A Reframe for Dick Whitman OR Don Draper Gets Just Enough ‘Therapy’ to Go On Being Don Draper

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

(Spoiler Alert!)

Let’s imagine that Don Draper’s momentary breakdown—a realization of abandonment, followed by a phone call wherein he recounts his sins to Peggy, leading to an anxiety attack or some other form of emotional paralysis, which is essentially broken by a cathartic, sobbing hug with a stranger in a group “seminar”—is an honest therapeutic breakthrough.

don's anxiety

While many people have interpreted the final moments of the series as cynical—the smirk that rises on Don’s face as he sits in a meditation group, followed by the ring of a meditation bell fading into the opening of the Coke “Hilltop” commercial jingle—a better “reframe” for what happens with Don is that he recognizes how his own behavior has been impacting others, that he is able to identify his own feelings of emotional disconnection, and that he is able to gain some real acceptance of his situation and how to thrive in it.

Don's idea

In the terms of a therapeutic cliché, Don realized that when one cannot change one’s circumstances, one can change one’s response/attitude toward those circumstances.

Essentially, such a “reframe” relies on the acceptance of the idea that the “Hilltop” Coke commercial is Don’s concept (all apologies to Bill Backer)—an idea that hardly seems up for debate. Among other elements, in the final scenes of the final episode, Peggy’s plea to Don to “come home” involves the pointed appeal, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” And the final words spoken, by one of the retreat leaders, before the Coke commercial closes out the series, are an invitation to greet the morning sunshine and bask in the possibilities of a “new day, new ideas, a new you.”

Don’s answer to Peggy’s question about working on the Coke account is, “I can’t. I can’t get out of here.” At that particular moment, it’s a statement of desperation. Don is panicked. He is stuck at a coastal retreat “somewhere in California” with no transportation.

But Don’s sense that he needs to be able to control where he is, and when he can leave, is about to melt away. After his moment of connection with fellow seminar-attendee, Leonard, Don realizes he can “work on Coke,” or any other account, so long as he abandons his need for control of the situation where he is working.

Don’s initial flight from McCann-Erickson is brought on by feeling he has lost control. He is called to a meeting for Miller Lite, only to realize he is one of many creative directors there—and not the creative director there. He quickly decides this is not for him, grabs up his catered box lunch, and hits the road.

Don’s need for control plays into his sobbing hug with Leonard—who details how he feels that his family doesn’t even look at him; that he doesn’t know how to give, receive, or even recognize love; and that “nobody cares I’m gone.”

don's hugg

In a moment of recognition and connection, Don realizes his family does not “care” that he’s gone, and that his idea of love is ill-defined at best. Of those family members he has tried to reach, daughter Sally and ex-wife Betty have told him to stay away, and that the lives of his sons are more stable in his absence. Stephanie, the niece of the (real deceased) Don Draper, both invites (the imposter) Don to the coastal retreat, and then leaves him stranded there, after telling him he is not part of her family (and after having her own desire for a therapeutic experience thwarted by what she feels are the judgmental and stereotypical attitudes about what she should value in life).

In the lead-up to Don’s hug with Leonard, it is only Peggy who urges Don to come home. And by “home” Peggy means back to work at McCann. It is Peggy alone who knows how to reach Don, and does so, rather than just accepting that Don does what Don does and leaving him to it. She appeals to the only thing that Don clearly loves—the pure joy of coming up with a winning ad campaign.

It’s possible to interpret Don’s brief breakdown as entirely self-serving—that he is distraught only because he has been abandoned instead of being the one to abandon, and because he lost the ability to just pick up and leave. He was even left without his usual means of numbing himself with alcohol and casual sex.

So when Leonard revealed his dream of being left alone in the dark on the refrigerator shelf, of course it struck a chord with Don. After all, Don’s whole career has been spent trying to get people to pick that particular item out of the refrigerator—the one that would make them whole. To do that, he needs to know how to connect with people like Leonard—people who have a sense of emptiness and who don’t know how to correct their emotional deficits. And now Don is trapped here with Leonard, in the dark and cold of that nightmare refrigerator where others are in charge of who gets in and out. That bit of recognition allows Don to plunge into his own feelings of sadness, if only for a moment, before he recognizes the value in what Peggy has told him, and the value of tuning into people like Leonard, at least until the end of the week.

