Note To My Ex: What To Do With All That Stuff

Bitter Twitter: On August 22, the highest trending tweet was #NoteToMyEx. Thousands of tweets spewed across the Twitterverse with such as:

I can be happy without you and I’m doing so much better then when I was with you.

let’s clarify: you were LUCKY to have me. I was the one settling. So shut up.

when you see me I want you to recognize what you had, regret what you’ve lost, and realize what you’re NEVER getting back !

You always told me I deserved better, so I finally took your word for it :))

I never get jealous when I see you with someone else, cuz my parents always taught me to give my used toys to the less fortunate.

The flavor of the tweets was decidedly bitter. A major venting moment for many. Why? My observation over the years is that relationship endings, divorces particularly, leave a trail of ooze – much like a snail does as it moves from one moist green leaf to chew at another – that is hard to remove. And my impression is that the oozing isn’t only from those who were left, but also from those who did the leaving. In other words, relationships may end, but if they were powerful the remnants often remain twirling around in the brain for years to come and may provide fruitless hours of rumination and self-justification that lead nowhere, just recycling old refrains.

A Purification Process: There needs to be a process that purifies the heart’s brain or the brain’s heart, when a meaningful Coupledom comes to a halt. Like a fast car or a speeding bike, you need to slow down first, then stop. Otherwise it is quite jolting to the system when you end the ride. Yet it is the rare Coupledom that finds the mutuality or the means for a gradual slowdown. So you are left to decompress either with friends, therapists or hosting numerous interior dialogues with the absent partner in the mind’s theater, attempting to set the record straight, redeem your dignity, readjust the ego, or examine the self: “Am I really that bad or was it they who screwed up the whole thing?”

A Ritual of Goodbye: In a previous post entitled A Divorcing Option: A Gracious Ending I referenced an article by Abby Ellin in the New York Times Untying the Knots, and Bonds, Of Marriage in which the author describes rituals of goodbye designed for the terminated relationship, ceremonies that mark the finality of a marriage or a relationship with grace. Does it do the work of an exorcism that many seem to long for, a ritual designed to drive the evil spirits out of the individual, which in this case are the poisonous and bilious leftovers of a failed Coupledom? Does a ceremonial goodbye put a halt to flashbacks, regrets or hurts that smear a formerly cherished bond with the mucky stuff that clings and stains…the stuff that got spilled onto Twitter? A format such as Twitter invites you to write a “Note to My Ex,” and wow, an explosive venting in an abbreviated format ensues, inspiring a vision of a mob event at Grand Central Station, its vast floor space and domed ceiling filling up with venting hordes screaming out “note to my ex” all with the accompanying syncopation of a live band. According to Ms. Ellin’s article, a shared ritual of untying is a means to find closure by dignifying what you once had and together releasing its hold. Can a tweet do that too?

What Do These Tweets Reveal? The question someone raised with me is this: were the tweets a venting of never spoken words or were they spoken words that were never heard? Or both. Tweets are clearly not conversations yet they may speak volumes. What would those tweets have looked like as a conversation between partners before the relationship dissolved, a tweet cleaned up a bit and earnestly delivered as a “Let’s talk”? My hunch is that many tried to talk but weren’t heard. That others kept their feelings close to the chest, did not have the tools to convert emotion into communication, or didn’t even know what they were feeling and instead turned to “acting out” subconscious feelings into behaviors such as affairs and addictions that seemed to say it all and take it all away.

Venting Is Fun: It is great to vent. Venting is necessary, and Twitter is probably a venting free-for-all that doesn’t cost much, materially or emotionally. But unless you learn something new, something that shifts you out of stuck and into free, you will just have to vent again, and again, and again. Sometimes a new love that really takes and settles in for several years can actually ease the venting need. Happiness is a great antidote to unhappiness. Everyone hopes for that solution to the dilemma of what to do with the bitter leftovers of a failed love. But that takes time, too, and has some risks: the potential new love may not want to hear the vent. Or the new lovers may initially bond over their mutual venting about ex-spouses, but beware the bonding of perceived victimization. It sours like old milk.

A Proposal: I would bet that a significant number of women hunched over their iced teas or Pym’s Cups, lattes or beers at any number of coffee shops, bars or bistros around the country are talking about their exes. And a somewhat smaller number of guys are alluding to the trials, tribulations and financial losses from their previous wedlock too. A good number are venting and blaming; an equal number are probably grieving and being comforted. But none are really getting anywhere soon. My proposal, which I have offered to divorcing couples in my office, is that at any moment, now, later, next week or next year, they, the separating or divorcing team, can talk, listen and grieve together about what was once their family, their puppy, their apartment, their friends, their life that they have made together and now have to mourn and say goodbye to. Some have agreed to do this work with me. Most say, “No, if he’s done, I’m done.” Or, “No, I can’t be in the room with that person again.” Except when they have to appear in court. Or, “It is too much money for something that has too little value to me now.”

Someday they may change their minds. And my office doors are always open. Or they may wish to do what Abby Ellin’s article suggests, design a ceremonial goodbye, maybe along the Great Wall of China, or on the banks of a river, where words can finally be spoken, and threads of a former life thrown into the current, to pass alongside rocks and rapids that replicate the not-so-smooth journey of that shared life. Tweeting and venting are fun. But saying goodbye to the good, the bad and the ugly takes more than that. It takes some mutual cleansing too.

Just a proposal.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

Sexual Pain Or Impaired Performance: No Shame, No Blame

What Is Not Spoken: As a couples’ therapist I am accustomed to learning from my patients that they have not experienced sexual intimacy for months or years leading up to their visits with me. Numbers of years. What is equally significant is the common admission that paralleling the absence of physical contact has been the absence of conversation or problem solving efforts along the same timeline. Attempts to discuss sexual matters often are derailed because “there was never a good time” or blaming battles ensued before a true exchange could occur, or “I didn’t want her/him to feel bad.”

The Nemesis of Good Coupling, Avoidance: The nemesis of good coupling, avoidance, tends to be the preferred defense in dealing with sexual intimacy issues, either by one or both parties in The Coupledom. It is hard to have a conversation of any kind if only one person is talking. Yet the problems of sexual intimacy, though sometimes complex, can also be very simple, treatable, and eliminated by conversation and education. What tends to be complicated is the sorting through and overcoming of the emotional byproduct of years of distancing and avoidant behaviors, years without the intimacy of honest communication, perhaps most damaging of all.

Solutions, Not Shame or Blame: Jane Brody, The Personal Health Columnist for the New York Times, published an informative article entitled Persistence is Key To Treating Vaginal Pain. Ms. Brody offers her readers a pragmatic and concise guide to an important element in sexual compatibility for couples that often is unspoken, vaginal pain. Avoiding conversations about this difficulty surely leads to a pile up of misunderstandings over the years. Not only menopausal women but women of all ages can experience vaginal pain and discomfort from intercourse, the causes of which are succinctly outlined by Ms. Brody. Unfortunately many of these women, young, middle-aged or older, may fear that their pain or discomfort represents a sexual defect, when actually there is always a reason for pain – and accompanying solutions to “fix it.” Their partners, hurt by the apparent lack of pleasurable response in their wives or lovers, may have tried to counteract a feeling of inadequacy in themselves, and hurt from perceived rejection, by placing blame on their lovers, suggesting that they are “cold, uptight, frigid or sexless.” Ouch!

