Flo, You’ve Gotta Go!

How to Help When You Feel Like You Don’t Know What to Do

 

It’s been just at two weeks since I had to determine what was sacred, pack it into two not-so-big vehicles, and listen to my cats’ meowing for almost 3 freakin’ hours after we were told by Governor Northam we were under mandatory evacuation due to the impending Hurricane Florence. We fled to family, and they were there to receive us with open arms…which was great because we had a ton of s$&! to unpack from the cars. To have that stress of evacuation, as a parent to pets and child (pets were first, sorry kiddo), was something that I hadn’t experienced since Hurricane Isabel in 2003, exactly 15  years ago as of September 18th.

 

Isabel was an experience, but nothing compared to Florence. During Isabel, I was in college, living on campus, no kids or pets, and very little of import except myself, and if you’d have asked me back then, my music collection. I ended up having to evacuate to my then-boyfriend’s home about 20 minutes from campus, and a place that would still having running, hot water if the power went out…which it absolutely did. My parents pleaded with me to go to their home, but they live in the boonies and well, if the phrase “if it’s yellow, let is mellow” means anything to you, then you understand why I chose to ride out the storm closer to impact. Anyway, power was out for a long time (10-14 days), and I was able to return to my life on campus within the week.

 

We dodged a missile with Florence, even if we hadn’t evacuated. Hampton Roads, more specifically Portsmouth, floods. Even when it’s just sustained rain over the course of a day. My office location is at the intersection of one of the lowest points in Olde Towne. Yes, I did get stuck in flooding once, and had to drive on a sidewalk to get home (don’t tell anyone!). Floods are scary, and if you don’t follow “Turn Around, Don’t Drown”, you are absolutely asking for harm to come to you. We were lucky.

 

New Bern, Fayetteville, Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach, NC and South Carolina areas were not. Sure, they have televisions and internet, and saw the hysteria that some think meteorologists and news reporters over exaggerate to get people to tune in (it’s not UNtrue…), but chose to ride out the storm, the cowboys of the south, having weathered numerous storms over many decades. Florence wasn’t too different, except for her size (she was a big ole gal) and her speed (turtle-pace). She dumped feet of rain in a relatively short time period, adding to rain that had accumulated prior to her arrival. These folks should have left, but I also understand you care about your things more than other people do, and if it all is destroyed, at least you “did what you could” till the end. I get it.

 

I had family evacuate with Katrina. I saw the destruction that storm had, and the thousand-plus of people who perished, and thousands who were on the roofs of their homes, or in the attics that had to be rescued. Water is not something to play around with. Folks who were unprepared, either due to proximity to supportive family/friends, fear, resources, or complacence, paid the ultimate price. I know I have felt hopeless in the wake of such storms, as I don’t have a lot of expendable income, or I’m not close to the areas impacted, or (so many “ors”) that I feel like I’m unable to make an impact. I wanted to share some tangible tasks or places to send resources (money and items) so that you feel less stuck and hopeless.

 

American Red Cross – This organization was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, and was tasked with assisting military personnel and civilians in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters, in the United States and beyond. I have a friend from high school who is the communications director of a regional office in Virginia, and am so proud to see him make a difference during times of stress by providing essential information to keep folks safe, or to guide them on how to access help in their time of need. (Shout out to Jonathan McNamara!) If you decide to donate items, money, or blood, these donations GREATLY impact their organized ability to move donations and connect with folks on the ground. They are the preeminent organization, that actually is organized, and provides needed assistance to so many folks. Please consider donating to them, and specifying it for Hurricane Florence relief. 90% of the folks affiliated with Red Cross assistance are volunteers, so you can also decide to use yourselves as a means of helping, if your lifestyle allows for it!

 

Carolina Cavalry – This grassroots organization was recently formed and is tasking itself with accepting donations and assisting those in the Eastern NC and South Carolina areas. They were inspired by the Cajun Navy, who formed in response to the need after Hurricane Katrina. They have set up a GoFundMe page, and also have a Facebook page. You may desire to donate the items you purchased (like bottled water, nonperishable food items) to this or other local organizations for distribution. Just make sure items are new, unopened, and not expired. Only donate what is being requested, as it can be more burdensome than helpful if you donate things that can’t be used.

 

Disaster Mental Health Volunteers – The ACA, and other health and mental health organizations assist with publicizing the need for trained volunteers to provide disaster mental health services to civilians, first responders, and other community members due to the continuous stream of need that arises during a crisis. Vicarious trauma can occur with seeing injuries, destruction, and death first-hand, and this aid is often overlooked because of the various physical needs that are also immediate in nature.

If you are able to provide your specialized services via volunteering to help with mental health and physical health needs, please consider paying it forward.

 

Be Fred Rogers – Check on your own neighbors…not just in times of need, but as a general course of humanity. Carl Rogers (I believe, no relation, but are of similar mentality) was the founder of Person-Centered Therapy or Humanistic Therapy, and both Rogers’ focus on the person; not what they can do or how you can elicit talents for your own good, but really what value a person has as being themselves. Embody this sense of genuine and unconditional positive regard in being a good neighbor, and reaching out to your neighbors. You never know whose lives you’ll change.

 

STEP AWAY FROM YOUR TV – As with any disaster, act of violence/terrorism, or anniversaries of such, give yourself permission to disconnect from the media if it gets to be too much. When will you know? When you can’t step away from the television, or you suddenly become downtrodden and this mood affects others. It really is needed to recenter yourself so that you can be your own neighborhood activist again, however that suits you. In our society, media is EVERYWHERE, and it is commonplace to use all forms, so please do yourself a favor and say, not today! Today I’m unplugging!

 

Self-care – Blah, blah, blah, right? But it’s so important! As with above, once you know you need it, you needed it weeks ago. Self-care takes many forms, but in its essence, it is something that we can engage in that helps us disengage, but in a healthy way, and once we complete the activity, we feel better in our ability to engage with our worlds again. It can be sleep, exercise, nourishing food, music, dancing, mani/pedis, reading, card games, whatever, as long as it’s something that can help you disconnect from the other stressors in your life, even for 10-15 minutes. Yes, if you are not practiced in doing so, you may feel guilty (What’s up MOMS?), but as you practice more readily or frequently, the guilt will melt because you will begin to recognize the importance of it, and how other things tend to go smoother in your life because you are ready to meet the challenge.

 

I am reminded of a lovely quote from Cruz Ramirez (Disney Pixar’s Cars 3): “Get ready to meet it, beat it, and defeat it!” Take care of people by meeting the challenge of their needs, organize or work with an organization already tasks with this need, and make the need nonexistent because of your contribution to a great goal of helping those who need it most.

 

Small acts add up to giant help.

 

Take care!

-Angela

Success Doesn’t Equal Happiness

With the two notable losses in the last week, a well-known and respected designer, and an irreverent, yet empathetic chef, author, and journalist, to say that I have been shocked is an understatement. But losses like these force us to look past what we consider success and to recognize these people as people – ones who have flaws, ones with troubling pasts (and possibly current), and ones who, despite all of the outward appearances of success, may have defined it differently.

 

I can’t say I was a Kate Spade fan, but her designs always appeared so happy, bubbly, smart, and made a statement when you saw one of her purses or accessories. Often we present our works in ways that attempts to show the world what we approximate…happiness, contentment, peace. The beast of depression and other forms of mental health issues aren’t ones that are fully present and observable in the light, but in darkness, they overwhelm those who experience them. She had a teenaged child, and many parents can’t fathom leaving a child behind if they can choose. We all saw Kate Spade as someone with “it all” – a husband of several decades, privilege, success, financial stability, innate fashion sense, business savvy, and a child, many things most would envy.

 

But underneath the public persona, she must have been suffering. Of what, we can’t be sure. If she was seeing a mental health clinician, I hope that person(s) are taking care of themselves today, as there is a high probability of all of us clinicians experiencing the loss of a client by suicide. Assuming no negligence on their part, people intent on killing themselves will often find ways to make others think everything is fine to throw off suspicion, or they impulsively make a decision that can’t be undone. Rates of suicide are on the rise, and journalists and those who have a public voice have a need to report suicide with empathy, information, and professionalism.

