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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

October 1999, No. 1, Sect. 1

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

Special Announcement: Dear Readers, this is an historic moment -- the first Stress Doc Newsletter mailed from Livingston, Montana. While most of the articles were hand-written in Washington, DC, the newsletter was edited in Big Sky Country. Word processed at the local Java Bean, a coffeehouse (with some delightful Huckleberry Tea) specializing in fruity muffins, cobblers and scones. Steer heads and Native American mandala-like designs and colorful masks adorn the walls. Forest green leather couches, and periodicals from the Park County weekly to Rolling Stone Magazine, add to the homey atmosphere; so too the electic rhythm and blues and fusion folk-country music.

The Bean is a hangout for arists and writers, especially in the morning. (The afternoon seems to attract parents and young kids.) As one artist commented, "Livingston is a place for people who realize there is more to life than money." It seems to attract folks in mid-life, mid-career transition; people who had some success in the conventional race, but started realizing they were losing passion and losing touch with their soul in the process.

For example, I decided to buy a lovely framed picture of the sidewinding Yellowstone River, abutted by a row of Autumn gold trees, with the pine-covered Absaroka Mountains in the background. The picture was taken a few miles from here in, big surprise, Paradise Valley. (A momento to keep my eye on the simple, peaceful prize when I'm back in the District of Complexity.) The frame shopowner, born in Livingston, left home to pursue a career in microbiology. Eventually, the returning call of the wild was irresistible. Oh yes, she also had a blazing epiphany: there wasn't going to be a lot of microbiology positions in her small Old Western-artsy hometown. So she opened up a frame shop and gallery. The startup is going so well, she can only do her own art in her spare time. She's confident that once the business stabilizes she'll balance work and art.

In Livingston, there's time for my soul nurturing Four "R"s: reading and writing, reflecting and relating. (Or as my Junior High School Principal would religiously announce on the loud speaker before students rushed out of the building on the eve of a major holiday recess: "Read a book, take a walk and make a friend! Gee, when did he become so spiritually wise?) Life here truly feels uncluttered. I was about to say unscheduled, but that's not true. After five hours of word processing and editing (in morning and afternoon shifts) it's time for my five o'clock brisk walk to the "A River Runs through It" panorama. They had an inch of snow the day before my arrival, and the slopes and peaks look particularly pristine. Well I digress. Off to my daily constitution and commitment to...Practice Safe Stress!

Table of Contents

Announcements: AOL Chat Group and Q & A Links/Archives Q & A: Grieving the Impending Death of a Cold, Non-Nurturing Parent Shrink Rap: When Failure Breeds Success Reader's Submission: Quoth the Hard Drive: "Nevermore!" Sect 2: Main Essay: "Going Postal": Part IIIb -- Reducing Workplace Violence

News Flash: Alas, only for AOL members, stop by my online "Shrink Rap (TM) and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9-10:45pm EST.  Chat with the Stress Doc: It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with each other.

Announcements: 1) For all cyberspace travelers, there's the new Ask the Stress Doc Q & A -- Work Stress Digital City - Washington, DC - Ask the Stres... and Love and Relationships Digital City - Washington, DC - Relations . Also, check the Doc's Q & A Archives: Stress Doc's Q&A and Q&A: Love and Relationships .

Ask the Stress Doc Q & A/Digital City--Washington, DC Love and Relationships

1) Grieving the Historic Loss of Nurturing and Impending Death of a Cold, Hurtful Mother

Q. Dear Stress Doc, I have a few issues that are going on in my life right now related to my mother's impending death and the cruel, cold, negligent, unmothering she provided me. I really need help dealing with all this painful/angry stuff that is going on inside me. I know I need help right now but don't know where to get it or find it. Can you point me in the right direction?

A. The impending death of a parent is almost always an uncommonly challenging experience, stirring or shaking us at our existential and spiritual, psychic and familial roots. It's a big picture wakeup call. How satisfied overall with your life's journey? Any major regrets? How does one's actual life contrast with one's ideals, hopes and dreams? Poignant questions for both parties to this vigil.

For the child, on a psychological and interpersonal level, how much of a stable inner core of identity and integrity is truly mine? How maturely intimate, disconnected or immaturely symbiotic are the emotional ties or knots between parent and child? (Also relevant is the quality of connection between the child and other family members or friends.) Whether the parent is still alive or already deceased, in what ways has the child internalized the strengths and drives, vulnerabilities and pathologies of a mother or father?

The time I've most heard family members express true relief at a significant other's impending demise or death is for a prolonged and profoundly debilitating illness. Or, when a parent having led a full life, suddenly has a dramatic change in health status and the family knows the parent does not want to live under such severely constricted conditions. (For example, my father recently made my brother and I swear to forego any and all extraordinary lifesaving measures. When it's his time it's his time.)

