Monday, October 29, 2018

Self Care in Uncertain Times

I deal daily with anger, fear, hatred, and loss here in the Trenches.  Everyone who works in the Trenches does the same.  We try very hard not to have to deal very often with those feelings in others when we leave the Trenches and go home to our personal lives.  Unfortunately, no matter your politics, most Americans agree that we are not in a period in which we treat each other with kindness, tolerance, and love. 

Those of us who toil here in the Trenches are not immune to feeling the same emotions as our clients.  We are not always calm, cool and collected.  Here is some advice we give our clients:

  • Write the nasty responsive email.  Don't put the full email address of the recipient on the email.  Be as awful as you want.  Get it out.  Then, don't send it.  Delete it.  It sounds like a waste of time, but trust me, you'll feel better.
  • Change your assumption.  You know your spouse is doing whatever they're doing just to annoy you.  You know they are just being evil.  What if they're not?  What if they're doing the best they can?  What if they don't have all the information?  What if they're annoyed because they're stressed or hurt or overwhelmed?  You have a choice as to how you view their motives.  It's like that person who cuts you off in traffic; do you feel better or worse when you think they did it on purpose rather than they're just being clueless?
  • Stop and think about why you're angry.  Is it really what someone has done? Or, is it your feeling powerless or overwhelmed?
  • Take a moment and do something else.  Go for a walk, a run, journal, cook, pet your dog.
  • Focus on what you really need to do.  Do you need to respond to that crack about your mother, or can you just answer the underlying question about the children's activities?  Do you even need to answer that email?
  • Take care of yourself.  It's the little things.  I had my car detailed last week for the first time ever.  Now I can't understand why I waited so long.  The shiny surfaces and clean car smell had me smiling for days, every time I got in the car.  Read a book for a few minutes.  Visit with friends.
I'm going to go a step further and say that it's easy in uncertain and angry times to lose sight of our humanity.  It's easy not to take care of others.  We tend to look for what's wrong with people instead of what's right.  When we're in the Trenches, so much of what we do is focus on other's faults, and become polarized.  It dehumanizes us.  I am going recommend You Matter Marathon.  These are their mission and values from their website:

Mission Statement
The YMM is a global initiative that creates positive connections between individuals and within communities.
Vision Statement Draft
We envision a world where individuals naturally and regularly affirm the significance/value of the “other.”
Core Beliefs
We believe that the world would be a more peaceful and joyful place if every person knew they mattered.
We believe that the path to a more peaceful and joyful world begins with daily acts of connecting in positive and sincere ways that honor our common humanity.
We believe that one way to affirm our own significance is to regularly affirm the significance of others.
If you sign up on their website, they will send you 30 cards that say simply "You Matter," in return for your promise to hand out 29 of them in the month of November.  I signed up and I already feel better and more positive thinking about to which people I am going to give some of the cards.  Sometimes "self-care" is helping others feel better about themselves.  I challenge you all to participate in the You Matter Marathon - no running required.  Here in the Trenches.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Grief and Loss in the Trenches

As I continue to struggle with the loss of my beloved Danny, I have been thinking more about loss in general, and loss here in the Trenches.  You might think that the loss of my dog to death is very different than my clients' losses, but it's not.  Loss is loss, as simple as that.  So, it was a bit of a surprise when I opened my Washington Post today and found an article by Claire Bidwell Smith talking about the relationship between grief and anxiety.    In fact, she believes that anxiety/fear is the missing stage of grief in Dr. Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief:   denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Here's the deal.  When we suffer a loss, whether due to death or divorce, our entire vision of our lives is suddenly drawn into question.  All of the security that we so carefully built for our future is either suddenly gone, or we start to question the point of making all of these plans when death or loss can take them away in a moment.  We are suddenly confronted with how fragile everything in our lives is and how precarious our futures.  We realize how short life really is.  It's scary, and we become anxious.

All of these realizations wouldn't be so bad if we had the time and space to deal with our loss.   Our society doesn't really give us that luxury.  After a few weeks or maybe a month or so of allowing us to grieve, we're expected to get over it and move on with our lives.  Our friends and family no longer want to listen to us talk about our loss, so we bottle it up and soldier on.  We're expected to pick up the pieces and move on.  Too bad that's not how the human psyche works.  The stages of grief aren't things on a checklist.  They don't occur on a timetable.  They evolve.  You can't rush them.  If you realize that most people don't even fully realize the extent of their loss until weeks after the event, then you understand that working through the stages of grief takes time and effort, sometimes years. It's not something you ever get over, but rather something you learn to live with. Sudden loss is even worse because there is no time to prepare in advance to actually suffer the loss.

