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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

February 2000, No. 1, Sect. 1

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

Table of Contents

Heads Up: AOL Chat Group News Flash: WebMD.com and Breast Cancer Awareness/Fund Q & A: Full Court Pressure for a Varsity Senior Shrink Rap: A Virtual Valentine Readers' Submissions: If Not Now Then When Sect 2: Main Essay: Love Online: Reality vs. Romantasy Announcements: Q & A Links/Archives

Heads Up: Change is in the air. Soon non-AOLers will be able to participate in my AOL/Digital City Chat Group. For now, only for AOL members. Stop by my online "Shrink Rap (TM) and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9-10:45pm EST <A HREF="aol://4344:363.gorkin.5732839.568857121"> Chat with the Stress Doc</A>: 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.

News Flash:

1. The Stress Doc Teams with WebMD.com

The Stress Doc leads his lively, mutually supportive one hour "Practice Safe Stress" Internet Support Group for WebMD.

Up Next: February 17, 10pm EST/7pm PST. Brief Opening: "Getting Ahead without Losing Your Heart: Managing Anger and Self-Defeating Type A Traits." Then we move into your stress-related questions.

Questions? Email Jon Roig at jroig@webmd.net or call 503.943.3279

For A QUICK GUIDE TO ENTERING WEBMD LIVE EVENTS: by Jon Roig, Producer for Healtheon-WebMD, jroig@webmd.net...

(See end of Stress Doc Newsletter, FEB 2000, No. 1, Sect. 1 for Jon's Access Guide.) -------------------------------------------------------------

2. Breast Cancer Awarness: "Fund the Cure"

All it took was one evening at a dinner table with five friends in New Orleans for me to get it: My "date," long time friend C., was fighting breast cancer through alternative medicine strategies; P's 40 year old daughter was going through chemo and L.'s sister had already been there. Please take note:

Date: January 27, 2000 Re: "Fund the Cure" From: Judy O'Connor

We need those of you who are great at forwarding information with your e-mail network. Please read and pass on. Peace and good health.

It would be wonderful if 2000 were the year a cure for breast cancer was found!!!! This is one note I gladly pass on. The notion that we could raise $16 million by buying a book of stamps is powerful! As you may be aware, the US Postal Service recently released its new "Fund the Cure" stamps to help fund breast cancer research. This stamp was designed by Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland. It is important that we take a stand against this disease that kills and maims so many of our mothers, sisters, and friends.

Instead of the normal $.33 for a stamp, this one costs $.40. The additional $.07 will go to breast cancer research. A "normal" book costs $6.60. This one is only $8.00. It takes a few minutes in line at the Post Office and means so much. If all stamps are sold, it will raise an additional $16,000,000 for this vital research. Just as important as the money is our support. What a statement it would make if the stamp out-sold the lottery this week. What a statement it would make that we care.

I urge each of you to do two things TODAY: 1. Go out and purchase some of these stamps. 2. E-mail your friends to do the same.

Many of us know women and their families whose lives are turned upside-down by breast cancer. It takes so little to do so much in this drive.

Please help! Thank YOU

And check out the "Stress Doc" monthly column appearing in worldwidesingles.com -- /www.worldwidesingles.com or WORLDWIDE SINGLES MAGAZINE. A lot of good stuff for singles.

Ask the Stress Doc: AOL/Digital City--Washington, DC Work Stress

1) Full Court Pressure for A Varsity Senior

Q. "Does my son have a mental block on the basketball court?" This was the question posed the morning after her son, Ray a starting high school varsity senior had, in mom's mind, another underachieving game. Having attended the game with mother (Pam; actual names have been changed) and Ray's older brother and aware of some compelling recent history, it seemed likely that more than basketball skills or athletic ability were disrupting Ray's play.

Up to this point, based on mostly brief and sporadic encounters, I knew Ray to be a bright, unfailingly polite yet somewhat reserved, if not guarded, 18 year old. With this in mind, when Pam (a single-parent mom) asked about my talking with Ray, I responded cautiously. While experienced as a performance trainer and therapist, I stressed that Pam be low key when exploring her son's interest in a "motivational coaching" session regarding the challenging season.

