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My Turtle Shell

 

It’s so hard to stay focused on my own journey, and recognize my own accomplishments, when I’m too aware of how other people are racing ahead of me. I want to congratulate myself for taking the synagogue school teaching job, and for performing with the choir, and for self-publishing my novel, and graduating with a Master’s degree in Social Work and earning my social work license. But instead I’m berating myself for all of the things I can’t do.

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“Want some help with that?”

I am getting by, and functioning to the limits of my current capacity. I know that. I’m not setting the world on fire (as I’d hoped), but I am sending out resumes for social work jobs, and submitting essays to literary magazines. I am writing (though never as much as I think I should), and I am prepping for synagogue school classes as if I were teaching full-time instead of two hours a week. I am studying my languages, and practicing ukulele, and doing my breathing exercises, and trying to exercise my body when I can. But I feel like a failure on a constant basis. I am always trying, and, it seems, never succeeding.

 

People still look at me funny when I say I’m only looking for part-time work, because I seem fine, to them. I feel guilty for “imagining” that I am still struggling in any way, as if I’m choosing to suffer longer than is reasonable, and I should choose not to suffer anymore. I don’t know how to do that, but people keep saying it’s a choice and that I’m making the wrong one.

And yet, I saw a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago, of a turtle who had been in an accident and lost most of his shell, and he resonated for me. The headline of the story was that someone had built the turtle a new shell, with a 3D printer, and painted it in beautiful designs and colors; and with his new shell, the turtle was able to go back to living his very slow, very long life, with his safety and dignity intact. And I realized that I am just like that turtle. I’ve been rebuilding my shell for the past twenty-five years. I don’t know if it never really grew in the first place, or if the one I had was so battered and bruised that it barely lasted into my teen years. And my shell still isn’t whole, and it’s definitely not painted and decorated to my liking, but after twenty-five years, instead of walking around naked and unprotected from predators, I have most of a shell to cover me.

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The 3D shell

I still feel the rain too quickly, and I still take in too much of what other people say to me; I still bruise too easily, and recover too slowly, but I take more risks now. I can even go outside on a rainy day and do a slow little dance between the rain drops.

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“Dancing!”

I’d like to think that, even at my slow pace, I am living my life with dignity, and feeling safe enough to do things in my own unique way. And maybe, someday, I’ll finish growing my shell and even decorate it in a way that celebrates my long, slow, full life.

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“Slow is good.”

 

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

The Aftermath of Childhood Abuse

 

In order to have a successful life, it’s not enough to be smart and talented, you have to be able to function, every day, without having three panic attacks before lunch. I was certain that, twenty-five years into therapy, I would be married, with children, and published multiple times. I wouldn’t have made it through the first ten years of therapy if I’d known that I’d still be struggling with forward motion in year twenty five. But this is where I’m at, and this is the best I’ve been able to do, despite all of that promise, because of childhood sexual abuse.

I was the kid that teachers loved and never worried about. Rachel will do fine at whatever she chooses to do. Rachel is smart and responsible and hardworking and never needs help. They didn’t consider my social anxiety, or crippling depression, or the endless fragmentation of my mind as a problem, because even with all of that I still did well at school. But I didn’t want to, and that was the killer. I did not want to wake up each morning. I did not want to meet new people, or go to parties, or get a job, or choose a major, or whatever each next step was supposed to be.

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“This is a difficult topic, Mommy.”

 

I am tired of hearing about how resilient everyone else is, and how well they’re doing, despite this and that and the other thing. It implies that we all had the same obstacles and everyone else is just better than me at overcoming them. But the fact is, if I had the same life experiences as I’ve had, without the great good fortune of intelligence and talent, and a Mom who loves me, and a therapist who has been there for me since I was nineteen, I would not be here. I would have walked in front of a bus, or swallowed a bottle of pills, a hundred times by now. It’s important to know that, and not to be smug about my successes, and not to be so quick to judge others for their lack of success.

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“I’m here for you, Cricket.”