 

When Ms. Spade’s death was first reported, the method by which she completed suicide was stated, as was the reported contents of a suicide note. For our knowledge, the method is unimportant, and often sparks other suicides through contagion, that the mere knowledge of a suicide often increases the likelihood of other suicides occurring, and reporting the method is not necessary to identify to know that the person passed by suicide. Also of issue is reporting that someone “committed” suicide. Stating that someone engaged in a criminal act without due process is imposing more shame on the person and on their family. If we use phrases such as “completed suicide” or “died by suicide”, it states facts without imposing more shame or indicating a criminal act. Yes, a person was killed, but it is a crime that can never be prosecuted, and responsible journalism needs to improve their adherence to style guides on how to report on such stories. Reducing stigma starts with reducing shame for having mental illness that leads a person to take their own lives.

 

It was later reported that Ms. Spade and her husband were living separately, but not officially separated. So more clarity in some of the stressors in her life, but not necessarily what may have transpired to make suicide the inevitable option. We as the public are not entitled to that information. Only her treatment team, if she had one, and her family would be entitled to that information. Anyone who questions her love of her child and of her family due to her manner of death doesn’t get what depression does to people. It changes them. It leaves them shells of their former selves, and often makes them think negative thoughts, while inherently untrue, creates a new reality for these folks, many of which they can no longer feel they can live with. Our outside perspective is just that – outside. We don’t feel the pain they experience, or understand their view of their own problems, however minor in appearance. We can’t fathom that people who are ”successful” don’t have resources to seek help, and therefore were struggling alone. Many people isolate themselves due to their symptoms of depression, thinking it’s easier to be alone so as not to burden anyone else with their issues. If someone you know is doing so, PLEASE DO NOT IGNORE THIS. Provide them with as much love, support, and empathy as you can, and don’t allow them to be missed.

 

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing has hit me harder. I binge-watched “Parts Unknown” over several months, and loved how up close and personal the show took you into a different culture, often ones left unexplored by a majority of the world. He was irreverent, rock and roll, intelligent, and an emotional being. One episode that demonstrated his love for humanity and distaste for how humanity treats itself was evidenced on the Gaza Strip. His disgust at how the fight was more important to the two sides than the safety of its smallest residents showed how he can empathize with struggle. He was no angel – he spoke openly about growing up during the 70s and 80s in kitchens, rampant with drug use, and how he did some really stupid stuff. Now clean from drugs, he parlayed his use of the English language to write several memoirs, novels, and used his desire of traveling to produce several different shows on learning about a culture from its food and customs.

 

He also had a teenage daughter. His eyes became more opened as he aged, despite being entranced in his travels, he recognized how important it was to raise his daughter now being divorced from his wife. He intentionally stayed home for longer stretched to ensure he would have quality time to spend as a parent. Despite all of his knowledge of the world, he routinely talked about how impacted he has been by what he has seen, which was said from a place of hurt and pessimism. His hope in the world waned, which is one of the tell-tale symptoms of someone who struggles with depression. Now, as recently as his last interview in February, he reported that he was happy. An article on Food and Wine’s site noted his happiness, and the specter of depression in kitchens and restaurants worldwide. Success, defined simply, does not equal a person being and remaining happy.

 

Even if a reason, a letter, or journal entries are found as to why anyone would complete suicide, it will never help us understand any more what motivated a person to seek out the ultimate ending to their story. That person took what others in their family and friends wanted – to breathe in their aura and recognize that person’s connection to the world; their influence and their mark on the society at large. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain certainly left theirs, and we are left behind to cherish their memory for how they have influenced us.

Action Steps:

  • If you are concerned about someone you love and cherish, or even yourself, you can call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) to speak with a crisis counselor.
  • You can now also text CONNECT to 741741 if calling is too difficult.
  • But if you know of someone in crisis, or possibly isolating themselves intentionally, PLEASE REACH OUT TO THEM. Do it physically, by phone, by text, but don’t stop until they see you in person. Let them know your concern, and ask that you be able to bring them food, a funny movie, or something that will let them know you care and want to help, just as you would to someone who is recovering from an illness. Don’t think they will reach out to you. They most likely won’t and also don’t have the emotional energy to do so. Social media, the internet, and apps are supposed to connect us, but they are doing a better job at isolating us. Care about your fellow people. #BeThe1To prevent the suicide of someone you care about.
  • Attend a local NAMI meeting. Find one in your area here.

Take care,
-Angela

Fitness #4Mind4Body

As a mental health counselor, I of course understand the importance that we, as humans, have appropriate access and use of mental health services in our communities. In Virginia, where I am located, our General Assembly just (FINALLY!) passed a budget that would allow for expansion of Medicaid coverage to almost 400,000 additional citizens who lack coverage for obtaining medical and mental health care. This is a great step, and one that I hope benefits the LGBTQ folks I work with who are currently uninsured because they don’t make enough to afford Marketplace coverage, but have made too much to qualify for Medicaid coverage, and may not otherwise qualify for GAP insurance (Governor’s Access Plan) in Virginia. Mental health coverage is something that most, if not all of us may need to access at some point in our lives, and it shouldn’t be only available to those with financial support or abundance.

 

I realize it’s the last day of May, and I am usually not a procrastinator, but for this post I was more intentional in leaving this till the end. My reason? Well…eeeeekk!…I’ve rejoined the gym. Long story, but after paying off some debt, we had freed up some disposable income to join our local YMCA. Yes, I recognize that it started off as the Young Men’s Christian Association, and that in some Y’s there are more reminders of their affiliation to Christianity (which for some may be off putting), but ours offer many rewards that we are grateful for. The journey to fitness that I am on has many facets. My spouse and I have been working towards getting back into “shape”, and after having my child a couple of years ago, I decided that feeling poorly and generally not being confident in my body needed to change.

 

We often forget how much of a relationship our brain has to our body, and vice versa. Usually people obtain a rush of chemicals, endorphins, oxytocin, etc, that help us feel grrrrrrrrreat after a workout. But, our mental health can change if we are not regularly exercising our bodies. People with ADHD can benefit from expending energy working out to help them settle down and sleep at night (which if you have ADHD you probably recognize, but can look at it as a positive to be able to stay up until all hours of the morning). Newsflash: Your body breaks down before your brain does, so do yourself a favor and sleep! People with anxiety can use exercise to help reduce the overwhelming effects of anxiety by putting their focus on something they can also control, their body’s movement. People with depression can help improve their outlook with flooding themselves with these positive neurochemicals so that they can recognize their ability to get through the day, improve motivation, and SLEEP BETTER AT NIGHT. I use generalities here, but many people can obtain the positive effects of exercise.

 

Exercise can help us reduce our dependency on medication to fully treat mental health issues. I say this with extreme caution, as many people will still require the use of medications to treat mental health conditions, but not only with their medication potentially be more effective in that it can be metabolized more efficiently, but they run the possibility of requiring less of a dosage, or less side effects of those medications. And, those who may have a medical diagnosis (diabetes is just one example), may improve their conditions enough so that a possible side effect of depression is not required to be treated with additional medications that could have a negative impact on blood sugar regulation. Again, extreme caution (*I am not a doctor*) must be used, as treatment of medical AND mental health conditions always needs to be guided by a medical provider, and what works for one may not work for another.

 

My journey with exercise has been a rollercoaster. I have dieted, I have used “supplements”, I have exercised. And now that I am entering a new demographic (goodbye 18-34 year olds), I am entering a different confidence and concern for my health. I am less concerned with how my body looks than what it can do. I can run after my kid in the Target parking lot before they get smushed, carry his 30-lb body up and down stairs with less huffing and puffing, and can stand up straighter, knowing that my core is engaged and my back is improving in its strength. I don’t care what size is on the label as much, but just that I feel as good in my clothes as I can. I am meeting new people, and feeling that I fit in as a person who “works out”. I don’t really know what that means, per se, but I have been going at least 3 times per week for over a month to exercise. This has resulted in exactly 2.5 lbs lost. But I have gained so much more!

