Okay, we are more than halfway through 2019. How are we doing? As we watch our country get riven apart? As we fear for the well-being of the planet? As we think about the people we love and what they want, what they need, what we want and need, what we might not yet be getting, all the ways we are failed and feel we fail? Mindfulness has been all over the mental health shop for a long time. So has acceptance. I admit to struggling with this idea in our traumatized world, as many things do not appear acceptable to me. But I am starting to think maybe there is a new goal that doesn't insist I accept unacceptable things: understanding that mental health looks like ever increasing tolerance for uncertainty. This kind of acceptance goes beyond social media therapy advice to "let it go and live our best lives." It's more like DBT's radical acceptance, where we go as far out as we can get, get really radical, until we are at the edge of the painful existential truth of human life: we don't really have any way to control what is going to happen. Terrible, beautiful, boring, fascinating things happen everyday, everywhere. So at a time when it's really hard to keep holding up, what if we say:
How much can I increase my tolerance for this reality, right now, working for change and growth always while learning to tolerate more and more the lack of control and certainty that is the hallmark of human existence?
Is change coming in 2019? While democracy is under attack and vulnerable populations are exposed to even more risk, there is a scintilla of change in the air. Could the spring really bring hope for a Green New Deal? Are people finally fed up with the top down bottom-line power structure on which planet plunderers deny health care to Living People? Are children and women and queer folk and people of color and those who are differently-abled finally getting more concrete support from white allies protected by privilege? Can we hold on as 2019 reveals what might develop when reality begins to appeal more than the lies of those who dominate others for their own gratification?
Let's face it, there's a lot of really terrible very real news every day these days. Each morning can feel like an invitation to self-attack. How are we supposed to take care of ourselves at a time when progress appears to be rolling backward? How are we supposed to have hope that health and integrity will out over the poison of systemic oppression? How can we not feel guilty about concentrating on our own mental health and relationships when so many people are suffering so much?
At a time of cataclysmic change, it is even more important that we work hard to take care of ourselves. We need every mind and voice we can get to fight the powerful forces that want to take us back to a time when only certain people could have the privilege to create the lives they want. I believe that deep and broad feelings are a rich resource that we all deserve to experience. I believe we can work toward personal health while we fight for systemic change.
It's been awhile since I have written, but I have been working hard behind the scenes with colleagues on ensuring full access to mental health care for all Oregonians. These days, focusing on the state level can be the most empowering way to work for our rights. I have been part of a group, the Oregon Independent Mental Health Providers (OIMHP) that has crafted a bill and lobbied the Oregon state legislature to enforce compliance with mental health parity laws. We have had parity laws on the books since 2005 but insurance companies have been able to get around those laws, squeezing providers which then closes down access for consumers. Parity laws say that insurers must treat mental health care the same way they treat physical health care. Our lobbyist has worked hard in Salem and now it looks like we may just pass our law, Senate Bill 860. Please take a look at the following powerful article by the president of the Oregon Senate, Peter Courtney. He is a passionate advocate for our bill so success for equality in mental health may be within reach...!
2017 has started off with a bang. So much to read, to do, to worry about, to recover from. The good news is that our brains really appreciate a challenge. The human brain sees novelty, change and hard work as the very best nutrition it can get. These activities stimulate neurons to fire and grow, they promote synaptic development that enriches our cortical structures. So while it may seem daunting right now to apply ourselves to change, our brains are poised to appreciate our efforts.
It can be easy to feel like what we are doing to support change in ourselves and in our society is just a drop in the bucket, never enough. But social activists promise that consistent small efforts are the only things that have ever led to social change. 5 minutes a day of activism, or one task a week, can help us feel like we are fighting the good fight for peace and equality.
On the brain level, our neural architecture is extraordinarily responsive. This means that one small change can lead to a cascade toward health. If you have ever felt a whole lot better by doing just one thing for yourself that you have been meaning to do, this is not an illusion! So if we let ourselves do just one thing, instead of shaming ourselves that it isn't enough, our brains will gobble up this change and it will lead to other changes in an organic way. Whether that means doing that bit of exercise you have been wanting to do, or cooking one healthy dish you like, or reaching out to a person in your life that you have meaning to contact, these changes will naturally increase incentive to follow through with other goals for self-care.
Brain empowerment can be making a change on the micro level that will lead to macro level changes for you and yours.