Here in the Trenches, there are a lot of folks for whom their divorce is a complete shock.  There are others who have thought about it for years, but have never internalized the loss they would feel.  There are still others who thought about it for years, thought they dealt with their emotions and then are surprised that they feel so sad, overwhelmed, anxious.  It's all loss, and it's all raw.  I have yet to have a client who hasn't felt some sense of loss at the end of their marriage.  I regularly suggest clients get into therapy.  Many do; many don't.  Some think I'm saying they're crazy;I'm not.  What I am saying is that grief is complicated and loss brings all kinds of uncomfortable feelings to the surface.  Those feelings, if we don't deal with them, can make us panic, paralyze us, create anxiety.  We can't really move on until we face our grief and work through it.  Me?  Well, I still think I see Danny all over the house and the office.  I miss how his life ordered my days, and how we cuddled at night.  His death also dredges up memories of my father's death 5 years ago, and I'm dealing with pieces of that grief too.  It's raw and it's painful.  It's also human.  Thank goodness for my therapist.  What about you?  Are you dealing with the grief of your loss?  It's not a quick fix.  Give yourself time and space and be kind to yourself.  Here in the Trenches.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Does Seeing Behind the Curtain Ruin the Experience?

For my birthday this year, I wanted to take the Backstage Magic Tour at DisneyWorld.  For those of you who are not Disney nerds, it is a 7 hour tour of the “backstage” at DisneyWorld. We got to see the before hours mechanical and engineering checks at The American Experience at Epcot, along with a backstage look at the mechanism that runs the show there.  We went to costuming, where they design and create the costumes used in the shows and on characters at The World.  We drove by the warehouse where they maintain and store their holiday decorations.  We went to one of the multiple laundries, this one for the deluxe resorts (which was beyond cool, by the way) .  We went to the engineering and mechanical shop where they maintain the ride vehicles, design new animatronics and build them.  We went down into the utilidoors at Magic Kingdom, which are the underground series of tunnels by which cast members traverse the park, take breaks and the like.  It was comprehensive....and fun.  We saw how The World is a self contained municipality, with banks, medical facilities, day care, power plants, fire and rescue.   There is so much and so many details that go into making a Disney experience that it would make your head spin.  I know, many of you are probably thinking that taking a tour like that would ruin the magic of Disney.  It doesn’t.  Actually, knowing what goes into every part of the Disney experience enhances it and makes me appreciate what is on stage even more.  Not everyone feels this way, so not everyone takes this tour, but Disney is happy to let you know how they do it.

Some lawyers in the Trenches worry that if clients know what goes into drafting a pleading, preparing for trial, or that there are Maryland State court forms online for things like filing for an uncontested divorce, filing for child support or filing their initial pleading for divorce or custody, they will lose a client.  I find just the opposite.  I often tell a client that they could use a court form if all they need is an uncontested divorce; I help them fill it out if they want.  I tell them what to expect at a hearing and how it will go and what they need. Sure, I might earn less on that case, but I have a happy client who will come back to me if they have a need and refer friends and family my way (and they have).  Some of those folks end up doing their own divorce and are thrilled to be walked through the process.  Some folks realize that they’d rather not do it themselves but stay involved in the strategizing and planning of their case.  Still others would rather just have their lawyers do everything.  Sometimes, seeing how the process works “backstage” makes a client appreciate the effort even more and see the magic in what we do.  Here in the Trenches.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

How to Save Your Marriage

1.  Stop looking for the fairy tale.  It's a fairy tale, not reality.  There is no prince on the white charger; there is no perfect soulmate; it's not sunshine every day.  Stop believing it exists.  That doesn't mean your marriage can't be wonderful.  It just means to stop looking for perfection.  Life is not perfect; there are dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and job stresses, all of which affect your ability to be fully present for your partner at any one time.  Accept the temporariness of the drought, but don't let it become the norm.  Maintaining a good marriage is hard work, and that's how you make the fairy tale come true. Think about the difference between Fiona in Shrek and Snow White.

2.  Smile.  I mean that figuratively and literally.  Studies have shown that athletes who smile during exertion actually feel less fatigue and pain than those who don't and perform better.  I have a friend, who may or may not recognize herself in this post, who constantly posts on Facebook how much she loves and adores her husband and her children.  By constantly, I mean almost daily and sometimes multiple times a day.  I love it.  She's smiling to the world, and you can bet her family knows it.  She's also smiling to herself and reminding herself to be grateful for what she has, and not allowing what is wrong to overwhelm her.  Have they had rough times? Yup.  You'd never know it by her posts because that's not their purpose.  Their purpose is to keep her in a mindset of gratitude.  This is not easy.  When things go wrong, when we're in pain, the last thing we want to do is smile.  When I'm at the end of a race and my legs feel like rubber and my lungs burn, the last thing I want to do is smile; yet research shows that is exactly the time I should be doing it.  So should you if you care about your relationships.

