Variation on a blind date: Session #1 with a new psychologist

woman and man on date, woman looks bored while man is talking excitedly

I’m sure you’re all dying to know how my first meeting with the psychologist went last week. Rather than reveal the details of our conversation (boundaries, my friends), I’ll tell you how it felt to talk to her. I arrived there hopeful, knowing this woman’s training is with palliative types like me. Despite her expertise, the session felt off from the outset.

I was thinking afterward about how going to a first session with a psychologist is a lot like a blind date. Someone sets you up thinking you’ll hit it off. You set a first date and hope for the best. Sometimes it’s a match made in heaven, but other times you’re sorely disappointed. After that first date, or even five minutes into it, you ask yourself, “How could Ms. Matchmaker possibly think I’d like that person?” You have nothing in common, your world views are diametrically opposed, and you know you’ll never get that hour back.

Unfortunately, I’d liken my first session to a bad date. Although I don’t know how the psychologist felt about our time together, I imagine she questioned our future together as well. She made a few observations and interpretations that were so far fetched that I must have worn my disillusionment on my face, despite my efforts not to. I lost all hope when the psychologist suggested an intervention more commonly used with preschoolers or those on the autistic spectrum. As far as I know, I am neither. The conversation felt stilted, and I kept talking simply to try to salvage our time together. Sadly, our connection did not improve over time.

I do not blame the psychologist for the bad date; it takes two to tango. I know I am a difficult client. I am quick to judge, I expect a quick and easy connection, and I want a sense that the therapist has the potential to understand me better than I understand myself. My hopes were quickly and profoundly dashed.

Then came that awkward moment: should we have another date? Despite the obvious disconnection, the psychologist asked me whether I wanted to rebook. I hesitated a bit too long. I didn’t want to hurt her by suggesting maybe we should date other people. Instead, I took her card and fled, leaving the door open both literally and figuratively.

I am ashamed of myself for wimping out. Had I asked the psychologist how she’d feel if I dated one of her colleagues instead, I’m sure she would have facilitated an alternate referral. She’s a grown up, and she should respect her clients’ needs. I’ve had many clients over the years who haven’t taken to me. I know that if I take issue with their discontent, that’s my problem.

I may seek a private psychologist to talk to rather than contacting this psychologist for a referral to one of her colleagues. Call me a baby, but I’ve had more than my share of awkward conversations these past few weeks. I need a bit of time to get back on the dating horse. I know, time is the one thing I don’t have. Must you really remind me?

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Dying comes with unexpected perks

You know how much I love to look on the bright side. If I look hard enough, I can always find a silver lining. Take dying for example: it may seem like a real downer, but it comes with a variety of side benefits.

The day Dr. Blood Lite gave me The News, he suggested hooking me up with the palliative team, even though I might not need the team yet. (Palliative? Who me?) Not one to turn down such a generous offer, of course I said yes. Little did I know that the following day, I’d get a call from someone on the Pain and Symptom Management team, which is quite the euphemism. I had no idea who she was until she explained, “We’re also known as the Palliative Care Team.” Why is the Palliative Team afraid of using its real name?

We set up an appointment for the following week, when I’d be at the cancer centre anyhow. J. and I met briefly with a palliative nurse practitioner, and learned more about her team’s services. We agreed that I didn’t need the team’s support currently, but would welcome their involvement as my condition progressed. I may be palliative, but I’m not approaching the pearly gates yet.

The other service at my fingertips is a real live psychologist. No sooner did I admit it might help me to talk to someone than I received a call, and scheduled a session within a week. This Friday, I will be hoping to connect well with the psychologist assigned to patients just like me.

You may be wondering why I’d see a psychologist now. No therapist can prevent my impending death, so what’s the point? In the past, clients have often shared similar sentiments with me. “Why talk about my ex-spouse/dead parent/severely disabled child since there’s nothing you can do to change my situation?” All the more reason to talk, I say.

Yes, there’s nothing this psychologist can do to prevent my death, but maybe I’d still benefit from talking about my grief. I’ve had a very tough few weeks, as expected. Imagine having to tell your family that your death is looming. Then imagine having to tell your friends, and your dog. (Jelly is taking the news especially hard.) Imagine knowing you are going to abandon your beloved spouse, who has cared for you selflessly through your illness. Imagine knowing you can’t do anything to ease others’ pain because you have caused it. Sure, I feel helpless and hopeless and despairing some days.