I want to say something hopeful to anyone who may read this post. I want to wish them a measure of joy and peace during the holidays, however they celebrate or get through. I know it's crucial that we see what is around us while taking the best care of ourselves and others that we can. I hope you have time to rest and reflect, relax and recuperate from 2016. I trust that 2017 will give us many chances to apply ourselves again in work and love.
It's an interesting time to be a psychotherapist, especially coming from a background in social work. Social workers believe that you cannot separate the person from their environment, that the way to support people in their daily lives must always include looking at their family environments, their communities, their society. (It's been a dream of mine that my practice would include my patients bringing in the people in their lives, so the whole system can get help to feel better and meet their goals. I am grateful that people are starting to bring the ones they love to the therapy room.)
I am trying to figure out how best to help people who feel that the foundations of a civilized society are not supporting them. From the fear of their health insurance or disability benefits being threatened, to the terror of being harassed and rejected for not being part of mainstream dominant culture, I am meeting daily with people who are really scared about the state of our country. It is painful to sit with their realistic concerns.
I also see some people who have connections to the Trump voter, who are struggling to make their lives and family relationships better and don't know how.
What can psychotherapy provide at a time like this? At its best, therapy is a process of making reality more and more tolerable for the humans who live it. The idea is that the more we can directly cope with the facts in front of us, the less energy we will spend hiding from what we know. Masking things from ourselves takes a lot out of us, it makes us feel anxious and depressed, it makes drugs and alcohol really seductive.
So I am slogging on, hoping that by talking openly about the political realities of our day and the way they connect to our daily lives, we can feel a little less alienated, a little less confused. I hope you have a place where you can talk about your ideas and fears and get a little more clarity when you do.
Sometimes you gotta take the leap. I have moved down the hall in the Jeffrey Center to a new office, suite #435. It's bigger than my old space and has some great features like a private waiting room and exit door because we don't always want to see people right after a good therapy session. There are four working windows that face the west hills. These windows that open are one of my favorite parts of being in a vintage medical arts building downtown. I am told by the therapist who was in here before that there is a Pacific Northwest cloud show that can blow your mind.
All these details are great, and a big part of why I moved, but the real impetus was the urge to keep growing, even when there is fear. I want people to have enough space in my office to fully engage in group therapy. There is nothing like being in a room with 8-10 other working brains, hearts, guts, histories, ideas, humor and dreams to evolve. The sheer multiplicity of factors renders group into its own animal. My favorite quote about group comes from the great Louis Ormont, "All of life passes through the needle's eye of group experience."
Please call me now and let's do group!
I have been in the field long enough now that I frequently get to experience the deep gratification that comes from watching someone really grow. It's always a good feeling to support people as they move out of crisis, to see them begin to care for themselves, and then there's this next step. They start to deepen in their commitment to themselves. I am in a privileged position where I get to be part of the small, concrete, hard steps, the intermittent epiphany, the occasional return to the discouraging slog, and then, suddenly, the exhilarating thrill of swift and sure progress. To watch people experience more freedom, to sit with them when they allow themselves to feel much deserved pride, to be part of their authentic growth, this is a great benefit of my position.
I have been thinking a lot about difference. Since Orlando, and all the terror since. Since childhood, and all the terror since. There seems to be something so fundamentally threatening to us humans about the simple reality that people are different. In many ways, in every way. We think differently, we feel differently, we look different. Our brains are different, our guts are different, our bodies are different. We each have our own subjective reality that is informed by the infinite variations in our genetics and our experience.
I know we need to connect, more than anything. But I am struggling to understand why we seem to require sameness to be close. When we first meet, it's so exciting to cross the distance of difference. We thrill to discover the ways we are the same in a sea of uniqueness. And then when we start to know each other and be known, we start the process. We pick at each other. We pressure each other to agree. We threaten to go away.
Some people require sameness right from the get go. There is no pleasure in difference, no curiosity, just threat.
What are we afraid of? Is it really difference? Is it maybe the painful reality of our separation from each other? Would we rather hurt each other than tolerate the uncertainty that comes with being human? What do you think?
Tracy Bryce Farmer LCSW PC
1020 SW Taylor, Suite 435, Portland, OR 97205 503-451-3267 firstname.lastname@example.org
1020 SW Taylor, Suite 435, Portland, OR 97205 503-451-3267 email@example.com