Sunday, December 20, 2009

a holiday divorce

My wife asked me for a divorce about a week before Thanksgiving.

From what I know of other divorces, ours has been relatively civil. We both remain dedicated to putting our children first. There haven't been any truly ugly conflicts.

Still, divorce is a kind of hell. It robs you of the ability to enjoy things. When things are going well and everything seems nice and normal, you look up at her face and remember that she's divorcing you and says she doesn't love you anymore. When things aren't going well, you question whether this is any better or worse than what you'll be facing when the divorce is over.

And, strangely, it feels a little bit like it has robbed me of the holidays. I feel little reason for joy at the moment.

I have heard many people talk about the holidays being the most difficult time of the year for them -- people who have lost loved ones or who struggle with depression, for just one example. And I guess I can understand that now, in a way that I haven't in the past.

I'm trying to work on facing this situation as fully and openly as I can -- to face the pain rather than resent it, as it were. But I'm finding that this isn't easy, and sometimes not possible. To some extent, the pain has to be contained in order to just get through the day sometimes.

Sorry for the rambling, folks. Thank you for all your prayers and support.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Everything can change in a day, in a moment even.

There may be no change in location, in employment, in income. Things can go along day-by-day much as they always have.

Yet a single phrase, a single conversation can change seemingly everything. It can change how we see ourselves, how we see our relationships to others. It can change our sense of our future, our hopes, dreams, and plans.

A single phrase can bring pain or redemption. And perhaps sometimes both.

I am faced today with a difficult change in my life. I cannot go into details for now. But I would appreciate your prayers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

Veteran's Day haunts me with stories.

When I had finished my second year of graduate school, I was looking for something to keep me gainfully employed...some type of work that would give me "clinical experience" for my resume. After some searching, I applied for a summer "traineeship" at a VA hospital, and was accepted.

Mind you, at this point I had had a total of maybe two therapy cases at the college clinic. And here I was suddenly dropped into a world of severe PTSD, alcohol dependence, and misery. I sat with people recounting memories of violence that were almost incomprehensible to me -- violence from their childhoods, violence they committed as soldiers, violence committed against them as soldiers, violence from their fellow soldiers.

As I look back on it now, it seems to me that so much of what I witnessed there had to do with the impact of such experiences, of the need to escape those memories by drinking, by blaming, by dissociation, by escape.

It left me with a complex set of feelings about military service. I am amazed beyond telling by the courage and sacrifice of those I got to know. I am horrified by what we as a nation asked of them, by the human impact of what we put them through. I am mindful that sometimes such sacrifices must perhaps be asked. I question whether our leaders would ask for such sacrifices so often if they grasped the enormity of the cost.

Regardless, I am thankful to the veterans I met that summer. For what they sacrificed. For what they taught me. For making almost every clinical experience I've had since then seem easy in comparison. For letting me witness their courage in the midst of such great suffering.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I have not posted here in some time, so I'm not sure if anyone is out there reading this. Still, I apologize for my absence. I have no excuse but to say that summer was busy, that with time it seems comes more responsibilities and distractions.

I am writing this evening because I am aware of a heavy sense of discouragement in myself.

You see, some time ago, my wife became upset with the Catholic church's teachings on women and decided to seek out a more progressive institution. She eventually found a relatively small ELCA church with a kindly pastor and decided that it was (from all we could tell) the most progressive church in town.

As most of you are most assuredly aware, the ELCA recently had a national meeting wherein matters relating to gay pastors serving openly were discussed. As I understand it, this national meeting passed a historic vote, allowing congregations to accept openly gay pastors if they chose to do so. I remember my wife and I cheering the news.

Now, mind you, I cannot say that I have been an active member of her church. I haven't formally left the Catholic church, and I haven't attended church of any kind regularly in some time now. Still, I felt a deep sense of discouragement when my wife attended a meeting of the congregation that ridiculed the ELCA's actions as unfaithful, that planned a likely separation from the ELCA, that threatened to withhold funds from the ELCA.

By my wife's report, there were about 50 people at that meeting and 47 spoke. All who spoke were in favor of denouncing the ELCA.

I guess my discouragement is in part that there simply is no church in our area that practices a faith I could find compelling.

