Friday, June 23, 2017

Learned Stress

When we experience an occasional fearful situation, our brain directs the release of the flight or fight stress hormone, cortisol. When the danger subsides and we feel safe again, the flow of cortisol subsides. While this hormone is necessary when we are in imminent danger, a steady flow of it is not healthy.

Living in abusive relationships fight or flight is our constant companion. Every moment of every day we must be hyper-vigilant, trying to avoid the expected next blowup. Even after leaving the relationship, our bodies are not able to readily adjust to the fact that the danger is over and turn off the fight or flight reaction. Feeling unsafe becomes our bodies’ norm. It is learned stress. 

When we add the current events onto the mix we find our health in danger. Our minds are constantly stewing about everything that is difficult in our lives and the world. We exhaust ourselves and feel paralyzed. We stop nurturing ourselves—or never start. Drugs, alcohol or other addictions can enter the picture as a way to cope. However, they send us into numbness. In a sense we stop experiencing the trauma but we also miss out on the happiness in our lives.

To heal, the body needs to recognize that the danger has passed and we are now safe. 

Being gentle with ourselves and practicing self-care/compassion can move us in the right direction. I’ve been working on ways to ease the commotion in my brain and body. There is a lot of suggestions from the foremost minds in mental and physical health. Let me share with you the ones that work best for me.

The popularity of mindfulness is growing. Living in the present moment we can ask ourselves if we feel safe in this moment. When our minds spin off into the future “awfulizing” what could disrupt our peace, we bring it back to “I am safe in this moment.” When our mind spins off into the past, “I thought I was safe then and look what happened,” again, we remind ourselves, “I am safe in this moment.” Working toward staying in the present can help calm the anxiety.

Part of the mindfulness practice includes taking time to sit quietly and listen to our breath. Deep restful breathing calms the body and mind. When our restless mind allows destructive thoughts to arise, we recognize them and then let them go without berating ourselves. Labeling them can help us step outside the thought and tell ourselves, “That is my fear of ending up in another abusive relationship. Now that I know the danger signs, I will walk away from anyone who doesn’t treat me with respect.” It takes some practice, but following our breath is helpful in times of stress.

I shoot for taking time to sit in the quiet or with some peaceful music every day. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time, just a few minutes to concentrate on my breath. It’s a good time to spend in prayer or meditation, quieting my thoughts. I’m still working on learning to observing any thoughts that arise and not become engaged in them. Some days are easier than others. The harder days, I use a guided meditation. (free meditations are available at www.meditationoasis.com—click on Listen— then Podcasts.)

Coloring books for adults are becoming popular. Coloring is also a mindful activity, keeps you in the present moment instead of fretting. There are free mandalas available on the internet. Also coloring books from museums. (www.openculture.com/2017/02/free-coloring-books-from-world-class-libraries-museums.html)

When my mind is particularly active, I’ve found that journaling about my concerns is a good segue into the quiet. Spitting everything that is bothering me onto a blank page seems to help me put it to rest, allowing me to better concentrate on my work or go to sleep.

Sleep is way more important than I realized. When working and raising children, sleep is a luxury and the first thing that goes by the wayside while holding the head of a vomiting child or helping with the homework that is due tomorrow and forgotten until this very moment. We learned to exist on little sleep.  

Though there is no set rule, since our bodies are all different, it is suggested that we shoot for 7-8 hours. That meant I had to turn off the news and late-night talkshows and learn to fall asleep earlier than what had been my habit. It took some practice. Once settled, the restless brain syndrome (my made-up name for the problem) sets in. My brain throttles up and ruminates on everything and anything that frustrates or worries me. I swear, it would pick some tiny thing that would be a fluff of lint in the light of day and whip it up into an astroid about to crash into the earth. Also, it would prod me to take a peek at the news just in case I was missing something really important. If neither of these worked, it would start throwing down odds that I was going to lay away until my “normal” bedtime, anyway. There has been a period of laying awake but I am settling into this new routine. I do feel better the next day which reinforces the change.

The light from our computers also affects our ability to go to sleep. That means shutting down our electronic devices at least an hour before bed. I’m working on turning off my electronics for the night after dinner. I’m not quite comfortable with this, yet. Picking up my phone or other device is a knee-jerk reaction. 