The percentage of substance abusers with child abuse histories is very high, same with prison inmates, and patients in mental hospitals, but I feel like we choose, as a society, not to know these things. We choose to ignore our good fortune when we have it, and we choose to take credit for all of our successes, despite the help we’ve received along the way. We imagine that people are successful because of their intelligence and hard work alone, and therefore those who are unsuccessful must be lazy and stupid.

Lately we’ve been talking more about privilege – white privilege, male privilege – but we forget the less obvious forms of privilege; being safe in your own home, and being loved and nurtured by your family, and having the support you need when you have to face big and small challenges along the way, are huge privileges that many children never experience.

I remember watching episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when she would celebrate kids who had survived war and starvation and abuse and got into Harvard anyway, or started a successful business, or saved the world in some way. And it made me angry, one, because I could never do any of that, and two, because most of the kids who went through those same circumstances wouldn’t be able to impress anyone and win the attention and rewards they would need in order to survive. They would have the same residue of pain and trauma, without any help to get them through, or anyone to celebrate their small achievements along the way.

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“I love to celebrate!”

Everyone wants to know the secrets of the resilient child, but resilience has more to do with how we take care of and support these children than with their own inherent qualities. Their strength, or weakness, comes mostly from us. If they fail, it’s because we didn’t hold them up. We keep forgetting this. We want to celebrate, and vilify, the individual, if only so that we don’t have to take responsibility for each other. But it’s an illusion. We are intertwined whether we acknowledge it or not, and we pay the price for the suffering of others, whether we caused it ourselves or simply chose to ignore it.

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Platypus knows that we all need help.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Friendship

Friendship is still something I’m not very good at. I’m friendly, and I have some friends, people I care about who care about me, but I’ve never figured out how to be a good, day to day friend to someone. I have friends who I can reach out to when big things happen, positive or negative, and I know that they will hear me, and they know that I will hear them. But I don’t have people I call every day, or every week. I’ve tried, very hard, to do better at this. I’ve tried to put myself in positions to have friends like that, but something always stops me.

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Cricket can relate.

There’s a constant monologue in my head judging what I say to other people. Was I friendly enough? Too friendly? Do they like me or think I’m a loser? It’s as if the closer I get to other people, the more rejectable I feel, and the more damage they can do to me. It’s easier to care about people from afar, but them I’m lonely and isolated, and that’s not good either.

I was better at mimicking friendship when I was a kid, doing all of the behaviors asked of me: listening, caring, and showing attention. But I was never very good at requiring friendship in return, or believing that I deserved it. If someone got angry at me, and said that I wasn’t being a good enough friend, I believed it. If someone said I wasn’t interesting enough to be their friend, I believed them. I didn’t like it, but it seemed true to me.

I like where I live now. I like that there are people who live all around me, and even without planning to, I can run into a neighbor (and her dog!) on a random laundry trip. But it’s so much easier to befriend dogs than people. First of all, they always have their own humans, so I don’t have to take responsibility for them. With other humans, I always feel like I’m supposed to help them, take care of them, and do things for them, and I feel disappointed when they don’t fix everything for me in return. With dogs I can just share a nice moment, offer affection and curiosity, and then move on. Except, I usually feel bereft and guilty for walking away from dogs too, as if I should have done more for them, or gotten more from the exchange.

My therapist once said that she assumed I had an attachment disorder, and that’s why I didn’t have more friends. She was so relieved when I fell in love, because it proved that I wasn’t completely detached, even though it also meant my heart was broken when he said goodbye. But the thing is, I never felt detached. If anything I felt more attached than I could stand.

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“Harrumph.”

One of the benefits of becoming a therapist is that I can focus on caring about other people, without requiring them to care about me in return. My job as a therapist is to give, and not to take, and that feels so much easier to me. I like being kind to people. I like helping people, and feeling compassion and understanding for people. But I don’t like being disappointed in people when I have expectations of them, or need things from them.

Cricket is a great customer for this kind of therapy, at least with me. She’s much more of a caretaker with her grandma: guarding her, listening to her, keeping her company. With me, she accepts my support and guidance and attention, and seems to be free of any burdens of care in return.

