Suicide?!? Shazbot!

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

Before we get started, let me just mention that I spend the better part of my workweek involved in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. And let me note that anybody’s reaction to the death of another is going to be personal, and related to the kind of connection between them.

Now, let me tell you something horribly, selfishly, insensitively awful about me.

When I first heard of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, my thoughts were, more-or-less in this order…

1)  Damn!

2)  60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.

3)  I wonder what else was going on with him.

4)  I am NOT going to write a blog post about this.

5)  Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!

Somewhere down the line was, “Shazbot!!” I totally f*cking wish “Shazbot!!” had been my first thought.

Anyway, before you climb all over me for my previously-mentioned insensitivity and selfishness, or whatever you might want to call it (I think I’ll call it “appropriate clinical detachment”), let me explain, in order of those thoughts.

1)  Yes, “damn!” It was shocking and unexpected to hear such a thing, essentially out of the blue. As for the context…I received a text message from my daughter about Williams’ death while running a plethysmography assessment (look it up). What this means is I was sitting in a small, dark, very stuffy and hot room running what I imagine would seem to most people to be a very disturbing clinical assessment to determine what kinds of really terrible things might lead to…ahem…responses for somebody with some admittedly inappropriate arousal patterns.

In such a situation, I didn’t have a lot of options for furthering a conversation or following whatever breaking news may have been happening. I had to shelve whatever thoughts or emotions I was having, and continue on with the assessment.

(You may ask why I wouldn’t have turned my phone completely off during a forensic assessment, but the reality of it is that the trace of the assessment is being recorded for later review, where it’s much easier to spot problem situations, and that turning my phone off only leads to things like my daughter destroying a sliding glass door because she locked herself out of the house on a cold day in early March—long story—well, not really, I think I just told it).

2) Which leads to…”60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.”

Sitting in that dark, stuffy, hot room, staring at a double-lined forensic “trace” on a computer screen, with few responsible options available for furthering my knowledge/understanding of the situation, the defense mechanism of clinical detachment kicked in. Think about it, yelling “Oh my God!,” or sobbing openly, or exclaiming, “Shazbot!” all would have been pretty inappropriate.

At any rate, the quick run-through of Williams’ risk factors is the kind of clinically detached comment that I suppose is hard for a lot of people to take, especially when it has not been filtered at all. I can’t speak for everybody in the field of counseling/therapy, mental health, or even crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but there’s an odd dichotomy that exists in most people who get involved in such fields: we tend to be highly sensitive people; we learn to be very objective about that sensitivity.

If I wanted to get all sci-fi, I could say people in this field are empaths…empaths who have honed their skills away from making them one big, raw nerve, and toward using that sensitivity to discern a deeper sense of what is happening in others without being overwhelmed by it. Most of us have some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms. So, ideally, our training leads to an ability to pick out risk factors and make judgments about how those risk factors affect a situation, so that an appropriate course of action can be taken. Such risk factors are not predictive, but tend to be more actuarial.

Furthermore, the assessment of risk factors tends to weed out irrelevant elements. I’ve heard so many people go off about Williams’ fame and money as if that should have kept him from suicide, but those factors are irrelevant to a suicide assessment…except perhaps in the context of Williams’ available resources for obtaining help. But, and here’s a big generalization (as well as a big but), for somebody who is at the point of committing suicide, the concept of “help,” regardless of one’s resources, has become rather abstract and unreachable. From such a viewpoint, the available “help” appears to have been exhausted and shown to be inadequate. So, pushing past the money and fame, if one looks at Robin Williams from the standpoint of demographics and his personal history, he fits into a high risk category—or, rather, multiple high risk categories, even before other information about his health was revealed.

3)  “I wonder what else was going on with him” was merely a further part of the assessment of risk and what led Williams to his course of action. In suicide risk assessment, this is a huge factor. (Can I get a ‘duh’?). If the demographic factors alone played the deciding role in whether somebody was going to commit suicide, then we’d have near-universal suicide by people who fit into the same demographic categories as Williams.

Hence, one of the things that is always asked of people expressing suicidal thoughts is some variation on “Is there anything in particular that’s leading you to feel this way?”

The big idea behind such a question is to open up a conversation with someone who has, perhaps, not had such an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with them. A lot of people who attempt suicide, or are headed in that direction (here’s another big generalization) have been very closed off about their thoughts, and what they’re going through. Sometimes, broaching this conversation, being able to “normalize” suicidal thoughts (let people know they’re not as rare as they might think), and giving somebody a chance to talk through their immediate experiences, can lead to a person discovering that they have supports and strengths they weren’t considering when they were staying closed off and keeping it all to themselves.

4) The idea that “I am NOT going to write a blog post about this” came from a number of places. As someone who works in suicide prevention, and who writes a (mostly weekly) blog it seemed almost obligatory for me to at least note Mr. Williams’ passing. I shudder at “obligatory.”

