Thursday, December 29, 2016

...and it's over

I've never understood why all of the Christmas "cheer", i.e., music on the radio, classic holiday movies on TV, Christmas tree lights and other decorations come to a screeching halt on December 26th. Isn't there a holiday "season"? To me, it makes the most sense to celebrate from Christmas Eve to New Years Day; a "season" if it's only really eight days. Or we could back it up to Thanksgiving through New Years Day which extends the holiday season for several weeks. I lament the holiday season wrap-up every year because I think it happens too soon. But no matter when I think the holiday season should officially end, it always seems to be December 26th and I doubt I can change public opinion (or marketing strategies as my local Walgreens already has Valentine's Day decorations on display).

I've become a member of a local storytelling group based on The Moth Radio Hour on NPR this year and have found a deeply meaningful way to express my thoughts, experiences and life-stories in a public medium. The group is called Storycatchers and I've processed several experiences in this format and feel that I have made more progress around these particular parts of my life-story than I have in years of therapy. That's not a knock against my therapist because she's great and I've made a lot of progress working with her nor is it a knock against therapy in general as that's what I do for a living and have productivity requirements to meet. (Anyone who knows me knows it's not about the numbers for me, but rather the progress, interaction and relationships I have with my clients.) But Storycatchers is mine. I don't invite family members to public readings because I lay it all out there and I don't want to damage any relationships as a result. In many ways as a therapist, I am a keeper of others' secrets. Storycatchers is a place where I can tell my secrets and not get analyzed or judged because of them.

The Storycatchers lady-in-charge emails "sparks" with prompting questions or statements for participants to complete. Today I received a spark with one of the following requests:
1) What is one moment or one day from this year that you could relive every year over?
For me the easiest answer is to relive Thursday, November 3, 2016. Not because the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series, but because that is the date an article about the PATH for Students program (Providing Access to Healing) ran in ten statewide newspapers, front page above the fold featuring a nice photo of me and the story of one of my students from a local high school. Suddenly I was receiving congratulations and recognition from the Appleton East High School staff, the Appleton Area School District, the United Way Fox Cities, and the LSS Foundation and various programs and staff. I received a hand-written note from WI State Senator Roger Roth. I gave a presentation on school based mental health to the Appleton Rotary Club. The number of people who contacted me within LSS was amazing. Not only was this an opportunity to bring further attention to the need for and benefits of school based mental health counseling, I felt like the program (and, maybe selfishly, that I) was finally being recognized for the incredible amount of work it takes to bring school based counseling into a school. There was the testimony of a student I've worked with for three years on how the program has benefited her in many ways. By stepping out from behind the screen of anonymity, she delivered a blow to the stigma that continues to surround mental health diagnosis and treatment. I'm incredibly proud of her, not only because she stood up and acknowledged her need for therapy, but because of the progress I've seen her make in the three years we've worked together.

I'm on vacation starting December 23rd and will return to work on January 3rd. The attention the newspaper article brought will continue to fade, yet those of us counseling students in their schools will continue. I will submit a poem I'd like to read at the next Storycatchers live event in February. The Christmas season will continue to deteriorate until it's brought back to our collective consciousness around Labor Day 2017. It will be interesting to answer the question about one moment or one day from 2017 that I could relive. We will discover together if 2017 is a year where: "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." Zora Neale Hurston.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Vietnam: The Story I Never Knew

I've published this poem on my blog once before, when I didn't have anything else to share. It was written during a poetry seminar my junior year of college in Boston. I had no accurate information, so I made up what I thought could've  possibly happened when my father left for Vietnam. The only true information I had was that he and my mother were married, and based on my birth date in May 1971, I had to have been conceived sometime in August of 1970. I can guarantee you that my father never wore a leather fringed vest and bell-bottom jeans. My dad hadn't yet graduated from what I recently learned was called Wisconsin State University in Whitewater.
Recently I went through several photo albums in my parents' basement, one which was devoted to my dad's life shortly before and during his time in Vietnam.
I was born two weeks before he left for Saigon. Mom was pregnant with me when she and my Grandma Porath, my paternal grandmother, traveled to Missouri to watch him graduate from Basic Training. I'm not sure if they were married yet; their official wedding invitations list their wedding date as 01-30-71 but because my mom got pissed off and called off the wedding, they actually got married on 01-23-71. I was born on 05-14-71 and was baptized at Peace Church in Shawano roughly two weeks later because within days of  my baptism, my father got onto on a military plane and headed to Vietnam for a year.
Here is my baby picture taken at Shawano Memorial Hospital on the day I was born:

Aren't I adorable?? :-) This photo was the first photographic record of my presence in the world. Dad stayed until I was baptized then he left to fight in the war. I can't say this was "his war" with the same sense of national pride felt by both of my grandfathers who fought in WWII; Grandpa Porath in North Africa and then in France on "D+3", three days after D-Day, 06-09-44. My maternal grandfather went to the Pacific courtesy of the US government draft. He spent most of his service in the Philippines, including earning the Bronze Star, but he also served in Okinawa Japan toward the end of the war.
So apparently Rog left in early June 1971 to complete his duty as called upon by the US President. Dad also needed more money to complete his undergrad degree in Accounting (with an Economics minor) and he had calculated what the GI Bill would cover and, in weighing his options, he decided to serve and then take every advantage those benefits provided him. Smart thinking on Rog's part as the GI Bill helped him finish his undergrad Accounting Degree, help finance the purchase of my parents first (and only) home in Appleton, and pay for his graduate school at UW-Oshkosh where he earned his MBA while going to night school.

Over the years I've flipped through Dad's single album documenting his time in Vietnam because I'm "the family story teller/genealogist" but this time I took the photos out of the album to copy them via my scanner/printer and I discovered the most amazing thing: on the back of the vast majority of dad's pictures are notes he wrote to my mom. Had I never taken these pictures out of their 40+ year old album, I never would have discovered the brief but informative and touching notes he wrote to her.

Here are my two favorites:
This is my dad "sunbathing" and spending some time doing some light reading according to what was written on the back of this photo:

Needless to say, this is generally something a daughter wouldn't have interest in reading about her parents and despite my father's handwriting always bordering on "doctor level" of illegibility to a lay person, I'm thankful that I have no understanding of the second paragraph after the first sentence and I am completely fine with that!
This puzzle has hung in my parents' basement since I can remember. Now I know it's origin story and why it's been hanging in the basement will all other Packers gear. This puzzle made it home from Vietnam... just like my dad.

Although there are approximately 40 photos I could post in this blog, there's only one more I want to share:
This is my dad in his existential, questioning the purpose of the world pose, and of course there's a message on the back:
And to end this discovery of my father's life as a soldier in a foreign county, I leave you with some lyrics from Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" as I image my Grandma Porath asking herself these very questions during that year from 1971-1972:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Love to my father, Roger Porath, Vietnam Veteran, Old Glory Honor Flight EAA:

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

...and so 45 approaches

Man, the older I get, the more I dislike the weeks before my birthday. It's not because I have issues with aging, it's because I have issues with remembering. It only makes sense that with each passing year, I have another 365 days of memories to ponder: good, bad or indifferent. Parts of my past slip just a bit further away. Sometimes I'm happy to have memories fade into a whiter shade of pale, sometimes I'm sad that milestones of my life are even further away from my present, like watching a boat cross the horizon that is that much harder to moor back at shore.
When I graduated with my Master's degree 5 years ago, I had developed a "five year plan" for the first time in my life. That plan was to apply to PhD programs when I turned 44 and starting a Forensic Psychology PhD program the fall semester of 2016, just months after my 45th birthday. Well, let me tell you: Shit happens and five year plans fall by the wayside. Priorities change, career opportunities present themselves (or not), your grandmother becomes a full time nursing home resident, the home where the absolute best of your childhood memories gets sold and you feel as if the planks that make up your life begin to separate and float away so you cling to whatever you find  just to prevent yourself from drowning in life on life's terms-not your own terms.
Which brings me to today: four days from my 45th birthday.
Some spectacular things have happened to me professionally this year: I got a promotion to be LSS's School Based Mental Health Coordinator. I spoke at a WAFCA (Wisconsin Association of Family & Children's Agencies) training about what it's like to be a licensed professional counselor in recovery. Today I received news that I am going to be a key-note speaker at the state convention for speech therapists and pathologists in February 2017 about trauma informed care-I'll be presenting for 1 1/2 hours to approximately 200 people. I've been interviewed by a local reporter about state government support for school based mental health. A colleague I worked with as an Older Adult Counselor published a book which includes my interview about depression and older adults. I've never felt more satisfied in my career as I do now. This is significant for two reasons:
1) I really thought that working with psychopathology in the state prison system was one of my "dream jobs" and working there would fulfill me intellectually so I tried that for six months in 2013 and discovered that it was not the place for me, for a number of reasons I've outlined in previous blog posts; 2) When I was in grad school, I completed a paper on the population I'd least like to work with, which was teens and adolescents and here I am, five years later absolutely in love with the students I counsel two days a week at a local high school and working to develop and expand school based mental health services at schools across the state.
Personally I've faced challenges this year, as everyone does. The two most significant being the only income provider at home due to my husband's depression and anxiety which has prevented him from working since January 2015. He's in the process of applying for SSDI due to PTSD. The second may sound somewhat trivial, but rocked my world when I checked my Linked In account in early February and discovered that "Paul G, MD from Montana" had recently viewed my profile. Sometimes I view him as a bad penny that won't go away and leave me the fuck alone and other times I long to re-establish any type of contact with him, "knowing" that we'd somehow reconcile, despite the fact that we're both married to other people. In therapy I refer to these thoughts as "Julia Roberts movie moments" which are completely unrealistic, but drag my heart into believing it's possible. These thoughts fuck with my mind in a major way despite the amount of time that's passed since we've spoken, much less were in a romantic relationship with each other. It's the nagging thoughts of "what if" that I'm finally processing in therapy. I've danced around it for decades (I know, it's a crazily long amount of time) but my counselor kicks ass and keeps me on task to finally deal with whatever I need to do to come to terms with this relationship.
So as my 45th birthday approaches, here I am: focusing on all of the achievements I've made this year and acknowledging what I need to work on to live a more balanced life. I know there will be more achievements and more challenges during the 365 days between 45 and 46, but for the first time in a long time, I feel prepared to welcome them both.

