Category Archives: Psychotherapy

What are you Waiting For? Limbo vs. the Meantime.

“I’m waiting to hear.”

“I’m waiting to find out.”

“We were hoping to close before the end of the month but the buyers are stalling.”

“The doctor thinks it’s benign but we won’t have the results for another day or two.”

“My son applied to sixteen colleges.  We won’t hear until February.”

What are you waiting for?  In my case, there’s the writing-related waiting: for my teenage beta readers to finish with my YA novel so I can fix it and submit it; to hear from the couple of agents I’ve sent query letters to.  Then, there’s the family waiting:  to learn what my husband’s next job will be, to find out my daughter’s schedule, my son’s teacher—so I can get on with the back to school shopping already.  And of course, as it is for so many free-lance moms, though we’re loathe to admit it (sometimes), I’m waiting for school to start so I can get something done.  (Of course, back in June, I was waiting for summer to start so we could all relax a little!)

For review: I can’t shop until I know their schedules.  I can’t revise until I’ve gotten feedback.  Hear that message?   I can’t do X until another person does Y.   I’m in Limbo.  You’ve probably saidthat to someone recently.  If not, I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Webster’s defines Limbo (the secular definition) as “… an intermediate or transitional place or state of uncertainty.”

Limbo is a hard place to be.  Your life has been hijacked; everything is on hold, your eyes fixed on the uncertain future.  You’re a prisoner to the whims of others.  Checking your voicemail, the mailbox, the email, again, and again.  It can be a recipe for anxiety, irritability, and depression.  But guess what?  Limbo doesn’t own you.  You can choose to be free.

I know a woman who has survived cancer, bravely enduring the diagnosis and the painful, sickening rigors of treatment.  Then more treatment to make sure the first treatment really worked.    Then more tests and continued monitoring.  The waiting is never over for her, but somehow she refuses to see it that way.   “I can’t live my life in fear of the future.”  She has children who need her now; she has a husband, and a job, now.   She takes pleasure in her family and her garden, in beautiful weather and in rain, in cooking and in reading.  She gets scared sometimes, sad sometimes, and frustrated with people who try to make her dwell on illness when she’s focused on health.  But mostly she lives now, surrounded by people who love her, who appreciate her joie de vivre and who join her in the seizing of each day.  She’s grown strong on the love of life, exchanging hats for headbands, losing the headbands as hair grows back in.   Maybe one day it will be gone again, but now is what matters, her children and husband and friends.  The little things, like a phone call or an email that hasn’t come yet, some editor’s elusive approval—these wouldn’t faze her.  She may yet have all the time in the world, but she won’t waste a minute of it in Limbo.

I try my best to learn from this and I’m getting better.   When I start to get anxious and hyper-focused on the future—on the parts I have no control over (whether an agent will fall in love with my protagonist, whether I can make a feuding couple hear one another, whether my daughter will make friends in middle school)—I do a few things:

  • I sing.  In the shower, in the car, with my kids:   show tunes, the Beatles, Queen, Journey, Katie Perry, Taylor Swift, The Little Mermaid … anything.  Just sing.  It feels good, and I actually read a      study once that found singing enhances your mood.
  • I treat myself as if I were my own client.  I nurture myself, reality check, point out my own strengths or the strengths of my kids if it’s their uncertain futures I’m worrying about.
  • I breathe—like a yogi.  Full disclosure: I don’t do yoga, (the only reason being the time; if I have it to spare I’ll dance, which I never get to do enough).  However, a yogi friend of my husband’s taught him a series of deep breathing exercises, which he taught me.       And though this is third hand stuff, the deep breathing really does      help get me out of future-panic mode and back into the moment, the      present.
  • I read.
  • I connect with people I love and miss.  You know—the ones you’re too busy and angst-ridden to see?  Hearing about their lives takes you out of your own.   Cheer them on, console them if they need it, share yourself, laugh together.  Be in the moment together.
  • I think  about my mom, how she worries about me and my family just because we’re her children—how silly I think she is for doing it.  Everything is going to be fine, Mom, it really is.  And saying it to      her, I believe it.
  • I play with my kids.  Because they are the moment.
  • I hang out with my husband (oh yeah—him!)

These things are the opposite of Limbo:  they are how I make the most of the meantime.

When my father was dying, when my mother and I knew it would be soon, we were in a very trying kind of limbo.

“It’ll be any day now,” said the visiting nurse.  Any day now seemed like a pretty big margin of error.   In any case, we were in a holding pattern, as my mother described it.  We didn’t want to go too far or commit to anything.  We were determined to be with Dad when he passed.  The waiting went on for two whole weeks.