The Male Energizer Bunny: Similarly men, who are expected to be the Energizer Bunny of sexual batteries, always ready, never sated, can experience sexual difficulties at any age, also stemming from varied causes. Sometimes their line of defense against embarrassment and shame can be a preemptive strike, that is, rejecting their partners for not being sexy enough to arouse desire. Some may pressure their wives or lovers to wear “hot” lingerie or get breast enhancement surgery, when the true cause of the unsatisfying sexual intimacy might rest with their own performance anxiety due to a physical and treatable condition. Whether it is premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction, lessened libido, lowered testosterone or masturbation dependent orgasm, the penis is just not up to the culturally expected conventional standards of always on and ever powerful. Ouch again.

Never Defective, Just Human: But this is never about “defectiveness.” This is about discussing a problem and finding a solution. There are useful articles such as WebMD’s Men’s Health on the Internet that are designed to inform, not scare or insult. And while the man is preoccupied by the worry that he is sub par, the woman is convinced that she is no longer desirable to him. To reduce her vulnerability to this perceived rejection and humiliation, she may shut off her desire for him so that both parties wind up lying side by side in bed each night, frozen by fear, iced over by shame. “He doesn’t want me. Well I don’t need him either.” Either partner may eventually fall prey to the come hither of someone outside The Coupledom who “does desire me.” Oops and Ouch! Now we have a far more challenging problem to solve than sexually imperfect performances.

Same-Sex Coupledoms: There is nothing uniquely heterosexual about sexual intimacy challenges. Whether you are engaging in same-sex relationships or heterosexual relationships, the rules are the same: open acknowledgement between the partners that something just doesn’t seem right and a search for information and solutions.

Shame Stalls Solutions and Avoidance Creates Alienation: It is just that simple. Courage, at the heart of real intimacy, requires that we tell ourselves the truth and then share that truth with our partners. And if your fear is that your partner will use that acknowledgement to “blame or shame” you, then this is another challenge to face straight on. “Why are you blaming me or shaming me for something that I cannot as yet control and am willing to work on fixing? It took enough courage to own this problem. Don’t shame me for it. Help me with it. It is for both of us, after all.”

Sexual Knowledge Is Surely Sexual Power: Keeping sexual matters closeted empowers shame and weakens the core of the self by feeding it negative falsehoods. Once the door is opened and the “secret” shared, then your partner has a chance to show that they can be caring and perhaps even part of the solution. Seek out an expert to guide both of you toward that solution. This is the twenty-first century, and though we may pride ourselves as a culture on our sexual openness, a good part of that so-called openness is a glamorized version of intimacy. Real intimacy is founded on a shared honesty, not the individual perfection of a performance. Leave that requirement to the Olympics.

For more on this subject, please also read my post, Sex In The Coupledom: A Powerful Absence.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2012

The Red Couch Is A Year Old: 8-9-12

The Red Couch Is A Year Old: The Ability Beyond Disability services manager, mover and shaker of our daughter’s residential component, invited the two moms and the residential staff to lunch to mark a year since the ladies moved into their cozy duplex/CRS (Continuous Residential Support) on August 1 in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The atmosphere and conversation were strikingly different from group exchanges twelve months prior. The three staff and two moms had literally weathered two big power outages, “dramas in the duplex”, a couple of staffing changes and DDS (Department of Developmental Services) challenges to get to the calm and conviviality of the grilled salmon over lettuce luncheon upon which most of us dined. In fact, we were more than halfway through our time together before we actually focused on the two young ladies whose special needs adulthood brought us all together.

Slimming Down and Growing Up: A year ago both moms were in the infancy of building trust in this ABD team that is the vital force and anchor of our girls’ adult lives today. We spoke of that process of trust building at the luncheon. Though the staff are sensitive to the journey, only the other mother and I know how far back trusting challenges date; from the “experts” who we were told to trust, but actually disappointed and hurt us; to the bruises from encounters with school systems and the occasional personal friend whose attitude reflected ignorance or indifference; to the well-meaning souls who just didn’t have sufficient knowledge or expertise. Trust is earned in all relationships, no matter the reputation of the physician, the teacher or the potential spouse. Though our family’s experience was far more abundant in trustworthy souls, still the gift of trust is handed out very carefully and selectively as it should be. Only with time and observation of the passionate dedication to our daughter’s welfare and happiness and by witnessing the expertise and skill of the ABD team was I able to suspend my vigilance and lessen my grip. And what do I see now, looking at my daughter twelve months into this new life under their care? I see a powerful petite (and slimmer) package of self-confidence, greater focus and accomplishment, pride and self-respect, with more self-control over emotions and empathy towards others. Her apartment-mate, too, matches her in all these growth and slimming down areas.

And the red couch? How has it fared? Well it has taken a teeny bit of a beating but with our goof proof plan guarantee, one day the staff will pull out the contract from Bob’s Discount Furniture Stores, read the small print and put the call in to report on the chaffed edges of the red leather blend cushions that our daughter has scuffed while happily watching TV in the cozy living room and make arrangements for a replacement. Scuffed edges are a small price to pay for days of cozy comfort, and as the only casualty of the twelve-month cohabitation, that is pretty darn good.

How Long Does Bliss Last? We are all at the mercy of events, not just special needs adults. No life is static no matter what level of “bliss” it may have attained. Fate, family, funding, illness, weather, politics domestic and global, planetary alignments, all can bounce and trounce our daily lives in a nano second. Yes, I know that. But there is something quite specific about a life funded by the government that is (understandably so) constantly being reviewed to assess “need” with the intent to reduce funding aspects of that life whenever possible. And so DDS is in the process of reviewing the ladies’ life together with an eye to proving less need. ABD is our ally in this challenge. What is so interesting/ironic is that “doing well” – as in thriving in their new lives – signals not its true meaning, that their new life is working well. No it translates into something far less intuitive – that the ladies don’t need that life anymore. How long will bliss last? I am prepared at all times to scrutinize signs of future trends to locate the optimal existence for our special needs adult daughter who is so worthy, and gives back to society in so many ways. And as she improves her vocational skills and acquires new agility with the outside world, who knows what might be possible. But for now, the changes that would signal a profound shift in need, are nowhere in sight. Will DDS see the obvious too? I think so.

My Book: On another note, my book on Parenting Adult Special Needs: How Did We Get Here? One Day At A Time (tentative title) will be out early this fall available both as an e-book and in print. The book, which comprises the collected posts that covered the period prior to our daughter’s aging out through several months into her new life, is illustrated with our daughter’s collages and will have a list of resources. The book also weaves in the twenty-one years of preparation leading to the successful launch of our daughter’s adult special needs life to provide a glimpse into the process for other families who are on this journey. Stay tuned for more information as we draw closer to publication.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

No, You Are The Problem: Finger Pointing in The Coupledom

Easy Enough: Is there anything easier, almost at any age, than pointing your finger at someone? Towards the end of the first year of life, most babies are pointing at something. And in our final days, feeble though we may be, we still have point-ability. No wonder we stay attached to this skill: it is reliable, easily accessed and can be so satisfying. The twelve-month-old points to kitty and mom scoops up kitty and brings it closer to the high chair for baby to see. The aged crone in the nursing home bed points to the water glass, and the aid pops up and brings the glass to her patient’s lips. A pointed finger sends out a command or acts as emphasis for the words that follow along with its movement. In the Coupledom the phrase often uttered after the finger pointing is, “You are the problem! Not me. It’s you!” – words that keep the beat with that majestic and powerful finger.