Maybe I’d feel a bit better if I could talk about these issues with a therapist.  Maybe I wouldn’t feel so down, or so scared, if I weren’t trying to manage my feelings on my own. God knows I could use more sleep; fatigue and insomnia are horrendous bedfellows. I may know how to help others through their grief, but I can’t be my own grief therapist. This psychologist has been known to need a psychologist on occasion. Like now.

I expect other potential support services for dying people will reveal themselves over time. It will be a comfort to know what’s available, and I’ll be open to anything that might help. So will J. I believe we deserve all the support we can get.

Quote: Grief is like the ocean. It comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim." Vicki Harrison

 

Preparing for the end of my life: the bucket-less lists

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you would know that I abhor bucket lists. Once everything on the list is completed, either you have to add items or die. That’s why all the aspirations I’ve had in my life have never hung out in a bucket.

I am not without lists, however, and all the moreso since I received my bad news. First, there’s the list of things I probably won’t need to do over the next year. I can’t see myself needing any new clothes, and I probably have enough toiletries stockpiled to see me through. Think of all the time I can devote to other activities I find more pleasurable, like napping.

Then there’s the list of tasks hanging over me, ones I’d prefer not to do, and my long-neglected filing is only the tip of this iceberg. I have to notify the college that I’m not renewing my psychology registration this year. Tears may be shed, but the time is right. Then I have to cancel my library holds so piles of books aren’t waiting for me unclaimed after I die. I must get my taxes in order and be up to date on my paperwork so J. is not left with a mess after I die. I will make her a list of all I can’t do before I die, like cancelling my supplementary health care. I’m sure she’ll appreciate my organizational skills after I’m gone.

This leads us to the good list, that of things I really want to do before I die. Travel out of the country is not an option, as you know, but I fulfilled my wildest dream during our recent trip to Israel. Following my leukemia diagnosis, I’d never have thought I’d be stable enough to go so far.

Since travel is out, I need to think of other possibilities closer to home. So far everything I’ve come up with is food focussed. (I am no more surprised than you are.) Maybe one night we’ll go crazy and order in pizza or Chinese food. Maybe we’ll go out for lunch or dinner to a hot new restaurant in town like normal people. The possibilities are endless.

My food ventures will not be limited to restaurants, however. There are so many meals I want to make before I die, so many baked goods to perfect. Time is running short.

I’ve always been a lazy baker. My repertoire is limited to cookies, squares, and muffins, with the odd cake thrown in. I leave the finicky items for people who know what they’re doing.

I was perusing advanced baking classes in town because it’s never too late to acquire a new skill. Lo and behold, I came across an offering in which we’ll learn to bake danishes, croissants, and brioches. I’ll be attending knowing I’ll never bake these items again; I simply want to reach the pinnacle of baking once in my life. These days, that is reason enough for me.

I’m told I’ll arrive home with mounds (note I didn’t say “bucketfuls”) of freshly baked wares. Feel free to drop by for a treat later that day. I’ll be napping after all that hard work, so please leave me one cheese danish. Thanks.

Picture of two baked cheese danishes

Living while I’m dying

That last post was not easy to write. I don’t like having bad news, nor sharing it. Who wants to read a story with such a sad ending? It turns out many people do. Thankfully, only a few of those people LIKED my post.

The reality of my health challenges has not yet hit. I may have suspected bad news was coming, yet that suspicion didn’t temper my surprise. Shock is a common response to learning of a terminal illness. Grief is funny that way. I’ve worried about dying for as long as I’ve been sick, but having to face my own demise head on? That’s another matter altogether.

Now that I have the results of my biopsy, I feel unexpected periods of calm, as if I’m walking around in a fog. Every so often my panic erupts, but I shove it away quickly. Thank goodness for my defences, which help me from falling to pieces at times like this.

I even feel some relief at the news, as weird as that sounds. I don’t want to die, of course, but the threat of death hanging over me for so many years has been wearying. I’ve spent 18 years containing my anxiety about a situation I have no control over. If only I could sustain this relief.

