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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Behavioral Therapy



My Abnormal Psychology teacher pooh poohed the idea of long term psychotherapy as something only rich people could indulge in. He saw cognitive behavioral therapy as the answer, because of its short duration and ease of insurance coverage. Often, a course of behavioral therapy will last only six to eight weeks, and focus on a single problem, without taking the time to delve into the history and long term problems of the client.

I disagree with him. I think that, for some issues, long term psychotherapy is the only real solution. But within that construct, or for people who don’t need long term help, I’d rather use a version of role modeling, rather than cognitive behavioral therapy, because there are some skills you can’t learn by talking or reading instructions. Dancing, for example. It’s a thousand times easier to stand behind another person doing a dance step and follow their lead than to try to learn the steps through words. And I think this applies to a lot of the behaviors we want to change; if they really are behavioral deficits, rather than deeper conflicts.

The learning becomes so much easier when someone stands in front of you and slowly shows you each step of how it’s done. The “slowly” part is important, because just watching someone zoom easily through a task does not make me feel like I can follow along and do the same.

There are so many skills that would be easier to learn this way, especially social skills, and hands on skills. I remember trying to make sense of a list of instructions in the biology lab in college and having no idea what to do, but if I could watch someone else do each task first, it made sense and my anxiety receded.

I saw a TV show once, where an older dog taught a younger dog that it was safe to step into the lake, by stepping into the lake himself. That moment resonated deeply with me, because just telling the dog, or me, to do something frightening doesn’t make it possible, but seeing a friend do it in front of me, or, better yet, having a friend do it with me, makes all the difference.

Too often behavioral therapy is not done this way. It’s more like the clicker training we suffered through with Cricket. Here I had this wriggly little puppy who wanted to explore and play and chew things, and the best guidance I could offer her was to sit on command. It made me feel like an ogre. What I really wanted was a better way to communicate with her. I wanted a class in sign language for dogs that would start to close the gap between the language she spoke with her brothers and sisters and the language she was hearing from me.

"I think I will jump out of this bathtub and run around the apoartmetn and roll on all of the clean laundry. Yeah, that's what's next."

“I think I will jump out of this bathtub and run around the apartment and roll on all of the clean laundry. Okay?”

"You don't mind if I chew on this lovely snack, right?"

“You don’t mind if I chew on this lovely snack, right?”

"Why doesn't Mommy understand me?"

“Why doesn’t Mommy understand me?”

It didn’t help that I hated the sound of the clicker, and resented the over use injury to my thumb from having to press the damned thing over and over again. I didn’t mind giving her the treats, though, that part I could understand.

When Butterfly came home from the shelter, we didn’t use clicker training, or commands, to show her where to poop or how to climb the stairs, we gave her Cricket as a role model, and we gave her our love and attention. Cricket taught Butterfly all kinds of behaviors by doing them in front of her. She showed her that the food bowls weren’t filled with poison, by eating from them. She showed her that dogs pee outside instead of in the kitchen. Cricket taught Butterfly how to beg for food, and demand outings, and be a nuisance until she gets what she wants. Butterfly has tried to pick up other behaviors, like jumping up on Grandma, but her legs aren’t long enough or strong enough to do that.

"Cricket? Can I jump too?"

“Cricket? Can I jump too?”

Cricket? Are you upstairs?"

Cricket? I’ll be right there!”

"Cricket? Where are you hiding?"

“Cricket? Where did you go?”

And Butterfly has been doing her own version of long term therapy, showing me the things that scare her – like packing tape being ripped, or thunderstorms, or street noises – and she comes to me, and I hold her, and smooth her hair, and let her know it’s all right. It’s alright that she’s scared, and it’s alright that there are things she cannot do. It’s alright that she needs attention and comfort. It is all alright.

Butterfly in the wind!

” I am a butterfly!”

A Post About Turning Forty


A woman at my synagogue asked me the other day, out of the blue, how old I am, and before I could think I blurted out, “forty.” I had just turned forty three days earlier and it was on the tip of my tongue to say so. And then I got scared. The thing is, I do not look forty. This woman said I looked 20 or 25, and even if she was being nice, I really do look like I could be thirty years old, and I’d rather people think I am younger, because my resume is really short for a forty year old.

We have a lot of expectations about what people will have done by certain ages, and, in an upper middle class, Jewish community on Long Island, these expectations can be unbearably high. Everyone’s kid is successful, and married, and has a nice apartment in the city, or a house in the suburbs. Everyone is very busy, and works out, and has a smart phone glued to their head. I don’t fit in, and I keep thinking, when they realize that I’m not just a ne’er do well thirty year old, but a ne’er do well forty year old, I’ll be kicked out.