My "official" LSS website photo.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Dichotomy of Loss & Connection

My great-aunt Barb passed away in late March of this year. This was completely shocking to me as I had seen her last summer at my Auntie Eleanor's 90th birthday. (I don't know why I refer to my paternal grandmother's sisters as "auntie" when I don't refer to any of  my other aunts that way, but I can't remember not referring to them as "auntie".) It was such an inclusive event; my second cousins, Carrie & Audra included all of the family who attended in the processional and recessional at the start and end of the church service. My dad, my uncle Tom and 2nd cousin Scott were pall bearers. I gave the Easter card I had already signed and addressed to Auntie Barb to Carrie & Audra. I was told of her passing on Sunday and I was going to mail out my Easter cards on the next day.
It was a "good" funeral service which I define as one not focused on sin and damnation but rather was focused on the love and goodness Auntie Barb exemplified during her life. It was a celebration of her life rather than a condemnation of those left behind.The best funeral I've ever attended was my Grandpa Porath's at Peace Church in Shawano. That ceremony was truly a celebration of his life and how that a life well lived is an example to those he loved, a sort of template of how to live a full and meaningful life even though my Grandma Porath had died in 1977 and Grandpa passed in 1995. After Grandpa Porath's funeral we all gathered at my aunt Sue & uncle Tom's house - the house my dad and his younger brother, my uncle Tom, grew up in. I remember my Grandpa Porath watching "The Lawrence Welk Show" and turning his wheelchair so his back was facing the television when one of the cast members, the tall, blond handsome guy, was singing because although Grandpa enjoyed his voice, he couldn't stand the sight of him. When I consider the family traits that inhabit my personality, Grandpa accommodating his need to enjoy this singer's voice and his inability to actually see the singer performing is one I identify with. There are plenty of  books I've read, poems I've read, and songs I love listening to whose authors and performers I absolutely cannot stand to view. Grandpa wasn't a Taurus, but I am and this strikes me as a particularly Taurus characteristic. Or maybe we're both just stubborn? Who's to say?
One of the ironic benefits of funerals is that it can bring together family who haven't seen each other in years...decades for that matter. Such was the case at Auntie Barb's funeral. I hadn't seen my second cousins Carrie & Audra since we were elementary school age. I sat across from my uncle Tom and shared with him that two summers ago when I was "borrowing" my dad's Corvette, I got it up to 132 mph on Hwy 41 just to see what that felt like. I'm certain this information will not be shared without my consent. My dad has no idea how to access my Facebook page much less my blog.
During the lunch after Auntie Barb's funeral and before her interment, Carrie & Audra told everyone present to take flowers from the displays at the funeral. I picked several white roses because I love them and they're not really "white", they're more cream colored.
I was surprised that after the interment ceremony, Dad drove to the cemetery where his parents, my Grandma and Grandpa Porath are buried. I had never been there. I was seven years old when Grandma Porath died and bringing kids to the cemetery was not a popular practice back then. When Grandpa Porath died, the funeral was in Shawano but he was buried in Wausau, next to Grandma Porath, days after the funeral and I had returned to my life in Milwaukee.
Now I know where they have been laid to rest. I can help my siblings and cousins locate them if necessary. I learned that Grandma Porath had a brother named James who died at age 11 due to running into a rope that was neck-high. He died as a result of the brain trauma from falling back onto the ground after his body hit the rope. She also had a brother, Myron, who died within a day of his birth. Prior to seeing their headstones, I had NO idea of their existence. I've been so focused on the Native Americans of my maternal side of my family that I couldn't even imagine that there were family members on my paternal side that I wasn't even aware of.
So the old adage holds true: we see  most of our family at weddings and funerals. Unfortunately I've reached the age where the funerals out-number the weddings. Although the fact that I've got plenty of family members still alive, despite the likelihood that the next time I see them may be at a funeral gives me pause. At the next funeral, there will again be the dichotomy of the loss of a loved one and connecting with those who are there to celebrate that life; relatives I likely haven't seen since the last funeral.