But more of my discouragement comes from...look, I happen to personally know at least four of the people who were at the meeting (in addition to my wife). These are people that I like and respect. I am discouraged by their prejudice, by their fear, by their clinging to their fears and prejudice and pretending that it is the Word of God that tells them they must do so.

I am discouraged because at this moment, Christianity itself seems mostly to be about confirming pre-existing prejudices rather than confronting them. It seems to be about moving back the clock, about a search for certainty rather than an openness to Truth in all it's complexities and ambiguities. (And I know that this isn't true, or at least isn't what Christianity should be about at it's core.)

I am discouraged because at this moment humanity seems so small, petty, even vindictive.

I hope to wake up tomorrow and recognize my shared humanity with those I find so discouraging this evening. I hope to see how others may find me at times to be petty, small, or vindictive. I hope to grow in compassion through this exercise, to open my heart and to be less judgmental of them. I am aware that in some ways my feelings of judgment are perhaps an indication of my own flaws.

Still...tonight I find myself thinking of those I know who are gay, lesbian, or transgendered. I think of their stories, of the emotional damage done to them by churches, by society, by people (dare I even say people of good will?) who perpetuated beliefs that they were sinful for who they love.

I had been hoping that society was starting to move beyond such beliefs. Tonight, for this moment, I am discouraged.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The other day, I heard my nine-year-old, autistic son wander into the bathroom. He struggles with things like remembering to wipe himself after he goes there, so after a few minutes I knocked on the door and asked if he needed any help.

Now, I was fully expecting one of two responses: 1. "yes" which would mean that he needed my help, or 2. "no" which could mean any number of things. But on this day, he responded "leave me alone!"

He's been doing much more of that in the past month or so -- sharing increasingly complex things about how he feels, what he thinks, what he notices. And I've been aware of how much joy this brings me, to feel like I finally have this window into my son's world.

There are many things of which I'm unsure these, even God at times...but this ability to have a glance into my son's mind, to know the richness of life that such an ability opens up to him...this is a miracle to my mind.

I pray that I might never lose sight of it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

the 200

My son Patrick ran in a race today.

My wife and I had been taking him to "track practices" for several weeks, actually. He'd line up for whatever event it was, engage in some type of cross between walking and jogging, and eventually cross the finish line. He seemed a bit bemused by it all, actually.

I should clarify that I wasn't personally able to make it to the big finale event tonight, so my report of the events is based on my wife's recollection.

Anyway, she decided to have him run in the 200 yard dash. And so he lined up, the race began, and by the time the other kids had crossed the finish line, he had gone about 10 yards.

From what I gather, he seemed in no particular hurry after this, and kept his typical pace in progressing down the track. Eventually some adult monitor of the race went out to meet him and encourage a slightly faster pace. The crowd cheered.

I must admit that I have mixed reactions to the event. I'm delighted that the crowd was so generous in its attitude towards my son. But I'm also pained by his struggles, by his delayed motor coordination, by the sense of aloneness and confusion he felt (or at least that I imagine him feeling).

It's a reminder, I suppose, that life will pose challenges to him that I can't fully prepare him for. It's a painful reminder of how far he lags behind his peers despite the progress we've seen in him.

In some ways, I guess, the race is symbolic of where he's at right now. Ten yards of progress when other kids his age have made 200.

Yet I have so much pride in him for those ten yards. What comes naturally to other children does not always come natural to Patrick. His gains are the product of concerted effort and challenge and struggle, not byproducts of just doing what comes naturally to him.

And so now when I think about those ten yards...and the other 190 he ran after all the other kids were resting, I like to consider this: he earned them.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A poem

I ran across this poem by Dr. Mohja Kahf. I think it's stunning. And stunningly beautiful.

All Good

They see it as far-off,

but We see it as near.

Quran, The Ways of Ascent 70:6-7

Out in the blue infinitude

that reaches and touches us

sometimes, Hajar and Sarah

and Abraham work together

to dismantle the house of fear, brick

by back-breaking brick.

With a broom of their own weaving,

they sweep the last remains

away. They sit down for a meal

under the naked stars.

Ismaïl and Isaac come around shyly,

new and unlikely companions.