Also, following any highly-publicized suicide, a whole slew of TV pieces, articles and blog posts (among other things) commenting on suicide and depression and the lives of those who complete or attempt suicide go flooding out into the world. It makes sense that people want to find out what happened, or understand how it could’ve happened, or share their personal feelings, or pay tribute, or say obnoxious, ignorant things…and there is often plenty of overlap in all of that.

And all of the posts and articles, and TV pieces close out with the phone number for Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, urging people to get help for themselves, or for anybody they know, who is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I don’t do death too well. And I don’t really like talking about a particular celebrity because they died, or talking about suicide because that’s how someone famous died. I don’t generally shy away from talking about suicide, but I’m not deep into worrying about what celebrities are doing in their private lives. At any rate, when such conversations happen, I find myself slipping too far into the clinical, or just keeping my mouth shut. As for Robin Williams…I’m pretty sure I saw the entire run of “Mork and Mindy” and the “Happy Days” episode that spawned Mork, although I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about any of those storylines…as apparently memorable as they were, what with the rainbow suspenders and flying eggs and all. I’ve seen several, but definitely not all, of Williams’ movies.

Williams, like almost any accomplished artist who is around long enough, and productive enough, is going to put out work that is great, and some that is less great. The last thing I saw him in was “World’s Greatest Dad”—strangely enough, a story about a man who becomes a sort of celebrity after he ghost-writes a suicide note to cover up the fact that his teenage son died from autoerotic asphyxiation. I really enjoyed this movie, like I’ve enjoyed all of Bobcat Goldthwait’s movies (the ones he writes and directs). They tend to involve a kind of dark humor and exploration of at least mildly taboo subjects that are right up my alley. And, as a special bonus, “World’s Greatest Dad” was partly filmed at a bookstore and “mall” about five minutes from my house.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in "Shakes the Clown"...shattering expectations for better or worse.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in “Shakes the Clown”…shattering expectations for better or worse.

But then again, I had also written some spotty notes about how “Good Will Hunting” is one of numerous movies that gets the therapeutic relationship all wrong. I could continue on about liking how “Alladin” made good use of Williams’ rapid-fire joking, as did “Good Morning, Vietnam” and how he did some good stuff around mental health issues, like “Awakenings” and even “Patch Adams.”

I could tell of how I once spent half of a 9th-grade biology class trying to stop laughing uncontrollably after attempting to relay part of a Williams comedy routine to my lab partner (who is still my closest friend, not counting my wife). To completely butcher the joke, it involved Williams doing an impersonation of E.T. saying “ouch” because he was standing on his testicles.

5) Which leaves only “Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!”

I’ll concede that this is a pretty damn selfish thought. But, to provide some context, the call volume on Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on Monday, the day of Williams’ death, was double the call volume of the day before. On Tuesday, August 12, Lifeline had its highest call volume ever in the history of the service.

It’s true that not all of those calls involved people with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal intentions. The calls were not all from people standing on a bridge, or sitting in their living room with a gun in their lap, or lying in bed with several containers of pills and a bottle of gin beside them. Many of the calls were people asking how to get help for people they know. Many were people upset and sad at Williams’ passing, and just trying to process their own thoughts. But many were from people struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, several of them consumed with the idea that if Williams, with all he had achieved, was going to kill himself, then why shouldn’t they?

And, of course, people being the way they are, whenever the Lifeline number gets widely published and shared around on social media, there were more than the usual number of prank calls. (Quick note, kids: DO NOT prank the Lifeline—we have to take suicidal threats seriously, which means you might get a visit from the police as the price of your little joke, and as the price to the people of your hometown, who now have police officers responding to a non-emergency situation because you thought it was funny to be the kind of asshole who mocks people suffering from depression).

On top of the massive increase in Lifeline calls, most of the Lifeline call centers also serve as local crisis lines, and there was a huge uptick in the calls to local crisis lines (I don’t have specific numbers on this one yet, but trust me). Several of the Lifeline call centers, including the one I work in, also serve multiple functions within the local mental health system. To say the least, things got a little overwhelming.

I could go on about a number of other factors involved here, like how, while some call centers may be able to call in additional volunteers to address the short-term spike, generally speaking, the staffing, as with any business, is aimed at addressing an ‘average’ workload.  And there isn’t any way to suddenly increase the number of telephone lines and work stations to deal with what is, ultimately, only going to be a short-term (even if massive) increase in call volume.

By Thursday night/Friday morning, things seemed to be calming down a bit, easing back down to normal…at least in terms of call volume.

But we’re all still left with the sadness and the loss of an entertainer who reached people worldwide, and the struggle to understand and accept whatever this means to us personally, or societally, or clinically.

And, oh yeah…

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call LIFELINE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.

The Coat: A Haute Couture Horror Story

I wasn’t exactly a fashion-forward fourth grader.  Or perhaps my complete lack of fashion sense just meant I was incapable of comprehending what a style juggernaut I was.

