This is Not a Drill

When I was in about 3rd or 4th grade, my classmates and I had all the standard safety drills in elementary school.  Fire drills, tornado drills, and the like.  There was one drill though, that I remember doing only once, which was the active shooter drill.  I don’t know that they called it exactly that at the time, but I do remember that they made all of us kids run zig-zag from the stairs of the school to the playground down the field and into the woods behind the playground, hiding wherever we could.  I remember it being somewhat odd that we had this new drill, and at some point they explained to us that if someone ever came into the school and started shooting, that this is what we were supposed to do.   I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta in a good school district.  Overall it was a great place to grow up, and felt safe most of the time (though not always).  This drill seemed a bit of an outlier, as though the district had heard about shootings in other schools and thought they should be prepared, just in case.  Never mind that the strategy they adopted was totally wrong and unsafe given our current knowledge of active shooter survival.  I’m sure they were doing the best they could back in the 80’s when this kind of danger was relatively new to the public consciousness.  These days, though, an active shooter with an AR-15 and hundreds of little kids zig-zagging across a playground is a recipe for our next national tragedy.

Fast forward to 1999, and I was a senior in high school.  In April of that year, the Columbine shooting rocked the national news.  Prior to that, news of violence in urban school districts was not unheard of, and discussions about guns in schools and how to keep schools and students safe were certainly in the public discourse.  The Columbine shooting was different, however, for many reasons.  The affluent, mostly white suburban school, the arsenal of weapons, the bombs, the depressed, gun-obsessed teenagers who idolized Timothy McVeigh, the suicides.  It was horrifying.  Not long after the shootings, a copycat began calling in bomb threats to my high school.  It was always around the same time of day on the same days of the week.  I was always in art class, which was located across the hallway from the school nursery, where the babies of students and teachers were.  My fellow art students and I would jet across the hallway and grab a baby before running across the street to a community center, where we stayed with the babies until their parents came to pick them up.  Even as I write this now, it sounds totally insane.  I didn’t go to a hard core inner city urban school. It was in a middle class, diverse, low crime town.  The bomb threats continued for weeks, and to my knowledge, they never caught the person.  It became clear pretty soon that whoever was calling the bomb threats in was pulling a prank to get out of a certain class, but in the aftermath of Columbine it seemed impossible to feel truly safe in that context.  Years later, in college and afterwards, when I would tell people about the drills and the bomb threats, they were horrified.  “What kind of school did you go to?  Oh you’re from Atlanta? That must’ve been so scary! They must have some really bad schools where you lived!”  Well… no, not exactly.   What kind of school did I go to?  A good one, or so I thought.

Now, that term has no meaning.  There is no such thing as a “good school.”  There is no school where children can be kept safe from gun violence, from bullying, from racism, from sexual harassment or assault, from exposure to drugs and alcohol, not even from predatory teachers.  As hard as we try to put in policies and security procedures, and codes of conduct and mental health resources, we have been unable to protect our children from the world that we have created.  A world in which violence is glorified and murder makes you a celebrity.  A world in which anger is the most readily accessible emotion and violence an acceptable recourse when you feel provoked.  A world in which we are quick to label violent criminals as part of the mental health crisis, yet refuse to properly fund community mental health centers, or put social workers in every school, or teach basic communication and conflict resolution skills to children.  Teachers are vilified, blamed, and punished for classroom problems that originate in the home, yet we refuse to give teachers the support they need from social workers and school psychologists to help families become successful in the classroom.  I say families, and not just children, on purpose.  Families need to be treated as a whole, to ensure that we see and address all areas in which the family is struggling.  We keep insisting that test scores are the best way to measure a child’s potential and progress, scores which completely ignore a child’s emotional, social, and psychological progress.  While politicians starve our public schools of resources and ignore the needs of the mentally ill and struggling families, we have turned our anger on each other, vilifying our fellow citizens and digging our heels into the culture wars to make up for the lack of a functioning public sphere.

