I could protect her from some of the yelling.  She never judged me for not leaving sooner and instead gave comfort by simply laying next to me (plus some incessant pawing and licking) not as I cried from heartbreak but the absurdity of it all.  Then off to the mountains we went again, seeking healing in the San Juans, her never leaving my side even when not happy with my route decisions.  (She has, however, learned to demand rest days.)

The last boyfriend, whom we both adored, maybe loved, but only Pacer could ever say.  Except my internal warning system has never been able to turn off of high alert from the last one.  I can’t tell you if the system was accurate or faulty, only that when I felt my throat constrict and the weight in my chest that I was already trapped in a mix of fight and flight.  All my body could tell me was enough.  Even on those lonely nights hoping for a text or a “like” on Facebook, Pacer just curled up beside me on the couch (unless she got bored with me ignoring her for the computer, and put herself to bed.) 

True Love is unconditional.  We’ve never needed words because we could always attune to the other’s presence.  Or maybe spirit?  Pacer is my ultimate Love story.  

I laugh because that certainly isn’t to stay our story has been perfect or easy.  I still can’t say I’ve totally forgave myself for some of the training tools (ex. e-collar) I used on her as a puppy (instructed by professionals) or some of the mountains I’ve taken her up when she was clearly not happy with me by the end.  And I can still see her little body running through our old house with the veggie burgers I made for dinner locked in her jaw.  Even more so, Pacer has made my life more challenging.  I can’t be away from home for more than 8 hours (maybe 9, but then I feel guilty), I can’t travel unless Sandi can watch her or I can afford to put her in boarding with a trainer who is used to working with reactive dogs, and I carefully consider each trail we can go on safely.  Then there’s the constant worry.  Like right now, her first few steps on her hind leg are tentative, and then she’s fine.  Should we do an easy hike tomorrow, or should we abandon ship (or rather, our camping trip) and head home?  Nevertheless, all of that is second.  Effortlessly, she slid into my life as my number one priority.  I never regret anything I haven’t been able to do because of her.  Because her laying next to me is worth so much more than anything else.

I probably should add…it’s not to say I don’t love some of the humans in my life to the Nth degree.  It’s just that we humans often come with conditions and stories of what Love should be, which makes it harder.  Pacer just is Love. (At least to those who know her.  For those of who don’t—well my friend told me that Pacer has the bite that I don’t always have when I should.)  Together we just ARE. 

Maybe Pacer, and all dogs, have been put into this world to teach humans what Love is.

In many ways, Pacer and I are wild, stubborn or determined (depending on your perspective), and tamed only in the sense that I am Hers and She is mine.

Love,

A Dog and Her Girl

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How to Give a Good Opinion, Remain Open to Helpful Feedback, and Build Tolerance for dealing Negative People/Comments

Black Lives Matter, changing the names of Fourteeners that were named after men who led massacres on Native American tribes, changing the names of sports teams that may reflect derogatory connotations of Native Americans, gun laws, how to deal with COVID-19…  It seems like everyone has an opinion and are happy to share that opinion on social media, often in not-so-nice ways.  I often wonder why I keep my Facebook account, or at least unfriend everyone besides my sister and Esther the Wonder Pig.

We live in the day and age of opinions, which is a form of freedom of speech. And, while the quote “opinions are like a**holes, everyone has one”, has truth to it, I don’t agree with the implication that opinions are always bad.  Some can be useful sources of information and having different perspectives on things is important for any person, and any nation, that wants to develop and grow.  More so, I believe that when we voice our opinions to a public audience, we also have a responsibility to share an informed opinion. For example, if you don’t like when an athlete kneels during the National Anthem, at least research why he did it.  If you still disagree with the action after doing your homework, that’s totally fine, just don’t make your own false conclusions without that knowledge.  If you don’t agree about a professional sports team or high school changing their team/mascot because of possible racist assiociations, at least research the history of the name and also allow the minority group to express their freedom of speech. (It’s fascinating to me how many white people say they “worry” about losing their freedom of speech, but are happy to deny that freedom to others.) Politics are tricky, because often what is reported on television news channels are tiny clips of what someone said and/or taken out of context, OR are also opinion-based rather than fact-based (which I don’t always find as useful from my news sources…so maybe the key is to at least know that the TV news channel you’re watching is biased one way or the other).  Along those lines, we also want to avoid rabbit holes and creating fallacies.  As an example, I’ll use a snippet of a conversation with a friend discussing the Cleveland Indians considering changing their name, after conferring with the Native American community.  My opinion was that this seemed reasonable, given that an estimated 100 million Native Americans were massacred during the colonization of this country and still live under oppressive guidelines.  Her reply was something like “so then should we all go back to Europe?” At least from my knowledge base, I have found zero evidence to support the theory that all white people would be either willing or forced to go back to Europe.  