How can my emotions be so chaotic? I think it’s because my body doesn’t feel any different today than it felt yesterday. I know that my health is declining–my biopsy results confirmed that–but my body has not registered these changes. I’m not in hospital, and I’m still able to go about my day. How do I accept that my life may be ending when I don’t feel all that sick?

When I am faced with a crisis, I often get stuck. I can help other people manage their stresses–that’s what a psychologist does–because the solution is always easier to see from the outside. But I’m on the inside this time, and I can’t seem to find my way out. Not worrying about dying is far easier said than done.

I was telling a friend how distressed I’ve been, and she wisely reminded me that focussing on death while I’m still physically well is a waste of precious time. She suggested I might as well keep living for as long as I can. J. has been saying the same for years whenever my anxiety about my health has escalated. My life overfloweth with very wise people. I should listen to them more often.

This afternoon, I had the perfect opportunity to stop feeling sorry for myself while Jelly and I attended a PALS visit at the university. The stressed students needed comforting. Jelly’s howls echoed through the hallways as we approached the visiting room. Once we arrived, Jelly kissed and cuddled dog-loving students for 90 minutes, in between naps. For those 90 minutes, I put my worries aside and remembered that I’m not dead yet.

If you catch me moping over the next while, please tell me to snap out of it. Sometimes an outsider’s wise perspective is all I need.

Several hands petting Jelly as she lays on the floor, head raised

How Canadian Blood Services saved my life

Woman's hand spraying and wiping a table clean, bucket in backgroundThis afternoon. I will be volunteering for the last time at Canadian Blood Services. I am hoping for a busy shift, so I can serve a lot of soup and dole out a lot of cookies. Time passes quickly when all those donor chairs are filled.

I owe a great deal to CBS. We are blessed with easy access to blood products when we need them in Canada. In the past, I have needed them. Whenever I did, the gift of life was there, thanks to the generosity of donors. When I was bleeding internally several years back and doctors couldn’t easily identify the source, a series of transfusions kept me alive.

I seem to be entering a phase of my illness where I may again need frequent topping up. Last week I was infused with mega doses of platelets. On Friday, I was due to receive two units of whole blood but the transfusion was cancelled last minute when my body decided to ramp up its own blood-cell production. I am leaving CBS as my need for its products is rising.

Sometimes I worry about how the clinic will run without me, which is ridiculous because it was running well without me before I got there and will thrive with the fresh blood of new volunteers. I’m not irreplaceable. But who can better thank the donors for coming? Who will be able to stress how important their donations are from personal experience? And who will wipe the tables after the donors leave? There’s a stray cookie crumb hiding on every table.

I have worked with many wonderful volunteers over the past year and a half at CBS. Many are students seeking entry to science programs or medicine. Others are grown adults like me who have some connection to blood donation through their own or others’ need. Some have set ways of doing things, while others go with the flow.

Some volunteers provide soup with one package of salty crackers while others give two packs; some push the cookies while others encourage fluids, offering juice or pop; some stock the shelves while others schmooze with donors. There have been long discussions over whether to place the spoons facing up or down in the dishwasher. This I do not feel strongly about, although I’ve learned that others do.

Somehow I have become obsessed with wiping the tables. Whichever shift I’m on, I assume the task of cleaning up after donors leave. Call me the table-wiping overfunctioner. Knowing I am quick to eradicate table messes, my fellow volunteers have learned to underfunction, i.e., to neglect that task altogether. Take note, all you overfunctioners out there: leave work for others to do; they will do it in their own time.

It’s a good thing I’m leaving, then, since cleaning tables is a good skill for all to acquire, especially the young ones who will soon move out of their parents’ homes. I’ll do one final swipe before I depart this afternoon. Then I’ll say good bye, knowing someone will pick up the cloth within minutes of my leaving. Maybe the new table wiper will do a better job than me. Maybe I’ll surprise J. and start wiping counters at home. Stranger things have happened.

This psychologist’s theories of fostering close relationships

Quote: Strangers are just friends waiting to happen. Rod McKuen

You may have thought I was finished talking about last Thursday’s fiasco, but of course I’m not. I spent the weekend reviewing what happened and how I resolved the situation. I’ve decided that, except for driving into a parking lot knee deep in slush, I would not change anything else. This conclusion has nothing to do with getting home in time for my client, nor sparing myself the cost of a tow truck.

