DO YOU NEED YOUR THERAPIST TO BE HUMAN?

robot“I can’t work with someone who’s broken,” he said calmly.

The young man had just read my Disclosure, a description of rights that, as a Marriage & Family Therapist, I’m legally required to give all clients.  Although it isn’t necessary, my Disclosure also relates that I have multiple sclerosis; I don’t want clients to wonder whether my stumbling is about a liquid lunch.

Broken, he said.  BrokenI never imagine anyone thinking of me as “damaged” – hell, even in my most self-pitying moments I don’t think of myself in that way. 

I was temporarily speechless; did he really say that? 

“Tell you what,” I said when I was sure my response wouldn’t betray my hurt, “think about it until next time.”  Then I went home and cried.

At our final session he admitted what had evidently been in his mind for the three months we worked together.  He was glad he’d given me a chance.  “I found out I was broken, too,” he told me.

That young man understood that no one is perfect, not even therapists.  That healers can be in need of healing, too.  By making it “normal” to have flaws —  even serious or disabling ones (his anxiety and my m.s.) — the young man was able to let go of the stigma of emotional distress, the impossibility of being perfect, that was behind his anxiety in the first place.

I still disclose my disability to clients although the passage of twelve years has made symptoms apparent that were once easy to hide.  I fundamentally believe that clients who come to therapy often do so because they feel alone with how they feel; as Roy Orbison sang, the feeling is that we’re the “only one” who experiences the depth of pain we do.  How secretly pleasing to know that the someone who slips-up, isn’t always self-assured, or doesn’t always behave the way the experts’ books say is your own therapist!

How healing to know you’re really not the only one.

Kathe Skinner is a Marriage & Family Therapist specializing in couples work, especially with those whose relationships are impacted by invisible disability or chronic illness.  She’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for over 35 years.  At home in Colorado with David, her husband, and their two hooligan cats, Petey and Lucy, no one in their household believes in Kathe’s perfection.  Find information about the Skinners’ upcoming Couples Communication Workshop at www.beingheardnow.comand Kathe’s other dynamic practice and programs at coupleswhotalk.com.

Image Courtesy of supakitmod at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

© 2015, Being Heard, LLC

RUNNING BLIND

guilhermina guide 3

Super-star athletes are polishing their personas with the advent of the Summer Olympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.  One of them, Jamaican mega-medal winner Usain Bolt, has the gracefulness of a natural athlete. With his perpetual smile and generally good nature, Bolt is no pushover.

One doesn’t get the impression that Usain Bolt would promote something disagreeable.

Despite his gifts, or maybe because of them, Bolt also demonstrates a remarkably generous spirit, e.g., his 2012 embrace of double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, who competed against Bolt.

At a recent promo event, Bolt paired with Brazilian Paralympic multi-medalist Terezinha Guilhermina as her guide runner. Vision-impaired para-athletes compete under strict guidelines that may include use of sighted guide runners. Guilhermina trains and competes with guide Guilherme Soares de Santana; tethered at the wrist, she runs blindfolded as they match each other in speed and timing.

This high-speed dance is like a successful relationship: Trust is essential.  Good communication is quick but subtle, successful only with lots of practice.  Even when a compatible partner is found — no easy task in itself — the tasks are twice as difficult, twice as demanding.

If you’ve ever run a playground race with one leg joined to another person’s you begin to understand how tough it is to run as one.

Even so, Bolt expressed concern that Guilhermina would fall over or be unable to run fast enough. Both fears were unfounded.

Like running in synch, when an able-bodied athlete joins with a para-athlete, one shadows the other. Both understand the effort, sacrifice, and ability that has brought them to the medal podium.  As in a good marriage, there is mutual admiration and respect; knowledge that the differences are not diminishments.

Now for the preachy part:  There are two separate and unequal worlds when it comes to sport.  Usain Bolt, personable as he is, sells because of his able-bodied ability, not his smile.  Paralympic athletes sell to the larger audience only when paired with Olympic athletes; it doesn’t matter that their talent, drive, focus, and commitment to excellence are the same.