Hajar introduces them

to her second and third husbands

and a man from her pottery class

who is just a friend.

Hajar's twelve grandchildren

pick up Sarah's twelve at the airport.

The great-grandchildren appear,

set down their backpacks,

and tussle to put up the sleeping tents,

knowing there will be no more rams,

no more blood sacrifice.

Sorrows furrow every face.

This, in the firelight, no one denies.

No one tries to brush it all away

or rushes into glib forgiveness.

First, out of the woods, shadows emerge:

the dead of Deir Yassin,

killed by Zionist terror squads,

the Kiryat Menachim bus riders

killed by Palestinian suicide bomber.

They face each other, tense up.

Some of them still do not have gravestones.

The ghosts of Mahmoud Darwish

and Yehuda Amichai begin to teach them

how to pronounce each other's names

in Hebrew and Arabic. The poets

will have a long night. Meanwhile,

a Hamas sniper, a Mosad assassin fall

to their knees, rocking; each one cries,

"I was only defending my—my—"

Into the arms of each,

Hajar and Sarah place a wailing

orphaned infant. Slow moaning

fills the air: Atone, atone.

The grieving goes on for untold ages,

frenzied and rageful in the immature years,

slowly becoming penitent and wise.

When an orange grove is given back

to its rightful owner, the old family drama

finally loses its power, withers, dies. A telling time

for new stories begins. Housekeys

digging bloody stigmata into the palms

of Palestinians cast from their homes

turn into hammers and nails for the rebuilding.

Despite the abject pain

each person here has known, no family

that has not lost a child,

no one wishes they could change the past

because of which we have arrived

at this transforming time.

Hajar pours water that becomes

a subtle, sweet, and heretofore unheard of wine.

Sarah laughs again, more deeply.

Abraham is radiant. Everyone, this time

around, can recognize

in the eyes of every other,

the flickering light of the Divine.

In the very end, in the fourth,

unseen dimension that has been here

from the very beginning, unfolding

just outside the limits of our perception,

suffering, not in its rawest form,

but distilled in temperate hearts,

takes us to higher levels of cognition.

Hajar and Sarah, Ismaïl and Isaac, you and I

break out of the cycle,

Here, Now, to higher life,

and it is fine.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

If They Can

I'm reading Ross Greene's excellent new book "Lost at School." For any of you involved in parenting or dealing with kids, I'd very highly recommend it.

One of the things I find so interesting about the book is his discussion of prevailing theories of child behavior problems. Essentially, most current ideas are focused on the notion that kids act up because the misbehavior WORKS. So child behavior problems are thought of as manipulative, attention-seeking, etc. And the theories to change these behavior problems focus on making sure that the behavior doesn't work any longer -- so you take away attention during the tantrum, make sure you don't give in to the manipulation, etc.

Greene does a great job of pointing out how often that approach simply doesn't work and is often counter-productive. And then he puts forwards a different theory: kids do well when they can. In other words, most child behavior problems result from a skill deficiency. And when kids are faced with situations they lack the skill to handle, they become overwhelmed and fall back on the only thing they can think of. That might be a tantrum, shutting down, biting, etc.

One of the really interesting things to consider is the number and variety of approaches to disciplining children that never get around to actually teaching kids the skills or abilities they need to succeed. So we have "zero tolerance" policies that put kids into detention or suspension. We have written agreements that kids and parents sign, saying that the disruptive behavior won't occur again, etc.

We're so focused on notions of accountability, in other words, that we assume that it is the entire picture. We forget that our kids might be lacking some skill or ability they need in order to succeed. And amidst all these consequences, we risk ruining the relationship with the child that is needed to help them.

There is a surprising amount of resistance to the notion that "kids do well if they can." People complain that if we don't suspend a kid, we're sending a message to the other kids that it's OK if you do something destructive. But this is based on the strange assumption that these other kids are only behaving well because they fear the consequence of not doing so (rather than seeing that they're doing well because they CAN -- because they have all the skills necessary to behave well). It also neglects the issue of what message we send to these other kids by continuing to use a disciplinary strategy that is entirely ineffective in helping a child to succeed in the future.