Okay, so I’ve laid out some ways on how not to give an opinion (based on my opinion), so how does one give a good opinion?  If you go back and review a few of my examples in the above paragraph, you’ll see I included a few links which hopefully shows that I did some research to support my opinion.  That doesn’t mean you have to be an expert to give an opinion or always use citations (obviously, I did not use APA guidelines in this blog post), it just means you should put in a little work, and then be open (more on this in a bit) if someone supports an opinion different than yours with a better source.  We also want to give our opinions some thought before sharing, which may include some self-reflection.  This might mean a few minutes, a few days, or even longer.  Remember, just because a social media post is there in your feed now that you have to comment right at this second.  

I’m going to add onto this point by also adding: think for yourself and avoid meme-logic*.  There are some really creative and witty memes out there. I won’t lie and say I’ve never shared one on my Facebook page.  The issue with these memes, however, is that the one liners may sound really good, but they stop us from thinking issues through, and we want to use that amazing brain of yours.  “Think for yourself” sounds like a “duh” statement, but unfortunately, many people were not taught how to do that.  For most of our lives, teachers, religious leaders, and parents have told us what to think, not how to think. Sure, we may have learned some critical thinking in math class, but we really should have been using those skills in history and English class (I was lucky enough to have a few good English teachers in high school, whom I didn’t appreciate as much at the time). 

*I am 100% using and modifying Dennis Henigan’s term “bumper sticker logic”, which he describes in his book Lethal Logic:  Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy 

You also want to be in control of your emotions.  I have to laugh at this one a little bit, as various men have attacked me who are clearly not in control of their emotions and unfortunately, we then don’t get to engage in an intellectual conversation.  Some (mainly men) would think that because I am a woman and an empath, that I might be too emotional.  It is true that I do feel intensely, but more so it means that I have 1) the ability to put myself in another’s shoes 2) I am highly attuned to the energy and environment around me and 3) I can use my emotions as sources of information.  

Point 3 is the key here.  Emotions are valuable sources of information and need to be felt, but we want to manage how they are expressed.  For instance, I may feel angry because I have heard about an injustice.  How do I want to direct the energy of my anger?  I may do some writing, a physical activity, or talk to a friend, (and yes, maybe some crying) but then I put my energy into researching the topic more.  I then use that anger as a source of courage to voice my opinion.  BUT, while emotions always provide accurate information to how we are feeling, they don’t always provide us with logical answers to why we are feeling the way we are feeling.  Let’s say I’m feeling angry because someone voices a different opinion than mine on a post I made.  They may have even done it in a calm and informative way, and yet I still feel attacked.  I could say “Well, I’m angry because this person attacked (disagreed) with me, so they’re the jerk.”  Or, I could take a step back and do some honest self-reflection.  I might realize that when someone disagrees with me, it triggers this story in my head that “I’m just not smart” and “I’ll never be good enough” and so I either shut down or attack in reply.  A little more on that last bit later, but for now remember that you have control in how you channel your emotions to make an effective opinion. 

(Self-reflection:  Do you fall under the category of righteous anger, or entitled anger? https://medium.com/@sarahailemariam/righteous-anger-vs-entitled-anger-630c13b70986)

To paraphrase a little bit, intent matters.  Do you want to prove you’re right, or do you want to share a perspective?  Like many others, I’ve have to be mindful of stepping up to a false pedestal and believing my opinion is to “inform and educate*”.  I’m not always right, and if I keep a wall up that doesn’t allow for other voices, then I’m acting on my own insecurities that will prevent any attainment of additional knowledge and wisdom.  Instead, I’ve tried to shift the intent of my opinions to “offer a different perspective”.  The other side of this coin is to “be open to other perspectives”, which includes using some empathy to see the other’s side. This does NOT mean you have to agree with them, it just means you have to listen and be open.  

*If you are an expert or have truly done your homework, then this may be an okay intention. 

To reiterate one more time, be brave enough to be wrong. I’ve been wrong plenty of times…I think a few years ago I posted an anti-vaccine article, and a friend (a professor knowledgeable in reading research studies) kindly but sternly pointed out the article was based on bad study (and I have hence very much changed my opinion). Even more recently (sadly) I told a friend that I thought every American should have the opportunity to see Mt. Rushmore…and I knew nothing about the history of the land. (When I saw it, I think I at least knew George Washington had slaves, but every teacher brushed it off because “everyone had slaves”.) (If you do go to visit Mt. Rushmore, at least visit the Crazy Horse Memorial as well).  Being open-minded*, which I consider the opposite of being ignorant/ignoring other sources of information, and listening to the voices of others means you are willing to grow and be a better, smarter human.