At any rate, one would think that a nearly-knee-length, brown, corduroy coat, with enormous brown buttons and a matted-dog-fur-esque collar/lapel would have perfectly complimented my favorite pair of pants—off-white polyester with a thin woven black and orange-ish-yellow plaid.  But I wasn’t havin’ any of it.

I was used to my wardrobe being largely comprised of hand-me-downs.  And, for the most part, those came from my older brothers, so I’d had a preview of what I’d be wearing in upcoming years.  In most cases, I was looking forward to the day when those items would become mine–that funky navy/robin’s egg/and white macrame´ vest with the tassels, those polyester pants in sea-foam green with a padded micro-waffle texture…

But that coat.  That goddamned coat.  Childhood memories are, of course, often comprised of impressions and sensations, with a few points of actual fact.  As for the jacket, I think it came from a cousin.  I can’t be sure.  But I had been looking forward to taking possession of the multi-panel, blue, red, and white, ‘normal’ ski jacket my older brother had, at the same time I would pass my own multi-panel beige, white, and blue ski jacket onto my younger brother.

But by some cruel twist of fate, that brown, corduroy monstrosity had insinuated itself into the orderly transition of jackets.  It was an interloper.  It did not belong.  I lost my ski jacket to my younger brother, but took possession of that…thing.

Nobody wore a coat like that.  I mean, for fuck’s sake, people had metallic silver NASA jackets, and puffy, stuffed ski jackets in traffic-cone orange.  But a brown, corduroy jacket?  What the hell?  That thing wasn’t even waterproof.  And damned if I wanted to deal with something so stupid and girly as an umbrella to keep me dry (although I did have a really cool, clear, plastic, dome-style umbrella—oh, the sound of rain pounding down on that while pretending to be in a futuristic car or plane with a bubble dome over my own, personal pilot’s compartment.  ‘Fuck you, rain.  I’m from the future’).

Okay, I didn’t actually say “fuck you” to the rain or anybody/anything else when I was in the fourth grade.  But I did have my own arbitrary standards of what I would allow anybody to witness.  I walked to school every morning with my younger brother and older sister.  And, as with the umbrella, I would put the coat away on approaching the school, and, at the end of the school day, would avoid putting it on until a safe distance from the school grounds and any classmates that might see me.

To avoid the suspicion of my sister (or so I thought), as we approached the school, I would mention a few times how hot I was feeling in that bulky coat.  Now, by “put away” I meant I took the coat off and draped it over my arm, or rolled it into a tight bunch, hopefully making it inconspicuous enough that nobody would ask what it was or why I wasn’t wearing it until I could make it to the jacket hooks in my classroom.  There, I would abandon the damned thing, hanging it behind other coats already present, and pray nothing would happen that would lead anyone to look at it too closely.  My mom had, of course, written my name on the collar tag.  All anybody would have to do to see it was mine was flip it open a bit, right where it hung.

To minimize the possibility of anybody accidentally seeing it was my coat, I devised ways of folding the collar down between the hook and the tag, to keep the tag blocked from all but those who would actually go to the trouble of making the effort to move the collar and read the tag…as if that were a thing somebody would do.

I would leave the coat there, hanging.  Walking away from it, I would feel a small tinge of guilt at rejecting something that just wanted a chance to keep me warm—and not just rejecting it, but trying to hide its connection to me.

Mornings, before first bell, I would hang out in the classroom, often hovering by, or leaning against, the heater that ran along the length of the far wall.  I would pretend to study the calendar or the bulletin board that surrounded it, or look at the bulletin boards near the back wall where student classwork was posted, or even pull a book from the bookshelf and lean against the heater, reading, as if this was the kind of thing people did, warming myself from the chill that would set in during the few blocks I walked sans jacket.

If my best friend at the time, Doug, showed up early enough, we would inevitably draw—I don’t think I was in my souped-up van phase yet.  I was probably drawing monsters, while Doug worked at planes and other vehicles with an architect’s precision.  At any rate, I would make sure we moved the drawing activities as close to the heaters as possible.

Recesses were a bit trickier.  I spent them all in the library—first recess—about 15 minutes around 10:15 a.m.; lunch recess—whatever time was left after our noon lunch, which I took to eating rather slowly; and afternoon recess—15 minutes at 2:15 p.m.  There was some sort of ban on spending all of one’s recesses indoors—at least one recess had to be spent outside, to make sure we were getting fresh air and exercise.  Although, if you ask me, fresh air and exercise when it is 40 or fewer degrees outside is just about the last thing anybody needs—especially a skinny fourth-grader who refuses to wear his only coat.

So, in one of my earlier acts of rebellion and coercion, I convinced Doug to blow off the oppressive guidelines that said we had to go outside, and hang out in the library with me where we strategically re-positioned ourselves from recess to recess, playing chess, drawing, listening to old “Jack Benny Show” cassettes on bulky headphones, or, of course, reading.

This went on for several weeks before we were confronted about any of it.