Then, the night before he died, my mother and I watched a movie together on the small TV set in the living room.  Though it wasn’t a comedy, the relief of doing something besides wait got the better of us and soon, we were both in stitches, enjoying each other, enjoying this small piece of life, though my father was leaving us gradually in the other room.*

We hadn’t abandoned him; he was in the care of a nurse who’d get us as soon as we were needed.  But during those two hours, we were free from Limbo, making the most of something beautiful in the meantime … life.

What about you?  When you find yourself in a holding pattern, what do you do to celebrate “the meantime?”

The Would-be Master of Compromise

Sometimes I wish I were Obama’s therapist.  Not that I think he suffers from any kind of mental illness, on the contrary, he may be the sanest man in Washington.  It’s just that I think anyone with a stressful life deserves someone to talk to, to help them manage daily frustrations without taking them out on loved ones, developing an ulcer, or worse.   I don’t know what the president’s out-of-network mental health benefits are—if any—but I’d take him on pro-bono, viewing it as my patriotic duty.

I’d start with the unraveling of his well-intended plan to be a “bridge builder” between left and right, to heal this country as a Master of Compromise.  Boy did he walk into a firestorm with that one.  But I understand all too well where he was coming from.    My hypothesis?  On some level at least, it’s a biracial thing.

There’s a sort of naïve, benevolent, yet hubristic thing you do as a mixed person.  You believe you can go anywhere, talk to anyone, say anything about any issue and be heard in a way you wouldn’t be if you couldn’t claim membership in so many groups.  You’re pliable, agile, adaptable, with loads of finesse (stored up from fitting in with relatives of both colors who might not have gotten you or trusted you at first, but who you now have wrapped around your finger).  You believe you can fit anywhere, join any group—even ones you weren’t born to.  You have black friends, white friends, East Asian, South Asian and Latino friends.  You get along with them all and believe, in some small part of your brain, that you have what it takes to make them all get along with one another.  You believe if you’re careful, if you’re nice, if you’re smart, if you speak the right way; you can pull anything off.

Being mixed is different for all of us, we all have different experiences, different attitudes, different alliances, different world views.  Even within a family, siblings have different lives.  The variables include family constellation, birth order, gender, age, education level, socioeconomic status, as well as physical things like hair texture, skin color, facial features.  Yes, the degree to which you “look black” affects your experience of being biracial.  For example, if you appear white—to whites and others—you may go through life feeling angry and misunderstood, even as you unwittingly reap certain privileges.  You might go out of your way to prove your blackness to others, becoming more Afro-centric than you might otherwise be.   I’ve seen this in colleagues, friends and psychotherapy clients alike.   If you appear black—to whites, to other blacks—if your mixed-ness is invisible, you might feel defensive about your dual heritage being constantly overlooked.  You might bend over backwards to avoid having black stereotypes pinned on you.  I’ve seen this contribute to eating disorders in young women (myself included), as well as anxiety and depression in young, professional men.

As a family therapist, I’ve worked with lots of interracial families and couples, as well as biracial individuals.  (Once word got out that there was a biracial family therapist in my very diverse town, I began getting almost weekly referrals from clients answering to those descriptions.)

On several occasions, I got intake calls from young men, hoping to make appointments—either for their families, with spouses or for themselves alone.  The voice on the other end would be soft, yet clear and chatty—total absence of accent, flawless diction.  The tone would be deferential: Doctor Rosenberg, they’d call me, though as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I am no such thing.

Gentle voices, polite patience, clipped consonants—fastidiousness about taking down the hours I was available and agreeing to my full fee without the slightest hesitation.

“That guy’s biracial,” I’d say to myself.  And four out of five times he was.  (The fifth time he was white and gay, but that’s another story.)

These guys presented as the polar opposite of the stereotypical angry, black man.  Some of them had gone through phases where they’d had to prove themselves to “the brothers,” acting “blacker” during high school, but then “whiter” during college, where success depended on not matching anyone’s stereotype.  By the time they got to me, these guys were mostly settled in being themselves, with flexible identities, stores of bicultural competence, a few different selves to wear depending on the occasion.  I didn’t consider this dishonest; they were just gauging the situation and coming prepared.  (During the intake calls, I’d been treated to their professional telephone voices.)

These men still had trouble expressing anger however.  They were the appeasers in their families, leaving wrathful outbursts to “whiter-looking” siblings; they were the quiet ones in their marriages, sighing wordlessly as their wives (who were a range of races) hurled accusations and went on tirades.

And yet, the exhausting task of controlling how they were seen, how they were judged, how they did or did not defy expectations, meant that the guys were often full of unexpressed rage.  One man—who had been bullied by employer after employer—said to me:

I can’t let myself get as angry as I feel; if I do, I’ll choke on it—or choke someone else.  Then I’ll have given them what they expect.

