Monday, June 27, 2011

The Texas Cheeseburger: miraculous agent of change?

I know of someone going through a divorce right now, and it’s got me reflecting on that whole roller coaster.  In trying to assure this person that things DO get better – and even unimaginably good! – after such an upheaval, I’m reminded how much my life has changed in the last five years.

I could get all deep and talk about “meaning making” and the potential of humankind to overcome difficulty, but I’m going to keep it simple.  Forgiveness and hamburgers.

I have no idea why, but the traditional “Texas Cheeseburger” is a bun with beef patty, cheese, pickles, and mustard.  No veggies, no frills, just 100% greasy, meaty goodness.  Why is this relevant?  My ex husband was/is a big fan.  Once I let go of my girlie need to be seen eating healthy things like tomato, I became a fan, too.  A Texas cheeseburger is unpretentious and straight-talking.  And it has lots of mustard.  Win-win!

So, I have good cheeseburger memories that span many years: driving to Sonic in his primer gray oilfield services sedan for some mustardy happiness on a bun, cruising around backroads with the windows down, and sharing our dismay at having to pick lettuce off burgers made in foreign states.

I bit into a really good Texas cheeseburger this afternoon, and something exploded in my brain.  No, there wasn’t mustard up my nose.  I felt spontaneous, effortless forgiveness toward my ex.  I’ve been praying for help to forgive him for five years now – working pretty hard at it.  With that first bite, all the good memories flooded back.  For the space of two or three heartbeats, I considered actually emailing him to say “Hey, I ate a burger today that made me think of you and remember that we shared some good stuff.  I hope you can still get good burgers where you live.”  I didn’t think about the betrayal or the hurt or the spiraling near-breakdown.  I just thought about summer days when I loved a guy who inspired admiration in me.  I smiled.  I actually smiled.  My friends will ask: “Do you mean that grumpy/sarcastic half smile with the growl behind it?”  Then they'll laugh and punch me in the arm.  But...nope.  It was a “happy-burger-letting-go-of-the-need-to-control-the-situation” smile.  It was a "forgetting-myself" smile.  It was "I don't need to be seen eating tomatoes and I don't need to spend any more time hating him for the sake of some vague idea of justice."

It was very weird.  Do I feel all warm and fuzzy toward my ex now?  No.  Would I be able to hold a conversation with him about our breakup without wanting to scratch his eyes out?  Quite possibly, and that’s a first for me.  Would I go get tested if he needed a kidney transplant?  Maybe.  Will I keep praying for him?  More than ever before, and with less growling!

For all of psychology’s search for “agents of therapeutic change”, I have to say I think change occurs organically a good deal of the time.  It’s probably different for every person.  I think I’ve found my recipe:


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Only time for a little tidbit this week...

This therapy style I like to chatter about, ACT, borrows a lot from Buddhist and Eastern thought.  I think the language is particularly striking to Western Christians, too.  To me, the similarities get to a universal truth: that the true loves of our hearts - where our wills and desires are really engaged - will find a way to be expressed through our actions, not necessarily our words.

I have to have a hard discussion with someone soon - someone I love and respect.  I'm not looking forward to it, but it really has to be done.  There won't necessarily be any bad consequences if I don't do this.  No real, concrete consequences, anyway.  I'd feel like I cheated on my values, though, and I'd always remember it.  Argh.....and hooray, because I need all the practice I can get.  :)

"An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea." Buddha, pretty much famous for being himself

"It's no surprise that life is richer and more fulfilling when we actively invest our time and energy in the things that are most important or meaningful to us.  Yet all too often our attempts to avoid unpleasant feelings get in the way of doing what we truly value."  Russ Harris, famous contemporary ACT therapist, The Happiness Trap, 2007

"If my feelings offer their assistance, I accept it. It may be useful, but it is not necessary. A calm, profound love is much better than surface emotions." Dom Chautard, famous Catholic churchman, The Soul of the Apostolate, early 1900s

I believe all of these ideas.  Too bad they're not as easy to do as they are to say!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Had an ACT moment at the Adoration chapel today

I'm having one of those weeks that make me wish the lessons would stop coming.  Brain full.  Yeah....