It’s a fairly common misconception about therapy that such moments of insight and catharsis will lead to meaningful change, or that a therapist’s job is to provide a client with just the right piece of advice or insight to “fix” that client, and put the client on the right course for life. Part of that misconception can be attributed to “retreats” like the one where Don is stranded—certainly sold to the participants as a week of healing and life-affirming change. And, certainly, recognizing something lacking in yourself, and having a good cry can be helpful at times, but it doesn’t make you a different person. Real change takes will and work.

But if therapy is about meeting a person where s/he is, and helping that person to be the best version of who s/he can be at that time, and of using a ‘strengths-based’ approach that helps the person tune into their own abilities to address problems, then Don’s time away at the retreat is successful. Don not only has a moment of clarity and honest emotion; he gains acceptance about his own circumstances and how to change his response to them.

It is telling that in the final shot of Don’s family, we see them in a dimly-lit kitchen, Betty resignedly drawing on a cigarette, Sally, having assumed parental duties, washing dishes with her back turned to her mother and the camera. All this just before we see Don on a sunny cliff-top overlooking the Pacific Ocean and hear the opening words of the Coca-Cola jingle: “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love.”

sally dishes, betty smokes

Don has spent a good portion of his adult life trying to fix problems with money and buying things, and exists in an industry where money and buying things is put forth as the answer to everything—even a broken home and the absence of love.

And Don has a significant history of childhood trauma and abandonment, and poor modeling from the adults in his life. A week of group seminars and meditation isn’t going to fix that.

But that week on the coast did give Don enough of a reframe to get him back to the work he loves, and to do that work successfully.

coke real thing

And that’s the real thing…or the realest thing we can expect from Don.

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Self-Infantilization or Supportive Compromise? On the Controversy over Safe Spaces

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

In her March 21 piece for the New York Times, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” Judith Shulevitz mocks, among other people and things, Brown University student Katherine Byron for setting up a “safe space” for students who might be “triggered” during a debate between Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy that was likely to include a discussion of rape culture.

Shulevitz reported that the safe space “room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Nothing is said about why such items and personnel might have been present, or what the theory behind such a ‘safe room’ might be, other than Shulevitz’s own assumptions about how college students of today are over-parented and overly-sensitive.

Shulevitz goes on to say that, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” Shulevitz does not provide anything other than anecdotal evidence about the alleged increasing prevalence of such a conviction.

On top of that, one major thing that gets lost in Shulevitz’s piece is that the debate between Valenti and McElroy went on. The ideas were not silenced. No speaker was banned.

Instead, Byron, and those who assisted her, offered a place where audience members could go if they became uncomfortable, not necessarily with the ideas being expressed, but with the content of the discussion, which presumably included descriptions of how rape is depicted in popular culture, as well as how rape and rape victims are treated in the news media, by law enforcement, and in other areas of their lives.  The safe room was established by the Sexual Assault Task Force, first and foremost, to afford a safe space for trauma victims–not a refuge from ideas.

All the comfort of the joys of childhood...

All the comfort of the joys of childhood…

Perhaps Shulevitz’ mocking of the “safe spaces” is particularly disappointing because she has written other pieces on trauma and its impacts, most notably, a November piece in The New Republic, called “The Science of Suffering” which explored research into how PTSD can potentially be transmitted from generation to generation.  In it, Shulevitz includes this succinct and powerful description of PTSD:

Provoke a person with PTSD, and her heart pounds faster, her startle reflex is exaggerated, she sweats, her mind races. The amygdala, which detects threats and releases the emotions associated with memories, whirs in overdrive. Meanwhile, hormones and neurotransmitters don’t always flow as they should, leaving the immune system underregulated. The result can be the kind of over-inflammation associated with chronic disease, including arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, agitated nervous systems release adrenaline and catecholamines, both involved in the fight or flight response, unleashing a cascade of events that reinforces the effects of traumatic memories on the brain.

Shulevitz’s New Republic article describes research into, among others, Cambodian refugees who suffered through brutal conditions of war. And maybe this is where Shulevitz’ disconnect arises: her inability to see how a sexual assault in the modern-day USA could lead to similar forms of psychological and physical response as living through a years-long period of war somewhere else in the world.