He settled that day for tears, which streamed down his face.  What, I wondered, would it have been like for him to stand up for himself in a healthy way?  How would he have been seen and how would he see himself?

I know anger can be destructive.  It can stand in the way of accomplishing great things.  When you are yelling, it is impossible for others to listen to your words.  But anger, channeled properly, can lead to action, to addressing injustice, to change.  Which brings me back to the president.

What would it have been like, Mr. Obama, to challenge your haters as soon as you took office?  When you learned how committed our Republican Congress was—not to working with you to save the economy, create jobs, invest in education and infrastructure—but to making you a one-term president?  I’m not in Washington, I’m not even in politics and sometimes I miss the news because I’m so preoccupied writing books about ballerinas and getting my kids to tennis on time.  Still, I noticed it, how long the list was, how it was growing, even as you took your oath on that blustery January day in 2009: the list of people devoted to purging you from the White House.  They’d stop at nothing.  Even when evidence pointed to your stimulus package’s effectiveness in preventing another 1929 style Depression, they blocked your continued efforts to boost the economy. They signed the Norquist Pledge, tying their own hands, even as they knew—they had to know—that all cuts, no taxes would only dig us into a deeper, more divided hole.  They knew that if they worked with you, if things improved, you would look good and their one-term dreams would go up in smoke.  It was more important to make you look bad than to help save the country.  You got that, but you got that too late, only after the hand you reached across the aisle got bitten a slew of times.  You believed too long in your own power to make a pie-in-the-sky dream of compromise come true.

But then again, I guess I share that with you, Mr. Obama, as I shared it with those young men I saw for therapy: this idea—often but not always misguided—that we are uniquely suited to build bridges wherever we go.  How very biracial of us.

Why am I sad? Anxiety in Disguise

I’d been encouraging my normally chipper eleven year old daughter to consider getting a new dresser, a bigger one where we wouldn’t have to annex pajamas to a shelf in her closet.  I’d shown her some in catalogues—which she normally loves poring over.  But she declined, with a defiant no that seemed disproportionate.

“Okay,” I said.  “No big deal.”  Just a dresser, just a suggestion.  Then I took a risk and asked why she’d snapped at me, if something was wrong.  She might have snapped again; she might have denied that she’d raised her voice (it’s what I might have done at her age) but she didn’t.  Instead she confessed to being grumpy lately.

“And I don’t know why,” she said.

My first thought was: uh-oh, here they come: the new moods of early adolescence.  But maybe it was something more fundamental than that.  Maybe it had to do with some Really Big Changes coming up in our family.

First, after nearly a three year sabbatical, during which I wrote two novels, choreographed three children’s musical productions and began blogging, I am resuming my psychotherapy practice which will mean a shift in everyone’s schedule as well as some form of childcare.  My kids are used to me being there all of the time; now they’ll have to adjust to most of the time.  Second, my husband is in the middle of a job transition, which means some extra stress and uncertainty.  On a lesser and more predictable note, my son is turning nine, which to me feels like a bigger deal than eight (“eight” sounds little still; “nine” not so much).

But the biggest change of all, the one we’re talking about the most anyway, is that my daughter is starting middle school, which, in our town, begins in sixth grade.  It’s not just that she’s going to a new school, bigger and further away than her old one, where she’ll have to take the bus instead of walking or being driven by me.  It’s not just that she’s saying goodbye to many old friends who are going to different schools or “hello” to a whole new crop of kids she doesn’t know (and whose parents I don’t know).   It’s all of these things and more: the unknown.  For most people, anxiety—identified or not—is a big part of venturing into unfamiliar turf.  And, as I know from personal and professional experience: anxiety can feel just like depression.  Especially if you throw a little sleep deprivation into the mix.  (My daughter is still recovering from a week of sleep-away camp.)

For me the change is significant too.  Becoming the parent of a middle schooler is the start of some new and really big words.  Adolescence.  Independence.  Inevitably Increased Screen Presence.  On some level, I believe myself to be prepared.  As a family therapist, I specialize in adolescence; for the six years I worked at the former Montclair Counseling Center, about fifty percent of my clients were teenagers; about twenty-five percent were families and couples who’d come into therapy to talk about issues related to their kids and teens.  I felt confident translating between teens and their parents.  I gave talks on the teenager-parent power struggle.

I’ve had countless kids tell me they felt a certain way or were acting a certain way—and didn’t know why.  Actually, my favorite part about being a therapist is tracking feelings.  I don’t know why I’m angry; I don’t know what’s making me sad.  Even in the case where moods are truly biological or chemical in origin, there are always triggers: losses, moves or other life events that contribute (which is why therapy is always recommended along with medication!).  It’s so normal, so common to be grumpy, grouchy, sad or however you manifest stress when things are in flux.  Day to day snapping at people, nightly bouts of tears, feelings of emptiness and I-don’t-know-why listlessness—when you trace them back, it’s not surprising to find something concrete that you didn’t think bothered you all that much.