(After Black Hills 100 in 2013, my then boyfriend and I went to visit Mount Rushmore.  At the time, I had no idea that the land I was standing on was sacred that had been promised to the Sioux.  The sign seems to be leaving “just a LITTLE” bit of history out.)

*Here are two recent, short videos from Rich Roll that includes more on this topic: Being open-minded vs. standing your ground: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkJJZV4bD7k Handling conflict: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8RC5-DrJuI 

In summary:

  1. When possible, do some research.
  2. Think for yourself/don’t use meme-logic.
  3. Control your emotions.  Where do you want to put your energy?
  4. Consider your intention.
  5. Be brave: use your voice, get uncomfortable. 

Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.​” Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Before I move on to raising your tolerance for dealing with negative people/ negative comments, let me remind you that you should first “do your own work.”  Know what your own insecurities are and what triggers you.  Know how you tend to respond in these situations.  Start working on changing anything that you want to improve on.  Again, this takes  a willingness to be uncomfortable, which is also a key if we want to stand up the things we believe in. 

[Here’s a little bit more on the topic with a passage from Robin DeAngelo in her book White Fragility: “Consequently, if we whites want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement.  This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we have-anger, defensiveness, self-pity, and so forth-in a given cross-racial encounter without first reflection on what is driving our reactions and how they will affect other people.” See her book for more great tips on how to give and receive different opinions.]

Alright, now I get to utilize my undergrad degree in social science and my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling to do some theorizing!

When I get annoyed/frustrated/angry/etc with someone who is commenting on my opinion who clearly just wants to argue, criticize, and just be mean, it helps me to lower my own annoyance by considering their humanness.  

One of my theories is based on upbringing.  Let’s say someone grew up in a chaotic home and when things were quiet, that meant something bad was going to happen/had happened (Mom was about to blow/Dad left home again).  In adulthood, they live by the line “if things are going too well, that means something bad is going to happen”.  In that case, chaos may actually feel comfortable for someone, and they may look for ways to create it (even if they don’t necessarily believe what they are saying).  On the other hand, another person may have grown up in a home where things were relatively quiet and arguments were scary.  This is probably the case for a good amount of us, if we consider divorce rates of baby boomers.  “Mom and dad fought and they got a divorce.” Arguments feel unsafe, which is why many people will work up the courage to voice their opinion one time, get a negative comment, and then disappear from the conversation.    

Following this are the stories we create based on things that have happened to us as kids. In some way, I work with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or narrative therapy with all my counseling clients because we all come with what I call “fictional stories” or made-up stories based on negative past experiences in childhood.  “I’m not enough.”  “I’m too much.” “I’m just not smart.” “I’m not worthy.” “I can’t trust anyone.” Then there’s the guilt and shame piece.  This has been said many times before, but we live in a society that tells us mistakes and failures are bad.  Mistakes and failures mean we are stupid and bad people (“I am bad.” “I am a failure.”) rather than opportunities to learn and grow. On top of that, I’m working with the “power myth”, that power means dominance.  That type of power is based in fear and is laced with the stories above.  True power is the ability to influence and be influenced (paraphrased from a lecture by Dewy Freeman).  Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re working with when working with in conversation with negative-acting people and negative comments.  Instead, we’re working with a need to be right, which almost automatically invokes defense mechanisms (denial, projection, repression, displacement, sublimation, etc) because no one wants to deal with the pain and weight of not feeling worthy or smart.  This gets a little complicated here, because the person is always enough, worthy, and yes smart.  But because they haven’t truly worked through their fictional story, they actually believe their non-fiction story of worthiness, so they’re protecting a false identity, or a shell, that is very fragile.  (Hopefully that made sense!)

I say this all not to give you a comeback (“you’re just in denial because…”  I promise, that won’t go over well) but to give you some understanding.  Most of the time, when others attack, they’re not actually attacking you.  When someone is in full-on defense mode, they’re not going to hear you, no matter how calm and informed your opinion is.  This is where you save your energy and move on.  

The last and probably obvious note to all this is that social media discussions very rarely lead to the changing of anyone’s mind.  This doesn’t mean don’t share your opinion or leave a comment when someone is being unjust, just be mindful of where you put your energy.  When change does happen, it’s most often through true human connection (albeit, I recognize that’s difficult during a pandemic), which is facilitated by honest listening.  

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” -Stephen R. Covey

I was going to give one more opinion with a reflective listening example, but this blog post went on a little bit longer than I expected and I promised Pacer we’d go for a walk like an hour ago, so instead I’ll leave you with one more quote, a favorite of mine:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Victor Frankl

I hope no one reading this knows what it’s like to have your freedom of speech taken away, but I know many of us have, even if not outright. I hope that we all invoke our freedom to listen.  I hope that all of us enact our most foundational freedom, to choose your attitude and go forth to make the world a little smarter, a little more empathetic, and at the very least a little brighter.