The way the brain constantly collects and processes data is amazing and no small feat now that we are besieged with information through electronics/social media. Something that used to be a catch-up-with-friends social time now inundates us with information that heightens our stress level. Consider a day without it. Sunday is my day to feed my spirit. OWN's Soul Sunday, a cup of tea, good book and a sunny spot makes for a lovely day and does wonders for my harried brain. I didn’t realize how driven I was to keep up with everything. It was exhausting. I’m considering expanding my media fast to 2 days.

Exercise, yoga and T’ai Chi are also great to help quiet the mind and keep the body supple and healthy. I like the app Yoga Studio. It’s free and has classes for different levels of ability. You can even put together your own class if you’d like. 


Let’s unlearn stress by nurturing our bodies and spirits every day. 


Friday, May 19, 2017

Let Go of the Rope

In his book Friedman’s Fables, Edwin H. Friedman tells the story of a young man who had worked hard to learn and grow so that he could use his gifts and do something in the world. Finally the window of opportunity opens. Excited about his future, the young man headed for town. 
As he began to cross the bridge that led to the center of the city, he noticed a man coming toward him uncoiling a rope from around his waist. The man stopped in front of the young man and asked him if he would hold the end of the rope for a moment. Surprised by this incident and being a kind person, the young man took the end of the rope. The man gave a stern directive to hold tight with both hands then he promptly jumped over the side of the bridge. He was suspended above the rushing river.  
The young man, not being strong enough to pull the man up, held tight and braced himself against the edge of the bridge so the jumper wouldn’t fall to his death. He called to the jumper to climb up the rope. But the man reminded the young man that he had promised to hold on and was now in change of the jumper life. The young man suggested other ways the jumper could help save his own life but his pleas were ignored.
When I read this story, I saw this as a perfect metaphor for abusive relationships. They arrest our life, dreams, hopes and passions. We become totally responsible for taking care of another’s needs. And like the jumper, abusers don’t care that the person holding the rope is forced to give up his or her life. The abuser is not willing to make any changes, preferring the status quo. 
Understanding that the jumper refuses to help himself, the young man relinquishes the responsibility for the outcome to the jumper. He clearly states that if the jumper doesn’t climb up the rope, he will let go. Like our abusers, the jumper tried all his old ticks to force the young man to hang on.  We were told:
  • I can’t live without you
  • I’m sorry/I will change
  • You said you loved me
  • I’ll kill myself and/or you
  • I’ll take the children away from you
  • You are too stupid and inept to survive without me
  • No one else would ever want you
These are only a few of the physical and emotional threats. 
Because we have been conditioned to believe that we are responsible for our partner’s well being, we do a number on ourselves thinking:
  • If I had been a better partner this wouldn’t be happening
  • I made my bed, now I have to lay in it
  • I promised to stay
  • He’s in pain, I have to help him/fix him
  • I can’t make it on my own
Along with many other derogatory messages that have been embedded in our psyche.
If you haven’t already, it is time to give the responsibility for you partner’s life back to your partner. Let go of the guilt, feelings of responsibility and sympathy. Let go of the rope.



Monday, March 27, 2017

If He'd Just Stop Drinking: Domestic Abuse and Alcohol

While both alcohol use and violence may appear in a relationship, they are independent issues. Those of us who lived with abusers who were also heavy drinkers often claimed, “If he’d just stop drinking, everything would be okay.” Many members of society still believe that alcohol or drug use causes abuse. However, there is no research to support that theory. Studies indicate that the “majority (76 percent) of physical abuse incidents occur in the absence of alcohol use.”(1) Also, the majority of heavy drinkers do not abuse their partners. Studies do indicate that the use of alcohol allows abusers to more easily enforce their own internal rules through any means. This results in a higher rate of injuries to partners of heavy drinkers who are abusers.


As defined by The National Institute on Drug Abuse: 

Alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a diagnosable disease characterized by a strong craving for alcohol, and/or continued use despite harm or personal injury. Alcohol abuse, which can lead to alcoholism, is a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one's health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work. (2 & 3)


Domestic violence defined by the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse:

Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other. (4)


Alcohol can intensify an already difficult situation. Continued use of what was once used to self-medicate anxious feelings, may now increase that anxiety. Combined with the predisposition to control one’s partner and the growing fear of losing that control, alcohol may exacerbate the situation, resulting in an increased risk of severe injury or death for the victim. 

Removing alcohol from the picture may temporarily reduce the violence, but the desire to control at all costs, embedded within the core of the perpetrator, remains. The abuse will not only continue but its severity will likely escalate. 

There are specific strategies used to gain and hold a position of power. The controlling partner: 

Isolates the victim from family and friends. They are a threat because they may confirm the victims initial feelings that something is wrong with the relationship and encourage her to leave. 