In some ways, I feel all forty of those years weighing on me. Everything in my body hurts, and I need naps every day, and some days I feel closer to eighty than to forty. But emotionally, intellectually, I feel like I’m just getting started. There’s so much more that I want to learn and do. There are so many books left to write and left to read. There are so many people to meet and places to go.

I’ve written novels and short stories and essays and poems and drafts and drafts and endless drafts. I’ve taken classes in almost every kind of writing (except journalism, which terrifies me), and earned two masters degrees, and discovered that I will never run out of things to write, or things to learn. I’ve been with the same therapist for twenty years and have been diligent and hard working on every issue. I’m still not done, still not healed, but without all of this work I would be dead, so, thumbs up?

None of this is what I had planned, though. I planned to publish novels. I planned to be on talk shows, and teach writing classes, and meet the president, whoever she happens to be. I planned to drive carpool, and sing my children to sleep, and laugh with my husband every day.

I don’t think Cricket and Butterfly are aware of their ages. Cricket doesn’t look at herself in the mirror and say, Damn, I look good for an eight year old. Butterfly isn’t pacing he floor, worrying that she hasn’t napped enough and time is running out. They don’t judge themselves. They may judge me, but not themselves.

"Hey, skinny dog in the mirror, help me bark for food!"

“Hey, skinny dog in the mirror, help me bark for food!”

Butterfly fits in naps whenever she can.

Butterfly fits in naps whenever she can.

I don’t think Cricket has any concept of getting older. Time passes, sure, but from her point of view, it’s everything outside of herself that’s changing, not something on the inside. She’s the stable center of the world. Just ask her. Butterfly, I think, has a bit more awareness of the changes she’s gone through over time. We celebrate her gotcha day, rather than her birthday, because we don’t know for sure when she was born. She has lumps and bumps on her skin, and diabetes, and a heart murmur to show for her ten years. She gets back spasms when she tries to follow Cricket on her running and jumping sprees. And maybe she can feel in her body how many more years she has left. She’s an intuitive little creature. But actual birthdays? She’s got to be thinking, why would anyone choose to have only one day a year to be celebrated when they could be celebrated every day?

Cricket is always looking for somewhere interesting to go.

Cricket is always looking for somewhere interesting to go.

And Butterfly does her stretches, so that she can keep up with her sister.

And Butterfly does her stretches, so that she can keep up with her sister.

As a child, I felt like I was drowning in failure, even though I did well in school. I couldn’t figure out how to have good friendships, or how to communicate well enough to teachers, or with my parents, to get my needs met. I felt like there was a whole other language that I was supposed to have mastered, but no one was teaching it to me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that I have to make up that language myself, because most people are in the same boat, unable to articulate the things they most need to say.

Even now, the road forward is anything but clear, and will probably be too slow and take too long and inspire impatience in the people around me. I will hesitate and make mistakes and choose anything but the path they see as being outlined in neon lights, because I can’t see that path at all.

Dogs live much shorter lives than we do, and yet they feel less pressure to achieve great things, or so I assume, because I’ve never seen Cricket at the computer logging on to Kahn Academy. I wonder if, with fewer years to work with, we’d make better choices about how to live them.

For my birthday this year, I want to learn to live more like a dog, to judge myself on who I am first and what my resume says another time, or never. I want to wake up in the morning thinking about what I need, and who I love, and how lovely the snow looks on the pine trees, instead of worrying about all of the milestones I have yet to meet.

I think Cricket and Butterfly are prepared to help me with this.

"What's next?"

“What’s next?”


Self Pity, And The Benefits Thereof


We say that someone is “indulging” in self-pity, as if self-pity is as luxurious as a spa day, or a bowl of ice cream, which it just isn’t. People get stuck in self-pity the way you get stuck in a bear trap. It’s not fun. And it’s not a choice. Something in the brain mechanism gets clogged, and a stage that is supposed to be transitory and enlightening, bogs down.

My sense, with most people, is that the degree of stuckedness is directly related to the amount of noise in their head telling them that they are not allowed to feel self-pity. It’s the conflict between the pain, and the resistance to feeling and expressing the pain, that gets us stuck. If you give yourself permission to acknowledge the hurt you feel, then you can begin to take good care of yourself, and place the blame where it belongs, and unravel the knots, and learn the hidden lessons in the experience, and get to a new place.

Dogs don’t judge themselves this way. They don’t beat themselves up for feeling what they feel. I think that’s a big part of why we love them, because they make us think it might be okay to have emotions and show them openly. Even when they emote vociferously, dogs actually move through an emotion more quickly than we do. They get over things much faster, because they don’t put it on a shelf for later, they feel it, and process it in the moment, and then they are done and move on to the next thing. Usually food.