But PTSD just as powerful as that experienced by those who have been through war can arise out of a sexual assault or rape. PTSD is not measured and assigned on some scale where those who experienced the longest, and arguably worst, trauma have the ‘most’ or most severe PTSD.

Complaining of the “self-infantilization” (a term Shulevitz credits to Judith Shapiro) demonstrated by things like the Brown University safe room, Shulevitz also neglects to explore other potential psychological issues stemming from sexual assault, particularly for those who were assaulted repeatedly at a young age. To be clear, I am not assigning a specific causal relationship here (i.e., if this happens, then that is the result, and/or, because a person exhibits this behavior, this particular thing has happened to them) but issues such as Borderline Personality Disorder are often tied to a history of having been sexually traumatized.

Strangely enough, complications associated with Borderline Personality Disorder can include shortcomings in one’s ability to develop into an emotionally mature adult.  Along with the repeated hospitalizations, there are frequently tendencies toward anxiety and overreaction to stimuli, impulsivity, fear of abandonment, hostility and perceptions that one is being personally attacked, and difficulties in forming long-term, stable relationships—issues which might, along with PTSD symptoms, be addressed (at least in the immediate sense of a perceived threat) by the “safe room” tactics that Byron deployed.

Rather than exploring the potentially positive effects of the safe room, though, Shulevitz instead uses it, and other alleged examples of “hypersensitivity” at universities, as evidence that today’s college students aren’t tough enough to handle the real world, and that today’s parents are coddling their children too much. But ongoing PTSD, personality disorders, and other psychological manifestations of trauma are not the result of overly-attentive parenting—and are more likely to be exacerbated by the opposite—a lack of attentiveness and support by those who should be providing it.

Still, Shulevitz pats herself and her peer group on the back for being much “hardier souls” than today’s college students–which includes an explanation that, in her day, college students only censored speakers for the right reasons. She writes, “I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable.” Shulevitz isn’t particularly clear on how “politically unacceptable” is markedly different from ‘ideas that make some people uncomfortable.’

Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate that Byron and her Sexual Assault Task Force didn’t actually stop anybody from speaking at Brown, but set up a space, off to the side, out of concern for those who might be interested in hearing the debate, but weren’t too confident that they would respond well to it. If anything, it represents a form of compromise much more than a form of censorship.

So maybe the safe room isn’t the perfect answer. Maybe it seems funny and easy to mock as a form of “self-infantilization,” particularly to those who aren’t all that interested in finding out what it’s supposed to mean or accomplish—those people who, as Shulevitz puts it, haven’t learned “the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”

Then again, maybe today’s college students aren’t really that different from past generations of college students—and are just exploring different ways of addressing concerns that didn’t exist in the past—or, rather, were ignored in the past.

Because heaven knows, none of us from older generations ever did anything questionable while we were in college, or came up with ideas that older generations might mock, as we tried, in an atmosphere of rapidly evolving technology, culture, and scientific understanding, to navigate a complicated passage into adulthood.

Thanksgiving Greetings from an Ingrate

by JC Schildbach

With all apologies to the wonderful people among my family and friends who have prepared some amazing holiday meals over the years…

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I’ve had to learn to love…or like a lot…or maybe just kind of like. As a kid, Thanksgiving didn’t have the obvious benefits of other holidays—like Halloween (monsters and candy), Christmas (presents and flashing lights), New Years Eve/Day (getting to stay up late and listen to the top-whatever countdown of the year’s/decade’s/history of rock’s top hits), July 4th (explosions, fire, and kickass food prepared with fire). I could go on, but I don’t know if even adding fire could really make Thanksgiving all that interesting.

Way back when, the only really good thing about Thanksgiving was getting a four-day weekend, which was pretty weird, anyway. I mean, really, why put the holiday on a Thursday? If it was a celebration of Thor, that would be cool. Hey, maybe that’s the key to making Thanksgiving interesting—Thor. Well, probably not.  But so far the best thing anybody has come up with is to add in a bunch of football games, which, as far as plans for making things interesting goes, is shaky at best.

And, sure, I liked turkey-based art projects. And I liked watching the parade with the giant balloon cartoon characters, but then there was that whole thing of having to sit through multiple marching bands and other weirdness and commercials in between the giant, inflatable cartoon characters. How much patience did these people expect 8-year-olds to have? And let’s face it, not even Ethyl Merman loves a parade, no matter how enthusiastically she belts out that musical lie.