 

No More

No more

No more will I keep my mouth shut

No longer will it be okay

When you ask me what I want

But the next day say

My words don’t matter

That my attempt to speak, to communicate

Is just another rule

I say it’s fine but its not

Because really it feels like my soul is being crushed

Oppressed

Suppressed is my anger, until I can’t move

Though I want to scream, to scream until I cry

God, I’m so angry

In so much pain, to have a mouth that is wired

And I’m sorry

I’m sorry I’m so indecisive

I can’t make up my mind

It spins with choices

False or real, how am I supposed to know?

F*ck!!!

I shouldn’t be sorry

I’m so tired of being sorry

To be a woman and live in a world of dichotomies

I just want to know

To know when will it be safe, safe to be me?

Be yourself, but more like her

Be this, not that

Speak up when you talk

But not too loudly

We’re not listening anyway

Well F*CK that I say

Because I am going to SCREAM

You WILL HEAR ME

I don’t care if I have to wear bright green

I WILL BE SEEN

I’ll cut my own chains

I’ll spread my wings

No man will ever block my sun again

The feminist hypocrite

You don’t have to worry

I’ll still listen

And raise up the voices of others

Because when I fly, my solo flight turns into a flock of golden wings

So I say

With assertiveness and confidence

No More.

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“A woman with a voice, by definition, is a strong woman.” -Melinda Gates

Change, Grief, and Beauty Among COVID-19

Change is hard.

This time is challenging.   Even for an introvert.  Even for a therapist.  For a human.

At times, the world seems to be spinning.  The ground seems to resemble quick sand.  

What will life be like in the future?  What will life be like tomorrow?

Before I continue, let me say that there are different types of grief, though all grief comes from some form of loss.  Individually, people are experiencing the loss of loved ones, the loss of a job, the loss of connecting with friends.  For this piece, I’m going to focus specifically on societal grief, which incorporates individual griefs coming together as well as the loss of life as we knew it, also known as change.  However, many will find this applicable for various types of grief.

When we talk about grief, many people will most widely know the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her description of the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Can you look back at your own process since the beginning of March when life started to change because of COVID-19? Where are you now?  AND, if you can’t identify with one or any of the stages, that’s okay too.  We’re humans, not machines, and the stages were created as helpful sources of information, not sticky labels.  

Okay, so we have all these uncomfortable feelings like sadness and anger.  But here’s the question:  WHY are we feeling them?

Since this article is a monologue, I’ll just have to tell you:  on the other side of grief is joy, love, happiness, and gratitude.  Grief, sadness, and anger over a loss only comes when we’ve had something, or someone, that also brought us joy and love.  

Martin Pretchel describes this best in his speech “Grief and Praise” which I highly suggest you go find on YouTube after you’re done reading this.  

In our case of the COVID-19 era ,  a lot of us are missing simple things.  Hugging our loved ones. Hugging strangers.  Going out to eat and sitting inside a restaurant. Traveling.  Not just to another country but to the city over. The crying baby sitting a seat over from us on the plane.  Not thinking about and analyzing everything we touch and who might have touched it before us.  Some of these things listed were always great.  Some of them we only realize were great now.  Ahhh, the gift of hindsight.  

The second idea I’m going to ask you to consider is a bit tougher: the possibility that grief and beauty can exist side by side. I remember in early September of last year when I got the call from my mom telling me she had cancer, less than 2 years after we found out my older sister had cancer.  I kept it together on the phone (partially because I was still in shock/denial) and then about a minute after I hung up collapsed to the floor in a pile of tears, snot, and slobber (my dog always licks my face when I cry).  For the next few minutes, I just let myself be consumed in the darkness of grief.  Then, somewhere still in a dark grey haze, I got up and moved.  The next day, I decided to carry on with my plans of running in the Wild Basin area inside of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Suddenly, I was consumed in the beauty of Mother Earth, the Aspen trees just starting to turn gold, the low hanging clouds around the mountains. I smiled.  It was then that I realized that I had the capability of holding both sadness and joy, the darkness and the light, simultaneously.  It was like discovering a new super power.  (Both my mom and sister are still fighting.)

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My guess is that others too have found joy and reasons to be grateful during the past 2 months, in spite of Stay at Home and Safer at Home orders.  Some of us have been able to spend more time with our kids, found time for hobbies from not needing to commute to work, discovered what it feels like to get enough sleep, or even found ways to deeper connect with others by virtual means.  We may have cried and laughed in the same day, in the same hour, even in the same 5 minute span. That is beautiful.  That is being human.  

Now we’re entering into this phase of what people are calling the “New Normal”.  Still, no one actually knows what that looks like.  It feels really unsteady.  But guess what?  You’ve already gone through this stage.  Probably several times.  And if you’re reading this, you’ve made it through.  Every. Single. Time. 