But in the meantime, something else happened.  One morning, on the way to school, I realized I had left a homework assignment at home.  Now, the forgotten homework assignment did not occur to me until after I had gone through my ritual of claiming I was too hot to wear my coat, and had taken it off.  When the thought of the homework struck me, I thrust my coat at my sister, asking her to hold it, while I dug through my bag to confirm what I was already certain of…that I had left my homework papers on my desk at home.

I contemplated taking off with my book bag—after all, if I didn’t have it, what was I going to do with my homework once I retrieved it?  But it could only slow me down.  I checked my brown, Timex watch and calculated whether I could make it home and back in time for first bell, and weighed which was worse—arriving at school without my homework, or maybe arriving late.  I decided I should go for it.  Leaving my bag and coat with my sister, I took off, in a dead sprint all the way home through the suburban streets.

Despite my sense of self that says I was never athletic, I was fast—at least at short-distance running.  Soon, I arrived home, burst in through the front door, charged upstairs and flew across my bedroom to grab my homework.  Of course, this wasn’t the kind of thing that would have escaped my mother.  On my way back down and out, mom stopped me to ask if everything was okay.  I breathlessly told her I forgot my homework, but everything was fine—I could make it to school in time.  Not being one to not notice such things, my mother asked what happened with my coat.

I have no recollection of what I actually said, but in my built-up remembrance of the story, I said that I had made it to my classroom, took off my coat, realized I didn’t have my homework, and so ran home, not thinking about the coat, or anything other than that I needed to get my homework turned in.  I am convinced that I was a big enough nerd/worrier that my mother would have totally accepted this answer.

Perhaps at this point I would do well to lay out exactly what my real problem with the coat was.  Brown corduroy, fuzzy lapels, and giant buttons were only a part of the problem.  Certainly, they were a problem in the face of metallic silver and traffic-cone-orange fabrics.  Brown corduroy could not compete with that.  In fact, a brown corduroy coat was probably just as weird as metallic silver or puffy traffic-cone-orange pants would have been, while brown corduroy pants wouldn’t have drawn any attention at all.  But what was really problematic for me was that the coat reached nearly to my knees.  I thought it looked like an ugly dress.  I was afraid that I would be insulted for being girly.  By this time in my life, between my curly hair, penchant for school work and art, pronounced interest in stuffed animals, and general lack of interest in sports, I had been accused of being girly enough that I realized it was a ‘bad’ thing.  In fact, I had even mostly given up on engaging in one of my sister’s favorite pasttimes for me—putting on her emerald green costume dress and wandering through the living room when we had company.

So, I did my damnedest to try and plough through to the other side of winter without having to wear that damned coat anywhere that any of my classmates might see me, so they wouldn’t add it to the heap of things that suggested I was less-than-masculine.

On that particular occasion, I made it back to the school grounds, which were deserted…at least on the outside.  As I entered the far end of the field, I heard the “final” morning bell ring.  My heart sunk.  I was going to have to go through the humiliation of checking in at the main office.  And, I had left my book bag and coat with my sister.  I had the stupidest coat ever, and was probably going to have to go to my sister’s classroom to pick it up, where I would not only be forced to apologize profusely for interrupting class, but where I would probably be forced to put on the coat so my sister and her classmates could laugh at me before I returned to my own class, where my classmates could laugh at me, and decide right then and there that I was entirely too girly for anybody to ever be friends with me again.

Instead, I had the brilliant idea to go straight to my classroom and play dumb.  What?  I’m late?  Oh, well, here’s the homework assignment.  Gee, it’s cold in here.  Can I go sit on the heater while we copy our spelling words for the week?

My teacher, Ms. W, welcomed me to the classroom, and said nothing about me being late.  Being a teacher’s pet had its advantages.  She brought my book bag over to me, which my sister had thoughtfully dropped off at my classroom.  When I realized the implications of the presence of my book bag, I whipped my head around to check the coat rack.  There, out in front at one of the first spots, was my coat.  I was sure I could read my name on the tag from across the room, and was certain that my classmates had all seen it as well, and had probably already come up with some involved plan for recess wherein I would end up locked in the girls’ bathroom, or wandering the playground in that coat, as people fled from me like I was infected with the plague.

But, due to some sort of weird technicality, I was being set free.  My sister had dropped off my things and explained that I had gone back home to retrieve my homework.  That was good enough for Ms. W.  God, I loved/hated my sister.

Speaking of my sister, there was somewhere in all of this drama where she tried to convince me that the coat was totally acceptable—cool even.  How did she do that?  Peanuts, of course…  She tried to convince me that Snoopy was wearing the same basic coat by showing me a coloring book image with this version of Snoopy in a furry, brown coat.

Check it out...Snoopy's coat is almost as stupid as your's.

Check it out…Snoopy’s coat is almost as stupid as your’s.