“Blade runner” Arthur Pistorius got more ink because of his fall from grace than from his rise to it.

Societal disequity is an old story and not just one about disability. Overcoming innate human suspicion and dislike of what is different requires conscious and concerted effort.  The nudge may come from decades’ worth of disabled vets with their can-do mentality, greater numbers, and the societal bequeathing of a high moral ground.

Personally, I’ll take it any way I can get it:  If the result to being paired with an able-bodied celebrity is lasting inclusion and a broader definition of human value, then drop the red flag and let the sports begin.

Kathe Skinner is a Marriage & Family Therapist whose private practice focuses on couples, especially those whose relationship is complicated by invisible or visible disability.  Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for nearly 40 years and understands that athletes go beyond themselves to compete.  With two world-class cat nappers, Petey and Lucy, Kathe and husband David live in Colorado where she doesn’t ski.

Read more about their Couples Communication Workshops at www.BeingHeardNow.com.  While you’re at it, check out our newest site, www.CouplesWhoTalk.com.

WHY DISABILITY INCLUSION WON’T WORK

ID-100144311This post was first published the first week of August, 2014 by the federal government’s blog Disability.gov.  To date it has had over 1,500 hits.

As a Marriage & Family Therapist with multiple sclerosis, I write for Disability.gov, my own blog, and others like it, getting the opportunity to be a source of strength for people and their families. That’s why I was surprised when one organization denied my professional presence because I didn’t have that specific chronic illness/disability.

Though illness-specific groups may be essential to living well, the “micro” view of disability dilutes what’s important for the non-disabled world to know.  Advocating for one chronicity over another may be a reason society doesn’t see an inclusive, “macro” view of disability/chronic illness.

For inclusion to be successful the commonality between disorders needs emphasis, not the differences between them.

Too many chefs in the kitchen.  The more “chefs” that compete for “counter space”, the smaller the counter space per chef becomes.  Just ask me and David when we’re in the kitchen together.

People’s attention span is similarly filled up.  With only 8 seconds before the brain moves on, it’s imperative that disability advocates grab attention quickly.  It’s not about the cause; it’s about whether the cause catches the eye.  Think pink.  If you associated it with breast cancer awareness, you just illustrated my point.

And when many organizations compete for the same amount of space, there’s always an organization that doesn’t make the cut. It takes lots of money to develop brand-awareness, keeping any disability in the public eye, which is where lots of fund-raised dollars go. For example, the success of breast cancer’s “pink ribbon” campaign reduces visibility of all other cancers. The “pinks” don’t even share the spotlight.

Interestingly, there’s been a pinkish backlash that the campaign is about advertisers rather than the illness itself. Some corporations may spend much more on advertising and product-development than they do supporting patients through corporate giving.

Holding a sign.   Over millennia, physical characteristics have defined which partner we pick in order to further the species.  Even today, positive physical attributes often define who we choose in a variety of situations.

Studies in social and behavioral sciences repeatedly demonstrate this phenomenon.  Ask yourself who is generally more desirable – even approachable – a pretty, smiling woman or the same woman who’s using an assistive device?

While physical traits may vary across culture and time, physical disability seems always to be a disqualification.

Different is bad.   When Mom and I went mushroom hunting, she knew what was safe to pick. Even so, except for the two of us, no one in our mushroom-loving family ate Mom’s soup. .

Most of us seek sameness:  what we already know represents safety in a dangerous world.  Like knowing which mushrooms to eat, being able to quickly pick out who is different is a survival technique that can increase our chances of being on the winning (not dead) side.  While jumping to conclusions poisons thinking, when it comes to survival, what is thought to be safe is better than being sorry.

People with visible disabilities and chronic illnesses pay a stiff toll, daily. Even de jure protections like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) don’t quickly change society’s de facto attitudes or treatment. Consequently, significant portions of the population entitled to the protections of the ADA remain invisible, choosing to avoid what happens too often to the disabled in work, housing, and relationship.