When we look at it more closely, life is actually a series of transitions, essentially leaving behind the old and stepping into the new.  More notable transitions are from adolescence to adulthood, single to married, childless to parenthood.  While I myself am not married or have kids (besides the fur baby), I’ve gone through several transitions in the past year, some unconsciously and some consciously.  The basis for any transition is letting go of the old, or parts of ourselves that no longer serve us, and into the new, be it a time period or more developed part of ourselves.   In Rites of Passage work, there are three stages: severance (letting go), liminal (not who we once were and not yet who we will become), and the incorporation phase (bring our new selves and gifts into the world).

As you’ve probably guessed, as a society we are somewhere in the liminal stage.  The liminal stage is usually the most uncomfortable phase, and it often feels like we are wandering around in a dark forest without a headlamp.  However, we don’t have to stay lost forever.  As soon as we add intention to the liminal stage, it’s like the moon suddenly comes out from behind the clouds. We may still not know exactly where we are going, but we’ve got a light to guide us. I call this the “wanderlust phase” (hence the name of my counseling practice, Wanderlust Counseling).  

We’ve lost pieces of the life we once had and mourned (and may be still mourning) that loss.  Most of us are still somewhere in the 5 stages of grief, but getting closer to acceptance, sometimes still fluctuating back and forth between acceptance and denial (which is totally okay).  With acceptance,  we allow an opening for the new to come in.  The questions then become: “What do we want to invite in?”  “What is our intention?”  “What can we and do we want to create, especially with the gift of hindsight?” 

And I have to wonder, is it just a coincidence that this all occurring in the year 2020?

These are questions that I suggest we all consider individually, but as a society, we can consider them together too.  In the past few weeks, I’ve heard the terms “The Coronation” and “The Great Realisation” where the writers contemplate things like waste, pollution, consumption (of goods and animals),  technology, communication and what is truly meaningful.  What do we want for our Earth?  What do we want for future generations?  How do we want to live our lives going forward?

I know most of us reading this don’t have nationwide political influence.  But many of us may have influence in our communities, or workplaces, our families, and in our own choices.  And so, when you are ready, I ask you to consider the main question in the last stage of transition, incorporation:  What gifts do you have to bring to the world? Because we come together with our gifts, we open up to the possibility of something more, maybe something better.  .

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

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These Winter Winds

These winter winds

That lay deep inside

Amongst the stillness

They howl and rage

From the northwest

Caressing the mountaintops

An extra layer of ice

Blowing through my soul

Or with my soul

Stirring thoughts around

Harsh against my skin

Awakening the heart

Eventually

They quiet down

Until there’s on a wisp of drifting snow

A whisper

The Earth is never dead

Just resting

Just dreaming

And so She hums

A lullaby

Not into my ear

Into me

I watch the clouds move over a bright sliver of moon

Yes, my own too will pass.

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A Call for Connection and Community

*I originally started writing this post as an article for my local paper several weeks back…and then, well, I fell off track.  I finally finished getting my thoughts together and decided to post it here instead.

The other day, my partner and I were having a discussion on the mental health impacts of social distancing among people in the community.  Actually, as a mental health professional, I lean towards the term “physical distancing” simply to highlight the fact that humans need social connection, even if it’s in alternate forms than what we’re used to.  

That’s not to say we can’t all benefit from some solitude, especially in nature (I’m a nature-based therapist after all!). I’m guessing a lot of people in the Estes Park community have spent days to weeks by themself in nature as a way to renew their spirits.  Still, we come back to people, community, the deep belly laughs we can only share in the presence of other kindred spirits.  While Henry David Thoreau may have “went to the woods to live deliberately” he hardly did so without the companionship of friends and visitors.

What happens in the absence of connection?  Depression, anxiety, addiction…

One of my favorite mental health quotes is found in the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johan Hari where he said “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.”  

You see, humans are wired for intimate human relationships.  

As infants, we learn soothing techniques from our parents.  When a baby cries, the parent goes to comfort the baby. This often includes holding the baby close to the skin.  In this moment, the hormone oxytocin (to name one) is released, which reduces stress levels and allows the infrant to feel safe.  As we age and form more bonds through relationships, we still have chemical responses.  Oxytocin, dopamine, (natural) opioids are released, combining to give us feelings of security and love. 

Personally, as someone who has a naturally sensitive nervous system, I need these bonds to help me feel connected and to help regulate my emotions.  For example, if I’m in tears, whether from receiving bad news or from watching a sad movie, my dog inevitably comes over and starts licking my face.  Not only does this help me take the edge off my sadness, but it usually makes me laugh until I’m one blubbering, giggily, sniffling mess. Still, as much as I love my dog, I need human companionship too.  When I come home anxious from what I perceived to be a stressful trip to the grocery store, or from spending too much time on social media, spending a few minutes talking to my partner or relaxing in his embrace can bring my heart rate back down.  In other words, he helps regulate my nervous system.  (The catch is that this works best when the “listener” stays relatively calm.  If both people are feeling dysregulated, it may be best to take a break.)  