 

  1. I am losing my fear of trying a new class! I did an Aqua Zumba class and a line dancing class that I normally wouldn’t have tried. (You will never catch me in a Cycling class. Those people are #beastmode)
  2. I am losing my concern with how I look in the locker room! I had a kid. My stretch marks show this. Get over yourself, Angela.
  3. I am becoming a “regular” and people are saying hello to me! That helps reinforce that what I am doing is positive. Finding a new type of tribe is important for everyone’s mental health.
  4. Insuring my body for future wellness! With a host of heritable conditions in my family, I am hoping to protect myself from receiving diagnoses in the future, or at least delaying them if I can. Remaining active in mind and body is one way of doing that.
  5. I am less angry and stressed! This is one that was really the impetus for our family going to the gym. My concern with being “on” all the time in running my household AND running my small business was getting to me. I was snapping at my husband and kid, and felt guilty, and the cycle would repeat, ad infinitum. Now, I can relax more and enjoy my family more.

 

(SN: If you are a WAHM/SAHM mother, and would like to be a part of a great program to feel more accomplished as a Chief Household Officer, please check out my bestie Katie Rössler’s  program From SAHM to CHO, and be a part of her new group starting June 16th!)

 

But the biggest thing I can now be proud of is NOT BEING A HYPOCRITE. Why? Exercise is one of the best tools we can use to improve our mental health. It helps us sleep better, be more focused and present, and able to improve our physical health and stamina. I have recommended it to countless clients over the last several years, and all the while making excuses as to why I can’t, won’t, don’t, or shouldn’t exercise. My excuses were based on fear; fear of being the “worst” at the elliptical machine, fear of sweating, fear of falling, and fear of actually liking to exercise. I am now in that place of liking to exercise, and feel awesome when my son and I get in the car and he asks “We going to Y?” He goes because there’s childcare, and now I have NO EXCUSES.

 

You don’t have to join a gym (although there are many options that fit with most budgets), and the YMCA also offers financial assistance to those who qualify. You can walk around a park or use a local school’s athletic track and fields to exercise. You can walk around malls, neighborhoods, nature trails, local parks, and nature also provides a boost to your mental health. Changing course is never easy, but with the support of my family and my new-found appreciation for my physical body, it has made all the difference. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s tagline Fitness #4Mind4Body, get out there and work it out!

 

Where there is no struggle, there is no strength. - Oprah Winfrey

See you at the gym!

Take care,
Angela

#CounselorsHelp – April is Counseling Awareness Month

In accordance with the American Counseling Association and Counseling Awareness Month (April), I wanted to share with you a little bit about why I do the work that I do, and more specifically, why I choose to devote much of my practice to transgender and gender variant people. I alluded to a conversation I had with a dear friend from graduate school (on our way to see Justin Timberlake!!!) about my “Whys”. She and I met in our first year of our counseling graduate program, and we’ve been friends ever since. She is not practicing now due to different priorities and obligations, but she has a gift in working with substance abuse clients, which is how she likened my being drawn to working with the trans population.

 

You see, I identify as a cisgender, straight female. This means that my gender identity (how I view myself as a gender) aligns with the anatomy/parts I was born with and how I was assigned at birth. I realize this feels a bit complex with all the words, but now that we have labels for how people choose to identify themselves, we should better identify ourselves so that others can understand who we are and the potential needs we may have. I have never questioned my being female, and have never “walked in the moccasins” of those who may have questioned their gender identity. My friend, luckily, has never struggled with substance abuse, yet felt drawn to assist those who have struggled achieve sobriety and a better, more healthy way of living to suit their dreams, families, and careers. So, my memory of the conversation went a bit like this:

 

“So, Angela, what made you decide to work with the trans population?”

 

“Um, that’s a great question, and one that I get a lot. So much so that I should probably have a better response than the one you’ll get…I just feel compelled to work with them!”

 

*Mind you, I’m on a treacherous part of 95/395N, going into DC proper, trying not to kill us both and her unborn child*

 

“I’ve been doing reading and research into LGBTQ populations and their mental health needs since grad school, and I feel that I can connect with them, almost like I’m meant to work with that population. I have family members in the community, close friends, and much respect for those who have faced adversity and still choose to fight the good fight for equality, justice, and fairness. Should I be in the middle lane or left lane here?”

 

“Ugh, I haven’t been paying attention because I’ve been listening to you. Where are we meeting for dinner?”

 

“I don’t really care. I’m trying not to plan anything else for this trip. So, I’m intrigued by the notion that people can feel that their body’s appearance and how they feel inside are different, and that this dissonance produces a lot of stress and upheaval in a person’s life, and as a counselor, that’s what I like to work on; finding ways to better incorporate someone’s dreams with their current reality, and to provide support to them to fulfill those desires. Can you text the group to find out about dinner plans?”

 

“Sure…I can’t say that I know much about the population, other than what I’ve seen in the media. I don’t know if I know what language/words to use, or how to make them comfortable.”

 

I tell her about various people who are trans-identified that have ties either to Hawaii (Janet Mock; friend recently PCSd with husband and child from Hawaii to Virginia) or the military (Kristen Beck, among others) who are more well-known and trans. She had great questions to ask, and seemed genuinely interested in wanting to know more, so she can be better prepared as a parent and citizen of the world. As a counselor, I aim to educate anyone who seems to have a genuine interest in wanting to know more about something I might know about. My friend has a daughter, and is about to have another child in a few months, so I know firsthand that she can enact change in her household, and in her community.

 

As a counselor, not only am I tasked with providing ethical, clinical, and supportive mental health counseling to improve client’s ability to take care of their emotional, physical, work, and spiritual lives, but I am also tasked with fighting for social justice for those who are disadvantaged or discriminated against due to a part of their identity. Being trans or LGBQ-identified comes with risks…risk of violence, death, discrimination, mistreatment/abuse, suicide, abandonment, etc. I can’t think of any other population or community that is more at risk of mental health needs than this population. I referenced it before, but take a gander at the most recent US Trans Survey (2015) for more information and statistics on the issues plaguing the trans population.

 

Today, I saw a long-term client whom I’ve assisted through transition who is a retired military veteran. She served her country through Desert Storm, and has received military honors for her career in the military. But SHE wasn’t able to serve as she. Due to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the client wasn’t able to come out unless she risked being discharged from the military. Since she is a retired and now a civilian, she has been able to make many of her dreams come true. This has not come without sacrifice. Her healthcare has been at risk because her gender is listed one way with her insurer, and another way with the various providers she sees. I had to let her know that depending on which insurance will be her primary when she turns 65, I may not be able to provide her with needed mental health counseling services because as an LPC, I can’t accept Medicare. Guess who holds the keys to that door? Congress. I’ve used what opportunities I have to advocate for this client and countless others with Medicare coverage to ensure that they can continue to see providers they are comfortable with, who know their stories, and can provide the affirming care they need and want. But, Congress has to agree that what counselors do is of value, legitimate, and needed to serve the aging population past the age of 65. I was able to provide the client with the documentation necessary to get her birth certificate changed to reflect her name and gender in her home state. That’s what advocacy is, and is a minor blip on the screen of things that counselors do on a regular basis to better serve the folks they work with to help improve their lives, via self or within systems.

 

Yesterday, I saw a client couple who don’t have any known ties to the LGBTQ community. But yesterday, it came out that they are concerned about their oldest child, who is struggling emotionally, in school, and most recently at home. The mother stated that the child has also said that they desire to be the opposite gender. In not knowing the child, or the context in which this statement was made, I provided some guidance to the family about what I and other affirming colleagues see when a child presents as gender fluid or transgender, and that asking more questions for clarification (at appropriate times) may bring more understanding of what their child means. I felt honored to be able to provide them with knowledge and reassurance that their main goal in helping their child is to provide unconditional love and be interested in what their child has to say.