Creative Disclaimer: At what age do we develop the skill to blame? Young. “He pushed me first.” Or, “She made me steal the cookie.” We just don’t like to be responsible for something that we fear or project that another may view as bad. A man I know, when he was four and half years of age, began to tell his parents of a bad boy in his class who got into trouble with the teacher. For a year and a half, this young fellow’s parents believed that this bad boy was real until they and the teachers met and connected the dots. There was no “other” bad boy. This man/boy was the mischief-maker, yet he had managed to convince his parents for quite a stretch that this other fellow existed, a creative way to “confess” but not confess to a crime. What was at work here?

One might surmise that the boy knew on a subconscious level that he was being “bad.” He had that awareness but he wasn’t ready to own or take responsibility for his mischief. That was too difficult to reconcile with the good boy he wanted his parents to think he was at all times. So he finger pointed at a figment of his own imagination, someone who didn’t even exist. Because he was young, clever and obviously deeply uncomfortable with his behavior, he made up a person, another little boy, the “not me” entity that Harry Sullivan refers to in his theory of personality development, to take the rap. The adult version of that same disclaimer might be: “It isn’t me that is making our lives miserable. It is you.”

The Coupledom World Minus The Adult Toolkit: The developmental immaturity that was the underpinning of a four-year-old’s behavior still operates within many of us at times when under great stress: “If I am not all good, then I am all bad and no one will love me.” A four-year-old’s brain has not developed the cognitive ability to think in shades of good, not so good, not perfect all the time. The kid at four didn’t have the tools that adults supposedly do: the tools to see our behavior and that of others within a spectrum that isn’t made up only of absolutes. Yet in The Coupledom world, that richer and more complex perspective isn’t always driving the bus.

“Their Vanity Is Stronger than Their Misery”: This a quote from The Leopard, a novel published posthumously in 1958 by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, which depicted the end of the aristocracy in late 19th century Italy. The author was referring to the Sicilians of that time, who, in the view of his protagonist, were prone to making destructive choices out of vanity, saving face, and needing to feel superior, in spite of the resultant suffering brought on by these choices. This quote struck me as profoundly fitting for many couples that I have met personally or professionally whose choices seem to me to strike a similar chord. The primary loyalty for many of these folks is to their vanity, that precious image of self more dear to them than their own chance at happiness or familial health. To reflect truly upon or question what might be their significant contribution to the imperfections of the relationship, and to be open to accepting relevant responsibility for the problems in the relationship, is on a subconscious level, terrifying. These “adults” sadly are operating under the strains of a worsening relationship, with the limited cognitive toolbox of early childhood, that “all good, all bad” kit that doesn’t offer any other options. Scary.

What Is The Worst Thing I Can Learn About Myself? Several years ago a woman called, seemingly to set up a therapy appointment for herself and her husband. They were having terrible problems. He blamed her for his bad relationship with their daughter. She blamed him for his behavior towards their daughter. She sought individual therapy. Nothing changed – they were playing the hot potato of blame game. She asked him to consider family or couples therapy. At first he said, “No, you are the problem.” Then he said yes and was referred to me. Then he said no again. She wanted to see me anyway to discuss this stalemate. We set up the appointment. Twenty minutes into the allotted therapy hour, the woman still hadn’t appeared. I called her. Oh, she cried, she couldn’t make it because he, they… and then I knew. Everyone else is to blame. Everyone sees themselves as the victim of the other. Triangulation was rampant and a family was moving toward collapse. Happens all the time. She quoted her husband as saying “I am not the problem. You are the problem.” Those are the words of an impending divorce, one year, two years, six years, no matter. The kiss of death as they say. And a product of a primitive belief system that thinks only in absolutes, black or white. What is the worst thing that can happen in owning that you may be contributing to relationship difficulties? Well if I am not all good, all right, then I must be just awful, defective, a failure, the bad kid, like my father, my mother. That’s the worse thing. And no one will ever love me.

How To Measure Potential: Here is how a psychotherapist can assess whether a couple has the potential to benefit from therapy: take a measure of the ability of each member to reflect upon their own behavior, beliefs, history and choices. Not necessarily in the first few visits, a time when each one is in a heightened state of anxiety, the flight/fight mode. Not then. But over time, if the finger pointing begins to subside and the individuals can stop their explanations and accusations to wonder with the therapist about their choices, then we have a pathway filled with potential to reach a gratifying Coupledom future. But put that finger away. Or redirect it at yourself: “I can take responsibility for the following. I am neither all right nor all wrong. I am real and though imperfect, I am also worthy and so are you.” That’s a point worthy of making.

Don’t be scared of couples therapy. Don’t be scared of being in the wrong at times. Be scared of the finger pointing, the road to nowhere.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

What Can We Learn From Katie Holmes? Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Katie Holmes: What can we learn from Katie? She is clearly a girl who never stopped thinking about tomorrow. She married a big star, apparently with an ironclad prenup that didn’t rust, and she never gave up her day job. Though some might question the Katie Holmes reference, I am using her to make a point. According to all sorts of tabloids, amongst them People Magazine and The Huffington Post, Katie is walking out of her marriage not just wealthy but prepared to live well with whatever career points she accrued during her short five-year marriage and not much bloodletting on the way out. Katie never stopped thinking about “her tomorrow” and I find that unusual amongst a certain population of women. True Katie was and is a celebrity before, during and likely after Mr. Cruise, so she has a leg up on your average American female. But I think Katie has something else: Vision and Imagination. Katie clearly had the vision to imagine her life, both pre-Tom and post-Tom, as a life in which she could depend upon herself, always. And that is something I have found missing in some of the women I have encountered as a psychotherapist, that ability to both imagine and envision a life on your own, something I consider essential for all women.

Dependent on The Ex: For many years I have observed a recurrent theme amongst my female patients that never seems to fade, no matter the decade, or the current fashionable ethos: the theme of female financial dependence on men. This is particularly striking to me as my professional training dates back to the early 70’s, a time when women around the country were recognizing the dangers of that financial dependency, and were taking up the battle for equal opportunity and equal pay with men which continues to this day. Yet, almost forty years later, I meet with women who willingly gave up their working lives once married and with children only later to find themselves financially dependent, professionally “out of date” and beholden to the kindness of a “stranger” who, once their intimate, is now their “ex.”

Crystal Clear: I must acknowledge that I am working within a limited socioeconomic sample of mostly middle and upper middle class, primarily Caucasian women, usually college educated, which is why, in some ways, this dependency trap is particularly striking to me. One might assume that these ladies would know better. But they don’t. What were the messages that floated out of the college dorms of the 80’s and 90’s? In the late 60’s and 70’s some of us knew that 1.5 children was tops for saving the planet, birth control was our job, and that it would be dangerous to be totally dependent on a man for anything, especially money. Was it the increasing affluence available to families in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twenty-first century that clouded female thinking, or the shift to a more child-centered mindset with the ever-increasing reports on how to raise happier and more successful children, that obscured what earlier seemed so crystal clear: that no matter what, women needed to be able to take care of themselves?