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Cricket guarding Grandma

I miss my Butterfly, though, because however much she needed me and needed my care, she always had room in her heart for me, and licked my hand to let me know she was with me. Cricket has tried to take on that role, every once in a while, when I scratch her under her chin, but the licks last only for a moment, and then she wants me to take her outside for her walk. And that’s okay with me, because she loves her walks and her joy is contagious.

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“Hi Mommy. Do you need lickies?”

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“Let’s go! There’s so much sniffing to do!”

Keeping Cricket Busy

 

A few years ago, I collected a bunch of Cricket’s toys and put them into a bucket on a shelf under the TV. The plan was to switch out the toys from the bucket every week or two, so that she could have the benefit of all of her toys, without spreading them on the floor where I would trip over them. Of course, I got distracted and forgot about the bucket of toys a long time ago. At around the same time, I stopped taking Cricket for her three mile walks each day, and she definitely noticed the difference and has perfected her disappointed-with-Mommy face.

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Recently, I watched a story about a man with a movement disorder who went to a special kind of occupational therapy, with not only a human therapist but also a doggy therapist. The exercises required the man to put treats into treat puzzles, in order to rebuild the strength and flexibility in his fingers. His reward was to watch the dog chasing after the toys and enjoying the treats. The smile on the man’s face when his knotted hands were successful at fitting the treats into the toys, and the dog ran across the room after the toys, was pure joy.

And it occurred to me that we might have some of those toys; not the flat puzzles with secret compartments, but the plastic toys in different shapes that would allow small amounts of treats out if Cricket could figure out how to make them bounce the right way. We’d bought a ton of toys for Cricket when she was an incorrigible puppy, in order to keep her from continuing to destroy the furniture with her sharp puppy teeth. And in the bottom of the bucket, under the everlasting chew toys, and the purple dinosaur that has dried into a husk of its former self, I found three treat puzzles of varying sizes and levels of difficulty.

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Pink vase, red ball, and blue thingy

Cricket has been needing more attention and distraction since Butterfly died, and even more so since it’s been too cold for Grandma to take her for extended walks in the afternoon; those garbage cans up by the 7-11 were an endless source of fascination. So I was willing to try something new to keep her busy, and, hopefully, happy.

I had to do some significant cleaning on the old toys – boiling them with baking soda and rinsing thoroughly – before I could risk putting food in them again. For my first experiment I used the pink vase-shaped toy. I was worried that I’d made the pieces of Pupperoni too big, and Cricket would go straight past optimal frustration into the land of rage and disappointment, but, actually, she loved it, and was busy for hours. She was actually disappointed when I gave her next treat toy to play with, the red ball, and she was able to empty it within minutes. Cricket likes a challenge.

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This is where Cricket uses her head.

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This is where Cricket guards her toy from the humans.

Now, if I try to let a day go by without filling the pink vase toy with treats, she gets grumpy, and insistent. She stands next to me as I fill up her toy and then she tosses it around the room, and hoards it under her couch, and does everything she can think of to make it give up its riches. I’m pretty sure that my face looks very much like that man in the occupational therapy video, full of joy, as I watch Cricket running after her toy and bouncing it into submission to get every last treat.

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“I need more treats. Now.”

Now, if only I could figure out how to set up a drone to take her for walks when it’s too cold for me. Does anyone know if a drone can be programmed to pick up poop?

 

 

Cricket’s Anxiety Disorder

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Cricket’s anxiety has increased tenfold since Miss Butterfly died this summer. It’s been five years since we’ve seen Cricket quite this clingy and over the top; not that she was calm and pleasant during Butterfly’s tenure, but she was at least demonstrably better. She’s at a level ten now (or an eleven, really), but for a few years she managed to get down to a seven, or even a six on occasion, with Miss B’s help. Now, Cricket is bullying her Grandma more than ever: physically pushing Grandma around, instead of just moping, and leaning on her, and making puppy dog eyes. If Grandma dares to eat something, Cricket will sit in front of her and yell – “Where’s mine!” – endlessly, until she gets her share. She doesn’t do this with me, partly because she knows I’m a harder nut to crack, but also because I know how to deploy “the look,” persistently, until she loses hope and hides under her couch in frustration. But giving that look wears me out, and the effect is only temporary.