But I suspect that an underlying resistance to this model comes from the intuitive leap people make. If this approach is really better for dealing with behavior problems in children, then what does it say about our approach to behavior problems in adults? What does it say about the adult correctional system?

Monday, March 23, 2009

in other news...

So I've been aware of how many of my latest postings have been about the Pope or things I struggle with in the Catholic tradition. So for this post, I've decided to point my ire elsewhere, and what more commonly despised object could I find than a managed health care company?! (really, it's kinda like shooting fish in a barrel with these guys....)

You see, MBH is the company that manages mental health care services for clients covered by medicaid in Nebraska. As such, they manage services for many of the most severely mentally ill people in our state. So they made this decision recently that may sound technical, but that actually has a big impact on how services are provided.

You see, they've apparently decided that when psychiatric care is billed as "psychotherapy with medication management" (which is the most common billing code for psychiatric care), it is "overlapping" with standard psychotherapy codes by psychologists and counselors and the like. In other words, they won't pay for both.

Do they let providers know of this change ahead of time? No.

Do they give providers another way to get paid? Well...kind of. See, to still get paid, they're now asking the psychologist/counselor to contact the psychiatrist and inform them of this change. Then the psychiatrist has to weigh if they're willing to take a reduced fee for billing under another code (for "medication management" alone). If so, they can submit a request to MBH to change their authorizations to this "medication management" code. And if all of that happens, we psychologists/counselors can resubmit our application to MBH for the therapy codes that we had already been approved for.

So let's just think this one out, shall we?

1. If the psychiatrist refuses to change billing codes, the patient will lose access to their regular therapist. And since psychiatrists are notoriously difficult to get into (most people in our area have to wait a minimum of 60 days to get into one), patients are likely to have much less access to therapy.

2. This change essentially creates an economic conflict between psychiatry and other mental health service providers. Believe me, institutions that hire psychiatrists are concerned enough about paying their salaries that they feel great pressure to maximize every dollar they can bill for. So psychiatrists will likely feel a pressure to bill the more lucrative service code...but will have to weigh that against what is right for the patient.

3. Providers are likely to think a good long time before referring a client to a psychiatrist, given the financial downside to them for doing so.

4. The change speaks volumes about the unwritten "hierarchy" within the mental health system. If there is a supposed conflict, why should the psychiatric services continue to be authorized but not the therapy services? Who makes this choice?

5. Who makes the choice? Mindless, faceless, fracking bureaucrats who are so bent on saving money (and maximizing profits) that they couldn't care less about good patient care.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This just in...

OK, so the pope's new pronouncement, offered just today, is that condoms won't help Africa's AIDS crisis. Actually, this isn't new. They've been saying this for years.

The problem? It's just patently false.

This is one of those situations where ideology is trumped by stubborn little things called "facts." Like the facts from scientific studies that have been done showing the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS. Like the studies showing that educating people about effective contraception doesn't increase the rate of sexual activity, it only increases the rate of SAFE sexual activity.

So I suppose if you put aside that condom use prevents infections, deaths, and the further destabilizing of families and societies...then, sure, I guess you can argue on ideological grounds that condom use won't help the AIDS crisis. But if this were any other issue...or, better, if some grounds other than religion were to be used to make the argument...people would be referring the pope for psychiatric care.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

plenary indulgences?! WTF?!

I will begin by noting that, as a good Battlestar Galactica fan, "WTF" here stands for "What the Frack?"

It would seem that the church of my upbringing is making an effort to make things easy on me as I struggle with whether to remain Catholic. They've brung back plenary indulgences, choosing rather oddly to highlight the traditional teaching of purgatory as a time of suffering needed to cleanse the soul before one is ready to enter into heaven.

[insert image of frustrated Catholic banging his head against a wall several times here]


OK, so...plenary indulgences. Isn't this one of the teachings that led to great schisms within Christianity awhile back (or, at least, the practice of selling such)? Yep.

Doesn't the teaching implicitly suggest that God is a rather sadistic bastard who is so unforgiving and intolerant that people need to be "purified" through pain and agony before they can be welcomed into heaven? Yep.

Do I find the church's teaching that they could have any influence on such a process (were it to be true) rather arrogant? Why yes, yes I do.