When touch isn’t an option, simply expressing our worries can be therapeutic in any relationship.  Expressing our fears and worries to others, even when hearing the same fears and worries back, can help us feel like we are not alone.  

Humans also have these neat things called “mirror neurons”.  Have you ever watched one of your favorite athletes win a big match or race?  Did you watch as they cried happy tears as they tried to talk to a reporter minutes after the victory?  Did you start crying too?  Well, that’s because mirror neurons are at play.  Watching someone else’s facial emotions may illicit similar feelings in yourself.  So even if we can’t be with our friends or loved ones physically, seeing their face via Skype, Zoom, Facetime, etc. may be enough to restore a feeling of connectedness.  Additionally, even hearing the voice of a friend can bring forth positive emotions.  

Psychoeducation behind us, I’ll come back to our main point: we need connection and community now more than ever.   

So what is connection?

In technical terms, it simply means being joined or linked together.  In terms of human relationship and what we need to thrive, I’m going to add the words love, empathy, sacred, and shared humanity.  Then the definition for human connection becomes: A sacred unity that revolves around love, empathy, and a shared humanity.  (Again, I’m an animal and nature lover, so truly I rather use “shared living experience” but I don’t want to lose anyone or go on too much of a tangent.)

Community has a few different pieces to its definition, but in the case of Estes Park, the basic definition would include a body of people living within a defined area.  But aren’t we more than that?  We may have different interests and beliefs, but through our shared connection we can conjure up something much stronger.  Truly, for me being part of a community means being something bigger than myself.  On the hard days, knowing that is what helps me pull through.  

Most of us have already found ways to connect using technological means: Skype, Facetime, text, phone calls, taking virtual classes, etc.  I’m personally a big fan of old-fashioned letter writing too (taking proper precautions of course).  Still, that’s not all we can do.  When we pass people on the bike path or in the grocery store, we can look them in the eye, as if saying “I see and acknowledge you.”  We can smile at them (true smiles come from the eyes) as if to say “I’m glad you’re part of this community.” When we speak, especially with those who have different viewpoints of us, we can check within ourselves to make sure we are speaking from our hearts.  Then, not only seeing and speaking but acting.  We change our attitude from “there might not be enough for everyone, so I’m going to make sure I have all that I need to survive, to something that more closely  resembles the famous phrase of the three musketeers “all for one, and one for all.”  When we look at each other as fellow community members, we lose the illusion of the separate self and that we must do it all on our own.  Instead, we trust that there will always be a hand to pull us back up, and a promise we’ll do the same when it’s our turn to share our own blessings.  

“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.” Martin Buber

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(Me and a bunch of other goofballs who decided to get together for a very snow run in December.)

OCD Nation: Are We All Destined to Become OCD?

Here’s my short answer:  NO.

First of all, no one can actually be OCD, although someone can have OCD.

But let’s backtrack a bit.  What actually is OCD? OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”

We tend to throw around the acronym OCD a lot.  Sometimes, we’re partially accurate in describing the low-end of the spectrum, such as when someone needs his books in perfect order on the shelf or uses hand sanitizer everytime she shakes a few hands.  Other times, we’re much less accurate, like when we say it to describe someone who always goes back to check to make sure their car door is locked. That actually has to do more with conscious memory. A lot of times when we go to lock our door, or put down our keys, we’re thinking about 10 other things and don’t consciously think about the action we’re doing. We’re so distracted that we don’t even remember doing it, so we go back and check.  Really, this is more of a lesson in staying present.  

I could go into a bit more of what qualifies as diagnosable OCD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders-5 (DSM-V), but honestly, I don’t love using the DSM-V and I don’t want to bore you.  The main thing you need to know is that what constitutes for clinical concern is when the behavior or habit negatively impacts a person’s everyday life. For example, if someone’s habit to keep his bookshelf in perfect order makes him feel better, even if it seems over-the-top to others, I’d consider it a positive or neutral coping mechanism.  On the other hand, if someone needs to switch a light on and off 7x, or clean their house all day to make sure there is not a speck of dust on any surface, even if no one is coming over, and their thoughts are telling them they have to do this even though they’d rather go spend time with a friend, then I’d probably want to work with them figure out the better coping tools and see what’s at root of their habits.

Now that we have a little bit better understanding of OCD, let’s apply this to COVID-19.  Right now, most of us are on high alert in fear we’ll come into contact with the virus. We’re washing our hands more, carefully dis-infecting our packages, keeping physical distance, covering our faces with masks, etc.  This is all important, and taking action to prevent ourselves from getting sick may actually help reduce anxiety.  But what happens when this is all done? (It will be, eventually.*)

*There may be a “new normal”, but we have the opportunity to make it a better normal.  A bit more on that topic below.