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“Harrumph.”

 

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Cricket has her own version of “the look.”

 

The fact is, Miss Butterfly was the best medicine for all of us. She brought happiness and peace with her everywhere she went. Cricket was pretty sure Butterfly radiated calm from her butt, and therefore sniffed it regularly. Butterfly could even get in Cricket’s face, in a non-threatening way, and interrupt a tantrum.

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It seems obvious that my only option, for the sake of Cricket’s sanity, and Mom’s, is to go out and look for another dog, someone mature and generous and compassionate, to act as Cricket’s therapy dog when needed, and her friend the rest of the time. But I’m not ready. When I try to think about finding a replacement for Miss B, I fall apart. I know I‘m being selfish. I feel cruel leaving Cricket in her current state, just because I’m not ready to let go of Butterfly, and the illusion that she could come back, somehow.

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In the near future, we will be pet sitting for an old friend of Cricket’s, a nice old gentleman who used to be my therapy dog, and will now make an effort to bark Cricket into shape, if he can. And then we’ll see. Hopefully having Teddy around will also help me become ready for a new dog, but his Mom made me promise that I won’t try to keep him.

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We’ll see.

Dance Therapy

 

Something made me look into Dance Movement Therapy again. I follow a blog that often shares videos on this topic, but during the school year I was too busy to follow up on it, thinking, longingly, that it would be a great thing to be able to offer to the clients at my internship, and then when the internship ended, I thought, hey, what about me?

I loved to dance as a kid. I loved music and movement. I hated the wall of mirrors in my dance classes, and having to wear leotards and tights, but you can’t have everything. The problem was that, pretty quickly, I became self-conscious of my body and unwilling to move, and then unable to even imagine moving. The thing I could do least was to express myself with my body. I could follow instructions and do the steps as prescribed, but I couldn’t move as a way of speaking, because I was too afraid of what I would say and how other people would respond.

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I’ve always dreamed of having a dance movement therapist to help me with this. I love talk therapy, and it has worked well for me, but I’ve always wanted a chance to work in other areas, like music or dance or art, because that’s where a lot of my unfinished stuff is hiding. I am afraid of being seen as I am, and being judged as unworthy, untalented, disgusting, ugly, annoying, inarticulate, stupid. The list of epithets gets worse and worse, if I let it.

But even the snippets of Dance therapy I’ve been able to find online make me feel nervous, and alienated, and bring up my insecurities. I watch So You Think You Can Dance and I keep hoping that the language they create with their bodies will help make me more articulate by proxy, that watching them will help me learn how to express things I can’t express with words, but somehow what they do on the TV doesn’t translate into my body. It doesn’t say what I need to say.

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Cricket has tried to help me with this. She is all body language all the time. She has hundreds of specific facial expressions, and her dance vocabulary is intricate and exhaustive. But I can’t seem to learn these skills from her either. I’m sure part of the problem is that her particular body type and mine do not have much in common, but still.

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This is Cricket’s version of the twist

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This one is both a tongue stretch and a paw lift, a complex maneuver

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This move cannot be captured in words

 

I can’t even make a plan for what I’d want to work on with a dance therapist. When I try to imagine finally making an appointment and showing up, I feel like I’m going to jump out of a window, just to escape the horror. I don’t know what the horror is, though. I just know that it will be there, somewhere in the air, this miasma of pain and anxiety and self-loathing that I don’t know how to confront without having to feel it all at once, which will kill me.

My magical and unrealistic dream is that dance therapy will make me so free that I will be able to fly. Not for long distances, just for a second, the way Butterfly used to do out in the backyard.

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Cricket is always free. She stretches as a matter of course and goes outside without her clothes on every day. But, I don’t need to progress quite that far.