I remember when I was nineteen, on a leave from college, about to move to the Midwest for the first time to join a mid-sized ballet company.  I was excited about living in an apartment of my own for the first time, not a dorm, paying my own rent, my own utilities, groceries, such as they’d be.  The best part was that dancing with a real ballet company had been my dream for as long as I could remember; now it was coming true.  I’d have my own pointe shoe order, an amazing repertoire to learn, not to mention a paycheck—a real pay check.  But why was I feeling down?  Why these unexpected crying jags at night?  The therapist I saw at the time made her usual quizzical-sympathetic face (a face I swore never to make once I became a therapist, right up there with the phrase how did that make you feel?) as she wondered aloud whether I was having some feelings about leaving home for the first time?

“Absolutely not,” I said.  “I can’t wait to leave.  Besides, it’s not the first time; I’ve been in college (one hour’s drive away) for over a year.”    And then I began to cry anew.

Well how about that?  Maybe I did have some feelings about leaving, about dancing full-time, about living in Ohio … about all the wild and crazy new-ness, the fear that maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it all.

Most people I know, clients as well as friends and family, suppress fears and worries to a degree, just to get through the day.  But it builds.  It can makes you sad or angry if you don’t explore what’s going on and sort it out.  You take it out on others, if not yourself.

When it comes to transitions, most people have plenty of fears and worries, even if the transition is something they’re thrilled about on some level.  A move to a new house, a new job, a new baby, a new school.  All can be hugely exciting; all can increase anxiety, bring on or exacerbate depression.   In a few weeks, my daughter will have a new school, new classes, a new bus, and new peers.  A Hogwarts-like house system, a specialized arts program, an audition for the school play the second week of school.  Going from a tiny school where every teacher knows and loves her, to an enormous school where no one knows her.  Going from being the oldest in the school to the youngest.  Lots and lots of changes.  Possibly enough to make anyone grumpy.   My therapist training had given me the skills to talk about this with kids.  But those were other people’s kids.  They were in my professional realm, not my personal one.  This was my own daughter.  Since I’m her mother, I am—by status, by role, and by virtue of the fact that I make her do things like make her bed and write thank-you notes—really annoying, which cuts down on the credibility I might have had with a tween client her age.   I had to choose my words and tread more carefully, wanting to be supportive, hoping to get her talking but not wanting to sound too therapist-y.

“Summer is ending,” I said, trying to sound neutral.  A cricket outside chortled its agreement.  “Think you might be feeling a little sad about that?”

“Maybe,” she said.

“And …” a deep breath, “middle school is coming up soon.  Any feelings about starting middle school?”

She assured me it wasn’t that.  “I can’t wait for middle school to start.”

But we talked a little more.  There were some details, she admitted, a few small ones, she might be wondering about.  Like the bus, like being in a House with the friends she’s got from elementary school.  Like some other stuff she hadn’t realized were on her mind.  We talked about the worries that she said weren’t really worries until her excitement about going to this big new place really took over.  Soon she was gushing about the cool things she’d heard from friends with older siblings who went there.  I’ve found this with clients too: when you’ve got mixed feelings about a transition: both thrills and doubts, you can only really enjoy the thrills once you’ve unpacked the doubts.   My daughter had moved on to the thrills, happily speculating about the future.  But I felt like I had to get in my therapeutic mama moment:

“It’s so normal,” I said.  “To worry about things even when you’re happy about them.  And sometimes, worries you don’t talk about can make you sad without knowing why.”  I was saying it after the fact; it might have been moot anyway at this point, but I said it.

“Hmm.”  She said, pretending to think it over, though really I think she was patronizing me.  She rolled over and went to sleep.  But I know she heard me.  And maybe next time the “grumpies” set in, we’ll have a good place to start.

Bulimia Time

A few years ago I met a woman who lived at night.  She was a forty-something suburban mother, like myself, with a kind husband, a dog, and four beautiful children, aged thirteen to nineteen.*  As her seventeen year old daughter’s psychotherapist, I’d summoned her for a family session.   I wanted to discuss something that had come to my attention: this mother routinely stayed up all night and slept the day away.   She was not an insomniac; she was up working, mostly, on her computer.  I don’t remember what kind of work she did, but I do know it could have easily been done during the day, when her children were in school.  She could have met them at the school bus, spent the afternoon with them, joined the family for dinner and so on, engaging in normal family life and hours.  Instead, she stayed up while they slept, then slept for most of the hours her children were awake.   At a time when the daughter was developmentally programmed to separate from her mother, the girl was avoiding her peers, desperately seeking her mother’s company.  The daughter would even sneak out of school early, hoping to join her mother for one precious hour or two before Mom turned in.