No Choice: Two-family incomes have increased over the decades, so many women have gotten the message that being a wage earner is important, perhaps because they have no choice. Their lifestyle and its day-to-day financial pressures requires two incomes. But many of the women with whom I have worked over the years were living in single income households, with the male as the sole breadwinner. They recount to me how, together with their spouse, they decided to stay home to raise their children, forsaking a full-time job without replacing it with a part-time substitute, and often abandoning cherished career goals and accomplishments. When their marriages failed, these women had not earned even a modified income for often as much as two decades. Despite holding responsible volunteer positions in their communities, which required great skill and competence, they had nothing to show to the job world that would be viewed as employable material or job worthy. And more alarming, they often let professional certifications expire, forsook completing graduate degrees, let lapse professional licenses or eschewed continuing training in their fields, a form of self-inflicted obsolescence.

Identity Lost and With It Much Else: No matter how mutual the couple’s original decision to go down the one-income path with the stay-at-home mom, no matter how “mutual” the money earned may seem, ultimately everyone knows who earns it. And a side bar to this theme of female financial dependency is often the loss of identity that many of these women feel, the loss of the image of that working self, and with it, self-respect and self-esteem. Coupled with that is the child/parent imprimatur that can accompany the process of the male wage earner as if “doling” out his earnings to the financially dependent aka “needy” wife/child, joint bank account not withstanding. And if the marriage starts to implode, and often the very roles that each member finds themselves in with this scenario play a significant role in the marriage’s deterioration, then the woman really feels like a fool! “I let this happen and now what am I going to do? How can I take care of myself, have a decent quality of life, when I have spent all these years outside of the work force?” This harsh wakeup call is devastating for these women. On top of feeling that they have “failed” at marriage, they also feel stupid, frightened, unprepared and humiliated for not protecting themselves better.

Even Rich Working Men Can Begin To Resent The Stay-At Home Spouse: There is an additional potential outcome of this female financial dependency: the husband’s perspective. Ironically many of these husbands who may have supported the “stay at home” wife solution “in the best interests of the child” gradually begin to harbor some resentment for what they perceive as their spouse’s life of ease or just an easier life, compared to the demands of their work hours, mortgage responsibilities and rush hour commute. Even the fabulously wealthy male who has no need of an additional income earner in the family “to take some of the pressure off,” may start to denigrate his wife’s lifestyle choices, judging her activities as trivial, self-indulgent or unstimulating. If he is returning from Shanghai, and she is returning from a round of a doubles set on the tennis court, there can be a serious disconnect indeed.

Suggestion Box: Well, I do have some. First never stop thinking about tomorrow in personal/individual terms. The shared life – the “we” – is wonderful but it should never subsume the me/I under it. Every woman has to have vision and imagination to prepare and protect and be all she can be. No man, any man, or child, justifies abrogating the need for developing and sustaining the ability to care for oneself in adulthood. Men know that as boys and never seem to forget it. What happens to some girls? Did they forget that essential learning point or were they never taught it? And female self-responsibility relates to other areas as well, birth control, career choices, balancing parental responsibility and devotion with the need for self-respect, and creating for oneself both stimulation and self-sufficiency independently as well as in connection with others.

Katie Holmes is in some ways a very cool lady. She slipped out of the clutches of what appeared to be a life bordering on institutional control, and out of the hands of a man with great financial power and fame, while still remaining emotionally and financially intact and apparently with primary custody for her child, all in the span of a few weeks. Obviously a great deal of preparation and forethought went into this rather smooth dissolution of a marriage. But what I am recommending has a different slant: put preparation and forethought into planning for your adult female life, and continue that thinking when married and in fact, throughout your lifetime (including the possibility of a prenuptial agreement, even if you are not about to marry a wealthy man) and never stop thinking about tomorrow, your tomorrow. No one else can do that for you.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

Personalize This! The Coupledom’s Achilles Heel

The Common Malady: In human interaction, and this may be a character trait unique to our species, there is a tendency to perceive the behaviors and verbalization of others in personal terms, understood as reflecting an attitude, belief or feeling that is about “me”, because of me, or in relationship to me. This tendency of the mind to impose personal meaning to another’s behavior is called personalization or personalizing, a method of understanding another through a one-sided view finder: much of what you say or do with me, near me, or to me, is reflective of what you think of me, what I mean to you or what I believe to be your true motivation regarding me. The individual is convinced that they know the “intent” of someone’s behavior. Another term for this type of cognitive process is attribution, also known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. Both personalization, attribution and a whole host of other cognitive distortions in our daily thinking are the Achilles Heel of many a Coupledom’s relationship.

The Soap-Soaked Sponge, The Toilet Seat Up, How Fast You Walk, How Slow You Talk, Your Brow Frown, Your Lateness, Your Sadness, Your Everything All Has To Do With Me: The mind can play a lot of tricks in the service of our self-esteem, our cultural biases, and our interpersonal and familial histories. In other words, the mind can act as a rubber stamp in our efforts to interpret the outside world. “You are right,” says the mind, “everyone who doesn’t think as you do about this is wrong.” You are right,” says the mind, “anyone who doesn’t like movies that you like is stupid.” “You are right,” says the mind, “there are good people and there are bad people. And we know how to judge that.” “You are right,” says the mind, “no one will ever love you, so don’t be a fool and think that they do.” “You are right,” says the mind, “you can read his or her mind, no matter what BS they tell you that contradicts your view. You know better.” Intimate relationships with shared living allow for an orgy of cognitively distorted interchanges, each partner relying on their interpretations of the behaviors, verbalization, facial and body language of the other partner. “I know why you left that sponge full of soap at the bottom of the shower. You don’t care about me. You don’t listen. You are a slob. I know why you never put the seat down, you are selfish and don’t give a damn about my bottom hitting the cold hard surface of the bowl in the middle of the night. I know why you forgot to call me, what that frown on your face is all about, and why you are late for dinner. I know and I don’t care what you say is the reason. This is all about me, your lack of respect for me, your disregard for me, your selfishness.”

Black, White and Oops, The Whole Rainbow: There are many mind games that we rely on to get through the day. Polarized thinking is a big one, thinking in black and white, a fallacious format that our psyche finds useful. After all, black and white to the exclusion of the rest of the rainbow keeps us from having to dabble in ambiguity, ambivalence or another of those more subtle forms of analytic thinking that might steer us away from a victim/victimizer mentality into responsibility, a tinge of guilt or some other order of complexity and imperfection that reframes a transaction.

Limit The Input: Unfortunately many a psyche is trained to limit input that might, oh dear, steer the party involved toward a feared conclusion, that in fact, I am the “ bad one.” This is primitive thinking, a relic from early childhood that hitches a ride onto our developing maturity without actually developing, sort of a vintage sidecar on an up-to-date automobile. The brain of a two-year old, a four-year old or six-year old is not yet equipped with the more sophisticated dashboard accessories that allow for abstract thinking: yellow, red or green buttons, shades and hues, preferences not absolutes. Why do we cling to these simplistic formats way beyond their developmental appropriateness? Or why do we resurrect them when we are in a Coupledom? Regression. What is it about the pull of dependency or interdependency that plunges us back to primitive thinking? Threat! Our psyche is threatened and so we regress.