 

You may not identify as LGBTQ, or as a parent, or as someone who struggles with mental health issues, but I know you know someone that does. If that person hasn’t experienced counseling but remains struggling, here are some tips to provide that person with support:

  1. Empathy – empathy is knowing something is difficult for a person, but you might not have experienced it directly. “Gosh, losing your home and precious memories to a housefire must be awful.” Providing empathy for their struggles helps that person to know that they are cared for emotionally.
  2. Encouragement – After providing empathy, acknowledging that it’s okay to seek out help. Most people would hire an attorney to represent them in a legal matter or a CPA if they have a complicated tax case; it’s encouraged to see a counselor for mental health matters because we’re *kinda* trained in that sort of thing. Many have reservations because of stigma, past experiences, time off from work, finances, etc, but if you can help guide them through those obstacles, do it. You may be saving a life!
  3. Be genuine – Ask how they are doing! Use eye contact when you’re communicating with them to show you care. Follow up with them if they’ve mentioned something stressful or difficult they are anticipating. Sometimes just being acknowledged or heard can help people see the importance of seeking help for themselves.
  4. Don’t ask for the nitty gritty. If they trust you enough to share details, they will (or not). But don’t pester, and DON’T GOSSIP. Sharing personal information or medical information is a big NO-NO. Even if you are not a “Covered HIPAA Entity”, you do not want to cause someone who is about to get help to crawl back in their shell because they are afraid their personal business will be aired for all to know. While it is hoped more who have experienced mental health struggles to be open in talking about it to reduce overall stigma, forcing a person or disclosing information yourself is not appropriate.
  5. If at first you don’t succeed – If this person hasn’t found a good fit in a counselor (we’re people too!), then encourage them to look for a better fit. We all have different styles, approaches, personalities, and some people we are not made to treat. I’m pretty animated, honest, and active during sessions. If that’s not helpful to you, I won’t be offended to refer you to a different clinician based on personality and/or needs. I happen to think I’m pretty cool, though, sooooo….;-)

 

Counseling is more accessible than it has ever been. More is being done with technology to provide counseling services to those in remote areas, or while they work or travel out of their normal home base. If you’ve thought, “I’d like to talk with someone who doesn’t know me about this situation”, I’d encourage you to find a counselor that will serve you best, with the best means to serve you. Ask your friends, family, neighbors, and those you trust for a recommendation. When I get a new client based on a friend or family member’s recommendation from a current or former client, it means the world to me that the previous client has appreciated the work I have done. And some referrals come from clients whose marriages ended, but they were able to see that it wasn’t because of their counseling experience!

 

Loréal was on to something when they said “Because you’re worth it”. You are worth improving your mental health and life! #CounselorsHelp, in April, and every month of the year!

Take care,

Angela

#LetThemServe – Gender Variance and Military Service

As you may know, I serve many transgender and gender variant persons, and find it to be very fulfilling for me to see the transformations these people make when they are affirmed, supported, and able to create their lives the way they believe were intended. This does not come without fear, anxiety, and sacrifice, but a very high majority would not regret their decision to transition. I will go into the why I treat this population in a later post, but time is of the essence.

 

On 3/23/2018 (yesterday, as I type this), President Trump again reinforced his ill-conceived decision made via policy decree that a majority of “transgender persons with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria — individuals who the policies state may require substantial medical treatment, including medications and surgery — are disqualified from military service except under certain limited circumstances.” (CNN.com). This position is ill-conceived for a variety of reasons.

 

The first is that persons who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a significant medical condition treated by mental health and medical providers to better align the person with their identified gender and expressed characteristics, are a risk to colleagues, combat readiness, and not fulfilling their duties expressed in their oath to serve and defend their country. Gender dysphoria is the distinct set of symptoms that result from distress felt by the person in seeing their bodies not aligning with the gender they believe themselves to be, feeling as though they are not able to be aligned in their gender, and being mislabeled (misgendered) in society because their physical characteristics may not 100% put them in the correct gender category. This can result in depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, suicidal ideation, and death. In the most recent US Trans Survey (2015), it was reported that 40% of trans-identified people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes. 40%!!!!! That is unacceptable, especially as around 0.5% of the adult American population have attempted suicide (AFSP.org). It is the 10th leading cause of death in America, and costs the American economy $69 BILLION a year. What transpeople have reported helped them not contemplate or attempt suicide were: affirming their gender identities, treating them with respect and acceptance, having access to affirming mental health and medical care, and recognizing their need to express their gender identities.

 

Let’s shift to military statistics, shall we? To volunteer to serve in the military is an admirable feat, in that you pledge to protect our country, fellow servicemembers, and even those who disagree with you. This could be within our country’s boundaries, or on foreign soil. We have lost so many servicemembers due to the various conflicts we have found ourselves in, and even more are lost because of the trauma they have experienced while engaging in conflict. Many of them do come back invisibly wounded, and many require significant resources to get the treatment they need in order to live. Many still are discharged due to disability, with mental health reasons qualifying them for discharge and disability payments. These payments are not enough to keep them off the streets, or to fully pay for the treatments they need, in addition to providing for themselves and the family members left to pick up the pieces.

 

Statistics for veteran suicide rates with domicile listed in Virginia (where I reside) are 32.9 per 100,000 people. Data is current as of 2014. Non-veteran suicide rates in Virginia are 17.0 per 100,000 people. For those of you with a statistics background, this is a significant difference at the p=<0.0001 level. Data collected as of 2013 and presented in 2014 report that veterans discharged with a PTSD diagnosis account for 177, 149 servicemembers discharged and eligible for disability, which was a severe underestimation for VA hospital/services utilization. For persons exhibiting possible mental health disorders, the VA estimated around 20% would require services, and around 27% were utilizing VA disability services and payments, costing anywhere between $355-534 BILLION over the next 40 years (including all those receiving non-medical discharge payments). Billion. Just for VA Disability payments and service utilization, not including medically discharged personnel or those using Social Security Disability payments. These numbers may be including folks who also identify as transgender, but I’m going out on a limb to say that the numbers would be extremely insignificant.

 

The earlier argument from the President was that having transgender servicemembers serve and be allowed to transition/continue using transition-related healthcare treatments would be too costly. The figure referenced is $8.4 million out of a $50 billion budget that would be allocated for various forms of treatment, counseling, medications, surgery, time out of work recovering from possible medical procedures, etc. If a grossly overestimated 7,000 servicemembers decided to seek medical treatment to include all forms of medication and top and bottom surgery (gender confirmation surgery to transform chest/breasts and lower genitalia to match their gender identity), that figure would still only be $280 million, or 0.56% of the total defense budget. Another fun fact which I’m sure you’ve heard, the DoD spends roughly $41.6 million on Viagra specifically, and $84.24 million on erectile dysfunction prescriptions. Does anyone else hear a slow clap? Anyone?

 

Okay, so back to things that mean more than money. I have counseled several persons who identify as transgender and served in the military, anywhere from the late 1970s to the early 2010s. Many were stealth and did not share their gender identity until long after separating from the military, and some were discharged because of it. Others also lost their sense of purpose upon retirement or discharge, and if that was forced upon them due to their gender identity, their prognosis was worse. If the stats show that improving a person’s support to demonstrate affirming use of their appropriate gender pronouns (he/she/ze/they, etc) and getting affirming medical and mental health support to be so inexpensive relative to loss of life or 40 years of disability payments, then why can’t we as the “greatest nation in the world” care enough to allow trans persons to volunteer to die for the country? It’s just like the conditional love that many get from their parents and caregivers growing up…you’re good, but just not good enough. We are saying these people are not good enough in that they are “mentally ill” or unfit to serve, when those who were stealth in the service were. It boggles the mind.

 

Why would a trans person desire to serve in the military, you ask? Well, it’s simple. Many come from military families, and have been taught that it is the most admirable career to have to serve your country, and they would not be wrong in thinking that. Many others see it as security and stability, while getting amazing training and education that they can take with them to careers outside of the military. Many prefer a trade versus a college degree because they work better with their hands than behind a desk, intelligence being irrelevant. Many need structure, and what better place to find it than in the military. So the same reasons a trans person would want to join the military are the exact same as those who are cisgender (someone whose gender identity matches gender expression and anatomy).