The father, though a self-described patient man, was getting tired of being the sole parent on duty; the teenage boys were fighting and cutting school.  The teenage girls, my client in particular, were growing sullen and incommunicative.   It’s my fault, the mother said, tearily.  No one argued with her.

I took in the creases beneath her pretty blue eyes, the familiar, slightly lopsided jaw, the tell-tale jowliness on one side of her face, but not the other.  Though my own eyes are brown, it was like looking into a mirror: this mother was either an active, or recently recovered, bulimic.

I too used to live in those hours, binging and purging the night away while the world slept.  I had no children then, but a job—at first dancing with a ballet company, later teaching at a girls’ school.  I’d live my daytime life, smiling, talking, functioning as called for, deferring my pain or stress to the wee hours when I could stuff them down with food and then expel them, flush them.  In place of the pain there would be this high.  This sense of being invincible, though at the same time, I believed I was living on borrowed time.  I ignored the near-constant heart palpitations, the sweats and shakes; I was used to them.  I’d been coping with life this way since high school.  Bulimia was like breathing.  The days were numb; the late nights were mine alone.

It took three years of cognitive behavioral therapy (which I began at the age of twenty-three) but at last I learned to live, eat and care for myself emotionally and physically.   I’ve been lucky.  Not only do I have a full relationship with my husband, I’ve had two easy pregnancies, where I relished the changes in my body.   When I look at my two wonderful kids, I sometimes shudder to think what it would be like be to manage an eating disorder and parenting responsibilities—how much of each other we’d be missing.

At the next family session, I asked to meet with my clients’ parents alone.  Again, the father complained about the mother’s hours, citing her absence for the daughter’s problems.  The mother wept: I don’t mean to be this way.   I leaned forward and smiled as gently as I could.  I don’t know whether or not she recognized it as a conspiratorial smile—the secret sisterhood of recovered bulimic mothers.  I knew the tears in my own eyes were glistening, though I knew better than to let them fall in session.

I said, “You’re still living on bulimia time, aren’t you?”

She was surprised but looked relieved, not offended.  She smiled despite her tears.  “Yes.”   No one, least of all her patient husband, had understood what that meant.  When we spoke privately, the mother explained that she had a wonderful individual therapist who specialized in eating disorders.  She’d recovered from the bulimia itself, she said, but she could not let go of the nighttime.   Since I was not her therapist I did not ask her why it was so hard to give up those hours.  For me it was the quiet and the peace, but mostly this strange sense that sleeping meant giving up—on something.  I can’t remember what.

Not long ago, I saw the mother out walking her dog in the sunshine, looking strong and content.  I was glad to see that she’d joined the daytime world as I had.

Sometimes the wee hours still call me.  Sometimes I still haunt when my family goes to bed.  I’m more likely to be writing, maybe surfing the internet, reading other people’s blogs, than eating, but still—I’m up.  I think of how easy it would be to go back there, not to the illness itself, but the schedule, the madness of the vigil, which I still don’t quite understand.  So I shut down my computer.  And force myself off to bed.

* I have changed a few details about the family structure for the sake of confidentiality.

Sixty Year Old Girl on a Treadmill: Stress, Food and Body Issues at Any Age

There’s been a lot of press in the past few years about older women (meaning me and up) struggling with body image problems and eating disorders.   Headlines include: An Older Generation Falls Prey to Eating Disorders ,

Eating disorders are common in older women, study shows, and

Face Of Eating Disorders Changing: More Older Women Struggle With Disorders .

Though the articles are well-written, well-researched and in many ways validating, I couldn’t help thinking: this is no surprise.  I know women of all ages who are affected by how they view their own bodies–enough for things to cross the line into a full-blown eating disorder.   I’ve known women who have moved from their twenties into their thirties, who cannot release themselves from an adolescent standard of thinness, who struggle with infertility as a result.  I’ve known women who develop body image issues for the first time at the onset of menopause.

So … Why do Older Women Wind up with Eating Disorders? 

One reason is relapse.

Now, it’s common knowledge that teenage girls have body image problems. (Not all, and yes: we now know that boys do too, but when we think of eating disorders, we tend to think of teenage girls.  When we watch a TV show in which someone has an eating disorder, that someone is usually a teenage girl or a woman in her very early twenties.)   But you don’t just “get over” an eating disorder because you hit thirty.   Eating disorder specialists know that making the illness go away and stay away is a grueling, often lifelong process.  Therefore, it is not a surprise that many of these “older” women developing eating disorders had them when they were teens.