And yet do I somehow just feel Catholic somehow, as if I'd be losing some part of my identity if I entirely left the church? Sigh. Yes.

OK, so my message to the Vatican right now is (to quote Bob Newhart from a memorable Mad TV scene): stop it. Thinking about encouraging the sacrament of reconciliation by bizarrely shedding light on an illogical, two-tiered system of forgiveness? Stop it. Thinking about letting avowed anti-semites back as bishops in a poor play to the ultra-conservatives that left the church because, say, we now say the mass in something other than Latin? Stop it. Thinking about encouraging plenary indulgences? Stop it.

Oh, and while I'm at it, I have another suggestion for the Catholic church. Stop using the word "modernity" so much. As in the phrase, "as we attempt to dialogue with modernity...." Instead, substitute the word "reality" or, if you prefer, use the phrase "modern reality." I think it clarifies things.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

on pain and suffering

I've been reading more of Pema Chodron lately, and I was intrigued by her discussion of the difference between pain and suffering. I guess I had always used the terms semi-synonymously, but in her definitions, pain is our immediate response to an unhappy event. If someone drops a hammer on our toe, we feel pain. If someone calls us an ugly name, we feel pain. But what is interesting about pain is that it feel fresh, new, immediate.

Many of us spend a lot of energy trying to retreat from pain in various ways. We withdraw into emotional and behavioral coccoons in a lot of unhealthy ways, out of an effort to feel some sort of comfort, and in so doing we create what she calls suffering. So if someone is so afraid of rejection that they keep to themselves all the time and feel lonely -- that loneliness would be a form of suffering. You get the idea. But what is interesting about suffering is that it always feels familiar. Like we've had that feeling before, or sometimes like it's always been there with us.

I was thinking about this today because I was contemplating getting older, and feeling this sense of loss about it. Lost opportunity, perhaps. But then I realized that the feeling itself was the same thing that I felt even back when I was younger. It hadn't changed, it had merely attached itself to this issue of aging. The feeling was part of my particular brand of suffering, I just hadn't realized it.

The solution, of course, is to lead a life where we are more fearless, more willing to experience pain rather than retreating into "comfort" and it's consequent suffering. I like that idea.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

25 things...

One of my oldest friends, Jonathan, has tagged me for this task on Facebook. Here are the rules:

Rules: Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you.

So here are my 25 things:

1. I am a middle child, and it's frustrating to realize how much this says about me. Like the years I felt jealous and insecure for not being able to stand out in some way relative to my siblings. I am likely not the smartest child of our family (an honor I would probably give to my older brother John, though I would never publicly acknowledge that fact), certainly not the most artistic (my sister Theresa gets that one), nor the most athletic (which would easily go to my sister, Ann).

2. I tend to feel "just OK" at things. I'm OK as a writer. OK as a blogger. OK as a psychologist.

3. I'm aware that this feeling of being "just OK" is perhaps often more of an emotional echo of how I felt growing up (see #1, above) than a true assessment of my skills or abilities.

4. There's a strange kind of perfectionism that comes out of a need to be more than "just OK" at things. I have that, though you couldn't tell from the level of messiness in my car.

5. I think I have some level of raw talent as a speaker. Which led me to early success speech contests where we had to answer some question based on an analysis of the news (known as "extemporaneous speaking" or "extemp" for short).

6. My lack of preparation led me to have increasingly less success at extemp as my high school career proceeded. I strangely still carry some sense of shame about that.

7. I co-wrote and submitted a script for the television show "Star Trek: Voyager." I really enjoyed that creative process. The script was denied without comment.

8. I really enjoy golfing and probably put too much energy into trying to figure out how to fix my swing flaws and get better at that game.

9. In a lot of ways, I think I kinda stumbled onto my current career. It wasn't so much a calling as a class I kinda liked in college, and so I took some more classes and ended up as a psychologist.

10. That having been said, I think I (rather luckily) stumbled on a job that suits my abilities and interests pretty well.

11. I've come to think that something called experiential avoidance (e.g., a desire to not feel anxiety or pain) is at the root of much of mental illness and general human suffering.