Liars Everyone! Really? In my practice I see decent folk look into each other’s eyes and say, “You never said that.” “You did not do that.” “You’re making that up now to cover your tracks.” Absolute statements with broad strokes of generalization are thrown in to add punch and prevent a counter response, a clever tactic indeed. Never, Ever and Always, hallmarks of a cognitive distortion called “generalization” – where the individual on the assault loads the rifle with the paralyzing powder of absolutist phrasing – a mainstay of Coupledom battle strategies. So what does this mean? Are you saying that your partner lies? Not exactly. Then I don’t understand. Someone is hard of hearing? No. Someone wasn’t in the room? No.

Back To Regression: So what are these shenanigans all about? They are born out of a young mind’s subconscious and unconscious defensive system and serve to protect self-image, the child’s developing sense of self-worth, from feeling inferior, inadequate, imperfect, bad, an unlovable no-good kid. The youngster’s conceptual competence limits them to a concrete, simplistic understanding of the interpersonal world, though much more is absorbed than what is understood at the time. Consequently, the defenses employed match the cognitive abilities of the young mind, black and white thinking, magical thinking, an understanding of the world with the self at the center, a limited grasp of the emotional reality of others. Think of your children! This self as the exclusive station central for interpreting the world around us won’t work in adulthood. We need more reach and flexibility of mind.

The Onion: The intimacy and daily proximity of the shared life has the same peeling away of the skin effect as the onion you use for cooking. With each new layer of its skin peeled off, the powerful odor of onion and its correspondent sting is released and we all know what that leads to: exposure and tears, the naked truth. Ah now he/she might see through to what, subconsciously or unconsciously, I am afraid that I really am: not good enough, defective, dispensable. This is a threat to us or, in psychological terms, a narcissistic threat to our sense of self, a sense we try to keep within a certain range of acceptable. The emotional investment that is a natural outgrowth of love, attraction, lust and commitment raises the stakes on what a rejection could mean thereby putting pressure on the psyche. And the vicissitudes of a shared life tend to erode some of the pillars of the earlier reassurances that helped to form and maintain a healthy enough sense of self with the other, someone who has become very powerful because our psyche perceives them as holding our worth as human beings in the palm of their hands. Feeling dependent and even helpless (as children are and do) we regress to that primitive part of our brain which thinks in black and white, good and bad, personalizes, projects, attributes and basically devolves into a less rational and less emotionally sensible individual.

Becoming Experts on Us: To recognize those cognitive distortions in ourselves takes some work. Here are links to two articles that define and describe them with clarity and applicability to our Coupledoms:

15 Common Cognitive Distortions

Emotional Competency: Distortions

Share this with your spouse and use the information to question the commonly held notions that: “I believe I know everything about myself (maybe.) I believe I know much of what you are thinking or feeling (unlikely) and I believe that I have the inside track on everything about us (impossible).” Instead try: I don’t know what you are thinking or believing. Perhaps I should ask you and trust that you are the expert on you and will answer me. Am I the expert on you and me? Nope. Only together can we be the experts on us.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

The Busy Life Of A Special Needs Adult: 6-25-12

Swimmingly: In the last six weeks our daughter’s special needs adult life has been going along swimmingly, pun intended. She participated in Connecticut’s Special Olympics aquatic state finals, including spending two nights in a Southern Connecticut State University dormitory. She received a medal for her excellent riding (her “seat” as they call it) at the Pegasus Therapeutic Horse Show in May and attended a graduation party for a Riverview friend, which provided an opportunity to reunite with her Riverview chums. The setting was a lakeside cottage. She and her buddies leapt into the water, went for a boat ride, hugged each other, posed for photos, gossiped and joked — just like any group of former classmates reconnecting.

Parallel Parental Play: While our adult children schmoozed and swam, the parents, some strangers to each other, did what special needs parents do best: compared notes. Some of the parents whose children were still attending Riverview, not yet “aged-out” of their school districts, were in the throes of figuring out the next stage of life plans. Others whose children had graduated were describing current and future arrangements. The variety was noteworthy. The bulk of the families attending the party were from Massachusetts, which offers different options for housing than our state of Connecticut, something Massachusetts’ DDS calls “Specialized Housing.” One mother had just completed the requirements and received approval for just such housing for her daughter and four other female residents.  She had worked very hard for this and was excited to share the news.  Some of the classmates had remained on Cape Cod and were living and working with former staff from the school who had set up group homes in the larger Cape community.

There were a couple of families from Connecticut and one from New Hampshire, each with a slightly different game plan. Those families whose adult children did not qualify for services from their states’ Departments of Developmental Services have to seek elsewhere for funding, training and housing, which can be very difficult. As one mom put it so eloquently, in her state “Autism is not a disability,” and though her son is developmentally disabled in many areas except for his I.Q. score, he is slipping between the cracks, and heartbreakingly so.

Joyous Awareness and Pride: When my daughter and I left the party to drive the three and one half hours back to Connecticut, I felt joyous for her, for how much she has achieved in the twelve months since her graduation on June 12, 2011, when she said goodbye to her school years and returned to her home state to be an “adult.” There was no doubt at all that she felt proud of her achievements as well. She beamed and glowed when telling friends about her apartment and her “awesome” apartment-mate, where she lived and what she was doing. She also listened with interest to their answers to her questions about their new lives. She has matured tremendously in this last year and other parents described a similar process for their last year graduates as well. Each special needs adult at the party who was out of school for a year had a structured life, most living outside the parental home. All their families had been planning for this moment for years and so had avoided the regression that can take place when children return home for long periods, living without structure, slipping back into non-productive behaviors and habits. Though each family created a unique patchwork quilt of the special needs adult life for their child, you can be sure each one worked at it for years, worked hard and was motivated by fear, love, courage and determination. How did they get from there to here? Same way we all did. Working at it without relying on magic or miracles. Hard work and some luck too. For sure.

A Daughter’s Progress: A Follow Up: It is not clear if our daughter’s happiness, which is clearly on the increase, was aided by taking the drug Focalin but that seems to be the case. She has less anxiety in all situations and especially in areas where tasks and performance are required, or when transitioning from one activity or task to another, such as getting out the door in the morning to go to work. Both staff reports and parental observations share the same positive conclusions. She currently volunteers at three animal-related work settings: ROAR, the animal shelter in her town; The Complete Cat Clinic, a veterinary office; and Best Friends Pet Care, an animal daycare. Each setting is located in a different town but none further than a half hour from her apartment. She attends each setting with her life skills coach who provides direction and participates with her in completing the tasks. A fourth volunteer setting is in the works, and is also an animal-related placement.

Social and Residential Life: Her social life continues to expand including a new beau with date nights and telephone and texting exchanges. This relationship was the result of attending the aquatic practice classes for their Special Olympics participation. As with typical folks, doing what you like to do can produce just the right context for meeting a new love interest. The apartment-mate relationship just keeps getting better, which is partly the luck of a good match provided by DDS and partly the Ability Beyond Disability residential staff who know how to support each girl and the pair together. Their lives are filled with activities and a lot of exercise. Both have lost most of the extra bulk that dormitory living at their boarding schools had piled on over the years. In addition to swimming, walking on local tracks, working out on the treadmill at the Parks and Recreation and strolling to Main Street, their staff has cleverly managed to get a grant to install a Wii Fitness program in their apartment basement. These two young women will be at their bionic best, which relieves many health concerns that I had been experiencing in recent years watching our daughter’s weight gain and somewhat sedentary life in front of a computer screen, trying but helpless to impose the dietary changes that I thought were needed. Added to the workout equipment will be a crafts table where hopefully our daughter will be inspired to continue her awesome collage creations at an even greater pace. She is still a major movie buff and now it is hoped that she can create art or work out while indulging in her cinema passions rather than sitting on the red couch or at her desk, facing a screen.