I relied on three people that day, two of whom I have an established relationship with, and a third who is a friendly acquaintance. All came through with flying colours. I told them what I needed and they graciously jumped at the chance to help. Shouldn’t that be the way the world works?

I frankly expected Drs. Basset to help me if they could. Our friendship is well established and built on give and take, as is any good relationship. When I first got sick, I realized how extensive our incredible community of support is.

I don’t know Ms. Good Neighbour nearly as well as Drs. Basset. She’s told me her name before but it took last Thursday’s encounter for me to commit it to memory. I’ve never seen her outside the park (that’s often the way with these relationships) but I know she lives in the neighbourhood. She happened to be there when I needed help, and I sensed that she would come through. I asked, and she graciously took 20 or so minutes out of her day to do what she could.

While Ms. Good Neighbour was accepting my thanks (I believe I only thanked her 7 or 8 times over that 20 minutes), she wisely said, likely to shut me up, “If I were in your situation, wouldn’t you do the same for me?” Of course I would, and I have when asked, and sometimes even without asking. Easing another person’s load makes me feel needed, useful, trusted, even happy.

You all know that I’m not the sort to rely on others; in fact, I abhor having to do so. Leukemia has been an excellent teacher here, rendering me without a choice some days. Leukemia had nothing to do with last week’s incident, however, unless the illness has unknowingly interfered with my problem solving. (That’s a distinct possibility.) Let’s say there was a carryover effect from the needy person leukemia has made me some days: I needed help on Thursday because I did something stupid, so I asked for it.

If someone is needy all the time, that person may burn out the people around her. Recall the energy vampire described in an earlier post. But I believe it is possible to be needy on occasion without breeding resentment and friendship fatigue. According to my newly developed theory of human relationships, Neediness + Reciprocity = True Friendship.

I haven’t been back to the park since that day–I’m a little car shy–but when I do, I’m hoping I’ll bump into Ms. Good Neighbour. Now that I know her name, this friendship may take off, especially once she tastes my baked goods.

Which leads to my second theory of human relationships: Appreciation x Unsolicited Baked Goods = Undying Devotion. You know it’s true.

It takes an introvert to know an introvert, or does it?

Guy lying on floor says: "I have an Introvert Hangover. I'm totally exhausted from too much human interaction.

During our PALS visits at the university last week, Jelly became quite tired early on, as she often does. Despite the chaos all around her–other dogs, exam-fearing students–she lay down and fell asleep. I apologized to the student petting her at the time, telling her that Jelly often finds the visits exhausting. The student responded, “Maybe she’s an introvert.” Kids these days. They’re so smart.

I’d never really thought of Jelly as an introvert before, which is odd because I am one myself. Introverts like their alone time. They may also enjoy being with others, but they can find social interaction draining. Extraverts, on the other hand, are energized by spending time with others. They leave the party wound up rather than needing a nap. Most of us are ambiverts, falling somewhere in the middle.

Sometimes I compare myself to my extraverted friend, Ms. Bubbly (it’s Dr. Bubbly to you, but Ms. has a nicer ring to it), who is at the other end of the spectrum from me. She’s constantly running from one social event to another. I don’t know how she does it.

Ms. B always invites me to the frequent large social gatherings she holds at her home. She understands when I politely decline each and every time. She knows I’ve always found such get togethers overwhelming.

Later this month, Ms. B will be hosting her annual Hanukah party, which I have already declined. I need to save my limited social energy for two engagements we’d previously scheduled for the nights following. This means I will not get to eat any of the 12 dozen latkes she has ordered for the occasion. (You read that right: 12 dozen. She has a lot of friends.) The authentic latkes alone spur my motivation to go, but my introversion still won out. That and the potential for bruising from having to battle the crowds to get to the latkes.

Ms. B and I often go for coffee after Sunday yoga, a sign that introverts do not avoid all social interaction. They may prefer more intimate gatherings, and they enjoy solo time to regroup occasionally. When we go out, Ms. B and I have lovely visits during which we catch up on each other’s lives. I relish this one-on-one time.

I can manage small groups, so long as I don’t overdo it. Two major social engagements last weekend necessitated a day on the couch. My introversion long predated my leukemia, so I can’t blame my health. If I hang out with you, whether alone or with others, and my eyes start glossing over after a time, please trust it’s not you, it’s me.