Plays mind games by putting her down, redirecting conversations or disrupting her plans, instilling confusion and mistrust in herself. (5)

Creates constant chaos around the victim to keep her off balance and focused on “making things better.” The victim feels that resisting is more difficult than complying because they are exhausted by the overwhelming expectations and demands.

Threatens to harm the victim, her pets or children to assure that she will be reluctant to reach out for help. 

Demonstrates omnipotence or power by controlling all finances, withholding information or flaunting the law. Keeping track of her through constant phone calls, texts or tracking devices instills a sense that resistance is futile.

Humiliates and degrades the victim in public or private. She becomes reluctant to be around others—furthering her isolation. As her self-esteem declines, her dependence on the controlling partner increases.

Enforces trivial demands by a creating petty rules to fortify his control. Every time she performs one of these tasks it reinforces that he holds the power.

The insidiousness of the above behaviors is topped off with an occasional indulgence—an act of kindness. This “gift” to the victim throws her off balance and motivates her to comply and believe that “He will change.” She may minimize and deny what he is doing to her. When the abuse returns, she feels hopeless and helpless.


When I asked Doctor Darald Hanusa (who developed a well respected batterer’s treatment program(6)), why men abuse their partners, he responded without hesitation. “Because they can.” Society has taught them that it is permissible to control your partner through violence. 

Violent partners often use alcohol as an excuse for their bad behavior. They also claim to have lost control because they were angry and frustrated. However, those who treat batterers agree that assaulting is always a matter of choice. The fact that they only abuse their partner, not their boss or associate, dispels the out-of-control claim. In addition, they usually abuse in private and are careful to not leave bruises where they can be seen. 

One batterer who went through treatment shared his perspective. “It was like having a new toy," he said. "I had the buttons and I could make her do whatever I wanted. I was trying to intimidate her. I wanted to control her for the simple reason that I knew I could do it. It made me feel powerful.”(7)

Abuse is not a disease like alcoholism. It is a choice. 

Both domestic abuse and alcoholism wreak havoc on our families.



For anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now.

For confidential help regarding substance abuse call the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation at 1-800-257-7810


  1. (https://www.verywell.com/domestic-abuse-and-alcohol-62643
  2. Alcohol | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)  
  3. www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/alcohol
  4. (http://www.ncadv.org)
  5. I am using he as the perpetrator and she as the victim for ease of writing. Either men or women can and do abuse.
  6. Darald Hanusa Ph.D., L.C.S.W  http://www.mchumanservices.org/staff.htm
  7. (https://www.verywell.com/domestic-abuse-why-do-they-do-it-62639)


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The War Between Men and Women

I don’t know where the belief that men and women are at war came from. I really didn’t know much about this concept before I married.

My vision for marriage was two people working together to build a safe and loving home for their children. They would be helpmates, confidants, giving of themselves to make life better for one another. Creating the proverbial “soft place to land” for every member of the family.

I was stunned when words of confrontation spewed from my partner’s mouth. There was a war between the sexes he claimed. His over-riding message was that he was going to get me before I got him. He accused me of fighting for domination over him, manipulating situations to make him look bad, betraying him, creating power struggles to beat him down and turn him into a wuss. Fighting? Domination? Manipulating? Betraying? Power struggles? I remember being dumbfounded at how he saw our relationship and who he believed I was. 

One day I asked, “Why does our marriage have to be a war?” His response was that the war between men and women had been going on forever. “Why?” I asked. He dismissed me as if I was an idiot.

Everyday, like a wrestler, he’d stare me down as he circled the mat. I tried to explain that I was not at war with him—I was on his side. He insisted that I wasn’t. That I was playing him. He did all in his power to force me into a corner so I would fight. I refused to have any part of it.

The more hostel he became the more loving I became. I thought that would make a difference. After all, love can heal a wounded heart. I believed that if I continued to reassure him that I was not a threat to him, and if I returned love for his fury, he would come around. I mean, love always wins, doesn’t it? 

Being a people pleaser I bowed down and then bowed down lower until I became a doormat. That didn’t change anything. He still raged on. In the end, my response was what it always had been, I did nothing and said nothing more about it. All I could do was watch his hostility mushroom, escalating into a tempestuous storm.

Inside, I knew who I was and what my intentions were. He did, as abusers do, continue to tell me who I “really” was and what I was “really” thinking, summoning up an adversary to justify his hostility. I didn’t argue with him. It would have made no difference. Yet, I wondered, “If I’m so horrible, why does he stay with me?”