 

Now, let’s return to the current argument that people with gender dysphoria are mentally ill and unfit to serve because of their gender identities. President Trump is saying that those with gender dysphoria are unfit to serve because of the diagnosis rendered to describe how they are coping with the difficult reality of their gender identity in their minds not matching those of their physical body. Many servicemembers have a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, combination of the two. Yet, they are provided medication, counseling, and still deemed fit to serve. Their diagnosis may be biologically gained, meaning that it’s due to genetics and not circumstances. Now, not all who have these diagnoses remain in the military, and are of the above-referenced statistics for discharge and disability payments. There are others still who are accepted into the military who have previous trauma and abuse histories. These are now fewer and farther between with more data to suggest that those who have these histories are very likely to develop additional mental health issues like PTSD, which the military would be smart in screening out, as able, to reduce the future expenditures to those who develop PTSD after a history of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

 

“But Angela, what about Bradley/Chelsea Manning? Are you saying that she’s justified in what she did that compromised national security?”

 

Not justified at all. However, her mental health might have been just a tad better to use logic and reason to determine whether or not her intended actions were appropriate, a threat to national security, or otherwise if she was able to get her gender affirmed and not get to a point of desperation. Kristen Beck, formerly a Seal Team 6 member and decorated veteran, did not feel the need to rise to this type of occasion, but she did destroy herself with alcohol and in relationships prior to being able to transition. Her story is fascinating; find her book Warrior Princess to learn more.

 

Bottom line, if we are saying trans servicemembers are too much of a financial risk, then we are lying. If we are saying they are too much of a mental health risk, then we are also lying, and if we are saying they are potentially vulnerable to security threats, then one servicemember’s actions do not lead to a ban. And we shouldn’t trust someone to listen to people (the generals, you know, the ones he knows more than) who continue to prove that they will back whatever he says, especially someone who was deemed unfit to serve for medical reasons during the draft related to the Vietnam War. These statements harken back to racist rhetoric when black men were not able to serve with white men, despite them volunteering for the same cause. We can do better than this, America, and we need to show our trans brothers/sisters/siblings that they matter more than what one person deems them to be.

Prove to us that they are a danger; that they aren’t fit to serve. A medical diagnosis like gender dysphoria should not immediately exclude people from enlisting or assuming an officer position within the military, and we cannot take it from the Commander in Chief to speak on these issues without several mental health and medical professionals weighing in. Ones that are unbiased in their understanding, or allowing civil discourse with data to come to a conclusion. There simply isn’t data here yet to decide. Let them serve bravely.

Thanks for reading!

-Angela

The Parent (Guilt) Trap

Who here has felt guilt in being a parent? Guilt about working too much outside of the home? Working out of a home office or home-based business? Not working, and feeling like your contributions aren’t as important to your family as those that might be a source of income or otherwise providing for your family? I know it’s a loaded concept, but I would bet that 100% of you, no matter your gender, work, or family make-up, have felt guilty about something related to parenting at some point on that journey. If you haven’t, then maybe you shouldn’t read further…..

Did we lose anyone? (Didn’t think so). More and more parents these days have to work at some point to ensure that there is food on the table, Play-Doh to grind into the carpet, and enjoyment to be had. Many are able to find what works for them through home-based businesses, MLM, and part-time work that coincides with their childrens’ school schedule. Others still are able to stay at home and not work for pay, but are proudly the Chief Household Officers of their homes and families, essentially running it like a business. Unless you are independently wealthy, you have probably felt the pangs of guilt that accompany being a parent, even to those children with fur. Constantly questioning, did I do enough? Did I make the right decision? Did I succeed in sneaking in enough fruits/vegetables to make sure my kid doesn’t get scurvy? (Yarrrrgh!)

I would imagine that any good parent would question most things. And you and your parenting partner (if your family is led by two or more caregivers) often disagree with what is best. As a mom, part-time counselor, and full-time business owner, I have struggled with what ratio of work to life/parenting balance is best. Mostly it was out of necessity (for my sanity and bank account) to work part-time, and not work too much to have my paycheck go to daycare costs, but damn if I didn’t have catastrophic guilt about it when maternity leave ended and my child was going to be taken care of by people that didn’t know how my child liked to be held, played with, or the things he enjoyed listening to or watching. I still feel guilty at times that it’s  best for me to work part-time right now, when I could be bringing in more money, and therefore helping our family to get out from under ginormous student loan.

But, I think this ratio is what works best for my family right now. I have a fabulous partner to share many responsibilities with, despite our varied viewpoints on when things are “completed.” My husband also has guilt, as he wants to be a 100% dad, a 100% husband, and a 100% employee. But we have realized that adding it up to 300% doesn’t work mathy-mathwise. (Right? I usually leave the complex math up to the engineer.) So, some days you fall short. Waaaaaay short. Others, you NAIL IT! And most days, statistically speaking, you do just enough. We all want to be great at something, and for many of us with children, furry and otherwise, we want to be the best in that area. Some days it just isn’t in the cards. Some days you’ll yell (gasp!); others you’ll be sick and Cars 3 and Mary Poppins will be on repeat while you recharge. But when you feel good enough to do something awesome, do it! And if you weren’t able to give it a go, try again another time.

With social media, your ‘grams, Snaps, FB, and other platforms, parents try to so hard to appear perfect, and I’m calling BS. I tell my clients that if they saw me out of my work drag, they would either think I’m homeless or wouldn’t recognize me at all (Thank you Mom Buns and yoga pants!). But, it’s because I’m not trying to impress anyone, win a pageant, or show everyone how sparkling clean my house is. Por ejemplo:

Could be worse, but could be better. Don’t let the guilt get to you. The fact that you are feeling guilty means that you are trying. Maybe you aren’t succeeding in the ways you’d like, or maybe you are allowing the fakers on FB/Pinterest/YouTube to get you to thinking that they have it all. What they don’t show you most of the time is a true DITL, because if they did, it would be toothpaste dribble on your shirt, fighting with your 2 yo to wear pants, or the tantrum that ensues when the rechargeable vacuum dies (also, who knew my child would LOVE vacuuming so much?!). Whether it’s grace, a break, or woosah, give it to yourself. Go on pinterest, fail at making a DIY bath bomb, use your kid’s bubble bath, and take a time OUT! Without guilt.


(Courtesy memegenerator.net)

This common analogy is the one I share with my clients most frequently – the oxygen mask on an airplane. Flight attendants provide this very important information before each and every flight, and you need to apply this to your life at the start of each and every day. If the plane depressurizes and the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, you:

A) Use it like a speed-bag and punch it as fast as you can
B) Not know what it is because you were playing Candy Crush during the instructions
C) Wonder, if I don’t see oxygen flowing, should I really trust that it’s there
D) Put it on yourself before you help someone else…

The answer…D! You must #treatyoself before you are capable of serving others. This is in ALL aspects of life, not just parenthood. Is it a great excuse to get mani-pedis every weekend? Only if your wallet and childcare providers (paid or unpaid) are available. But things like sipping hot coffee, taking a long shower, reading a book that you want to read that has more than a 5 year old’s vocabulary, exercising without having a child attached to you, losing yourself in a Pinterest rabbit hole, and actually having adult fun time (you pick your poison) are all forms of “oxygen”. You don’t feel guilty when you breathe, do you? Your breath doesn’t deplete another person’s chance at obtaining oxygen, and nor should your own self-care.

So guilt, you’re on notice.


(Courtesy of Giphy.com)

 

Mom-agement

While the title of this post is centered around moms, I will be less gendered in my language here. Speaking in generalities, it is typically the mother/female figure in a heteronormative couple that takes care of the detail-oriented day-to-day mess that is a household. Literal and figurative messes. Emotional messes, poop messes, food messes, scheduling messes, and financial messes.

HOWEVER, many more couples and families have different make-ups to include same gender partners, single parents, stay at home dads, DINKs, etc, which is awesome! A dear professor, Dr. Sandy Lopater, at CNU always started the semester methodically, saying “I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you, tell you, then tell you what I told you”, so here goes!

I will address the stress of what is called emotional labor, emphasize self-care, and how to hold yourself, and those you care about accountable to the stress creep. Whether it is a New Year’s Resolution or a new intention for yourself and household, these strategies will help you focus on what is truly important in life.

