Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Finding water

On Christmas Eve, one of my relatives had a re-commitment ceremony. She and her boyfriend had gotten legally married last year, but none of their family was present, and they wanted to have a ceremony with us.

We all gathered in the living room, sat silently for a while, and then the couple exchanged vows. (A Quaker wedding has no clergy; the couple give their pledge to each other without a third person mediating.) The two of them stumbled through the old-fashioned vows, but afterwards they began to speak freely about why they were together.

The bride has always been a black sheep in the family. Since childhood, she's had some serious psychiatric and behavioral problems. She spoke about meeting her husband when they were both in a PTSD treatment center. At the time she met him, she had been wearing pajamas for a month and wasn't brushing her teeth. They both had insomnia and would meet at 3 am to drink coffee and talk for hours. She knew that if he loved her when she was at her worst, he was a keeper.

Her husband spoke simply about meeting and loving someone else who understood pain.

It moved me more than some of the carefully-orchestrated weddings I've been to. These are two people who have suffered greatly. I work with many more people like them, people with trauma histories, people to whom life has not been kind. I thought about all the broken people out there, and I was so glad that two of them found each other.

Tonight, I asked the bride's father for some cuttings from his plant collection. He showed me his cacti and succulents, desert plants that grow thorns and tough hides to protect themselves. Inside, they trap precious moisture.

“I took a cutting of this one and left it in an empty pot for a few months,” he told me, holding up a plump green stem. “No water. After three months it was hardly shriveled at all. It was starting to put out roots, getting ready to grab on as soon as it touched soil.” It seemed miraculous that a plant could survive that long on only the moisture from the air.

And I thought of his daughter, thought of my clients at the jail and all the other people who live in a harsh and deadly environment. About the thorns and tough skins they grow to save themselves from the desert.

Recently a client told me his mind was “like a tape recorder,” remembering every kind word he heard from me and other staff so he could play them back to himself. In the scorching environment of jail, he was saving up those droplets of kindness to stay sane.

Even the toughest, the most scarred, the most bitter of people are hiding a thirsty heart. Sometimes their tendrils are reaching out for it, searching for a hospitable place where they can latch on and get some of what they need so much.

Here's to the couple whose improvised wedding moved me so much yesterday. It's hard to form a healthy relationship when you hurt a lot, and I don't know how successful they'll be. But they've found some sweetness and nourishment in each other, and I hope together they can drink their fill.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


In the car on the way to the family Christmas gathering, Jeff read to us about a series of studies on placebos. For some conditions, placebos can give significant relief. There's still an effect even when subjects are told "You are taking an inert pill" and given a bottle marked "Placebo." Placebos given by providers who spend more time schmoozing with patients create more relief. (Note that I haven't found the actual studies concerned, so I don't know the effect sizes, etc.)

The three healthcare workers in the car were interested in this. Jeff's mother, the midwife, said that projecting the right comforting image is a large part of her practice. (The innovation I find most interesting in childbirth is encouraging women to believe "this is something my body is capable of" rather than "this is a scary and painful medical emergency." Stress has real physiological effects, and reducing stress can make birth physically easier.) Jeff's father confirmed that making an optimistic forecast is a big part of his psychotherapy practice, too.

Then when we arrived, my mother reported that she is not losing her mind, as she feared. She realized that for an unknown period of time she had loaded her pillbox with calcium tablets instead of her actual medication.

Apparently the day's lesson is that placebos can help you with some things, but sometimes you really should just take your medication.

Saturday, December 08, 2012


My sister shared this video of one of her second-grade students reuniting with her mother, who's been stationed in Afghanistan for the last year. It's a lovely moment: the moment of realization, then the silence, the rightness of being near each other after too long apart.

It makes me think of the mothers I work with in the jail. A World Apart, Christina Rathbone's excellent book about women in a Massachusetts prison, describes another reunion after two years of separation between mother and son:

“...she ran over and grabbed Patrick, sobbing, almost unable to breathe. Pat burst into tears too, and clung to her. Across the room, her father started to cry, the officer in charge of the visiting room that night started to cry, and one by one the inmates and even their visitors started to cry along with them.”
The male inmates sometimes talk about their children, but not with the same longing the women do.  Many of the mothers describe a physical craving to be near their children, a hunger for the sound of their voices and the smell of their hair.

They worry endlessly about their children's well-being. Have they eaten enough today? Is he doing all right in school?  Will she be mad at me when I come home? How can a toddler understand I didn't leave her on purpose?

They talk about how much they want to keep their children safe from all the terrors of their own childhoods: the sexual abuse, the neglect, the beatings. For some of these women, their relationship with their children is the only non-abusive relationship they've ever had.

The mothers' pain is one side of the coin.  The other side is the children's pain, which I can only imagine.

The United States has the highest imprisonment rate in the world.  That affects not only the people who are locked up, but their families.  Every time we imprison a person, we take away a part of a family.  We should think carefully about whether it's worth it.

Friday, December 07, 2012


My aunt has lived in Brooklyn for decades and never been mugged. She attributes it to her attitude. I'm not sure exactly what her method is, but for years I've tried to copy it. When I transitioned from the suburbs to the city, I decided that this meant not interacting with strange men.

At first, I applied the same method to walking around at the jail. Passing men in the yard or in hallways, I stared resolutely ahead, ignoring them. I hoped this would make me look like I knew what I was doing. I did the same in the neighborhood outside.

I soon realized it method just made me look scared. And it must feel insulting for a man on a street in South Boston, or in a jail for that matter, to see a white woman in business clothes refusing to meet his eyes. Trying to pretend he's not there, regarding his very presence as a threat.

If someone on the street wants to mug me, they'll do it. Ignoring them is not going to stop them. And all those other people who have no interest in mugging me – we might as say hello when we pass. We might as well say, “Good morning.” We might as well smile.

As if we are not afraid of each other. As if we are just people, walking.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Introducing: Advent calendar

I've been an agnostic for most of my life now, but I still love Advent.

I usually make paper Advent calendars for my family, but this year I'm making an online one for you, too.