I wanted to embrace this.  But it just wasn’t the same coat.  Snoopy was plainly wearing a fur coat that was part of an outfit showcasing his love of football.  And, for once, I didn’t give a fuck what Snoopy was doing.  Even if he had been wearing the exact same coat, it was stupid, and I hated it.  Snoopy should just go back to being naked, and I should get a normal jacket.

The real undoing in the whole coat drama involved my library scheme falling apart.  I can picture alternate versions of this scene…one with one of the librarians confronting me (and Doug), one with the other librarian doing the same, a third with both librarians doing the same, and a fourth with my teacher confronting me—although in that version, my imagination always inserts my sixth grade teacher, which makes no sense.

At any rate, the end result was that I had to go outside for at least one recess a day…which I was supposed to have been doing all along.

If I’m remembering correctly, I chose the lunchtime recess, because I could waste time in the cafeteria until the last person was done eating.  I even tried to sign up for lunch duty in the hopes of getting stuck wiping down tables instead of going outside.  But the cafeteria duty was assigned in a rotating pattern.  I couldn’t take over for anybody, no matter how much they would have been happy to have such a thing happen.  But even without cafeteria duty, after leaving the lunch room, I could waste time in the classroom, pretending to get ready to go out.

But eventually…I would have to go outside.  And I wasn’t going to put that coat on.

Doug and I had invented some sort of (now forgotten) game, based around the monkey bars, which we called “Planet of the Apes.”  So, of course, we called them the ape bars.  I tried to get back into that game, but I was freezing my face off.  I decided I couldn’t survive on the Planet of the Apes, and so ducked into an alcove in an outside wall where a drinking fountain had once been.  It wasn’t exactly comfortable or pleasant, and some of the piping that used to connect to the drinking fountain was still poking out of the back wall.  But it kept me out of the wind.  Doug initially tried to make a game of me being wedged into that alcove, standing in front of me, telling any passers by that there was nothing to see and to move along.  Of course, this attracted attention, at least briefly.  But like most of the things Doug and I did together, most people just ignored us.  It didn’t take Doug long to get bored of hanging out with somebody who was tucked into a hole in the wall.

In my mind, these recesses went on for weeks, in the same way that one’s mind can exaggerate any terrible experience.  Each time I was out on the playground, our playground aide, Ms. Volstack, would ask me about my jacket, doing her due dilligence, but would leave it alone when I said I had a coat but was doing just fine without it.  In reality, the coatless recesses probably lasted about three days…probably a total of 24 minutes outside.  Then Ms. Volstack was out for the day and our Principal, Mr. Scribner, filled in on recess duty.

It was also the day that one of the developmentally delayed kids decided to investigate my presence in the drinking fountain alcove.  My mind keeps inserting one of two particular people into the role of that kid, somebody who I didn’t know until the eighth grade, or a friend of mine from the year before, who had moved away, who was not DD.  Anyway, this kid was flitting about the playground, arms pulled up into his sleeves, flapping them around and making bird noises.

He had passed by the alcove a few times when he decided a bird attack was in order.  He had bird-attacked multiple other people that recess—which consisted of squawking loudly and swatting at the victim with his sleeves).  He augmented his usual bird attack by turning his back to me, and slamming into me.  With the piping coming out of the wall behind me, this became very unpleasant very fast–well, even more unpleasant than somebody slamming me into a concrete wall that didn’t have pipes sticking out of it.  And then Mr. Scribner came into view, checking to see why this kid had become interested in attacking the defunct drinking fountain alcove.

Mr. Scribner shooed the kid away and then began grilling me about just what I was doing wedged into the wall like I was, without a jacket.  I insisted, as I had with Ms. Volstack, that I had a coat, I just didn’t need it.  Mr. Scribner, though, was not as easily persuaded that all was fine.

See, my mom was a widow, or as one might call her these days, a single mother.  And not only a single mother, but one with five sons and one daughter.  Women, it was insisted at the time, could not raise sons adequately.  And given my exceptional oddness, I’m sure I did nothing to help disabuse people of such a notion.

Fortunately, the bird attack had not taken place until the last few minutes of lunch recess.  When the bell rang, despite Mr. Scribner standing there in front of me, I ducked to the side and bolted.  Like I said, I was fast.

I wasn’t party to whatever happened next.  I assume there was a phone call home.  I don’t remember my mother asking me anything about the coat…or I should say, I don’t recall ever being truthful about the coat when speaking to my mother.  I am sure I complained about it to her early on, in the way I most often complain, where there is no resolution except for the target of the complaining to go away forever.

My best guess is that my sister explained to my mother what I hated about that coat.  And I’m guessing my sister casually extracted that information from me while we were playing 45s in her bedroom.  Despite her history of getting me in trouble more than any other person on earth possibly could have, I was open with my sister unlike anybody else.  I can imagine that, while switching records between “Help Me Rhonda” and the “Theme from Rockford Files,” I said that the coat was so long it looked like a dress.  Bam.  Mystery solved.  Problem solved…sort of.