The in-crowd. My mother tried to get me to act in rational rather than group-think ways by employing inter-species logic that often involved lemmings.  Like lemmings, we like to affiliate.  Higher-order species have a “mine is better than yours” mentality; no one likes to be chosen last for kickball. Put another way, a person needs to feel superior to someone else. For example, I’m sometimes told, “At least I don’t have multiple sclerosis.”

Rather than forming a coalition that has strength in numbers, disability associations are often narrowly-defined and exclusive, repelling people who don’t fit the bill (think pink). Sameness attracts the same, so when selectivity combines with disability the result may be a man who judges other disabilities as not being as prestigious or disabling as his own. Or that another chronicity is less normal than his own.

Show me the money.  Fundraising 101 teaches that attracting glamour to a cause is a win-win:  Celebs earn brownie points for social responsibility and organizations gain public awareness which they hope translates into dollars.

How successful a cause is at the funding game is based on two realities from the world of social psychology:  The group with well-produced and well-managed public relations and advertising is judged to be trustworthy and knowledgeable; and, the more followers an organization has, the more adherents it draws. The Labor Day telethon is illustrative:  highly regarded spokespeople increase giving; and the more people give, the more others are likely to give, too.

There are reasons all people don’t unite under the disabled/chronically ill banner.  If no one otherwise knew you were disabled, would you want them to know?  Do you have trouble identifying with some types of disability?  Want to escape the judgment, treatment, discrimination, politics, classism, fractionalization, in-fighting, and politics of disability inclusion?  Or do you simply have other things (like eating) on your plate?

The discomfort with, fear of, and misunderstanding of the disabled population still exists, even among the disability community itself.  Housing disproportionate numbers of the disabled, asylums existed as recently as fifty years ago. One-fourth of the nation’s disabled live below the poverty level while the federal government codifies what ought to be a moral imperative in the first place.

Disability is an 8-second sound-bite: Limbless vets, autistic kids, select high achievers. Inclusion? The disability community itself is exclusionary; perhaps we need to look for answers there, first.

Kathe Skinner has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for over 35 years and knows first-hand what discrimination and judgment feel like in work and relationship and is now working to adapt to a changed reality as her disease progresses.  Thankful for stability in two areas of her life, she has been married for almost 30 years and is a Marriage & Family Therapist in private practice in Colorado where she lives with husband, David, and their 2 hooligan cats.  Read more about Kathe at www.beingheardnow.com.

Kathe welcomes your comments and can be reached at 719.598.6232.

Illustration Courtesy of Stuart Miles

©2014 Being Heard, LLC

THAT GIRL KEEPS FALLING ON HER BUTT

fall-down-stairs.jpgMy balance, isn’t.

So when I head straight toward the bushes at the entrance to my building it isn’t surprising.

Bushes are a trigger in picturing my first (and only) experience as a new MSer in an MS support group.   Recommended by my neurologist, the group experience was meant to help me cope with the way-past-due-diagnosis of my disease.

Instead, it freaked me out.

Walkers, wheelchairs, canes, crutches – and me, invisibly disabled, in high heels looking at a future unable to wear them.

Big time downer.

Especially when a guy lost his balance and landed on his butt in a bush. That he laughed it off was horrifying.

I understand, now, the reason he laughed.  Not only is laughing at the faux pas around the commonplace common, but situations that elicit that kind of response are also all too common.

The reality he must’ve experienced then is one I now share.  Today I laugh, too.  Because it’s truly comical at times and also because laughter is socially reassuring.  “It’s alright, folks.  I’m alright.  Nothing to see here, move along.”

Knock wood, I’ve yet to experience anything dire in my navigational mistakes.  Embarrassment to be impaired in public is what hurts. Most of us don’t know what to do in a situation like that.  I put lots of effort into looking unimpaired, but when I catch sight of myself in a shop mirror, the reality of how I walk, for example, isn’t normal at all. 

When I use an assistive device, a rollator in my case, parents scold their children for staring.  I’ve yet to hear mommy or daddy use the opportunity as a teaching moment to talk about disability; rather it’s “don’t stare” before hurrying away.  No wonder society hasn’t made much progress in accepting the disabled community who, except to children, remain largely invisible.