Mom also passed along the deal-making offer that Ray, as a lean and hungry teen, couldn't refuse: being treated to a pizza dinner! Our tag team strategy -- low key paired with hot and spicy -- worked. Two days later, Ray and I broke pizza dough together and began to analyze and grapple with the ingredients contributing to a pressure cooker season and senior.

Before detailing the problem background and the intervention process in the As k the Stress Doc "A." Section, let me mention the rationale for sharing Ray's story. Despite several fairly uncommon aspects, it touches upon many dynamic issues critical to self-esteem, performance anxiety and the transitional trials of young adulthood. Such issues include: the ebb and flow of self-identity and self-confidence, pressure from authority figures and peers, unrealistic and stress-inducing, if not self-defeating, expectations and the many challenges and anxieties stirred around leaving high school and selecting a college.

A. Ray spent his Junior Year in a European country on a civic association scholarship. He was enthralled by the people, his studies, by the whole cultural exchange experience. And the icing on the cake was being able to play basketball overseas in a semi-pro league. While only a role player, Ray loved the opportunity to stay connected to his passion and to further develop his skills.

Not surprisingly, the most eager anticipation as the magical year came to its inevitable end was returning for his final year of hometown school varsity basketball. Alas, quick on the heels of his homecoming, the glowing, ever-expanding cultural year abroad bubble suddenly exploded as if someone had stabbed a sharp spike in a basketball.

With his year abroad, according to the regional school board, Ray had used up his high school basketball eligibility. He was not allowed to suit up. Pam, a feisty mix of urban sophisticate and "Old West" woman, was not giving up without a fight. Initially, reinstatement looked bleak. Ray felt defeated after his personal testimonial plea fell on deaf ears and righteous, bureaucratic minds. But mom hired a tenacious attorney and the legal guns started blazing. When the dust had settled, and the case was ready to be considered by the State Supreme Court (word on the street was that the high court was favorably predisposed to Ray's position), the board grudgingly reversed its oppositional stance.

Ray was ready to soar…or so he thought. But sometimes, nothing fails as much as bright light, full court press coverage success. Ray's hot seat season was about to begin and it started as soon as he hit the gym for his first practice: a) teammates who didn't know Ray, had heard rumors that some 6''7" monster was returning to school after playing Euro-ball; Ray is 6'2", more lean than bulky. In a tense and uncertain atmosphere, not surprisingly, fantasies and grandiose expectations run rampant, b) Ray, himself, was struggling with guilt feelings: his return meant there was no varsity spot for the last player added to the team, and c) the final mental albatross was the coach's announcing Ray's return as a Messiah-like (can't remember if this was the coach's phrase or Ray's paraphrase) Christmas gift for the team. Ray was left speechless and somewhat teamless. He felt like an outsider, suddenly isolated from the other players. He was even awkward with one or two close friends on the team. Rivalrous demons, real or imagined, were lurking. And the pressures of being anointed while, at the same time, also feeling beholden to many others, were just too large a burden to bear.

Three months later, eagerly chewing on pizza and tentatively sharing emotional angst we began to put the turbulent transition in a healing and hopeful perspective. Consider these "Seven Strategies for Tackling Post-Traumatic Transitional Stress and Performance Anxiety":

1. Trials and Fish Bowls. Ray and I immediately discussed the high profile pressure - the despairing lows followed, finally, by the exhilaration of the successful legal contest. Next up was the "there's nothing worse than success in a fish bowl" phenomenon. Ray felt pressure to perform not just for himself, his coach and teammates, but also for his went-to-bat-for-him family. (Not to mention any lingering desire to stick it to the antagonistic schoolboard.) Finally, Ray also felt beholden to the grass roots folks that supported his legal action with a community petition. That's a lot of weight on a young man's shoulders, no matter how broad and muscular.