Our schools should not be war zones, yet that’s what many of them have been for decades, and any attempts by parents to get their kids into a “good school” are increasingly fruitless.  There is no panacea to solve the culture of violence that has resulted in the mass shooting epidemic that we are currently suffering through.  It cannot be solved with thoughts and prayers, it cannot be solved by banning bump stocks, or raising the age to purchase certain weapons, or bringing religion into schools.  It cannot be solved by school resource officers, as we so crushingly discovered during the Parkland shooting, and it cannot be solved by instituting more anti-bullying campaigns.  Trying to imagine any of the teachers that I grew up with as pistol-packing renegades seems not only incredibly dangerous and ineffective, but incredibly unfair given the sacrifices and responsibilities that we already expect from teachers and our refusal to pay them properly for the amazing work they are doing every day.   We are way beyond all of those ideas now.  People continue to shout their ideas for solutions, and many of those ideas have merit, while others seem reactionary and insufficient.  I am not going to pretend to know all the answers.  I certainly have my own opinions about what I would like to see happen, but I fear that nothing we can do at this point will be sufficient without an enormous cultural shift that our country seems unprepared for and unwilling to recognize.  The problems that go into the making of an active shooter are deep and resonating throughout our culture.  Lack of empathy, isolationism, misogyny and racism, rampant abuse and violence in our neighborhoods, families, schools, and media, easy access to weapons ranging from hunting weapons to handguns to military style assault rifles, glorified violence on television both fictionalized and reality based: all of this has indoctrinated us to the point where we don’t even try to stop the violence any more, we just try to prepare for it.

I am sick.  I am sick of this culture of violence.  I used to get angry when I would hear people say that they don’t like to watch the news because they don’t like to see all the violence and terrible things going on in the world.  How could they just turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not all happening?  I understand this more now.  It comes from a feeling of abject helplessness in the face of the world we have created.  It comes from a sense of self-protectionism, akin to hiding in a closet while a gunman murders your classmates.  I used to watch Law & Order episodes like a junkie.  Ditto the ID Investigations, and Forensic Files, and other reality based crime shows.  However, after years of working with victims of violence and abuse in my real-life job, I cannot see violence as entertainment anymore.  I don’t ignore it, I can’t ignore it, and my job necessitates that I continue to confront it daily.  Yet I can’t shake the feeling of helplessness and self-protectionism.  So I will continue to battle as I have always done, one life at a time, one client at a time, and one family at a time, which includes my own.  This is the only way I know how to fight back against our cultural sickness.

A few weeks ago, my daughter filled me in on some of the 2nd grade struggles going on in her school that week.  A student did not want to include one of her friends in their games, and was trying to get the other kids to leave the other kid out.  This upset my daughter because she didn’t want her friend to be left out.  We processed this for a while, but she came to her own conclusion: “I’m going to stick up for my friend tomorrow”.   “I think that’s a good idea, I’m proud of you,” I said.  Meanwhile, back at work in my office, we prepared for another annual active shooter drill.  So when the alarm came on via my computer and cell phone, alerting to the fact that there was an active shooter (exercise) on premise, I closed and locked my office door as instructed, and listened as we heard pretend gun shots, people running through the halls, and the first responders practicing their take down in the building.  Back in elementary school, zig-zagging across that field, it seemed silly, remote, and implausible.  Sitting in my office that day, listening to shots fired and the boots running through the hallways, it felt more real than ever before.

It’s on all of us to change the culture that has created this mess that our children are now paying for with their lives.  What each of us can do is going to be different.  Perhaps engaging in the policy battles and protests, perhaps donating to or volunteering with your local school systems or other organizations, perhaps changing your buying or viewing habits to promote more of what you want to see and support, and less of what continues to sicken us.  I can’t come up with a catch-all prescription and say “here’s the solution, this will fix it”.  I just know that most of us can do something, including our feckless leaders, and we all have to be a part of creating the world our children deserve.  I will continue to hope that we can make progress together, despite the political barriers that seem insurmountable at this time.  I can increasingly sense the desperation, the anger, and the futility that is seeping into every area of our society.  I’m not willing to give up, though I understand why people do.  When it feels overwhelming, I try to remember that even though I can’t change everything I want to change about our culture, I can still be responsible for my little corner of the universe.  I know that small scale change leads to bigger changes later on.  If anything is clear to me now, it is that change comes from the bottom up, not the top down.  To me, that means working on myself, on my own family, with my clients, with my friends, and with my community.  I want bigger change, but I can’t single handedly pull it off.  To that end, bottoms up.

Are you Parenting your Partner?

I see a lot of clients for marital/relationship counseling, and one of the most common and frustrating factors that people struggle with when they come to see me is something that I call the Parent/Child Dynamic.  This happens when one partner has taken on the role of the Parent, or Director, in the relationship, and the other partner is stuck in the role of the Child, or Adolescent.  In these relationships, one person is basically in charge of knowing what needs to be done, and they end up having to ask, direct, or otherwise nag their partner to complete responsibilities that need to be handled.  This is an unhealthy relationship pattern for many reasons, but it’s not the fault of one partner of the other.