Recently, Disability.gov blogged an article about steps to take when being newly disabled.

It’s worth a read, especially if you’re not.

Specializing in couples work, Kathe Skinner is a Colorado Marriage & Family Therapist and Relationship Specialist.  She works especially those couples where invisible disability is present.   For over 10 years, she and husband, David, have been Certified Instructors for Interpersonal Communication Programs .  Find the schedule for their next Couple Communication Workshop at http://www.beingheardnow.com© 2014 Being Heard

How Come It’s “We’re Pregnant” But It’s Not “We’re Disabled”?

I don’t know when it became fashionable to identify pregnancy as an adventure à deux.  It always seemed lopsided that pregnancy excluded men from throwing up, having swollen ankles and shrewish moods.  I’m not even talking about all those forever changes like stretch marks, a bigger butt, and wider hips.  With the possibility of gestational diabetes, postpartum depression, or miscarriage, the adventure becomes a challenge, albeit one that affects the relationship although it is physically experienced only by the woman.

Not to make it one-sided, men’s experiences are extraordinary, too, and may include being the target of a woman’s whacky moods or being the late-night junk food scrounger.  For guys, it hits that the two of you are now a family, with all the attendant expectations to be the one who forevermore protects and provides.

Without a doubt there are many, many women for whom pregnancy is a delightful experience. The glowing, the growing, and giving life is an experience like no other.  Pregnant women and moms belong to an exclusive club that has unbend-able  membership rules.  So even if it was the two of you being pregnant, only one of you, in the strictest sense, is a mom.

It’s the same when a woman is disabled or chronically ill.  Only one of you is impaired even while both of you — your relationship — can be impaired.   Having an invisible disability can be the worst of all.

Our society looks for proof; needs to name it; needs to touch it or otherwise experience its reality.  You can’t be “a little bit pregnant”; you either are or you’re not.  Pee on a stick and you prove it.  With invisible disabilities, there’s no pee test.  For some people, taking it on faith is harder than believing that what isn’t seen is true.  For example, not being able to prove the existence of god doesn’t mean god doesn’t exist.  Obviously, it’s the emotion surrounding belief that counts; to disbelieve or doubt a person’s physical or emotional perceptions is tantamount to discrediting someone’s very existence.  The truth of it is immaterial, while the emotion surrounding such thoughts is what counts.  The thoughts may even be rooted in jealousy of a sort – “What, so you get a break but I don’t?”  “Buck up, you’re just being lazy.”  “I worked all day but I still have to make dinner and do the laundry and get the kids to bed before I can sit down and catch my breath and where are you? in bed.”

Quantification when invisible disability is present requires a different yardstick but most of all it requires belief, support, and compassion.

Adding a stress load to any system that is already compromised results in a predictable, and usually disastrous, outcome (think of how a building with cracks in the foundation responds to an earthquake).  The same thing happens when an already dysfunctional body system is unable to respond well when stressors are piled on.  Such stressors may include walking through a mall or having relationship difficulties.

“We’re pregnant” or “we’re disabled” is an implicit bonding between partners.  Life-changing events happen from which there is no return.  Legal sanctions apply in both situations:  the 20% of women, nationwide, who are disabled are entitled to lifetime support; children until they reach the age of majority.  Society doesn’t seem to have recognized that the “we” of marriage with children and the “we” of disability in a relationship are the same thing.

To say “we’re disabled” says that both partners are in it together, that there is emotional and physical support of the partner who is less capacitated. Pregnancy usually involves the active participation of both partners while acquiring disability isn’t chosen by either partner.  Parenthood never ends, just as disability does not; a major difference is in the expected trajectory – that parenting gets more pleasurable once the nest is empty, while disability often does the opposite.  Disability is different in that there is no consent, no pre-planning, and certainly no enjoyment in acquiring the condition.

Kathe Skinner is a Relationship Coach in private practice.   Specializing in relationships, especially those with invisible disability in the mix, she offers both in-person and web-based programs for couples.  See http://www.BeingHeardNow.com to find the right program for you!

©Kathe Skinner, 2012