The next morning, when I got up, the coat was laid out at one end of the dining room table…along with a strip of about eight inches of fabric my mother had trimmed off the bottom of the coat.  She had sewn the bottom of the coat up, so it looked just like a shorter version of the same coat.

As with any of the times that I was confronted with the knowledge that somebody had learned of one of my bizarre schemes, I felt some deep-seated terror that I was in real troubl–that my mom had fixed the problem with the coat, and now I was gonna get it (not that I ever really “got it”—my mom is one of the most level-headed people I’ve ever met).  I stiffened up, and took my seat at the table to eat my breakfast…oatmeal and buttered toast.

At some point, my mother entered the dining room and said something along the lines of “I trimmed some of the extra fabric off your coat, so maybe it will fit better.”

I thanked her.  I wore the coat to school.  I took the big leap of wearing it all the way to class…and on recess, anticipating some fallout from wearing a jacket so ridiculously different from everybody else’s.

There was no fallout.

I suppose there’s some lesson to be learned about asking for help, voicing what you want so you can get the help you need…or at least explaining the specifics of what’s bothering you.  But still, even in its altered (and to my mind, less girly) state…I hated that fucking coat.

THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS AND THE FIGHT AGAINST COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus points out to Charlie Brown that he has taken “a Wonderful season like Christmas, and turned it into a problem.”  And while I would never compare a beloved figure like Charlie Brown to ridiculous cartoon characters like Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin, the people who push the idea of a “War on Christmas” are engaging in that same mindset of turning a wonderful season into a problem—and all allegedly because they love it so much.

When Charlie Brown complained about Christmas, it was because, “I know nobody likes me.  Why do we need a whole holiday season to emphasize it?”  This is what we in the therapy business might call examples of thinking errors, or cognitive distortions.  Look beyond your pantophobia.  Challenge those thoughts, Charlie, and what do you arrive at?

“I know nobody likes me.”  That’s what we might call “All or nothing thinking.”  As a little hint, almost anytime you say that everybody or nobody is doing something, that’s pretty much a distortion—a false statement.  What would a challenge be to that thought, Charlie Brown?  I bet Linus might feel a little offended at being considered a “nobody,” as I doubt he would say he doesn’t like you.  He’s a pretty good friend to you, offering support at every turn.  So, there are people who like you, and you know that.

Now how about the idea that there is “a whole holiday season to emphasize” that nobody likes you?  Well, since we’ve already successfully challenged the idea that nobody likes you, the argument is already flawed, but what else?  Might we call this magnification?  It’s definitely an exaggeration, as if an entire season was there just to make you feel bad.  Is it everybody’s desire to make you feel bad that drives the holiday season, or is there something else going on?  I think your good friend Linus hits on at least one different explanation.  Lights please.

So, now it’s your turn Bill and Sarah.  How about the phrase, “War on Christmas”?  Are there any problems with this phrase?  How about magnification?  Blowing things out of proportion, kind of like Charlie Brown did?

First of all, “War” is a pretty harsh word.  In the most real sense, it means organized, focused acts of aggression and violence.  People get killed.  Property gets destroyed.  So, certainly, in the United States you can’t mean that there is, properly speaking, a war going on with Christmas as its target.

Even in its more hyperbolic meaning, as when it’s applied to a concept, the word “war” is usually attached to actions that have a demonstrable, negative impact on the thing against which the war is being waged.  For example, the “War on poverty” was intended to have specific impacts that “damage” poverty or put an end to poverty.  One might fight poverty by trying to increase employment, reduce hunger, and ensure adequate access to housing.  There is a coordinated plan of “attack” with goals to be achieved and measured.

So, maybe instead of saying that there’s a “War on Christmas” you could say, there’s a “Push for recognition of non-Christmas holidays” or maybe a “Movement to make participation in Christmas celebrations elective.”  Sure, those phrases aren’t that catchy, but they also help steer away from connecting anger and violence with Christmas, which really seems like a great goal, don’t you think?

“But…but,” you may be saying, “the War on Christmas has a demonstrable, negative impact on Christians!”  Careful, now, we don’t want to get into emotional reasoning, believing something is true just because you had a feeling related to the thought.  Let’s look at the impact the war on Christmas has on Christians in the United States.

In order to measure the tangible impacts, we would have to have some specific examples of what this War on Christmas involves.  Let’s see—there’s the matter of some stores having employees say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and utilizing the same language in their ads.  But does that really hurt anybody who is filled with Christmas spirit and good will toward all her/his fellow human beings?  Or does it actually make sense, in the United States, a pluralistic society which was in no small part established by people looking for freedom to worship how they wanted, to expect that people will celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever way they want?