We also acknowledged some of the inevitable let down and normal readjustment coming back to the states after an idyllic year abroad. Clearly, his situation was several standard deviations from the norm.

2. "Get By with a Little Help from Your Friends." While Ray recently was feeling less estranged with teammates, he admitted not having had a real heart-to-heart with one or two of his close basketball buddies. I encouraged him to review the six-month ordeal, to get a good friend's perspective and then share his. In particular, I suspected they would challenge Ray's guilt about cutting short the varsity career of the last man on the team.

While praising Ray's moral compass and sense of empathy for the odd man out, I also provided a reframe. While Ray was struggling in legal quicksand, this fellow had a few months of varsity experience, an opportunity he would not have had otherwise. Ray hadn't considered that.

3. Question Authority. Perhaps the most delicate issue was the misguided introduction of Ray to the team. Ray still had some anger as he recalled being set up on this isolated pedestal. Again, he had not talked out his feelings with the coach. (Ray's not having contact with his father since early childhood was a background issue that was left undisturbed.) Like so many proud young men (and women) athletes, he suffered in silence. It's the old Rambo (or Rambette) style of stress management. Although the pedestal pressure was diminishing, he did acknowledge his sense of hiding or wimping out. Not speaking up, avoiding handling past conflict with the coach, fueled some covert sense of shame.

I reassured Ray that an angry exchange was not necessary nor was it the best strategy. Sometimes when we are getting back our strength, feeling more at peace, the key is to not to completely drop the old issue. Actually, we are in a better position to return to the unfinished (emotional) scene. My recommendation for Ray: let the coach know he's feeling more comfortable with the team and with his role. Acknowledge he hasn't been the stellar player of his fantasies or the coach's pronouncements. Also, acknowledge the pressure of the introductory sermon. Finally, Ray reaffirms his moving beyond the shaky start. Now he's working as hard as he can to make as big a team contribution as he can.

Ray seemed relieved that there didn't have to a blow up or a shoot out. There was a middle way -- "a pass in the impasse" -- through this psychological injury-professional authority-personal integrity challenge.

4. Vulnerability vs. Identity. Ray harbored an understandable yet unrealistic expectation that had to be confronted: why couldn't everything be clear, that is, why couldn't he feel as self-assured as when he was starring in recreation league ball or playing in Europe? First came the recognition that in Europe he had readily accepted his "role player" position. The next reality: starting for the varsity high school was a more competitive playing field than the rec league.

But there was also a sticky truth that needed to be understood: at 18, in his senior year, with many new role and identity transitions looming, Ray was looking for psychological clarity and certainty too quickly! Role confusion was not just the adolescent/young adulthood norm; an optimal amount of uncertainty allowed for productive exploration and, often, more long-term maturation than prematurely closing the identity building process. Ray readily connected to his impatience.

We talked about discovering his own balance of reaching out to others for support and venting time, as well as learning to quietly embrace his physiological arousal and performance anxiety. Harnessing and focusing this generalized (life stage) and specific (game-induced) arousal energy will definitely sharpen his creative edge.

Two key suggestions: 1) for the remainder of the season, allow himself to recall and inhabit the comfortable and fun European "role player" space and 2) practice some meditation/visualization to be with and channel his potential performance energy.

5. Life Skills vs. Basketball Skills. In light of this year's many challenges, I speculated that Ray's learning curve for life skills would surpass his basketball learning trajectory. Because of the humbling nature of the season, he will likely discover two fundamental truths: a) "The Phoenix Phenomenon" -- sometimes one's real life, the bigger picture emotional strains and challenges reduce a capacity to excel undividedly at a task. I then shared passing a competitive test to get into an academically gifted school - Stuvesant High School in New York City. However, my family and I were too bottled up emotionally for me to perform anywhere near my potential. Surrounded by academic stars whose essence burned bright, I felt inferior, lost in the shadows cast by their luminous presence.