Overall, Thanksgiving just felt like an excuse for adults to make kids put on clothes they should never have to wear outside of a church, forcing them to be itchy and bored for hours on end, while waiting for a meal of foods nobody really wanted to eat anyway. I blame Thanksgiving for tilting me toward a mild obsession with mashed potatoes. Peppermint Patty hollering, “Where’s the mashed potatoes?” is something I relate to entirely too well.  My anxiety over the thought of attending a Thanksgiving dinner that has all the usual stuff, but no mashed potatoes…unreal.

As far as the rest of the Thanksgiving fare goes…Turkey—sure, that’s fine, I guess. Cranberries—I like them well enough now, but as a kid, I just couldn’t help but think they tasted all wrong. They were berries, but they weren’t really sweet. They just should have been different somehow. And speaking of sweet-and-should’ve-been-different, there are those damn sweet potatoes. Who wants to eat that? It’s brown sugar and something that’s kind of like a potato, but kind of like a carrot, and squishy, and…uggh, I don’t even wanna think about it.

And then there’s green bean casserole. Actually, I quite like green bean casserole. But nobody in my family ever made the stuff.

All the appeal and excitement of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, straight out of the box.

All the appeal and excitement of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, straight out of the box.

On top of the conspicuous absence of green been casserole, there was always some heinous cornbread dressing—chock full of eggs. Did I mention that I’m allergic to eggs? So, yeah, it’s great to have a meal that involves plenty of unappealing food, including at least one awful food with plenty of deadly toxins—toxins aimed only at me!! Haven’t you people heard of Stove Top? It’s much easier to make, and much less deadly.  While we’re, on the egg tip…there were always weird, unappealing things like Waldorf salads, slathered in eggy mayonnaise.  There were pumpkin pies and pecan pies–eggs, eggs, eggs!!

And, well, just forget the rest of that food, okay?  I’m already in danger of going fetal here.

Since I’m an adult now, more or less, and I get to make at least part of the decision about what’s going to happen on holidays, we eat out on Thanksgiving—every Thanksgiving since 2010. This started out as a matter of practicality. I had been doing shift work for a few years already at that point—jobs that involved round-the-clock coverage, with holiday time off at a premium.

So, doing the whole, make-a-big-meal-and-then-take-off-for-work, or work-all-day-and-then-come-home-for-a-meal thing wasn’t exactly conducive to Thanksgiving harmony, especially when my wife had to take the lead on the meal with little support (hey, I took care of the shopping), and I would either be at work or asleep prior to going to work. Accepting invitations to other friends’ Thanksgiving meals was also complicated by my work schedule—so the wife and kid might go to a friend’s holiday meal without me (which was fine with me, but my wife felt bad about it).

To be sure, my wife is an amazing cook. But traditional American cuisine, and traditional American holiday cuisine, is not her forte’. She made some wonderful holiday meals (that whole incident with the Reynolds roast-in turkey bag not withstanding), but wasn’t always able to tell if things had turned out successfully, since the things she was making were a bit foreign to her. And given her highly-self-critical nature, no amount of reassurance was going to make her happy. So, forget it—let somebody else stress about the meals.

Most years, Thanksgiving out involves just my wife, my daughter, and me—although last year we had the pleasure of booking a party big enough to get us a private room at Preservation Kitchen—which is a pretty amazing place—and which was my favorite Thanksgiving meal since we’ve been doing the restaurant thing. I spent the bulk of the meal sampling beers (after a dirty gin martini opener) and conversing with a second grader. And since he and I have a similar sense of humor, it worked out pretty darn well.

I’m guessing most U.S. citizens feel obligated to be involved in some family-oriented, meal-centric Thanksgiving hassle, because that’s what you’re made to do growing up. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some weird sense of obligation ruin a perfectly good (if boring) holiday, that should be about things we’re thankful for. I’ll just say, I’m extremely thankful to be able to blow a few hundred bucks on a nice meal out, rather than blowing a few hundred bucks on a bunch of stuff that we now have to prepare ourselves amidst a bunch of other logistical complications.

Today, we’re hitting Palomino in downtown Seattle. Haven’t ever eaten there. Maybe I’ll post an update so you’ll know if it was at all satisfying. Maybe I won’t. I refuse to feel overly obligated by all this.

So, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! If you’re eating at somebody’s home, be nice to the hosts and steer clear of conversations about religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin. If you’re eating out, tip well—really, really well.

Requiem for a Snake

My daughter’s pet ball python, Smeagol, died over the weekend. We had no reason to think anything was wrong with him. The last time I observed him for any length of time—Friday, as I was yawning through the long pauses of eliminating a computer virus—he seemed just fine, climbing the ceramic branch/rock fixture in his cage. Sometime between then and Sunday, he vomited up his last meal—a partially-digested black mouse, eaten several days before—and shuffled off this mortal coil, while coiled on the floor of his cage.  I first took notice because he was lying there with his “nose” up under his body, which would have made it extremely difficult for him to breathe—had he still been breathing.

Smeagol was only about ten years old—not all that old for a ball python. And he wasn’t around long enough for me to resolve my mixed feelings about him. To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of snakes. To put it less mildly, they freak me the f*ck out. Constrictors, like Smeagol, don’t raise a panic in me as bad as smaller, squigglier snakes, or, of course, vipers and the like that can cause all manner of swelling, necrosis and more complete death with a single bite. But, still, he was a snake. And for me, that took a lot of getting used to—or not getting used to.

When my wife questioned my dislike of snakes, and more specifically, my queasiness toward our daughter’s pet, I told her that snakes are essentially tubes that crap out of one end, and bite with the other, and that being shat on and bit are not high on my list of favorite things. I didn’t explain to her how, when I saw a snake just out and about, say, in a field or a forest, I would completely lose my mind. She’s only come close to witnessing a subdued version of that once or twice. She still tried to convince me that Smeagol was cute—and he was as far as snakes go. He was pretty, even, with a funky black and brown pattern, a white underbelly, and a face that looked to be smiling.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

We had invited him into our home under the thought of good parents supporting our child’s interests. Back when she was in the fourth grade or so, our daughter got caught up in the idea of having a pet python. I told her if she could save up the money for a snake, I would buy the cage—a large, glass tank, with a screened, slide-out lid—for her birthday. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure she would meet the challenge. Ball pythons are not cheap; and I figured something else would capture her attention before she finished piecing together the money. But cash received as birthday gifts put her over the top of her fundraising goal, and she held me to my promise.

On the night we first brought him home, Smeagol bit my daughter, who admittedly was not exercising any caution whatsoever toward a small, confused animal who had just been stuffed into a box and transported through a cold, November night, to his new and unfamiliar home. I tried to tell her to just put the box in the cage and open it there, to let him come out in his own time. But instead, she set the box on a table, flipped it open, and reached in. Chomp!

Granted, when Smeagol bit anybody, it was more like a nip, designed as a quick warning. But he invariably drew blood with his little, hooked teeth when he did it. It was lightning fast, too, almost impossible to escape once he had a mind to do it. I know of two occasions, aside from his first few minutes in our home, when Smeagol bit my daughter. I also remember him taking a shot at one of our dog’s noses. The dog was just curious and unsure what to make of Smeagol. Smeagol took the dog’s face, with its looming mouth, to be a threat. Both dogs steered clear of him after that—she because she’d been bitten, he because I like to believe he shared my general belief in the benefits of snake avoidance.

Although it’s not good to speak ill of the dead, at times I wondered if Smeagol was perhaps something of a jerk among pythons. But then I figured he had, on average, only committed about one quick bite every two years—not bad considering everything he was put through, including visits to my daughters’ classrooms, and my wife’s classrooms, where he behaved around preschoolers and grade schoolers, even when one or two of them made lunging grabs at his face.

Personally, I never got bit by Smeagol, most likely because I kept my distance, even though, with my daughter spending less and less time at home, it fell to me to take care of most of his feedings and cage cleanings. My wife was the main one to spend time “playing” with Smeagol–letting him roam outside of his cage or drape himself over her shoulders. But, sometime in the last year, he bit my wife as she tried to retrieve him from behind a huge bulletin board that was leaning against a wall. Prior to the wife-biting incident, I had a theory that Smeagol’s likelihood of biting someone was, like with German Shepherds, tied to some sort of fear-sensing mechanism. With that one bite, my theory went out the window, as I knew my wife was the only one who had always approached Smeagol with a complete lack of fear, and a full sense of trust and love. This one bite sharply reduced my wife’s willingness to provide Smeagol with passes outside of his cage.