We can acknowledge the good take-a-ways.  Most of us, including myself, can afford to wash their hands a bit more and for a bit longer.  Some of us can learn to be a bit more diligent about coughing or sneezing into a tissue or their elbow rather than into open air.  

Also, a lot of us may remember from school that there’s a lot of good germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa) out there. Actually, as a nature-based therapist, I recommend digging your hand into the soil (some studies say that soil can act as an antidepressant).

So what’s going to keep us from compulsively washing and sanitizing our hands or obsessively thinking that everytime we go out we may contract a deadly virus?

Knowledge. Choice. Courage. Love.

Let me clarify, for someone who has a clinical form of OCD, it’s hardly a choice.  It is, however, a fear-based coping mechanism that has roots, often in some traumatic experience.  We also know that the symptoms of OCD can be greatly reduced with exposure and talk therapy. 

* While many people do find our current pandemic traumatic, by working with our emotions and thoughts in the now, we can limit it’s impact on our mental health.

What irks me the most when I hear others say that “we’re all going to be OCD after this…” (besides the “be” vs. “have” part) is that it ignores human resilience.  By saying everyone is destined to be OCD removes our ability to choose our paths forward. Sure, there are some things beyond our control, but whether it is by our actions, attitudes, or responses, we always have a choice.  As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankle said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

For us, if we can step away from our fear for a moment, we have the ability to look at our options for the future.  To step back from our fear, we must first realize what it is: a natural and primal response to a threat. It activates our flight, fight, freeze response, which is a great response if we’re being attacked by a large predator, not so much if for an invisible-to-the-human-eye virus. In the brain, intense reactions to fear stem from the amygdala, while our prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of our brain, goes offline. In order to get back into a prefrontal cortex, we often need to do an activity that helps us relax.  There’s a ton of options, but physical exercise, deep breathing, going outside, and journaling are the tools I most often share with clients.

When we give ourselves this space, we can then start asking ourselves questions like: What does the science say about the spread of germs?  How do we want to live our life and what is important to us? What behaviors are helpful, and what behaviors keep us from truly living? Collectively, are there any actions we can take to mitigate another pandemic or similar event? (Ex: Vote!)

That fear may still be there.  It may not leave for a while. But remember, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).

If the fear and anxiety seem like too much right now, it also takes courage to ask for help.  Actually, asking for help may be the most courageous act of all, so I encourage you to talk to a friend or seek out a therapist. 

To end, my friends, wash your hands (20-30 seconds is just fine!), but remember to take the courage with you that lives deep inside your hearts.   

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Trying to keep your house nearly dust free with a dog, especially when you live on a dirt hill= impossible!

Rants of a Therapist: Stop Using #SocialDistancing

It’s not that I don’t get the term…though it’s not super scientific (more on that below).

It’s that it’s anti-therapeutic.

Social distancing does NOT = equal social isolation. 

Unfortunately it seems like the equation some people are using is that social distancing = social isolation.  And THAT is making people sick.

Maybe not physically sick, not at first.  First it’s sad, lonely, anxious, depressed.  But the physical symptoms do come in.  It might be tired, lethargic, or a racing heart.  And eventually that could lead to a weaker immune system.

Let’s back up for a moment and look at the history of social distancing.

When I first heard the term in early March, it appeared to mean avoiding large social gatherings.  That made sense.  And then it transgressed to basically avoiding contact with all people, keeping a minimum of a 6ft distance between you and the nearest person.

Now I’m not disagreeing with that policy.  I mean, I’m a mental health therapist, not a scientist.  BUT that’s PHYSICAL DISTANCING.  It doesn’t say we can’t talk to each other, that we can smile at others and send all the good vibes we can.  And for our close friends and family who may live in the same household, or who we know have done everything they can to practice good hygiene, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hug them tighter than ever.

I’ll get into the importance human connection more in a later post, so for now I’ll just say human evolution is based on it (and I’m not just talking about reproduction.)

Now if  we dig into Google Search a little more, things get really interesting.  When I first searched for “social distancing definition” the first definition I can across was from Wikipedia! What’s more interesting is that I just did a quick search again (March 30, 2020), and there’s now 99 references and requests for updates, including a request to change the definition to physical distancing!

On March 16, 2020 Merriam-Webster.com came out with their definition: the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection.

Where Merriam-Webster.com really helped was a note at the bottom that said the first known use of social distancing was in 2003.  That search led me to a great piece of research by David M. Bell and the World Health Organization on SARS: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3329045/.  In their research overview, they didn’t use use social distancing as a definition. What they did use a few times was: measures to “increase social distance”.