3.  Let's look a little more deeply at my friend in #2.  I look at her because I know you're thinking that her case is different because her husband is really a good guy at heart and her children are wonderful people, but your spouse is a jerk and it won't help.  Wrong.  Smiles are contagious.  With my friend,  I smile when I read her posts, as does everyone I know who is also her Facebook friend.  Try smiling (and no, I don't mean one of those maniacal smiles crazy ax murderers do, but a real full face smile).  Make an effort to smile more.  Two things will happen,  You will feel happier, and those around you will smile back.  Even your "jerk" spouse.  It won't happen right away, and that's the problem; you have to keep it up over time with no immediate results.  Do it anyway, and I bet eventually, the world smiles back at you.

4.  Think back with me for a minute.  Did you have a best friend when you were a child?  Is that person still your best friend today? Are you even in touch with them?  Did you have a favorite cousin when you were a child?  I bet you are still in touch with them, and they're probably still someone you like.  What's the difference?  The difference is choice.  You had a choice whether you remained friends, whether you put the effort into the relationship with your best friend.  You didn't have that choice with your cousin.  Your cousin was going to be at all the family get-togethers.  You were going to see them no matter what.  You had a choice with your cousin too - you could either maintain the relationship or have a miserable time at family get-togethers.  You put the effort in because not having a relationship wasn't a realistic choice.  You had to find interests in common, ask about their lives and be an active participant in the relationship.  You had to talk to work out your differences because you knew you had to see them again.  Of course, your favorite cousin could be your least favorite cousin now, and that is a whole different set of choices.  Marriage is more like your cousin than your childhood friend, and if you think of it that way, it will be better.  You committed to this relationship by moving in together or getting married; it's not like having your best friend down the street or in school.  You made a choice to commit and sometimes we forget that.

5.  Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff.  We all get so caught up in the daily act of living that we sometimes forget this.  The little things pile on top of each other:  he leaves the toilet seat cover down at night, she puts the toilet paper roll on the wrong way (yup, that's me.  I never knew there was a "right" way), he takes a week to completely finish the laundry, she leaves a mess in the kitchen, he leaves piles of paper all over the house, she interrupts constantly.  That's just a few of mine.  I could go on forever.  What happens is that going on forever is the opposite of what we're talking about in #2.  It's like frowning all the time.  For most of the people I see in the Trenches, the small stuff adds up like a dripping faucet gets on your nerves.  They add to each other until they lost sight of what brought them together in the first place.  Sometimes the little stuff is big stuff, like drug addiction or alcoholism.  It's still small stuff.  The big stuff is what brought you together in the first place, and that is what you need to keep reminding yourself.  Sometimes it takes a tragedy to shake things up and remember what's important.  Focusing on the small stuff and constantly criticizing is the opposite of #2; it puts you in a mindset of scarcity and resentment which just feeds on itself.  

6.  Communicate with your spouse.  No, I don't mean discuss politics (which right now is an absolute taboo in my home) or current affairs.  I mean how you feel.  Are you feeling worried, angry, anxious, happy, excited?  What are you concerned about?  Do you need help with a solution or just someone to listen (folks have to be told this, otherwise we all jump into problem-solving mode)?  What do you need - a hug, help with a chore?  Sometimes communication is non-verbal; it's touching their shoulder, holding their hand, bringing them their favorite chocolate, going together to something you have to go to but neither of you wants.   Maybe you need help communicating and a therapist works with you.  The folks in my office stopped communicating years before they walked through my door;  it is not unusual for someone to say during their time in the Trenches that they didn't know that's what bothered their spouse or that's what their spouse wanted, and if only they did.....

7.  Talk about the money.  Where it is, what it is and how to spend it.  What is important to each of you about money?  Don't hide what you're buying or saving.  We all come to relationships with our own attitudes about money that were taught to us by our families.  Money issues carry a lot of baggage and shame.  That's why you need to talk about them.   Again, having this conversation is hard, and most people won't do it.  Instead, they will walk around the elephant in the room until their spouse pulls up in the new Mercedes that they can't afford or there isn't enough money to send their kids to college.  Have an in-depth conversation now and often.  With a reluctant spouse, start small by expressing simply how you feel about an upcoming purchase or the lack of savings.  By expressing, I don't mean accusing; I mean saying I'm really anxious about how we're going to afford the upcoming car repair.  Baby steps until you can get to the bigger issues.