The need to take him out of his cage, or rather the need to keep him in a cage, or perhaps, the whole situation of pets in cages, had become increasingly troubling for me in the past few years. Part of my growing discomfort had to do with seeing Smeagol, essentially a wild animal who had grown to about four feet long, confined to a glass box, where he seemed to spend a good amount of his time searching for a way to get out. Snakes, as a rule, are pretty darn good at finding ways of getting in or out of wherever they want. So I imagine being trapped in such a way was maddening for him.

Part of my growing discomfort had to do with having dogs who have fairly free rein to go anywhere they want within the house and backyard—something I marvel at from time to time in the sense of, “Wow!  We have some fairly large animals just wandering around our house.”

When I was very young, we had a dog that was on the scene before I was, and who didn’t have much use for me, and vice versa. I never marvelled at her, and rarely even realized she was around.  Seriously, I can barely recall her existence, aside from some vague memories of my siblings’ reactions from around the time she was put down. I also didn’t give much thought to the idea of keeping animals confined to cages. In junior high and high school, well after the dog was gone, I acquired quite a few reptiles and amphibians (no snakes), and occasionally rodents, that were kept in a variety of fish tanks, mostly in my bedroom. Hell, once, with the help of my younger brother and a friend, I even transplanted a (slightly-larger-than-puddle-size) pond’s worth of native Oregon frogs (tiny little creatures) from their home in the suburban wild to a tank in our backyard—never thinking about just how difficult it would be to sustain that little ecosystem as the summer wore on and the heat became unbearable in that glass box. They were tadpoles when we caught them, and monitoring their transformation to frogs was pretty amazing. But we could have just visited the pond repeatedly and gotten the same basic show, all without wiping out the small frog community.

The vast majority of the reptiles and amphibians I collected met with premature deaths, often for reasons unknown, but more often through my own failings. There was a red-eared slider (turtle) who died shortly after I fed him bologna, unaware that turtles cannot physically process fat in their food.

There was the fire-bellied newt who escaped his cage (how a newt climbed out of a fish tank with only a few inches of water in the bottom, and a few flat rocks and a small branch poking out of the water is beyond me). I found the newt several days after his disappearance when I stepped on his dehydrated, crunchy little body, tangled in the shag carpet downstairs by the front window. I can only imagine the adventure he had making his way down the steps.

There was a procession of anoles (small lizards they sell in pet stores as chameleons), one to three at a time, who all caught the same wasting disease, despite thorough cleanings of the cage between inhabitants.

Various other turtles and lizards succumbed to death prematurely, with no real indication that anything was wrong until they woke up dead.

Later, well before my daughter acquired Smeagol, she had a pair of Russian dwarf hamsters—one of which completely consumed the other, except for its pelt. I kid you not.  There were no bones left or anything else aside from a well-preserved fur, in the style of a stripped and cleaned item you would find at an actual furriers. What was left of the devoured hamster would have made an excellent rug for, say, a beetle’s bachelor pad. I’m not sure if the consumed hamster died of natural causes before it was cannibalized, or if the carnivorous hamster just decided he’d had enough of corn and seeds, or maybe had had enough of her roommate’s bad habits.

But enough with the tales of animal woe. At this point, I’m going to make a little pledge in honor of our too-soon-taken Smeagol. I’m done with pets that have to be kept in cages. I don’t want to contribute anymore to the kind of recklessness that involves people boxing up animals in the first place. This is not to say that I think it is inherently wrong to have pets that are kept in cages. I suppose in some cases, it makes life more pleasant and less dodgy for the animals, and hopefully involves children learning some measure of responsibility, and hopefully a great deal of kindness and love. But in my personal weighing of the situation, I’ve made too many dumb mistakes. And I’ve failed to provide adequate levels of life outside the box. I’ve apparently failed to monitor properly for signs of illness, and to make sure I was avoiding harm.

Smeagol deserved a greater measure of freedom than he got. Of course, a ball python could do worse in life than to have a safe, warm home with regular feedings. But a snake native to the East coast of Africa probably could have done much better than to be kept in a glass box in the Northwest corner of the U.S., cared for by someone with a large measure of phobia aimed at him.

So, peace to you, Smeagol. May you pass through the fires of Mordor to the place of white shores and beyond—a far green country, under a swift sunrise.

