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Monday, May 22 2017
Part Two: Key Issues in 13 Reasons Why

Wow.  There’s a lot of chatter about this series, right?

So many people are angry, afraid, and disgusted at how this series “glorifies” suicide. However, rather than pushing the topic aside, being angry, and running, I believe in the basic Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of inclusion, or the great word AND.  This series is out, it’s hot, and more than likely, your kids are watching it (high school, middle school, and elementary). My take is that this series can help parents and teens learn more and hopefully, prevent more.  One of the main principles that I’ve developed in the past 17 years from being a psychologist is: if you don’t talk it out, you will act it out.  There is a reason why this book/show has become so popular with youth. I believe that we need to embrace it and use it as a huge door opener to the truth: suicide is the #2 reason for teenage deaths.  

I offer some thoughts about what I feel are the main concepts in this story line. Some of the issues brought up in Thirteen Reasons Why are as follows, with tips that parents, friends, etc can help their loved one:

  • Parenting – Ok, a HUGE issue with this series was the lack of parenting with these kids.  Yes, they were “peppered” around the story, but many were shown to be so ineffective.  Parents are the guides for children in life. You chose to have sex, and you are living the effects of that decision.  Children don’t have a choice in this matter – they are “victims” of this decision, and continue to live victim to the decisions you make on a daily basis. Please let your kids know that they are a fabulous addition to your life, and that they have a purpose in being on this earth.  When you place your focus on your child, you are validating their existence. If you have a positive view, they will grow up with positive self-esteem. If you have an over-riding negative view, they will know this and live out your intentions.

Some of my strong suggestions about parenting:

  1. You are the role model, guide, and biggest influence over your child’s life. Don’t forget it – it never changes over time (even if you are separated from your child, you still have an influence over his/her life).
  2. Parents need to be “in charge.” I have seen so many families in which the child has more emotional or relational power than the parents, and it is always detrimental to the child, the parents, and others who are in authoritative roles in that child’s life (teachers, bosses, coaches, etc). Every child needs to be led – not controlled – in their life. Leading by example is the best way to teach a child in the way he/she should go.
  3. If you feel that you have “screwed up”, are a “bad parent” or have a negative view of yourself in regards to your role as a parent, your kid will feel it. Your child may act it out in a harsh or negative way against you or become a rebel in his/her life. Regardless of how bad it is, I believe that if you make genuine efforts to learn and grow yourself, you will positively influence your child.
  4. Be in their life. Again, where your attention goes, there’s a natural unconscious implication of value. When you look at a child (even one that isn’t yours), that child will respond – perhaps pulling behind their parent, looking back with a big grin, or moving towards you. Regardless, you have simply validated the existence of that child.  Sometimes, that is all that your child needs.  To know that you see him or her and that you value him or her. It’s simple but powerful.

  • Mental health – again, this is a fabulous topic to discuss openly at the dinner table. You first, however, need to check your own biases. Many people mock, imitate, and belittle people and situations that they don’t understand. If you don’t understand mental illness, please reach out to any of the resources listed at the end of this blog to gain a better understanding. With computers in our hands (or not far from us at most times) there’s no “excuse” to not understand what may be happening in someone’s world.

          Some basic principles in mental health:

  1. Most mental health issues (MHI) are medical in nature. We are a complex interweaving of neurons and neurotransmitters that make up our brain. There are different parts in our brain that function like a symphony or a cacophony.  When we have an imbalance in our brain chemistry, we do not function in a healthy manner. This chemistry is both a cause and effect of the active process that occurs between the thoughts, feelings, and actions that we engage in.
  2. Many people think that those with MHI “will” them. They believe that people with MHI choose to be victims, have eating disorders, be sad and depressed, worry, or have personality issues. Why, I ask, would anyone choose to have any of these issues? That would make as much sense as choosing to have diabetes or cancer or an abscessed tooth.
  3. Similarly, people who don’t understand MHI can come off as condescending and invalidating. I understand that you may want to change the person and “help them out” of their funk or other issue, but making assumptions is far worse than asking questions and then listening to their answers. Some people want to “tell the person with MHI what is wrong with them” and make a monumental change in their cognitive and bodily functioning by giving them “good advice.”  [I have had a friend ask me about those with eating disorders, “can’t you just give them a doughnut? I mean, doughnuts are good!”  Yup, sure, Dunkin actually has the secret formula to get those with EDs out of their constant mental battle, fear of food, and other accompanying struggles that can cost them their lives.]  Not that there isn’t some concern for these people who have mental health issues, but simplifying and invalidating issues for people with mental health problems actually perpetuates the problem.

  • Trauma [CAUTION – this explanation can be triggering to those who have experienced sexual trauma] – Some of the most triggering parts of 13 Reasons Why were the traumatic scenes. This series highlighted the issue of sexual trauma (rape), which has a boatload of issues connected to it regarding mental health – on both sides of the trauma (the aggressor and the victim). I know that many people who have been sexually abused have struggled with these scenes. Such triggers can cause flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, and remind them of the feelings of abuse that they have personally endured. When someone has these symptoms, they are likely struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can also be experienced as a numbing out, disconnection from body, and even physical symptoms that mimic the original traumatic experience. 