Honestly, the way I see this dynamic play out most often occurs with a woman in the role of Parent, and a man in the role of Child/Adolescent.  However, this is by no means the only way it happens.  I’m going to use the example of a woman in the Parent role to illustrate my points here, but be aware that these roles can occur in any relationship with either partner taking on these two roles.  In this situation, the woman/Parent is constantly having to tell her partner what chores need to be done, what bills need to be paid, what child-care responsibilities need to be attended to, what planned events or activities need to be prepared for, what needs to be purchased at the store, what pet care duties need to be fulfilled, and on and on and on.  Often, I hear from the partner in the Child/Adolescent role “I don’t mind doing whatever she needs, she just needs to ask me”.  It sounds like cooperation, but it’s really a form of relinquishing duty.  In this example, the woman is in charge of knowing everything that needs to be taken care of, and is in charge of making sure everything gets completed on time and as needed.  The man essentially can say he is helping and cooperating, but he takes no part in being pro-active about responsibilities.  This dynamic is damaging to relationships because the relationship is not functioning as a partnership, but as a Parent/Child relationship.

For the person in the parent role, it’s exhausting.  You didn’t sign up to parent your partner, you wanted someone who would share responsibilities, support you in both tangible and intangible ways, and be, well, your Partner.  For the person in the adolescent role, it’s equally frustrating.  After all, you didn’t sign up to be treated like a child, nagged about your duties, and punished verbally or emotionally when you didn’t do your chores.  It’s infantilizing, and for men, also emasculating.  In most cases, you both came into this relationship looking for a partner, and when it starts to feel like you’re in a Parent/Child relationship, it’s going to start to feel less like a partnership and more like a drag.  No one wants to be treated like a child, and no one wants to have to nag their partner like a parent.  Even worse, sometimes the person in the adolescent role will become resentful about being treated like a child, and will begin “acting out”, by saying they will complete certain tasks and then “forgetting”, or just saying they will do it later and then dragging it out until their partner starts nagging them again, causing more frustration, resentment, and even arguments.

The solution here requires both partners to make some changes.  First, you need to have an open discussion with each other if you feel that this is the kind of dynamic that is developing in your relationship.  You need to both recognize the role that you have been playing and discuss what you really want your partnership to look like.  If you have been in the adolescent role, recognize that it is not your partner’s job to tell you what needs to be done around the house, remind you of the responsibilities that you agreed to, and direct all functions of the household duties.  You’re an adult, so act like it.  Don’t want to be nagged about taking out the trash or helping with dishes or children?  Then start being more pro-active about what needs to be done so your partner doesn’t have to “assign” you chores to do.  In some circumstances you can both agree about what needs to be done and assign who is responsible for doing it.  However, in my opinion, this is not ideal.  Chore lists are for teenagers, not adults.  If you don’t want to be treated like a teenager, then act like an adult.  It’s fine to have some general roles if you both prefer to do certain tasks.  For example, one person may be primarily responsible for mowing the lawn or cooking dinner.  These divisions may occur naturally based on what each partner prefers to do or is more capable of doing well.  That’s not a problem.  But all partnerships require some give and take, and if you notice something needs to be done, just do it.  There’s no point in keeping score.

If you have been in the parent role, you may be in for some frustration as you try to make these changes.  It will be hard to refrain from engaging in your role as director and assigner of duties if you have been used to doing this, because if the pattern continues, you will see things that need to be done and either end up doing them yourself, or feeling secretly insane inside as you wonder when and if your partner is going to step up and do what needs to be done.  This will take some adjusting because while you are used to knowing what needs to be done, and when and how to do it, you will need to allow some space for your previously adolescent partner to step into their new adult role.  Give it some time, because one of the most important parts of fixing this problem is that you refrain from asking multiple times for something to be done, or reminding your partner of the things they said they would do.  If you get frustrated and start asking multiple times or reminding your partner over and over about something they said they would do, the pattern starts to get further engrained.  Sometimes, unpleasant things may happen, like the trash piles up or a bill incurs a late fee.  I know, I know, this shouldn’t happen.  But you are trying to break unhealthy patterns, and you must give your partner some space to feel the consequences of their own inaction rather than you pointing it out to them all the time.  People will not grow up and take responsibility if you always fix everything for them, nor if you criticize how they do everything.  If your partner feels like they can never do anything right, they will likely just stop trying.

These changes are not going to happen if you do not talk openly and frankly about what the problem is beforehand.  For example, if you have, in the past, tried to passively stay silent while the lawn went un-mowed or the dishes piled up, “testing” your partner to see how long it would take them to notice and step up to the work that needs to be done, then continuing that pattern is not going to help.  You have to figure out how to walk the line between direct communication about what you both need and expect from your partnership, and being the director and supervisor of everything.  This means that you may need to let go of some of the things you want to control.  The towels may not be folded the way you like them and you might run out of toilet paper.  Partnership is a growth process.  As individuals, we all have to make adjustments when we choose to become a partner to someone else.  If you want that partnership to develop in a healthy way, you need to recognize that it is not your partner’s responsibility to conform to what you want them to be.   You both need to make adjustments to find the dynamic that works for you both.  But don’t allow an unhealthy dynamic to fester and grow in your relationship.  You both need to be part of the solution, so recognizing and talking about the Parent/Child dynamic and how it is damaging your partnership is a good place to start changing.