I know, you're thinking that these are all fine words (at least I hope you are), but my spouse will never do this.  They will never change.  Sorry, but they constantly change, just like you.  People constantly evolve and change, which is why maintaining a relationship is hard.  I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago and neither is my honey.  We each have different interests and different outlooks on life than we did then.  I know the same is true for you.  The point here is not to change them, but to change you.  You have no control over some other adult's actions; all you can do is change your response to them.  How you choose to respond determines not only how you view what happens, but also your level of contentment with what you have.  Whether your spouse changes or not is beside the point; the point is rewriting your inner narrative.  This is all hard work.  Some people aren't up to it.  Some people choose not to do it. I can't guarantee a saved marriage, but what I do know is that if you do the things in this post, you will have your best shot.  Here in the Trenches.

Monday, October 1, 2018

R.I.P. Danny the Office/Therapy Dog and How His Death Can Help You Decide

We had to euthanize our beloved Danny on Saturday.  For those of you who worked with us in the Trenches, you knew him as the Office Dog.  He was always on hand to request his belly rubbed just when you were about to lose it.  He always knew when you needed a friend to cuddle, even if you weren't aware of it until just that moment.  He was a brilliant medical diagnostician, and could often tell when someone had a physical ailment before they or the tests knew it.  He was a friend magnet, with lots of dogs and their owners to call his buddies, and even some folks without dogs.  He got you out of the house and office and moving every day, whether you liked it or not.  Most of all, he was my best friend.  Because he was my best friend, I had to be his today when he needed me.  My heart is broken into a million pieces, but it was the right decision for him.

Danny would like to leave you with a learning moment here in the Trenches. (Of course he would - he's my dog, after all).  When an animal is ill, sometimes it's hard to know what to do.  How ill are they?  They can't tell you unless they cry or scream in pain.  Even then, it's hard to know if the pain is episodic, long-term or permanent.  If they don't scream, are they in pain?  Are they unhappy?  You look for signs - are they breathing heavily, are they favoring a limb, are they not eating?  Sometimes the signs are clear, like they were with my Danny, and sometimes they're just not, like with his girlfriend Sam.  Making the decision to euthanize them is final, so you want to be sure.  You try everything - you change their food, give them more love, change their walks, give them supplements, take them to specialists.  Sometimes, you just can't know for sure, and you agonize, and maybe they suffer too long.  Sometimes, when they suffer too long, it's not about them, it's about you not being ready for them to leave you.

That's kind of like marriages.  Most people marry thinking marriage is forever.  No one enters a marriage thinking it's going to end.  For some people, it is forever.  For others, it's not, and more importantly, it shouldn't be.  When a marriage starts to go wrong, it feels wrong.  For many marriages, when it starts to feel wrong, it's hard to tell if it's a bump in the road which most marriages go through or a serious derailment.  You wait and observe.  Maybe you try and do some things differently; add some date nights, go to counseling.  Sometimes it's a malaise; sometimes it's an affair or domestic violence.  Is this a one-time thing, or is it a pattern?  For most of us, we wait too long, because divorce and dividing a family is permanent (usually), and we don't want to be premature.  From Danny's point of view, you're looking at it wrong.  Stop kidding yourself and do the hard work. 

Most people who Danny saw come into the Trenches knew the marriage was over long before they walked in our door, sometimes decades before.  They agonized over the marriage itself.  They worried about the effect on the children.  They were concerned about how their spouse would survive without them.  What most of them didn't do was look deep inside themselves.  They didn't look at how they added to the marital dynamic.  They didn't examine what was acceptable to them.  They didn't ponder what they needed to move on. They didn't formulate a realistic vision of what life would look like after divorce.  Instead, they focused on keeping the marriage together as long as they could - because they weren't ready to leave, not because they made a decision to stay. 

Even though we weren't ready for Danny to leave us so soon and so suddenly, we knew it wasn't about us.  It was about him.  We gathered the facts, did the emotional work and made the right decision.  With Sam, we agonized, and I see now that was far more about us than her and in the end, it was worse for all of us.  What Danny the Office Dog would want you to learn is that you can't make the hard decisions until you do your own internal work.  Yes, it's hard.  Yes, it may require working with a therapist.  And it might require gathering information from multiple sources - a lawyer and/or an accountant.  Do it anyway.  For Danny, if not for yourself.  Here in the Trenches.