Cricket is not shy about expressing herself.

Cricket is not shy about expressing herself.

Especially when she's grumpy.

Especially when she’s grumpy.

The benefit of dogs over children as teachers of this skill is that dogs don’t learn hopelessness as quickly as children do. They don’t take the hint. They keep barking. They keep licking themselves. They keep peeing on the carpet if we forget to take them outside. Children learn what we want from them too quickly. They see our disapproval and they adapt. The worst thing you can ever see is a baby who has learned not to cry. It’s not a sign that she is a “good baby” it’s a sign that she is shutting down.

Children automatically cry and scream and act out when they are in pain – physically or emotionally – and this alerts the adults around them that help is needed. This is how it is supposed to be. It is only when the adults in charge tell you to shut up that you learn not to send out the alarm.

As adults, we do our best to make our emotions manageable, often by cutting them off and shutting them away, and when someone else dares to emote in front of us, we get mad. Impatient. Enraged. How dare you make me feel that?!

When Cricket is mad, she barks, or grumps under the couch. When Butterfly is lonely, she pines. And they don’t feel bad about it. They don’t snap out of it just because I tell them to be happy. They get there when they are good and ready, or when it’s time for a W-A-L-K.

Butterfly lets me know when she's lonely.

Butterfly lets me know when she’s lonely.

And lets Cricket know too.

And lets Cricket know too.

The especially nice thing about my dogs is that when I am all wrapped up in self-pity, they don’t yell at me to stop, or try to distract me, they come over to snuggle next to me and give me kisses. They know that feeling sad is part of life, and that, at some point, the sadness will pass. And when that happens, they will be perfectly situated to remind me about that W-A-L-K.

They're waiting.

They’re waiting.

Listening Like A Dog


Cricket can be a very good listener. Even in a dead sleep, limbs flopping in midair, she can hear certain words (like: walk, chicken, go, out, and, of course, pee) and be up on her feet and stretching within half a second.

Don't be fooled. Cricket can hear everything!

Don’t be fooled. Cricket can hear everything!

She listens to the sounds of her people sleeping, and shifting, to determine when the waking up drama is about to take place, so she can mark it with screeching and scratching and growling and jumping. She listens to the outdoor sounds, to make sure terrorists are not hiding in plain sight, pretending to be birds or squirrels. She often listens by sniffing, hearing the story of her sister’s visit to the vet by smelling her ears, armpits, and, of course, her butt.

This is Butterfly sniffing Cricket, but you get the idea.

This is Butterfly sniffing Cricket, but you get the idea.

Listening like a dog means actively looking for the information someone wants to give you. It’s not about being nice, or friendly, or polite; it’s about tying an imaginary thread between you and the talker and letting them feel the tug each time you understand what they’ve said.

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

My rabbi went to Israel this summer with a group of other liberal rabbis, and they spent a week with different groups of Israelis and Israeli Arabs, and at the end of the trip they spent three days in Jerusalem, hearing from Palestinians from East Jerusalem, during the height of the Gaza war. These speakers had to spend hours travelling, because of the heightened security measures, but they felt it was important enough to come and tell their personal stories to this group of American Jews. The rule was that the listeners had to wait until the end of the presentation to speak, and even then, only speak in the form of a question, to try to understand better where the speaker was coming from, rather than to argue with them.

That way, even if you hear something early on that’s provocative, or that you think is untrue, or unfair, you don’t interrupt. You keep listening, in case there’s something for you to learn. And isn’t there always something to learn? Maybe you learn why the other person believes as they do, or why they are willing to go through the difficult journey just to speak to you. There can be a moment of understanding, and compassion, and even progress, through dialogue. Not total agreement by any means, but maybe one or two points of connection will come through.

It is taking me forever to learn how to listen when listening is difficult. Patience was never my strong suit. And to be fair to me, people keep saying the craziest things and I feel like it is my job to set things straight so that the world won’t tilt out of control.

Cricket is listening, but she doesn't like what she's hearing.

Cricket is listening, but she doesn’t like what she’s hearing.

Butterfly is a much better listener than I am. She very rarely takes offense. She listens to her sister’s diatribes with curiosity and patience. She even sniffs an ear to see if there’s more to find out. She uses a tactic I’d call whole body listening. You can see her ears lift and rotate, and her nose twitch, as she focuses her gaze on you. But even more, you can feel her listening, feel the heat of her body leaning against you to see what mood you are in, or her tongue licking your palm to let you know that she’s paying attention.

I can probably skip the licking part, but the rest of her listening skills seem worthy of imitation. Now, if only I could get my ears to lift up and rotate the way hers do…

Look at those ears!

Look at those ears!