Now that I think about it, I realize that Jelly hasn’t fallen far from this introverted tree. She prefers small groups of dogs, cowering in the bushes when larger packs approach. She, like me, assesses any situation fully before jumping in with four paws. And just as I enjoy my alone time, she is fine to amble the off-leash park on her own, stopping to greet only the most fragrant of dogs. When she is overwhelmed by a group, she does exactly what I do: she avoids the situation altogether, or she lies down and takes a nap. Like mother, like daughter.

Consent by any other name is not so sweet

One of psychologists’ core ethical principles is maintaining appropriate boundaries with our clients. We all define appropriate boundaries in our own way, but there are certain immutable guidelines. Here are mine.

I do not spend time with clients outside a therapy session, either on line or in person. This means not being Facebook friends, not going for dinner together, not meeting up for the latest exhibit at the art gallery, and not signing up for the same yoga class. If a client ends up in yoga with me, that’s different; as long as I don’t orchestrate our co-attendance, and we don’t have an unplanned therapy session during savasana, I have not violated these rules.

To take this one step further, any ethical psychologist does not engage in a sexual or romantic relationship with a client ever. Some might consider such a relationship permissible after the therapeutic relationship ends, but not me. If you can’t figure out why that shift in boundaries would be inappropriate, I’d suggest you not become a therapist.

Thus, if I am a client’s therapist, I can’t also be his employee or his best friend or his soccer coach. This philosophy is clearly foreign to the entertainment industry. Daily of late another idiot confesses under duress to behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner with one or two or 60 people over whom he has had power. These abusers’ power lies in their potential positive or negative influence on that person’s career. Maybe I can educate this industry to end these long-standing abuses of power.

The Harvey Insights

  1. If you are in a position of power over an individual, whether as a movie producer or a mentor or a coach or a boss or a teacher or a parent or a therapist, do not engage in a sexual relationship with that person.
  2. If the object of your interest is 40+ years your junior, let’s assume there is an inherent power imbalance. In other words, date someone your own age.
  3. If you hold meetings in your hotel room and forget to wear clothes, your behaviour may be construed as sexually improper.
  4. If your ungentlemanly sexual behaviour is the talk of the town, be aware that at some point the police may get involved.

If it is too late for you, and you have already made gross (in all senses of the word) errors in judgement, consider that the following are not valid excuses for your behaviour.

The Life-Is-No-Longer-a-Bed-of-Roses Excuses

  1. I was drunk and I can’t remember abusing you.
  2. I was confused about my sexual identity at the time.
  3. I have a sexual addiction. (Sorry, folks, there is no such thing as a sexual addiction, and thus no treatment for this fictitious ailment. Sexual addicts are people unwilling to admit to their propensity to abuse others sexually.)
  4. I thought she consented. (Have you already forgotten that 40+ year age difference and the inherent power imbalance mentioned earlier? Perhaps you’re suffering from age-related memory loss. You might want to investigate that. Oh, and stop flattering yourself.)

Finally, consider that not saying yes may mean no. If you put on your reading glasses, you might better be able to read between those lines, fellas. Don’t miss the oh-so-subtle signs of your subordinate’s fleeing screaming from your hotel room.

Quote: It's not consent if you are making me afraid to say no

Getting back on the therapy horse

Bride trying dress with group watching on Say Yes to the Dress

Since I am expecting a hoard of new clients to swarm my office any day now, I felt it was time to brush up on my therapy skills. I considered reviewing some of the books on my office shelves or going to a family therapy conference or ten, but I’m taking the easy route instead: I’m watching television.

I’ve admitted previously that I have an odd fascination with Say Yes to the Dress, and not just because J. and I both wore jeans to our home wedding. Before I started watching this show, I did not realize that brides-to-be took entourages to shop for the special dress. Makes sense, I guess, to seek input.

I imagined that the bride’s opinion would take precedence in the end. If the bride said yes to the dress, who would care if her mother or best friend or clothing-designer cousin or long-deceased grandfather who spoke through her aunt the medium said no? A lot of people care, it turns out, especially the bride.