However, over the long learning arc, that past sense of shame and incompetence once placed in perspective (with the help of good therapy) has become more motivational crown than obstructionist cross. With the ongoing development of tools to better handle emotional conflict and potential creative energy, the past "Sturm und Drang" now helps fuel an irresistible drive to keep evolving as a writer and performance artist. As previously shared in this newsletter:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes One must know the pain To transform the fire to burning desire!

b) Process, Not Just Goal -- As we were talking, Ray repeatedly came back to a shortcoming: his wanting to work problems out, to reach his goals quickly. My counter challenged the allure of rapid solution over pain-staking problem-focus. Especially when a person is trying to develop a wide range of skills and roles -- not just be a good shooter, but also an assist leader, or a rebounder, or even a role model regarding work ethic, etc., -- persistence and patience are key. I discussed the gnawing drive within (both neurotic and creative) and the years it has taken to coordinate and maximize my potential as a therapist, organizational consultant, speaker and workshop leader, creative writer and online/standup "psychohumorist"™. (And now there's the latest challenge of chat group leader.)

Perhaps a breakthrough came from a visual image/analogy -- wriggling the five fingers on my right hand as I enumerated the professional roles. For years they seemed out of sync, mostly isolated, often strained, competing with each other for attention and development. But gradually, finally (with the help of Internet Technology and an evolving Stress Doc Enterprises team) interactive and integrative "digital" potential began crystallizing from this heretofore-amorphous configuration. Suddenly, I clenched my fingers, made a fist and pounded the restaurant table. Ray's look of surprise and admiration signaled that the resultant process and power born of struggle, time and synthesis had not been lost on his psyche.

6. High School to College Transition. Not surprisingly, with the senior year not just the varsity season coming to a close, future considerations and choices made it onto our problem-solving plates. A key item was the comparative valuing of basketball and academics when selecting a college. Ray had applied to some very prestigious universities that were also basketball powerhouses. He also included schools that had good academic and athletic programs but were not elite in either domain,

I knew academics were important to Ray and his family. (An older brother had graduated from Harvard.) Yet as soon I mentioned it being okay to follow his "passion," Ray's eyes lit up. Learning to combine passion with discipline is often the bottom line for peak performance. I assured Ray that he'd be developing attitudes, values and skills that would transfer to all walks of life. (I suggested Bill Bradley's book on this same theme.) He wasn't going to "just be a jock."

If basketball is a true passion…go for it! But don't choose a school where he'll mostly sit on the bench. And trust that graduate schools and future employers will be impressed by an application or resume that highlights a good school, solid grades and varsity basketball experience.

Also briefly touched upon in our fifty minute session (my chat group was calling) some of the sadness to come saying goodbye to family, high school buddies, girl friend, etc.

Finally, we acknowledged that having a chance for a fresh start in the Fall, without the pressured circus atmosphere (but with the past year's growing pains maturation), will go a long way to helping Ray fulfill his potential and passion for basketball, along with the future career paths and passions.

7. Stay in Touch. And last, I shared my wish that Ray would periodically email to keep me abreast of the ending of the current chapter and the start of the new.

The next day, Pam shared that Ray expressed being real glad that we had talked. Opening up to someone more experienced in certain aspects of life, taking the risk to trust, acknowledging vulnerability and guilt, loosening up on rigid "shoulds," timelines and definitions of success, expanding our insight and perspective…it's how we genuinely grow and grow genuine.

As Jonas Salk, the medical pioneer, observed about human (actually, life) progress:

"Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; being courageous one more time than being fearful; trusting just one more time than we are anxious."

And Salk's words are also a wonderful prescription to help us all…Practice Safe Stress!

Shrink Rap™: During my four year active presence on the Internet, a number of friends and fantasies have entered my cyberlife and beyond. A few have led to face to face encounters and relationships. Some folks drifted off into the ether; other engagements ended on a sour note, virtual and otherwise. Still, a relatively small yet hardy bunch remain ongoing sources of intellectual stimulation and emotional kinship. And, of course, in those cyber correspondences where there seems to be some online chemistry, yet you haven't actually met, be aware...A virtual intimacy fueled by an ever-growing curiosity sparks the existential love-on-line question: "Is it real or is it "romantasy?" (See "Main Article" below.)

