June 19, 2016

All the Good You Can

Filed under: Sacred Wilderness — Ann @ 6:00 am

Wake up there's work to do we need you

Recently a friend tagged me on Facebook in an ad for an online paralegal course with the message, “If your therapist gig doesn’t work out…” It was fun and funny, an allusion to my 30 years spent in law offices before I chose a “helping profession.” What she doesn’t know is that I already have a plan in place for if my “therapist gig” doesn’t work out. (I’m still an intern and I love the work greatly, but there are a few scenarios that might keep me from following through all the way to licensure.) That plan is to live out the rest of whatever years are left to me, subsisting on a humble Social Security check, and following the advice attributed to John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Because all I ever wanted to do was help others. It was my favorite part of being a paralegal, and the reason I traded that relatively lucrative, benefited work for mountains of student loan debt and four-years-and-counting of internship wages that, in most jobs, mean $10 per client hour.

I definitely help people (or have ample opportunity to try) in the work that I do now. But I want to do more. And maybe it’s a natural function of growing older, but with every passing day I am driven to want to do even MORE helping. I get stuck when I think I’m not doing enough, and then I remember the wisdom of one Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not given to you to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it,” a fancy way of saying, “Every little bit helps.”

So meanwhile – until and unless I invoke Plan B and leave my beloved counseling work behind – I remember that we don’t necessarily have to volunteer 20 hours a week or fly to another country to build homes. Driving kindly counts — letting the other guy in, waving ‘thanks’ when the other guy lets YOU in. Sending get-well notes to ailing friends or neighbors. Spreading joy and positivity everywhere, including on social media. Picking up litter on a trail while you hike. Smiling at people on the street. Letting people with fewer items in the grocery store line go ahead of you. It’s important to me to remember that the smallest act of kindness matters, lest I get caught up in the lie my brain wants to tell me: “You’re not doing enough to help others so you might as well stop trying.” That Rabbi Tarfon, he knew a thing or two about human nature.

When I graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College in the 90s, I was a valedictorian speaker and I drew from Robert Anton Wilson’s essay, “Ten Good Reasons to Get Out of Bed in the Morning” — a work that inspired me to my very core. His final reason still inspires and motivates:

“NOBODY IS UNIMPORTANT ANYMORE. There we have it, the final reason to get your ass out of bed: we need you. We need you on our side – the side of hope and action – and we need you now. Every decade is a scientific milestone, which means that every year counts as well, and every month, every week, every day. Indeed, at this point, every act of our lives is either a step toward the achievement of all our visions of glory or a step back toward the stupidity and self-pity that can destroy us. No one really needs LSD to see the cosmic importance of every minute.” And this:

“Any single act of love and hope may be the grain that tips the scale towards survival and, conversely, any single act of cruelty or injustice may be the grain that tips the scale the other way.”

Now, more than ever, even more than when Wilson wrote his essay in 1977 – now, when too many people are tempted to collapse into hate and anger and despair — we need to understand “the cosmic importance of every minute” and we need to understand that every word we speak or write, every action we take either in the direction of tearing down or building up, matters immensely. In this moment, we have the power to effect change. Paraphrasing the popular final line of others’ commencement speeches: We really ARE the ones we’ve been waiting for. And now is the time.

January 17, 2016


Filed under: Sacred Wilderness,The Healing Project — Tags: , , , — Ann @ 9:09 am


: highly responsive or susceptible: as (1) : easily hurt; especially : easily hurt emotionally (2) : delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others

Odds are if you’re a “sensitive” person, you know it, and you’ve known it all your life. Sensitive is when you break into tears thinking about how little actual life-time your cat has because he sleeps so much of the day away (true story – me – last week).

Chances are if you’re sensitive, one or more people in your past have told you that you’re TOO sensitive (usually in the form of a non-apology for hurting your feelings). Or you’ve been told that you’re “too emotional.” In other cultures and/or at other times, “sensitives” may be valued for their intuitive gifts. In this culture, we don’t like people to be “too emotional.” It makes us nervous.