Self-Care: We’re Talking about it Wrong

As someone in a caregiving profession, I know all about “self-care”.  Other people in caregiving professions and  high stress jobs are frequently reminded that we need to take care of ourselves in order to ensure our long lasting ability to continue to perform our work with ongoing engagement and consistent quality.  In fact, we’re lectured about it constantly, as if some extra yoga and another pedicure will absorb some of the daily stressors we experience in our work and home lives.  It’s true that if you don’t take time out from your normal obligations to do enriching and meaningful activities, your quality of life will suffer.  However, the way our culture has become accustomed to pointing to “self-care” as the primary remedy to all of the stress that has built up in our lives is problematic.

One problem with this over-used prescription is that it is just another way of deferring responsibility to the individual to resolve all of the culture induced distress that has become overwhelming in the first place.  For example, if your primary stressor is your job and/or working conditions, self-care can only go so far in remedying the problem.  If the conditions that you work under do not change, the stress is going to remain.  Certainly you can develop a set of coping skills, habits, and life-enhancing activities that will increase your quality of life outside of your job, but if you keep returning to the same stressful environment day after day, the amount of relief you will experience is limited.  While some of us have choices in the kinds of jobs and career options we pursue, it’s not always practical, feasible or even desirable to just go out and find a new job when the stress levels become unmanageable.

Administrators, managers, and supervisors love to hand out the self-care prescription when employees complain about their workplace stressors.  It’s easy to see why they do this.  This absolves the company of any responsibility to manage the workplace environment in a way that promotes the wellbeing of their employees by offering on-site services to enrich employee health and happiness, ensuring employees have reasonable work expectations and sufficient resources to do their jobs well (including fair compensation), and prioritize employee mental and physical health in their overall business plans.  By telling employees “make sure you’re practicing self-care”, the employee becomes responsible for managing whatever workplace expectations come their way, and if they can’t handle it, it’s their fault for not taking care of themselves.

Another problem with our approach to using self-care as a catch-all recommendation for worker health, is that we tell workers particularly in the caregiving professions that they need to practice self-care “so that you can care for others”.  We also tell this to parents, reminding them that one of their duties is to care for themselves so that they can continue to care for others.  The reason this is problematic is because we again are ignoring the needs of the individual in service to the sacrifices that individual is making for others, whether that be to their workplace, their family, or others.  The assumption is that if you are burnt out and stressed beyond reason, that you cannot then attend properly to the needs of others.  It’s not that the statement itself isn’t true, it’s that this is the wrong way to look at self-care.  Taking care of yourself is something that you deserve independently of your value to your workplace or your family.  You should take care of yourself because you deserve to reap the benefits of enjoying a good quality of life enriched with the things that relax and rejuvenate you.  Will it make you a better caregiver, employee, parent, or colleague?  Probably.  But that’s not the point.  Maybe you like to exercise, meditate, pamper yourself, engage in spiritual practices and reflections, spend time with the people you care about, or give back to your community in meaningful ways.  These are things that you should do because they enrich your quality of life and connection to others, not because you owe it to the people you give other forms of care or service to.  You should go about doing the things that help you to enjoy your life because it is your life and you deserve to enjoy it.

One thing that would be more helpful to most people would be if their employers starting looking at employee mental and physical health as something that they have a stake in too.  Some employers have found creative ways to support their employees beyond providing a general recommendation that employees take care of themselves.  These measures can go from ideas such as bringing in massage therapists or other service providers on site, allowing flexible or work from home schedules, up to profit sharing or co-op models that provide employees with more stake in their own companies.  Such approaches to managing employee mental, physical, and financial health can go a long way towards increasing quality of life without increasing the pressure and burdens on employees to find their own solutions to workplace stressors.  We can all support companies that engage in practices such as these, which reflect a business model that values the employees.  We can also support each other by dropping the “so you can take care of others” part of our encouragement to care for ourselves.  We all have a limited time in which to live our lives, and it can be a great joy and source of personal satisfaction and meaning when we care for others, whether that is our clients, our friends, or our families.  Moreover, we deserve to care for ourselves, as well as to receive the care others have for us, because our lives are independently valuable.  We are not only mothers, fathers, children, caregivers, or employees.  We are individuals deserving of our best quality of life as we see fit, and the steps we take to care for ourselves can and should be done to enhance life for the pure joy of it, not merely to preserve our ability to care for others.