The psychic reverberations of eating disorders are likely to be felt when stress runs high.  I’ll use myself as an example.  While I never starve myself any more, while I never binge and purge, if I’m really struggling with my work or otherwise going through a rough patch, my positive body image is the first to go.  I can look at myself in the mirror and be perfectly content, then an hour later, after tossing outa whole chapter that just wasn’t working (though I’d been revising it for days), I can look in the same mirror again and see something completely different.  A distorted version of myself that in younger days I called huge.  I wasn’t anything like “huge” then.  I’m not now either, but it was my word for uncertainty.   I was convinced that “fixing” my weight (erasing my own hugeness) would make the rest of my life—if not perfect, manageable.

In the olden days (my tweens, teens and early twenties), it was almost as if calling myself something harsh would neutralize my anxiety.  My Punishing Self was in charge and would whip me—my body, my coursework, my dancing—into shape.  I wouldn’t feel so out of control.

At this point, I’ve been in recovery for so many years, I know what my triggers are: mostly worries about not being good enough in some area of my life.  I know how to get through the trigger situations without taking it out on my thighs, but it still happens.  Not the eating disorder itself, but the feelings of self-doubt that once evolved into one.  As a therapist, I’ve had enough training to know how to counter the negativity, to stop myself, to walk away from the mirror and get on with life.  But I can easily see why the recidivism rate is so high among eating disorder survivors.

Another Reason is Holding onto Who We Used to be.

Some of the articles describing this phenomenon mention the usual: unrealistic ideals of female beauty that become more elusive with each passing year.  One mentioned that older women should have more role models with realistic bodies.  I found that a little hard to swallow.  I don’t think at our age we’re looking at the big screen or the small screen for role models.  I also think many of us are surrounded by realistic, healthy. diverse images of female beauty: our best friends, our sisters, our neighbors—we come in all shapes and sizes and the “perfect-looking” girls we were intimidated by in high school are hard now fewer and farther between.

In any case, I just don’t think most women over forty are trying to look like (who’s hot now?) Megan Fox, or Zoe Saldana.  I don’t even think most of us are looking at Kelly Ripa or Gwyneth Paltrow,  and saying god I have to look like that.  I’d wager though, that for some of us, the image we aspire to, hold onto, compete with and, in many cases are tormented by, is that wedding photo sitting on the mantelpiece: our younger, pre-baby, pre-forty selves.  Regardless of how flawed or flawless we think we were, that image has probably evolved somewhat.  Were you known for looking a certain way?  Did you always get compliments for being tiny, buff, a voluptuous hour-glass?  That body-reputation is part of your identity.  As it ages, the changes can be unnerving.  Who am I now?  Accepting a different body image may be part of the life cycle—for some, a hard part.

Coping with Stress: Reaching for another Cookie, or—on the other hand—Refusing to Get off the Elliptical.

Being busy, holding ourselves to high standards in every area of our lives gets brutal sometimes.  Some women use food as a refuge (I’m treating myself, I don’t have time for a nap or a pedicure).  Others get carried away with dieting to “get healthy.”  Decreasing numbers on a scale can be addictive: evidence that we’re accomplishing something, getting results—no matter what else we may be struggling with.

We women seem to put on new hats with each passing year—between work, children, spouses and ex-spouses, caring for aging parents, commitments at our synagogues or churches, book group, cooking, laundry.  With our kids entering adolescence (or wrapping it up and fleeing the nest) we’ve got just as many variables as they do, just as many balls in the air, with menopause fast approaching (or having come, gone and left its mark).  Food is often the one area where we retain some control (who shops in your house?).

As mothers, we are responsible for feeding our families—making it taste good enough for kids and partners to gather ’round the table, but keeping it healthy enough for us all to enjoy each other for a long time to come.  As women, our bodies are changing (yet again), and like it or not, many of us feel responsible for controlling that.   Compulsive over- or undereating for stress relief is not uncommon.

Sometimes it’s Easier to Make a Teen go to the Doctor than to Seek Help Yourself.

I think teenagers are more likely to get help for disordered eating patterns primarily because they are still children and, to some degree, being looked after by parents.  Also, friends are talking about eating disorders, looking for symptoms in one another and seeking the help of adults (hopefully).  Adult women don’t necessarily have that support.  If it’s up to us, we may muddle through until something drastic happens, like collapsing on the treadmill.  That actually happened to a friend of a friend, who’d been feeling victorious about losing thirty pounds, much of which her doctor—and husband–wished she’d kept.  The important thing is for friends, sisters, cousins and partners to look out for one another, for women who suspect their own behaviors around food are changing in destructive ways to seek help: an individual therapist or a support group.

So, Your Body Changes; You’re still You.