And, yes, there is a downside to facing the world with every feeling-receptor wide open. When you wear your heart on your sleeve, it’s far more vulnerable to breaking and bruising. Sometimes you have to limit your human contact. You can’t see films that are too intense or depict others being hurt.

But the pros far outweigh the cons: When you’re sensitive, you see beneath people’s facial expressions, always wondering what’s really happening under the surface. You are infinitely curious about the human condition. You make deep connections with others. If someone in the room is hurting, you’re going to be the first person to notice it. Chances are you’re a social worker, therapist, or otherwise involved in the healing arts.

The best thing about sensitive people is that they’re barometers of atmospheric inauthenticity. They embrace emotional honesty because they don’t have to waste precious energy using their superpower to break through layers of deception. So if you’ve ever been told you’re too sensitive, I want to sit next to you at every gathering. Because you’re the one who’s going to “feel the feel” and bring the real. And there’s nothing I love more.

January 4, 2016

Before You Speak and As You Think

Filed under: Sacred Wilderness — Tags: , , , — Ann @ 7:21 am





We’ve all seen the “Before You Speak” motivational poster. As I write this, one is taped to my apartment’s front door where I can see it on a daily basis.

However, this morning I was reading Miss Manners’ response to a Gentle Reader in which she cautions the reader not to characterize a gesture of condolence in negative terms because “it’s not useful” to think that way. I started ruminating on the “usefulness” of our thoughts. (Thinking about the usefulness of thinking….metacognition at its finest.) I decided it would be fun to create an “As You Think” poster as a companion to the original.

Words are important — but thoughts come first.

April 1, 2015

Blame and compassion

Filed under: Sacred Wilderness — Tags: , , , , , — Ann @ 4:08 pm


While browsing Facebook memes the other day I came across this quote (in blue), attributed to Dr. Wayne Dyer.

When I read it, I felt real anger rising in me for what I considered to be the compassionless message of the quote. As a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, I’ve worked with clients who suffered unthinkable abuse as children, clients who weren’t provided with any of the loving attention, modeling, resources and guidance necessary to ease them from infancy to healthy maturation. I’ve heard stories of abusive childhoods that left me gasping and horrified — reactions I kept inside while I quietly held space for my clients to walk me through their experiences.

The reality is, children who are exposed to such environments — survivors of complex trauma including severe neglect and abuse (physical and sexual), learn avoidance strategies early in life. Survivors of crappy abusive childhoods can’t tolerate distress and so they develop ways to stop feeling. We all use avoidance strategies to some extent but these wounded individuals feel that they have no choice: it’s either numb out or die. What’s a highly effective (though maladaptive) avoidance strategy? Substance abuse. Dr. John Briere, in his training on Treating Complex Psychological Trauma, states that the majority of IV drug users, especially women, have a Childhood Sexual Abuse history. Dr. Briere confirms that trauma survivors frequently engage in behaviors that some might call “bad choices” as a way to down-regulate overwhelming internal states. These can include excessive sexual contact (“promiscuity”), thrill-seeking and binge shopping (“irresponsible spending”).

In other words, the humans among us that we may think of us making the most irresponsible “choices” may be those who are suffering the greatest — with pasts that we can’t even begin to imagine. If a boy who was starved and beaten by his parents as a child is drinking vodka at age 13, smoking meth by age 14, in Juvenile Hall by 16, and ends up with the inability to hold a job, or a relationship, is his childhood not “to blame”? If we don’t like the word “blame,” can we at least acknowledge that the boy’s choices were guided by the horrifically bad hand he got dealt when he started life? If a girl who was raped by a stepfather from age 3 through age 12, ran away from home to escape it, sold her body to get enough money to feed herself, and became addicted to meth as the only way to numb herself enough to tolerate herself (so strong was her self-loathing by then) ends up as the homeless person you drive by every morning, that’s her choice, right? Hers and only hers? Dr. Dyer’s quote assumes that we all had the same choices, which simply isn’t true. (I haven’t even touched upon how racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, socio-economic status, and other discriminatory factors negatively affect choices. The stigma attached to non-trauma related mental disorders, and physical and/or developmental disorders can also limit life choices.)