Do you have to forgive an abusive parent?

Many people struggle with healing from an abusive childhood, and when the abuser was a parent, the healing process can be particularly complicated.  Everyone has a unique story and the impact on individuals is affected by many different factors.  The severity, frequency, and tactics of the abuse, and emotional strain on the victim all impact the degree to which people are able to cope with and recover from past trauma.  One area of struggle can revolve around the concept of forgiving your abuser.

Forgiveness is often one our culture’s go-to prescriptions when it comes to dealing with painful incidents that continue to impact our current lives.  These prescriptions may come in the form of religious instructions, moral obligations, and the promise of healing.  While forgiveness may be an important and helpful step in the recovery process, it is important to understand who it is being done for and why.  Otherwise forgiveness itself becomes confusing, complicated, or even meaningless.

At one time in my career I was working as a hospice social worker.  Most of my patients were very elderly, and the majority of them had supportive and loving families who had the comfort and peace of the patient as their priority.  However, occasionally I worked with families where there was significant emotional strain in the relationship between the dying parent and the adult son or daughter, sometimes due to past abuse by the parent.  Needless to say the issues each family was dealing with were unique and there were long and fraught histories involved.  I had some family members who spoke to me about their own process of forgiveness and how it helped them to heal and find their own peace, and I had other families who had no interest in a dramatic reconciliation at the deathbed.  They were tired of being judged for keeping their distance from a formerly abusive parent, and their own healing was better served by strong boundaries and detachment.  Our society loves a Hollywood ending, and popular culture is littered with depictions of those reconciliations.

When I am working with clients to process and heal from childhood abuse, we discuss forgiveness and what it means for their individual recovery process.  Some of the things we have to figure out through that process include knowing who the forgiveness is for (the victim, the abuser, or someone else), how it will or will not facilitate their healing process, and why it is being given.  The answers to those questions help people come to an honest conclusion about whether they want to forgive their abuser, whether it will help at all, and the intentions behind that forgiveness.  I don’t ever tell people that they need to or have to forgive their abuser in order to heal and recover from an abusive childhood.  If people feel forced to take the moral high ground by offering forgiveness to someone who may or may not even be in their life anymore, they may continue to struggle to recover because it feels insincere and obligatory.  However, if that forgiveness is offered for the right reasons and at the right time, it can be an important step towards releasing the control trauma can have over their life and emotional wellness.  The “right reasons and right time” are not for me to decide.  Those decisions need to be made by the individual who is healing from that trauma.

As friends, families, communities, and caregivers, we can place value on forgiveness without making it into an obligation for people who have been abused.  Coping with the emotional labor of processing the abuse inflicted by a parent who is supposed to love and care for you is difficult enough without having social pressure to rush the process and bring it to a convenient and neat conclusion.  Allowing abuse survivors to direct their own recovery and determine why, when, how, and if forgiveness is a part of their healing journey is a more supportive and intentional way to promote recovery.


Aly Raisman Speaks for Survivors, and Herself

This past Friday, Olympic Gold medalist Aly Raisman delivered a powerful victim impact statement at the sentencing portion of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, former doctor to the USA Gymnastics team.  Nassar pled guilty to 7 counts of sexually abusing minors, but he has been accused by over 150 athletes of manipulating his position as their doctor by sexually abusing them under the guise of providing medical treatment.  The depth and scope of his abusive practices are horrific, but as with many of the abusers who have been exposed over the past year and half, he had a network of people behind him helping to cover up his abuses and discredit or silence his accusers.  Raisman made clear in her statement that victims everywhere are fed up with being silenced and dismissed by saying “You do realize now the women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time are now a force, and you are nothing.”

I have spent much of my career working with survivors of sexual abuse, both as a victim advocate and as a therapist.  The criminal justice system has long been a source of frustration for me and my clients, both because of its re-victimization of survivors who do come forward, and the difficulty that victims have with receiving any kind of justice at all.  Specifically, I find myself infuriated when cases are dismissed outright because “there is no evidence”.  The message this sends to everyone is that a victim’s testimony is not evidence.  It is only when dozens and dozens of women come forward with the same stories that their word can be trusted and used in a court of law.  It takes a powerful army of survivors to put away 1 single abuser.  This is the broken system that victims are forced to contend with if they want any measure of justice for the crimes against them.  We don’t do this with other types of crimes.