 

Relaxation for Nerds Part One: A Carbon-Thawing-Based Stress Reducer

Ideally, therapy will involve a component of providing clients with new tactics for addressing everyday difficulties. For example, one way to get clients to develop skills in the area of anxiety management is to walk them through a relaxation exercise, maybe even aiding them in creating or recording one that works well for them. While doing my practicum, my supervisor had me create a stress-reduction ‘scenario’ of my own and present it to a very high-anxiety client.

Now, while the relaxation exercise I actually used in session had to do with the client feeling warmth spread through his body, thawing ice/tension in his veins, it actually came to me first as a relaxation exercise that I didn’t dare do. For the original relaxation exercise involved a certain space pirate emerging from a block of carbonite, inside a desert palace (carefully avoiding overly-specific references that might result in cease-and-desist letters from the lawyers of a certain film director who is still apparently cheesed off about those pirated copies of a certain 1978 ‘Life Day’ Holiday Special that frequently pop up on eBay). And, hey, for any of you overly-ambitious types who want to turn this into a full-blown relaxation video production suitable for YouTube, I’ve been told I have a voice that’s made for radio…or was that a face for radio? Both?

Anyway, it goes a little bit like this…

Close your eyes.

(We start with deep breathing, so sit comfortably in an upright position feet flat on the floor, arms resting on your lap or the arms of the chair. Now breathe in slowly through your nose. Take in a deep breath, all the way into the trunk of your body. You want your trunk to expand. You want to breathe from your diaphragm. You want to do some belly breathing. When your diaphragm has expanded with the air to its maximum stretching point, pause for a few seconds, then breathe out through your mouth, slowly and deliberately. Try to make the count of your breath out match the count of your breath in. Do a slow count as you take in air through your nose, expanding your belly…four, five, six, seven. Your breathing is at capacity. Pause, two, three four. Now breathe out…four, five, six, seven. Continue your breathing in this fashion, aware of the feeling of calm it brings.)

Everything is darkness, and silence, and immobility. In fact, you cannot remember the last time you saw daylight, the last time you heard anything other than the faintest, muffled sounds. You cannot remember the last time you were able to move, to stretch. You realize that this lifelessness, along with the negative feelings it brings, the fear and anxiety, are all the result of your inability to move, to experience the world around you. But you still feel your calm, measured breathing. You still feel a sense of hope…a new hope?

You have a vague sensation that you are in an awkward, standing position, as with your hands up in front of your chest. But you cannot move. Still, this realization of frozenness brings awareness, and this awareness brings with it the possibility of movement.

You have the briefest sensation that you are falling, and feel a slight, jarring in the solid material around you. And then all is silence and darkness again, but you feel a change.

As you continue your deliberate, measured breathing, a slow warmth starts to expand near your forehead. The warmth spreads slowly down your face. You feel as though your head is no longer pinned in one place, that you can move it ever-so-slightly. You feel the stiffness begin to fade from your head and neck. Along with the warmth, you begin to take in other sensations. Your eyes are registering light, even if only a little. There is a reddish light to the transformation that is freeing you. The confined space begins to give way to open air.

Another wave of warmth begins in your fingertips and spreads over your hands, up your arms, to your elbows, your biceps. The warmth moving down from your forehead meets the warmth climbing up your arms at your shoulders. You feel the tension melting out of your facial muscles, out of your neck, out of your shoulders, arms, and hands.

The warmth spreads down your chest and your breathing becomes easier, deeper. The warmth envelops your torso, trunk, your hips, your buttocks, your groin, your thighs.

Your senses are still overwhelmed by the chemical changes, and mechanical whirring around you. But soon, smells other than the faint chemical burning start to reach your nose, smells of desert air, of stale but fragrant smoke, exotic fruits, odd beasts.

As the warmth reaches down past your knees, releasing the tension in your calves, your ankles, your feet, you feel a sense of being freed. And you recognize in amongst the smells reaching you, something familiar, intimately familiar. As the tension, and the binding solidness melts away, you feel no fear, even as you realize you begin to fall. For that familiar smell that reaches you is the smell of security, the smell of one who will not let you fall, of one who will catch you, the smell, the words, the touch all grip you at the same time…the smell, and clutch, and declaration of “someone who loves you.”