Our bodies are inextricably connected to our identities, I don’t think there’s a way of getting around that, but it’s imperative to remember that the shape we’re in is only a small part of who we are.  As women we are all individually diverse, multi-talented, and beautiful in our own unique and ever-changing ways.

License to Write Outside Your Self

I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams.  

License to Write Outside Your Self

William Styron took on Nat Turner , made his version of the rebel slave real to readers.  Anne Rice did the same with the Vampire Lestat —an undead male of her own fabrication from 18th Century France.  In White Teeth, Zadie Smith did this with people of multiple ethnicities, only two of which she shared.  In She’s Come Undone,  Wally Lamb wrote so convincingly as Delores, a young, troubled girl—got inside her head, made you feel as if you were Delores—that I had to keep checking the front cover, incredulous that a man had written the book.

It happens all the time: a writer brings to life a character who is unlike himself or herself in many ways and manages to pull it off masterfully.  Without stereotyping (though unfortunately, that happens too).  Verisimilitude is so important in fiction, so in such cases lots of research is imperative.  But still, how does a writer justify taking on a character with whom he or she has little or nothing in common?  How does a writer feel entitled?

The twins in my WIP are both compilations of people I knew when I was dancing, with traces of some of my adolescent psychotherapy clients mixed in.  I made my character sketch over a year ago, but as I’ve been writing, the twins’ personalities and identity struggles have evolved and gained dimension.  But knowing them better actually highlights how different they are from me, especially Oliver.

Olivia is easier, she’s a female, pre-professional ballet dancer whose body is different from that of the ideal ballerina.  Though I am biracial and she is white (the twins are of Irish and Italian descent, which I’ll address in another post), though Olivia is plagued by other people’s criticisms while I suffered most from my own negative body image, I can speak as her with some authority.  I know what her toes feel like after a long day at rehearsal; I know what it’s like to get your period in the middle of pas de deux class when your partner is the guy you have a crush on.

Olivia’s twin brother, on the other hand, is removed from my personal experience in many ways.  Oliver is not only white, male, seventeen, and a math and physics whiz (who uses these skills to perfect his dancing), he also has the classic ballet physique (unlike his sister, unlike me).  And lastly, most importantly in this story, he is gay.

Being gay is not generally a strike against a guy in the ballet world itself; Oliver knows plenty of others like him as well as having strong role models who are out and proud of who they are.  But outside the ballet world—at his “regular” school, in his family, he’s faced what any LGBT or questioning teen might face, including bullying peers and a parent who can’t accept him.

Oliver has every advantage in ballet: turn-out, Feet (with a capital F, meaning gracefully high arches, a ballet dancer’s prize), musicality, extension, elevation—the list goes on.  He would seem to lead a charmed life.  But the twins’ homophobic father is determined to stop Oliver from pursuing the career he is clearly made for.  Dad, though supportive of Olivia’s ballet dreams, has other plans for Oliver: a career with great financial rewards, hopefully in finance or engineering.  It isn’t always clear whether Dad’s protests against ballet (for Oliver) are a smoke screen for his anti-gay sentiments.  In any event, Oliver’s biggest conflict is longing to be accepted and loved by his father, even as he claims and is claimed by Ballet—a world his father disdains.

When I was dancing I knew so many guys like Oliver: beautiful, talented, and bright, who seemed to have it all together now that they were a world that loved them for their gifts without judging their orientation.  Often these were the guys I had crushes on in my youth–both before and after I learned that my affection was unlikely to be returned.  Sometimes I was jealous of guys like this because I believed they held all the power.  (Which I will explain in yet another post).  But I only saw these real life “Olivers” in the context of the studio, not with their families, not in settings where they’d been discriminated against or attacked.  That side of the story I didn’t learn much about until I worked as an adolescent psychotherapist.

Of the kids I saw in my practice who were gay, bi or questioning, I am glad to say that a good percentage of their parents were supportive of their orientations.  (Peers tended to be more of a problem.)  Some parents were dismissive though, refusing to believe the child’s statement, others were in denial, believing that this was a “phase.”  I knew only one angrily unsupportive father of a boy who had come out.   This man made a point of not attending family sessions, though I tried to get him in.

What is compelling for me about Oliver is how he longs for his father’s love and approval, how not having it takes a terrible emotional toll no matter how supportive the ballet world is.  (Contrast that with Olivia’s situation: in Dad’s eyes she is perfect, but the ballet world cannot love her as she is.)  Oliver’s cross to bear will always be the condition of not being the son his father wanted.  I think this is something that many people can relate to.

Writing this book is a process–sometimes thrilling, sometimes kind of scary, but it’s less scary when I remind myself that this is only a first draft.  When it’s done I get to revise, which is the fun part.  In the meantime, I’ll do as much research as I can, let my characters speak—no matter how different they are from me—and grant myself license to tell their story.