Raisman spoke forcefully against her abuser in court, questioning the system that allowed his abuse to continue for years and calling him out directly for being a manipulative predator of the worst kind.  It can be difficult for a survivor to see Raisman, who is a successful, high profile woman, speak out in court and think “I couldn’t do that, she has more security, money, and support than I do; I have too much to lose by speaking out”.  Yet one of the first things Raisman acknowledged when she began to speak was that she was scared, and she didn’t want to come to deliver her victim impact statement.  Even strong, powerful women can feel scared and small when facing the prospect of speaking out against an abuser.  No one is protected from criticism when speaking out about their own abuse, because our culture has ingrained an atmosphere of victim blaming and doubt into our collective response to crimes of sexual abuse.  I have personally borne witness to enough horror stories of how victims have been treated to know that we have a serious, serious problem.  Policies have gotten better over the past 40 years or so, but in practice, much of the shame and blame continues.

Sexual abuse survivors need first and foremost to feel safe again, which means being believed and supported when they come forward.  When their experiences are minimized and dismissed, or when they are blamed for the actions of their abusers, the healing process is damaged and it may take years or decades before they are able to seek help again.  Healing after sexual trauma is possible, but we can all contribute to making this process more accessible to survivors by believing and supporting victims and taking their claims seriously.  However, until the criminal justice system undergoes reforms that will enable more victims to confront their abusers in court, countless victims will go without justice and countless abusers will remain free to continue to perpetuate their crimes.  The problem of sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation continues daily.  Anyone who cares about this issue must continue to speak out in support of survivors and demand changes in the systems that perpetuate the abuse if real change is to be made.

If you have been a victim of abuse, please know that while your circumstances may be unique to your particular experience, there is a lot of support available to survivors these days.  It is important to know who, in your personal network of people, you may be able to trust and confide in for support.  Yet even if you do not have a supportive group of family or friends around you, you can find support by reaching out for help from your community and from online resources.  Finding an individual therapist or support group is one way to start the healing process.  However, there are also many other online resources and forums where you can receive information and support if you are not ready to seek support in person or if you have difficulty finding resources in your area.   If you have not been victimized, but know someone who has, you can be a supportive presence to them by believing them, listening, and providing reassurance that that abuse was not their fault, and that you are willing to stand by them as they heal and seek help in whatever form they need.  Do not try to force the person to go to the police if they are not ready or do not want to report.  As discussed, the criminal justice system sometimes serves to re-victimize and cause more pain to survivors.  However, if a survivor does want to report, you can encourage and support them through that process, or help them to find a victim advocate.  For more information about support and resources, visit, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

The Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Many people are familiar with the practice of pet therapy, as well as service animals, but I’ve noticed a rise in both the benefits and recognition of a newer category of animals known as emotional support animals (ESA).  Emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific tasks for their owners in the same way that service animals are.  Service animals may be trained to do things that help people with mobility and sensory conditions or other disabilities, and they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means that they legally are allowed at any public place that their owner goes and receive protections from housing discrimination, among other legal protections.  They specifically do things that the individual cannot do for themselves, such as guiding or alerting people, picking up objects, responding to PTSD symptoms under duress, or assisting with other tasks.  Emotional Support Animals are not specifically trained to do these things, but may otherwise provide comfort and reduce distress in conditions such as anxiety and depression.  ESAs are not service animals and are not covered under the ADA.  Nevertheless, emotional support animals can be an important and legitimate tool for people who experience relief from distress when spending time with and receiving affection from their animals.

The benefits of service animals are considered a necessary aid to people with special needs.  We have long been accepting of service animals in public places (I once saw a woman with a service pony in a Target), and more recently have increased the training and accessibility of service animals for veterans through different programs specifically targeted for veterans with physical or mental health injuries.  However, despite these socially acceptable and recognized benefits, people with less severe conditions are sometimes mocked or dismissed when claiming the need for an emotional support animal.  It’s true that with any specially recognized category there is potential for abuse by people without true needs who want to claim benefits.  Yet just because someone’s condition doesn’t necessarily disable them, this doesn’t mean that their ESA isn’t providing a true benefit to them.

Many people who are high functioning have learned to cover their conditions well, and continue to work and engage in other areas of their lives while still suffering from depression or anxiety in private.  When an ESA can provide some relief from these symptoms and comfort to those who are suffering, I can find little reason to deny people the right to maintain access to their animals.  Mostly, people with ESAs simply want access to housing that they may otherwise be denied if they want to bring their animal with them.  Apartment complexes with no pet policies will usually allow ESA animals with documentation from a medical or mental health provider certifying the need for an ESA, whereas they would be legally required to do so under the ADA with a certified service animal.