Peace At Last: A new calm has come over the mother. Truly. And welcomed. I caught myself last weekend falling into some old traps and had to giggle at and celebrate that I managed to circumvent them. The first occurred when I picked up our daughter for our trip to New Hampshire. Once in the car, I felt a familiar worry, the typical spiral of anxiety: What if I get our daughter back so late, and she is all wound up and doesn’t go to sleep until midnight or so? And she has a date to go to the movies the next night. And the morning staff wakes her up at their usual time, early. Oh no.” I reached for my cell phone and placed a call to the apartment to ask the day staff to consider leaving a message for the overnight staff to let our daughter “sleep-in” as the expression goes. I heard my inner voice say, “don’t do this.” And when no one picked up immediately, I aborted the call. They know her and anyway let them figure it out.

Smell Test/Mayonnaise? My next test came when we returned to the apartment, and not that late either, at 9 P.M. The night staff was on, the very night staff that less than a year ago, I feared would not be awake enough or rested enough to take sufficient care of my daughter in an emergency in the middle of the night. She was very much awake, cleaning a bathroom, which she informed me that she wanted to do before the girls went to sleep because she knew they needed to “sleep-in” in the morning and she didn’t want to wake them with her cleaning sounds. See mom, they know daughter needs to sleep-in. You don’t have to tell them. Then we hauled out the leftover half a foot of my daughter’s Subway sandwich from the morning’s drive up to the party. I wasn’t sure if it were still good for her to eat for a late supper snack. Smelled fine to me. But rather than be the “decider” I turned to the young staffer and asked her what she thought. She asked “Does it have mayonnaise on it?” Yes. “Well” she said, “mayonnaise can be tricky. I don’t think she should eat it.” Wow. Test Number 2: let them decide. They are in charge and in fact, they are actually more careful than I would have been, and rightly so. The smell test is only as good as the smeller.

Trust and Proof: On July 1, 2012 it will be a year since I signed the contract with Ability Beyond Disability to take over being in charge of all aspects of our daughter’s day-to-day life, 24/7. And in that time I have established great trust in the agency’s professional skill and in the individual staff members who provide a panoply of services to our daughter every day. My comfort level is built upon ample proof from close-up observation. My trust is well-founded. As one mother kindly reminded on Saturday as I described to her and another mom the intensity of my anxiety during those months with its occasional unfortunate outcome, that I couldn’t have had that trust twelve months or even six months ago. That, as she said, is your job as a mom, to micro-manage every detail, to make sure that your child is safe and cared for. That’s how you got her here. Yup, all these moms know that feeling.

Raising A Toddler: Well, that daughter for now is safe and cared for. For now, I can relax my grip, and that is the first time in twenty-two years that I have experienced this sensation. Is that different from moms of typical kids? Yes and no. And the Yes part of that answer is that special needs child rearing is different and when you can release your grip, wow, for however long, the feeling is palpable. Remember what it feels like to parent a toddler? Parenting special needs can feel like that for years and years, potential danger everywhere, and don’t turn your back. You think that is an exaggeration? Ask one of those parents.

Thank you ABD as always for allowing me to feel this new calm. I notice that my attention issues are dissipating too, with the drop in my anxiety. And I am only on one drug, the drug of trust.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

I Don’t Want To Lose My Children

Father’s Day: A Sunday devoted to dad is coming up shortly and my clinical mind scans through father files looking for relevant information. Strangely, one oft-repeated phrase leaps out at me; “I don’t want to lose my children” – something that many fathers have said in my office when facing the possibility of a divorce. These dads get it. Divorcing dads are different from divorcing moms because typically they do lose the ease and access to their children that characterizes the shared family life.

Hustling to Catch Up With Dad: In my private practice, and I can’t speak for other parts of the country, when couples split up, the parenting arrangements depend a great deal on who is most available to fulfill the daily requirements of parenting school age children. In this community that available parent is most often the wife. There are cases where both parents are sufficiently available to divide the week in half, allowing each parent to retain the role of the primary parenting body half of the week. But for many, that is not practical, so dad visits occur on weekends with perhaps a school night visit when possible. If dad travels or lives at a distance, time with dad can be even trickier. What is most “lost” for dad and his children is the powerful fact that he no longer resides in the home that his children return to each afternoon or evening when they have completed their school day, their sports, music lessons or play dates. Nope, that dad is visited by his children in some other setting where the kids are hustled in for the daddy fixes that they all so badly need.

Preserving Father’s Day All Year Long:  “I don’t want to lose my children” is often stated as the curtain is about to fall on a marriage. And one wonders if that worry, had it been more in the forefront of dads’ and moms’ minds during all the years leading up to that moment, might never have been uttered.

Too Late: A family unit usually involves a common abode, a shelter shared by its members until the younger members grow up and move out to locate their own abodes. When dad’s roof is different from that of his children, something is lost, for good. That ease of family, room-to-room, common surfaces, shared places, is lost. “I don’t want to lose my children” can’t be an afterthought. For both parents, it is the phrase that should be written inside the mind’s eye, never to be obscured by other distractions, never buried under a pile of wish fulfillment. Yet, somehow through the course of a marital life span, the danger of that possible outcome does not supersede all other issues. Many couples have presented themselves in my office, after years of unhappiness, with one member virtually out the door, while the other is still in shock.

Who isn’t listening? Who isn’t communicating? Sometimes the wife is done, having tried to raise the flag of alarm, that the marriage is dying while her spouse is pursuing his career, his ambition, his worrisome load of providing for the family. Sometimes it is the husband who has tried to reach across the aisle, to the wife who sees him as uncaring, unavailable, who cannot translate his hard work into signs of love and dedication to his family. Or the husband who has lost his marital compass and finds the “comfort of strangers” over facing what is missing inside him, his ego, his sense of self, or his marriage. The betrayal, once revealed, may be impossible for the wife to get past. And he has lost his children.

Every Child Knows Where Daddy Lives: The marginalization of “dad” is something that often follows with these words from the moms: “He was never home anyway. It is no different for the kids. Or for me. He was never there.” But that is not true. Not really. No matter how each family tries to minimize the agony of this loss, every child knows where daddy lives, whether he is home, traveling or on his way. The shared roof is a compelling component of parenthood. And when that no longer is where daddy lives, the kids know.

Conflicting Priorities: Mending One Heart While Wounding Others? Terminating a marriage is perhaps the most painful event in one’s lifetime. And fathers and mothers look for ways to mend their shattered spirits, wounded self-esteem and broken hearts. Determined or desperate or both, to find healing through acceptance by another, and with the awesome power of online dating, off they go to meet and fall in love again. But where are the children? A father who is now a bachelor may need to watch that he doesn’t marginalize his relationship and time with his children while attempting to fill a hole in the heart, reduce the loneliness of this new life and repair a battered self-image with the heady flight of romance and sex. After a divorce,  “I don’t want to lose my children” has to shift from fear to action: the action of making them the priority relationship which will take more work, more time and more commitment than ever before. And the ex-wives committed as well, to helping their children keep that special link to dad, every day of the year. Ultimately though, it is dad’s responsibility. That’s just how it works.