It is hardly an insult to say “Happy Holidays,” unless you consider referring to Christmas as one of multiple holidays (which literally means “holy days”) insulting. So, what is it about “Happy Holidays” that is so offensive?  Isn’t it more offensive to establish an atmosphere in which people think that “Merry Christmas” might be a challenge—a test to see if they’ll say “Merry Christmas” back in order to avoid a fight?  What is it about Christmas that makes anyone want to start an argument, especially anyone who views Christmas as a positive thing?

So what else have we got?  Public schools deciding not to include specifically religious (Christian) songs in their “holiday” (not Christmas) music programs?  Does it really hurt you if the kids sing “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland” rather than “Greensleeves” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”?  Well, how about this—how many of the “War on Christmas”-endorsing crowd would be happy to find out that all the kids in the local public school had to learn a specifically Muslim song for, say, a concert in honor of Ramadan?  Or if they had to learn a Jewish song that was more religiously-based than the Dreidel Song?  Or maybe the Dreidel Song is offensive enough to anyone who actually believes that there is a war on Christmas.

So, let’s stack up the allegedly negative impacts of the “War on Christmas” against what goes on in the United States every year during the “holiday season.”  Christians, and many people who celebrate Christmas out of tradition rather than out of religious conviction, decorate their homes, and often various community gathering places.  Churches have one of their busiest times of year, including plenty of singing, praying, and programs wherein children perform religious songs and plays while dressed as shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family.  Stores certainly decorate and make a variety of specifically Christmas-related items available.  I know I can walk into almost any major department store, and even a huge number of specialty stores and find nativity scenes of various sizes, Advent calendars, Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas cards, and on and on.  Where’s the real damage?  The destruction?  The horrible losses?

Acknowledging that other people in your community don’t share your same traditions and religion does not mean you are under attack, and definitely does not mean you are involved in a war.  To believe as much is a massive cognitive distortion, a mental filter siphoning out the good of Christmas in search of a reason to be angry rather than to be filled with joy, love, and the Christmas spirit.  People asserting their right not to be Mannheim Steamrolled by Christmas excesses are not armies or even shoe bombers, just people saying, “Hey, we’re not all like you.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Therapists and mental health professionals of various stripes are not automatically opposed to religion.  (And, contrary to popular belief, the holiday season is not the time of year with the most suicides, at least not the most completed suicides).  I have seen firsthand, and participated in, some of the incredible good that people of faith can accomplish.  And I think various expressions of faith and spirituality are wonderful when they are used as part of a person’s support system and coping skills.  Plenty of people derive great strength from their faith, rely on it to provide meaning in their lives, and engage it to look for the good in others.  And I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about being able to tell Christians by their love, and not by the ludicrous complaints they make in an effort to sell books.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe spirituality is not intended as a source for expanding one’s view of the greatness of all creation, and one’s place in, and connection to, it, including one’s ties to one’s fellow people.  Maybe spirituality is the best tool for narrowing down one’s focus to the pettiest things one should really be angry about.  Hunger?  Economic injustice?  War?  Violence?  Why bother with addressing any of that when you can get angry about City Hall having a “holiday tree” but no manger scene, or perhaps a manger scene, but also displays for Chanukah, and Kwanzaa?

What does it do to a person when she/he uses spirituality as a source for anger at those who don’t express their beliefs in the same way she/he does?  What does it do to a person to make Christmas a source of personal anger at other people, not because she/he despises Christmas, but because she/he claims to love it?

Linus, engaging a pure sense of Christmas spirit, shows that love is transformative and life-giving.  It brings people together, and challenges their notions of separateness, selfishness, and persecution.  So, take a cue from Linus this…ahem…holiday season and engage that sense of love and joy.  You may just end up feeling less like “nobody loves me” Charlie brown, and more like “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.”

Happy Birthday to Me

“Happy Birthday to Me” is a delightful little horror film from 1981, starring Melissa Sue Anderson, aka Mary from “Little House on the Prairie,” as Virginia, a top student at an exclusive private school who may just be blacking out and killing her annoying friends.  Now, I don’t want to get too involved in the parallels between that movie and my own academic prowess, blackouts, annoying friends—but, hey—uh…what was I saying?  And…uh…is this blood on my shirt?  Good God!  It’s everywhere!

Anyway, for my birthday I decided to treat myself to a late-60s/early 70s, cheapo Charlie Brown plastic mask I found on eBay—not so cheap now that it’s “vintage”—and, no, the costume and box are not with it.  It’s a mask I intend to hang on the wall in my office—sort of a comical homage to all that Jungian persona business, and the notion that all therapists and psychologists have at least one or two carved, ‘primitive’ masks among their office décor.  I suppose that, like with the vast majority of my comical homages, it will go largely un-understood and un-laughed-at by anybody who ever sees it.  But that’s okay.  We’ve got to amuse ourselves, right?

Still, there is a larger personal significance to the mask than just a little inside joke about Jung and the décor of therapists’ offices.  It’s tied to my second—make that my third—I think—memory ever.