Why did I stay? I stayed with him until the pain of staying was greater than my fear of surviving on my own.

One of my favorite spiritual leaders is Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. She spoke at my Presbyterian church a few years ago. I was thrilled to hear her again when Oprah interviewed her on Soul Sunday (OWN).

Sister Joan said, “Nothing is going to change in the world until the situation with women changes.”

That resinated with me. 

She went on to talk about how women carry the other half of humankind’s life experiences. Yet women’s needs, gifts and intelligence are dismissed. Women should to be at the table or only half of life experience and knowledge are involved in making important decisions. “Isn’t that why the poorest of the poor are women and children?” she pointed out.

Marriage should not be a war, but a collaboration, a way to examine all the intricacies of a question in order to make the best decision for all involved. Doesn't it make sense to have those with additional information give input and be a part of the conversation?  Controlling men refuse to accept that women would not make decisions that favor themselves and children at men’s expense. What women see as a negotiation resulting in a win-win controllers see as a loss for them.

Women desire a partnership, but those with a sense of entitlement can only see that as a threat to their position and power. It is common for controlling people to take an issue such as wanting an equal voice and blow it up into a something outrageous. Consider the term “feminist.” It has been contorted by some into meaning “man-haters” when it really means having equal opportunities, equal pay for equal work, a seat at the table in decisions that affect them, you know that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” thing?

When it comes to war, Sister Joan says, “Women are the booty of war. Their bodies have become an instrument of war. Their children have become the fodder of war. Their homes have become the rubble of war. Their daily struggles to live have become one of the horrors of war and their futures have been left shattered in the shambles of war through they have nothing whatsoever to say about the waging of wars.”

When I heard that statement, I thought of the women and children refugees that are currently in the news. It also made me think of the women and children living with domestic violence. They, too, become refugees from the war waged within their homes. It may be on a smaller scale, but to the those who suffer from the ravages created by a controlling partner, it is no small issue. Women in both those situations are running for their lives and the lives of their children.

When people ask Sister Joan, “What can we do?” She replies, “Something.” Make a difference in the circle that surrounds you. Do what you can to stand up for the other half.


Many of you are already standing up against domestic abuse as advocates, shelter workers, volunteers, speakers, therapists and by financial contributions. Today, I salute you for doing something. 




Friday, January 13, 2017

Be Still and Know


A fresh, unblemished new year yawns out before us. What will we do with it? I like to set an intention, not make resolutions. Don’t we all hate rules? We set them up and when we cannot follow through with them we beat ourselves up. Let’s be kinder to ourselves this year. 

I’ve been thinking about what my intention will be for this year. Part of it is to increase the amount of joy in my life. Last year was so heavy and turbulent it held many moments of happiness at a low simmer. I’m glad to lay 2016 down and move on. There is still much work to do. I won’t roll over or hide my head in the sand. Supporting causes I believe in is necessary. It is also important to take time to experience things I enjoy and enjoy the things I experience.

Late last fall I attended a woman’s retreat. Early one morning I trudged across the frosted hillside to the labyrinth. After a prayer for guidance, I moved along the narrow pathway thinking about joy and where I was in my life. It’s everything I could hope for. Everything I worked for. The things I didn’t achieve were okay, too. 

As I walked along I began to feel all my ancestors walking with me—the people whose shoulders I stand on. The ones who laid the foundation of possibilities for me, struggled in their own lives, came to America penniless—farmers, a builder and a housekeeper. Also, those who stayed in the “old country," as my grandmother called it. I felt their strength and support as I placed one foot in front of the other. 

That is how we make our life—step by step—all of us going through trials and successes, stumbling backwards, pushing forward. Along this journey, what we learn blooms inside of us and cannot be unlearned. Oh, we can squish it down for a while, but the truth will not be silenced. So, we change, growing into the person we are meant to be and building onto the foundation for those who will follow.

With a silent prayer uttered below a sliver of the moon in the azure sky, I left the labyrinth. In the lodge, I stopped into the gift shop. A polished stone caught my attention. Etched into it in tiny letters was “be still.” Its other side finished the verse “and know that I am God” Psalms 46:10. That little stone sits on my desk. My intention for this year will be stillness. My mantra for this year—Be Still and Know. Know that we are not alone. Know that we continue to grow stronger. Know that we can choose faith over fear. Know we have much to be grateful for. 

And gratefulness births Joy.



I wish you all a year filled with Joy.