And to even explain it to most of you, I have to define at least two terms.  Remember Venn diagrams from high school algebra?  Some of you fit in the circle of people who know about ACT, some of you fit in the circle of people who know about Eucharistic Adoration, and a few of you fit in the place where the two circles intersect.  There's also tons of people who don't fit in either circle....but my brain is full, I can't handle that right now.  So...

ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that emphasizes acceptance of what is, whether inside your mind or body or outside in your surroundings.   In a nutshell, it advocates choosing the direction you want to go in and accepting whatever else comes along with life.  Its sort of "serenity prayer"-like.  Change what you can, accept what you can't, keep on keepin' on, all that good stuff.  I like ACT.  It confuses the heck out of me but it makes sense.

Eucharistic adoration is a Catholic practice where we go into a quiet chapel and adore the Eucharist, which we believe is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.  It looks a little funny, I bet.  I like Adoration even more than I like ACT.  In fact, when I first heard of ACT, I thought of the great Catholic saints who committed their lives to God and accepted a lot of bad with the good.  St. Lucy who had her eyes poked out comes to mind, but that's just my mood talking.

What do these two things have in common?  Meditation.  ACT uses a lot of mindfulness practice, which is all about being in the moment, focusing, noticing, and going with the flow without getting "grabbed" by your thoughts.  A classic example from Buddhism is about watching your thoughts go down a river without actually getting hooked into buying any of the thoughts.  After all, everybody knows a lot of our thoughts are horse pucky.  The important thoughts are the ones that match up with our values - the things to which we've committed ourselves.

I try to meditate on the Eucharist when I'm in the chapel.  You could say I'm committed to that.  Sometimes I meditate on a mystery of the rosary or some verse of scripture.  Often, the same thing happens as when I try to practice mindfulness: the grocery list starts writing itself.  There's no bread at home, and I have to remember to stop by Petco for dog kibbles.  Did I lock the front door when I left the house?  Mom didn't call me back last night.....WEEEEE, PRETTY LIGHTS ON THE WINDOWS!  Vacuum cleaner.  Vacuum.  That's a funny word.

ACT tells us this is normal - the human condition - and to expect it.  The saints pretty much say the same thing; the world is always around us, and temptations and  "important things I need to do instead of this" will always abound...we will fall a lot and get off track daily.  Today was a tough one, though.  I just wanted my quiet time with Jesus but, instead, I got Chel's Most Inane Thoughts Jumping on a Trampoline!  The takeaway from all this babble?  I'm not sure, but I suspect patience is a part of it.  More specifically, patience (acceptance, even!) toward myself.  Patience with everybody else who has their own babbling thought trampoline.  Bottom line?  What would a saint who was also an ACT therapist tell me?

Be thankful.  Get up and try again tomorrow.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Summer book reviews for my therapy-minded peoples

Something is wrong with me!  I used to be the girl with a novel under her arm at the doctor's office and in the grocery checkout line.  I laughed at friends who wasted their time on non-fiction.  Grad school has taught me at least one thing: never say never.  It's pointless and makes one feel conspicuously stupid.  *sigh*

I have managed to squeeze in a true crime book about a serial rapist (lighthearted summer fun!) but, other than that, my summer reading picks have been pretty practical so far.  It just struck me that some of these titles may interest some of y'all!  ....because, after all, I hang out with weirdos who read non-fiction.  *argh*

The Schopenhauer Cure by our buddy Irv Yalom
Chel's rating: mind blowing and heart stopping, buy it NOW! 

Pardon me if I use a bad cliche and say that every therapy student, therapist, psychologist, and lover of humans should read this book.  Yes, I just shoulded on my friends.  It's that awesome.  This book takes the reader through a year in the life of a therapy group and its leader.  One of the group members is exceptionally difficult to like and his case can seem hopeless a lot of the time.  We know he's human all along, but he won't admit it to himself or anyone else.  I banged my head on the wall.....really.  By the end of the story, I was in love with this character for his courageous willingness to be the flawed person that the rest of the group was growing to love.