This story reaches a positive note as I just had a relaxing Wine Down Weekend with my book club, where games, chill time, and day spas were in the mix. My dear husband held down the fort with the tod-nado, and I was OFF THE HOOK.  How I got here (like literally how I survived the holidays to get here) has not been easy. Let me take you back…

I am the oldest of my sibling set, and tend to be the most Type A personality of my generation. I plan, I make lists, I schedule, I write things on calendars, I have a super low-tech way of ensuring bills get paid, I meal plan, I grocery shop, I cook, clean, and do many things. All of these things are examples of emotional labor. I realize this makes my partner sound like a total dud (he’s not), but I either consciously chose or assumed I was better at doing these things, so I took on these responsibilities to ensure our home runs smoothly. Having a small child and spreading things out would benefit my brain and bank account, I started before Thanksgiving. I buy things that are nice, but would appeal to many different types of people. I stockpile them in a large closet, and end up losing some of the items to the avalanche of stuff (admit it, you have that area of your abode too, and if you don’t, you’ve KonMari’d). I thought this was a great plan, one that would get things purchased and wrapped so they could look pretty under the tree, and I’d be less stressed…

Enter Type A personality! Our families do a Secret Santa gift exchange between siblings because we decided it’s better to receive a gift that we really, really want, versus a few small things that are nice, but maybe not what we really wanted, and is just junking up your house (see closet stockpile above). I also coordinated one side of the families’ exchange, because Type A (are you sensing a theme here?) #Idontknowanotherwaytolivelife. Then I purchased the gifts for my persons, and fretted over my husband’s tendency to procrastinate, resulting in late gift arrivals. So I assumed responsibility in checking in on him, therefore increasing my stress. We are also in the midst (and have been for over 2 years) of some reno projects, and I was wanting one of them completed as a gift to me. So, I began fretting over whether or not this would be completed on time.

Then……for good measure, let’s have 4 (!) birthdays in December to contend with planning/coordinating/purchasing/traveling etc, with one of them being said husband. Let’s envision the number of hats I am wearing around December 15th, shall we? I started having problems sleeping. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I can literally sleep through everything – fireworks displays, movies in a theater, contentious board games, fire alarms, etc. EXCEPT for my son’s crying…can’t sleep through that.

I was also suffering from extensive heartburn, my breathing felt shallow and my chest tightened (you can never be too careful, these can also signify a sign of a heart attack, especially in women) and I.HAD.HAD.IT. Emotionally, I was a wreck, and then for a shot of emphasis, I had a migraine for 4 days, including Christmas Eve/Day. The signs had been there, yet I wasn’t reaching out for help! Had one of my clients come to me with this information, I would’ve said “do something for you”, “zone out with a guilty pleasure”, “go for a walk”, “make sure you’re hydrated”, etc. I wasn’t treating my own self with compassion, and therefore did not look at my need to do the same things to help reduce overall stress.

December 28th. We were back at home, part of husband’s bday gift was available for pickup at the store, and I had spent one week with my amazing family. Yet all I could think about was getting away. My getting away place was the dollar store. You see, one of my all time greatest stress relievers is doing jigsaw puzzles. I had a point where I was doing one online every day, and it was a part of my self-care and enjoyment. I knew the dollar store sold jigsaw puzzles, and it was something my brain could manage, so I escaped my house, ran a few errands, and bought a puzzle.

I purposely made sure it was a scene of a place I’d love to visit (Cinque Terre in Italy), and was giddy as a mouse eating cheese when I was able to open it. It was not about finishing it with record speed, but doing it mindfully, with intention, and walking away when I felt stressed. A candle was lit, and I was having some water and some of the candy we received in our stockings (thanks Mom and Dad!). That puzzle saved me. It allowed me to be quiet, introverted, and calm. It helped me re-engage with my family, and be more present. In short, it helped me be me.

I realized I didn’t have to do everything by myself. I didn’t have to silently “suck it up buttercup” and complete tasks that others were capable of doing, nor were they all necessary. Sleep deprivation is a killer. It raises blood pressure, blood sugar, can elevate stress hormones, and causes our brains to not operate at optimal capacity. Chronic stress communicates with our brain that we are in “survival mode”, and minimizes our ability to think logically and rationally through decisions, conversations, or to know our limits. Caregivers to young and old know that debilitating stress can reduce your capacity for empathy, patience, and compassion. And the people who tend to be more detail-orientated tend to take on more than is necessary to ensure happiness of most (but not all) people in their household and lives. So if you have identified with any of these symptoms or scenarios, read on!

3 Ways to Reduce the Stress of Emotional Labor:

  1. Communicate with your partner – Partners are generally there because they want to be, and would want the best for their partner (that’s you!), including to know if their partner needs help. If you are feeling resentful, put upon, the only one who sees the cat’s vomit in the kitchen, then you owe it to yourself to speak up. Our partners, as gifted as they may be, are not mind-readers, and cannot know what is on our minds without us telling them. Change can only happen when a problem is identified and communicated. If you can, take time to identify the problem and a potential solution, so your conversation can be as productive as possible.

    For example: “I feel like I’m the only one who vacuums around here. Is there a way we can divvy up this responsibility so I don’t feel like the only Hoover Hero?”

    These conversations may be difficult, and even feel “weird”, but they are a great step in asserting yourself to improve your stress levels. *I am not talking to those who may be in abusive relationships, as speaking up may put you in harm’s way. If you are local to Hampton Roads, VA and are trying to find a way out of an abusive situation, please call 757-251-0144 (Coordinated Crisis Response hotline).*

2. Communicate with yourself – Asking yourself what can be limited or eliminated with regards to duties around the home is a tough ask, as many would argue that it all has to be done (raising my hand here). Well, it doesn’t! If you have the means (one day I’ll be that woman 🙂 ) outsource the tasks!

Utilize your grocery store’s new service to have someone else shop for you, and all you do is pick it up! Hire a housekeeper! Order gifts online and have them shipped DIRECTLY TO THE RECIPIENT, wrapped and ready! Have teenaged kids drop off dry cleaning! Have your kids help out with age-appropriate housework (my son actually loves “vacuuming”, although he’s good for about 2 minutes), and praise them for their hard work, even if the towels aren’t folded right (DO NOT refold them. That sends a message that their job wasn’t good enough, and while I love to work, I don’t necessarily want to see your kids in my office). Have a designated “no cook” day, where you get a frozen pizza or take out from your favorite place. We cannot do everything, and we cannot do ANYTHING if we are overextended. What’s 1 task that you’d love to take off of your to do list?

3. See and praise the work that is being done – This is probably the hardest to do, as our stressed eyes are less capable of seeing the smaller things that people contribute to our daily lives. A silly thing that my husband and I do that brightens our days is secretly hide a small card that says “You’re one great Mom/Dad” It’s been in the freezer, my planner, my laptop, a novel, husband’s lunchbox, laptop bag, and we look forward to finding new places to hide it for our partner to find when we most need it. If someone is praised for the job they did (see #2), they tend to want to repeat it. Even if it’s not perfect, show them you appreciate their efforts. I am still a work in progress on this, as my husband can attest. For kids and adults, graphic or tangible representations of their efforts (gold stars, sticker charts, allowance, etc) help to motivate positive behaviors. My husband loves gold stars, and I’m sure they’re available at the dollar store (the one I go to rhymes with Smollar Fee). Your children need to see that they need to contribute to the household, and that their behaviors have merit. They will carry these ideals with them into their own households, and will hopefully be great roommates and eventually partners in the future…or children that live with their parents.

Next, it’s important to step away. Step back. Breathe.

And repeat this mantra: “Is this necessary? Is this sustainable? Is this fun?” If the answer is yes to only one of these questions, find a way to change or eliminate the task.

We can’t get away from cleaning, eating, or working, but we can modify these tasks by thinking outside of the box. To make your to-do list more fun or at least less sucky, I listen to intelligent, funny, or entertaining podcasts or energizing music. Podcasts I enjoy: All Songs Considered; Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, Nerdist (Not for kiddo ears),  S-Town, among others. It might benefit you to choose adult podcasts (with headphones) to remind yourself you’re an adult! And get you out of singing Perfect Piggies by Sandra Boynton for the 11teenth million time.