An emotional support animal is more than a pet.  While from the outside it may look as though someone is functioning just fine, you don’t know what symptoms a person may be experiencing privately.  Anyone who has loved an animal can attest to the very real comfort and companionship they provide.  An ESA can be an invaluable tool for people with anxiety, depression, or other related conditions that helps them improve their quality of life and cope with their symptoms.  With proper training and care, there is little downside to accepting ESAs more openly in our society and reducing the stigma towards people who use them responsibly.  Even if you do not need an ESA or suffer from a mental health condition, your relationship with your pet is meaningful and can improve your quality of life.  Bonding with an animal helps you focus on the needs of another being, and they can reward you with affection and unconditional love.  If you want to learn more about ESAs, visit

Women at Werk Empowerment Conference

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the first annual Women at Werk Empowerment Conference.  This was an event that combined presentations from successful working professionals with vendors, information booths, and give-aways by women-owned and operated businesses.  “Werk” is intentionally spelled with an E for Empowerment.  The goal of the conference for attendees was knowledge, networking, and inspiration from fellow females at many different stages of career development.  I can truly say that this event met and exceeded my expectations in terms of what I was hoping to get out of it.  The speakers were inspirational, the vendors were diverse and creative in their scope of services and products, and the energy of the women who attended and participated in the conference was inspirational.  I wanted to share some of the things that I personally took away from my experience at Women at Werk (in addition to some free bling by Kendra Scott Jewelry!).


Success is not measured by money, it is measured by Joy” –Dr. Asha Brewer

This statement by one of the morning speakers really resonated with me.  Money may be the tangible goal that many of us are working towards as we seek career success.  However, for many people, when you really examine what it is that we want, it’s not the actual money.  I know there are many people out there who truly just want lots and lots of money.  However, I think for more of us, what money represents is freedom, and it is that freedom that allows us to pursue our Joy.  Joy, of course, can be attained through many things: time with our families, new and interesting experiences, fulfilling our hobbies, goals, and dreams, and giving back in meaningful ways to causes and communities we care about.  When we are able to use our work to fulfill our potential and achieve our goals, the joy will come.  When we choose to focus on achieving joy, then success becomes much more tangible.  If you find yourself reaching more and more career success as measured by income, but have no joy, then what is the point?  I know for me, there is no specific amount of money that would mean “success” to me.  For me, success is more about achieving what I need to accomplish in order for me to experience the joy that comes from freedom, and be able to transfer that joy to others whenever and however I can.


#MeToo  –  Brenda Bellard

A women’s empowerment conference could hardly have avoided the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace in light of the Me Too movement of 2017.  While Ms. Bellard came to talk about financial literacy and the importance of understanding banking and finance for female entrepreneurs, it was her personal story of resilience and success in the corporate banking culture that really inspired me with gratitude for the women of the older generations who have carved out the paths for women and racial minorities today.  As an African American woman who started in banking as a teller and achieved Vice President status at Sun Trust Bank, she’s seen and experienced it all.  As a woman in a male dominated field, she described the harassment she faced, including a man who would throw paper balls down the front of her blouse for his own amusement while at work.  With no allies around her, and the corporate culture of the time unlikely to support her, she had to deal with the man herself, which she did, after hours, in a break room, by herself.  When I try to imagine the courage it took for Ms. Bellard to confront this harasser on her own, risking her career and possibly even her safety, I’m in awe.  It is because of women like her that we are where we are today.  We have still further to go in order to make workplaces safe and fair for all women, but I feel more empowered knowing that women have been at this fight for a long time, and we’re not giving up, we’re getting louder.


“Your vagina has power…SQUEEZE”  -Dr. Ieshai Bailey

Hats off to the lady who got an entire room of well over 100 attendees doing kegels together!  As a licensed sex therapist, amongst other notable accomplishments, Dr. Bailey epitomized the embrace of positive sexuality.  Many may have been blushing, but she did manage to get our fists in the air to embrace the SQUEEZE!  Her message of rejecting the language of sexual shame and embracing sexual power and JOY, was uplifting and a great reminder that our bodies are ours to enjoy.  I loved her mixture of frank talk and disarming humor.  Her message was a great addition to this conference, as she reminded us to embrace every part of our femininity, and to caste off the shame that our culture has tried to tie up female sexuality with.


There is so much more that I could share and talk about with this conference, and I I’m sure I’ll be called back to remind myself of the energy and inspiration this event triggered for me as I continue to work on my own goals.  I want to give a Big Shout Out to the organizer of the event, Stephanie A. Jones, who is herself an inspiring and empowered woman who is always seeking to lift up those around her who want to come along for the ride.  I can’t wait to network with this group of ambitious and creative women.  I also managed to snag some swag from a few vendors as well, including beauty products  from Apple Rose Beauty  that do double duty by supporting the fight to end human trafficking, and some self-care items from Unapologetically Single, which supports my own need to Zen-out as often as realistically possible.  In short, don’t miss this event next time around if you want to network with other ambitious and creative women, support local and female owned business, and get those ideas flowing for your own projects.  I will definitely be there (did I mention I got free jewelry?!?).