Prevention: So what is my point this Father’s Day? Simply this. Never minimize the importance of a present dad. The message for Father’s Day is that dads count a lot. And both mom and especially dad need to remember that working on your relationship with your spouse, sooner than later, no matter how scary, inconvenient or expensive that is, will protect your Father’s Day. It won’t be visiting day with dad. It will be a family celebration under a shared roof.

Happy Father’s Day Dads. We need you with us all year round.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

The Coupledom Ambles Towards Seniorhood

A Road Trip To The Future: My Coupledom has recently aged out of its “middle years” and into early Seniorhood. And we are hardly alone as we join the ranks of baby boomers who over the next two decades will be marching forth to take their seat at the table of ultimate maturity. The announcement of this phase of life passage seemed printed all over the interstate on billboards, in tourist gift shops, rest stops and scenic overlooks, as my husband and I navigated a 3000-mile road trip this Spring, stopping to visit famous garden estates and small cities where many of our fellow tourists were also our fellow seniors. Who else has the time midweek to frolic amongst the azaleas and rhododendrons of the former estates of the historic wealthy or the quaint cobblestone streets of southern cities replete in Civil War markers and Spanish moss?

A Readjustment: Everywhere I looked I saw mirrors, mirrors of my now and future Coupledom, mirrors of myself, my spouse, in the faces and shapes of seniors who shared our journey. And these images of me, us, my peers, brought reality to a psychological proximity far closer than comfortable. Time to readjust to a new reality and recalibrate The Coupledom.

What Club Are We Joining Now? Throughout the life cycle we are given club membership labels, some handed out when we are too young even to notice. Does a toddler know he is a toddler or does a preschooler find comfort in that membership club? Not likely. But certainly when we hit adolescence, everyone lets us know our membership status. And so it goes until that final club, Seniorhood. And within Seniorhood, are there further delineations: early, middle, late and then, divine membership in whatever afterlife vision matches your belief system? All of these labels and passages influence how we view ourselves and our place in society but perhaps none as challenging, I believe, as is this last one, which marks a phase of life so profound in its meaning that thinkers from the beginning of human consciousness have struggled to come to peace with it.

Senior Coupledom and Our Western Culture Clash: My baby boomer buddies and their recent predecessors (folks who are over 66 years of age today) are challenging notions of aging by choosing active lifestyles that depict seniors running marathons, learning new languages and basically thumbing their noses at Norman Rockwell images of old, genteel white-haired elders seated in rockers on a sunset lit porch, passing time. The new image of the toned, energetic, cosmetically altered and stimulated elder who, with the help of Viagra, can keep on perking, presents a useful standard of health and relevance that brings many benefits to today’s senior population. All good? Yes, of course, except for one powerful message in the mix; that the appearance of “old” is not cool. Was it ever cool to be “old” in Western Culture? I don’t know, but what was perhaps cool enough was to be respected for one’s agedness and feel some self-respect as well. I am not sure if today’s seniors feel the pride once felt by their ancestors when what they see in their mirrors is culturally viewed as something to be avoided at all cost(s), pun intended. So the good news is that we can live longer and benefit from medical achievements that prolong an active lifestyle. The bad news is that it is not cool to actually show our age. What is the greatest compliment for adults of almost any age? Wow, you don’t look 45, 55, 65, or 85.

Loss and New Found Gains: So where does that leave the aging Coupledom? Struggling to find dignity and self-respect individually and together as a couple in a journey that offers as many opportunities as it does limitations and losses. The awesome and courageous couple is that team that takes in the reality of what is lost through the aging process (youth status so revered in our western culture; youthful appearance and abilities; unlimited pathways to success and love) and replaces these glories and dreams of glory with new ones.

Aging Together, A Complex Package: What I have noticed in my personal and professional exposure to Senior Coupledom is how the variables that guided past choices shift when a couple reaches a certain “maturity.” Decisions and options are no longer dependent on the quality of school systems, job locations, and optimal access to elderly parents. The restrictions, parameters or considerations that guided prior decision-making now fade to some degree as a couple ages out of the child-bearing years, the sandwich generation, the empty nest. Ironically, this liberation from the concerns of former years can place an intensified scrutiny on the workings of the couple’s relationship. Whims, dreams, health concerns, bucket lists, stylistic inclinations, that one or both members kept in abeyance while achieving other goals, now emerge as needs, wants, my time, my turn. But are these longings mutual? Ah, there is the rub.

My Turn Or Yours? What surprised me most in my small sample of retirees, semi-retired and working elders, was the inherent, almost organic balance established in meeting the needs and wants of each member of their Coupledom. Perhaps it is the truest sign of maturity; couples who, despite different inclinations regarding significant decisions, found the ability to compromise and find suitable and satisfactory packages for living together that meant some yield on both sides, sufficient gratification for both. Location is a big one: what state or country or climate to reside in, how to allocate the limited funds, whether to own a pet and live in a house, or buy a condo that takes care of itself yet sacrifices pet ownership, choose dwellings that offered handicap services but restrict neighbors to the seniors only age group. Profound and mutual compromise was the signature of maturity and a pathway to couples’ contentment.

Shared Interests and Separate Lives: I was also pleased to discover that many couples were not in lock-step all day long, that though their hours apart were no longer dictated by job responsibilities or childcare chores, couples did separate to pursue hobbies, volunteer work or part-time jobs so that when they returned to the home, they had something new to share with each other. Their sources of stimulation did not rest solely on what was generated together but brought in the outside world as well. Another intriguing and not uncommon practice was that of couples who actually spent significant stretches of time living a part. Seasonal preferences made one couple spend portions of the winter season two thousand miles away from each other because one was passionate about snow sports and staying involved in community activities, while the other yearned to banish the snow shovel to an earlier chapter of his life in exchange for beach chairs, sunshine and sand between the toes. They “visited each other” at the midpoint of the three months’ winter season and then reunited in early Spring to resume sharing the daily amenities of home. These are not easy choices but there is an integrity to honoring difference as just that and coming up with an option that allows room to breathe for both parties.

A Powerful Variable, Health: How satisfying or happy one’s Senior Coupledom is depends on many variables but none quite as powerful as health. Here we introduce the element of a crapshoot, how the chips fall, luck and unluck, as I like to say. If one partner’s life is very restrictive, what does that mean for the healthy partner? Can they feel deserving of and able to enjoy activities and outings that their partner no longer can participate in without feeling too guilty or too ashamed to pursue? Can that more handicapped partner give them emotional “permission” to do so? Perhaps with the help of family or aids? This is the toughest patch of all. The pace of aging is not always even, so that pattern of compromise and flexibility that enables the healthy Coupledom is especially necessary here. Once again, the maturity of the individuals, their mutual respect, and a shared freedom to express wishes and yet accept compromise will make even these challenges of aging together more bearable.

Wisdom is the True Virtue Of Aging: I found a grace in the couples next to me that strolled through the gardens. I found a rhythm and pacing in the couples who stood next to me watching the dolphins swim near the jetty in southern Florida or who rode the elevator with me back up to their apartments, laden with supermarket plunder. They knew each other well and still seemed to enjoy their companionship. I felt both fearful and admiring. I studied them closely, strangers, acquaintances and friends. Are they bored yet? They honestly didn’t seem the least bit bored. In fact, these glimpses of senior life were unexpectedly reassuring to me and bore signs of a kind of wisdom that conveyed patience, tolerance and flexibility.