Find something that is just for you to enjoy. Mine are puzzles (crosswords, jigsaw), guilty pleasure TV shows, at-home pedicures (try the Stedi Pedi), YouTube, and quality chocolate. Lidl is a great resource for amazing chocolate at great prices. Yours might be video games, petting your animals, exercise, creative arts, or meditation. Once you make a list of those things, pick one thing from the list on a fairly regular basis. Put them on pieces of paper in a jar and pick one out for a surprise. Make it work for you so that you do it more often.

Lastly, many of us need an accountability partner/group to ensure we are following through on our intended changes. This helps many stay focused on fitness goals, creative writing, professional development, or completing that master bath reno that your wife keeps griping about…Find who that person or group might be, and commit yourself to speaking your intention out loud to them.

“I really want to do X more. Are you/the group interested in helping me figure out how to hold myself accountable?”

I would bet most would jump at the chance, and would probably also request your help in holding them accountable as well.

Make it fun if you’re a competitive person, put the stakes low (Starbucks coffee, ice cream at your favorite place, picking up a lunch tab, watching their kid(s) for an afternoon), but just frustrating enough to know you have to uphold your end of the deal. Log your progress so that you know how many times per day/week/month you’ve engaged in self-care. If you are into statistics, you can figure out what might be getting in the way (crazy schedules on Wednesdays, too many extracurriculars, not scheduling it in your calendar, etc) and find ways to combat the issue.

As parents or household managers, we all need a social group to vent to, hobbies that are ours alone, and appreciation on a pretty regular basis from our partners to keep us going. We also should demonstrate how important self-care is to our partners and children, as too many of them turn to substances later in life to deal with stressful events and trauma. Showing them healthy ways to cope is one way you can teach them how to take care of themselves, and hopefully fend off future mental health issues exacerbated by stress.

I hope you have found these tips to be beneficial! I’ll was thinking of you as I took care of myself with my tribe, and wish you all the best in being the best parent, partner, and worker you can be. Let me know in the comments what you are excited to try, and what you are looking at giving up as part of your self-care plan!

 

Take care,

Angela

 

June is Men’s Health Month

June is Men’s Health Month, which does actually include mental health! Women’s Health Month was in May, and it makes sense in corresponding to Mother’s Day, and June for Father’s Day. With so many ills in our world, and changes in gender roles, responsibilities, and hope for the future for many, it is understandable that many struggle with mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, phobias, and avoidance. Men are no different, and in fact are usually less likely to report these struggles, for fear of how they would be perceived by their family members, friends, and colleagues. Here’s some shocking information: while women tend to attempt suicide more frequently (3x as much), men tend to succeed in ending their lives (3.5x as much), equating to 25 attempts to 1 completed suicide. Those are staggering statistics! In my practice, female-identified clients outnumber male-identified clients 2 to 1. That doesn’t mean that women are twice as likely to suffer from mental health issues, just that there may be less stigma in reaching out for support.

What is interesting, according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, women tend to ruminate more on their own issues than men, as men tend to find ways to “solve” their problems. Men typically like to solve problems…fixing broken things, or breaking fixed things, as this study also found, as men tend to use more impulsive decision-making and substances to avoid or “fix” a problem. Which, coincidentally, is not good for overall health! Men are also less likely to seek out medical care for routine checks, or choose to ignore symptoms of significant problems. Men have higher mortality rates, lower life expectancies, and worse prognoses for various diseases, possibly related to the time at which an intervention was introduced (later introduction may yield less treatment available to stop or reverse the damage done). If you’re interested, here’s a link to an article discussing the differences.

So, how do we turn the tide of improving men’s outcomes by encouraging them to seek out medical and mental health treatment sooner? We educate! If you are a man, I would encourage you to think of the last time you saw a doctor for a physical (lab work included). If you can’t remember, GET THEE TO A DOCTOR! Our bodies tend to tell us through various metrics of issues that are lurking, including high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, irregular heartbeats/arrhythmias, high blood glucose, liver and kidney functioning, and levels of hormones (testosterone, thyroid, etc). The more you know, the more you can do. If you aren’t a man, but have a man in your life that you care about and would be significantly impacted if you lost them, tell them to GO TO THE DOCTOR!! The highest category of men that tend to complete suicide are those in the “middle-age” category (white males in particular), and often undiagnosed or untreated depression is to blame. Click here to see if any of these ring true for you or your loved ones. The earlier mental health and/or medical issues are treated, the better the outcomes. Period. It is not worth losing a life to something that is treatable because of the fear of what people may think. Superheroes are often disguised in shabby clothes, because they have been too strong for so long, they avoid recognizing the cracks that happen until they become too wide to be camouflaged.

If you or someone you love may be in immediate danger of death, please call 911, go to your nearest Emergency Department, or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a crisis counselor. We’re here to help! Men, make your health a priority, so people that love you can continue to do so for a long time! #MensHealthMonth

Take care,

Angela

Who is to blame?

With news of recent events out of Roanoke, Virginia, regarding a seeming workplace issue became much more yesterday, I am stuck at the intersection of many roads. First, I am a daughter, and three sets of parents lost their children yesterday in a senseless crime. I cannot imagine the families’ collective grief of losing bright stars to something that did not need to happen. Second, I am a sister. I can now, unfortunately, count myself in the club of having lost a sibling, albeit to much different circumstances. But both of my younger siblings had a connection to Adam Ward, photojournalist at WDBJ, who was killed. My sister had a class with Adam while attending Virginia Tech, and both pursued a degree in communications/journalism. She did not know him well, but she knew who he was. My brother, who also attended Virginia Tech, happened to be roommates with him sophomore year. Despite not knowing him well, my brother has a great picture of he and his roommates attending a VT basketball game, one now that is a memory of someone gone too soon.

In being a sister, I also had to endure the uncertainty of April 16th, 2007. What’s the significance of that date, you ask? Anyone who is a Tech grad, has a Tech family member or friend, or lives in Virginia (and across the world) would know that that date was the day that 32 innocent people lost their lives to someone who struggled with mental illness, and the 33rd victim was reported to be a “monster”. You see, my sister was an RA on campus that year, and along with her RA community, lost people that were dear to them. What our nation lost, again, after having endured multiple school/workplace/community shootings, was its innocence. The struggle to know how my sister was, where she was, and if she and her residents and fellow students were safe was unbearable. I was in graduate school myself at William and Mary, and was glued to my friend’s TV to find out more details. I tried to remain in contact with my mom and sister as much as I could to determine wellness and safety, and to be so far from them was hard.

My third intersection is that I am a mental health counselor. I attended William and Mary to become a mental health counselor, and now stand before you as someone who helps treat those with mental health issues on a daily basis. I experience the losses that my clients have endured in their retelling of their own trauma histories, and can only respond in sharing brief moments of my own fears as it relates to my own experiences. To say that I have a connection to these tragedies is not one that I enjoy, especially knowing that my connection is removed a few degrees of separation, and is no comparison to those whose lives were directly touched. Yet, as a mental health counselor, I struggle with the issues of comparing people who suffer to “monsters”. Monsters, as we now know (but didn’t as kids), are not real. They do not hide under our beds or in our closets, and cannot “get” us because of something we did. But the fear that we have is real, and the perceived mistreatment that the gunman and damaged human has probably endured throughout his life, led to his unfortunate decision to right a wrong that was not his to correct in that manner in the first place. I choose not to name him, as his name is not important. What is important is his suffering, and the reported discrimination that may or may not have taken place.

What we as a mental health community of healers know, is that trauma, no matter in what form, can change a person.  The younger age at which a trauma is sustained, the more changed a person can become. A majority of people demonstrate resilience in their experiences, and can sometimes spontaneously “get over” what occurred in their lives. Not everyone is as lucky, and the more trauma someone experiences, the worse their outcome in healing can be. As you all may know, a vast majority of those with mental health issues are HARMLESS, meaning that they would rather hurt themselves (suicide and/or self-harmful behavior) than hurt another person. But there are a novel few who feel it is their (delusional) duty to take justice into their own hands to correct something that may not have existed in the first place. This is not me saying that the accusations he made were untrue, but he had a lengthy history of discord in the workplace and had to be terminated and forcibly removed from several workplace environments due to this discord. His own perception appeared to be flawed, in that he felt he needed to make a statement with his actions that was one of finality – one that could not be corrected, justice could not be served, and in some ways could be considered cowardly. I repeat again…a vast MAJORITY of people with mental health issues are HARMLESS. But it only takes one person’s actions to become infamous, and that sticks in our minds as novel.