The Double-Edged Nature of Anticipatory Grieivng

One productive possibility with the chronic illness of a loved one is anticipatory grieving, something I've experienced these past eighteen months. My father has been undergoing radium pellet treatment for prostate cancer and also during this time has endured 2-3 strokes of varying severity. This grieving process invariably brings into focus his endearing and maddening qualities and idiosyncrasies -- his impatient and aggressive New Yorker nature yet surprisingly cool-headed grace under pressure. It spotlights the ways I've struggled to separate myself from him; how, also, I'm a chip off the old block -- for better and worse.

Memories flood back of the knock down verbal battles along with the times we've cried in each other's arms. For example, five years after the family secret had been uncovered, I overcame my fear and shame and asked dad about his breakdown and years of intermittent electroshock therapy. Another indelible memory: when in the aftermath of a heated confrontation, he broke down and cried out the long pent-up pain, sobbing about the overwhelming pressure and mid-20s fears to control his mind and mood while being the family breadwinner with two young boys.

This process comes alive through my dreams of the death of an older male figure. It is fueled by the lonely crying on a futon after hearing about my dad's being hospitalized with a stroke that has him speechless, with diminished mobility and frozen contorted features. And I can admire this same man who has rehabilitated himself back onto the tennis court and can be almost as loudmouthed as ever.

Finally, writing this response makes clear that a recent intensiified search for a spiritual homeland in the mountains of Montana is somehow connected to my father's illness and my grief process.

But let me not overlook your reality. Anticipatory grieving with a parent for whom most associations are hurtful and angry is a very different experience, as much existential ledge fraught with danger as window of opportunity.

Some of the "dangers" for you that come to mind: a) being flooded with memories of abandonment and rejection, shame and unworthiness, b) feeling generalized rage, helplessness, panic and emptiness, c) wondering about, if not feeling angry, that your father was not able to set better limits on your mother's dysfunctional and destructive patterns; that he wasn't able to provide you more protection. Was he present physically and emotionally in the household? Was he mostly a passive spectator? Did he have a substance abuse problem? Did he split the family or die at an early age? Was some of your mom's aggression toward you really meant for him? These are some immediate questions.

Now some suggestions for surviving and growing through this "dark night of the soul" period. There truly is a unique opportunity for achieving greater emotional emancipation, inner peace and self-other harmony.

1. Accept Your Feelings. Too often, especially when a parent is on their death bed, we believe, or people around us believe, one should erase or shut down any angry feelings toward the soon to be deceased. Or, we are bombarded with guilt for irrepressible resentment. Know that acknowledging both the unfinished rage and the profound feelings of loss and sadness (at the lack of more mother-daughter closeness and nurturing) are necessary for evolving through the grief process. The rage overcomes a sense of paralysis; the sadness helps temper the rage which, if unchecked, can turn into depressive or destructive patterns. The goal is both being "sadder yet wiser" and reaching a state of focused anger: "I don't like her or this situation…but how do I let go (of the rage, the hurt) so I can see her and my self more objectively? How do I continue on my journey of self-exploration, passionate expression and intimate connection?"

2. Acknowledge Your Mother's History and Strengths. Chances are your mother wasn't simply the witch incarnate. She likely was raised by a family struggling with some combination of its own dysfunctional psychological and/or biochemical mix, tortured family relations, substance abuse, financial pressures, etc. At the same time, your mother probably would not have been as daunting an antagonist unless she possessed real strengths, however submerged, disguised or underutilized. For example, when my mother becomes anxious, her voice raises sharply, there's a tendency to lash out. Verbal aggression was her attempt to control a perceived source of threat; to shield herself from facing her own discomfort, conscious and otherwise. However, with evolving maturity, the intimidation effect, whether based on reality or perception, has receded.

Still, there is occasional sadness when confronted by limits to the depth and genuineness of our emotional connection. (And, surely, I've been a disappointment to her in key areas of life -- no grandchildren, for example.) On balance, I can better embrace her vulnerabilities and gifts. Taking more personal responsibility for managing my depression and learning to set fairly healthy boundaries between us, allows me to acknowledge strengths that she has passed on and modeled: a loquacious (if not sometimes long-winded) storyteller, an avid reader, (which with my agitated-depression better managed, has become a favorite past-time), a lover of the arts in general, etc. The moral: learning to see the mother glass as both parts empty and full will leave you feeling less bereft.

3. Seek Out Therapeutic Nurturance. Perhaps now there is a precious moment to connect with a healer who specializes in death and dying counseling and mother-daughter relating. I suggest an older female therapist, hopefully a professional with whom you can express the long-distance loneliness, fear and rage as well as the current boiling pot of emotional pain. Finding symbolic and replacement mother or father figures can be vital for healing old wounds and emotional gaps. Usually, we are not permanently disabled in this realm of intimacy. We discover a capacity for safe dependency and connecting deeply with such a figure. In contrast to the oft hurled dysfunctional family barbs, we aren't intrinsically, intransigently or one-sidedly difficult, prickly, selfish or "so demanding."