Rebuilding Trust

One question I often hear from couple’s who have experienced infidelity is: how do I trust my partner again?  It’s a difficult question to answer, because while many people say trust is earned, I tend to say that it is given.  Sometimes betrayals happen even after years of devotion, and it is hard to know how to “earn back” something that’s been broken.  Sometimes when you’ve been hurt, you may want to resort to tactics that are intended to reassure you, like wanting to have more oversight of them by checking their phone, or their social media accounts.  Unfortunately, I think these strategies tend to be ineffective in the long run when it comes to healing a relationship after betrayals occur, and may even exacerbate mistrust and conflict.  They may provide some temporary satisfaction to the person who’s been hurt, but it’s important to think about long term results as well when you are trying to move forward as a couple.

Trust can be built back slowly as more of your emotional needs are met over time.  However, it ultimately takes a decision that is made by the per son who has been hurt, to give that trust back when they are ready.  Unfortunately, trust is always an emotional risk that you take.   Frequent or reoccurring infidelity over time is, of course, an indicator that your partner is not deserving of your trust.  Yet many people who have been betrayed by their partners still want to repair the relationship, even after multiple occurrences.  How do you trust someone who has violated their commitment to you?  The surveillance route is inadvisable in my opinion.  It creates a dynamic in which the relationship turns into more of an adolescent trying to avoid being grounded by their parent than a couple trying to work through emotionally difficult times together. If this is where you are in your relationship, there are some things that you can do to try and work on moving forward. First, instead of talking about what happened, talk instead about how you feel about what happened.  Instead of trying to figure out all the details, which may just cause more hurt to the person who was betrayed, talk instead about how that pain has affected them.  Decide what needs to change in the relationship in order for the dynamic to return to a place of trust and mutual respect.  These may be things like having more frequent time set aside for you as a couple to reconnect with each other, sharing letters or other writings that express feelings related to the infidelity, increased attention to the division of duties within the household, or sharing spiritual time or other meaningful activities together.

The commitment to these kinds of activities will tell you more about you and your partner’s ability to build trust and mutual respect over time than will checking phone records and social media accounts.  Sometimes people really are not deserving of your trust.  Knowing when to walk away is important too, but I encourage couples who do want to move forward to be mindful about how they choose to rebuild trust over time.  Infidelity involves very real pain and damage in relationships, and the healing process must also involve some real effort and thoughtfulness on the part of both partners in order to move forward with true forgiveness and mutual respect.

The Emotional costs of Hook-up Culture

Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain recently aired an episode concerning the hook-up culture that is prevalent nowadays both on college campuses and in other social circles occupied by young people.  The discussion revolves around the role that casual sex has in the lives of young people and the various social norms that dictate the changing rules of dating, relationships, and sex.

One of the most interesting points that was made was that the rules of hook-up culture disallow emotional investment in the object of sexual conquest.  Essentially, the rules dictate that sex itself is not taboo, but becoming emotionally invested in your partner is.  Instead of the traditional concept of dating, in which a couple gets to know each other and expresses some level of affection and interest towards each other prior to advancing sexually, sex is now the first barrier to be crossed.  Only after perhaps a few casual “hook-ups”, in which commitment is verboten and emotional affection is taboo, would a couple explore the possibility of actually liking each other and wanting to date more seriously.

The fact that emotional investment in an intimate partner is considered a violation, and could lead to a person being labeled as “desperate”, is an indication of the deep fear of vulnerability that pervades many people across age groups in our culture today.  Fear of being hurt or rejected causes people to limit access to their own emotions and avoid creating the bonds that actually bring emotional fulfillment in relationships.  Equally as disturbing is the fact that showing your emotions to another person can cause social ostracism and comes with the possibility that expressing your feelings could bring about the emotional pain of rejection.

None of this, of course, means that participants in hook-up culture are less likely to desire emotional intimacy and committed partnerships.  Yet it does make achieving those things more difficult.  Avoiding the work of developing emotional bonds because of the vulnerability involved leaves people missing out on one of the most fulfilling parts of relationship experiences.  There is no guarantee that any relationship will work out, and it is impossible to avoid any emotional pain.  Yet emotional pain can bring about personal growth and important reflections about what you want and what to avoid.  It’s possible that hookup culture is contributing to emotional stagnation, as people avoid intimacy and fear vulnerability.  Sexual exploration is an important part emotional growth as well, but when the culture surrounding it makes emotional intimacy punitive, then individuals are losing out on an important part of their own growth: love, in all of it’s messy forms.

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