Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thanksgiving in the East ...

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life
is thank you, it will be enough.
Meister Eckhart

I'm off to Toronto in the early hours of Thursday morning to speak at the ATSS conference and then I will be driving down to Kingston to spend Thanksgiving with dear friends there.

I've been thinking about Thanksgiving and "gratitude" over the past week and was surprised to find an echo of my thoughts in an article in the Winter 2009 newsletter of the Callanish Society.

(Callanish is a wonderful nonprofit organization, worthy of your support, that provides retreats for people living with cancer and their families. A number of years ago my best friend, Linda Vick, attended one of their retreats before dying of lung cancer. It changed her life and touched many of us through her. I still have the journal she kept during her week's retreat - a treasured gift - and I read it from time to time when I need a reminder of what matters most in life.)

Janie Brown, Executive Director of Callinish, wrote these words in the Winter newsletter -

Many of us need to work at feeling grateful when life turns around on us.
A good friend of mine, Roger Hyodo, writes about thankfulness. He speaks about
two kinds of gratitude. The first is one that we cultivate based on our preferences,
beliefs, and values. We like something, we feel grateful. We don't like something,
we feel ungrateful. Our state of internal thankfulness is dependent on the ups and
downs of our lives. There are some people who tell us that we should see
everything as a gift, and that every experience that arrives is meant to be.
This is all very well, but what we cannot do is will ourselves to be grateful. It doesn't
work. All we do then is bypass our sadness, anger and regret, and send those feelings underground. At Callanish we offer a space for people with cancer to have their feelings, to honour the dark emotions by giving voice to them. In time, and it takes time,
I hear people speak not of cancer as a gift, but of life as a precious commodity.
Even in the midst of fiercely rejecting cancer, people can become clear that
there are things worthy of thanks.

The second form of gratitude Rodger speaks of is one that we may sense as a
"field" of thankfulness. I have experienced this many times in our circles at Callanish,
as well as in many other moments of my life. When we deliberately create certain conditions in our living, we become aware of this underling ever-present
quality of thankfulness.
Some of the conditions at Callanish are beauty, silence, real conversation, music,
art and spontaniety. We find ourselves risking expression to speak what is
true for us. In this kind of space, the heart seems to unabashedly open in response to
another's honesty, and we feel thankful. It feels like this thankfulness moves
effortlessly among us.

Perhaps, then, in these times of great uncertainty in our lives, it is up to all of us
to create these conditions for ourselves and each other ... whereby we can touch into
a genuine feeling of gratitude for the lives we are living.
When I hear someone express thanks amidst a life of great struggle, it humbles me to
look at my own life through a different lens. With that view, how could I not say,
"Thank you".

So, for Linda and Derrick and Barry and Mom and Dad and Christopher who, through times of great struggle, taught me about thankfulness, beauty, silence, real conversation, music, art, spontaneity, and mostly, love - I, too, say, "Thank you".

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: After the Tears ...

Earlier this month, Health Communications published a revised and expanded edition of Jane Middelton-Moz and Lorie Dwinell's 1986 popular classic, After the Tears: Helping Adult Children of Alcoholics Heal Their Childhood Trauma.

This new edition has been almost entirely rewritten to reflect new information regarding trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), delayed grief and newly-discovered brain physiology. Entirely new chapters include those on resilience in children of alcoholics, ACoA's as parents, ACoA's in the workplace, acceptance and forgiveness, and spirituality for ACoA's.

Not surprisingly, the first of the new chapters to catch my eye was one entitled, A Pain Too Deep: ACoA's Taking Care of Elderly Parents. Here, Jane Middelton-Moz describes an issue common to many adult children of trauma - that of caring for elderly parents who have not cared well for you. While for some, therapy and personal growth in the intervening years have meant that parental caregiving is an opportunity to give back, lovingly, to parents who did the best they could, for many, "... the task can be especially daunting ... (when) navigating a minefield of emotional hurts and abuse from the past". Jane goes on to say that -

Adult children frequently end up caring for elderly parents who were not there for them in their growing up years, and who were sometimes physically and/or sexually abusive to them as well. Many alcoholic or codependent parents had lives that resulted in chronic PTSD, and they often were not appropriately cared for themselves as children. As a result, many were suffering from their own developmental losses while raising their children. They may have been neglectful, clinging, dependent, abusive, controlling, ill-tempered, or demanding parents who not only were ineffective as parents but demanded to be parented as well. As a result, many Adult Children also suffered from PTSD most of their lives. Within this framework, these Adult Children are then commandeered one more time to take over the care of their parents physically and emotionally, and for some, to rescue them financially as well; all of this while being their parent's primary caregiver.
Many of the Adult Children who are responsible for elderly parents are themselves in their sixties or seventies and are taking care of parents in their eighties and nineties. For many, this is the time they believed they would finally be able to relax. They have achieved some level of financial security and career satisfaction and often have new and improved relationships with siblings and parents. This tests their limits and can cause some ACoA's to revert to earlier roles and painful interactions with both siblings and parents. While some elderly parents who need care may have gone through recovery, others may be as emotionally difficult as they ever were - or may even be worse. (p 218-219)

Why does all this matter? Because in many jurisdictions, including British Columbia, a Guardianship Act or similar legislation legally binds adult children to the care of their dependent parents. Understandably, when unresolved trauma is in the mix, such situations can hold the potential for elder neglect or abuse and they call for case-by-case assessment and adequate support from knowledgable case managers before a parent is placed in the care of an "unrecovered" adult child.