Who or what is to blame here? The short answer is that we are ALL to blame. Yes, that is a bold statement, and yes, I do believe it is true. For this person, and for the countless others that have acted out in violence related to a perceived wrong-doing, they all started this life out as infants. And as an infant, they needed to be cared for, loved on, and supported in learning how to make good decisions, respect others, and be provided empathy and compassion when necessary. But, as we know, not everyone receives that growing up. Despite the myriad circumstances that can exist to cause a person to harbor hate in their hearts, we know that hate is a learned emotion and behavior, and not one that exists from birth. We have to be taught how to hate, and this learning has to be reinforced in order to follow us to adolescence and adulthood. Normally, we take on our parents’ own “hates” like I have from mine: I “hate” the Redskins (but also the Cowboys), I “hate” tomatoes (from my mom), and cold weather is not for me. But my parents also massaged my desire to learn, and allowed me to be able to make my own decisions, somewhat to their dismay. I think I turned out okay, and hope they think so as well. But let’s say that I got other influences from my parents about whom or what to hate, like “hating” other races, sexual and gender minorities, religions, etc. That is something that is learned and reinforced. The hurting human reported that he was discriminated against because he was black and gay. I don’t doubt that at some point, and perhaps several throughout his life, he was discriminated and hated against for his identity, which is something he could not change. If he could, I’m sure he would have to avoid being hated and treated differently. But the point is, he, just like many others who have become so angry for the way that they have been mistreated, or perceived mistreatment, have experienced hate. Either from a parent or caregiver, from an abuser, from punk kids, from their house of worship, teachers, loved ones, or the community, these people have not learned how to manage their own stress and experiences to allow them to let things go and move forward.

We don’t teach empathy, respect, and compassion in this world anymore. We are too engrossed in our smart technology to pay attention to our loved ones, including kids, and we as a society have become so dependent on our work for the “stuff” that we can buy with our income, that we forget what life is all about. Our advertisements always appeal to keeping up with the Joneses, instead of being the best that you can be, for yourself and for your loved ones. We as a society are becoming more and more self-absorbed with our following of Kim Kardashian instead of following those who are trying to keep peace, like Malala Yousafzai, Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis, teachings of Buddha, Jimmy Carter, and so many more. We value looks over intellect, and stuff over clarity. But we are all to blame for how our society has changed, so we cannot blame anyone but ourselves. If we watch the news shows that focus on gossip, then we create an audience and advertising dollars for it to continue.

The education that we need to have begins in the home. We need to teach empathy to our children, and provide empathy to those who need it. If sympathy is what you offer someone when a loved one has passed (because you have also experienced a loss such as that), then empathy is that same sentiment, but offered to someone who is going through something you have not gone through, and wouldn’t know the first thing about going through. Just because we don’t understand the pain and suffering, doesn’t mean we should run away from the suffering, but run towards it instead. As a counselor, I embrace suffering because it is universal. If we could have turned back time for the hurting human to the point where his suffering began, something could have likely been done about it. We can no longer ignore people who are intent on hurting others as they have hurt, and we also need to realize that we cannot predict something as catastrophic as what has occurred. But the more we reach out in kindness, to offer our empathy and support to those who may not be able to offer it to themselves, and to teach our own young people that a life lost is a loss for us all, then maybe violence can become less of a headline grabber. In my mind, if everyone could experience the unconditional love that a cat or dog provides to their people, we could understand more about what empathy and compassion look like on a regular basis.

We can change access to weapons, call for reform, march in the streets, and demand change, but until we start giving each other respect, love, kindness, compassion, and empathy, we will not be able to make a difference. Any death is a loss, but if something could have been done to offer this hurting human a space to grieve his losses, he possibly may not have taken his hate out on others.

If you, or someone you know is contemplating suicide or taking your pain out on others, there is help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7/365 at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) to speak with a knowledgeable person who can link you up to your community’s resources. You are not alone in your hurting, and there is hope.

Namaste,

Angela

Pregnancy and Gender Awareness

As most of my clients know, I am pregnant and due in January 2016; although let’s be real…this baby will come whenever they please (yes, there’s only one…just trying to be gender neutral)! Aside from the many different pieces of advice, things to know and read and become “experts” on, as well as the “You’re going to do what with my what?!?” moments, it’s been pretty great so far. My husband, who is not a counselor, has also schooled me on a few things.

We spilled the proverbial beans about a month ago, and he has had many conversations and questions asked by his co-workers that got him thinking about gender and our child. As many people do, his co-workers have asked him, “So, are you finding out the gender?” This got him thinking, and his response was, “We’ll be finding out the sex”. When he was relaying this story to me, one pregnant sleepy evening, I said “That’s great honey”, not recognizing the profound statement he made in his male-dominated and more conservative work atmosphere. It wasn’t until the next morning when it hit me upside the head, the gravity of his minor, but significant change in verbage from “gender” to “sex” when it comes to finding out about our child. I, at first, was floored and proud, that my husband was educated enough to know the difference (I guess I can take some credit for that). Then my pride turned to shock (at myself) for not seeing the significance of how we, in our society, mix the words gender and sex so fluidly, without recognizing the vast differences in the words.

When I work with my trans clients, I emphasize to them the importance of sharing their own stories, educating their friends and family members, and also recognizing that people will “mess up”. But this time, my husband educated me! When it comes to the sex vs gender argument, the very simple answer is a “parts vs thoughts” definition. Sex is defined by the types of parts (genitalia) that we have externally, and gender is all about what types of thoughts we have as an individual, and how that relates to our “male-ness” or “female-ness”. So when I’ve been saying the gender of our baby, what I should have said was the sex of our baby. We will be finding out the sex (parts) of our child, but the child will have to let us know their gender beginning at ages 2-12. As both my husband and I are considered cisgender (we identify with the parts that we have as indicative of our thought/identity patterns), we will assume, unless stated differently, that our child will also be cis. If our child wants to play with Tonka trucks, but has girl parts, then that’s fine! If our child wants to play with Barbie dolls but has boy parts, that’s fine too (although my husband prefers that either gender will play with Legos).  Bravo to Target for recognizing this fact, and for more parents in our society not getting so up in arms about the types of toys their children play with. It was not that long ago that “kick the can” was a part of play, and that has nothing to do with gender.

Being blessed with a healthy child is all that we want as parents, and knowing that not all children are born, and remain healthy, it is our duty as parents to begin to recognize when things may be affecting them mentally/emotionally, and not just physically.  A staggering statistic that I have shared with many trans persons and parents of trans youth is that 41% of trans-identified people have attempted suicide. Yes, you read that correctly. 41%. That is 9 times the national average of persons who attempt suicide. If parents could learn to accept their children as people, not as damaged, wrong, or immoral because their inside doesn’t match the outside, that number could come dramatically down. I impress upon parents of trans youth that being trans is not a death sentence, but denying a trans person support, love, and help to confirm their gender identity could be, this usually gets their attention to look past the confusion, and learn to love the person that they’ve created.

We do not yet know the mechanism by which a person’s gender identity is formed in the womb, but we do know that it is not a choice, like where to eat lunch, and where to go to college. Being a parent of a child who is not yet here helps me see things a little differently, and just wanting a child who is healthy is more important than the parts or thoughts they have. There are many resources for people who are struggling to understand what their child, partner, friend, or co-worker are going through related to gender identity and transitioning, and I invite you to school yourselves on appropriate language to use, questions to ask (and to avoid), and how to support those who need your love.

Thanks to my husband for being the inspiration for this post (and to his lovely parents, who raised him well!), and for all of my trans and gender-nonconforming clients who continue to show me their courage and strength!

Human Rights Campaign

PFLAG

National Center for Transgender Equality

Equality Virginia

Virginia TIES conference – October 10, 2015