One woman who certainly fits the latter category recently asked me to help her out with a "Creative Writing" class assignment. (Have mercy...please don't inundate me with assignment requests. ;-) Donna needed three biographical sketches written by friends, relatives, colleagues, etc. Why not! Based on our mostly virtual relationship, seasoned with a few infrequent phone calls, I penned this bio...a "Virtual Valentine" as it were. And while specifically about one woman, the spirit of the essay is dedicated to all friends -- past and present -- who have graced, disturbed and expanded my conception of self, of other and of cyberspatial possibilities.

That Divinely Darlin Miss D

What can one truly say about a woman never encountered face to face? Well, in this electronic, virtual age quite a bit. Let me start at the beginning…receiving an email from a "strange" woman with the subject line, "Hiya Darlin" (and it’s not some Triple-X membership offering). No, Donna Darlin simply uses our mutual Southern/Louisiana roots to justify her very friendly opening. (It’s clear this woman has been perusing my Web Site; she knows about my extended "creative exile" in New Orleans; my "American in Cajun Paris Years.")

Within a few paragraphs this mystery lady has totally captured my interest (if not other anatomy…like my heart. Please, keep your x-rated thoughts to yourself ;-). She shares using a number of my America Online and Humor From the Edge essays for a "standup" presentation in a public speaking class. And "stand up" is the right term. With her honey-coated Southern accent and her Cajun storyteller gift for exaggeration and absurdity, I’m soon punctuating her telephone performance with head shaking, eyes rolling LOL laughter. This woman knows how to charm a male ego.

At the bottom of the screen, I notice this bold lady has listed both her work and home phone numbers. I screw up my courage and sense of adventure and reach for the phone. And instantaneously, the email comes to life. This email/phone connection is the start of a two year correspondence, as yet unrequited, at least measured by a live encounter. (Miss D living in Idaho and me residing in DC has something to do with the virtual-real gap. But there’s more to it.)

The frequency and fantasy has ebbed and flowed throughout our electronic connection, paralleling the many changes and challenges in our respective lives. Yet, whenever we do connect, the communication is open and honest; often playful, sometimes poignant and always palpable. So what have I learned about Miss D, Donna Darlin? Let me count the ways:

1. The Princess and the Player. Donna is one of the few people I know who has a genuinely and seemingly unconditionally loving (as much as humanly possible) connection with her family. She was raised, to quote Miss D, an "Oilfield Princess." And while Donna may have a touch of a superior air (well-deserved, I may add) this is a down to earth and earthy woman who laughs easily and is open and warm-hearted with all.

Well, not with all. If you are arrogant, one of those, "You don’t seem to realize I really am as important as I think I am" types, this mentally sharp and agile Princess has an uncanny ability to skewer an inflated ego. While not sure of the details, I recall Miss D at work tactfully confronting and humbling a pompous and pushy Washington bureaucrat, transforming this legal regulator into a blabbering, apologetic blob.

2. Loyal Friend. Donna is an incredibly devoted friend, maybe to a fault. When an old boyfriend experienced a series of adversities, Donna was there for him (despite her ambitious schedule as a working single parent and student). And when he wanted to renew the romance, Donna gave herself time both to help her friend and to sort through her feelings about rekindling the past. This lady would determine her own path, based on heart and head.

3. Loving Mother. The wellspring of love from her family roots pours forth and showers her cherished offspring, her son Brandon. Despite being a teen, the kindred bond and connection is vital and two-way, evidenced by Brandon’s fondness for hoisting his mother up and giving her this bone crushing hug. And recently, the relationship's strength was tested and affirmed.