My father died a week before my third birthday, in a car accident, when another driver ran one of the few stop signs in the rural Nebraska community where we lived at the time.  By October’s end, my mother had landed the family—my five siblings and me—in Oregon.  We didn’t have much to hold us to Nebraska.  We hadn’t been living there that long, and we had no relatives in the area.  We were there because that’s where my father had been placed in his role as a pastor in the LCMS.

Halloween 1971 was spent at the home of my Uncle Jim (my mother’s brother), while we waited to move into the house that had been purchased with some of the payouts from my father’s death.

That year I went trick-or-treating in a Charlie Brown costume.  The only reason I can recall this at all is that my Uncle Jim had slipped a rock or two into my trick-or-treat bag, predictably and hilariously eliciting cries of “I got a rock!” as we inspected our hauls for the evening.

It’s been a bit of a mystery to me why the end of summer and the beginning of autumn has always been my favorite time of year.  Despite what should be an obvious association with loss, I’ve always tied it to new beginnings—most obviously the start of the school year.  It also seems a bit odd that Halloween would be my favorite holiday as well, given that it’s connected somewhere back in my mind with the death of my father, and being unexpectedly uprooted.

I suppose that on some level, because fall is associated with most of my earliest memories, and it marks the time when I arrived in Oregon, which I will always consider home, fall is when I really joined the world as a conscious, if befuddled, human being.  So I suppose that Charlie Brown mask is a symbol of both that consciousness and that befuddlement…and of the idea of home.

Happy Birthday to me, indeed.

Why Respect the Blankie?

Among an infinite–okay, infinite minus the already-taken selection of names, why “Respect the Blankie?”

The idea for the “Blankie” title came more-or-less spontaneously, when I uttered the phrase while mock-chastising the dogs for having messed up my side of the bed (the other side belonging to my wife, not the dogs–although I don’t bother to disabuse the dogs of the notion that the bed is theirs, too.).  The blankie, after all, is very important to my tactile health–or is that the tactile component of my mental health?  Let’s just say I’m rather attached to that little satin strip along the edge of the blanket (and, no, I don’t mean that in a pervy way).  It helps me think–I think.

A quick Google search revealed that the only other reference to the specific phrase “Respect the Blankie” involved a photo on Tumblr or Imgur, or one of those other vowel-challenged sites (I would add a link here, but don’t want to imply that my site is in anyway endorsed by the photographer or the photographee–look it up if you want–like I said, it’s quick).  The Google search also turned up numerous parenting articles about when is the appropriate time to make children give up their security blankets and/or strategies for making one’s child give up his/her security blanket.  “Ah-ha!” I thought, “I’ve definitely found the name I want!”

‘But why would that be the deciding factor?’ you may ask.  And the answer is, because ‘you wouldn’t hit an instant shepherd,would you?’  (Dammit!!  Another Peanuts reference.  I’ll move on from these, I swear.  Or maybe I won’t anytime soon–I’ve got a lot of Peanuts-related stuff to work out).  At any rate, the notion that a search on that particular phrase would land on articles about making children stop being children was entirely too appealing.  Parents get caught up in the idea that they need to stop other people from thinking their kids are weirdos.  I had plenty of struggles around parenting my own weird, but wonderful, kid that centered on that same notion.  It’s incredibly difficult to get your kids aimed in the direction they really want to travel in–the one they choose for themselves–too easy to try to steer them (subtly or not) where you want them to go, or to give them too little direction so that they don’t feel they have any sense of where they’re going.  Letting them hold on to their blankie may give them the direction they need, or the option to hoist it like a sail, or tie it on like a cape, so they can change course mid-expedition, or mid-flight.

In the world of Peanuts, Linus carted his blanket around everywhere, and, for the most part, it never hindered his development.  On the contrary, it allowed him to be himself at all times and in all places.  He was a boy of conviction, but also a boy who could admit to his lapses in faith.  He could own up to his own fears while also helping alleviate the fears of others.  In short, while his older sister set up shop demanding nickels to dole out abuse, Linus just walked the earth, blanket in hand, distributing sage advice, able to call people on their negative qualities, while also demonstrating the power of love and consideration, embodying the desire to create a better world, and defending the weak (even when that included himself).

I don’t recall ever actually dragging my security blanket around all over the place (although I can’t claim definitively that I didn’t), but it did stay on my bed, and for a time ‘back at home,’ then back on the bed until it essentially crumbled to dust (perhaps more later on why it was there in the first place).  I’ll admit that in my daily life, I tilt toward Lucy-like scolding, and Charlie-Brown-like dread far too easily.  But the goal is to to be more Linus-like, and to allow others the same.  The real trick of security blankets is for those who have them to  recognize why they have them, how they are using them, if they need to throw them out, get a new one, or…whatever other solutions work out best.

Ideally, people will internalize the sense of security that a security blanket represents. But to think that we can actually be self-contained, that there will be no elements of security that we have to draw from outside ourselves is a mistake.  Respect the strength that comes from within, but also the strength that comes from the people and things around us.  Respect the blankie.