My Auntie Barb

Friday, February 19, 2016

What Is Love?

On September 30, 2015 Mark & I celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary. I have never been in a relationship with a romantic partner for such a long time. My first marriage can be measured in months. The first relationship after my first marriage lasted about 3 1/2 years, which was about the same amount of time I spent in total with my first husband, including dating, engagement and all of that. And now I've been with the same man, day in, day out, for a decade; 11 1/2 years if count our time dating and being engaged.
God, and anyone who has been following this blog, knows that it hasn't always been unicorns and rainbows. There was about a 4 year period where Mark began drinking again. I knew without a doubt that I loved him enough to stay with him and be with him when he finally had enough and entered into recovery. I never once considered divorce. When we both stood before God and a bunch of witnesses and vowed to be together through good times and bad, we both took that vow literally. I've had issues with incapacitating depression and he stood by me and I stood by him during times when his alcoholism was incapacitating.
Currently, he's once again battling his depression. He's been out of work on FMLA for almost 6 weeks. I'm trying to support him as best I can as his wife, not his counselor, which is a challenge for both of us. My role as a counselor is such an intrinsic part of who I am as a person, it's hard to separate that out of how I interact with him. I've made tremendous strides in keeping my "counselor-self" out of our marriage and I think he sometimes understands that and yet sometimes he expects me to be his counselor and direct his behavior or "tell him what to do" which is not something I do with my actual clients; I don't dispense advice, that's what friends are for. Overall I see my role with clients as someone who walks the path toward recovery, healthier decision making, and boundary setting with them.
Sometimes spouses get the brunt of all the emotions our loved ones don't know what to do with. They come spewing out at odd times and in odd circumstances and in odd ways. That is something I'm currently experiencing in my own marriage.
So that's the background for what hit me like shit-load of concrete swallowing me whole when in mid-January I decided to check my Linked In account. I hadn't logged in to that website since I posted my promotion in late October so I thought it was a good time to see what any response was to that post. This website offers the "opportunity" to see who has looked at your profile. So I clicked to see who had been checking me out when I saw that "Paul G. Doctor from the area of Missoula Montana" had checked my profile on 12-28-15, his 57th birthday.
My first response: "WHAT THE FUCK!! I HAVE WORKED SO HARD TO MOVE BEYOND OUR RELATIONSHIP, FUCK YOU FOR TRYING TO FUCK WITH ME AND SUCK ME BACK IN!!" Then I realized that any head games I played with myself from that moment on were of my own creation and had nothing to do with him. So, being the cognitive behavioral therapist that I am, I immediately began challenging my distorted cognitions, interrupting my ruminative thinking patterns and tried to radically accept that him viewing my profile was likely nothing more than a) sheer curiosity and/or b) he was doing a life review on his birthday.
That was all well and good until I saw my own shrink, Freudian that he is, who told me I had "unfinished business" with him and this relationship. My first response: "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?? THIS ENDED ALMOST 20 YEARS AGO!" My shrink's response: "You still love the idealized version of him you have created in your subconscious, regardless of how long it's been since you've have contact with him." My first response to this bit of analysis: "FUCK YOU AND YOUR FREUDIAN SUBCONSCIOUS BULLSHIT!" Which, because I have a great therapeutic relationship with my psychiatrist, I actually said to him and he was totally accepting of. He's a shrink that doesn't have to be right in the eyes of his clients and is willing to accept challenges to his analysis. At least he is that way with me, I think because he respects my own knowledge of myself and as a counselor, it's tricky treating someone "in the same biz" so to speak. When he goes Freudian on me in session, I call him on it and he understands. Sometimes he's right and it's what I need to hear, sometimes he's right and I don't want to hear it, and sometimes he's wrong and he can take that.
I shared this with a colleague whom I have tremendous respect for and she wisely pointed out that this is another time when I need to grieve the loss of that relationship before I start moving into my CBT thought challenging, cognitive restructuring, and "opposite to emotion" behavior. She was right and I think I've done plenty of journaling and yada-yada-yada talking about it with my own counselor so now I can begin to think about this with some emotional distance and challenge my cognitive distortions and recognize when I start playing mind games with myself.
So back to my original question, "What is love?" I really have no idea. I think that's something answered individually by everyone who experiences it. Is Mark my "soul mate"? No, I know that for sure. Do I love him enough to stand with him through good times and bad? That I can answer for sure: FUCK YA! Do I still wonder, "What might have been?" Yes, I do that too.