4. Write a Letter. Five years ago I learned a powerful lesson about overcoming all or none thinking and expression. The catalyst was the sudden death of my mother's brother. Uncle Dave was my childhood idol; he filled the male role model gap while my dad was grappling with his depression. While Dave was a very positive ebullient figure, beloved by many, he was also reluctant to acknowledge or discuss deep and uncomfortable shadow side emotions. As in depth exploration of my emotional self -- past and present, conscious and unconscious -- was vital personally, professionally and artistically we were on a conflict course, which never fully was addressed. The last few years of his life there was some unresolved covert tension between us.

At his funeral, I was determined to give a eulogy; the only one who did besides the Rabbi. (Apart from my father and me, most of the closest family members are more analytical than emotional types.) The insight I had while writing the speech was to take the perspective of an adoring six-year-old who loved this man so unconditionally. (My eyes are tearing at this very moment.)

My point is this: while we never really worked through the conflict it did not overshadow the deep wellspring of love and endearing gratitude for his presence in my life. (And his death, along with other coexisting struggles, pushed me to overcome my resistance to acknowledging fully my long-term depression. In a way, I have Dave to thank for my life affirming trial with Prozac.)

Now clearly, your relationship with your mother seems a lot more half empty than half full. Still, write her a letter, regardless of whether you intend for her to read it. And if there truly are no positive memories at this juncture, then see if you can acknowledge the painful paths -- separate and together -- you've both had to travel. It's okay to express anger and sadness at the diminished nurturing along the way and to plan more for yourself in the future.

5. Seize the Day. Finally, how do we achieve some level of acceptance regarding a conflicted historical relationship with a parent, especially one so near death's door? I believe the process requires a renewed exploration of self, an inventory of one's genuine passions, past interests, unarticulated dreams or back burner fantasies. Clearly, the impending loss of such a figure is portentous. Latent energy and seemingly unfathomable or unpredictable direction is waiting to be released and realized. There's a sense -- whether acute or diffuse -- of your own mortality; time, if not running out, is inexorably marching on. Life is finite; choices must be made. New horizons beckon. As Nobel Prize-winning, French author and philosopher Albert Camus beautifully observed: "Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain."

And how do we reach this level of poignant, if not profound, acceptance? I can only share and close with some personal hard-earned understanding: "Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal." And surely words to help us…Practice Safe Stress! 

Shrink Rap™:

Reader's Section

Quoth the Hard Drive: "Nevermore!" (with apologies to EA Poe) From: LindaGail9 (who improvised on the title)

Once upon a midnight dreary, fingers cramped and vision bleary, System manuals piled high, wasted paper on the floor; Longing for the warmth of bedsheets, Still I sat there, doing spreadsheets, Having reached the bottom line, I took a floppy from the drawer. Typing with a steady hand, I then invoked the SAVE command and waited for the disk to store, Only this and nothing more.

Deep into the monitor peering, long I sat there wond'ring, fearing, Doubting, while the disk kept churning, turning yet to churn some more. "Save!" I said, "You cursed mother! Save my data from before!" One thing did the phosphors answer, only this and nothing more, Just, "Abort, Retry, Ignore?"

Was this some occult illusion? Some maniacal intrusion? These were choices undesired, ones I'd never faced before. Carefully, I weighed the choices as the disk made impish noises. The cursor flashed, insistent, waiting, baiting me to type some more. Clearly I must press a key, choosing one and nothing more, >From "Choose Abort, Retry, Ignore?"

With my fingers pale and trembling Slowly toward the keyboard bending, Longing for a happy ending, hoping all would be restored, Praying for some guarantee Timidly I pressed a key. But on the screen there still persisted words appearing as before. Ghastly grim they blinked and taunted, haunted, as my patience wore, Saying "Abort, Retry, Ignore?"

I tried to catch the chips off-guard -- I pressed again, but twice as hard. I pleaded with the cursed machine: I begged and cried and then I swore. Now in desperation, trying random combinations, Still there came the incantation, just as senseless as before. Cursor blinking, angrily winking, blinking nonsense as before. Reading, "Abort, Retry, Ignore?"

There I sat, distraught, exhausted by my own machine accosted Getting up I turned away and paced across the office floor. And then I saw dreadful sight: a lightning bolt cut through the night. A gasp of horror overtook me, shook me to my core. The lightning zapped my previous data, lost and gone forevermore. Not even, "Abort, Retry, Ignore?"

To this day I do not know The place to which lost data goes. What demonic nether world is wrought where data will be stored, Beyond the reach of mortal souls, beyond the ether, into black holes? But sure as there's C, Pascal, Lotus, Ashton-Tate and more, You will one day be left to wander, lost on some Plutonian shore, Pleading, "Abort, Retry, Ignore?"

(c) Mark Gorkin 1999 Shrink Rap™ Productions