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The Secret Keepers

 

One of the primary concerns in social work is confidentiality. It is important for clients to feel secure enough with their social worker to share difficult information, and many social workers make a point of telling clients, right away, that anything they say will be kept private, expect in cases of danger to self or others. In the case of a social work intern, though, confidentiality has to include a few more caveats: What you tell me is just between you and me, and my supervisor, and my coworkers, and my teachers, and my classmates. You don’t mind, do you?

I read instructions from a social work class, at another school, where they specifically told the students to camouflage not just the name of the client they were writing about, but also identifying details in their physicality, personality, and life circumstances. We were not told to be that thorough in our classes. My fellow classmates and I tend to use initials in our assignments, if identification of a client is necessary, under the assumption that since we do not work at the same agencies the initials will not be identifiable to fellow students. But some people choose to use false names instead, to make the prose flow more smoothly. I’ve been tempted to go whole hog and use “Cookie Monster” or “Voldemort” for some of my class assignments, just to see if people are actually paying attention, but I haven’t done that, yet.

I don’t think dogs care about confidentiality, but I’m not sure. I’m hoping my dogs don’t care, because I share an awful lot of their personal information online. Cricket doesn’t seem to experience shame when her behavioral quirks are uncovered, like pooping on the mat by the front door overnight, or peeing in the quilting area in the back of the living room (though that could be because she believes it is my fault, because I failed to get up when she asked for an outing at three o’clock in the morning). Butterfly is unconcerned with her missing teeth, or any leftover poopy on her butt, when she goes outside to meet new people.

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“The pee was up to my eyeballs, what did you expect me to do?”

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“What? I think I look great!”

Dogs are the ultimate secret keepers, actually. Cricket has never told anyone information she alone was privy to about me. And Butterfly lets people think that I am strong and confident and secure, even though she knows different. The dogs accept me as I am, with all of my facets intact. They’ve never suggested that I should be fired as a dog Mom because I have this or that imperfection, though they do expect me to make it up to them in extra chicken treats.

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“Secrets are yummy!”

Maybe we should all go to doggy therapists, instead of the human kind, and then we’d never have to worry about confidentiality (unless you believe that dogs are capable of speech, and are just barking to keep up the ruse that they are dependent on us, and there is actually a secret network of doggy spies collecting information about their humans to send to the doggy version of the NSA, or the real NSA).

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“You’ll never know.”

The fact is, humans are not built for unconditional positive regard, even though that’s what therapist’s try to offer to their clients. Even the most generous-hearted therapist will find herself looking askance at a client for one or two of his decisions. Most dogs, though, have unconditional positive regard down pat. Human therapists carefully guard their boundaries, conscious of how physical behaviors, and offers of support, can be misconstrued by people in desperate need. Dogs don’t do this. Human therapists are also taught to hide their own needs and vulnerabilities from their clients, both to protect themselves and to protect clients from feeling responsible for meeting the therapist’s needs. Dogs have no problem walking up to someone, even someone in deep and unrelenting pain, and asking for affection, and offering affection in return.

Dogs listen openly and without an agenda, whereas most human therapists have a goal in mind for each session: to find out the client’s story, to uncover the blocks in their life, and to offer healthy options for forward movement. Dogs don’t interrupt; they are more classically Freudian in their approach, allowing the client to free associate, and just know that someone is listening to them.

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“We’re listening.”

But, there are a few ways that human therapists can be more helpful than dogs, especially when you are ready to move past the venting stage of the work. It’s possible that, while the unconditional positive regard of a dog can be healing, you may take the positive regard of a human more seriously, because you know that their regard is conditional and you must have done something right to be winning their approval. Human therapists are also more knowledgeable about problem solving, unless the problem you need to solve is where to find the best place to pee, or how to fully appreciate the sounds of the backyard.

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“I can help with that!”

 

The fact is, human therapists are more than just secret keepers, or a safe place to confess the things you don’t want anyone else to know, they are bridges and teachers and support systems to help you make the connections to the life you really want to be living. A life in which, hopefully, you will have a faithful dog at your side to give you unconditional love.

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