Many of these men and women that our culture judges so harshly are longing to learn how to make good choices for themselves because they never had the structure and the modeling to do so. They are fighting for their lives with a courage I can’t imagine. Focused on getting help, getting sober, getting jobs, getting better. And survivors don’t usually blame others for their circumstances, anyway. Quite the opposite, they usually blame themselves and I work with them to help them have compassion for their lives and circumstances.

Maybe at this point you’re thinking, yes, but adults who were abused as children are rare. Actually, a child abuse report is made in this country every 10 seconds. Referrals to state child protective services agencies involve 6.3 million children. While not all of those are substantiated, too many are. And 80% of 21-year-olds who reported being abused as a child meet the criteria for at least one psychological disorder. [Source: childhelp.org] Children who experience child abuse and neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime. [safehorizon.org]

If I were to re-write Dr. Dyer’s quote with some heart and accuracy, it would go something like this: “Everything you do is based on how you learned to navigate the world as a child (combined with biological factors including genetics and temperament). If you had a secure attachment with your caretaker as an infant, you likely explored your environment confidently, developed a positive self-image, and had confidence that you could cope with whatever happened. Then, as a securely attached infant, you likely became an effective problem-solver as a toddler and a resilient, resourceful, curious preschooler. Your positive experience with your caregiver was a model that served as a guide for your interpersonal behavior and self-expectations. If you did not have that secure attachment, your parents are probably not to blame because they likely came into the world with their own challenges. If you had a severely rough start in life and/or are struggling with a mental disorder, addiction or any other dysfunctional reality, it’s not useful to blame your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age. You and only you can recognize when you need help (although a kind friend, mentor, teacher, or clergyman can certainly play a role in getting you the help you need), and you and only you can then take the steps necessary to get strong and well and empowered.”


August 9, 2013

All about liminal stages

Filed under: Sacred Wilderness — Ann @ 11:01 am

In the musical “Gypsy,” the newbie stripper is advised by her seasoned colleagues that she has to specialize, has to claim a niche — or, in their words, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” And this is true for all professionals. Everyone specializes these days and generalists get lost. I’ve been pondering for some time what I want to specialize in when it comes to my counseling work. For over a year I’ve counseled trauma survivors and that’s one area I can call mine. In my new job, I’m working essentially as a “life coach” to those who are starting over from homelessness. I’ve been thinking about what these jobs have in common, and the big draw for me. And I realize that they both activate my long, long fascination with life transitions, and what I like to call “liminal” or in-between states. This morning, for the first time, I researched the background of the term “liminal states.” I learned that a liminal stage is an anthropological term (“limin” means “threshold”), and it’s a stage of a ritual. Specifically, it’s that state of ambiguity or disorientation that happens in the middle stage of rituals, when those involved are no longer their pre-ritual selves, but not yet their transformed selves. During a ritual’s “liminal” stage, participants are standing at the threshold between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and their new way of life. They are no longer who they were when they began the ritual, nor are they the person they will be when they emerge from the ritual. And thus my specialty area was born. I plan to do therapy with individuals, couples and families in liminal states, in very specific places of transition. This could be adolescents emerging into adulthood, couples planning marriage (or divorce); those starting or finishing school, or jobs, moving, experiencing midlife changes; in recovery from substance abuse, grieving — any and all transition work. Transition counseling isn’t new, but transition counseling grounded in ritual/stage work is very specialized. We don’t have enough rituals in our culture; my transformative counseling work will focus on ways we need to acknowledge, grieve and/or celebrate change through ritual. So excited!

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