Ruth Rosen’s Black Granddaughter

My maternal grandparents, Ruth and Ben Rosen, sometime in the 1930s

I usually tell the story of my grandmother with about as much emotion as I’d have making a grocery list.  People might say, That’s so awful!  (I’ll shrug.)  How could you not be hurt?   I’ll swear I wasn’t.  How can you miss something you’ve never had?

But one day, just as an exercise, I tried to write about Ruth Rosen—my mother’s mother—and was surprised to find myself awash in angry tears.  Maybe her total failure to acknowledge me, her only black grandchild, was a bigger deal than I’d thought.  I wasn’t in denial of the rejection, only of the fact that it did—does—hurt.

Growing up as an only child, I never wanted for adult attention.  My parents surrounded themselves with a family of friends, many of whom were older and saw me as their own grandchild.  I had five Bubbies (a term of affection for a Jewish grandmother).  They knitted me things, bought me fancy dresses, came to Grandparents’ day at my school, were at our home on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, my dance recitals.

Three of my four actual grandparents—my dad’s parents and my mother’s father—were dead by the time I was born (sixteen years into my parents’ marriage).  As for Ruth, she met me just once, when I was a baby.

Though my grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant and delicatessen—she sat shiva for my mother when she married my father.  It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in 30 states, though not Illinois, where they’d wed.  My mother was a nice Jewish girl who had never made a wave her whole life and now this.  Married a schvartze.  Ultimately, my mother and her mother would resume some form of a relationship—never a good one (it never had been), just enough to be on speaking terms.  So, when I was about a year old, Ruth came to visit when she knew my dad was at work.  A widow at the time, she’d brought along her latest beau, a septuagenarian named Henry.  Ruth had come to see my mother, but Henry was all over me:

“Ruth, you gotta come see.  This is a really cute baby!”

None for me thanks, approximated Ruth’s response.  She couldn’t look, let alone touch me.  It was too much.

Nevertheless, I grew up happy, without giving my grandmother much thought.  Who was she to me anyway?  But now and then it would occur to me—as the stand-in Bubbies and Zaidas took pictures at my birthday parties, applauded my impromptu puppet shows—that my grandmother was missing out on me.  If she met me, I thought, if she gave me a chance, I was sure I could win her over.  I was a cute baby, a pretty cute kid as well.  Who wouldn’t want to be my grandma?  I didn’t say this to my parents; I knew they’d start talking about racial prejudice and other things I had no interest in as a child, so I kept the idea to myself.

My grandmother died in 1987 when I was almost twenty-one.  I’d spoken to her on the telephone exactly once.  She was already dying by then and my mother had flown down to Florida to visit.  My father needed to speak with my mother one night when I was home visiting.

“You make the call,” Dad said, because he knew it wouldn’t do for Ruth to hear his voice.

I called.  My grandmother answered.  It was my mother’s voice only deeper, scratchier.  I knew it, though I’d never heard it before.

“This is Lisa.”  I said, sounding like a frightened ten year old.  “May I please speak to my mother?”  I didn’t realize I was shaking until I got off the phone.  When my father hung up, I burst into tears and then screamed at him for making me do it.

To Dad, my grandmother’s rejection of me was an extension of her rejection of him, nothing personal.  She’d never met either one of us, after all.  To my father, racism itself wasn’t personal; it was just a fact he’d known as long as he had been walking this earth.  But now, as he held his sobbing daughter, he got it.

The woman on the line with the voice like my mother’s may have been a monster, but she was still my grandmother.  All my life I’d been protected from her hatred, bathed in love and praise to compensate.  But at the same time, I’d been prevented from trying to reach her and make things right.  My parents knew it wouldn’t have worked, but I didn’t know.  Part of me still thinks I could have done it: gotten her to like me.  Of all her grandchildren, I’m the only one who took to the stage.  I was thin, occasionally glamorous, kind of crazy and a little narcissistic.  My grandmother was all of the above (except for taking to the stage).  She was even a flapper in her day: long cigarette holder, snappy Zelda Fitzgerald hair and all.  Maybe she would have liked me in spite of herself.

In any case, she’s my unfinished business, the origin of many of my hang-ups.  I am a tireless people pleaser; I am non-confrontational to a fault; I have a hard time standing up for myself and sometimes even for my children.  I’m a therapist too.  If I were my client I might surmise that these traits stem from my unresolved grandmother issues: without her elusive love, fully loving myself has been more of a challenge than it might have been otherwise.

Therapists go to therapy and I have.  It’s helped.  But writing has done more: transformed my feelings, replacing self-pity with self-knowledge.   That’s what writers do: untangle the tangles within, and hopefully do some untangling for readers along the way.