​​Our brains are strategically wired to self-protect. When a person experiences something painful (major trauma or painful experiences), our brain stem interprets this as danger. When we are in a situation in which we experience similar triggers to a previous painfull experience (whether internal or externally produced), our brain will go into fight, flight, or freeze. These are instinctual reactions and hard-wired. Learning to ask yourself, “what is scary to me right now?” can help to raise your awareness to potential sources of danger. If you are unaware of anything that is in your immediate surroundings, keep looking. A trigger can be a passing thought or interpretation. The key to helping yourself or someone else through traumatic experiences is to validate your experience and to seek understanding as to what and why you responded that way.

The main gist of trauma/invalidation is that the individual is not treated with compassion. Invalidation, whether overt (“you’re stupid”) or covert (ignoring) can result in a painful experience. I believe that all human beings are born with some form of emotional sensitivity and some are more sensitive than others. This should not be viewed as a negative attribute, but a gift that needs to be honed. Sensitivity allows us to develop compassion and empathy. When someone is repeatedly invalidated, he/she may learn to cope with the pain in varying ways. Coping strategies are typically modeled by the authority figures around him/her. These coping strategies, over time, result in our defense mechanisms and the resulting “personality” traits that we often believe are unchangeable.  This old belief is simply not true. Thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brain connections, people are able to begin a different mental journey.  This new journey begins with a trusted individual who is capable of holding your pain and teaching you new skills in coping. New mental skills will lead to different thinking, feeling, and behaving. This journey is also much easier to manage with medication – when you have been in a “negative” thought pattern, your body and brain chemistry changes. Medications can help make an easier transition. 

  • Powerlessness – one of the main underlying issues inherent in this series has to do with powerlessness. People become victims through overt and covert bullying, rape, poor parenting, authority’s lack of responding, etc. My definition of a victim is a person who is in pain and doesn’t have the capability of getting out of the situation that is causing the pain.

    I have great compassion for people who have been victimized. There’s a lot of work to be done to help that person become more empowered to rise above the situation and not live their lives as a perpetual victim. Learning that having pain doesn’t mean that the person will always have pain. Coping with the emotions, getting out the pain, and changing your belief about yourself is the process

  • Bullying – Bullying is a traumatic experience. We are all taught that the bully is typically struggling with his/her own issues, and does not know how to deal with his/her pain.  The bully either elevates himself above or pulls the victim down. In either situation, bullying can also be overt or covert.  The intent is 100% to pass on the pain that the bully feels inside to another person. 

My solution is that we teach compassion in the classroom. This would hopefully be done at home, however, so many people are trying to cope and survive with life that being compassionate is way down on the list of priorities. My prayer is that we create environments in which children learn to be empowered and allowed to have a voice – to vent their pains, to share their hearts, and to explore their dreams.

  • Suicide – This word has so much power. So many people believe that if they utter the word, they are “putting the idea in someone’s head.” This belief is the furthest thing from the truth. Suicide is, in the mind of the individual, a solution to their internal turmoil and pain. Many people cannot – because they know not – cope with their anxiety, depression, and emotional stress. Short and simply, suicide is the solution to ending the pain that they don’t know how to stop.

    There are many ideas about what warning signs you may “see” prior to someone committing suicide – sadness/depression and then peace, giving away of their prized possessions, cleaning up/preparing their surroundings so that others don’t have to “clean up” after them, voicing their desire to die, lack of sleep or appetite, withdrawal from friends and family.  These are all valid signals, however, there are some that have committed suicide that leave no forewarning or indication.

Hands down, the best form of prevention and indication is to ask those whom you care about. Ask them if they have ever thought of ending their life. Ask them if they have ever thought about how they will die. Ask them to discuss their thoughts about death in general, and their own in particular. Ask them any question that comes to your mind in order to get them to talk about how they feel about this life, their relationships, and how they can successfully navigate getting through the rough parts. If they don’t know or have not thought about death or how they believe they would die or what they think would happen to you if they died, count yourself fortunate. If you think about it, they need to be as comfortable talking about death as they do sex.

Just do it.  Talk to them, even when you are petrified.  You will be glad you did. They will too.

So, take a deep breath…and talk to them.

Posted by: Genie Burnett AT 07:19 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, May 09 2017
Recovered means perseverance, not perfection

Life cannot be predicted. We strive to do our best to control our surroundings, but in the end, we always fall short. As a 9th grade teacher, it is that beautiful time of year when we set up the ideal testing environment and ask kids to use all the wonderful knowledge we have bestowed in them throughout the year to preform miracles on the state mandated tests. Well, yesterday, our perfect testing environment was robbed by an unexpected fire alarm. We, the teachers and administration, worked for an entire year for our students to be ready for this glorifying moment, and it was interrupted by sirens and confusion. As we shuffled out the double doors to the safety of the grass, staff and students alike were dumbfounded by the inconvenience, and we as teachers had to scramble to come up with a new plan of action on the spot. We rolled with it, held the dismissal bell, and gave the kids the needed time to finish. Was it planned? No. Was it nerve wracking? Yes. But did we let panic ruin a whole year of hard work? No way. Thus is life; it cannot be predicted or controlled. Why would recovery be any different?