Chapter Maturity: My first amble through Senior Coupledom was better than I anticipated. But I still have quite a lot of work to do to get comfortable with the mirror image of me and us as Chapter Maturity takes hold.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

Mom, I Know I Was Born With Eggs: Parenting Adult Special Needs One Month At A Time

Checking In: More than six weeks have gone by since I last posted on our daughter’s adult special needs life, and a busy six weeks indeed. During that time our twenty-two-year old daughter started a new volunteer job at Best Friends in Norwalk, an animal daycare and grooming center, and continued her two other vocational pursuits at The Complete Cat Clinic and ROAR. She began a trial a low dosage course of Focalin, a medication to enhance attention and focus, attended a staff’s wedding, greeted guests at her agency’s (Ability Beyond Disability) Gala, and won two medals at the Connecticut Special Olympics Trials in New Milford. She celebrated Passover at a family seder in New York City and a cousin’s Bat Mitzvah in Gaylordsville, CT and continued her Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Program and SPHERE and began Special Olympics aquatic practice sessions, all weekly activities.

The Ability Beyond Disability Day Services Options (DSO) launched their book club in response to our daughter’s suggestion. Their inaugural selection, I believe, is Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary. The DSO has expanded their weekly activities to include more springtime related events for their clients.

Not Just Doing, Growing Too: Does the gal sound busy enough? Yes and she is quite content too. The Focalin has increased her attention span, setting off a cycle of gains that include more success on the jobs by improving both her tolerance for frustration, her self-esteem and her mood. I was very wary of placing her on any medication after previous experiences, but I am grateful to the ABD staff for suggesting that we give the medication a trial. To my ear, when we chat on the phone, the Focalin clearly gives a boost to both how she articulates her thoughts and to her level of enthusiasm about the topics she shares with me. Clarity has improved as well, probably as she has more energy to put into her speech, so that I am not constantly saying “What?” which had provoked her annoyance during our phone chats. To date there are no medication crashes or side effects. So far so good. Fingers crossed.

Gratefully Stepped Back: But she is not just busy, she is growing too. Her relationship with her apartment-mate has deepened, so much so that when they have drama in the dorm/apartment blips they are short lived. She continues all her Internet hobbies, social networking, searching history sites and plowing through movies on war and love. As a family we have settled into a twice-weekly routine of visits, sometimes with both parents, sometimes just one of us, for lunch, an outing or a family event. I have gratefully stepped back to allow the staff the full reach of their day-to-day responsibilities, trusting in their expertise and judgment, with a newfound sense of security that they know her well and don’t need my constant input to provide optimal care for her.

Deficits That Challenge But Don’t Derail Her Growing Maturity: A sure sign of her sense of safety and comfort emerged during a two-week period when my husband and I took a road trip south and our daughter, though struggling with the confusion of our changing itinerary, did not demonstrate any significant struggles with our absence. She relied on texts and phone calls to keep herself connected and to figure out where we were each day and whether we were driving or flying, staying in motels or at a familiar destination in Florida. Her texts revealed, more than anything, her continuing challenge organizing time in a sequence that might have provided her with an orientation of our whereabouts. Unfortunately her deficits didn’t allow her to track our journey nor did schedules or calendars sufficiently fill the gaps. Despite this confusion, her routines were not disrupted, no significant interpersonal clashes with staff or peers ensued and we found her in great shape upon our return. Awesome indeed! A signal both of her comfort level in her new life and her increasing maturity.

A Parallel Journey: My time has been taken up with editing the book of collected posts on parenting adult special needs, for a summer e-book publication, which has imposed a revisiting of the entire process twice so far, a challenging enterprise which often has me cringing and blushing with embarrassment at my own behaviors, tearing up at moments where the pain is still so accessible, and of course, joyfully incredulous at just how lucky we were and are to have gotten to this place. That awareness and gratitude never leaves me. Rather it guides me to offer help to other families of aging out special needs children, many of whom I am meeting for the first time through Ability Beyond Disability, Pegasus and Angelfish, and some of whom I am re-greeting as their children age out of our local school district. My daughter and I bump into her former special education classmates or their families in stores or restaurants hither and yon. Just today our daughter called me to say she reconnected with an elementary school buddy who returned to our town after years away at the Perkins School For The Blind, returned to fight with DDS (Department of Developmental Services) for services, a fight that I knew of from his family. Blind, cognitively challenged and fighting for services. This is the nature of the system – nothing granted easily despite hardship and an unknown future.

Scenarios That Remind Me: It is not unusual for me to hear from my own psychotherapy patients or friends the stories of families with middle-aged special needs children whose parents are elderly, developing dementia or other incapacities while siblings and extended family are scrambling to find a program, a residence, a life for the now older and often isolated special needs adult whose dependency on the now aged parents has expired, in a sense, and a new life has to be created for them. This is the bullet I sought to dodge, and when I hear of these desperate scenarios my heart sinks for everyone involved.

411 (Sex Education): Sometimes I miss our daughter though she is only twenty minutes away. But our lives are separate; she no longer lives in our home, there are no “school vacations” when she returns to the family abode to rest and regroup. And when I do see her, what knocks me over each time is not just how much I love her or how cute and clever she is, but how quick and smart is her out of the box humor. Here is a sample:

In a drive to the mall last week to purchase a gift for her cousin, a conversation evolved around sex. I cannot recall what triggered that particular chat but what ensued was the following:

“Mom, you know those 411 sex education classes we had at Riverview?”
Some of that was embarrassing.”
“I can see that.”

(A little more related chatter on sexual matters mechanical and otherwise.)

(Then a pause and a slight turn of a head in my direction, glimpsed from the corner of my eye, a hint of a smile, and then__)

“Mom, I know I was born with eggs. What I don’t know is if they were hard-boiled, scrambled or poached.”

All we needed was one of those drum rolls that follow a knockout stand-up line. Where does she get this stuff? Right out of her hat. She is a hoot and a half and those who get to hang out with her are the lucky ones.

Dating Adult Special Needs Style: Recently a young man who is also a client of ABD asked our daughter out to the movies. The date had all the conventions of a dating sequence of old: it started with two people getting to know each other while pursuing a common interest; followed with the male calling the female for a date; and then a scheduled night at the movies. Very 1950’s. What was different even from the 1950’s conventions was the involvement of ABD staff who okayed and supervised the event. No one directly asked for my approval though I was informed prior to its occurrence, with, I am sure, the possibility that I could have weighed in one way or the other. That aspect felt just a tad strange. However, since our daughter had been in a previous relationship some years earlier while at her boarding school, the thrill of that “first love” passage fulfilled me then so completely that when I heard that same excitement in the staffs’ voices that I had felt years earlier, I was happy for them. I have grown too, and know that whoever cares for our daughter deserves to feel the joy as well as the gratification for her successes, her passages and her new adventures.

Resources: I conclude this post with one important request. As I continue to prepare my book for publication, I am compiling a listing of resources that will be added to the book to aid others in their journey. I would like to invite readers to submit suggestions for the resources section so that all might profit from our experiences. To do so, send me an email or post a comment on the blog.

Monthly Posting: Some readers who had followed the daily and then weekly posts on parenting adult special needs have missed reading about our daughter’s journey. And I miss writing about it. So for those who are interested, as of this month, I will post on the life of our adult special needs daughter, one month at time. Stay tuned. I hope you like it.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012