I’ve witnessed many a bride crying in her dressing room, afraid to exit for fear of the entourage’s reaction to her choice. Many a narcissistic mother has forgotten that the appointment is actually about her daughter the bride. And many the oblivious father is unaware that his daughter is more concerned with pleasing him than pleasing herself. Because I am a psychologist and not a medium, I can’t speak for the wishes of long-deceased grandfather.

I marvel at the sales associate-cum-family therapist who, while helping the vulnerable bride-to-be find her perfect dress, manages the needs of the highly opinionated crew she has brought with her. Consider this a glimpse into family, and group, dynamics. (Turns out we often play similar roles in groups as we do in our families.) Ms. (or Mr.) Dress-a-Bride manages to keep the entourage happy while ensuring that the bride’s needs are met. This often involves skilled negotiation with widely varying personalities.

Now let’s consider another favourite nap inducer, Chopped. The chefs who participate on this show are a product of their family upbringings, as are we all. There are the only-child competitors who won’t share ingredients vs. the eldests who unscrew their competitors’ unyielding bottle tops, if you believe in that birth-order baloney.

I’ve also learned from Chopped how many adult children are tormented by their parents’ disapproval of their professional choices, despite their successes in their careers. This needing-to-please theme sounds oddly familiar. (See above.) The chefs pray a Chopped win will foster their parents’ acceptance, finally, after all these years. Will these contestants ever understand that what matters most is how they feel about the path their lives have taken and not how their parents judge that path? I fear not, barring help from someone like me.

You too can hone your therapy skills from television shows like these. Who cares how to incorporate cinnamon hearts into an entrée or whether a princess gown or a mermaid would better suit the bride? Focus on what really matters, like I do: how people are getting along.

Once you master the complex dynamic issues in these shows, we can move on to 90 Day Fiancé or even Big Brother. On second thought, maybe not. Even I have my limits.

Necessity is the mother of my Facebook page

Picture of fingers walking on Yellow Pages phone directory

My office phone has been hopping lately, and not just with free cruise offers and other robocalls. I have had a few new-old clients finding their way back to my office. All have come via a few family physicians who used to send me referrals, until I told them I was out of commission five or so years ago. Remember that brief spell when I abruptly closed my office and abandoned all my clients? Yeah, that. And, more recently, my endless moaning and groaning about missing my work? Someone has been listening to my internal pleas.

Yesterday I met with a client I hadn’t seen in 10 years. She somehow tracked down my number and gave me a call. I realized, upon checking the old file, that she’d initially been referred by one of these family physicians. After our session, I asked the client for written permission to send the doctor summarizing our contact. It would also be a way of telling the doctor that I was not dead.

I scripted a quick one pager. After the half hour it took me to recall business formatting, and the additional half hour spent printing an envelope, I finished the letter and dropped it in the mail. As they say, she who hesitates forgets.

Upon awakening this morning, I realized that I’d omitted my letterhead completely. No address, no phone number, no email address, nothing. If the doctor wanted to contact me, she’d be completely at a loss, unless she’d recorded my number somewhere or had held onto an old business card. How long do you hold onto someone’s old business card?

I am an idiot. When I told J. what I’d done, she said, “Are you sure you’re ready to go back to work?” That seemed a bit harsh. I’ve been doing the odd bit of therapy, but I haven’t scripted a business letter in five years now. I forgot how it’s done, but I believe I’ve learned from this experience and will never forget to include my contact information again. Tomorrow, in my I’m-still-alive notes to other family physicians who’ve recently made referrals, I’ll most certainly include a business card or two.

In my panic this morning, though, I asked J. to google me. Googling myself would force me to accept I’m invisible on the internet, and I don’t need that humiliation. She did a search, and found my telephone number from an office I left a decade ago. I couldn’t believe my current work number of 10 years was completely absent on line so I was forced to google myself. I discovered that a) I really am invisible; and b) my current number and my old number are equally represented. At least clients seeking me have a 50/50 chance of choosing the correct number. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to cancel my Yellow Pages account.

I need to create a web presence pronto. For now, I am creating a business Facebook page, complete with my correct telephone number and email address. I hope potential clients are able to find the right Annie, since there are two Annies with my last name on Facebook. FYI, in case you can’t tell from the picture, I’m not the Annie from Fresno, California.