I remember so vividly having a conversation with a fellow eating disorder sufferer about “how do you know you are recovered?” My answer was simple- when you stop letting your eating disorder make your decisions that is when you can live in recovery. As I have recently surpassed my one year anniversary of being recovered from anorexia, I was reminded of the fact that recovered does not mean that I will always have control of my surroundings or that I will never hit a bump in the road. I had a tough experience yesterday that I feel compelled to share with those who feel like recovered means perfection; perfection does not exist, especially in recovery.

With a husband, two young kids, a full time job, a coach's wife, and anything and everything in-between, life is RARELY predictable. When I was deep in my disorder, if things got hairy in my life, I grasped on to many unhealthy ways to cope with the stress: over exercise, purging, restriction, obsessive cleaning… the list goes on. There are ways to healthily cope with stress, but when rituals and addictions begin to control your every move, the outcome can be dangerous. How did I know I needed help? I could no longer function in my life without my unhealthy coping mechanisms. I was drowning in my own mind and my body was becoming my own torture chamber. When I came back from residential treatment in April of 2016 I was accustomed to the safety that the secluded and controlled environment had to offer- my life at home was much more hectic.

Home- this brings me to my point: what happens when the safety and comfort of home is stripped from you? It could be a million things that cause this: fanatical strain, stress in the workplace that seeps into your personal life, time and changes in children’s ages and stages, relationship tension, extended house guests… all of these and more can put a wrench in the safe haven of home. In case you guessed it, all of the above examples have made an appearance in my home the past year. It is tough. Dealing with life in general is hard, but adding the extra pressure of staying clean in recovery when disorder is all you have known for years; it can be excruciating. My recovery has been tested lately. Recently, I went to the doctor to get my arm checked out, and low and behold, there sat the dreaded scale. I hopped on as directed and my weight was not what I expected. The number shook what I strive to believe daily to the core. I repeated to myself “I am not defined by that number, I am not defined by that number…” but the disordered part of my brain that can normally be tamed was screaming “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Yikes. Quick question: Have you ever been yelled at before? For people who suffer from eating disorders the ED voice is as loud as a drill sergeant screaming in the face of an ill preforming cadet… There I was, standing on the scale, with Lieutenant Dan blaring in my ear: “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” Tears formed in my eyes and the nurse asked me if I was okay, and I blamed the pain of my arm that I was getting checked out, and she nodded in sympathy and moved on.

As I sat waiting for the doctor, my mind raced. The disordered thoughts and plans began to flood my judgment, and I mentally agreed with the ED part of my brain that “I must gain control of my weight.” As I was walking out of the office, ED leading the way, I was comforted by the old feelings of “I have this; I know how to fix this” for about 2 minutes. As I got in my car to drive home, my wise mind finally got the courage to stand up to my ED mind… It said, “What are you doing? Weight does not matter- joy matters- and there is NO joy in ED’s plans for you.” Boom. Just like that. It all comes to perspective.

While driving home, I reflected on what I had just experienced. Knowing my weight after I stepped on that scale had not changed a thing about me physically. I felt great about myself and my body up until I stepped on that scale- so why the change? Even though I am recovered, my ED rules and regulations still lurk in the back of my mind, and when things are chaotic around me, they seem to surface for that old feeling of control and comfort, but that type of control is false. There is no way to control my life circumstances by controlling my weight. If I skip dinner, the argument that my husband and I had the day before will still go unsolved. If I run (my exercise addiction that I have to stay away from), my house will still be in diseray when I return. If I purge, my kids will still be in the stage of “mommy, mommy, MOMMY!” when I am through in the bathroom… You see- me controlling my weight does not control my surroundings. There is actually NO way to control my surroundings. If we as humans believe we can do that, we will always be disappointed at some point. You cannot predict the fire alarms of life. I must continue to look within to use my voice, value my beliefs and morals (not the world’s), and continue to live in recovery if I want to be okay within ME.

We all have those moments, eating disorder or not, recovered or recovering, that we feel like we can DO something when all that we really can do it trust the process, keep our heads up, and continue to know that God’s plan is perfect; not ours. I will continue to fight the urge to control my life by controlling my weight. What holds me in recovery is that I am allowing my wise mind to fight the ED mind and win the war. Although recovery is possible, it is a choice; one that I must choose over again at times when I feel vulnerable and weak. Regardless of societal views, those who fight mental illness are the strongest people on the planet; I will always believe that. 

Posted by: Brooke Heberling AT 07:42 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
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