12. I think that the Buddhists have actually been light-years ahead of Western psychology in understanding and addressing this fact.

13. I look back on my years of undergraduate education at St. John's as having been some of the best years of my life, largely because of the friends I met during that time.

14. I was probably even more neurotic then than I am now.

15. In some ways, I think that suffering can be a gift -- in that we can develop an experiential awareness of how hard life can be, how hard it is to overcome difficult habits, etc. It can be the basis of compassion. I thank Pema Chodron for that insight.

16. For right now, I'm reading much less Western psychology and much more Buddhist literature (from Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh). Strangely enough, I just find it much more relevant and helpful to the work that I do.

17. Likely as a consequence of this, I sometimes have clients wonder if I am a Buddhist (or am somehow trying to convert them to Buddhism). I tell them that I'm not a Buddhist so far as the religious aspects of Buddhism are concerned, but that I am a "student of Buddhism."

18. I'm really enjoying watchind DVD's of the historical miniseries "John Adams." Very good stuff.

19. I'm also really enjoying the album "Flight of the Concords" by the group Flight of the Concords. They're just so talented and funny.

20. I'm trying to get back into a better exercise routine.

21. In my frustration at myself for not exercising more regularly, I've asked my sister Ann to help hold me accountable for reaching my exercise goals.

22. I have two autistic sons, and am aware of feelings of guilt over whether I'm doing enough to help them.

23. My wife is far better at staying organized and on-task than I am.

24. We just found elevated levels of radon in our home. I'm calling around to get estimates on getting the "mitigation" done to fix that problem.

25. I never previously knew that the procedure for reducing radon levels in one's home is known as "remediation."

Peace be to all of you.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I happened to read a news story this morning about the Catholic church. Apparently, they worry that the sacrament of confession is becoming underused, and in their concern about it's central role in the salvation of souls, they've decided that the only logical thing is to remove the shroud of secrecy around a secret papal tribunal.

Oh, how mindful I am of the temptation to make a snarky remark here. But for now, let me just comment that this move somehow fails to make me feel more like participating in the sacrament of confession.

It's not the utter lack of logic involved in the move (this is supposed to make me more interested in confession just how exactly?!). It's also the bizarre logic involved in the tribunal itself. Apparently, this tribunal is used only for really serious sins that can't be handled by priests or bishops.

Like what, you ask? Genocide, maybe? Or mass murder? Nope. The Vatican apparently feels that these relatively minor sins can easily be handled by priests or bishops.

So what kind of sin is so serious that it can only be handled by a special papal tribunal? Well, the list of sins here involves things such as the desecration of the blessed sacrament (including, and I'm not making this up, if you were to be offered the eucharist and inexplicably spit it back out!). Other situations involve the unhappy circumstance of seeking the priesthood (or of becoming a deacon) if you've ever paid money for an abortion in the past.

Sigh. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to defend the intentional desecration of religious objects. But this policy just seems idiotic. What they're essentially saying is that Hitler could have sought absolution from his sins by a parish priest (it's only genocide, after all), while some rebellious teenager with a bad case of indigestion during mass would need a special papal tribunal to have his soul reach heaven.

But in the end, this irritation I'm experiencing probably says at least as much about me as it does about the church's policy itself. I hope to have the time to sit with this irritation today, to see what it has to teach me.

Peace to you all.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


I met with a difficult person today. I think that probably most people would think of this person as difficult. They show that kind of chronic, cranky irritability and tendency to blame everyone but themselves that most people find...well, difficult.

But today I am mindful of how my mind reacts to this person. I want to label them as "difficult," I want them to just be quiet and go away. I presume things (not entirely without reason), such as that they might use their irritability to get their way with people.

But what I struggle to do is to sit with this person, to be present to them. It's disquieting and uncomfortable, and I'd prefer to avoid that discomfort.

In some fundamental sense, really, the problem in this situation is not with this other person. It is my own desire to stay in an emotional place that I find comforting. It is in my reluctance to stay in a situation I find harsh, abrasive, uncomfortable.

So you see, in a way, this terribly difficult person is my teacher on this day. If I can do what I hope, if I can pull this off, I may have just been able to learn, to grow in love and understanding in ways that I had previously avoided.

God help me.