Look, I get that #socialdistancing may sound like a cool buzz word/phrase to use and that not everyone is using in the wrong way.  However, it’s time we really start to really rise above buzz words and bumper stick quotes and actually starting thinking about the words we use.  Because it’s not just semantics.  It’s peoples’ health (mental and physical), happiness, and lives.

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For more on the links between connection and mental health: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MB5IX-np5fE

How to Manage Anxiety About the Coronavirus

First of all, let me highlight the title of this article “How to Manage Anxiety About the Coronavirus.”  The key word here is “manage”, both because the article cannot offer a miracle cure, but also because anxiety in itself is not a bad feeling.  In fact, anxiety is often a form of protection. It’s what we do with our anxiety and how we respond to events that matter.

Briefly, let’s take a look at what anxiety/fear/worry/stress is.

Even though we live in the year 2020, our brain still acts as if we lived in the Stone Age when under threat.  For example, if we were being chased by a bear, it would immediately tell us to go into a flight, fight, or freeze response depending on which action would be most likely to keep us alive.  Then, after the situation was over and we made it out alive, our brain would tell us that we were out of immediate danger and our body would relax.* 

*The freeze response is a little bit different, but for the sake of brevity in this article, I won’t go into detail here. 

Now looking at the coronavirus, or COVID-19, we can see that it brings with it the additional issues of being a long-term and uncertain event that makes direct action difficult.  However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do. In fact, our anxiety has most likely already been a protective factor, making us more mindful of frequent hand-washing and keeping us away from physical contact with people we don’t know.  In other words, thank your anxiety!

Still, we don’t want to let our anxiety get out of hand, making us react rather than respond or completely take control of our thoughts.  When I’m feeling anxious or worried, I like to ask myself a few questions in addition to what we just covered.

  • What part of the worry is realistic?  What is unrealistic? (Many of us tend to instantly go to the worst case scenario, without knowing the facts or taking into account how resilient we are.)
  • What can you control?  What is out of your control?
  • For what you can control, what actions are possible?  (More on these last two in a bit!)

Okay, we’ve broken down some of the basics around anxiety, so let’s move on to other actionable steps specifically related to the coronavirus. 

  • Practice social distancing, but make sure you connect!  This means talking to family and friends who you love and feel safe speaking to.  Even if we are all feeling a little anxious, talking to others we love can help us regulate emotions and let us know we are not alone.
  • If you need additional help sorting through your thoughts and emotions, reach out to a therapist.  Many therapists are currently offering teletherapy sessions for clients.
  • Get your news from reputable sources.  For information on the virus and the best ways to protect yourself and others, the best source is the CDC.
  • Limit your screen time.  This includes social media and the news.  Pertaining to social media, there is a lot of misinformation out there, as well as a lot of well-intentioned friends continually participating in re-active posting that can elevate our anxiety.  As for news, even if it is 100% trustworthy, our minds and bodies need a break from the constant flow of information, especially before bed time. This is going to be different for everyone, especially due to different jobs, but I would try to keep social media use down to 20 minutes per day and news to 1 hour per day.
  • Don’t rush into big decisions.  At Girls on the Run, we teach “Stop and Take a BrThRR” (Stop, Breathe, Think, Respond, Review).  This will keep us from thinking with our primal brain and back into our prefrontal cortex, the rational part of our brain.
  • Make time to let your body calm down.  This may mean time outdoors, Yoga, or meditation.  In particular, body-centered meditations that guide you through relaxing each body part will be particularly helpful during this time and many great videos can be found on YouTube.
  • When possible, take action. For many of us, this is as simple as washing our hands, covering coughs and sneezes with tissues or your elbow, avoiding close contact with people we don’t know, and seeking medical care early if sick.  For those of us who may be feeling sick, your best action is truly to self-quarantine and get better! (Also, I still recommend connection, even if it is through FaceTime or Skype…we need each other!) For those of us who are healthy and have time, we can be helpers in our community, offering to get our more vulnerable neighbors groceries, shoveling driveways when it snows, etc.
  • Find the light in the darkness.  Laughing and doing things we enjoy does not mean we are ignoring the immensity of our current situation.  As human beings, we have the capability and capacity to hold the good and the bad. In order to keep the bad from overwhelming us, it is even more important that we find the enjoyment of playing board games with our family, taking a solitary stroll outside, or read that book we’ve been meaning to get to. 
  • Finally, just be kind!  Smile at others. Be mindful when shopping and your impact on others.  Support local businesses while continuing to care for the earth. Truly, the health and well-being of our community does not lie in the false notion of  “survival of the fittest” but “survival of the kindest.” 

Estes Valley, we are “Mountain Strong.”

Ray Nypaver

Owner of Wanderlust Counseling

 

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