About a year ago, maybe more, Brandon decided he wanted to live with his father (in another state, I believe). Initially, Donna was fairly distraught; Brandon was/is her son and moon. She’s been doing all the child rearing stuff on a one-parent income. (Being the sole wage earner has definitely tempered her idyllic, "Oilfield Princess" days with hard-earned reality and wisdom.) But like the gutsy, loving person she is, Donna fairly soon knew she had to "let go," to allow her son to bask in (if not be seduced by) the greater material resources at the father’s command. I also believe mother understood it was vital for son to more directly and genuinely know his dad – strengths and warts.

4. Courageous Self-Explorer. Donna's integrity and courage truly emerged after her son left. Miss D would periodically send me the most vulnerable and heartfelt emails. Donna would acknowledge at times feeling Brandon "let her down" or that he didn’t appreciate sufficiently what he had with her. But this only revealed her humanity. Once vented, she would always return to her admiration for Brandon, her "young man" of decency and integrity. No matter where he was living, mom was there for him.

Still, Donna was grappling with unprecedented levels of grief and periods of depression. There was a depth of hurt and loss that heretofore had been shielded by a loving family and her own strong and self-assured, core sense of self. But grapple and growing pains are the passwords. As with any meaningful experience that she encounters or generates, Donna’s passion and integrity invariably prevails; her loving wellspring revives and bursts forth.

Though phone conversations and emails are intermittent, through Donna’s sharing I’ve reached an unprecedented level of understanding of a pure loving connection. (I, on the other hand, have enhanced her awareness of neurosis and dysfunctionality. A Yin/Yang complementarity, obviously.) And while this bond is between parent and child, I have little doubt of Miss D’s ability to bring this soulfulness to man-woman intimacy.

5. The Unexpected Deep Dimension. And finally, just recently, I discovered that this virtual Wonder Woman is also a certified deep sea diver! I guess her oilfield pedigree transfers to a variety of subterranean and underworld explorations.

As Miss D has declared numerous times, "No matter what happens (or doesn’t happen) between us, you will always have a friend that loves you." And coming from Miss Donna W., Donna Darlin, "Your Gumbo Gal," my Miss D…I know what a rich gift this is!

And to all, heartfelt wishes for Valentine's and, of course…Practice Safe Stress!

Reader's "Higher Power of Humor/Tragedy" Section

And to put Valentine's Day in a more sober perspective, a poignant lyric:

if not now then when From: MetroMorph

if not now then when forgive me it’s not all my fault for the relationship we share believe me staying is a game i’ve played before and found disarming denying my reason for living my purpose for being subservient and without recourse or justice or redemption for wanting to decide what is good for me for surviving surviving your anger and dominating ways when my needs are deemed an inconvenience excessive and unworthy.

you despise me think i’m stupid and deserve no respect believe me i didn’t think my life would turn out this way deceit and broken promises don’t seem to matter when it’s not you they’re being told to and it’s so much easier to blame me blame me for your lack of satisfaction with who i am for you want of me

release me i want the life i was promised believe me i’ve been told there are better ways but love has hurt me so deeply when it’s me that’s being lied to referred to with ridicule for believing you would help me find a better way to live live without the fear and the shame of being substandard damaged beyond hope and repair discouraged

forget me i wasn’t worth your time in the first place believe me you don’t want to know and i don’t want to tell stories about me slowly dying, crying it’s a neon sign on my horizon my only option because of obligations that are one sided to damn me damn me if i do if i don’t if i will if i won’t perform as you order that i should go where you refuse to go and yet still be damned as reward.

spare me your arguments they’re manipulative and false believe me the lies that you tell don’t resemble the truth i’ve learned what you’ve tried to teach me but now it’s time to unlearn and teach you a thing or two i’ve been hurt i’ve been used i’ve made a decision to leave and live or stay and die this way this way isn’t working i get it but, do you do you call this love not emotional extortion not punitive enough think i’m lying to you that it’s all in my head is this all the better it gets is this all there is this has to change if not now then when

Seek the Higher Power of Humor: May the Farce Be with You!

(c) Mark Gorkin 2000 Shrink Rap™ Productions