It especially brought home for me that I need to bring patience, love, and more patience to my work with clients.  The ones who seem hopeless and unlovable have the farthest to go, and might just be the ones that amaze us.

Surviving Graduate School in Psychology by Tara L. Kuther 
Chel's rating: validating and anxiety-reducing, but repetitive

What a helpful little book, and how I wish I'd read it 18 months ago!  This book is aimed mostly at students in doctorate programs, but is useful for us Master's plebeians, too.   Kuther covers practicalities like moving and finances as well as relationships with friends and mentors, stressors, practicum issues, writing, and finding one's own identity as a practicing therapist or psychologist.  Her brief coverage of impostor syndrome and research showing that graduate school causes students to "revise their sense of self" makes me feel less like I'm losing it.  I'm normal.  Well...not really normal, but just a grad student.  Whew!

On Being a Therapist by Jeffrey A. Kottler
Chel's rating: if Mr. Kottler is single, I'd like to ask him to marry me

Wow.  The book I was hoping to write in 40 years has already been written.

I started reading this last semester during Basic Psychotherapy Skills.  I had an inkling about how good it was then, but I didn't have the experience to fully appreciate it (maybe I still don't, but I'm getting closer, thanks be to God).  It's sort of like Irvin Yalom's "The Gift of Therapy" with more topical organization and less existentialism.  I'm especially grateful for the chapter on failure and how to use it.  Good stuff.  Our profs and mentors tell us this stuff, but it never hurts to read things in black and white while in your pyjamas, sleepy and vulnerable enough to let it really sink inThis book is my new binky.  Watch for me at the grocery store and see if it's under my arm.

General Principles and Empirically Supported Techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Chel's rating: everyday usefulness off the charts!

Thanks to Dr. Chad Wetterneck for suggesting this on day one or two of practicum.  This surprisingly inexpensive book has a chapter on almost every clinical issue out there.  I've referenced it in two term papers, used sources from it in a class project, and used it to help conceptualize at least one practicum case.  It's both lit review and how-to manual.  Get a copy and tape it to your left forearm so you can use it all day!

OK folks, that's all I have to suggest for now!  My own therapist has suggested a small stack of books that I'm hoping to chat about in the next month or so.  She's so maddeningly right all the time, I'm sure they'll be great.  *argh*

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Starting this new gig on vacation

Ginger and I take our mostly-annual trip to Rockport, TX whenever we can squeeze it into our schedules.  On past trips I've whined about my divorce, laughed about the bad old days that we spent working together in the Houston chemical industry, or rested my aching muscles from doing too many faux jobs in a row.  I don't remember ever wanting to think about my "job" while in Rockport (part of Rockport's charm is that cell phones only work about twice a day). I sit looking out at the Bay, coffee and a big Texas-shaped waffle next to the laptop, typing away.  Maybe I'm having an existential moment because my best friend turns 30 today. (Happy Birthday, baby girl!)  I'm realizing that my new career as a therapist is not really going to be a "job".  I'm not going to be able to turn it off and turn it on the same way I've acted with other work I've done.  I suspect it'll be something I carry around with me all the time; a way of looking at the world, whether I'm in the therapy room or not. 

Why do I care enough to write about it, and why do I think anyone will care enough to read this?  For starters, I'm on this grad school journey with some awesome people, and I want to capture some of funny and thoughtful things we talk about. 

But there's a second reason.  I already have a way of looking at the world....a point of view that is very important to me, which I hope to integrate into everything I do.  I'm Catholic.  Joyously, freakishly, obediently Catholic.  My relationship to Christ through His Church is the most important relationship of my life.  Everything else comes second and, ideally, gets filtered through a Catholic Christian perspective on life.  Psychology isn't really excited about Catholics...there's some love/hate going on between the two.  This Catholic is excited about learning to help people, though. 

Lots of people have talked about "integrating" faith and therapies.  I don't know if that's my goal here.  It would be a pretty lofty goal, anyway.  I just want to get my hands and feet dirty in the idea sandbox.  And eat my State of Texas waffle before it gets cold.