Another seldom-acknowledged observation made in this chapter is that adult children of alcoholics can find themselves caring, not only for their own children and for their parents, but for adult siblings who have "fallen by the wayside" as the result of their own childhood wounds. When this situation is combined with a lack of psychological separation from family members and an enhanced empathy for others' suffering, (both products of traumatic families), it can lead to a caregiver burden that is on a fast track to burnout and compassion fatigue.

Jane and Lorie offer a number of self-care recommendations for ACoA caregivers including:

  • 1. Developing the ability to define yourself and to set caregiving limits. (This is often best done with the support of a therapist who has expertise in treating both caregiving and childhood trauma issues.
  • 2. Not expecting siblings to behave differently from their usual roles and patterns under the stress of a parent's illness or infirmity. (Families almost always revert to their original patterns in the face of serious stress.)
  • 3. Remembering that you do have a choice regarding how much caregiving you are willing to undertake. (You may not be able to change your family's response, but you can change your own behaviour.)
  • 4. Planning ahead and formally scheduling self care time. Making it a priority.
  • 5. Giving yourself the gift of support. (Many adult children develop a protective counter-dependence that can cause them to feel shame regarding their natural need for support.) Consider seeking a good therapist or 12 Step support group. If you can't leave home, join an on-line support group run by a reputable organization.

This practical and readable volume has been a gift to ACoA's for almost 25 years and the new, expanded version will enlighten and promote the healing of a whole new generation of adult children.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The "Dr Peter" Tapes ...

About 20 years ago, I went to church in Burnaby BC one Sunday morning to find that the homily was to be given by a young man named Peter Jepson-Young. My minister had heard the first of the "Dr Peter" tapes on CBC Radio and had immediately called to ask him if he would consider coming to talk to the congregation. That Dr Peter answered, "Yes", was a testament to his grace and courage because the Christian church at that time was frequently less than kind and inclusive in its response to people with HIV/AIDS.

I remember a nervous but thoughtful, articulate, deeply honest and very funny man who, despite failed eyesight, stood alone on the chancel steps to give us a real picture of life with HIV/AIDS. He taught and reassured and made human the face of a little known or understood disease. We laughed and cried as he spoke and many people stayed a long time after the service to speak with him and his family.

That one 20-minute talk changed the hearts and minds and attitudes of people who had previously been frightened to even hug a person who was HIV positive. In the years to come, the minister became a chaplain to our church's support organization for gay, lesbian and transgendered people and the congregation continued to support the Dr Peter Foundation and the Dr Peter Center. We all grieved on the day of Peter's death in 1992.

This September, Vancouver has declared a Dr Peter Week in appreciation of Dr Peter Jepson-Young's contribution to the quality of life of those affected by HIV/AIDS. CBC Radio is marking the 20 year anniversary of the tapes by featuring them on their broadcast and website and there will be fundraising events for the Foundation all around Vancouver. Please take a moment to visit the CBC site and take in the details.

During one of his most poignant broadcasts, Peter shared his Affirmation with his viewers. Let me share it with you today:

I accept and absorb all the strength of the earth
to keep my body hard and strong;

I accept and absorb all the energy of the sun
to keep my mind sharp and bright;

I accept and absorb all the life force of the ocean
to cleanse my body and bring me life;

I accept and absorb all the power of the wind
to cleanse my spirit and bring me life;

I accept and absorb all the mystery of the heavens,
for I am a part of the vast unknown.

I believe God to be all these elements,
and the force that unites them;

And from these elements I have come
and to these elements I shall return;

But the energy that is me will not be lost.

Dr Peter Jepson-Young, MD
Dr Peter AIDS Foundation

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Safety in Our Hands: Helping Our Helpers Stay Healthy ...

Of great interest to anyone in the trauma field this Fall will be the 2010 Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists Conference to be held in Toronto, Sept 30 - Oct 2.

With the theme and focus of keeping helpers well, the conference offers a wide selection of more than 30 workshops including:

Keynotes -

1. Dr Angie Panos - Safety in Our Hands: Helping Our Helpers Stay Healthy

2. Lt Col Stephane Grenier - ( Canadian Operational Stress Injury Special Advisor) - Peer Based Mental Health Services

Workshops -

1. Question & Answer Session: Preventing & Healing Compassion Fatigue
Dr Angie Panos

2. Creative Tools for Transforming Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma
Francoise Mathieu

3. Caring on Two Fronts: When Helping Professionals Become Family Caregivers
(Chronic Sorrow in the Context of Compassion Fatigue)
Jan Spilman

4. Meditation, Mindfulness, and Right-Brain Healing
Dawn Bret

5. HUGS: Helping Children Understand Grief & Trauma in Six Week Sessions
Christina Derneder Landen

6. CISM in the Correctional Service of Canada
Pamela Scott & Dorothy Reid

7. Voices of Experience
Pricilla de Villiers, Kent Laidlaw, and Edward Leonard

8. PTSD & Addiction Treatment for Occupational Hazard: Strategies for Symptom Reduction
Anne Pepper

... and much more.

I'm particularly pleased to have been chosen to speak at this conference because, for the first time, I will be combining material from the Compassion Fatigue and Chronic Sorrow fields as a means of expanding our understanding of the stress of "caring on two fronts".

Please join us! To register, click here.

Photo by Bigstock Photos